LSU Tigers: Jeff Driskel

Key factors in LSU-Florida game

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
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Florida (3-1, 2-1 SEC) and LSU (4-2, 0-2) might not be ranked, but Saturday’s meeting at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is still a key conference game -- particularly in the SEC East, where Florida is still in the running for a division title.

With an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information database, let’s examine some key factors in Saturday’s game.

Defending the run: Stopping the run will be a key for both teams in this game, but it has only been a problem for one of them.

LSU ranks 89th nationally and last in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 184.3 yards per game. This on the heels of surrendering 298 rushing yards in a 41-7 loss to Auburn, which was the third time in three games against Power 5 teams that the Tigers gave up at least 260 yards on the ground.

Thus, slowing down Matt Jones and Florida’s rushing attack will be the Tigers’ first goal Saturday. Jones is one of the SEC’s better running backs (he’s seventh in the league with 93 rushing yards per game), but the Gators have hardly been consistent in any aspect of their offense. They’re eighth in the SEC in rushing offense (189.8 ypg) and 11th in passing (215 ypg), so if LSU limits Jones’ impact in the running game, the Tigers have to like their chances.

On the other sideline, the Gators have been impressive against the run. They’re 15th in the nation and fourth in the SEC in rushing defense (103 ypg) and held Tennessee to 28 yards on 29 attempts last Saturday. Opponents are running for just 2.78 yards per carry against Florida, which ranks ninth nationally and trails only Alabama in the SEC.

Regardless of who plays quarterback for LSU on Saturday, the Tigers will likely stick with their run-first mentality. If they can’t move the chains more consistently on the ground than they have lately, this will be a tough game for the Tigers. There were times when they ran effectively against Auburn, but short yardage was generally a mess. They ran seven times in two-tight-end/two-back sets against Auburn and picked up just 9 yards, and on their 20 runs when the quarterback lined up under center, they totaled 55 yards.

Freshman Leonard Fournette (60.7 ypg) has led the Tigers in rushing in each of the last five games, but he’s averaging only 11 carries per game. In LSU’s two SEC games, he had seven carries for 38 yards against Mississippi State and 10 carries for 42 yards against Auburn.

Quarterback shuffle: The reason the running games are so important is because of the teams’ inadequacies at quarterback. Florida hoped this would be Jeff Driskel's breakout season, but he continues to struggle. Gators coach Will Muschamp removed him from the Tennessee game and freshman Treon Harris led the Gators to all 10 of their points in the 10-9 win.

But with Harris now suspended following a sexual assault complaint, the Gators are stuck with Driskel again. He ranks 103rd nationally in ESPN’s Total QBR metric at 40.8, just a point ahead of LSU’s Anthony Jennings (39.8), who was booed off the field by Tigers fans in his last start two Saturdays ago against New Mexico State.

Driskel’s QBR against Tennessee was an abysmal 14.3 after he went 11-for-23 for 59 yards and three interceptions. Unfortunately for LSU, its starter last week, Brandon Harris, was nearly as bad. In going 3-for-14 for 58 yards, Harris logged an 18.4 QBR against Auburn and Jennings replaced him late in the third quarter.

Since the quarterback position has been a problem throughout the season for these teams, Saturday’s outcome might rest on which club can get something approaching competence from its signal-caller.

Big-play vulnerability: From play to play, LSU’s defense hasn’t been awful this season. The disconcerting problem for the Tigers has been their vulnerability to explosive plays. The Tigers have already surrendered 26 plays that covered 20 yards or more, which is more than every team in the SEC except Mississippi State (26), Vanderbilt (29) and South Carolina (34). LSU opponents already have five touchdowns that covered at least 45 yards.

That said, Florida isn’t exactly a big-play offense. The Gators’ longest passing play against Tennessee came on a 15-yard grab by Demarcus Robinson. Their only run of 20-plus was a 32-yard Jones burst. Overall, the Gators have 13 plays of 20 yards or more, but six of them came in their season-opening 65-0 rout of Eastern Michigan.

One of the few areas where LSU’s offense has been consistent is in producing big plays. The Tigers have 37 plays of 20 or more yards, which is tied for ninth nationally. That includes touchdown passes of 94 and 80 yards to Travin Dural, who is third in the SEC with 95.7 receiving yards per game.

Considering how it has one of the best cornerbacks in the nation in Vernon Hargreaves III, it seems somewhat strange that Florida has already given up 17 pass plays of 20 yards or more, covering a total of 618 yards. Alabama alone hit the Gators for scoring passes of 87 and 79 yards as quarterback Blake Sims passed for 445 yards that day, averaging 13.5 yards per pass attempt.

Turnover turnarounds: Both of these teams are accustomed to winning the turnover battle, so that could become a deciding factor Saturday.

Florida leads the SEC and is fifth nationally with a plus-eight turnover margin. The only way it stayed in the Alabama game -- at least for a while -- was because it generated four turnovers and Keanu Neal scored on a 49-yard fumble return.

Only Florida (15) has generated more takeaways than LSU’s 13 among SEC defenses, which helps the Tigers rank fourth in the league and 16th nationally with a plus-five turnover margin.

Both defenses have scored twice off turnovers this season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Saturday’s game swing on a similarly opportunistic play.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU fans who watched Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne combine for 245 rushing yards might not believe it, but LSU linebacker Lamar Louis says it's true. If not for a sound game plan from defensive coordinator John Chavis, Auburn might have run for even more yards than it did in Saturday's 41-7 win over LSU.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLSU believes Auburn's Nick Marshall, who combined with Cameron Artis-Payne to rush for 245 yards, could've had an even bigger day if not for the Tigers' defensive game plan.
"We still believe in the game plan that we had for Auburn," Louis said. "We looked at film after the game and the game plan was correct. They just made some good plays, some good play calling and they got momentum and they ran with it.

"If you look at it, without the game plan that we had, Nick Marshall could have ran for a lot more yards if we didn't have certain things put into the scheme and whatnot. Besides a couple long runs by Artis-Payne, I think we did OK against him, too. But we're going to remain confident as a defense. We know we can stop the run."

Knowing they can do it and actually doing it are two different things. Thus far, the Tigers (4-2, 0-2 SEC) absolutely have not stopped the run -- which will be their No. 1 objective when they visit Florida (3-1, 2-1) on Saturday.

Chavis' defenses have long been known for their stinginess against running teams, relying on typically powerful defensive fronts to shut down opposing ground games. This season, however, LSU's turnover on the interior defensive line and players manning new roles at linebacker have left the Tigers vulnerable in the middle at times.

There were times when LSU linebackers were too slow to read and react properly, Louis said, and that led to big plays for opponents.

"When you're outside and you're reading the line and reading the backfield, you have to read it real fast," Louis said. "You don't want to leave a receiver wide open, but at the same time, you don't want to leave a gash in the line. That's something that weighs heavily a lot on outside backers and that's one of the downfalls of the outside backers."

Both Mississippi State and Auburn exploited those weaknesses with runs straight up the middle. For instance, Auburn rushed for 199 yards between the tackles -- 163 of which came before contact with a defender -- and broke eight runs of 10 yards or more.

It was the fourth time in six games that LSU surrendered at least 100 yards between the tackles. The Tigers' defense had only two such games in the entire 2013 season.

"I wouldn't say it's not embarrassing. Embarrassing is a word that comes to mind when you think about the run game and stopping the run," Louis said. "But like I said before, we still as a defense, we know what we can do. We've just got to play the calls that we're given. We trust Chief [Chavis] to give us the right game plan, give us the right call."

With a game against Florida and its somewhat-similar running game approaching, the question is whether the Tigers will improve. The Auburn game got out of hand early, but they made strides defending the run as the night progressed.

And let's be clear, while it is also a run-centric spread offense, Florida's is nowhere near as explosive as those of Mississippi State and Auburn. And the only similarity Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel has to State's Dak Prescott or Auburn's Marshall is that he's also a somewhat-mobile quarterback.

"I heard he can run the ball pretty well," LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. "We've just got to do a good job containing him and taking away all the running lanes."

Saturday's visit to The Swamp is a much more manageable challenge for the Tigers' defense, so long as it proves it can handle running backs Matt Jones (372 rushing yards, 93.0 per game) and Kelvin Taylor (144 yards, 36.0 ypg).

Faring better against against Florida will require more consistent play up front from the defensive line and then the Tigers must do a better job of making the tackle once they arrive at the ballcarrier.

"We were in position to make plays on defense and we didn't make them," safety Ronald Martin admitted.

Then it comes down to the mental part of playing defense that Louis described. Spread offenses work in part because they force defensive players to diagnose what is happening in front of them, rather than relying on brute force to overpower an opponent. The Tigers have been caught out of position a lot in their first two SEC games, and that can't happen if they are to handle Florida's running game better than they did Auburn's and State's.

"We've got to adjust to all these spread teams that we have now. I think that's what's transitioning from maybe the mid-2000 LSU teams until now," Louis said. "Long ago, if you could just play hard-nosed football and plug the holes, you're a great defense. But now you've got to account for the run and worry about the pass at the same time and all these teams being spread offenses, it's a little bit more tricky.

"I think that's what is [happening when] people are like, 'The dominant defenses are changing.' No, you still have the same players with the same capability. You just have a lot more mental aspect of the game is getting installed."

SEC lunchtime links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Seven SEC coaches, including Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and LSU’s Les Miles, will go through ESPN’s “Car Wash” on Monday, appearing on "Sportscenter," "College Football Live," "First Take" and more. Stay tuned throughout the day.

In the meantime, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links to get your SEC fix.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!

SEC lunchtime links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
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Sunday was a sad day in the SEC. Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen died in a car accident at just 23 years old, and though I never had the privilege of covering him, it was easy to the impact he had on people based on the Twitter response. Read more tributes to Lutzenkirchen in today’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
12:00
PM ET
Sunday was a sad day in the SEC. Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen died in a car accident at just 23 years old, and though I never had the privilege of covering him, it was easy to see the impact he had on people based on the response on Twitter and elsewhere. Read more tributes to Lutzenkirchen in today’s lunch links.
For the most part, surprises usually annoy me, but every once in a while, we find some things we like to call "pleasant surprises" that can actually generate smiles and or applause. For example, Auburn and Missouri were pleasant surprises in the SEC last season. The spider that fell from the ceiling and onto my shoulder the other day was not.

Follow me?

Well, resident college football expert Phil Steele has come up with his list of college football's 10 surprise teams Insider for the 2014 season. At the top of his list is Georgia, and Ole Miss and LSU also made the cut.

All three are excellent choices. Georgia has the offense to score close to 100 each week, but its defense has the ability to surrender that as well. Imagine if the defense caught up to a third of what the offense could do.

Ole Miss has playmakers on both sides of the ball, and I have the Rebels pegged as a dark horse to take the West this year. Can quarterback Bo Wallace finally put a consistent season together?

Then there's LSU, which has a load of talent sprinkled about, but we don't know who the quarterback is or who will catch the majority of passes at receiver. Also, is that defensive line going to step up this fall and generate a more intimidating pass rush?

So which other SEC teams could surprise us this fall? I figured I'd take a stab at it:

FLORIDA

If the Gators' offense can get it together under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, this will be a dangerous team when it comes to the East and the SEC as a whole. Florida already has the defense -- arguably the most talented in the SEC East -- but just has to find a pulse on offense. Will Muschamp thinks he'll have more than just a pulse with quarterback Jeff Driskel running a more comfortable spread attack.
  • Why Florida will surprise: Driskel will be a much more threatening quarterback using his legs more in the zone-read. It will open up the running game and will help take a lot of pressure off of what could be a more athletic Gators defense.
  • Why Florida won't: Have you seen that schedule? The Gators go to Alabama and Tennessee before home games against LSU and South Carolina and the annual trip to Jacksonville to play Georgia. Florida gets South Carolina at home, too, but has to travel to Florida State to end the season.
MISSOURI

Wait, the team that won 12 games and the East is in this category? Well, the Tigers aren't getting much love heading into the fall because of some key losses from last year's team. But some of those key spots are getting more than qualified replacements. The confident and experienced Maty Mauk takes over for James Franklin at quarterback, while potential stars Markus Golden and Shane Ray take over for Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Also, watch out for running back Russell Hansbrough.
  • Why Missouri will surprise: Mauk won't have any jitters taking over after starting for the month (and losing just one game) when Franklin was hurt last year. That defensive line could be really fun to watch with good experience and quality ability to keep up the harassment it displayed last season.
  • Why Missouri won't: Mauk is good, but who is he going to throw to? None of Mizzou's returning pass-catchers made more than 26 receptions last year. The loss of Dorial Green-Beckham won't be easy to get over. Two starters are gone at linebacker and the secondary is incredibly inexperienced.
MISSISSIPPI STATE

This team returns 18 starters, including a potential dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Dak Prescott. The defense is experienced, but vastly underrated. The attitude is different and the confidence is soaring in Starkville. This is the most talented team Dan Mullen has had during his tenure with the Bulldogs, and seven wins would be a considered a disappointment.
  • Why Mississippi State will surprise: Prescott did so much in so little time last season and is the ideal quarterback for this offense. Also, his top-five pass catchers from last year are back. The schedule also isn't too daunting, especially with Auburn and Texas A&M at home.
  • Why Mississippi State won't: With the way the schedule sets up, the Bulldogs could have seven wins by mid-November. We've seen this before. In 2012, Mississippi State started 7-0 before dropping three straight and five of its last six. For the most part, the better teams have had their way with the Bulldogs.
TENNESSEE

This team has to completely rebuild its offensive line and defensive line, but there's no doubt that this team has talent at all around and could be sneaky good. The quarterback position has to be figured out, but with receivers such as Marquez North and Josh Malone on the field, any quarterback should be happy.
  • Why Tennessee will surprise: The Vols have playmakers at receiver, running back, linebacker and in the secondary. While there are questions up front on both sides, Tennessee has a pretty good supporting cast around it. Running back Jalen Hurd could be a major player for the Vols.
  • Why Tennessee won't: Quarterback is a major issue, and that's before you look at a line with five new starters. The defensive line lost six seniors and four starters. There are no gimmes on the schedule in September, and road trips to Georgia, Oklahoma, Ole Miss and South Carolina won't help.
By now we should have our legs about us. No more early season mistakes. Make sure the cooler is stocked, the oil has been changed and the GPS is fully updated.

If you’re just now getting on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the season by plotting out the top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to Houston, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. Three weeks down, 11 more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 4:

Sept. 20
Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Florida at Alabama
Northern Illinois at Arkansas
Troy at Georgia
Mississippi State at LSU
Indiana at Missouri
South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Texas A&M at SMU

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Mississippi State at LSU

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDak Prescott and the Bulldogs will get their first tough test of the season when they visit LSU on Sept. 20.
Expect the hype for this game to be considerable. Mississippi State, barring a considerable collapse, should enter Baton Rouge, La., undefeated and ranked in the Top 25. If LSU survives its season opener against Wisconsin, it will be in the same boat.

With a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback, a burgeoning group of playmakers on offense and a deep, veteran defense, the Bulldogs are a team worth keeping an eye on. The momentum Mississippi State gained from beating Ole Miss and Rice to end last season was huge. In a wide-open West, Mississippi State is in as good a position as any to make it to Atlanta, especially with its schedule. Early season games against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama should be a breeze. In fact, I’d be concerned about playing down to the level of competition.

LSU will be a considerable obstacle, however.

Against LSU, we’ll see if Mississippi State is for real. Against a John Chavis-Les Miles defense, we’ll see just how good Dak Prescott is and how far Dan Mullen’s offense has come.

Along those same lines, we'll learn a lot about LSU's retooled defense and its overhauled offense, which features exactly zero returning starters at quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

This game should be a good one. And the fact that it will be played in the renovated Tiger Stadium only makes it that much more appealing. If it’s not a night game, and I don’t get to hear the P.A. announcer say, “It’s Saturday night in Death Valley,” I’ll be thoroughly disappointed. There’s not a better environment in all of college football, for my money.

Sam Khan’s pick: Florida at Alabama

After Florida's rough 2013 season, this game at first glance might not have much appeal. That's fair, but both teams are likely to head into this one unbeaten. It will be the Crimson Tide's conference opener after nonconference tilts against West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Mississippi, while Florida has dates with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky before heading to Tuscaloosa.

Florida's offense can't be as inept as it was last season, right? Kurt Roper's arrival as offensive coordinator should help the Gators improve vastly in that area and help quarterback Jeff Driskel make significant progress. The defense should be fine. Overall, as long as the Gators can avoid the rash of injuries they encountered last season, things are looking up for a sizeable leap in the wide-open SEC East standings.

Alabama is Alabama and will be one of the favorites to take the SEC title once again. But Florida -- if the Gators are playing well defensively -- will provide a good test for the new Crimson Tide quarterback, whether it be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker or someone else. The Tide have a new offensive coordinator, too -- Lane Kiffin -- and there will be plenty of eyes watching to see how the offense develops under Kiffin.

If the Crimson Tide roll to an easy victory, it will probably come as no surprise. But as we saw last season with the Gators' fall and Auburn and Missouri's rise, things can change quickly, even in the span of one year. Alabama is likely to be a heavy favorite, but if the Gators get off to a good start and show signs of life during their early season slate, it should provide some intrigue in the buildup to this early season conference clash.

As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
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Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”

SEC lunch links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
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While college basketball teams are punching their tickets to the Elite Eight, the SEC's best quarterback of the last two seasons might have cemented his position as an elite talent in the NFL draft.

SEC's lunch links

March, 27, 2014
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The words "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are prominent in the aftermath of Wednesday's ruling by a federal agency that college athletes at Northwestern University are school employees and can form a union. The SEC had this to say:
"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," commissioner Mike Slive said in a written statement.

Former South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles came out against the idea of college football players unions.

Elsewhere in the South, spring practice and NFL scouting continued as if the earth had not spun off its axis.
The Madness is all around us, and while basketball is having all the fun, we thought we’d give football a go at the craziness that this month embodies.

While we’ll have to wait a few months until a playoff takes over college football, we thought we’d have a little fun with our own SEC tournament now that the first weekend of games have concluded in this year’s NCAA tournament.

As a tribute to the Big Dance, Chris Low and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s). We’ll spice things up by having different seedings for all 14 teams in our individual tournaments. We have different sites, the top two seeds will receive an opening-round bye and we’ll have an upset or two.

Our first round will feature the No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed and the No. 4 seed playing the No. 13 seed, etc.

I’ll debut my bracket first, while Chris will have his prepared later Monday.

After countless hours of deliberation with the selection committee, namely my cat Meeko, here’s what my seedings look like:
1. Auburn
2. Alabama
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. Missouri
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
9. LSU
10. Florida
11. Tennessee
12. Vanderbilt
13. Arkansas
14. Kentucky
FIRST ROUND

In Nashville, Tenn.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Kentucky: The Bulldogs might be without Aaron Murray for the first time in a long time, but Hutson Mason has plenty of offensive options to pick from. Not having Todd Gurley as an option hurts, but Georgia has enough to get past the Cats in Nashville. Winner: Georgia

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Tennessee: You'd better believe the Gamecocks are still fuming after that loss to the Vols that eventually cost them a chance to go to Atlanta for the SEC title game last fall. A lot is different for the Gamecocks, but Dylan Thompson works some magic late to avoid the first upset of the tournament. Winner: South Carolina

In Kansas City, Mo.

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Arkansas: The Rebels could be a dark horse to win the SEC this fall, and with so much talent coming back on both sides, Ole Miss could make a nice run in this tournament. Arkansas just has way too many questions on both sides to pull the shocker. Winner: Ole Miss

No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. There's always one. But the Tigers still have a lot of firepower returning on offense, a stout defensive line and are playing in front of what should be a home crowd. Also, James Franklin and Jordan Matthews are both gone. Winner: Missouri

In Tampa, Fla.

No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Florida: The Bulldogs are a team on the rise after winning their last three to close the 2013 season. They return a lot from their two-deep and could have a special player in quarterback Dak Prescott. The Gators suffered a rash of injuries, but have quarterback Jeff Driskel back with an offense that fits his skills more. Playing close to home will give the Gators an advantage and the defense will make a stop late to pull our first upset. Winner: Florida

No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 LSU: Both teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and playmakers at receiver. LSU's defense is getting revamped again, but there's still a lot of athleticism across the board. This one is coming down to the wire, but LSU's young, yet stealthy corners will be the difference in another upset. Winner: LSU

SECOND ROUND

In Orlando, Fla.

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: Last fall, this was the game the served as the emotional turning point for Auburn, even though it was a loss. Auburn has a lot to work with once again on the Plains, and while the defense still has its questions, these Tigers will get revenge in a fun one in the Sunshine State. Winner: Auburn

In New Orleans

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 Florida: The Gators will be more consistent on offense in this one. Alabama is still looking to find its defensive playmakers, but will have the advantage in the running game. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, where corner Vernon Hargreaves III seals it for the Gators with a pick in the end zone on a Cooper Bateman pass intended for Amari Cooper. Winner: Florida

In Houston

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Missouri: Two fast offenses take the field, and the Rebels would love to get back at the Tigers after last season's loss. Maty Mauk has what it takes to direct this Missouri team to a deep run, but Ole Miss' defense is the difference in this one. Keep an eye on that defensive line, which gets a major upgrade in the return of end C.J. Johnson. Winner: Ole Miss

In Charlotte, N.C.

No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: The hope in Athens is that the defense will be improved with Jeremy Pruitt running the show, but watch out for Mike Davis. South Carolina's pounding running back gets the edge in this one with Gurley on the mend. Expect a lot of points in this one, but Davis grinds this one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. Winner: South Carolina

FINAL FOUR

In Miami

No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Ole Miss: You want fast, fast, fast? How about these two teams playing? I mean, Ole Miss got to see tons of speed against Mizzou, and now has to take on Auburn? Expect marathon of scoring, but Bo Wallace is the hero in the end. A gritty fourth-quarter performance puts the Rebels in the title game. Winner: Ole Miss

In Arlington, Texas

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Florida: It's been a fun run for this spring's Cinderella. Florida's offense is catching up to its defense, but the Gamecocks will find holes in the Gators defense. Thompson hits a few big plays to receiver Shaq Roland and defensive end Gerald Dixon forces a late fumble on a sack of Driskel to run out the clock. Winner: South Carolina

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

In Atlanta

No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is back in Atlanta with a gritty team hungry for a title. The Rebels have the advantage with that high-flying offense and will get some huge catches out of Laquon Treadwell against the inexperienced secondary. Thompson and Davis will keep the Gamecocks in this one for most of the game, but true freshman safety C.J. Hampton seals it for the Rebels with a game-ending interception at midfield. Winner: Ole Miss

SEC's lunch links

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
12:00
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The talk around the SEC today is how three teams from the conference -- Florida, Kentucky and Tennesse -- reached the round of 16 in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And this was supposed to be a down year for the league.

But we're here to discuss football. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league:

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall is talented enough to play the position in the NFL.

LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith is relishing his new role after playing defensive end as a freshman.

Now healthy, quarterback Brandon Allen is preparing for a position battle at Arkansas.

Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- attempting to return from a torn ACL from last season -- suffered another injury last week, although the Bulldogs' medical staff says he'll be back in time for August practices.

South Carolina offensive lineman Na'Ty Rodgers could face suspension after his alcohol-related arrest from early Sunday.

The defense had the edge in Vanderbilt's spring scrimmage on Saturday.

Alabama's players like what new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is teaching thus far.

Jeff Driskel looked sharp working with the first-team offense in Florida's practice on Saturday, according to the Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andreu.

With Missouri's team on spring break, here is a spring practice reset from the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Nick Saban's Crimson Tide to begin the season in the top 10.
For the first time since 2006, nobody in the SEC enters the spring as the reigning national champions.

Need a little perspective?

The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.

“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.

Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.

The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.

Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.

The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.

The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.

“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.

“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”

While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.

Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.

“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Dak Prescott has a chance to be one of the new QB stars of the SEC.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott has the talent and experience to be the next big thing at quarterback in the SEC, and the folks on the Plains are stoked to see what Nick Marshall can do with a spring practice under his belt and another year of experience in Malzahn’s system.

Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.

The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.

There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.

Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.

The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.

Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.

Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”

With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
1:00
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We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
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Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
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Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12