Texas A&M Aggies: Aaron Murray

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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Let them eat a late lunch!

SEC lunchtime links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
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The tax man cometh ...
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

Will SEC defenses improve in 2014?

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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With so much quarterback talent leaving the SEC after the 2013 season, it seems nearly impossible for the league's offenses to maintain their production from a year ago. There is simply too much to replace at the game's most important position to predict that SEC offenses won't experience at least a temporary efficiency gap.

Last fall featured a collection of some of the most productive SEC players who ever lined up under center -- led by 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 Heisman runner-up AJ McCarron and the league's all-time leading passer Aaron Murray. Throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Missouri's James Franklin and Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, and you have veterans who posted eye-popping numbers or who helped their teams ascend to rarely-seen heights in their respective programs' histories.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and the Alabama defense will have their work cut out for them with the high-powered SEC offenses.
They're all gone now, leaving offensive coordinators at some of the league's most prominent programs to start over with new quarterbacks -- and in some cases, quarterbacks who haven't started a single game.

That has to help the league's defensive coaching staffs feel a bit more confident despite the thrashings their units absorbed over the last year or two, but I've got some bad news for them. Their problems are far from solved.

The last couple of seasons only continued a trend toward more explosive offense and away from the suffocating defense that was the SEC's trademark for many years. Just a few seasons ago, nearly every SEC defense ranked among the nation's top half in terms of yards allowed. That's no longer the case, as about half of the league's defenses trended toward the bottom in 2013 -- with Arkansas (76th), Missouri (81st), Tennessee (83rd), Auburn (86th), Kentucky (91st) and Texas A&M (109th) all ranking 75th or worse nationally in total defense.

Getting rid of some great quarterbacks will certainly help improve those numbers, but this is no longer the smashmouth, pound-the-run league that it once was. It's not as simple to defend what today's offenses throw at you as it was during the I-formation days of yore, and several SEC defenses have a long way to go before anyone would consider them competent at containing such attacks.

You have Gus Malzahn's ground-based spread at Auburn, which led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game and nearly carried the Tigers to a BCS crown. There's Missouri's version that featured one of the league's top rushing attacks and some dangerous (and huge) weapons at wideout. Kevin Sumlin's spread at Texas A&M obviously benefited from having Manziel as the triggerman, but the Aggies are still going to post big numbers even without Johnny Football.

And you've still got versatile offensive schemes such as those at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Georgia -- all of which will start senior quarterbacks -- that will almost certainly continue to produce on the ground and through the air. Wild cards LSU, Florida and Mississippi State also have the potential to be impressive on offense depending on how their quarterbacks and young skill players develop.

Add it all up and it still looks like 2014 will still be a promising year for SEC offenses, even if it might not match the production from a period that featured some of the league's best quarterback talent in at least a generation.

That said, the league will still have its share of defensive stalwarts, and that group might even grow a bit larger this fall.

Alabama's defense is always one of the best, and a talented Florida team should take a step forward after injuries crippled it a season ago. South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State all look to be impressive, while Georgia returns most of its starters and scored points in convincing Jeremy Pruitt to defect from Florida State to become its new defensive coordinator.

Those groups should be fine. If the league is to recover some of its defensive reputation, however, it will be a matter of the league's worst defenses suddenly getting their acts together -- and that will be a tall order since some of them were truly awful last season.

So to answer the original question, will SEC defenses improve this season? Sure, but don't expect a defensive renaissance to occur anytime soon. As long as the league features this many innovative offensive minds and explosive playmakers, the days where most SEC teams dominated the national defensive rankings are not coming back.
Over the span of their careers they threw for 48,824 passing yards. There were a total 403 touchdown passes among them, and they won 184 games in which they appeared, including 11 bowls and two national championships. They were, arguably, the most talented and productive class of quarterbacks ever to play in the SEC at one time. And now they’re all gone.

[+] EnlargeDylan Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson saw a lot of playing time last season when Connor Shaw went out.
The SEC had to say goodbye to James Franklin, Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw in January. The void they leave behind is enormous, and while some programs already have an idea of who will take their place next season, not all are so lucky.

We’re counting down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, in no particular order of importance. First, how do you replace all the veteran quarterbacks the league enjoyed in 2013?

When spring camps open over the next few weeks -- the first being Texas A&M on Friday -- that question will begin to be answered. With each snap and each team meeting, leaders will emerge. Some staffs will look for a winner heading into the summer so they can avoid a quarterback controversy come fall, while others will have to sweat it out through the offseason.

Texas A&M: Surprises will undoubtedly occur, as we saw only a few years ago when a scrappy freshman from Kerrville, Texas, beat out the presumptive favorite to land the starting job at Texas A&M. The Aggies stumbled upon Manziel, and Jameill Showers was quickly forgotten. Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel are this year’s frontrunners, but they’ll have competition in another freshman nipping at their heels in Kyle Allen. The Arizona native is more of a pure passer than a running quarterback, but he has the tools to sling the ball around in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he saidDylan Thompson is “without question going to be our quarterback.” He even asked, “Why open it up when he’s the only one who’s played?” Thompson, a rising senior, doesn’t have the athleticism to break containment quite like Shaw, but Thompson can still move the chains with his feet when necessary. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound South Carolina native doesn’t lack for arm strength and might even have more pure throwing ability than Shaw. But where Thompson must match Shaw is intangibles. There wasn’t a more dynamic leader in the SEC than Shaw last year, and the Gamecocks will miss that kind of will power under center in 2014. While the starting job is Thompson’s to lose, don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. The former four-star recruit could push Thompson this spring.

Missouri: The race to replace Franklin comes down to one quarterback and one quarterback alone: Maty Mauk. The rising redshirt sophomore showed last season that he can control the offense, starting four games in which he averaged 227.5 yards, 2.5 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game. More importantly, he won three of the four games with the only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. He’ll learn from that experience and take over a team that will be moving on from the loss of big-time playmakers Henry Josey, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Having the ultra-talented Dorial Green-Beckham back will help, but an arrest on drug charges in January has clouded his future.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cornwell
Courtesy of Cornwell familyEarly enrollee and former four-star recruit David Cornwell will get his shot at Alabama's starting QB job this spring.
LSU: The Tigers faithful got a sneak peek at their next quarterback, Anthony Jennings, after Mettenberger tore his ACL and was forced to miss LSU’s bowl game. The rising sophomore didn’t drop anyone’s jaw against Iowa, but he did just enough, throwing for 82 yards on 7 of 19 passing, while letting his supporting cast do the heavy lifting. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, Jennings has the look of a starting quarterback in the SEC. The former four-star recruit played sparingly in 2013, though, attempting just 10 passes prior to the Outback Bowl. He’ll have to contend with Brandon Harris, ESPN’s No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat passer in the 2014 class, along with rising senior Rob Bolden and rising sophomore Hayden Rettig.

Georgia: Despite what wasn’t a great performance to end last season -- 21-of-39 for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Nebraska -- Hutson Mason is still the overwhelming favorite to replace Murray. Why? Because Mark Richt and the coaching staff have essentially been grooming Mason to take over for years now, redshirting him in 2012 so he would have a year left to play in 2014. Mason was once a three-star quarterback who put up huge numbers running the spread at Lassiter High School in nearby Marietta, and with Todd Gurley behind him, he won’t be asked to do too much his first year starting. While he might be a year away, don’t write off Faton Bauta just yet. The 6-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore has impressed the staff with his work ethic and could find his way into some playing time.

Alabama: Oddly enough, the quarterback many presume will take over for McCarron won’t actually arrive until the summer. Jacob Coker, the heralded transfer from Florida State, will be a little late finishing his degree in Tallahassee, which leaves a big opportunity for the rest of Alabama’s quarterbacks to make a first impression. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will instead have his focus on Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman this spring. Sims, who best fits the mold of a run-first quarterback, has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he can play from the pocket. Morris, meanwhile, didn’t get much time as a redshirt freshman last season and needs to improve his decision-making from the last time we saw him at A-Day. Bateman and McLeod are relative unknowns after redshirting last season, but Bateman, a four-star recruit, does come with a lofty pedigree. The wild card is David Cornwell, the four-star recruit who enrolled in January and will benefit from the fresh start all of the quarterbacks will get under Kiffin.

2013 SEC Super Seniors

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
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For the fifth consecutive season, we pay homage to the top seniors in the SEC.

We’ve selected the best 12 seniors in the league, period, and not one senior on each team. These guys all rose above and beyond in terms of on-the-field production, leadership and overall impact on their teams.

There were a lot of tough calls, and this senior class ranks up there with any we've seen in this league. What that means is that several deserving players were left off. We looked hard at how players fared against league competition, their consistency and whether or not they were able to make it through the whole season.

Here’s introducing our 2013 SEC Super Seniors. They’re listed in alphabetical order:

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis made one of the most memorable plays in college football history.
Chris Davis, CB/RS, Auburn: Davis' kick-six to beat Alabama was the play of the year in college football, maybe the play of the last quarter-century. But that's what he did -- make plays. Davis led the league in punt return average (18.7 yards), tied for the league lead in pass breakups (15) and was second on Auburn's team with 74 tackles. It goes without saying that he was one of the key figures in the Tigers' improbable run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Much like Davis, Ford was one of the driving forces in the Tigers' rise from winless in the SEC in 2012 to playing for the national championship this season. Ford finished second in the league with 10.5 sacks, including two against Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and also tied for second in the league with 14.5 tackles for loss. He was the heartbeat of an Auburn defensive line that was clearly the strength of that defense.

E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri: Even though Gaines might have been overshadowed by some of the other marquee cornerbacks in the SEC to start the season, he demonstrated on the field that he didn't take a back seat to anybody. Gaines led SEC cornerbacks with 75 tackles and tied for second in the league with five interceptions. He was the essence of a shutdown cornerback, as evidenced by his work on Texas A&M star receiver Mike Evans, who had a season-low eight receiving yards, in the Tigers' 28-21 victory over the Aggies.

Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State: If you were to look up road-grader in the football dictionary, you'd almost certainly find a picture of the 6-4, 340-pound Jackson. One of the top interior offensive linemen in college football, Jackson was a rock in the middle of that Mississippi State offensive line. When the Bulldogs needed tough yards and/or key yards, they almost always ran behind big No. 61. Jackson started in all 52 games of his college career at left guard.

Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt: Go back over the last five or six years and count the quality defensive backs to come out of Vanderbilt's program. Ladler would be right up there near the top, and he saved the best for last with a tremendous senior season. He was the only player in the country (in the FBS ranks) with at least five interceptions and five forced fumbles and finished second among SEC defensive backs with 91 tackles.

Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: One of the best recruits the Aggies picked up last year was when Matthews decided to return for his senior season. He moved from right to left tackle and had an All-American senior season as Texas A&M led the SEC in scoring offense (44.2 points) and total offense (538.4 yards). Matthews excelled in pass protection, but was equally effective as a run-blocker.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiVanderbilt's Jordan Matthews made an SEC-record 112 receptions in the 2013 season.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt: Matthews leaves quite a legacy at Vanderbilt. Not only was he one of the centerpieces of a Vanderbilt team that won nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in history, but he set a slew of SEC records. His 112 catches this season were the most ever by an SEC player, and he's also the league's career leader in catches (262) and receiving yards (3,759).

AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron fell short this season of securing his third consecutive national championship ring as a starting QB, but he'll still go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in SEC history. The 2013 Heisman Trophy runner-up, McCarron was Mr. Clutch for the Crimson Tide and did some of his best work on the biggest stages. He was second in the SEC this season with 28 touchdown passes and third in passing efficiency.

C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Mosley blossomed into the ultimate do-it-all linebacker for the Crimson Tide and became the first player under Nick Saban at Alabama to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. But as good a tackler as Mosley was, he was just as good in coverage, blitzing the quarterback and chasing sideline to sideline. And as the "quarterback" of that defense, he was the guy who made the checks, got everybody lined up and helped clean up mistakes.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: Sadly, Murray's senior season was cut short when he tore his ACL against Kentucky. He'd been a warrior all season for the Bulldogs despite losing just about all of the playmakers around him to injury. Murray was brilliant in some of Georgia's biggest games, including victories over LSU and South Carolina and even the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. He finished second in the SEC in total offense (296.5 yards per game) and leaves as the SEC's all-time leader in passing yards (13,155) and touchdown passes (121).

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: Always a solid contributor for the Tigers, Sam emerged as a senior as one of the top big-play defenders in the SEC. He earned first-team All-American honors and led the league in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). His late sack and forced fumble in the AT&T Cotton Bowl resulted in a touchdown and was the decisive blow in Missouri's 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State.

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Arguably the most underrated player in college football, Shaw engineered the third consecutive 11-win season for the Gamecocks and battled through an assortment of painful injuries to have his best season yet. He finished with 24 touchdown passes and only one interception and accounted for 31 total touchdowns. His gutsy performance off the bench in the comeback win over Missouri on the road was one of the performances of the year in the SEC.

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
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Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

How they fared vs. SEC competition

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
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One of the most revealing things to do every year is going back and looking at how players fared against SEC competition.

The numbers always look a little different when you take out some of the teams that were sacrificial lambs. With that in mind, here’s a quick checklist of the league leaders and their numbers against SEC foes (not counting the SEC championship game):

RUSHING

1. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 988 yards, 6.2 yards per carry
2. Tre Mason, Auburn: 985 yards, 5.1 yards per carry
3. Jeremy Hill, LSU: 875 yards, 6.1 yards per carry
4. Mike Davis, South Carolina: 830 yards, 5.9 yards per carry
5. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 769 yards, 6.6 yards per carry

TOUCHDOWNS

1. Tre Mason, Auburn: 13
2. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 11
3. Henry Josey, Missouri: 10
4. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 9
4. Jeremy Hill, LSU: 9
4. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 9
4. Jerron Seymour, Vanderbilt: 9

TOTAL OFFENSE

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 394.6 yards per game
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 300.8 yards per game
3. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 275.4 yards per game
4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: 269.3 yards per game
5. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 257.5 yards per game

PASSING YARDS

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 336.9 yards per game
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 283.4 yards per game
3. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 257.9 yards per game
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: 246.4 yards per game
5. Zach Mettenberger, LSU: 244.6 yards per game

PASSING TDs/INTs

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 22/11
2. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 21/6
3. Connor Shaw, South Carolina: 18/1
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: 18/3
5. Maty Mauk, Missouri: 10/2

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMichael Sam had 7.5 sacks in SEC play, and Missouri players ranked 1-2 and tied for third in that statistic.
RECEIVING YARDS

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 122.5 yards per game
2. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: 113.4 yards per game
3. Jarvis Landry, LSU: 104.9 yards per game
4. Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss: 79.5 yards per game
5. Odell Beckham, LSU: 72.9 yards per game

TOUCHDOWN CATCHES

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 9
2. L'Damian Washington, Missouri: 7
3. Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: 6
3. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: 6
3. Kevin Norwood, Alabama: 6

SACKS

1. Michael Sam, Missouri: 7.5
2. Markus Golden, Missouri: 6.5
3. Kony Ealy, Missouri: 6
3. Dee Ford, Auburn: 6
3. Garrison Smith, Georgia: 6

TACKLES FOR LOSS

1. Markus Golden, Missouri: 11
1. Michael Sam, Missouri: 11
3. Dee Ford, Auburn: 10
4. Trey Flowers, Arkansas: 9.5
5. Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: 9

SEC lunchtime links

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
12:00
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Yes, it's Monday and we've survived the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award and everything in between. Maybe we can move on to the matter at hand: bowl season.

SEC 2013 wrap

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
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That cliche about history and its thirst for repeating itself really fits the SEC. Eight years after the SEC captured the first of seven straight BCS national titles, and 16 years after taking the first BCS title, it's closing out the BCS era with one final appearance in the big game.

The league needed a fresh face at a historic place and a little bit of luck to take its talents out west, but it only made sense that the conference that already owns nine BCS titles gets one last shot at another.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return against Alabama will live forever in SEC lore.
The team with the opportunity to bring commissioner Mike Slive another one of those shiny crystal footballs is Auburn. A three-win SEC bottom-feeder a year ago, the Tigers made the biggest turnaround in college football with an SEC title, 12 wins and some fantastic finishes that play on a loop in the minds of college football fans everywhere.

Auburn didn't have a smothering defense, but it pounded just about every team it faced with the nation's most dangerous rushing attack (335.7 yards per game). Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns), the Tigers' rushing attack, which features elements of the spread, triple option and power running, crossed the 200-yard mark in 12 games.

Along the way, the Tigers had thrilling endings in wins against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. The final two showcased a destined Hail Mary from quarterback Nick Marshall against Georgia and an unthinkable last-second, 109-yard touchdown return by Chris Davis on a missed 57-yard field goal attempt by Alabama.

With Auburn in the big game, that means that for the first time since Auburn was last in this game in 2010, Alabama will be watching from home. The Crimson Tide, which will be haunted by Davis' return for the foreseeable future, is headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and isn't competing for its third straight national championship.

The Tide seemed to have everything going for them until Davis took a chance. It bested Johnny Football in a shootout and topped LSU in dominating fashion late. But even Nick Saban and the Tide aren't perfect. A last-second decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal changed everything.

But in a year that was so un-SEC for the conference, it was fitting that Alabama missed the big one. Defenses were hard to come by, with only four teams giving up less than 350 yards a game. Only Alabama allowed less than 20 points per game (11.3).

Quarterbacks changed the dynamic of the conference with more shootouts than smashmouth games. Johnny Manziel passed (3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns) his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony, while we said somber goodbyes to Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw (still the toughest man in the game) and Zach Mettenberger.

Traditional SEC Eastern Division powers Florida and Georgia stumbled thanks to injuries. The Gators were hit the hardest and fell the most, suffering their first losing season since 1979, missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and losing to Vanderbilt and FCS Georgia Southern at home.

Then there was Missouri, which took the SEC East by storm in another bounce-back year. Headed by a high-flying offense, these Tigers won 11 and made it to Atlanta in their second year in the league, only to meet the buzz saw that is Auburn's running game.

Many things were different all around the league this year, but one thing remained the same: A chance at a national championship is still there. Once again, this league needed luck, but somehow the SEC found a way.

Offensive MVP: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: Mason was one of the league's most consistent players. He led the SEC with 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. He set an Auburn record with 23 total touchdowns and 2,137 all-purpose yards. In SEC games, Mason averaged 5.7 yards per carry and crossed the century mark on the ground eight times.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III, Michael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida CB Vernon Hargreaves III put together an sterling freshman season with three interceptions and 14 passes defensed.
Defensive MVP: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is a close second here, but he just wasn't as consistent as Mosley, who led Alabama with 102 tackles, including 56 solo stops. Mosley was the closest thing to a quarterback on defense that you could find in the country. He can play both the run and pass. He led Alabama with nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Newcomer of the year: With Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall spending a year at Georgia, he wasn't eligible. But our top newcomer came in and made an immediate impact in Florida's secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III started the final 10 games of the season, tying for first in the SEC with 14 passes defended (most by a freshman in Florida history). He also had three interceptions and 38 tackles.

Best game: There were so many to choose from this year. You had instant classics with Vanderbilt-Ole Miss, Georgia-LSU, Auburn-Texas A&M, Alabama-Texas A&M, Missouri-South Carolina and Auburn-Georgia. But Alabama-Auburn had the craziest ending of all. In a game that should have gone to overtime, Davis ended things with a remarkable return to give Auburn a 34-28 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Fans stormed the field, and the Tigers eventually found a spot in the BCS title game.

Biggest disappointment: Yes, injuries ravaged the Gators, but a 4-8 record shouldn't happen at a program like Florida. The most embarrassing part about the year was that home loss to Georgia Southern before getting blown out by Florida State. The Gators scored more than 20 points just four times, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were both fired at the end of the season.

Biggest surprise: Auburn went from winning just three games a year ago to playing in the national championship in Malzahn's first season. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total offense last year (305) and head into bowl season ranking second (505.3) in the SEC.

Tre Mason named SEC Offensive POY

December, 11, 2013
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The SEC awards for 2013 were announced on Wednesday, and Auburn running back Tre Mason was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year.

The awards were voted on by the league's 14 head coaches, and they weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

In a league that houses Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray, Mason stood above the rest after his record-setting, MVP performance in Auburn's SEC title game win over Missouri. Mason, a junior, ran for a title game-record 304 yards and four touchdowns in Auburn's 59-42 victory over Mizzou.

But that wasn't all Mason did this season. He led the SEC with 1,621 yards and a league-high 22 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and rushed for 100-plus yards eight times.

Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam were named Co-Defensive Players of the Year. Mosley leads Alabama and is tied for fourth in the SEC with 102 total tackles, including 56 solo stops. He averaged 8.5 total tackles per game and had a team-high nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Sam leads the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He also leads the SEC in sacks per game (0.81) and tackles for loss per game (1.38).

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn also won Coach of the Year after going 12-1 (7-1 SEC) in his first season as the Tigers' head coach. Auburn bounced back from a 3-9 season to beat rival Alabama, claim the SEC and a spot in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game against No. 1 Florida State.

Here are all the awards given out:

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Tre Mason, Auburn

CO-DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Michael Sam, Missouri

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Christion Jones, Alabama

FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

SCHOLAR-ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Aaron Murray, Georgia

JACOBS BLOCKING TROPHY
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M

COACH OF THE YEAR
Gus Malzahn, Auburn

SEC Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
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The SEC is headed back to the BCS title game. Stop me if you've heard this before...

1. Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 1): When you beat the No. 1 team in the country, then thump the No. 5 team 59-42 to win the SEC championship and get a spot in the Vizio BCS National Championship, your résumé really speaks for itself. Auburn is the hottest team in the country. Behind RB Tre Mason, a Heisman Trophy candidate, the Tigers have the nation's best running game (335.7 yards per game) and a wave of momentum to ride out to Pasadena, Calif., to take on No. 1 Florida State.

2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 3): While the Crimson Tide won't be playing for a third straight national championship, they are still one of the best teams in the country. The Allstate Sugar Bowl waits for the Tide, but if the playoffs started this season, Alabama would be right back in the title hunt and might be the favorite to win it all.

3. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2; LW: 4): The Gamecocks ended the season by winning five in a row. They were in the BCS hunt until Alabama lost, but their Capital One Bowl matchup with Wisconsin should be a fun one. Here's hoping that the long layoff helps DE Jadeveon Clowney heal for what will likely be his final game in a South Carolina uniform.

4. Missouri (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): The Tigers went to Atlanta with the nation's 14th-best rushing defense (second in the SEC) and left giving up an SEC title game-record 545 rushing yards. Missouri's defense looked far from sturdy against Auburn, but Mizzou still had a very successful season. A year ago, the team was sulking after a five-win season. Now, Missouri has 11 wins and is playing in the AT&T Cotton Bowl after possibly being a win away from the BCS title game.

5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): It was an up-and-down season in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers pulled off two big, late-season wins, including a blowout against QB Johnny Manziel and his Texas A&M Aggies. In the Outback Bowl, LSU will be without QB Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. But the future looks bright for freshman Anthony Jennings, who orchestrated a game-winning 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas.

6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): This wasn't the ending Manziel wanted. While he hasn't officially declared early for the NFL draft, it's a foregone conclusion that his days in College Station are numbered. After another successful statistical season, Manziel is headed back to New York for the Heisman ceremony, but two straight poor performances in losses to end the regular season could keep him from winning the award for a second straight year.

7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 7): If any team wants to complain about its bowl game, it's the Commodores. After finishing the season on a four-game winning streak and beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same year, Vandy is headed to the BBVA Compass Bowl. It was another great season for coach James Franklin and his team, and you better believe this team will be motivated against Houston.

8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3, SEC; LW: 8): The Bulldogs had wins over South Carolina and LSU, but losing QB Aaron Murray to an ACL injury and dropping games to Mizzou and Vandy in consecutive weeks really put a damper on the season. The defense still has a lot of kinks to work out going forward, but surrendered 400-plus yards only twice in November after allowing 400 or more in four of the first five games of the season. And back-to-back bowl games against Nebraska is head-scratching to say the least.

9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 9): A season that started on the rocks ended with two must-wins and a bowl berth. Dan Mullen's hot seat suddenly feels cooler, and the Bulldogs even got some love in the postseason by unexpectedly jumping into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Rice. Mississippi State clawed its way back to the postseason and should have a lot of fire in Memphis.

10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): The end of the season wasn't great for the Rebels, but this program has come a long way under Hugh Freeze. In his first two seasons, Ole Miss has made back-to-back bowl trips. Last season, the Rebels were a surprise team in Birmingham. This year, Ole Miss is headed to Nashville, where Rebels fans will flock. It'll be fun to watch that spread offense take on Georgia Tech's triple option.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): Butch Jones wasn't able to pull a Gus Malzahn in his first season, but he brought some enthusiasm back to a program looking to rediscover its pride. There won't be a bowl game for the Vols, but this is the time for Jones and his staff to hit the recruiting road hard. Tennessee already has the nation's No. 2 recruiting class, but now it's all about keeping that class together and building for the future.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): It's going to be a long offseason in Gainesville after the Gators missed out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and had their first losing season since 1979. Things will be uncomfortable and toxic between coach Will Muschamp and the fan base, but he can't let that seep into his program or have it affect his football team. With no bowl prep, Muschamp's first order of business is to keep his recruiting class intact -- especially the offensive weapons -- and get those prospects to Gainesville.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): The Razorbacks finished the season with nine straight losses, which was a school record and a new record for coach Bret Bielema, who just completed his first-year at Arkansas (his first head-coaching stop was at Wisconsin). Arkansas had a solid running game, with freshman RB Alex Collins (1,026 yards and four touchdowns) carrying the load, but the passing game was the worst in the SEC (148.5 yards per game).

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): Mark Stoops' first season in Kentucky was forgettable in the win-loss column, but the hope in Lexington is that his impressive recruiting class brings some real life back to the program in Year 2. What had to really irk the defensive-minded Stoops was that his defense ranked 13th in the league, allowing 427.2 yards per game and an SEC-worst 31.2 points per game. The Wildcats just didn't have the endurance to keep up in SEC play and have now lost 16 straight against SEC competition.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 4, 2013
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Like Georgia QB Aaron Murray before him, it's tough to see a senior like LSU's Zach Mettenberger get hurt before he has a chance to play his final bowl game and ride off into the sunset. Here's to good health in the NFL.

SEC Week 14 primer

November, 30, 2013
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Finally, a full slate of SEC games after a couple of weeks of scattered byes and FCS opponents. And what a slate it is.

Seven games remain after Thursday's Egg Bowl and Friday's Arkansas-LSU game, none bigger than No. 1 Alabama at No. 4 Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl. One of the best rivalries in college football has a lot more juice this year, as it's only the second time Alabama and Auburn will play when both are ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall, Gus Malzahn
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and Nick Marshall lead Auburn past No. 1 Alabama?
Hundreds of RVs started arriving on the Plains last week in anticipation of today's battle for SEC West supremacy and the right to represent the division in Atlanta for the SEC championship game next week. Coming off a bye week, the Tigers have a chance to cap their remarkable turnaround season with an upset many thought improbable before the season began.

And while it might be a victory for AU to simply be in a game of this magnitude after going Oh-for-the-SEC last season, try telling Gus Malzahn or QB Nick Marshall to settle for a consolation prize. Alabama's Nick Saban and QB AJ McCarron, on the other hand, look to extend their already loaded legacies with another shot at postseason glory.

The next biggest game on today's slate will decide who represents the SEC East in Atlanta, as Missouri plays host to Texas A&M. These Tigers have a turnaround season of their own brewing, having gone 5-7 with a 2-6 conference record in their first shot at the SEC last year. What better way to complete the 180 and win a division crown than to face the team they came into the SEC with last season?

When the two met for the first time as SEC foes last year in College Station, Texas, Johnny Manziel was 32-of-44 passing for 372 yards and three TDs while running for 67 yards and two more scores. The Aggies cruised in a 59-29 romp that sealed Manziel's Heisman Trophy résumé. This season, Johnny Football is again vying for the Heisman, but he's coming off the worst loss of his career and coach Kevin Sumlin's brief tenure at A&M. The Aggies will have to prove they haven't lost their edge as this season's goals have dwindled. Mizzou, on the other hand, expects to be on a high with a sold-out, black-out-attired crowd urging on what would be one of the biggest wins in school history.

Waiting in the wings for Missouri to falter is South Carolina, which plays at home in its annual game against in-state rival Clemson. This Palmetto State showdown is a star-studded affair that features two top-10 teams, but the recent history is lopsided in the Gamecocks' favor. Clemson's record-breaking senior QB Tajh Boyd has never beaten South Carolina and will have to shake off the nightmares of last season's game when Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney set USC's school record for sacks in a game with 4.5. The Gamecocks have a chance to do something they've never done before in a series that began in 1896 -- win five games in a row.

Another SEC-ACC showdown looks far less competitive down in the Sunshine State, where sad-sack Florida has the daunting task of trying to end its epic six-game losing streak against the powerhouse No. 2 team in the nation, Florida State. Aside from an unbeaten season, the prospect of a BCS championship game berth and a Heisman Trophy for redshirt freshman sensation Jameis Winston on the line, the Seminoles have a score to settle after last season's 37-26 collapse against the Gators in Tallahassee. Always one of the more physical and intense rivalry games in the nation, Florida-Florida State this year feels more like a mismatch, as the Gators have suffered enough injuries and humiliation to last decades.

The other two SEC-ACC games are also somewhat subdued by recent events, as Georgia visits Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt plays host to Wake Forest. The Bulldogs are still reeling from the loss of star quarterback Aaron Murray, who suffered a torn ACL last week. He will be replaced by Hutson Mason, a fourth-year junior who has the confidence of his coaches and teammates. The taller task for Georgia today will be stopping the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack.

After beating three straight SEC East foes, Vanderbilt and coach James Franklin have already made history with a third consecutive season that will culminate in a bowl appearance. Facing the Demon Deacons simply provides another opportunity to extend an amazing streak of wins in the month of November. The Commodores haven't lost in November since 2011 and haven't lost to Wake since 2010, before Franklin arrived.

Rounding out the conference schedule is UK's annual tilt with Tennessee, two of the league's bottom-three teams. Had they upset Vanderbilt last week, Butch Jones' Vols could have been playing for a feel-good bowl berth, but the Dores pulled out a last-second comeback and ripped UT's heart out on a fake jump-pass quarterback keeper. Mark Stoops' Wildcats, on the other hand, would be thrilled with any kind of SEC win. Kentucky is 0-7 this season after going winless in league play last year and hasn't won a conference game in its last 15 tries.

  • Florida State at Florida, noon ET, ESPN
  • Wake Forest at Vanderbilt, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC TV
  • Alabama at Auburn, 3:30 p.m., CBS
  • Georgia at Georgia Tech, 3:30 p.m., ABC
  • Clemson at South Carolina, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
  • Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
  • Texas A&M at Missouri, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

What to watch in the SEC: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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Call it rivalry week, hate week, whatever you like. It's here, and it should be as memorable as ever when matchups between in-state rivals highlight the SEC lineup. Let's take a look at some of the key points around the league this weekend.

1. For all the marbles: Have you heard the Iron Bowl is this weekend? If not, you probably don't live in Alabama. Allow me to fill you in. Top-ranked Alabama will visit No. 4 Auburn on Saturday. It's a game with major conference and BCS implications, as the winner will represent the SEC West in the league championship game. Likewise, the Eastern Division remains up for grabs. No. 5 Missouri leads, but must defeat No. 21 Texas A&M in order to represent the division in Atlanta. With an A&M win, No. 10 South Carolina will win the East thanks to its victory against Mizzou.

2. In-state hate: The Iron Bowl, which is likely the nastiest in-state rivalry of them all, will receive the most national attention this week because of its championship implications. However, it's certainly not the only place you'll find distaste for the cross-state enemy. It kicks off with Thursday's Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Then you've got Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State all on Saturday.

3. ACC vs. SEC: The ACC thought last season that it might finally break through in rivalry games against opponents from the mighty SEC. Then Georgia wiped the floor with Georgia Tech, South Carolina controlled its game against Clemson, and Florida used a 24-point fourth quarter to beat FSU 37-26. This weekend might be a different story, however. At 4-7, Florida is enduring its worst season in decades and enters as a decided underdog against unbeaten FSU. Georgia faces uncertainty with quarterback Aaron Murray sidelined when it visits Tech. And while South Carolina is favored by five points, No. 6 Clemson is ranked higher and is certainly capable of winning in Columbia.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsCan Johnny Manziel keep his Heisman bid alive?
4. Manziel's recovery: Johnny Manziel's chances of winning another Heisman Trophy took a blow with his stumble against LSU last weekend (16-for-41 for 224 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). They aren't dead yet, though. Manziel's numbers remain competitive -- he ranks fifth nationally with an 89.5 opponent-adjusted Total QBR -- and he has one final chance to impress voters in a marquee game on Saturday night. Missouri's pass rush has been impressive, so Manziel could place himself back in the center of the Heisman conversation with a strong effort against the Tigers.

5. Battle for the boot: How can it be that No. 17 LSU and Arkansas ranked first and third nationally just two seasons ago when they met? When the Razorbacks visit Baton Rouge on Friday with the Golden Boot trophy at stake, they will be 25-point underdogs. Certainly some of that point spread has to do with the Tigers' impressive 34-10 win against Texas A&M. More of it is that Arkansas has been awful for most of the season. The Razorbacks have lost eight straight games, by an average margin of 21 points, as they enter this weekend's finale. While the Battle for the Boot has often ended in crazy fashion, it would be a surprise to see this installment remain competitive into the fourth quarter.

6. Murray's replacement: For the first time since the 2009 season, someone other than Murray will start at quarterback for Georgia. The SEC's all-time leading passer underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he tore Saturday against Kentucky. The starting nod will go to Hutson Mason, who led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against the Wildcats. Georgia Tech has to like seeing a different quarterback under center for the Bulldogs, as Murray was 48-for-65 for 738 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception in three career starts against the Yellow Jackets.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJames Franklin has Vandy on the right track.
7. Will Vandy's run continue? Vanderbilt looked like a possible bowl team at midseason, but that was before the Commodores won four of their past five games -- and could complete the regular season with a four-game winning streak by beating Wake Forest on Saturday. Posting back-to-back eight-win regular seasons would make yet another statement about the progress the program has made under coach James Franklin.

8. Bowl bid at stake in Starkville: Not only will Dan Mullen's Mississippi State club (5-6) be playing Thursday to recapture some of the in-state mojo it lost to Ole Miss in the past year, the Bulldogs must beat the Rebels in order to achieve bowl eligibility. Mullen's three-game winning streak against the Rebels ended last fall when Hugh Freeze's club won handily, 41-24, and then Ole Miss added insult to injury by signing one of the most heralded recruiting classes in school history. It would be another embarrassing blow if Ole Miss beats the Bulldogs to prevent them from reaching the postseason.

9. Clowney vs. Boyd: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney harassed Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in last season's win, earning Boyd 4.5 sacks as the Gamecocks beat the Tigers for the fourth time in a row. Boyd finished 11-for-24 for 183 yards and tossed two interceptions -- one of which led to Dylan Thompson's win-clinching touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington. Boyd has been terrible in two starts against South Carolina, and he'll have to perform more consistently against Clowney & Co. in order to end the losing streak.

10. Tennessee tumble: There was a point when Tennessee was 4-3 and looked like an SEC East darkhorse after the Volunteers nearly beat Georgia and shocked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Then came a run of lopsided losses to three consecutive top-10 teams (Alabama, Missouri and Auburn) and a last-minute defeat against Vanderbilt. With Tennessee now 4-7, we know first-year coach Butch Jones won't lead the Vols to a bowl game, but his team could at least remove some of the bitter taste from its mouth by beating Kentucky, which has lost 15 straight SEC games.

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