NCF Nation: Aaron Murray

Three key factors in UGA-Missouri game

October, 10, 2014
10/10/14
9:00
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By the end of the day Saturday, there might be a clear front-runner in the SEC East race -- and that team will likely be the winner of the matchup between No. 13 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) and No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0).

With help from ESPN Stats & Information, let's take a look at key factors in Saturday's game in Columbia:

No Gurley, what now?: By now it's no secret that Georgia's offense will operate without the dominant running ability of tailback Todd Gurley (94 carries, 773 yards, 8 TDs, SEC-high 154.6 rushing yards per game). The guy was a Heisman Trophy front-runner for good reason, but now Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must assemble a game plan against Missouri for the second straight year without his most potent weapon.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will miss the unique ability of Todd Gurley (above) to gain yards after contact, but freshman Nick Chubb is a suitable replacement.
The Bulldogs played without injured backs Gurley and Keith Marshall last season and actually fared OK on the ground against Missouri. Then-freshmen J.J. Green (12 carries, 87 yards) and Brendan Douglas (14-70) enjoyed success on the ground against Mizzou last season and Georgia now must turn to Plans B, C and D against the Tigers again.

Green is now playing defense, so he's out of the picture. But Nick Chubb provides a fairly decent resemblance to Gurley. The freshman (31-224, 7.2 yards per carry) is Georgia's second-leading rusher behind Gurley. Marshall and Sony Michel remain sidelined by injuries, so Chubb and Douglas (sixth on the team with 47 rushing yards in limited duty) might be in line for the biggest workloads out of the backfield -- particularly Chubb.

About one of every five of Chubb's carries (six out of 31) has gone for at least 10 yards, and he's averaging 3.77 yards after contact per carry, which isn't much worse than Gurley's 3.9 YAC -- the best among all Power 5 backs with at least 50 carries. Nonetheless, Gurley's absence is devastating for Georgia and will require massive adjustments late in the week in order for the Bulldogs to get out of Columbia with a win.

One thing that helps the Bulldogs' cause is that Missouri's defense has had mixed results against the run.

Indiana ran 50 times for 241 yards and three touchdowns in its upset win over the Tigers. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman averaged 3.95 yards after contact per run that day en route to rushing 19 times for 132 yards and a score. As we've already discussed, YAC is one of power runner Chubb's trademarks, so Missouri tacklers are going to have to bring it Saturday. He's not Gurley, but he ain't bad, either.

Mizzou pass rush: Although Georgia has been more run-heavy compared to recent seasons -- the team is running the ball 64 percent of the time this season compared to 51 percent in 2013 -- the Bulldogs need to produce more in the passing game with Gurley out of the picture.

And Missouri -- particularly star defensive linemen Shane Ray and Markus Golden -- would be perfectly happy to see the Bulldogs try to air it out. Ray ranks second in the FBS and leads the SEC with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss. Golden is third in the SEC with four sacks and fifth with 6.5 tackles for loss.

Georgia fans might remember Ray as the pass-rusher who laid a crushing hit on quarterback Aaron Murray last season, forcing a fumble that Mizzou end Michael Sam scooped up and ran in for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 28-10 lead.

Ray had two sacks for a loss of 14 yards in the Tigers' comeback win against South Carolina. Between Ray, Matt Hoch and Harold Brantley, Mizzou had four sacks for 37 yards of lost ground for the Gamecocks.

More good news for Mizzou: It hasn't needed to blitz in order to generate effective pressure. Since the start of last season, the Tigers have 50 sacks when sending four pass-rushers or fewer, the most of any Power 5 school.

QB comparison: Georgia and Missouri both expected more productivity from the quarterback position than what they've gotten so far.

The issue might be slightly more alarming with Mizzou's Maty Mauk (1,110 passing yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs), whom many college football analysts expected to have a big season. Thus far, Mauk has a 47.1 score in ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, which is the third-worst in the SEC and more than 30 points lower than his 77.9 from last season.

Third down in particular has been an issue for the Mizzou QB. Mauk is completing an SEC-low 38.1 percent of his third-down passes and ranks 10th among SEC quarterbacks in conversion percentage (29 percent).

Georgia's beleaguered secondary is vulnerable to a strong passing attack, but will Mauk -- whose breakout game last season was against Georgia -- take advantage? That might be the determining factor in Saturday's game. The Bulldogs are in the middle of the SEC pack in pass defense (seventh at 223 YPG), but they have surrendered 284 passing yards and three touchdowns in a shootout win against Tennessee, and 271 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout loss to South Carolina. Doing a better job against Mauk, receiver Bud Sasser (fourth in the SEC with averages of six catches and 90.8 yards per game), and the rest of Mizzou's receivers would greatly improve Georgia's chances of victory.

We've already discussed the challenge Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason will face from Missouri's dynamic pass rush. Aside from avoiding mistakes with Ray and Golden breathing down his neck, how much will Georgia expect from Mason and the passing game? Mason (687 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs) ranks 55th in the Total QBR standings with a 59.7 score -- not horrible, but not particularly impressive, either.

Mason hasn't worked with a full complement of receivers yet, but that's starting to change. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell played for the first time in more than a year last week against Vanderbilt, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt expects receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tight end Jay Rome to be back for the Missouri game, too.

UGA still hasn't recovered from UT win

September, 26, 2014
9/26/14
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Aaron Murray fans might remember last season's Tennessee game as one of the great individual performances of the ex-Georgia quarterback's career

Operating short-handed because of roster losses, Murray set up a fourth-quarter touchdown with a career-long 57-yard run, forced overtime with a touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten with five seconds left in regulation and helped the Bulldogs survive the Volunteers' upset bid 34-31 in overtime.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Jason GetzGeorgia running back Keith Marshall has not yet regained the form he showed prior to getting injured in last season's Tennessee game.
Mark Richt likely remembers the win in a far less sunny fashion. It was the point when a team that had designs on contending for conference and national titles started to crumble.

Sure, the victory was exciting and Murray played great. Yes, it kept Richt's Bulldogs in the Top 10 for one more Saturday after an exciting first few weeks of the season. But because of the series of injuries the Bulldogs suffered that day -- namely the season-ending knee injuries to running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley -- a high-scoring offense that had already lost receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the season and superstar tailback Todd Gurley for a month started to sputter.

Following the Tennessee win, the Bulldogs' record dating back to the start of the 2011 season was 26-7, and it seemed like they still stood a good chance of claiming their third straight SEC East title. Since that day in Knoxville, the Bulldogs are 6-5 and one could easily argue Mike Bobo's offense still hasn't completely recovered.

Entering this week's rematch with Tennessee, Scott-Wesley still hasn't appeared in a game yet in 2014, although Richt hinted he might make his debut next week against Vanderbilt. Same with Mitchell, who has missed 14 games since tearing his ACL in the first quarter of the Bulldogs' 2013 opener against Clemson.

But perhaps the most unfortunate injury from the Tennessee game was the one to Marshall.

He had existed in Gurley's shadow since the 2012 season started, but last season's Tennessee game looked like his chance to finally thrive as the Bulldogs' top back. He had enjoyed the best game of his career -- 164 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 75 and 72 yards -- the season before against the Vols and had performed well against LSU a week earlier (96 yards on 20 carries) after Gurley went down with an ankle injury.

But when the former five-star recruit crumpled to the ground after taking a shot to the knee from Cam Sutton while reaching to catch a first-quarter pass, he suffered an injury that to this point has prevented him from regaining the form that made him a perfect complement to Gurley during their freshman season.

Marshall has played sparingly this season, rushing 12 times for 24 yards before suffering another knee injury last week against Troy that will sideline him again for the time being. Freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb have emerged as stars-in-waiting behind Gurley, while Marshall has become an overlooked figure in Georgia's backfield.

Perhaps Marshall will return to the lineup and can still make an impact this season. Maybe Scott-Wesley will come back and build off the breakthrough performances he strung together last season prior to the Tennessee game. Same with Mitchell, whom many believed was on the verge of a huge 2013 season before suffering a freak injury while celebrating a Gurley touchdown against Clemson.

They won't be in the lineup against a much-improved Vols team this Saturday, though, and that's certainly not a good thing for Georgia. The Bulldogs still have Gurley, and their coaching staff has had more than enough practice turning lemons into lemonade since their visit to Neyland Stadium a year ago, so they're hardly the limping club that hit the skids after last season's overtime victory.

The Bulldogs have still fielded a serviceable -- and at times, truly impressive -- offense since then, despite all the injury absences. Eventually, Bobo might have all his weapons at his disposal once again. And SEC East defenses should take cover if that happens.

Georgia Bulldogs season preview

August, 8, 2014
8/08/14
10:30
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs

2013 record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC). Lost 24-19 to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

Key losses: QB Aaron Murray, TE Arthur Lynch, DL Garrison Smith, S Josh Harvey-Clemons, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins, OT Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, OG Dallas Lee, DL Jonathan Taylor.

Key returnees: RB Todd Gurley, LB Ramik Wilson, LB Amarlo Herrera, OLB Leonard Floyd, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OT John Theus, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Chris Conley, DE Ray Drew, C David Andrews, PK Marshall Morgan, WR Justin Scott-Wesley.

Instant impact newcomers: OLB Lorenzo Carter, RB Sony Michel, RB Nick Chubb, CB Malkom Parrish, DT Lamont Gaillard, DB Shattle Fenteng, TE Jeb Blazevich.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIAfter leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman last season, big things are expected of Leonard Floyd in 2014.
Breakout player: Floyd. The lanky outside linebacker led Georgia with 6.5 sacks in 2013 and added 9.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. He’ll benefit from having a full year in Georgia’s conditioning program and could become a star in his second season.

Most important game: Sept. 13 at South Carolina. Two of the favorites in the SEC East will meet early in the season in Columbia, where the Gamecocks haven’t lost since 2011. They’ve beaten Georgia in their last two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium, including a 35-7 thrashing in 2012. The margin for error is typically narrow within the division, so the winner of this one will be the early team in the East driver’s seat.

Biggest question mark: The secondary is easily Georgia’s biggest area of concern. The Bulldogs’ pass defense was spotty at best in 2013, and the offseason departures of three regulars has left plenty of personnel questions. Coach Mark Richt kicked two starting safeties -- Harvey-Clemons and Matthews -- off the team, and cornerback Wiggins transferred to Louisville, so there is plenty of playing time available. Swann’s presence is big at cornerback, and converted running back J.J. Green was impressive in the spring, but junior college transfer Fenteng and Parrish will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact in August.

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Missouri. This could be a tricky game that might not get as much attention as it deserves with matchups against Clemson, South Carolina, Florida and Auburn also on Georgia’s schedule. The defending SEC East champs lost a ton of firepower, so Mizzou seems likely to take a step backward. But it’s a long road trip that kicks off a stretch of more than a month when the Bulldogs won’t play at home once -- and it could easily become a loss if Georgia doesn’t have its act together.

Key stat: 36.7. The average score of a Georgia game was 36.7 to 29.0 in 2013. Even if what was an inexperienced defense improves this fall, the Bulldogs will still likely rely on their star-studded offense. They might need to keep scoring at that prolific clip, which is somewhat uncertain with three longtime starting offensive linemen to replace, to allow time for the defense and their new set of coaches to develop some continuity.

Team’s top Twitter follows: The Bulldogs have some good choices here. Seeing as how he’s never started a game, it might seem surprising that senior offensive lineman Watts Dantzler (@WattsDantzler) has 12,000 Twitter followers. But he’s a natural-born entertainer who has a nationwide following that grew substantially when he live tweeted a harrowing spring break trip back to Athens on a bus. Another good pick is tight ends coach John Lilly (@JohnLillyUGA), who is a much more creative on Twitter than the typical coach. Lastly, Conley (@_Flight_31) regularly updates his 27,400 followers on his latest film exploits; he produced and starred in a well-received “Star Wars” tribute film over the summer and has started work on a new movie in recent weeks.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 9.06 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5 wins

Our take: Georgia was better than an eight-win team last season, but the Bulldogs were absolutely decimated by injuries to key players like Mitchell, Gurley, Scott-Wesley, tailback Keith Marshall and eventually Murray. If new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can get things straight on his side of the ball, the ceiling is extremely high for this team. The offense has an impressive array of talent surrounding senior quarterback Hutson Mason and should be difficult to contain. If the Bulldogs open with a win against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, this could easily become a 10-2 or 9-3 season where Georgia is once again in the thick of the East race.
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
Johnny Manziel's decision to break the mold for quarterback pro day workouts came about innocently enough, over a lunchtime conversation in February with his personal coach, George Whitfield.

That's when Whitfield proposed to the former Heisman Trophy winner that he try something that no elite quarterback prospect had previously attempted at his pro day at Texas A&M: throw passes while wearing shoulder pads and a helmet.

But Manziel, whose by-the-seat-of-his-pants style turned him into a college football folk legend, was game.

"He didn't say anything for about five minutes and he goes, 'You think we can pull that off?' " Whitfield said. "And I said, 'How do you do on Thursday practices? You've got to try to take the high-wire act out of it. It's a Thursday practice.' He goes, 'Shoot, now that you say that, I've been killing teams in pads all my life.' "

The only opponents Manziel needed to defeat at pro day were the scouts and analysts who said his skills wouldn't translate to the NFL game. But he answered those criticisms with great success, thanks in part to the carefully scripted battery of passes that Whitfield designed for the workout.

As the NFL draft begins tonight, we'll know if the pro days achieved their desired results. That's their purpose, especially for quarterbacks. They want to show off what they do well and also address any concerns about physical limitations that NFL clubs might have in order to improve their draft stock.

To continue reading this story, click here.

ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sits in a faintly lit meeting room deep inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the Bulldogs' athletic facility/sports museum, reflecting on the past and focusing on the future.

His eyes show purpose as he discusses the season ahead while mentally gearing up for a late spring practice a couple of hours away.

While the present means more reps, and more rhythm inside offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense, Mason can’t help but push his brain full throttle toward the fall.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAfter waiting his turn for four years, Hutson Mason is ready to be the leader of Georgia's offense.
For the fifth-year senior who had the pleasure -- and sometimes displeasure -- of sitting behind one of the SEC’s all-time greats in Aaron Murray for four years, Mason has to be both here and 10 steps ahead if he’s going to cast his own shadow.

“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason told ESPN.com in early April. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”

Mason wasn’t near the star Murray was coming out of high school and he won’t sniff his college career. He's fully aware, but that didn’t deter him from having a strong spring or setting high 2014 goals.

"I know I have a year left, but it’s hard to realize that, 'Man, you’re the starting quarterback at UGA,'" said Mason, who has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career.

“You gotta grab the bull by the horns, you gotta figure out the problems, you gotta figure out what we’re good at and you gotta win.”

An easily missed, self-described “weak, frail” prospect from Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Mason said he had only one scholarship offer (Georgia Southern) heading into his senior year after Iowa pulled its offer.

When Mason started winning (12-1) and finished the season with a Georgia state record 4,560 passing yards and 54 touchdowns and Lassiter’s first-ever region championship, Mississippi State and Virginia offered, but he wanted UGA.

Mason’s "real quick release" from his weaker arm only intrigued Bobo the spring before his senior year, but his summer improvements at one of Georgia’s camps ramped up interest, Bobo said. Still, Georgia wasn’t planning on signing a quarterback in its 2010 class.

That changed after Mason’s senior season -- which showed Bobo the moxie, instincts and composure he once saw in former Georgia quarterback David Greene -- earned him a scholarship.

Mason then dealt with a "roller coaster of emotions" while he sat behind Murray. He prepared like the starter, talked like a starter, but wasn’t seeing enough field action. It would have been easier if Mason felt he wasn’t SEC material, but he believed he was more than capable of leading the Dawgs.

He approached coach Mark Richt twice about transferring, once after the 2011 season and a year later, after Murray decided to return for a fifth year.

“I was putting in just as much work that Aaron was, and there was really no reward for it,” Mason said. “That was the hardest part to swallow. You were doing everything, but weren’t really getting to go out there and do what you have fun doing.”

After some soul searching, Mason had one overwhelming feeling, as his heart battled his pride: He was a Georgia boy playing for the state's best football program. He wanted a real UGA legacy.

“My heart was always stuck at UGA, and a lot of times I wanted to get past that and I wanted to tell myself to move on,” he said.

“I honestly believe that was God’s plan. My path was just a little different and funky. ... Everything I’ve been waiting for, every opportunity is here.”

It’s there if Mason can leave spring and evolve. He’s always been considered a leader, but leading summer workouts and getting players to show up was always Murray’s deal. This offense and this team are in his hands.

“It’s on him now, so this summer is going to be very huge for our offensive football team getting ready for next year because we [had] a lot of pieces missing [this spring] and Hutson’s got to be a big part of that,” Bobo said.

The good news for Mason is that he’s never shied away from leadership. Naturally outspoken, Mason was very vocal with teammates this spring. He called guys out, raised his voice. There was no switch to flip, he was just himself.

And who he is ain't bad. Mason isn’t as crisp a passer as Murray, but Bobo said he knows how to beat defenses better at times when it comes to extending plays. His imperfections sometimes give him an advantage when things break down.

We saw glimpses of that when he replaced Murray (ACL injury) late last season, throwing for 808 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, and during a fine spring game performance (241 yards, one touchdown).

He’ll also have a slew of offensive weapons returning this fall to help, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and veteran receivers.

“I don’t have to be a Heisman Trophy winner, I just have to figure out how to get these guys the ball and they’ll do the rest,” Mason said.

Getting here has been long, draining, and worth it for Mason. There’s no reason for him to let up now.

“He’s progressed beautifully,” receiver Chris Conley said.

“Once he becomes consistent at realizing that he is the guy and that everyone is behind him, then he’s going to blow some people’s minds because he can make all those throws.”
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.

5 burning questions: Replacing QBs

February, 24, 2014
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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.

2013 SEC Super Seniors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

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

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

ALABAMA

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

ARKANSAS

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

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

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

FLORIDA

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

GEORGIA

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

KENTUCKY

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

LSU

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

MISSISSIPPI STATE

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

MISSOURI

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

OLE MISS

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

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

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

TENNESSEE

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

TEXAS A&M

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

VANDERBILT

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

SEC's Heisman hopefuls in 2014

January, 17, 2014
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The SEC did pretty well for itself in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year. Even though Florida State's Jameis Winston ultimately wound up hoisting the prize, three SEC players found themselves among the top six receiving votes.

All three of those players are gone. AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel and Tre Mason are off to try their hand in the National Football League.

With that, we're left to wonder who will emerge as the SEC's Heisman favorites in 2014. With so many big names gone -- Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Odell Beckham Jr., Zach Mettenberger -- the field of favorites is as wide open as ever.

Here is our list of the top five candidates to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy from the SEC:

Georgia RB Todd Gurley: Had Gurley stayed healthy, he may have had a seat in New York last year. Had he not missed all of October, he might have had the stats to support such a trip. Even so, the talented tailback averaged 98.9 yards per game and had one of the most impressive touchdown-to-rush ratios in the country at 6.1 percent, a full percentage point more than Boston College's Andre Williams, who finished fourth in the Heisman balloting. At the Gator Bowl, Gurley showed that even on a sore ankle he is one of the best backs in the country, racking up 183 total yards of offense against the Blackshirts of Nebraska. With a full offseason to heal and a new quarterback under center, Gurley could be asked to do even more in 2014.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Nick Marshall has been a Division I QB for just one season and is already one of the SEC's biggest playmakers. His potential is scary.
Auburn QB Nick Marshall: Gus Malzahn brought this point up an awful lot last season, but it bears repeating: Marshall became a Division I quarterback only some seven months ago. He didn't have the benefit of spring practice and still won the starting quarterback job at Auburn. After a few bumpy starts, he became one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. For the first six games of the season, he ranked 40th in the country in Adjusted QBR. From then on he would rank third in Adjusted QBR with 20 total touchdowns, two interceptions and an average of 231.8 total yards per game. Now imagine all he could do with that kind of momentum and a full offseason to prepare.

South Carolina RB Mike Davis: We entered last season touting the SEC's stellar class of young running backs with Gurley, Marshall and Mason. For a while we left out Davis, a relative unknown after staying in the shadow of Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. But Davis let us know who he was right away, running for 115 yards in the season opener against North Carolina and 149 more in a prime-time matchup with Georgia. He wound up rushing for 100 or more yards in all but two of the Gamecocks' first nine games. He fell off the map some in his final three games, due in no small part to a nagging ankle injury. If he can get that corrected, he could be one of the league's most productive backs in 2014.

Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon: He's not thought of as an explosive back, but why not? Yeldon finished last season with an impressive 34 rushes for 10 or more yards, more than every running back in the SEC not named Tre Mason or Jeremy Hill. All told, Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns -- both improvements from his freshman year. With the help of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, Yeldon won't have to shoulder the load next season, but he'll still be the man with the most carries and the best shot at making it to New York.

Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott: He's a dark horse, no doubt, but don't count out Prescott. He didn't finish the season 10th in Adjusted QBR for no reason. The talented sophomore quietly put up some big numbers and ended the year strong, coming off the bench to lead a fourth-quarter comeback against Ole Miss and following that up with a five-touchdown performance in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice. With so many veteran quarterbacks of the SEC gone, he could quickly pick up the mantle as the league's best.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today’s matchup is between Florida State’s wide receivers and Auburn’s secondary.

Florida State’s wide receivers: It’s not a deep group, but there may not be a more dynamic set of receivers in the country than what Jameis Winston has at his disposal at Florida State.

[+] EnlargeBenjamin
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFSU WR Kelvin Benjamin is a physical presence who can also break free and make big plays.
Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are all within striking distance of 1,000 yards. Greene is one of the nation’s most consistent threats, and while he’s not imposing physically, he runs precise routes and rarely drops a pass. Shaw is the lone senior in the group, and he’s averaging 18 yards a catch and has topped 89 yards receiving seven times. But it’s Benjamin who should keep Auburn defenders awake at night.

At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Benjamin is as physical a receiving threat as there is in college football. He excels at jump balls, is physical at the line of scrimmage, and loves blocking downfield. His career has been marked by inconsistency, but he was red hot to end the regular season, with 17 catches for 458 yards and eight TDs in his last four games.

Even if Auburn manages to corral all of Florida State’s deep threats, tight end Nick O’Leary is a wild card. O’Leary has 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns this season and is one of Winston’s favorite targets. As the big three receivers draw attention downfield, O’Leary provides a dangerous weapon underneath and is capable of picking up big chunks of yards after the catch.

And, of course, the key to all of it is Winston, the Heisman winner and one of the country’s most aggressive quarterbacks. Winston completes 55.8 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more (second only to Baylor’s Bryce Petty among AQ QBs) and has 19 TDs without an INT in the red zone this season.

Auburn’s secondary: In the last three games, Auburn has had a difficult time defending the pass. Aaron Murray threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns. AJ McCarron threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns. And in the SEC championship game, James Franklin threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Tigers are about to face the Heisman Trophy winner and the nation’s leader in opponent-adjusted QBR (90.8).

It’s a group that remains confident in their ability, but they know they have a steep challenge ahead of them.

The most notable name is cornerback Chris Davis, but that’s more because of his field-goal return to beat Alabama than his pass coverage. Still, he’s the No. 1 cornerback and the team’s best chance of shutting down an opposing wide receiver. It’s the cornerback opposite Davis, Jonathon Mincy, who teams have been able to pick on this season.

Mincy was defending Amari Cooper when the Alabama wide receiver hauled in a 99-yard touchdown pass in the Iron Bowl. He also had no answer for Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who finished with six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn. If he draws the assignment of defending Benjamin, which is what he wants, it could be a long day for the Tigers.

The X-factor could be Robenson Therezie who plays the Star position in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense. He leads the team in interceptions (four) and is fourth in tackles (55). He’ll primarily focus on covering the slot receiver, but he might also be asked to cover O’Leary at times or even blitz from time to time. Auburn isn’t going to stop Winston, but Therezie could make life a little more difficult for the Florida State quarterback.

Hale: Big edge Florida State

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State
video

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:

It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.

Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.

Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.

Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.

What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.

What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.

To watch the trophy presentation of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, click here.

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
1/01/14
8:00
AM ET
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.

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