NCF Nation: Joshua Dobbs

As Tennessee continues to search for a new offensive coordinator, the potential candidates have to be intrigued with the young nucleus of talent on the roster. From quarterback Joshua Dobbs, to running back Jalen Hurd, to a deep wide receiver corps, there is a lot to like about this offense going forward.

So with all that talent, why did Tennessee finish No. 11 in the SEC in total offense? The easy answer is inexperience and more specifically, inexperience up front.

Position to improve: Offensive line

Why it was a problem: Butch Jones knew the offensive line was going to be an issue in 2014. After all, he had to replace every starter from the year before, a group that featured first-round draft pick Ja'Wuan James and three other players who made the NFL. The offensive line that Tennessee rolled out in the season opener against Utah State had zero combined starts between them. The inexperience showed. The Volunteers finished dead last in the SEC in sacks allowed (43) and tackles for loss allowed (101), and they struggled to create running room for Hurd, who averaged less than 4 yards per carry through the first eight games. The unit did improve as the season progressed, and finished on a strong note against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, but it will have to be even better in 2015 if this offense wants to take the next step.

How it can be fixed: More experience. It’s that simple. Tennessee allowed 20 sacks in the month of October, and just 10 in November. The players didn’t change. They just gained more experience and grew together as a unit. They were a different offensive line at the end of the season compared to where they were at the season opener. There also seemed to be a rise in production when Dobbs took over at quarterback. Maybe it’s easier to block for Dobbs because of his athleticism, or maybe there was extra motivation. Whatever it was, it should be there again next season when Dobbs is the full-time starter. This was never going to be an easy fix. It takes time. But a full year of experience, even if it wasn’t great, will help immensely in 2015.

Early 2015 outlook: Unlike last season, Tennessee’s offensive line should look very familiar to fans next fall. Four starters return including All-SEC freshman Jashon Robertson, who started every game at right guard for the Vols last season. The only loss was senior right tackle Jacob Gilliam, but his backup, Coleman Thomas, played in 11 games and started five. Between Robertson, Coleman, Mack Crowder, Marcus Jackson, and Kyler Kerbyson, Tennessee should have a pretty formidable line in 2015. It’s a group that not only has experience, but also has chemistry. However, after 23 true freshmen played last season, don’t rule out the possibility of a 2015 signee coming in and earning playing time. The most likely candidate is ESPN 300 offensive tackle Jack Jones, who will benefit from enrolling early.
DALLAS -- It's a sign of the times when you start seeing ground-and-pound Alabama running tempo.

There's a reason one of Will Muschamp's final orders at Florida was to have his team attempt to run more of a spread offense with some tempo. There's a reason Texas A&M and Missouri's offenses have flourished and have a combined record of 56-23 during their first three seasons in the SEC. There's a reason the Mississippi schools have been on the rise. There's a reason Gus Malzahn has had immediate success in two short years as head coach at Auburn.

There's a reason we saw two spread-minded teams -- one incredibly tempo-driven -- with offenses ranked in the top 10 and defenses outside the top four of their own conferences reach the first College Football Playoff National Championship game.

As rugged and as defensive-minded as the SEC has been for years and years, offense is taking over college football, and the SEC -- for the most part -- is trying not to get left behind.

“Any offense is trying to find any advantage against the defense," Oregon running back Royce Freeman said during media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "Why wouldn’t you? If it’s tempo or if it’s different personnel, if it’s by the rules, do it.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Nick Saban once led a crusade against up-tempo offenses, but employed a little of it himself this past season.
Exactly.

Times are changing in all forms of football. Offense is in and defense is ailing.

In each of the last two seasons, the SEC has had six teams finish the year allowing more than 390 yards per game. From 2008-12, only nine teams allowed more than 390 yards a game. The disintegration of defense is apparent in the SEC, and how long it lasts is unknown. Offense is having a trickle-up effect with high school teams adopting the spread more and more and ramping up the tempo. Running quarterbacks feel like more of a necessity in the sport than a luxury.

Nobody thought the spread would work in the NFL, but the read-option is there to stay (hello, Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) and even the New England Patriots have been running a version of the spread during the last few years at times.

It's a natural evolution in sports for people to try and find the next best thing. Football is no different. For a while, defenses were stagnant and offenses would shift and motion to create leverage. Now, defenses can move at and before the snap to create temporary advantages and mismatches. So offenses have answered by lining up quicker and snapping the ball faster.

It's in all forms of the sport, but Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks have been perfecting this thing since the Chip Kelly days, believes this offensive fad his school helped create might not be the future of football.

“It’ll cycle though. People that believe in certain things will keep it at their core," Helfrich said. "… There are also certain people who are just experimenting with it, so to speak.”

Cyclical or not, programs are realizing that the current offensive evolution -- or revolution -- is real. Most teams in the SEC implement some form of higher tempo in their offenses. Some are spreading guys out more and finding homes in the shotgun. While it goes against all old-school football mantras, it's something coaches realize is the style of the times, and it's working and it's greatly affecting defenses.

Just look at Alabama. This is a team that dominated college football with a very traditional -- and successful -- offense. But Nick Saban's defenses have struggled with the spread recently. Johnny Manziel and his high-flying Texas A&M Aggies lit up Alabama for an average of 523 yards and 35.5 points in games in 2012 and 2013. Against Auburn and that uptempo Malzahn spread the last two years, Alabama has surrendered 1,023 yards and 78 points.

Alabama went 2-2 in those four games.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDan Mullen has turned Mississippi State into a league power with a personnel-based spread offense he helped develop with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
Take it a step further and look at Alabama's two-game losing streak in the postseason where Oklahoma (spread and tempo) and Ohio State (spread) combined to score 87 points and reeled off 966 yards.

Running quarterbacks, spread and tempo have been weaknesses for Saban's defenses, so he added all three to his offense this year and watched Alabama set all sorts of offensive records and average 484.5 yards per game (most during his Alabama tenure) and 36.9 points a contest.

“Three or four years ago, Nick Saban was talking about how he didn’t really like [uptempo offense], and the disadvantages to it," Oregon defensive back Juwaan Williams said. "He’s making the evolution himself.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a week removed from his third national championship victory, began some of the transformation down South by bringing his version of the spread offense from Utah to Florida in 2005. His very personnel-driven philosophy changed as the players did. That's why you saw Florida's 2008 national championship-winning offense look so different from the 2006 one.

And that's why Dan Mullen's spread at Mississippi State looks a little different from the one he helped run as the offensive coordinator at Florida. That's why Hugh Freeze's spread at Ole Miss has some philosophical differences from Mizzou's. That's why Tennessee is now spreading things out more now to go with its tempo with a more mobile quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

“It’s not system-driven; it’s personnel-based," Meyer said of the spread.

That's why Bret Bielema isn't interested in it at Arkansas. He has his big guys plowing into everyone every chance they get, and he likes it. And that's fine, but as we continue to look around the league, more tempo and more spread is coming. Even new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who was a part of the ground-and-pound Bama philosophy during his time with Saban, would like to inject more tempo in the Gators. Steve Spurrier has even experimented with some tempo at South Carolina.

As we dive into this new playoff thing and football gets faster and faster, the SEC appears for the most part to be ready and adapting. And really, it had better be.

“It seems like every team is trying to conform to that," Ohio State offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. "I guess it’s more about scoring points now than playing defense now."
Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.

Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?

The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.

Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:

EAST

Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.

Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.

Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.

Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.

WEST

Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.

Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season may have just ended, but it's never to early to look ahead to next season. With all the obligatory caveats, here's our first look at SEC power rankings for 2015.

Bowl games are a tricky barometer in college football.

People can sometimes over-analyze any sort of outcome from one game and think it overshadows everything done prior. For instance, the SEC West's embarrassing performance (2-5) in postseason play helped leave the SEC out of the national championship game for the first time since 2005 and left the rest of the college football world celebrating. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, and the perception of the SEC is that it's free falling a little because the West's top five teams all lost -- four to teams ranked inside the top 18 of the College Football Playoff rankings.

Because of that, you have the term "overrated" being floated out there, despite the division's full body of work.

Which brings us to the East. What are we to make of it?

This was a division more laughed at than praised this season after five teams finished with seven or fewer wins and its champion -- Missouri -- failed to claim the SEC title for the sixth consecutive year. There was an inexplicable home loss to Indiana, 10 losses to the West, Georgia's implosion and four teams finishing the season with losing records in conference play.

Then came bowl season. The East went 5-0, with two wins over Top 25 opponents (the West had zero). If we apply the same logic that the West is now down because of its postseason futility, then is the East now on the rise after it strolled through bowl play?

Eh, it's too early to tell -- and the caveat is that the East's competition wasn't exactly comparable to the West's -- but you can't ignore the East's undefeated run. And while I'm not ready to crown anyone in the East as the 2015 SEC champ, I do think the division made nice strides during the postseason and has a solid foundation to help it be more competitive with the West in 2015.

Georgia, which is coming off a disappointing season in which the division was there for the taking, returns arguably the East's best team. In fact, with so many starters returning, Georgia might be a quarterback away from a playoff run. Four offensive line starters return to block for the SEC's best returning running back in freshman Nick Chubb (1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns), and senior-to-be Malcolm Mitchell leads a young, talented corps of receivers.

Defensively, Georgia is loaded at linebacker with Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Reggie Carter all returning, and the secondary is full of young defensive backs who all have good game experience.

With a pretty favorable schedule in 2015, Georgia has a chance at a special run through the SEC.

Two-time defending champ Missouri loses a little more firepower with its top three receivers and return specialist/running back Marcus Murphy graduating. However, quarterback Maty Mauk, who must improve his in-game composure, returns along with four starting offensive linemen and top running back Russell Hansbrough (1,084 yards, 10 touchdowns).

Mizzou's defense yet again should lose both rush ends in Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss. But three starting linebackers return, along with three starters in the secondary, including top corner Aarion Penton.

Tennessee could make the biggest jump in 2015. Coach Butch Jones has some very good pieces in place on both sides to make a legitimate title run in Knoxville. It starts with a young but talented offensive group led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs (who really came alive in the second half of the season), freshman running back Jalen Hurd (899 yards, five touchdowns) and what should be the East's best receiver group in 2015.

After basically losing two whole lines after 2013, the Vols return seven starting linemen and have a front seven on defense that will be led by elite pass-rusher Curt Maggitt (11 sacks) and youngsters Derek Barnett (10 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The secondary is also loaded, with three starters returning, including dynamic duo Cameron Sutton and Brian Randolph.

I caution: Do NOT sleep on Tennessee.

Then, there are a couple enigmas. South Carolina has to find a new quarterback, a new left side to its offensive line and some receivers, but the Gamecocks return what has to be a better defense. Florida has a brand-new coaching staff, along with questions and depth issues at every offensive position. However, that defense has the makings of once again being an elite unit, so imagine this team with a competent offense.

But what can either do in 2015? If South Carolina's defense can't make improvements, the Gamecocks are sunk. Meanwhile, Florida needs to find an offensive pulse under new coach Jim McElwain, who has a proven offensive track record but very little to work with in Gainesville right now. The Gators return 59 scholarship players, and only eight of them are offensive linemen.

Kentucky and Vanderbilt have the tools needed to improve, but neither is built for a championship run. The Wildcats must rework things at receiver and lose three valuable parts to their front seven. Vandy has a host of new coaches who will have to develop a relatively young team.

The East's postseason romp didn't make it better than the West, but it did raise some eyebrows. We learned the East has some bite, and there's a chance it could carry that over into the new year.
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Tennessee, in its first postseason appearance since 2010, scored on four straight possessions to open the TaxSlayer Bowl en route to a 45-28 thumping of Iowa in Jacksonville, Florida.

The energized Volunteers, behind sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs and freshman running back Jalen Hurd, piled up 461 yards against the Hawkeyes, who dropped to 7-6 and lost a third consecutive bowl game.

The Vols also finished 7-6, but with a much different feel after winning three of four games, sparked by Dobbs, to close the regular season.

The Tennessee victory evened the Big Ten-SEC bowl duel at two wins apiece after New Year’s Day victories by Missouri over Minnesota, Wisconsin over Auburn and Ohio State over Alabama.

With five freshmen and three seniors in its starting lineup, Tennessee can eye a move up the SEC ladder. After the resounding win Friday, it figures to start next season among the favorites in the East.

Game ball goes to: Dobbs, who picked up where he left off in November. He completed his first eight passes as the Vols led 28-0 less three minutes into the second quarter. He finished with 129 yards on 16-of-21 passing with 76 rushing yards, bringing his total-offense figure over five starts to end the season to 1,408 yards. He was responsible for 15 touchdowns in that stretch, including three against Iowa.

How the game was won: The decisive nature of Tennessee’s plan from the start presented a stark contrast to the Hawkeyes, who alternated quarterbacks by series through the first half. Starter Jake Rudock and backup C.J. Beathard, around whom concerns of a transfer exist, both failed to find rhythm in the offense. Rudock, in fact, completed just one pass in the first half, yielding to Beathard in the third quarter. And Iowa’s bread-and-butter running game appeared no more organized. Meanwhile, the Vols simply leaned on Dobbs and Hurd, who rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns.

Stat of the game: In building its quick, four-touchdown lead, Tennessee averaged 11.2 yards on 23 plays through the first 17:58 of clock time. Of those 23 plays, nine gained more than 10 yards. In that same span, Iowa averaged 4.3 yards per play with three gains of more than 10 yards.

Best play: Leading 14-0 after its defense forced a three-and-out with Rudock at the helm for Iowa late in the first quarter, Tennessee dialed up the trickery. Running back Marlin Lane took a lateral from Dobbs, ran to his right and pulled up, hitting wide-open Vic Wharton for a 49-yard strike.

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Viewer's Guide: TaxSlayer Bowl

January, 1, 2015
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Another Big Ten-SEC matchup arrives Friday (3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN) as Iowa takes on Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. Iowa (7-5) enters with four losses in its last six games, while the Vols (6-6) won three of their final four to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. That same season marks the last time Iowa won a bowl game, while the Volunteers' most recent postseason victory came in 2007. Here’s a look at a few storylines:

Iowa QB drama: Coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday named junior Jake Rudock the starter against the Vols, though sophomore C.J. Beathard will play. They've battled much of the season in practice. Rudock started 11 of 12 games, but a team-wide meltdown in the season finale against Nebraska reopened all competitions. Beathard, a third-year sophomore, has indicated that he might consider a transfer this offseason. The opportunity available on Friday figures to loom large in his decision.

Burning question: Will the Hawkeyes get imaginative on offense or simply try to pound away with a stable of backs led by Mark Weisman, who is workmanlike but pedestrian in comparison to running backs Tennessee has faced this year? Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis often prefers to err on the side of conservatism. When the Hawkeyes open it up and things click, they’re dangerous. But it just hasn’t happened enough.

The future is bright: Sophomore QB Joshua Dobbs breathed life into this Tennessee season. After starter Justin Worley was injured on Oct. 18 at Ole Miss, Dobbs took over for Nathan Peterman on Oct. 25 against Alabama. The dual-threat Dobbs held the job as the Vols averaged 35 points in four November games. Against South Carolina, Dobbs became the first Tennessee player to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game. Tennessee struggles to protect its quarterback and Iowa’s front four forges a strong rush. Dobbs’ ability to improvise is key. He'll have to work against Iowa with injured receivers Marquez North and Jason Croom.

In the red zone: Tennessee ranks 104th nationally in red zone efficiency -- an area the Hawkeyes need to exploit. Iowa, as you might expect, is exceptionally average in the red zone, ranking 53rd in offensive efficiency. In this matchup, perhaps that will be good enough.

Sense of direction: Ferentz, in his 16th season, still seeks a formula to break from a five-year stretch in which Iowa has finished higher than fourth in its division just once. Segments of the fan base continue to grow restless. Tennessee coach Butch Jones, meanwhile, inspired hope in his second season that Tennessee has finally found its man after three coaching changes in five years.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
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Saturday feels a little like the calm before the storm in the SEC. There are eight games on the docket, including a couple of intriguing matchups, and yet everybody is already talking about the rivalry games next week. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s a preview of this Saturday’s slate. All times ET.

Noon Eastern Kentucky at Florida, SEC Network: It might be a bit strange to see Will Muschamp on the sideline Saturday considering he won’t be back at Florida next season, but he’s staying on to coach the team’s last two regular-season games. How will the players respond to a coach who’s on his way out? Based on Dante Fowler Jr.'s tweet this week, I'd expect them to come out and play hard for their coach. Also, the Gators become bowl eligible with a win.

South Alabama at South Carolina, ESPN3: Raise your hand if you had South Alabama becoming bowl eligible before South Carolina this season. If your hand is raised, you’re lying. Credit the job Joey Jones has done in his sixth season with the Jaguars, but don’t expect an upset on Saturday. The Gamecocks bounced back from that excruciating overtime loss to Tennessee with a solid, come-from-behind win in the Swamp last weekend.

Charleston Southern at No. 10 Georgia, SEC Network: If there was ever a week to give Nick Chubb a break, this would be it. With Todd Gurley out for the season, Chubb is once again the man in Georgia’s backfield, but fellow freshman Sony Michel is expected to return Saturday, and both he and Brendan Douglas should see plenty of carries. All three backs could be in for a big day against the Buccaneers.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss will have a tough matchup Saturday against an Arkansas defense fresh off a shutout win over LSU.
3:30 p.m. No. 8 Ole Miss at Arkansas, CBS: After last weekend, Ole Miss still has a chance to win the SEC West. Auburn knocking off Alabama isn’t likely, but crazier things have happened. First, though, the Rebels have to take care of business Saturday against an Arkansas team that is dangerous at home and confident after winning its first conference game in over two years. The Razorbacks allowed a total of 31 points to Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU this season. That doesn’t bode well for Bo Wallace, who will be without top target Laquon Treadwell. With rain in the forecast, points might be hard to come by in this one.

4 p.m. Western Carolina at No. 1 Alabama, SEC Network: The Alabama basketball team had trouble with the Catamounts earlier this week, but I don’t expect much of a struggle for the football team on Saturday. Western Carolina might be a “good little team,” as Nick Saban put it, but the Crimson Tide have dominated all three previous meetings and should do the same this season. If anything, it will give us another look at backup quarterback Jake Coker.

7 p.m. Samford at No. 14 Auburn, ESPNU: There are a lot of connections between these two in-state schools. Samford coach Pat Sullivan won a Heisman Trophy at Auburn back in 1971. Samford assistant coach Kodi Burns played and coached at Auburn. And Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee spent a year at Samford before joining Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State. The game itself won’t be very entertaining, but it should get the Tigers back on track.

7:30 p.m. No. 20 Missouri at Tennessee, ESPN: Missouri has to lose, right? There’s no way the Tigers can get back to Atlanta for the second straight season. Consider this -- Gary Pinkel’s team has won 12 of its past 14 conference games and has won nine straight road games, including seven straight in the SEC. Maybe it’s time we start taking this team seriously. The Tigers are going to have their hands full Saturday against a Tennessee team on the rise. The Volunteers have won back-to-back games with Joshua Dobbs under center, and a win over Missouri would make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

Vanderbilt at No. 4 Mississippi State, SEC Network: Dan Mullen was a happy man Tuesday when the latest College Football Playoff rankings came out, as his Bulldogs were still among the four playoff teams despite losing to Alabama the week before. Now the question is: Can they stay in the top four and hold off teams such as TCU, Ohio State and Baylor? Mississippi State has two chances left to impress the committee, beginning with Saturday’s tilt against the Commodores. It’s important the Bulldogs not only win, but win big.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
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Week 12 in the SEC featured everything from last-minute comebacks to bitter rivalries to the fall of No. 1. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to hand out the helmet stickers from the weekend that was. Here are the five we think are most deserving.

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: The return of Todd Gurley didn’t get in the way of Chubb doing what he’s been doing the past four weeks. Gurley rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown in his first game back from suspension, but he was overshadowed by the freshman Chubb, who finished with 144 yards rushing, 48 yards receiving and two touchdowns in Georgia’s 34-7 win over Auburn. The two form one of the top backfield duos in college football, though depending on the severity of Gurley’s knee injury, Chubb might be carrying the load on his own again next week.

Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee: The South Carolina game was no fluke: Dobbs is the real deal, and he has the Volunteers rolling. On Saturday, Dobbs went 19 of 27 for 297 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions to lead Tennessee past Kentucky, 50-16. He also rushed for 48 yards and a score. The sophomore quarterback has now accounted for 1,079 total yards and 11 touchdowns in his last three games, and the Volunteers are one win away from becoming bowl eligible with Missouri and Vanderbilt left on the schedule.

Russell Hansbrough, RB, Missouri: Coming off maybe his worst career performance last week against Kentucky, Hansbrough rushed for a career-high 199 yards Saturday at Texas A&M. He had back-to-back long touchdown runs (45, 49) in the third quarter to first tie the game and then take the lead, a lead the Tigers never relinquished in their 34-27 win over the Aggies. As a team, Missouri rushed for 335 yards, but Hansbrough was the star. He now leads the Tigers with 591 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the season.

Nick Perry, DB, Alabama: The entire Alabama defense deserves a helmet sticker for its performance against Dak Prescott and No. 1 Mississippi State, but if we’re giving it to one guy, it has to be Perry. The senior led the team with 12 tackles, and he also pulled down one of three Crimson Tide interceptions on the day. Though Jameon Lewis caught a touchdown for the Bulldogs, it was Perry who helped keep him in check for most of the game. At the end of the day, Alabama has its defense to thank for Saturday’s 25-20 win over the top-ranked Bulldogs.

Martrell Spaight, LB, Arkansas: Two defensive players on this list? That must be what happens when the temperature drops and teams start playing defense in the SEC. It’s also a credit to Spaight, who was the best player on the field Saturday in the Razorbacks’ 17-0 shutout win over LSU. The senior linebacker finished with 10 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry to lead this much-improved Arkansas defense against the Tigers. Spaight now has a team-high 97 tackles on the season with two games left to play.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 2, 2014
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Saturday's SEC games were loaded with players who deserved helmet stickers, including Arkansas' Hunter Henry (seven catches for 110 yards) and Ole Miss' Bo Wallace (341 passing yards, 2 TDs, 61 rushing yards, TD) in losing causes.

We should also mention the impacts that Mississippi State defensive back Will Redmond (intercepted a pass at the goal line in the closing seconds to preserve a 17-10 win over Arkansas), Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett (notched 3.5 sacks to bring his season total to 11, a new record for SEC freshmen) and Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary (matched a school record with five touchdown passes) made on their teams' respective wins, but we can only make five sticker picks.

Here are our choices from another memorable Saturday in college football's toughest conference:

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn: We easily could have gone with running back Cameron Artis-Payne (27 carries, 143 yards, TD) or receiver Sammie Coates (five catches, 122 yards, TD), but we'll take Marshall. The senior coolly led the Tigers back from a 10-point deficit in the second half by repeatedly converting on third down (the Tigers were 5-for-7 in the second half) against No. 4 Ole Miss. Marshall led the No. 3 Tigers to a huge SEC win by completing 15 of 22 passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and rushing for 50 yards and two scores.

QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee: Making his first start of the season, the sophomore helped Tennessee rally from a two-touchdown deficit in the last five minutes of regulation and then beat South Carolina 45-42 in overtime. Dobbs set a new single-game school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (166 yards, including touchdowns of 7, 36 and 3 yards) and passed for 301 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He hit Jason Croom with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

WR Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Normally we wouldn't hand a helmet sticker to a guy on a losing team, but Cooper can't play defense, too. He caught 11 passes for a school-record 233 yards and touchdowns of 12 and 85 yards. He ran for an 11-yard score. He tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds. And he even recovered a late onside kick. South Carolina surrendered 645 yards to Tennessee, which obviously put a damper on the evening for the Gamecocks, but Cooper was simply phenomenal.

Florida's running game: We're not just giving stickers to running backs Kelvin Taylor (25 carries for 197 yards and touchdowns of 2 and 65 yards) and Matt Jones (25 carries for 192 yards and touchdowns of 44 and 1 yards) in Saturday's 38-20 rout of No. 11 Georgia. Florida's offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, helping their tailback tandem roll up most of the Gators' 60 rushing attempts for 418 yards. Only one opponent (Auburn with 430 yards in 1978) has ever run for more yards against a Georgia defense. Everyone involved with Florida's running game deserves recognition after Saturday's upset win.

DE Shane Ray, Missouri: The Tigers' offense was slightly improved in Saturday's 20-10 win against Kentucky, but the day belonged to Ray and the defense. Ray notched a pair of sacks -- including a fourth-down sack of Patrick Towles on Kentucky's final play -- to raise his season total to 12. In the process, he broke Missouri's single-season record of 11.5 sacks previously held by Aldon Smith and Michael Sam.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
9:00
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We're inching closer and closer to the finish line, and our No. 1 doesn't look to be budging anytime soon:

1. Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide faced its biggest test since Texas A&M and passed with flying colors Saturday night with a resounding 38-17 win over LSU. Alabama didn't need a lot of yards, but the defense stood tall, holding LSU to a season-low 284 yards and 17 points. People continue to wonder if this truly is the No. 1 team in the country, but Alabama has tackled every obstacle that has come its way. Also, Phil Knight was decked out in Alabama gear in Tuscaloosa, so clearly the bandwagon still has room.

2. Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC; LW: 2): It seems like Auburn is getting better and better each week. The Tigers weren't intimidated at all by the atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium and walked out with a commanding 55-23 win over Tennessee. The offense rolled up 444 rushing yards, and the defense is getting better and better -- just in time for this week's showdown with Georgia on the Plains.

3. Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC; LW: 5): These Tigers continue to impress and had no problem handling a weary Kentucky team on the road. Maty Mauk is growing for the future, and Dorial Green-Beckham showed us all why he was the No. 1 recruit in the country last year with his school-record four touchdown catches in Mizzou's 48-17 thumping of the Wildcats. This upcoming bye week should give quarterback James Franklin even more time to rest his shoulder before a trip to Ole Miss.

4. Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2 SEC; LW: 3): We all know the Aggies can score at will when Johnny Manziel is under center, but the defense took a few steps back (again) in A&M's 51-41 win over Mississippi State on Saturday. Right when you think that unit is getting better, it starts to lag behind, like surrendering 556 total yards to the Bulldogs. Still, the Aggies won in spite of the defense and get a bye week before taking on LSU and Mizzou on the road.

5. South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC; LW: 4): The Gamecocks were off this weekend, which should help them rest any nicks or bruises. South Carolina is approaching its final SEC game, which is big, because a win over Florida on Saturday would get the Gamecocks one step closer to Atlanta. South Carolina still needs help, but the Gamecocks will have every opportunity to take care of business against a struggling Florida team.

6. Georgia (6-3, 4-2 SEC; LW: 7): The Bulldogs had a nice tuneup game before facing Auburn on the road. Even after a sluggish start, the Bulldogs routed Appalachian State 45-6. If Georgia wants a shot at the SEC Eastern Division title, the Bulldogs have to beat Auburn and hope for Mizzou to fall off late. Aaron Murray continues to rack up records, and this offense regained its form Saturday. The defense will have to be at its best against a very good Auburn running game.

7. Ole Miss (6-3, 3-3 SEC; LW: 8): After winning just six combined games from 2010-11, the Rebels are going bowling for the second straight year. Coach Hugh Freeze has led a very impressive turnaround in Oxford. Ole Miss let things get a bit interesting in its 34-24 win over Arkansas, but the outcome never really seemed in doubt. The Rebels go for win No. 7 against Troy before hosting Missouri.

8. LSU (7-3, 3-3 SEC; LW: 6): It really has been a season of what-ifs for the Bayou Bengals. Turnovers and mental errors have plagued this team in its three losses, and Saturday's 21-point loss to Alabama was no different. Fumbles by J.C. Copeland and Zach Mettenberger proved costly, as they created a 10-point swing that didn't go in LSU's favor. The Tigers were left scratching their heads in Tuscaloosa and get another bye week to stew over it.

9. Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4 SEC; LW: 11): Remember when head coach James Franklin said you'd never see the old Vanderbilt again under his watch? Well, after taking the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, Saturday's 34-17 win over Florida marked the first time the Commodores have beaten Florida in Gainesville since 1945, and the first time ever the Dores beat Florida and Georgia in the same season. Vandy's blowout win in the Swamp came thanks to four takeaways by the Commodores and only 183 yards of offense, and Vandy is a win away from making its third-straight bowl.

10. Florida (4-5, 3-4 SEC; LW: 9): It has been a challenging season in Gainesville, and Saturday's ugly loss to Vandy (snapping a 22-game winning streak over the Dores) didn't help. The injuries have piled up, Florida has lost four straight and the Gators are in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 1990. Coach Will Muschamp said his team has a "woe is me" attitude right now, and the fans are restless. Seeing all those empty seats and hearing all those boos told you everything you need to know about the state of Florida football.

11. Tennessee (4-6, 1-5 SEC; LW: 10): It was another long day for head coach Butch Jones and his Vols. Auburn ran up 444 rushing yards, averaging 8.4 yards per carry, and had the game well in hand before the second quarter even ended. Tennessee has to be encouraged by the growth of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and receiver Marquez North, but it's just not enough right now. Five times this year Tennessee has given up 400 yards and gained less than 350.

12. Mississippi State (4-5, 1-4 SEC; LW: 12): Hats off to quarterback Dak Prescott for going out and playing Saturday just days after his mother passed away after her battle with cancer. He and his Bulldogs didn't beat Texas A&M, but they never quit. Still, this has been a trying year for Mississippi State, which has to win two of its last three games in order to keep its three-year bowl streak going.

13. Arkansas (3-7, 0-6 SEC; LW: 13): Another weekend, another loss for the hapless Hogs. Arkansas' 34-24 loss to Ole Miss marked the seventh straight for Bret Bielema and his squad. It's the longest of Bielema's coaching career, and the Razorbacks are officially out of the bowl hunt for the second straight year. Arkansas has the SEC's No. 12 offense and a defense that ranks 11th in the league, after surrendering 531 yards to Ole Miss.

14. Kentucky (2-7, 0-5 SEC; LW: 14): For the third straight year, the Wildcats aren't going bowling. They certainly have shown heart, but the talent on both sides of the ball just isn't there right now for Kentucky to actually compete week in and week out against its SEC foes. Kentucky has now lost 13 straight SEC games.

SEC predictions: Week 11

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
9:00
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And just like that, the ATL Kid is back in the lead. It takes only one silly mistake to cost you in the long run in this game, and Chris' decision to go with injury-plagued Florida could come back to haunt him.

I hit a bit of a lull there, but I'm back on top after going 6-0 and correctly picking Georgia to beat Florida down in Jacksonville, Fla., last week. My record stands at an impressive 73-11 (.869), while Chris is now 72-12 (.857) after going 5-1 last week.

This last month will go a long way to determining who brings home the picking gold. I took a lot of momentum away from Chris with my one-game lead, and I know he'll be pouting even more this weekend without his buddy Oscar Pope in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Chris talked about hitting up Galettes Friday night with Oscar before the big game to discuss the finer things in life.

But Oscar is headed to Oxford, Miss., to cheer on his Rebels, leaving Chris to FaceTime with Meeko Friday night.

On to the picks:

APPALACHIAN STATE at GEORGIA

Chris Low: With a third straight victory over Florida in its pocket, Georgia gets a tune-up against FCS foe Appalachian State this week. It should be a short work day for the Bulldogs' starters heading into next week’s critical game at Auburn. … Georgia 49, Appalachian State 14

Edward Aschoff: For delivering an ugly win over Florida, the Bulldogs get a nice home game against Appalachian State. This isn't the same giant killer that took down Michigan a few seasons ago, so don't expect anything tricky in Athens, Ga. … Georgia 48, Appalachian State 13

MISSOURI at KENTUCKY

Low: Gary Pinkel isn’t saying which quarterback he’ll play this weekend. James Franklin has been practicing and could take the reins back from Maty Mauk. Ultimately, it won’t matter because Missouri’s defense will see to it that Kentucky loses its 13th straight SEC game. … Missouri 31, Kentucky 17

Aschoff: This is the first road game for the Tigers in almost a month. There's a chance that Franklin could go, but with Mauk playing well and Kentucky struggling on both offense and defense, Mizzou might as well let its starter rest another week. … Missouri 38, Kentucky 13

MISSISSIPPI STATE at TEXAS A&M

Low: Texas A&M has scored more than 40 points in every game this season. In this league, that’s not supposed to happen. The problem has been the Aggies’ defense, but it seems to be playing better on that side of the ball the past two weeks and will sock it to a Mississippi State team that’s in the middle of a brutal three-game stretch. … Texas A&M 45, Mississippi State 20

Aschoff: The Bulldogs are fighting for a bowl berth, while the Aggies are looking to put a complete game together against an SEC opponent. After the way South Carolina treated the Bulldogs in Columbia, Mo., last week, Johnny Football shouldn't have much of an issue putting points up on the scoreboard. … Texas A&M 45, Mississippi State 17

ARKANSAS at OLE MISS

Low: Ole Miss gets a chance to close the season with a flourish. Arkansas’ visit is the start of three straight home games for the Rebels. The Hogs are going in the other direction. They’ve lost six in a row and won’t be able to slow down the Rebels enough to avoid a seventh straight defeat. … Ole Miss 38, Arkansas 21

Aschoff: After losing three straight in league play, the Rebels have reeled off two straight wins and are looking at possibly winning eight or nine regular-season games. With Ole Miss' offense rolling up more than 460 yards a game, the Hogs just won't be able to keep pace in Oxford. … Ole Miss 38, Arkansas 17

VANDERBILT at FLORIDA

Low: Given the injury spell that has descended upon Florida’s football team this season, the Gators might want to wrap themselves in bubble wrap. Vanderbilt matches up pretty well with Florida and is coming off a bye week. Coach James Franklin will have the Commodores ready to play, but the Gators will make enough plays on defense to squeeze out a win. … Florida 24, Vanderbilt 20

Aschoff: Who would have thought that the Gators would be struggling to become bowl eligible at this point in the season? And who saw all these injuries coming? The Commodores are facing Florida at the right time, but if there was ever a must-win situation for Florida, this is it. It won't be pretty, but Florida will slip by to get to win No. 5. … Florida 23, Vanderbilt 17

AUBURN at TENNESSEE

Low: Tennessee has proven to be a much better team at home this season, and it will also help freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs to get back in front of the home fans as he makes his second start. The Vols will keep it close but won’t be able to stop the Tigers’ running game. … Auburn 34, Tennessee 24

Aschoff: Auburn is one of the country's hottest teams, while Tennessee is trying to find its footing during the first season of the Butch Jones era. The Tigers won't be intimidated by their surroundings inside Neyland Stadium, and running back Tre Mason should have another big day on the ground. … Auburn 34, Tennessee 20

LSU at ALABAMA

Low: It’s been college football’s preeminent rivalry for the past several seasons. It will also be Alabama’s toughest test since the third week of the season, when the Tide outlasted Texas A&M 49-42 on the road. LSU has the passing game and running game to give Alabama trouble, but the Tide will also be able to roll up points against a young LSU defense that won’t be able to keep up. … Alabama 31, LSU 20

Aschoff: Here we are, folks. Yet again, this game has major SEC Western division and national championship implications on the line. LSU could crash Alabama's three-peat party. It has the offensive weapons to do it, but that defense will have its hands more than full against Alabama's offense. The Tigers have gone 12-9 in Tuscaloosa since 1970 and won the last time these two met here. But Alabama knows that one slip up will likely cost it a trip to Pasadena, Calif. … Alabama 31, LSU 24

SEC predictions: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
9:00
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After an embarrassingly poor outing two weeks ago (we both were reprimanded and forced to watch two whole quarters of Big Ten football), Edward Aschoff and I bounced back last week with perfect records.

It wasn’t an overly difficult week, but we did both correctly pick South Carolina to win at Missouri.

Thank goodness for Connor Shaw.

And before Mizzou fans start screaming “no respect,” I want to point out that I nailed the Tigers’ win over Florida two weeks ago. A certain colleague of mine did not.

As is usually the case, the month of November will decide this thing. I’m not consumed with wins and losses. Nor am I concerned with what’s coming up two or three weeks from now.

Rather, I’m just grinding away and trying to get better each week and focus on the process.

Sound familiar?

So after posting 7-0 marks last week, Edward and I are still deadlocked. We’re 67-11 (.859) on the season and relatively healthy as we hit the home stretch, although Edward is always complaining about some nagging injury he has sustained in his softball league.

That or staying out too late with his homeboy, Oscar, in the ATL. Come to think of it, Edward has been a little off on his picks ever since he quit wearing those GQ glasses in his videos.

Anyway, let’s get to our picks in Week 10:

ALABAMA STATE at KENTUCKY

Chris Low: After five straight losses, Kentucky needs a win in the worst way. The Wildcats would need to win their last five games to qualify for a bowl game. That’s not going to happen, but they will get back into the win column Saturday with an easy win. … Kentucky 40, Alabama State 14

Edward Aschoff: The wins haven't come lately for the Wildcats, but we've seen small improvements here and there during their five-game losing streak. Kentucky is hobbled at quarterback, but should put it all together against the Hornets. … Kentucky 41, Alabama State 10


UTEP at TEXAS A&M

Low: Former Texas A&M quarterback Jameill Showers injured his shoulder and won’t get a shot at his old team. The reality is that the Miners didn’t have much of a shot anyway. Even with a bum shoulder of his own, Johnny Football is still lighting up defenses and will do so again this weekend. … Texas A&M 52, UTEP 14

Aschoff: We thought we'd get a homecoming for UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers, but a shoulder injury has him sidelined. With Showers out, don't expect much drama at all in this one. … Texas A&M 56, UTEP 17

MISSISSIPPI STATE at SOUTH CAROLINA

Low: The Gamecocks have new life in the East race after winning in double overtime at Missouri last week. They won’t need any extra periods this week against a Mississippi State team that has its work cut out if the Bulldogs are going to make a fourth straight bowl appearance. … South Carolina 37, Mississippi State 21

Aschoff: This is the perfect time for a letdown from the Gamecocks. We've seen it before from this team after a big win, and it doesn't help that quarterback Connor Shaw is still ill. The Bulldogs will be battling for a bowl game this season, but South Carolina pulls this one out behind running back Mike Davis. … South Carolina 31, Mississippi State 20


AUBURN at ARKANSAS

Low: This game was spiced up during the offseason when Arkansas’ Bret Bielema and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn sparred publicly over whether players were at a higher risk for injury when hurry-up offenses tried to speed up the game and run more plays. The Hogs are coming off a bye and need to stop the bleeding after losing five in a row, but won’t be able to slow down the Tigers. … Auburn 37, Arkansas 24

Aschoff: The relationship between Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn is chippy at best. This summer, Bielema made sure people knew about his disdain for the hurry-up offense. Saturday, Malzahn will show everyone why Bielema dislikes it so much. … Auburn 48, Arkansas 24

TENNESSEE at MISSOURI

Low: Somewhere along the way, Andrew Baggett is going to get another chance to win it for Missouri with a late field goal. This won’t be the game, though, as the Tigers will take out their frustration from a week ago on a Tennessee team that will be starting a true freshman quarterback. … Missouri 38, Tennessee 20

Aschoff: The Tigers are coming off a heartbreaking loss in which they surrendered a 17-0 fourth-quarter lead to South Carolina, while the Vols have a new starting quarterback in Joshua Dobbs. Mizzou still has the SEC Eastern Division to think about, and its talent will overwhelm the Vols. … Missouri 34, Tennessee 17

FLORIDA vs. GEORGIA

Low: It’s the battle of the walking wounded. Both of these teams have been decimated by injuries this season. Georgia gets back star running back Todd Gurley this week, though, and that will help. But Florida’s defense, which had its pride bruised two weeks ago at Missouri, will rise to the occasion and give Will Muschamp his first win over his alma mater as the Gators’ coach. … Florida 24, Georgia 23

Aschoff: Both of these teams are banged up and will be without key players on both sides of the ball. The injuries piled up even more for Florida when left tackle D.J. Humphries (knee) was ruled out on Wednesday. Florida hasn't lost three straight to the Dawgs since the late 1980s, but Georgia's offense will get a major boost from the return of running back Todd Gurley, who will help grind out the Dawgs' third-straight win in this series. … Georgia 24, Florida 20

SEC Power Rankings: Week 9

October, 28, 2013
10/28/13
9:00
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The SEC has just one unbeaten team remaining, making our top selection a very easy one for this week's Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC; last week: 1): People laugh at the comical schedule Alabama has had since that thrilling 49-42 win over Texas A&M, but the Crimson Tide can only play the teams assigned to them. And the Tide have been pretty good at it, outscoring the last six opponents 246-26. Alabama is doing exactly what it was asked and is still the No. 1 team in the country for a reason.

2. Auburn (7-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 3): The Tigers might have feasted on Florida Atlantic over the weekend, but this team is clearly getting better every week. Auburn, which is No. 11 in the BCS standings, ranks second in the SEC in total offense (511 yards per game), first in rushing (315.4) and fifth in scoring (37). The Tigers had a scare when quarterback Nick Marshall went down with a shoulder injury on Saturday, but it appears he'll be fine for this weekend's game against Arkansas.

3. Texas A&M (6-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 4): Well, look at that. Texas A&M found some defense against Vanderbilt over the weekend. After giving up a league-high 494 yards and 33 points per game, the Aggies held Vandy to just 329 yards and 24 points. The Commodores averaged just 4.3 yards per play (a season-low against the Aggies) and rushed for 95 yards. Oh, and Johnny Manziel threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns.

4. South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 SEC; LW: 6): And just like that, the SEC Eastern Division is again all shook up, thanks to the Gamecocks' 27-24 overtime win at Missouri. South Carolina overcame a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter with help from quarterback Connor Shaw, who was battling an illness and a sprained knee. I dare you to find a tougher player in the country. The Gamecocks now turn their attention to a Mississippi State team thirsty for an upset.

5. Missouri (7-1, 3-1 SEC; LW: 2): The Tigers will be thinking about Saturday's letdown for a while. For three quarters, Mizzou was in control, but Shaw ruined the Tigers' shot at an unbeaten season. Still, the Tigers have plenty to play for. Win out, and they are headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Win that, and the Tigers are headed to a BCS bowl game. It's all about regaining focus and getting ready for a scrappy Tennessee team.

6. LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 5): These Tigers tried to make things interesting during the first half against Furman. But that sloppy, 20-16 halftime lead was a mere afterthought after LSU reeled off 28 consecutive points in the second half. The focus of this team wasn't there to start the game, but when the Tigers regrouped, they looked awfully scary. Jeremy Hill had his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season and is second in the SEC with 922 rushing yards and has a league-high 12 touchdowns.

7. Georgia (4-3, 3-2 SEC; LW: 7): The Bulldogs were off this week and tried to get healthier heading into this weekend's showdown with Florida. The Dawgs might have a handful of battered players, but it sounds like Todd Gurley should be back this weekend, which would certainly give the offense a boost. Georgia can still win the SEC East, but needs help from Missouri's opponents.

8. Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3 SEC; LW: 8): A week after that thrilling win over LSU, the Rebels didn't miss a beat against a very overmatched Idaho team. You might have seen a Vandals defender show up Ole Miss by doing the Rebels' patented "Land Shark" celebration, but it did little to motivate Idaho, as Ole Miss thrashed the Vandals 59-14. The Rebels rolled up 572 yards of offense and head into their bye week with all sorts of momentum.

9. Florida (4-3, 3-2 SEC; LW: 9): The Gators had the week off, which created an Oreo dilemma for offensive lineman Jon Halapio. The other dilemmas for this team include a last-place offense (336.9 yards per game) and a laundry list of injuries. Still, the Gators have a game to play in Jacksonville, Fla., against Georgia. They've dropped two in a row to the Dawgs and their slim SEC East chances would basically disappear with a loss Saturday. There's still a lot on the line for Florida.

10. Tennessee (4-4, 1-3 SEC; LW: 10): A week after that upset win over South Carolina, the Vols fell flat against top-ranked Alabama. Now, the Vols again have quarterback issues, as Justin Worley is nursing a bruised throwing hand. Freshman Joshua Dobbs had his redshirt burned against the Tide and could take the snaps as long as Worley is out. The Vols lost their momentum on Saturday; maybe Dobbs can help bring some back.

11. Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4 SEC; LW: 11): The Commodores are a great example of how much can change in only a few days. After that upset win over Georgia, Vandy was run out of College Station, Texas. That 56-24 loss to the Aggies came with Patton Robinette replacing Austyn Carta-Samuels at quarterback. The offense lacked explosion in the second half and the running game averaged just 2.2 yards per carry against a defense that was allowing 6 yards per carry heading into Saturday.

12. Mississippi State (4-3, 1-2 SEC; LW: 12): Consistency is still an issue for the Bulldogs. After taking a 21-7 lead against Kentucky in the second quarter Thursday, Mississippi State's offense fell silent as the Wildcats scored 15 of the next 22 points. The Bulldogs pulled off the 28-22 win, but in the last three games they've been outscored 50-10 in the second half. While two of those games resulted in wins, that sort of play won't cut it with the gauntlet that November brings.

13. Arkansas (3-5, 0-4 SEC; LW: 13): The Razorbacks were on a much-needed bye this past week. After losing five in a row, the longest losing streak of coach Bret Bielema's career, the Hogs needed some time to rest and regroup before taking on a red-hot Auburn team. Arkansas' main area of concern right now is the passing game, where the Hogs are last in the SEC, averaging just 146.6 yards per game.

14. Kentucky (1-6, 0-4 SEC; LW: 14): Give the Wildcats credit: They didn't quit after going down by 14 early to Mississippi State. But this team just doesn't have the horses to keep up right now. The development hasn't been there on offense and the defense is giving up 438.7 yards per game. The defensive performances have to be the most troubling for Mark Stoops. Outside of the 42-7 win over Miami (Ohio), this defense has given up 400-plus yards in every game.

SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

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

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

FLORIDA GATORS

Spring start: March 13

Spring game: April 6

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

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

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

-- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

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

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

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

-- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

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

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

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

MISSOURI TIGERS

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 20

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

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

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

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13

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

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

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

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

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

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

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

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 13

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

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

3. Keeping the edge: Now that another very successful season under James Franklin is over, the Dores have to continue to keep the edge that got them to where they are. It might sound like a broken record, but Vanderbilt still has to prove that it isn’t the Vandy of old. People are certainly taking the Dores more seriously, but keeping that edge is important for more growth.

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