Georgia Bulldogs: Will Muschamp
Alabama Crimson Tide
What they are selling: What's not to sell? Alabama is coming off back-to-back national championships, and the Crimson Tide had nine players taken in April's NFL draft, including three in the first round. For the critics who say you won't play early at UA, ask T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper how much they contributed as freshmen.
What they are missing: Although they won a national championship, the Tide didn't generate much pass rush last fall, and they had trouble containing freshman sensation Johnny Manziel. Also, they need to rebuild the offensive line, a unit that anchored the offense last year.
What they are selling: New head coach Bret Bielema runs a completely different offensive system than the previous two Arkansas coaches. The Razorbacks are selling an opportunity for freshmen to come in and earn playing time early in their careers.
What they are missing: The Razorbacks signed only one offensive lineman, Denver Kirkland, who was rated a four-star prospect or higher last year. In this run-heavy system, look for Arkansas to focus on landing talented players along the offensive line.
What they are selling: It's a new regime for Auburn, but there's a familiar face running the show. New head coach Gus Malzahn knows the program from his days as offensive coordinator. He's already shown the ability to recruit, stealing ESPN 150 linebacker Tre Williams away from the Tide. There's a sense of excitement on The Plains again.
What they are missing: Malzahn filled out his first recruiting class with playmakers, but Auburn needs to build up front on the offensive and defensive lines. No matter what offense you run, if you want to win in the SEC, you need to be able to compete up in the trenches.
What they are selling: With no proven wide receivers on the perimeter, Florida is attempting to sell early playing time at the position. A chance to play for one of the best defensive minds in college football in Will Muschamp is another selling point to defensive prospects.
What they are missing: Production on offense. After finishing 114th nationally in passing offense, it will be hard to sell playing time to wide receivers without an explosive passing game in place.
What they are selling: Freshmen, if they're good enough, play early at Georgia. From running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to offensive tackle John Theus to defensive end Jordan Jenkins, several freshmen Bulldogs made major contributions on a team that was a few yards away from making the national championship game.
What they are missing: Georgia has brought in four top-12 recruiting classes in the last four years. Depth might become an issue for some recruits, but Georgia has certainly shown a willingness to play younger players.
What they are selling: After finishing 2-10, Kentucky fired coach Joker Phillips. New head coach Mark Stoops is offering a fresh start and a chance to help build Kentucky in to a contender in the SEC East.
What they are missing: Plain and simple -- tradition. Sure, Kentucky is full of basketball tradition, but the success on the hardwood completely overshadows the football program. A record 50,831 fans attended the Wildcats' spring game, so the interest level is certainly headed in the right direction.
What they are selling: An unprecedented 10 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. LSU is selling the opportunity, not only for early playing time because of the departures, but a chance to make it to the NFL in three years.
What they are missing: Because of all the departures, there are some holes on both sides of the ball. Depth is now an issue at running back and LSU will need to replace Eric Reid, Kevin Minter, defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Kevin Minter.
Ole Miss Rebels
What they are selling: Ole Miss landed the No. 5-ranked class in the country, including No. 1 overall player Robert Nkemdiche and No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Look for Ole Miss to sell recruits on the opportunity to help build something special under head coach Hugh Freeze.
What they are missing: Freeze brought a creative and innovative offense to the SEC, but the defense is still a work in progress. Ole Miss finished 12th in the SEC in pass defense and will need to continue to build depth in order to compete for the SEC West championship.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
What they are selling: Only 11 of 22 starters return for a team that finished 8-5 last year. The Bulldogs offer recruits a chance to play early and play in the best division in college football.
What they are missing: Mississippi State returns its starting quarterback Tyler Russell, but who will he be throwing to? Last year's four leading receivers, including Chad Bumphis, are gone. Look for the Bulldogs to focus on offensive weapons in this recruiting class.
What they are selling: The Tigers return 14 of 22 starters on a team that went 5-7 in its first year in the SEC East. Missouri runs a fun and innovative offense that is sure to attract recruits, and there is certainly an opportunity to play early.
What they are missing: The defensive line is probably the most critical area on any defense in the SEC, and the Tigers lost their best lineman in Sheldon Richardson. Mizzou must find a viable replacement for Richardson and linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner.
South Carolina Gamecocks
What they are selling: The Gamecocks have been dominant on defense over the last few years, and a strong line is a big part of their success. South Carolina is selling an opportunity to be the next Jadeveon Clowney and be a part of one of the top defenses in the SEC.
What they are missing: Hard to believe, but head coach Steve Spurrier needs help at wide receiver. The Gamecocks signed only one wide receiver in their 2013 class. They have young bodies, but not much depth or production from the returning group.
What they are selling: A fresh start under new head coach Butch Jones. Since 2011, Tennessee has finished with the No. 13, 21 and 29 recruiting classes in the country. There plenty of holes to fill, and any incoming freshman will have plenty of opportunities to earn a starting spot.
What they are missing: Tennessee lost wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to the NFL draft and must replace their production on the outside. The Volunteers are also thin in the secondary and will look to recruiting to plug some key holes on defense.
Texas A&M Aggies
What they are selling: There is a lot to sell a recruit on at Texas A&M right now. An explosive offense which led the SEC in total offense by more than 100 yards a game, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and a team that went into Tuscaloosa and handed Alabama its only loss last season.
What they are missing: There are still some holes to fill on defense. The Aggies finished with the No. 8-ranked defense in the SEC and the No. 10-ranked pass defense in the league. They also need to replace talented defensive end Damontre Moore, who is now in the NFL.
What they are selling: Head coach James Franklin has taken Vanderbilt to a bowl in two consecutive years, and the Commodores are bringing in a solid recruiting class. Selling recruits on an opportunity to play at Vanderbilt during one of the best eras in the school's football history is enticing to high school recruits.
What they are missing: Vanderbilt is not yet on par with other SEC schools as far as facilities. The Commodores, though, are certainly headed in the right direction. A new indoor practice facility is being constructed, and stadium renovations are in the planning stages.
We're checking out what all 14 teams did to fill holes, and we're looking at which holes still remain. We'll start with the SEC East:
Needs filled: LB, OL, DB, WR, DT -- The Gators had one of the most complete classes out there, finishing second in the ESPN class rankings. Florida landed the top cornerback prospect (No. 3 nationally) in Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, linebackers Daniel McMillian and Matt Rolin, and safeties Keanu Neal and Marcell Harris. The Gators also added five wide receivers, including ESPN 150 members Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood.
Holes remaining: DE -- Will Muschamp seemed thrilled with his class, but he probably would have liked to get a least one more defensive end. The Gators missed on a few, including Tashawn Bower, who almost picked the Gators before signing with LSU. Four-stars Jordan Sherit and Antonio Riles were the only defensive ends in this class.
Needs filled: ILB, S -- The Bulldogs had to replace a few bodies at middle linebacker, and did so by signing four. The star of the group is four-star ESPN 300 member Johnny O'Neal, who is the No. 5 inside linebacker in the county. Tim Kimbrough and Ryne Rankin, both ESPN 300 members, also signed with the Dawgs. Georgia also signed five safeties, including two junior college standouts. The top safety in this class is ESPN 150 member Tray Matthews.
Holes remaining: Elite OT, elite RB, elite DT -- Mark Richt was pleased with his 32-man signing class, but he knows it could have been better if a few elite players had signed with Georgia. The Dawgs barely missed on top offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (Ole Miss), No. 4 running back Alvin Kamara (Alabama) and No. 2 defensive tackle Montravius Adams (Auburn).
ATLANTA -- Two of the Peach State’s top outside linebackers recently met in the backfield of the Rising Seniors Bowl game and threw down the West team’s quarterback, Brooks Barden (Cartersville, Ga./Cartersville). Bryson Allen-Williams (Ellenwood, Ga./Cedar Grove) came of the right end and Dante Sawyer (Flowery Branch, Ga./North Gwinnett) crashed the left side and both caught Barden before he could slip away. While it was clear Barden never had a chance, credit for the sack was a highly-contested debate.
“Oh, that was my sack.” Allen-Williams said. “Look, Dante and I had a little bet going on to see who would get the most sacks, so we ended up tying on them. So you know [when] there are two good ends on this field, you’re bound to have a good pass rush every now and then.”
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Here we are again talking about another potential national championship for the SEC.
Weren’t we having this same conversation last year, the year before that and the year before that?
In fact, does anybody really remember the last time we weren’t having this conversation?
The BCS Championship Game festivities will again include an SEC team this season, and once again, it’s Alabama carrying the banner for the league.
If you think everybody else in college football is tired of seeing the SEC win all the time, try taking the temperature of fans in Baton Rouge, La., or Athens, Ga., or Auburn, Ala., over how tired they are of seeing Alabama win all the time.
The Crimson Tide will be chasing history Jan. 7 in the Discover BCS National Championship game against Notre Dame when they go after their third national title in the past four years. The last team to win three outright national titles in a four-year span was Notre Dame in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
An Alabama victory in Miami would mark the seventh consecutive national championship for the SEC, which might have been as balanced and strong across the board this season as any of the seasons during its national championship run.
The final BCS standings looked more like the SEC standings. Six of the top 10 teams were from the SEC, and all six won at least 10 games.
And talk about beating up on each other.
Texas A&M, in its first season in the SEC, waltzed into Bryant-Denny Stadium and upset Alabama 29-24 with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Georgia lost by four touchdowns to South Carolina back in October, but rebounded to make its second consecutive appearance in the SEC championship game. It wasn’t until the final play that Alabama’s 32-28 win over Georgia was decided last weekend in Atlanta.
Florida is headed back to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2009 thanks to a transformation in Will Muschamp’s second season that saw the Gators go from being soft at times in 2011 to one of the most physical teams in the league this season. Florida will meet Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl after collecting four victories over teams that finished in the top 12 of the final BCS standings.
Steve Spurrier has South Carolina poised to win 11 games for the second straight season. It wasn’t until a year ago that the Gamecocks had ever won 11 games in a season.
The Aggies, who lost close games to Florida and LSU during the first part of the season, showed no signs of stage fright during their first season in the SEC.
So much for Kevin Sumlin’s up-tempo, spread offense not being able to cut it in the SEC. The Aggies led the conference in just about every offensive category and scored 29 or more points in six of their eight league games.
It wasn’t just the old guard that made waves this season.
Kim Klement/USA TODAYAs a sophomore, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney led the SEC with 13.5 sacks.
Ole Miss began the season shouldering a 14-game SEC losing streak, but first-year coach Hugh Freeze guided the Rebels to a bowl game, and probably more importantly, pinned a 41-24 whipping on rival Mississippi State in the regular-season finale.
The SEC has historically chewed up and spit out coaches, and this season was no exception.
Arkansas’ John L. Smith, Auburn’s Gene Chizik, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips and Tennessee’s Derek Dooley were all sent packing. In Chizik’s case, his ouster came just two years removed from winning a national championship, but the Tigers crashed this season with their first 0-8 SEC finish in school history.
It was also another gut-wrenching season for South Carolina star running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a gruesome-looking knee injury in the Tennessee game and was lost for the season. He was already coming off a torn ACL in his other knee the season before.
On a more positive note, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will be in New York this weekend and has a great chance to become the first freshman in history to win the Heisman Trophy.
Johnny Football may well become Johnny Heisman.
Offensive MVP: Manziel. While Manziel is admittedly a big video-game buff, his numbers this season weren’t from a video game. They just looked that way. He broke Cam Newton’s SEC record for total offense in a season and cranked out 4,600 yards while accounting for 43 touchdowns. He also saved his best game for the biggest stage by rolling up 345 yards in total offense against No. 1 Alabama in the Aggies’ 29-24 win.
Defensive MVP: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. This was an extremely tough call, and in any other year, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore would be runaway winners. But Clowney was the most explosive game-changer in the league this season defensively. He leads the SEC with 13 sacks and is second with 21.5 tackles for loss. Easily one of the best pass-rushers in college football, Clowney became a much more complete player this season as a sophomore.
Newcomer of the Year: Manziel. He was a redshirt freshman by classification, but played liked a seasoned veteran. One of the most impressive things about Manziel is that he learned from earlier losses against Florida and LSU, when he didn’t play as well, then proceeded to carve everybody apart down the stretch. He’s the first freshman in FBS history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. The award for the top true freshman goes to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who leads the SEC with 1,260 rushing yards.
Biggest surprise: Ole Miss. Florida certainly deserves mention here. Not many people had the Gators winning 11 games and going to a BCS bowl back in August, which is a tribute to Muschamp and his staff. But nobody had the Rebels getting to a bowl game in Freeze’s first season. They’d lost 14 straight SEC games when he arrived. Not only that, but they were way down in scholarship numbers and forced to play a ton of first-year players. They scrapped their way to six wins, and it could have easily been eight or nine wins if they could have held on to a few fourth-quarter leads.
Biggest disappointment: Arkansas. The Hogs went from No. 8 in the country and talking about a national championship in the preseason to sitting at home for the postseason. It was a disaster from the outset, and the team simply didn’t respond to Smith, who stepped in during the spring as interim coach after Bobby Petrino was fired. The Hogs finished 4-8 (2-6 in the SEC). They lost to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock the second week of the season, and it was all downhill from there.
Best game: Alabama 32, Georgia 28, Dec. 1, SEC championship game. The previous few SEC championship games had been blowouts, but this one went down to the final play when the clock ran out on the Bulldogs after Aaron Murray’s tipped pass was caught by Chris Conley at the Alabama 5. Georgia, which led 21-10 midway through the third quarter, drove from its own 15 with 68 seconds to play and no timeouts. But when Conley gathered in the deflected pass and was tackled inbounds, the Bulldogs had no way to stop the clock. Alabama rushed for an SEC championship game-record 350 yards, as the Crimson Tide’s offensive line took matters into its own hands in the second half.
And he did it with some ringers from the Sunshine State.
Quarterback Aaron Murray has struggled against the Gators but is 2-1 in his career against them. In his first win he completed four passes to tight end Orson Charles of Tampa, Fla. All-SEC kicker Blair Walsh, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., always said the Florida game was the biggest of the year and he scored 22 points against the Gators in his career. Keeping Murray upright this year was a freshman from Jacksonville, right tackle John Theus.
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ESPN GatorNation beat writer Michael DiRocco was kind enough to answer five questions about the game that could very well determine this season’s SEC East champion:
Q: The most obvious factor in Florida’s turnaround is that it’s getting solid play from Jeff Driskel at quarterback instead of last season’s revolving door of uncertainty. Is that all it took? Why else is this Florida team so much better?
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Michael DiRocco writes: The Florida-Georgia rivalry is picking up steam again after the Gators dominated the rivalry with Georgia for more than 15 years, with intrigue returning to the border battle during the past five seasons.
DiRocco: A look at the Top 5 Georgia-Florida heartbreakers.
DiRocco: Gators coaches are punishing ‘violators’ who don't carry the football reliably.
Derek Tyson and Kipp Adams write : Former Gators receiver Jacquez Green and former Dawgs defensive lineman Marcus Stroud are linked as two of the top recruiting battles in the history of the Florida-Georgia rivalry.
Too much, and arrogance can set in. Too little, and depression follows.
For Florida’s football team, success has seemingly come and gone like the tide the past few years. From 2008 to 2009, the Gators stood with the giants of college football with a 26-2 record, a national championship and an SEC title. Then, Florida dabbled in mediocrity for two years with a 15-11 record.
John Sommers II/Getty ImagesCoach Will Muschamp has Florida back in the top five of the national rankings.
Florida’s rise back to relevancy has been a pleasant surprise, but so much success so quickly can be crippling, especially when players aren’t used to it.
Unlike the weeks -- and years, really -- prior, now all the pressure is on Florida. Win, and the Gators are headed to Atlanta. Lose, and the East is all but lost to one of its biggest rivals. All the work, the road comebacks and the top-10 victories will drift away.
That can be a lot for a team to digest, but senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter, one of the few Gators who has seen this sort of success before at the college level, doesn’t see a change in approach. The same demeanor that got Florida to 7-0 hasn’t disappeared before the season’s biggest game.
“This team is pretty mature compared to where we were last year,” Hunter said. “For the most part, those guys have been pretty focused on what we have to get done and not let stuff get to them.”
What Florida has to do is win, but it faces a team that was expected to be in Florida’s spot. The 10th-ranked Bulldogs (6-1) are almost limping into Saturday’s showdown. They were routed by South Carolina this month and are having an internal war of words on defense.
For a team that had BCS aspirations before the season, the Bulldogs will quietly bus into Jacksonville with a lot to prove. And unlike the Gators, this is familiar territory for the Dawgs.
They climbed out of an 0-2 hole with 10 straight wins to get to Atlanta last season. Going against the odds was Georgia’s specialty, and its hope is that last season’s experience helps it Saturday.
“What we see is if we win out, there’s no reason why we can’t ... do all of the things that we dreamed at the beginning,” senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “That’s the same as it was last year.
“Right now, we have our backs against the wall, and we have to decide what we need to do.”
First, this team has to come together. On Monday, senior safety Shawn Williams called his defense out for playing “soft” and went on to discuss which players should be playing at linebacker. He left a few names off and hurt some feelings, as players acknowledged that they’d rather keep such talk in-house.
Whether that will motivate players or leave them sulking has yet to be seen, but when it comes to a game like this, Georgia can’t let silly bickering hold it back. Not in do-or-die mode.
“That’s where we’re at right now, so I think the guys understand how important this thing is,” coach Mark Richt said. “It’s pretty obvious. So I don’t think we’re going to have to sit here and try to figure out a way to motivate anybody.”
Just the Cocktail Party’s existence should be motivation enough for both teams, but for the Gators, you have to wonder whether their surprising run leading up to Saturday's showdown has them feeling a little presumptuous. According to their head coach, that isn’t the case.
“Nothing’s changed for us. We’re not working any longer, harder. Practice, it’s all the same,” Muschamp said. “We don’t approach things differently based on the situation, because next week’s important, too.”
The de facto semifinal for the SEC championship could turn the tide for both programs -- one soaring and one stumbling. Pressure and rankings will mean little between those hash marks.
“Any given Saturday, anything can happen,” Robinson said.
“You hope that you have that type of team that’s not going to lay down and die.”
1. Florida: Streaking Florida has been one of the biggest surprises in the SEC this season. After last weekend’s upset of defending conference champion LSU, the Gators (6-0, 5-0 SEC) catapulted to No. 4 in the Associated Press Top 25 and avoided a letdown at Vanderbilt.
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1. Lassoing Lattimore: There’s no other way to say it. South Carolina junior running back Marcus Lattimore has owned Georgia. Lattimore rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown last season against the Bulldogs, and he racked up 182 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. Most notably, he’s been money in the fourth quarter. He had 94 of his yards last season in the fourth quarter. And in 2010, he had 56 yards in South Carolina’s final drive to ice the game. The Bulldogs simply haven’t been able to get Lattimore on the ground when it’s counted. Of his 358 rushing yards the last two years against the Bulldogs, 152 have come after contact. If they’re going to win this game, they need to put the clamps on Lattimore early and not allow South Carolina to ride him in the second half. He’s already had a pair of 100-yard rushing games this season against SEC foes Vanderbilt and Kentucky and combined for 145 rushing/receiving yards against Missouri. He’s answered a lot of the questions about whether he could regain his old form post-ACL surgery, but can make a resounding statement Saturday that he’s all the way back.
Zuma Press/Icon SMIWhile Vanderbilt couldn't slow down RB Marcus Lattimore, Georgia plans to give it a try this week.
3. Battle in the trenches II: Similar to Georgia’s offensive line, Florida’s guys up front will also encounter their toughest test of the season. LSU will rotate eight or nine players in the defensive line, and there’s not a lot of drop-off when the starters are resting. Florida has made it known that it wants to run the football, and the Gators will need to if they’re going to keep LSU honest on defense. Not only do the Tigers have a pair of potential first-round draft picks at end in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, but they’re equally stout in the middle with Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson. The offensive line has been the most improved part of Florida’s team this season, but the stakes (and the level of competition) go up considerably on Saturday.
4. October grinder: Nobody in the SEC has a tougher October than South Carolina, especially when you consider the Gamecocks don’t have their bye until Nov. 3. It’s the major reason that picking South Carolina to win the East is hard to do. Even if they can pull out a win over No. 5 Georgia on Saturday, they still have to go to No. 4 LSU and to No. 10 Florida the next two weeks followed by a home game with Tennessee to close out the month. LSU’s October slate isn’t a walk in the park. After playing at No. 10 Florida this weekend, the Tigers return home to face No. 6 South Carolina and then hit the road to play Texas A&M the following week. After a bye week, LSU takes on Alabama at home to kick off November. The Gators are also embarking on a grueling stretch. After LSU’s visit, they travel to Vanderbilt and then get No. 6 South Carolina at home and No. 5 Georgia in Jacksonville in back-to-back weeks. Can any of the three get through October unscathed?
5. Gators’ signature moment: Will Muschamp earned his first win over a nationally ranked foe as Florida’s coach back in September when the Gators went into Knoxville and defeated Tennessee. That was a big step for the program, but taking down No. 4 LSU will make a resounding statement to the entire college football world that Florida is indeed back. This is a game the Gators lost by 30 points a year ago. It’s a chance to show how far they’ve progressed since that blowout, not to mention a chance to prove they can play their best football on the biggest of stages.
6. Taking back the Swamp: There was a time, not too long ago, when the Swamp was the best home-field advantage in the SEC. The Gators didn’t just beat teams at home. They buried them amid a deafening roar and usually sweltering heat. It was a lot like walking into the lion’s den for the opposing team, and that’s something the Gators have to get back if they’re going to start winning championships again. They lost five games at home during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. That’s the same number of games they lost at home in Steve Spurrier’s 12 seasons as coach from 1990-2001. And in Urban Meyer’s first five seasons, they only lost twice at home. This Saturday should be a great atmosphere, the first top-10 matchup at the Swamp since the 2006 LSU game.
7. Defenseless defenses: If you’re an old-school defensive junkie, you might want to avoid the Arkansas-Auburn affair. Defense hasn’t been either team’s cup of tea this season, although the Tigers were much better in their last outing two weeks ago against LSU. In nine games, the two defenses have combined to give up 4,228 yards. The one saving grace for Arkansas is that senior quarterback Tyler Wilson has feasted on Auburn. With the way it’s gone for the Hogs this season on defense, they’re going to have to score 35 points to even have a chance. Wilson passed for 262 yards and two touchdowns last season against Auburn and came off the bench in relief of Ryan Mallett in 2010 to pass for 332 yards and four touchdowns.
8. Manziel for Heisman: As a senior at Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, Johnny Manziel put up some outrageous numbers. He passed for 45 touchdowns and ran for 30 touchdowns. The Texas A&M fans couldn’t wait to see “Johnny Football” in maroon. He makes his fifth start for the Aggies on Saturday against Ole Miss and is still cranking out unreal numbers, especially for a redshirt freshman. He set an SEC record last week with 557 yards of total offense in the 58-10 drubbing of Arkansas and leads the SEC in total offense with an average of 365 yards per game. How long can he keep up this pace? Well, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin says Manziel is becoming a better quarterback every game, and while Ole Miss isn’t as bad as Arkansas on defense, the Rebels have still given up some big numbers this season. Either way, Manziel’s playing at a level right now that he could easily have close to 2,000 yards in total offense through his first five games as a starter.
9. Not turning it over: Not only is Mississippi State not turning the ball over, but the Bulldogs are also tied for the SEC lead in forcing turnovers. Through four games, they’ve forced 15 turnovers and committed only two, which is a big reason they’re unbeaten. A plus-13 turnover ratio, which is No. 1 nationally among all FBS teams, is going to mask a lot of other issues. The Bulldogs, who travel to Kentucky on Saturday, have played well to this point and have been resourceful, but they’ve by no means been dominant. What they’ve done is win the turnover battle in all four of their games, and they’ve been at least plus-three in the turnover department in three of those games. That’s a recipe for a lot of wins regardless of where you rank statistically in other areas. Case in point: Mississippi State is 10th in the SEC right now in total offense and eighth in total defense.
10. Finding some offense: Missouri and Vanderbilt meet on Saturday in Columbia, Mo., and both teams hope to cure some serious offensive ills. The Tigers have scored just 24 points on offense in their last two games, and one of those touchdowns came at garbage time in the waning seconds of a 31-10 loss to South Carolina two weeks ago. It’s been even more difficult for the Commodores to score points. In fact, they’ve yet to score a touchdown in the second half in any of their three games against FBS foes this season and have managed just two field goals after the break in those three games. One of the common denominators for both teams has been the inability to sustain drives. Missouri is next-to-last in the SEC in third-down conversion (20-of-73) and Vanderbilt is last (13-of-56).
But has our No. 2 team fallen after a sloppy win on the road?
1. Alabama (4-0; LW: 1): I feel like a broken record, but Alabama dominated yet again Saturday. It's hard to find any real weaknesses in this team. Although the backups did give up a touchdown to Florida Atlantic, so there's that.
2. LSU (4-0; LW: 2): The Tigers looked pretty sloppy offensively in a tough 12-10 win against Auburn Saturday. LSU probably will have its name dragged through the mud after its play this weekend, but all good teams have those hiccup games. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has to play better, but the defense still looks extremely dominant. The goal now is to not let that hiccup bleed into future games.
3. Georgia (4-0; LW: 3): This Bulldogs offense has been really fun to watch through the first four weeks. Quarterback Aaron Murray has looked like a real Heisman candidate at times, while freshman running back Todd Gurley just gets better every time he gets on the field. Georgia completely overwhelmed Vanderbilt and heads into a fun showdown with Tennessee with a load of confidence.
4. South Carolina (4-0; LW: 4): Connor Shaw has proven he's a true player for the Gamecocks. He battled through a hairline fracture in his throwing shoulder to complete 20-of-21 passes in a blowout win against Missouri. You're starting to see more balance from this Gamecocks offense and that will be very important as SEC play continues. The defensive front is also getting stronger each week.
5. Florida (4-0; LW: 5): The Gators seem to be growing up with each week. After back-to-back tough road wins, Florida shut out Kentucky at home and now has two weeks to prepare for LSU. This really has become more of the blue-collar team Will Muschamp wants, but we'll really find out how tough Florida is when LSU ventures into the Swamp.
6. Mississippi State (4-0; LW: 6): Dan Mullen wasn't exactly pleased with the effort the Bulldogs gave in their lackluster 30-10 win against South Alabama, but a win is a win these days. This team can't be too happy with the way it has played in the past two weeks, but it's still undefeated. It's obvious players are losing focus against lesser opponents, and that should change with SEC play starting back up next week.
7. Tennessee (3-1; LW: 7): There were some tense moments in the Vols' win over Akron Saturday, but the second half belonged to Tennessee. Tyler Bray showed off that cannon of a right arm, passing for 401 yards and four touchdowns. The running game also got going with Rajion Neal rushing for a career-high 151 yards. The key for this team is to duplicate those kinds of efforts against SEC opponents.
8. Texas A&M (2-1; LW: 9): Man, the Aggies know how to use that football, right? In the past two games (both wins), A&M has averaged 526.5 yards and 59 points. Sure, you can point your nose up at the competition, but those are pretty good numbers for a team dealing with a brand new coaching staff and philosophy. Let's see how this offense performs with the SEC slate coming up.
9. Missouri (2-2; LW:8): The Tigers just didn't put up much of a fight against South Carolina. Both the offensive and defensive lines got pushed around and it's looking more and more like the size up front is an issue for this team. Mizzou has too much talent offensively not to get the ball moving, but the Tigers failed to get big plays against South Carolina. You have to wonder what sort of offensive changes might come heading into the Central Florida game.
10. Ole Miss (3-1; LW: 11): The Rebels really rebounded from that Texas blowout with a 39-point shutout of Tulane. Through four games, Ole Miss is third in the SEC in total offense (488 yards per game) and is averaging 36.8 points per game. This team has to cut down on the turnovers and the defense still needs some work, but the product on the field is much better than it has been the past two years.
11. Auburn (1-3; LW: 10): The Tigers suffered a tough loss at home to LSU over the weekend. It was a game in which Auburn played its toughest ball of the season, but just didn't have anything going on offense. Like, absolutely nothing. The defense made strides, but the offense is still a major concern. Defense wins championships, but you have to put points on the board and move the ball, and Auburn has issues doing both, scoring only 20 points in two SEC games.
12. Arkansas (1-3; LW: 12): Things just aren't working in Fayetteville, Ark. Tyler Wilson returned against Rutgers, but he couldn't help a defense that gave up 525 yards in the loss to the Scarlet Knights. Arkansas has now lost three straight -- all in the state of Arkansas -- and it's fair to say that leadership is lacking inside that locker room. There shouldn't be any smiling this week as the Hogs prepare for Texas A&M.
13. Vanderbilt (1-3; LW: 13): The Commodores had nothing in the tank against Georgia. For a team that is supposed to have a different attitude, Vandy lacked any form of passion in its 45-point loss to the Bulldogs. The defense was shredded and the offense just never got into rhythm. This team is also dealing with quarterback issues. You never know who is going to be throwing the ball for the Commodores, and that's not a good thing.
14. Kentucky (1-3; LW: 14): Nothing seems to be going right for the Wildcats. Maxwell Smith missed Saturday's loss to Florida with a bum shoulder and Morgan Newton did noting to help in Smith's place. Kentucky's offense has lacked any sort of consistency this season and the defense has been walked over. The bad news is that things get a lot tougher for the Wildcats with the teeth of the schedule coming up.
Here's what we've learned so far in the SEC:
1. Arkansas' defense isn't ready for prime time: The Razorbacks' defense entered the season surrounded by criticism and uncertainty. In Saturday's stunning 34-31 overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe, the defense didn't do anything to lessen the criticism and worry. Arkansas' defense surrendered 550 total yards, including 412 passing yards by quarterback Kolton Browning. Browning also threw three touchdown passes and ran for 69 yards, including the 16-yard game-winning touchdown. The Warhawks also converted 6 of 7 fourth downs, including Browning's last scamper. This Arkansas defense was pushed around by Alabama and LSU last year, and was pushed around Saturday by a program that has never beaten a ranked team.
Dak Dillon/US PresswireQB Aaron Murray (242 yards, 3 TDs) and Georgia ended their victory over Missouri on a 24-0 run.
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.
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJeff Driskel earned the nod as Florida's starting quarterback heading into the SEC opener at Texas A&M; can his receivers step up?
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.
Coach Kevin Sumlin has acknowledged that impact, noting that Texas A&M has "probably gotten a few more visits" and his coaches have had a few more "return phone calls" from recruits who might not otherwise have considered the Aggies if they weren't in what's widely considered to be the nation's premier football conference.
In its home state, it can be a selling point, since Texas A&M is the only school within the state that can allow a Texas high school football product to stay close to his home and still play in the SEC. And Sumlin has acknowledged that while the Aggies can and will recruit nationally, Texas will continue to be their primary emphasis.
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Today being the Fourth of July, we expect to see fireworks and parades. Georgia football has had its share of fireworks through the years, if we talk about individual performances and astonishing victories. With that in mind we asked the staff and DawgNation's readers:
“What is the biggest fireworks display, figuratively speaking, you have seen at a Georgia football game?"
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