NCF Nation: South Carolina Gamecocks

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina’s Mike Davis just concluded a quiet spring.

But come fall, in his words, it’s on.

“I’m going to run angry next season, and everybody’s going to know about it,” said Davis, who received only minimal contact this spring after rushing for 1,183 yards a year ago in his first season as the Gamecocks’ starting running back.

A second-team All-SEC selection as a sophomore, Davis was one of the breakthrough players of the year in the league. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry and rushed for 100 yards in seven of his first nine games.

But when November arrived, Davis was running on fumes. He injured his shoulder and ribs against Mississippi State, but it was a bum right ankle that he couldn’t shake.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
AP Photo/John RaouxThe grind of the SEC schedule got to South Carolina running back Mike Davis in 2013.
“Every game, it felt like people started falling on it just because,” Davis lamented.

Davis finished with 203 carries. The only two backs in the SEC (playing in 12 or fewer games) who carried it more were Tennessee’s Rajion Neal (215) and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (207). By the time Davis got to Florida, Clemson and Wisconsin, all three with stout run defenses, he didn’t look like the same player.

He was still running as hard, but the wear and tear from the season had obviously taken a huge toll.

“I was hurting, but I was still playing,” Davis said. “That’s the time of year a lot of guys are hurting. But you keep going. You’re playing for the guys around you.”

Some of the best news for Davis is that he will have more guys around him at running back in 2014. He won’t have to carry it as much during the early part of the season, meaning he should be fresh for the stretch drive.

Junior Brandon Wilds is healthy again, and the Gamecocks also like junior Shon Carson’s versatility. One of the most physically impressive backs on campus is redshirt freshman David Williams, who has explosive speed.

“When one person is beat up, another can come in and our offense is still going to run the same,” Davis said. “We will be the same offense. We have four guys who can play for anybody.

“Brandon Wilds has done a great job. Shon Carson is killing it this offseason, and David Williams is a freak athlete. He has everything you want in a running back -- size and power -- and his speed will wow you with how big he is.”

The centerpiece of that deep running back stable, though, will remain the same -- No. 28.

And despite his 1,000-yard season last season, Davis still carries a big chip on his shoulder. It goes back to his recruitment.

The Lithonia, Ga., native was committed to Florida for several months, but he soured on the Gators when he found out they were also trying to recruit Keith Marshall late in the process.

“I talked to Keith Marshall, and he told me they sent the whole coaching staff to his house, and they told me that they didn’t,” said Davis, whose other brother, James Davis, played at Clemson.

“I knew Florida was going to take two running backs, and I knew Matt Jones wasn’t going to change his mind. I had asked if they were recruiting other running backs beside us, and they told me no. But when I found out they sent all their coaches to [Marshall’s] house for an in-home visit and only the tight ends coach to my house, I felt very disrespected.”

Davis decommitted from Florida soon after and told South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward privately that he would sign with the Gamecocks. Ward had stuck with Davis through the whole recruiting process and they shared a strong bond.

We will be the same offense. We have four guys who can play for anybody.

-- South Carolina running back Mike Davis, on the running backs who will be his backups in 2014
Of course, that didn’t mean the recruiting drama was completely over.

“Georgia came -- all the teams did toward the end -- but it was too late,” Davis said. “I looked at it like, ‘I’m in Georgia. I’m one of the top running backs. How come I’m just getting an offer from UGA?’ With, Clemson, my brother went there. So I was like, ‘Why are you just now hopping on?’

“They were all too late to the game. I think they looked at me as a backup plan, that they’d go recruit other guys and if they didn’t get them, they’d go get me. That’s how I looked at it.

“But I’m nobody’s backup plan.”

Davis bulked up to more than 220 pounds this spring but wants to play at around 215. He said he was between 205 and 210 last season.

“You’re going to see a totally different person. I’m not going to lie,” Davis said. “I did a lot to help myself and better myself this offseason, trying to stay healthy. I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been, and being around our guys has helped me be a better teammate.”

Davis will be running behind one of the better offensive lines in the SEC. The Gamecocks return four starters, and senior guard A.J. Cann said blocking for a guy like Davis makes their jobs easier.

“That first hit, he’s not coming down,” Cann said. “Unless you clip him by his ankles, he might fall. But if you go at him up high, I don’t think he’s coming down. He runs angry, and he runs mean.”

The meanest version may be yet to come, although Davis will measure himself by how many games the Gamecocks win next season, and more specifically, whether they can break through and win a first SEC championship.

“If you want to be great, then you’re going to do whatever it takes to help your team win,” Davis said. “It’s not about wowing people, but you do want them to come away saying, ‘Why is he running so hard? He has that extra oomph.’

“That’s how I want to run on every carry.”
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
Mike Davis came on so strong last season it was as if Marcus Lattimore had never left. South Carolina didn’t have to deal with the pain of losing its legendary running back because Davis stepped right into his place, seamlessly providing the same kind of power and speed at the position fans and coaches had become accustomed to.

Steve Spurrier knew Davis would be special even before last season's season opener. He told anyone who would listen how good his sophomore would be. But even now, some seven months after South Carolina blistered North Carolina on primetime television, the head coach of the Gamecocks is marveling at how some people are still sleeping on his running back.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMISouth Carolina is counting on a big season from Mike Davis.
“In practice yesterday we were watching him run a little bit and somebody says, ‘People don’t realize how fast he is,’ ” Spurrier told ESPN.com. “The first game last year he ran sort of an off-tackle play against North Carolina, and their defensive back took a bad angle and he broke down the sideline and I think, man, he’s going to have a 40- to 55-yard run and he ends up going all the way 75 yards, and they couldn’t catch him. We said, ‘Wow.’ He’s sort of sneaky fast.”

Davis ran for 100-plus yards in seven of his first nine games last season, outpacing SEC favorites Todd Gurley, T.J. Yeldon and Tre Mason. Through the first week of November, Davis ranked ninth in the country in total rushing yards (1,058) while also averaging the 13th-best yards per carry (6.37, minimum 100 attempts). He carried a heavy load with 166 carries, but he didn’t lack burst, rushing for 10 or more yards 26 times -- more than Mason, Yeldon and a fella by the name of Johnny Manziel.

But the wear and tear eventually caught up with him. Davis would rush for only 54 yards against Florida, miss the next game against Costal Carolina and fail to break the 50-yard rushing mark in each of South Carolina’s final two games against Clemson and Wisconsin. Even though he finished a respectable fourth in the SEC in rushing yards and fifth in all-purpose yards, it wasn’t his best. He simply wasn’t himself.

“It slowed me down a lot,” Davis said. “I don’t think people realized how much I was injured. The small injuries added up and hit me toward the end.”

Thankfully for South Carolina, Davis doesn’t appear to have the injury concerns of Lattimore before him. It was a series of minor injuries that took their toll, and now after a few months off, Davis is back to being fully healthy, he said. He’s taking it easy this spring and enjoying the emergence of his fellow running backs, most notably Shon Carson and former four-star David Williams, whom Davis called “electrifying” and someone “you like to watch in practice.”

All eyes are still on Davis, though. The rising junior has gone from unknown to a marked man in the SEC in one season. According to one sports betting site, Davis is at 18-to-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy, trailing names such as Jameis Winston, Braxton Miller and Marcus Mariota, while also coming in ahead of the likes of Nick Marshall, Trevor Knight and Dak Prescott.

It's kind of like you're playing Madden or something. If you need yards, you just hand it off and let him go. It's cool.

-- South Carolina QB Dylan Thompson on RB Mike Davis
What does Davis think of the attention?

“It’s an honor, especially coming from where I’m from,” he said. “Everybody still calls me Little James or James Davis’ brother. I kind of wanted my own name growing up.”

Those who saw him play last season understand that Davis is his own man. When he’s healthy, he is as good as any running back in the country. Spurrier didn’t hesitate to say he could be the best running back in the SEC.

Dylan Thompson, who has already been named the full-time starter at quarterback by Spurrier, said it’s almost unfair to have someone like Davis to hand the ball off to.

“It’s kind of like you’re playing Madden or something,” Thompson said. “If you need yards, you just hand it off and let him go. It’s cool.”

The good news for both South Carolina and Davis is that he won’t have to carry the entire load this fall. Spurrier said he’ll give the ball to Davis only three or four times during scrimmages this spring, noting how he has the enviable problem of having “too many running backs” to incorporate into the lineup.

Beyond Carson and Williams, whom Thompson said ran a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash in spring testing, South Carolina also has Brandon Wilds to turn to.

There’s no question, though, that Davis will be the centerpiece.

Now at “110 percent,” he wants to get even better than he was last season.

“If there’s anything I can do to get better and have an edge on my opponent, I’m always down for it,” he said. “So as far as getting faster, getting in the weight room and getting stronger, I’m always for it.”
There wasn’t any conversation between Steve Spurrier and Dylan Thompson this offseason. The two didn’t need to speak to know the arrangement. With Connor Shaw no longer under center, the job was clearly Thompson’s at South Carolina.

Spurrier, who has never shied away from a quarterback competition, was sure about it. In fact, the head coach of 300 college football games and nine seasons with the Gamecocks didn’t even understand why people were asking.

“Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ ” Spurrier told ESPN.com. “Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ He’s a fifth-year senior. He’s the only one with any experience.”

The Head Ball Coach isn’t playing footsie with redshirt sophomore Brendan Nosovitch or former four-star prospect Connor Mitch this spring. It’s Thompson vs. the field, and the field doesn’t stand a chance.

“It’s not like those other guys are going to challenge him,” Spurrier said. “Plus, he’s our best player. I think he’s by far our best player right now.”

Emphatic enough for you?

[+] EnlargeDylan Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesNew starting quarterback Dylan Thompson is leading by example this spring at South Carolina.
Now that that’s out of the way, it’s full steam ahead for Thompson, who seems comfortable with the spotlight. He’s 3-0 as a starter with 25 games under his belt, so he knows the offense and won’t wilt under pressure. His arm has never been in doubt, either. He’s a career 120-of-218 passing with 1,827 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He won’t run quite as much as Shaw, but he can move around well enough to make a guy miss.

The only real question is whether he’s up for being the guy at South Carolina. He might not have the jitters when it comes to experience or talent, but he’s never had the starting job to himself. He’s never had everyone looking up to him -- not just his teammates, but everyone.

“Being the quarterback at this school and being from in-state, it’s a fun thing,” Thompson said. “It’s a lot of fun having people look at you and ask you stuff wherever you go.”

The questions have changed from “How’s the team looking?” to “Are you ready for this year?” Thompson said. It’s been more pointed, more directed at him. Right or wrong, whether South Carolina wins the SEC East is up to him.

And, by all accounts, he’s fine with that.

This offseason he wanted to stand out as the leader of the team. So every morning he got to the gym first, and every night he was last to leave.

Thompson spent the final spring break of his college career in South Florida, but he wasn’t there for the beaches. Instead, he worked with Ken Mastrole at his passing academy, working on his footwork and mechanics.

Running back Mike Davis, who is no slouch in the gym himself, remembers running the 300-yard shuttle run during winter workouts. Looking ahead, he saw the future starting quarterback leading the pack more often than not. It’s not that he was shocked, Davis explained, but “you could tell from his effort that he was ready to go.”

“Dylan has stepped it up a lot,” Davis said. “As far as taking control of anything, he’s there. As far as any events going on, he’s there. And as far as running as a group, he was the guy trying to be out front, and most of the time he was. If anyone should be impressive this year, it should be Dylan.”

Said Thompson: “I want them to know I’m putting in more time than any quarterback in the SEC and in the country. I’m sure there are a lot of guys that work hard, but I always try to remind myself that there’s somebody at Baylor, at UCLA, at another university that’s working to be great. Where have I done myself today to be great?”

Thompson is working closely with quarterback coach G.A. Mangus. The two “went at it and broke down a lot of my stuff from last year -- what I missed, why I missed on throws, just in-game situations,” Thompson said, noting how a big goal is improve his completion percentage on first down and put the offense in a manageable down and distance.

In other words, he’s not trying to do too much. And considering the help around him on offense, that’s probably a good thing. Davis has emerged as one of the best running backs in the SEC and the group of receivers isn’t too shabby, either.

“I think our offense is really solid, and I think that helps me a lot,” Thompson said. “I think our offensive line is as good as it’s ever been here. We’ve got guys that should be in the NFL next year.”

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/John RaouxSteve Spurrier is showing great confidence in the ability of Dylan Thompson.
Thompson raved about receivers Shaq Roland (“He can do just about anything”), Damiere Byrd (“He can outrun anyone in the country”) and Nick Jones (“Mr. Reliable, he’s always going to run great routes”), and that’s not to mention the tight ends who he says are “something we can hammer on this year.”

Spurrier thinks Thompson “could be the best quarterback” in the SEC.

“Dylan is going to be ready,” he said. “He’s a fifth-year senior. He and Connor Shaw came in together. Connor was not redshirted and Dylan was, so this is his opportunity, and he’s going to make the most of it.

“I think he’s a really good player and he’s going to prove it to people this year.”

He has the experience. He has the arm. And he has the weapons. While some might have hoped for a quarterback controversy at South Carolina, there’s none to be had. Thompson has done everything to earn it from his head coach.

“Anyone I know, well, their first thing is, ‘How is Coach Spurrier?’ I always say, ‘Man, this guy, he works. He wants you to be the best you can be.’ ” Thompson said. “That’s something I really love about him. If you put your time in in the weight room, in the film room, in the practice field, in the summer and in the offseason, you’re going to be rewarded. He demands perfection, but we have a good time with it, too. It’s not like some burden that hangs over you. You know what the expectation is for your work ethic. You’re either going to get there or you’re not going to play.”

Was it good to have Spurrier come out and say, "You’re the guy?"

“It’s cool,” Thompson said, “but I kind of figured it.”
1. The NCAA Football Rules Committee tabled the 10-second rule, and Alabama coach Nick Saban says the pace of play needs a closer look, which means we are in the exact same place as we were before the committee ready-fire-aimed its way toward passing the 10-second rule three weeks ago. That is, save for everyone on both sides being a lot more riled up. Until the data shows this is a player-safety issue, it’s a style-of-play issue. Those rules are tougher to pass, if only because trends in the game develop slowly.

2. In a discussion on the ESPNU Football Podcast on Wednesday, my colleague Matt Fortuna made an interesting point in favor of the idea that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has established himself as a success in South Bend despite having had only one BCS-bowl season. Three of Kelly’s coordinators have been hired as head coaches: Charley Molnar (UMass), Chuck Martin (Miami of Ohio) and Bob Diaco (UConn). Here’s another point in Kelly’s favor: he is in year five in South Bend without questions surrounding his job security. Since Dan Devine retired in 1980, only Lou Holtz has passed the five-year threshold.

3. Has it occurred to anyone else that this is the golden age of college football in the state of South Carolina? The Gamecocks have finished 11-2 and in the top 10 in the last three seasons; Clemson has done both in the last two seasons. This from the flagship programs of a state best known in recent years for exporting its talent to national powers such as Florida State and Penn State. What Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney have achieved gets lost because they have one conference title between them in their present jobs. But the state of South Carolina stands behind only Alabama in recent success.
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

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

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

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

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

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

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

Need a little perspective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.

Clowney turns in freakish 40 time

February, 24, 2014
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South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney said he was going to put on a show at the NFL combine, and he delivered Monday morning with an unofficial time of 4.47 in the 40-yard dash.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIJadeveon Clowney wanted to make a statement at the NFL combine. He delivered on Monday morning.
That's a blistering time for a any defensive end. Clowney weighed in at 266 pounds, and his 40 time would rank among the fastest by a defensive lineman at the combine in the last 10 years. It was also faster than 56 running backs and receivers at the combine on Sunday.

There have been a ton of questions concerning Clowney, including his work ethic, focus and what motivates him. But he's easily the most explosive defender in this draft, and his 40 time will likely ensure his going in the top five.

Clowney did 21 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press on Sunday, which wasn't a big number. But with his long arms, that's not a huge concern.

Here's a look at how some of the other SEC players have fared so far at the combine:

Auburn DE Dee Ford: Ford made big news with something he said. He took a swipe at Clowney, saying the Gamecocks' defensive end "played like a blind dog in a meat market." Ford, who had 10.5 sacks last season, didn't work out Monday because of unspecified medical reasons. ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold reported that Ford was dealing with a lower back issue.

Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel: Electing not to throw at the combine, Manziel measured in at 5-11 3/4, but has huge hands for a guy his size (9 7/8 inches). Manziel's official 40 time was 4.68.

Auburn OT Greg Robinson: His official 40 time was a 4.92, which is staggering for a 6-5, 332-pound offensive tackle. He also did 32 reps on the bench press. Robinson obviously made the right call in coming out early because he's going to be the first or second tackle taken.

Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews: Measuring 6-3 and weighing 212 pounds, Matthews put to rest any questions about his speed and turned in a 4.46 in the 40.

Ole Miss WR Donte Moncrief: Moncrief helped himself with a 4.4 40-yard dash time, as did South Carolina's Bruce Ellington with a 4.45.

Below are some other 40 times of SEC players (official times):
Over the span of their careers they threw for 48,824 passing yards. There were a total 403 touchdown passes among them, and they won 184 games in which they appeared, including 11 bowls and two national championships. They were, arguably, the most talented and productive class of quarterbacks ever to play in the SEC at one time. And now they’re all gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[+] EnlargeSpurrier
AP Photo/Wade PayneSteve Spurrier called the rule proposing to slow down the pace of offenses 'ridiculous.'
Bielema met with members of the media before an appearance at the White County Razorback Club and said he expects the proposal prohibiting snapping the football until at least 10 seconds run off the 40-second play clock to pass. The NCAA playing rules oversight panel votes on March 6.

The driving force behind the rule is player safety, yet there has been no real evidence that up-tempo, hurry-up offenses lead to more injuries. Still, Bielema isn't backing down from his stance on the proposal and wants to make sure something catastrophic doesn't happen.

"If one of those players is on the field for me, and I have no timeouts, I have no way to stop the game," Bielema said. "And he raises his hand to stop the game, and I can't do it. What am I supposed to do?

"What are we supposed to do when we have a player who tells us he's injured?"

Shortly after news of the rule proposal broke, it was discovered that Bielema and Alabama coach Nick Saban voiced their concerns about the effects up-tempo, no-huddle offenses have on player safety to the NCAA committee.

Having one of the sport's most powerful figures backing such a proposal certainly gives it stronger legs, but it isn't winning over current coaches, who find the rule silly and want more evidence of it actually being a true concern for player health.

Even defensive-minded Florida coach Will Muschamp told ESPN.com on Thursday that he isn't in favor of the rule. While he ran more of a run-first, traditional pro-style offense during his first three years with the Gators, the addition of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has the Gators shifting to more of a spread, up-tempo look in 2014.

Muschamp said he did a study two years ago and learned that on average, four to six snaps a game come before 10 seconds tick off the game clock.

"You're talking four to six plays, come on," Muschamp said. "It's not that big of a deal. It's not about player safety. To me, it's funny that everybody wants to argue whatever their point is. It's not really about what's good for the game, it's about what's good for me, at the end of the day. All these hurry-up guys want to snap as fast as they can snap it, and the guys who don't hurry-up want the game slowed down."

To Muschamp, it's more about the administration of the game by the referees in games, who sometimes can't get set in time before a ball is snapped. That's the concern Muschamp has when it comes to evolution of offenses.

I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too.

-- Georgia coach Mark Richt
"That's the issue," he said. "[Officials] have a hard time administering the game when it's moving that fast. There's times that they don't even have the chains set and the ball is being snapped. Is that good for the game? I don't think so, but I'm not making the decision. But it's comical to me to hear all these people come out and say their point of view and say it's what's best for the game. No, it's what's best for them; let's make that clear.

"As much as anything, it's the administration of the game that we need to help the officials. I'm not saying slow the game down, I'm just saying it's ridiculous that we can't even get the chains set and we're snapping the ball. Is that good for the game? We don't even know where the first down was? Where's the next first down? It's stupid, but that's just the way it goes."

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier went as far as to call the new proposal the "Saban Rule" and hopes that "it's dead now." He even left a voicemail for Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, who is the chairman of the rules committee, stating his disapproval for the rule.

"I just told him I was against it," Spurrier told USA Today. "It's ridiculous. Let's let everybody keep playing the way they've been playing."

Georgia coach Mark Richt stood by Spurrier, saying defensive players should be able to adapt to staying on the field longer, just like offensive players.

"I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too," Richt told the Athens Banner-Herald.

SEC's attendance numbers rise in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC media days expanding

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

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

Here's a look at the schedule:

MONDAY, July 14

Commissioner Mike Slive

Auburn -- Gus Malzahn

Florida -- Will Muschamp

Vanderbilt -- Derek Mason

TUESDAY, July 15

Mississippi State -- Dan Mullen

South Carolina -- Steve Spurrier

Tennessee -- Butch Jones

Texas A&M -- Kevin Sumlin

WEDNESDAY, July 16

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

Arkansas -- Bret Bielema

LSU -- Les Miles

Missouri -- Gary Pinkel

THURSDAY, July 17

Alabama -- Nick Saban

Georgia -- Mark Richt

Kentucky -- Mark Stoops

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

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

SportsNation

Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?

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

Discuss (Total votes: 10,953)

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

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

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

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

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

2013 SEC Super Seniors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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