NCF Nation: Markus Golden

It’s that time again. Time to count down who the best players in the SEC were this past season.

21. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri
Shane Ray got most of the attention on Missouri’s defense, and rightfully so considering he led the league in sacks. But don’t sleep on Golden, who it could be argued had a more complete season than his running mate. Not only did the senior rack up 8.5 sacks, he had 20 tackles for loss and led the team in quarterback hurries (12), forced fumbles (3) and fumble recoveries (3).

22. A’Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama
At first glance, Robinson wasn’t the player he was as a freshman in 2013 when he led the team with 5.5 sacks. But as an interior lineman in coach Nick Saban’s 3-4 system, stats don’t tell the full story -- at least not individual ones. Rather, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound sophomore was a vital cog in a defense that ranked 12th nationally, taking on countless double-teams in the running game while also lending a hand rushing the passer.

23. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Auburn didn’t make it back to the national championship, but it wasn’t the fault of its quarterback. Rather, Marshall’s numbers were actually much better than his first season under center as he went from 1,976 yards passing to 2,531 and his quarterback rating jumped eight points. With a record of 20-7 as a starter, 6,425 total yards and 57 total touchdowns, Marshall’s career stands out in SEC history.

24. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Speaking of ridiculously talented freshmen, how about Texas A&M’s stud defensive end? On an abysmal defense, Garrett, a former five-star prospect in his own right, shined. The 6-5, 250-pound rookie wound up finishing second in the SEC in sacks with 11.5. He also had 14 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries and one blocked kick.

25. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
OK, so the Heisman Trophy talk was a little premature, but don’t let that obscure the solid freshman season the nation’s former No. 1-ranked recruit had. After all, in a backfield that was plenty deep with Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, it was Fournette who led the team in rushing with 1,034 yards. In his final two games, he showed why there was such eagerness to see him in purple in gold as he ran for 289 yards and three touchdowns against Texas A&M and Notre Dame.

SEC all-bowl team

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The postseason wasn't just about the SEC Western Division going 2-5, sending the rest of the country into a state of euphoria. There were also some impressive individual performances that the league could hang its hat on, and it's time to acknowledge them.

Here's our All-SEC bowl team:

Offense

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: His team might have faltered in the Capital One Orange Bowl, but no other quarterback had close to the numbers he did in the Bulldogs' loss. Prescott threw for 453 yards with three touchdowns and ran for 47 yards with another score.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb had an SEC bowl-record 269 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries in the Belk Bowl against Louisville.
RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia: Is there anything this freshman can't do? He earned Belk Bowl MVP honors with his SEC bowl-record 269 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries in the win over Louisville.

RB: Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Another incredibly talented freshman, Hurd ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries in Tennessee's Outback Bowl win over Iowa.

WR: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' star receiver had a nice closing act to the season, catching nine passes for 170 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown to jump-start South Carolina's offense in a win over Miami in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl.

WR: De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: He was Prescott's top receiving threat all season, and he didn't disappoint in the bowl game, catching nine passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns.

WR/TE: Amari Cooper, Alabama: Cooper's final game in an Alabama uniform didn't go exactly as planned, but he still had an impressive night with nine catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the Tide's 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

OL: Jacob Gilliam, Tennessee: Despite playing with a torn ACL in his left knee and a heavily wrapped, injured left hand, Gilliam, a former walk-on, was an intricate part of Tennessee's impressive offensive performance against Iowa.

OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The main cog on South Carolina's line for years, Cann had another impressive day for the Gamecocks, helping push South Carolina's offense to 344 yards.

OL: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies piled up 529 yards of offense in the win over West Virginia with Ogbuehi leading the way on the left side. He didn't have the most impressive year, but a solid showing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl helped send the Aggies off on a high note.

OL: Evan Boehm, Missouri: Yes, he's a center, but he was just too good in the Tigers' 33-17 win against Minnesota in the Florida Citrus Bowl. It didn't hurt that the Tigers ran for 337 yards.

C: David Andrews, Georgia: Chubb was able to do a lot of his damage because of his own talent, but Andrews helped by having a very impressive game in front of him. Georgia finished with 492 offensive yards.

All-Purpose: Leonard Fournette, LSU: How about that? Another freshman running back. Fournette capped his first season in college football with 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Defense

DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: Considered one of the top defensive end prospects in this year's NFL draft, Fowler registered three sacks and was a constant disruptive force in Florida's win against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.

DL: Markus Golden, Missouri: Not a real shocker that Golden ended the season on such a high note. He recorded 10 tackles, including four for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also forced a fumble and had three quarterback hurries.

DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: During the Razorbacks' impressive defensive performance in their win against Texas, he had five tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss.

DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: Another solid game for the SEC's top pass-rusher. Ray had four tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and a forced fumble.

LB: Kris Frost, Auburn: Frost really cleaned up in the Outback Bowl despite the Tigers' loss. He piled up 12 tackles (nine solo) and a sack.

LB: Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: The freshman just continued to impressive during the latter part of the season. He had eight tackles (tied for team lead) and a sack against Louisville.

LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He was all over the field for the Hogs, registering five tackles, including two for loss.

CB: Brian Poole, Florida: He returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown, forced a fumble, recovered one and registered four tackles.

CB: Damian Swann, Georgia: In his final game with the Bulldogs, Swann grabbed an interception, broke up four passes and totaled three tackles.

S: Dominick Sanders, Georgia: The youngster snagged two interceptions and broke up another pass in Georgia's win against Louisville.

S: Jermaine Whitehead, Auburn: He finished Auburn's bowl game with eight tackles and two interceptions.

Special teams

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia: When you hit 3 of 3 field goals, with a long of 41 yards, and all four extra points, you've done well.

P: JK Scott, Alabama: Another great game by Scott in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. He boomed five punts 50-plus yards, including a long of 73 yards. Five of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.

Alabama-Missouri primer

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On Oct. 11, it didn't look like either Alabama or Missouri would be playing in the SEC championship game. Alabama, who lost to Ole Miss the week before, escaped with a 14-13 win at Arkansas that wasn't pretty. Earlier in the day, Missouri played even worse. The Tigers were blown out at home by Georgia just weeks after a home loss to Indiana.

And yet, here they are, the last two SEC teams standing. Both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers went on to win their next six games, clinching their respective divisions, and on Saturday they will play for the conference title in Atlanta.

Alabama's key to victory: Missouri’s secondary is exploitable, but it's up to Alabama's offensive line whether or not Blake Sims gets the ball downfield. More specifically, the onus is on tackles Austin Shepherd and Cam Robinson as they go up against what could be the most fearsome pair of defensive ends in the country, Shane Ray and Markus Golden. O-line coach Mario Cristobal should feel good about Shepherd's prospects, as the senior has been the most consistent starter on the line. But Robinson's health should worry Cristobal. On Monday, coach Nick Saban said his freshman left tackle is "day to day" with a sprained shoulder. That comes on the heels of an ankle sprain against Tennessee and another ankle injury against Western Carolina. If Robinson's mobility is limited, Ray and Golden will take advantage and harass Sims into mistakes.

Missouri's key to victory: To take that one step further, Missouri is 17-0 since joining the SEC when recording three or more sacks. Meanwhile, Alabama has not allowed three sacks in a game this season. Something has to give. But it's not all about the defense for Missouri. The Tigers are going to have to score to keep up with this potent Alabama offense, and that means getting production from the running game. Missouri is known more as a passing team -- and rightfully so with past quarterbacks such as Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin -- but this year's team has relied more on the ground game. The Tigers are averaging 178 rushing yards per game in their current six-game winning streak. It won't be easy against the SEC's top rushing defense, but Missouri has to find a way to establish the run.

Alabama X factor: Eddie Jackson couldn’t hide from the beating he took against Auburn. In fact, the cornerback for Alabama took to Twitter on Monday and apologized for his play. But now the question becomes whether to bench the talented sophomore or replace him in the lineup. If Jackson doesn’t play, look for either Bradley Sylve or Tony Brown to step in. Sylve got the nod late against Auburn, but it's hard to forget the veteran's struggles early in the season that led to his demotion. Meanwhile, there's Brown, who has played some as a true freshman but hasn't seen the field with much consistency. On the big stage, would Saban be willing to gamble on such an inexperienced player?

Missouri X factor: Russell Hansbrough might be the "lead" back, but senior Marcus Murphy has emerged as a perfect complement in Missouri's backfield. The diminutive Murphy has rushed for 373 yards and three touchdowns over the past five games. He’s fast, he’s explosive and he's liable to take it to the house every time he touches it. Just ask Florida. Murphy accounted for a career-best 224 all-purpose yards against the Gators and scored on a 5-yard run, an 82-yard punt return and a 96-yard kickoff return. Alabama ranks outside the top 60 nationally in both kickoff and punt return defense. Missouri is going to need hit on some big plays to upset the Tide, and Murphy is a prime candidate to make that happen.

Playoff impact: Sorry, Missouri, even with an upset win on Saturday it's implausible that you sneak into the playoff. It's not just the two losses that cost you; it's the fact that you lost at home to Indiana, the same team that couldn't beat Bowling Green. So with that said, this game is essentially about whether or not the SEC will be represented in the College Football Playoff and whether or not that team will be Alabama. If the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide win, they're in as the top seed, as which they'll play a semifinal game in nearby New Orleans. If the Tide lose, the SEC is likely to be shut out of the top four entirely.
Missouri still remembers the Georgia Dome – not because of the experience of playing in an NFL stadium or the atmosphere from last year’s SEC championship – the players remember it more for the empty feeling they felt in the locker room following a 59-42 loss to Auburn.

It was the first time the Tigers had ever played in the SEC title game, but they weren’t about to pat themselves on the back for making it that far. They were mad they didn’t win, mad they weren’t going to be the team to represent the conference in the BCS national championship.

[+] EnlargeBud Sasser
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBud Sasser and Missouri are back in the SEC championship game and hope to reel in an upset of No. 1 Alabama on Saturday in Atlanta.
“Of course, we weren't too happy because we worked hard to get there,” defensive end Markus Golden said. “We're a competitive team. So we weren't too happy. At the end of the day, we were telling each other we're going to make it back next year and be in the same position.”

That feeling after the game, that low point, motivated Missouri this season. The Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East, but they rallied after losses to Indiana and Georgia. In similar fashion to last year, they won six straight SEC games to finish the season, and that dream of getting back to Atlanta became a reality with last Saturday’s victory over Arkansas.

“It was such a devastating loss last year,” senior offensive lineman Mitch Morse said. “We had so much emotionally invested in that game and it didn't turn out our way, but it meant the world to this team that we were able to come back to Atlanta.

“We harnessed what we felt after that game last year, and it’s definitely going to help us drive through this week.”

Missouri didn’t get run out of the building last year, either. Granted, the defense gave up 59 points and a record 545 yards rushing to Auburn, but the Tigers were within a field goal heading into the fourth quarter.

This year presents a new challenge, though. This year Missouri faces No. 1 Alabama, a team that’s fresh off a 55-44 win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide are among the SEC leaders in both offense and defense, and they have been playing as well as anybody down the stretch.

“I think you watch this Alabama team, they're just a phenomenal football team,” Morse said. “You get what you hear when you watch film.”

But regardless of whether it’s Alabama, Auburn or any other team, the Tigers know what to expect on Saturday. That loss last year paved the way for this Missouri team to make it back to Atlanta, but it also gave them valuable experience that they can lean on this year.

“I think obviously when you’ve been in that environment before, the players now have experience,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “The older ones have experience. I think that certainly helps. Anytime you gain experience, whether it was a good experience or bad, you can learn from it and apply it to the next time.”

“It's going to be a big atmosphere,” Golden said. “[There’s] going to be a lot of people there. [It’s] going to be crazy, a lot of fans. We already know that now, so it won't be a surprise for us. We've been there before. Now we've got to get out there and play the Mizzou way -- be tough and physical, and do everything the coaches asked us to. We’re going to be OK.”

Most people aren’t giving Missouri a chance against Alabama, but that’s nothing new. The Tigers were underdogs in six of their eight SEC games this season and went 5-1 in those games. They relish that role.

One thing is for sure. This team doesn't want to experience that same empty feeling in the locker room after Saturday’s game.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Austin Shepherd hadn’t had the time to study Missouri.

After all, he spoke less than an hour after he and Alabama beat Auburn last Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRyan Kelly understands that he and his teammates on the offensive line need to keep Missouri's rush away from Blake Sims.
 But Shepherd, a senior offensive tackle for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide, knew something of the team he’d be playing for the SEC Championship.

He knew of Shane Ray.

“He’s the SEC sacks leader, a great defensive lineman,” Shepherd said. “Really, that’s all I know about them right now.”

But there’s more to Missouri, as Shepherd would soon find out.

The Tigers may fly under the radar because of their two losses, but that’s no fault of the defensive line. Whether it’s Ray, who has 13.5 sacks, or Markus Golden, who has 8.5 sacks of his own, Missouri knows how to get in the backfield.

“These guys are obviously very quick guys that are instinctive, that beat people with their quickness,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “They're very productive in their system and scheme. They do a good job of executing.

“Not many guys have made that kind of an impact with their defense anywhere in the country, in terms of giving the offense negative plays.”

All told, Missouri ranks sixth nationally with 40 sacks. It’s tied for eighth with 91 tackles for loss, tied for first with 16 forced fumbles and 35.7 percent of the plays opposing offenses run result in zero or negative yards.

Missouri’s plus-nine turnover margin ranks second in the SEC.

Alabama, meanwhile, is negative-two in turnovers on the season.

“Really, they got a lot of good players on the offense,” Golden said of Alabama. “They've got a good offensive line, they've got a nice quarterback [who] can scramble and get out of the pocket, and they've got some good running backs.

“Really, we've just got to run our game plan and play the Mizzou way and play hard and tough and physical. We like games like that.”

Golden said he and the rest of the defense are well aware of Alabama QB Blake Sims.

“No matter what, we're going to be able to get after the passer,” he said. “We know he's fast, but we're fast enough to run him down.”

We’ll find out on Saturday in Atlanta.

We know the Tigers can get to the quarterback, but we also know the Crimson Tide are good at protecting theirs.

Alabama has allowed only 11 sacks this season, which ranks seventh nationally and first in the SEC. Only 26.6 percent of its plays result in zero or negative yards, which ranks 11th nationally.

When you look at Missouri’s production, you see something has to give.

For playoff hopeful Alabama, the keys are simple. According to center Ryan Kelly, it starts with keeping Sims safe. Then you control the line of scrimmage and open up holes for the running game.

“If we do that, I’m sure well be fine,” Kelly said.

That’s a big if, though.

“They’re a great team,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be the SEC Championship, so I think our team’s really excited. I know we are up front. It’s a great challenge for us up front. They’ve got a great front seven. It’ll be a good game.”

SEC playoff tracker: Dec. 3

December, 3, 2014
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What happened to the SEC this past weekend? Not only did the East get swept by the ACC (0-4 on the day), but the conference also lost a pair of playoff contenders when Georgia lost a heartbreaker to Georgia Tech and Mississippi State fell at Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Mike Slive had to be a little nervous when Alabama was trailing Auburn midway through the third quarter.

Fortunately for the SEC, the Crimson Tide rallied back to win the Iron Bowl. They’re still the No. 1 team in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings and the top contender from the league that has produced seven of the past eight national champions.

What happens if Alabama loses this Saturday in the SEC championship game? Will Nick Saban’s team still sneak in? Does Missouri move into contention by taking down the No. 1 team in the nation and winning the conference? Or will the SEC be left out of the playoff altogether?

We’ll have to wait and see. For now, here’s a look at where Alabama and Missouri, the two remaining SEC contenders, stand heading into championship week.

Alabama
Record: 11-1 (7-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 1
Next big obstacle: Saturday vs. No. 16 Missouri (in Atlanta)

Reason for optimism: The tough part is over. Alabama doesn't have to play another SEC West opponent the rest of the year. Surviving the gauntlet of LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn wasn't easy, but the Crimson Tide made it through without a loss. Now they're ranked No. 1 and one win from earning the top seed in the College Football Playoff.

Cause for concern: Can a title game feel like a trap game? If so, the SEC championship fits the bill. Alabama is a double-digit favorite over Missouri, despite the Tigers' winning the East and ranking 16th. With Mizzou's pair of spectacular defensive ends, Shane Ray and Markus Golden, Alabama's offense will be challenged. Blake Sims, fresh off a three-interception performance against Auburn, will have to make better decisions with the football -- in less time.

Whom they’ll be rooting for: Georgia Tech over Florida State.

-- Alex Scarborough

Missouri
Record: 10-2 (7-1 SEC)
Rank: No. 16
Next big obstacle: Saturday vs. No. 1 Alabama (in Atlanta)

Reason for optimism: The SEC champion has played in the national championship game the past eight seasons. Missouri has to hope that by winning the SEC, arguably the nation’s toughest conference over the past decade, it would be considered one of the top four teams in college football. The chances are slim, but a win over No. 1 Alabama would be as good a win as any other playoff contender has on its resume.

Cause for concern: There just aren’t enough good wins. Missouri has yet to beat a team currently ranked in the top 25. Not a one. And losing at home to Indiana is the epitome of a bad loss in the eyes of the committee. There’s a reason the Tigers are ranked No. 16, and regardless of what happens this weekend, there’s little to no hope they climb all the way into the top four. It’s still hard to imagine a playoff with no SEC teams.

Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: Iowa State over TCU, Georgia Tech over Florida State, Wisconsin over Ohio State, Kansas State over Baylor.

-- Greg Ostendorf

Planning for success: Missouri Tigers

December, 2, 2014
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Missouri enters Saturday's SEC championship game as a big underdog against Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC), but that's nothing new for the Tigers (10-2, 7-1).

After humiliating losses to Indiana and Georgia, Mizzou closing the regular season with a six-game winning streak and a second straight SEC East title seemed highly unlikely. And yet here are the Tigers, trying to figure out a way to keep their streak alive against easily the best team they have faced all season.

Knocking off the nation's No. 1 team won't be easy, but here are three assets the Tigers might be able to use to their advantage against Alabama.

Dynamic pass rush

One of the most intriguing matchups in Saturday's game will be Missouri's pass-rushers against Alabama's offensive line. Both groups are the best in the SEC at what they do.

Led by Shane Ray, who has an SEC-high 13.5 sacks for 89 yards in lost ground, the Tigers are tied for sixth nationally with 40 sacks. They have three of the SEC's top 11 pass-rushers, with defensive end Markus Golden (fifth with 8.5) and defensive tackle Harold Brantley (tied for 11th with 4.5) joining Ray on the list.

However, Alabama has surrendered only 11 sacks -- which is tied for eighth nationally -- all season. Quarterback Blake Sims, who is occasionally mistake-prone, has only been sacked eight times.

Generating turnovers

If Ray & Co. can force Sims into some bad throws, the Tigers have displayed an ability to capitalize this season. They are second in the SEC and tied for 18th nationally with a plus-nine turnover margin and they're 24th nationally with a plus-38 points-off-turnover margin (65 scored, 27 against).

Sims nearly got pulled from Saturday's game against Auburn after the Tigers scored 17 points off his three interceptions. He and star receiver Amari Cooper helped the Crimson Tide rally to win 55-44 with an impressive late surge, however.

Overall, the Tide is subpar when it comes to turnovers. They have two more giveaways (19) than takeaways (17), with their minus-two turnover margin tying for 72nd nationally. Alabama opponents have scored 60 points off the turnovers, with the Tide cashing in with 56 points off takeaways. The minus-four points-off-turnover margin is tied for 77th nationally.

The biggest issue for Alabama has been its 12 fumbles and not Sims' interceptions. The senior quarterback has thrown 24 touchdowns against just seven picks and ranks second nationally in adjusted Total Quarterback Rating at 87.9.

Marcus Murphy factor

Special teams have been the weak link in Alabama's armor for a couple of years now, and the Tide has had its share of lapses in that department this season, as well. That has to excite the Tigers when explosive return man Marcus Murphy is on their side.

Murphy leads the SEC with an average of 31.9 yards per kickoff return and ranks fourth in the league with 11.5 yards per punt return. He scored touchdowns off a punt return, a kickoff return and a traditional run in the Tigers' win against Florida alone.

With Murphy leading the way, Missouri ranks seventh nationally and second in the SEC with an average of 25.05 yards per kickoff return, and 21st nationally and fourth in the SEC with 11.5 yards per punt return.

Meanwhile, Alabama is 88th in opponent kickoff return average (12.83 ypr) and 60th on opponent punt return average (7.3 ypr). In the Tide's defense, however, punter J.K. Scott and the punt coverage team have not given up a ton of yardage. They rank second nationally in net punting with 43.13 yards gained per punt minus the return.

If Murphy can find a way to break a big return against Alabama's typically exceptional punt coverage, that could be an enormous momentum builder for the Tigers.
Sorry, Georgia fans. Missouri (10-2, 7-1 SEC) is headed back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Tigers battled back from a 14-6 halftime deficit, dominated the second half and hung on for a 21-14 win over a red-hot Arkansas team.

How the game was won: Can we stop saying Missouri doesn't belong in the SEC? That game-winning touchdown drive was vintage SEC football. The Tigers drove 85 yards on 12 plays, 11 running plays, and ate up more than six minutes of clock. The offensive line manhandled Arkansas up front, and running backs Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy did the rest. After rushing for just 1 yard in the first quarter, Missouri finished the game with 158 rushing yards. When it mattered most, it beat Arkansas at its own game.

Game ball goes to: The offensive line was terrific down the stretch, but Missouri wouldn't have been in position to win the East without Markus Golden, and they wouldn't have won Saturday's game without him, either. Golden, the reigning SEC defensive player of the week, finished with three tackles, two for a loss, a forced fumble and recovered a fumble on the Razorbacks' final drive to seal the victory.

What it means: The same Missouri team that lost to Indiana and was blown out by Georgia is headed back to the SEC championship game. Credit the Tigers, though. They did what they had to do, winning six consecutive conference games, and now they await either No. 1 Alabama or No. 4 Mississippi State.

Playoff implication: Missouri's win pretty much sealed Georgia's fate in the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs likely needed to win the East and win the SEC championship game to have any chance at moving into the top four. And no, the Tigers aren't making the playoff, either. Missouri has yet to beat a team that's currently ranked in the top 25.

Best play: Murphy's go-ahead touchdown run was pretty sweet, but how about the two-point conversion to tie the game? Murphy took a direct snap, tossed it to Bud Sasser on a reverse, and Sasser threw it to Darius White in the end zone for the conversion.

What's next: Missouri, in its third season in the SEC, will represent the East in the Atlanta next Saturday for the second straight season. Arkansas (6-6) will still go to a bowl game for the first time in three years.

SEC has been entertaining in 2014

November, 24, 2014
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Whether you love the SEC or not, it's hard to argue against its entertainment value in 2014. The cannibalization of the SEC West and the mostly miserable play of the SEC East provided followers with two hotly contested divisional races that are coming down to the final weekend.

We saw the state of Mississippi take over the state of Alabama in one weekend. We saw the rise of Bulldogs and the fall of Gators. The West was wild and the East was,well, there.

There's SEC bias everywhere and still a chance for two SEC teams to make it into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFor Dak Prescott and Mississippi State, plenty will be on the line in the Egg Bowl on Saturday.
 Offense was supposed to be down with so many seasoned quarterbacks gone, but 13 teams are scoring more than 27 points per game and eight are averaging more than 421 yards per game.

The SEC had two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates in Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, who both still have at least another weekend to impress everyone.

The league started the season with seven teams ranked in the AP Poll. Six are ranked in the AP Poll now, and Alabama and Mississippi State are ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff Rankings. Both are also still in the running for the SEC West title.

From top to bottom, this league has been way more competitive than usual. Just think about this for a second: The West will be decided by the Iron Bowl and the Egg Bowl. The Iron Bowl made plenty of sense at the beginning of the year because you had the defending SEC champs in Auburn returning just about everyone, while Alabama was Alabama.

But the Egg Bowl? Mississippi State and Ole Miss? Sure, these two teams had the personnel to compete in the West, but to have the Egg Bowl actually mean something when you think of Atlanta is great for the league. Both serious playoff aspirations, and now Ole Miss is set up to play major spoiler for the Bulldogs.

Arkansas is relevant again. Bret Bielema's Hogs are rejuvenated and dangerous. After losing 17 straight SEC games, Arkansas has now won two straight by a combined 47-0. Those wins came against LSU and Ole Miss, both ranked. And Ole Miss was still in line for a spot in Atlanta and maybe a trip to the playoff, but the Hogs saw to it that Ole Miss' special run ended in a 30-0 romp.

Texas A&M fooled us with that commanding opening victory, but then it suffered three straight SEC losses before beating Auburn, who at the time was playing like one of the nation's best teams. LSU has a slew of young talent and beat Ole Miss before taking Alabama to overtime. Just wait until next year ...

The East hasn't exactly wowed anyone all year, but with things so even, the race to Atlanta has been a fun one to follow. Georgia -- clearly the most talented team on that side of the division -- might not even make it to the title game because of losses to South Carolina and Florida, who have combined to lose nine SEC games. Those pesky Missouri Tigers are now a win away from back-to-back Atlanta trips. The team that barely had an offensive pulse for most of the SEC season just doesn't know how to lose anymore. Remember when it was embarrassed by a bad Indiana team at home and then got trounced 34-0 at home to Georgia? Well, Missouri is 5-0 since.

Mizzou isn't as good as it was last year, but that doesn't matter one bit. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, allowing just 302.6 yards and 19.9 points per game in seven league games. With the defense being so good, Maty Mauk's inconsistent play at quarterback gets considerably overshadowed. The defense turned it up 10 notches, thanks in large part by ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who have combined for 22 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss.

Mizzou ain't pretty, but it's winning. Deal with it.

South Carolina was supposed to win the East, but owns the division's worst defense and loved blowing fourth-quarter leads. Then, the Gamecocks somehow beat a slightly surging Florida team in comeback fashion that cost Will Muschamp his job.

Kentucky's offense had bite during a 5-1 start, but after five straight losses, it's pumpkin time for the Wildcats. Tennessee has been so up-and-down, but the emergence of quarterback Joshua Dobbs at least makes the offense watchable. Florida had a rain out, a couple of bad blowouts, two quarterbacks, nearly three overtime games, plenty of heartache and blew out Georgia.

Go figure.

The SEC has been a blast. It hasn't always been great, and there's no dominant team, but there's been plenty of fun drama along the way ... and two weekends still remain.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
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The slate of games wasn’t as dramatic as we’ve had in recent weeks but there were still some good individual performances worth highlighting in the SEC on Saturday. Among them:

Nick Chubb, Georgia: The freshman only carried the football in the first half on Saturday, but that’s all the Bulldogs needed in their 55-9 win over Charleston Southern. Chubb had nine carries for 113 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 12.6 yards per carry. It is Chubb’s sixth consecutive game of more than 100 rushing yards and despite backing up Todd Gurley the first half of the season, he is second in the SEC in rushing yards (1,039) to only Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (1,276). Only Gurley (7.4 yards per carry) averaged more yards per tote than Chubb has this season (6.8).

Jeff Driskel, Florida: The junior has had more than his fair share of struggles in Gainesville but capped off Florida’s home schedule with a nice performance coming off the bench to relieve Treon Harris, who left with a bruised knee. Driskel scored four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) and was 9-of-11 passing for 164 yards in the Gators’ 52-3 win over Eastern Kentucky. The victory clinched bowl eligibility for Florida.

Markus Golden, Missouri: The senior defensive end said last week that he’s 100 percent healthy after playing through a nagging hamstring injury that bothered him for weeks, and it shows. He picked up two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, six total tackles, recovered a fumble and had two quarterback hurries in Missouri’s 29-21 win over Tennessee. Golden has four sacks in his last two games and 7.5 for the season. He showed relentless effort, not just in rushing the passer, but pursuing tackles well downfield away from his customary defensive end spot.

Skai Moore, South Carolina: Moore tied for the team-lead with nine tackles and had two interceptions for the Gamecocks on Saturday in their 37-12 win over South Alabama. Moore returned his two interceptions for a combined 71 yards. The effort was part of a five-turnover performance for the South Carolina defense, the first time the Gamecocks have posted that many in a game since last November, when they had six vs. Clemson.

Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: The entire Arkansas defense was great in its 30-0 shutout win over Ole Miss, but the senior linebacker was at the heart of the effort. He had a team-high 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry. Spaight was hitting hard and was all over the place in the Razorbacks’ win, which was their second straight shutout and made them bowl-eligible.

Ray and Golden producing for Mizzou

November, 20, 2014
11/20/14
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The tradition continues.

Missouri has a knack for producing elite pass rushers, and 2014 is no different. Shane Ray and Markus Golden picked up where their predecessors, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, left off. The Tigers continue to attack opposing quarterbacks proficiently and get in opposing backfields frequently, with Ray and Golden leading the efforts this season.

Missouri ranks first in the SEC in sacks (34) and second in sack percentage (nine percent). This is the eighth time in the past 10 seasons Missouri will finish with 30 or more sacks as a team. A defensive line that has had six first-team all-conference selections since Gary Pinkel was hired in 2000 seems certain to add its seventh such member, with Ray putting together the kind of season he has.

Ray, a junior, already holds the school’s single-season record for sacks with 13 and has had five games of at least two sacks, the only FBS player this season with that distinction. He also has 18 tackles for loss.

Ray continues to produce even as opponents try to scheme for him weekly.

“Every week somebody throws something kind of different at me,” Ray said. “They might keep a fullback in or slide my way and do things to keep me away from the quarterback. But the best thing I can do is just continuing to play as hard as I can. When the plays present themselves, just make the play. Schemes are tough to combat sometimes but you just have to keep going.”

Golden, meanwhile, was bothered by a hamstring injury suffered in September that forced him to miss Missouri’s loss to Indiana but has played through the injury since. He showed no ill effects of the ailment last week, however, picking up nine tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Tigers’ 34-27 win over Texas A&M, a night he spent matched up mostly against NFL draft prospect and preseason first-team All-SEC offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi.

“I'm back healthy,” Golden said afterward. “I'm 100 percent now, and I feel good. My hamstring feels good, and I was able to play the way I play all the time. I was myself [on Saturday].”

Despite the injury, Golden has compiled a respectable 53 tackles (one more than Ray), 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.

“They are great competitors, and they're great teammates, and they have a great friendship,” Pinkel said. “They're also competitive with one another. I think it's great.”

Pinkel said the extra focus Texas A&M gave Ray allowed Golden to excel.

“There's more attention sometimes, and they had a back over there to help a little bit with that offensive tackle with Shane and that allows Markus to be single-covered, so he got to do some of the things he did,” Pinkel said. “Just really, really good stuff.”

Golden said he has seen his fair share of double teams this season, too. Still, with 105 tackles, 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss between them, the defensive end tandem has produced, and if Missouri is to win its final two games and return to the SEC championship game, those two will be a big reason for it.

"They scheme both of us: Some games I got double teamed; some games he got double teamed,” Golden said. “But it's no excuse. We don't make excuses around here. So whatever you do to us, we still have to get after the quarterback. That's our job, and we take pride in that.”

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 18, 2014
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It wasn’t as exciting a Saturday as we hoped for, in terms of competitiveness. Every SEC game was decided by double digits. Still, there is plenty to glean from Week 8. Here are the things we learned from the weekend’s action:

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb helped keep Georgia rolling with 202 rushing yards on Saturday.
Georgia is a great team, with or without its biggest star: Even without running back Todd Gurley, this is your SEC East Division favorite. Some, including me, thought the Bulldogs could be stepping into a minefield in going on the road to face an Arkansas team that seemed to be knocking on the door of an SEC win. Well, No. 10 Georgia (6-1) is carrying the flag proudly for the SEC East after they cruised to a 45-32 win, a victory that included 38 first-half points. Running back Nick Chubb (30 carries, 202 yards, two touchdowns) was fantastic, quarterback Hutson Mason was sharp, and the defense came up with four turnovers. There’s no doubt this is one of the best one-loss teams in the country.

Alabama silenced its critics, for now: Nick Saban was a little irritated earlier this week by his fan base’s outsized expectations, which had many disappointed the Crimson Tide “only” beat Arkansas 14-13 (a week after Alabama lost to Ole Miss). Well, there’s nothing to criticize this week. Alabama played about as close to a perfect game as a team can. The Crimson Tide (6-1) had 602 offensive yards, converted 60 percent of their third downs, held Texas A&M to a meager 172 yards, had zero penalties and won the time of possession battle (36:31 to 23:29). Hard to be upset with 59-0. Although two undefeated teams are ahead of Bama in the standings, you never know what might happen. The No. 7 Crimson Tide’s playoff hopes are alive and well at the moment.

Texas A&M has serious soul-searching to do: It’s one thing to lose and quite another to be destroyed the way the Aggies were Saturday by the Crimson Tide. Kevin Sumlin used the words “embarrassing” and “unacceptable” in his postgame news conference, and those are pretty accurate. Alabama controlled the game in every phase while shutting out a Sumlin team for the first time in his seven-year coaching career. The Aggies (5-3) don’t have a game next week, and it’s a good time for them to reevaluate everything about their team, from top to bottom, to figure out why they’ve been dominated by three SEC West foes in the past three weeks.

Kentucky might be on the rise, but there’s still a long way to go: The Wildcats have been one of the surprise teams in the SEC this year, with their 5-1 start and talk of making a bowl game. The progress the program continues to make is admirable, and coach Mark Stoops should be commended for the job done so far, but after a 41-3 loss to LSU, it's clear there still is a lot of progress to be made. LSU handled its business and showed it’s in a different class than the Wildcats (5-2), at least this weekend. This should serve as a good learning experience for a young Kentucky team that still has a bright long-term future.

It’s not getting better in Gainesville anytime soon: There has been a lot of discussion about Will Muschamp’s job, and that isn’t going to die down after Florida’s performance against Missouri. The Gators were hammered 42-13 in their own backyard. What makes it even worse is the Tigers didn’t do it with offense -- Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk threw for only 20 yards and no touchdowns, and Missouri finished with a minuscule 119 offensive yards. The Tigers did their damage with a kickoff return and punt return for touchdowns (both courtesy of Marcus Murphy), as well as an interception return (Darvin Ruise) and fumble return (Markus Golden) for touchdowns. That’s ugly for Florida, who is 3-3 (2-3 in the SEC) with Georgia coming up in two weeks. It looks like it will only get worse before it gets better for the Gators.

Ole Miss’ offense doesn’t have to be great -- just good enough: The No. 3 Rebels (7-0) took some time to get started offensively, as they went scoreless in the first quarter against Tennessee and were down 3-0 in the second quarter. No worries when you “Landshark D.” The 27-yard Aaron Medley field goal was the only points the Vols would get, quarterback Bo Wallace started making some plays, and Ole Miss cruised to a 34-3 victory. The offensive numbers weren’t great (383 total yards for the Rebels), but more importantly, they committed zero turnovers and won time of possession. With the type of defense Ole Miss has (it held Tennessee to zero yards rushing and 3-of-16 on third-down conversion attempts), that’s a recipe for success.

Three key factors in UGA-Missouri game

October, 10, 2014
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By the end of the day Saturday, there might be a clear front-runner in the SEC East race -- and that team will likely be the winner of the matchup between No. 13 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) and No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0).

With help from ESPN Stats & Information, let's take a look at key factors in Saturday's game in Columbia:

No Gurley, what now?: By now it's no secret that Georgia's offense will operate without the dominant running ability of tailback Todd Gurley (94 carries, 773 yards, 8 TDs, SEC-high 154.6 rushing yards per game). The guy was a Heisman Trophy front-runner for good reason, but now Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must assemble a game plan against Missouri for the second straight year without his most potent weapon.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will miss the unique ability of Todd Gurley (above) to gain yards after contact, but freshman Nick Chubb is a suitable replacement.
The Bulldogs played without injured backs Gurley and Keith Marshall last season and actually fared OK on the ground against Missouri. Then-freshmen J.J. Green (12 carries, 87 yards) and Brendan Douglas (14-70) enjoyed success on the ground against Mizzou last season and Georgia now must turn to Plans B, C and D against the Tigers again.

Green is now playing defense, so he's out of the picture. But Nick Chubb provides a fairly decent resemblance to Gurley. The freshman (31-224, 7.2 yards per carry) is Georgia's second-leading rusher behind Gurley. Marshall and Sony Michel remain sidelined by injuries, so Chubb and Douglas (sixth on the team with 47 rushing yards in limited duty) might be in line for the biggest workloads out of the backfield -- particularly Chubb.

About one of every five of Chubb's carries (six out of 31) has gone for at least 10 yards, and he's averaging 3.77 yards after contact per carry, which isn't much worse than Gurley's 3.9 YAC -- the best among all Power 5 backs with at least 50 carries. Nonetheless, Gurley's absence is devastating for Georgia and will require massive adjustments late in the week in order for the Bulldogs to get out of Columbia with a win.

One thing that helps the Bulldogs' cause is that Missouri's defense has had mixed results against the run.

Indiana ran 50 times for 241 yards and three touchdowns in its upset win over the Tigers. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman averaged 3.95 yards after contact per run that day en route to rushing 19 times for 132 yards and a score. As we've already discussed, YAC is one of power runner Chubb's trademarks, so Missouri tacklers are going to have to bring it Saturday. He's not Gurley, but he ain't bad, either.

Mizzou pass rush: Although Georgia has been more run-heavy compared to recent seasons -- the team is running the ball 64 percent of the time this season compared to 51 percent in 2013 -- the Bulldogs need to produce more in the passing game with Gurley out of the picture.

And Missouri -- particularly star defensive linemen Shane Ray and Markus Golden -- would be perfectly happy to see the Bulldogs try to air it out. Ray ranks second in the FBS and leads the SEC with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss. Golden is third in the SEC with four sacks and fifth with 6.5 tackles for loss.

Georgia fans might remember Ray as the pass-rusher who laid a crushing hit on quarterback Aaron Murray last season, forcing a fumble that Mizzou end Michael Sam scooped up and ran in for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 28-10 lead.

Ray had two sacks for a loss of 14 yards in the Tigers' comeback win against South Carolina. Between Ray, Matt Hoch and Harold Brantley, Mizzou had four sacks for 37 yards of lost ground for the Gamecocks.

More good news for Mizzou: It hasn't needed to blitz in order to generate effective pressure. Since the start of last season, the Tigers have 50 sacks when sending four pass-rushers or fewer, the most of any Power 5 school.

QB comparison: Georgia and Missouri both expected more productivity from the quarterback position than what they've gotten so far.

The issue might be slightly more alarming with Mizzou's Maty Mauk (1,110 passing yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs), whom many college football analysts expected to have a big season. Thus far, Mauk has a 47.1 score in ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, which is the third-worst in the SEC and more than 30 points lower than his 77.9 from last season.

Third down in particular has been an issue for the Mizzou QB. Mauk is completing an SEC-low 38.1 percent of his third-down passes and ranks 10th among SEC quarterbacks in conversion percentage (29 percent).

Georgia's beleaguered secondary is vulnerable to a strong passing attack, but will Mauk -- whose breakout game last season was against Georgia -- take advantage? That might be the determining factor in Saturday's game. The Bulldogs are in the middle of the SEC pack in pass defense (seventh at 223 YPG), but they have surrendered 284 passing yards and three touchdowns in a shootout win against Tennessee, and 271 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout loss to South Carolina. Doing a better job against Mauk, receiver Bud Sasser (fourth in the SEC with averages of six catches and 90.8 yards per game), and the rest of Mizzou's receivers would greatly improve Georgia's chances of victory.

We've already discussed the challenge Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason will face from Missouri's dynamic pass rush. Aside from avoiding mistakes with Ray and Golden breathing down his neck, how much will Georgia expect from Mason and the passing game? Mason (687 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs) ranks 55th in the Total QBR standings with a 59.7 score -- not horrible, but not particularly impressive, either.

Mason hasn't worked with a full complement of receivers yet, but that's starting to change. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell played for the first time in more than a year last week against Vanderbilt, and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt expects receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tight end Jay Rome to be back for the Missouri game, too.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
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Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:

Since Gary Pinkel arrived at Missouri in 2000, he’s had six first-team all-conference selections on the defensive line. Four of those players went on to be first-round NFL draft picks, and there are currently eight former Tigers defensive linemen playing in the NFL.

“There’s two things I’ve been fortunate with most of my career,” Pinkel said last month. “Having good quarterbacks and having guys on defense that can get the other guys’ good quarterbacks.”

Getting to opponents’ quarterbacks has never been a problem for Missouri under Pinkel. Last year, the Tigers led the SEC with 41 sacks, which marked the seventh time in the past nine seasons that they finished with 30 or more sacks as a team. Michael Sam (12) and Kony Ealy (9) were both among the conference leaders in sacks, but they have moved on to greener pastures and will be playing their football on Sundays this fall.

[+] EnlargeShane Ray
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonShane Ray has proven the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks. Just ask Johnny Manziel.
That leaves a rather large void at defensive end. A dilemma for most schools, sure, but not at Missouri. Not where strong, fast, 6-foot-3 defensive linemen seem to grow on trees. Not where Markus Golden and Shane Ray are patiently waiting for their chance to shine.

How good are Golden and Ray? There were NFL scouts who came to Missouri last season to see Ealy and Sam, but left wondering if the two behind them weren’t better.

Golden, specifically, might have been the Tigers' most productive defensive lineman last year. Despite playing only about 40 percent of the snaps, he still led all ends with 55 tackles. He also had 13 tackles for loss and six sacks.

“Really, we were just competitive,” Golden said. “When you got a bunch of good players in one room, good defensive linemen in one room, we compete against each other.

“That’s what it was with Kony and Mike. It wasn’t like they were trying to teach me something -- they knew I knew what to do -- it was just like we’re going to all compete against each other and see who does the best.”

Now it’s Golden’s turn to take center stage. It’s Ray’s turn to start opposite him. Missouri might have lost a pair of elite defensive ends from last season, but that doesn’t mean the defensive line is going to take a step back. In fact, it might take a step forward.

Just ask Missouri center Evan Boehm, who goes against that group every day in practice.

“Oh, my,” he said. “As an offensive line, we’ve gone against the majority of the defensive lines in the SEC, and we firmly believe that we have one of the best in the conference, if not the nation.

“Going against guys like Markus, like Shane, like Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent, Josh Augusta, Harold Brantley -- you’re just swapping guys out each and every time, but they’re not skipping a beat. And when they’re doing that, we’re just getting more work each and every time. We’re getting better each and every time. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to go against the best, and I think we’re doing that.”

At SEC media days, Pinkel was already talking up Marcus Loud and Charles Harris, the next crop of redshirt freshmen defensive ends who have a chance to be special once Golden and Ray are gone. And after those two, there will be two more to follow. It's why some people have started calling Missouri "Defensive Line U."

“A lot of people try to call us that,” Golden said. “But we call it ‘D-line Zou.’ I say that because we look at it as we’re Tigers, and we say we’re a bunch of animals, a bunch of animals on that defensive line, a bunch of guys that just play hard and physical.”

This year’s version of "D-line Zou" will be critical if the Tigers want to make it back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

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