Georgia Bulldogs: Mark Richt

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By the end of the day Saturday, there might be a clear front-runner in the SEC East race -- and that team will likely be the winner of the matchup between No. 13 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) and No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0).

With help from ESPN Stats & Information, let's take a look at key factors in Saturday's game in Columbia:

No Gurley, what now?: By now it's no secret that Georgia's offense will operate without the dominant running ability of tailback Todd Gurley (94 carries, 773 yards, 8 TDs, SEC-high 154.6 rushing yards per game). The guy was a Heisman Trophy front-runner for good reason, but now Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must assemble a game plan against Missouri for the second straight year without his most potent weapon.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will miss the unique ability of Todd Gurley (above) to gain yards after contact, but freshman Nick Chubb is a suitable replacement.
The Bulldogs played without injured backs Gurley and Keith Marshall last season and actually fared OK on the ground against Missouri. Then-freshmen J.J. Green (12 carries, 87 yards) and Brendan Douglas (14-70) enjoyed success on the ground against Mizzou last season and Georgia now must turn to Plans B, C and D against the Tigers again.

Green is now playing defense, so he's out of the picture. But Nick Chubb provides a fairly decent resemblance to Gurley. The freshman (31-224, 7.2 yards per carry) is Georgia's second-leading rusher behind Gurley. Marshall and Sony Michel remain sidelined by injuries, so Chubb and Douglas (sixth on the team with 47 rushing yards in limited duty) might be in line for the biggest workloads out of the backfield -- particularly Chubb.

About one of every five of Chubb's carries (six out of 31) has gone for at least 10 yards, and he's averaging 3.77 yards after contact per carry, which isn't much worse than Gurley's 3.9 YAC -- the best among all Power 5 backs with at least 50 carries. Nonetheless, Gurley's absence is devastating for Georgia and will require massive adjustments late in the week in order for the Bulldogs to get out of Columbia with a win.

One thing that helps the Bulldogs' cause is that Missouri's defense has had mixed results against the run.

Indiana ran 50 times for 241 yards and three touchdowns in its upset win over the Tigers. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman averaged 3.95 yards after contact per run that day en route to rushing 19 times for 132 yards and a score. As we've already discussed, YAC is one of power runner Chubb's trademarks, so Missouri tacklers are going to have to bring it Saturday. He's not Gurley, but he ain't bad, either.

Mizzou pass rush: Although Georgia has been more run-heavy compared to recent seasons -- the team is running the ball 64 percent of the time this season compared to 51 percent in 2013 -- the Bulldogs need to produce more in the passing game with Gurley out of the picture.

And Missouri -- particularly star defensive linemen Shane Ray and Markus Golden -- would be perfectly happy to see the Bulldogs try to air it out. Ray ranks second in the FBS and leads the SEC with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss. Golden is third in the SEC with four sacks and fifth with 6.5 tackles for loss.

Georgia fans might remember Ray as the pass-rusher who laid a crushing hit on quarterback Aaron Murray last season, forcing a fumble that Mizzou end Michael Sam scooped up and ran in for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 28-10 lead.

Ray had two sacks for a loss of 14 yards in the Tigers' comeback win against South Carolina. Between Ray, Matt Hoch and Harold Brantley, Mizzou had four sacks for 37 yards of lost ground for the Gamecocks.

More good news for Mizzou: It hasn't needed to blitz in order to generate effective pressure. Since the start of last season, the Tigers have 50 sacks when sending four pass-rushers or fewer, the most of any Power 5 school.

QB comparison: Georgia and Missouri both expected more productivity from the quarterback position than what they've gotten so far.

The issue might be slightly more alarming with Mizzou's Maty Mauk (1,110 passing yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs), whom many college football analysts expected to have a big season. Thus far, Mauk has a 47.1 score in ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, which is the third-worst in the SEC and more than 30 points lower than his 77.9 from last season.

Third down in particular has been an issue for the Mizzou QB. Mauk is completing an SEC-low 38.1 percent of his third-down passes and ranks 10th among SEC quarterbacks in conversion percentage (29 percent).

Georgia's beleaguered secondary is vulnerable to a strong passing attack, but will Mauk -- whose breakout game last season was against Georgia -- take advantage? That might be the determining factor in Saturday's game. The Bulldogs are in the middle of the SEC pack in pass defense (seventh at 223 YPG), but they have surrendered 284 passing yards and three touchdowns in a shootout win against Tennessee, and 271 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout loss to South Carolina. Doing a better job against Mauk, receiver Bud Sasser (fourth in the SEC with averages of six catches and 90.8 yards per game), and the rest of Mizzou's receivers would greatly improve Georgia's chances of victory.

We've already discussed the challenge Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason will face from Missouri's dynamic pass rush. Aside from avoiding mistakes with Ray and Golden breathing down his neck, how much will Georgia expect from Mason and the passing game? Mason (687 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs) ranks 55th in the Total QBR standings with a 59.7 score -- not horrible, but not particularly impressive, either.

Mason hasn't worked with a full complement of receivers yet, but that's starting to change. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell played for the first time in more than a year last week against Vanderbilt, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt expects receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tight end Jay Rome to be back for the Missouri game, too.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Nick Saban could have stepped to the microphone last week at SEC media days and delivered a stern message to his team at Alabama. After an offseason colored by two DUI arrests, one player getting caught with marijuana and another getting arrested for disobeying a police officer, it seemed like a prime opportunity to fire a shot across the bow. Or, at the very least, to make a statement about the direction the program is headed.

But Saban wasn’t interested in doing that. As he has done with each off-field incident since last season ended, he insisted that issues will be handled internally. He argued, essentially, that to do otherwise would be akin to kicking your own child out of the family for disappointing you.

“We have to try to support them, teach them, get them to do the right things because we love them, we care about them,” he said.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/AL.com/Vasha HuntNick Saban on discipline: "I want you to know that there's not one player, not one player, since I've been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything ..."
Saban spoke about a “disparity in the behavioral culture of our young people” and how they must “control their impulsive behaviors.” He closed his mini-sermon by saying that the process -- his process -- “really does work.”

“I want you to know that there's not one player, not one player, since I've been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything and accomplished anything, playing or academically, all right?” he said.

All right.

Saban did levy a little bit of discipline. Harkening back to “guys learning how to control their impulsive behavior,” he said, “those players are suspended, but they’re not kicked off the team.” But which players? It could be Jarran Reed, Kenyan Drake, Altee Tenpenny or Dillon Lee. It could be all four that are “suspended from activity” until “they prove ... they’re ready to come back.”

In Saban’s eyes, discipline isn’t punishment.

“That’s what you all think: What are you going to do to the guy? How many games is he getting suspended? Are you going to kick him off the team? This guy kicked this guy off the team because he did this, and that was a good thing,” he said. “Well, but what about the kid? What happens to him? Well, I’m telling you what happens to him: I’ve never seen one go anyplace else and do anything.”

While Saban did drop some occasionally strong remarks -- “There’s an end of the rope for everybody.” “Sometimes you have to get the wrong people off the bus.” -- he never really dropped the hammer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some coaches whose track records as disciplinarians is lacking, but Saban isn’t one of those men.

“Are there consequences?” he said. “Yeah, we don’t have to depend on the guy. They might get suspended for some games, because that’s the one thing that will change their behavior because they all want to play. I get that part, and we do that. But I don’t usually announce that. I don’t usually say we’re going to do that. I tell you before the game, ‘These three guys aren’t going to play.'"

It was interesting, however, to note the tonal change at media days between what Saban said and what Mark Richt said a few hours earlier.

Richt has long been a lightning rod on the subject of discipline. Type “Mark Richt lost control” into Google and you will get roughly 29,000 results. But this offseason Richt developed an image of being tough on crime. Rather than offering starters Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons a route back to school, he dismissed them from Georgia. Rather than worrying about the program’s strong drug policy creating a competitive disadvantage, he said, “It doesn’t bother me.”

“We don't want our guys to do drugs, OK? I don't want my son to do drugs,” he said. “We've got policies that are stronger maybe than some when it comes to the punitive part of it. That's kind of what everybody talks about. Georgia ends up suspending their guys a little bit sooner in the policy, which I've got no problems with.”

“It's a lot more than just the punitive part,” he said later. “There's a punitive part, there's an educational part, then we love 'em. You made a mistake. You have these consequences. Now let's turn in the right direction and become a better man for it.”

Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson said it’s simple: “Do the right thing is all they ask.”

“You’re either going to do it Coach Richt’s way or you’re going to go home,” he added.

Strong words, wouldn’t you say?

Saban and Richt want the same thing when it comes to keeping players on the right track and on the right side of the law. But for at least one day and one offseason, the coach we expected to play the role of disciplinarian was not the one who showed up to take the stage.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Schedule analysis: Georgia

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Nonconference opponents (with 2013 record)
Aug. 30: Clemson (11-2)
Sept. 20: Troy (6-6)
Nov. 22: Charleston Southern (10-3)
Nov. 29: Georgia Tech (7-6)

SEC home games
Sept. 27: Tennessee (5-7)
Oct. 4: Vanderbilt (9-4)
Nov. 15 Auburn (12-2)

SEC road games
Sept. 13: South Carolina (11-2)
Oct. 11: Missouri (12-2)
Oct. 18: Arkansas (3-9) at Little Rock, Arkansas
Nov. 1: Florida (4-8) at Jacksonville, Florida
Nov. 8: Kentucky (2-10)

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesGeorgia's Todd Gurley gets another shot at Clemson in the opener.
Gut-check time: Just like last season, Georgia’s gut check comes right out of the gate. The Bulldogs open at home against a Clemson team that must replace most of its most important offensive playmakers from a season ago. That might make Georgia the favorite, but this is a rivalry known for close games and this one should be no different. After an open date, the Bulldogs return to action at South Carolina in what could be one of the most important games in the SEC East this season. The Gamecocks haven’t lost at home since midway through the 2011 season and had beaten Georgia three consecutive times before the Bulldogs prevailed in a shootout early last season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the winner of this game go on to represent the division in Atlanta, with the outcome of this game serving as the deciding factor in the division championship.

Trap game: Calling the trip to Missouri a “trap game” isn’t especially accurate, considering that the Tigers won the division last season. That Mizzou team doesn’t particularly resemble the one that will take the field this fall, however, and the Bulldogs will already have played several important games by the time this trip arrives in October, including home dates against Tennessee and Vanderbilt just before traveling to Columbia, Missouri. Mizzou’s early schedule isn't nearly as demanding, so the Tigers should be fairly fresh by the time Georgia arrives in town, meaning this should be a big challenge for the Bulldogs.

Snoozer: Charleston Southern is a strong FCS program, but this should be a welcome reprieve for a Georgia club that will be coming off what should be a battle royale against Auburn, with a home date against Georgia Tech on deck. There aren’t many obvious gimmes on the Bulldogs’ schedule, but this should be an opportunity for the freshmen and walk-ons to get some late action between Sanford Stadium’s famous hedges.

Telltale stretch: Between the time Georgia plays its Oct. 4 home date against Vanderbilt and when the Bulldogs play their next game at Sanford Stadium – Nov. 15 against Auburn – we should have a good idea just how legitimate the Bulldogs’ title hopes are for 2014. The Bulldogs will play four consecutive games away from Athens, starting with the visit to Mizzou and following with dates at Arkansas, against Florida in Jacksonville and at Kentucky. Obviously the Florida game will again have a huge say in whether Georgia remains in the Eastern Division race, and the others – particularly the Missouri game – have the potential to be treacherous. If you tell Mark Richt today that the Bulldogs will have a chance to win the East by the time this road streak ends, he'll be thrilled.

Final analysis: With much of its offensive firepower back from last season – minus quarterback Aaron Murray, of course – along with most of the starters from a young, inconsistent defense, Georgia has the potential to win the East for the third time in four seasons. This schedule will be a good test for the Bulldogs, however. Home dates against ACC clubs Clemson and Georgia Tech bookend what will be a challenging SEC schedule. The Bulldogs haven’t won at South Carolina since a thriller in 2008, so that game should set the tone for the Eastern Division race. Then you have the typical challenges that come from facing Auburn, Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. It’s manageable, particularly if the Bulldogs dodge the injury issues that hit their roster in 2013, but they will have certainly earned the division title if they return to Atlanta in December.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 29, 2014
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The SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida, are winding down, but college football news from around the conference continues to roll out. As always, we've got you covered.

DESTIN, Fla. -- If the college football recruiting landscape does change, the SEC made sure this week that it will be ready.

A couple of weeks after watching the ACC propose an early signing period to begin on Aug. 1, the SEC on Wednesday offered its own recommendation to have a signing day on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive said he hopes there won't be an early signing period, but if there is, he wants his league to be prepared.

The league wasn’t happy about the ACC’s proposal for an earlier signing period because of how it would change the recruiting calendar, something the SEC absolutely doesn't want. The league also decided that in its model, it would ban official visits for recruits who want to sign early, therefore lessening the pressure and clutter of having overstocked official visits during the season and on game weekends.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMississippi State's Dan Mullen believes a late November early signing day would protect both the prospects and the schools.
SEC coaches believe that a signing period that comes after the college and high school regular seasons allows recruits to play out their senior seasons while studying the teams they’re interested in and figuring out coaching staff stability. By banning official visits for recruits who want to sign early, coaches wouldn't have to cram important recruiting visits in during the season and could focus on coaching their teams.

An early signing period would also save money as coaches wouldn't have to invest in recruiting trips to re-recruit already committed prospects.

“I’ve been a proponent of that for years,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “It’s long overdue.

“It clears the picture up.”

To Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, it clearly makes sense for the league.

“It’s one that keeps our calendar pretty consistent. It allows the guys that have been committed to their school to sign with that school,” Mullen said. “It also protects the student-athlete as best as possible.”

When Mullen says “protects,” he means that players who don’t want to bother with the recruiting process won’t have to hear from opposing coaches still trying to get their signature before national signing day on the first Wednesday of February. The recruit also would guarantee his spot in the class by signing early.

Mullen also said that the SEC's proposal would protect the schools that don’t want to lose those recruits with months remaining before they sign their national letters of intent.

In the current recruiting culture, you just can’t take every recruit at his word. This way, you take him at his signature before Christmas rolls around.

The SEC’s model would make the Monday after Thanksgiving a one-day signing day and a dead day for communication between coaches and recruits. The Sunday before would become a quiet day, and Tuesday would begin the next recruiting period.

Richt One of the other leagues proposed Aug. 1. We think that would be crazy.

-- Georgia coach Mark Richt, on an ACC proposal for an early signing day
The goal would be to not make this the new national signing day. This is just for the handful of prospects whose minds are made up.

“Obviously, if you’ve got guys that have signed and are with you no matter what, you don’t have to continue to worry, ‘Is this guy going to change his mind; is he going to flip at the last second?” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Everyone would like some sanity in that regard.”

What Richt does find insane is the ACC’s proposal to have an early signing period before the regular season even starts, which would essentially destroy the current recruiting calendar and rush spring and summer evaluations.

“One of the other leagues proposed Aug. 1. We think that would be crazy,” he said. “We think there would be no summer for anybody, no sanity for anybody.”

The SEC and ACC have plans, but whether this happens is unknown. To Florida coach Will Muschamp, getting enough people to agree on a date could be a mountain of an obstacle because of varying agendas for different schools.

“A lot of coaches, including myself, don't want an inordinate amount of visits during the season because it takes away from your football team and your preparation, your preparation for the next week, so I really think we're going to have a hard time agreeing on something that's good for everybody just because of the regions of the country,” Muschamp said. “A lot of the northern schools don't want kids visiting in January because it's freezing cold and they lie to them and tell them it's really warm year-round. I think that's something you've got to deal with, so I don't know if we're ever going to come to a common ground in my opinion, based on the information I have.”

Judging by what many conference members have said, it appears the sport is creeping closer and closer to an early signing day, with the interest mounting from coaches. What’s a little more change in college football, anyway?


DESTIN, Fla. -- In a week that could be light when it comes to real news, a few coaches made their feelings known on the future of SEC schedules, and for once it had nothing to do with the number of conference games.

Now that the eight-game conference schedule format will live on for the foreseeable future, coaches were asked about the possibility of ending play with Football Championship Subdivision schools. This year, all 14 SEC teams play at least one FCS opponent.

If Florida coach Will Muschamp had it his way, the Gators would no longer play FCS teams.

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports Nick Saban says the issue sometimes comes down to a matter of choice.
“We’re probably going to move forward without playing FCS opponents,” Muschamp said.

The irony is that Florida lost to FCS opponent Georgia Southern (at home no less) 26-20 last season, but Muschamp understands that with strength of schedule now playing a factor in the selection process for the College Football Playoff, getting rid of FCS opponents will help his team’s chances in the future. It’s also something that greatly improves the product on the field for the people in the stands. You know, the people who don’t show up to watch the cupcakes.

“I think our fan base as much as anything wants to see better opponents,” Muschamp said. “So that’s kind of where we are with it.”

Make all the jokes you want about Georgia Southern’s win. Snicker about Michigan getting upset by Appalachian State a few years ago. Giggle about Virginia Tech getting shocked by James Madison.

Those games were great for the Cinderellas of the world, but they are nothing more than blips on the radar when it comes to the annual poundings those schools take from power five programs. They lessen the excitement for games and keep people out of seats.

“The first people that need to be taken into consideration here, who get no consideration, are the fans and the people who support the programs -- the quality of games for them -- so they want to come to the stadium and come to the games and support the programs and make it exciting for the players,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tuesday. “No, we do not want to play those types of teams. Sometimes we don’t have a choice.”

Earlier this month, Saban talked about the idea of the teams in the power five conferences (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12) playing only one another. His idea was spot on, and it's one that could help the SEC lose its FCS partners.

But eliminating FCS play isn’t going to be easy. There are still some coaches who want to continue to play FCS opponents. It also isn’t easy to schedule 12 teams every year.

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze wants his Rebels to play FCS opponents because he understands firsthand how beneficial it is for those schools on and off the field.

“I think me coming up through the route of smaller-school ball to this point, I know the value that it adds to those programs also,” Freeze said. “I kind of always try to look at that aspect of it also. I just find it hard to believe that one game like that, out of the schedule that we play in this league and agreeing to play another BCS conference opponent, that that one game over the totality of the season would really hinder you if you perform well in those other games.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt, who works with FCS representatives as one of the board of trustees members with the American Football Coaches Association, agrees with Freeze when it comes to helping FCS schools out financially.

“I think college football is too important at all levels to hurt them by setting criteria that would not allow you to play them,” Richt said. “I’m for doing it.”

I understand that. These schools get paid thousands upon thousands of dollars to suit up and usually get pummeled. But with the power five looking to make its own rules without pushback from schools outside of the five major conferences, why should they care about FCS opponents? Why should FCS schools' well-being be a concern for SEC or Big Ten schools?

Honestly, it sounds like schools continue to play these smaller institutions because they have to fill space when scheduling ideas fall through. As Saban said, it’s not like organizing a golf game. You can’t just call up a school, ask it to play and expect the game to happen.

“I understand what Will's saying: In a perfect world, you play all D1 schools,” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “But also you have to have 12 opponents.

“I understand Will's point of view, and when I hear from the fans, I understand their point of view. Some years, you've got to have 12 games."

SEC commissioner Mike Slive said that discussions of FCS opponents didn't come up in Tuesday's meetings and that the decision to play them would be institutional.

“I’m in favor of our strength of schedule being as good as it can be," Slive said.

“We have not told our schools that they can’t play FCS schools and we don’t have any plans to tell them that.”

With the creation of the power five and the bigger role strength of schedule will play going forward, the SEC could be moving away from FCS opponents. It would be a good move, but it will likely start small and branch out. The good news is that coaches are speaking out about it.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 21, 2014
May 21
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The SEC baseball tournament kicked off Tuesday with a shutout, a Top-25 upset and a walk-off win in the 10th inning. What’s in store for Day 2? For your latest football news, be sure to check out Wednesday’s lunch links.
  • Last week, Nick Saban made SI’s ‘Most Disliked People in Sports’ list. On Tuesday, the Alabama coach responded to his inclusion, though he said he hadn’t seen the list.
  • The Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 rolls on, and Auburn is ranked No. 5 behind one of the top offenses in college football, though the defense is still a work in progress.
  • During a local stop on his speaking tour, Will Muschamp fielded questions from uneasy Florida fans concerned about the Gators after last season's 4-8 campaign.
  • Mark Richt is not worried about Georgia’s defense. He believes a simple defense can be great.
  • There are two barriers that second-year coach Mark Stoops must clear to make Kentucky football matter in the SEC.
  • LSU athletic director Joe Alleva is excited about the expansion of Tiger Stadium which will put capacity numbers over 100,000. His message to Alabama fans: Nice seats, eh buddy?
  • ESPN 300 defensive end Shameik Blackshear committed to South Carolina a year ago. To celebrate, he’s keeping his commitment 100 percent.
  • Tennessee’s 14 early enrollees have already helped pave the way for the rest of the 2014 class which is expected to arrive on campus next week.
  • Former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel was a "huge reason" why he landed the Texas Tech head coaching job.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 19, 2014
May 19
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The conference finals have started in both hockey and basketball. Rookie minicamp just wrapped in the NFL. Meanwhile, we all sit and wait for college football to come back. Get your fix with Monday’s lunch links.
Georgia coach Mark Richt announced on Tuesday that redshirt freshman receiver Uriah LeMay is transferring.

LeMay had a decent spring on the field for the Dawgs, but he would likely have been buried on the depth chart with the return of Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, who had their 2013 seasons cut short by ACL injuries. LeMay was one of four Georgia players arrested on theft charges earlier this spring. His older brother Christian, a backup quarterback for the Bulldogs, decided to transfer from Georgia in January.

[+] EnlargeUriah LeMay
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsFormer four-star recruit Uriah LeMay is leaving the Bulldogs.
"Uriah made the decision in order to have a better opportunity for playing time," Richt said in a statement through the school. "He has our best wishes in achieving all his goals as a student and athlete."

LeMay was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, but with so much experienced receiving talent returning, including seniors Chris Conley, who had a tremendous spring, and Michael Bennett, it was going to be hard for him to grab a healthy amount of reps and receptions this fall. While his departure will cut into future depth, the Dawgs should be just fine this fall at the receiver spot.

They'll get some help from rising sophomore Brendan Langley, who is moving to receiver from cornerback. While Langley started four games at cornerback last season, he was benched early in the season in favor of fellow freshman Shaq Wiggins, who announced last week that he was transferring. Langley is a bit of an unknown at the receiver spot, but that's what summer workouts and fall camp are for. Langley was an ESPN 300 member and the No. 24-ranked athlete in the Class of 2013, so it's worth a try to see what he can do at receiver.

The loss of Wiggins does hurt the Bulldogs. In a secondary full of issues last season, Wiggins was at times the lone bright spot. He led the team with two interceptions and had four pass breakups. With Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons (dismissed in February) both gone, Georgia's secondary will be lacking experience this fall. Senior Damian Swann is now the only corner on the team who has started more than one game.

Even if Wiggins were still around, it was going to be a battle all throughout the secondary this season. After a roller-coaster season for Georgia's secondary, no job was safe in 2014, and the coaches even moved running back J.J. Green to corner, where he excelled at the star position. Walk-ons Aaron Davis and Lucas Redd even impressed this spring, leaving as first-teamers.

With the return of redshirt freshman Reggie Wilkerson (ACL) and the arrival of 2014 signees Malkom Parrish, Shaq Jones, and Shattle Fenteng, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will have plenty of bodies to work with. And he was always going to leave the competition open for everyone.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 30, 2014
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More talk of scheduling, some NFL draft talk and more in today's lunch links:


Everyone patiently waiting to see a glimpse of Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley's long-awaited "Star Wars" movie must have been in an absolute tizzy on Monday, as the trailer for his film debuted on Twitter.

Thanks to coach Mark Richt and his very active Twitter account, you can view the trailer for "Retribution" RIGHT HERE!

It's a movie that Conley, who grew up making comic books with his brother and filling his mind with amazing sci-fi fun, has worked on during the last few months, while juggling class and football. Oh yeah, he was pretty impressive on the football field this spring, too.

And this movie looks pretty cool. It has pretty sweet graphics, lightsabers, and it's "Star Wars!" As a certified sci-fi nerd who spent many a Saturday morning watching old Godzilla movies and plenty of week nights checking out "Star Trek: The Next Generation" I'm pretty excited about this short film. Yes, I mixed "Star Trek" with "Star Wars" as a child, and I was proud of it!

Conley plans to release the film in the coming months and will be premiering it in Athens, Ga. When I spoke to him earlier this month, Conley said he was hoping to premier it inside Sanford Stadium. Should be fun.

ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sits in a faintly lit meeting room deep inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the Bulldogs' athletic facility/sports museum, reflecting on the past and focusing on the future.

His eyes show purpose as he discusses the season ahead while mentally gearing up for a late spring practice a couple of hours away.

While the present means more reps, and more rhythm inside offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense, Mason can’t help but push his brain full throttle toward the fall.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAfter waiting his turn for four years, Hutson Mason is ready to be the leader of Georgia's offense.
For the fifth-year senior who had the pleasure -- and sometimes displeasure -- of sitting behind one of the SEC’s all-time greats in Aaron Murray for four years, Mason has to be both here and 10 steps ahead if he’s going to cast his own shadow.

“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason told ESPN.com in early April. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”

Mason wasn’t near the star Murray was coming out of high school and he won’t sniff his college career. He's fully aware, but that didn’t deter him from having a strong spring or setting high 2014 goals.

"I know I have a year left, but it’s hard to realize that, 'Man, you’re the starting quarterback at UGA,'" said Mason, who has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career.

“You gotta grab the bull by the horns, you gotta figure out the problems, you gotta figure out what we’re good at and you gotta win.”

An easily missed, self-described “weak, frail” prospect from Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Mason said he had only one scholarship offer (Georgia Southern) heading into his senior year after Iowa pulled its offer.

When Mason started winning (12-1) and finished the season with a Georgia state record 4,560 passing yards and 54 touchdowns and Lassiter’s first-ever region championship, Mississippi State and Virginia offered, but he wanted UGA.

Mason’s "real quick release" from his weaker arm only intrigued Bobo the spring before his senior year, but his summer improvements at one of Georgia’s camps ramped up interest, Bobo said. Still, Georgia wasn’t planning on signing a quarterback in its 2010 class.

That changed after Mason’s senior season -- which showed Bobo the moxie, instincts and composure he once saw in former Georgia quarterback David Greene -- earned him a scholarship.

Mason then dealt with a "roller coaster of emotions" while he sat behind Murray. He prepared like the starter, talked like a starter, but wasn’t seeing enough field action. It would have been easier if Mason felt he wasn’t SEC material, but he believed he was more than capable of leading the Dawgs.

He approached coach Mark Richt twice about transferring, once after the 2011 season and a year later, after Murray decided to return for a fifth year.

“I was putting in just as much work that Aaron was, and there was really no reward for it,” Mason said. “That was the hardest part to swallow. You were doing everything, but weren’t really getting to go out there and do what you have fun doing.”

After some soul searching, Mason had one overwhelming feeling, as his heart battled his pride: He was a Georgia boy playing for the state's best football program. He wanted a real UGA legacy.

“My heart was always stuck at UGA, and a lot of times I wanted to get past that and I wanted to tell myself to move on,” he said.

“I honestly believe that was God’s plan. My path was just a little different and funky. ... Everything I’ve been waiting for, every opportunity is here.”

It’s there if Mason can leave spring and evolve. He’s always been considered a leader, but leading summer workouts and getting players to show up was always Murray’s deal. This offense and this team are in his hands.

“It’s on him now, so this summer is going to be very huge for our offensive football team getting ready for next year because we [had] a lot of pieces missing [this spring] and Hutson’s got to be a big part of that,” Bobo said.

The good news for Mason is that he’s never shied away from leadership. Naturally outspoken, Mason was very vocal with teammates this spring. He called guys out, raised his voice. There was no switch to flip, he was just himself.

And who he is ain't bad. Mason isn’t as crisp a passer as Murray, but Bobo said he knows how to beat defenses better at times when it comes to extending plays. His imperfections sometimes give him an advantage when things break down.

We saw glimpses of that when he replaced Murray (ACL injury) late last season, throwing for 808 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, and during a fine spring game performance (241 yards, one touchdown).

He’ll also have a slew of offensive weapons returning this fall to help, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and veteran receivers.

“I don’t have to be a Heisman Trophy winner, I just have to figure out how to get these guys the ball and they’ll do the rest,” Mason said.

Getting here has been long, draining, and worth it for Mason. There’s no reason for him to let up now.

“He’s progressed beautifully,” receiver Chris Conley said.

“Once he becomes consistent at realizing that he is the guy and that everyone is behind him, then he’s going to blow some people’s minds because he can make all those throws.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Like former Georgia teammate Zach Mettenberger a week before him, Aaron Murray wanted to prove that he’s close to full health at the Bulldogs’ pro day on Wednesday -- his first public passing session since tearing his left ACL last November.

Although he didn’t attempt more than 100 throws like Mettenberger did at LSU’s pro day last week, Murray’s battery of agility drills and a wide range of drops, rollouts and throws showed that he should be physically ready to compete when his future team opens rookie camp.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/John BazemoreAt Wednesday's pro day, Aaron Murray didn't show ill affects from his November ACL injury.
“I think I’ve shown everyone that they don’t have to worry about my injury, that it’s not going to stop me from being able to compete this year,” Murray said. “Now it’s just a matter of what teams like me, what teams don’t and is one going to draft me.”

Murray completed 48 of 54 throws with three drops in Wednesday’s passing session, which was directed by quarterback guru and former NFL assistant Terry Shea. Among Shea’s previous pre-draft clients are No. 1 overall picks Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford and No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III.

“I thought it went very well,” Shea said. “In four weeks that we’ve been together, I’ve never seen him favor that knee or anything. So I’m really excited that he’s healthy.”

In fact, Murray is apparently ahead of schedule in his recovery. Trevor Moawad, vice president at the EXOS/Athletes’ Performance facilities where Murray conducted his offseason workouts, said the training staff followed a similar rehab schedule as they did with Bradford, who was also coming off an injury when preparing for the 2010 draft.

“I think he’s ahead of probably where he should be at this time and I think come May 8 after the draft, I think he’s going to be able to show up at a team and be right where he needs to be,” Moawad said.

Murray was the featured attraction at Wednesday’s sparsely attended pro day, which represented a significant change from last year, when the Bulldogs had eight players drafted -- four in the first 85 picks -- and three more who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.

Murray (No. 129) is the only Bulldog listed among ESPN’s top 150 draft prospects, and only he and tight end Arthur Lynch received invitations to the NFL combine. Nonetheless, 15 former Bulldogs worked out Wednesday before the 23 NFL teams that had representatives on hand -- many of whom still harbor hopes of becoming late-round selections or undrafted free agents.

That group included offensive guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, both of whom snapped to the quarterbacks during passing drills, showing off what they hope teams will view as positional versatility.

“I feel like you get to the next level, they want to have a guy who’s a swingman, who can play multiple positions,” said Burnette, rated by ESPN as the draft’s No. 19 guard prospect. “I don’t want to limit myself to guard. I’ve had a little bit of experience playing center, so I tried to focus on my snaps and stuff like that during this time off. I think it was good for me to be able to do that.”

Another player hoping to catch an NFL club’s eye was defensive lineman Garrison Smith, who ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles and added six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Smith is hardly a flashy player, but said scouts who pay close attention to his performances on film will see an NFL-caliber player.

“I can do it all. I can look good in a T-shirt, I can look good in the birthday suit, it don’t matter. But I’m a football player,” joked Smith, rated by ESPN as the No. 34 defensive tackle prospect. “When them pads get on, it gets real serious. In them trenches, ask about me down there. I’ve got a lot of respect down there and I made a lot of plays.

“Look at game film, look at my stats. I had good games against good teams this year. I didn’t have no amazing games against teams that they say were less of opponents. I had good games against Florida, LSU, Tennessee. They’re supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country. Watch the film. That’s all I want people to see: I’m a good player.”

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt agreed with his former player’s assessment, noting that he would not be surprised to see Smith find a way to stick on an NFL roster like the three undrafted Bulldogs -- receiver Marlon Brown and defensive linemen Kwame Geathers and Abry Jones -- did a year ago.

“People will see his film. They’ll see his productivity,” Richt said. “From what I’m hearing, if he doesn’t get drafted, he’s going to get into a camp and get a chance to make it. We had Geathers last year didn’t get drafted and made a team. We had Abry Jones, I don’t think he was drafted [and] he made a team. I’m hoping he gets drafted, but if he doesn’t, he’ll get in camp and I think he’ll find a way to stick.”

ATHENS, Ga. -- Try as he might, Georgia running back Todd Gurley just couldn’t find his legs.

The usual sledgehammer of a player -- so used to ramming through and trampling defenders – felt frail and out of shape during his first few spring practices. That came after he returned from complications stemming from a nagging ankle injury that plagued him for most of the 2013 season.

“The first three practices, every time somebody touched me I kept falling to the ground,” Gurley told ESPN.com last week. “… My legs were just weak.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley shook off some spring woes and plans on being a more vocal leader going forward.
“It was frustrating. Every time I tried to do a move or cut, somebody would just touch me and I’d just fall to the ground. I probably fell at least, like, 10 times in those first three practices.”

Gurley, who has rushed for 2,374 career yards in two seasons with the Bulldogs, is a tank whose human side has failed him at times. He was held out of postseason workouts and drills as he tried to recover from a 15-inch high ankle sprain he originally suffered at the end of September in a back-and-forth win over LSU.

“That game, I felt perfect,” Gurley said with a hint of bitterness in his tone. “I felt perfect running and I was the right size and [had the right] speed. I felt like I was going to have one of the best games of my life. When it happened, I was like, ‘Dang.’”

Gurley missed three straight games after that -- a stretch in which Georgia went 1-2 -- and hasn’t been 100 percent since. A leaner Gurley hobbled into spring practice, but eyebrows were raised at the sense that Gurley wasn’t pushing himself hard enough and that his desire wasn’t there.

“The really great players, they have to love to practice,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

“None of [them] has arrived. You have to work. You’re either going to get better or worse every day; you’re not going to stay the same. Him going out there and trying to get better every day is going to make him and us better.”

Gurley admits his energy was lacking. Spring practice wasn’t pressing or exciting. But the coaches needed more from Gurley, and a conversation between Gurley and head coach Mark Richt a week before the Bulldogs’ spring game helped deliver that.

“Even though he may feel that way, he still has to give effort on a daily basis to become great,” Richt said of Gurley’s early spring attitude. “Those were some of the things we talked about, and he was awesome with it and did well.”

Gurley showed more effort during the final week, pushing his two-hour practices to the limit, before capping the spring with 70 total yards of offense and a touchdown in Georgia’s spring game. His touches were limited, but he ran with fire and purpose. He pounded his teammates and fought for extra yards.

“Everything’s starting to get better, slowly but surely,” Gurley said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been healthy, but it’s slowly getting there.”

When Gurley is at his best, he’s in a class of his own. It’s rare for someone with his size (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) to cut and explode like he does. Gurley punishes defenders with his strength and embarrasses them with his moves and breakaway speed. He’d easily have more than just 13 career 100-plus-yard rushing games if his body would cooperate.

But Gurley’s physical side is only part of what could make him a truly special back. The way he carries himself and how he instructs those around him will go a long way as well.

This spring, his coaches pushed him to bring more energy and leadership. More of a leader by example, Gurley said he opened his mouth this spring. He got more serious and wanted to make sure younger players followed him for the right reasons.

“This Todd is doing a better job of leading,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “We feel like as long as he’s in shape, he’s healthy and he’s strong, he’s the best back in the country.”

Aaron Murray is gone. Keith Marshall’s status is still up in the air after that devastating ACL injury. The spotlight is fixed on Gurley more than ever before, and he says he’s ready to shine even brighter in a year that could be his last in Athens.

That idea has served as a distraction. Gurley equates this upcoming season to his senior year in high school when some around him told him not to work as hard because he was already headed to college. Save his body, they said.

It makes sense to some, but that’s not Gurley’s concern, he said. He doesn’t want to take time or plays off to save up for the NFL. Gurley has more to prove. He wants more yards. He wants records. And he wants wins and at least one championship.

Resting won’t bring any of that.

“That’s never been the case for me,” Gurley said. “The NFL isn’t going anywhere. It’s not like I’m going to be getting drafted [this fall]. I just have to make sure I’m focused on now and getting better every day so that can help me out for my future and basically doing it for my team.”

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