NCF Nation: Marcus Roberson

Florida Gators season preview

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
10:30
AM ET

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Florida Gators:

2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)

Final grade for 2013 season: Pardon the pun, but there's just no way to give a passing grade to a team that could hardly complete a forward pass. An incomplete grade might be warranted by the Gators' ridiculous number of injuries, but the final judgement for these Gators is inescapable. The team that lost home games to FCS Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt, lost seven games in a row and broke its 22-year bowl streak gets a well-deserved F.

Key losses: DT Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, DB Jaylen Watkins, LB Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, QB Tyler Murphy, DB Cody Riggs

Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Matt Jones, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR/KR Andre Debose, RT Chaz Green, LT D.J. Humphries, C Max Garcia, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, CB Vernon Hargreaves III

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDante Fowler Jr., a preseason All-SEC first-team player, hopes to lead the Gators back to respectability.
Projected starters: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Latroy Pittman, TE Jake McGee, LT D.J. Humphries, LG Tyler Moore, C Max Garcia, RG Trenton Brown, RT Chaz Green, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DT Leon Orr, DT Darious Cummings, DE Jonathan Bullard, LB Neiron Ball, LB Antonio Morrison, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Jalen Tabor, S Jabari Gorman, S Marcus Maye

Instant impact newcomers: TE Jake McGee (senior transfer from Virginia), CB Jalen Tabor, CB Duke Dawson, DL Gerald Willis III, OT David Sharpe

Breakout player: Florida expects its offense to be improved, but the Gators, under coach Will Muschamp, are still all about defense. Sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis has drawn raves from coaches and teammates for being a high-motor playmaker with a nose for the ball. One of the quickest learners on the team, Davis surprised everyone when he worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman. Big things are expected for his follow-up performance.

Most important game: For a head coach on a very hot seat and a team champing at the bit to erase the memory of a 4-8 season, every game will be important in 2014. Muschamp and Florida can't afford many losses, but one foe looms above the rest -- Georgia. The Gators dominated this series for years, but Muschamp has lost three in a row to his alma mater. These games are always closely contested, full of emotion and extremely important in the SEC East race. But this year Muschamp and his players ought to have a little something extra: desperation.

Biggest question mark: There are holes and concerns on defense, but addressing them should be a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of resurrecting Florida's offense, which ranked No. 113 out of 123 FBS teams last season. New coordinator Kurt Roper brought a no-huddle, shotgun, spread offense from Duke with the promise of a better fit for Driskel and several underutilized receivers. Will they find success right away?

Upset special: Florida visits Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a showcase game against the Crimson Tide in Week 4, but the Gators' best chance for an upset will be a couple of weeks later in the Swamp. LSU, ranked No. 13 in the preseason coaches' poll, is Florida's permanent SEC West opponent. The teams have played every year since 1971, and the rivalry has become hotly contested with both winning seven times in the last 14 meetings. In that span, the road team has won six times, so anything goes when these talent-rich programs clash.

Key stat: When he was hired, Roper said, "Our whole philosophy on offense is points per game. It's not yards, it's not going up and down the field, it's how many points we can get." Last year, Roper's Duke Blue Devils ranked 41st in the FBS with 32.8 points per game. Florida, by contrast, ranked 112th with 18.8 PPG.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 7.55 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: Florida's schedule is as brutal as ever with visits to Florida State and Alabama, the top two teams in the preseason coaches' poll. The SEC East promises to be a minefield as well. But the Gators get to play nine out of 12 games in their home state. As tough as this slate looks, the bye weeks are positioned perfectly. Florida looks to be 3-0 heading into the game against Bama. Then the first bye week offers a chance to recover, reevaluate and prepare for a big test at Tennessee. The Gators return home for two critical games against LSU and Missouri before the second bye precedes the all-important Georgia game. If Florida can make the most of those byes, defeating the Vols and Dawgs might be the difference between seven and eight wins. Beat both East rivals, and the Gators could have a solid chance at nine.
For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's only fitting that a season characterized by injuries and an ineffective offense would conclude with a whimper thanks to those same culprits.

But after losing 37-7 to No. 2 Florida State (12-0, 8-0 in the ACC) in the Swamp on Saturday, Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC) can take solace that its season of misery is mercifully over.

[+] EnlargeBurton
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsDespite carrying the ball just twice, Trey Burton led the Gators with 47 yards rushing versus Florida State. Burton left the game with a shoulder injury in the first quarter.
"Very frustrating, difficult day that ends a very frustrating, difficult season," coach Will Muschamp said. "That’s the best way I can sum it up."

Not even an inspirational pregame speech by Gators great Tim Tebow could do more than delay the inevitable.

"What he said to us was, 'Any man that goes down, he has the ability to get back up. But the difference is how that man gets back up, because a man can get down and come back withered, can come back beaten. But a man that goes down and comes back up and is changed and is different from being down, that's who we are. That's who the Gators are. That's how we need to play and that's who we need to be,' " Florida left tackle Max Garcia recounted.

"So, I'm going to stick with that for the rest of my life. It really penetrated my soul."

With Tebow watching on the sidelines, the Gators were bouncing around and showing more emotion than they had in weeks. In front of a nearly full stadium, its fans at full throat, Florida's defense harassed Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston into one of his worst quarters (4-of-6 for 35 yards) of the season.

Winston threw his first interception in three weeks -- an excuse-me catch by Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who broke up the pass with his back to the ball but was able to find and reel in the deflection. It was the Gators' first interception since the second quarter of the Missouri game on Oct. 19.

The crowd roared its approval, and there was more energy in the Swamp than at any point in the season.

Florida outgained FSU 81 yards to 33 in the first quarter, but 50 of those yards came on one Wildcat keeper up the middle by senior Trey Burton. Two plays later, Burton injured his shoulder on another keeper and did not return to the field.

With Burton went half of the offense the Gators were planning to run.

"We were probably going to have 30-35 plays with Trey [at Wildcat quarterback]," Muschamp said. "Some of the misdirection runs now go out of the game plan, so you've got to make adjustments and you've got to change.

"I hurt for Trey because he’s a senior, his last game in the Swamp, so [it's] very difficult for him. He’s a great young man. It just kinda sums up what’s happened this year. Very frustrating."

With Burton's injury, Florida was missing 16 scholarship contributors in this game. And with cornerback Marcus Roberson dealing with an ankle injury in the first half, UF was missing 10 of its original 22 projected starters on offense and defense.

Winston and the Seminoles still led 3-0 after the first quarter, as FSU kicker Roberto Aguayo converted the same 49-yard field goal that his Florida counterpart, Austin Hardin, missed.

A 12-play, 96-yard drive that culminated in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Kelvin Benjamin might have put the game out of reach, but more importantly, it quelled the enthusiasm of the Florida defense and the crowd.

FSU had weathered the early storm of defensive pressure and taken a 17-0 lead into halftime. It tied the lowest first-half scoring output of the season for the Noles, which happened previously against Nevada in Week 2.

A game that looked on paper like a colossal mismatch inevitably turned out that way. The Florida defense couldn't get off the field, thanks to FSU going 9-of-15 on third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Florida went 1-for-11 on third down and averaged 3.9 yards per play on the day.

"You got to maintain the ball against an offense like that," Muschamp said. "You got to take time off the clock. ... We weren’t able to do that. Give them credit. They made plays on third down, and we didn’t. I think we were 1-of-10 or -11 on third down. You got to convert those, and we’ve struggled to make explosives, make third-down conversions. You name it, we haven’t done it.”

In a season of making all the wrong history, the only drama Florida could muster against Florida State was whether the Noles would shut out the Gators for the first time in the 58-game series.

The answer was no, but it was close. And now the Gators boast the nation's second-longest streak of scoring in consecutive games (322, second to Michigan's 374 games in a row).

With one score in the fourth quarter, Florida finished the season with 11 passing touchdowns. It's the fewest since 1989, the season before Steve Spurrier was hired as coach. On the other sideline, sitting out the Noles' final series to let his backup play, Winston had already broken Florida State's single-season record for passing TDs, with three more on Saturday giving him a total of 35.

"It’s been a tough year, difficult to deal with, but it is what it is," a somber Muschamp said when it was over. "Those guys have persevered through some tough times and certainly this season being the iceberg of it all."

Now that it's in the history books, however, Florida's 2013 season might be remembered less as an iceberg and more as the ship that sunk when it struck one.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
10:20
AM ET
1. Will Clowney play?: There have been a lot of rumors flying around about South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and his last-minute decision to sit out against Kentucky. It didn’t go over well with coach Steve Spurrier based on the postgame comments. However, Spurrier defended his star player this week. Once again, Clowney is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game at Arkansas with a muscle strain near his rib area. He returned to practice on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Getty ImagesJames Franklin and Missouri can prove they're legit SEC contenders with a win at Georgia on Saturday.
2. Health concerns at UGA: The Bulldogs survived a scare in Knoxville last weekend, but they didn’t come out unscathed. They lost both running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending injuries while fellow wide receiver Michael Bennett will miss an extended period of time with a knee injury. Georgia will have to bounce back quickly with No. 25 Missouri coming to town on Saturday.

3. Mizzou a legitimate contender? It’s safe to say nobody had Missouri as one of the two unbeaten teams in the SEC heading into Week 7. But after an impressive road win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers are 5-0 and finally starting to gain some respect around the league. The next three weeks will be telling, though, as they play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

4. LSU’s WRs versus Florida’s CBs: It’s a dream matchup for NFL scouts. LSU features what many consider to be the top wide receiver tandem in college football with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy is arguably the top cornerback in the SEC, and playing opposite of him is freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who already has three interceptions. The Gators are also expecting the return of corner Marcus Roberson, another one who could soon be playing on Sundays.

5. Tyler Murphy in Death Valley: Since replacing the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback, Murphy has exceeded expectations for the Gators. In three games, he has thrown for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, and he’s progressively gotten better. However, the junior signal-caller is in for his toughest assignment yet when Florida travels to LSU this weekend. How will he perform in a hostile atmosphere?

6. The return of Cooper: When will we see the real Amari Cooper, the one who had 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman for Alabama? The star wide receiver has been slowed by nagging injuries all season, but he expects to play Saturday against Kentucky. Will he be 100 percent? Quarterback AJ McCarron would love to have him back sooner rather than later.

7. Aggies without Ennis: As if Texas A&M’s rush defense wasn’t bad enough, the Aggies lost Kirby Ennis, one of their top interior linemen, for the season with a torn ACL. The injury comes at a bad time for the Aggies, who have to visit Ole Miss this weekend and deal with Rebels running back Jeff Scott, not to mention quarterback Bo Wallace. The staff will turn to freshman Isaiah Golden, who is expected to start alongside Alonzo Williams in the middle.

8. Shootout in Oxford: The SEC has featured its fair share of shootouts early in the college football season, and Saturday’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M could be right up there. Both teams feature an up-tempo offense, and neither one likes to waste much time between plays. It could be a long day for both defenses.

9. Big game for Bielema: After a 3-0 start, Arkansas has quickly fallen back to .500 with three consecutive losses. However, first-year coach Brett Bielema has a chance to notch his first signature victory with the Razorbacks this Saturday when they host No. 14 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled in recent weeks and could be prime for an upset. It’s likely a must-win scenario for Arkansas if the Hogs want to reach a bowl game.

10. Auburn’s quarterback: Who will start for the Tigers against Western Carolina? Starter Nick Marshall injured his knee last weekend against Ole Miss, and although he’s expected to play, coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t made a ruling one way or the other. If Marshall can’t go, Auburn will either turn to returning starter Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
Alabama might have fallen to No. 2 in ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25, but I'd like to think that most of the college football world still considers the Crimson Tide to be the favorites to win the national championship again.

Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.

But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.

No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.

Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.

The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.

A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.

Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:

Florida

The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.

The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.

Georgia

Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.

Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.

LSU

Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.

The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.

South Carolina

Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.

And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.
This marks the final year of the BCS, and you better believe the SEC would love to close the BCS era with eight straight titles. It would also ensure that the league has even more momentum going into the playoff, which starts during the 2014 season.

Colleague Travis Haney took a look at which conference has the best playoff path starting next year. He makes a pretty good case for the SEC, which should be able to get its conference champion in every year.

But who can wait for 2014 title talk? Yeah, me either, so why not take a look at SEC teams with the best BCS title paths in 2013? Spring practice begins this month, so we might as well throw out some very, very early thoughts on teams' championship hopes.

Let's take a look at which SEC teams have real BCS title shots in 2013:

ALABAMA

Pros: The Crimson Tide still have Nick Saban. That should be reason enough to make Alabama the odds on favorite to win its third straight national championship and fourth in five years. But there are many other reasons why Alabama tops our list. The offensive line might have to be rebuilt, but Alabama returns the nation's most efficient quarterback in AJ McCarron, who could have easily opted for the NFL after his junior year, a beast at running back in rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon, a host of talent -- and explosiveness -- at wide receiver, and most of the pieces to last year's top-ranked defense. Some big names have to be replaced on both sides, but this team really is reloading in 2013. Also, if the Tide can escape Virginia Tech (in Atlanta) and Texas A&M (in College Station) early, Alabama could go through the year unscathed, with road games coming against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn.

Cons: Forget the pressure. Saban doesn't allow pressure to eat at his players. What Alabama has to do is replace three studs on that offensive line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are all gone. Winning the battle in the trenches is essential to competing in the SEC, so Alabama's less experienced linemen have to grow up in a hurry. Also, no team can do it three times in a row, right?

TEXAS A&M

Pros: Johnny Manziel is back and last year proved that the Aggies are tough enough to compete in the big, bad SEC. Kliff Kingsbury might not be calling the plays anymore, but there is a lot of young talent on offense, including wide receiver Mike Evans and running backs Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, that should still give SEC defenses fits. A&M gets Alabama at home in Week 3 and trade Florida for Vanderbilt.

Cons: The Aggies lost a lot from their 2012 team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is gone, along with receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches for 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns. The front seven has a lot to replace, including All-American defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Kingsbury's sideline work with Manziel will be missed, and the Aggies have to play LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road.

GEORGIA

Pros: Georgia will be down wide receiver Tavarres King on offense, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone to help make up for the loss of his production with all those talented receivers. "Gurshall" returns and so does quarterback Aaron Murray, who could become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in each of his four years on campus. Bringing back the entire starting five on offense will also keep this offense trending upward.

Cons: The Bulldogs lost 12 players who either started or saw significant time on defense. Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo are just a few of the big names that are gone. There certainly is talent remaining, but replacing all those players would be tough for anyone. Also, look at that schedule. The Dawgs start the year with Clemson, South Carolina and LSU before September even arrives. Losing more than one game during that stretch could all but end Georgia's title hopes.

FLORIDA

Pros: The Gators lost some key players on defense, but coach Will Muschamp is bringing back a host of defensive talent that should do just fine in 2013. Marcus Roberson could be an All-SEC performer at cornerback, and incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the talent to start opposite him immediately. Ronald Powell returns to help out a young but very talented front seven that includes rising sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard. Also, the Gators should be very deep at running back and have a more complete offensive line in 2013.

Cons: No one is quite sure what to make of that offense. Sure, the Gators should be able to run the ball, even without workhorse Mike Gillislee, but what about throwing it? Jeff Driskel really struggled last year, and the Gators lost their best receiving option in tight end Jordan Reed. Florida will have to rely on five true freshmen to help at receiver, but Driskel has to increase his confidence and become a better presense in the huddle for this offense to improve at all. Florida also takes on Miami, LSU and South Carolina on the road.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Pros: The Gamecocks might be without Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, but they should be very balanced on offense in 2013. South Carolina has two very capable quarterbacks to work with in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, a talented group of running backs returning, led by rising sophomore Mike Davis, and more experience at receiver. One-man wrecking crew Jadeveon Clowney is back, and could be a legit Heisman candidate. South Carolina also spends the final month of the season at home.

Cons: Replacing Sanders will be tough because he did so much on offense and special teams. Clowney will have help up front, but South Carolina must replace its two-deep at linebacker. That's going to be quite the chore. Also, stud safety D.J. Swearinger, Spur DeVonte Holloman and cornerback Akeem Auguste all have to be replaced. Right now, this staff will have to rely on a handful of youngsters to help out this spring. The Gamecocks must also go to Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas.

LSU

Pros: The offense has to be more well-rounded in 2013. Cam Cameron is in at offensive coordinator, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger made major strides during the last month of the season. All of his receiving weapons are back, the offensive line should be better and there is a wealth of talent still at running back. The Tigers also get Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas at home.

Cons: The defense was gutted after the 2012 season. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, someone has to step in for Kevin Minter at middle linebacker and the secondary must fill in the holes left by Eric Reid and Tharold Simon. There is a lot of young talent on defense, but guys have to grow up quickly in Baton Rouge this year. Playing Alabama and Georgia on the road will be very tough as well.


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Here's a quick look back at No. 4 Florida's 37-26 victory over No. 10 Florida State on Saturday in Doak S. Campbell Stadium:

It was over when: With seven minutes left in the game, Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Quinton Dunbar to put the Gators ahead 30-20. In five plays, the Gators went 32 yards to score -- a short field that was set up by Marcus Roberson's 50-yard punt return. It was a huge special-teams play that put Florida in position to separate itself and gave the Gators the momentum.

Game ball goes to: Florida's defense. It lived up to the billing, as the Gators forced five turnovers, and held Florida State to just 112 rushing yards and well under its season average of 42.91 points per game.

Stat of the game: Florida State turned the ball over five times -- two lost fumbles and three interceptions. Overall, Florida scored 10 points off FSU's turnovers. EJ Manuel's fumble in the fourth quarter led to an immediate score for running back Mike Gillislee, a 37-yard run that put the Gators up 23-20.

What it means: Florida still has an outside shot at playing for the national championship and further stated its case for a BCS bowl. It also snapped a two-game losing streak to coach Jimbo Fisher. For Florida State, it was a squandered opportunity to prove it deserves to be higher in the BCS standings and make an argument against the computers. It also was another letdown for the ACC on a national stage.

Instant analysis: Florida 23, JSU 0

November, 17, 2012
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sixth-ranked Florida finished the season unbeaten at Florida Field with a harder-than-it-should-have-been victory over Football Championship Subdivision foe Jacksonville State. The Gators led only 10-0 at halftime before pulling away and winning 23-0, thanks to a defensive score.

It was over when: Linebacker Jon Bostic intercepted Marques Ivory's pass and returned it 7 yards for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead early in the third quarter.

Gameball goes to: Running back Mike Gillislee, who had his best game in more than a month. Gillislee ran for 122 yards and one touchdown. It's the first time he had gained more than 100 yards and the first time he had scored a touchdown since he ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns against LSU.

Stat of the game: Florida's 23 points were the second-fewest Jacksonville State has allowed this season. Southeast Missouri scored 16. Tennessee-Martin scored 49 against the Gamecocks two weeks ago.

Unsung hero of the game: Florida's punt returners have struggled fielding punts all season. The biggest issue has been letting them bounce instead of coming up to field them, resulting in a lot of lost yardage. But Cornerback Marcus Roberson did a good job of fair-catching three punts in traffic. He also had a 31-yard return.

Best call: Jacksonville State called a reverse pass that went for a first down and jump-started what should have been a scoring drive (kicker Griffin Thomas missed from 36 yards). Ivory handed the ball to receiver Alan Bonner, who hit receiver Trey Smith for a 20-yard gain.

Second guessing: Jacksonville State stunned the crowd with a 76-yard gain on the first offensive snap -- receiver Kevyn Cooper stayed on his feet after being hit and took off down the sideline -- and had a first-and-goal at the UF 7-yard line. Three plays later they were at the 8, and coach Jack Crowe opted to kick a field goal. Why not try for the TD, especially when you have a kicker who entered the game 9-for-16? You've got nothing to lose when you're playing in a game like this.

Second guessing II: The Gators like to use the wildcat formation with Trey Burton taking the snap. That means quarterback Jacoby Brissett has to line up wide, which normally just takes him out of the play. However, the Gators ran a jet sweep toward Brissett's side, which meant Brissett had to block a cornerback. It's a surprising move because quarterbacks usually don't block well and it also exposes him to a greater chance of injury. Considering starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is already out with a sprained ankle, why take the risk?

Florida 'D' makes powerful statement

October, 6, 2012
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The 41-11 beatdown LSU gave Florida last season took quite the emotional toll on the Gators -- especially the defense.

The Gators were gutted by LSU’s ground attack, giving up 238 rushing yards. They looked overmatched, overwhelmed and listless in Baton Rouge, La.

Angry probably isn’t the best word to describe how Florida’s defense felt, but depressed and humiliated are good starts.

That debilitating pain was something this team didn’t want to go through again. It wanted that pain to be transferred over to LSU when the Tigers ventured into the Swamp on Saturday. The Gators wanted LSU to feel what they felt last year … and then some.

“We wanted to come in this game and win, but more, we wanted to come and hurt them,” defensive lineman Dominique Easley said after No. 10 Florida’s 14-6 victory over fourth-ranked LSU. “We wanted them to feel the pain that we felt last year. We had hurt in our heart and we wanted them to feel the pain that we had.”

And for the better part of 60 minutes, Florida’s defense pounded LSU, allowing just two field goals, 200 yards and 42 rushing yards. LSU averaged just 1.7 yards per carry and mustered just 12 rushing yards in the second half. The best part of LSU’s offense was terminated from the start, and it was all downhill from there.

Say what you will about how poorly quarterback Zach Mettenberger played or how banged-up and bewildered LSU’s offensive line was, but Florida’s defense manhandled LSU. The team that tops the physical charts was outplayed and outmuscled by the Gators. And Florida’s defense was the reason for a lot of LSU’s offensive ineptitude.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger, Dominique Easley
Jake Roth/US PresswireDominique Easley, one of the SEC's most disruptive linemen, might just be Florida's best player and replacing him will be no easy task.
The Gators brought the pressure to Mettenberger, gobbling him up for four sacks and smacking him around all day. When he did throw, Florida’s man coverage proved too much, and Mettenberger’s confidence looked shaken with all those blue shirts swarming around him, as he completed just 44 percent of his passes.

This unit looked gassed at times last season, but was a total juggernaut Saturday. The Gators flew around on defense, and there was no slowing the Gators down when LSU had the ball.

No play exemplified that more than the game-changing fumble forced by Matt Elam late in the third quarter, right after Florida made it 7-6. LSU beat Florida’s defense with a double move that completely took cornerback Marcus Roberson out of the play, leaving a wide-open Odell Beckham Jr.

To complicate matters for the Gators, Elam took a bad angle on Mettenberger’s pass as he connected with Beckham down Florida’s right sideline for a 56-yard play. But Elam kept chugging after Beckham and eventually stripped him of the ball.

Florida’s recovery sucked every ounce of life out of LSU.

“Them boys were huffing and puffing,” Easley said. “I was looking into people’s eyes and they were scared. We wanted to take somebody’s will. Not just win the game, take their will, make them remember this night.”

Added defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd: “We knew that they were banged up and we knew that they were tired and we wasn’t taking our foot off the gas.”

Florida then drove 77 yards for a touchdown to put the game away.

But that wasn’t all the defense had. It made the stop of the season for the Gators when it forced LSU to kick a field goal late in the first half after the Tigers recovered a Jeff Driskel fumble at Florida’s 7-yard line. LSU gained 3 yards, took two timeouts and settled for three points on a drive that might have buried Florida if the Tigers went up 10.

Florida’s defense constantly bailed the offense out, even with all the great field position it gave the offense. Five of LSU’s last six drives in the first half were three-and-outs, and LSU’s offense crossed into Florida territory just once in the second half … to the 49.

As Gators coach Will Muschamp put it, this defense has the capability to adjust better than it could last season because it's smarter, tougher and deeper.

With Florida’s offense stumbling along for most of the game, its defense kept the Gators going with its smothering play.

“Without those guys, we wouldn’t be celebrating this,” offensive lineman James Wilson said. “The defense is amazing.”

The offense is worrisome at times, but that defense could keep everyone in Gainesville happy. The offense might not be pretty, but that defense sure is, and it’s mean. That’s the demeanor it had Saturday, and that’s what it intends to be from here on out.

“Defense wins championships, offense wins games,” Elam said.

“It’s another step to Atlanta and that’s our goal. I feel like the sky’s the limit from here.”

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 13, 2012
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We're heading into Week 3 in the SEC, so here's what to watch:

1. Quarterback health: The statuses of Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and South Carolina's Connor Shaw are still unknown. Wilson suffered a head injury against Louisiana-Monroe, while Shaw is still nursing a bruised shoulder from Week 1. For the Gamecocks, losing Shaw for the second straight week won't really hurt South Carolina's offense. It was just fine without him against East Carolina. However, Arkansas isn't in the same position. Brandon Allen completed just 6 of 20 passes against Louisiana-Monroe in place of Wilson. Not having Wilson will make Saturday's game against No. 1 Alabama that much tougher for the Razorbacks.

[+] EnlargeJohn L. Smith
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonCoach John L. Smith and his Razorbacks face a formidable foe in No. 1 Alabama this week.
2. Arkansas' defense: Speaking of the Razorbacks, what has happened to that defense? It was supposed to be more aggressive and more disciplined under Paul Haynes. We saw neither in the second half against Louisiana-Monroe, as the Razorbacks blew a 21-point lead. The defense was shredded against a lesser opponent and now has to play one of the most balanced attacks in the SEC. Last year, Alabama wore down this defense. If Arkansas is going to pick itself up, it has to play much tougher than it has in the first two games. Alabama has far more talent than Arkansas' first opponents and has the capability to really beat this unit down.

3. Tennessee’s passing game vs. Florida’s secondary: This game always comes down to the running game, but the difference this time will be Tennessee's passing game against Florida’s secondary. The Gators are loaded with talent back there and made tremendous strides during the second half of the Texas A&M game, while Tennessee might have the best passing game in the SEC, led by quarterback Tyler Bray. The matchups between Justin Hunter and Marcus Roberson and Cordarrelle Patterson and Loucheiz Purifoy should be great. Zach Rogers is another deep threat the Gators have to be careful about, but Matt Elam has the ability to take the deep ball away for Florida. Should be fun.

4. Must-wins: Both Auburn and Vanderbilt are 0-2 and are coming off tough losses. The Commodores blew a halftime lead at Northwestern, while Auburn was overmatched across the board at Mississippi State. The Tigers are struggling with or without the ball this season, and that's a major concern. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier has to get going, and he's facing the team that just knocked off Arkansas. Vandy just can't get anything going on offense. The explosion we expected to see has been mostly absent through two games and the Commodores have to generate some sort of offensive momentum this weekend against Presbyterian.

5. Mississippi State keeping its edge: Now that Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs have gotten over the hump of beating a West opponent not named Ole Miss, the Bulldogs can’t get complacent. That was just one win, and this team has far bigger goals than just beating Auburn. With the schedule Mississippi State has, it’s very possible the Bulldogs could be 6-1 or 7-0 heading into the Alabama game at the end of October. But this team has to focus on Troy and come out strong against a team that won’t be a pushover.

6. Showdown in the Grove: It’s been a long time since a game in Oxford got attention like Saturday’s showdown with Texas has been receiving. It’s eerily similar to the 2003 game with Eli Manning and LSU, although there isn’t hatred in the air. The Grove is gonna be poppin’ and Oxford is expected to double in size. There’s more confidence around that town because Ole Miss is 2-0 for the first time since 2009. The talent difference between Ole Miss and Texas is obvious, but the Rebels have some momentum and some conviction. Can the Rebels stop that burnt orange wave coming to town?

7. The newbie's returns: Missouri and Texas A&M got a nice taste of what life will be like in the SEC last weekend. Now, it's time for both teams to regroup. Both teams lost a lot of steam in the second half, which was expected. Missouri has the challenge of playing Arizona State and its high-flying offense. The Sun Devils have averaged 54 points through two games, averaging 532 offensive yards in the process. The Tigers got into a shootout with Arizona State last year, but can they handle another one after that physical loss to Georgia? The Aggies are taking on SMU in Dallas, and are also recovering from a tough loss to Florida. This is a game where Texas A&M should try to get more out of its running game, which has to generate more production up the middle.

8. Mettenberger’s arm: Through the first two games of the season, we’ve been anxiously waiting to see what Zach Mettenberger could really do in LSU’s offense. So far, he’s yet to eclipse the 200-yard passing mark in a game and has just two touchdowns -- pedestrian numbers compared to what everyone expected. But the Tigers have utilized their running game flawlessly and haven’t needed to send the ball downfield much. Saturday, that should change. It’s time to unleash Mettenberger and get him going more in the offense before LSU gets into conference play.

9. Lattimore’s workload: If Steve Spurrier wanted to push Marcus Lattimore anymore last week, he would have. But the Head Ball Coach gave his workhorse a bit of a rest against East Carolina, running him just 13 times. Maybe Spurrier just wanted to get his new quarterback, Dylan Thompson, a chance to show his stuff in place of Shaw. But as Lattimore continues to return from his knee injury, he’ll need to get more reps and get more comfortable on the field before league play revs up. UAB should provide him the opportunity to do that.

10. Florida’s winning streak: The Gators have had Tennessee’s number for seven straight years now. Not since Dallas Baker’s infamous slap in Knoxville have the Vols bested Florida. This might be Tennessee’s best shot since. There’s no question that this is the best and most complete Vols team Derek Dooley has had. The Vols have cruised through the first two weeks, while Florida’s offense stumbles in with a lot of uncertainty concerning the passing game. Florida might have the edge on defense, but Tennessee’s offense knows how to put up points. Is this the year Tennessee finally gets the Gator off its back?

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was a little tense for a while, but No. 23 Florida finally pulled away in the fourth quarter for the victory over Bowling Green in front of 84,704 at Florida Field.

The Gators (1-0) didn’t look crisp on offense and struggled at different times on the defensive line, but were just good enough to win their 23rd consecutive season opener. That’s the second-longest current streak in the nation, behind only Nebraska (27).

It was over when: Frankie Hammond caught a short pass from Jeff Driskel, shook a tackle from Bowling Green cornerback Cameron Truss, and went 50 yards for a touchdown to give the Gators a 24-14 lead with 13:18 remaining.

Game ball goes to: Florida running back Mike Gillislee proved he’s capable of being the Gators’ No. 1 tailback. The senior ran for 148 yards on 24 carries. He set career highs with 94 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the first half.

Stat of the game: Florida committed 10 penalties for 76 yards in the first half, but committed just four in the second half.

What it means: It appears that Driskel will be the Gators' starting quarterback moving forward. The sophomore played the entire first quarter and into the second and the entire second half. Driskel finished 10-of-16 for 114 yards and one touchdown. Jacoby Brissett played only in the second quarter and completed 3-of-5 passes for 31 yards.

Turning point: Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson intercepted a tipped pass at the UF 17-yard line early in the fourth quarter to stop the Falcons from scoring a potential go-ahead touchdown. Roberson returned the ball 31 yards, and three plays later Hammond broke free for his 50-yard TD.

Second guessing: Offensive coordinator Brent Pease made several questionable play calls in short-yardage situations. He had Driskel pull off a quick punt (which went only 15 yards) on fourth-and-6, called a rollout pass on fourth-and-1, and called another rollout pass on third-and-2. None of them worked.

What we learned about this team: The offense is still a work in progress, especially the passing game. The receivers did not consistently get open, and the quarterbacks missed wide-open throws, too. Now, things may have purposely been a little vanilla because of next week’s game against Texas A&M. The Gators didn’t show as many motions and shifts as expected. Still, there was no rhythm to the passing game.

Best call: Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson called a fake punt on fourth-and-5 from midfield, and punter Brian Schmiedebusch ran to his right and gained 8 yards. The Falcons got an extra 15 because returner Andre Debose hit Schmiedebush out of bounds. Running back Anthon Samuel scored on a 12-yard run three plays later to tie the game at 14-14 with 9:57 remaining in the third quarter.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The adventure as a guest coach at Florida's spring game continues ...

12:00 p.m.: A host of former players get together for a flag football game dubbed the "Battle of the Decades," with players from the 1980s, '90s and 2000s participating. Thankfully, none of the old guys is hurt from all that running.

12:10: The quarterbacks come out and SI.com's Andy Staples and I try to meticulously dissect every single part of Jeff Driskel's and Jacoby Brissett's games to figure out which one is better. Like everyone around Florida's program, we're unable to.

12:20: I walk over to punt-return drills, nearly getting clocked by a ball the wind carried over toward me. Marcus Roberson, Trey Burton, Loucheiz Purifoy and De'Ante "Pop" Saunders are taking reps.

12:29: One-on-ones between receivers and defensive backs begin. It's light, but it's something to look at and we still can't figure out which quarterback is better, but tight end Jordan Reed impresses with a one-handed catch and true freshman receiver Latroy Pittman out-muscles his opponents for a few tough catches.

12:35: The offensive line goes through drills which incorporate a lot of spinning, slapping, pulling and pushing. It's humorous, until you realize how much bigger they are than you. Then you just think it's dangerous. Offensive line coach Tim Davis screams "Spin, spin, spin," until he's blue in the face and his voice is hoarser than before.

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
AP Photo/Phil SandlinRunning back Mack Brown (33) stumbles in for a touchdown during Florida's spring game Saturday.
12:49: After watching the offensive line go at the defensive line, headlined by a rough battle between Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Nixon, the team jogs to the middle of the field for one last huddle before hitting the locker room.

12:51: We're in the locker room and the fun begins. After the team splits up by position, the coaches start going over last-minute game plans and emphasizing technique. "Stay under control!" running backs coach Brian White yells. "Let's get this crowd jacked up! Have people leave this (game) knowing we're going to flat-out dominate up front!" Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn preaches mental toughness in loud, quick bursts. He doesn't want to see any walking around or hands on hips. He wants energy and aggression on the field. "Ball Out U!" he screams. "Put out great (expletive) tape! When we turn on the tape I want to make sure I can't wait to watch you."

12:57: The excitement is growing inside the locker room. An animal is waiting to be unleashed. Players are hyped, as White walks around with a smile on his face saying, "Lotta nervous faces in here today," over and over. He's followed by verbose defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, who constantly taunts the receivers and pretty much every offensive player. "Let's get to those quarterbacks today and get in their faces!"

12:59: Floyd sits and stares at the floor, like he's ready to destroy it. The person giving bear hugs and high-fives at the Gator Walk is ready to rip someone apart like a bear. He sits in silence as a coach tosses him smelling salt. He sniffs and doesn't flinch. He's ready.

1:04: Defensive end/Buck Ronald Powell shoots up out of his chair and starts dancing around, yelling inaudible words of encouragement to his teammates. He's pushing guys and slapping their pads. "Play yo game, baby! It's just practice! Everything you do, you've done before!"

1:05: Floyd stands and walks to the center of the locker room. His teammates huddle around him. Players go silent when he speaks. "Do your job, not the man next to you!" His voice is deep, loud and haunting. He keeps shouting "aggressive" over and over, which fuels his teammates even more and incites a frenzy before head coach Will Muschamp arrives.

1:07: Following the Lord's Prayer, Muschamp delivers a short pregame speech. "Fast and physical. Offense, run the ball down their throats!" The place explodes as players exit the locker room, tapping the orange "GRIND" sign above the locker room door on the way out.

1:10: Kickoff.

We didn't get to actually coach or call plays, but here are some observations from the sideline:

  • Davis was very hands-on with linemen when they made mistakes. He made them verbally repeat their mistakes and asked them what they had to do to correct them. He was extremely thorough with players and took time to teach between plays.
  • Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was really concerned with clock management. He was constantly telling the quarterbacks not on the field to make sure that the one in the game knew about the clock and knew when it was running out, even though there was no delay-of-game penalty. That communication failed early in the scrimmage.
  • Even though Pittman had a pretty impressive day, receivers coach Aubrey Hill and receiver Andre Debose were coaching him on his routes, helping him get out of his breaks faster on the sideline.
  • Driskel and Brissett looked like old fishing buddies out there. They were joking with each other after plays and helping each other when they made mistakes. Competition didn't stop them from cooperating.
  • Tyler Murphy appears out of the quarterback race, but he showed some excellent coaching skills. He was spouting terminology and trying to help as much as he could. He was by Pease's side almost the whole time and was able to find a lot of the little things the other QBs missed. He might know the offense the best, but isn't as skilled as the others.
Quick quotes:

  • Running back Mack Brown after getting popped during his touchdown run: "He picked me good. He Goldberged me."
  • Receiver Solomon Patton after Chris Johnson's 15-yard run in the fourth quarter: "Man, we got some backs."
  • Debose to walk-on Michael McNeely after his 52-yard catch: "I bet you thought that ball was in the air forever, huh?"
2:53: Blue defeats Orange 21-20 and I debut with a victory. As Muschamp jogs to meet Florida's band director, he stops to congratulate me on my win and I announce my retirement from the coaching profession.

The SEC's top freshmen in 2011

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
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It was a big year for freshmen in the SEC, and some of the most hyped newcomers turned out to be the most productive.

Here’s our ranking of the top 15 true freshmen this season based on their productivity and overall impact on their teams:

1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The nation's No. 1 prospect coming into the season made a big splash with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss, leading all SEC freshmen in both categories. His five forced fumbles tied him for second in the league among all players.

2. Isaiah Crowell, RB, Georgia: Had it not been for injuries and durability issues, Crowell was on his way to a 1,000-yard season. He had only 36 carries in his past five games but still managed 837 rushing yards and had 100-yard games against four SEC opponents -- Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and South Carolina.

3. A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee: He started in 10 of the Vols’ 12 games and led all SEC freshmen with 80 tackles, which was second on Tennessee’s team. He had his best games against the best teams with 11 tackles against LSU, 12 against South Carolina and 13 against Alabama.

4. Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia: One of the most explosive players on Georgia's team, Mitchell emerged as the Bulldogs' top deep threat, catching 38 passes for 614 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 16.2 yards per catch.

5. Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn: A mainstay on Auburn's offensive line, Dismukes started all 12 games at center and helped pave the way for the Tigers to rush for 2,097 yards this season, ranking them fourth in the SEC.

6. Curt Maggitt, LB, Tennessee: One of the more promising big-play defenders in the league, Maggitt tied for third on Tennessee’s team with 56 total tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss. He started in eight games.

7. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU: His numbers weren't eye-popping, but part of that is because the Tigers rotate so many defensive linemen. Johnson was a force in the middle and has three tackles for loss heading into the national title game.

8. Brian Randolph, S, Tennessee: He started in eight games and led all Tennessee defensive backs with 55 total tackles. Randolph was a safety for most of the season but started at cornerback against Alabama.

9. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss: One of the Rebels' top playmakers, Moncrief led the team in catches (31), receiving yards (454) and touchdown receptions (4). He averaged 14.6 yards per catch.

10. Kenny Hilliard, RB, LSU: The Tigers didn't really unleash Hilliard until the Auburn game on Oct. 22, but he's been LSU's best power back since. He has nine touchdowns and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry.

11. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: With Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright both suffering through injuries, Flowers stepped up in a big way with 5.5 tackles for loss, including a sack.

12. Vinnie Sunseri, DB, Alabama: He jumped right in as a valuable cog in an Alabama secondary that was one of the best in the country. Sunseri ranks eighth overall on the team with 31 total tackles.

13. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida: He suffered an injury late in the season but held down one of the Gators' starting cornerback jobs up until that point. Roberson has all the tools to be a great one in this league.

14. Tevin Mitchel, CB, Arkansas: He emerged as one of the Hogs’ starters at cornerback late in the season and wound up sixth on the team with 53 total tackles. He had 13 in the comeback win over Texas A&M.

15. De'Ante Saunders, S, Florida: One of two true freshmen in the Gators' starting secondary, Saunders intercepted two passes and broke up two passes this season from his safety position.

Florida's Roberson out for the year

November, 14, 2011
11/14/11
3:06
PM ET
Florida suffered a pretty big loss to its defense over the weekend.

Coach Will Muschamp said during his Monday news conference that true freshman cornerback Marcus Roberson will miss the rest of the season after straining his neck in Florida's 17-12 loss to South Carolina Saturday.

Roberson had started each of Florida's 10 games this season and recorded 18 tackles, one interception and one pass break-up. Muschamp said he expects to get Roberson back in time for spring practice.

Roberson had his hiccups here and there this season, but there was no question he was Florida's best cornerback. He was rangy, fast and physical in Florida's defensive backfield. He was sometimes overly aggressive in his coverage, making him susceptible to pass interference calls, but he rarely got beat for big plays and was Florida's most consistent corner.

The loss of Roberson means Florida takes yet another hit to its corner depth. First it was the dismissal of Janoris Jenkins that hurt this secondary, then a knee injury has kept junior Jeremy Brown off the field this season. Florida will now turn to sophomores Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins. Riggs has started 10 games, while Watkins has started five. Both has shown flashes, but have been prone to giving up big plays in one-on-one coverage.

Freshman Louchiez Purifoy and redshirt senior Moses Jenkins will both get more opportunities on the field as well. Purifoy is one to watch here. He is still pretty raw, but his speed and athleticism have caught the eye of his head coach. With more reps in practice, we could see more of him outside of just special teams.

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