NCF Nation: Georgia Bulldogs

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Try as he might, Georgia running back Todd Gurley just couldn’t find his legs.

The usual sledgehammer of a player -- so used to ramming through and trampling defenders – felt frail and out of shape during his first few spring practices. That came after he returned from complications stemming from a nagging ankle injury that plagued him for most of the 2013 season.

“The first three practices, every time somebody touched me I kept falling to the ground,” Gurley told ESPN.com last week. “… My legs were just weak.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley shook off some spring woes and plans on being a more vocal leader going forward.
“It was frustrating. Every time I tried to do a move or cut, somebody would just touch me and I’d just fall to the ground. I probably fell at least, like, 10 times in those first three practices.”

Gurley, who has rushed for 2,374 career yards in two seasons with the Bulldogs, is a tank whose human side has failed him at times. He was held out of postseason workouts and drills as he tried to recover from a 15-inch high ankle sprain he originally suffered at the end of September in a back-and-forth win over LSU.

“That game, I felt perfect,” Gurley said with a hint of bitterness in his tone. “I felt perfect running and I was the right size and [had the right] speed. I felt like I was going to have one of the best games of my life. When it happened, I was like, ‘Dang.’”

Gurley missed three straight games after that -- a stretch in which Georgia went 1-2 -- and hasn’t been 100 percent since. A leaner Gurley hobbled into spring practice, but eyebrows were raised at the sense that Gurley wasn’t pushing himself hard enough and that his desire wasn’t there.

“The really great players, they have to love to practice,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

“None of [them] has arrived. You have to work. You’re either going to get better or worse every day; you’re not going to stay the same. Him going out there and trying to get better every day is going to make him and us better.”

Gurley admits his energy was lacking. Spring practice wasn’t pressing or exciting. But the coaches needed more from Gurley, and a conversation between Gurley and head coach Mark Richt a week before the Bulldogs’ spring game helped deliver that.

“Even though he may feel that way, he still has to give effort on a daily basis to become great,” Richt said of Gurley’s early spring attitude. “Those were some of the things we talked about, and he was awesome with it and did well.”

Gurley showed more effort during the final week, pushing his two-hour practices to the limit, before capping the spring with 70 total yards of offense and a touchdown in Georgia’s spring game. His touches were limited, but he ran with fire and purpose. He pounded his teammates and fought for extra yards.

“Everything’s starting to get better, slowly but surely,” Gurley said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been healthy, but it’s slowly getting there.”

When Gurley is at his best, he’s in a class of his own. It’s rare for someone with his size (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) to cut and explode like he does. Gurley punishes defenders with his strength and embarrasses them with his moves and breakaway speed. He’d easily have more than just 13 career 100-plus-yard rushing games if his body would cooperate.

But Gurley’s physical side is only part of what could make him a truly special back. The way he carries himself and how he instructs those around him will go a long way as well.

This spring, his coaches pushed him to bring more energy and leadership. More of a leader by example, Gurley said he opened his mouth this spring. He got more serious and wanted to make sure younger players followed him for the right reasons.

“This Todd is doing a better job of leading,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “We feel like as long as he’s in shape, he’s healthy and he’s strong, he’s the best back in the country.”

Aaron Murray is gone. Keith Marshall’s status is still up in the air after that devastating ACL injury. The spotlight is fixed on Gurley more than ever before, and he says he’s ready to shine even brighter in a year that could be his last in Athens.

That idea has served as a distraction. Gurley equates this upcoming season to his senior year in high school when some around him told him not to work as hard because he was already headed to college. Save his body, they said.

It makes sense to some, but that’s not Gurley’s concern, he said. He doesn’t want to take time or plays off to save up for the NFL. Gurley has more to prove. He wants more yards. He wants records. And he wants wins and at least one championship.

Resting won’t bring any of that.

“That’s never been the case for me,” Gurley said. “The NFL isn’t going anywhere. It’s not like I’m going to be getting drafted [this fall]. I just have to make sure I’m focused on now and getting better every day so that can help me out for my future and basically doing it for my team.”
Notre Dame and the SEC might finally square off in the regular season.

The Fighting Irish are exploring the prospect of playing Georgia in the future, though the dates remain to be determined, senior associate athletic director John Heisler told ESPN.com. CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler reported earlier Tuesday that the schools are working to finalize a home-and-home series for 2018-19.

Notre Dame's last two games against SEC schools came in postseason play, with Alabama beating the Irish in the Discover BCS National Championship after the 2012 season and LSU topping them in the Nokia Sugar Bowl after the 2006 campaign.

Notre Dame has not played an SEC school in the regular season since it beat Tennessee at home in 2005, the second of a home-and-home series between those programs.

Scheduling matters surrounding Notre Dame -- always a storyline, given its independent status -- became further complicated in 2012, when the school agreed to play five ACC schools per season in 2014 while placing all of its other sports in the league as full-time members. With that agreement, plus three annual rivalry games that the Irish have no intention of ending (Navy, Stanford and USC), the program's schedule has seen several casualties lately, most notably Michigan, whose trip to South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 6 will mark the last scheduled meeting between the storied programs.

In December, Notre Dame announced its full schedules for the 2014-16 seasons, so any future series could not be scheduled before 2017.

It comes as little surprise that Georgia is the SEC school the Irish are looking into scheduling, as the Bulldogs had been mentioned in previous discussions about scheduling SEC opponents. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has spoken about the possibility of Georgia before, and Bulldogs athletic director Greg McGarity told CBSSports.com last year that a home-and-home with the Irish would be "very intriguing."
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pruitt has UGA defense on move

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
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ATHENS, Ga. -- When Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt watched film of his new team’s first spring practice last month, he wasn’t very encouraged by what he saw.

Pruitt and the Bulldogs’ other defensive assistants counted 147 “loafs,” in which Georgia’s defenders didn’t run to the ball, finish a play or hustle until the whistle.

“The first practice we were like deer in headlights,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “We didn’t know what to expect or what the coaches wanted.”

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Jason GetzNew defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt says the players are adapting to his system with a good attitude.
While Georgia’s players might have been surprised by the pace and structure of their first spring practice under Pruitt, they adjusted to the new staff’s expectations with surprising quickness. Pruitt said he counted only 13 “loafs” in the second practice.

“The kids have good attitudes,” said Pruitt, who left Florida State for UGA in January after helping lead the Seminoles to a BCS national championship last season. “They’re trying to do what we’re asking them to do. We’re doing things a little different in terms of how we practice and finish. They’re doing a good job.”

In the first two weeks of spring practice, Pruitt has made it clear that Georgia’s defense will operate differently, at least in how it practices and prepares. Bulldogs fans can only hope that the changes lead to better on-the-field results this coming season.

Last year, Georgia’s defense ranked tied for 78th in scoring defense (29 points per game), 45th in total defense (375.5 yards), 41st in run defense (148.2 yards) and 84th in pass-efficiency defense (134.7 rating). Worse, the Bulldogs generated only 15 turnovers, tied with Kentucky for second-fewest in the SEC and 109th nationally.

Along with myriad injuries on offense, Georgia’s woeful defense caused it to limp to an 8-5 finish in 2013 after a promising start in which it defeated South Carolina and LSU, which were each ranked No. 6 nationally at the time. In four regular-season losses, UGA’s defense allowed an average of 38 points.

“They lost a lot of guys from the 2012 defense,” Pruitt said. “Some of the young guys were forced into roles they weren’t ready for. It’s no fault of their own or the coaches. They were the best guys here.”

Pruitt, a native of Rainsville, Ala., surprised a lot of people when he left FSU for UGA after only one season. Last season, FSU’s defense ranked first nationally in scoring defense (12.1 points), second in pass-efficiency defense (93.8 rating), third in total defense (281.4 yards) and 18th in rushing defense (124.8 yards). Pruitt, who was a finalist for the Broyles Award as the sport’s top assistant coach last season, replaced Todd Grantham, who left UGA for Louisville.

“To me, I’ve always wanted to coach in the SEC,” Pruitt said. “Once I got to college, that’s where I wanted to be. I think Georgia is a fantastic job and opportunity. I loved Florida State. They’re great people, and it’s a great place. But I just thought this would be a really good challenge.”

There's good news and bad news for Pruitt. The good news is that UGA brings back nine defensive starters from a year ago. The bad news is that not everyone returns. Defensive end Garrison Smith exhausted his eligibility, and free safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed from the team in February for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Earlier this month, sophomore safety Tray Matthews and three other players were arrested and charged with misdemeanor theft by deception for allegedly cashing university-issued checks twice. UGA coach Mark Richt hasn’t yet announced punishment for the accused players.

Pruitt doesn’t yet know what led to so many defensive breakdowns at UGA last season. In Georgia’s 43-38 loss at Auburn, its defense allowed a 73-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds to play. In a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, the Bulldogs surrendered a 99-yard touchdown pass on third-and-14.

“The big thing is we gave up way too many big plays last year,” Pruitt said. “Whether it was in the run game or the throw game, there were too many mistakes. We’ve got to do a better job of rotating in the secondary, where it’s a 7-yard gain instead of a 25-yard gain if the ball spits out of there. If we do that, we’ll make the offense work harder and have to earn it.”

[+] EnlargeJonathan Krause, Ramik Wilson
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Ramik Wilson, last year's leading tackler, figures to be a cornerstone for Jeremy Pruitt's revamped defense.
The strength of Georgia’s defense this coming season figures to be its linebacker corps. Senior inside linebacker Ramik Wilson led the SEC with 133 tackles last season, and Jenkins and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd combined for 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.

Georgia’s secondary, which was plagued by communication breakdowns last season, remains a work in progress. Incoming freshmen Malkom Parrish, Dominick Sanders and Shaquille Jones might be asked to contribute right away, along with Shattle Fenteng, the No. 1 juco cornerback, according to ESPN RecruitingNation.

Pruitt figures to use more four-man fronts than Grantham did, although he prefers smaller, quicker linemen than what UGA had last season.

Pruitt hopes the faster pace in practice will help UGA’s conditioning.

“It’s a lot more up-tempo,” Wilson said. “We’re running more, and they’re trying to bring in more passion and effort. [Pruitt] is making the point that he’s going to play the best 11 guys out there. It’s a lot more intense.”

Said Jenkins, “The tempo is a lot faster and people are moving a lot faster. There’s no more watching. I feel like we have a sense of urgency now. We’re a lot more aggressive. Everybody is trying to make plays.”

Georgia fans will have to wait until Aug. 30, when the Bulldogs open the season against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, to learn whether last year’s growing pains will pay dividends this coming season.

“Our guys are learning how we want them to practice,” Pruitt said. “They’re trying to finish and trying to do what we ask them to do. We’re going to have to play with a lot of toughness and effort. We’re going to have to make fewer mental mistakes. That’s how we’re going to play this year. That’s our focus -- effort, toughness and eliminating mental errors.”
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

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

Need a little perspective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.
While the head coaching carousel turns frequently each offseason, the movement is even more active among assistant coaches. Guys come and go and that includes coordinators, even at the big-time programs.

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were among the SEC schools that saw changes in coordinators on at least one side of the ball this offseason, and there's no doubt those changes will have an effect on their new programs. But which new coordinators will make the biggest impact? Here's four that catch our eye:

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreIt will be Jeremy Pruitt's task to bring the bite back to Georgia's defense.
Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia: It doesn't get much better than hiring a coordinator fresh off a national championship, but that's what Georgia pulled off. Head coach Mark Richt added Pruitt, who guided the Florida State defense to a No. 1 national ranking in scoring defense (12.1 points allowed per game) and No. 3 ranking in yards allowed per game (281.4). His specialty is the secondary, as he spent three seasons as Alabama's defensive backs coach before moving to Florida State last season. Georgia's young defense was 45th nationally in yards allowed per game (375.5) and 78th in scoring defense (29 ppg). Pruitt has a strong reputation as a recruiter, as well, and should be able to make an instant and significant impact on the Bulldogs this fall.

Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Much maligned as a head coach, Kiffin has taken his fair share of criticism, which was often justified, during his head coaching stops at Tennessee and USC. But he's not being hired to run the program, just the offense, so most of the pressures that come with being "the man" won't exist for Kiffin as the offensive coordinator. At Alabama, coordinators rarely meet with the media, so there won't be a lot of Kiffin soundbites or quotes out there, allowing him to focus on the task at hand. Nick Saban thinks highly of Kiffin's play-calling ability and offensive mind, and that's an area Kiffin has a strong reputation. The Crimson Tide ranked sixth in the SEC in yards per game (454.1), sixth in red zone efficiency (66 percent) and fourth in points scored per game (38.2). Those are all areas Kiffin can help improve, though he'll have to develop a new quarterback, the successor to Heisman Trophy finalist AJ McCarron. Kiffin was offensive coordinator of a national championship team at USC, which certainly doesn't hurt as he returns to the coordinator role.

Kurt Roper, Florida: Florida's offense has nowhere to go but up after finishing last in the league in points scored per game (18.8), yards per game (316.7), red zone efficiency (44.2 percent) and goal-to-go efficiency (43.5 percent). That's where Roper comes in. He helped Duke set a school-record for touchdowns as its offensive coordinator. He has worked with three quarterbacks who have thrown for 3,000 or more yards in a season, including Eli Manning. He has SEC experience, making stops at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky, and this league is where he has spent the bulk of his assistant coaching career. The Gators will spread it out, and Roper will be charged with developing Jeff Driskel, who hasn't yet lived up to the potential some hoped he would when he signed in the 2011 recruiting class. Expect Roper to have an impact on Driskel and the offense as a whole, and the Gators should be much strong on that side of the ball this fall.

Jake Spavital, Texas A&M: Texas A&M's offense was pretty good, which is understandable with Johnny Manziel at quarterback. But Spavital has the challenging task of steering the Aggies' offense post-Johnny Football, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. That's three probable first-round picks leaving the offense, not to mention losing three starting receivers and the team's top running back from last season, Ben Malena. Spavital, who was the Aggies' quarterbacks coach last season, was given the play-calling and offensive coordinator reigns for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and oversaw a unit that produced 52 points in a victory, but this will be his first fall as a full-time college playcaller. Just 28 years old, the up-and-coming Spavital must choose and develop Manziel's successor (either sophomore Kenny Hill, senior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kyle Allen) and figure out who the go-to receiver will be in 2014. The young assistant does have a history of working with or being around great college quarterbacks though, having been at Houston when Case Keenum was there, at Oklahoma State with Brandon Weeden, and at West Virginia with Geno Smith.
Over the span of their careers they threw for 48,824 passing yards. There were a total 403 touchdown passes among them, and they won 184 games in which they appeared, including 11 bowls and two national championships. They were, arguably, the most talented and productive class of quarterbacks ever to play in the SEC at one time. And now they’re all gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[+] EnlargeHarvey-Clemons
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesJosh Harvey-Clemons let a big opportunity get away after being dismissed from Georgia.
No “We wish him well” quote from Mark Richt. No olive branch for a player who was one of the Bulldogs' most-coveted signees in a strong 2012 recruiting class.

This was goodbye and good riddance, which is a genuine shame.

Nobody is happy to see a player's refusal to follow the rules result in his unceremonious exit from a program. This is somebody's life, and now it's in turmoil after rumors swirled for a couple of weeks about his status on the team. As in the case of another recent five-star Bulldog who departed Athens too early -- tailback Isaiah Crowell, the SEC’s 2011Freshman of the Year whose arrest led to his dismissal before the next season -- this feels particularly galling when that player seems to be wasting such promise.

This kind of reaction wasn't limited to fans and media members after Georgia's announcement. Take what 2013 senior tight end Arthur Lynch tweeted in response to the news: “Just to be clear, those who decide not to do it the RIGHT way do not deserve to don the Red & Black. It is a privilege, not a right.”

Harvey-Clemons is far from the first Georgia player to run afoul of the program's substance policy -- assuming such a violation was the last straw here, as in the previous suspensions involving the rising junior safety -- and he won't be the last. The program's strict rules regarding drug and alcohol issues mean that Richt consistently deals with suspensions related to substance problems.

Whatever the reason for Harvey-Clemons' departure, it is clear that Richt has had enough. He certainly wouldn't kick one his most talented players off the team, when the Bulldogs' shaky defense could certainly use all the help it can get, unless Harvey-Clemons left him no other option.

Harvey-Clemons will almost certainly land somewhere else -- he's too talented for this to be the end of his career -- but he will carry this label from now on. Whenever someone searches for his name on Google. At his next college stop. Whenever NFL teams evaluate his readiness to become a reliable professional.

He clearly wasn't a reliable college player, getting himself suspended at least twice before Tuesday's announcement. And that lack of reliability leaves Georgia in a lurch at one of its thinnest positions. The Bulldogs struggled at safety a season ago and now players like Tray Matthews, Tramel Terry, Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore face even more pressure to perform after a veteran who started 11 games last season has unexpectedly left the team.

Perhaps this is for the best in the long term, since Harvey-Clemons' absences and injuries to other safeties created continuity issues that impacted Georgia's secondary for much of last season. Perhaps starting fresh and knowing who will be available allows new defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt to better prepare his defensive backs this fall.

For now, though, this feels like a sad day -- one where someone who could have become a Georgia great instead became another castoff because he couldn't get his act together. It's a difficult lesson for Harvey-Clemons to learn just two days before his 20th birthday, but here's hoping that Richt's actions on Tuesday caused his message to finally resonate and that Harvey-Clemons takes better advantage of his second chance than he did with the opportunity he just squandered.

SEC's attendance numbers rise in 2013

February, 17, 2014
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While attendance across the country might be getting spottier at college football games, the SEC’s numbers increased in 2013.

That’s after the league experienced a slight dip each of the four seasons prior to 2013.

One of the things to remember about the SEC is that the stadiums are huge. A stadium on the “smaller” side in this league still holds more than 60,000 people, and eight of the 14 schools play in on-campus stadiums with a seating capacity of more than 80,000.

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina Gamecocks fans
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsSouth Carolina averaged 82,401 fans in its seven home games in 2013, which ranked 14th in the FBS.
Last season, the SEC averaged 75,674 fans, up from 74,636 in 2012. These figures, provided by the SEC office, include the Jacksonville, Fla., game between Florida and Georgia as well as the SEC championship game in Atlanta between Auburn and Missouri.

Even more telling, all but two of the schools in the league topped 90 percent attendance last season. The average percentage capacity in 2013 for SEC games was 99.02 percent, compared to 97.40 percent in 2012.

Alabama, coming off back-to-back national championships, led the SEC in home attendance last season, averaging 101,505 fans.

Kentucky (20 percent) and Tennessee (6 percent) had the largest increases in attendance last season. Arkansas (9 percent) had the largest decrease.

And while attendance was up this season in the SEC, it’s not as if league officials and athletic directors at the different schools had their collective heads in the sand.

The 2012 attendance figures for the SEC were the conference's lowest since the 2007 season, which was disconcerting to everybody.

So at the SEC spring meetings last May in Destin, Fla., it was announced that the league had created a committee in charge of making the game-day experience more enticing for fans.

High-definition televisions are getting better all the time, and there’s something to be said for sitting in the comfort of your home theater (or den) and watching all of the games there instead of going to the trouble or the expense of getting to the games in person.

SEC officials and administrators agree that with technology improving and ticket prices rising, in some cases exorbitantly, fans aren’t going to blindly keep going to games unless there’s something unique about the game-day experience.

[+] EnlargeAuburn Tigers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith an average of 85,657 fans at its eight home games in 2013, Auburn ranked No. 12 in the FBS.
Among the things the SEC committee addressed were finding a way to improve cell phone and wireless service at the stadiums, making more replays on the big screens available, dealing with the secondary ticket market, and improving the overall quality of games.

To the latter, SEC commissioner Mike Slive has said he wants to see every school in the league play at least 10 “good games” every season, whether that’s nine conference games and a marquee nonconference game, or eight conference games and two marquee nonconference games.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, a proponent of playing nine conference games, also has been outspoken that fans aren’t going to continue going to games to watch glorified scrimmages.

One of the biggest problems all schools in the SEC face is student attendance. Last season, Saban famously chastised the students at Alabama for leaving games early.

The Alabama student newspaper, The Crimson White, conducted a study and determined that only 69.4 percent of student tickets were used during the 2012 season.

In the past couple of years, Georgia has reduced its student-ticket allotment from 18,000 to 16,000, making those extra tickets available to younger alumni who can buy them without making an annual donation.

At Tennessee, student attendance increased dramatically last season in Butch Jones’ first year as coach. It was up almost 2,300 per game. As an enticement to continue getting students to go to the games, Tennessee plans to move more of them from the upper deck to the lower bowl.

Grantham ready for a new challenge

February, 13, 2014
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Todd Grantham had his reasons.

When Georgia’s defensive coordinator left for the same position at Louisville, many outside the program were perplexed by the move.

To Grantham, though, it was as simple as an opportunity – he said he believes Louisville can win a national title as an ACC member. He pointed to the athletic administration’s support of the program and called Tom Jurich “one of the top ADs in the country.” He pointed to the success Bobby Petrino already has had at Louisville, and said, “in my mind, they were going to do it again, only this time work to do it better.” The chance for Grantham to hire his brother, Tony, from Navy, was important to him and his family. All of those things, he said, coupled with Louisville’s move to the ACC in time for the start of the College Football Playoff, lured him away from the SEC.

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTodd Grantham sees Louisville as a national championship contender now that they're in the ACC.
“In reality, if you can win the ACC, your chances of being in that tournament are really good,” Grantham said. “The combination of all those things intrigued me, and it was something I felt like I wanted to try to do and I look forward to it.”

He’s also looking forward to the challenge he’ll get it in Year 1.

Grantham inherits a defense that loses seven starters, including five in the front seven, both safeties and the leading pass rusher from the 2013 season. Louisville has to replace linebacker Preston Brown (who led the team in tackles), defensive end Marcus Smith (second in the nation in sacks), and the stellar safety duo of Hakeem Smith (first-team All-American Athletic Conference) and Calvin Pryor (second in tackles).

“That’s part of coaching,” Grantham said. “That’s why it’s important to recruit and develop players. We’ll work with the players we have. Everyone is kind of new right now. Everyone will get a chance. We’ll evaluate everyone and give them a chance to compete for a starting job.”

Grantham compared it to when he arrived at Georgia, and everyone wanted to know how he was going to replace Justin Houston, who had left early for the NFL.

“The big topic then was we had nobody to rush the passer,” Grantham said. “Low and behold, a guy named Jarvis Jones comes along and has 28 sacks in two years and we’re all good again.”

Jones, who was drafted last spring in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers and still talks to Grantham on a regular basis, said Grantham would invite the defensive players to his house for a barbecue, and they’d go out to eat as a defense so everyone knew that it wasn’t “just about football.” Jones said he wasn’t surprised by Grantham’s decision to leave Georgia.

“There’s always opportunities,” Jones said. “He probably felt like his opportunity was better, or they put him in a better situation. You never know what’s going on, man. I know he loved the University of Georgia, he loved the guys he had there, but you never know why. I’m sure the guys there are going to love him. The fans at Louisville are going to love him. He brings so much energy to the game. The stuff he did for us at Georgia was great. He’s got that demeanor about him, and it shows. We had the top defense and coach Grantham and his staff was the reason why.”

As he did at Georgia, Grantham plans to change Louisville from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense. With the exception of last season, when the Bulldogs were a young, injury-laden group and the scoring defense was ranked No. 79 in the country at 29 points per game, Georgia’s defense received high praise under Grantham during his four seasons as defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Jones
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFormer Georgia standout Jarvis Jones raves about playing for Todd Grantham.
Last year’s group still finished eighth in the country in tackles for loss and 28th in sacks. Grantham said he will continue to employ an attacking-style philosophy. He said that heading into last season, Georgia forced 62 turnovers in two years, second only to LSU (63), and that’s why they were able to get to the SEC title game twice.

He has the same plan in the ACC.

“We’re upgrading our schedule and going into a major conference, so we’re going to be playing some talented teams. Anytime the playing field becomes equal like that, your turnover ratio becomes a very critical stat. When you get the ball one more time than the other team, your chances of winning go up about 93 or 95 percent.”

More often than not, it worked.

In 2012, Georgia ended the season ranked 18th in the country in scoring defense, holding five opponents to 10 or fewer points, and finishing eighth nationally in pass defense. In his second season at Georgia, the defense finished fifth nationally in total defense, third in third-down defense, fifth in interceptions, and seventh in turnovers gained (32), which ranked first in the SEC.

“Coach Grantham had a tremendous impact on myself,” said former Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins, who said he was the first player Grantham recruited. “He pushed me to limits I never thought I could reach. He’s a coach who understands players. He’s not a coach who has one way. He knows how to adjust and evolve his coaching style to fit everybody. He’s a go-getter type coach. He allows you to express yourself on and off the field.

“They’re going to love him,” Jenkins said. “They’re going to love him. I believe that with my heart.”

SEC media days expanding

February, 7, 2014
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The annual SEC media days were already a spectacle, the very definition of a media circus.

Beginning this year, it will become a four-day circus. The event, which regularly attracts more than 1,000 media members to Hoover, Ala., as the unofficial kickoff to the season, will expand from three days to four. It will be held July 14-17 at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover.

Here's a look at the schedule:

MONDAY, July 14

Commissioner Mike Slive

Auburn -- Gus Malzahn

Florida -- Will Muschamp

Vanderbilt -- Derek Mason

TUESDAY, July 15

Mississippi State -- Dan Mullen

South Carolina -- Steve Spurrier

Tennessee -- Butch Jones

Texas A&M -- Kevin Sumlin

WEDNESDAY, July 16

Steve Shaw -- SEC Coordinator of Football Officials / Justin Connolly -- SEC Network

Arkansas -- Bret Bielema

LSU -- Les Miles

Missouri -- Gary Pinkel

THURSDAY, July 17

Alabama -- Nick Saban

Georgia -- Mark Richt

Kentucky -- Mark Stoops

Ole Miss -- Hugh Freeze
Nine of the SEC's top 13 rushers from this season will return in 2014.

Who's the odds-on favorite to lead the league in rushing next season? That's your job.

SportsNation

Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?

  •  
    18%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,953)

So go to our SportsNation poll and vote, and we'll break down the results later this week.

The top two rushers in the SEC this season -- Auburn's Tre Mason and LSU's Jeremy Hill -- opted to turn pro and won't be back.

But five more 1,000-yard rushers from this season will return, not to mention Georgia's Todd Gurley. Hurt for part of this season, Gurley still flirted with 1,000 yards in just 10 games.

It could be that the SEC's rushing leader next season isn't exactly a household name at this point. Not many people would have picked Mason at the start of this season to lead the league in rushing even though he rushed for 1,000 yards the year before. And two years ago, nobody saw Johnny Manziel bursting onto the scene as a redshirt freshman and leading the league in rushing.

Of the returnees, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon had the most rushing yards this season (1,235), and Yeldon also led the league in rushing in SEC games. Of course, next season, Yeldon will almost certainly share the backfield duties with Derrick Henry, who was lights out for the Crimson Tide in the bowl game.

2013 SEC Super Seniors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

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

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

ALABAMA

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

ARKANSAS

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

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

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

FLORIDA

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

GEORGIA

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

KENTUCKY

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

LSU

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

MISSISSIPPI STATE

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

MISSOURI

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

OLE MISS

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

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

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

TENNESSEE

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

TEXAS A&M

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

VANDERBILT

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

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