NCF Nation: Damian Swann

Todd GurleyAP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia running back Todd Gurley's status is unknown following a knee injury against Auburn.

ATHENS, Ga. -- In what was supposed to be a rousing homecoming for Todd Gurley, the Georgia Bulldogs' chilly, late-night celebration felt a little more subdued after their star went down in the fourth quarter.

Gurley's late-game knee injury, which came with Georgia's dominating win over Auburn well in hand, has many wondering if the Bulldogs will yet again have to move on without their best player.

"You never want to see a guy like that go down," cornerback Damian Swann said of Gurley's injury. "We know how much that guy means to our team. … Hopefully, everything will be OK and he'll be back."

For now, Gurley's prognosis is unknown. Coach Mark Richt didn't have an update on the junior after the game, but expects him to take X-rays on the knee soon.

The hope is that Gurley, who rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries in his first game back from his four-game NCAA suspension, will be fine, but if No. 15 Georgia (8-2, 6-2 SEC) has to continue without him for any amount of time, it's clear that this team is more than prepared for such a challenge.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb has rushed for at least 143 yards in his past five games. He had 144 yards and 2 touchdowns against Auburn.
And if the past four weeks didn't prove that, Saturday's 34-7 rout of No. 9 Auburn (7-3, 4-3) should have made you a believer.

Before the game, Gurley stalked the field during warm-ups, as cheers bellowed throughout Sanford Stadium whenever his face appeared on the scoreboard. You got the sense this would be a storybook comeback for the former Heisman Trophy favorite.

And we almost got it when he took a kickoff 100-plus yards for a touchdown, only to have it called back because of a penalty.

That's how Gurley's return went, but it didn't hurt the Bulldogs one bit. Not with true freshman Nick Chubb -- who more than filled in for Gurley during his four-game absence -- playing out of his mind, and Jeremy Pruitt's defense executing a near-flawless game plan.

With Gurley more the appetizer than the main course, Georgia turned Auburn into a cupcake on a frigid night between the hedges. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry was hardly close, as Georgia scored 34 straight points after Auburn's opening drive.

Like the Bulldogs had done in three of their past four games, they found ways to dominate opponents without Gurley leading the way. And that's not taking anything away from Gurley, but it was clear he was rusty after not playing in a game in 42 days.

As Gurley slowly regained his football legs, Chubb chugged away to 192 total yards, including a game-high 144 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. He bounced and bullied his way over the 1,000-yard mark for the season and continues to play at superhuman levels despite his age.

"Once he gets a little bit of a head of steam up, I tell you it's just so difficult to get him down with just one person," Richt said of Chubb, who has now rushed for at least 143 yards in each of the past five games. "You see it all the time, guys are just bouncing off of him. You can go low, and you're going to get punished down there, too. He's about as strong as Todd is. ... Guys don't like to go high or low on those guys because they are like a little locomotive going through there."

When Chubb wasn't rambling through or around Auburn's overmatched defense, Georgia's own defense was slowing down one of the SEC's most explosive units. Entering the night, Auburn ranked second in the SEC with an average of 506.9 total yards of offense per game, including an SEC-high 286.44 rushing yards.

Against the Bulldogs, Auburn totaled just 292 yards of offense and 7 points -- the lowest in either category for Gus Malzahn as Auburn's head coach.

A defense that a couple of weeks ago was gashed for 418 rushing yards by Florida made Auburn look nothing like, well, Auburn.

"Coach [Pruitt] put together a great plan and after we executed it, it was hard for those guys to do anything," Swann said.

This was supposed to be a barn burner, but Georgia pushed Auburn around in every phase of the game, showing it has the talent to hang with any of the top teams. When this team is clicking, watch out.

Georgia is now 2-0 against the SEC West, and a Missouri slip away from heading back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

But that's where frustration sets in for the Dawgs. Their life is in the hands of a Missouri team they waxed on the road by 34. A Missouri team that has been incredibly inconsistent on offense and lost at home to Indiana, yet just walked out of College Station with a shootout win over Texas A&M.

Georgia needs only one Mizzou loss to get to Atlanta, but after losses to South Carolina and Florida, the Dawgs can only hope.

It's a shame with how well this team has played outside of those two blunders, but if the Dawgs find a seam to Atlanta -- and maybe even the playoff -- quarterback Hutson Mason likes his team's odds.

"The one thing about this team that's special about it is we get better every single game," Mason said.

"When you have a team like that, that's pretty dangerous, because you're gaining a lot of momentum and you're improving every week and you're gaining a lot of confidence. We have a lot of that right now."

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- How shocking was Georgia's defensive performance in Saturday's 38-20 loss to Florida?

The Bulldogs were so inept in giving up 418 yards rushing that defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt felt compelled to speak to the media after a game for the first time all season.

“I hadn’t been doing the media deal,” he told reporters outside Georgia’s locker room inside EverBank Field. “But you play like that and you need to come out here and look everybody in the eye and tell it like it is.”

He did.

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
AP Photo/John RaouxFlorida's Matt Jones rushed for 192 yards against Georgia, and he wasn't even his team's leading rusher.
Pruitt didn't hold back in criticizing his defense after it gave up the most rushing yards in Georgia history since yielding 430 to Auburn in 1978.

Time after time on Saturday, Florida gave the ball to tailbacks Kelvin Taylor (197 yards and two TDs) and Matt Jones (192 yards, two TDs). Time after time, Georgia failed to get off blocks, take precise routes to the ball or tackle properly.

“They lined up and gave us a good ole butt-whipping," Pruitt said. "They run the power and the zone, things you see every day in practice.

"For four days, we probably had the best four days of practice that we’ve had all year. It’s a good learning lesson for us, because four days of practice doesn’t mean you’re going to play good on Saturday. You’ve got to bring the juice, and we didn’t bring it today. Florida did."

Head coach Mark Richt offered the same blunt assessment, saying, "They physically whipped us. That’s probably the best description that I can give you."

The obvious question for Pruitt, since he volunteered to take questions, was "How?"

The Bulldogs came into Saturday's game giving up an average of 105.1 yards a game -- good enough to rank second in the SEC.

Florida, on the other hand, came into the game ranked 96th in the nation and 11th in the SEC in total offense, averaging 368.0 yards. The Gators had the league's eighth-best rushing offense, averaging 169.5 yards a game.

"It’s a choice," Pruitt said three times for emphasis. "It’s a choice each individual has to make. ... People try to impose their will on the other team. Today they imposed their will on us."

There were few answers.

"We didn’t play well up front. We didn’t rotate well in the secondary," cornerback Damian Swann said. "And that’s what happens when you play a team that can run the ball very well."

Richt wore the disappointment plainly on his face. He and his coaches, the fans and the media -- everyone -- knew Florida's game plan would rely on the run game. True freshman quarterback Treon Harris was making his first start, and the wind was gusting up to 40 mph.

Harris finished with just three completions on six attempts for 27 yards.

“They didn’t have to really take many chances," Richt said. "They were able to keep the ball on the ground. ...

"We never put them in a position where they had to throw the ball, quite frankly, so I don’t blame them for only throwing it six times."

Even with a limited playbook, Florida found a way to flourish. Entering the game, the Gators had 64 plays of 10 yards or more on the season, second-fewest in the FBS. On Saturday, they had 16.

There was plenty of blame to go around on Saturday, and Pruitt promised to go back to basics in practice.

“We’re still dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds," he said. "You’ve got to keep the hammer down at all times. You can’t ever get comfortable.

"The big thing that we’ve got to do is first probably just give Florida credit. They whipped our tail today. They outcoached us. They outplayed us, all right?

"Ain’t nothing we can do but go back and look at it and fix it. And we’ve got to do it together."
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The ginormous question surrounding Georgia's football team after news broke of Todd Gurley's suspension has been whether the Bulldogs could win without arguably the nation's best player.

Well, after two games sans Gurley, who still leads the SEC with 773 rushing yards, the Bulldogs haven't really needed him. In two convincing wins -- on the road, mind you -- the Dawgs have put the running game squarely on true freshman Nick Chubb and he's, well, run away with that responsibility.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsIn 99 carries through Week 8 this season, rookie Nick Chubb has taken over Georgia's rushing load and he isn't showing signs of slowing down.
The bruising, 5-foot-10, 228-pound frosh looked nothing like a youngster when he first stepped on the field and dazzled the country with his moves and strength in the opening win against Clemson, and he transformed into a certified manimal with his 345 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the past two games as the feature back for the Bulldogs.

"Nick's gonna be special. We know that," senior cornerback Damian Swann said. "Right now, he's taking on a very big load and he's handling it well. ... You've seen him on the past two Saturdays. He's got a bright future in Athens."

Unfortunately for the SEC, the future is now, and Chubb has been amazing filling in, especially with how much he has played. In the past two games, Chubb has carried the ball 68 times, eclipsing 30 carries in each outing. Gurley has never even carried the ball 30 times in a single game at Georgia.

After carrying it 38 times for 143 yards at Missouri, Chubb turned right around and ran 30 times for a career-high 202 yards and two touchdowns. How good was that? Chubb became just the third freshman in Georgia history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game (Herschel Walker, Rodney Hampton).

Chubb has five touchdowns and is eighth in the SEC with 569 rushing yards.

"He's taken the majority of the carries and it doesn't seem to faze him," quarterback Hutson Mason said. "The guy's a special cat. He's got to be the best freshman running back in the country. You give it to him 20 or 40 times and it just seems like he's going to keep pounding it. It's awesome."

That's all fine and dandy now, but it certainly begs the question. With Gurley out and running backs Keith Marshall and Sony Michel nursing injuries, are the Bulldogs running their young thoroughbred, who already had thumb surgery, too much? Does the colt need to take some plays off and rest his body with Gurley's return uncertain?

"He's built for it," coach Mark Richt said. "He's very, very tough physically and mentally. He's strong. He came from high school in Cedartown [Georgia] where they're just tough. They coach tough. Their offseason's tough. He didn't get babied in high school at all. He was not one of those guys where you could sit there and say he was given anything because he was a very good football player. He had to earn it every day in practice and every offseason workout."

The bye week will certainly help any sort of fatigue Chubb has, but with the way he has played in back-to-back weeks -- remember: On the road -- I don't know if another game would slow him down. He looked like he was shot out of a cannon on his 43-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter on Saturday, and then he just went back to bulldozing guys for the rest of the game.

If he needs a rest, he isn't showing it.

"It's super impressive because that guy's durable," wide receiver Chris Conley said. "He doesn't complain, he does what he's told and he puts his head down and grinds for the team."

Players aren't surprised at how well Chubb has played. They saw the chiseled snapshots of him running track in high school before he enrolled. They saw him pulverize teammates during offseason drills. They watched him lift, cringed as he squatted ungodly amounts and saw the pain he inflicted during practice.

This was what the Bulldogs expected, and they haven't missed a beat without Gurley leading the pack.

"We know how special that kid is," Swann said.

Yes, and so does the entire country.
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This was supposed to be the upset pick of the week in the SEC. Many thought this would be the game in which Bret Bielema would notch his first conference win at Arkansas. The only problem was that No. 10 Georgia didn’t get the memo.

The Bulldogs -- sans Todd Gurley -- jumped out to a big 38-6 halftime lead and held off the Hogs in the second half to win 45-32 in Little Rock.

How the game was won: Where do we begin? Hutson Mason was sharp. Nick Chubb was on a different level. But for the second straight week, this Georgia defense set the tone early. Four turnovers forced, three sacks, a blocked extra point. The Bulldogs might have let their guard down at times in the second half, but it was still another impressive outing. Damian Swann led the way with 11 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception.

Game ball goes to: As good as Swann was on defense, Chubb was that much more impressive for the offense. The freshman carried the load once again with Gurley out, finishing with 30 carries for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Conley deserves a shout out here as well. He had five catches for 128 yards and a touchdown for the Bulldogs.

What it means: The SEC East finally broke through against the West. This was the best and potentially only chance for the East to win a cross-division game this season, and Georgia got it done. It was also the first time a team from the West had been beaten by somebody outside of its own division this season.

Playoff implication: All of a sudden, Georgia looks like a serious contender for the College Football Playoff and can you imagine if Gurley comes back at some point this season? This team could challenge the Magnolia State for bragging rights in the SEC.

Best play: Have we mentioned Chubb’s name yet? The freshman had a lot of impressive runs on the day, but his 43-yard touchdown in the second quarter was Gurley-esque. He exploded through the hole, outran the Arkansas safeties and raced into the end zone untouched. The score put the Bulldogs up 17-6, and they never looked back.

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What's next: Georgia gets a week off before its game with Florida in Jacksonville. Arkansas, who showed plenty of fight in the second half, will get UAB at home next week before a trip to No. 1 Mississippi State in two weeks.

Georgia Bulldogs season preview

August, 8, 2014
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 9.06 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5 wins

Our take: Georgia was better than an eight-win team last season, but the Bulldogs were absolutely decimated by injuries to key players like Mitchell, Gurley, Scott-Wesley, tailback Keith Marshall and eventually Murray. If new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can get things straight on his side of the ball, the ceiling is extremely high for this team. The offense has an impressive array of talent surrounding senior quarterback Hutson Mason and should be difficult to contain. If the Bulldogs open with a win against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, this could easily become a 10-2 or 9-3 season where Georgia is once again in the thick of the East race.
The news of Tray Matthews' dismissal from Georgia's football team on Tuesday is yet another reminder of how much work the Bulldogs' defense has in front of it in 2014.

Matthews was far from perfect last year, and was known more for his unspeakable gaffe with Josh Harvey-Clemons against Auburn than any real positive impact he had on the field in 2013. But he had experience and time to improve. Even if Matthews was never going to be the all-world performer he was pumped up to be before his Athens arrival, his absence certainly doesn't help in the depth department.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Jason GetzOffseason departures will make new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's job even more difficult.
However, Matthews, who was also one of four Georgia players arrested and charged with theft by deception in March, is gone, leaving the Bulldogs without three starters from last year's secondary.

From an experience standpoint, it isn't an ideal situation for new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but there's nothing he can do about it now. When I spoke to him in his office this spring, he made it clear that he understood the tall task he was undertaking by guiding this defense, and he didn't take the job for a quick fix. He said he left Florida State to build something at Georgia.

Right now, it's going to take a lot from him to even build something for fans to rally around this fall. The secondary will be overrun with youngsters and the defensive line is still waiting for a great, consistent player to emerge. Georgia should be fine at linebacker with the likes of Leonard Floyd, Ramik Wilson, Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera returning, but they can't do everything.

This spring, Pruitt's task was getting his new group to buy in to what he was selling. At the same time, he was trying to get a read on who his players were and what they brought to the table during 15 practices. That isn't a lot of time to get a lot done when you're new, or you're an embattled group that gave up a school-record 377 points last year and allowed 375.5 yards per game, the most during the Mark Richt era.

Pruitt saw good work ethic and some promise, but there's still plenty that has to improve before the season opener against Clemson on Aug. 30.

“I don’t know how it was here before. I know our coaching staff is very focused on attention to detail, playing with effort, playing with toughness," Pruitt told ESPN.com in April. "We have a long ways to go to get to where we want to be.

“We have to get guys to do it right all the time.”

Pruitt isn't going to cry about the players he has lost. He has to get a plan together before he gets to work with the guys who will actually play for him this year.

The fact of the matter is this defense doesn't have the talent that the 2011 and 2012 teams had. Outside of the linebacker group, especially Floyd and Wilson, there are a lot of unknowns, but Pruitt understands that what he can do to make this defense more competitive is to have them win the mental battle. They have to be disciplined and tough enough to make opponents earn yards.

Pruitt said his guys have to work hard over and over to challenge opponents. If you get beat, he said, make sure it's by ability, not carelessness.

It's on Pruitt to put his players in good positions this fall, but the guys who actually move around on the field have to have a little more pride about them. They have to want to get better and play tougher.

Where Pruitt hopes to get a spark is from some new faces. Looking at the secondary, there's a chance that three or four newcomers could find starting jobs in a group in which senior Damian Swann is the only cornerback who has started more than one game.

Finding players to nail down spots at the boundary corner positions will be key. Redshirt freshman Reggie Wilkerson is returning from his ACL injury and 2014 signees Malkom Parrish, Shaq Jones, and Shattle Fenteng (junior college transfer) will all get the chance to take a corner spot. True freshman Dominick Sanders also will take reps at safety.

“I’m hoping that these young guys we have coming in can help us in the secondary," Pruitt said. “I’m going to give those guys a chance right off the bat. They’re going to have to prove to me that they can’t do it.”

Georgia's defense will go through a lot of growing pains in 2014. There will be plenty of frustrating moments for Pruitt and his group, but there will still be chances for growth.

How fast that growth begins will depend on how Pruitt and his players attack the steep hill in front of them.


When Steve Spurrier looks at Saturday's opponent, he tries not to see the past.

South Carolina's head coach tries to temporarily escape his playing and coaching days at Florida, both of which brought him national notoriety. It's just his team against "their team."

But what he really doesn't want to think about is the blunder of a game his Gamecocks had last year in the Swamp. Ranked No. 7 and playing what seemed like an overachieving No. 2 Florida team, South Carolina literally fumbled away any chance of beating a Gators team that registered only 14 first downs and 183 yards of offense, but scored 44 points to South Carolina's 11. The Gators managed 29 yards and two first downs in the first half, but led 21-6 after three South Carolina turnovers, including a Connor Shaw fumble on the game's opening play. South Carolina finished the day with four turnovers.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier, Connor Shaw
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsCoach Steve Spurrier and QB Connor Shaw are looking for a better showing this year against UF.
So while Spurrier tries to block out his past triumphs in orange and blue, he and his team will be seeking some redemption against a team that cost them a chance at a second SEC Eastern Division title. This year, a spot in Atlanta is yet again on the line for the Gamecocks, and a loss to Florida would all but end that hope.

"I don't know if we could have won it, but I think we could have been closer than getting beat by 33 points," Spurrier said. "But that's what happened. ... Hopefully it doesn't happen to us this week."

Hours earlier, another form of redemption will be taking place more than 300 miles away on the Plains. It's Auburn-Georgia, but it's also Nick Marshall vs. Georgia. Auburn's talented quarterback was once a Bulldog but was dismissed in February 2012 for a violation of team rules.

For Marshall, it's a chance to face his old team at a new position and push his squad closer to a potential SEC West title. He signed with Georgia as a defense back but will face the Bulldogs as a quarterback who ranks seventh in the SEC with 734 rushing yards and has 1,301 passing yards. He also has 15 total touchdowns and has helped lead the Tigers to the No. 7 spot in the BCS standings and a 9-1 record.

Marshall left the Bulldogs in a very awkward manner, but it sounds as if there aren't many hard feelings from his former teammates. Junior cornerback Damian Swann said earlier this week that he has no ill feelings toward Marshall and has actually wished him well before a couple of games this season.

"You can't really fault other people for something that has already happened," Swann said. "I don't think we have that here. I think with that situation, Nick learned from it and I think it made him a better person and I think it's making him a better player as everyone can see."

And he has a chance to redeem a team that has been outscored 83-7 in the last two games against the Bulldogs. He also has a chance to derail Georgia's chances at sneaking into the East's top spot. It's a lot to ask a youngster, who will no doubt have a plethora of emotions swirling through his body Saturday, but his coach doesn't seem worried about Marshall's composure.

"He is familiar with them, there is no doubt," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "If he holds true to past experience this year, he doesn't get too high or too low. There isn't too much that rattles him. He stays pretty calm no matter what the moment.

"He's an even-keeled guy, he's motivated and I know that he will be ready."

Like Malzahn expects Marshall to be ready, Spurrier expects a struggling Florida team to come out swinging with its back against the wall. In a way, the Gators are looking for some redemption, too. They're in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and could have their first losing season since 1979.

Florida has been ravaged by a handful of injuries and a bumbling offense, but the season isn't over. At least not in Spurrier's eyes, and he doesn't expect to be handed a crucial victory.

"We have a lot to play for and they're trying to win a ball game and get bowl eligible, so they've got a lot to play for," he said. "It should be a heck of a game."
ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham made one point abundantly clear in 2010 as soon as he arrived at Georgia to become the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator. He was here to beat Florida, because beating the Gators is the jumping-off point for every goal the Bulldogs hope to achieve in any given season.

“When we go to recruit a guy, the first thing I ask is, 'Can we beat Florida with this guy?' Because if you beat Florida, your chance of winning the SEC East got a whole lot better,” Grantham said after Saturday's 23-20 win over Florida extended Georgia's series winning streak to three games.

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
AP Photo/Paul AbellTodd Grantham's defensive unit is a big reason why the Bulldogs have won three straight games against Florida.
Let's put that in perspective. The Georgia-Florida rivalry wasn't even competitive when Grantham joined Mark Richt's staff. Even Florida's mediocre teams found ways to win in Jacksonville -- like when the 2002 Gators who would finish with an 8-5 record handed Georgia its only loss that season and cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for the BCS title.

Dating back to 1990, Florida had won 17 out of 20 games against Georgia when Grantham arrived and seven of nine since Richt took over in 2001. And in the last two games in the series that Willie Martinez served as Georgia's defensive coordinator, Florida's 2008 and 2009 teams beat Georgia by a combined 90-27 margin.

The common theme in each of Georgia's three straight series wins, however? Grantham's defense made big plays when it mattered most and kept Florida out of the end zone. Although they did not turn the ball over on Saturday, the Gators totaled eight turnovers in the teams' previous two meetings, and they have scored just three offensive touchdowns in the last three meetings in Jacksonville.

“Like I said when I first came here, I think I understand who the fans want to beat when you're playing here, and I know that Florida's one of the teams that they want to beat,” Grantham said. “So that's why we make it a big game with our players. I think that's one of the reasons that we've had guys step up, meaning Jarvis [Jones] two years ago, Corey Moore made a play today. I've seen Damian Swann make a play, Amarlo [Herrera], Ramik [Wilson] – a lot of guys made some plays, but they know it's time to man up and go play.”

Perhaps the biggest defensive play of Saturday's win came midway through the fourth quarter, when Grantham decided to blitz safety Moore when Florida faced third-and-12 against the reeling Bulldogs. Moore tracked down Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy and sacked him for a 14-yard loss at the Florida 43-yard line. That forced the Gators to punt, and Georgia's offense was able to run out the clock on the ensuing possession and protect its narrow advantage.

“I really almost said to Coach Grantham, 'Go sic em. Go get em,' ” Richt said. “When I'm saying that, I'm saying, 'Bring the house. Bring more than they can block. Play man coverage with no safety help and let's just see what the heck happens.' Something big's going to happen one way or the other and I held my tongue on it, and he called the blitz. And I'm like, 'I'm with you 100 percent,' and I really was.”

Maybe that was a glimmer of hope for Grantham's young defenders. Earlier in the season, maybe they would not have successfully made that play. He pointed to the overtime win against Tennessee, where the Bulldogs were unable to slow down the Volunteers as they mounted a second-half rally, as a time when his defense wasn't tough enough.

“The other team's going to make plays and they're going to do things,” Grantham said. “But when that happens, you've got to have the mental toughness and the maturity to go put the fire out, and we preach to our guys all the time about, 'This is what you live for. Seize the moment. Enjoy the opportunity. Go make a play.' ”

Believe it or not -- and the fourth-year coordinator's detractors within Georgia's fan base will likely be stunned by this revelation -- Georgia has held all but one opponent (Tennessee) below its season average for total offense. And after yielding 400-plus yards in four of the first five games, the Bulldogs have held their last three opponents below the 400-yard mark and to an average of 68.5 yards per game below their season averages.

They're dead last in the SEC in scoring defense (31.6 ppg), however, in part because of frequent special-teams meltdowns and offensive mistakes deep in Georgia territory.

Georgia ranks 112th nationally and last in the SEC in opponent yards per point -- a statistic that divides the number of points a team allows by the yardage its opponent covered to score. The five teams that rank immediately behind Georgia's average (12.1) on that list have a combined 7-35 record this season: Cal (1-8), Colorado (3-5), Idaho (1-8), UTEP (1-7) and Iowa State (1-7).

Of course, Georgia's defense could always have made more stops after being placed in those bad positions. And the Bulldogs certainly could stand to become more effective on third down (they're 12th in the SEC, allowing opponents to convert 42.5 percent of the time).

But little by little, Grantham's defense is beginning to show some promise -- and perhaps Moore's sack is another sign that the light is flipping on for Georgia's defenders who lacked on-field experience when the season began.

“Part of the job as a coordinator is you've got to be aggressive in those situations and let the players go win the game,” Grantham said. “Individual performance wins the game. We put them in one-on-one matchups on that. We were in one-on-one matchups in coverage, we were in one-on-one matchups up front and the guys executed the call and we stopped them. ... In my mind, you want to end the game. That's what I wanted to do was end the game right there."
ATHENS, Ga. – A day before his Georgia team toppled then-No. 6 LSU, running backs coach Bryan McClendon shared a personal experience from his playing days with a current Bulldogs veteran.

McClendon was a junior receiver on the 2004 Georgia team that slaughtered defending BCS champion LSU 45-16 at Sanford Stadium only to turn around the very next Saturday and lose to double-digit underdog Tennessee, 19-14.

“I actually was talking to B-Mac about that yesterday,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said after the Bulldogs' emotional 44-41 win on Saturday. “Him and Dan [Inman, a UGA graduate assistant who was a starting offensive tackle that season] played on that team.”

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/John BazemoreMark Richt enjoyed the win over LSU, but he said there's work to be done on defense and special teams.
Swann and most of his teammates are too young to clearly remember that letdown, immediately following what at the time seemed like one of the Georgia program's biggest victories in years. But McClendon and Inman no doubt share bitter memories about the loss -- the first of that season for a Georgia team that came in harboring BCS title hopes -- and how it left the Bulldogs with familiar thoughts about what might have been.

A sloppy overall performance, like when a holding penalty eliminated McClendon's second-quarter kickoff return to the Tennessee 2-yard line, caused Georgia to fall against a Tennessee team that lost 34-10 to Auburn only a week earlier.

Flash forward to 2013 and the scenario is similar.

Granted, this Tennessee team (3-2, 0-1 SEC) isn't in the same class as the 2004 Vols, who rebounded from the Auburn loss to win the rest of their conference games and claim the SEC East title. First-year coach Butch Jones' team barely managed to end its two-game losing streak on Saturday, edging South Alabama 31-24 following a pair of dismal showings against Oregon and Florida.

Nonetheless, the Vols opened as 10-point underdogs for this weekend's home game against Georgia, which is actually 2.5 points more favorable odds than their 2004 predecessors faced when they visited Athens that season.

With No. 6 Georgia (3-1, 2-0) having just completed the most brutal September schedule in college football -- they opened with a road loss at No. 3 Clemson and then followed with consecutive wins against No. 13 South Carolina, North Texas and No. 10 LSU -- it was a good time for McClendon to remind the modern-day Bulldogs of his career history. His 2004 team's mental letdown spoiled a season that could have ended with a slot in a BCS bowl instead of in Tampa, Fla., playing in the Outback Bowl.

“We're happy to make it out of this month. I don't think nobody had it as rough as us. Nobody. And at the end of the day, that's a plus for us,” Swann said. “I think with the resume we just put up in September, we've just got to go out and continue to do what we do and we're going to be fine. Right now we have the best resume in the country, playing three top-10 teams in four weeks -- and we're 3-1. We're going to keep getting better and we're going to keep balling. We've just got to keep grinding.”

And keep staying focused.

Georgia has hardly been a dominant team thus far -- certainly not in the games where the defense struggled mightily against top-10 opponents and even in the 45-21 win against North Texas, where the teams were tied at 21 in the third quarter. The Bulldogs can't afford to turn in such a flat performance against the likes of Tennessee, Missouri or Vanderbilt over the next few weeks or their Nov. 2 showdown with No. 18 Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., won't mean as much as it could.

That's a message Bulldogs coach Mark Richt will certainly join McClendon in sending this week, and he'll have historical precedent to support his claims.

“Next week, if we think it's going to be any easier, we're crazy,” Richt said. “We're going Knoxville, Tenn., man. They're going to be fired up, their fans are going to be ready to go and if we think it's going to be anything less than what we've been living through, we're nuts.

“We played North Texas and that was a barn burner, so every game's going to be a barn burner until we really get more stout on defense and continue to get our special teams in order.”


ATHENS, Ga. -- With new coordinator Cam Cameron in charge, LSU's offense this season is more diverse than it has been in several years -- and yet the overriding philosophy remains the same.

“If we don't slow down the run game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told a caller on his Monday night radio show, “it's going to be a long day for Georgia.”

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Bulldogs must slow down LSU tailback Jeremy Hill, who has rushed for 350 yards and six touchdowns this season.
When Richt's Bulldogs last faced LSU -- in the 2011 SEC championship game -- LSU completed only five passes for a total of 30 yards, but the Tigers' stable of running backs combined for 207 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-10 victory.

Their pound-the-rock strategy was in place last season, as well, with quarterback Zach Mettenberger's 12 touchdown passes tying for the fewest among regular starters in the SEC and the Tigers relying on Jeremy Hill and the other tailbacks to make their offense go.

“Ain't no trickery, ain't no razzle-dazzle,” Georgia defensive lineman Garrison Smith said. “It's just all about playing the best you can and seeing who's going to make the fewest mistakes.”

On the occasions where that physical approach wasn't enough, LSU's offense bogged down, with the Tigers ranking 10th in the SEC in total offense (374.2 yards per game) and 11th in passing (200.5 ypg). LSU's defense was as imposing as ever, but its lack of offensive creativity was a clear liability.

Enter former NFL coordinator Cameron, who still leans heavily on Hill and the running game, but has helped Mettenberger (1,026 passing yards, 10 TDs, one interception through four games) rank among the nation's most improved quarterbacks. The senior is eighth nationally with an 88.3 Total QBR, up substantially from his dismal 47.1 rating a season ago.

“Sometimes a guy has a coach that may have a tremendous scheme, but doesn't really have a feel for how to handle your quarterback. You better handle him properly,” Richt said. “Cam's been doing that forever, and he's been doing it at all levels of ball. I'm just very impressed with what he's doing.”

It helps that Mettenberger has two impressive receivers at his disposal in Odell Beckham Jr. (third in the SEC with 97.2 receiving ypg) and Jarvis Landry (fourth, 91.0) -- a duo who make it difficult for an opponent to sell out to stop the run. And Mettenberger's continued development -- he's completing 64.8 percent of his passes and averaging 11.28 yards per attempt compared to 58.8 and 7.4 in 2012 -- makes LSU even more of a test at all levels of a defense.

“[Georgia, LSU and Alabama] run the ball very well, and I think that's what opened up the downfield passing game,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. “Because once you're done trying to stack the box on a team that can throw the ball like [Georgia's Aaron] Murray can, like [Alabama's AJ] McCarron can, like Zach can, that's when people beat you.”

Nonetheless, the Bulldogs know that their defense won't have a prayer on Saturday if it fails to match LSU's physicality up front.

Slowing down the Tigers' running game remains every opposing defense's first objective, but it is not a particularly easy goal to accomplish. Auburn certainly knew Hill was the top player it had to stop last Saturday and LSU's bellcow back still rolled up 184 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-21 win.

Neutralizing LSU's running game will be the Bulldogs' first objective on Saturday, coming off an impressive performance against North Texas where Georgia allowed the Mean Green to accumulate just 7 rushing yards on 25 attempts. It's a difficult goal to meet, but if they can pull it off, the Bulldogs' chances of victory increase exponentially.

“That's just the style of football that they play with Les Miles being an offensive guy, and that's how he likes to run it” Swann said. “He's going to line it up and run it at you. You just have to prepare for it.

“You have to tackle well, you have to play your gaps well -- everything has to be fundamentally sound because it's not going to be no trickeration going on. It's going to be line up, smashmouth football. You have to be ready for that.”

UGA defense must toughen up this week

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
10:15
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We all knew Georgia's younger, less experienced defense would look shaky against Clemson's high-powered offense.

We knew there would be hiccups, blown assignments, coverage breakdowns and plenty of growing pains. When you lose 12 players who either started or saw significant playing time from the previous season, all of that is perfectly natural.

What shouldn't have been natural were all the missed tackles and hesitation by Bulldogs defenders in Clemson's 38-35 victory over Georgia on Saturday. That goes beyond inexperience. It goes back to the basics with technique, and that has to be troubling for Georgia's defensive coaching staff because a very physical South Carolina team is heading to Athens, Ga., this weekend.

Go back and look at the tape. The Tigers were given extra chances for extra yards all night. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is a big guy who has a tendency to be slippery at times, but he was way too slippery Saturday night. He shredded tackles with ease to either deliver one of his patented clutch passes or leg out a few more yards with those tree-trunk legs.

With help from some poor tackling on the part of the Bulldogs, Clemson registered 13 plays of 10-plus yards. Four of those plays went for 20 yards or longer, three went for 30-plus yards and one went for more than 40 yards.

That last play might have defined Clemson's offensive success against the Dawgs.

Shortly after Georgia RB Todd Gurley ripped off his impressive 75-yard run in the first quarter, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins immediately countered with a 77-yard catch-and-run to give the Tigers a 14-7 lead. On the way to paydirt, he trucked a helpless Damian Swann at midfield before turning on the jets toward the end zone.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesGeorgia's defense had an even-rougher-than-expected night against Sammy Watkins and Clemson.
Watkins finished the night with six catches for 127 yards, with 102 of those yards coming after the catch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was his third-highest yards-after-catch total in a game in his career.

From there, the Tigers' offense had its way with Georgia's defense as missed tackles and broken tackles extended drive after drive. The Tigers finished the game converting 7 of 16 third downs.

There wasn't enough push from a new-look defensive line, either. The Dawgs have better depth on the line, but they registered just six tackles for loss and one sack against Clemson. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins, the Dawgs' best pass-rusher, had just one tackle for loss and couldn't overcome constant double-teams.

There just wasn't an answer up front for the Dawgs, and you can't let Boyd be comfortable in the pocket and expect to win.

Making matters worse, Roderick McDowell had 22 carries for a career-high 132 rushing yards in his first start for the Tigers. He didn't score a touchdown, but he averaged 6 yards per carry. As a whole, the Tigers beat up Georgia's front seven with 197 rushing yards on 46 carries.

It wasn't a pretty sight, and the Dawgs know they can't have a repeat performance -- not with South Carolina looming. McDowell looked impressive against the Dawgs, but now this defense must try to tackle South Carolina's Mike Davis, who rushed for 115 yards on 12 carries and had a 75-yard touchdown run in the Gamecocks' 27-10 win over North Carolina.

Davis might stand only 5 feet 9 inches, but he weighs 215 pounds and resembles a bowling ball on the field. His height makes him that much tougher to bring down at times because he's so low to the ground. He's a real bruiser and is impervious to weak arm tackles and poor form.

The Georgia defense will get better. The Dawgs have too much talent, and more experience is going to help. But these youngsters are headed right back into the fire against South Carolina. The first trial didn't go so well, and if Saturday is going to be any better, Georgia's defense has to toughen up and get back to the basics.
There are always a couple of players on each football team that you just can't replace. Most of the time they are quarterbacks, but every so often someone else emerges as that indispensable player teams just can't live without.

Today, we're looking at those players. It's easy to talk quarterbacks being the most important people on a team, so we decided to look at the most indispensable players on each SEC school who aren't lining up under center.

Here's our list for the 2013 season:

ALABAMA

C.J. Mosley, LB, Sr.

Nothing about C.J. Mosley's game fits the typical Alabama mold. He's rarely the biggest or the strongest player on the field. Next to Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, he looked like a safety. But Mosley's sideline-to-sideline speed is outstanding, and in a league that continues to feature mobile quarterbacks that trait is invaluable. Last season Mosley became the first Alabama defender to break the 100-tackle mark since Rolando McClain, and he did it while splitting time. Now that the job is all his, it's up to Mosley to do even more in terms of production and leadership. -- Alex Scarborough, TideNation

ARKANSAS

Travis Swanson, C, Sr.

The 6-foot-5, 314-pound Swanson has started all 38 games of his career and was a second-team All-SEC selection last year. He has blocked for three 3,000-yard passers and will be an integral part of the Razorbacks this year as well, as they move to a more run-oriented attack under new coach Bret Bielema. The new head coach has been quoted as saying Swanson is the "best center in college football." That's high praise from a coach who has seen plenty of talented offensive linemen over the years. -- Sam Khan, GigEmNation

AUBURN

Reese Dismukes, C, Jr.

All eyes will be on first-year starting quarterback Nick Marshall, and although Auburn has plenty of skill players for him to utilize, the most important player will be the one who is snapping him the football. In his first two seasons on The Plains, Dismukes has started all but two games at center. He’s become a mainstay on the offensive line and was a constant even through all of the turmoil a year ago. He’ll be counted on again this year to serve as the rock for Marshall and the entire offense. -- Greg Ostendorf, TideNation

FLORIDA

Matt Jones, RB, So.

This is bad news for the Gators because they may very well be without Jones for the season opener against Toledo -- and possibly beyond -- because he has not yet been cleared to return to the field (viral infection). The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones is a bruising runner who was a perfect fit for the Gators’ between-the-tackles running game. He is UF’s best offensive player and his top backup is Mack Brown, who has just 40 carries in three seasons. -- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA

Damian Swann, CB, Jr.

The first name that comes to mind is Todd Gurley, who will surely rank among the nation’s top tailbacks. But Georgia’s ship probably wouldn’t sink if it relied on Keith Marshall to carry the running game. Perhaps Georgia’s most indispensable player is on defense. Cornerback Damian Swann -- who led the team with four interceptions last year -- is the only returning starter in the secondary and is one of the young defense’s clear leaders. -- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY

Alivn "Bud" Dupree, DE, Jr.

It will be interesting to see how Dupree transitions from linebacker to end this fall, but regardless of position, he’s the best player on this UK defense. And there’s no doubt it will be a defense that new head coach Mark Stoops will count on to keep them in games. As a sophomore, Dupree emerged as one of the SEC’s top pass-rushers, finishing with 91 tackles and seven sacks. This fall, he’ll also serve as a mentor to newcomers Za'Darius Smith, a junior college transfer, and Jason Hatcher. -- Greg Ostendorf, TideNation

LSU

Anthony Johnson, DT, Jr.

With a rebuilt defensive line, Johnson has become arguably the Tigers' most important player outside of quarterback Zach Mettenberger. He's strong, big, athletic, fast and ready to live up to his full potential as "The Freak." He'll anchor LSU's defensive line. Without him, the Tigers have a gaping hole in their relatively younger defense. Johnson is the team's best run stopper, but also has the ability to rush the passer and make plays outside of the box. -- Edward Aschoff

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG, Sr.

The Bulldogs have a lot to replace in the receiving game, but if the offensive line doesn't come together, the offense will be in trouble. Jackson is the heart and soul of Mississippi State's offensive line and without him, the Bulldogs could have big problems up front this fall. He's an NFL prospect and is great pushing the run and protecting the pass. Losing him would greatly set this unit back. -- Edward Aschoff

MISSOURI

Evan Boehm, C, So.

The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Boehm is the Tigers’ best offensive lineman despite being only a sophomore. He moved from guard in the spring and struggled a bit with the transition, but is settling into the position. Boehm was the only lineman who didn’t miss a game last season and those injuries played havoc with the offense. Missouri has the offensive weapons to score points, but the line has to be better and stay healthy. That begins with Boehm. -- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR, Jr.

The Rebels have some depth at receiver, even with Vince Sanders going down this preseason with a broken collarbone. But they don’t have anybody quite like Moncrief, who caught 10 touchdown passes last season and opens up the field for everybody else. He takes plays that should go for minimal gains and turns them into touchdowns, and he wins one-on-one battles with cornerbacks even when the ball isn’t thrown perfectly. Defenses have to play the Rebels differently when Moncrief’s on the field. -- Chris Low

SOUTH CAROLINA

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Jr.

Clowney is easily the best defensive player in the country and he might be the nation's best overall player, regardless of position. He has incredible measurables, elite speed and athleticism, and is stronger than an ox. Without him, South Carolina's new-look defense would take a major hit in 2013. He's the motor that makes that defense run and is the main reason why the Gamecocks have the SEC's best defensive line. His mere presence on the field makes teams change their game plans. -- Edward Aschoff

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT, Jr.

Call him "Tiny" at your own peril. Tennessee's Antonio Richardson is anything but small. The 6-foot-6, 327-pound offensive tackle is a mountain of a man, and the Vols will need every bit of protection they can get when they find their quarterback of the future. If Richardson can help relieve the pressure on the passing game and help open up holes in the running game it would go a long way in helping an offense in transition under new coach Butch Jones. -- Alex Scarborough, TideNation

TEXAS A&M

Jake Matthews, OT, Sr.

When looking at non-quarterbacks, the guy who protects the quarterback's blind side is of utmost importance. Last season, Luke Joeckel had a stellar season in that role while Matthews was anchoring the right side of the line. This year, Matthews, son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, slides to left tackle. There's no reason to believe Matthews will miss a beat and he has the look of a high first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Kevin Sumlin calls Matthews a classic "low maintenance, great player." -- Sam Khan, GigEmNation

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR, Sr.

Coming off the best season by a Vanderbilt receiver (94 catches, 1,323 yards, 8 TDs), Jordan Matthews is the clear pick. Chris Boyd will also produce big numbers, but it’s unusual for a Commodore to claim the SEC’s career lead in a top statistical category. Matthews can do that in receptions (he has 150, needs 86 to tie Vandy’s Earl Bennett’s record) and receiving yards (has 2,290, needs 803 to tie Georgia’s Terrence Edwards) if he duplicates last season’s numbers. -- David Ching, DawgNation
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
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.
Talking to Georgia players a couple of weeks ago, they all seemed excited about the thought of going through their treacherous first month of the season.

The Bulldogs, who will unveil a new -- and younger -- defensive lineup this fall, begin the season at Clemson, then host South Carolina, get a breather against North Texas and then host LSU. Clemson should have one of the top offenses out there, South Carolina will be very balanced offensively and will have a solid defense yet again, and LSU's offense should be much improved. Certainly, you can't sleep on LSU's defense, even if it is going to be younger.

Georgia has some younger horses to work with on defense, but the confidence is high on that side of the ball. Still, that's an extremely tough early slate for any team.

"It's going to be a challenge," Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said, "but I feel if we can do something with those first couple of games it will make the rest of the ride a little easier. If we get over those first couple humps, we'll control our own destiny.

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
Kevin Liles/US PresswireGeorgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has to replace 12 players who were either starters or saw significant time last season.
"It's going to be a great welcoming to college football for (the younger defensive players). It's going to be a big challenge for them, but playing in this league, you have to grow up fast."

ESPN's Travis Haney took a look at the toughest early schedules for teams around the country and, along with Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee made his list from the SEC.

No surprises there when you consider that Ole Miss has arguably the toughest early five-game stretch of any team in the country. The Rebels start a three-game road trip on Sept. 14 at Texas. Two weeks later, they head to Alabama and then Auburn before hosting Texas A&M and LSU.

Tennessee's rough stretch starts with a trip to Oregon on Sept. 14 before heading to Gainesville a week later. The Vols then host Georgia on Oct. 5 and South Carolina on Oct. 19 before riding down to Alabama on Oct. 26. Good luck, Butch Jones.

For the Bulldogs, this will be a really good test for a defense that has to replace 12 players who either started or played significant time in 2012. Taking on quality offenses early is a blessing and a curse for this unit. It helps a younger group grow up, but it could wear it down as well if things don't click early or improve week-to-week.

But the Bulldogs have been behind early in the SEC East race the past two years and have still made it to Atlanta.

Jones is getting a not-so-nice welcome to his new home in the SEC with that tough early stretch. After two early cupcakes, the Vols have to play the three top teams in the SEC Eastern Division right after going out to Eugene, Ore., to take on the high-flying Ducks.

This team has a lot of questions remaining on both sides of the ball, and as Haney puts it, the Vols could be playing five top-10 teams in 42 days. Rough.

As for the Rebels, Hugh Freeze made it a point to tell me this spring that his team was very fortunate to avoid the injury bug last year. It arrived this spring and if it stays through fall camp and beyond, the Rebels could be in trouble. Ole Miss has to be healthy to get through its early stretch, which no one in the country wants any part of. And you can't forget the opener at Vanderbilt. The Rebels have lost three straight to the Commodores.

September, which includes a trip to Tuscaloosa for the second straight year, and October do no favors for the Rebels in 2013.

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