NCF Nation: Knowshon Moreno

Ultimate ESPN 300: Top surprises in the SEC 

February, 17, 2015
Feb 17
When the Ultimate ESPN 300 was released on Monday, there were some noticeable surprises. Some players shot to near the top of the list early on in their careers, while other players weren’t ranked high coming out of college but now appear on this prestigious list. Here’s a closer look at some of the top surprises in the SEC.

Murray's injury puts damper on home finale

November, 24, 2013
ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia sent its seniors out the right way with a 59-17 pummeling of Kentucky on Saturday night, but the Bulldogs lost perhaps their most valuable senior of all.

Quarterback Aaron Murray -- who has started every game of his career and on Saturday tied David Greene's school record for most career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- injured his left knee in the second quarter and needed assistance to reach the locker room.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he does not expect Murray to play next Saturday against Georgia Tech, but would not rule him out for the Bulldogs' bowl game, pending the results of an MRI on the injured knee.

“It just was hard to have a lot of fun,” Richt said after the game. “Even right now, I'm glad we won and I'm really proud of how we did, but it's kind of a crummy feeling right now when you think about what Aaron is going through.”

Prior to the injury, Saturday's game was shaping up as a glorious going-away party for the senior quarterback in his final game at Sanford Stadium.

He was the centerpiece of an emotional pregame ceremony to honor Georgia's 28 departing seniors, with the home crowd offering a raucous ovation when the SEC's all-time leading passer was the final Bulldog to be introduced. Murray had tossed four touchdown passes (he finished 18-for-23 for 183 yards) and in the first quarter became the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000-plus yards in four seasons.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/John BazemoreAaron Murray will have an MRI on his left knee to determine the extent of his injury.
But Kentucky defensive lineman Za'Darius Smith slammed Murray to the ground after a pass to Rhett McGowan deflected off the senior receiver and floated to Wildcats linebacker Khalid Henderson at the Kentucky 2-yard line. Murray immediately motioned to the training staff that he needed assistance, and they walked him directly to the locker room with Murray struggling to put any weight on his left leg.

He left Sanford Stadium during the third quarter to undergo an MRI at Athens' St. Mary's Hospital and did not return.

“You could tell in his body language he was hurt,” backup quarterback Hutson Mason said. “It wasn't the same Murray.”

And it was yet another injury in a fall where the Bulldogs (7-4, 5-3 SEC) already lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley for the season, while tailback Todd Gurley and receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett also missed multiple games with an assortment of injuries.

“He did mention that was about how our season has gone as far as injuries and everything,” Richt said of his conversation with Murray at halftime. “It was tough.”

Mason did an admirable job as Murray's replacement -- he finished 13-for-19 for 189 yards and one touchdown, plus a 1-yard scoring plunge -- but Murray's injury put a major damper on what should have been a happy final outing between the hedges for the seniors.

“Seeing Aaron go down, that was tough. That's one of my best friends. He was one of my groomsmen at my wedding, and seeing him go down, I never want him to go down because most of the time it's my fault,” said senior offensive guard Chris Burnette, whose wife, Arielle, was one of Murray's classmates at Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School.

The Bulldogs quickly made it clear that there would be no lingering hangover in the wake of last week's devastating 43-38 loss at Auburn, when the Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play. Georgia needed only three plays to score its first touchdown -- on a 9-yard pass from Murray to McGowan -- and led Kentucky 21-0 after its first three possessions.

Murray and Gurley were the stars of the early onslaught, with the pair hooking up for a 16-yard touchdown where Gurley soared into the end zone -- reminding Bulldogs fans of Knowshon Moreno's memorable 2008 touchdown dive against Arizona State -- that put Georgia up 14-0.

By the time Gurley left in the third quarter of the blowout, he had rushed eight times for 77 yards, caught five passes for 90 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Not to be miss out on the fun, Georgia's defense posted perhaps its finest outing of the season. A week after surrendering 566 yards to Auburn's potent offense, the Bulldogs held Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) to 211 yards -- 69 of which came on Dyshawn Mobley's first-quarter touchdown run, with 30 more coming on a Maxwell Smith touchdown pass to Javess Blue against the defensive reserves late in the fourth quarter.

“We got some turnovers, too, which was good to see,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose defense recovered three of Kentucky's six fumbles, with those turnovers leading to 21 Bulldogs points. “Kentucky has not turned the ball over a lot.”

Richt credited the seniors for holding the team together through the spate of injuries and a disappointing season that started with a top-five ranking and BCS title aspirations.

“Even though the season had certain expectations and certain hopes got dashed along the way, the leadership was great,” Richt said. “The unity of our team was rock solid because of those guys. And I've said it a couple times, this was a fun team to coach, but I think it was mostly because of the seniors and how they led this year.”

Posted by's Ted Miller

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State has been utterly dominant while winning its first two games. The Sun Devils' defense is ranked No. 1 in the nation. The offense ranks ninth with 44 points a game.

Now, take that information, crumple it up and throw it out the window. Coach Dennis Erickson knows that pounding on Idaho State and Louisiana-Monroe means little.

Matt Kartozian/US Presswire
Saturday's game at Sanford Stadium will be Danny Sullivan's first start on the road.
A trip to No. 17 Georgia on Saturday? That's a bit of an upgrade in competition.

"We'll find out a little bit more about what we are as a team, that's the bottom line," Erickson said. "It doesn't matter who they are or what their rank is. We're [asking] right now, 'where are we at as a football team?'"

Erickson repeated variations of those sentiments to a variety of questions: Georgia will be a measuring stick for the Sun Devils.

If they manage to win, or least keep things competitive into the fourth quarter, they might become a top-half of the Pac-10 team, though the Bulldogs probably aren't in the class of California or USC this season.

If they can't keep up, then Arizona State likely falls in with the gaggle of teams scrapping for six wins and bowl eligibility in the lower-middle, bottom-third of the conference.

Of course, one game, win or lose, doesn't a season make. It's possible the Sun Devils in Athens, Ga., won't be anything like the Sun Devils in November. Still, this is the first chance to evaluate Arizona State against a first-rate BCS conference team.

Georgia opened a can of whup butt on the Sun Devils last year, the 27-10 count not doing justice to the Bulldogs dominance.

Georgia took a 21-3 lead into halftime and mostly coasted home. They outrushed the Sun Devils 176 yards to 4 and outgained them overall 461-212.

"They pretty much dominated us," Erickson said. "We didn't play very well and they played well."

The first question is how Arizona State quarterback Danny Sullivan will handle his first start on the road in one of the nation's tougher venues -- "Between the Hedges" at Sanford Stadium.

That's impossible to say. Sullivan is a senior, but the last time he faced a fast, elite defense, he crumbled after coming off the bench in 2008 against USC. And that was at home.

While the Georgia defense doesn't compare to USC -- it's given up 34 points per game -- two of those games were on the road, so the home crowd should help.

"Until you go in there and experience it, you just don't know," Erickson said.

On the other hand, this is a different group of Sun Devils. The defense is deeper and faster than last year's and, while there's lots of experience, a youth movement led by tackles Lawrence Guy, a sophomore, and William Sutton and Corey Adams as well as linebacker Vontaze Burfict -- all true freshmen -- is most intriguing.

Yet the biggest difference might be on the offensive line.

In 2008, the Sun Devils started converted defensive lineman Jon Hargis at left tackle and 289-pound redshirt freshman Adam Tello at right tackle. Things didn't go well for either.

A far more experienced Hargis is now the left guard, while Tello is his backup. NFL prospect Shawn Lauvao moved out to left tackle, while guard Matt Hustad and tackle Tom Njunge give the Sun Devils far more athleticism on the right side. Neither was healthy last year.

Is it a great offensive line? No. But last year's unit didn't have a chance -- the Sun Devils ranked 113th in the nation in rushing and surrendered 34 sacks (109th in the nation). This time around, it might.

"We're much more solid, we have more depth," Erickson said. "We're playing a little bit better, technique-wise and so forth. We made some moves to get our best players in the right positions. As we go through the next 10 weeks, if we lose a guy or two, we'll put people out there who play pretty well. I like where we're at. Are we a great offensive line? No, but we're getting better all the time and we're better now than we were at this time last year."

Georgia, meanwhile, entered the season having to replace running back Knowshon Moreno and quarterback Matt Stafford, NFL first-round picks who dominated the action in last year's game. The Bulldogs seem to be getting their legs under them after opening with a loss at Oklahoma State. They had just 257 total yards against the Cowboys but piled up 530 yards Saturday in their win over Arkansas.

"Joe Cox is playing extremely well at quarterback," Erickson said. "The last two weeks, I didn't see any drop-off."

A key matchup will be Bulldogs sophomore receiver A.J. Green against the Sun Devils secondary, particularly cornerback Omar Bolden. Last year, Green dominated Bolden, catching eight passes for 159 yards and a touchdown.

Erickson's advice to his team on handling the frenzy of a road game in an SEC stadium? Have fun.

"You talk to our players about it and they're excited to go down there and experience [that]," he said. "It's going to be fun; they're looking forward to it."

Sounds like the Sun Devils are eager to find out who they really are in 2009.

Posted by's Chris Low

Brandon Spikes came back to Florida for all the right reasons.

He's on track to get his degree. He wanted another year of college football to fine-tune his game and couldn't bear the thought of bailing on Tim Tebow and the rest of the guys he came to Florida with in 2006.

And if you're into winning championships, which Spikes certainly is, the lure of winning a third BCS national title can also be mighty persuasive.

  AP Photo/Phil Sandlin
  Brandon Spikes was asked to take on a larger leadership role this past season.

Still, had it not been for the advice of Spikes' older brother, Breyon Middlebrooks, the same brother currently serving a life sentence without parole in a North Carolina prison, Spikes would probably be getting ready for the NFL draft right now instead of winding down spring practice with the Gators.

Middlebrooks, convicted of first-degree murder in 2003 for his role in a drug deal gone bad, implored his younger brother to make the best decision for him ... and nobody else.

That included Middlebrooks.

"It really took a lot of pressure off of me when he said that," said Spikes, who was to the Florida defense last season what Tebow was to the offense. "I thought he might try and tell me to do this and do that. But my brother has never been a selfish person. I've always respected that about him. He had his chance. He was a great football player, a great athlete, but took a different road. He's told me to learn from his mistakes, and I have."

Much of Spikes' motivation to turn pro would have been financially driven in order to retain an attorney to help his brother get in front of another appellate court.

Middlebrooks' first murder trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted in a second trial in 2003. An appeal in 2005 was denied. Middlebrooks has admitted that he was at the scene where the drug deal went down, but contends that he wasn't the shooter and the murder was an accident.

Spikes, who talks to his brother by phone, knows that reversing the conviction is a long shot. But he's not giving up hope.

As he went back and forth this past January on whether or not he should turn pro, Spikes couldn't get the image of his brother confined to that tiny jail cell out of his head.

That's when he made the call that ultimately led him back to Florida.

"I asked him what he wanted me to do," recounted Spikes, who was projected as a first-round pick by NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. "He just told me that he didn't want me to base my decision on him. I think people know that I play this game to try and help out my brother and my family one day financially. But when I heard that, I knew it wasn't the right time and went with my heart.

"Everything happens for a reason, so I'm here, happy, playing to get better and playing for another championship."

The 6-foot-3, 258-pound Spikes was one of the best linebackers in the country a year ago. He led the Gators with 93 total tackles and also intercepted four passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He was a consensus first-team All-American and the kind of player that set the tone with everything he did.

"He knows that we go as he goes," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "The guys on this defense follow his lead."

It's a responsibility that Spikes didn't fully take to heart until last season.

As a sophomore, he racked up 131 total tackles and became the first underclassman to earn first-team All-SEC honors at linebacker from the coaches since 1999. But it was more: He did his thing and everybody else did their thing.

Following the spring game last season, Florida coach Urban Meyer sat down with Spikes and told him he had to be more of a leader if the Gators were going to recover from their poor showing defensively in 2007.

  Paul Abell/US Presswire
  Brandon Spikes led the Gators with 93 total tackles and was a consensus first-team All-American.

"I guess it's really something I didn't understand or just shied away from at first," Spikes said. "I knew I was a playmaker. But ever since I've been small, people have been telling me the same thing, that the team's going to go as I go and that guys are going to fall in behind me.

"I don't know that I really believed it, though, until I got to the college level and especially last year. I just thought people were telling me that. But here, there's a bunch of grown men out there. You see them following your lead, and you know it's serious. They see how I play with so much energy and how crazy I get out there, and it just sort of rubs off."

It wasn't just on the field, either.

Spikes routinely called players-only meetings and went out of his way to make sure guys were bonding away from football.

As for getting his message across, he's a pretty vocal person. But he also has a steely-eyed glare about him that doesn't require a whole lot of words.

"He's got enough energy for the whole team," junior cornerback Joe Haden said. "If you're not playing with that same kind of energy or practicing with that same kind of energy, you're going to hear about it. A lot of times, he doesn't even have to say anything."

During games, Spikes is a renowned talker.

One of his favorite ploys is to tee off on an opposing player with a punishing tackle and then remind him that the next hit is going to be even worse.

Case in point: His pile-drive of Georgia's Knowshon Moreno on the second play of the game last season in Jacksonville. Moreno, who had shredded Florida for 188 yards and three touchdowns the year before, was never the same.

And neither were the Bulldogs.

Meyer called it the play of the year for the Gators, who went on to crush the Bulldogs 49-10.

Spikes' message to Moreno was short and sweet as the two lay on the ground, helmet to helmet.

"I'm going to be here all day," Spikes barked.

It was the start of a suffocating defensive run by Florida that culminated with a 24-14 win over Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game.

With virtually everybody returning on defense who made a play last season for the Gators, Spikes insists there's another level for this defense.

He said the same goes for him.

"I have to get more disciplined," Spikes said. "I made a lot of plays last year not even using the right technique. I guess I never really paid a lot of attention to the details before, but that's what will make me a better player, being more disciplined and being better with the fundamentals.

"We're going to go even harder this year, because we know people are goin
g to come harder after us. If people think we're going to get complacent, then they can think again. That's not the way we do things around here."

Posted by's Chris Low

ATHENS, Ga. -- Blink for just a millisecond in the SEC, and you risk being cast off into football oblivion.

That said, wasn't it just yesterday that Mark Richt was the fresh-faced newbie of the league, a Bobby Bowden protégé from Florida State, who was about to endear himself to Georgia fans forever with his signature "hobnail boot" victory over Tennessee?

  Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
  Georgia coach Mark Richt is feeling confident heading into the 2009 season.

The truth is that was eight years ago, and there have been 17 head coaching changes in the SEC since Richt took over at Georgia in 2001. He enters next season as the longest-tenured head coach in the league at the same school.

With Phillip Fulmer and Tommy Tuberville being pushed out following last season, Richt suddenly finds himself as the dean of a conference that chews up and spits out head coaches.

"It changes fast, and you have to be willing to change with it," said Richt, who's been the hallmark of consistency at Georgia.

He's won 10 or more games in six of his eight seasons, and the Bulldogs have finished in the top 10 in the polls five of the past seven seasons. Richt is also one of only six head coaches who has won 80 or more NCAA Division I football games in his first eight seasons, joining the likes of Pete Carroll, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Barry Switzer, George Woodruff and Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Along the way, Richt has won two SEC championships and six bowl games, including two wins in BCS bowls.

About the only thing he hasn't done is beat Florida consistently or win a national title.

Richt is committed to doing both, but he's not consumed by either.

"My goal is to watch these guys become men and develop into the best possible football player they can be," Richt said. "My goal is to get a team to reach its full potential on a yearly basis and come out of here better men than when they showed up.

"We absolutely want to win a national championship. We have the goal set to do that. But the national championship goal is one you really don't control. You can control winning the East and control winning the SEC and then hope two other cats on the other side of the country didn't go undefeated.

"We've won 82 games in eight years, (tied with LSU) for the most of anybody in the league. We've either won or shared the East four out of eight years. So we've done a nice job. But because of the national championship, if you haven't won that, then people say, 'You haven't done it yet.'"

(Read full post)

Posted by's Chris Low

ATHENS, Ga. -- Joe Cox is accustomed to waiting in the shadows.

The fifth-year senior quarterback played for two years behind former Florida quarterback Chris Leak at Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C., before getting his chance.

He's waited for four years at Georgia, playing the past two years behind the guy who might be the No. 1 pick in April's NFL draft, Matthew Stafford.

  Joe Cox finally has a chance to be Georgia's starting quarterback.

So forgive Cox if he's soaking in everything this spring and leaving nothing to chance. This is his only shot to lead this football team the way he wants to.

Sure, he's always been a leader behind the scenes, a guy who knows the playbook inside and out, a guy who does things the right way and a guy who's been there in any capacity whenever the team has needed him.

As a redshirt freshman three years ago, he came off the bench to bail the Bulldogs out against Colorado and threw a game-winning touchdown pass with 46 seconds remaining.

But it's his team now, and with Knowshon Moreno, Mohamad Massaquoi and Stafford all gone, the challenge to keep the Georgia offensive machine going will be a daunting one.

It's a challenge Cox insists he's up to, and more importantly, one his coaches and teammates insist he's up to.

Cox, a fiery redhead, sat down with me on Thursday, and here's my Q&A with him:

With Stafford's career taking off the last two years, did you ever think you were in the wrong place at the wrong time? You probably could have been the starter at a lot of other schools.

JC: I never tried to look at it that way, because I knew it wouldn't do me any good. I knew when I signed here that this was the place for me and where I wanted to be no matter if I was playing or not. I knew they were going to be bringing in top players at every position every year. It was definitely difficult not playing, but I still tried to look at the positives. I learned a lot and felt like I helped the younger guys, being in the huddle with them and helping them get on the field quicker.

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Posted by's Heather Dinich

Admit it. You look around and see the big, bad SEC playing its conference championship game while the ACC hands out free Super Bowl tickets hoping somebody, anybody besides me will come watch this rerun of last year's game and it makes you drool with envy. Green envy.

You see that man with the bum knee shuffling around Happy Valley, and wish that your coach in Tallahassee was the winningest coach in college football, while quietly mumbling curses on the NCAA. You see Bradfords and McCoys throwing for more yardage than you drive to work and wish you, too, had a Heisman Trophy candidate to talk about over the water cooler.

That's what we're all about here today in the blogosphere. Anything green, anything Irish, and envy tops the list. Happy St. Patrick's Day, my envious ACC friends.

Here are three things the ACC envies about other conferences:

1. The Big 12 and SEC conference title games -- Imagine, the ACC championship game not only drawing a packed stadium, but essentially featuring two teams in a play-in game for the national championship. The SEC's title game has drawn capacity crowds in 15 of its 17 games. There were 75,892 fans who saw Florida beat Alabama last year, and the ACC had 27,360 for the repeat of Virginia Tech vs. Boston College. And the Big 12? That title game generated more attention than the ACC championship before Texas, er, Oklahoma even took the field.

2. The SEC and Pac-10 BCS bowl records -- The ACC was overjoyed to win its second BCS bowl game in 11 tries last year. Baby steps, ACC, baby steps. The SEC is 12-5 in BCS bowls and the Pac-10 is 9-4. They both have had at least six different schools play in BCS bowls while the ACC has had four. Florida State, Maryland, Virginia and Wake Forest have all represented, but the once mighty Seminoles are 1-5 and the Hokies are 1-2.

3. Heisman hopefuls -- It goes beyond Big 12 quarterbacks. The Big Ten had Shonn Greene and Javon Ringer, the SEC had Tim Tebow and Knowshon Moreno, the Pac-10 had Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. Even the Big East had Pat White and Donald Brown to throw in the mix. Heck, Ball State quarterback Nate Davis got some consideration. Meanwhile, ACC fans are still talking about Chris Weinke and Charlie Ward. Somebody cue up "Glory Days" from the Boss.

Who will break out in the SEC?

February, 27, 2009

Posted by's Chris Low

Who are the players who will emerge from the shadows?

You know, those guys who've shown flashes, but either haven't been on the big stage consistently or haven't reached star status ... yet.

Here are five guys I think may break out next season in the SEC:

Vanderbilt cornerback Myron Lewis: Talk to newly promoted Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant very long, and it's obvious what the coaches think of Lewis. There's no question that he was overshadowed by D.J. Moore last season, but the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Lewis may end up being an even better NFL prospect. He'll be the Commodores' lockdown cover guy this season and he has the versatility to play a number of different roles. He was tied for fourth on the team last season with 76 tackles, finished among the league leaders with five interceptions and is one of the better blitzers on the team as evidenced by his five sacks. He's the kind of player you can build your defense around.

Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez: Much like Lewis, Hernandez was a full-time starter for Florida last season. He took over the lead role at tight end after Cornelius Ingram went down in the preseason with a knee injury. But in a league laden with quality tight ends, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Hernandez flew under the radar. He didn't even receive honorable mention on the Associated Press' All-SEC team last season despite leading all tight ends with five touchdown catches. In 2009, Hernandez will be at the top of everybody's list. He has great hands. He's a physical blocker and can be utilized in a number of different ways. The Gators love to use him on the shovel pass, and they run it better than anybody.

Georgia tailback Caleb King: One of the most intriguing position battles next season in the SEC will be the Georgia starting tailback job. The front-runner is King, although Richard Samuel will also be a big part of the rotation. But with Knowshon Moreno gone and after so much hype about his potential, this is the 5-foot-11, 212-pound King's time to shine and he knows it. He rushed for just 247 yards on 61 carries last season, but Moreno was the centerpiece of the Georgia running game. Here's betting that King seizes this opportunity during his junior season and showcases what kind of back he really is behind an offensive line that should be one of the strengths of the team in 2009.

LSU safety Chad Jones: He's one of the more versatile athletes in the SEC, and 2009 is the season that Jones becomes one of the better football players in the SEC. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound Jones has shown just enough during his first two years that you know he has greatness written all over him. But with a new defensive coordinator (John Chavis) and new position coach (Ron Cooper), look for Jones to not only be a full-time starter, but much more consistent. The other thing that should help him is that he won't miss any spring practice to play baseball for the Tigers this spring. Despite starting in just six games last season, Jones still tied for sixth on the team with 50 total tackles and also forced two fumbles. Those numbers will only climb next season.

Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Trahan: If there were any questions about Trahan, they were erased at the end of last season when he played lights out for the Rebels. He had a sack and forced a fumble in the Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech and finished the season 11th on the team in total tackles. Despite starting in just two games, he recorded 4.5 tackles for loss. It sometimes takes a year or part of a year for a junior college transfer to fully adjust, but Trahan will be an integral part of the Rebels' defense in 2009. He goes in as the starter at weakside linebacker and has all the tools to be one of the best big-play defenders in the league. Remember, the Ole Miss defense under Tyrone Nix last season had a staggering 111 tackles for loss.

Posted by's Chris Low

Georgia's Jeff Owens was like any other Bulldog a year ago. He couldn't wait for the season to begin.

  Doug Benc/Getty Images
  Jeff Owens is hoping to bounce back from a torn ACL.

The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in the country, and Owens was one of the anchors of the defense from his tackle position. He was primed for a big senior season.

But in the first quarter of the opener against Georgia Southern, his season was over. He tore the ACL in his right knee while running to make a play. He jumped over a player, landed awkwardly on his right knee -- and just like that -- was done for the season.

Because Owens hadn't previously redshirted, he was eligible to return to Georgia for the 2009 season and elected to do so rather than test the NFL waters. Projected as a high NFL draft pick before his injury, Owens will team with Geno Atkins to give Georgia the best tackle tandem in the SEC.

Owens is still working his way back to full health, but said he's getting close.

Here's my conversation with the 6-foot-3, 298-pound senior, who had started in 15 straight games before his injury and will be an integral part of the Georgia defense in 2009:

What percentage are you right now coming off that knee injury?

Jeff Owens: I'd have to say I'm about 75 or 80 percent, around that area. I'm doing close to everything. I'm running now, and that's a big plus. I'm getting my strength back, and everything is coming along well.

How difficult was last season, especially watching the defense struggle at times?

JO: It was rough; your senior year and you get hurt and you know you could have helped your teammates out there. But you've got to bounce back and weather the storm. Injuries always happen. They happen every year, and it unfortunately happened to me. It wasn't just me, either. We had a lot of guys get hurt last year.

When was it the hardest for you?

JO: When they'd get ready to go on the road and I couldn't travel with the team. I'd just have to sit back at home and watch. That hurt me more than you will know. I think it was the lowest point in my life so far. I knew I just had to have the courage to get back out there and work hard. There's nothing fun about rehabbing an ACL tear.

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Posted by's Chris Low

Let's take a look at what's making headlines around the SEC:

Posted by's Chris Low

Mark Richt's job at Georgia next season is about to get a lot harder.

Multiple reports say quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno will announce at a 3 p.m. news conference Wednesday that they plan to forego their senior seasons and enter the NFL draft.

Stafford apparently wrestled with his decision and talked to several people, including the Manning family. Both Peyton and Eli stayed in school all four years and were both No. 1 picks.

With Stafford and Moreno gone, the Bulldogs will fall back into the pack as far as hype and won't face near the expectations they did this season. They were preseason No. 1 in the polls, but battled injuries and never came close to playing to that level.

Joe Cox, who will be a senior, is the favorite to replace Stafford at quarterback. Cox has at least played some and knows what it's like to face SEC defenses. The Bulldogs also like Logan Gray, who's athletic enough that he returned some punts this season. Gray will be a third-year sophomore next season.

The two incoming freshmen at quarterback are Aaron Murray of Tampa, Fla., and Zach Mettenberger of Watkinsville, Ga. Murray was the top-rated quarterback in the state of Florida last year and can run and pass. Mettenberger is closer to being the pure pocket passer of the two. Both players are midterm enrollees and will be able to go through spring practice.

Winning Moreno's tailback job will be a battle between Richard Samuel and Caleb King. But as the Bulldogs have shown in the past, they will play multiple players back there. Samuel passed King this season on the depth chart, but both players are immensely talented.

Posted by's Chris Low

It's been an exceedingly long season for Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.

Bring up his name to just about anybody in the Bulldog Nation and cover your ears.

 Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
 Georgia's defense held star Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer to 47 yards on 20 carries.

Who could blame Martinez then if he was a little bummed about seeing the final seconds tick off the clock Thursday in Georgia's 24-12 victory over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl?

This had to be a performance he wanted to savor.

His Georgia defense was masterful, capping a season in which the Bulldogs' D was anything but.

Time and time again, Georgia's defense saved the offense in the first half. Michigan State ran 26 plays in Georgia territory in the first half, but managed just two field goals. And twice in the first quarter, the Bulldogs turned the ball over on their side of the 50, but Georgia's defense kept the Spartans out of the end zone both times.

Michigan State star tailback Javon Ringer never got going against the Bulldogs and was held to 47 yards on 20 carries. The Spartans finished with just 236 yards of total offense and were 4 of 16 on third down.

Georgia sacked Michigan State quarterbacks six times, and that's after collecting an SEC-low 18 sacks in 12 regular-season games.

Frankly, Georgia's defense played so well that you almost had to rub your eyes and wonder if this was the same bunch of guys on the field that were shredded at times this season.

Not that Martinez or anybody at Georgia needs to be reminded, but the Bulldogs allowed 38 or more points in four of their last five games of the regular season. They were torched for 409 rushing yards by Georgia Tech in the finale at home.

It wasn't pretty with regard to the defense the last month in Athens, and that's putting it mildly.

But the time off allowed the Bulldogs to get a little healthier on that side of the ball, to gather themselves emotionally and ultimately produce one of their best defensive showings of the season.

It's the sixth time in eight years at Georgia that Mark Richt has won 10 or more games, at least a small consolation for a team that started the season ranked No. 1 in the country.

Now the waiting begins.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who looked like an NFL quarterback in the second half after a slow start, is pondering his football future. He would be one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the draft if he decides to come out. Tailback Knowshon Moreno will also decide whether or not to turn pro.

As important as getting a win was Thursday for the Bulldogs, these next few days might be even more important. The deadline for underclassmen to declare is Jan. 15.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State had the lead at halftime, but the Spartans didn't have the momentum they needed in the Capital One Bowl against No. 15 Georgia.

 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 The Georgia defense never allowed Javon Ringer to get on track.

A more talented but seemingly disinterested Georgia team gave No. 18 Michigan State numerous opportunities to take control of the game. The Spartans ran 26 plays in Bulldogs territory in the opening half but produced only six points. That's nowhere near good enough. Michigan State easily could have been ahead by double digits.

The missed opportunities wound up costing the Spartans in a 24-12 loss.

Credit Georgia's much-maligned defense for shutting down Spartans star Javon Ringer (47 yards) and putting quarterback Brian Hoyer under constant duress. The game was won at the line of scrimmage, and Georgia's speed in the defensive front proved to be the difference. Michigan State (9-4) needed a strong performance from its offensive line to spring Ringer, and it didn't get one.

In many ways, the Capital One Bowl mirrored another near miss by a Big Ten team. Like Michigan State, Northwestern dominated the first half against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl but found itself tied at the break because of a few miscues. The Wildcats went on to lose.

Put bluntly, this year's bowl matchups were terrible for the Big Ten, but both Michigan State and Northwestern had opportunities for upsets and neither team could convert.

Credit Michigan State coordinator Pat Narduzzi and a defense that came to play today. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford looked bewildered during the first half, and the Spartans frustrated Bulldogs star Knowshon Moreno.

Georgia Vs. Big Ten in Bowls
2009 Capital One Michigan St. W, 24-12
2004 Outback Wisconsin W, 24-21
2003 Capital One Purdue W, 34-27
1999 Outback Purdue W, 28-25
1997 Outback Wisconsin W, 33-6
1992 Citrus Ohio St. W, 21-14
1988 Gator Michigan St. W, 34-27
Note: Georgia is 1-2 vs. Big Ten teams in regular-season games.

With a bigger lead entering the third quarter, Michigan State's defense might have continued to surge. But Stafford got things together and made several brilliant throws to rally his team. By the time Michigan State got in the end zone, Georgia's talent-stocked offense was rolling along.

Despite the loss, Michigan State made major strides this season and head coach Mark Dantonio got everything out of his players. The program is on the upswing.

The Spartans must make upgrades throughout their offense -- quarterback, wide receiver, line -- and find a way to replace Ringer's production. They really could have used a game-changer like Devin Thomas today. The defense loses only three starters and should be much stronger in 2009 behind Greg Jones and Trevor Anderson.

The Big Ten falls to 1-4 in bowl games and remains on pace for the worst postseason in its history. Iowa looked dominant and both Michigan State and Northwestern had bright spots in defeat, but the Big Ten desperately needs a BCS win from Penn State or Ohio State.

Capital One Bowl preview

January, 1, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Lost amid the Big Ten bowl bashing is the league's four-game win streak against the SEC in the Capital One Bowl, considered by many to be the most prestigious non-BCS postseason contest. It's up to No. 18 Michigan State to continue the trend today against No. 15 Georgia (ABC, 1 p.m. ET).

Here's a look at the matchup.

WHO TO WATCH: Arguably no player in the country meant more to his team this season than Michigan State senior running back Javon Ringer, the nation's third-leading rusher. Without Ringer's steady production, particularly in the first half of the season, Michigan State wouldn't be playing on New Year's Day. Georgia has struggled to stop the run all season but will load up against Ringer, daring Spartans quarterback Brian Hoyer to win the game.

WHAT TO WATCH: Michigan State's defense has contained comparable opponents but collapsed against elite offenses this season. It's time for the Spartans to step up. Georgia boasts future NFL players at all the skill positions and could overwhelm Michigan State. But Pat Narduzzi's unit is as healthy as it has been all season, and if the front four put pressure on Matthew Stafford, an upset is possible.

WHY TO WATCH: No bowl game features a better matchup of running backs, as Ringer squares off against Georgia's Knowshon Moreno. The Doak Walker Award finalists have combined for 2,928 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns this season. Ringer's strength and incredible durability (nation-high 370 carries) has sparked Michigan State, while Moreno is the most exciting back in the country.

Capital One Bowl preview

January, 1, 2009

Posted by's Chris Low

WHO TO WATCH: The best young player in the SEC? The debate over Georgia receiver A.J. Green and Alabama receiver Julio Jones will last all offseason. Green enters this game with an SEC-leading 951 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches. He just got better and better as the season progressed. And even though he's a freshman, he's shown some real toughness by fighting through a season-long groin injury. He's just a special talent who makes extraordinary plays look so easy. Those are the ones who are a treat to watch play.

WHAT TO WATCH: You can almost hear Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez in his pre-game meeting with his guys, something along the lines of: "Wrap up this Javon Ringer fellow. Don't get yourself out of position. Let's gang tackle. Don't let him get started early. Go after him and send a message." Tackling has not been the Bulldogs' forte this season, and breaking tackles has very much been Ringer's specialty. He carried the ball 370 times this season, more than anybody else in the country.

WHY TO WATCH: It's not a pleasant thought for Georgia fans, but this is very likely the last time we'll see quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno on the field in a college football game. Both are weighing their NFL draft options, and there are strong indications that both will come out. It's not every day that a run-pass combo like Stafford and Moreno comes along. And when you consider the injuries the Bulldogs suffered in the offensive line this season, it makes you appreciate even more how good both Stafford and Moreno have been. Between them, they've accounted for 40 touchdowns.