NCF Nation: Markus Golden

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Noon ET

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:
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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.

Top SEC players: Nos. 20-16

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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Edward kicked off our countdown of the SEC's best 25 players with selections 25-21 on Monday.

Keep in mind there's always some projection in these lists after reaching out to coaches, scouts and other media members for their input. The goal is to pinpoint who we think will be the 25 best players for the 2014 season, meaning it's not merely a list of the 25 returning players who've been the best players in the league to this point.

Today, we look at selections 20-16:

20. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches and earn SEC Freshman of the Year honors from the coaches. He's added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, and at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, will be even tougher to defend with his physicality, sure hands and run-after-the-catch ability. With Donte Moncrief leaving early for the NFL, Treadwell is moving from slot receiver to the Rebels' outside receiver spot and will get plenty of chances for big plays.

19: Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: The Michael Sam-Kony Ealy tandem at defensive end last season was ultra-productive, but go back and look at the havoc the 6-3, 260-pound Golden caused despite playing only 40 percent of the snaps. He had 13 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks, and steps up this season as a senior as the Tigers' top finisher off the edge. Missouri has produced its share of talented defensive linemen under Gary Pinkel, and Golden is poised to join that fraternity.

18. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said Nkemdiche is a tackle all the way for the Rebels, although he's certainly athletic enough to play outside in certain situations. He plans to play at 285 pounds this season after playing closer to 300 as a freshman. He's also healthy after racking up eight tackles for loss last season and eager to prove that he can be as dominant as any interior defensive lineman in this league and maybe the country.

17. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Some of the best news for the 5-9, 223-pound Davis is that the Gamecocks are deep at running back, so they'll be able to keep him fresh. He was a dynamo last season in his first full season as a starter and finished with 1,183 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Davis is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and caught 34 passes a year ago. He turns missed tackles into touchdowns and had two scoring runs of more than 50 yards last season.

16. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: Even though Derrick Henry has generated plenty of buzz over the way he played in the bowl game last season, the 6-2, 218-pound Yeldon is still the Crimson Tide's feature back. He'll be gunning for his third straight 1,000-yard season in 2014 and has averaged at least 6 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons. Yeldon led the SEC in rushing in league games last season with an average of 123.5 yards per game. He's as adept at running over you as he is at running by you.
From time to time, our SEC reporters will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They will both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We will let you decide which reporter is right.

With the start of the 2014 season a little more than a month away, we are still trying to figure out who will be in position to capture the league title this fall. But there are a few teams we are still trying to get a good read on.

Today’s Take Two topic: What is the toughest SEC team to get a handle on in 2014 -- Missouri or LSU?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMaty Mauk returns, but Missouri has several question marks on both sides of the ball.
To me, the Missouri Tigers are the toughest team to figure out in 2014. After last season's special run through the SEC, there is plenty of confidence in Columbia, Missouri, but there is also a lot of uncertainty in some areas on this team. I could see this group of Tigers continuing to ride the momentum they created last season, but I could also see Mizzou take a nosedive this fall.

I do like that Mizzou has a confident, talented quarterback returning in Maty Mauk. He went 3-1 as a starter last season in place of an injured James Franklin. Mauk threw for more than 1,000 yards and had 11 touchdowns to just one interception. He lost almost nine pounds this summer because of a viral infection, but he thinks it has made him lighter, faster and quicker. He has a stacked backfield to work with and an experienced offensive line in front of him. The defense will again be anchored by a stout defensive line, starting with potential All-SEC defensive end Markus Golden.

But there are plenty of questions. Who is Mauk going to throw to? How will reshuffling affect the offensive line? Are there true playmakers at linebacker? How is an inexperienced secondary going to hold up this season? Who's going to replace all those proven leaders?

Receivers Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White have good field experience, but one of them is going to have to stand out as the guy for Mauk to rely on. Are any of them ready? Can any of them be dynamic enough playmakers to force defenses to adjust? Not having someone like Dorial Green-Beckham could really hurt this offense.

Two starters are gone at linebacker, and this unit dealt with injuries this spring. Not great. Mizzou’s secondary was one of the SEC’s worst last season, and three starters are gone. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? There is depth in the secondary, but not a lot of proven guys, and that concerns me.

The biggest thing might be finding new vocal leaders. Who can carry this team like Franklin, Michael Sam and L'Damian Washington did last season? Is Mauk up to the task? Golden? I don’t think we really know what the locker room scene is like for this team.

Take 2: Greg Ostendorf

Let’s start with the fact that LSU lost nine players to the NFL draft this past year, more than any other team in college football. The team’s starting quarterback, its top two running backs, top two wide receivers and its top offensive lineman have all moved on to the next level. Time to rebuild, right? Not in Baton Rouge. Not under Les Miles.

Since Miles took over in 2005, LSU has had 60 players taken in the NFL draft, yet the Tigers have managed to win at least 10 games in seven of Miles’ nine seasons as head coach.

So don’t expect this season’s LSU team to fall off completely, but with so many unknowns and a stacked SEC West, the Tigers could finish anywhere between first to sixth in their own division. They are talented enough to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, but they could just as easily end up in the Music City Bowl.

Where this team goes will be dependent on its incoming recruiting class. Between Brandon Harris, Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre, LSU could have three true freshman starting on offense by the time the season opener rolls around.

Fournette might be the closest thing to a sure thing. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound running back was the No. 1 recruit in the country and has already drawn comparisons to Adrian Peterson. He was one of the top stories at SEC media days, and he has yet to record a carry. But can he handle the pressure and the rigors of a college football season? Can Harris and Dupre handle it? All three were playing high school football in Louisiana less than a year ago.

As for the defense, there are even more question marks. Linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Tre'Davious White are good players, potentially All-SEC, but what is the status of Jalen Mills after his arrest this offseason? Who will fill the big shoes left by Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson on the defensive line? Who are the leaders going to be?

This might be the toughest coaching job yet for Miles, but don’t be surprised if LSU is in the playoff conversation when it travels to Texas A&M on Thanksgiving.
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.

Missouri picked to fall in 2014

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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All good things must come to an end, right? Well, according to our faithful readers, Missouri's special second year in the SEC won't have much of an encore, as the Tigers were picked to be the SEC team poised to fall in 2014.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Kyle Rivas/Getty ImagesHaving QB Maty Mauk back should help Missouri overcome other departures in 2014.
With more than 14,300 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Missouri took home 39 percent of the vote. Auburn was second with 23 percent, and Alabama was third (16 percent). South Carolina was fourth (15), and LSU was fifth (seven).

Missouri is missing some key elements from last year's team. Quarterback James Franklin, receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas, defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, and cornerback E.J. Gaines are all gone. That's a lot to replace, but the Tigers should have enough bodies all around to help soften the blow.

Nowhere is that more true than quarterback and receiver, where the Tigers could still have quite the explosive showing in 2014. Maty Mauk, who filled in for Franklin for a month and lost just one game as a starter last season, is back and showed flashes of being a star when he was in. Mauk has the moxie, athletic ability and the arm to be one of the SEC's best quarterbacks in 2014. No one should be sleeping on him.

All eyes will be on receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who has the ability to be an All-SEC or even an All-America performer. He has to get his off-field life taken care of, but if he can keep his head on straight, he'll be a nightmare for defenses.

The defensive line still has a lot of talent and experience coming back, starting with ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray.

The toughest obstacle will be replacing three starters in the secondary, including both corners. The Tigers have bodies, just not a ton of experience in the back end.
Recently, Michael Sam let members of the media in on a little secret behind Missouri's impressive season along the defensive line in 2013: They felt disrespected.

"Everybody thought our D-line was doomed because Sheldon Richardson was gone," Sam told reporters during Senior Bowl practices. "I kind of took that as disrespectful."

After 2012's unsatisfactory 5-7 SEC debut, on the outside it looked like the Tigers could be in more trouble in 2013 with Richardson, a first-round NFL draft pick, gone. What was left was a lot of potential but no proven playmakers.

[+] EnlargeMissouri Tigers
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMarkus Golden, right, and the rest of the Missouri defensive line had plenty of reasons to celebrate in 2013. With Michael Sam and Kony Ealy gone, Golden could be the star of the show this fall.
Then the actual football started, and the Tigers were a menace up front, leading the SEC with 41 sacks and 107 tackles for loss during their fantastic SEC Year 2 turnaround. Sam, who was one of the nation's biggest surprises, led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Fellow linemen Kony Ealy and Markus Golden combined for 14.5 more sacks and 27 tackles for loss.

That was a ton of production from arguably the SEC's best defensive line. Now, most of it is gone, as Sam graduated and Ealy declared for the NFL draft. But Tigers fans certainly shouldn't fret -- Missouri still has a lot of talent to work with in the trenches in 2014.

It starts with Golden, who didn't get as much love as Sam or Ealy but still managed to record 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss this past season. He has the makings of being a star in the SEC this fall. It was a bit of a surprise to even see him stay, which is a huge win for the Tigers but a loss for the rest of the league. You should be hearing his name a lot this fall.

And you can't double-team him, either. Not with the soon-to-be-not-so-unknown Shane Ray, who collected 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss last season, coming back at the other end position. He was also second on the team behind Ealy with 11 quarterback hurries. Yep, that was even better than Sam.

Ray, who will be a junior this fall, was a solid reserve for Mizzou last season and flashed signs of being a real handful for offensive linemen to handle. He went five straight games at one point during the season with being a part of a sack and has the chance at a nice breakout season in 2014.

Inside, Mizzou still has Matt Hoch, Harold Brantley and Lucas Vincent. All of these guys have what it takes to clog the middle yet again, and all of them have seen a good amount of time on the field. Brantley, who was a redshirt freshman last fall, could be someone to really keep an eye on going forward. He added around 20 pounds last year to get strong inside yet showed his athleticism and speed on a nifty 26-yard run on a fake punt against Ole Miss. Hoch is an underrated player who somehow figures out how to find the ball on plays, while Vincent has played in every game of his three-year career. Hoch and Vincent combined for 64 tackles, including 10 for loss, last year.

So while the Tigers will no doubt miss Sam and Ealy, they'll be just fine in 2014 with the players returning. This school has churned out defensive line studs in the past, thanks to the developmental skills of defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. With his track record, it appears he knows exactly what he's doing up front. Expect that to continue this fall.
Auburn fullback Jay Prosch respects Missouri's defensive line and its rush defense, but he also loves what his own team's offense can do.

"We're really good at what we do offensively," Prosch said. "I think no matter what, whoever we play, we're going to find a way to move the ball no matter what, where their strengths are. … Missouri has a very good defensive line and a very good defense, but overall I think that we're going to find a way to move the ball no matter how we have to do it."

You can't knock his confidence. The Tigers finished the regular season with the SEC's No. 1 rushing attack, averaging 318.25 yards per game. They average 6.3 yards per carry and have 39 rushing touchdowns on the season.

What's more is that Auburn averaged 286.3 rushing yards in eight conference games. In those games, the Tigers failed to rush for 200 yards just once (120 against Mississippi State). They rushed for 323 yards against Georgia, 379 against Texas A&M and 444 against Tennessee. In last week's epic win over Alabama, Auburn rushed for 296 yards on a defense allowing just 91 rushing yards per game before the Iron Bowl.

While Auburn runs a variation of the spread offense, its running game is very multiple with some power, read-option and triple-option.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall and Tre Mason put stress on a defense on every play.
"We're going to have to draw from some experience of other running teams, some of the running philosophies that they have that maybe some other teams had that didn't run the ball as much, be able to apply those lessons to this," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of defending Auburn's running game.

But Missouri shouldn't feel overwhelmed by what those other Tigers can do on the ground. They have their own stout rush defense.

Mizzou is allowing just 119.1 rushing yards per game, 3.6 yards per carry and has given up 11 rushing touchdowns. Mizzou allowed a league-low 120.8 rushing yards per game in SEC games.

Mizzou linebacker Donovan Bonner has been proud of his defense's production, but he understands the major challenge Auburn's running game presents. After all, this is the same running game that dominated Alabama a week ago. The SEC's best rush defense was pounded and pounded again, allowing a season-high 5.7 yards per carry.

Bonner said stopping Auburn's run game takes discipline and filling gaps. It also means everyone has to be spot-on with their assignments for every player who could run the ball while on the field.

"If you mess up one gap, you go for a big run," Bonner said.

"It's not an easy offense to stop. They do a lot of motion.

"They can pull it out and run with the quarterback. Sometimes they can raise up and pass it. It's really a triplethreat offense, man. You just have to be conscious of what's going on around you and not get caught up in all the other stuff and just focus on what's in front of you. You have to trust your keys as a linebacker and also the safeties, too. So if they scream downhill, and it's play-action, that could be a pass also. So we're just going to focus on trusting our eyes."

Auburn has four players with more than 500 rushing yards, but the stars of the show are Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall, who have combined to rush for 2,239 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Mason is a home run threat and a bruiser. Marshall is slippery, fast and deceptive with the read-option. Twice this season, both rushed for at least 100 yards in the same game, and in the last three games they have combined to run for 798 yards and 10 touchdowns.

You know you're going to take one on the chin when Mason has the ball, but watching Marshall's movements is a little tougher to read.

"You have to stay with the quarterback," Bonner said.

"Marshall is obviously a great runner, probably the best runner other than [Johnny] Manziel that we faced this year. "

But has Auburn faced a defensive line like this? This team hasn't seen a Michael Sam (10.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss), and fellow Mizzou ends Kony Ealy and Markus Golden have combined for 13 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss.

Auburn's running game likes to test players on the edge, but Bonner thinks Mizzou's ends have the ability to contain runs to the outside.

"It can kind of neutralize that, but our defensive ends are pretty athletic, physical guys," Bonner said. "They can get to the ball also I mean, really, if they keep doing what they've been doing all year, we should be fine."

It should be a fun matchup between Auburn's running game and Mizzou's defense. Neither unit has faced the kind of consistency and talent they'll see Saturday, but that hasn't hindered one side's confident nature.

"Offensively, from what we do, I think it will work in our favor," Auburn running back Corey Grant said.

"With us running the ball, we'll find a way to move the ball and get out on the edge and run our zone reads and things like that. So either way, our offense, we've gotten better each week throughout the season. I believe we'll find a way."

What to watch in the SEC: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
10:15
AM ET
Almost nobody thought these two teams -- neither of which even reached bowl eligibility a season ago after going a combined 2-14 in SEC play -- would be here when the season started, but here we are. No. 3 Auburn (11-1) and No. 5 Missouri (11-1) will meet in Atlanta on Saturday with an SEC championship, a BCS bowl berth and maybe a spot in the national championship game at stake.

Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday's showdown at the Georgia Dome:

Possible hangovers: One could hardly blame Auburn if it entered this game a bit flat. Gus Malzahn's Tigers are coming off consecutive miracle wins against their biggest rivals: Georgia and Alabama. Chris Davis' missed field goal return for a touchdown against the top-ranked Crimson Tide resonated outside the sports world, considering that it was a subject on conversation on “The View” and the “Today” show and not just on sports highlight shows. Likewise, an emotional win against Texas A&M prompted the home fans to empty onto the field after Missouri clinched the SEC East title last Saturday. If one of these teams starts slowly Saturday, it could easily find itself facing a big deficit early in the game.

Defending the run: If Missouri is able to slow down Auburn's powerful running game (No. 5 nationally at 318.2 YPG), it will be in a small group of defenses that has been successful in that endeavor this season. Alabama -- which entered last week's game ranked fourth nationally against the run -- couldn't do it, as Auburn ran 52 times for 296 yards. In fact, Auburn has run for at least 200 yards in all but one game this season. Tre Mason (237 carries, 1,317 yards, 18 TDs) is the league's top rusher at 109.8 yards per game and quarterback Nick Marshall (140-922, 10 TDs) is eighth at 83.8 YPG. Meanwhile, Missouri -- which is 14th nationally against the run (119.1 YPG) has yet to allow 200 yards in any game. Let's not forget about the other side of this token, however. Missouri's offense performs with more balance than Auburn's, but its running game has been extremely productive, as well. Missouri ranks second in the league in rushing offense (236.2 YPG) with Henry Josey (153-951, 13 TDs) leading the way and ranking ninth in the league with 79.2 yards per game.

Auburn secondary against Missouri's big wideouts: Auburn has done a good job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but its secondary has been erratic at best. The Tigers surrendered 277 passing yards and three touchdowns to Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron last week -- including a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper -- and gave up 415 yards to Georgia's Aaron Murray in the previous game. Overall, Auburn ranks second-to-last in the SEC against the pass (256.7 YPG), which is a scary sign with Missouri's big, talented receiving corps on deck. The Tigers have the No. 5 passing offense in the league (252.6 YPG), featuring L'Damian Washington (44 catches, 824 yards, 10 TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (49-686, 10 TDs), who rank seventh and 12th, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards per game. Senior Marcus Lucas (50-596, 2 TDs) ranks 10th with 4.17 catches per game.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
Zumapress/Icon SMIMichael Sam and Missouri's defensive front will be tested by Auburn's powerful run game.
Containing quarterbacks: Marshall's emergence has been one of the leading factors in Auburn's revival after last season's dismal results. Not only is he poised to become a 1,000-yard rusher, but he has made some enormous plays in the passing game -- and not just the miracle pass for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to Ricardo Louis against Georgia. He hit Sammie Coates with a crucial game-tying touchdown pass in the final minute against Alabama, went for 339 yards -- including the game-winning touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining -- against Mississippi State and made some huge throws in the road win against Texas A&M. He has fumbled 11 times this season (and only lost four), however, so Missouri's turnover-happy defense (SEC-high 27 takeaways) will most certainly look to generate some momentum off Marshall turnovers. On the other hand, Mizzou's James Franklin creates major matchup issues of his own. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound quarterback earned the nickname “Frank the Tank” with his physical running style, although it would be understandable if he hesitated to put his shoulder down Saturday after missing four games with a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia. Franklin was a combined 30-for-47 for 375 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Ole Miss and Texas A&M since returning from the injury and also rushed 26 times for 122 yards in those two games, so he appears to be back to the form that makes him so difficult to corral.

Defensive playmakers: Few defensive players, if any, have made a bigger impact around the SEC this season than Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam. He leads the league with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss, while fellow defensive lineman Markus Golden is fourth with 13 TFLs and Kony Ealy (9.5) and Shane Ray (9.0) aren't far outside the top 10. If Auburn's typical form holds, Mizzou won't have much of a chance to add to its SEC-leading sack total, but its defensive front will be the determining factor in whether it can handle Auburn's running game. Aside from defensive end Dee Ford (eight sacks, 12 TFLs), Auburn doesn't have many defensive players whose individual stats jump off the page. But a deep defensive line and playmakers like Robenson Therezie, Ryan Smith and Davis have combined to deliver some clutch plays when the Tigers needed a boost the most.

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