NCF Nation: Bruce Ellington

Best and worst of the SEC bowls

January, 10, 2014
1/10/14
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Let's take a look at the best and worst from the SEC during this year's bowl season:

Best game: This had to be Texas A&M's 52-48 comeback win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Right when we thought Johnny Manziel was going out on a low note, he put his team on his shoulders to erase a 21-point deficit. He struggled to get on the same page with his receivers early but finished in style with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. The Aggies outscored Duke 35-10 in the second half.

Worst BCS bowl team without a national title at stake: Alabama has been money under Nick Saban in BCS National Championship games. But the Crimson Tide have laid a pair of eggs now in the Sugar Bowl, the latest coming in an ugly 45-31 loss to Oklahoma last week that saw Alabama turn it over five times and give up 429 yards of total offense. It was reminiscent of Alabama’s 31-17 loss to Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel put on quite a show in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in what turned out to be his final game.
Worst tackle: Though Auburn's defense played very well for the better part of the Tigers' heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, the dagger came on a fumbled defensive effort. Chris Davis and Ryan Smith cost Auburn a big play on the Seminoles' game-winning scoring drive when they both attempted to tackle Rashad Greene after a first-down catch just to the right of the middle of the field. They hit each other more than Greene, who then sprinted down the right sideline for a 49-yard gain to help set up the final score.

Best catch: Not only was Bruce Ellington’s bobbling, one-handed catch in South Carolina’s 34-24 win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl a gem, but it also changed the complexion of the game. The 22-yard gain came on fourth-and-7 and set up a 22-yard touchdown catch by Ellington late in the third quarter that put the Gamecocks ahead for good.

Best quote: “I was in a zone I haven’t been in before -- ever. I just wanted this game.” -- Manziel

Best grind-out performance: LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who helped keep LSU out of the upset column against Iowa with his 28 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 37-yarder with two minutes remaining.

Best multi-purpose performance: About the only thing Connor Shaw didn’t do in his farewell performance for the Gamecocks was intercept a pass. He passed for three touchdowns, ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Worst defensive breakdown: Big pass plays haunted Georgia’s defense this season, and the 99-yard touchdown pass the Bulldogs gave up in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl was perhaps the worst of the bunch. Nebraska was facing third-and-14 from its own 1 in the fourth quarter when Quincy Enunwa took advantage of a bust in the Georgia secondary and streaked 99 yards to give the Huskers a 24-12 lead. Nebraska finished with just 307 yards of total offense, and 99 came on that one play.

Worst timing: Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch has always been rock solid for the Bulldogs, but his crucial drop on a fourth-and-3 at Nebraska's 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining ended any chance of a Georgia comeback. Lynch would have given the Dawgs a first down inside the 10.

Best individual performance: Manziel delivered a performance for the ages (and a performance that turned out to be his final one at the collegiate level) in rallying the Aggies from a 21-point deficit to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Manziel was 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns, and he also rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown.

Best team performance: How about those Mississippi State Bulldogs? Left for dead in late November, the Bulldogs won two straight in overtime to make a bowl game. After getting bumped up to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State crushed a Rice team that entered the game winners of nine of their last 10 with a 44-7 showing. Quarterback Dak Prescott had arguably his best game, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 78 yards and two more scores. The defense also allowed a season-low 145 yards.

SEC all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
1/09/14
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Catch your breath yet?

What a bowl season, starting really with Texas A&M's heart-stopping comeback to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and carrying all the way through the VIZIO BCS National Championship with Florida State's last-minute drive to beat Auburn 34-31.

The SEC finished 7-3 in the postseason, and we're honoring some of the best individual performances with our all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel's final game at Texas A&M was a memorable one as he threw four TDs and rallied the Aggies from a 21-point deficit.
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Yes, Connor Shaw was sensational, too, but Manziel brought the Aggies back from a 21-point halftime deficit. He threw four touchdown passes and ran for another in a memorable farewell for Johnny Football.

RB: Tre Mason, Auburn: Until Florida State's late touchdown drive, it looked as if Mason's 37-yard touchdown run would be what everyone was talking about from the BCS title game. He finished with 195 rushing yards against one of the top defenses in the country.

RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU: LSU fans got a nice surprise this week when reports surfaced that Hill planned to return for his junior season. A few days earlier, he gave them a memorable performance in the Outback Bowl with 216 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

WR: Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State: The Rice secondary had no answers for the speedy Lewis, who finished with nine catches for a school-record 220 yards. He had a 28-yard catch to set up the Bulldogs' first touchdown, a 35-yard catch to set up their second touchdown and a 65-yard catch to set up their fourth touchdown, all in first half.

WR: Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: Ellington is leaving early for the NFL and made some NFL-like catches in his farewell. His one-handed, bobbling catch on the fourth-and-7 play was huge. He finished with six catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns and also threw a touchdown pass.

TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia: Lynch would love to have that last pass back, but he still hauled in six catches for 69 yards, including receptions to help set up a couple of field goals.

All-purpose: Derrick Henry, Alabama: Get ready to see a lot of Henry next season for the Tide. The freshman running back rushed for 100 yards on eight carries, including a 43-yard touchdown run, and also had a 61-yard touchdown catch.

OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: As left tackles go, Matthews set the standard this season. He was pretty close to flawless in the bowl game, as the Aggies rolled up 541 total yards in their stirring comeback against Duke.

OL: Greg Robinson, Auburn: The BCS title game turned out to be Robinson's final game for Auburn. The junior left tackle is turning pro and heads to the next level on the heels of the kind of performance that became the norm for him this season.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs racked up 533 yards of total offense in their 44-7 rout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and Jackson was his usual dominant self at left guard.

OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt: The veteran of that Vanderbilt offensive line asserted himself in the fourth quarter when Houston climbed back into it, and the Commodores made a living running behind him.

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: There aren't many centers in America better than Dismukes, and he can hold his head high over the way he played against a talented Florida State interior on defense.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAuburn's Dee Ford showed why he is one of the nation's best when he recorded two sacks against FSU in the national title game.
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn: Ford had already established himself as one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC this season and then went out and showed it on the biggest stage with two sacks in BCS title game.

DL: D.T. Shackelford, Ole Miss: The Rebels' resilient senior defensive end went out in style with seven total tackles, including a sack, and also had two quarterback hurries.

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri: Michael Sam received most of the publicity this season for the Tigers, but Ealy was equally productive. He closed out his career with two sacks in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, giving him 9.5 on the season.

DL: Preston Smith, Mississippi State: Smith spearheaded a suffocating defensive effort by the Bulldogs with six total tackles and a quarterback hurry. Rice, after scoring a touchdown on its second possession, was held to 66 total yards the rest of the way.

LB: Serderius Bryant, Ole Miss: Bryant tied for the team lead with eight tackles, including two for loss, and also forced a fumble that led to a safety. The Rebels limited Georgia Tech's option offense to 17 points and 151 rushing yards.

LB: Andrew Wilson, Missouri: The Tigers' senior middle linebacker was everywhere against the Cowboys with 15 total tackles to earn Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP honors.

LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina: Only a freshman, Moore had two interceptions in the Capital One Bowl, the last one coming in the end zone in the fourth quarter with Wisconsin driving.

CB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Gaines was one of the most complete cornerbacks in the SEC this season. He capped his career with seven tackles against the Cowboys and an interception at midfield that helped set up a touchdown.

CB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt: Despite playing with a brace on his elbow, Hal led Vanderbilt with nine total tackles, including an interception to seal the game, and also broke up three passes.

S: Craig Loston, LSU: Loston finished with six total tackles, including three for loss. He also had a key interception in the fourth quarter with Iowa threatening on fourth-and-1 at the LSU 16.

S: Toney Hurd, Jr., Texas A&M: Even though Texas A&M was torched on defense, Hurd's 55-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:33 to play was the decisive blow for the Aggies.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia: Morgan kept the Bulldogs in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl by making all four of his field-goal attempts.

P: Steven Clark, Auburn: Clark kept Florida State pinned deep most of the night with perfectly placed punts that looked like pitching wedges. He dropped five of his six punts inside the 20, including one at the 6, one at the 4 and one at the 2.

RS: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: One of the top return specialists in the conference, Murphy combined for 136 yards on kickoff and punt returns against Oklahoma State. He had a long of 38 yards on a first-quarter punt return.
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A late surge gave South Carolina another 11-win season, as the Gamecocks defeated Wisconsin 34-24 in the Capital One Bowl.

This marked a program-best third consecutive season that South Carolina won a bowl game. Here's how it went down:

It was over when: Freshman linebacker Skai Moore intercepted a Wisconsin pass in the end zone with 3:14 remaining. Badgers backup quarterback Curt Phillips threw a 16-yard pass into heavy coverage, and Moore made an athletic pick to ice the game.

Game ball goes to: South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. The performance of Shaw against Wisconsin (9-4) cannot be understated. Stats usually don't tell the whole story, but these numbers should definitely give you a good idea of his efficiency: 22-of-25, 312 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions. Wisconsin's secondary struggled against Shaw and the South Carolina receivers all day, and Shaw made the Badgers' defense pay in other ways, too. He caught a 9-yard touchdown pass, ran for a 1-yard touchdown and even rushed for 47 yards. Shaw did anything and everything for the Gamecocks.

Stat of the game: 88 percent. That's the completion rate for the Gamecocks, between Shaw's 22-of-25 passing and wide receiver Bruce Ellington's 1-of-1 stat line. South Carolina threw just three incompletions in 60 minutes and never threw more than one incompletion in a quarter.

Unsung hero: Ellington. Not only did he account for more than 40 percent of his team's yards through the air and catch two touchdown passes, he also threw a 9-yard TD pass on a double-reverse pass play. Ellington finished with six catches for 140 yards and he came up big when the Gamecocks needed it. On a key fourth-and-7 play in the second half, Ellington kept the drive alive by making an acrobatic catch after tipping the pass -- one that's sure to be a "SportsCenter" highlight. He made a tough 22-yard TD catch one play later to give his team a 20-17 lead.

What it means: This punctuated what looks like the golden age of Gamecocks football. Steve Spurrier's team has finished the last three seasons with the same record (11-2) and ended each season with a bowl victory. That's never been done before in school history. Before this three-year streak, the Gamecocks had won just four bowl games and hadn't had a 10-win season since 1984.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Capital One Bowl, click here.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
10:15
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Call it rivalry week, hate week, whatever you like. It's here, and it should be as memorable as ever when matchups between in-state rivals highlight the SEC lineup. Let's take a look at some of the key points around the league this weekend.

1. For all the marbles: Have you heard the Iron Bowl is this weekend? If not, you probably don't live in Alabama. Allow me to fill you in. Top-ranked Alabama will visit No. 4 Auburn on Saturday. It's a game with major conference and BCS implications, as the winner will represent the SEC West in the league championship game. Likewise, the Eastern Division remains up for grabs. No. 5 Missouri leads, but must defeat No. 21 Texas A&M in order to represent the division in Atlanta. With an A&M win, No. 10 South Carolina will win the East thanks to its victory against Mizzou.

2. In-state hate: The Iron Bowl, which is likely the nastiest in-state rivalry of them all, will receive the most national attention this week because of its championship implications. However, it's certainly not the only place you'll find distaste for the cross-state enemy. It kicks off with Thursday's Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Then you've got Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State all on Saturday.

3. ACC vs. SEC: The ACC thought last season that it might finally break through in rivalry games against opponents from the mighty SEC. Then Georgia wiped the floor with Georgia Tech, South Carolina controlled its game against Clemson, and Florida used a 24-point fourth quarter to beat FSU 37-26. This weekend might be a different story, however. At 4-7, Florida is enduring its worst season in decades and enters as a decided underdog against unbeaten FSU. Georgia faces uncertainty with quarterback Aaron Murray sidelined when it visits Tech. And while South Carolina is favored by five points, No. 6 Clemson is ranked higher and is certainly capable of winning in Columbia.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsCan Johnny Manziel keep his Heisman bid alive?
4. Manziel's recovery: Johnny Manziel's chances of winning another Heisman Trophy took a blow with his stumble against LSU last weekend (16-for-41 for 224 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). They aren't dead yet, though. Manziel's numbers remain competitive -- he ranks fifth nationally with an 89.5 opponent-adjusted Total QBR -- and he has one final chance to impress voters in a marquee game on Saturday night. Missouri's pass rush has been impressive, so Manziel could place himself back in the center of the Heisman conversation with a strong effort against the Tigers.

5. Battle for the boot: How can it be that No. 17 LSU and Arkansas ranked first and third nationally just two seasons ago when they met? When the Razorbacks visit Baton Rouge on Friday with the Golden Boot trophy at stake, they will be 25-point underdogs. Certainly some of that point spread has to do with the Tigers' impressive 34-10 win against Texas A&M. More of it is that Arkansas has been awful for most of the season. The Razorbacks have lost eight straight games, by an average margin of 21 points, as they enter this weekend's finale. While the Battle for the Boot has often ended in crazy fashion, it would be a surprise to see this installment remain competitive into the fourth quarter.

6. Murray's replacement: For the first time since the 2009 season, someone other than Murray will start at quarterback for Georgia. The SEC's all-time leading passer underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he tore Saturday against Kentucky. The starting nod will go to Hutson Mason, who led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against the Wildcats. Georgia Tech has to like seeing a different quarterback under center for the Bulldogs, as Murray was 48-for-65 for 738 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception in three career starts against the Yellow Jackets.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJames Franklin has Vandy on the right track.
7. Will Vandy's run continue? Vanderbilt looked like a possible bowl team at midseason, but that was before the Commodores won four of their past five games -- and could complete the regular season with a four-game winning streak by beating Wake Forest on Saturday. Posting back-to-back eight-win regular seasons would make yet another statement about the progress the program has made under coach James Franklin.

8. Bowl bid at stake in Starkville: Not only will Dan Mullen's Mississippi State club (5-6) be playing Thursday to recapture some of the in-state mojo it lost to Ole Miss in the past year, the Bulldogs must beat the Rebels in order to achieve bowl eligibility. Mullen's three-game winning streak against the Rebels ended last fall when Hugh Freeze's club won handily, 41-24, and then Ole Miss added insult to injury by signing one of the most heralded recruiting classes in school history. It would be another embarrassing blow if Ole Miss beats the Bulldogs to prevent them from reaching the postseason.

9. Clowney vs. Boyd: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney harassed Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in last season's win, earning Boyd 4.5 sacks as the Gamecocks beat the Tigers for the fourth time in a row. Boyd finished 11-for-24 for 183 yards and tossed two interceptions -- one of which led to Dylan Thompson's win-clinching touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington. Boyd has been terrible in two starts against South Carolina, and he'll have to perform more consistently against Clowney & Co. in order to end the losing streak.

10. Tennessee tumble: There was a point when Tennessee was 4-3 and looked like an SEC East darkhorse after the Volunteers nearly beat Georgia and shocked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Then came a run of lopsided losses to three consecutive top-10 teams (Alabama, Missouri and Auburn) and a last-minute defeat against Vanderbilt. With Tennessee now 4-7, we know first-year coach Butch Jones won't lead the Vols to a bowl game, but his team could at least remove some of the bitter taste from its mouth by beating Kentucky, which has lost 15 straight SEC games.

Shaw rescues Gamecocks from the dead

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Connor Shaw walked wearily from the South Carolina locker room late Saturday night looking like he'd just gone 15 rounds with the heavyweight champion.

One of college football's gutsiest fighters, Shaw also wore a confident smile.

Already gimpy with a sprained knee and battling a nasty stomach virus that had him throwing up three hours before the game, Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to bring South Carolina back from the dead in an improbable 27-24 double-overtime victory over No. 5 Missouri at Faurot Field.

"It's a relief more than anything, like a huge burden has been lifted off this entire team," Shaw said. "This is a game we had to have."

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
MCT via Getty ImagesA hobbled Connor Shaw came off the bench to rally the Gamecocks and throw the SEC East up for grabs.
It's also a game that threw the SEC's Eastern Division race into a muddled mess and further punctuated the cannibalistic nature of the league this season.

As we head into the month of November, there's exactly one unbeaten team remaining in the SEC -- No. 1 Alabama. Missouri would have made it two, but couldn't make a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter stand up and didn't have any answers for Shaw, who finished 20-of-29 for 201 yards and three touchdowns after entering the game at the 6:46 mark of the third quarter with his team reeling.

"That's what great players do, and Connor's a great player. I hope everybody knows that," said Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina's star defensive end. "He put this team on his back tonight."

The senior wasn't even expected to play in the game. The knee he sprained last week in the loss at Tennessee was debilitating enough, but he suffered from flu-like symptoms on Friday while throwing up most of the night and received intravenous fluids Saturday.

His parents, Lee and Dawn, were so sure he wasn't going to play that they canceled their trip to Missouri at the last minute.

"We watched (on television) and cried together," joked Lee, who coaches high school football in Georgia and has been known to drive all night to see his son play.

This is one they might remember for a long time in the Land of the Gamecocks if they go on to win the Eastern Division and make it to Atlanta.

South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 SEC) has two games remaining in the league, against Mississippi State and Florida, both at home. Missouri (7-1, 3-1 SEC) still has four conference games left. The Tigers get Tennessee at home next week, then Kentucky on the road, and after a bye week, close the regular season with a road game at Ole Miss and a home game with Texas A&M.

Florida and Georgia are also back in the mix, at least the winner of next week's game in Jacksonville. In other words, it's wide open.

"If it works out for us, we might look back and wonder, 'How in the heck did we win this one?' " said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who won his first overtime game as a coach. "But these are the kind you've got to win if you're going to do something special."

And having a special player sure helps.

"Connor wasn't going to let us lose that game, plain and simple," Clowney said. "We rallied around him, and he rallied around us. A lot of people might have thought we were done after we lost last week, and I know they probably thought that after the way this game started. But this team doesn't quit. We keep fighting, and we keep leaning on each other."

Even Shaw, the Gamecocks' version of Mr. Unbreakable, wasn't sure he'd be able to play Saturday. But after the pre-game meal, he started to feel a little better and told Spurrier he could play if the Gamecocks needed him.

Dylan Thompson started the game at quarterback, and while the Gamecocks moved the ball at times, they turned it over three times in the first half. Mike Davis fumbled twice, once at the Missouri 2, and Thompson also threw an interception.

"It was Dylan's game, and that's the way we went into it," Shaw said. "But I wanted coach to know that I was good to go if they needed me."

So after the Gamecocks went nowhere on their first possession of the second half and Missouri padded its lead to 17-0, Spurrier turned to Shaw.

"He did a little bit in practice this week," Spurrier said. "I really wasn't sure (if he could play), but he assured me that he could. That's just the way Connor is. He didn't play his best last week at Tennessee, but he's always going to be there for his team."

Counting the two overtime periods, Shaw was on the field for six possessions. The Gamecocks scored points on five of those six. His 2-yard touchdown pass to Nick Jones with 42 seconds to play forced overtime.

But it was Shaw's 15-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington in the first overtime that was the most improbable of all. The Tigers had scored a touchdown on their possession in overtime to take the lead, and the Gamecocks were down to their final play. Shaw had been thrown for a 6-yard loss on first down from the 9, so it was fourth-and-goal from the 15.

Shaw's eyes lit up when he realized the Tigers were in man coverage, and he threw a strike to Ellington on a corner route.

"I had no idea that would be there," Shaw said. "But it was, and I just wanted to make sure I got the ball out."

The Gamecocks then had to play a little "field-goal defense" in the second overtime after Elliott Fry put them ahead with a 40-yarder. Missouri's Andrew Baggett couldn't answer. His 24-yard attempt bounced off the left upright, setting off a wild celebration on the South Carolina sideline.

"That did not come down to just one player or one kick or one throw or one catch," said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, whose Tigers were trying to go 8-0 for the first time since 1960. "We all could have done something different to help win that football game."

Depending on how the rest of this season plays out, it's a game that might sting for a long time for the Tigers.

Shaw, who already had overcome a separated shoulder earlier this season, might also sting for a while, at least physically.

But he'll live with it. He's used to it by now.

Or as Clowney says, "That's why he's Connor Shaw. He's the heart of this team."

SEC position rankings: Receivers

July, 3, 2013
7/03/13
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Sticking to our offensive theme this week, we’ll rank the top receiving corps in the SEC today, and we’ll take into consideration both wide receivers and tight ends.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe Crimson Tide's Amari Cooper leads the SEC's deepest receiving corps.
1. Alabama: This is the deepest and most talented group of pass-catchers the Crimson Tide have had under Nick Saban and maybe ever. Amari Cooper is the headliner and should be scary good his second time through the league, but a couple of newcomers -- redshirt freshman receiver Chris Black and true freshman tight end O.J. Howard -- will both make big impacts. There’s also Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. Think AJ McCarron is pumped about this season?

2. Georgia: If not for Alabama’s wealth of talent, Georgia would be an easy choice for the No. 1 spot. Malcolm Mitchell is one of the best big-play receivers in the league, and don’t forget about Michael Bennett. He was off to a great start last season before his knee injury. Rantavious Wooten and Chris Conley are both proven threats and only add to the Bulldogs’ depth. The tight end tandem of Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome ranks right up there with anybody’s in the league. Aaron Murray will have lots of options this season.

3. Vanderbilt: Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd formed the SEC’s most productive receiving duo last season, and they’re both back for more in 2013. Between them, they averaged 161.3 receiving yards per game and combined for 13 touchdown catches. Senior Jonathan Krause is also back, and incoming freshman Jordan Cunningham could provide an immediate boost. Kris Kentera is a polished pass-catching tight end, and there’s always a chance that versatile Josh Grady could still get some snaps at receiver despite working at quarterback in the spring.

4. Ole Miss: All nine wide receivers who lettered for the Rebels last season are back, and it gets even better when you consider that one of those guys is as talented as Donte Moncrief. He’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds-plus and has 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Ja-Mes Logan and Vince Sanders combined to catch more than 80 passes last season and are also back, while Korvic Neat returns in the slot. More talent is on the way, too. Freshman Laquon Treadwell was ranked by ESPN as the No. 2 receiver in the country last year.

5. Texas A&M: Even with Ryan Swope’s departure, the Aggies will again be loaded with guys who can make plays in the passing game. It starts with 6-5, 225-pound sophomore Mike Evans, who caught 82 passes for 1,105 yards last season. Junior Malcome Kennedy is also back, and he had the big touchdown catch against Alabama. Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones, Ja’Quay Williams and LaQuivionte Gonzalez will all be worth watching, and junior college tight end Cameron Clear is a 270-pound target who can run and get open down the middle.

6. LSU: It’s true that LSU’s passing game was spotty last season, but juniors Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are both back and form what should be a productive combo. Landry is one of those guys who makes the tough catches, while Beckham averaged 16.6 yards per catch. It’s an experienced group as well. Seniors Kadron Boone and James Wright return, and junior college newcomer Logan Stokes should add a different dimension at tight end. Look for Cam Cameron to use the tight ends more in this offense.

7. Missouri: Too much was probably expected of Dorial Green-Beckham in his freshman season, but he still led the team with five touchdown catches. Don’t be surprised if he emerges this season as one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league. He’s that talented. Marcus Lucas led Missouri in catches last season, and he also returns along with L’Damian Washington. Those three combined for 10 of the Tigers’ 15 touchdown catches last season, and all three go 6-foot-4 or taller. Talk about matchup problems.

8. Auburn: Given how poorly Auburn threw the ball last season, the Tigers being ranked this highly may surprise some people. But Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis are both primed for breakout seasons. Quan Bray should also excel in Gus Malzahn’s system, while junior Jaylon Denson came out of nowhere this spring to be the most consistent of the bunch. Maybe this is the year Trovon Reed stays healthy, too. Throw in tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse, and this should be a very solid group.

9. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton was the heartbeat of the Hogs’ offense last season, and he’s gone. So is talented tight end Chris Gragg, who battled injuries a year ago. New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney does inherit some experience with seniors Demetrius Wilson, Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton. Sophomore Mekale McKay (6-foot-6, 195) also showed some flashes last season as a freshman. At tight end, incoming freshman Hunter Henry is a terrific looking prospect and should contribute immediately.

10. South Carolina: Losing Ace Sanders early to the NFL draft was a bummer, especially with everything he could do. But Bruce Ellington is back and should be even better after leading the team with 600 receiving yards last season. The Gamecocks also have one of the best tight end tandems in the league with Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams, but the X factor is sophomore receiver Shaq Roland. He made big strides this spring and looks like he could be one of the most improved players on the team.

11. Florida: There’s no reason the Gators should be this low, but they've struggled at the receiver position the past couple of seasons. The talk of spring practice was true freshman Demarcus Robinson, who was an early enrollee and made several highlight reel catches. The key will be consistency -- for everybody. The Gators really need veterans Andre Debose and Quinton Dunbar to step up this season, and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy could be on loan from defense. Purifoy is a game-changing athlete, and Will Muschamp wants to use him some on offense.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three senior starters, including Chad Bumphis, who led the SEC with 12 touchdown catches. This is a big season for junior Robert Johnson, who has the size and skills to be a feature receiver, and the Bulldogs are also looking for 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior Joe Morrow to put it all together. Malcolm Johnson has the makings of an excellent pass-catching tight end. Talented true freshman Fred Ross is the newcomer to watch along with junior college transfer Jeremy Chappelle.

13. Kentucky: This is a position where the Wildcats will definitely need help from newcomers. New offensive coordinator Neal Brown wants to throw the ball, and the three leading returning receivers -- Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins and A.J. Legree -- combined for no touchdown catches last season. With DeMarcus Sweat transferring out, junior college transfer Javess Blue and freshman Ryan Timmons will almost certainly have to play this season.

14. Tennessee: The Vols were depleted at receiver when Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers took their combined 21 touchdown catches and headed to the NFL. Also gone is tight end Mychal Rivera. Nobody really separated himself as the go-to receiver in the spring, which means much will be expected of heralded incoming freshman MarQuez North. The Vols also need redshirt freshman Jason Croom to come back strong from shoulder surgery and Pig Howard to have a big sophomore season.
Alabama might have fallen to No. 2 in ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25, but I'd like to think that most of the college football world still considers the Crimson Tide to be the favorites to win the national championship again.

Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.

But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.

No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.

Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.

The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.

A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.

Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:

Florida

The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.

The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.

Georgia

Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.

Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.

LSU

Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.

The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.

South Carolina

Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.

And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.
Now that all of the early entries for this year's NFL draft are in, we decided to take a closer look at some of the players who decided to leave school early.

We're checking in on how teams were affected and who some of the winners and losers were from all of these early departures:

[+] EnlargeJoeckel
Brett Davis/US PresswireIt was a no-brainer for Luke Joeckel to take his talents to the NFL.
1. Biggest winners: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel flirted with staying in school for his senior year, but it appears that would have been a major mistake for the nation's top left tackle. He was a guaranteed top-10 pick for most of the season, but with the draft creeping closer, Joeckel has a great chance of being the top pick come April. He definitely made the right decision to leave school early, and so did his teammate Damontre Moore. After a monster 2012 season, Moore could follow Joeckel as the second player taken off the board. He moved to defensive end last fall and is a very attractive pick for teams because of his versatility. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could also hear their names called very early in April, as they too could both be top-five picks.

2. Biggest loser: LSU was ravaged by the NFL draft, as ten underclassmen declared early. Some were pretty obvious, but others left people confused. It didn't shock anyone that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan declared. Montgomery and Mingo could be first-round draft picks, while Logan could go within the first three rounds. Safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter made sense as well, but seeing punter Brad Wing, cornerback Tharold Simon, offensive lineman Chris Faulk and running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford all leave was pretty surprising. The Tigers will be losing seven quality starters and basically their entire defensive line. LSU has a lot of quality youngsters who will be vying for major playing time, but losing all that experience will hurt the Tigers in 2013.

3. Head-scratchers: Ware, Ford and Simon could all have benefited from another year in Baton Rouge. Neither Ford nor Ware hit the 400-yard rushing mark and combined for just four touchdowns on the season. Maybe the emergence of freshman running back Jeremy Hill helped influence their decisions. South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders shocked everyone when he decided to turn pro at the last minute. Sanders was one of the league's top multipurpose weapons, and while he isn't going to get any taller (he's a generous 5-foot-8), he could use another year to improve his receiving skills. He'll be looked at as a returner first in the NFL and won't likely be drafted very high at all. Also, Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins could have used another year of school as well. He was banged up in 2012, only playing in nine games, and registered just 29 tackles. He's a very smart player, but another year could have helped his draft status even more.

4. The replacements:
  • LSU loses a lot, but that doesn't mean that the Bayou is void of talent. Wing will be replaced by sophomore-to-be Jamie Keehn, who started in Wing's place for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With Ware and Ford gone, Hill will be helped out by Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the run game. Junior-to-be Anthony Johnson should get more reps at defensive tackle with Logan gone, and he'll also be helped by Ego Ferguson. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins both had solid seasons at corner, so expect more of each with Simon gone.
  • With Eddie Lacy leaving Alabama, rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon will now be the guy at running back for the Crimson Tide. With his 1,000-yard season, he's already proven that he can more than handle himself in this league. He'll also be helped by Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, who are both returning from knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake, who looked impressive in mop-up duty last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who is already on campus and should be a factor in the run game.
  • Sanders' departure at South Carolina means Bruce Ellington is now the top returning receiver for the Gamecocks, and it also puts more on the shoulders of Shaq Roland, who was expected to make an immediate impact during his freshman year. Roland has the skills to be a big-time threat in the passing game.
  • Georgia lost some key juniors on defense, but no one will be missed more than Jones. Jordan Jenkins came on strong in his first year last fall, and will do his best to replace Jones' pass-rushing ability.
  • Florida only lost three underclassmen to the draft, but replacing safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be tough. There are a host of youngsters who could vie for Elam's spot (keep an eye on freshman Marcus Maye), while Damien Jacobs will help man the middle of Florida's line with Leon Orr.
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The clock read 8:22.

Michigan led 22-21.

Jadeveon Clowney, frustrated for most of Tuesday afternoon, saw the minutes winding down in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl. He needed to reassure his teammates. Perhaps even himself.

“Guys,” he said, “I’m going to show up. I’m coming. Just hang in there, we’re going to win this game. I’m going to make a big play.”

South Carolina had just lost a replay review on a blown first-down call following a Michigan fake punt. Michigan had momentum. South Carolina had a chapped coach and incredulous players. Steve Spurrier later recalled his conversation with a referee on the field:

Spurrier: “You know the ball did not touch the first-down marker?”

Referee: “I know it didn’t.”

Spurrier: “Well, why’d you give it to him?”

Referee: “I don’t know.”

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney's forced fumble and recovery changed the momentum in the Outback Bowl.
Michigan had a fresh set of downs at its 41, hoping to add to its lead. Devin Gardner snapped the ball. The big play -- the big hit -- came almost instantaneously, showing once again why Clowney is the most unstoppable defensive force in college football.

Clowney barreled through the line untouched and smacked Vincent Smith so viciously, both Smith’s helmet and the ball went flying.

“It sounded like a car wreck,” South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt said.

“I heard it,” receiver Bruce Ellington said. “And I jumped when I heard it.”

Incredible play, incredible athleticism.

“He’s got that one little slip move and they get nothing but air when they go at him,” Spurrier said.

That would have been enough to qualify as one of the biggest plays of his career. And yet, he had more in him.

With one more move, Clowney picked the loose ball up with one hand, got up and tried to score.

“It’s just unbelievable the stuff he can do,” said South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, who watched from the sideline. “Just like a switch he can turn on and say, 'All right, I’m going to take over,' and he does it.”

South Carolina teammates have seen plays like this before, and yet, they have no explanation. “I was like man, this guy -- it’s crazy the things he can do,” Ellington said.

But what they had was a momentum shift, a play to begin a host of plays that would lead South Carolina to a come-from-behind 33-28 victory. And once again, the SEC dealt another blow to the Big Ten, a conference that needed wins Tuesday more than any other.

Northwestern got its historic bowl win. And for a time, Michigan and Nebraska gave the Big Ten hope they could take down the mightiest conference in the land, do the unthinkable and actually win on a gorgeous Florida afternoon.

While the Wolverines had South Carolina on the ropes, the Huskers had Georgia in their sights 90 miles east in Orlando. Then, in a matter of minutes ... gone. Georgia cruised. Michigan met Clowney.

That big hit set off a wild fourth quarter that ended up seeing three lead changes, and vintage Spurrier. On the play after the big hit, Spurrier called for a deep passing play -- one of the areas the Gamecocks excelled in all afternoon. Connor Shaw threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to game MVP Ace Sanders, and South Carolina went ahead 27-22.

Michigan then drove 64 yards, refusing to have Clowney get in their heads. Gardner delivered a beautiful 17-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Gallon and the Wolverines went back ahead 28-27.

South Carolina took over with 3:29 left. Shaw started the drive, but went out with a foot injury. Thompson finished it, throwing a 32-yard touchdown pass to Ellington with 11 seconds remaining, delivering the victory. Spurrier has rotated quarterbacks in his past, and said he would do the same headed into this game.

But the way Shaw and Thompson worked so effectively, so seamlessly on that final drive, spoke to the maturity of both the players and this team. Other South Carolina teams may have folded up shop in the fourth quarter.

Not this one.

Not with Clowney on the field.

“It gave us a lot of momentum,” Ellington said. “Our defense got a little mad, a little uptight and they made a couple of plays for us to get the ball back.”

For his part, Clowney said he has delivered big hits like that before. He recalled his hit on Aaron Murray against Georgia last year. Thompson recalled a hit Clowney made while he still played in high school. Clowney said of the hit on Smith, “Everybody else said it looked worse.”

Call the play payback for the refs’ mistake. Or payback for a hit to the groin Smith delivered earlier in the game, sending Clowney to the sideline. “He laughed about it,” Clowney recalled. “I said, 'I'm going to get you later on.’”

When he did, Smith lay on the turf.

“He didn’t say nothing,” Clowney recalled. “He just froze up, laid there. I was laughing.”

Laughing?

“Yeah I was laughing, that’s what I do,” he said. “Hey it’s a game, competition.”

A game the best player on the field single-handedly changed with a big hit that will live on as long as he plays.

This one is bound to be full of statistics Clemson fans don't want to hear. South Carolina's 27-17 win Saturday in the Battle for the Palmetto State didn't just secure a win over its archrival, it was the No. 12 Gamecocks' fourth consecutive win against the No. 11 Tigers for the first time since 1954. It was also their third win in their past four trips to Clemson's Death Valley. On top of all that, it was the win that made Steve Spurrier the winningest coach in South Carolina history.

It looked certain that Clemson's high-octane offense would have its way in the game's opening quarters. Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd fired off 131 yards and a touchdown, along with a rushing touchdown en route to a 14-10 Clemson lead at halftime. All of the hallmarks of the Tigers' attack were there, including a 43-yard scoring strike to receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

But it was the Gamecocks, led once again by Dylan Thompson in lieu of injured starter Connor Shaw, who ruled the day in the second half. Thompson completed 23 of 41 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns -- most notably a 34-yard throw to do-everything receiver Ace Sanders, who dodged two different tacklers on the way into the end zone. The score came just four minutes into the second half and put South Carolina up for good.

Clemson was never able to respond because South Carolina put the clamps on Boyd and Company after making halftime adjustments. The Tigers couldn't do anything after the break, as they were limited to just a field goal. Though they put together scoring drives of 85 and 75 yards in the first half, the Tigers were held to a meager 79 yards of offense in the second half.

Plenty of credit for that goes to South Carolina sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who terrorized Boyd for five sacks on the night.

The Tigers' inability to move the ball led to an absurd edge in possession time for the Gamecocks, who ended the game with a 39:58 to 20:02 advantage. Clemson kept the score within six until late in the fourth quarter when its defense eventually broke down. Thompson found South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington for a 13-yard touchdown -- his second score of the night -- with 4:17 to play. The touchdown gave South Carolina the final 10-point margin.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- One week after getting bowled over by a physical Florida running game, No. 9 LSU took those frustrations out on someone else. The Tigers pounded their way to 258 rushing yards on a whopping 53 attempts in a 23-21 upset of No. 3 South Carolina on Saturday night.

Despite a lopsided box score, the Tigers were never able to put the Gamecocks away, however. South Carolina rallied from a 23-14 fourth-quarter deficit and had a chance to steal a win on its final drive.

Here’s how it played out from a raucous Tiger Stadium:

It was over when: LSU safety Craig Loston intercepted South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw’s desperate heave on the game’s final play to preserve a 23-21 margin.

Shaw brought the score within two when he connected with Bruce Ellington on a 1-yard touchdown pass with three minutes to play. The Gamecocks couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick, but they forced an LSU punt with 35 seconds to play, giving them a chance at a last-second win.

Game ball goes to: LSU has been lauded for its depth at running back all year long, and the Tigers utilized it against South Carolina. When starter Spencer Ware left the game briefly in the first half, freshman Jeremy Hill took over. Hill, with just 13 career carries heading into the game, exploded for 124 yards and both of LSU’s touchdowns on 17 carries. The youngster broke the game open on a 50-yard scoring romp in the middle of the fourth quarter.

Key stat: The closeness of the score line is baffling when looking at the box score. The Tigers outgained the Gamecocks 406-211, and won the time of possession battle 36:57 to 23:03. The Gamecocks’ defense was crucial in keeping it close -- South Carolina forced LSU to settle for field goal attempts on four of five trips to the red zone.

Key stat II: The LSU defense limited South Carolina to a 3-of-13 effort on third downs, sacked Shaw four times and stonewalled the Gamecocks for a mere 34 rushing yards.

What it means: Considering how easily No. 1 Alabama is tearing through its schedule, a second SEC loss could have ended the Tigers’ SEC championship dreams. LSU’s success running the ball behind a makeshift offensive line is encouraging, but the Tigers’ troubles in the red zone? Not so much.

Now it’s the Gamecocks’ turn to have their backs against the wall. South Carolina travels to Florida next weekend for a showdown with the surprising Gators, who could go a long way toward claiming the SEC East with a win.
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the league's top returning kickoff returners.

Past producers:
The SEC returns seven of the top 10 kick returners from 2011. The top three returners are back, so kickers beware. However, the ball will now be moved forward five yards to the 35-yard line for kickoffs, meaning returns should occur less often. But that also means they'll now be more important. We're going by average per return. Note: To qualify, a player must have at least one return per team's games played. This is one of the most exciting plays in football and here's a look at the SEC's top returner:

Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: He returned 24 kicks for an average of 26.4 yards per return, had a long of 97 yards and recorded a touchdown. Mason dealt with being in a crowded backfield by making a name for himself in the return game during the first half of the season. He did most of his damage in the first two weeks, grabbing 10 returns for 348 yards and had a touchdown in the season opener against Utah State. He saw his production dip as the season went on because of injuries and his fumbling issues. He eventually lost his job, but could he make a comeback for his crown in 2012?

The SEC returns six more of the top kickoff returners in 2012:

Andre Debose, WR, Florida: He returned 19 kicks for an average of 26.1 yards per return, had a long of 99 yards and registered one touchdown.

Dennis Johnson, RB, Arkansas: He returned 18 kicks for an average of 25.6 yards per return, had a long of 98 yards and registered one touchdown.

Tobias Singleton, RB, Ole Miss: He returned 21 kicks for an average of 24.6 yards per return and had a long of 47 yards.

Andre Hal, CB, Vanderbilt: He returned 31 kicks for an average of 23.8 yards per return, had a long of 96 yards and registered one touchdown.

Devrin Young, RB, Tennessee: He returned 27 kicks for an average of 23.3 yards per return and had a long of 67 yards.

Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina: He returned 20 kicks for an average of 23.2 yards and had a long of 45 yards.

With kickoffs being moved up, we might see even less in the kick return game this fall. We could also see a new winner for this category if Mason doesn't get his job back. And with the amount of production he'll have on offense, his returns might get cut short anyway. Keep an eye on Mason's teammates, Onterio McCalebb and Quan Bray. McCalebb averaged 30.1 yards per return and had a touchdown on just 11 returns, while Bray averaged 24.2 on 10 returns.

Johnson has always been very dangerous in the return game. He entered the 2011 season as the SEC's active leader for career kickoff return yards and total return yards with 2,014 and he added 461 last fall. Johnson will likely have more steam to work with this fall with Knile Davis eating into his carries at running back. That will make him even tougher to stop in the return game and counting him out of the race for the return crown is just silly.

Debose was named the nation’s top kick returner by the College Football Performance Awards in 2010, but has always had some issues with his decision-making in the return game. Still, there's no doubting his speed when he finds a hole. When he's focused, he's exciting to watch, but he's yet to keep his focus for an entire season as a returner.

LaDarius Perkins will have more responsibility in Mississippi State's offense, but he was sometimes fun to watch in the return game.

Missouri receiver T.J. Moe averaged 23.3 yards on 26 kicks, but didn't return a kick longer than 49 yards. Still, he's shifty enough and has the vision to make a run at this thing.
South Carolina welcomed back a familiar face to wide receiver Tuesday when Bruce Ellington returned to the football practice field.

Earlier this month, Ellington announced that he was picking basketball over football, but shortly after the whispers began about him possibly returning to football after men's basketball coach Darrin Horn was fired.

Tuesday, Ellington worked out with the Gamecocks' football team for the first time this spring. Coincidentally, it was the same day in which Frank Martin was introduced as South Carolina's new men's basketball coach.

Coach Steve Spurrier had some very kinds words to say about Franklin:
"I like Coach Frank Martin. I think his track record speaks for itself. The guy has only been a head coach for five years in college, but Frank Martin, in my opinion, knows how to coach ball. He’d be a heck of a football coach, too. I think our basketball program is in excellent hands. Like he said, we’re going to pack Colonial [Life] Arena. I believe him. I believe there will be 18,000 cheering the Gamecocks."

Ellington plans to continue being a two-sport athlete at South Carolina and Spurrier said Tuesday that he was "one of the fastest guys out there" at practice.

Having Ellington back certainly brings some needed experience back to the receiver position. Ellington made his mark as more of an all-purpose guy, but he'll be called on more to catch the ball this fall with Alshon Jeffery gone.

Kicker to the rescue
Vanderbilt's kicking issues from last season are well documented, but Tuesday, it was a kicker who saved the Commodores from extra, uncomfortable running after practice.

To close Tuesday's practice, coach James Franklin gave his kickers eight field goal attempts. Each kick was to be performed while Franklin messed with the kicker and "whispered sweet nothings" into his ears. For every miss the team had one gasser (a football player's nightmare). Vandy's kickers missed four, meaning four gassers for the team.

But Franklin decided to up the ante with a double or nothing call -- one kick to erase the gassers or force eight on his players. The team was supposed to choose a kicker it was confident in, but Carey Spear jumped right up and volunteered.

"Cary's one of the more competitive guys that we got," Franklin said.

"He's a very, very competitive, tough guy."

Cary stepped up and nailed a 40-yard kick to save his team from eight painful gassers.

"It was a pretty good risk that they were taking and they believed in him, so it was good," Franklin said.

Freeze unhappy with effort
Ole Miss dressed in pads for the second time this spring, but new coach Hugh Freeze wasn't too thrilled with the effort his players showed Tuesday.

“[I was] disappointed,” Freeze said. “I didn’t think the attitude was bad, but I thought the effort was half-hearted. I thought we coasted through a lot of practice. We’re asking a lot of them to lift [weights] and practice, sometimes on the same days. And of course, academics are a priority. We’ll point [the lack of effort] out on film [Wednesday], and we’ll stop practice on Thursday if we have to in order to get it right. We won’t go through two days of that in a row.”

As Freeze looks to install a new, more spread offense at Ole Miss, he's finding that one of the key components needs to improve more as the spring continues. That component is the running game, which isn't just essential to the spread, but is essential to having a successful offense in the SEC.

“There were some good plays, though. In the team run, we broke a few long ones," Freeze said.

"But we’re still very inconsistent.”

Two players sat out practice Tuesday with injuries. Sophomore defensive lineman Bryon Bennett (foot) and junior linebacker Mike Marry (hamstring) are both day-to-day.

Here are 10 things I’ll be watching in college football this weekend:

1. Will Oklahoma bounce back against Kansas State?

The No. 9 Sooners were stunned by unranked Texas Tech 41-38 last week, ending their 39-game home winning streak. OU hasn’t lost consecutive conference games since a four-game slide in 1998. The Wildcats are off to a 7-0 start but haven’t beaten OU since the 2003 Big 12 championship game. Wildcats quarterback Collin Klein ran for 10 touchdowns in the past three games, but the Cats are averaging only 153.9 passing yards per game. The Red Raiders were able to expose OU’s secondary while totaling 572 yards of offense last week.

2. Should Clemson be on upset alert?

Heading into Saturday night’s game at Georgia Tech, the Tigers are aiming for their first 9-0 start since 1981, when they finished 12-0 and won a national championship. Georgia Tech has dropped two games in a row, scoring only 28 points and averaging only 253 yards of offense in losses to Virginia and Miami. But Tech’s triple-option offense might pose problems for Clemson’s defense, which surrendered 83 points in victories over Maryland and North Carolina. The Tigers scored 115 points and had 1,026 yards of offense in their last two games.

3. What does USC have to do to upset Stanford?

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Chris Williams/Icon SMIThe Trojans could use another big game from Robert Woods, who had 12 catches for 224 yards in last year's game against Stanford.
The No. 6 Cardinal will be going for their 16th consecutive victory in Saturday night’s trip to USC. The Trojans will have to slow down Stanford’s running game, which ran for a school-record 446 yards in last week’s 65-21 rout of Washington. The Trojans will need another big game from receiver Robert Woods, who had 12 catches for 224 yards with three touchdowns in last season’s 37-35 loss to Stanford. USC quarterback Matt Barkley has thrown nine touchdowns with only one interception during a three-game winning streak.

4. Who starts at quarterback for Florida?

Gators coach Will Muschamp said senior John Brantley is ready to go for Saturday’s game against No. 22 Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla. But Brantley hasn’t played since injuring his ankle early in the Gators’ 38-10 loss to Alabama on Oct. 1 and hasn’t practiced much over the past three weeks. Brantley might get a chance to play against the Bulldogs, but don’t be surprised if freshmen Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett take most of the snaps. Georgia has to do a better job of taking care of the football -- it has had 12 turnovers in its three consecutive losses to UF.

5. Who’s going to run the ball for South Carolina?

The No. 13 Gamecocks begin life without star tailback Marcus Lattimore, who will miss the rest of the season after tearing knee ligaments in a 14-12 victory over Mississippi State on Oct. 15. Freshman Brandon Wilds will get the start in Saturday’s game at Tennessee, after running for 75 yards on 13 carries so far this season. Quarterback Connor Shaw will have to carry a bigger load on offense, and former USC basketball player Bruce Ellington might get some snaps out of “Wildcats" plays. Volunteers freshman quarterback Justin Worley makes his first start after senior Matt Simms was benched last week.

6. Should Oklahoma State be worried about Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III?

The No. 3 Cowboys’ defense has held up so far this season but will be tested by Griffin, who has thrown 22 touchdowns and two interceptions this season. Baylor’s defense has been exposed by strong passing attacks, giving up 681 yards of offense in a 55-28 loss to Texas A&M on Oct. 15. The Bears allowed 725 yards in a 55-28 loss to OSU last season. Griffin played very well against the Aggies, throwing for a school-record 430 yards with three touchdowns. Baylor has lost five straight and 14 of 15 games to the Pokes.

7. Can Michigan State get up for another big game?

The No. 11 Spartans just completed a trifecta of emotional victories, defeating Ohio State (17-7), Michigan (28-14) and Wisconsin (37-31). The Spartans defeated the then-No. 6 Badgers on quarterback Kirk Cousins’ 44-yard touchdown pass to Keith Nichol on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game. Now Michigan State has to regroup to play at No. 14 Nebraska on Saturday. MSU’s defense, which allowed 220 rushing yards to the Badgers, will have to slow down Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez and I-back Rex Burkhead. The winner gets the inside track to winning the Big Ten’s Legends division.

8. Will Wisconsin rebound to beat Ohio State?

The Badgers saw their BCS national championship hopes all but end with last week’s loss at Michigan State. But Wisconsin can still win the Big Ten’s Leaders division and play in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3. The Buckeyes had an extra week to prepare, after upsetting Illinois 17-7 on Oct. 15. Ohio State completed only one pass for 17 yards against the Illini, but tailback Dan “Boom” Herron ran for 91 yards with two touchdowns in his first action of the season.

9. Can Texas A&M’s defense shut down another opponent?

Missouri’s trip to Texas A&M on Saturday night will be a matchup of potential future SEC teams. The No. 16 Aggies have struggled defending the pass all season, but they were much better in last week’s 33-17 victory over Iowa State, allowing only 305 yards of offense. Missouri has won four of its last five games against Texas A&M. Tigers quarterback James Franklin struggled in last week’s 45-24 loss to Oklahoma State, completing only 14 of 27 passes for 184 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.

10. Can Penn State do it again?

The Nittany Lions have won six games in a row heading into Saturday’s game against Illinois, and they’ve done it with a menacing defense and mediocre offense. Penn State tailback Silas Redd has been very good lately, with four straight 100-yard games. But the Nittany Lions remain unsettled at quarterback, although Matt McGloin played well in last week’s 34-24 victory at Northwestern. The Illini have lost two straight games after a 6-0 start.

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