SEC: Florida Gators

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If you ask Kurt Roper the coach to go back in time and evaluate Kurt Roper the quarterback, you'll get a belly laugh as he describes himself essentially as a recruiting whiff.

"Not good enough!" he chortles. "A miss!"

It's easy for Roper, now the offensive coordinator of the Florida Gators, to wax nostalgic about his all-too-brief career as a college quarterback since he's carved out a reputation as something of a quarterback whisperer more than two decades later.

A winning quarterback at Ardmore (Okla.) High School, Roper was good enough to earn a scholarship to play quarterback for the Rice Owls. His first meeting with his offensive coordinator, the late Mike Heimerdinger, brought a sense of inadequacy that offense was something far more complex than what he was used to.

[+] EnlargeFlorida's Kurt Roper
AP Photo/Phil Sandlin"He's always a positive guy, and we need that around here," Jeff Driskel said of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
"We're having a meeting the night before the first practice and he starts talking to me about defenses," Roper says. "And I had never even thought about defenses. I'm sitting there going, ‘Hey wait a second, what play are we running? Tell me the play.'

"And he's talking to me about how a defense is going to be manipulated by this formation and it's going to remove this guy. And I'm already looking out the window and I see the other guys going to eat dinner. I'm thinking, ‘What am I doing? What's going on here?' "

A week later Roper was moved to defensive back.

The irony that he is now known for being a coordinator, QB coach and play caller is not lost on Roper. His vivid recollection of that first meeting illustrates how far he's come.

"It was all eye opening," Roper said last week. "I don't really know that I start getting a huge understanding of [offense] until I really started coaching it and Coach Cut started teaching me how to coach it."

Coach Cut is David Cutcliffe, a graybeard of Southern football who's been head coach at Duke since 2008.

Cutcliffe became a mentor to Roper, and the two worked side by side at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Duke. Their long partnership came to an end when Roper was hired in December to fix Florida's ailing offense.

"When I called Coach Cutcliffe about Kurt, he wasn't happy I was calling about Kurt," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, Roper's new boss. "But he certainly endorsed him as a football coach and a man."

Roper gives plenty of credit to Cutcliffe for the no-huddle spread offense he is installing at UF. But there were other key influences that have shaped his approach to coaching.

His father, Bobby Roper, brought intensity to his son's football upbringing.

"He was a defensive coordinator," Kurt said. "He was really a no-nonsense guy. He was really intense and tough to grow up around if things weren't necessarily going well all the time on the football field."

Roper also counts two of his position coaches at Ole Miss -- offensive line coach John Latina and running backs coach Rich Bisaccia -- as influences. Latina showed Roper how a sound offensive system helps make a sound line. Bisaccia helped foster Roper's ability to connect in his relationships with players and head coaches.

Joker Phillips, under whom Roper worked as the QBs coach at Kentucky in 2005, added the uptempo element Roper brought to Duke and now Florida.

The amalgamation of his past and the present opportunity to redefine and revive an offense that floundered for the previous three years are what make Roper the Gators' most important offseason addition.

After what Duke accomplished last season, Roper's presence commanded immediate respect. His personality brought a sense of calm and instilled confidence in his new players.

“He's always a positive guy, and we needed that around here," said starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, a fourth-year junior who has witnessed most of Florida's recent struggles from under center.

To a man, Florida's offensive players beam when they speak about their relationships with Roper. They say he's fun and funny and always has a story to tell from his football past.

"He's like a player out there," receiver Valdez Showers said. "He loves the game. He's always got energy. There's not one day where he comes out there down. You feed off his energy.

"He's always uptempo, so you want to be uptempo. That's the way the offense goes.”

On the verge of a crucial season, the Gators' offensive players are exuding the kind of attitude that hasn't been seen at UF since Tim Tebow's days.

They say they owe it to Roper and his offense. It's made them believers from early in spring practice when installation began to more recently in preseason camp and into their preparation for the fall.

"We've made a lot of big plays against a really good defense," Driskel said of facing Florida's vaunted D. " When that happens, you start to feel a little bit more excited and a little bit more confident. ...

"We had a really great, great camp. We protected the ball and made big plays. When you put those two things together, you're going to be looking at a pretty good offense.”

And a pretty good offensive mind behind it.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The true measure of any recruiting class' worth isn't fully realized until a couple of years down the road. Regardless of the hype and golden stars racked up before signing day, getting the most out of a class takes time.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor
AP Photo/Stephen MortonRunning back Kelvin Taylor and the rest of the Florida Gators' underclassmen are looking to rebound from a 4-8 season in 2013.
For Florida, that time might have to be now for its 2013 class following last season's 4-8 debacle. It's a class that ESPN's RecruitingNation ranked second nationally with its 30 signees and 16 ESPN 300 members and held the nation's best high school cornerback -- Vernon Hargreaves III -- and running back -- Kelvin Taylor. It grabbed a potential game-changing receiver in Demarcus Robinson and 12 players who ranked within the top 10 at their respective positions.

The Gators will certainly need a lot from their upperclassmen, but the 2013 class could hold the key to Florida's present -- not just its future -- especially after a handful of its members were thrown into the SEC fire last season.

"We knew we wanted to come in and make an impact," said sophomore receiver Ahmad Fulwood, who caught 16 of his 17 passes in the final seven games of last season. "Not necessarily take someone's position or anything out of the ordinary, but we knew we had to come in and make an impact as a class and that's pretty much what we did."

For the most part, this class was mainly constructed of a group of contributors last season, with Hargreaves and Taylor being the headliners. Hargreaves was a third-team All-American member and ended up being one of the nation's best corners, leading the Gators with three interceptions and ranking third in the SEC with 14 passes defended. Taylor was a freshman All-SEC selection after rushing for 508 yards and four touchdowns.

Eleven members of the class lettered last season and collected 22 combined starts. With the majority of the class redshirting, even more is expected from this group, but players don't feel any added pressure. They don't mind the added responsibility.

"I feel like the guys who the coaches are looking at will definitely be able to step up," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "They know what to do and they know they're talented."

"These guys are ready to take on that role."

And it isn't just the talent and potential this class contains that has teammates and coaches trusting it. Once players saw injuries piling up, Taylor said the freshmen realized they were going to be counted on more so they started to buckle down with their preparation.

In a year in which this group could have resisted and pushed away from the core group, it grew closer and began to see older players looking up to them. Not even a year removed from high school, and this group was being relied on to help carry the team through some very dark weeks in 2013.

"You were a freshman, but they were depending on you to win games," Taylor said.

The wins didn't come, but resiliency did, redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor said. What impressed him the most was how this group continued to work through an exhausting seven-game losing streak.

"When you face adversity that you'll see in a 4-8 season, those guys kept fighting through all of it -- through the injuries, through the losses," Taylor said. "That's what shows that they have what it takes to take ownership of the team and lead us."

Moving forward, the contributions from this class will only grow. Keanu Neal, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington could be staples in Florida's secondary this year. Following a suspension-filled first year, Robinson has been one of the Gators' best offensive players during the offseason, and Fulwood has been even more consistent and could be a real vertical threat for the offense this fall.

Roderick Johnson is the next tackle in line after vets D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green, while linebacker Alex Anzalone has a chance to see time in Florida's linebacker rotation.

Davis was pegged as an early leader for the Gators last season and is right in the thick of a battle for a starting spot. Joey Ivie and Jay-nard Bostwick are in the early rotation along the defensive line, and Caleb Brantley has the chance to play his way in to as well.

This group has barely scratched the surface, but Taylor said guys are playing faster and thinking less. Last year this class was asked to learn, now, Taylor believes it will lead. Then, well, Taylor expects big things ... soon.

"Our whole mindset was that we were going to come here together and try to win a national title," he said.

"Now that we're so close, like brothers, it's going to be special in the future. We're looking forward to it."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sitting in a freshman humanities class, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III learned the harsh reality of losing in a Gators uniform.

The class was "What is the Good Life?" -- a required course for freshmen -- and students were asked to list their short-term life goals. With three football players -- Hargreaves, linebacker Matt Rolin and defensive back Nick Washington -- present, a student said she'd like to attend a Florida football game and actually see the Gators win.

Her words and eyes pierced through the players, shooting a humbling feeling through their bodies.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports"It's a humbling experience to go 4-8 at the University of Florida," Will Muschamp said.
"We really couldn't say anything because we didn't win so she was basically telling the truth," Hargreaves said.

It was an uncomfortable reminder of one of the worst seasons in Florida football history. A rash of injuries and loss of leadership resulted in a disastrous 4-8 year, the first losing season for the Gators since 1979 and a missed a bowl for the first time since 1990.

"People are going to bash Coach [Will] Muschamp, they're going to bash us, even around campus," Hargreaves said. "… If you don't win at Florida they're going to talk about you, and they're going to talk about you right to your face."

As the Gators enter Year 4 of the Muschamp era, they'll do so with the program at a critical crossroads. Rebounding could throw a program six years removed from its third national championship back on its intended track. Another let down could send Florida into a tailspin.

There is no Urban Meyer for athletic director Jeremy Foley to hire if Muschamp doesn't work out. Florida can't afford to fall any further behind Eastern Division rivals Georgia and South Carolina, and the gap between instate rival Florida State is already wide enough. Not to mention, Miami, which beat Florida and won nine games last year, and Tennessee are having recruiting resurgences.

Florida's own recruiting has been successful, but coaching turnover could cut into that, leaving unknowns for the future.

There's panic and unrest in the Gator Nation, as Florida finds itself in a make-or-break situation in 2014.

Muschamp isn't blind to that reality. While he refuses to publicly acknowledge any sort of talk surrounding his job, which he's very much coaching for this fall, he understands how important this season is for a program that won 11 games two years ago. There's a reason he decided to completely change his offensive philosophy and hire former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will run an uptempo, spread offense.

So far, Muschamp has liked the progress made during practices. The offense is moving more smoothly and the defense still has the patented Muschamp bite to it.

"I feel like everything is headed in the right direction, personally," said Muschamp, who is 22-16 at Florida. "Every year is a pivotal year. I don't put any more pressure on myself, I don't work any harder than I worked last year. I worked hard last year so it's not like I have renewed energy. ... I was energized last year."

"I'm excited about this football team and moving forward."

What this team -- and Muschamp -- has to show is significant improvement. That will start with an offense that finished last year's regular season ranked 112th in total offense, but end with more victories than losses.

How many wins? That's yet to be seen, and athletic director Jeremy Foley has even come out recently and said that he has no requirement for Muschamp, he just wants progress.

That means a competitive offense, a team in the postseason and some sort of run toward an Eastern Division title. Winning the East probably isn't a must for Muschamp, but being in the race late in the season could be.

Florida has a certain standard it should be living up to, and losing to the top teams on its schedule -- even by the smallest of margins -- isn't good enough. This is a program used to winning, not settling for close losses.

"This is the best team chemistry I've been around ever since I started playing football," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "I feel good about this year. I think this year's going to be special.

"We have a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys with bad tastes in their mouths and they're just ready to get it out."

After a year that featured an embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern, any sort of positive news out of a camp comes with cautious optimism for fans. For a program that achieved wild success in the 1990s and won two national titles under its last coach, Florida hit a wall last season.

Now we find out which direction this team will propel the program in.

"It's a humbling experience to go 4-8 at the University of Florida," Muschamp said. "You get your ass kicked enough and you get tired of it and you decide to do something about it. That's what this team has done."

SEC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
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Believe it or not, we are two days away from SEC football officially kicking off the 2014 season. And you thought we'd never get here!

Each season we make perfect prediction after perfect prediction. From weekly game picks to preseason teams, we think we've got this whole prognostication thing down to a science!

It's become a tradition here on the SEC blog to release our fearless predictions for the season ahead. I'm riding solo on them this year, but they shouldn't be any less correct this time around.

Here are my 10 fearless predictions for the SEC in 2014:

1. The SEC champion will have two losses ... but still make the playoff: With the talent gap between the teams at the top and the middle of the pack growing tighter, the SEC might be in store for the most exciting divisional races we've seen in a long time. No team is perfect. I've said this since the end of last season: No team will go undefeated in the SEC and no team will leave Atlanta with fewer than two losses. But with how strong the conference is this year, there's no way the SEC champ will be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesMike Davis rushed for 1,183 yards on 203 carries and 11 scores in 2013.
2. Mike Davis will lead the conference in rushing: He can steamroll over you or just run by you. Davis has everything you'd want in a back and even though he's dealing with a rib injury, he'll lead the SEC in rushing yards this season. It won't hurt that he has arguably the nation's best offensive line in front of him. Georgia's Todd Gurley has yet to make it through an entire season healthy, while T.J. Yeldon will undoubtedly have his carries eaten into by Derrick Henry. With what should be a solid passing game taking some pressure off him, Davis will blow by the 1,183 yards he had last year.

3. The SEC will have 12 bowl-eligible teams: Last year, the SEC saw 10 teams go bowling. This year, Florida and Tennessee will reach at least six wins this fall and join the teams that made bowl games last year. Yes, a Tennessee team with brand-new offensive and defensive lines will go bowling, and yes, Florida's offense will be much better.

4. Will Muschamp will finally beat Georgia: After going 0-3 against his alma mater, Muschamp will finally get a win at the World's Largest Outdoor, eh, Party. It's a rebound year in Gainesville with a better offense. Of course, the game will be close, but quarterback Jeff Driskel will engineer a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to end the bleeding the Bulldogs have caused the Gators the past three years. That means the SEC East title will come down to the Gators' home game with South Carolina on Nov. 15.

5. Arkansas will have two 1,000-yard rushers: The Razorbacks came close last year after Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined to rush for 1,926 yards. With so many unknowns still lurking in the passing game, coach Bret Bielema will have no problem handing the ball off to his duo as much as possible. Williams might even lead the Hogs in rushing this year after an impressive offseason. Stacking the box won't stop this duo.

6. The Mississippi schools will reach nine wins: It seems like whenever Mississippi State and Ole Miss have higher expectations, they fail to live up to the hype. Well, that ain't happening this season. With two very manageable seasons, and a host of talent returning, both of these schools will reach at least nine wins this season. Ole Miss gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home and should sweep nonconference play. Mississippi State has an extremely soft nonconference slate and gets Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Both Mississippi teams will pull a big upset on their way to nine wins.

7. Leonard Floyd will lead the SEC in sacks: Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks. This year, Georgia's best pass-rusher will push for All-American status by reaching double-digit sacks and leading the league. He's fast, strong and terrifying off the edge. Floyd had a great offseason and will be a nightmare for quarterbacks.

8. Vanderbilt will make it four bowl trips in a row: No James Franklin? No problem. What Franklin didn't take was the talented core of players the Commodores have. The Commodores return a strong offensive line and a deep, talented group of running backs. New coach Derek Mason also likes what he has defensively. The new 3-4 scheme will make the Dores faster off the edge with Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike moving to outside linebacker. Vandy should win its four nonconference games and will find two more wins to make it back to the postseason.

9. The SEC won't win the national championship: Look at prediction No. 1. While I think the SEC is stronger than ever as a whole, the winner of this league (I'm predicting Alabama) will be pretty beat-up come playoff time -- monthlong break and all. But it isn't just that. I think the country has a great set of teams at the top this year, and I don't see one SEC team really sticking out like seasons past. The seven straight titles were good for the league, but the conference will hit a two-year snag.

10. Ohio State will lose to another SEC team: The loss of quarterback Braxton Miller might have spoiled the Buckeyes' playoff hopes, but they'll find a way to meet an SEC team during the postseason and continue their time-honored tradition of losing to the SEC. Come January, the Buckeyes will be 0-11 against the SEC in bowl games.

SEC morning links

August, 26, 2014
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1. A number of SEC schools released their depth charts Monday, giving the media and fans alike something to talk about. But do they really matter? At Alabama, we learned nothing about the quarterback position as Blake Sims and Jacob Coker are listed on the same line atop the depth chart. At Mississippi State, Chris Jones is currently a backup at defensive tackle. Even if Jones doesn’t start the season opener, you can’t tell me he won’t play the majority of the game. I agree that depth charts are interesting and it’s a chance to see who won some of the position battles in fall camp, but at the end of the day, I don’t think they matter. Coaches are going to do what they want to do regardless of what they put out on a depth chart. But for those of you keeping track at home, Auburn and Florida will release their depth charts Tuesday.

2. Speaking of Florida, Pat Dooley and Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun debated five hot topics about the upcoming college football season on Monday. For example, will the SEC get shut out of first ever College Football Playoff? Or is Jameis Winston a lock to win the Heisman Trophy? The two writers differ on their responses on these and the others. In my opinion, I can’t see the SEC getting shut out of the playoff, but I also don’t see the league getting two teams in. And no, I don’t think Winston is a lock for the Heisman. There’s a kid named Marcus Mariota who is getting a lot of hype out in Eugene, Oregon. However, the SEC’s chances of winning are shaky at best, writes Christopher Smith of Saturday Down South, and I tend to agree. The most likely candidates are Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, but it won’t be easy for either of them to beat out Mariota or unseat Winston.

3. If you haven’t seen Gene Wojciechowski’s "Big Man on Campus" column from Monday, I encourage you to go give it a read. It’s an expansive preview of the upcoming college football season in which he gives his predictions for conference standings, the Heisman Trophy and the first-ever playoff. What caught my eye was a look at who could be this season’s Auburn. He mentions Auburn (doing it again), Mississippi State and Florida from the SEC, but to accomplish what the Tigers did a year ago, a team would have to rise up from the bottom of the conference. That leaves Arkansas and Kentucky, which goes to show how improbable Auburn’s turnaround really was. I can’t see either the Razorbacks or the Wildcats winning the SEC this year, but don’t be shocked if Florida turns it around and win the East.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It started with some innocent ribbing when Florida players watched their game tape after losing to Georgia Southern in late November of last season.

The play that caught everyone's eyes and tickled their funny bones revealed Gator wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and center Jonotthan Harrison accidentally blocking each other.

Within days the media got hold of the story and it went viral.

"I looked down and I've got text messages from friends joking," Dunbar recalls, "and then it blew up from there."

The Gator-on-Gator block became a symbol for everything that went wrong for Florida during its 4-8 season in 2013. It was the insult piled on top of a heap of injuries.

But the notoriety was just getting started. For weeks, the play held the top spot in SportsCenter's "Not Top 10" list, as voted on by viewers. It lived in infamy well into the spring.

"Yeah, it was everywhere," Dunbar said. "It was crazy because I remembered that play, but I didn't expect it to get that big."

It was hard to miss. Even Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who coached at Duke last year, had to laugh when asked recently if he had seen it.

"Aw yeah, I've seen it," he said, looking to soften the blow. "Things like that happen.

"So last year we were 10-2, a pretty good team. We're playing North Carolina to win the Coastal [Division] outright. We're down 25-24. We've got the ball on the 6-yard line. We've got second-and-goal, so a touchdown's big, a field goal puts us ahead. We're running down about three minutes to go in the game. I call a play and both our guards pull. One of them was supposed to pull and the other one wasn't. Well, they messed up. Both guards pulled and ran right into each other. That doesn't get mentioned because we went 10-2 in the regular season. Nobody sees it.

"How many times do defensive linemen run twist games up front and they run right into each other? I think it's just a product of the season, because you could watch any game and see those type things all the time."

Several months later Dunbar flashes a smile and laughs easily at the memory.

"I was going down to crack the safety and when I looked up I happened to be latched on with Harrison," he said. "I don't know what happened, but that's football."

Harrison didn't find much humor in the situation last year. Teammates say he was bothered every time "his play" popped up on TV. He refused to talk about it publicly.

Now fighting for a roster spot with the Indianapolis Colts, Harrison admits he was frustrated. It's clear the normally jovial lineman still bristles at the thought of it.

"I don't want to dwell on it to be honest," Harrison said. "I'm just over it."

So is Dunbar, who is on the verge of a fresh, new season -- his last in the Gators' orange and blue uniform.

"I'm just glad [the play's run on SportsCenter] is over," he said. "I'm ready to move on."

Recruiting changing in up-tempo era 

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The SEC, a league that is known for its hard-nose, physical style of play is slowly transforming into a spread-offense, up-tempo league. It's a change that hasn't happened overnight and teams like Alabama, LSU, Georgia, with their pro-style offenses, will always have their imprint on the toughest league in all of college football.

With fast-paced offenses such as Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M having much success over the last few years, it's forcing defenses to change their philosophy on who they recruit to defend against these spread attacks.

The 6-foot-3, 245-pound middle linebackers are dwindling and replacing them are hybrid linebackers that can rush the passer and run sideline-to-sideline. There are 23 outside linebackers committed to SEC schools currently, all but one, Darrell Williams, weigh less than 220 pounds. There are only four inside linebackers committed to SEC schools.

SEC morning links

August, 25, 2014
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1. Game week is here. We are just three days away from South Carolina and Texas A&M. Steve Spurrier is ready. But there are still some question marks around the SEC, specifically at quarterback. Who does LSU go with against Wisconsin? Will Alabama ever name a starter before its first game? And how much will Nick Marshall play in Auburn’s season opener? The latter is yet to be determined, but Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday that both Marshall and backup Jeremy Johnson know what to expect as the Arkansas game approaches. If you’re like me, you’re just ready for all three schools to name a starter so we can stop talking about it.

2. For those hoping to see the SEC’s next Jared Lorenzen, it might be awhile. There was talk that Jeremy Liggins, who stands at 6-foot-3, 296 pounds, would take some reps as the Wildcat quarterback for Ole Miss this season, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, it will be Anthony Alford, a Southern Miss transfer who also plays baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Alford was taken in the third round of the 2012 MLB draft. Don’t sleep on Liggins, though. Rebels' coach Hugh Freeze says there are multiple packages where the former high school quarterback will line up at tight end. And since we brought up Lorenzen, I encourage you read this piece on the former Kentucky gunslinger and his lifelong battle with weight.

3. We at the SEC blog looked at the most important game for every SEC team in 2014. Along those same lines, David Climer of The Tennessean put out his 14 for ’14 – the defining game of 2014 for every SEC team. Some are more obvious like Georgia going to South Carolina early in the season or Alabama making the trip to Death Valley to take on LSU. But I was surprised to see that Tennessee’s “defining game” is the season opener against Utah State. Don’t get me wrong. Utah State has one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks in Chuckie Keeton, and the Vols can’t afford to lose that game. But the defining game? I’d make a case for the Florida game or maybe Vanderbilt at the end of the season. The Commodores have taken the last two in the rivalry. What do UT fans think?

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The SEC is no stranger to losing underclassmen to the NFL draft each year, making finding true fourth-year stars harder than ever.

In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.

In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.

Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.

That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.

The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.

Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.

For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.

Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.

Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.

Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.
A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."

SEC morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
8:00
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1. You’re up LSU. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback on Thursday night, leaving only one starting battle -- LSU’s -- publicly open. Tennessee (Justin Worley), Kentucky (Patrick Towles), Texas A&M (Kenny Hill) and now Vanderbilt have all announced the victors in their quarterback races lately after allowing the races to extend well into preseason camp. At Vandy, Robinette, who came into August as the favorite, won out over LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. “We were just looking for the most consistent guy day in and day out. He had very few lows, a lot of highs and really just did a great job of keeping his composure,” Mason said in announcing his decision.

2. You’ve probably seen 100 lame, subjective lists where some bored columnist ranks the best SEC fan bases -- usually in a summertime column when there’s no actual news to cover. Emory University’s sports marketing analytics group tries to gauge fan support in a more scientific fashion (you can read about its methodology here) and it found that six of the top 12 fan bases are in the SEC, led by Nos. 3-6 Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. Surely Alabama and LSU fans can find some nits to pick with this study, but take that up with the folks at Emory. As they explained, evaluating the quality of a sports brand is a complicated endeavor.

3. Let’s revise that item from this post yesterday. It turns out that the organizers of a charity fundraiser in Mobile, Alabama, don’t want infamous Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke to be associated with the event after all. That’s the smart move. This is an event designed to engender goodwill for a great cause, not give a jerk the dunking or pie in the face that he so richly deserves. Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee, is involved in the event, which will be held in tribute of a 7-year-old boy who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. Here’s hoping it turns into the successful event it should have been all along before adding Updyke threatened to turn it into a sideshow act.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp found a receptive audience when he told his players their Wednesday night practice to break camp was cancelled in favor of a little party at his house.
 
The Gators feasted on steaks and played some games, but the real winners of the night were these four players who sang the Backstreet Boys' "I want it that way."
 
After the festivities came to a close, Muschamp accepted the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from his former boss, Nick Saban. Muschamp issued the challenge to his assistant coaches as well as three of his former players -- Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and Matt Elam.
 On Thursday, three of those coaches -- offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, offensive line coach Mike Summers and wide receivers coach Chris Leak -- accepted the challenge and paid it forward.
 
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Preseason camp is a time of constant evaluation, with players' fortunes rising and falling in each day of competition.

That part is over for the Florida Gators, who now shift into preparations for Week 1 opponent Idaho.

UF held its 16th and final preseason practice on Wednesday, and in recent days the Gators' depth chart has begun to take shape.

"We'll sort through the depth chart of guys we can count on moving forward, and guys that need to get more reps, and guys whose reps will dwindle," coach Will Muschamp said. "I mean, that's just part of it.

"Your tape is your résumé. The guys that are producing and playing well and doing it the way we want to do it, those are the guys that'll play."

Muschamp listed his biggest concerns, and they haven't changed much throughout the last two weeks.

Florida needs to develop depth behind its starters on both lines. The offensive line is the bigger concern. Roderick Johnson and Trip Thurman have emerged as reliable backups, but that still only gives UF seven linemen it can count on.

"We need to have eight or nine," Muschamp said. "That's a critical issue."

As of now, Florida is turning to juco transfer Drew Sarvary to be the backup center and Antonio Riles to play guard on the second unit. Riles was a defensive lineman until he changed positions late in the spring.

The issue on Florida's defensive line is mainly a matter of experience, as young players such as Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Caleb Brantley will be pressed into duty. Ivie is the only player of the three who has ever taken a snap for the Gators.

Still, Muschamp is bullish on their potential.

"Jay-nard Bostwick is a guy that’s improved tremendously," he said. "We really worked on his lower-body flexibility. He’s really made some big strides. I think Caleb Brantley has made some strides. Joey Ivie has made some strides."

Another large concern is at backup quarterback. The Gators are planning to turn starter Jeff Driskel loose in the running game, and with his history of injuries, the need for a backup is greater than ever.

The candidates are Skyler Mornhinweg, a third-year sophomore who started the final three games of last season; true freshman Will Grier, who enrolled in January and participated in spring practice; and true freshman Treon Harris, who arrived in the summer.

Mornhinweg is more of a pocket passer, while Grier and Harris are more athletic and can run the ball.

Muschamp has said Florida will play its backup QB in the first game. He also said he wouldn't want to rotate quarterbacks.

"I'd rather name a guy and go with it," he said. "I think it's hard, especially with an inexperienced player. They need to get as many reps as possible."

While UF coaches haven't seen any of their backup QBs separate themselves, there is a sense of urgency as the team is days away from its first game week.

"It’s obviously getting close to decision-making time," offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said on Tuesday, "but I also think it’s a fluid thing that can change at any time just because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

"So obviously we've got to start on who’s going to spend the time getting the two reps as much as possible."

A handful of other jobs remain up for grabs, such as placekicker and punter. Nowhere is the competition more wide open than in the secondary, where Florida is very young and inexperienced.

"Still no separation in the secondary other than Vernon [Hargreaves III] and Keanu [Neal]," Muschamp said of his top cornerback and top safety, respectively. "Got some guys who have done some decent things, we just have to be more consistent."

With just over a week before kickoff, the clock is ticking on UF's final decisions.

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:05
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.

SEC morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
8:00
AM ET
1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been sweeping social media and the SEC along with it. On Tuesday we posted a rundown of some of the notable challenges accepted by SEC nation, including Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, LSU coach Les Miles and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. Later on Tuesday, two of the biggest-named coaches who hadn't yet been doused with the cold stuff took the challenges: Alabama coach Nick Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Saban challenged Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Mark Ingram (an Alabama product), U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (a friend of Saban's from West Virginia), Florida coach Will Muschamp and none other than Paul Finebaum. Spurrier handed his challenges out to Saban, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and their respective coaching staffs. Saban had his team do the challenge with him and Spurrier had his coaching staff take the dousings with him. These challenges continue to raise a significant number of funds for the ALS Association and have provided some fun videos to boot.

2. Florida's offense is looking for a huge boost this season after a dismal season in 2013 and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is what the doctor ordered. On Tuesday, Roper reflected on his journey from his own days as a high school quarterback to being the son of a coach. After the work he did at Duke last season and his extensive time coaching in the SEC, he should be a good fit for the Gators. Making the offense more high-paced and wide-open will allow the Gators to utilize the talents of quarterback Jeff Driskel and expect them to take a significant step forward, with Roper orchestrating the attack.

3. Many of us figured that Cleveland Browns fans would want a certain SEC product to be their starting quarterback when the Browns season begins next month, but who knew that that SEC quarterback would be Connor Shaw? In a poll on Cleveland.com asking readers to vote for who they think should be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Shaw -- a South Carolina product -- is winning in a landslide over first-round pick Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Of course, considering the way Manziel (and Brian Hoyer) performed and the timing of the poll, some reactionary votes are to be expected. But by that wide a margin? Wow. Give Shaw credit, he was the model of toughness and a winner during his South Carolina days and no doubt there are many happy for him after he performed well on Monday night against Washington.

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