Georgia Bulldogs: Ronald Powell
Todd Gurley's impact
Thanks in part to injuries up front, they weren't as dominant in their last two games, both losses, allowing 175 rushing yards to LSU and 205 to Missouri. But with a few key faces returning up front -- including defensive tackle Damien Jacobs and possibly outside linebacker Ronald Powell -- Florida should pose a major test to Gurley and Georgia's rushing attack.
Georgia's depleted receiving corps vs. Florida secondary
By this point, anybody who follows Georgia football with even a passing interest knows about the debilitating injuries that struck the Bulldogs' offense over the last month. They have been especially debilitating for a once-explosive receiving corps, which lost Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending knee injuries and Michael Bennett and Chris Conley to shorter-term ailments.
Conley is still out, but Bennett should be back from a two-game absence on Saturday, possibly bringing some productivity to a group that has struggled mightily in recent weeks. The Bulldogs passed for just 114 yards in a loss to Vanderbilt, with senior quarterback Aaron Murray failing to complete a pass of at least 20 yards for the first time in his career.
Facing Florida's aggressive secondary is no treat for the Bulldogs' passing game. The Gators surrendered an uncharacteristic 295 passing yards to Missouri in their last game, but with ball hawks like Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and freshman Vernon Hargreaves III leading the charge, Florida leads the SEC and ranks fifth nationally in pass defense at 172.4 ypg.
Murray's composure vs. Gators
Murray largely put to rest questions about whether he was a big-game player in nearly flawless performances against South Carolina and LSU earlier this season. A composed performance against Florida on Saturday would place an additional nail in that particular coffin. The Florida native has never gotten off to a great start against the Gators, starting with his very first play as a freshman in 2010 -- when he threw an interception to Florida's Janoris Jenkins. Murray led a comeback to force overtime in that game but threw a back-breaking interception that helped Florida win 34-31 in the extra session. Georgia won each of the last two meetings against the Gators, but Murray was fairly shaky in both, going a combined 27-for-58 for 319 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. Georgia has a chance to build its first three-game winning streak against Florida since 1987-89, but it likely will need Murray to play his best game yet against the Gators for the streak to remain intact.
Will Mike Bobo "let it rip?"
With Gurley and Bennett back in the lineup, Georgia's offense should have some more punch on Saturday, and that will be necessary against Florida's tough defense. Bobo likely must break out of the conservatism that set in with multiple offensive weapons sidelined and show some aggressiveness if Georgia is to break through against the Gators.
Florida's pass rushers vs. Georgia offensive line
If Powell is able to play on Saturday, that would provide a huge shot in the arm for Florida's pass rush. Powell has Jarvis Jones-like ability, but injuries have been a regular problem for the junior. Even if he doesn't play, Georgia's offensive line -- which has dealt with consistency issues for much of the season -- will have its hands full with buck Dante Fowler Jr., who almost single-handedly kept the Gators afloat against Missouri even when the offense was performing pitifully.
Fowler leads the team with three sacks, eight tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. He hasn't gotten a ton of help from his comrades up front -- Florida is tied for 10th in the league with 11 sacks -- but getting some line depth back should help. Georgia's line has struggled against speedy edge rushers, particularly in the Clemson and Missouri losses, so keep an eye on the edges Saturday.
1. Alabama's offensive line needs work: We knew replacing three NFL draft picks would be tough for Alabama, but Saturday night showed that this unit will certainly need the bye week to get things ready for Texas A&M. There were communication issues and players weren't comfortable with the actual game speed. It didn't help that Virginia Tech surprised the Tide with some of their defensive sets. Still, the kinks really need to be ironed out up front. Alabama failed to rush for 100 yards for the first time since 2011 and quarterback AJ McCarron never really looked comfortable with all the pressure he faced. These issues can be fixed, and they'll need to be before the A&M game.
3. Suspect defenses: It's obvious that Georgia and Texas A&M both need to see a lot of improvement on the defensive side of the ball. We knew we'd see a lot of points this weekend, but Georgia's defense was too sloppy at times. There were protection breakdowns, the line was pushed around and tackling was a major issue in the Bulldogs' 38-35 loss to Clemson. Outside of the poor tackling, what really had to frustrate defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the fact that Clemson ran for 197 yards. Stopping the run was a major issue for this defense last year, and it was a problem Saturday night. As for the Aggies, Texas A&M's rebuilding defense had a rough day against Rice. Granted, the Aggies were missing five starters, but they gave up 306 rushing yards and 31 points. Even with guys out, you just can't allow that to happen. Key guys will come back next week, but this defense won't be at full strength until the Alabama game in two weeks. This defense has a lot to work on until then.
4. Kentucky's road is longer than expected: Mark Stoops has brought some excitement back to Kentucky's football program, but Saturday's 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky proved that the Wildcats still have a ways to go when it comes to development and talent. The defense struggled against Bobby Petrino's offense, surrendering 487 yards and 22 first downs, while the offense showed it is in serious need of playmakers in the passing game. The "Air Raid" offense was nowhere to be seen, while the defense didn't register nearly enough pressure to slow down Western Kentucky's attack. This wasn't going to be an easy first year for Stoops, but this was not the start he needed, especially with the way the defense played.
5. Happy returns: It was good to see some players return to the field after injuries affected them in 2012. Missouri had to be pleased with quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey getting off to a fast start. Franklin, who dealt with shoulder, knee and head injuries last year, threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for another 44 in the Tigers' blowout win over Murray State. Josey, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, carried the ball 13 times for 113 yards and a 68-yard touchdown. Forget the opponent -- these two looked up to speed after a trying 2012. Florida also got good production out of linebacker/defensive end Ronald Powell, who missed all of last year with two ACL injuries. Powell was very active Saturday, finishing with a sack and three quarterback hurries. Also, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw made it through Thursday's game without injury. He passed for only 149 yards and touchdown, but he ran 12 times for 43 yards. It's clear these guys are back to their old healthy selves.
- The SEC has secured bowl spots for at least 10 of its member schools starting in 2014.
- If anyone thought Alabama receiver Amari Cooper was about to slow down after a stellar freshman season, his explosive first scrimmage would indicate otherwise.
- Defensive coordinator John Chavis is fine with the many fresh faces on LSU’s rebuilt defense.
- An intriguing football triangle is taking shape between Georgia, South Carolina and Clemson.
- Tennessee running back Rajion Neal is confident that the Volunteers’ passing game will open up space for him to run.
- With Paul Finebaum returning to the airwaves today, al.com breaks down some of the infamous radio host’s most noteworthy callers who we’ve missed during his radio absence.
- Florida’s Ronald Powell is using Adrian Peterson as an example as he works to return from a season-ending knee injury suffered in spring 2012.
- James Franklin states his case for Missouri’s starting quarterback job.
- Georgia defensive end Sterling Bailey might start for the first time since high school, in 2010, when the Bulldogs open the season at Clemson.
- Approximately 5,000 people turned out for Vanderbilt’s fan day on Sunday despite the cloud of four former players having been arrested for rape hanging over the program.
- Auburn safety Justin Garrett was unable to practice on Sunday because of a foot injury.
- Speaking of Auburn, newly minted PGA champion Jason Dufner dedicated his victory to all the people in his adopted hometown.
This had to be one of the toughest lists to come up with, but here goes nothing:
2. Jordan Jenkins, So., Georgia: Even though he was a backup last year, Jenkins was second on the team with five sacks and 23 quarterback hurries. Now he's taking over Jarvis Jones' position and has all the skill to be an elite pass-rusher in this league. He learned from one of the best in Jones, but might be even better suited for the position than his predecessor, which has to scare opposing offenses.
3. A.J. Johnson, Jr., Tennessee: Johnson was one of the hardest working linebackers in the league last year, leading the SEC with 138 total tackles. Sixty-three of those tackles were solo stops. The change to the traditional 4-3 scheme should help him, but Johnson also looked to become even more focused this spring. Johnson's next step is becoming a real field leader for this team.
4. Adrian Hubbard, Jr., Alabama: Nick Saban wants his front seven to get to the quarterback more, and Hubbard is expected to be even better at that this fall. He led the Tide with seven sacks last year and 11 tackles for loss. Hubbard and his coaches want more. Hubbard has great speed off the edge and can make plays all over the field. A big year could push himself into position to be a top draft prospect at his position.
5. Lamin Barrow, Sr., LSU: Kevin Minter might have been the star of LSU's defense last year, but Barrow was extremely productive with his 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss, broke up five passes and recovered two fumbles. Barrow is the quarterback of LSU's defense and shouldn't have any problem dealing with more responsibility now that Minter is gone.
6. Antonio Morrison, So., Florida: Morrison served as a backup for the Gators last year, but started three games and registered 34 tackles and a sack. The coaches are expecting even more from the rangy and hard-hitting stud, as he moves to middle linebacker. He'll now be relied upon to be the quarterback and captain of this defense, meaning he still has a lot of growing to do, which showed after his offseason arrest.
7. Benardrick McKinney, So., Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney had a very impressive year with the Bulldogs last year. He was eighth in the SEC with 102 tackles. He also registered 45 solo tackles and had 10 or more tackles in four games last year. He's the anchor of Mississippi State's linebacking corps and should catch the attention of a lot more people this fall.
8. Denzel Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss: He was one of the biggest surprises around last year and earned second-team All-SEC honors after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (three). Nkemdiche isn't the biggest player, but he can play all the linebacker positions and has the athleticism and speed to cover a ton of ground on the defensive side of the ball.
9. Ronald Powell, Jr., Florida: He missed all of last season after suffering two ACL injuries, but the word out of Gainesville is that he'll be fully ready to go when fall starts. His dedication to rehab and his humbled approach have his coaches and teammates excited about his 2013 season. He was playing his best ball before he was hurt last spring and if that Powell shows up this fall, he should be one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC.
10. Kwon Alexander, So., LSU: A broken ankle cut Alexander's freshman year short, but the coaches are very, very excited about his potential. He doesn't have a lot of stats to live off of, but he might be the most physically gifted linebacker in LSU's stable. He covers a lot of ground and should be a big-time playmaker for the Tigers.
Now, we're taking a stab at breakout defensive players to watch out for this fall (in alphabetical order):
Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: With a defensive end spot up for grabs, Azubike has a chance to make a real name for himself in 2013. With limited snaps last fall, Azubike finished the year with 21 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks. He's athletic and fast and with even more snaps this year should grow into a fine player for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. The Commodores will need Azubike to step up and take some pressure off of other end Walker May.
Randy Ponder, CB, Missouri: With Kip Edwards departing, Ponder has a chance to start opposite E.J. Gaines at the other cornerback position. Ponder, who showed a lot of potential with some nice plays in the win over Tennessee, logged 29 solo tackles and broke up two passes with an interception. Losing Edwards hurts, but Ponder, a former walk-on, has promise and learned a lot from watching his teammates the past couple of years.
Ronald Powell, DE/LB, Florida: Last year was supposed to be Powell's breakout year, but he tore his ACL during Florida's spring game and had a setback during the fall. But Powell will sit out the spring and should be healthy for the upcoming season. With the Gators losing some quality talent on the defensive side of the ball, Powell's return is very important. He had a tremendous spring last year and if he returns to that form, he could be one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC. He arrived in Gainesville with a ton of hype, but has yet to live up to it. He's much more invested now, and that's a good thing for Florida.
Brian Randolph, S, Tennessee: Another player who is returning from an ACL injury. He suffered his early last fall, and should be ready for next season. Randolph had a big freshman year and was set up to have a big second year, but his injury stopped that. If Randolph comes back at full strength, he could cause a lot of problems for opposing quarterbacks. He's extremely smart in the defensive backfield and covers a ton of ground for the Vols. He has a ball-hawk mentality and isn't afraid to get in the box and make plays.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.