Georgia Bulldogs: Spencer Ware
Perhaps it says something about LSU's offense in 2012 that among a record 13 players invited to the NFL combine from the Tigers, only two are offensive skill players who are generally considered, at this point, marginal talents. Running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford are the only skill players invited to Indianapolis, which is understandable when one considers LSU was 10th in the SEC in total offense. It's also a sign of youth. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, fullback J.C. Copeland, running back Jeremy Hill and all of LSU's primary threats at wide receiver will return in 2013.
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
1. Hello Missouri, Hello Texas A&M: Even though Missouri has already played a game as an SEC member, Missouri and Texas A&M “officially” become league members Saturday when the Tigers take on Georgia and the Aggies face Florida. It’s fitting that the two newcomers would play traditional powers in their first league games, and it’s also fitting that both would open SEC play at home. The eyes of the league will turn to College Station, Texas, at 3:30 p.m. ET and then to Columbia, Mo., at 7:45 p.m. ET. It is indeed a new day in the SEC.
2. Missouri’s inexperience up front: Blocking Georgia’s defensive front with a veteran offensive line is no easy task, but the Tigers will try to do it a bit short-handed. Senior right guard Jack Meiners is questionable for the game with a knee injury. His size and strength inside would be invaluable against the Bulldogs. Former walk-on Max Copeland is scheduled to start in Meiners’ place. And at left guard, true freshman Evan Boehm is the starter. Senior Travis Ruth was slated to be the starter at left guard, but tore his left triceps tendon in August and underwent surgery.
3. More touches for Gurley: In his debut last week, Georgia freshman running back Todd Gurley carried the ball eight times for 100 yards and had touchdown runs of 55 and 10 yards. He also had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Coach Mark Richt said he would “definitely” like to see Gurley touch the ball more Saturday against Missouri than he did last week. But the Bulldogs aren’t going to forget about fellow freshman Keith Marshall and sophomore Ken Malcome. Richt said Gurley probably would have carried it a few more times last week but that he got a little light-headed after his 100-yard kickoff return.
4. Driskel takes the reins: It’s Jeff Driskel's job, and Florida coach Will Muschamp has told him that there’s no need to be looking over his shoulder Saturday. It was important that the Gators settle on a starting quarterback prior to going to Texas A&M, and that’s exactly what Muschamp did coming out of Florida’s ho-hum 27-14 season-opening victory over Bowling Green. Driskel is a better runner than Jacoby Brissett and has a better chance of extending the play when things break down. More than anything, though, it’s going to be imperative that the Gators play well around Driskel. The running game looks to be in good hands with Mike Gillislee, but the Gators are going to need more big plays like the one Frankie Hammond turned in against Bowling Green. He took a quick out, shook a tackle and turned it into a 50-yard touchdown. It’s been a while since the Florida receivers have made those kind of plays consistently.
6. Ascending to No. 1: Alabama coach Nick Saban scolded the media this week for not giving Western Kentucky proper respect. That said, we’ll change the subject a little bit from the impending blowout this Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Crimson Tide moved to No. 1 in both polls after routing then-No. 8 Michigan 41-14 in the season opener. Since the preseason Associated Press poll began in 1950, only two teams have ascended to No. 1 in the poll after Week 1 and stayed there the rest of the season. Nebraska did it in 1971 after Notre Dame was the preseason No. 1 selection, and USC did it in 1972 after Nebraska was tabbed preseason No. 1.
7. Connor Shaw’s status: There’s still no final word on whether South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw will play Saturday against East Carolina, but he gave a thumbs-up to reporters as he left the practice field Wednesday. Coach Steve Spurrier said it could be a game-time decision. Spurrier said the key was Shaw being able to throw effectively Wednesday and Thursday in practice without considerable pain. Shaw’s teammates said he looked like his old self Wednesday in practice. Shaw is dealing with a bruised right (throwing) shoulder after taking a knee to the shoulder area last Thursday against Vanderbilt. Wednesday was the first time he’d done anything in practice since the season-opening victory over the Commodores. Sophomore Dylan Thompson is Shaw’s backup.
8. Breaking through in the SEC opener: Dropping the SEC opener hasn’t just been a problem for Mississippi State since Dan Mullen has been on the job. The Bulldogs haven’t won their SEC opener since 1999, when they beat South Carolina 17-0. They started 8-0 that season. Under Mullen, they’ve lost their past three SEC openers to Auburn, including the past two by a combined 10 points. The Bulldogs get a chance to end that drought Saturday when Auburn visits Scott Field. It’s also a chance for Mullen to break through in the West. His only three wins over Western Division foes since taking the job in 2009 have been over Ole Miss. He’s 0-12 against everybody else in the West.
9. LSU’s running back carousel: As problems go in this league, it’s a great one to have. LSU may have too many good running backs ... if that’s possible. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue each rushed for more than 100 yards in LSU’s opener. Hilliard had 141, and Blue, who started the game, had 123. A year ago, it was Michael Ford and Spencer Ware carrying most of the load for the Tigers in the running game, although Hilliard’s role grew later in the season. Ford led the team with 756 yards in 2011, and Ware had 707 yards. Ford had eight carries for 50 yards in the opener. His eligibility had been in question until he won an appeal the week before the game. Ware didn’t play in the opener after he was slowed by a thigh injury. Can you play four running backs and keep them all happy? Something says the Tigers are going to find out. Either way, it’s a sweet luxury to have.
10. Hamilton does Little Rock: Arkansas senior receiver Cobi Hamilton left the Hogs’ opener last week in the first quarter after catching two passes for 13 yards. Arkansas didn’t specify his injury other than to say it was above his shoulders. Coach John L. Smith said Hamilton should be fine for this week, which goes without saying. The game is in Little Rock, and Hamilton has been at his best in War Memorial Stadium. He’s played in six games there for the Hogs and has 22 catches for 644 yards and seven touchdowns. Three of his five 100-yard receiving games have come in Little Rock. In other words, if you have Hamilton on your fantasy team, you might want to be sure he’s in your lineup this week.
Conference races are really heating up and things will only get more and more exciting.
We start the second half in the SEC with the countdown to the Nov. 5 slug fest between Alabama and LSU, but we also start with some quarterback controversy lurking within the league.
Here is some more exciting stuff to keep an eye on this weekend:
1. Musical quarterbacks: Outside of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU, there are quarterback issues in this league. Florida and Tennessee are playing without their starters (John Brantley and Tyler Bray, respectively) due to injuries, while Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have opened up their quarterback competitions. South Carolina benched Stephen Garcia for Connor Shaw, then officially said goodbye to Garcia earlier this week. Shaw showed off last week against Kentucky, but the depth behind him is beyond worrisome. Auburn will play both Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier against Florida, but the more athletic Frazier has been getting more and more snaps with each game and coach Gene Chizik is having to answer more questions about Trotter's status as the starter. And Ole Miss is hoping that Randall Mackey is the guy from here on out. But wasn't Barry Brunetti the guy before Zack Stoudt was?
2. Mr. 100: I guess Trent Richardson really was ready to take over as Alabama's workhorse in the backfield. The junior running back has had his hat thrown into the Heisman ring and it doesn't look like it will be coming out anytime soon. That makes sense, considering the tear he's currently on. Richardson has rushed for 100-plus yards in five straight games and he's looking to get to six straight this weekend. Well, Alabama faces an Ole Miss defense that is giving up 193 rushing yards per game, so things appear to be in Richardson's favor this weekend.
4. Swing game on the Plains: Auburn and Florida will play a season-defining game this weekend. A win for either team could be the difference between a winning record and a .500 record. Auburn's youth has shown at times, but so has its heart, which has carried it to three close-call wins this season. The Tigers still have LSU and Georgia on the road before the Iron Bowl comes back to Auburn, so getting a win this weekend will definitely go a long way. As for Florida, the Gators will be equipped with two true freshmen -- Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel -- getting the snaps at quarterback until senior Brantley comes back. That could be for the Georgia game, but Saturday, it's up to the kids. A Florida win would keep the Gators in the East hunt and give them momentum going into the bye. A loss could send this team really scrambling.
5. Shaw's second go-round: Connor Shaw will make his second start in a row for South Carolina this weekend and he'll do so on the road against a tough Mississippi State secondary. This won't be easy by any means, and this will be the first chance we get to see the sophomore perform on the road this year. He was calm and composed against Kentucky, but he'll be against a team desperate for a conference win and a fan base looking for some sort of hope this season. Can Shaw duplicate last week's outing? Can he at least be consistent for the Gamecocks for two weeks in a row? The team thinks so, but Davis Wade Stadium isn't the easiest place to maneuver if you're a young quarterback.
6. Simms begins the gauntlet: Matt Simms was in this position last year when he had to start against Tennessee's toughest opponents before Bray took over for him. With Bray out for an extended period of time, Simms' number has been called yet again and his first opponent is the No. 1 team in the country in LSU. It's an LSU team carrying the league's second-rated defense and a host of defensive playmakers. It won't be easy for Simms, but he says he's ready. However, this is just the first step for the senior. He'll still face Alabama (on the road), South Carolina and Arkansas (on the road) in the next four weeks. That's tough for any quarterback. Starting off with an impressive debut will help the psyche of this team. He doesn't have to be perfect, but does have to be effective enough to inject some confidence into this team for the road ahead.
7. Like brother ... like brother? Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers could make his first start for the Commodores this weekend against Georgia and if he's anything like his Super Bowl-winning older brother, Aaron, Vanderbilt's fan base should be stoked. Now, this wouldn't exactly be the best game for him to really kick off his Vandy career in, with Georgia giving up less than 180 passing yards a game, but if he does get the start, there will no doubt be a little more excitement in the air in Nashville. Larry Smith hasn't gotten the job done for the Commodores, so it might be time for a move. Vanderbilt needs to shake things up on offense and starting Rodgers could be a way to do that.
8. Mississippi State's lost offense: The Bulldogs have a mound of offensive problems. They haven't seen the dynamic duo of quarterback Chris Relf and Vick Ballard do much of anything since Week 2 and the offense line is a mess. The execution has been lacking and this team is scrambling to figure things out when it has the ball. After Tyler Russell rescued an offense that went scoreless against UAB in the first half, he's in a battle with Relf for the starting spot. Would starting Russell provide a spark for this reeling offense? And would it matter against a revamped South Carolina defense? The Gamecocks love to bring a lot of pressure and could make either quarterback's day miserable Saturday.
9. Florida's rushing defense: If you're Auburn running back Michael Dyer, you have to be pretty happy with your odds of clearing the century mark against the Gators Saturday. Florida has given up a total of 464 rushing yards in the last two games and both Alabama's Trent Richardson (181) and LSU's Spencer Ware (109) went into triple digits in the rushing department. Dyer has rushed for more than 100 yards four times this season. We might have given Florida's front seven way more credit than it deserved to start the year, as the last two weeks have been far from nice for this unit. With Dyer's blend of power and speed, Florida's defense has yet another tough runner to keep in check this week.
10. More of the Honey Badger: The legend of LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu grows larger and more fantastic with each week. Those Honey Badger T-Shirts floating around LSU's campus are easily the best in the sport right now and he really does take what he wants. This weekend, he faces yet another backup quarterback making his starting debut for the season. Yes, Simms is experienced, but the Honey Badger doesn't care (or don't care). He will no doubt make Simms' day that much more frustrating because of his ability to somehow pop up wherever the ball is on the field. Just remember, he takes what he wants.