NCF Nation: Austyn Carta-Samuels

BBVA Compass Bowl preview

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
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Vanderbilt is looking to win back-to-back bowl games for the first time, while Houston wants to show that its high-powered offense can send another SEC defense reeling in the postseason.

The Commodores (8-4) and Cougars (8-4) meet in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Here's a quick preview:

Who to watch: Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews. The SEC's all-time leader in receptions and yards steps back into his home state to take on a pass defense that is allowing 276 passing yards per game (ranked 116th in the nation). Matthews was one of the SEC's best receivers this season, catching a league-high 107 passes for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns. He's averaging almost nine catches and 111.2 yards per game.

Matthews had eight 100-yard receiving games this season and has caught double-digit receptions in three consecutive games. But it will be interesting to see if he sniffs the end zone -- Houston has given up just 12 touchdown passes and has 23 interceptions.

What to watch: Both secondaries. Houston has given up a lot of yards through the air, but one thing that could work in the Cougars' favor is the fact that Vanderbilt starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels is out (knee surgery). That means backup Patton Robinette will have to lead this offense. Robinette has passed for 488 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions this season. If the Cougars can harass him and keep Matthews in check, Vandy will have a long day.

On the other side, Vandy's secondary has been solid all season, allowing just 204 passing yards a game. Leaders Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler had solid seasons, defending 21 passes and snagging seven interceptions. Houston freshman quarterback John O'Korn has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns, while receiver Deontay Greenberry has 76 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Why to watch: The Commodores have been a feel-good story since James Franklin took over as coach three years ago, and this is the last time we'll see Matthews play in a Vandy uniform. He's had a truly special career with the Commodores, and it was only elevated with the arrival of Franklin. Plus, the Commodores have a chip on their shoulders after getting passed by Mississippi State in the bowl pecking order.

With Houston, it's a chance to see a team possibly on the rise behind a pretty fun offense that could give the Commodores fits. Behind a young quarterback and young playmakers such as Greenberry and running back Ryan Jackson, the future could be very bright for the Cougars.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 23, Houston 21. Two fun offenses take the field in Birmingham, but Vandy will be without its starting quarterback. This is a big stage for Robinette, but having Matthews next to him to make plays should take the pressure off him.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
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We saw an overtime win by Mississippi State over Arkansas on Saturday, a last-minute win by Vanderbilt over Tennessee and a shocking win by FCS team Georgia Southern over traditional power Florida. In short, it was just another wacky Saturday in the SEC.

Here are five things we learned around the league:

Division races going down to the wire: Both the Eastern and Western Division races will go down to the final weekend. Missouri's 24-10 win over Ole Miss means the Tigers can clinch the East -- in its second season in the conference -- by beating Texas A&M Saturday in Columbia. If the Tigers lose, South Carolina will win the division by virtue of its head-to-head win against Mizzou. In the West, Saturday's Iron Bowl will settle the division when Alabama visits Auburn. Right now the unbeaten Crimson Tide have the edge, but the one-loss Tigers would win the tiebreaker if they can upset the Tide.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJohnny Manziel struggled against LSU on Saturday, just as he did against the Tigers last year.
Miles has Manziel's number: Johnny Manziel has run circles around almost everyone in his two seasons as Texas A&M's quarterback, but the defending Heisman Trophy winner hasn't fared well in two starts against LSU. In Saturday's 34-10 loss to the Tigers, Manziel finished 16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Les Miles' Tigers have limited Manziel to a 21.5 Total QBR in two games, and Saturday's loss was the first time he did not complete at least 50 percent of his passes.

Vandy's rabbit's foot still working: Vanderbilt backup quarterback Patton Robinette faked a jump pass to freeze a defender and ran for the game-winning touchdown against rival Tennessee with 16 seconds to play. This after Tennessee nearly stopped Commodores quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels on fourth-and-inches, only to have the initial call that he was stopped short overturned on replay. Vandy now has back-to-back wins over its in-state rival for the first time since a run of six consecutive wins over the Volunteers from 1920 to '26. The Commodores (7-4, 4-4 SEC) have won four of their last five games after sitting at 3-3 early in the season.

Murray's starting streak could end: Georgia laid a vicious 59-17 beating on Kentucky a week after a devastating loss at Auburn, but an injury to Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray put a damper on senior night. He injured his left knee in the second quarter and did not return, and coach Mark Richt said afterward that the SEC's all-time leading passer is unlikely to play Saturday against Georgia Tech. Murray has started every game of his college career so far -- he matched David Greene's school record for career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- but the Bulldogs might have to rely on backup Hutson Mason against the rival Yellow Jackets.

More mayhem for Florida: Will Muschamp's job status at Florida already seemed to be in jeopardy -- despite recent assurances to the contrary from his bosses -- even before Saturday's 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern. But the Gators fell to 4-7 with Saturday's defeat -- the program's first to a current FCS program since losing against Villanova in 1946 -- even though Georgia Southern didn't complete any of its three passes. The Eagles ran for 429 yards and held off a final Florida drive to pull the upset. That doesn't bode well for the embattled coaching staff. Florida will fail to play in a bowl game for the first time since 1990 -- Steve Spurrier's first season in Gainesville when the Gators were ineligible to go to a bowl because they were on probation.

No wavering for Franklin, Commodores

November, 13, 2013
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Vanderbilt won nine games last season for the first time in nearly 100 years, won a bowl game for only the third time in school history and secured its first-ever final ranking in the top 25 polls.

It was truly a breakthrough season for a program that has been the SEC’s version of a tackling dummy for much of the league’s 80-year existence.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJames Franklin led Vandy to its first win over Florida in Gainesville since 1945.
But if we’ve learned anything about third-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, it’s that he’s not easily satisfied, nor is he easily discouraged.

As good a job as he did a year ago, he may have done an even better one this season, and that goes for his entire coaching staff.

The Commodores (5-4, 2-4 SEC) are one win away from locking up their third straight postseason appearance. They get Kentucky at home on Saturday and then travel to Tennessee on Nov. 23 and come back home to face Wake Forest on Nov. 30.

Suddenly, an eight- or even nine-win season isn’t out of the realm, which would have been difficult to envision back in September.

A rape investigation has hovered over the program since August when four players were charged with raping an unconscious woman in a campus dormitory and subsequently dismissed from the team. None of the four had ever played a down for the Commodores, but it’s the kind of nasty stain that doesn’t go away.

What’s more, a fifth player, junior receiver Chris Boyd, was dismissed from the team in September after pleading guilty to helping cover up the alleged rape. Boyd was one of the Commodores’ best players.

Rumors, innuendo and wild speculation have circulated throughout Nashville ever since, creating the kind of environment that could have easily torn apart a football team.

And when you throw in the bitter last-minute home loss to Ole Miss to open the season, not to mention blowout losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, it’s a wonder the Commodores didn’t crumble somewhere along the way.

But here they are, coming off their first win over Florida in Gainesville since 1945 and demonstrating the kind of in-your-face, iron-clad toughness that has defined this program under Franklin.

“The chemistry we have and the foundation we’ve built here is based on relationships,” said Franklin, who can’t and won’t talk specifically about the rape case.

“Let’s be honest. Sure, there has been stuff this year we’ve been dealing with. But when I got here, it couldn’t have been more negative. They’ve been dealing with that negativity and the outside perception here for a long time.

“But what we’ve done is persevere and stick to our plan throughout. The assistant coaches have taken that approach, and the players have taken that approach. I’m proud of their resiliency, and I’m proud of the fact that we’ve gotten better as the year has gone on. Each year, we’ve gotten better, and that’s a testament to the assistant coaches and the players.”

It’s also a testament to the guy in charge.

Franklin has scoffed at all of the things he was told couldn’t be done at Vanderbilt. That’s why he makes it a point to note whenever the Commodores mark off their latest first.

Their wins over Florida and Georgia this season were their first over the two traditional powers in the same season in school history. Franklin has now beaten everybody in the Eastern Division but South Carolina.

Even more impressively, Vanderbilt has won its last six games in the month of November, which is significant. In the past, the Commodores were so beaten down physically and so lacking in depth that it was all they could do to even make it to November.

In fact, in the decade prior to Franklin’s arrival, the Commodores were just 3-32 in November.

“Everybody talks about change, but change isn’t easy,” Franklin said. “That’s why I’m so proud of these kids and how hard they’ve worked. They’ve been willing to sacrifice things the common man doesn’t want to in order to get to where they want to go.”

While Franklin has been the rock that’s held it together for the Commodores this season, he’s leaned on a few people himself, notably Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams, Vanderbilt strength coach Dwight Galt, as well as Franklin’s wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addy.

“My girls come by the office every day, and I encourage the whole staff to do that,” Franklin said. “That’s one of the things that has been great, because they run around and say hi to all of their aunts and uncles here.”

Franklin’s wife and daughters were there to meet the team bus when it arrived back at campus last Saturday following the historic win at the Swamp.

“There’s no substitute for being able to come home to that support system every night,” he said.

In some ways, this has been one of the most challenging seasons of Franklin’s coaching career. In other ways, it’s been one of the most rewarding.

He remains deeply troubled by the rape charges that have rocked his program. Again, that’s not something that just goes away and has far-reaching ramifications over and above just football.

“This season’s not over. We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Franklin, whose team has also been plagued by injuries to starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels and starting linebacker Chase Garnham.

“We’ve had a wide range of emotions and experiences this year. But through it all, the guys haven’t wavered in their belief, and the assistant coaches have been awesome. The continuity on our staff has helped. Everybody understands how we handle situations, how we persevere and work through things because we’ve all been through it together.”


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Just like it has been all season, the attention going into Saturday was on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Was he going to play, or would he sit? How was his shoulder? As he often has this year, Johnny provided a lot of drama.

But the real story from the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt at Kyle Field was the performance of the A&M defense. A unit that came into the game ranked 118th in total defense, and was in the bottom 20 nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, put together what was easily one of its best performances of the season.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M turned Darian Claiborne and its pass rush loose, which resulted in seven sacks against Vanderbilt.
Sure, Vanderbilt was playing with a backup quarterback (freshman Patton Robinette made his first start in place of injured Austyn Carta-Samuels), but honestly, that mattered little. This is an A&M defense that struggles to stop virtually everybody. The Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice. They allowed 240 to FCS opponent Sam Houston State.

After taking a gut punch from Auburn last week to the tune of 45 points and 615 yards (379 rushing), any positive sign is acceptable at this point.

"We need an example to show us how we should play, and now we have an example," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We can always go back to the Vandy tape. This type of production we expect from the defense, and this is the standard that we expect from our defense. So, it was good to have a game like this."

There was an energy there that didn't seem to exist consistently in recent weeks for the Aggies' D. Howard Matthews (14 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) played probably his best game of the season. The pass rush was relentless, led by Gavin Stansbury's two sacks, and the 12 tackles for loss. The unit matched its season total for sacks with seven against the Commodores and held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing for just the second time this season. It finally looked like the unit defensive coordinator Mark Snyder envisioned he'd have coming into the season.

"I dialed it up," Snyder said of what generated the consistent pass rush. "We pressured a lot more than we have pressured because we finally could. We felt like we finally got to the point where all the pieces were in place. We had practiced together, and I felt comfortable calling some pressures because everybody knew where they were supposed to be."

Much of that came from a few noteworthy personnel moves. True freshman cornerback Noel Ellis got plenty of time in place of Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel cornerback. Junior linebacker Donnie Baggs, who hasn't started since Sept. 14 against Alabama, got the starting nod at strongside linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall didn't start but saw heavy playing time rotating with starting ends Stansbury and Obioha. Starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams missed the game with a foot injury, and junior Ivan Robinson replaced him.

The Commodores' best weapon -- receiver Jordan Matthews -- had a solid day (eight catches, 92 yards), but his longest reception was 21 yards. The biggest play came from Jonathan Krause on a 44-yard reception in the first half. Matthews, to his credit, became the SEC's career receiving yards leader with 3,172.

If the Aggies can build on this performance, the outlook for the rest of the season is bright.

Although the defense showed well, most eyes were on Manziel in the early going. For a guy with an injured throwing shoulder, it sure didn't seem to affect him. He completed his first 10 passes and led the Aggies to four consecutive touchdown drives to start the game.

Coach Kevin Sumlin was tight-lipped about Manziel's status all week leading up to the game, calling the Heisman Trophy winner "hopeful." He never budged from that statement but said Saturday that he wasn't playing coy and that Manziel was truly a game-time decision as he tried to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered last week.

Manziel began throwing Wednesday and participated in 11-on-11 drills Friday and even woke up Saturday with soreness. But he said there was no keeping him off the field.

"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me, and they expect me to be there."

He completed 25 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He ran much less than he usually does because it wasn't in the game plan, mostly to protect him from further injury.

Although Manziel was able to make every throw necessary to put the Aggies' offense in the right position, he got plenty of support from the running game as the Aggies combined for 189 yards, led by Trey Williams' 65 and Brandon Williams' 61.

It was far from a clean win. The Aggies committed five turnovers and allowed the game to get closer than it had to in the first half. But it's something they can build off of as they approach the homestretch.

"It's been a little frustrating as of late with some games a little closer than we wanted," Manziel said. "We felt we've played pretty good all around, but we just need to continue to get better. That's the thing. We're not where we were last year in every aspect of our game, but we have a coaching staff that won't quit until we're where we need to be."

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
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Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping Johnny Manziel will be able to play against Vanderbilt.
2. Manziel: To play or not to play? If it seems that we've been down this road before, it's because we have. People want to know whether Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play Saturday. He suffered an apparent shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss to Auburn but returned to finish the final 9:06 of the game, playing with pain in that throwing shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't tipping his hand, simply calling Manziel "hopeful" for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.

4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.

6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.

7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.

8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.

9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.

10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.

SEC predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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And just like that, Chris Low has caught up with me. It took him long enough, but he's finally back up here with the big boys.

Congrats. Maybe, he realized that he should put more time and effort into his picks rather than his dwindling golf game.

I have to respect his decisions lately. He has shown that he truly is a veteran when it comes to this stuff. He has bested me the past couple of weeks, and I've made some careless decisions.

Last week, we both went under the .500 mark, but Chris tied things up by correctly picking Missouri over Florida -- a pick I missed on. Really, SEC? You really had four major upsets in the same weekend? I mean, who saw that coming?

Chris went 2-4 pull even with me at 60-11 (.845), while I went 1-5. Not our best work, but things sure are interesting now. I can tell you that I won't be sleeping on Chris any longer. I admittedly laughed at a few of his picks this year, and it has come back to bite me.

But today is a new day. We're basically at 0-0 and I'm hungry for back-to-back championships.

Let's get to the picks:

Thursday

KENTUCKY at MISSISSIPPI STATE

Chris Low: Both of these teams are looking for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky has lost 13 in a row on the road in the SEC. It’s a game Mississippi State has to have if the Bulldogs are going to have any chance of making a fourth straight bowl appearance. The home crowd will be the difference. … Mississippi State 27, Kentucky 21

Edward Aschoff: Both of these teams need this victory. The Bulldogs are looking to stay on the bowl path, while the Wildcats need some sort of momentum to this season. Kentucky won't be a pushover, but the Bulldogs should take care of business at home. … Mississippi State 34, Kentucky 21

Saturday

FURMAN at LSU

Low: It’s one of those weeks in the SEC where there are more than a few mismatches. Here’s another one in Tiger Stadium. LSU won’t be in the best of moods after losing last week on the road and will take out some frustration on their FCS foes. … LSU 45, Furman 13

Aschoff: The Tigers have to be frustrated after that loss at Ole Miss. Well, what a way to take out that frustration than to devour a cupcake at home surrounded by the lights of Tiger Stadium. … LSU 51, Furman 10

IDAHO at OLE MISS

Low: Despite being ravaged with injuries, Ole Miss was able to gut out a key victory at home last week over LSU. The Rebels are still banged up and even added a few more players to the injury list, but it won’t matter this week. … Ole Miss 48, Idaho 7

Aschoff: You know the Rebels are flying sky high after their upset win over LSU. Now, Ole Miss gets to add to the win total with a visit from the 1-6 Vandals. … Ole Miss 48, Idaho 10

FLORIDA ATLANTIC at AUBURN

Low: Don’t look now, but Auburn is rolling right along with visions of contending in the Western Division this season. The Tigers get a breather out of conference this week and will rack up more than 40 points for the third straight game. … Auburn 41, Florida Atlantic 14

Aschoff: A week removed from their major upset of Texas A&M, the Tigers get a chance to get some more of those youngsters out on the field with Florida Atlantic welcoming this team back to the Plains. … Auburn 45, Florida Atlantic 17

VANDERBILT at TEXAS A&M

Low: Neither team is 100 percent at the quarterback position. The Aggies expect Johnny Manziel to play despite a painful shoulder injury, and it looks like backup Patton Robinette is the man for the Commodores after Austyn Carta-Samuels went down last week with a leg injury. If you like offense (and not a lot of defense), this is your game. The Aggies are just too explosive on offense to lose two in a row at home. … Texas A&M 42, Vanderbilt 30

Aschoff: Both of these teams are literally hurting at quarterback, but you know Johnny Football will try his hardest to make it back to the playing field. The Aggies certainly can't sleep on this Vanderbilt team, especially with that struggling defense, but with or without Manziel under center, A&M just has too much offensively to lose two straight. … Texas A&M 41, Vanderbilt 28

TENNESSEE at ALABAMA

Low: The last time Alabama was remotely pushed in a football game was six weeks ago when the Crimson Tide survived the 49-42 shootout against Texas A&M. Their October schedule has been about as cushy as it gets. They get an improving Tennessee team, but the Vols aren’t ready to go into Tuscaloosa and win. … Alabama 35, Tennessee 9

Aschoff: Alabama hasn't had to deal with much competition at all this month and has allowed just 10 points in the past four games. Tennessee is riding high off that upset of South Carolina, and will push the Tide … in the first half. The Crimson Tide will cruise through the second half of this game like it's cruised through the rest of the month. … Alabama 38, Tennessee 13

SOUTH CAROLINA at MISSOURI

Low: With Connor Shaw ailing, Steve Spurrier says backup quarterback Dylan Thompson will start this week for South Carolina. Missouri didn’t miss a beat last week with backup Maty Mauk filling in for James Franklin. The Tigers can take a commanding lead in the Eastern Division race with a win, but the Gamecocks will make enough plays on defense to keep things interesting in the East with their biggest win of the season. … South Carolina 31, Missouri 27

Aschoff: These Tigers have everything going for them and with a win on Saturday, they will essentially win the East. But now the pressure is on. South Carolina is hurting after a loss to Tennessee and is now dealing with Shaw's injury. The offense and defense are clicking for the Tigers, but they haven't met a team as balanced as South Carolina, and Mike Davis will be the difference. … South Carolina 31, Missouri 24

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
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The college football season is heating up as we head to the final week of October.

In some quarters, though, it’s starting to feel a little chilly.

Here’s our weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not in the SEC:

GLOWING EMBERS

[+] EnlargeAuburn
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsAuburn has plenty to be happy about after Saturday's upset victory over Texas A&M.
Momentum on the Plains: There’s been quite a buzz in the state of Alabama over one college football team in particular during the last few years. The last four BCS National Championship trophies currently reside there. Obviously, three of them belong to Alabama, which has won the last two. But Auburn won in 2010. Given the Crimson Tide’s incredible success under Nick Saban, the Tigers had sort of been a forgotten entity in the state over the last two years. But not anymore. First-year coach Gus Malzahn has Auburn rolling after a gritty 45-41 win at Texas A&M this past weekend and, more importantly, Malzahn has done something he promised to do when he got the job. He’s restored Auburn’s edge, and the Tigers (6-1 overall, 3-1 SEC) are playing with the kind of confidence, chemistry and purpose they did in 2010 when they won the national title. They debuted at No. 11 in the first BCS standings Sunday night and are probably too far down to climb into the national championship mix this season, but this is a team that’s improving each week and could very realistically get to 10 wins this season. Not only that, but Auburn gets Alabama at home to close the season. If the Tigers can take care of business against Arkansas and Tennessee on the road and then Georgia at home, the Iron Bowl would be for the Western Division championship and the right to go to Atlanta and play for the SEC title. After a miserable season a year ago, things are looking up on the Plains.

HOT

Bo Wallace on third down: Ole Miss’ junior quarterback was money on third down in the Rebels' 27-24 win over LSU. The Rebels were 11-of-18 on third down, and Wallace was responsible for nine of those conversions. He kept the winning drive alive with a 6-yard scramble on third-and-6 and came back a few plays later and connected with Ja-Mes Logan for 13 yards on third-and-9. Wallace was 7-for-8 for 140 yards on third down.

NOT

Quarterbacks’ health: At least nine of the 14 teams in the SEC this season have had injuries at the quarterback position, some more serious than others. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (shoulder), South Carolina’s Connor Shaw (knee) and Vanderbilt’s Austyn Carta-Samuels (left leg) were all injured last weekend. Manziel was able to return to the game but had to play through obvious pain. Shaw won’t need surgery but is iffy for South Carolina’s game at Missouri this Saturday, and Carta-Samuels could be lost for the season.

HOT

Marquez North's catch: In each of his last two games, the Tennessee freshman receiver has made fabulous catches. He had a toe-tapping 19-yard touchdown catch against Georgia on Oct. 5 and followed that up with the play of the game (and maybe the catch of the year) in Tennessee’s 23-21 win over South Carolina. On third-and-10, North pulled in a 39-yard heave from Justin Worley with his left hand as he was falling backward to keep the Vols’ game-winning drive alive.

NOT

Bret Bielema’s SEC welcome: Arkansas was hammered 52-0 at No. 1 Alabama last weekend, extending the Hogs’ losing streak to five straight games. In their last three games, they’ve been outscored 134-17. It’s the first time in Bielema’s head coaching career that he’s lost five in a row. Not that Bielema needed to be reminded, but he ain’t in the Big Ten anymore.

HOT

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam: Anybody pick Sam back in the preseason to be the SEC’s leader in sacks at this point? The Tigers’ fifth-year senior defensive end is playing lights out. He had three more sacks Saturday in the win over Florida and leads the league with nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also had a fumble return for a touchdown two weeks ago in the win at Georgia.

NOT

South Carolina in the fourth quarter: The fourth quarter hasn’t been kind to the Gamecocks this season, and their late woes caught up to them in their 23-21 loss at Tennessee. They managed just 12 total yards in the fourth quarter against the Vols and seemed to forget that Mike Davis, the SEC’s leading rusher, was on the field.

FREEZER BURN

Texas A&M’s defense: Watching the Aggies play offense is about as entertaining as it gets. But boy, you have to feel for the Aggies’ fans when that defense trots out onto the field. They’re not just bad on defense, they’re woefully bad. And holding anybody under 30 points right now is a pipe dream. Most of the problem is up front and at the linebacker positions. The Aggies are 112th nationally (out of 123 teams) in rushing defense. They're giving up 226.6 yards per game on the ground and, even worse, 5.87 yards per carry. Only five teams in the country are giving up more yards per rush -- Eastern Michigan, UTEP, New Mexico, New Mexico State and Nevada. That's not the company you want to be keeping when it comes to stopping (or not stopping) people on the ground in the SEC. The Aggies are also 104th nationally in scoring defense and are giving up 33.9 points per game. They've allowed more than 30 points in five of their seven games, and one of those came against an Arkansas team that has scored a combined 17 points in its last three contests against Alabama, South Carolina and Florida.


Last year, it was Vanderbilt who rallied to beat Ole Miss in the final minutes. This year, the Rebels turned the table on the Commodores. With just more than a minute to go, Jeff Scott ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run to take back the lead, and Ole Miss hung on to win Thursday’s season opener, 39-35.


Vanderbilt thought it hit the knockout punch with 1:30 remaining when Austyn Carta-Samuels connected on a 34-yard touchdown pass with his tight end Steven Scheu. However, Scott answered just two plays later with the long touchdown run.

The heralded 2013 recruiting class for Ole Miss was on full display Thursday night with a number of newcomers making an impact. True freshman wide receiver Laquon Treadwell had nine catches for 82 yards, and Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1 recruit a year ago, was disruptive all night for the Rebels.

It was over when: Cody Prewitt intercepted Carta-Samuels in the final minute of the game. Vandy wide receiver Jordan Matthews had a gutsy performance, finishing with 10 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown, but the ball deflected off his hands and went right to Prewitt.

Game ball goes to: Both Scott and Treadwell deserve recognition, but the player of the game for Ole Miss was quarterback Bo Wallace. Coming off clavicle surgery in the offseason, Wallace finished 31-of-47 for 283 yards through the air, and he also rushed for 48 yards and two scores.

Stat of the game: Outside of a lull in the second quarter, the Ole Miss offense looked good all night. More importantly, the Rebels didn’t turn the ball over once. Last year, they were in the bottom half of college football in that category, turning the ball over 29 times.

What it means for Vanderbilt: It’s a crushing loss for the Commodores to open the season, but more importantly, they have to make sure Matthews is healthy going forward. He took a big hit late in the game and was throwing up on the field. He came back to make a crucial catch on that same drive, but there’s a chance he sits out the next game.

What it means for Ole Miss: Believe in the hype. The Rebels finished 7-6 a year ago, the first year under head coach Hugh Freeze, and it looks like they’re ready to take the next step this season. They got a lot of key contributions from freshmen, and Wallace made plays when he needed to.

SEC media days primer

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
10:10
AM ET
When: Tuesday through Thursday

Where: Hoover, Ala.

Big names in attendance: QB AJ McCarron, Alabama; QB Jeff Driskel, Florida; QB Aaron Murray, Georgia; QB Zach Mettenberger, LSU; WR Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss; QB Tyler Russell, Mississippi State; QB James Franklin, Missouri; DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina; QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

Five biggest topics:

1. What's to be done about Johnny Football? There's no question that Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has all of the talent to own the college football landscape in what likely will be his final season in College Station, but his off-field social media persona has drawn too much attention. Manziel is allowed to have as much fun as he wants. He's in college and he's young. But he's also one of the best college athletes around, and his team can't repeat what it did last season if he's not 100 percent focused. He, coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive lineman Jake Matthews will get bombarded with questions about controlling Johnny Football away from the field. What will Manziel's take be, and how will he handle the media circus?

2. This hasn't been the best summer for the SEC. Outside all of the Manziel social media drama, the SEC faced some embarrassing arrests during the offseason. The biggest scandal revolves around Vanderbilt's football program, which suspended and then dismissed four players during an investigation by the Nashville Metro Police sex crimes unit. The police and coach James Franklin have been quiet about the situation, but Franklin will have to address it. The earlier he does, the better. He might not have to give too many details, but meeting the incident head-on will save him from further scrutiny and questions. Sumlin also will be asked about the recent arrests of defensive backs Deshazor Everett and Floyd Raven and the status of suspended defensive tackle Kirby Ennis. LSU coach Les Miles has been very quiet about running back Jeremy Hill's recent arrest and is letting it play out in the legal system, but chances are Miles will field plenty of questions about Hill and the effect on the team.

3. Four coaches are making their first trips to SEC media days: Arkansas' Bret Bielema, Auburn's Gus Malzahn (first as head coach), Kentucky's Mark Stoops and Tennessee's Butch Jones. All have made early splashes in their own ways, but it's time to deal with the circus that is SEC media days. We'll ask them all about their quarterbacks, offenses and early recruiting success, especially of Jones and Stoops. Bielema likely will field questions about comparing the Big Ten to the SEC ... and his Twitter account. Malzahn will be asked about getting Auburn's offense back to where it was when he was the offensive coordinator. These guys should have "fun" answering every single one of these, too.

4. Will Alabama make it three in a row? And which teams from the SEC can stop the Tide? We know that it's Alabama's world and we are all just trying to figure out the "process." Coach Nick Saban has all of the parts in place to win his third straight national championship and fourth at Alabama in five years. Saban & Co. will continue to talk about avoiding complacency and "fixing" whatever they deem isn't working at 100 percent. But what the country wants to know is who is ready to end the Bama dynasty? Can A&M tackle the Tide for a second straight year? Is LSU tough enough? Can Georgia's defense grow up fast enough? Can Florida's offense figure it out? Does Steve Spurrier have something up his sleeve? The people want to know!

5. There are a lot of unsettled quarterback spots. Auburn had a two-man battle this spring between veteran Kiehl Frazier and rising sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Both left the spring pretty even. Kentucky had three vying for the No. 1 spot in Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles and Maxwell Smith. Whitlow has the slight edge. Missouri had James Franklin, Maty Mauk and Corbin Berkstresser fight it out. It looks like it's down to Franklin and Mauk, but coach Gary Pinkel has been quiet about it. Tennessee has Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman competing. Worley has the edge but little experience. And Vanderbilt watched Austyn Carta-Samuels and Patton Robinette compete. Carta-Samuels has the lead, but Robinette isn't out of it.

Post-spring SEC QB races update

April, 23, 2013
4/23/13
2:30
PM ET
Spring might be done in the SEC, but there are a handful of teams that still have fun quarterback races that haven't finished.

I mean, it's only the most important position on the field. But history has taught us that having the wrong quarterback lining up for you isn't exactly a recipe for success -- especially in the SEC.

Here's a look at how quarterback races in the SEC look as we leave the spring and head into the offseason:

ARKANSAS

Brandon Allen vs. Brandon Mitchell: After Saturday's spring game, coach Bret Bielema made it sound pretty clear that he's comfortable with the idea of having Allen be his starter. He's the better pure passer and was more consistent this spring. Mitchell is more athletic, and there will be packages for him this fall, but Allen's ability to not turn the ball over as much this spring really helped put him ahead. Edge: Allen

AUBURN

Kiehl Frazier vs. Jonathan Wallace: Both of these quarterbacks fit into Gus Malzahn's spread offense, but everyone is waiting for Frazier to really step up and show that he can be the guy on the Plains. But after both he and Wallace impressed in the spring game and stayed relatively close throughout all of spring, Malzahn isn't ready to name a starter. Frazier has more experience, but Wallace was the starter at the end of last season. This one will go through fall camp. Edge: Frazier

KENTUCKY

Maxwell Smith vs. Jalen Whitlow vs. Patrick Towles: At the beginning of the spring, the thought was that Smith would regain his starting spot after injuries cut his 2012 season short. But Whitlow, a rising sophomore, took full advantage of his reps this spring and was the most impressive quarterback during the spring game. He threw for a spring game-high 193 yards with two touchdowns and appears to have left with a nice lead in this race. There's still time for Smith, who owns the most experience, and Towles to make up ground this fall, but Whitlow did a nice job distancing himself late. Edge: Whitlow

MISSOURI

James Franklin vs. Maty Mauk vs. Corbin Berkstresser: Franklin entered the spring with two years of starting experience, but his injuries and poor play last year created quite the battle for him. Mauk arrived last year with a ton of hype and knows the offense as well as anyone, while Berkstresser played in 10 games last year. The quarterbacks were sharing snaps all spring, but Gary Pinkel kept his thoughts on them very close to the vest. It sounds like no one separated himself during the spring game, but Franklin had the best day. This one will go through fall camp. Edge: Franklin

TENNESSEE

Justin Worley vs. Nathan Peterman: Worley was a little more consistent throughout the spring, but Butch Jones isn't ready to name a starter. He's putting the team in their hands this summer, and that will say a lot about each one's leadership skills once fall rolls around. Worley -- who actually has college experience -- was atop the depth chart all spring and had a more impressive spring game. Worley should enter the fall as the leader and Peterman will have to be more consistent in order to move ahead. Edge: Worley

VANDERBILT

Austyn Carta-Samuels vs. Patton Robinette: Coach James Franklin has a good problem on his hands. While he has said that he's unsure which quarterback has taken the lead, he has two talented and athletic guys to choose from. Carta-Samuels has way more experience and was the leader heading into the spring. He only helped his cause with an impressive spring game. Robinette is probably a little more athletic, but he'll have to work even harder this summer and fall to move ahead of Carta-Samuels. Edge: Carta-Samuels

Matthews chasing more than records

April, 18, 2013
4/18/13
12:48
PM ET
Jordan MatthewsAP Photo/John RussellJordan Matthews has already eclipsed personal records, but the WR is aiming higher in 2013.
Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews will be in reach of a couple of different SEC receiving marks in 2013.

He needs 804 receiving yards to break the career record held by Georgia’s Terrence Edwards, who racked up 3,093 yards from 1999-2002. Matthews can also break the career receptions record if he catches 87 passes next season. That record was set by Vanderbilt’s Earl Bennett, who caught 236 passes from 2005-07.

Matthews, who produced one of the finest seasons ever a year ago by a Vanderbilt receiver, is fully aware that those records are out there. But he’s not chasing them.

He’s chasing a lot more than records.

“My goal is to go out and win an SEC championship and a national championship and be a pivotal part of that happening,” said Matthews, who caught 94 passes for 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

“That’s the legacy I want to leave.”

Even with his huge season a year ago and the Commodores winning nine games for the first time in nearly a century, Matthews was convinced there was more to accomplish. He considered making himself available for the NFL draft, but kept arriving at the same conclusion.

The best was yet to come at Vanderbilt.

“I’m fully committed to going 1-0 every week and getting this Vanderbilt program where we all know it can be,” Matthews said. “The only thing I see is what’s in front of me.”

Matthews’ razor-sharp focus is one of his best traits, not to mention his 6-3, 205-pound frame, massive hands and the ability to go up and over just about any defensive back and get the football.

“Even when he’s not open, he’s the kind of receiver who’s going to find a way to go make the play,” Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels said.

But, then, Matthews has always found a way.

He went to high school in Madison, Ala., and barely got a sniff from college recruiters. Matthews admits he didn’t know much about the recruiting process at the time. He went on a mission trip to Africa in June prior to his senior year of high school and didn’t attend any camps until later that summer.

“I was the first player to go to a Division I school from my high school (Madison Academy),” Matthews said. “Head coaches were hesitant to pull the trigger.”

Matthews, who had 13 touchdown catches his senior year of high school, sent out his game tapes and did his best to market himself. But there weren’t a lot of takers.

In fact, there were none.

“My senior season ended, and I’m standing there on the field with no state championship ring and no scholarship offers,” he said. “Not even Alabama A&M offered me. Troy didn’t. Jackson State didn’t. None of those schools did.”

Matthews said Vanderbilt had been recruiting him all along, but had talked about the possibility of his grayshirting and delaying enrollment until that next January.

“My mom wasn’t crazy about me hanging around in the fall and not being in college,” Matthews said.

The Commodores were only going to take four receivers in that class. But right before Christmas, one of them de-committed.

“Coach (Bobby) Johnson called me on Christmas Eve, and I committed on Christmas Day,” Matthews said. “I just hung in there and waited by the phone.”

It’s a Christmas gift that keeps on giving for the Commodores, and that whole experience only made Matthews that much more determined.

“My mom would always say that it was a blessing in disguise,” Matthews said. “Look at the way it’s turned out, to be here at a great school like Vanderbilt and a part of what coach (James) Franklin is building here.

“But I can tell you that I still play with a chip on my shoulder, and that chip has helped drive me to where I am. I don’t plan on letting up any time soon.”

Matthews was a first-team All-SEC selection last season. His 94 catches were the second most ever by an SEC player in a season, and he’s a lock to be on the preseason Biletnikoff Award lists.

Where does he rank among the best returning receivers in college football in 2013?

Matthews offers a confident shrug.

“I’m used to being overlooked,” he said. “When you go through that for so long, you end up being immune to it and don’t care. To be honest, I can play with any receiver, so I’m not worried about that.

“People say statistics don’t lie. What doesn’t lie are wins and losses. That trumps any argument. You can’t argue with championships.

“That’s what I’m worried about.”

Carta-Samuels ready to take his shot

March, 21, 2013
3/21/13
4:12
PM ET
Even though senior Austyn Carta-Samuels has the inside track, Vanderbilt’s coaches want to see somebody go out and win the quarterback job this spring and/or preseason.

[+] EnlargeAustyn Carta-Samuels
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsAustyn Carta-Samuels has been preparing to take over as the Commodores' starting QB in 2013.
So far, it’s been an impressive start for Carta-Samuels, who’s competing with redshirt freshman Patton Robinette and sophomore Josh Grady for the job. True freshman Johnny McCrary is also on campus and going through spring drills.

Carta-Samuels, who served as Jordan Rodgers’ backup last season, has been sharp with his accuracy. He’s also looked good throwing the deep ball, and the Commodores certainly have a couple of guys in Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews who can get deep and go up over cornerbacks and make plays down the field.

Boyd is 6-4 and Matthews is 6-3. Matthews was second in the SEC last season with a school-record 1,323 receiving yards, and the two combined for 13 touchdown receptions.

“I think we’re going to be able to stretch the field vertically,” Carta-Samuels said. “That’s something we haven’t done as much in the past. People probably don’t know about Jonathan Krause like they do Jordan and Chris, but he can stretch the field, too, and really put the defense in a bind. That’s something I think I’ll be able to offer this offense.”

Carta-Samuels started for two years at Wyoming before transferring following the 2010 season. He has a big arm and is down to 215 after losing 10 pounds.

“I feel faster and quicker,” he said. “Losing that weight made my arm more fluid and flexible, and I can already tell a difference.”

One of the challenges for Carta-Samuels is becoming a better practice player. He said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin and this staff have helped him better understand the importance of practice.

“I’m approaching it day-by-day and getting better every day,” Carta-Samuels said. “Practice has to be as important as the games.”

It’s no accident that Carta-Samuels ended up at Vanderbilt. His grandfather, Tom Samuels, played baseball at Vanderbilt. Carta-Samuels was also recruited by the Commodores out of high school when Bobby Johnson was the coach, but said he never received a scholarship offer.

“My grandfather is a huge reason why I came here,” Carta-Samuels said. “He told me, ‘Vanderbilt changed my life, and I want it to change yours.’ Now that I’m here, it’s like all my dreams being fulfilled.”

He's not the last member of the family who will play for the Commodores. His younger brother, Kyle Carta-Samuels of San Jose, Calif., has already committed to Vanderbilt and plans to sign as part of the 2014 class. The younger Carta-Samuels is an ESPN Watch List prospect.
Now that spring practice is really gearing up for teams around the SEC, we thought we'd take a look at the most popular position battle for this time of year: the quarterback battle.

Spring practice is basically devoted to easy installation and going through the motions, but when you hear that there's even a hint of controversy at the quarterback position, all eyes are fixated on that area of the team until it's absolutely settled. That's natural, considering it's the most important position on the field.

Also, you either really love your quarterback or really despise him and love the backup instead.

The SEC has quite a few quarterback battles to keep an eye on this spring, and here they are:

ARKANSAS

Brandon Allen vs. Brandon Mitchell: Allen was Tyler Wilson's backup last year, but Mitchell brings much more athleticism to the position. Allen enters the spring with the advantage after getting more time at QB last year while Mitchell spent last year taking more reps at wide receiver. But with a new staff in Fayetteville, Mitchell will get a chance to compete for the starting spot. Mitchell has 332 career passing yards with three touchdowns to one interception. Allen has passed for 186 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions.

AUBURN

Kiehl Frazier vs. Jonathan Wallace: With Gus Malzahn back, Frazier will be much more comfortable in his spread offense. Both are built for the spread, but Frazier is the better athlete. He's certainly more comfortable throwing the ball now, compared to his freshman year, but Frazier has to get even more comfortable this spring. Wallace was a pleasant surprise for the Tigers last year, and ended the year as the Tigers' starter. Frazier might have more experience, but both will start the spring on relatively equal footing.

KENTUCKY

Maxwell Smith vs. Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles: If not for an injury-plagued 2012, Smith would be the overwhelming favorite to land the starting job for the Wildcats. He enters the spring as the favorite, but after Whitlow and Towles both played last year as true freshmen, new coach Mark Stoops will get a chance to see all three really compete this spring. Whitlow and Towles both had rough introductions to the SEC, but their athleticism should really make this a fun competition to watch this spring.

MISSOURI

James Franklin vs. Maty Mauk vs. Corbin Berkstresser: Like Smith, Franklin would be the overwhelming favorite here if not for all those injuries last fall. But because he limped his way through 2012, the coaches will have to get Mauk and Berkstresser more reps this spring. Franklin is the starter, but keep an eye on Mauk. The coaches think he fits the offense as well as anyone, and he arrived last year with a ton of recruiting hype. He's also been compared to Brad Smith, who started as a freshman. If Franklin slips, Mauk could make a move. Berkstresser also got valuable experience last year and should push Franklin even more this spring.

TENNESSEE

Justin Worley vs. Nathan Peterman: With Tyler Bray gone, the quarterback spot really is up for grabs in Knoxville. Worley was Bray's backup the past two years and has 738 career passing yards to his name. He also has just one touchdown and five interceptions. Peterman is much more athletic than Worley and was actually recruited by new Tennessee coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian at Cincinnati. This one should be very fun.

VANDERBILT

Austyn Carta-Samuels vs. Patton Robinette: Vandy's coaches should be excited about this one. Jordan Rodgers is gone, but he has two very capable guys looking to replace him. Carta-Samuels started two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vandy, while Robinette has a ton of athleticism to work with. Robinette redshirted last year, but his dual-threat ability will make him very tough for Carta-Samuels to run away from.

SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
10:18
AM ET
We're taking a look at key storylines for all seven teams in the SEC Eastern Division.

Chris will take a look at the main issues in the Western Division on Tuesday.

FLORIDA GATORS

Spring start: March 13

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding at linebacker: The Gators have to start figuring out the linebacker situation. Do they go with redshirt junior Michael Taylor in the middle, who’s a run-stuffer but has to come off the field in passing downs? Or do they try sophomore Antonio Morrison, who played outside at 218 pounds as a freshman and has hopefully bulked up a bit? The most likely scenario is Morrison, which means UF has to find a weakside linebacker. That could be freshmen early enrollee Daniel McMillian or Alex Anzalone. The strongside starter should be, at least entering the spring, redshirt junior Neiron Ball.

2. Robinson's growth: One of the most scrutinized players this spring will be receiver Demarcus Robinson. He was the only one of UF’s five receiver signees to enroll early and he’ll be given every chance to win a starting spot. UF’s receivers have been below average for the past three seasons and the Gators desperately need someone to become a consistent playmaker. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Robinson, who caught 53 passes for more than 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a senior at Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County, is going to be under a lot of pressure to produce.

3. Driskel's confidence: Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns for his second season as a starter, and it’ll be interesting to see how much he improves on his decision-making, release and accuracy. He’s sure to benefit from not splitting reps 50-50 any longer. But just as important as Driskel’s development is what happens behind him with redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. Neither has thrown a pass in a college game. Why is that important? Because Driskel has not been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons in Gainesville. He missed starts as a freshman and sophomore because of ankle injuries. UF was lucky in 2012 to have Jacoby Brissett, who had played significantly as John Brantley’s backup in 2011. With Brissett transferring to NC State, the Gators no longer have that luxury.

-- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding the defense: Georgia begins its transition to a completely new collection of defensive talent this spring. No longer are Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins on the roster. In fact, the Bulldogs must replace a total of 12 defensive players who were either full-time starters or key contributors, and at some positions, the possible replacements have little to no college experience. That makes this a pivotal time for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to begin identifying which players will fill those roles, as the Bulldogs will have little margin for error when they open the season against Clemson’s explosive offense Aug. 31. Some names to watch this spring: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson and Jonathan Taylor.

2. Developing the youngsters: The good news for Grantham and the other defensive coaches is that they brought in a number of January enrollees who should be able to help immediately. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes and John Atkins hope to fill the void left by Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at noseguard. Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter will immediately enter the mix at linebacker. And cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger can help address Georgia’s depth shortage in a secondary that lost four key players. Georgia’s 13 early enrollees -- more than twice as many January enrollees as Georgia coach Mark Richt has ever brought in before -- will help fill needs on both sides of the ball, but the defense is where the newcomers were most necessary.

3. Offensive line reps: For the most part, Georgia used the same starting lineup along its offensive line throughout the 2012 season and each of those starters should return this fall. But two of those starters -- right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus -- underwent surgeries during the offseason and will miss all or part of spring practice. There was a good chance that offensive line coach Will Friend was going to deploy more players in his line rotation this fall anyway, but the valuable practice reps that will be available with Burnette and Theus sidelined might make a deeper rotation even more likely. Someone still has to take advantage of the opportunity, however.

-- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Getting used to new coaches: New coaches are roaming Kentucky’s football facility this spring. Mark Stoops brings a more defense-minded philosophy to Lexington, but his coaches will have to get things going on offense if the Wildcats are going to improve in 2013. There are always awkward moments when transitioning to a new staff, but now’s the time to create valuable trust on both sides.

2. Finding offensive playmakers: Stoops might have a strong defensive background, but the Wildcats have to find answers on offense. Injuries were an issue last year, but for two straight years the Wildcats had real problems finding consistent playmakers on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith returns, but he needs more than just wide receiver La’Rod King to help him. Getting running back Josh Clemons back would be big, but expect the coaches to turn to a young group of receivers and running backs.

3. Tougher team: One thing Stoops wants from his players is a tougher identity. Stoops wants to build a stronger team from the ground up. He’s taking a page from Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin when it comes to preparing his new team. This spring, we’ll see just how much of an emphasis the coaches put on the weight room and conditioning before hitting the football side of things.

MISSOURI TIGERS

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. Josey's rehab: The Tigers will be keeping tabs on running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after suffering a devastating knee injury midway through the 2011 season. He was the Big 12’s best running back before his injury and Mizzou needs him back. The staff has had to be patient, but this could be a crucial time in his rehab, as he looks to get his football legs back.

2. Rebuilding the front seven: Mizzou must replace a lot in its front seven. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s absence leaves a gaping hole up front, while linebackers Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden must be replaced. Lucas Vincent will be first in line to take Richardson’s spot, while Darvin Ruise, Donovan Bonner and Michael Scherer are three players to watch at linebacker.

3. Toughening up: Injuries ravaged Mizzou’s offense last year, but it’s clear that Mizzou wasn’t in the playing shape that it would have liked to be in during its first year in the SEC. Injuries are part of the game, but gaining that toughness factor this spring will go a long way for the Tigers in 2013. The SEC is more than just a grind, and the Tigers found out the hard way that conditioning in this league is a little different than in the Big 12.

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. New backfield options: Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles are gone, so the Gamecocks will have to turn to their younger backs. Brandon Wilds missed the 2012 season with an ankle injury but should return this spring. Rising sophomore Mike Davis has all the tools to be a big-time player for the Gamecocks and could be the top option in the Gamecocks’ backfield. Shifty Shon Carson also returns from a knee injury, so South Carolina will have a solid group to work with this spring.

2. QB controversy: Quarterback Connor Shaw might be tabbed as the starter, but with him out for the spring, Dylan Thompson will take the first-team reps. Thompson proved to be very valuable last year, and both will play this fall. Thompson has become one of the most vocal players on the team and is a strong leader. A good spring could bring some real controversy to the position.

3. Holes at linebacker: South Carolina will be without its two-deep at linebacker and “Spur” DeVonte Holloman is gone. That means there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to finding viable replacements. Sharrod Golightly will get the early crack at the Spur, and keep an eye on Kaiwan Lews, who was a true freshman last year and has a lot of potential to work with.

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. New coaches on the block: With Butch Jones in town, the Vols have to get used to their third head coach in five springs. Jones and his staff have helped bring some much-needed energy to the program since arriving, but now it’s time to develop vital on-field chemistry between the coaches and players.

2. Receiving help: The Vols’ offense took at major hit at receiver. Juniors Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson made the leap to the NFL, while deep threat Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera graduated. Tennessee will now turn to a host of inexperienced receiving targets, including rising sophomore Alton Howard and early enrollee Paul Harris.

3. Quarterback battle: With Tyler Bray leaving for the NFL, Tennessee will work with rising junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Worley has the edge when it comes to game experience, but with a new staff, this battle will be wide-open. They will also need to make strides before freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson get on campus this summer.

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Replacing Rodgers: Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is gone. The good news is Austyn Carta-Samuels has good experience after starting two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vandy. Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is someone the coaches also are excited about, especially with his dual-threat ability, and should really push Carta-Samuels the whole spring.

2. Running back battles: The Commodores lost star running back Zac Stacy, so veteran Wesley Tate, who has bounced around positions, and rising sophomore Brian Kimbrow, who has the do-everything look to him at running back, will share reps. Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour also return, making for quite the talented backfield.

3. Keeping the edge: Now that another very successful season under James Franklin is over, the Dores have to continue to keep the edge that got them to where they are. It might sound like a broken record, but Vanderbilt still has to prove that it isn’t the Vandy of old. People are certainly taking the Dores more seriously, but keeping that edge is important for more growth.
Heading into the spring, the SEC had a few fun quarterback races to watch in both divisions. Some of those battles have come to an end, while a few still remain.

Let's take a look at each one from the spring and see where they currently stand:

AUBURN

The matchup: Sophomore Kiehl Frazier left the spring with the edge because he took most of the reps, as a sore shoulder sidelined junior Clint Moseley. This fall, freshman Jonathan Wallace entered the race and has continued to impress Auburn's staff.

The winner is: Frazier has the most athleticism and has felt much more comfortable throwing the ball with help from first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. While coach Gene Chizik continues to say the race is even between Frazier and Moseley, who is still dealing with shoulder soreness, we'll go with Frazier because of overall talent. He can make more plays with his feet and if his arm really does improve, he could be a solid dual-threat QB in this league.

FLORIDA

The matchup: This two-horse race between Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel has been intense since the spring. Brissett has had a little bit of the edge because of his game experience last year, but Driskel has made tremendous strides under the direction of new offensive coordinator Brent Pease.

The winner is: Will Muschamp continues to say the race is dead even. Driskel's bruised shoulder didn't even complicate the race. It doesn't sound like anyone really knows who has outperformed the other, but the concensus is the team and the coaches can win with either. With that said, Brissett has more experience and we assume is completely healthy, so we'll go with him, but both should play in the opener.

KENTUCKY

The matchup: Sophomore Maxwell Smith took all of the first-team reps this spring, while senior Morgan Newton recovered from shoulder surgery. However, Newton returned to get back into the race this fall. Joining them this fall were freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow.

The winner is: Smith. Joker Phillips named Smith the starter on Monday, so this race has come to an end. The offense can now focus on running around Smith, who has been the most consistent of Kentucky's quarterbacks since the spring. This isn't a surprise.

OLE MISS

The matchup: Neither of Hugh Freeze's quarterbacks have proven much at all and have struggled with consistency since spring. Barry Brunetti was given the starting job at the beginning of last season, but lost it almost immediately, and Bo Wallace is fresh off a season in the junior college ranks. Wallace, however, did spend a year with Freeze at Arkansas State.

The winner is: Wallace seemed to have the edge for part of the spring, and then lost it as Brunetti got more comfortable with Freeze's offense. Both quarterbacks and Freeze felt things were very even heading into champ, but Wallace has had a much stronger champ. Both could end up playing in the opener, but we'll go with Wallace.

TEXAS A&M

The matchup: Sophomore Jameill Showers, who has the only game experience at quarter, and redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel were nearly neck-and-neck for most of the spring, but Showers seemed to pull away little toward the end. Sophomore Matt Joeckel and true freshman Matt Davis also competed this spring.

The winner is: Manziel. It seemed as though Showers had the edge in this one, but Manziel outplayed him during fall camp. After a solid outing during one of the Aggies' scrimmages, coach Kevin Sumlin decided to end the battle and give the starting job to Manziel.

VANDERBILT

The matchup: Jordan Rodgers replaced Larry Smith last season, but still showed inconsistency on the field at times. So, this spring, he had a battle on his hands with Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels, who was the Mountain West's Freshman of the Year in 2009.

The winner: Rodgers. This was probably always his job to lose, and he didn't. He had a very good spring and fall camp. Rodgers said this summer that he felt way more comfortable with the people around him this spring and is poised to have a much better year this fall.

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