NCF Nation: Georgia Bulldogs

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Entering Week 6 of the college football season, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Georgia running back Todd Gurley have separated themselves as the front-runners for the Heisman. This week, Pac-12 reporter Chantel Jennings and SEC reporter Edward Aschoff engage in a friendly (-ish) debate regarding the two players:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesOregon QB Marcus Mariota is dangerous with his feet or his arm.
Jennings: Mariota is the best player in college football right now. The only thing that could derail that fact would be if his offensive line can’t keep it together and continues to put up performances like it did against Washington State, in which it allowed seven sacks. But when we come to the Mariota-Gurley Heisman talk, I’m really interested to see what your argument is, Edward. Mariota is a machine. As a quarterback, he has the highest passer efficiency rating in the nation. There are only 10 quarterbacks in the country who haven’t thrown a pick yet, and none of those signal-callers has thrown more than 10 touchdowns. Mariota has thrown 13. Then, look at his feet. He doesn’t even play running back but he still has about a third of Gurley’s rushing yardage and half the number of rushing touchdowns (Mariota: 214 yards, three touchdowns; Gurley: 610 yards, six touchdowns). Please, Ed, let’s hear your side ...

Aschoff: Listen, Mariota is a heck of a player. I think he's hands down the best quarterback in the country and should be the first quarterback taken in next year's NFL draft. With that said, he's no Gurley. He's a machine, yes, but he's more of a Prius compared to the Cadillac Escalade with a V-8 that Gurley is. The scary thing about Georgia's junior running back is that he's slimmed down yet he looks bigger. He's faster and more agile yet he's stronger. Gurley can bowl his opponents over, sprint to the outside and take a run to the house, or he can leave defenders dizzy with his elusiveness. Gurley has 610 rushing yards, but he should have even more. His coaches limited him to just six carries against Troy (73 yards), and the argument could be made that his 28 carries (career-high 208 yards) against Tennessee on Saturday weren't enough. Oh, and did I mention that this tank of a human being is averaging a gaudy 8.8 yards per carry and that out of his 69 carries this season he has just 11 lost yards? Take Gurley off Georgia's team and the Bulldogs aren't 1-1 in SEC play. You really think Mariota is better than that? He's flashier than that? Come on.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
David Goldman/AP ImagesGeorgia RB Todd Gurley has a rare blend of speed and power.
Jennings: First off, most people in the Pacific Northwest would rather be a Prius than an Escalade. Sure, an Escalade might look fancier and be in more music videos, but at the end of the day, don't you want the vehicle that doesn't require maintenance every other month? The vehicle that doesn't need to stop every 40 miles to fill up the tank? A vehicle that so many other vehicles of the future are going to be based on?

Anyway, back to the nitty-gritty, which is yes, when it comes to the facts, Mariota is better than that. His pass attempt-to-touchdown ratio is the best in the country: every 7.4 times the ball leaves his hands, it's ending up in the end zone. OK, fine. Gurley doesn't pass the ball. Let's talk about running again. Every 11.5 carries, Gurley ends up in the end zone. Guess what? Every 11 carries, Mariota finds his way there. He has the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in the country. And he has already led his team to a victory over a top-10 team this season. Everyone can agree a Prius is more efficient than an Escalade, and in football, it's good to be efficient. That's exactly what Mariota is.

Aschoff: I see what you did there with the Prius and the Escalade. But if I need someone to bust through a brick wall and grind out that extra yard -- or three -- I'm handing it off to that environment-destroying driving machine. While we're talking about rushing, which is Gurley's specialty, he's already had 19 runs of 10 or more yards in just four games. If you're keeping score at home, that's 4.8 of those runs per game. Two of those runs went for 51 yards. What has Mariota done? He has 11 of those runs and hasn't even touched a 50-yard scamper yet. And it should be noted that Gurley is excellent when he takes contact. It seems to make him better. He drags defenders with him like Linus drags his blanket. Heading into last week, he was the only player in the country to average more than 100 yards after contact in multiple games (102 vs. Clemson and South Carolina). In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, Gurley was incredible against an improved Tennessee team. He ran for a career-high 208 yards (and now he has 16 career 100-yard rushing games), had two touchdowns, registered 30 receiving yards and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. How good was he? Well, Tennessee had so little confidence in its defense stopping him late in the game that it attempted an onside kick with two minutes left and three timeouts remaining in order to try to keep the ball away from him. All Gurley did after that was run the clock out with 26 rushing yards on six carries.

But hey, that Mariota performance over Washington State was cool and all ...

Jennings: You're right. I'll give you that. Washington State might not be better than a 2-2 Tennessee team that has already given up 4.4 yards per rush this season (cough, cough, No. 81 in the nation in that category). But it's not fair to look at the most recent performance since the slates are so different. Let's look at both players' best wins so far. Gurley's was against Clemson in the season opener, no? He carried the ball 15 times, scored thrice and accounted for 198 rushing yards and minus-5 receiving yards. That's cool. Mariota's best win was Week 2 against Michigan State, a game in which he threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns and added nine rushes for 42 yards. Michigan State is one of the best defenses in the country. Clemson isn't even one of the top three in the ACC. Now, I know I was an English major and all, but 360 yards of total offense plus three touchdowns is still bigger than 193 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, right?

Aschoff: That Michigan State (still the Big Ten, though) win was huge, and Mariota was great. I'll give that to you. And Clemson, well, #Clemsoning took over a couple of weeks ago. But don't sleep on what Gurley did against Tennessee and South Carolina. The numbers aren't exactly helping the Gamecocks, but that was a great game, and Gurley did everything he could have ... when his coach wasn't throwing the ball on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Gurley averaged 6.6 yards per carry in that game, on the road. Before Gurley faced Tennessee, the Vols were allowing 3.9 yards per carry. Then Gurley went all Gurley on the Vols.

Both of these players are great, and you have a chance to win any game with either. I want the bulldozer in the backfield who can grind out yards or take it to the house. The good thing is that this debate should rage on because they'll have plenty of opportunities to make us both look good going forward.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Like many Georgia fans spoiled by the numbers and excitement former quarterback Aaron Murray generated during his illustrious Bulldogs career, quarterback Hutson Mason isn’t thrilled with the lack of a downfield passing presence within Georgia’s offense right now.

Four games into the 2014 season, Georgia’s passing game has been a shell of its former high-flying self, as Mason has yet to throw for 200 yards in a game and his longest pass has gone just 36 yards.

The good news is that the Bulldogs have just one loss and are a top-15 team, but Mason understands that this trend of a limited passing game can’t continue if the Dawgs want to make a run at the SEC title.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsShots downfield have been minimal this season for QB Hutson Mason and Georgia.
“We just gotta get better in the passing game all around,” Mason said. “From me to everybody else, we gotta get better.

“I’ll never apologize for winning a ball game. We did what we needed to do, but I will say we need to get better, I need to get better in the passing game.”

But when he was asked what it’s going to take for the passing game to improve, Mason admitted that’s the “million-dollar question.”

“Man, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “We’ll go back to work; I’ll go back to work. I’ll learn from my mistakes and all I can do is just keep trusting my protection.”

More importantly, Mason added, he needs to develop more chemistry and trust in his receivers. That right there is a major part of the passing game’s struggles. With Malcolm Mitchell nursing a knee injury and Justin Scott-Wesley dealing with an early-season suspension, Georgia’s receiving corps lost some valuable depth during the first month of the season.

Veterans Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, who have combined for 25 catches and 298 yards with two touchdowns, could be gassed from so many practice reps, and youngsters, like Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis are still learning.

Now, freshman running back Sony Michel, who has been exceptional in the passing game thus far, is out for a while with a shoulder injury.

While defenses have taken away the deep ball at times this season, Mason said there have been plenty of miscues, especially in the Tennessee game, by the offense. The biggest has come in the form of miscommunication between Mason and his receivers, he said. There were a few times last Saturday where receivers ran the wrong routes or didn’t hit their marks on routes. Some guys didn’t even turn around at the right time for certain passes.

Because of that, there’s been some trust lost between Mason and his receivers, especially when it comes to deeper throws. And while Mason admitted he’s been off on a few passes this season, the playbook has been limited because timing with this group of receivers hasn’t been as crisp as it needs to be.

“The more confident we get in each other, the more confidence I get in my guys, the more confidence we give [offensive coordinator] Coach [Mike] Bobo to call plays down the field, the better we’ll get,” Mason said. “That’s where it starts is execution, and right now we’re not executing so it’s hard for everybody to have full confidence in each other when you’re not executing it.”

Head coach Mark Richt said last Saturday that he hopes Mitchell and Scott-Wesley will return to practice this week. He also hopes to get senior Jonathon Rumph (hamstring) back soon, too. So help is coming, which should help open things up and should get some rhythm back in this passing game.

However, with the health of Mitchell and Rumph not a guarantee going forward, Mason and his receivers have to jell better. Mason said the passing game starts with him, and he hasn’t shied away from some of his shortcomings this season, but he also understands that the guys who need to catch the ball have to help out more, too.

“When you’re in there, you gotta execute,” he said. “There’s really no excuse. It’s my job to trust it, and if I don’t trust it then it’s not gonna work. That trust starts with you gotta execute it and you gotta make the plays. The more plays you make, the more trust Coach Bobo will have in throwing the ball down the field … and the more I’ll have trust in my guys.”

SEC bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
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Alabama was off this week, so it remains in the top spot as a College Football Playoff representative, but we have some movement in the next couple of teams in this week’s SEC bowl projections.

We’re moving Auburn up a spot in place of Texas A&M, which won but showed it might still have some work to do after needing a furious rally and a few breaks to escape with an overtime win over Arkansas.

Also, despite the Razorbacks’ loss, we’ll stick with them finding a way to get three more wins and bowl eligibility this season. They proved they’re a quality team that’s making progress, although they have a brutal schedule to navigate the rest of the way.

Here is our full SEC list entering the sixth week of the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Auburn
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Texas A&M
Capital One Bowl: Georgia
TaxSlayer Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Mississippi State
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Ole Miss
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Florida

SEC helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
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It was a very fun day in the SEC, and here are the stars of the weekend:

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: It was a record-setting day for the nation's best running back. Gurley rushed for a career-high 208 yards on 28 carries in the Bulldogs' 35-32 win over Tennessee. He also had two touchdowns, 30 receiving yards and 47 kickoff return yards. Gurley, who averaged 7.4 yards per carry, now has 16 100-yard rushing games with the Bulldogs. How impressive was Gurley? Tennessee decided to onside kick it with 2:14 left and three timeouts in the fourth quarter because it didn't think it could stop him. The Volunteers didn't, as Gurley rushed for 26 yards on the ensuing drive to ice it for the Dawgs.

Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: In a wild one inside Jerry World, but Kenny Trill showed out in his first pressure situation of his career. He had touchdown passes of 86 and 59 yards in the fourth quarter, helping the Aggies to a 35-28 overtime win over Arkansas. Hill made some incredibly clutch passes in the second half, but his biggest throw of the day came on the first play of overtime, when he hit Malcome Kennedy for a 25-yard touchdown that was the eventual game-winner for the Aggies. He threw for 386 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception.

Quan Bray, WR, Auburn: He caught just three passes but totaled 91 yards and had two touchdowns of 37 and 44 yards in the Tigers' 45-17 win over Louisiana Tech. He also returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown and finished the game with 189 all-purpose yards.

Edward Pope, WR, Texas A&M: He was Hill's partner in crime Saturday. Pope caught four passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. One of those touchdowns went for 86 yards. That score brought the Aggies back within a score of an Arkansas team that took a 28-14 lead late in the third quarter.

Russell Hansbrough/Marcus Murphy, RBs, Missouri: What a finish for the Tigers. The offense went from doing absolutely nothing to scoring 14 straight in the fourth quarter of Mizzou's 21-20 win at South Carolina. Hansbrough and Murphy were a major part of that comeback. The finished the night with 141 rushing yards and Hansbrough scored all three touchdowns for Mizzou, including that tough game-winner from 1 yard out with 1:38 left. Murphy's 22-yard punt return to Mizzou's 49-yard line set up the Tigers' final scoring drive.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
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With Saturday’s action complete, we’re more than one-quarter of the way through the regular season.

Can you believe that?

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the latest batch of games.

1. Texas two step: Tip your cap to Arkansas. If anything, the Hogs showed they’re worthy of being ranked in the Top 25. But if you’re Texas A&M, what are you thinking? You just got roughed up by a team that hasn’t won a conference game since October 2012. An undeniably one-dimensional offense racked up four touchdowns and 485 yards against you, 286 of which came on the ground. It wasn’t a secret what they were doing, and still, you couldn’t stop it. Your defense, the one you said again and again was better than the past year, showed it still has a long ways to go in the 35-28 overtime win. There were more missed tackles than an early-morning Pee Wee football game. Texas A&M’s offense is still plenty potent with Kenny Hill under center and a better-than-advertised running game, but without a defense to match, we very well could be looking at a team that’s less steak than sizzle.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesHutson Mason might need to be more aggressive to help take the strain off star RB Todd Gurley.
2. Need more from Mason: Georgia's Todd Gurley is a beast worthy of every bit of the Heisman Trophy hype he receives. But he can’t do it alone -- not for an entire season, at least. No matter how strong he might be, nobody can withstand that type of punishment on a consistent basis. At some point, Hutson Mason must step up and provide his star running back some help. Sure, Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Jonathon Rumph have all missed time with injuries, but Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jay Rome are a pretty good group of targets. Still, against Tennessee, Mason barely fit the role of game manager. Georgia won 35-32, but he completed just 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. For Georgia to make a playoff push, Mason needs to take greater control of the offense and push the ball downfield. Playing as passive as he has just won’t cut it.

3. Missouri isn’t dead: It was a fashionable move, writing off Missouri after the past week’s embarrassing loss to Indiana at home. But by going into Columbia, South Carolina, and beating the Gamecocks 21-20 in a hotly contested game, the Tigers proved they’re nothing if not alive and well in the race to win the SEC East. The loss to Indiana means nothing when it comes to that. The fact that Missouri has an offense that can score in a hurry (see its final two drives) and a defense that absolutely harasses the quarterback (see Shane Ray’s two sacks), means there’s nothing to say the Tigers can’t be the class of the division. That secondary is going to get better, and quarterback Maty Mauk should find his stride eventually. If those two things improve, Missouri will be as tough an out as anyone in the conference.

4. No standouts in the East: Five teams in the West are undefeated with hopes of competing for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff: Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The East, well, the East has a bunch of guys with obvious Achilles heels: Georgia has a great running back and little else, Missouri has an inconsistent passing game and a secondary that gives out yards like candy on Halloween, South Carolina can’t decide from week to week if it wants to nap or play football, and Florida must be kicking itself for letting quarterback Jacoby Brissett go to NC State. There’s no separation in the East because there are no great teams in the division.

5. But there’s real parity overall: Take Vanderbilt out of the equation. The Commodores couldn’t navigate the Big Ten with that offense. But if you put Derek Mason’s rebuild aside, you’re looking at an SEC with no gimmes. No one wants to play Tennessee after the hurting the Vols put on Georgia, and not with Justin Worley and that group of skill players on offense. No one wants to play Kentucky, either, not with A.J. Stamps, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith flying around on defense. And then there’s Arkansas. Who wants to see those big uglies coming at you? Armed with an enormous offensive line, a pair of bruising fullbacks and three workhorse running backs, the Razorbacks can wear down even the best defenses.
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ATHENS, Ga., -- With No. 12 Georgia (3-1, 1-1 SEC) defeating Tennessee (2-2, 0-1) 35-32 inside Sanford Stadium on Saturday, the Bulldogs matched their longest winning streak in the series (1909-1924).

How the game was won: This one was back-and-forth from the start, but it cooled a little as both defenses perked in the third quarter. Tennessee stayed in this one with some big throws from quarterback Justin Worley and some key takeaways, but Georgia running back Todd Gurley was too much for Tennessee. A late fumble recovery in the end zone by Josh Dawson proved to be the game winner for the Dawgs.

Game ball goes to: Gurley, who Georgia fans will tell you isn't getting the ball enough. And there were some questionable moments in Saturday's game when it didn't seem as though he was getting the ball enough. Still, he carried it 28 times for 208 yards and two touchdowns. All you need to know is that the Vols elected to onside kick it with two minutes left and three timeouts because they didn't think they could stop Gurley ... which they didn't.

What it means: This keeps the Bulldogs very much alive in the SEC Eastern Division race. Georgia is still behind South Carolina after losing to the Gamecocks a couple of weeks ago, but we all know no one is to be trusted in the East this season. ... Tennessee certainly isn't out of the East race, either, and is a much better team this season. Worley has really improved, and freshman running back Jalen Hurd could be a special player.

Playoff implication: Even though the Bulldogs are still behind South Carolina in the East, they are currently ahead of South Carolina in the polls. All they have to do is keep on winning, and they could find themselves in the final four. Having some teams in front of them lose, too, wouldn't be bad.

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Best play: With the game tight midway through the fourth quarter, Gurley did what he does best. He zipped through both lines and needed just one move to beat a lonely Tennessee defender before he was off to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown.

What's next?: The Bulldogs host a struggling Vanderbilt team next week before saying goodbye to the state of Georgia for the following four games. It doesn't really matter what the Commodores look like right now, they beat Georgia last season, and you better believe the Dawgs will be looking to exact some revenge on the Dores. ... Tennessee heads home to play rival Florida, which is coming off of a blowout loss against Alabama and a bye week. The Gators have beaten Tennessee nine straight times.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
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A look ahead at Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

Vanderbilt at Kentucky, SEC Network: The nation’s longest active conference losing streak will be on the line, and that 17-game skid could very well come to an end if Kentucky beats Vanderbilt. The Wildcats are coming off an impressive, yet heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Florida on the road and are heavy favorites at home this weekend. The Commodores, however, have won the last three meetings.

Tennessee at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN: Who can forget the overtime thriller these teams played in Knoxville last year? It was memorable not only for the outcome but also for all of the injuries Georgia suffered in a 34-31 victory. The Bulldogs are much healthier this season and are hungry to prove they’re still the team to beat in the East despite a 38-35 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 13. This will be the first SEC game for a young Tennessee team that is looking to make some noise in Butch Jones’ second season. A victory in Athens would do just that.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hill
Phil Ellsworth / ESPN ImagesCalling Texas A&M-Arkansas a big game seemed a stretch a few weeks ago, but Kenny Hill and the Aggies could have their hands full against the Razorbacks.
3:30 p.m.

Arkansas vs. No. 6 Texas A&M, CBS: After the opening weekend, it didn’t look as if this would be much of a game. Texas A&M looked unstoppable at South Carolina, and the Razorbacks fell apart in the second half against Auburn. Four weeks later, it’s now the marquee matchup. Bret Bielema’s squad has played much better since that opening game, dominating its last three opponents. With Kenny Hill at quarterback for the Aggies and the Hogs' three-headed monster at running back, expect a shootout in Cowboys Stadium.

4 p.m.

Louisiana Tech at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Not to overlook Louisiana Tech, but this might be the calm before the storm in Auburn’s schedule. Seven of the Tigers' final eight opponents are currently ranked in the Top 25, beginning next Saturday with a home game against No. 17 LSU. But first things first: The Tigers need to take care of business against Louisiana Tech. A victory for Auburn would mark the 300th win at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which opened in 1939.

7 p.m.

Missouri at No. 13 South Carolina, ESPN: Not unlike Georgia-Tennessee, this matchup stirs memories to last year’s game and the fourth-quarter comeback by Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks. It was Missouri’s only regular-season loss. The Tigers' first loss this year came much sooner with a home loss to Indiana last weekend, but all could be forgotten with a victory at South Carolina on Saturday night. The winner has a leg up in the SEC East. Oh yeah, did we mention "College Gameday" will be there?

7:30 p.m.

New Mexico State at No. 17 LSU, SEC Network: How does LSU pick up the pieces after last Saturday’s home loss to Mississippi State? The bigger question might be which quarterback will play better, Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris? The best remedy for LSU after a loss might be to get away from the SEC. The Tigers have won a FBS record 48 consecutive regular-season nonconference games, including a 38-0 record under current coach Les Miles.

Memphis at No. 10 Ole Miss, ESPN3: Don’t look now, but Ole Miss has crept into the top 10, and fans are already eager for next Saturday's home showdown against Alabama. You'd better go ahead and get your spot in the Grove now. That’s not the mindset of Hugh Freeze and his team, though. They know they will have their hands full as Memphis (2-1) comes to town, and they’re doing their best not to look ahead to the Crimson Tide.

UGA still hasn't recovered from UT win

September, 26, 2014
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Aaron Murray fans might remember last season's Tennessee game as one of the great individual performances of the ex-Georgia quarterback's career

Operating short-handed because of roster losses, Murray set up a fourth-quarter touchdown with a career-long 57-yard run, forced overtime with a touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten with five seconds left in regulation and helped the Bulldogs survive the Volunteers' upset bid 34-31 in overtime.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Jason GetzGeorgia running back Keith Marshall has not yet regained the form he showed prior to getting injured in last season's Tennessee game.
Mark Richt likely remembers the win in a far less sunny fashion. It was the point when a team that had designs on contending for conference and national titles started to crumble.

Sure, the victory was exciting and Murray played great. Yes, it kept Richt's Bulldogs in the Top 10 for one more Saturday after an exciting first few weeks of the season. But because of the series of injuries the Bulldogs suffered that day -- namely the season-ending knee injuries to running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley -- a high-scoring offense that had already lost receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the season and superstar tailback Todd Gurley for a month started to sputter.

Following the Tennessee win, the Bulldogs' record dating back to the start of the 2011 season was 26-7, and it seemed like they still stood a good chance of claiming their third straight SEC East title. Since that day in Knoxville, the Bulldogs are 6-5 and one could easily argue Mike Bobo's offense still hasn't completely recovered.

Entering this week's rematch with Tennessee, Scott-Wesley still hasn't appeared in a game yet in 2014, although Richt hinted he might make his debut next week against Vanderbilt. Same with Mitchell, who has missed 14 games since tearing his ACL in the first quarter of the Bulldogs' 2013 opener against Clemson.

But perhaps the most unfortunate injury from the Tennessee game was the one to Marshall.

He had existed in Gurley's shadow since the 2012 season started, but last season's Tennessee game looked like his chance to finally thrive as the Bulldogs' top back. He had enjoyed the best game of his career -- 164 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 75 and 72 yards -- the season before against the Vols and had performed well against LSU a week earlier (96 yards on 20 carries) after Gurley went down with an ankle injury.

But when the former five-star recruit crumpled to the ground after taking a shot to the knee from Cam Sutton while reaching to catch a first-quarter pass, he suffered an injury that to this point has prevented him from regaining the form that made him a perfect complement to Gurley during their freshman season.

Marshall has played sparingly this season, rushing 12 times for 24 yards before suffering another knee injury last week against Troy that will sideline him again for the time being. Freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb have emerged as stars-in-waiting behind Gurley, while Marshall has become an overlooked figure in Georgia's backfield.

Perhaps Marshall will return to the lineup and can still make an impact this season. Maybe Scott-Wesley will come back and build off the breakthrough performances he strung together last season prior to the Tennessee game. Same with Mitchell, whom many believed was on the verge of a huge 2013 season before suffering a freak injury while celebrating a Gurley touchdown against Clemson.

They won't be in the lineup against a much-improved Vols team this Saturday, though, and that's certainly not a good thing for Georgia. The Bulldogs still have Gurley, and their coaching staff has had more than enough practice turning lemons into lemonade since their visit to Neyland Stadium a year ago, so they're hardly the limping club that hit the skids after last season's overtime victory.

The Bulldogs have still fielded a serviceable -- and at times, truly impressive -- offense since then, despite all the injury absences. Eventually, Bobo might have all his weapons at his disposal once again. And SEC East defenses should take cover if that happens.

Tennessee defense set for Georgia test

September, 25, 2014
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Curt Maggitt doesn't have fond memories of the last time he faced the Georgia Bulldogs.

The Tennessee junior linebacker missed last season with a torn ACL, but recalls a dizzying 2012 road game in which Georgia was the last team standing in a 51-44 shootout. The offenses combined for more than 1,000 yards.

"It was like a basketball score," he said on Tuesday. "Too much. Too many points."

Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 in the SEC) heads back to Athens, Georgia, on Saturday for a date with the No. 12 Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1), who are averaging 48.7 points a game.

[+] EnlargeCurt Maggitt
Wade Rackley/Getty ImagesTennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt says he's ready for the challenge Georgia will present on Saturday.
Maggitt and his mates on Tennessee's improving defense are determined to not let this one get away from them. But it won't be easy. Vols coach Butch Jones this week called Georgia "the great challenge that lies ahead."

No hyperbole there. Jones expects his defense to be tested physically and mentally.

"Our young football team is going to find out what life is in the SEC with the grind that we are about to embark on," he said. "I think there is no secret. When you think of the University of Georgia, you think of their stable at running backs, and it is a stable. Very talented, very physical."

The Dawgs average 304 yards a game on the ground and run the ball more than 60 percent of the time.

The stable consists of junior Todd Gurley (402 yards, 9.8 yards per carry) and three true freshmen -- Sony Michel (206 yards, 10.3 yards per carry), Nick Chubb (114 yards, 9.5 yards per carry) and Isaiah McKenzie (71 yards, 17.8 yards per carry).

"Make no mistake about it," Jones said. "We have to be a great tackling football team."

Maggitt, one of just three defensive players remaining who played in that 2012 game, says it will take a total team effort to contain Georgia's runners.

"It’s not going to be just one or two guys tackling you," he said. "We’re looking for all 11 hats and try to swarm to the ball every time."

And then there's the passing game.

While Tennessee is properly focused on Georgia's running game, sophomore defensive back Cameron Sutton is aware of the threat that Georgia senior quarterback Hutson Mason poses if (or when) the Bulldogs get their ground game churning.

"They're great out of play-action," he said. "He's got those running backs back there to complement that passing game. So they all play together. It's just our job to limit their explosive plays."

Limit. Contain. That's about all a defense can hope for against this offense.

The primary focus is Gurley, whom Tennessee senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson called one of the top backs around. Johnson is another one of those three veteran Vols who in 2012 experienced firsthand what Gurley and Georgia could do once that offense got going.

Gurley was just a freshman in 2012. Now he's a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.

Johnson and Maggitt say they're ready.

"We are going to play our defense," Maggitt said. "We are going to swarm to the ball ... and he’s going to feel us."
Saturday will bring two teams closer than the 165 miles that separates their games.

Missouri's trip to face No. 13 South Carolina (3-1, 2-1 SEC) and Tennessee’s game against No. 12 Georgia (2-1, 0-1) in Athens, Georgia, stand as reminders of what inches can mean in a football game.

A year ago, Missouri (3-1, 0-0) and Tennessee (2-1, 0-0) were inches from huge wins against their respective Saturday opponents.

For Missouri, kicker Andrew Baggett clanked a 24-yard field-goal attempt off the left goal post in a stunning home overtime loss to South Carolina. At Tennessee, there are still haunting visions of Vols receiver Alton "Pig" Howard stretching across the goal line inside Neyland Stadium, seemingly giving the Vols a shocking upset victory in overtime against Georgia, only for the ball to slip out just before hitting the pylon. Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan nailed a game-winning field goal on the ensuing possession.

[+] EnlargePig Howard
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTennessee's Alton Howard fumbled the ball through the end zone during overtime on this play last season, and Georgia went on to win.
"Alton was making a play," Tennessee senior linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "If it hadn’t have been for him, we wouldn’t have been in the game. He was making plays for us all through the game, and he was trying to make another play and the ball slipped out. That wasn’t on him -- that was him just trying to make a play and help the team."

Two heartbreaking losses that didn’t exactly define either program, but have left faint scars that could be rubbed away with a little redemption Saturday.

"Missing those [field goals] is a bad feeling, but especially missing one like that last year is unforgettable," said Baggett, who missed two field goals in that game and actually received threats via social media afterward.

"Regardless, I have to make that. When it’s sideways on the ground, I have to hit that."

Both teams went down much different paths after those losses. They both rebounded -- Tennessee upset No. 11 South Carolina two weeks later and Missouri became SEC Eastern Division champion -- but the Vols missed out on being bowl eligible by one win.

Both teams have tried to put the losses behind them, but Saturday does serve as a platform for redemption for both teams. They can squash their demons from last season’s showdowns and get a nice jump in SEC play.

Saturday is the SEC opener for both teams, and wins by both would propel them to the top of the division and help them take a crucial lead on such a topsy-turvy side of the conference.

"This is where it really counts," Johnson said. "Every game really counts on this stretch, because it’s SEC play. We don’t have any SEC losses, so this will be a big win for us."

A Tennessee win against Georgia would show how far this program has come under second-year coach Butch Jones. With a leg up in the divisional race, this season's 34-10 loss to No. 4 Oklahoma would be forgotten.

For Mizzou, this is a chance to regroup after an ugly home loss to unranked Indiana last week. The defense surrendered 241 rushing yards and the offense was atrocious on third downs, converting just 5 of 16 attempts (24 percent).

"It’s kind of a coming-to-Jesus moment for us as a team," redshirt senior offensive lineman Mitch Morse said. "Really figuring out what we need to fix. We can bring more to the table, and that shows that we’re going to this week."

Last season’s loss to South Carolina was the only loss for quarterback Maty Mauk during his month-long stretch of being the Tigers’ starting quarterback, and he sees similarities in last season’s loss and last week’s performance against the Hoosiers.

"The main thing I remember is there was a lot left out there for us," Mauk said. "It was kind of similar to Indiana. There was so much more that we could’ve done, so much left out there, and to know that you were 3 points away in overtime, it’s frustrating.

"That’s going to be the motivation for us this week -- that we want to come out, start fast and finish strong."

Early Offer: Sumlin's message for Lodge 

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
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Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin sent a not-so-subtle message to former commit DaMarkus Lodge at his Tuesday news conference. Plus, Mississippi State captured a monumental victory over LSU this past weekend, but the Bulldogs are also winning on the recruiting trail.

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If you tilt your head ever so slightly toward the city of Birmingham, Alabama, you might be able to hear the light, yet almost sinister, cackle of Mike Slive, his fingertips rippling toward one another as the word "excellent" slithers through his teeth.

What has the SEC commissioner so happy? Well, just take a look at the most recent top 25 and all the chaos erupting around him in college football. The SEC leads all conferences with eight representatives in the top 25. Four of those teams are ranked inside the top 10: Alabama (three), Auburn (five), Texas A&M (six) and Ole Miss (10).

So can the SEC realistically get two teams into the College Football Playoff?

For now, that answer has to be yes. While the rest of the Power 5 conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 -- have lost steam or suffered losses to start the year, the SEC is sitting very pretty in the national rankings. It also helps that five of the SEC's eight ranked teams are unbeaten.

That's not going to last, as all five of those teams, which are in the SEC Western Division, will face each other in a bloody round-robin in the coming weeks.

Hello, strength of schedule!

Oh, what's that? The SEC faced soft nonconference opponents to start the season? Well, not so fast, my SEC-hating friend. The league has a 5-2 record against nonconference Power 5 opponents and is 3-1 vs. the top 25.

  • Alabama beat West Virginia, which held tight with No. 4 Oklahoma on Saturday.
  • LSU roared back from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin.
  • Auburn went on the road to Kansas State and won with its passing game ... and maybe some knowledge of the Wildcats' signals.
  • Georgia thumped a Clemson team that took No. 1 Florida State -- sans Jameis Winston -- to overtime, thanks to Clemsoning to the max!*
  • Arkansas is still running over and through Texas Tech after a 49-28 drubbing of the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Texas.
*Only true home win.

To put that in comparison with, oh, let's just say the Big Ten, the SEC is light years ahead. Through the first three weeks, the Big Ten went 23-13, including 1-10 against the Power 5 and 0-8 against the FPI Top 50.

[+] EnlargeGarrett
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsMyles Garrett (15) and the Aggies are just one of four SEC West teams in the AP Top 10.
The FPI (Football Power Index) measures team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. Its top four teams are in the SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Georgia.

With the exception of the Big 12, the other Power 5 conferences really haven't done themselves any favors. Florida State has survived two games it could have easily lost, while suspected darling Virginia Tech went from beating Ohio State in Week 2 to promptly losing to ECU and Georgia Tech. USC upset Stanford on the road then lost 37-31 to -- wait for it -- Boston College.

The SEC has received plenty of help from the other conferences, and I think it's very safe to assume the SEC champion is getting into the playoff, regardless, but here are some scenarios that could put two SEC teams in the playoff:

The wild, wild West
Before we go on, check out these notes provided by ESPN Stats & Information about the SEC West:

  • The SEC West is 22-0 outside the West, winning by an average of 34 points.
  • All seven West teams rank in the top 20 of the FPI, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC combined.
  • Six West teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP Poll. Arkansas isn't, but has won its last three games by 41.7 points per game.

Strength of schedule isn't going to be a problem for the West champ. For as tough as the West is, don't rule out an undefeated run or a one-loss run. We've seen it before ...

Let's just say an undefeated Alabama beats an undefeated Texas A&M close at home on Oct. 18. Alabama runs the table and wins the SEC. A&M runs the table afterward and sits in the top 10. Chances are that if A&M has just one loss, it has won some pretty good games, so you're looking at a potential top-five finish.

Alabama is in and with the other conferences in such disarray, it'd be tough to keep an A&M team out that would have (according to current rankings) five wins over ranked opponents.

Swap these two out for any West teams and it works, even Arkansas.

The LEast
The East isn't close to what its Western counterpart is this season, but that doesn't mean that an Eastern representative can't make it in. The easiest way is for the champ to win in Atlanta.

But look at Georgia for a possible two-team appearance. Let's say that South Carolina and Georgia run the table and South Carolina loses in Atlanta. Georgia, which lost only to South Carolina and is ahead of the Gamecocks in the polls, has a good shot at making it in with the West champ.

If both of these teams win out and South Carolina wins the SEC, I dare you to keep Georgia out.

Atlanta upset
You have an undefeated West champ upset by the East champ. The East champ is in, and after everything that West team did to make it through the gantlet, how do you keep that team out? Even if the East champ has two losses, I don't see how the committee could keep the West champ out based on body of work alone.

Hey, these are all hypotheticals, but they aren't impossible. The SEC got two teams into the BCS national title game in 2011 and almost got two in 2012.

Based on past BCS standings to determine a four-team playoff, the SEC would have gotten two teams in five times since 2005.

Don't count out the SEC.
Hutson MasonAP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtThe Volunteers' secondary will be a good test to see whether Hutson Mason can stretch the field.

Georgia's showdown with Tennessee on Saturday is the perfect test for the Bulldogs at this point in the season. The Vols (2-1, 0-0 SEC) pose the exact threat that Georgia needs in order to take the next step in its 2014 progression.

We know the 12th-ranked Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1) can run for days (they're second in the SEC averaging 304 rushing yards per game and lead the league with 7.7 yards per rush), but the jury is still out on whether quarterback Hutson Mason can consistently throw down field. We also need to see Georgia's secondary step up and show that it can start limiting the big plays in the passing game.

Look, the East is an absolute mess right now. There is no dominant team, but even though the Dawgs are looking up at South Carolina in the division after a head-to-head loss in Columbia, they still might have the best path to Atlanta. Having running back -- and Heisman Trophy contender -- Todd Gurley gives Georgia a chance in any game. And did I mention that the East is a total crapshoot?

But if the Dawgs are going to avoid another loss or slogging through conference play, they have to be able to throw the ball and stop the pass.

Mason knows this offense backward and forward. No one is debating that, but what we haven't seen from him is any sort of down-field threat. The longest pass Mason has completed this year is a 36-yarder to Isaiah McKenzie on the first play from scrimmage for the Dawgs against South Carolina. After that, Mason was reduced to intermediate passes against a defense that wanted Mason to try and win the game, meaning they were more concerned with Georgia's running game.

Think about this: South Carolina's defense, which had allowed 832 passing yards in its first two games allowed Mason to throw for just 191 yards.

You have to take advantage of a defense like that, and Mason didn't.

I totally get that not having Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley on the field takes away two huge big-play threats, but Chris Conley is a vertical monster and you can't sit there and tell me that no one else is able to run some deeper passing routes in that receiving corps. Whether there's a confidence issue there with the receivers or Mason, if Georgia's offense is going to take some heat off of Gurley, it needs to be able to spread the field more with its passing game, and Tennessee's secondary provides a nice challenge for Mason.

Tennessee cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Justin Coleman and safety Brian Randolph pose the biggest threat to Georgia's passing game so far. The Vols had yet to allow 200 yards passing until Oklahoma's Trevor Knight threw for 308 two Saturdays ago, but with two weeks to prepare, you have to think that this secondary will be polished for the Dawgs. but here's something that should perk Mason's ears: Tennessee surrendered five passing plays of 20-plus yards to Oklahoma.

Saturday could prove to be a real turning point for Mason, as a passer, if he performs well against Tennessee's secondary. The Vols won't make it easy, but it's a great way to boost his confidence if he can start to get into rhythm throwing down field.

As for Georgia's secondary, the combo of quarterback Justin Worley (721 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions) and receiver Marquez North (14 catches, 173 yards and two touchdowns) is a challenge for anyone. Worely has mad some fantastic throws during the early part of the season, while North continues to show why he needs to be in the conversation with the league's top receivers.

You also can't forget about Alton "Pig" Howard or Josh Smith, who have combined for 23 catches this year. Smith is still nursing a high-ankle sprain, but he hasn't been ruled out of Saturday's game.

Need a dynamic weapon to take some pressure off of North, well, the Vols have one in freshman receiver Josh Malone, who seems to be improving each week.

Georgia's secondary looked good against Troy, but so has everyone else this year. It didn't look good against South Carolina when Dylan Thompson torch the Dawgs over the middle of the field and finish with 271 yards and three touchdowns.

There has been a lot of rotation in Georgia's defensive backfield, and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has made it clear that he's going to challenge his secondary and put them in more man-to-man situations.

Well, this is a great game to see how far those guys have come.

Early Offer: Tough times ahead for UF? 

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
10:45
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Recruiting in the SEC is already difficult, but the difficulty in Gainesville is about to be ratcheted up even more as rival recruiters are already pressuring Florida recruits to reconsider. Plus, it was clear Saturday night that Oregon needs help on the offensive line, but the good news is that help is on the way.

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SEC bowl projections: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
8:00
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Alabama reinforced its position as a College Football Playoff contender by obliterating Florida on Saturday, while Mississippi State and Georgia also jumped in this week’s SEC bowl projections.

We’re also adding a 12th team -- Arkansas -- to the list after the Razorbacks crushed Northern Illinois to improve to 3-1. Arkansas has an awfully difficult schedule down the stretch, but we will give Bret Bielema's club the benefit of the doubt for now and project it to reach at least six wins.

Here is our full SEC list entering the fifth week of the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Texas A&M
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Capital One Bowl: Georgia
TaxSlayer Bowl: South Carolina
Outback Bowl: Mississippi State
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Ole Miss
Belk Bowl: Missouri
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Florida

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