Dallas Colleges: Jeff Driskel
Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:
1. All eyes on Jacksonville: Don't look now, but the battle formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has some intrigue. Georgia has been decimated by injuries, but Mark Richt continues to send Aaron Murray out to play each Saturday, giving UGA a chance to win. Murray has hung in despite the fact players are dropping like flies around him. If he gets a third consecutive win over rival Florida, it might make it all worthwhile. Florida has dealt with its own set of injuries, but more problematic is the Gators' offensive ineptitude. Quarterback Tyler Murphy will have to find a way to score some points on Saturday. But for two teams with so many problems, whichever gets out of Jacksonville with a win is still in the SEC East race. Missouri's loss last weekend breathed new life into both squads.
2. Can South Carolina keep it up? It would be classic South Carolina to come out on Saturday against unranked Mississippi State and play down to the competition. It's happened so much lately that we've come to expect it. After winning a thriller on the road last weekend against Missouri, the Gamecocks are on upset alert. Without Connor Shaw's fourth-quarter return, South Carolina loses to Missouri by two touchdowns. If he can't start against Mississippi State, will Steve Spurrier's offense sputter again? You have to like Shaw's leadership, and after all he's done you have to believe he'll play on Saturday and play well.
4. Josh Dobbs: Speaking of Tennessee, keep an eye on the true freshman quarterback. Butch Jones burned his redshirt this past weekend, bringing him off the bench in the second half against Alabama. The athletic Dobbs provided a spark to a Vols offense that couldn't move the football to save its life. His ability to get outside the pocket and buy time helped the receivers, and his speed and elusiveness allowed him to pick up yards with his feet. It's too early to say he's won the starting job, but watch closely because a good game against Missouri could propel him to such status. We could very well be looking at Tennessee's future under center.
5. The SEC East race: The field in the SEC East will narrow this weekend. The loser of the Georgia-Florida game is likely out of it, and neither Missouri nor South Carolina have sure-thing wins on their plates. It may appear that no one wants to win the division and be forced to play Alabama in the conference championship, but someone's got to do it.
6. Manziel health watch: The Johnny Manziel watch never ends. But no, I'm not talking about monitoring his off-the-field behavior this time. No, there's still some concern over whether the defending Heisman Trophy winner is healthy. He injured his throwing arm late against Auburn and played well this past weekend against Vanderbilt. But with Texas A&M facing an overmatched UTEP team Saturday, should he play?
7. Bielema versus Malzahn: Boy, did we see a rivalry form at SEC media days when a pair of first-year coaches in the SEC, Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Auburn's Gus Malzahn, traded barbs about the safety of the no-huddle offense. Malzahn said he thought it was a joke. Bielema said he wasn't a comedian. It was awesome. Their rivalry was born that day, and this week it sprouted leaves as Bielema accused Auburn of altering the game film it sent to Arkansas in preparation for this week's game between the two programs. The issue even prompted a response from Auburn to the SEC. Man, the Malzahn-Bielema postgame handshake is going to be fun.
8. Jeremy Johnson: Every time Nick Marshall goes down at quarterback for Auburn, Johnson steps right in and doesn't miss a beat. Both times the freshman has played significant reps, he's won SEC Freshman of the Week honors, first against Western Carolina and then last weekend against Florida Atlantic. With Marshall officially "day to day," according to Malzahn, expect the focus to shift to Johnson again.
9. The trainer's table: Playing an SEC schedule will catch up with you. We're starting to see injuries pile up around the league recently as the fatigue of playing physical games week in and week out builds. Tennessee is turning to a true freshman quarterback in place of Justin Worley (injured thumb). Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin is questionable, leaving backup Maty Mauk in a weird state of limbo. South Carolina, meanwhile, is hoping Shaw can continue to play the part of Superman and keep coming back from injury. Oh, and let's not forget Jeff Driskel's prolonged absence at Florida. If another SEC quarterback goes down, we'll have to start calling it an epidemic.
10. Who isn't playing: Give Alabama and LSU credit because they know how to make a schedule. The rivalry game between the two schools isn't until Nov. 9, so they're taking the week off. But unfortunately for the rest of the SEC, those teams' bye weeks leave the league to play without two of its best. Where's the fun in that? We're even deprived of seeing Hugh Freeze and his up-tempo offense at Ole Miss. The SEC East is busy this weekend, but the West is noticeably boring.
Horror movies cover our TV screens, while candy wrappers litter our streets.
It's Nick Saban's birthday! ... Oh, and it's also Halloween.
Regardless of which one you celebrate, cut off the lights, wrap yourself in a blanket and try not to get scared as we look at the most bone-chilling people in the SEC:
Michael Myers: One of the most feared horror movie villains, Myers terrorized the citizens of Haddonfield, Ill., with his frighteningly slow stalk and superhuman strength. Meet Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who torments quarterbacks with more speed and the reputation of being one of the country's scariest players. He has registered a nation-leading 16 tackles for loss and is tied for first with 10 sacks. He has totaled three sacks in a game three times this year.
Freddy Krueger: This season, sleeping on Auburn has proved costly. The Tigers started the season unranked and under new management with Gus Malzahn, but are 7-1 and ranked No. 11 in the BCS standings. The biggest Krueger-esque attack occurred in College Station, when the Tigers upset then-No. 7 Texas A&M 45-41. Two weeks before, Auburn upset No. 24 Ole Miss at home. Could Auburn do the same against Alabama later this month?
The Great Pumpkin: Like Linus waiting in that pumpkin patch on Halloween for the Great Pumpkin to arrive, we've waited for Jadeveon Clowney to return to his old form. Each week, we've been disappointed as Clowney, who entered the season with 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss in his career, has just two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Teams have schemed him differently and he has dealt with injuries, but he's just not the same player who had garnered so much attention. At least he has the awesome Predator look going!
The Walking Dead: If anyone looks like a stumbling herd of undead walkers, it's Florida and Georgia. These programs have been ravaged by injuries. Florida has dealt with eight season-ending injuries, including to starters Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley. Nicks and dings have piled up for Florida, too, as just 13 healthy defensive players dressed for the Mizzou game two weeks ago. Georgia watched as running back Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley went down with season-ending ACL injuries. Nagging injuries have sprinkled around, and heading into Saturday's game with Florida, receiver Chris Conley (ankle) is doubtful and safety Tray Matthews (hamstring) is questionable.
House of horrors: Opponents might wander into South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium for a fun football game, but few leave with a win. The Gamecocks have an SEC-leading 14-game winning streak at home.
Trick: Under Kevin Sumlin, all of Texas A&M's losses (four) have come at home. This year, the Aggies fell to Alabama and Auburn at Kyle Field by a combined 11 points. Not exactly the most intimidating home-field advantage.
The Joker: Arkham Asylum's most heinous inmate and Batman's arch nemesis, the Joker has the ability to manipulate his foes and wreak utter chaos. Kind of like how Johnny Manziel plays. We thought he wouldn't be focused enough this season, so he has churned out 3,091 yards of offense and 28 touchdowns. Defenders think he's going one way, only for him to go the other. Manziel might have dressed up as Scooby Doo last year, but he's as evil as the Joker on the field.
Thriller: The best game of the year has to be Georgia's 44-41 win over LSU. We saw three lead changes, four ties, 943 yards of offense and 85 points. Aaron Murray's touchdown pass to Scott-Wesley with 1:47 remaining proved to be the difference after LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw four straight incomplete passes on LSU's final drive.
Scary: Texas A&M's defense has been the SEC's most terrifying defense to watch. The Aggies rank 111th nationally in total defense, allowing 473.8 yards per game. They're 13th in the SEC in scoring defense (32.6), last in rushing (210.1), 12th in passing (263.6) and are giving up 6.4 yards per play. A&M has allowed fewer than 400 yards just twice this year.
Best costume: Will Muschamp.
1. Alabama (4-0, 2-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide defense was tired of hearing how good it wasn't. It didn't like hearing that Ole Miss was going to score on it. So it shut the Rebels out and held them to just 205 yards of offense and 11 first downs. The Alabama offense rolled up 434 yards of offense as well, quieting a lot of doubters in the process.
2. Georgia (3-1, 2-0 SEC; LW: 4): Well, it's pretty clear that the SEC Eastern Division is now Georgia's to lose. After a thrilling 44-41 win over LSU, the Bulldogs showed that no matter how bad their defense plays, the offense will be there to rescue it. The only real defensive test remaining for this unit is Florida. But can Florida's offense keep up with the Dawgs if they score?
3. Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 3): Like Georgia, the Aggies are equipped with an offense that can bail out its struggling defense. The Razorbacks gave A&M quite the scare in Fayetteville over the weekend, but Johnny Manziel and Co. didn't have much trouble piling on points against a struggling Arkansas defense. Still, that rushing defense has to improve with SEC play heating up.
4. LSU (4-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 2): The Tigers' defense showed its youthful age against Georgia on Saturday, especially in the secondary. Georgia churned out nearly 500 yards and averaged 7 yards per play. It didn't help that the front seven didn't generate enough pressure on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who threw four touchdowns. But we learned that LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger is the real deal. He delivered some NFL throws and might have outplayed Murray between the hedges.
5. South Carolina (3-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 5): I don't know what it is with this South Carolina team. It overcame the loss of starting quarterback Connor Shaw by scoring 28 straight points on UCF Saturday, but then turned around and let the Knights end the game on a 15-0 run. The good news for the Gamecocks is they might have one of the most underrated players in the SEC in running back Mike Davis, who leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (127).
6. Florida (3-1, 2-0 SEC; LW: 7): This is officially Tyler Murphy's team, and he's been solid since replacing Jeff Driskel at quarterback. No one really expects much from the passing game going forward, so the running game has to carry this team (again). It did just that with its 246 yards in the win over Kentucky. That defense might be missing Dominique Easley, but it was fantastic against the Wildcats.
7. Ole Miss (3-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 6): Quarterback Bo Wallace took some heat for saying the Rebels' offense would score some points on Alabama. Well, he ended up scoring for the Crimson Tide with his safety in the fourth quarter. The high-flying offense we saw in the first three games didn't make it to Tuscaloosa, and now the Rebels are gearing up for a crucial conference game at Auburn this weekend.
8. Missouri (4-0, 0-0 SEC; LW: 8): We still don't know a ton about this team, but the Tigers scored at will against their nonconference foes, averaging 45.5 points and 549 yards through the first four games. But SEC play starts now with a trip to Vanderbilt this weekend. We'll find out very soon if there was any substance to the Tigers' fast start to the season.
9. Auburn (3-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 9): The Tigers had the week off after their loss to LSU. That gave this team time to rest and try to get the passing game in better shape for the Rebels. What Gus Malzahn and his running backs had to be excited about was seeing Ole Miss' defense give up 254 rushing yards and rushing touchdowns of 68 and 50 yards to the Tide.
10. Vanderbilt (3-2, 0-2 SEC; LW: 10): The offense is only getting better, and wide receiver Jordan Matthews is getting closer and closer to breaking SEC records for career receiving yards and career receptions. With eight catches for 115 yards and touchdown in Vandy's 52-24 win over UAB, Matthews has had 100-plus yards or a touchdown in four of Vandy's five games.
11. Arkansas (3-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 11): After a rough loss at Rutgers, the Hogs made things interesting in their 45-33 loss to the Aggies. This running game bounced back against A&M with 201 yards, while Brandon Allen's return at quarterback led to 282 passing yards. Still, this team has to clean things up on defense. The Aggies averaged 7 yards per play.
12. Mississippi State (2-2, 0-1 SEC; LW 12): The Bulldogs were off after their 62-7 win over Troy. It was an impressive win for a team looking for more of an offensive spark at the beginning of the season. The way quarterback Dak Prescott is playing, this offense has to feel confident going into this weekend's matchup with LSU. But do the Bulldogs have the horses to keep up with an LSU team that has to be frustrated after its loss to Georgia?
13. Tennessee (3-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 13): Somehow, the Volunteers tried to give it all away late against South Alabama on Saturday. Tennessee was outscored 17-7 in the second half of its 31-24 win and even blocked its own field goal. A win is a win, especially for a program with a new head coach, but the Vols now have to regroup and face a Georgia team capable of scoring 50 in Knoxville this weekend.
14. Kentucky (1-3, 0-1 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats' only real positive from Saturday's 24-7 loss to Florida was that their touchdown came on a fake field goal. Other than that, the Gators dominated Mark Stoops' team. When your kicker is your leading rusher in a game (25 yards), you know you have major problems in the playmaking department.
1. Another top-10 matchup for Georgia: A common criticism leading into last season's SEC championship game was that Georgia hadn't played anybody. Well the schedule has certainly toughened up since then. Starting with that game against then-No. 2 (and eventual BCS champion) Alabama, the Bulldogs have faced No. 2, No. 16 (Nebraska), No. 8 (Clemson), No. 6 (South Carolina) and now-No. 6 LSU in their last six games. The Bulldogs are 2-2 in those games heading into Saturday's key conference showdown at Sanford Stadium -- LSU's first game this season in an opponent's stadium.
2. Can Ole Miss keep its mojo alive?: Resurgent Ole Miss already has a couple of impressive wins on its resume, winning at Vanderbilt in the closing minutes and running away from Texas in the fourth quarter in Austin. Good luck this weekend, though, Rebels. No. 1 Alabama -- which will host No. 21 Ole Miss on Saturday evening -- is in a far different class than the aforementioned opponents. Ole Miss has won in Tuscaloosa only once (1988), and that doesn't figure to change this weekend, even if Alabama's offense has underwhelmed lately.
4. Clash of styles in Fayetteville: The offensive approaches in Saturday's Texas A&M-Arkansas game could hardly be more different. On one hand, you have the wide-open Kevin Sumlin offense at A&M, with triggerman Johnny Manziel helping the Aggies post 602.2 yards and 50.2 points per game -- both SEC highs. Arkansas has run the ball effectively (246.0 ypg, third in the SEC), but that's about it. If the Razorbacks have any hope of hanging with A&M, they'd better hope that their impressive running back tandem of Alex Collins (SEC-high 120.2 ypg) and Jonathan Williams (second at 104.5) can extend clock-eating drives that keep Manziel and company on the sideline.
5. Mettenberger's homecoming: One of the most popular storylines this week concerns LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger returning home to Georgia, where he competed with Aaron Murray for the starting job in 2010 before being dismissed from the team after an offseason arrest. Mettenberger's mother is a longtime employee in Georgia's football office, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt gave her the week off to avoid the obvious conflict of interest that accompanies this game week. Players from both sides have answered plenty of Mettenberger-related questions, and the Tigers' quarterback seemed to be getting chapped by the subject by midweek. LSU needs him to play a composed game on Saturday, so this is a distraction that the Tigers didn't need.
6. Can South Carolina finish?: Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks built a 28-0 lead in their last game against Vanderbilt, only to see the Commodores rally to within 35-25 early in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks protected that lead the rest of the way, but it was hardly a positive sign when they had scored only six points in the fourth quarter the week before in a 41-30 loss to Georgia after it was 24-all at halftime. Playing at Central Florida (3-0), which beat Penn State in its last game, South Carolina might not be able to afford another sloppy second half.
7. Alabama's cornerback competition: Nick Saban's defense rotated five cornerbacks last week against Colorado State with two veterans out of the lineup. Deion Belue should be back in the lineup against Ole Miss, but the Rebels' up-tempo offense is much more capable of exploiting defensive vulnerabilities than the Tide's previous opponent. Alabama needs to get its secondary concerns sorted out quickly or the Rebels could make things interesting on Saturday.
8. Mizzou angling for 4-0: Saturday's game against Arkansas State marks the fourth straight nonconference matchup for the Tigers. That means it's all SEC games from here on out, and there are some tough ones on the list. Mizzou has posted some nice yardage totals so far in wins against Murray State, Toledo and Indiana. With a challenging October schedule ahead (at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, Florida, South Carolina), quarterback James Franklin and company need to keep the offensive momentum going.
9. Get-well game in Knoxville: Following two straight horrendous showings -- against Oregon and Florida -- things aren't looking too pretty for first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers desperately need a win against South Alabama on Saturday or it could get really ugly in October with Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama on the schedule. The first step for Jones is settling on a quarterback, with Justin Worley apparently stepping back into the starting job he lost last week before replacement Nathan Peterman injured his hand against Florida.
10. Will the real Commodores please stand up?: Coach James Franklin raised expectations in Nashville with a nine-win season last year, but Vanderbilt hasn't even looked like a bowl team in the wake of a sexual assault case that rocked the team and campus. Vandy is 2-2 overall and 0-2 in league play coming off last week's underwhelming 24-7 win at UMass. The Commodores reached the 2012 postseason based largely on wins against second-tier foes like Saturday's opponent, UAB. If they want to play in another bowl this season, they need to start getting their act together against the Blazers.
1. Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide looked a little sluggish at times in a 31-6 win over Colorado State, but did you really think Nick Saban was going to have his guys hammer a former assistant? Yeah, neither did I. People are getting a little concerned with this team, especially with the shaky play in the secondary, but Saban has never been one for truly mashing cupcakes.
2. LSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 2): The Bayou Bengals just keep rolling, but Auburn certainly gave LSU its best test so far. Gus Malzahn's up-tempo spread registered 437 yards on LSU's defense, including 213 on the ground. But LSU spent another day in the 200-200 club when it came to passing and rushing. Jeremy Hill had a monster game with 183 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.
3. Texas A&M (3-1, 0-1 SEC; LW: 3): We wanted to see improvement from the Aggies' defense and we got it on Saturday. While the defense did surrender 434 yards, it allowed only 13 points. That's 20 points fewer than the average allowed going into the game! Johnny Manziel had another big outing and the offense churned out nearly 600 yards.
4. Georgia (2-1, 1-0 SEC; LW: 4): If not for some major special teams blunders, the Dawgs would have had a much larger margin of victory over North Texas. Special teams has been a problem for Georgia over the last few years, and that's dangerous heading into the meat of conference play. The offense is still red-hot, while the defense allowed just one score and finally kept an opponent under 450 yards of offense (245).
5. South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 5): The Gamecocks were off this week, which should have given the defense more time to prep and study what it did against Vanderbilt. That was an impressive showing by this group, and it has to keep going with a tricky road trip to face unbeaten Central Florida this weekend.
6. Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 6): The Rebels were off, which meant guys could get healthy, but it did slow down some of the momentum from that huge win at Texas. No problem. All Ole Miss has to do is get up for a trip to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 1 Alabama. With an offense that's averaging a little less than 500 yards per game and is scoring almost 40 points a contest, Saturday's showdown should be pretty fun.
7. Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC; LW: 7): The Gators were dealt a tough blow when starting quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a broken fibula in the first quarter in their 31-17 win over Tennessee. He's out for the season and now fourth-year junior backup Tyler Murphy is in. While he looked good against Tennessee, you can't measure too much against a defense with as many holes as the Vols have. Even with an elite defense, Florida is still quite the enigma in the East.
8. Missouri (3-0, 0-0 SEC; LW: 10): All of a sudden, the Tigers' offense looks pretty exciting as it's averaging 47 points and almost 600 yards a game. Say what you will about the competition it's had to face; this team is on fire when it has the ball and that's something we didn't see at all last year. Going on the road to blow out Indiana was a nice victory for Mizzou as it prepares for its last nonconference foe (Arkansas State) before conference play begins.
9. Auburn (3-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 8): The Tigers' offense was able to move the ball against LSU, but turning it over three times and going 6-for-17 on third downs won't win you many games in this conference. Also, giving up nearly 7 yards per play to LSU won't help you out, either. It's still a work in progress on the Plains, but you can see the development continue across the board for Malzahn's team.
10. Vanderbilt (2-2, 0-2 SEC; LW: 9): It was a win, but it wasn't the most glamorous win for the Commodores this weekend. Credit the UMass defense, which held Vandy to just 239 yards and 10 points through the first three quarters. Then the Dores wore down UMass to score 14 more points and generate 167 yards in the fourth quarter.
11. Arkansas (3-1, 0-0 SEC; LW: 11): The Razorbacks really gave up a golden opportunity on the road against Rutgers. After leading 24-7 late in the third quarter, the Scarlet Knights rallied to score 21 unanswered points in their 28-24 win. The Hogs' ground game, which was averaging a little less than 300 yards per game, managed just 101 yards against Rutgers. That was a bad loss for a team in rebuilding mode.
12. Mississippi State (2-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 13): Quietly, Mississippi State ran Troy out of the state Saturday with an impressive 62-7 win over the Trojans. With Dak Prescott still handling quarterback duties, the Bulldogs gained 551 yards of offense and both Prescott and receiver Jameon Lewis rushed for, threw for and caught touchdowns Saturday night. The defense also held Troy to only 186 yards of total offense.
13. Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 12): When the Vols went up 7-0 in the first quarter against Florida, people in the press box joked that Butch Jones should just take a knee every down before punting in order to keep the ball away from Florida's defense. Well, he didn't, and his team turned it over six times, including four interceptions between Nathan Peterman and Justin Worley. The offense is in desperate need of playmakers and a consistent quarterback, while the defense allowed a quarterback with no true game experience to lead the Gators to a season-high 31 points and 218 total yards with two touchdowns.
14. Kentucky (1-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats were off after a tough loss to Louisville the previous week. The defense played better against the Cardinals and now has to face a Florida team with a new, very inexperienced quarterback. The question is whether the Wildcats' situation at quarterback is any better.
The nation’s No. 1 team has work to do: Alabama is coming off back-to-back national championships, but this year’s team is far from perfect. Last week, the defense had no answers for Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. On Saturday, it was the Crimson Tide’s offense that struggled. Alabama knocked off Colorado State, 31-6, in the home opener, but the Tide had just one offensive touchdown going into the fourth quarter. It didn’t help that star running back T.J. Yeldon was suspended for the first quarter, and the Tide were without wide receiver Amari Cooper and offensive guard Anthony Steen, but Alabama still should have dominated against such an inferior opponent. They rushed for just 66 yards in the game.
Florida has a new quarterback: Jeff Driskel had his ups and downs this year, but he was basically the only option Florida had at quarterback. Now he’s no longer an option. Driskel broke his lower right leg in the first quarter against Tennessee, an injury that will force him to miss the rest of the season. Enter Tyler Murphy. The junior signal-caller, who had yet to throw a pass, was 8-of-14 for 134 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 84 yards and a score and helped Florida pull away from the Volunteers, 31-17. Murphy was a two-star recruit coming out of high school, but now he’s the starting quarterback for the Gators. He’ll make his first start next weekend when Florida hits the road to take on Kentucky.
It was a rough day for the new head coaches: The SEC features four first-year head coaches this season, and not a single one picked up a victory Saturday. Gus Malzahn and Butch Jones faced difficult road tests against better opponents. Auburn lost to No. 6 LSU in Death Valley, and despite a strong start, Tennessee came up short against Florida. The one that hurt the most was Brett Bielema’s Arkansas team and its collapse against Rutgers. The Razorbacks led 24-7 late in the third quarter, but Rutgers rallied in the fourth to win, 28-24. What makes it worse for the Hogs is that their next four opponents are all ranked in the top 20, beginning with Texas A&M next week. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, the other first-year coach, had the weekend off.
Don’t sleep on Missouri: At the same time LSU was holding off a late comeback from Auburn, Missouri was running up the score on the road at Indiana. The Hoosiers might be a basketball school, but if you remember, Missouri lost to Syracuse late in the season last year, which kept the Tigers out of the postseason. More importantly, quarterback James Franklin is healthy. The senior threw for 343 yards, rushed for 61 yards and scored a combined three touchdowns against Indiana. He has now accounted for more than 1,000 yards of offense through the first three games. The Tigers aren’t likely to compete for the SEC East, but this team looks like a bowl team.
East should be wild: Just as we all expected, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina each have a loss after all of two weeks. Georgia jumped into the division lead with its 41-30 win against South Carolina on Saturday, but the division's power trio all figure to hang around throughout the fall. They all have demonstrated glaring weaknesses that make a second loss possible for each of them -- and even if Georgia has the lead now, it also faces perhaps the most difficult league schedule of the three expected front-runners. It should be yet another memorable race in the East.
Pay attention, Tide: Johnny Manziel certainly looked like a Heisman Trophy contender in passing for 403 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for another in Texas A&M's 65-28 thrashing of FCS squad Sam Houston State. But the Aggies' porous defense has to be a major concern for Kevin Sumlin, with Alabama's stable of running backs on tap next week. Sam Houston's Timothy Flanders rushed for 170 yards and scored three touchdowns against A&M's depleted defense. Several Aggies defenders should be back from suspensions next week against Alabama, which should help. But after allowing 450 yards per game in the first two games, the Aggies will have to get a lot better in a week's time.
Mettenberger for Heisman: It looks like the offseason talk about LSU making better use of Zach Mettenberger's powerful right arm under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was no joke. Mettenberger set a new school record with five touchdown passes in Saturday's 56-17 win against UAB. After passing for 282 yards against UAB -- with Odell Beckham Jr. grabbing five balls for 136 yards and three scores -- and 251 last week against TCU, Mettenberger has eclipsed the 250-yard mark in both of the first two games. He did so only three times last season.
Welcome back: Through two weeks, seven SEC programs are off to a 2-0 start. Included in that bunch are four of the five teams that failed to reach a bowl game last season: Auburn, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. Enjoy it while it lasts, though, guys. Tennessee faces Oregon and Florida in the next two games. Auburn gets Mississippi State and LSU in the next two weeks. Arkansas draws Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in a four-week stretch before long. And Missouri faces Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in October alone. In other words, the road's going to get bumpy soon once they jump into conference play, and they can't feast on the Samfords, Arkansas States and Toledos of the college football world.
A new statistical measure that ESPN will introduce to college football this season -- Total QBR (Quarterback Rating), which it brought to the NFL a couple of years ago -- confirms that Manziel’s 2012 performance did more than just pass the eye test.
Of the 122 qualified quarterbacks, the Heisman Trophy winner led the nation with a 90.5 Total QBR.
Here is a primer on the similar NFL QBR, which explains how the metric attempts to explain everything a quarterback does: running, passing, sacks, fumbles and penalties. It measures a player on a 1-100 scale, where 50 is average.
Sharon Katz of ESPN Stats and Information recently explained how Total QBR is an important measuring stick for teams harboring BCS championship hopes. Four of the last five quarterbacks who helped their teams win the BCS title ranked in the nation’s top eight in QBR.
That might be an important statistic to watch for the six SEC teams who are ranked in the top 12 in the Associated Press preseason poll: No. 1 Alabama (AJ McCarron was eighth nationally last season with an 81.1 QBR), No. 5 Georgia (Aaron Murray, 13th with 78.4), No. 6 South Carolina (Connor Shaw, 38th with 64.6), No. 7 Texas A&M (Manziel), No. 10 Florida (Jeff Driskel, 51st with 59.1) and No. 12 LSU (Zach Mettenberger, 80th with 47.0).
If the annual QBR trends hold true, some of those players must considerably improve their consistency if their team is to snatch a spot in the championship game in Pasadena.
McCarron, however, might simply need to hold steady in order to lead the defending champion Crimson Tide to yet another spot in the title game. That could prove trickier than one might expect for Alabama’s senior star, who has a wealth of skill talent at his disposal, but will line up behind a rebuilt offensive line this fall.
In a recent blog post, ESPN.com’s Tobin Petipas examined the Tide’s o-line from 2012 -- a group that featured the same starting five in all 14 games and ranked among the most dominant offensive fronts in recent memory. Three starters -- D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones -- became 2013 NFL draft picks, leaving behind only elite NFL prospect Cyrus Kouandijo at left tackle and right guard Anthony Steen, who was actually the only member of the group who did not commit a penalty or allow a sack last season.
Nonetheless, it will be difficult for Alabama’s rebuilt offensive line to provide the same dominant effort that allowed McCarron and the Tide’s running backs to perform so effectively in 2012. Alabama’s running backs averaged an SEC-high 4.1 yards per carry before first contact and were not touched until five yards past the line of scrimmage on a whopping 34.6 percent of their carries thanks in large part to the big holes the offensive line created.
Further, McCarron passed for 13 touchdowns and no interceptions off play-action fakes last season, largely because of the fear that Alabama’s rushing attack struck into opponents’ hearts.
New offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has no shortage of talent at his disposal, but his two returning starters are the only players in his meeting room who have started a game.
The Tide’s rushing production and McCarron’s Total QBR numbers could slide if Cristobal’s line struggles to adjust, but we should learn quickly how much of a concern the line will be for Nick Saban’s club. Alabama opens against a typically stout Virginia Tech defense, which ranked in the top six in FBS in negative plays forced and quarterback pressures (hurries and knockdowns) last fall.
2. AJ McCarron, RSr., Alabama: There are some who would lobby for McCarron to be in the top spot. When you throw 30 touchdown passes, only three interceptions and win your second straight national championship, there's a strong case to be made. McCarron is an excellent leader. He's tough, and he delivers in the clutch. The Tide will lean heavily on him in 2013.
3. Aaron Murray, RSr., Georgia: The knock against Murray is that he hasn't played his best in some of the Bulldogs' biggest games, although he certainly wasn't shabby against Alabama in the SEC championship game last season. His productivity speaks for itself, and with 95 career touchdown passes, he's on track to break Danny Wuerffel's SEC record of 114.
4. Connor Shaw, Sr., South Carolina: After the top three quarterbacks in the SEC, it gets tough. Shaw gets the nod at No. 4 based on his 17-3 record as the Gamecocks' starter. He's played through pain, delivered in key moments and can hurt teams both running and passing. He's also the ultimate team player and is simply one of those guys who gets it done without a lot of flash and dash.
5. Bo Wallace, RJr., Ole Miss: Wallace missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, and his 17 interceptions a year ago were a concern. But he should be even better his second time through the SEC, and there was a lot to like about his first season as the Rebels' starter. He accounted for 30 total touchdowns and was fifth in the league in total offense (3,384 yards).
6. Jeff Driskel, Jr., Florida: Of the guys on this list, Driskel has the most potential to move up. He did everything the Gators asked of him a year ago without much help from his receivers. The 6-4, 236-pound junior will be counted on even more in 2013 to make plays and has the size, arm strength and wheels to be a top-four quarterback in this league.
7. Tyler Russell, RSr., Mississippi State: Despite the shaky close to last season, there's no denying how much Russell improved a year ago. Now it's time to put it all together, and Russell has the pocket presence, release and arm talent to have his best season yet as a senior. He threw 24 touchdown passes last season and could make a push for 30 in 2013.
8. Zach Mettenberger, RSr., LSU: Les Miles said consistently this spring that he felt much better about his passing game. Part of that was the addition of Cam Cameron to the staff, but Mettenberger threw the ball with a lot of confidence and showed the ability to really stretch the field. He'll get a chance to do more of that this season after coming on last November.
9. James Franklin, Sr., Missouri: Franklin was much higher in these rankings this time a year ago after coming off a stellar 2011 season in the Big 12. If he stays healthy, he may well work his way back into the top 5. He showed more toughness than he was given credit for a year ago and gets a chance as a senior to show once and for all what kind of quarterback he really is.
10. Dylan Thompson, RJr., South Carolina: Even though he's not a full-time starter, look at what Thompson -- more of a drop-back passer than Shaw -- has done. He carved apart Clemson last season on the road. He stepped in and threw the winning touchdown pass in the bowl win against Michigan and just seems to get better every time he steps onto the field.
Here's what he's looked at so far:
Now, we're taking a look at Kiper's top quarterback and cornerback draft prospects. We'll start with the quarterbacks and look at the corners later today.
Manziel is getting all sorts of draft attention after his record-breaking, Heisman-winning season. He's the most talked about quarterback in the country and while he doesn't have an elite arm, he's extremely athletic and slippery. He's looking to develop more into a passer, but his ability to improv will continue to help him when his arm can't.
McCarron is someone who could have left for the NFL this year, but decided to stay in school. He makes great decisions with the ball (he threw 30 touchdowns to three interceptions last season) and certainly knows how to win. He has two national championship rings and is going for his third straight. He hasn't been asked to do a lot at Alabama, but he's put up some pretty good numbers and is easily the most talented quarterback Saban has had at Alabama.
Wallace has a tremendous amount of athleticism, but he had a lot of decision-making issues last year. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but threw 22 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Fixing his turnover issue is the biggest thing Wallace has to work on this fall. He has good arm strength and can get out of trouble situations with his feet.
Then you have Murray, who isn't getting a lot of draft love. He flirted with heading to the NFL, but also decided to stay in school. Murray's height (listed at 6-1) has hurt his draft status, but he has a solid arm, moves around well with his feet and has really improved his decision making. He had the stigma of not coming up in big games, but showed improvements in 2012 with his second-half effort in the Dawgs' win against Florida and with the way he played against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He'll probably end the 2013 season with a handful of SEC/Georgia records and should become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four straight seasons.
Other draft-eligible quarterbacks I'm keeping an eye on this fall:
- Jeff Driskel, Florida: He wasn't great last year, but there's no denying Driskel has talent. He's more comfortable with the playbook, and he has a lot more confidence. He must have more command and develop better chemistry with his receivers this fall.
- James Franklin, Missouri: He spent most of last season battling injuries, but finally isn't dealing with excruciating shoulder pain. His confidence was up this spring and that will go a long way this fall.
- Zach Mettenberger, LSU: He really came along in November and has all of his receiving targets back. People at LSU feel like he's much more comfortable with Cam Cameron's guidance.
- Tyler Russell, Mississippi State: He's had an up-and-down career with the Bulldogs, but when he was on last year he was extremely efficient. He lost all of his receivers from last year and can't press like he did late last season.
- Connor Shaw, South Carolina: It's hard to find a tougher quarterback out there. Shaw has dealt with a lot of injuries, but when he's been on the field, he's had a lot of success. Here's a chance for him to really improve his draft stock.
Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.
But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.
No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.
Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.
The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.
A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.
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