NCF Nation: Justin Worley

Ranking the SEC quarterbacks

June, 9, 2014
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Earlier, we ranked all 14 quarterback groups in the SEC. Now, we'll look at who we think will be the top 10 quarterbacks in the league this season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesWith his experience and talents, Nick Marshall is the SEC's top QB heading into the 2014 season.
1. Nick Marshall, Sr., Auburn: With a spring practice under his belt and a year in Gus Malzahn's offense, Marshall gets the nod as the top quarterback in the league. His athletic ability is off the charts, and even though he was erratic throwing the ball at times last season, he's improved in that area and has some big-time playmakers around him. Marshall also seems to thrive with the game on the line, which is perhaps the best quality a quarterback can possess.

2. Dak Prescott, RJr., Mississippi State: Prescott's upside is tremendous. He's a bullish runner with an equally strong arm and showed some real courage last season playing through injuries and his mother's death. The challenge is for him to become a more polished passer. But in Dan Mullen's offense, Prescott is a perfect fit and should have an All-SEC type of year.

3. Bo Wallace, RSr., Ole Miss: The dean of SEC quarterbacks, Wallace seems to finally be healthy after battling shoulder issues each of the past two seasons. If he stays healthy, he could easily shoot up to the top of these rankings. He needs to cut down on his 27 interceptions over the past two seasons, but he's also accounted for 54 touchdowns during that span.

4. Maty Mauk, RSo., Missouri: Even though the Tigers are losing a ton of firepower at receiver, look for Mauk to be one of the more improved players in the league. He got a taste of it in critical situations last season while filling in for the injured James Franklin, and he delivered. He has the athleticism, arm strength and toughness to be an elite quarterback.

5. Jacob Coker, RJr., Alabama: Every year, it seems, a quarterback comes out of the shadows in the SEC to have a huge year. Cam Newton did it in 2010, Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Marshall last season. Coker could be that guy in 2014 after transferring in from Florida State. His former coach, Jimbo Fisher, says Coker will be the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has had at Alabama.

6. Jeff Driskel, RJr., Florida: The Gators and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper are building what they do offensively around Driskel's strengths. He's a super athlete (and trimmed down some by nearly 15 pounds) and is throwing the ball with renewed confidence. Coming off a broken leg, Driskel has the physical skill set to flourish in Roper's system as he enters his fourth season of college ball.

7. Dylan Thompson, RSr., South Carolina: There wasn't a better reliever in the SEC over the past couple of years than Thompson, who came off the bench in several pressure situations and led the Gamecocks to big wins. With Connor Shaw gone, Thompson now gets a chance to prove that he can get it done as an every-game starter. His forte is throwing the ball from the pocket.

8. Hutson Mason, RSr., Georgia: Mason has waited his turn while sitting behind the record-setter Aaron Murray and even redshirted in 2012 to get this opportunity. He's an accurate passer and knows the offense inside and out. He played late last season after Murray was injured, which should help the transition. Mason's another one who could easily shoot up this list.

9. Justin Worley, Sr., Tennessee: The best news for Worley is that he'll have more guys around him who can make plays. The Vols played their best football last season before Worley injured his thumb. They nearly knocked off Georgia and upset South Carolina with Worley at the helm. He's improved his arm strength and has worked hard this offseason. His senior season should be his best yet.

10. Brandon Allen, RJr., Arkansas: Not much of anything went right with the Hogs' passing game last season, and much of that centered around Allen never really being healthy. To his credit, he continued to fight through injuries and is looking forward to showing what he can do now that he's back to 100 percent. If he stays healthy, Allen could be one of the league's top bounce-back players.
Now that Riley Ferguson has apparently decided Tennessee is not for him, the Vols’ future at quarterback just got a lot murkier.

And, really, not so much for this upcoming season. The feeling among the Tennessee coaches coming out of the spring was that senior Justin Worley would be their starter. The Vols played their best football a year ago when Worley was healthy.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJustin Worley should be fine under center in 2014, but who will be the Vols' quarterback in a critical 2015 season?
He’ll have more playmakers around him this season and has both the experience and right stuff mentally to more than adequately man the quarterback position for the Vols in 2014.

It’s the 2015 season that should have Butch Jones and the Big Orange Nation on alert.

That’s the season Jones needs to make his move, his third season on the job. Regardless of what he does this year, he’s going to be (and should be) OK.

But Year No. 3 will be pivotal. That’s when the first fair evaluation of the program on Jones’ watch can be made, and it’s reasonable to expect the Vols should at least be in the East Division race conversation by then.

As it appears now, Jones and the Vols will head into such an important season with either a first-year starter at quarterback -- presumably a true freshman -- or hoping rising sophomore Josh Dobbs gets a lot better between now and then.

There’s no question Tennessee needs to upgrade on the defensive line if this program is going to return to the prominence it enjoyed in the 1990s under Phillip Fulmer. The Vols hope they’ve taken a big step in that direction with the defensive line class they’re bringing in this summer.

But the more you look at it, the more pressing priority now for Jones is getting it right at quarterback. In fact, his future may well depend on it.

The good news for the Vols is that they should be in prime position to lure a top-flight quarterback in the 2015 class. Some of the ones they’re on are Sam Darnold of San Clemente, California; Quinten Dormady of Boerne, Texas; Deondre Francois of Orlando, Florida; Torrance Gibson of Plantation, Florida; and Sheriron Jones of Moreno Valley, California.

Tennessee hadn’t been exploring the idea of bringing in a junior college quarterback or a transfer, but that could well be an option now. Maybe the Vols hit it just right, similar to the way Auburn did with Nick Marshall or the way Alabama hopes it has with Jacob Coker.

Either way, good luck in pinpointing the Vols’ quarterback of the future.

That’s not to write off Dobbs, who was put into a very difficult situation last season when he had to come in and play as a true freshman after Worley was injured. He struggled during the last month of the season, but to his credit, he came back this spring and performed well in the Vols’ spring game.

It’s also telling that while Ferguson went home to Charlotte, North Carolina, after the semester ended earlier this month that Dobbs and Worley were both out in California working with quarterback guru George Whitfield.

Nathan Peterman, who will be a redshirt sophomore, also returns, although his reps were limited in the spring. There was some thought that he might transfer, too.

The bottom line is that there’s not a quarterback on campus who will be around in 2015 who has inspired confidence among the coaches or his teammates that he can unequivocally be “the guy” to lead the Vols back into championship contention.

Look, that can change, and we’ve all seen quarterbacks develop, transform and grow over time. And even though Ferguson was thought to be the most talented of the bunch, do you really trust a guy to lead your team who never seemed to have both feet in the boat?

It’s probably better for Jones and Co. to find that out now as opposed to later, say in the fourth quarter of a tight game on the road against Alabama or Florida.

With the way Jones and his staff are recruiting, the Vols should finally look like an SEC-contending team again in 2015.

But the race is on to find the right trigger man.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
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World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail PartyKevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsTailgaters fill the parking lots in Jacksonville with a sea of red and black, orange and blue.

Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. All eyes on Jacksonville: Don't look now, but the battle formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has some intrigue. Georgia has been decimated by injuries, but Mark Richt continues to send Aaron Murray out to play each Saturday, giving UGA a chance to win. Murray has hung in despite the fact players are dropping like flies around him. If he gets a third consecutive win over rival Florida, it might make it all worthwhile. Florida has dealt with its own set of injuries, but more problematic is the Gators' offensive ineptitude. Quarterback Tyler Murphy will have to find a way to score some points on Saturday. But for two teams with so many problems, whichever gets out of Jacksonville with a win is still in the SEC East race. Missouri's loss last weekend breathed new life into both squads.

2. Can South Carolina keep it up? It would be classic South Carolina to come out on Saturday against unranked Mississippi State and play down to the competition. It's happened so much lately that we've come to expect it. After winning a thriller on the road last weekend against Missouri, the Gamecocks are on upset alert. Without Connor Shaw's fourth-quarter return, South Carolina loses to Missouri by two touchdowns. If he can't start against Mississippi State, will Steve Spurrier's offense sputter again? You have to like Shaw's leadership, and after all he's done you have to believe he'll play on Saturday and play well.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri redshirt freshman Maty Mauk is likely to make his third career start against Tennessee true freshman Josh Dobbs, who will make his first start.
3. Missouri rebound: That was a hard pill to swallow. Missouri was undefeated and ranked in the top five of the BCS Standings at this time last week. Then South Carolina hit the Tigers with a brutal rope-a-dope, pulling Shaw off the bench, down 17 points, for the fourth-quarter comeback. It took two overtimes and a missed field goal for Missouri's perfect season to come to an end. But Gary Pinkel's squad is by no means out of the SEC East race. A win against Tennessee would keep the Tigers in the driver's seat. But watch out for the Vols, who beat South Carolina earlier in the month.

4. Josh Dobbs: Speaking of Tennessee, keep an eye on the true freshman quarterback. Butch Jones burned his redshirt this past weekend, bringing him off the bench in the second half against Alabama. The athletic Dobbs provided a spark to a Vols offense that couldn't move the football to save its life. His ability to get outside the pocket and buy time helped the receivers, and his speed and elusiveness allowed him to pick up yards with his feet. It's too early to say he's won the starting job, but watch closely because a good game against Missouri could propel him to such status. We could very well be looking at Tennessee's future under center.

5. The SEC East race: The field in the SEC East will narrow this weekend. The loser of the Georgia-Florida game is likely out of it, and neither Missouri nor South Carolina have sure-thing wins on their plates. It may appear that no one wants to win the division and be forced to play Alabama in the conference championship, but someone's got to do it.

6. Manziel health watch: The Johnny Manziel watch never ends. But no, I'm not talking about monitoring his off-the-field behavior this time. No, there's still some concern over whether the defending Heisman Trophy winner is healthy. He injured his throwing arm late against Auburn and played well this past weekend against Vanderbilt. But with Texas A&M facing an overmatched UTEP team Saturday, should he play?

7. Bielema versus Malzahn: Boy, did we see a rivalry form at SEC media days when a pair of first-year coaches in the SEC, Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Auburn's Gus Malzahn, traded barbs about the safety of the no-huddle offense. Malzahn said he thought it was a joke. Bielema said he wasn't a comedian. It was awesome. Their rivalry was born that day, and this week it sprouted leaves as Bielema accused Auburn of altering the game film it sent to Arkansas in preparation for this week's game between the two programs. The issue even prompted a response from Auburn to the SEC. Man, the Malzahn-Bielema postgame handshake is going to be fun.

8. Jeremy Johnson: Every time Nick Marshall goes down at quarterback for Auburn, Johnson steps right in and doesn't miss a beat. Both times the freshman has played significant reps, he's won SEC Freshman of the Week honors, first against Western Carolina and then last weekend against Florida Atlantic. With Marshall officially "day to day," according to Malzahn, expect the focus to shift to Johnson again.

9. The trainer's table: Playing an SEC schedule will catch up with you. We're starting to see injuries pile up around the league recently as the fatigue of playing physical games week in and week out builds. Tennessee is turning to a true freshman quarterback in place of Justin Worley (injured thumb). Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin is questionable, leaving backup Maty Mauk in a weird state of limbo. South Carolina, meanwhile, is hoping Shaw can continue to play the part of Superman and keep coming back from injury. Oh, and let's not forget Jeff Driskel's prolonged absence at Florida. If another SEC quarterback goes down, we'll have to start calling it an epidemic.

10. Who isn't playing: Give Alabama and LSU credit because they know how to make a schedule. The rivalry game between the two schools isn't until Nov. 9, so they're taking the week off. But unfortunately for the rest of the SEC, those teams' bye weeks leave the league to play without two of its best. Where's the fun in that? We're even deprived of seeing Hugh Freeze and his up-tempo offense at Ole Miss. The SEC East is busy this weekend, but the West is noticeably boring.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 9

October, 28, 2013
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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.

Jones has them believing on Rocky Top

October, 24, 2013
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Butch Jones admittedly hasn’t gotten much sleep since Tennessee’s breakthrough 23-21 victory over then-No. 11 South Carolina last weekend.

But, then, when does he ever get much sleep?

On average, the Vols’ first-year coach snoozes about four hours a night, but the sleep monitor he wears tells him that only 2&189; of those hours are what you would call deep sleep.

He also keeps a notepad beside his bed that has been known to liven things up in the wee hours of the morning at the Jones household.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesButch Jones and the Vols finally broke through against a ranked team.
“Sometimes, some of your best ideas come when you’re lying there at night, and you might not remember all of them the next morning,” Jones explained. “So I’ll get up and start writing them down until my wife yells at me to get my butt back to bed.”

And the next thing you know, the dog starts barking.

“There aren’t enough hours in the day,” Jones said with a grin. His energy and passion were embraced by a win-starved Tennessee fan base a long time ago.

But last Saturday, he gave Rocky Toppers more than just hope. He gave them something tangible to cling to: the Vols’ first victory over a nationally ranked opponent after 19 consecutive defeats.

“It’s just one victory, but it gives evidence to what we’re doing,” said Jones, who took over a reeling program that had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons. “We have great confidence in what we do, and we have great people here. It’s a process. Everyone wants things corrected overnight, and I’m the worst one about that. But things take time to do it right.

“We’re still focusing on the process.”

That process becomes a lot easier when you’re beating teams in your division that have been beating up on you. The Vols were close to some of these victories under former coach Derek Dooley. They took LSU to the wire three years ago and Georgia and South Carolina to the wire last year. But there also were a ton of embarrassing losses along the way.

“We’ve been in a lot of situations like that before, but we’re finally over that hump,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Marlon Walls, who was recruited by Phillip Fulmer and has played for three head coaches at Tennessee.

“We knew it was coming with Coach Jones, but it’s just exciting to see it happen. Our love for Coach Jones and our love for each other pushed us through, and it’s going to keep pushing us through.”

The Vols (4-3, 1-2 SEC) don’t have any choice but to keep pushing. Their schedule is brutal. They get No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., this Saturday and then No. 5 Missouri in Columbia, Mo., on Nov. 2. After that, No. 11 Auburn comes to town.

That completes a stretch of seven nationally ranked foes in nine weeks.

“That’s the world of college football, the life of being in the SEC,” Jones said. “You’ve never arrived, and we still have to take major steps in moving forward.”

The Vols, who are playing a wealth of younger players, simply don’t measure up talentwise to the elite teams in the SEC. Jones and his staff are feverishly working on that. They’re currently No. 3 nationally in ESPN’s recruiting rankings for the 2014 class, trailing only Alabama and Florida State.

So on the recruiting trail, Jones is obviously making inroads, which is the only way Tennessee is going to climb back into championship contention in this league.

But to attract enough of those players, you’ve got to get it done on the field, and that’s where the Vols have made some of their biggest strides.

In just about all the statistical categories that matter, Tennessee is ahead of last season’s pace through Week 8.

The Vols are running the ball better (201.7 yards per game), playing better defense (4.5 fewer points per game), committing fewer penalties, playing better red zone defense, winning the turnover battle and playing as well on special teams as they have in a long time.

In fact, senior kicker/punter Michael Palardy, who kicked the game-winning field goal against South Carolina, has mirrored Tennessee’s turnaround in a lot ways. He’s having his best season after some earlier struggles and has been an invaluable weapon for the Vols.

As much as anything, Jones has instilled a confidence in this program that had been sorely lacking, and even after the 59-14 shellacking at Oregon the third week of the season, that confidence hasn't wavered.

The trip to Alabama will further put that confidence to the test. The Vols have lost six in a row to the Crimson Tide and haven’t scored more than 13 points in any of the past five meetings between these two old rivals.

“We’re a different football team,” said junior quarterback Justin Worley, who’s played his best football the past two games against South Carolina and Georgia. “At Oregon, we didn’t show up. At Florida, we were just up and down.

“Our consistency and our confidence level are both a lot better than they were in those first two road games.”

As happy as Jones was for the seniors in this program, to see them get such a fulfilling win last week after so much misery the past few seasons, he rode his team in practice this week as hard as he ever has.

He knows what lies ahead.

“The more you win, the more that’s at stake,” Jones said. “The more you win, the more that’s expected, and this week becomes even bigger. The other thing is you work your butt off to be playing meaningful games into October and November, and from here on out, we’re going to be playing meaningful games.

“That’s what you work toward, and you have to embrace it. This team has.”

It’s also a team that clearly believes in its head coach.

“Coach Jones pushes you. He challenges you, and he’s not afraid to call you out,” sophomore receiver Pig Howard said. “We’ve all heard it, but the thing we all know is that he’s in it for us.

“He’s pushing himself harder than he is anybody, and you don’t want to let somebody like that down.”

Vols break through with signature win

October, 19, 2013
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Butch Jones, that bricklayer extraordinaire who also coaches a little football at Tennessee, promised there would be days like this when he took the job.

Of course, when the bottom falls out of a program the way it has at Tennessee over the past few years, days like this probably seem a lot closer to fantasy than they do reality for even the most orange-blooded fans.

But not Saturday and not with this Tennessee team, or, as Jones refers to it, "Team 117."

This was as real as it gets, and the Vols’ march back to relevance suddenly seems a lot more realistic after their last-second 23-21 victory over No. 11 South Carolina, setting off the kind of joyous scene in Neyland Stadium that was once the rule in these parts.

Jones, whose brick-by-brick mantra has taken hold on Rocky Top, chest-bumped everybody in sight, from his players, to Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, to “Duck Dynasty” star Justin Martin.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTennessee coach Butch Jones celebrates the biggest win of his coaching career after his Vols edged No. 11 South Carolina.
“I thought our team took a valuable step forward two weeks ago (in a 34-31 overtime loss to then-No. 6 Georgia),” Jones said. “It was gut-wrenching, but our kids believed and they built confidence. Confidence is a powerful thing. Belief is a powerful thing.

“We had pointed to this game for a long time, and our kids were ready to go.”

Really, it had been forever since the Vols (4-3, 1-2 SEC) had been able to enjoy anything other than a few recruiting classes ranked fairly highly on national signing day.

They’d endured coaching changes, NCAA investigations, 19 consecutive losses to nationally ranked teams and a long, painful fall from college football’s upper crust.

“Everybody had forgotten about us, and when they did talk about us, it’s like we didn’t even exist,” Tennessee receiver Pig Howard said. “Coach Jones gave us a reason to believe again. We believe in him and believe in each other, and this was a big step in what we want to do.”

The Vols won it on Michael Palardy’s 19-yard field goal as time expired, capping a 63-yard drive that was highlighted by a sensational, one-handed 39-yard catch by freshman Marquez North. Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley delivered the clutch throw on third-and-10, and the Vols did what they couldn’t do two weeks ago against Georgia.

They finished the game.

“This is just the start, and it’s something we’ve been building toward,” said senior defensive end Marlon Walls, who was recruited by Phillip Fulmer and has played for three different head coaches at Tennessee.

“We deserved this. We did this for each other. We did this for Coach Jones. We did it for all those great players who came before us here at Tennessee. We knew we should have won the game (against Georgia). We weren’t going to let this one get away.”

Jones had invited more than 200 former lettermen to come back for Saturday’s game, and several of them ran through the giant “T" before the game. Tony Robinson was there. So was Jamal Lewis, Al Wilson and even two players from the 1951 national championship team -- Herky Payne and Pat Shires.

“We talk about family, and once a Vol, always a Vol,” said Jones, who has gone out of his way to embrace former players and bring them back into the fold.

The other thing he’s done is create a culture the players have bought into completely and totally, and their confidence has soared ever since a 59-14 beating at No. 2 Oregon the third week of the season.

South Carolina was the fourth ranked opponent the Vols have played this season. No. 1 Alabama will be the fifth next week, and then it’s on to Missouri, which is the lone unbeaten team right now in the SEC’s Eastern Division.

“We can play with anybody,” Walls said. “But you’ve got to go out there and prove it on the field. That’s what we’re doing right now, and the best thing is that we can still get a lot better.”

Tennessee took a 17-7 lead into halftime Saturday against a South Carolina team that obliterated Arkansas 52-7 on the road last week. The Gamecocks, after their lackluster start, came charging back in the third quarter and took a 21-17 edge.

“There wasn’t any panic. We knew it was still our game,” Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers said.

Indeed it was.

The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) had to finish the game without starting quarterback Connor Shaw, who injured his left knee and was scheduled to undergo an MRI later Saturday night. But even before Shaw had to leave the game, South Carolina was struggling to get anything going against Tennessee’s defense in the fourth quarter.

South Carolina was held to 12 total yards in the fourth quarter and had four consecutive three-and-outs.

“Give Tennessee credit,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “I think they outplayed us, although we were within a play or two of winning it, but we didn’t do it.”

Nope, this day belonged to Tennessee.

“We needed that badly, desperately,” Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said. “It’s been a long time.”

SEC Power Rankings: Week 6

October, 7, 2013
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Things are getting very interesting in the SEC and we have a little more movement in our Power Rankings this week:

1. Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC; last week: 1): Alabama did everything it was supposed to do in its tuneup against a very overmatched Georgia State team. Nick Saban wanted to get a chunk of his youngsters into the game and 70 players saw action. After its most complete game of the season, Alabama travels to Kentucky for another chance to work on execution.

2. Georgia (4-1, 3-0 SEC; LW: 2): The Bulldogs won a wild one against Tennessee Saturday, but they lost three key players on offense. Running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are both out for the year with season-ending knee injuries, and receiver Michael Bennett will miss Saturday's game with a knee injury. Aaron Murray has been superb, but now it's time for this defense to step up and make crucial improvements if Georgia is going to make it back to Atlanta.

3. Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 3): The Aggies were off over the weekend, which gave this team a chance to rest and work on everything concerning its defense. Texas A&M still owns the SEC's worst defense (476.8 yards allowed per game), but when you have Johnny Manziel making play after play, it takes some pressure off everyone else. Still, this defense will have to be on point against Ole Miss' high-powered offense in Oxford.

4. LSU (5-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 4): Well, the Tigers offense just looks terrific right now. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. should all be in contention for the title of "best at their position" in the SEC. The Tigers have churned out more than 400 yards in every game and more than 500 in two. The defense still has its issues, especially stopping the run, but this offense is deadly.

5. Florida (4-1, 3-0 SEC; LW: 6): Believe it or not, the Gators are looking more and more like the most balanced team in the SEC East. Florida owns the SEC's best defense (217 yards allowed per game) and the offense has amassed 400 yards of offense three times this season. In Florida's blowout win over Arkansas on Saturday, new quarterback Tyler Murphy threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns. With this defense and an improving offense, are the Gators turning into a legit contender in the SEC?

6. South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 5): No, the Gamecocks didn't lose to Kentucky over the weekend, but this team just doesn't look focused right now, especially on defense. In their past three games, the Gamecocks have blown a 28-point lead to Vanderbilt, an 18-point lead to UCF and a 21-point lead to Kentucky. The good news is that South Carolina has gone 3-0 during that span, but that sort of sloppy play will catch up to you in this league.

7. Missouri (5-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 8): Don't look now, but here come the midwestern Tigers! Mizzou is turning into quite the unit, especially on offense, after blowing out Vanderbilt in Nashville. With its trail mix of offensive talent, the Tigers dropped 51 on the Commodores and found themselves back in the Top 25. Mizzou is second to only Texas A&M in offense in the SEC and has registered more than 500 yards three times, including against Vandy.

8. Auburn (4-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 9): These Tigers tried to give away a 27-9 lead in the third quarter against Ole Miss, but held on for a huge 30-22 win. One thing that really helped out Auburn was the play of its defensive line, as the Rebels only had 124 rushing yards Saturday. On offense, Auburn knows it's going to have to rely heavily on its running game, which churned out 282 yards and three touchdowns Saturday.

9. Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2 SEC; LW: 7): This team has now lost two in a row after such a hot start. The offense was shut out against Alabama and then couldn't run on Auburn's defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace made some bad decisions in Saturday's loss and this team just became way too one-dimensional on the Plains. Who's next? Oh, that would be Johnny Football.

10. Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC; LW: 10): The Commodores need a lot of help on defense. It's clear that there are holes all over and if Vandy is going to continue its upward progression, the defense has to improve. Vandy's defense has given up more than 500 yards twice and more than 360 yards four times.

11. Arkansas (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 11): When Florida forced Arkansas to throw the ball, the Razorbacks just couldn't get anything going. Brandon Allen completed only 17 of his 41 pass attempts, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and registered a QBR of 9.8. For the second time this season, the Hogs had no spark on offense when the running game got stuffed.

12. Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 13): What a fight by Tennessee in that heartbreaking loss to Georgia. The Bulldogs did sustain some serious injuries, but Justin Worley delivered some big-time throws and wide receiver Pig Howard is turning into a real playmaker, except for that goal-line fumble. This defense still has a long way to go, but Saturday showed that this team truly has heart.

13. Mississippi State (2-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 12): This defense was impressive in the Bulldogs' two victories over lesser competition, but in three losses, Mississippi State has given up more than 400 yards each time. LSU racked up 59 points and more than 500 yards of offense Saturday. The Bulldogs kept things close for most of the night against the Tigers, but were totally overmatched in the fourth quarter, getting outscored 28-0.

14. Kentucky (1-4, 0-2 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats put up quite the fight against South Carolina and almost pulled off a huge upset at home. You could see some improvement and development on the offensive side against the Gamecocks, and it's important that it carry over going forward. This team just doesn't have the horses right now to really compete in the SEC.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
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Another solid weekend of SEC football is in the books. Georgia and Tennessee gave the fans a treat, but there were plenty of other takeaways. Here are five things we learned from around the league in Week 6:

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIGeorgia quarterback Aaron Murray was 19-of-35 passing vs. Tennessee, with 196 yards and three touchdowns.
Murray, Georgia have the clutch gene: Remember when people wondered whether Aaron Murray could or would ever win a big game? That's been pretty much put to rest, especially after last week's 44-41 win over LSU, but on Saturday, Murray and Co. came up with a touchdown drive when they absolutely had to have it in the final minutes of regulation to send their dramatic battle with Tennessee into overtime. The Bulldogs benefited from a fumble by Tennessee running back Pig Howard as he dove for the pylon in the first overtime, but still, credit is due to Georgia for finding a way to win when Tennessee came roaring back from a two-touchdown deficit to take a 31-24 lead with all of Neyland Stadium singing "Rocky Top." Not to mention, injuries eliminated key player after key player from the Bulldogs' lineup, leaving them depleted in some areas -- particularly receiver and running back -- down the stretch. The Bulldogs' title hopes are still alive as a result of their fight.

Tennessee has reason for optimism: The loss hurts and it looked like the Volunteers were going to pull off the upset of the No. 6 team in the country, but there are definitely positives to be taken away. For starters, the kind of fight and grittiness Tennessee showed is what you want to see in your football team and something that hasn't necessarily been there in recent years. The Vols could have easily folded up like a tent when down 17-3 and Georgia was on the verge of taking a three-score lead before a missed field goal. Instead, they fought to the point that they put themselves in position to win. That's a huge positive for new coach Butch Jones. Secondly, quarterback Justin Worley played his best game of the year and made some big-time throws down the stretch. The execution by Worley down the stretch -- as well as the offense as a whole on three fourth-down plays in the second half -- was terrific.

Auburn and Mizzou are worth keeping an eye on: We weren't sure what to make of undefeated Missouri coming into Saturday, because all of the Tigers' opponents had been of the nonconference variety and none were particularly formidable. But in their first SEC contest on Saturday, the offense did what it has done much of the season -- score points -- en route to a 51-28 win over Vanderbilt. Missouri racked up 523 yards and got a great performance from quarterback James Franklin (19-of-28 passing, 278 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions). Mizzou is now 5-0 heading into a showdown with Georgia in Athens next week. Auburn, meanwhile, withstood a late rally from Ole Miss to secure a 30-22 win. Defensively, Auburn was relentless in rushing Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, collecting six sacks. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall gave the Rebels trouble on the ground, rushing for a team-high 140 yards and two touchdowns while also throwing for 93 yards on 11-of-17 passing. Auburn's now 2-1 in the SEC and has surpassed its win total from a year ago.

Odell Beckham Jr. is the truth: He has already shown how good he is this season by recording more than 100 receiving yards in three games, but on Saturday against Mississippi State the LSU junior receiver recorded career highs in catches (nine) and receiving yards (179) with two touchdowns in a 59-26 road win. The Bulldogs had absolutely no answer for Beckham all night as LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw him a variety of passes, including some jump balls that he made look unfair to defenders.

South Carolina is struggling to close games: Last week the Gamecocks saw Central Florida reel off 15 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes, but they hung on to win 28-25, and on Saturday, Kentucky rallied to make another Gamecocks win close late. South Carolina came into the fourth quarter with a 27-7 lead but the Wildcats pulled to within six with 11:50 remaining and seven with 4:02 to go. The Gamecocks held on, but it certainly isn't all roses for Steve Spurrier and Co. Not to mention, Jadeveon Clowney sat out the game with bruised ribs.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
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It was another wild weekend in the SEC. Here are five things we learned around the conference in Week 5.

Georgia and LSU are title contenders: Everything about the game lived up to the hype. Well, except maybe the defenses, but we'll get to that later. LSU and Georgia nonetheless played a game for the ages Saturday afternoon, with quarterbacks Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray trading blows seemingly every time their teams got the football. Georgia ultimately prevailed, of course, but it's impossible to walk away not feeling like both teams are well positioned to make a run at an SEC championship. It's only LSU's first loss, and we've seen how that's no deterrent to making a run at the postseason. The Tigers will get their shot at No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 9. And Georgia, by winning, avoided a dreaded second loss on its resume. The Bulldogs seasoning-opening loss to Clemson actually might end up adding some style points in the end. With Florida's offense struggling and South Carolina playing inconsistent football, Mark Richt has to feel good about his program's position in the East.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesMike Davis helped South Carolina salvage a win at UCF with 150 rushing yards in the second half.
Get used to high scoring games: Calm down all you doomsday sayers: The SEC isn't imploding before your very eyes. Yes, it is very unusual to see this many shootouts in a league that's long prided itself on dominating defense. Georgia and LSU used to win in knockdown drag-outs, but Saturday was so much different as the schools combined for 943 yards and 85 points. But what happened in Athens, Ga., wasn't the final nail in the coffin of SEC defenses. Let the season progress. Mettenberger and Murray are two of the best passers in the country, and the LSU and Georgia defenses are very young. They're talented. They'll learn. And they're not going to be happy with what happened, neither one of them. Alabama pitched a shutout against a high powered Ole Miss offense, and Florida gave up just one touchdown to Kentucky. When it comes to defense, maybe not all is lost. Not yet.

Alabama showed why its No. 1: The week was all about questioning Alabama -- everything from the secondary to the offensive line to whether the Tide was actually worthy of being ranked No. 1. Nick Saban asked for positivity from his fan base and warned against playing to expectations. Alabama's head coach wasn't worried about answering any one question in particular, just the simple matter of whether his team could beat No. 21 Ole Miss. As it turns out, his team won and answered most of the questions in the process. The Tide's defense was dominant once again, pitching a shutout against Ole Miss' high powered offense, and the offense, which couldn't move the ball consistently or effectively on the ground before, suddenly rediscovered both. Alabama ran for a season-high 254 yards against the Rebels and moved the chains, converting on 8 of 17 third-downs. In short, Alabama looked like itself again, thumping a ranked team at home.

Mike Davis belongs in the conversation: He doesn't usually come up much when discussing the league's top tailbacks. T.J. Yeldon and Todd Gurley usually dominate that conversation. But Mike Davis' name belongs in that group. The South Carolina sophomore has earned his stripes through four games this season, rushing for 508 yards and six touchdowns. The Gamecocks needed every one of his 167 yards Saturday afternoon against UCF, 150 of which came in the second half of the 3-point win on the road in Orlando.

Tennessee is a ways off: This was supposed to be the much needed breather before returning to its gauntlet of a schedule. The Vols, fresh off beatings at the hands of Oregon and Florida in consecutive weeks, couldn't get out of their own way against lowly South Alabama at home on Saturday, winning by the skin of their teeth, 31-24. Maybe they were looking ahead to Georgia and South Carolina, which come to town the following two weeks. Whatever the reason, Butch Jones shouldn't be happy. Tennessee wasted a 24-point lead before holding on with a late interception on fourth-and-goal. Justin Worley and the Vols offense turned the ball over three times and were just 4 of 11 on third downs.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
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Showcasing two big showdowns between ranked conference teams -- LSU at Georgia and Ole Miss at Alabama -- this looks like a more promising weekend of SEC football than the one that preceded it. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch around the league this Saturday:

1. Another top-10 matchup for Georgia: A common criticism leading into last season's SEC championship game was that Georgia hadn't played anybody. Well the schedule has certainly toughened up since then. Starting with that game against then-No. 2 (and eventual BCS champion) Alabama, the Bulldogs have faced No. 2, No. 16 (Nebraska), No. 8 (Clemson), No. 6 (South Carolina) and now-No. 6 LSU in their last six games. The Bulldogs are 2-2 in those games heading into Saturday's key conference showdown at Sanford Stadium -- LSU's first game this season in an opponent's stadium.

2. Can Ole Miss keep its mojo alive?: Resurgent Ole Miss already has a couple of impressive wins on its resume, winning at Vanderbilt in the closing minutes and running away from Texas in the fourth quarter in Austin. Good luck this weekend, though, Rebels. No. 1 Alabama -- which will host No. 21 Ole Miss on Saturday evening -- is in a far different class than the aforementioned opponents. Ole Miss has won in Tuscaloosa only once (1988), and that doesn't figure to change this weekend, even if Alabama's offense has underwhelmed lately.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
AP Photo/Phil SandlinCan Tyler Murphy keep Florida moving in the right direction?
3. All eyes on Murphy: When Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a season-ending injury last week, little-used backup Tyler Murphy got his first chance to shine. Murphy took advantage of that opportunity, completing 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushing for another score in a 31-17 win over Tennessee. Now he's THE guy after watching an assortment of Gators take snaps ahead of him over the last three years. He'll be taking his shots against a Kentucky program that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 years -- the second-longest active series winning streak in the country.

4. Clash of styles in Fayetteville: The offensive approaches in Saturday's Texas A&M-Arkansas game could hardly be more different. On one hand, you have the wide-open Kevin Sumlin offense at A&M, with triggerman Johnny Manziel helping the Aggies post 602.2 yards and 50.2 points per game -- both SEC highs. Arkansas has run the ball effectively (246.0 ypg, third in the SEC), but that's about it. If the Razorbacks have any hope of hanging with A&M, they'd better hope that their impressive running back tandem of Alex Collins (SEC-high 120.2 ypg) and Jonathan Williams (second at 104.5) can extend clock-eating drives that keep Manziel and company on the sideline.

5. Mettenberger's homecoming: One of the most popular storylines this week concerns LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger returning home to Georgia, where he competed with Aaron Murray for the starting job in 2010 before being dismissed from the team after an offseason arrest. Mettenberger's mother is a longtime employee in Georgia's football office, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt gave her the week off to avoid the obvious conflict of interest that accompanies this game week. Players from both sides have answered plenty of Mettenberger-related questions, and the Tigers' quarterback seemed to be getting chapped by the subject by midweek. LSU needs him to play a composed game on Saturday, so this is a distraction that the Tigers didn't need.

6. Can South Carolina finish?: Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks built a 28-0 lead in their last game against Vanderbilt, only to see the Commodores rally to within 35-25 early in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks protected that lead the rest of the way, but it was hardly a positive sign when they had scored only six points in the fourth quarter the week before in a 41-30 loss to Georgia after it was 24-all at halftime. Playing at Central Florida (3-0), which beat Penn State in its last game, South Carolina might not be able to afford another sloppy second half.

7. Alabama's cornerback competition: Nick Saban's defense rotated five cornerbacks last week against Colorado State with two veterans out of the lineup. Deion Belue should be back in the lineup against Ole Miss, but the Rebels' up-tempo offense is much more capable of exploiting defensive vulnerabilities than the Tide's previous opponent. Alabama needs to get its secondary concerns sorted out quickly or the Rebels could make things interesting on Saturday.

8. Mizzou angling for 4-0: Saturday's game against Arkansas State marks the fourth straight nonconference matchup for the Tigers. That means it's all SEC games from here on out, and there are some tough ones on the list. Mizzou has posted some nice yardage totals so far in wins against Murray State, Toledo and Indiana. With a challenging October schedule ahead (at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, Florida, South Carolina), quarterback James Franklin and company need to keep the offensive momentum going.

9. Get-well game in Knoxville: Following two straight horrendous showings -- against Oregon and Florida -- things aren't looking too pretty for first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers desperately need a win against South Alabama on Saturday or it could get really ugly in October with Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama on the schedule. The first step for Jones is settling on a quarterback, with Justin Worley apparently stepping back into the starting job he lost last week before replacement Nathan Peterman injured his hand against Florida.

10. Will the real Commodores please stand up?: Coach James Franklin raised expectations in Nashville with a nine-win season last year, but Vanderbilt hasn't even looked like a bowl team in the wake of a sexual assault case that rocked the team and campus. Vandy is 2-2 overall and 0-2 in league play coming off last week's underwhelming 24-7 win at UMass. The Commodores reached the 2012 postseason based largely on wins against second-tier foes like Saturday's opponent, UAB. If they want to play in another bowl this season, they need to start getting their act together against the Blazers.

SEC predictions: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
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And just like that, The Kid has a nice two-game lead. For two straight weeks, I tried to help Chris out. I tried to feed him the goods, but he just wouldn't listen.

When he seemed so confident about Texas rebounding against the Rebels, I told him to have some faith in Ole Miss. But Chris put too much faith in a wounded Bevo.

Last week, I distinctly remember when I submitted my picks that Chris said, "Just send them in when you get a chance. There's no way we have anything different." Naturally, I assumed he was thinking like me and had Rutgers winning at home over Arkansas. Alas, Chris was blinded by all those rushing yards the Hogs churned out during the first three weeks of the season.

Chris was too busy hollerin' Pig Sooie when I tried to tell him about Brandon Allen's health and Rutgers' run defense. I heard rumblings from Baton Rouge, La., that Chris was trying to get media members to call the hogs with him in the press box when Arkansas went up 24-7 in the third quarter.

What's the old saying about counting your chickens?

It's just good to be The Kid.

After going 9-0 last week (yes, that makes two straight perfect weeks), I own a 40-3 (.930) record, while Chris is 38-5 (.884) after going 8-1.

Here's to our picks and me taking a three-game lead:

ARKANSAS STATE at MISSOURI

Chris Low: Missouri is putting up a ton of points and rolling right along. The Tigers return home after winning at Indiana a week ago and won’t have any problem with Arkansas State to go to 4-0 on the season. … Missouri 48, Arkansas State 21

Edward Aschoff: The Tigers have looked great on offense thus far, and I don't anticipate that stopping this week with Arkansas State in town. … Missouri 45, Arkansas State 17

SOUTH ALABAMA at TENNESSEE

Low: Justin Worley is back as Tennessee’s starting quarterback, and the important thing for the Vols is everybody playing better around him on offense. After two straight losses, they’ll take out a little frustration this week at home against South Alabama. … Tennessee 34, South Alabama 17

Aschoff: There's no question that Tennessee has a lot to work on on both sides of the ball, but this game will give Worley a chance to get some of the rhythm back that he lost in the Swamp. … Tennessee 38, South Alabama 13

UAB at VANDERBILT

Low: It was anything but a rousing performance last week by Vanderbilt at UMass. The Commodores played well enough to win, but that’s about it. Look for James Franklin’s bunch to turn up the volume this week at home. … Vanderbilt 37, UAB 14

Aschoff: The Commodores didn't exactly excite anyone with their win over UMass last week, but something tells me we'll see a much more explosive offensive performance this week. … Vanderbilt 38, UAB 17

SOUTH CAROLINA at UCF

Low: Talk about a game that has danger written all over it. The Gamecocks had better clean up their mistakes and take their A-game to UCF, or they’re going to be in trouble. They’ve had an extra week to prepare, and Connor Shaw and the offense are clicking right now. … South Carolina 31, UCF 21

Aschoff: This isn't an easy road trip for the Gamecocks. UCF is undefeated and averaging more than 30 points a game. The bye week gave South Carolina time to rest, but this one will be closer than Steve Spurrier will like. … South Carolina 31, UCF 24

FLORIDA at KENTUCKY

Low: One of these days, Kentucky is going to beat Florida again, but it won’t be this Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. The Gators will make it 27 in a row over the Wildcats. … Florida 24, Kentucky 7

Aschoff: The Gators lost two of their top players for the season in less than seven days and have to go on the road with a first-time starter at quarterback. Still, the defense has too many weapons not to get the Gators to 2-0 in SEC play. … Florida 27, Kentucky 7

TEXAS A&M at ARKANSAS

Low: It sounds like Arkansas will be without starting quarterback Allen for the second straight week, and when you’re playing Johnny Manziel & Co., you better be ready to score points in bunches. The Hogs won’t be able to keep up Saturday. … Texas A&M 41, Arkansas 21

Aschoff: The Aggies offense is running on all cylinders, while the Razorbacks will likely be without their starting quarterback again. Not a good sign for the Hogs. … Texas A&M 45, Arkansas 20

OLE MISS at ALABAMA

Low: Ole Miss is healthy and bubbling with confidence. The Rebels also have the playmakers on offense to give Alabama problems. The Crimson Tide have sort of turned it off and on this season, which drives Nick Saban crazy, but they know what’s at stake Saturday. … Alabama 35, Ole Miss 21

Aschoff: This was actually a closer game than the score indicated last season. The Rebels have the offense to top the Tide, but you have to think that Alabama's defense is tired of hearing about its shortcomings. This one will come down to the fourth quarter, and Alabama will have just a little more in the tank. … Alabama 31, Ole Miss 23

LSU at GEORGIA

Low: It’s the Zach Mettenberger Bowl. Well, not really, but Mettenberger’s return to Sanford Stadium has certainly dominated the headlines this week. The difference in this top-10 matchup, though, will be Aaron Murray and a Georgia offense that will produce enough big plays to keep the Bulldogs unbeaten in the SEC. … Georgia 38, LSU 31

Aschoff: It sounds cliché, but whichever team wins the battle up front is going to win this game. Both teams want to establish the run, and both teams have monster running games. The Todd Gurley-Jeremy Hill matchup might be one for the ages, too. Georgia survived a similar game against South Carolina, but something tells me LSU's defense is going to make a play or two late to seal this one. … LSU 35, Georgia 31

SEC Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
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Another week means another set of Power Rankings in college football's top conference:

1. Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide looked a little sluggish at times in a 31-6 win over Colorado State, but did you really think Nick Saban was going to have his guys hammer a former assistant? Yeah, neither did I. People are getting a little concerned with this team, especially with the shaky play in the secondary, but Saban has never been one for truly mashing cupcakes.

2. LSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 2): The Bayou Bengals just keep rolling, but Auburn certainly gave LSU its best test so far. Gus Malzahn's up-tempo spread registered 437 yards on LSU's defense, including 213 on the ground. But LSU spent another day in the 200-200 club when it came to passing and rushing. Jeremy Hill had a monster game with 183 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.

3. Texas A&M (3-1, 0-1 SEC; LW: 3): We wanted to see improvement from the Aggies' defense and we got it on Saturday. While the defense did surrender 434 yards, it allowed only 13 points. That's 20 points fewer than the average allowed going into the game! Johnny Manziel had another big outing and the offense churned out nearly 600 yards.

4. Georgia (2-1, 1-0 SEC; LW: 4): If not for some major special teams blunders, the Dawgs would have had a much larger margin of victory over North Texas. Special teams has been a problem for Georgia over the last few years, and that's dangerous heading into the meat of conference play. The offense is still red-hot, while the defense allowed just one score and finally kept an opponent under 450 yards of offense (245).

5. South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 5): The Gamecocks were off this week, which should have given the defense more time to prep and study what it did against Vanderbilt. That was an impressive showing by this group, and it has to keep going with a tricky road trip to face unbeaten Central Florida this weekend.

6. Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 6): The Rebels were off, which meant guys could get healthy, but it did slow down some of the momentum from that huge win at Texas. No problem. All Ole Miss has to do is get up for a trip to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 1 Alabama. With an offense that's averaging a little less than 500 yards per game and is scoring almost 40 points a contest, Saturday's showdown should be pretty fun.

7. Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC; LW: 7): The Gators were dealt a tough blow when starting quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a broken fibula in the first quarter in their 31-17 win over Tennessee. He's out for the season and now fourth-year junior backup Tyler Murphy is in. While he looked good against Tennessee, you can't measure too much against a defense with as many holes as the Vols have. Even with an elite defense, Florida is still quite the enigma in the East.

8. Missouri (3-0, 0-0 SEC; LW: 10): All of a sudden, the Tigers' offense looks pretty exciting as it's averaging 47 points and almost 600 yards a game. Say what you will about the competition it's had to face; this team is on fire when it has the ball and that's something we didn't see at all last year. Going on the road to blow out Indiana was a nice victory for Mizzou as it prepares for its last nonconference foe (Arkansas State) before conference play begins.

9. Auburn (3-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 8): The Tigers' offense was able to move the ball against LSU, but turning it over three times and going 6-for-17 on third downs won't win you many games in this conference. Also, giving up nearly 7 yards per play to LSU won't help you out, either. It's still a work in progress on the Plains, but you can see the development continue across the board for Malzahn's team.

10. Vanderbilt (2-2, 0-2 SEC; LW: 9): It was a win, but it wasn't the most glamorous win for the Commodores this weekend. Credit the UMass defense, which held Vandy to just 239 yards and 10 points through the first three quarters. Then the Dores wore down UMass to score 14 more points and generate 167 yards in the fourth quarter.

11. Arkansas (3-1, 0-0 SEC; LW: 11): The Razorbacks really gave up a golden opportunity on the road against Rutgers. After leading 24-7 late in the third quarter, the Scarlet Knights rallied to score 21 unanswered points in their 28-24 win. The Hogs' ground game, which was averaging a little less than 300 yards per game, managed just 101 yards against Rutgers. That was a bad loss for a team in rebuilding mode.

12. Mississippi State (2-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 13): Quietly, Mississippi State ran Troy out of the state Saturday with an impressive 62-7 win over the Trojans. With Dak Prescott still handling quarterback duties, the Bulldogs gained 551 yards of offense and both Prescott and receiver Jameon Lewis rushed for, threw for and caught touchdowns Saturday night. The defense also held Troy to only 186 yards of total offense.

13. Tennessee (2-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 12): When the Vols went up 7-0 in the first quarter against Florida, people in the press box joked that Butch Jones should just take a knee every down before punting in order to keep the ball away from Florida's defense. Well, he didn't, and his team turned it over six times, including four interceptions between Nathan Peterman and Justin Worley. The offense is in desperate need of playmakers and a consistent quarterback, while the defense allowed a quarterback with no true game experience to lead the Gators to a season-high 31 points and 218 total yards with two touchdowns.

14. Kentucky (1-2, 0-1 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats were off after a tough loss to Louisville the previous week. The defense played better against the Cardinals and now has to face a Florida team with a new, very inexperienced quarterback. The question is whether the Wildcats' situation at quarterback is any better.

Ducks are calling, but Vols confident

September, 12, 2013
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Butch Jones has given a beleaguered Tennessee fan base reason to believe again.

There’s a renewed energy surrounding the program. Recruiting is going like gangbusters, and the Vols have been crisp, disciplined and opportunistic in their first two games of the Jones era, including a 52-20 clubbing of Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky last weekend.

After four losing seasons in the last five years, there are telltale signs that Tennessee may finally be wresting itself from football exile.

But this weekend may be more about survival for the Vols and simply coming out in one piece.

[+] EnlargeJu'Wuan James
AP Photo/Wade PayneJu'Wuan James knows not many think Tennessee can upset No. 2 Oregon on Saturday and that's just fine with him and the rest of the Vols.
Their trip to No. 2-ranked Oregon is the start of one of the most brutal stretches in college football this season.

“All we know is we’re the only people who think we’re going to win,” Tennessee senior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. “That’s all we need.”

It would rank up there among the more shocking upset wins in Tennessee history. The Vols are nearly a four-touchdown underdog, but seem to be embracing the fact that nobody is giving them a chance.

“There’s no pressure,” Tennessee senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. “They’re the No. 2 team in the country, but who cares? It’s just a number.”

The Vols have lost 16 straight games to nationally ranked foes and last won against a ranked opponent in 2009 (No. 21 South Carolina). Overall, they’ve lost 22 of their last 23 games against ranked teams going back to the beginning of Phillip Fulmer’s final season in 2008.

It’s been a long, hard fall on Rocky Top. But regardless of what happens this Saturday on the West Coast, there’s real hope about the future.

“I think it can definitely shed some light on us and how we’ve progressed from maybe last year to this year,” Tennessee junior quarterback Justin Worley said.

Simply slowing down Oregon will be a monumental task for the Vols, who forced seven turnovers last week against Western Kentucky. The Ducks have scored 125 points, racked up 57 first downs and totaled 1,329 yards (on just 140 plays) in their first two games.

Not only are they super productive, but they run their offense at the speed of light.

The Ducks have run one play every 17 seconds this season and have had at least seven touchdown drives that have lasted two minutes or less in each of their first two games.

“They’re going to make their plays. That’s what they do,” Tennessee linebacker Brent Brewer said. “We just can’t let one turn into several.”

One of the things that has been so disheartening for Tennessee fans over the last few years is that the Vols have tended to wilt in tough situations or whenever they found themselves on the wrong end of a big play.

As much as anything, Jones wants to see how this team responds when things don’t go well, not only this Saturday, but over the next several weeks.

After the trip to Oregon comes a trip to Florida, and Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama are also on the docket before the end of October.

“It’s going to be a great challenge, but we’ll find out more about where we’re at,” Jones said. “It is what it is, but we need to focus on preparation for this week and playing winning football.

“You look at the overall nature of our schedule this year. Like I told you, some people said it’s the most difficult schedule in the history of college football, and that’s why I keep talking about competing for ourselves, championship habits, focusing on the process and being able to stand and persevere and show great resiliency.”

SEC preseason power rankings

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
9:00
AM ET
It's officially game week! We all thought it wouldn't come, but it's finally here, and in just three days we'll have our first college football games of the 2013 season!

And what's a better way to kick off one of the most glorious weeks of the year than debuting the first set of power rankings for the season?

Here's where all 14 SEC teams rank in my eyes heading into the first weekend of the season:

1. Alabama: The two-time defending national champion brings back an extremely talented defense and an All-American candidate at quarterback who will have a slew of weapons to work with. The question is if there's a team not named Alabama that can stop the Tide from winning its third straight BCS national title.

2. Texas A&M: Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel has received all the wrong kinds of attention this year, but as long as he's the Aggies' quarterback, A&M should again contend for the SEC West. Even with an ongoing investigation swirling around Johnny Football and his autographs, it doesn't sound like A&M plans to sit its star for Saturday's opener against Rice.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a wealth of defensive experience from last year's team, but they still will operate with one of the nation's best offenses. There should be no shortage of points in Georgia's opening matchup against Clemson on Saturday, and it'll provide a nice test for the Dawgs' young defense.

4. South Carolina: There are questions at linebacker and in the secondary, but having arguably the SEC's best defensive line could help mask some issues behind it early. Oh, and Jadeveon Clowney is still roaming around out there. The Gamecocks also should have quite the balanced offense to work with this fall, even if two quarterbacks are sharing snaps at times.

5. Florida: The defense lost some key starters from last year, but it looks like year's defense won't miss much of a beat given the quality reps returners got last year. The offense is still a mystery, especially the passing game, as a consistent receiving target has to emerge. Also, not having running back Matt Jones after the first week would be a major blow.

6. LSU: The return of running back Jeremy Hill and the maturation of quarterback Zach Mettenberger mean the Tigers should have a better and more explosive offense in 2013. It'll help to have a solid line and all of Mettenberger's top receiving targets returning, but can that rebuilt defense help get LSU back into BCS contention this fall?

7. Vanderbilt: Off-field distractions could be clouding the minds of these players, but coach James Franklin has made sure to keep his guys as focused as possible. Expectations are higher than ever, as a very good -- and underrated -- defense returns, while the offense has the potential to be very explosive again. However, if starting receiver Chris Boyd misses time due to his suspension, Vanderbilt could be in trouble.

8. Ole Miss: The expectations are higher in Oxford than they have been in years, but second-year coach Hugh Freeze would like those tempered a bit. Nineteen starters return, including All-SEC candidates Donte Moncrief and Bo Wallace. It's hard not to think the Rebels will build off the success Freeze had in his first year. Depth is still an issue in certain areas, and the start of the schedule is brutal.

9. Auburn: With Gus Malzahn back on the Plains and Ellis Johnson working with the defense, the Tigers have the recipe to be better in 2013. No longer will coaches be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole on offense, and Johnson has proved to be a great at developing talent. Those are two things that lacked in last year's team. Also, Malzahn has said he's very comfortable with junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall, who fits his offense perfectly.

10. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen is looking to take the Bulldogs to their fourth straight bowl game. The talent is certainly there to do it, but the road to the postseason will be challenging. Mississippi State has to replace its top four receiving threats and three starters in the secondary, including Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. Having veterans Tyler Russell and LaDarius Perkins working behind a solid offensive line will help, but this team has to generate more pressure from its defensive line.

11. Missouri: The Tigers' SEC debut didn't go well at all last year, but injuries were a major factor. The offensive line is healthier, but communication issues in the spring really hurt the offense's growth. The hope is that the talent at receiver lives up to its potential, while the defense has to make strides at linebacker and in the secondary.

12. Tennessee: New coach Butch Jones has brought a lot of excitement to the program, and he's building for the future. But in the present, a lot of questions remain, especially on offense. So much receiving talent is gone, and recently named starting quarterback Justin Worley has little experience. The defense returns a lot of experience and should be better-suited to run John Jancek's 4-3 defensive scheme.

13. Arkansas: There's no question Bret Bielema's presence in Fayetteville has generated some much-needed excitement, but the personnel has to match Bielema's intensity. Right now, the name of the game is making sure players adapt to Bielema's more physical style. The inexperienced receiving corps has been ravaged by injuries plus a transfer, and the defense still has a lot of questions at linebacker and in the secondary.

14. Kentucky: New coach Mark Stoops has known since day one that fixing the problems at the offensive skill positions was going to be tough. A quarterback has to be found, consistency at receiver must develop, and the running backs have to stay healthy. Defensively, the line is one of the SEC's best, but there are holes at linebacker and in the secondary. A turnaround is possible, but this team has a long way to go.

SEC media days primer

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

Where: Hoover, Ala.

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

Five biggest topics:

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

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

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

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

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

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