The Established Star
Nick Marshall, Auburn Tigers
2013 in review: Marshall made a huge splash in his first season as the Tigers' starter, rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns and passing for another 1,976 yards and 14 scores as Auburn stunned the college football world by reaching the BCS championship game. He also completed one of the most memorable plays in Auburn football history when his tipped pass to Ricardo Louis went for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to beat Georgia.
What to watch: One of the Tigers' big points of emphasis since the end of last season has been improving the passing game. Marshall and the rushing attack are lethal, but there were times Marshall was simply not accurate enough when the Tigers desperately needed a completion. If he shows in the opener against Arkansas that he's more than just a runner who can occasionally pull a rabbit out of his hat with one of his highlight-reel completions, Marshall might actually contend for the Heisman.
Projected 2014 grade: A
Click here for 13 more SEC QB breakdowns from David Ching.
"He’s the best punter we have," Saban said this week. "I mean, have you seen him punt?"
We had not. Practices and scrimmages are closed to the media, remember.
"Well, that’s an easy one," Saban said.
Saban looked around the room to see if there were any more questions. There were none.
If only every day were so simple.
Naming a starting punter is one thing. Finding your next starting quarterback is another. Not when you are replacing a two-time champion in AJ McCarron. Not when you are the consensus No. 2 team in the country coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since 2008. Not when you have two vastly different options to choose from.
The fact that Blake Sims has hung in the competition this long is surprising to many. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the former four-star athlete was wondering if he would play running back or receiver for the Tide. Now, after four years in the system, he has worked on his delivery, studied the playbook and become what coaches and teammates describe as a much more accurate passer.
All of the sudden it’s a race between he and Jake Coker. At least that is what we’re told.
Again, practices and scrimmages are walled off to the prying eyes of the media. And the stats the program typically provides? They have gone missing, too. All that is left is one man’s word to draw from, and there is always the potential for a bit of cat-and-mouse games from Saban.
"Somebody has got to take the job," Saban said. "One day one guy plays really well and you say, 'Well, that looks like that might be it.' And the next day the other guy plays really well.
"I think the good news is we have two guys that I would feel very comfortable playing."
On the one hand is Sims, who is said to have the intangibles: comfort with the offense, command of the huddle and the respect of his teammates. He even has a new mindset, according to safety Jarrick Williams, who said, "Blake has an attitude, you know. He’s taking the competition very seriously."
Black said he is often asked about the quarterback competition around town and on campus. His response: "It’s a tough decision. I’ll leave that up to coach Saban."
But the timing of Saban's decision is a topic of debate. A two-quarterback system for the first few weeks of the system is now a distinct possibility. The hope is that by Week 4 against Florida -- after non-conference games against unranked West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss -- someone will have seized the job.
Between now and then, the questions about where the quarterback race stands will keep coming. There won’t be many more easy days to talk about the starting punter. And the happy Saban we saw this week? He might revert to the form we saw a week prior when he threatened to withold the scrimmage statistics again if he was asked about the competition once more.
In judging this race, patience is the one and only virtue. Until Week 1 against West Virginia, we won’t know much of anything.
"I would like to see somebody take the bull by the horns from a leadership standpoint, a consistency standpoint and win the job here sometime," Saban said. "But we're not going to make a decision until somebody does that."
All runs of dominance eventually come to an end. It's a truth of human history -- not just sports or college football.
Another truth is that we rarely recognize the downturn at the moment it begins. Usually, the slide is well underway before we realize that it's not just a temporary slump.
Only two teams in the FBS have won at least 10 games in each of the past six seasons -- the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Oregon Ducks. Both were undefeated entering November 2013, but both finished with two losses.
When a dominant program ends a season with a couple of late setbacks, it usually raises the question: "Is this the beginning of the end?" Let's take a closer look at those teams through the prisms of on-field play, coaching and recruiting to attempt to find an answer.
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:
- Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)[+] EnlargeStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's defensive line will have many holes to fill with Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles gone.
- Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M)
- Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU)
- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama)
- Dominique Easley (Florida)
- Kony Ealy (Missouri)
- Tre Mason (Auburn)
- Mike Evans (Texas A&M)
- Greg Robinson (Auburn)
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.
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.
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."
Auburn football fans won't get a shot at Harvey Updyke after all.
The organizers of a Sept. 29 charity event in Mobile, Alabama, have pulled the plug on having Updyke appear for a pie throw or dunking booth.
Organizers originally believed having Updyke there might give Auburn fans a much-wanted opportunity to get even with him, after he infamously poisoned the beloved oak trees at Toomer's Corner near the Auburn campus during the Tigers' 2010 national championship season.
"It seems to be taking away from the primary purpose, which is raising awareness for children's cancer," Bonner said. "We don't want to take away from the focus. We needed to get away from it."
An Auburn University police spokesman said a student was questioned by Auburn city police about a threat against one of the organizers.
The event is to honor John Oliver, a boy from the Mobile area who died from cancer in July. The money raised will benefit Roses From Linda, a nonprofit organization that helps cover transportation costs so family members can visit terminally ill loved ones, as well as children's cancer research.
"I think Mr. Updyke's heart was in the right place with what he wanted to do, but I think too many people are still upset about what he did and haven't gotten over it," Bonner said. "I didn't approve of what he did, but I think he really wanted to help."
That’s what I asked the 65 coaches from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame to do. Describe their team in one word.
Some coaches were one-word wonders, but a few insisted they needed two words. That’s fine because the descriptions shed some insight into how coaches view their team and/or what they want the public perception of their team to be.
In all, the 65 coaches used 44 different descriptions.
Well, here’s to taking it one “word” at a time. My word: Enjoy.
Alabama’s Nick Saban: Untested
Arkansas’ Bret Bielema: Motivated
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn: Experienced
Florida’s Will Muschamp: Hungry
Georgia’s Mark Richt: Wow
Kentucky’s Mark Stoops: Improved
LSU’s Les Miles: Unknown
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: Hungry
Missouri’s Gary Pinkel: Confident
Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze: Relentless
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: Decent
Tennessee’s Butch Jones: Committed
Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin: Eager
Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason: Audacious
Last year was possibly the best in recent memory for SEC quarterbacks. From Johnny Manziel and A.J. McCarron to Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, the conference was loaded with a Heisman Trophy winner, a two-time national champ, school record-holders and NFL draft picks. Things are a little different this year. Outside of Auburn, most schools are dealing with major questions under center. Where do things stand as the season gets ready to kick off? Here's a look at how things went last year, what to watch for this year and a projected grade for how each team's quarterbacks will do in 2014.
The Established Star
Harvey Updyke Dunk Tank Canceled Following Threats
6:00 PM ET 21 Texas A&M 9 South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State 18 Ole Miss 9:15 PM ET Temple Vanderbilt
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State 24 Missouri 3:30 PM ET West Virginia 2 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Arkansas 6 Auburn 5:30 PM ET 16 Clemson 12 Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU