NCF Nation: Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia has offered boxing great Evander Holyfield’s son a scholarship, and the Dawgs seem ready to deliver the knockout. Plus, Kansas State hosts Auburn in one of the biggest games ever in Manhattan, but there won’t be a lot of recruits in the stands.

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South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson thought he had just ended the game.

With 5:24 left in the fourth quarter, and the Gamecocks clinging to a 38-35 lead over sixth-ranked Georgia, Thompson gift wrapped an interception for Georgia cornerback Damian Swann. The veteran defensive back scooted toward the end zone and an illegal block on the Gamecocks gave Georgia the ball at South Carolina's 4-yard line after Swann was eventually tackled.

No one could possibly judge Thompson's immediate assumption about the outcome of the game. With Georgia holding the nation's best player -- running back Todd Gurley -- in its backfield, you just knew that the Dawgs would pull ahead.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley never got a chance to give Georgia the lead when the Bulldogs had a first down inside South Carolina's 5-yard line late in the game.
But when offensive coordinator Mike Bobo could have just handed the ball to his freight train running back 12 feet away from the goal line, he decided to give quarterback Hutson Mason the opportunity to shine. What ensued was a bizarre set of events that included a perplexing intentional grounding play -- on first down, no less -- and a missed chip-shot field-goal attempt by the very reliable Marshall Morgan.

Minutes later, the Gamecocks were celebrating and rushing through their own set of hedges in the end zone to mob their fantastic student section.

"We were meant to win this game, and Georgia was not," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who improved to 16-6 all-time against Georgia.

That might be true, and though there were a lot of questionable calls and no-calls that helped the Gamecocks along the way (has anyone found the phantom hold that took away the early 54-yard Gurley touchdown?), not giving Gurley, who had 128 rushing yards to that point, the ball inside the 5 was a mistake of epic proportions. Everyone in the stadium expected No. 3 to get the ball, and he should have. Even if South Carolina had all 11 defenders stacked in the box, the first -- and only -- call you have to start the drive is to hand it to the best and toughest running back in the entire country.

Instead, Georgia gambled with the pass and Mason's penalty moved the Dawgs back 10 yards. Georgia eventually had to settle for a field-goal attempt that was missed.

"If I had to do it again we would’ve hammered it," Georgia coach Mark Richt said after the game.

Bobo wasn't made available to the media after the game.

At least Richt knows it wasn't the right call, but there is nothing that can be done about it now. You learn and move on, but this one will sting. There will be a lot of finger-pointing by fans, as the Bulldogs dive into the teeth of conference season. And this play could come back to haunt the Bulldogs if they don't make it to Atlanta for the SEC title game in December.

Forget all the craziness that certainly didn't help Georgia on Saturday, that first-down call will leave a sick feeling in Athens for months if the Bulldogs continue to look up in the SEC East standings.

We don't know if Gurley, who had already made a handful of dazzling/gritty plays before that drive even began, would have punched the ball in on first down, but he was without a doubt the best option in that situation.

SEC bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
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We're creeping closer and closer to the meat of conference season in the SEC. That just means things will get a little clearer in the bowl picture for the league.

We had a major shakeup at the top of our predictions with South Carolina's 38-35 upset win over Georgia, but we're still going with one SEC team making the College Football Playoff and 11 teams from the league making it into the postseason:

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

What we learned in the SEC: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
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Triple overtime in the Swamp? An upset in Columbia that was literally decided by inches? What more could you ask for? And it was only Week 3 in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonQuarterback Maty Mauk showed his mettle in Missouri's win over Central Florida on Saturday.
1. The SEC East race is wide-open: Had the ball been spotted an inch the other way, Georgia would’ve had good field position and one last chance to tie or win its game against South Carolina. It wasn’t meant to be. With the 38-35 loss, the Bulldogs are no longer the top team in the SEC. They’re not even the top team in their division right now. Technically, that spot belongs to Florida. The Gators are 1-0 in conference play after Saturday’s thrilling win over Kentucky, but they didn’t play like the East’s top team. Maybe it’s Missouri, which rolled over Central Florida at home. The Tigers are 3-0, and Maty Mauk might be the SEC’s best quarterback. Or maybe South Carolina is back after that much-needed win over Georgia. What happens if the Gamecocks run the table? At this point, nobody knows what’s going to happen. That’s why you play the games.

2. Gurley is still a beast and a Heisman front-runner: All week, everybody talked about Todd Gurley and how he’s the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and how he was going to run all over South Carolina. Well, he delivered. The junior rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.6 yards per carry in the loss. Those numbers might seem pedestrian for Gurley’s standards, but it was the broken tackles and yards after contact that were so impressive. Although Georgia lost the game, Gurley is the SEC’s top candidate to win the Heisman. The real head-scratcher came in the fourth quarter, when Georgia had the ball on first-and-goal from the South Carolina 4-yard line and tried to pass. Why not give it to Gurley? The star back should pad his stats in a favorable matchup at home against Troy next week.

3. Either Kentucky is much-improved or Florida is in trouble: The game wasn’t even over, and there were people already calling for Will Muschamp’s head. Florida obviously hung on for a 36-30 win, saving Muschamp's job for now. But what does the outcome say about the two teams? For starters, Kentucky is not the same team it was a season ago. The Wildcats came in confident, their defense played lights-out in the first half, and they were a play or two away from snapping their 27-game losing streak to the Gators. Don’t be surprised if Mark Stoops’ bunch ends up in a bowl game this season. With that said, it still didn’t look pretty for Florida. The Gators survived against Kentucky, but what happens when they travel to Alabama next week or when they have to play LSU and Missouri in back-to-back weeks in October?

4. Bielema isn’t going to change, nor does he have to: It was classic ground-and-pound football for Arkansas on Saturday, and Bret Bielema loved it. The Razorbacks flat-out dominated Texas Tech up front while Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams proved why they might be the best running back tandem in the SEC. Collins rushed for 212 yards and two touchdowns, Williams had 145 yards and four touchdowns, and as a team, Arkansas racked up 439 yards on the ground in its 49-28 victory. That’s a lot of yards regardless of the opponent. And no, Texas Tech is not an SEC defense, but Arkansas did the same thing in the first half against Auburn before falling behind by two touchdowns in the third quarter. This is Bielema’s identity. He’s going to run the ball until it works or until he gets fired.

5. Don’t sleep on the two Mississippi schools: Quietly, Ole Miss and Mississippi State keep winning games, and still nobody is talking about them. It was easy pickings Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama, respectively, but both Magnolia State schools handled their business. Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 316 yards and four touchdowns in Ole Miss' 56-15 victory, and since the first half against Boise State, he is now 58-of-72 for 857 yards and eight touchdowns. Mississippi State's Dak Prescott threw for 201 yards, rushed for 139 yards and scored twice in Saturday’s 35-3 win. Don’t worry, we’ll find out soon about these two teams. The Bulldogs travel to LSU next weekend, and Ole Miss hosts Alabama in three weeks.
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COLUMBIA, S.C. – The rumors of South Carolina’s demise will have to be put on hold for at least another week.

Left for dead on the side of Interstate 77, the Gamecocks headed into Saturday’s supposed beating as an afterthought in the SEC race. Forget Atlanta; South Carolina was just hoping it could play in another January bowl game.

After a 52-28 opening loss at home to Texas A&M, it seemed only logical that Georgia, a team many had tabbed as the nation’s best after its Week 1 thrashing of Clemson, would thump the Gamecocks right out of the SEC East picture.

But college football has a funny way of making us all look foolish and making the Head Ball Coach smile. After an hour-and-a-half weather delay pushed kickoff back to 5:05 p.m. ET and the skies opened up during the game, the 24th-ranked Gamecocks (2-1) held strong for a thrilling 38-35 win over No. 6 Georgia (1-1).

“Some wins are better than others,” said a chipper Spurrier, whose Gamecocks have won four of five against Georgia. “This one was better than most others.”

It was an instant classic that few saw coming, and now the Gamecocks are right back in the SEC race. In fact, with the schedule South Carolina has been blessed with, the Gamecocks are back in the conversation as the favorite in the SEC East.

Move over, Georgia, because again you’re looking up at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks on Saturday played like they weren't on the same planet as the team that sputtered around Williams-Brice Stadium during the first two weeks of the season.

[+] EnlargePharoh Cooper
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Pharoh Cooper scores on an 8-yard catch in the first quarter Saturday.
“You have no idea how close this team is. It truly is unbelievable,” said South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, who threw for a game-high 271 yards and three touchdowns. “… Even in the game when everyone was writing us off, we still love each other and we’re going to battle. That’s just the way that we play.

“I love this team. I love my brothers.”

The Gamecocks were far from perfect, but they were gritty. They were passionate and hopped up on "Sandstorm," played on six fantastically timed occasions.

Thompson picked apart Georgia’s secondary with ease. The middle of the field was wide open for most of the game, something Thompson admitted he saw on a lot of film during his game preparation.

Georgia running back Todd Gurley was his normal beastly self, but his 131 rushing yards weren’t enough. While South Carolina’s defense had a lot of bend with the dazzling Mr. Gurley, it refused to break at key moments and managed to contain him.

Gurley was going to get his yards, regardless, but what South Carolina did was put the game on Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason’s shoulders. Mason's inability to complete -- or really attempt -- big plays downfield allowed the Gamecocks to fill the box and put pressure on him, and he eventually had a costly intentional-grounding penalty in the fourth quarter.

Think about this: South Carolina gave up an average of 416 passing yards through the first two weeks, but allowed just 191 Saturday. That’s quite an improvement.

“I’ll tell you one thing: When we had to stop them, somehow or another we stopped them,” Spurrier said.

And things just kind of went the Gamecocks’ way in other situations. Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan set an SEC record with 20 consecutive made field goals and then missed two straight, including a 28-yard attempt to tie the game with 4:24 remaining.

As Spurrier replayed the moment in his mind, he couldn't help but briefly pause and look toward the sky while talking about such a historic pair of misses.

“Then their kid -- I guess he hadn’t missed a field goal in two years or something like that, 20 in a row -- and missed two tonight,” Spurrier said. “Sometimes, all you can say is it was our turn to win. We were meant to win this game, and Georgia was not.”

There’s no doubt that South Carolina has to get better, especially on defense. Opponents have converted 23 of 41 of their third downs, and this secondary is still susceptible to big plays. The Gamecocks' pass rush still has a lot of work to do, as well, which could put more pressure on the secondary.

But improvements were made in a game that saved South Carolina’s season.

The Gamecocks still have three opponents on their schedule that are currently ranked -- Missouri, Auburn and Clemson -- and there’s a trip to Gainesville, Florida, in November, but Alabama and LSU aren’t on the slate. The road to Atlanta isn’t open, but it’s not as congested as once thought.

This team will only get better, and we’ll be talking about the Gamecocks more than we thought we would before Saturday’s game.

“We still have all of our goals set,” running back Mike Davis said. “That one loss did not define us as a team.”

SEC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
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UMass at Vanderbilt, FSN
When these teams met last season in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it was a competitive game before a Vandy team that would win nine games locked down a 24-7 victory. UMass gave Colorado a scare before falling 41-38 last weekend, so reeling Vandy had better come to play or it might be on upset alert.

Central Florida at No. 20 Missouri, SEC Network
When last we saw UCF, the Knights were suffering a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in their season-opening matchup in Ireland. Mizzou is a 10-point favorite over the Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season before stars Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson jumped to the NFL, but the opener made it clear that UCF can still compete with Power 5 opposition.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and No. 6 Georgia are looking for a second consecutive win over No. 24 South Carolina.
No. 6 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina, CBS
Georgia's visits to South Carolina are almost always must-see TV, although these trips are rarely much fun for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Even when Georgia has won in Columbia -- and it has lost its past two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium -- the outcome has frequently been in doubt even in the final seconds. Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley should get plenty of work for Georgia in this one.

Arkansas at Texas Tech, ABC
Here's a fun clash of cultures for a national TV audience, which will see Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound face Kliff Kingsbury's passing attack. Texas Tech has a couple of nail-biter nonconference wins on its resume, while Arkansas is coming off a 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State. The home team is a narrow favorite here, but this could be a good one.

4 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 14 Ole Miss, SEC Network
This looked like a sneaky good game before the season, with ULL coming off three consecutive bowl appearances. But the Ragin' Cajuns absorbed a 48-20 beating from Louisiana Tech last week and Ole Miss dominated Vanderbilt in Nashville, so it doesn't look like an upset is in the cards for this one.

Mississippi State at South Alabama, ESPNEWS
This will be the first time an SEC opponent has played at South Alabama and excitement is high in Mobile -- particularly after the Jaguars opened the season with a win and Mississippi State struggled to put away UAB for a while last Saturday. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and company need to turn in a complete performance with a trip to LSU ahead next week.

6 p.m. ET

Southern Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama, ESPN2
Alabama gets another opportunity to kick around an overmatched nonconference opponent, just as it did last week against Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson Tide, a 48-point favorite, is that most of the starters should be watching from the sideline in the second half, resting up for a visit from Florida next Saturday.

7 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Monroe at No. 10 LSU, ESPNU
Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 against in-state opponents and most of those games have been blowouts, so there is little reason to believe this will be a close contest. That said, the Tigers' secondary should face a reasonable challenge from the Warhawks' no-huddle spread attack.

7:30 p.m. ET

Kentucky at Florida, ESPN
Wildcats running back Jojo Kemp (a native Floridian) poked the bear this week when he made comments about how good it would feel to beat a couple of his former high school teammates -- and current Gators -- and rub it in their faces. Kentucky looks to be a greatly improved team, but it will be a major upset if this game is still close in the fourth quarter, and Kemp's comments probably didn't help the Wildcats' cause.

8 p.m. ET

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, ABC
As with Kentucky, this is a major measuring-stick game for an improving Tennessee team -- going on the road to face an opponent that virtually nobody expects the Volunteers to challenge. Butch Jones' Vols have been impressive so far, but their inexperience along the line of scrimmage will be their undoing in this one.

9 p.m. ET

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, ESPN2
For the second straight Saturday, the Aggies can help SEC viewers get to sleep by drubbing an in-state opponent in a late-night matchup. Rice, a 31-point underdog, might put up more of a fight than Lamar did in losing 73-3 to Texas A&M a week ago, but it won't be much more of one. Kenny Hill and the Aggies win big again.
Todd GurleyScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley leads the nation in yards per attempt with 13.2 yards per carry.
It's a question that perplexes defensive coordinators and causes players to laugh: How do you stop Georgia running back Todd Gurley? Better yet, how do you stop this Todd Gurley?

Clemson certainly couldn't do it. After getting into the best shape of his life leading into the 2014 season, Gurley embarrassed Clemson's defense with a career-high 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns on -- wait for it -- 15 carries. Really? Fifteen carries?

Oh, and in the middle of all that foolishness, he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Sorry folks, but Gurley isn't a human being. I don't know if he's a cyborg or even from this planet, but there's a reason he played a character resembling Superman in teammate Chris Conley's "Star Wars" movie.

This version of Gurley, who is eerily elegant in the way he either bulldozes opponents or sprints right past them, looks unstoppable. So unstoppable that even Gurley wouldn't want the task of trying to tackle himself.

"Watching film and seeing how other guys get tackled, I'm not sure guys like tackling me," Gurley said. "I watch Clemson, and saw how they were tackling [South Carolina running back] Mike Davis and other backs, and it wasn't the same. I don't blame them. I'm 6-1 and 230 pounds. DBs are 5-10 and 180 [pounds]. Why would you want to tackle a guy as big as me?"

Step right up South Carolina, because that's your responsibility Saturday.

"I don't know if I've faced a back of Gurley's capability and is big, strong, fast, can run around you, can run over you, breaks a lot of tackles, has great hands out of the backfield," South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said of Gurley. "I can't say that I've faced a complete back like Gurley."

But can Gurley be stopped Saturday, especially with South Carolina's defense limping in and allowing 150.5 rushing yards (5.0 yards per carry) so far this season?

How exactly do the Gamecocks intend to stop one of the nation's best running backs Saturday afternoon?

"I don't know," South Carolina safety Brison Williams said with a chuckle. "… He's showed that you can't game plan against him."

In one respect, Williams is right to be hesitant with a real answer. How do you stop a train?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gurley registered a career-high 102 yards after contact and seven rushes that gained at least 10 yards against Clemson. In Gurley's career, he has averaged 46 YAC per conference game (2.8 YAC per carry) and has 89 rushes of at least 10 yards (which is tops in the SEC over the past three seasons).

That means you have to put a lot of hands on Gurley at the same time in order to bring him down and stop those tree trunks he calls legs from churning.

Do you push him outside or keep him running through the middle? Well, that's a tough one to answer when you consider this: According to ESPN Stats & Information, over the past two seasons, Gurley has averaged the fourth-most yards nationally per rush (6.0) inside the tackles (minimum 100 attempts) and fifth most outside the tackles (7.6).

"We have to have 11 hats on the ball," said Ward, who wants to stack the box more when Gurley is in. "We can't be tackling one-on-one, we have to have gang-tackling all day."

Through two games, the Gamecocks' defense has been a shell of its former self, allowing the fourth-most yards in the nation (1,133). South Carolina has been atrocious against the pass, allowing the most yards after the catch (454) of any Power 5 defense, according to ESPN Stats & Information. You think that will get Gurley more involved in the passing game Saturday?

Gurley has been stopped before. South Carolina proved that in 2012, holding him to 39 yards. He has missed out on 100 yards in 11 of his 25 career games. It must be noted -- and this isn't taking anything away from teams that legitimately contained Gurley -- that nagging injuries and the fact that Georgia just hasn't needed to run Gurley down in every game have played a part in that.

There's a very, very good chance that if Gurley were allowed to go all Playstation on teams (not leaving games ever), that number would be much closer to 25.

"He can do just about anything he wants to do back there, and that's what makes him dangerous," Georgia coach Mark Richt said of Gurley.

Gurley is just that good. Despite the nagging injuries that he has dealt with during his career, Gurley entered the 2014 season with 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns on 387 carries.

You think that's impressive? Well, ponder this for a second: Add his season-opening numbers, and he has rushed for just 50 negative yards on 402 carries.

"He's a horse, man," Williams said with a laugh. "He runs the ball real hard. He's a physical runner, he runs down field, he's fast and big. We can't have no one-on-one tackles, it has to be a group of guys tackling him."

Good luck.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has put together a top 15 recruiting class that should only get better as we head toward signing day, and Rutgers has a real chance to slow down Penn State’s recruiting momentum in New Jersey this weekend.


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ATHENS, Ga. -- Aaron Murray couldn’t do it.

Neither could Matthew Stafford.

Even David Greene wasn’t able to pull it off.

There is just something about Williams-Brice Stadium. Georgia has found a way to win its fair share of games there, but it’s never been by lighting up the scoreboard. D.J. Shockley, Quincy Carter and every Bulldogs quarterback since Eric Zeier can attest to that.

It was Zeier, way back on Sept. 3, 1994, who became the last Georgia QB to score more than 20 points in Columbia, South Carolina, winning a nail-bitter, 24-21.

“To think that the last nine times, the most amount of points was 20 — that shocked me when I read that stat,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt on Tuesday. “I knew what it had been for us when I’ve been at Georgia, but I didn’t realize it went back that far.”

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsHutson Mason and the Bulldogs will need to be more balanced on offense to have success on Saturday.
Not many people did. But just about everyone can recall the last two matchups in South Carolina. Georgia lost both games, scoring one total touchdown and 13 points.

That was with Murray at quarterback. If the current SEC record-holder for passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense couldn’t manage, what makes anyone believe Hutson Mason will?

If Georgia hopes to stay undefeated and in the thick of the College Football Playoff hunt, Mason, a redshirt senior in his first year starting at quarterback, will have to come up big on Saturday and break the 20-year trend of 21 points or less in Columbia. While South Carolina may be reeling, its offense hasn’t been the problem as it’s averaged 437 yards and 30.5 points per game.

Mason and the Bulldogs will have to keep up -- and not rely exclusively on the running game.

A steady diet of Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb beat down Clemson in Georgia’s impressive season-opening win in Athens two weeks ago. But the offense was predictably lopsided as Mason threw for only 131 yards and no touchdowns.

South Carolina's stack-the-box, dare-you-to-pass defense isn’t likely to be so susceptible. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has struggled the first two weeks of the season, but Richt called him an “outstanding coach” who has had “lights-out defensive teams over the years.”

Richt he expects a “bloody” game in Columbia. Both teams have “outstanding” running backs and “can pound” the football, he said.

“Everybody in the world knows we’re going to run the ball, and everyone knows South Carolina likes to run the ball,” said Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera.

But while Richt is looking for “a fistfight” and Herrera is eager for a battle in the trenches, there has to be some balance, and Mason and the Georgia receivers must be the ones to provide it.

Mason said he can sleep easier knowing Jadeveon Clowney won’t be on the Gamecocks' sideline, but he might struggle after being told of the 20-year streak of offensive futility on Tuesday.

“I probably could have gone without knowing that," he said.

More realistically, though, it doesn’t mean much to him.

“The past couple of years I’ve been here I can recall what those games were like,” he said, “... but I’m not going through the film library looking at the 1997 Georgia vs. Clemson game."

Mason does expect some stress on Saturday, however. The noise will play a big factor, he said, as will South Carolina’s expected defensive tendencies.

“You can’t be naive,” he said. “Teams are definitely going to understand that Todd is our biggest weapon.”

“When we get those one-on-one opportunities against South Carolina, we have to be able to take advantage of them,” he added. “If we don’t, we may still be able to find a way to win. But I don’t really like our chances if we can’t throw the ball effectively.”

It’s going to be tough sledding, especially with Richt announcing that wide receivers Justin Scott-Wesley, Jonathon Rumph and Malcolm Mitchell aren’t expected to play.

Despite that, Chris Conley believes his fellow (healthy) receivers will perform. He said to count on Isaiah McKenzie, Kenny Towns and Blake Tibbs stepping up.

With South Carolina playing primarily a one-high safety scheme, he said, “You force people to throw the ball.”

“That’s just a basic fact of football,” he explained. “... Scheme wise, there are going to be those opportunities to throw the ball, but it’s going to come down to us executing the game plan and being on the right page.”

Even with so much of the focus directed on stopping Georgia's running game, don’t look for coaches to air it out.

“I just want us to execute what we call,” Richt said. “We’ve got a long track record of throwing the ball extremely well around here, but I know our number one goal is to win and do whatever it takes to win.”

“That particular trend [of not throwing a lot] wouldn’t bother me if we didn’t have to,” he continued. “And I’ll say this: Hutson’s main goal is to win. He doesn’t need to put any pressure on himself other than doing the things that will help Georgia win.”

Load the box, center David Andrews said. He dares anyone to do it.

“We still need to be able to run the ball even if they do load the box,” he said. “If not, that opens up our passing game. It’s just a win-win all the way around.”
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ATHENS, Ga. -- The two teams are in very distant corners.

Three hours east, in Columbia, South Carolina, the Gamecocks are reeling after what coach Steve Spurrier described as an “embarrassing” loss at home to Texas A&M, followed by a so-so showing last weekend in a narrow win over heavy underdog East Carolina. Dylan Thompson has been solid in his first year starting at quarterback, but the real Mike Davis hasn’t shown up yet and the defense still seems to be trying to figure out exactly what its identity is.

Here, on the University of Georgia’s campus, the Bulldogs have every reason to feel on top of the world. After beating No. 23 Clemson in primetime to kick off the season, Georgia is a sudden favorite to win the SEC East and represent the conference in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Todd Gurley is a Heisman Trophy front runner, quarterback Hutson Mason is playing with confidence, and Jeremy Pruitt’s young defense is improving with each passing day.

But Mark Richt has seen this play out before. After 13 seasons leading the Bulldogs, the coach knows what to expect when the whistle blows and these two rivals touch gloves on Saturday in Columbia.

“I got a feeling this game could get a little bloody,” Richt said on Tuesday. “I think both teams are tough, physically. ... Before it’s over, it may get down to a bit of a fistfight.”

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Bulldogs
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsHutson Mason says the Bulldogs have found some swagger in the early going.
Whether it was said metaphorically or not, Georgia isn’t resting easy with its No. 6 ranking in both the Associated Press and coaches polls. It’s toughened up and “let [Clemson] kind of fade off into the distance,” according to Richt.

“The coaches did a great job of bringing us back down after that game,” receiver Chris Conley said. “I think it was Coach Richt who said, ‘Thank God for film,’ because that first day we came in and watched the film from Clemson we realized how many holes we had in that game and how many mistakes and how many times we were literally mere feet away from a run not being broken, a touchdown not being scored, momentum not shifting.

“We can’t allow those mistakes to come into a game again.”

There’s simply too much on the line not to be ready for a battle, said Mason, who expects South Carolina to load the box and force him into passing situations.

“We’ve kind of got some confidence and some swagger going into it,” he said. “South Carolina didn’t start off like they wanted to, but they got better in the second game. I don’t expect them to be the same team we all watched and saw playing against Texas A&M. ... They’re understanding more of their identity. Teams like that are dangerous. They’re playing at home, let alone that’s a really tough place to play. One or two things goes their way, as you’ve seen the last couple of years we’ve played there, it’s hard to get the ball turned and going our way.”

Mason said he expects a “big, physical, downhill, tough game” where it’s “may the toughest man win, so to speak.”

“You’re talking about if we win this game on Saturday we have a three-game advantage over them, and if they win they have the head-to-head tiebreaker over us,” he said. “It kind of seems like over the past couple of years that that’s what it’s come down to in the East.”

Linebacker Amarlo Herrera knows exactly what awaits in Columbia. It will be loud, it will be hostile and it won’t be anything for the faint-hearted, he said.

“Everybody in the world knows we’re going to run the ball, and everyone knows South Carolina likes to run the ball,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard-nosed game. Everyone has to come to play and come to hit somebody.”

“That’s my type of game,” he added. “I like to hit people.”
Let's put recent history aside for a second.

Though the winner of the Georgia-South Carolina game hasn't won the SEC Eastern Division since 2010 (South Carolina), if Georgia is going to go to Atlanta and play for an SEC title, the Bulldogs have to win this weekend at South Carolina.

I'm not saying a win against the Gamecocks on Saturday assures the Dawgs of a trip to the ATL in early December, but a loss will have them watching the big game from home.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRunning back Todd Gurley and Georgia hope to take over Saturday's big game against South Carolina.
Now, before Dawgs fans come tar and feather my cat, let me start by saying Georgia, which I picked to finish third in the SEC East at the beginning of the season, is clearly in the driver's seat in this division right now. Georgia has the SEC East's best, most balanced offense and the Dawgs appear to have an improved defense. Yes, it was only one game, but Clemson is no team to just lift your nose at, and the Dawgs made short work of the Tigers in the second half.

With that said, I think the East is going to be a beast for all of the top teams. South Carolina hasn't looked great at all through two games, but you have to think that the Gamecocks will be better come conference play, starting Saturday. Missouri went to Toledo and absolutely dominated in an environment that could have led to a disastrous end for the Tigers. All Maty Mauk did was shake off two interceptions with five touchdowns. There are still some issues on defense, but there has been no drop-off at the defensive end spots, and that could go a long way.

Then you have Florida and Tennessee -- teams with a lot of preseason questions. Tennessee is right where we kind of thought it would be right now, with the rebuilt defensive line outperforming the rebuilt offensive line. But quarterback Justin Worley has been impressive through two weeks, and this team has "upset" written all over it.

As for Florida, the Gators had their opener rained out, but they turned right around and trounced Eastern Michigan 65-0 over the weekend. Forget the opponent for a second, Florida's offense actually had a pulse and quarterback Jeff Driskel looked comfortable running an offense for the first time in a very long time.

Though Georgia currently looks like the East's best team, the Bulldogs aren't going to just walk through this division. In fact, I don't see anyone in the East getting through the conference unscathed, so there is no point in leaving a sliver of the door open for South Carolina. Georgia is going to have to fight its way to Atlanta because this side of the league is tougher than it was last season. And if the Dawgs fall to South Carolina, the Gamecocks will take a big, one-game lead over Georgia in divisional play.

South Carolina's schedule sets up very nicely. After Georgia, South Carolina travels to struggling Vanderbilt, hosts Missouri, goes to Kentucky, takes a bye, and then hosts Furman before a trip to Auburn. During that time, Georgia has three straight home games against Troy, Tennessee and Vandy, before going on the road to play Missouri and Arkansas. Those road games won't be easy, especially if Arkansas' running game stays hot.

Then, there's Georgia's annual meeting in Jacksonville, Fla., with Florida -- a team that will be better this season.

Losing Saturday makes the East that much more wide open, but a Georgia win will put the Dawgs squarely in the driver's seat for weeks to come, as the rest of the division beats up on itself. That could give the Dawgs room for error, should an SEC loss creep up on them down the road.

Georgia has all the pieces it needs to make an SEC and playoff run this season, but the first SEC hurdle comes Saturday in a place the Bulldogs haven't won in since 2008. For as good as Georgia looked in Week 1, things will get harder, but getting a win Saturday will take a lot of pressure off of the Bulldogs' journey.

SEC bowl projections: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
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It wasn't much of an eventful week in the SEC with so many teams playing weaker opponents and only one conference game, with Ole Miss routing Vanderbilt. As a result, there are no major shakeups in this week's bowl projections from last week's. Georgia had the weekend off, so it is still riding its impressive Week 1 victory to sit atop the list. We are still projecting only one SEC team in the College Football Playoff at the moment, though that could change down the road.

We are still projecting 11 SEC teams to make the postseason. Noting that these projections will fluctuate quite a bit throughout the season, here's our best guess after Week 2:

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

SEC slant: More RBs the better

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
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Gone are the days of Herschel Walker and Barry Sanders. We may never see another Eddie George or Ron Dayne pounding between the tackles for four quarters. Feature backs have gone the way of the dodo as more and more teams have moved toward multiple-back offenses. Part of it is the position's devaluation, part of it is getting the most bang for your buck.

There are no more workhorses

College football has, for the most part, stopped relying on one running back to shoulder the load. Alabama doesn't ask T.J. Yeldon to tote the rock 30 times a game. LSU spreads it around, too. At Wisconsin, Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon splits carries with Corey Clement.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon, Terrell Chestnut
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's T.J. Yeldon was one of four players to notch rushing carries in the Crimson Tide's win against West Virginia in Week 1.
Thirteen backs averaged 20 carries per game last season. In 2004, that total number was 23.

Despite having fewer feature backs, running games haven't diminished. Last season, 30 teams averaged 200 yards rushing per game. In 2004, only 19 teams reached that magic number.

By rotating in fresh legs, both overall production and effectiveness have improved. In 2004, 57 teams averaged 4 yards per rush or more. Last season 83 teams hit that number. Over that same period of time, the number of teams with a touchdown-per-rush percentage of at least 6.0 rose from 11 to 29.

In 2004, FBS teams averaged 58 runs of 10 yards or more. In 2013, that number rose to 70.

Two backs means double trouble for defenses

Over the past decade or so, coaches have learned that featuring multiple running backs is better not just for the player's health, but for the team.

In the SEC, only former Auburn player Tre Mason had more than 220 carries last season. Thirty-four players in the league had at least 400 yards rushing, compared to 18 in 2004.

When the defense wears down, Alabama can substitute in fresh legs. If Yeldon has carried the ball on consecutive plays, coach Nick Saban can bring on Derrick Henry. Good luck to the tired linebacker trying to hold on to that 6-foot-3, 240-pound truck.

And if that's not enough, late in the fourth quarter, Kenyan Drake can pop off the bench and sprint past the gassed defense.

"I would rather have guys touch the ball 15-20 times a game for every game all year than a guy that has to be a workhorse and do it 30 or 35 times, and at some point in the season he's not the same kind of guy," Saban said.

Take Georgia's Todd Gurley, for instance. Instead of hitting the defense over the head with Gurley, coach Mark Richt can vary the looks he gives offensively, throwing a change-up with the slippery Keith Marshall, a fastball with burner Sony Michel or a brush-back pitch with the physically imposing Nick Chubb.

During the first half on Saturday, Georgia had just 45 yards on 12 carries. In the second half, it turned up the heat on Clemson, rushing for 283 yards on 29 carries.

The NFL agrees

If you're a running back in high school, think about trying out a new position. As Saban explained, "It's the position that has the shortest shelf life relative to your career."

ESPN.com's Chris Low detailed the decline in the value of running backs for ESPN The Magazine. In his piece, he raised the non-existent interest of Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who won the Pac-12's offensive player of the year award one year, posted even better numbers the next and then fell all the way to the fourth round of the NFL draft. Low went on to cite this eye-catching statistic: In the past five NFL drafts, only three running backs have been top-20 picks.

Like the college game, the NFL has seen the number of one-back offenses dwindle. Even in Seattle, star running back Marshawn Lynch accounted for slightly less than 60 percent of all Seahawks' rushing attempts last season, sharing carries with the likes of Robert Turbin. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing attempts last season with 314. But that number pales in comparison to a decade earlier when Ricky Williams ran the ball 392 times.

It just doesn't pay to be a workhorse anymore. According to NFL.com, none of the NFL's 20 richest contracts for 2014 belong to running backs, and only Peterson cracks the top 28.

Missing the good 'ol days

The Heisman Trophy is, in all its bronzed glory, a sculpture of Ed Smith.

Who is Ed Smith you ask? Well, he was a running back at NYU in the early 1930s.

Unless you live in a time capsule, that should seem like a long time ago. NYU, after all, doesn't have a football team anymore. What's more, the Heisman rarely goes to running backs now. It used to, with 17 of the first 25 award recipients playing the position, but today quarterbacks have confiscated the trophy.

The past four Heisman winners -- Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton -- all played quarterback. Since 2000, 12 QBs have won the award, with only Alabama's Mark Ingram and USC's Reggie Bush breaking up the streak. And in the case of Bush, he had to return the trophy at the behest of NCAA investigators.

There's some hope this season with Gurley leading the Heisman charge after his three-TD performance in Week 1, but even so there are concerns about his durability. Yeldon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah are in the mix, too, according to ESPN's panel of experts, but whether they'll get enough carries to post eye-popping numbers is up for debate. Nonetheless, the majority of Heisman contenders are quarterbacks.

Don't expect that to change anytime soon. Because while multiple running back systems pay dividends for teams on the field and for players' careers at the next level, it does nothing to help their chase for the game's ultimate trophy.

SEC bowl projections: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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It didn't take long for the bowl projections to see a major shake-up with South Carolina's loss to Texas A&M on opening night. There's also a new SEC team headed to the College Football Playoff in the latest forecast after Georgia had what many are calling the most impressive win from Week 1. We still believe it's unlikely the league gets two teams in the playoff, though.

At this point, we have 11 SEC teams in all making the postseason, but there is still plenty of football left to be played. The projections will fluctuate throughout the season, but here's our best guess after Week 1.

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Georgia
Orange Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Capital One Bowl: Texas A&M
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: South Carolina
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Mississippi State
Belk Bowl: Florida
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Missouri
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Ole Miss
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee
These are the best debates to have, the ones that don't have a wrong answer.

Would you rather have Georgia's group of running backs or Alabama's?

If you gave the 120 other FBS coaches in the country a choice, their answer would likely be, "Yes."

You can't go wrong with either, you see.

But for the sake of argument, we had Edward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough take sides.

Edward Aschoff: Don't get me wrong, I love what Georgia has at tailback. I think Todd Gurley is the best player in the country, regardless of position. A healthy Keith Marshall is scary, and those freshmen could be special.

But Alabama still has the best running back duo in the SEC with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Both of those guys could start at just about any school in the country, and they have health on their side. Yeldon has carried the ball 405 times for 2,469 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career and has missed only one game because of an injury. Gurley missed a month of work last year and Marshall missed most of last season with a knee injury.

What we've seen from Yeldon and Henry in the past two games has been nothing short of fantastic. The two have combined to rush for 411 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries. That's 6.3 yards per touch. Yeldon has had fumbling issues in the past, but the Yeldon we saw against West Virginia ran with that ball tucked tightly. He also ran with a purpose and looked faster than ever. He became the first back at Alabama to ever rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, and if he can continue to run with the power and speed that he displayed Saturday, he'll get to 1,000 again.

And that's even with Henry chugging right alongside him. I think Henry, who looks a like a tank on the field, could hit 1,000 yards as well. He's a bigger, more physical runner than Yeldon, but has that explosive speed to hit the home run ball. These two are going to absolutely punish defenses.

Don't forget about Kenyan Drake (982 career yards) or big ol' Jalston Fowler. When Drake gets on the field, he's the most dynamic running back the Tide has. He's the fastest and shiftiest of the three. He'll get more chances to run the ball and he'll show off that lightning speed and Playstation moves. Fowler doesn't have the speed that any of those other backs have, but he just runs people over. He's one of the toughest runners in the league.

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Alex Scarborough: It appears Aschoff beat me to the punch. The conservative in me -- don't even think I mean politics, OK? -- says to go with the backfield less likely to fail. And that, to me, is Alabama's. Yeldon has been the most consistent tailback in the county since bursting onto the scene as a true freshman in 2012. He's never had injury concerns and can do it all on the field: run, block, catch passes. His steady hand, combined with the dynamite talents of Henry and Drake, makes for a terrific trio at offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's disposal.

But if I'm going for sheer upside, there's no question in my mind Georgia is the backfield to choose. Gurley, when healthy, is the best player in the country, hands down. He's big, strong and explosive. Backs that well built aren't supposed run as fast as he does. Yet he's the one guy I look at in the SEC and know he can take over the game whenever he wants. Just look at Saturday against Clemson. He got the ball only four times in the first half. So what'd he do? He went in on special teams and took the kickoff 100-plus yards for a touchdown. In the second half he ran for 154 yards, doing everything he could to win the Heisman Trophy Week 1 of the season.

You think Henry is a beast? Just look at Nick Chubb. You didn't need to see the freakish Herschel Walker-type photo that surfaced of him this summer to know how physically gifted the true freshman is. All you had to do was watch Clemson's defenders struggle to tackle him Saturday. He was a bowling ball with jets, running around or right through would-be tacklers. No one in college football has a better yards per rush average (17.5) than he does (minimum four carries).

Oh, and lest we forget, there's also Keith Marshall and Sony Michel to consider. When Marshall is healthy, we all know what he brings to the table. But Michel, another freshman, has the chance to be special. He's a lot like Drake. Each time he touched the football against Clemson, it looked as if he was shot out of a cannon. Six carries for 33 yards may not sound like much, but watch the tape.

Good luck to the poor souls trying to tackle Michel, Marshall and Chubb after Gurley has pounded them for three quarters. With Georgia's emerging offensive line, it looks like power football is the way to go.

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