ATHENS, Ga. – With less than a minute left, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was standing on his own 24-yard line inside Sanford Stadium. He had already directed the Tigers’ offense to 41 points and five consecutive scoring drives against Georgia’s defense, and was looking to play hero, down three points.
Mettenberger’s right arm had already gashed the Bulldogs’ defense for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns, so successfully directing a two-minute drill seemed imminent.
That was until Leonard Floyd found open space. In fact, thanks to a perfectly executed pick set by defensive end Ray Drew, Floyd flew off the edge and toward the less-than-nimble Mettenberger. Floyd’s eyes lit up, and the closer he came to his target, he said it felt like he was in slow motion.
Before his brain could properly register what was happening, Floyd wrangled Mettenberger to the ground to secure a sack that put the Tigers in a hole they couldn’t climb out of, helping the Bulldogs to a 44-41 victory.
“It was like I was walking on clouds,” Floyd said of the sack. “I woke a lot of people up because they were sleeping on me.”
Few will be sleeping on Floyd in 2014. Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and had 9.5 tackles for loss. He was second on the team with 22 quarterback hurries.
With a seasoned pass-rusher in Jordan Jenkins around and Ramik Wilson collecting 10.2 tackles per game, Floyd’s production largely was overlooked last fall. And that’s fine, because the former prep school standout rarely played to his potential last fall.
He and his coaches envision a much more productive 2014 season after an offseason filled with fine-tuning his skill and shedding some of his raw tendencies.
“Leonard Floyd loves football. You can count on that cat every day,” coach Mark Richt said. “… You rarely have to tell him twice on much when it comes to football. He loves it and he understands it, and he has the athleticism to do it.”
Floyd admits that his athleticism got the best of him at times in 2013. After being one of the best players on the field in high school and at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, Floyd said there were times he couldn’t keep up with the coaching or the other players when he started playing SEC ball.
He estimated “just playing” about 90 percent of the time, leading to subpar technique. He was conscious of what he needed to do, but it was a sloppy transition getting to that point, Floyd said.
So this spring, Floyd worked with linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer to improve his technique. He learned how to set the edge, use his hands more in pass-rushing situations and started staying more level with the quarterbacks he was ruthlessly hunting.
To enhance his pass-rushing skills throughout the spring, Floyd worked with defensive line/Will linebackers coach Tracy Rocker on different hand movements to improve his chopping ability with opposing blockers.
With new defensive line coach Jeremy Pruitt meticulously pushing to develop that raw talent, Floyd is starting to think less and play smarter within Georgia’s defensive scheme. Redshirt freshman linebacker Davin Bellamy even joked that Floyd is moving slower because he’s actually doing his job within the defense.
He might have slowed down some elements, but Floyd's staple is flying off the edge and at quarterbacks. That's what his immediate role will be with the Bulldogs, and what makes him even more dangerous is his ability to drop back in coverage and play in the middle, if needed. Floyd can even play with his hand in the ground, if needed.
“I should be better than what I was as a freshman,” Floyd said. “I’ll do anything to make a play. I’ll run sideline to sideline 100 times just to make a play. I’m trying to be the best player possible, so I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Pruitt has only spent a few months with Floyd, but he’s been impressed. Technically, Floyd could bolt for the NFL after a successful second season in Athens because of his year in prep school, but Pruitt is hoping for another year with Floyd. That’s when Pruitt thinks Floyd could really see him blossom into an early first-round pick in the NFL draft.
“He has a chance to be special,” Pruitt said. “He makes plays.”
And he should make plenty more in 2014.
Football season is finally here. When South Carolina and Texas A&M kick it off tonight (6 ET, SEC Network), the SEC will be back in full swing.
With that in mind, it's time to make some game picks. Each week during the season, our SEC reporters will pick each game on the slate, and we'll highlight the biggest battles and the ones that generated the most disagreement.
Why South Carolina will win: The Gamecocks have a lot of firepower and experience coming back on offense, while the Aggies still have a lot of questions on defense. Texas A&M should put some points up with its own potent group of playmakers, but South Carolina's defense will force QB Kenny Hill into some late mistakes. Feeding RB Mike Davis the ball in the fourth should help put this one away. -- Edward Aschoff
Why Alabama will win: Despite the attention on Alabama's quarterbacks, nearly the only thing that makes this one interesting is how the Crimson Tide's retooled pass rush and secondary will fare against QB Clint Trickett and the West Virginia offense. Whether it's Jake Coker or Blake Sims under center for Alabama, expect him to hand it off plenty and for the Tide to have their way against a Mountaineers defense that finished 101st nationally in total defense last season by allowing 455 yards per game. -- David Ching
Why Georgia will win: Hey, the Bulldogs might make fans nervous with their defense, especially with that incredibly unproven secondary, but the offense shouldn't miss much of a beat with QB Hutson Mason taking over. Clemson's defense has improved, but there are just too many good working parts on Georgia's offense. I have a feeling that some pounding from RB Todd Gurley and a major play from LB Leonard Floyd will get the job done for Georgia on Saturday.
-- Edward Aschoff
Why LSU will win: The Tigers are 9-0 in season openers under coach Les Miles, including four games against ranked opponents and six away from Tiger Stadium. Wisconsin is good in season openers, too (16 straight to LSU's 11), but Houston's proximity to Louisiana and the large number of Tigers fans expected at NRG Stadium should give LSU a slight boost. These teams are similar, but LSU's experienced offensive line against Wisconsin's inexperienced defensive front gives the Tigers a slight edge. -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Wisconsin will win: If this game were in November, LSU would be in better position. But given that the Tigers lost every key piece on offense (QB, RB, both WRs), it may be too much to ask them to go on the road this early against a top-25 team. Wisconsin may not have experience at QB, but it has one of the best tailbacks in the country in Melvin Gordon and an offensive line that could be special with four returning starters. -- Alex Scarborough
Why Tennessee will win: Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton can't beat the Vols by himself, can he? Even with UT linebackers A.J. Johnson spying and Curt Maggitt providing some pass rush, Keeton won't be stopped, but he will be contained. Coach Butch Jones says the Volunteers will play as many as 30 freshmen in this one, so there are sure to be mistakes. Tennessee has just enough talent to win a squeaker at home. -- Jeff Barlis
Why Utah State will win: This isn't your typical mid-major opponent. The Aggies won nine games last season despite not having Keeton for the second half of the season. Keeton is back, and this is the perfect game to jump-start his Heisman campaign. Tennessee is still a program on the rise, but with no returning starters up front and up to 30 freshmen expected to play, there are just too many question marks. -- Greg Ostendorf
More consensus picks: Ole Miss over Boise State, Vanderbilt over Temple, Florida over Idaho, Auburn over Arkansas, Kentucky over UT Martin, Missouri over South Dakota State, Mississippi State over Southern Miss.
These SEC openers are getting pretty routine for Clemson. The past two years, the Tigers started the season with wins against Auburn and Georgia. On Saturday, they face the Bulldogs again, this time in Athens, Georgia. Who has the edge? SEC reporter Edward Aschoff and ACC reporter Andrea Adelson debate.
Andrea Adelson: In the buildup to this game, nobody is giving Clemson a shot to win. I find that amusing, considering Georgia's reputation to underachieve. I know that Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins are gone, but the Tigers bring back several key players on defense -- including All-American Vic Beasley. Nobody wants to hear that since offenses generate all the headlines. And, well, Georgia has Heisman hopeful running back Todd Gurley coming back. But the Bulldogs have their own issues headed into this game. So tell me, Edward, why is Georgia such a clear-cut favorite?
Mason doesn't have to be perfect on Saturday, he just has to find his targets. Receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley are dealing with injuries, but Chris Conley, who led the team with 45 receptions and 651 receiving yards last season, has the potential to be one of the SEC's best this fall. He's tough enough to make plays over the middle and is a deep-play threat. Michael Bennett is tough and catches everything thrown this way, and the Bulldogs won't hesitate to use Gurley and Keith Marshall more in the passing game.
Speaking of Marshall, he's cutting and sprinting like he did before last season's knee injury, so that doesn't bode well for Clemson's defense, either.
While the Bulldogs will be able to throw, run and score for days, I do have concerns about the defense, especially that secondary. But what should help make up for the shortcomings is the nation's best linebacker group. Watch out for Leonard Floyd. He should have a breakout year and could be the SEC's best pass-rusher.
The game is also in Athens, where Georgia has lost just two games since the start of the 2011 season.
AA: Georgia definitely has the edge on offense. Nobody is going to argue that. Clemson players have repeatedly praised Gurley, who had a monster game against the Tigers a year ago with 154 yards and two touchdowns. But the running game seems to be the only real certainty on the offense. If Mitchell and Scott-Wesley don't play, who becomes the home-run threat to stretch the field? That is one key aspect in this game that cannot be overlooked. Gurley and Marshall are fantastic. But if Clemson clogs the box and slows them down, does Mason have enough playmakers around him to keep the Tigers honest?
The secondary should be a concern for Georgia. Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt is a senior with game experience (he owns the school record for single-game completion percentage) and years spent learning the Chad Morris offense. Freshman Deshaun Watson should throw a nice curve into the offensive mix as well, something not even new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can properly anticipate. Pruitt may have flustered the Clemson offense a year ago when he was at Florida State, but he has new personnel to coach and new personnel to plan for on the other side.
Now that we laid out our points, what is your prediction and why?
EA: I think this one will be tight until the end, with Georgia pulling away, 31-24. You might question Georgia's deep-play ability, but Conley will come up with the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth before Georgia's defense makes a last-minute stop. I'm going out on a limb to say Floyd will be a major part of that final defensive drive for the Bulldogs.
AA: I am going with the upset in this one. I think Clemson's defense will make a huge difference, forcing several turnovers. Stoudt, Watson and the Clemson receivers will make their names known against a patchwork secondary. Clemson wins, 28-27.
So just how many SEC teams will play in the inaugural College Football Playoff? The conference utterly dominated the top of the BCS standings over the past decade and claimed seven of the last eight national titles. Eight SEC teams were voted into the preseason Associated Press Top 25; five among the top 15.
According to our Football Outsiders projections, six SEC teams have at least a 5 percent likelihood to reach the playoff: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M. No other conference has more than three teams with odds that high. In fact, our projections show an 81 percent likelihood that at least one SEC team will reach the playoff, outpacing the ACC (78 percent), Pac-12 (61), Big 12 (45) and Big Ten (45).
But there is still a 19 percent chance the SEC will be shut out of the CFP in 2014. Inconceivable? Perceptions will shift quickly if the league doesn't dominate its nonconference opponents. And our numbers indicate that five SEC teams have to be particularly wary of an upset this week, starting Thursday with Boise State versus Ole Miss at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
There is a 65 percent chance that the SEC will be on the wrong end of at least two of the following games in Week 1, and only an 8 percent chance they'll sweep them all. This list, of course, doesn't include Alabama's neutral-site game against West Virginia, in which Football Outsiders' projections have the Crimson Tide as a 25-point favorite.
53.6 percent chance the Vols lose
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
2. The other major matchup this weekend takes place between the hedges where Georgia will host Clemson in a clash of Top 25 teams. The two played a shootout last year, but both starting quarterbacks have moved on to the next level. To me, one of the bigger storylines from this game will be if Deshaun Watson takes the field for Clemson, and if so, how much will the talented freshman quarterback play? Georgia expects to see Watson at some point even though Cole Stoudt will start for the Tigers. Don’t forget that it’s somewhat of a homecoming for Watson. The nation’s top dual-threat quarterback hails from Gainesville, Georgia, and Mark Richt made a strong push to flip the in-state recruit.
3. We’ve already seen Greg McElroy take center stage on the SEC Network. How about analysis from another former Alabama quarterback? John Parker Wilson gives his take on the current quarterback battle going on in Tuscaloosa as part of AL.com’s “Film Room” series. Wilson goes over some plays that might help make like easer for both Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, and if there’s anybody who would know, it’s him. He played two seasons for Nick Saban. Meanwhile, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t amused with the ongoing quarterback competition. Holgorsen said too much has been made about the position and that the offense won’t change much regardless of who’s under center. He’s probably right.
Around the SEC
- Newcomer Derrick Moncrief is living out family’s dream after long road to Auburn.
- Primetime opportunity: Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell excited for season opener.
- Rise of Pharoh: Coaches seek smart usage of South Carolina's versatile star.
- First-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has confidence in his starting quarterback.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Alabama is the most popular pick to win the SEC crown, with Georgia, South Carolina and Auburn also receiving support. The Crimson Tide are the only conference team picked to win it all, although only two of the panel's 23 experts picked Nick Saban's crew to win it all.
Click here for the full list of predictions.
And make sure to check out our comprehensive betting guide from Phil Steele and Will Harris.
Drive Through: SEC Preview
6:00 PM ET 21 Texas A&M 9 South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State 18 Ole Miss 9:15 PM ET Temple Vanderbilt
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State 24 Missouri 3:30 PM ET West Virginia 2 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Arkansas 6 Auburn 5:30 PM ET 16 Clemson 12 Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU