Georgia Bulldogs: Ray Drew

We're closing in on the start of spring practice at Georgia, so this week we will take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

Yesterday we examined the competition at safety. Today let's move to the defensive line, which lost a starter in Garrison Smith, but should otherwise have plentiful depth and experience:

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRay Drew will be among those tasked with getting a better pass rush for Georgia in 2014.
Returning starters: A number of defensive linemen earned starts for the first times in their careers last fall. Defensive end Sterling Bailey (34 tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss) started the first eight games and came off the bench for the remaining five. Position mate Ray Drew (43 tackles, six sacks, eight TFLs) started seven times, but never started more than two games in a row at any point. And noseguard Chris Mayes (31 tackles, one sack, one TFL) started to come into his own during his streak of seven straight starts to conclude the season.

Departures: Smith (63 tackles, six sacks, 10 TFLs) started all 13 games last season and was one of the emotional leaders on the defense, earning defensive team captain honors after the season.

Returning reserves: John Taylor (nine tackles, one sack, 1.5 TFLs) and Toby Johnson (seven tackles, 1.5 TFLs) are probably the first names to mention here. Both players appeared in 10 games off the bench in 2013 and should compete for extended playing time this fall. Taylor was a redshirt freshman and still looked a bit green last season, while Johnson was only nine months removed from a season-ending ACL tear when the Bulldogs opened preseason camp a year ago. Josh Dawson (eight tackles, one TFL) appeared in 12 games and started once at end and Mike Thornton (five tackles, one sack, one TFL) appeared in 11 games. Smith mentioned Thornton as a player who might fill a larger role in the Bulldogs' retooled 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Newcomers: Redshirt freshman John Atkins is among the more intriguing players who will enter the mix this spring. He's big and quick enough to play any position along the line, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see him figure into the line rotation early next season. Noseguard DeAndre Johnson is also coming off a redshirt, but he faces steep competition in the middle this spring. The Bulldogs also signed defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard -- ESPN's No. 55 overall prospect and No. 4 DT -- and ESPN 300 defensive end Keyon Brown, but neither player is on campus yet.

What to watch: The line came into 2013 with limited experience, but ranked among the pleasant surprises for a defense that disappointed overall. The Bulldogs defended the run fairly well -- Georgia's average of 3.7 yards allowed per carry ranked second in the SEC -- thanks in large part to typically stout play by the line. With six sacks apiece, Drew and Smith both ranked among the SEC's top pass-rushers, but the group generally struggled to generate a consistent pass rush or convert sack opportunities. Identifying strong rush men will likely rank among new line coach Tracy Rocker's goals for the spring, as will simply teaching his new players how he wants things done. This will be the third line coach in as many seasons for the Bulldogs, so the group has certainly become accustomed to change. It will be a big spring for all of the linemen since Rocker brings a fresh set of eyes to the table, without having formed an opinion based on their performances in previous seasons. It might provide a chance for someone like Johnson -- we recently discussed his situation here -- Taylor or Atkins to grab a bigger role than he previously enjoyed.

Players to watch: Toby Johnson

February, 26, 2014
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With spring practice still a few weeks away, this week we'll discuss five players to watch once the Bulldogs open workouts on March 18.

We talked about wide receiver Jonathon Rumph and offensive guard Brandon Kublanow in the first two installments. We move on Wednesday to a defensive lineman who could play a bigger role in 2014 now that he has had a year to heal from an injury and get his bearings at Georgia.

Toby Johnson (defensive lineman, Sr.)

2013 review: A late addition to Georgia's 2013 signing class, Johnson was the No. 4 overall prospect on the ESPN Junior College 100 and hoped to play a much larger role along the defensive line. He was coming off an ACL injury from the previous November, but he did not want to redshirt. So he played in 10 games as a reserve, finishing the season with seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Why spring is important: Playing time would have been available for Johnson even without Garrison Smith -- a 2013 senior who started all 13 games last season -- leaving the lineup. Johnson was listed as Smith's backup at defensive end in the bowl loss, and like Smith, he is capable of playing either inside or outside depending on the situation. The goal this spring will be for Johnson to prove to new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker that he deserves to be one of the leading figures along the line and not the role player he was a season ago.

Best case/worst case: Johnson was only about 10 months removed from ACL surgery when last season started, and while he said he felt healthy, he never made a dent in the starting lineup. Smith, Chris Mayes and the Ray Drew-Sterling Bailey combo handled the top spots along the line for much of the season, but a big spring could push Johnson toward the front of the line this fall. There are other contenders for playing time -- including John Taylor, John Atkins, Josh Dawson and Michael Thornton -- so this will be a pivotal spring for all of them. If Johnson fails to make a move this spring, he runs the risk of remaining as a utility man as a senior, which would be a big disappointment for a player who carried such acclaim when he signed with the Bulldogs.
Continuing our run-up to Georgia's spring practice, this week we'll review the Bulldogs' five best recruiting classes of the last decade.

Today, we'll look at No. 2: The 2011 class initially dubbed as “The Dream Team,” which immediately helped the Bulldogs rebound from the only losing season in Mark Richt's tenure, a 6-7 mark in 2010, and could further cement a winning legacy in the next two seasons.

The stars: Tailback Isaiah Crowell was initially the crown jewel in this class, and he won SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2011 before getting dismissed from the team the following summer after an arrest. Several players in this class have flashed star potential including receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley, linebackers Ramik Wilson (who led the SEC in tackles in 2013) and Amarlo Herrera (who was third) and defensive lineman John Jenkins, who earned All-SEC honors and became an NFL draft pick by the New Orleans Saints.

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRay Drew started to play up to his potential last season.
The contributors: One of the class headliners, defensive end Ray Drew, finally started making an impact last fall and has one more season to live up to his five-star billing as a recruit. Tight end Jay Rome will be a redshirt junior this fall and should become the starter now that Arthur Lynch has moved on to the NFL. Cornerback Damian Swann and center David Andrews have also developed into valuable starters, while Sterling Bailey, Corey Moore and Watts Dantzler seem like the next most-likely players from the 2011 class to break through.

The letdowns: This class' legacy could have been ridiculous, but it will always be remembered for the numerous departures within its first year. Crowell's exit drew the most attention, but an arrest-related dismissal cost Georgia possible starting defensive backs Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders. Marshall, of course, developed into a star quarterback at Auburn last fall after spending the 2012 season at a Kansas junior college. In all, six players from this class -- most recently, quarterback Christian LeMay -- have transferred or been kicked off the team.

The results: Let's see what happens this fall. Mitchell, Herrera, Jenkins and Crowell were all important players as the 2011 Bulldogs won 10 straight games and claimed the program's first SEC East title since 2005. That group (minus Crowell) and several other Dream Teamers helped Georgia take another step forward in 2012. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see a number of them earn All-SEC honors this fall if Georgia bounces back from a disappointing 2013. Despite the numerous early exits, the Dream Team's legacy is already positive on the whole, but the group can still further solidify its spot in UGA history if it wins big in 2014.

UGA redshirt review: defense

December, 20, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia signed a massive 33-man recruiting class in February, and many of those signees -- like Leonard Floyd, Shaq Wiggins, J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas -- contributed immediately. Yesterday we reviewed the players who redshirted on offense. Today we move to the defense.

[+] EnlargeDavin Bellamy
Radi Nabulsi/ESPNDavin Bellamy, a former four-star prospect, could work his way into the DL rotation this spring.
John Atkins, Fr., DL
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 119 overall in 2012, No. 11 defensive tackle
This season: The prep school transfer did not seize a role in the defensive line rotation, but impressed coaches and teammates with a promising skill set that could help him play multiple positions in the future.
Veteran's perspective: “John Atkins' footwork is crazy for a big guy. He's like 320 -- we're the same size – and he has amazing footwork and work ethic. He's going to be one of those guys popping off the scene next year.” -- sophomore defensive lineman Chris Mayes

Davin Bellamy, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 299 overall, No. 25 defensive end
This season: Underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason, but could have played this season according to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham were it not for the emergence of Floyd and Jordan Jenkins at his position.
Veteran's perspective: “Bellamy's a big-bodied kid. I know just from being around him, he has a giant attitude. And when I say that, it's a good thing. He believes in himself and what he can do. He thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread, which is the attitude that you have to have when you're playing football because if you don't believe in yourself, nobody will.” -- junior defensive end Ray Drew

Paris Bostick, Fr., ILB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 55 safety
This season: Grantham compares Bostick's skills to those of another converted safety -- former UGA linebacker Alec Ogletree. Bostick suffered a toe injury during the summer and returned to practice during the season.
Veteran's perspective: “Bigger than what most people think -- real big dude now. He's just trying to learn the system and figure out where he's going to fit in at. … He's a real big dude, but he still runs like a safety. He's fast. He's going to be a real good addition to us.” -- junior linebacker Ramik Wilson

Shaquille Fluker, Jr., S
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 36 on Junior College 50, No. 2 safety
This season: Initially set back by an array of physical ailments, Fluker was designated as a redshirt candidate by midseason. He announced this week his plans to transfer in search of playing time.
Coach's perspective: “I can't comment on any medical situation, but everybody wants to play more, obviously, and I hope wherever he goes, he gets to play. I hope he finds a good home. I like him a lot. He's a good kid. I'm very confident we had his best interests at heart the entire time he was here at Georgia and we treated him well.” -- coach Mark Richt

DeAndre Johnson, Fr., DL
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 84 defensive tackle
This season: The youngest defensive lineman on the roster, Johnson needs to have a productive offseason in order to crack a veteran-heavy rotation next season, defensive line coach Chris Wilson said.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a low-pad-level player, just a young guy that's got to build up and get more experience and get comfortable with the game. … I think he'll be able to play the 3-technique as he has to learn the game and progress. For his size, he's pretty shifty, so I think he'll be all right.” -- Mayes

Kennar Johnson, Jr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 4 safety
This season: Injuries slowed Johnson's development early in the season and the coaches opted to redshirt him instead of utilizing another inexperienced player in a youthful secondary.
Veteran's perspective: “KJ is an athlete. He's very fast. It just comes with being able to compete and learning the system. I think he was kind of put in a bad situation coming in playing behind Corey [Moore], playing behind Tray [Matthews], who was here in the spring, and playing behind Josh [Harvey-Clemons] who's been here for two years. … [Johnson and Fluker were] playing behind guys who had already been here that grasped the system very well. That kind of put them behind the 8-ball a little bit.” -- junior cornerback Damian Swann

Shaun McGee, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 43 defensive end
This season: Capable of playing inside or outside, McGee's development this offseason will establish which of the two spots he plays next fall according to Grantham.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a little bit shorter, but he's very strong. His legs are massive and he can run. He has great speed off the edge, so I see that being one of his best contributions to the team.” -- Drew

Reggie Wilkerson, Fr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 163 overall, No. 15 athlete
This season: Enrolled in January and was on track to contribute this season before suffering a season-ending knee injury during summer workouts.
Veteran's perspective: “Reggie had a pretty good spring and he had a freak injury during the summer doing [pass skeleton drills] and we lost him. But I think he can be a big key and big part of this secondary with what we already have with Sheldon [Dawson], with Shaq and with [Brendan] Langley.” -- Swann
ATHENS, Ga. -- For football fans seeking tailgating or restaurant advice at a given road destination, visiting coaches and players are among the worst sources of information.

During the regular season, their road-trip schedule is extremely regimented -- and it leaves no time whatsoever for sightseeing. Visiting fans might be partying at the Grove in Oxford on game day or along Broadway in Nashville on Friday night, but the visiting players and coaches are locked away at the team hotel finalizing their game plans right up until time to bus to the stadium.

[+] EnlargeArthur Lynch
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsA veteran of four Florida-Georgia games, Arthur Lynch gets one more trip to Jacksonville.
That's why bowl games are particularly fun for the team and staff -- and why the upcoming trip to Jacksonville, Fla., for the Jan. 1 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl holds some intrigue for Georgia's players. They'll get a chance to actually experience for the first time one of the places most closely associated with Georgia football.

“You will get a chance to get out and see the city,” defensive end Ray Drew said. “I think that's why a lot of people look forward to the bowl game each year, just because it's a little more laid back rather than just flying in, going to the hotel, going to the game and flying back out. So you get a chance to relax a little bit more and just have fun. I think that's what bowl games are about. Of course it's a business trip, but you get to enjoy the city, as well.”

Drew is among a handful of Georgia players who have attended the annual Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville as a fan. He watched the Bulldogs lose in overtime as a high school senior, months before signing in February 2011 to join the Georgia program that fall.

Otherwise, the majority of the Bulldogs -- with the obvious exception of players like Jacksonville natives John and Nathan Theus -- know only bus ride over the city's Hart Bridge, when the throngs of fans and tailgate tents and the massive party outside of EverBank Field first come into view, when they think of Jacksonville.

Sure, they've heard about the elbow-to-elbow crowds at the Jacksonville Landing and know all about the massive fraternity and sorority parties that weekend on the beaches at St. Simons Island. They usually don't get to enjoy the social aspect of the game, however, until their careers are over.

So while a BCS bowl would have been a preferable destination, getting to enjoy Jacksonville is one consolation for the Bulldogs.

“It's tough when you're limited to the bowl games when you don't reach your goals originally, you want to be optimistic and look for the best in every situation,” said senior tight end Arthur Lynch, who also attended the 2010 Georgia-Florida game as a fan while redshirting that season. “For me, it was like, 'If we get to go to Jacksonville or we get to go to the [Georgia] Dome, we've played in both those places before and it kind of gave me extra incentive to want to be at that specific bowl -- not necessarily who we're playing or what bowl it was, but the idea of the location.”

Although few of the players have been out and about in the city, Jacksonville will certainly have a home-town feel for the Bulldogs. Situated close to the Georgia-Florida border, the city boasts a sizable UGA alumni base that should turn out for the Bulldogs' first Gator Bowl appearance since 1989.

“It's definitely a city where there's a lot of Georgia fans there, there's a Georgia fan base there and a lot of alums that are connected to the city. So I have no problem wanting to go see the city for a week,” Lynch said. “Bowl trips are fun no matter what. They make it so it's enjoyable and to see the other side of Jacksonville I think will be pretty cool.”

For Drew, a junior who will be playing in a third-consecutive Florida-based bowl, he already knows where he wants to play around this time next season when he's wrapping up his college career.

“I'd say Dallas, Texas,” Drew said, although he meant nearby Arlington, which will host the inaugural College Football Championship Game next season. “That's where the national will be next year, so yeah, I'm going with that.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Amarlo Herrera isn't ready to assess Georgia's 2014 defense yet. Not when the Bulldogs still have to play a bowl game before this season is complete.

“We're not talking about that yet,” the Georgia linebacker said after last Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech. “The season's not over yet. But when the season gets over, we'll start talking about those things and people will remember these [comebacks against Auburn and Georgia Tech].”

Step one in the evolution of a defense that loses only one senior starter -- defensive lineman Garrison Smith -- will be to put together complete games, not just decent halves. Against both Auburn and Georgia Tech, in particular, disastrous starts forced the Bulldogs to mount dramatic rallies in the game's waning possessions.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
AP Photo/John BazemoreTray Matthews is one of 10 starters that should return on Georgia's defense next fall.
“We've got to stop coming off slow in the first half,” inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “We've got to finish, and that's what we've been doing in the second half.”

Wilson has a point. The starts were horrendous -- Auburn scored 27 points and Georgia Tech 20 before halftime -- but Georgia's defense was fairly solid in the second half of more than just those two dramatic comeback bids.

The Bulldogs were awful defensively for most of the first month of the season, with a 28-point second half by Tennessee in Game 5 perhaps ranking as the low point. But since then, Todd Grantham's defense has generally improved as the games progressed.

Since the Tennessee game, the Bulldogs allowed 10 second-half touchdowns in seven games -- half of those coming when opponent scoring started at the 50-yard line or closer because of errors by Georgia's offense or special teams. In the last month of the regular season, the Bulldogs allowed seven second-half points to both Georgia Tech and Kentucky, zero to Appalachian State and 16 to Auburn, although the final six came on a 73-yard Ricardo Louis touchdown catch for the game-winning score after Bulldogs safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews failed to bat down an off-target pass.

“We said it felt like it was like the Auburn game,” Herrera said of the Bulldogs' rally from a 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech. “We just had to step up and we had to make plays real quick before it got ugly.”

The Tech game was already bordering on ugly before the Bulldogs salvaged it with their second-half rally. They argued afterward that the comeback was an example of their season-long persistence, even against long odds.

“Everybody knows about the tipped pass at Auburn and people wanted to know how we would bounce back off that. Well, we're 2-0 off that loss,” said sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson, who was victimized in coverage on several of Tech's biggest passes. “It's not about how you fall because you're going to fall in this game of football. You're going to fall many times. It's just you've got to get back up.

“Like for myself, to me I had a poor game, but how did I respond? I just tried to keep playing and show my teammates that I'm playing to get better on the next drive.”

The hope for Grantham and his staff is that the rocky moments that Dawson and many other youthful defenders experienced this season will become learning tools as they mature. The 2013 defense was simply not consistent enough, as its program-worst point (opponents averaged 29.4 ppg) and yardage (381.2 ypg) totals reflect, but there were occasional flashes of promise, as well.

He used the game-ending, fourth-down pass breakup to clinch the win against Georgia Tech as an example -- which easily could have been the third such key fourth-down stop by his defense had one of his safeties properly defended Auburn's last-gasp throw or had an official kept the flag in his pocket instead of incorrectly penalizing Wilson for targeting on a fourth-quarter pass breakup against Vanderbilt.

“That's the third fourth-down situation that we've had this year. We had one at Vandy, we had one at Auburn and we had one here,” Grantham said. “We've got a lot of young players on our team that will grow from it and they'll get confidence from it and we're going to develop them and move forward and win a bunch of games.”

The talent clearly exists for Grantham's projection to become reality. Harvey-Clemons, Matthews, outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, defensive end Ray Drew, Herrera and Wilson -- all of them should be back in 2014. If they and their defensive cohorts can perform with discipline that matches their physical capabilities, Georgia's defense could take a step forward next fall.

It's on Grantham and company to ensure that such progress occurs.

“Part of coaching and part of a program and part of being what we want to be, when it's going not the way you want it, you find a way to battle back,” Grantham said.

Five things: Georgia-Georgia Tech

November, 30, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- The last two Georgia-Georgia Tech games haven't been very competitive, with the Bulldogs winning 31-17 in 2011 and 42-10 last season. But with Georgia Tech (7-4) boasting a much-improved defense and Georgia (7-4) trotting out a first-time starting quarterback in Hutson Mason, today's meeting in Atlanta doesn't feel like a gimme for the Bulldogs.

Let's take a look at five key factors in today's game:

Defending Tech's option: The first objective for every team that faces Georgia Tech is to slow down the Yellow Jackets' vaunted option running game. The Yellow Jackets rank fifth nationally in rushing yards with 316.1 per game. Of those yards, ESPN Stats and Information reports that 200.1 come before contact with the first defender, which ranks second nationally behind Auburn's 209.5. Speaking of the Tigers, Georgia struggled against Auburn's rushing attack -- which is second nationally at 320.3 ypg -- two weeks ago, surrendering 323 yards on the ground. The Bulldogs need to do a much better job than that if they are to win today at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

How will Mason fare?: Mason played great in relief of the injured Aaron Murray last Saturday against Kentucky, but he's had a whole week to dwell on how he'll make his first career start against one of Georgia's biggest rivals. He seems to have the mentality to handle that pressure, but it would be understandable if he experiences some jitters. Nonetheless, Mason has performed extremely well in limited action this season. He led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against Kentucky, finishing 13-for-19 for 189 yards and a touchdown and also rushing for a 1-yard score. He also played the fourth quarter against Appalachian State and went 11-for-16 for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Georgia Tech's pass defense ranks 82nd nationally, allowing 238.5 yards per game, so Mason should have some chances for big plays. Now we'll see if he can take advantage.

Running against the Jackets: Georgia Tech has defended the run effectively, ranking 10th nationally with an average of 104.2 yards allowed per game. Of course it helps that the Yellow Jackets faced teams that ranked 90th (North Carolina, which rushed for 101 yards against Tech), 110th (Virginia Tech, 55 yards) and 112th (Pittsburgh, minus-5 yards) nationally while attempting to run the ball, and they also held FCS opponent Elon to 89 rushing yards in a season-opening blowout and FCS Alabama A&M to 47 yards last weekend. Tech has only faced one rushing offense that ranks in the national top 40, BYU, and the Cougars ran for a healthy 189 yards and three scores against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia ranks 56th nationally with an average of 179.5 rushing yards per game, although its running game has been more productive lately since All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley (781 yards, 6.3 yards per carry) returned from a three-game absence.

Blocking blunders: Considering the number of errors Georgia has committed in the kicking game this season, the Bulldogs' coaches are likely concerned about blocked punts today. Georgia Tech is tied for the national lead with three blocked punts -- all by sophomore defensive back Chris Milton. One of the other teams with three blocked punts, North Texas, blocked a Collin Barber punt for a touchdown when the Bulldogs hosted the Mean Green earlier this season. On the flip side, Georgia was credited with blocked kicks against both Appalachian State and Auburn and deflected a punt against Kentucky that rolled forward to the Wildcats' 39-yard line.

Applying pressure: Georgia Tech's offense is not built for comebacks, so building an early lead would be extremely beneficial for Georgia. The Yellow Jackets are a subpar passing team -- they rank 119th nationally with 119.6 ypg -- so making them do something they don't want to do, and are not very good at doing, is a recipe for success. That would allow Bulldogs pass rushers such as Leonard Floyd (tied for sixth in the SEC with 6.5 sacks and tied for third with 23 quarterback pressures), Ray Drew (six sacks) and Garrison Smith (six sacks) to make life difficult for Tech quarterback Vad Lee. Lee ranks 93rd nationally with a 47.7 opponent-adjusted Total QBR. A score of 50 is considered average on the zero-to-100 rating scale. In comparison, Murray's QBR this season is 85.5 (sixth nationally among qualified QBs) and Mason's is 92.4.

Planning for success: Georgia

November, 21, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Sometimes generating a turnover is the result of a brilliant defensive scheme or excellent individual play, and sometimes other factors are in play.

“It's all about being in the right place at the right time. Turnovers is about like an Auburn catch at the end of the game -- sometimes they're luck, but you do have some kind of control over them as a defense,” joked Georgia defensive end Ray Drew, referring to the Tigers' 73-yard pass that bounced between two Bulldogs defenders and landed in Ricardo Louis' hands for the game-winning touchdown at the end of last Saturday's game.

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRay Drew and the Georgia defense hope to get after Kentucky and force some turnovers.
The Bulldogs haven't had much good fortune in that department this season, which has been one of the most glaring differences from the turnover-happy defenses that tied for eighth nationally with 62 takeaways between the previous two seasons. Georgia has generated only nine turnovers -- last in the SEC and 121st nationally -- one more than Air Force and Eastern Michigan, which are tied for last in the FBS.

Obviously a helpful factor in Saturday night's game against Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) would be if the Bulldogs (6-4, 4-3) manage to change that trend, but the Wildcats have been surprisingly effective at taking care of the ball. Although their “Air Raid” offense averages just 349.2 yards and 21.5 points per game -- both totals that rank among the worst in the SEC -- the Wildcats entered last Saturday's game against Vanderbilt tied for second nationally with just seven giveaways.

“Most of the time the quarterback fumbles the most. But when you get the ball out as quick as they do and put it in space, there's not a lot of opportunities for that because runners don't fumble as much as the quarterbacks,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “A little bit of it is they're doing a good job of coaching it, and they're getting the ball out pretty quick and protecting it.”

Last weekend's loss to Vanderbilt saw that season-long trend come to at least a temporary end. Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw four interceptions in the 22-6 loss to the Commodores after tossing just one in the Wildcats' first nine games.

Whitlow is also a talented runner, so containing him -- and perhaps forcing him to make mistakes that allowed Vandy to pull away for a win last week when Kentucky largely controlled the first three quarters – will be a main objective for Georgia this week.

“If the head comes off the body, the body dies, basically. So the quarterback is basically the head of the team,” Drew said. “If you can play at an uptempo pace, which I know they like to do, try to rattle them while they're trying to rattle you, as well, get in their head a little bit, it'll throw them off. It's a two-way street.

“So if you're well-prepared as far as doing your assignments, playing the way you're supposed to be playing no matter how fast the tempo is, that might throw them off because they're not expecting you to be ready.”

Dream Team's bond faces unusual test

November, 14, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. – The members of Georgia's 2011 “Dream Team” recruiting class still maintain a close bond, even if circumstances have taken some members of the class to other places.

That bond between players will face an unusual test on Saturday when former Dream Teamer Nick Marshall – now Auburn's starting quarterback after Bulldogs coach Mark Richt dismissed him, Sanford Seay and Chris Sanders following the 2011 season after getting caught stealing from teammates – will stand on the opposite sideline from his former classmates.

[+] EnlargeJay Rome
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJay Rome (87) and Malcolm Mitchell (26), who were member of Georgia's Class of 2011 Dream Team, have had plenty to celebrate through the years.
“Weird I wouldn't say is the right word for it. It's going to be different going against one of the guys that you did come in with and actually roomed with when we first got here,” said defensive end Ray Drew, who roomed with Marshall, Seay, Jay Rome, Malcolm Mitchell and Sterling Bailey at Georgia's Reed Hall when the class first arrived on campus.

Georgia was coming off a disappointing 6-7 season when the Dream Team signed with the Bulldogs, and the group was never shy in expressing its intention of helping the program get back on track. They had the nation's top tailback and No. 4 overall prospect in Isaiah Crowell, another five-star talent in Drew, the No. 1 tight end in Rome and a large group including Mitchell, John Jenkins, Amarlo Herrera, Chris Conley and Damian Swann who would contribute soon after becoming Bulldogs.

There was a level of self-assurance within the group that was somewhat unusual for a group of freshmen.

“Coming in I do believe the guys did have some confidence about themselves – that this was going to be the class that did some big things,” Drew recalled. “And there's still that possibility. We still can. That swagger you're talking about, I can see that being there. It was. You can't deny it.”

Truth be told, they've already been part of some big things. Crowell was named the SEC's Freshman of the Year in his lone season on campus – he was dismissed in the summer of 2012 after a weapons possession arrest and is now starring at Alabama State – and the Bulldogs won their first SEC East championship since 2005.

They played in a second straight SEC championship game at the end of last season and fell only a few yards short of playing for a BCS title – with multiple Dream Team members playing key roles on a team that would finish fifth nationally.

“I think we've actually got a good resume being here,” said Swann, now in his second season as a starting cornerback. “We beat Auburn twice, we beat Florida three times, we've been to the SEC championship two times since I've been here. We're 1-1 in a bowl game. I think with the resume that my class has put together, I think it's actually one to look at, and I think we're continuing to improve it and make it better.”

That they are. Linebacker Ramik Wilson leads the SEC with 92 tackles, with Herrera's 79 stops ranking fourth. Drew is sixth in the league with six sack. Wideouts Mitchell, Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley have all flashed star potential, although injuries have struck all three players this season. Center David Andrews, also a second-year starter, is one of the leaders of the Bulldogs' offensive line.

And junior college transfer Jenkins is already in the NFL – the New Orleans Saints picked him in the third round of this year's draft – after solidifying the middle of the Bulldogs' defensive line in 2011 and 2012.

“We've done some pretty good things,” said defensive end Bailey, who has started eight times this season in his first significant dose of playing time. “You had some players from the Dream Team come in and make an impact and then you had some players behind some great players who are playing in the NFL right now and got experience and now being in the third year, we're putting all that experience to work.”

The Georgia journey ended early for several members of the class. Marshall, Seay and Sanders were all dismissed together and Crowell followed them out the door a few months later. Safety Quintavious Harrow left shortly after his former Carver-Columbus teammate and close friend Crowell.

In all, seven members of the 26-man signing class are either gone or never enrolled at Georgia at all (linebacker Kent Turene). But the remaining Dream Teamers still maintain a close bond, Drew said.

“There's a tightness between us,” he said. “I think even though we're tight as a team, I think there's just one more stitch or two between us that pulls us close. Whenever you see one person, you're always going to see someone else from the same class right there with them just tagging along.”

The bulk of the class should remain intact for at least one more season, with several more Dream Teamers who redshirted still carrying two seasons of eligibility after 2013. That time, they said, is what will determine whether they meet the high expectations that accompanied their arrival.

“We're still in the process,” Wilson said. “A lot of us are just now starting to play, so it's in the process of something becoming great.

“We all had high expectations of playing early and turning this program around. As soon as we stepped on this campus, we went to the SEC championship from that 6-7 year. So all we had was nothing but success here, 10-win seasons, since I've been here. So we're just trying to keep that going.”

Discipline required to defend Auburn

November, 13, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Few teams in college football are more committed to moving the ball on the ground than Auburn, which suits the members of Georgia's defensive front seven just fine.

The Tigers bring the nation's third-best rushing attack (320 yards per game) into Saturday's game vs. Georgia, but defending the run is what the Bulldogs have done best this season, ranking fourth in the conference and 20th nationally in rushing defense (126 ypg).

[+] EnlargeAmarlo Herrera
AP Photo/Paul AbellGeorgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera has 79 tackles and an interception on the season.
“We are excited that we have the opportunity to, I guess you could say, flex our muscles, show who we really are,” Georgia defensive end Ray Drew said. “This is going to be one of those tell-tale games. But if we go out and do what we're supposed to, I know that the talent level that we have with myself, Sterling Bailey, Garrison Smith and those guys, the guys up front, I believe we're going to be fine. I'm confident as all get out. I don't see anything that's going to stop us other than ourselves.”

Lineup stability has been one of the key factors in Georgia's mostly solid play against the run, as the defensive line hasn't been hit hard by injuries the way some other position groups have this season. More importantly, inside linebackers Ramik Wilson (10.2 tackles per game) and Amarlo Herrera (8.8) -- two of the SEC's top four tacklers -- have managed to stay healthy enough to play nearly every important down this season, providing veteran presences at positions that otherwise would have been manned by freshmen.

The two junior linebackers denied, however, that they're feeling any ill effects from the heavy workload at this late point in the season.

“I feel good, man,” Herrera said. “I feel good, I love football. This is the only time of year I get to play. I waited all year for this.”

Wilson agreed, adding, “We're always in the cold tub and getting treatment, so we feel pretty good.”

Saturday's game might be the biggest test yet for the starting duo of Herrera-Wilson. Auburn's run-heavy spread offense centers around quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason's ability to break long runs and keep the chains moving even when plays don't break big.

Defending it properly requires disciplined play from the linemen and linebackers entrusted to fill gaps and clean up with a tackle -- much like how they must play sound “assignment football” each down to contain Georgia Tech's option running game.

“Looking at both of the offenses, really they try to cause chaos and confusion,” defensive end Sterling Bailey said. “As a defense, we've got to just play our technique and play our fundamentals.”

For the most part, Georgia has done that against the run. The Bulldogs knew LSU would try to establish the ground game when they met earlier this season and held the Tigers to just 77 rushing yards on 36 carries.

It's defending the pass that has created the most glaring issues for Georgia's defense -- for instance, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger passed for 372 yards even when his running game was faltering -- so Georgia's defenders are perfectly happy to face an Auburn offense that frequently attempts fewer than 10 passes in a game.

“I don't have to run around a lot,” Herrera said. “I get to play football and hit somebody every play. I don't have to cover as much as I do on other weeks because you know they're going to run the ball.”

Surely other Auburn opponents have had similar thoughts prior to facing the Tigers. Yet corralling elusive runners like Marshall and Mason has proven not to be so simple. Aside from a 120-yard rushing effort in their last-minute win against Mississippi State -- they passed for 339 yards in that game -- the Tigers have rushed for at least 200 yards in every game this season.

That includes a 511-yard game on the ground against Western Carolina, 379 yards in an upset of Texas A&M and 444 last Saturday against Tennessee -- with Marshall going for 214 yards and two touchdowns.

To avoid becoming another victim on the Tigers' hit list, the Bulldogs' front seven has to operate quickly -- and provide its most technically sound performance of the season.

“You've just got to know your responsibilities and everybody has to be gap-responsible because if one person's out of position, it can be a big play,” safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said.

Week 11 helmet stickers

November, 10, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. – Here are three Georgia players who earned helmet stickers with their outstanding performances in Saturday's 45-6 win against Appalachian State.

Rantavious Wooten: Although Georgia's offense struggled early, senior receiver Wooten delivered one of the top performances of his career. He opened Georgia's first touchdown drive with a 23-yard grab and capped it with a 35-yard scoring reception, and later added a 33-yard grab on a third-quarter field-goal drive. Wooten finished with four catches for a career-high 104 yards.

Ray Drew: The junior defensive end recorded his team-high sixth sack of the season and recorded two tackles for loss to reach eight for the season and move within one of Jordan Jenkins' team lead. Drew also knocked down a Kameron Bryant pass at the line of scrimmage.

Jordan Jenkins: The sophomore outside linebacker didn't record a sack or a tackle for a loss, but he came up with a couple of big plays on Saturday. Appalachian State drove for field goals on each of its first two drives, and it was looking for three more points to conclude its third possession when Jenkins blocked Drew Stewart's 49-yard kick early in the second quarter. Jenkins also picked up a Marcus Cox fumble and returned it to the Appalachian State 42-yard line, setting up a fourth-quarter touchdown drive. That was one of two takeaways for a Georgia defense that came in with the fewest turnovers gained (seven) in the SEC.

UGA looks toward Marshall matchup

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Once his Georgia team took control in the second half of its 45-6 win against Appalachian State on Saturday, coach Mark Richt admittedly had one eye on the score from the Auburn-Tennessee game.

The Bulldogs' next opponent, No. 9 Auburn -- led by former UGA cornerback Nick Marshall, now the Tigers' quarterback -- was thrashing the Volunteers for 444 rushing yards in a 55-23 win. Marshall accounted for 214 of those rushing yards, running for two touchdowns and passing for another.

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRay Drew and Georgia's defense held Appalachian State to 32 yards rushing, but will get a stiffer test against Auburn next week.
“When you watch different people throughout the year [during game preparation], you'll see just about everybody's offense by this time of the year,” Richt said. “And they do like to run the ball and they run it well. I'm not shocked.”

That adds more intrigue to the matchup next weekend in Auburn, with the Tigers (9-1, 5-1 SEC) and Georgia (6-3, 4-2) both battling to stay alive in their respective division races -- and Marshall needing a win against his former teammates to keep his team's hopes alive.

“It's a little weird, but I knew whenever he was here that he was a player, and now someone that could have been helping, you're having to try to stop him,” said UGA defensive end Ray Drew, who was a member of Marshall's 2011 signing class at Georgia. “He's having a heck of a year over there, so hopefully he'll have a soft spot seeing that Georgia was the place he signed initially.”

Entering Saturday's games, Auburn led the SEC in rushing at 306.2 yards per game, with Marshall serving as the trigger man for an offense that has regained its bite with Gus Malzahn back on the Plains.

Marshall -- whom Richt dismissed after the 2011 season for breaking team rules -- elected to join Malzahn as a transfer from Garden City Community College.

Just like that, Auburn is once again among the nation's most productive offenses and should provide a major test for a Georgia defense that has made progress since a troubling start to the season.

“It's going to be a challenge, I don't know about fun. As coaches you always like challenges,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “They're believing and they're playing with confidence right now. Their personnel probably fits better what they do now relative to what they did last year. And I think that's a good example of how it's important to get the right people in your system.”

As for Saturday's win, Grantham's defense got off to a slow start, allowing Appalachian State to convert 4 of 6 third down opportunities and control the clock for over 11 minutes. The Mountaineers (2-8) were able to turn those early drives into just two field goals, however, before Grantham's defense awakened.

Georgia limited the Mountaineers to 3-of-12 on third down the rest of the way and 59 total yards (including minus-6 rushing on 18 attempts) in the second half.

Georgia has not allowed an opponent to drive from its own territory to score a touchdown since the second quarter of the Vanderbilt game, a streak that spans 159 minutes of game time.

“The bottom line is once we got through the script, so to speak, of those gadget [plays] and kind of got a feel for how they were running their routes relative to the formations, we pretty much shut them down -- and we didn't give up a touchdown before we did it,” Grantham said. “So anytime you hold a team out of the end zone, I'm going to be happy.”

Georgia led just 14-6 at halftime, with both touchdowns coming on Aaron Murray touchdown passes -- one to Rantavious Wooten, who had a career-high 104 receiving yards, and the other to Michael Bennett.

The second-quarter pass to Bennett gave Murray 115 career touchdown passes, breaking Florida great Danny Wuerffel's SEC career record.

“It definitely is a huge honor to be up there,” said Murray, who passed for 281 yards in his 50th career start. “I'm lucky enough to have played four years here. I think that's the biggest thing: you have to be able to go somewhere and play for a significant amount of time, and I've had that opportunity here to play for now my fourth straight year in a great offense that really allows me to throw the ball around and make plays.”

The Bulldogs poured it on with 31 second-half points -- Todd Gurley, J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas all scored on 2-yard runs and Hutson Mason hit Kenneth Towns for a 3-yard touchdown pass -- but it was the defense's play that is the bigger area of interest with Auburn's explosive offense on deck next week.

The glimmer of hope for Georgia's defense is that the Bulldogs might have struggled overall, but Auburn's strength -- running the ball -- is also the area where Grantham's defense has been the most stout. They came in ranked fourth in the SEC, allowing 137.8 rushing yards per game before limiting Appalachian State to 32 yards on 32 attempts.

Now they know their chances of victory likely hinge on containing a player that Grantham initially recruited to help his defense.

“He's big, he's physical. We thought he would be a good player and felt like he could contribute to us being an SEC competitive team defensively,” Grantham said of Marshall. “So we'll obviously get ready for him come Sunday.”
Here are five matchups to watch when Florida has the ball in Saturday's game in Jacksonville:

Florida's running game vs. Georgia's front seven: This is perhaps the most important matchup on this side of the ball. Florida's offensive identity is built around pounding the run and controlling the clock, and it made hay in that department with Mike Gillislee toting the rock an SEC-high 244 times for 1,152 yards last season. The results have been highly uneven this year with quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Matt Jones sidelined by season-ending injuries. Georgia native Mack Brown (99-359, 3 TDs) is Florida's leading rusher, but he is not the Gators' scariest ball carrier. That honor goes to freshman Kelvin Taylor (28-172, TD), the son of Gator great Fred Taylor. Kelvin has played more recently. The problem is that, like most freshman, he is a liability in pass protection. Until he becomes a more consistent blocker, defenses know what Florida likely intends to do when he lines up in the backfield.

Georgia pass rushers vs. depleted Florida line: The Bulldogs' defense hasn't had much to brag about this season, but they have actually applied fairly consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Georgia is tied for third in the SEC with 19 sacks -- many of which have come from the revitalized defensive line. Defensive end Ray Drew leads the team and is tied for fourth in the SEC with five sacks. Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (four) and Jordan Jenkins (three) are just behind him. Florida has struggled with its pass protection this season, and it could be an even bigger issue on Saturday now that left tackle D.J. Humphries is out of the picture for the next few games. The Gators have allowed 17 sacks this season -- only Ole Miss and Vanderbilt (19 apiece) have allowed more among SEC teams -- so their injury-depleted line needs to raise its level of play or Florida's offense might have difficulty moving the ball on Saturday. Jarvis Jones, who wreaked havoc against Florida in each of the last two meetings, is no longer on the roster, but Drew, Jenkins and Floyd are good enough to give the Gators problems.

Tyler Murphy on the edge: Driskel's replacement under center, Murphy, started out well enough, leading the Gators to wins against Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas in his first three games. But Murphy took a pounding in the last two games, both losses, and Florida's offense was barely able to generate any scoring punch. He is most effective as a run-pass threat -- Murphy ran 10 times for 84 yards after taking over against Tennessee -- but his Total QBR numbers have fallen off a cliff since his strong start. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Murphy posted an outstanding Total QBR of 93.8 in the first three games, completing 72 percent of his passes, but he averaged an 8.9 QBR against LSU and Missouri -- including a 3.0 against Missouri, the lowest QBR by a Florida starter in the last decade. He'll have to make some things happen with his legs for Florida's offense to be effective Saturday, as he leaves a lot to be desired as a pure drop-back passer.

Containing Florida's receivers: The Gators have pretty much stunk in the passing game over the past few seasons, and 2013 has been no different (12th in the SEC in passing at 175.4 ypg). The speedy Solomon Patton (28-426, 4 TDs) -- whom Georgia safety Shawn Williams bulldog tackled just before he reached the first-down marker on a run last season, knocking Patton out of the game -- has been one of the Gators' only consistent receiving weapons. Otherwise, Florida's receiving corps has been a train wreck this season. Andre Debose is out for the year with an injury. Trey Burton (29-336, TD) has the most catches on the team, but hasn't been particularly consistent. Quinton Dunbar (22-301) is the only other Gator with more than 46 receiving yards. Georgia's secondary has been subpar this season -- the Bulldogs rank 11th in the SEC in pass defense (253.4 ypg) -- so the matchup between its defensive backs and Florida's mediocre wideouts pits two weaknesses against one another.

Burton as wild card: Think back to Florida's 2010 win in Jacksonville. Florida utility man Burton might have been the most effective quarterback on the field that day. Operating out of Florida's Wildcat package, Burton ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, led the team with five receptions and completed two passes for 26 yards. He still operates out of the Wildcat at times, so keep an eye on the versatile senior, who is capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways.

Week 8 helmet stickers

October, 20, 2013
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Georgia's players probably don't expect much individual recognition today after Saturday's crushing 31-27 loss to Vanderbilt, but here are three Bulldogs who performed well enough to win:

Shaq Wiggins: A lack of turnovers has been a major issue for Georgia's defense this season, but freshman cornerback Wiggins provided an enormous boost when he quickly diagnosed a Vanderbilt trick play, intercepted an Austyn Carta-Samuels pass and returned the pick 39 yards for a touchdown. That gave Georgia a 17-14 lead and an enormous shot in the arm when Vandy seemed to have momentum on its side. Wiggins nearly had another interception in the second half, but settled for a key pass breakup. He finished the day with one tackle, one PBU and the first interception of his career.

Jordan Jenkins: Jenkins predicted before the season that he would record double-digit sacks this fall, but had only one at the season's midway point. He jump started his pursuit of that total against Vanderbilt, however, notching two sacks along with three tackles for a loss, one pass breakup and five tackles. Jenkins joked this week that he can't allow Ray Drew (who has a team-high five sacks) to lead the Bulldogs this season, and he finally took some steps toward catching his teammate on Saturday.

Ramik Wilson: By far the biggest play of the game involving Wilson actually went for a penalty against the Georgia linebacker. But it's not his fault that the officials completely dropped the ball on the play, when he broke up a fourth-down pass with a big hit on Jonathan Krause. The referees initially flagged Wilson for targeting, a 15-yard penalty that carries an automatic ejection, although the ejection was overturned upon further review. The 15-yard penalty remained, however, and Vandy got a free first down at Georgia's 15-yard line, which it turned into a touchdown to make it 27-21. The Commodores drove to Georgia's 13-yard line on their next drive before Wilson's 13-yard sack forced a third-and-extra-long and an eventual field goal to make it 27-24 Bulldogs. Wilson also recorded eight tackles on top of his sack and TFL.

Q&A: UGA DE Garrison Smith

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
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ATHENS, Ga. -- As the lone senior starter on Georgia's defense, preseason All-SEC defensive end Garrison Smith probably knew before the season that there would be some bumps in the road as the Bulldogs faced a number of highly-ranked opponents in the first half of the season.

The group's struggles have probably been a bit worse than the Bulldogs expected, however, with Georgia ranking dead last in the SEC in scoring defense (33.7 ppg), eighth in total defense (399 ypg) and forcing just three turnovers by opposing offenses to date.

[+] EnlargeGarrison Smith
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDE Garrison Smith expected some growing pains, but he says the young UGA defense will continue to improve with more experience.
Smith discussed the defensive struggles this week, as well as teammate Ray Drew's recent emergence two seasons after signing with Georgia as a highly-recruited five-star defensive end.

Here is some of what Smith had to say:

What has been your impression of Ray Drew's play lately?

Garrison Smith: He's doing good. I'm proud of him and I'm glad he's doing good. Like I said, it's not how you start, it's how you finish. Everybody can't be a Herschel Walker. Everybody blossoms at different times.

Do you think he just needed to develop some confidence? He came here as such a big prospect -- the only defensive end rated higher than he was in 2011 was Jadeveon Clowney -- and it seemed for a while there like it was reasonable to wonder whether Ray would ever pan out.

Smith: Let's be honest, it kind of messes with you when you're a five-star recruit and you get all this attention and love from the media and public about how good you are, and then all of a sudden you come to college and you're nothing no more. You've got to build yourself all the way back up and you're not playing on that level that you want to play on and then you've got the guy right in front of you playing like he's in the NFL already, Jadeveon Clowney. So that would mess with anybody's self-esteem. But that's why it's like a marathon. It's not about how you start, it's how you finish and he's getting better and better, and that's what it's all about.

Did you deal with that at all? You were a U.S. Army All-American, but it was around the end of your sophomore season before you started to make an impact.

Smith: I knew I was going to have trouble because I came out of a program where I was just taught to go play. My coaches [at Atlanta's Douglass High School, which went 1-9 in Smith's senior season] just told me, 'Go do what you know how to do. Make plays.' So I knew I was going to have trouble, but I was just determined to learn what I had to learn to make me a better player. I just knew that in time, I would get it. I'm getting it. I'm still getting better. I'm getting better every day, so it's that sort of situation, same thing. But I knew how my situation was going to be, so I wasn't surprised or depressed or anything like that.

What is the key factor in you guys becoming more effective at generating turnovers?

Smith: Just patience. Just working hard. That's what it's all about. When we get them sacks, we've got to try to strip the quarterback and just think about it.

Is part of it that the defense is so young?

Smith: It's experience. As you get more comfortable, you're able to do different things. When you're so young and so fresh to the game, you're just trying to not make a mistake and make sure you get the person down.

Is it frustrating to you older players on defense that some of the young guys are having to find their way right now?

Smith: It don't frustrate me because I was that guy at one time, so I can't look down on somebody else. I was once in that situation. I've got a very different outlook because I can see things from both sides of the perspective. That's why I don't point the finger at anyone. I point the finger at myself and the defensive line because we've got to get more pressure on the quarterback to take the pressure off of them. That's how I look at things. I don't ever say, 'It's his fault, it's his fault.' It's not their fault. We've got to do better as a whole.

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