NCF Nation: Dylan Thompson

Season's best SEC players: Nos. 11-15

January, 21, 2015
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Continuing this week’s countdown of the top 25 players in the SEC in 2014, here are players 11 through 15:

11. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama
One of the SEC’s feel-good stories of the year, Sims was not the favorite to win Alabama’s starting quarterback job once news broke that Jacob Coker planned to transfer from Florida State. But the fifth-year senior Sims not only claimed the job, he had an excellent season. He finished second in the nation in Total QBR (85.8) behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and helped the Crimson Tide win the SEC title. This week he’s at the Senior Bowl trying to grab a job in the NFL, which would have seemed very unlikely before his standout senior season.

12. Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn
He was Tre Mason’s backup when Auburn shocked the college football world by reaching the BCS title game in 2013, but Artis-Payne proved as a senior that he has plenty of game himself. He led the SEC with 1,608 rushing yards and scored 13 touchdowns, and he figures to be an early-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft after rushing for 100 yards or more nine times in 13 games in 2014.

13. Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
One of the SEC’s most entertaining players, Cooper can do it all. Take his performance against Tennessee, for example. Cooper caught 11 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns, took a direct snap and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds and also rushed for an 11-yard score. If Cooper had played defense, too, maybe South Carolina would have won the game instead of suffering an excruciating overtime loss. Nonetheless, Cooper was nothing short of outstanding as a sophomore, finishing the season with 1,136 receiving yards and giving Steve Spurrier an obvious weapon to utilize entering the 2015 season.

14. Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
The leading tackler on Mississippi State’s “Psycho Defense,” McKinney was probably the group’s emotional leader as well. He won first-team All-SEC honors after totaling 71 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries and decided to enter the NFL draft after a strong redshirt junior season. The 6-foot-5 inside linebacker is the No. 1 prospect at his position, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., who said last month that McKinney is “a good bet to be a first-rounder if the draft were tomorrow.”

15. A.J. Cann, G, South Carolina
Another of Kiper’s top positional prospects, Cann heads the list among guards for the upcoming draft. It was a disappointing season for South Carolina, but Cann was again the rock on the Gamecocks’ veteran offensive line. He and his fellow linemen’s protection helped Dylan Thompson lead the league in passing, and Cann was named to several All-SEC and All-America squads after the season. Not a bad way to cap an outstanding career as a Gamecock.
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South Carolina jumped out to a first-half lead and held off Miami 24-21 in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl on Saturday in Shreveport, Louisiana.

How the game was won: After Miami settled for field goals on its first two drives, the game swung when South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson hit Pharoh Cooper with a 78-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter. Starting there, the Gamecocks outgained Miami 192 yards to 36 through halftime and scored 17 unanswered points. Miami twice closed within three points, but got no closer.

Game ball goes to: Thompson. Cooper (170 receiving yards) is a tempting option, but let’s go with Thompson, a fifth-year senior. He showed why he was the SEC’s leading passer in picking apart a Miami secondary that came in ranked 10th nationally in pass defense. Thompson finished 22-for-34 for 284 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for the clinching score.

What it means: After blowing several late leads during SEC play, the Gamecocks finally managed to carry a narrow lead into the final quarter and win the game. South Carolina (7-6) avoided its first losing record under Steve Spurrier and forced Miami (6-7) to finish the season with a sub-.500 record for the first time since 2007 and only the third time since 1979.

Best play: South Carolina’s Cooper scores the game’s first touchdown on a 78-yard pass in the second quarter:
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South Carolina (6-6) and Miami (6-6) will meet for the first time since 1987 when they square off in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Here are a few items to watch in Saturday afternoon’s game:

Farewell to Duke, Davis? This may be the final college game for the star running backs on both teams, although only South Carolina’s Mike Davis has announced a decision.

Miami’s Duke Johnson is the headliner here after rushing for 1,520 yards and averaging 7.0 yards per carry as a junior. ESPN lists the speedster as the No. 5 running back and No. 44 overall prospect in the 2015 draft, and he figures to become an early-round pick should he declare.

Davis already confirmed that he will jump to the NFL, although his draft prospects are a bit cloudier. Davis rushed for 927 yards and nine touchdowns this season, and ESPN lists him as the No. 7 running back and No. 80 overall prospect.

Staying above .500: The loser of this game will finish the season with a losing record -- an unfortunate historical footnote that would be unusual for Miami or for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.

The Hurricanes haven’t had a losing season since 2007 and have had just three since 1979, when Howard Schnellenberger went 5-6 in his first season before building the program into a national championship contender.

In a quarter century as a college coach, Spurrier has finished with a losing record just once: in 1987, when he went 5-6 in his first season at Duke. South Carolina hasn’t posted a losing record since going 5-7 in 2003, and the Gamecocks won 11 games in each of the past three seasons before falling off this fall.

Passing matchup: One of the more intriguing matchups Saturday will be one of the SEC’s top passing offenses against one of the ACC’s best at defending the pass.

Led by fifth-year senior quarterback Dylan Thompson (3,280 yards, 24 TDs, 11 INTs) and receiver Pharoh Cooper (966 receiving yards, 8 TDs), South Carolina ranked second in the SEC and 20th nationally with 281.4 passing yards per game.

Miami’s defense has been tough overall, and particularly so against the pass. The Hurricanes are allowing 184.1 passing yards per game, which ranks ninth nationally and second in the ACC. They are No. 14 in total defense at 327.6 ypg.

'College GameDay' headed to Columbia

September, 21, 2014
9/21/14
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The site of the rematch will also be the site of ESPN's "College GameDay."

When Missouri and South Carolina do battle Saturday for the first time since their epic overtime battle a season ago, all eyes will be on Columbia, South Carolina. It will either be Tigers or Gamecocks for Lee Corso and the crew.

The characters have changed some since last season, but hopefully the drama will remain. Dylan Thompson, South Carolina's fifth-year senior quarterback, won't have Connor Shaw to bail him out again. But judging by his numbers this season -- 285 yards passing per game, 11 touchdowns -- he might not need assistance.

For Missouri, the chief question will be how the Tigers respond after losing inexplicably to Indiana. That's the same Indiana team that lost to Bowling Green.

Still, when you look at the standings in the East, South Carolina and Missouri are right there. Whoever wins on Saturday could be in the driver's seat to win the division.

SEC slant: Defense still optional

September, 18, 2014
9/18/14
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Blame Missouri and Texas A&M. Blame the targeting rule, the emphasis on protecting the quarterback or the failed attempt to slow down the pace of play. Blame whoever and whatever it takes. But it's time to start facing facts about the SEC. The league that has long thrived on defense, the league that made its name on defense, is in the midst of an identity crisis. These last few years -- it feels like it started with the expansion to 14 teams, right? -- defenses have gone missing, particularly against the pass.

Back in the day

Of course it wasn't that long ago, but it feels as if it's been a decade since the SEC was a defense-dominated league.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe SEC's defensive decline has coincided with the arrival of Big 12 coaches such as Kevin Sumlin.
For the longest time, the defenses of Alabama and LSU were measured in feet, not yards. Urban Meyer's Florida defenses swarmed to the football, not giving an inch.

Remember the Gators' thrashing of Oklahoma in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game? The Sooners, who averaged 54 points per game entering the contest, were held to just two touchdowns.

From 2004-11, SEC defenses surrendered an average of 330.2 yards per game, 192.11 of which came through the air. Meanwhile, the rest of the Power 5 conferences gave up 350.1 total yards per game, 219.6 of which came by way of the forward pass.

During that time, quarterbacks completed an average of 55.3 percent of their passes against SEC defenses.

But in 2012, Missouri and Texas A&M entered the league and everything changed.

From 2012-13, SEC defenses allowed an average of 361.3 yards per game. Passing yards per game went from 192.11 to 221.16. Quarterback completion percentages climbed by 4.2 percent.

It was supposed to get better, but it hasn't

Remember the offseason? It feels like only yesterday that we were talking about all the stellar quarterbacks who left the league.

With Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel gone, defenses would finally catch a break. Zach Mettenberger wouldn't be around to rifle those impossible 25-yard outs. Even James Franklin would move on and leave behind his 51 career touchdown passes at Missouri.

The quarterbacks left, but the offense hasn't.

Texas A&M -- without Johnny Football, mind you -- racked up 680 total yards of offense against South Carolina in the league opener. Kenny Hill, a first time starter, threw for a whopping 511 yards.

Then there was this past weekend. Not much defense to be found there either. Georgia's secondary was shredded by South Carolina as Dylan Thompson threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns. And on the other side of the ball, South Carolina's front seven was gashed for 131 yards and a touchdown by Todd Gurley.

So far, SEC defenses are allowing an average of 354.6 yards per game, which is only slightly down from this time last year.

Pass defense has actually gotten worse from 2012-13 to now. Through three weeks, SEC secondaries are allowing 231.5 yards through the air per game, compared to 221.16.

Interceptions per pass attempt are down from 3.6 percent from 2004-11 to 3.2 percent this season. Over time, that adds up.

Where have all the star DBs gone?

Don't you miss Tyrann Mathieu? No, not for the off-the-field stuff, but for the way he made plays on the back end of the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesStar defensive backs such as Alabama's Landon Collins are rare these days in the SEC.
It seems like there are fewer Honeybadgers in the SEC these days. Outside of Landon Collins and Cody Prewitt, are there any other star safeties in the league? Besides Vernon Hargreaves III, is there another cornerback worth talking about nationally?

Four cornerbacks were taken in the first round of this year's NFL draft. None were from the SEC. Only Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix represented the league's secondaries in the first round.

The year prior, Dee Milliner, Eric Reid and Matt Elam were all drafted in the first round. In 2012, three SEC DBs were taken in the top 10 picks.

How many SEC DBs are projected to go in the first round of next year's NFL draft? According to the mock draft from ESPN's Todd McShay in May, he expects only Collins and LSU's Jalen Mills to be taken Day 1.

Maybe the SEC is just catching up

To be fair, offenses deserve credit, too. Coaches like Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have challenged SEC defenses with their unique brand of spread-you-out, push-the-tempo offenses.

And therein lies the problem.

Big 12 football invaded the SEC when Sumlin, Malzahn and Freeze started entering the league in 2012. Since, it's become the norm to operate without a huddle and use multiple receiver sets. Passing has become a necessity, not a luxury.

Through three weeks of play, eight SEC quarterbacks rank in the top 50 nationally in Raw QBR. Five SEC QBs have thrown for eight or more touchdowns and more than half of the league's starters average more than 200 yards per game through the air.

The SEC might not be as dominant defensively as it used to, but it's still the best defensive league in the country.

From 2012 to now, no Power 5 conference has allowed fewer total yards per game or rushing yards per game, and only the Big Ten has allowed fewer passing yards per game.

Here's the breakdown in total yards allowed per game: SEC (369.0), Big Ten (370.7), ACC (374.0), Pac-12 (399.0) and Big 12 (401.7).

SEC helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
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So many great performances, too many to name here, in Week 3. We take our best shot here:

A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The fifth-year senior was a beast. Cann, who is one of the best interior offensive linemen in the country, played a tremendous game at guard, helping pave the way for 176 rushing yards in the Gamecocks' 38-35 win over No. 6 Georgia.

John Chavis, LSU: After a rough start to the year against Wisconsin, The Chief's defense posted back-to-back shutouts (capped by this week's 31-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe), the first time LSU has done that since 1985. The Tigers haven't allowed a point in 31 possessions and outscored opponents 108-0 in that stretch. They allowed only 93 offensive yards on Saturday. Yes, the two opponents (Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe) aren't exactly juggernauts, but those are still impressive performances directed by the LSU defensive coordinator.

Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: The Razorbacks got a significant win, going on the road to dismantle Texas Tech 49-28. Collins (212 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and Williams (145 yards, four touchdowns) were a huge part of the effort, leading the Hogs to a staggering 438 yards on the ground. Hat tip to the Arkansas offensive line also, which turned in an outstanding effort and has been great overall so far this season.

Demarcus Robinson, Florida: The Gators fought tooth-and-nail for their 36-0 triple-overtime win over Kentucky and Robinson came up huge. The sophomore receiver hauled in 15 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns and the Gators needed every bit of the performance in the victory.

Dylan Thompson, South Carolina: The senior quarterback had his best performance as a Gamecock in a huge victory. Thompson was 21-of-30 passing for 271 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Patrick Towles, Kentucky: The Wildcats weren't able to pull out the win, but Towles, who is in his first season as Kentucky's full-time starting quarterback, played a heck of a game. He was 24-of-45 passing for 369 yards and three touchdowns. He did have three interceptions, but one of those was not his fault and his performance was gritty in a tough environment (The Swamp). Also, honorable mention to true freshman receiver Garrett Johnson, who hauled in six of Towles' passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns, including this great catch.

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The rumors of South Carolina’s demise will have to be put on hold for at least another week.

Left for dead on the side of Interstate 77, the Gamecocks headed into Saturday’s supposed beating as an afterthought in the SEC race. Forget Atlanta; South Carolina was just hoping it could play in another January bowl game.

After a 52-28 opening loss at home to Texas A&M, it seemed only logical that Georgia, a team many had tabbed as the nation’s best after its Week 1 thrashing of Clemson, would thump the Gamecocks right out of the SEC East picture.

But college football has a funny way of making us all look foolish and making the Head Ball Coach smile. After an hour-and-a-half weather delay pushed kickoff back to 5:05 p.m. ET and the skies opened up during the game, the 24th-ranked Gamecocks (2-1) held strong for a thrilling 38-35 win over No. 6 Georgia (1-1).

“Some wins are better than others,” said a chipper Spurrier, whose Gamecocks have won four of five against Georgia. “This one was better than most others.”

It was an instant classic that few saw coming, and now the Gamecocks are right back in the SEC race. In fact, with the schedule South Carolina has been blessed with, the Gamecocks are back in the conversation as the favorite in the SEC East.

Move over, Georgia, because again you’re looking up at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks on Saturday played like they weren't on the same planet as the team that sputtered around Williams-Brice Stadium during the first two weeks of the season.

[+] EnlargePharoh Cooper
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Pharoh Cooper scores on an 8-yard catch in the first quarter Saturday.
“You have no idea how close this team is. It truly is unbelievable,” said South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, who threw for a game-high 271 yards and three touchdowns. “… Even in the game when everyone was writing us off, we still love each other and we’re going to battle. That’s just the way that we play.

“I love this team. I love my brothers.”

The Gamecocks were far from perfect, but they were gritty. They were passionate and hopped up on "Sandstorm," played on six fantastically timed occasions.

Thompson picked apart Georgia’s secondary with ease. The middle of the field was wide open for most of the game, something Thompson admitted he saw on a lot of film during his game preparation.

Georgia running back Todd Gurley was his normal beastly self, but his 131 rushing yards weren’t enough. While South Carolina’s defense had a lot of bend with the dazzling Mr. Gurley, it refused to break at key moments and managed to contain him.

Gurley was going to get his yards, regardless, but what South Carolina did was put the game on Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason’s shoulders. Mason's inability to complete -- or really attempt -- big plays downfield allowed the Gamecocks to fill the box and put pressure on him, and he eventually had a costly intentional-grounding penalty in the fourth quarter.

Think about this: South Carolina gave up an average of 416 passing yards through the first two weeks, but allowed just 191 Saturday. That’s quite an improvement.

“I’ll tell you one thing: When we had to stop them, somehow or another we stopped them,” Spurrier said.

And things just kind of went the Gamecocks’ way in other situations. Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan set an SEC record with 20 consecutive made field goals and then missed two straight, including a 28-yard attempt to tie the game with 4:24 remaining.

As Spurrier replayed the moment in his mind, he couldn't help but briefly pause and look toward the sky while talking about such a historic pair of misses.

“Then their kid -- I guess he hadn’t missed a field goal in two years or something like that, 20 in a row -- and missed two tonight,” Spurrier said. “Sometimes, all you can say is it was our turn to win. We were meant to win this game, and Georgia was not.”

There’s no doubt that South Carolina has to get better, especially on defense. Opponents have converted 23 of 41 of their third downs, and this secondary is still susceptible to big plays. The Gamecocks' pass rush still has a lot of work to do, as well, which could put more pressure on the secondary.

But improvements were made in a game that saved South Carolina’s season.

The Gamecocks still have three opponents on their schedule that are currently ranked -- Missouri, Auburn and Clemson -- and there’s a trip to Gainesville, Florida, in November, but Alabama and LSU aren’t on the slate. The road to Atlanta isn’t open, but it’s not as congested as once thought.

This team will only get better, and we’ll be talking about the Gamecocks more than we thought we would before Saturday’s game.

“We still have all of our goals set,” running back Mike Davis said. “That one loss did not define us as a team.”

SEC viewer's guide: Week 2

September, 6, 2014
9/06/14
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Florida Atlantic at No. 2 Alabama, SEC Network
This one could get ugly, as the Crimson Tide defense -- the secondary, in particular -- looks to bounce back and earn some trust from coach Nick Saban after last week's too-close-for-comfort 33-23 win over West Virginia. The Owls, who lost 55-7 in their season opener at Nebraska last week, should be just what Alabama needs in its home opener. All eyes will be on Bama's quarterbacks after Saban said he would "probably" play ballyhooed backup Jake Coker along with Blake Sims, the starter. Sims was solid as a game-manager type in Week 1, but if he slips at all, Coker could make a bid for the starting job.

No. 24 Missouri at Toledo, ESPN
Gary Pinkel was the coach at Toledo from 1991 to 2000 before taking the same position at Missouri, so he's doing his old school a solid by playing on the road this week. Toledo played at Mizzou last season and lost a competitive game 38-23, but this version of the Rockets is improved. Quarterback Phillip Ely, an Alabama transfer, threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns in the Rockets' season-opening 54-20 win against New Hampshire. The Tigers are just a five-point favorite in this game, according to Bovada. Missouri QB Maty Mauk and Co. will look to continue their big-play ways, but Toledo is one of just two teams that hasn't allowed a touchdown of 40 yards or more since the start of the 2013 season.

Arkansas State at Tennessee, SEC Network
The Vols opened some eyes with a convincing 38-7 victory in their opener against Utah State. Particularly impressive was their defense, which held Utah State and dangerous dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton to 244 yards of total offense. The Volunteers will need a repeat performance against an Arkansas State offense that should not be overlooked. The Red Wolves have been to bowl games in each of their past three seasons and added the formidable offensive mind of coach Blake Anderson, formerly the offensive coordinator at North Carolina.

2 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated PressDak Prescott and Mississippi State were clicking in last week's rout of Southern Miss.
UAB at Mississippi State, ESPN3.com
MSU had a terrific opening week. We knew the defense was one of the best in the SEC, but quarterback Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs' offense showed a lot of bite in a 49-0 rout of Southern Miss. Prescott threw for a career-high 284 yards, and two of his four passing touchdowns went to electric athlete De'Runnya Wilson. Mississippi State faces another Conference USA foe this week in the Blazers, who could provide more of a test for MSU's run defense. UAB rushed for 338 yards in a 48-10 Week 1 win against Troy, including Jordan Howard's standout effort (179 yards and two TDs).

3:30 p.m. ET

Ohio at Kentucky, ESPNU
The Wildcats kicked the basketball offseason to the back burner last week when their fast-breaking offense captured everyone's attention in a 59-14 feel-good win against Tennessee-Martin. The 59 points were especially crowd-pleasing after Kentucky averaged just 20.5 last season. Sure, Tennessee-Martin offered little resistance, but UK quarterback Patrick Towles showed a command of the offense in his first start, racking up 377 yards passing. The only downer for the Cats is that former Nebraksa transfer RB Braylon Heard, who dazzled last week with touchdown runs of 73 and 43 yards, is doubtful with an ankle injury.

4 p.m. ET

Eastern Michigan at Florida, SEC Network
The Gators are chomping at the bit to play after last week's deluge wiped away their season opener against Idaho. And guess what? There's a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms on Saturday as well. Because this will be Florida's first game of the season, it's worth noting that UF has the nation's second-longest winning streak in season openers with 24 (behind Nebraska's 29). The Gators' defense should feast on EMU's run-heavy offense. On the other side of the ball, Florida is debuting a no-huddle spread offense that should better suit athletic dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel.

Nicholls State at Arkansas, SEC Network
The Razorbacks are riding a losing streak of epic proportions -- a school-record 10 games, dating to last season. They haven't won since Sept. 14, coach Bret Bielema's third game. Almost a year later, Arkansas has a plum chance to get off the schneid against an FCS team that will be facing an SEC foe for the first time in its history. Arkansas might have gained a measure of pride from their first-half performance at Auburn last week, but the offense generated just 61 second-half yards after piling up 267 in the first half. The defense showed it still has a long way to go, giving up 595 yards to the Tigers' offense.

4:30 p.m. ET

No. 15 Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, ESPN
Finally, a competitive game to discuss. This week's sole conference matchup pits permanent interdivision rivals who have been separated by a total of five points in their past two meetings. Ole Miss won last season but is just 1-9 in its past 10 conference openers. These teams have something in common. Vanderbilt would like to forget last week's embarrassing 37-7 loss to a Temple team that won just two games in 2013. Ole Miss would like to forget the first 3½ quarters its offense needed to get back on track against Boise State. Rebels QB Bo Wallace had 387 yards and four touchdowns passing last week but raised some eyebrows with three first-half interceptions.

7 p.m. ET

San Jose State at No. 5 Auburn, ESPN2
Nick Marshall makes his first start of the season at quarterback for the Tigers. He sat the first half last week as punishment for being cited for marijuana possession in July. His understudy, Jeremy Johnson, impressed in Auburn's season-opening win against Arkansas and will surely see time in this one, even if it's just garbage time. The Spartans are an improving Mountain West program, but their SEC history has been flat-out ugly. They have played SEC teams four times and lost all four, giving up 113 points (while scoring just six) in their past two meetings with SEC foes.

East Carolina at No. 21 South Carolina, ESPNU
The Gamecocks heard all offseason about what a dangerous and underrated opponent they've got in Week 2. But South Carolina was humbled last week in the first national spotlight game of the young season and should have every motivation to rebound in a big way against the Pirates. After getting torched for 680 yards and 52 points by Texas A&M's offense, South Carolina has to shore up its pass defense against ECU quarterback Shane Carden, who threw for a school-record 4,139 yards last season and led the Pirates to 10 wins. Gamecocks QB Dylan Thompson and his offensive line performed well in Week 1. This one's all on the defense.

7:30 p.m. ET

Lamar at No. 9 Texas A&M, SEC Network
Who's this Lamar fella and how is he going to keep up with Kenny Hill? In all seriousness, the Lamar Cardinals are a middling FCS program based in Beaumont, Texas. This game promises to be a lopsided affair, but at least Hill likely won't have to play all four quarters. Before his record-breaking coming-out party against the Gamecocks, Hill supposedly was in a close competition for the starting job with talented true freshman Kyle Allen, the No. 1 rated quarterback coming out of high school last year. If Hill plays anywhere close to the level of his debut, Allen should get some quality time with A&M's voluminous weapons.

Sam Houston State at No. 12 LSU, SEC Network
Coming off a dramatic comeback win against then-No. 14 Wisconsin last week, it just doesn't seem fair for the Tigers to face an FCS opponent in Death Valley. The Bearkats are averaging more than 600 yards of offense in their first two games. But LSU has played FCS opponents six times in Les Miles' nine years and outscored them by a combined 232-64. The real intrigue here is the Tigers' QB situation. Sophomore starter Anthony Jennings completed less than half of his attempts last week, but freshman Brandon Harris looked worse in his only series.

Top Week 2 stories:
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was never comfortable talking about all the players he lost. Throughout the offseason, he was peppered with questions about replacing Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. Each time, he'd bite his lip, say what he needed to say and move on.

Now we know why. In spite of losing so many stars, Sumlin's offense hasn't missed a beat. On Thursday night, Texas A&M's retooled offense outdueled Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, rolling up the Gamecocks 52-28 on the road.

1. Welcome to the show, Kenny Hill

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The sophomore didn’t appear the least bit worried about living up to the legend of Manziel on Texas A&M’s opening drive. He calmly marched the Aggies down the field, spreading the ball around to his receivers. The best of his throws was this 22-yard, third-down strike over the middle to redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones that nearly went for a touchdown. Hill stayed calm in a stressful pocket and stepped into the throw beautifully. Tra Carson would ultimately go between the tackles for the 1-yard touchdown, giving Texas A&M the first points of the game. But Hill was the star of the drive, announcing himself to the college football world as a quarterback worthy of succeeding Johnny Football.

2. This Seals-Jones fella can play, can’t he?

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South Carolina’s defensive backs were helpless to stop him. He was too big, too fast, way too athletic. Sound familiar? It should. In many ways, he’s Mike Evans 2.0. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound redshirt freshman can’t be covered. On this 3-yard touchdown grab, he showed off his burst, getting into his break quickly. After getting a step on the defensive back, all he had to do was hold onto the football, which came on another perfect strike from Hill. On a side note, look at the pocket. The pressure from South Carolina’s defensive line was almost nonexistent.

3. Hill can run the read-option, too

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With the game still in reach, South Carolina had the chance to stone Texas A&M on third-and-goal, but Hill was having none of it. Instead of picking apart the Gamecocks secondary with his arm, he used his feet and instincts to get the defense to commit before pitching the ball off to Carson, who had an easy path to the end zone. If Hill can keep executing the Aggies offense like this, the SEC West is going to be really, really interesting.

4. Spurrier had to roll the dice

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By this point, South Carolina's defense had shown nothing. The defensive line wasn't getting any pressure. The secondary wasn’t making any plays, either. So why not try the onside kick? Down 17 points, it was worth a shot, and Landon Ard executed it almost perfectly. But Texas A&M secured the kick and promptly went 42 yards in 2:27 for another touchdown. South Carolina nearly got back in the game toward the end of the third quarter, but Dylan Thompson put too much air on a deep throw and watched helplessly as Armani Watts came away with the game-sealing interception. What could have been a 10-point game heading into the fourth quarter instead turned into a runaway rout.
A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."

South Carolina Gamecocks season preview

August, 18, 2014
8/18/14
10:30
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the South Carolina Gamecocks:

2013 record: 11-2, beat Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl

Final grade for the 2013 season: South Carolina carved out a third straight top-10 finish and was the only team nationally to beat three teams that finished the season ranked in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. A bad loss to Tennessee kept the Gamecocks out of the SEC championship game, making this an A- instead of an A.

Key losses: QB Connor Shaw, WR Bruce Ellington, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DT Kelcy Quarles, CB Victor Hampton

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesRunning back Mike Davis could be in line for another big season for South Carolina.
Key returnees: QB Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis, OG A.J. Cann, OT Corey Robinson, DT J.T. Surratt, LB Skai Moore, CB Brison Williams

Instant impact newcomers: RB David Williams, DT Abu Lamin, LB Bryson Allen-Williams, CB Al Harris Jr., CB Chris Lammons

Breakout player: Thompson said last week that junior tight end Jerell Adams has had as good a preseason camp as anybody on the team. The 6-6, 242-pound Adams caught 13 passes last season and has three career touchdown catches. Look for him to blow those numbers out of the water this season. He has the size and speed to be a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses and is playing with a renewed sense of focus and confidence. Adams will be an integral part of the offense in 2014 and could make a run for All-SEC honors.

Most important game: The Georgia game has typically set the tone in the East race, and this year it could very well be an elimination game. The good news for the Gamecocks is that the Sept. 13 game is in Columbia, South Carolina, where they've won 18 in a row.

Biggest question mark: There's some experience returning at safety, but as many as three true freshmen could end up playing at cornerback this season. In fact, the Gamecocks are moving their most experienced safety, Brison Williams, to cornerback to fill that void. All three of the first-year cornerbacks are talented and have shown promise in camp. But it's never ideal to be in a position where you have to play so many newcomers in the secondary right away.

Upset special: The Gamecocks came dangerously close to losing to Florida at home last season. But with the game shifting to the Swamp this season, that Nov. 15 road trip has danger written all over it as Steve Spurrier returns to his alma mater, where he has won only once (2010) as South Carolina's coach.

Key stat: South Carolina is one of only two teams in the SEC, along with Alabama, to hold teams below an average of 21 points per game each of the past three seasons.

They said it: "We don't have any superstars, but we have a lot of guys who know how to win." -- Spurrier

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Info: 8.9 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5

Our take: It's SEC championship or bust for the Gamecocks. OK, maybe not, but they've done just about everything but win an SEC title each of the past three seasons. To win an SEC title, they first have to get to the game. Their one and only trip to Atlanta came in 2010. The Head Ball Coach has a veteran offensive line, marquee running back and depth in the defensive line and at linebacker. While we're not ready to pick the Gamecocks to win the SEC championship game, we are picking them to get there and win 10 or more games for the fourth straight season.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
It's May, so we might as well look to the future while we take one last look at the past in order to figure out the present.

Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:

2. Alabama

4. Auburn

8. Georgia

10. South Carolina

13. LSU

14. Texas A&M

19. Florida

It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?

With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.

Let's see how perfect these are:

1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.

2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.

3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.

4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.

5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.

6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.

8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.

9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.

10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.

11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.

12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.

13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.

As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
4/30/14
11:30
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Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Already a Hall of Fame lock when he returned to the college coaching ranks nearly a decade ago, Steve Spurrier has found his second wind at South Carolina.

He’s also found a home.

The Head Ball Coach will always be a Florida Gator, and he’ll proudly tell you as much in his familiar, high-pitched twang. But South Carolina has grown on him in more ways than one.

So much so that he and his wife, Jerri, plan on staying in the Columbia area even when he’s done coaching.

“People always ask where I’m going to live when my coaching days are over,” said Spurrier, who owns a vacation home in Crescent Beach, Fla. “Usually, your last stop is where you end up, if your last stop is successful. Bobby Stoops wants to be in Norman.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/John RaouxIt's been mostly thumbs-up for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, as "The Old Ball Coach" has led the Gamecocks to three straight top-10 finishes.
“Our plan is to live here, at least between here and Crescent Beach. Every time I go through Gainesville, I don’t know anybody anymore. I’ve got a few pals there, but not that many. This is a good place to live. It really is.”

And for the record, Spurrier plans on resigning and not retiring. In his mind, there’s a big difference.

“I like resign a lot better,” Spurrier said. “Retiring sounds too much like you’re going to sit around and not do a whole lot. I’m not a sit-around kind of guy.”

Now, for those South Carolina fans who get sweaty palms when Spurrier even broaches the subject of his retirement (oops, his resignation), relax.

He’s having way too much fun -- and success -- to even think about walking away right now, and he feels and looks a lot closer to 49 than his actual age of 69. He misses a day of working out about as often as he concedes a 3-foot putt, which is never.

A devout family guy, Spurrier’s two sons, Steve Jr., and Scott, are both working under him on the South Carolina coaching staff, and the Gamecocks are enjoying the kind of unprecedented run that few others in college football have been able to rival the past three years.

But even with three straight top-10 finishes, three straight 11-win seasons, five straight wins over rival Clemson and the longest current home winning streak in the country, don’t tell Spurrier he’s exceeded expectations.

“No, we’ll exceed them when we win the SEC,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, to push for that. We’ve made some really good progress, on the field and financially. When I got here, we’d had one person to give a million dollars to athletics, and her name is on the stadium, Mrs. [Martha] Williams-Brice, and that was in 1972.

“Since then, we’ve found 10 or 11 wealthy people who’ve given over a million dollars. We were way behind financially to most of the schools in the SEC and are still trying to catch up. But we’ve been able to get the facilities upgraded, and once we did that, we were able to sign our top in-state kids. That’s been huge.”

Spurrier’s renowned feel for calling a game and exploiting opposing defenses’ weaknesses ranks up there with any coach who’s ever roamed the sideline in the SEC, or any conference, for that matter.

But it’s his unwavering confidence and presence that have permeated the South Carolina program and been the difference in a ton of close wins over the years. The Gamecocks are 11-3 the past three seasons in games decided by a touchdown or less.

“People are always going to love him here because he’s changed the culture, but he’s not satisfied,” South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson said. “That says something about him and where this program is right now.

“We’re always pushing to take it to new heights.”

In some ways, Spurrier is about as old-fashioned as it gets. Both his wife and longtime football operations director, Jamie Speronis, aren’t sure that Spurrier has ever turned on a computer. If he wants to read something on the Internet, Speronis is generally the one who prints it out for him.

In the corner of Spurrier’s office, he has a stack of old play-by-play sheets from games going back who knows how many years, and he can get to the one he wants in a matter of seconds.

Even though he owns an iPhone, nobody is really sure if he knows how to use it. He’s still rocking the old flip phone.

So while technology might not be Spurrier’s thing, don’t think for a minute that he has any trouble relating to today’s athlete. His wit is as sharp as ever, and nobody is spared.

“As an offensive lineman, you probably don’t want him saying much of anything to you,” senior guard A.J. Cann quipped. “I try to stay on his good side. He might be pushing 70, but he’s still coaching as hard as he ever has, and man, does he know how to push your buttons.”

Thompson added: “I love playing for him. He has his way of doing it and isn’t going to stop until you do it that way. When you get there, he’ll be happy. But until then, he’s going to keep grinding on you.”

And doing so in vintage Spurrier fashion.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier, Connor Shaw
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsDespite being 69 years old, Steve Spurrier is still coaching as hard as ever.
Toward the end of spring practice this year, sophomore receiver Pharoh Cooper looked back too early on a pass route, prompting Spurrier, the son of a Presbyterian minister, to pipe up, ‘Pharoh, you know what happens when you look back?’ ”

In the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom and became a pillar of salt.

“He does a really good job of relating to whoever you are,” Thompson said. “I’m a Christian, and any time he can relate a Bible story to something we’re doing, he’ll do it. He’ll call Kane Whitehurst ‘Abel’ sometimes, off-the-wall stuff, and you think he’s crazy.

“But you always listen.”

For some SEC purists, it’s hard to fathom that Spurrier is just three seasons away from equaling the 12 seasons he spent as Florida’s head coach.

He’s not sure he’s ever had more fun coaching than he has these past few years, especially given the fact that South Carolina has accomplished so many firsts on his watch. As part of his new contract, Spurrier has the option to stay on as a special adviser to the president and athletic director when he does hang up his coaching visor for good.

But as Spurrier himself says, he can’t imagine not coaching football.

“What else are you going to do?” he said. “Every time I go to the beach now, after about three days, I say, ‘Jerri, let’s go.’ I’m not going to play golf every day. I’ve got my enthusiasm up, too. I got two epidural shots in my back [recently] and am feeling pretty good. I still have some arthritis, but it doesn’t hurt to work out.

“We’ve got a lot to look forward to here and a lot more we want to do.”

Plus, it’s home.

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