Georgia Bulldogs: Dylan Thompson

It’s going to be a slow week.

The final Saturday in September won’t be a banner day for SEC football. With all due respect to matchups like Arkansas-Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech-Auburn and Vanderbilt-Kentucky, nothing there rises up to the level of true excitement. The games could very well be sellouts and the venues will likely be packed with tailgaters, but it’s not going to draw anyone’s national attention.

We’re going to make do, though. SEC diehards will always find a way. There are only 14 weeks of regular-season football, so you have to make every one count.

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Houston, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. We’ve got four weeks down and 10 more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 5:

Sept. 27
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas)
Louisiana Tech at Auburn
Tennessee at Georgia
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
New Mexico State at LSU
Memphis at Ole Miss
Missouri at South Carolina

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Missouri at South Carolina

I might as well get a second office set up in Columbia. In playing our little road trip game here on the SEC blog, I chose stops at South Carolina in Week 1 and Week 2 of the season. And looking over the schedule for Sept. 27, I couldn’t in good conscience go anywhere else.

This game should be a good one, if for nothing other than the rematch angle after last season’s epic double-overtime bash. There was no better game to exemplify quarterback Connor Shaw's illustrious career than when injured, he came off the bench in the fourth quarter to help score 17 unanswered points to tie the score. His 15-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington on fourth-and-goal in the first overtime was a thing of beauty. His guts were on full display then, as was South Carolina’s defense, whose effort was somewhat lost in the comeback.

The names and faces will be very different this time, but the stakes at play could be much the same. The SEC East is wide open, and both Missouri and South Carolina have reasons to believe they could make it to Atlanta. This could turn out to be a swing game in determining who wins the division.

The Tigers will be a bit of a mystery entering Columbia with so few starters returning on both sides of the ball. But you have to like what you saw from Maty Mauk at quarterback last fall, and Markus Golden has the chance to be a star at defensive end. With games against South Dakota State, Toledo, UCF and Indiana to start the season, Missouri will have a chance to find itself without running the risk of losing a game.

Meanwhile, I have high expectations for South Carolina. Steve Spurrier should have a strong offensive line, a plethora of weapons at receiver and running back, and a veteran under center, even though Dylan Thompson has never been a full-time starter. The Gamecocks will have the edge against Missouri with the game at home, but this should be a hard-fought contest.

Greg Ostendorf’s pick: Tennessee at Georgia

Missouri-South Carolina is a good pick, and as tempting as it would be to check out AT&T Stadium for the Arkansas-Texas A&M game, I’m going to stay in the East and head down to Athens for Georgia-Tennessee.

Talk about a good game from 2013 -- these two teams played an instant classic last fall. Tennessee scored twice in the fourth quarter to take a 31-24 lead, only to see Aaron Murray throw a touchdown pass with five seconds left to force overtime. In the extra session, Tennessee's Alton "Pig" Howard fumbled as he tried to stretch the ball over the end-zone pylon on the Vols’ first possession, which set up Georgia's Marshall Morgan for a game-winning 42-yard field goal.

Though Georgia escaped Rocky Top with a victory, it didn’t leave in one piece. The game was remembered more for the amount of devastating knee injuries suffered by the Bulldogs than the final outcome -- and nobody wants to see that again.

Instead, I want to see the combination of a healthy Todd Gurley and a healthy Keith Marshall tearing through SEC defenses. I want to see Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell back and making plays in the passing game. If the Bulldogs are at 100 percent, they make a strong case for the best team in the SEC East and maybe the whole conference.

With that said, I think this Tennessee team will be better than advertised. There will be plenty of question marks, including two glaring ones at quarterback and offensive line, but they’re a young, talented group with loads of potential. I want to see how this heralded recruiting class responds to its first SEC game. I want to see Marquez North because it doesn’t matter who’s throwing him the ball -- he can go get it. The Vols are looking for their first winning season since 2009 and would love nothing more than to steal one on the road.

And honestly, does it get any better than a traditional SEC rivalry between the hedges? It's our first stop there this fall and likely won't be our last.
It's May, so we might as well look to the future while we take one last look at the past in order to figure out the present.

Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:

2. Alabama

4. Auburn

8. Georgia

10. South Carolina

13. LSU

14. Texas A&M

19. Florida

It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?

With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.

Let's see how perfect these are:

1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.

2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.

3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.

4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.

5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.

6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.

8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.

9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.

10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.

11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.

12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.

13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.

As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
The Madness is all around us, and while basketball is having all the fun, we thought we’d give football a go at the craziness that this month embodies.

While we’ll have to wait a few months until a playoff takes over college football, we thought we’d have a little fun with our own SEC tournament now that the first weekend of games have concluded in this year’s NCAA tournament.

As a tribute to the Big Dance, Chris Low and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s). We’ll spice things up by having different seedings for all 14 teams in our individual tournaments. We have different sites, the top two seeds will receive an opening-round bye and we’ll have an upset or two.

Our first round will feature the No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed and the No. 4 seed playing the No. 13 seed, etc.

I’ll debut my bracket first, while Chris will have his prepared later Monday.

After countless hours of deliberation with the selection committee, namely my cat Meeko, here’s what my seedings look like:
1. Auburn
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. Missouri
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
9. LSU
10. Florida
11. Tennessee
12. Vanderbilt
13. Arkansas
14. Kentucky
FIRST ROUND

In Nashville, Tenn.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Kentucky: The Bulldogs might be without Aaron Murray for the first time in a long time, but Hutson Mason has plenty of offensive options to pick from. Not having Todd Gurley as an option hurts, but Georgia has enough to get past the Cats in Nashville. Winner: Georgia

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Tennessee: You'd better believe the Gamecocks are still fuming after that loss to the Vols that eventually cost them a chance to go to Atlanta for the SEC title game last fall. A lot is different for the Gamecocks, but Dylan Thompson works some magic late to avoid the first upset of the tournament. Winner: South Carolina

In Kansas City, Mo.

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Arkansas: The Rebels could be a dark horse to win the SEC this fall, and with so much talent coming back on both sides, Ole Miss could make a nice run in this tournament. Arkansas just has way too many questions on both sides to pull the shocker. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. There's always one. But the Tigers still have a lot of firepower returning on offense, a stout defensive line and are playing in front of what should be a home crowd. Also, James Franklin and Jordan Matthews are both gone. Winner: Missouri

In Tampa, Fla.

No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Florida: The Bulldogs are a team on the rise after winning their last three to close the 2013 season. They return a lot from their two-deep and could have a special player in quarterback Dak Prescott. The Gators suffered a rash of injuries, but have quarterback Jeff Driskel back with an offense that fits his skills more. Playing close to home will give the Gators an advantage and the defense will make a stop late to pull our first upset. Winner: Florida

No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 LSU: Both teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and playmakers at receiver. LSU's defense is getting revamped again, but there's still a lot of athleticism across the board. This one is coming down to the wire, but LSU's young, yet stealthy corners will be the difference in another upset. Winner: LSU

SECOND ROUND

In Orlando, Fla.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: Last fall, this was the game the served as the emotional turning point for Auburn, even though it was a loss. Auburn has a lot to work with once again on the Plains, and while the defense still has its questions, these Tigers will get revenge in a fun one in the Sunshine State. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 Florida: The Gators will be more consistent on offense in this one. Alabama is still looking to find its defensive playmakers, but will have the advantage in the running game. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, where corner Vernon Hargreaves III seals it for the Gators with a pick in the end zone on a Cooper Bateman pass intended for Amari Cooper. Winner: Florida

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Missouri: Two fast offenses take the field, and the Rebels would love to get back at the Tigers after last season's loss. Maty Mauk has what it takes to direct this Missouri team to a deep run, but Ole Miss' defense is the difference in this one. Keep an eye on that defensive line, which gets a major upgrade in the return of end C.J. Johnson. Winner: Ole Miss

In Charlotte, N.C.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: The hope in Athens is that the defense will be improved with Jeremy Pruitt running the show, but watch out for Mike Davis. South Carolina's pounding running back gets the edge in this one with Gurley on the mend. Expect a lot of points in this one, but Davis grinds this one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. Winner: South Carolina

FINAL FOUR

In Miami

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Ole Miss: You want fast, fast, fast? How about these two teams playing? I mean, Ole Miss got to see tons of speed against Mizzou, and now has to take on Auburn? Expect marathon of scoring, but Bo Wallace is the hero in the end. A gritty fourth-quarter performance puts the Rebels in the title game. Winner: Ole Miss

In Arlington, Texas

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Florida: It's been a fun run for this spring's Cinderella. Florida's offense is catching up to its defense, but the Gamecocks will find holes in the Gators defense. Thompson hits a few big plays to receiver Shaq Roland and defensive end Gerald Dixon forces a late fumble on a sack of Driskel to run out the clock. Winner: South Carolina

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is back in Atlanta with a gritty team hungry for a title. The Rebels have the advantage with that high-flying offense and will get some huge catches out of Laquon Treadwell against the inexperienced secondary. Thompson and Davis will keep the Gamecocks in this one for most of the game, but true freshman safety C.J. Hampton seals it for the Rebels with a game-ending interception at midfield. Winner: Ole Miss
Georgia lost one of the most decorated quarterbacks in SEC history, but people don't expect to see the Bulldogs' passing game to fall off too much in 2014.

With more than 8,500 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason was picked by our readers to throw the most touchdown passes in the SEC in 2014. Mason, who is replacing longtime starter Aaron Murray this fall, grabbed 32 percent of the vote.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia fans expect Hutson Mason to pick up where Aaron Murray left off.
South Carolina's Dylan Thompson, also taking over for a pretty solid quarterback, collected 27 percent of the vote, Auburn's Nick Marshall received 19 percent and Ole Miss' Bo Wallace got 16 percent. Mississippi State's Dak Prescott only grabbed six percent of the vote.

It's hard to argue with this one because Mason isn't just talented; he has some quality receivers coming back. Georgia's staff has always been high on Mason, and now he gets his chance to really show what he can do when he isn't planted in Aaron Murray's shadow.

Clearly, Mason has to prove that he can be a leader and show that he's ready to be No. 1, but he'll have a lot of help from guys such as Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett. Oh, and he can just hand the ball off to a stable of running backs -- starting with workhorse Todd Gurley -- when he wants to give his arm a break.

While I think Thompson could have a good year as the Gamecocks' starter, I'd keep my eye on Missouri's Maty Mauk. He filled in well for James Franklin in the middle of last season and has all the tools to be an All-SEC player. He's confident and has earned plenty of respect from his teammates. It will help that he has Dorial Green-Beckham leading a solid group of receivers. Losing L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas will hurt, but players such as Bud Sasser, Darius White and Jimmie Hunt could fill in nicely for the Tigers.

I'm also interested in seeing how Marshall improves as a passer. When I spoke with Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee late last season, he told me that he could tell that Marshall was getting more and more comfortable and confident with his throwing ability. He's a great runner, but he wants to be a passer first, and I think we'll see more of his arm in 2014.
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.
Over the span of their careers they threw for 48,824 passing yards. There were a total 403 touchdown passes among them, and they won 184 games in which they appeared, including 11 bowls and two national championships. They were, arguably, the most talented and productive class of quarterbacks ever to play in the SEC at one time. And now they’re all gone.

[+] EnlargeDylan Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson saw a lot of playing time last season when Connor Shaw went out.
The SEC had to say goodbye to James Franklin, Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw in January. The void they leave behind is enormous, and while some programs already have an idea of who will take their place next season, not all are so lucky.

We’re counting down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, in no particular order of importance. First, how do you replace all the veteran quarterbacks the league enjoyed in 2013?

When spring camps open over the next few weeks -- the first being Texas A&M on Friday -- that question will begin to be answered. With each snap and each team meeting, leaders will emerge. Some staffs will look for a winner heading into the summer so they can avoid a quarterback controversy come fall, while others will have to sweat it out through the offseason.

Texas A&M: Surprises will undoubtedly occur, as we saw only a few years ago when a scrappy freshman from Kerrville, Texas, beat out the presumptive favorite to land the starting job at Texas A&M. The Aggies stumbled upon Manziel, and Jameill Showers was quickly forgotten. Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel are this year’s frontrunners, but they’ll have competition in another freshman nipping at their heels in Kyle Allen. The Arizona native is more of a pure passer than a running quarterback, but he has the tools to sling the ball around in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he saidDylan Thompson is “without question going to be our quarterback.” He even asked, “Why open it up when he’s the only one who’s played?” Thompson, a rising senior, doesn’t have the athleticism to break containment quite like Shaw, but Thompson can still move the chains with his feet when necessary. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound South Carolina native doesn’t lack for arm strength and might even have more pure throwing ability than Shaw. But where Thompson must match Shaw is intangibles. There wasn’t a more dynamic leader in the SEC than Shaw last year, and the Gamecocks will miss that kind of will power under center in 2014. While the starting job is Thompson’s to lose, don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. The former four-star recruit could push Thompson this spring.

Missouri: The race to replace Franklin comes down to one quarterback and one quarterback alone: Maty Mauk. The rising redshirt sophomore showed last season that he can control the offense, starting four games in which he averaged 227.5 yards, 2.5 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game. More importantly, he won three of the four games with the only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. He’ll learn from that experience and take over a team that will be moving on from the loss of big-time playmakers Henry Josey, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Having the ultra-talented Dorial Green-Beckham back will help, but an arrest on drug charges in January has clouded his future.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cornwell
Courtesy of Cornwell familyEarly enrollee and former four-star recruit David Cornwell will get his shot at Alabama's starting QB job this spring.
LSU: The Tigers faithful got a sneak peek at their next quarterback, Anthony Jennings, after Mettenberger tore his ACL and was forced to miss LSU’s bowl game. The rising sophomore didn’t drop anyone’s jaw against Iowa, but he did just enough, throwing for 82 yards on 7 of 19 passing, while letting his supporting cast do the heavy lifting. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, Jennings has the look of a starting quarterback in the SEC. The former four-star recruit played sparingly in 2013, though, attempting just 10 passes prior to the Outback Bowl. He’ll have to contend with Brandon Harris, ESPN’s No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat passer in the 2014 class, along with rising senior Rob Bolden and rising sophomore Hayden Rettig.

Georgia: Despite what wasn’t a great performance to end last season -- 21-of-39 for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Nebraska -- Hutson Mason is still the overwhelming favorite to replace Murray. Why? Because Mark Richt and the coaching staff have essentially been grooming Mason to take over for years now, redshirting him in 2012 so he would have a year left to play in 2014. Mason was once a three-star quarterback who put up huge numbers running the spread at Lassiter High School in nearby Marietta, and with Todd Gurley behind him, he won’t be asked to do too much his first year starting. While he might be a year away, don’t write off Faton Bauta just yet. The 6-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore has impressed the staff with his work ethic and could find his way into some playing time.

Alabama: Oddly enough, the quarterback many presume will take over for McCarron won’t actually arrive until the summer. Jacob Coker, the heralded transfer from Florida State, will be a little late finishing his degree in Tallahassee, which leaves a big opportunity for the rest of Alabama’s quarterbacks to make a first impression. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will instead have his focus on Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman this spring. Sims, who best fits the mold of a run-first quarterback, has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he can play from the pocket. Morris, meanwhile, didn’t get much time as a redshirt freshman last season and needs to improve his decision-making from the last time we saw him at A-Day. Bateman and McLeod are relative unknowns after redshirting last season, but Bateman, a four-star recruit, does come with a lofty pedigree. The wild card is David Cornwell, the four-star recruit who enrolled in January and will benefit from the fresh start all of the quarterbacks will get under Kiffin.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
12:00
PM ET
Hope everyone is staying safe and warm out in SEC country with all the strong winter storms affecting the region. Stay inside and read up on the interesting nuggets from around the league, of which there are plenty today:

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
4:10
PM ET
Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
12:00
PM ET
After this weekend, all the underclassmen who wanted to go to the NFL are officially gone. Now begins the hectic final push in the recruiting season. Nick Saban did the electric slide, Lane Kiffin sang karaoke and that's just the nonsense going on at Alabama to impress recruits. Signing day is Feb. 5, so strap in tight because things could get really weird before it's all said and done.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
10:15
AM ET
Call it rivalry week, hate week, whatever you like. It's here, and it should be as memorable as ever when matchups between in-state rivals highlight the SEC lineup. Let's take a look at some of the key points around the league this weekend.

1. For all the marbles: Have you heard the Iron Bowl is this weekend? If not, you probably don't live in Alabama. Allow me to fill you in. Top-ranked Alabama will visit No. 4 Auburn on Saturday. It's a game with major conference and BCS implications, as the winner will represent the SEC West in the league championship game. Likewise, the Eastern Division remains up for grabs. No. 5 Missouri leads, but must defeat No. 21 Texas A&M in order to represent the division in Atlanta. With an A&M win, No. 10 South Carolina will win the East thanks to its victory against Mizzou.

2. In-state hate: The Iron Bowl, which is likely the nastiest in-state rivalry of them all, will receive the most national attention this week because of its championship implications. However, it's certainly not the only place you'll find distaste for the cross-state enemy. It kicks off with Thursday's Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Then you've got Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State all on Saturday.

3. ACC vs. SEC: The ACC thought last season that it might finally break through in rivalry games against opponents from the mighty SEC. Then Georgia wiped the floor with Georgia Tech, South Carolina controlled its game against Clemson, and Florida used a 24-point fourth quarter to beat FSU 37-26. This weekend might be a different story, however. At 4-7, Florida is enduring its worst season in decades and enters as a decided underdog against unbeaten FSU. Georgia faces uncertainty with quarterback Aaron Murray sidelined when it visits Tech. And while South Carolina is favored by five points, No. 6 Clemson is ranked higher and is certainly capable of winning in Columbia.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsCan Johnny Manziel keep his Heisman bid alive?
4. Manziel's recovery: Johnny Manziel's chances of winning another Heisman Trophy took a blow with his stumble against LSU last weekend (16-for-41 for 224 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). They aren't dead yet, though. Manziel's numbers remain competitive -- he ranks fifth nationally with an 89.5 opponent-adjusted Total QBR -- and he has one final chance to impress voters in a marquee game on Saturday night. Missouri's pass rush has been impressive, so Manziel could place himself back in the center of the Heisman conversation with a strong effort against the Tigers.

5. Battle for the boot: How can it be that No. 17 LSU and Arkansas ranked first and third nationally just two seasons ago when they met? When the Razorbacks visit Baton Rouge on Friday with the Golden Boot trophy at stake, they will be 25-point underdogs. Certainly some of that point spread has to do with the Tigers' impressive 34-10 win against Texas A&M. More of it is that Arkansas has been awful for most of the season. The Razorbacks have lost eight straight games, by an average margin of 21 points, as they enter this weekend's finale. While the Battle for the Boot has often ended in crazy fashion, it would be a surprise to see this installment remain competitive into the fourth quarter.

6. Murray's replacement: For the first time since the 2009 season, someone other than Murray will start at quarterback for Georgia. The SEC's all-time leading passer underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he tore Saturday against Kentucky. The starting nod will go to Hutson Mason, who led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against the Wildcats. Georgia Tech has to like seeing a different quarterback under center for the Bulldogs, as Murray was 48-for-65 for 738 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception in three career starts against the Yellow Jackets.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJames Franklin has Vandy on the right track.
7. Will Vandy's run continue? Vanderbilt looked like a possible bowl team at midseason, but that was before the Commodores won four of their past five games -- and could complete the regular season with a four-game winning streak by beating Wake Forest on Saturday. Posting back-to-back eight-win regular seasons would make yet another statement about the progress the program has made under coach James Franklin.

8. Bowl bid at stake in Starkville: Not only will Dan Mullen's Mississippi State club (5-6) be playing Thursday to recapture some of the in-state mojo it lost to Ole Miss in the past year, the Bulldogs must beat the Rebels in order to achieve bowl eligibility. Mullen's three-game winning streak against the Rebels ended last fall when Hugh Freeze's club won handily, 41-24, and then Ole Miss added insult to injury by signing one of the most heralded recruiting classes in school history. It would be another embarrassing blow if Ole Miss beats the Bulldogs to prevent them from reaching the postseason.

9. Clowney vs. Boyd: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney harassed Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in last season's win, earning Boyd 4.5 sacks as the Gamecocks beat the Tigers for the fourth time in a row. Boyd finished 11-for-24 for 183 yards and tossed two interceptions -- one of which led to Dylan Thompson's win-clinching touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington. Boyd has been terrible in two starts against South Carolina, and he'll have to perform more consistently against Clowney & Co. in order to end the losing streak.

10. Tennessee tumble: There was a point when Tennessee was 4-3 and looked like an SEC East darkhorse after the Volunteers nearly beat Georgia and shocked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Then came a run of lopsided losses to three consecutive top-10 teams (Alabama, Missouri and Auburn) and a last-minute defeat against Vanderbilt. With Tennessee now 4-7, we know first-year coach Butch Jones won't lead the Vols to a bowl game, but his team could at least remove some of the bitter taste from its mouth by beating Kentucky, which has lost 15 straight SEC games.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
12:30
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Mississippi State held on for a tight, 28-22 victory over Kentucky for its first SEC victory Thursday and that got things started in Week 9 of SEC play. We'll start with a couple takes from the game before delving into the rest of the talking points heading into the rest of the weekend in SEC football:

SEC lunchtime links

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
12:00
PM ET
It's game day! Sort of. While most of the league plays on Saturday, as usual, the SEC gets an early start this week with Kentucky and Mississippi State kicking off Thursday night on ESPN. So we'll start there with today's lunchtime links:

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
10:46
AM ET
Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping Johnny Manziel will be able to play against Vanderbilt.
2. Manziel: To play or not to play? If it seems that we've been down this road before, it's because we have. People want to know whether Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play Saturday. He suffered an apparent shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss to Auburn but returned to finish the final 9:06 of the game, playing with pain in that throwing shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't tipping his hand, simply calling Manziel "hopeful" for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.

4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.

6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.

7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.

8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.

9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.

10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.

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