NCF Nation: Maty Mauk

College football players across the country enter spring practice with the mentality that they have something to prove. But there are some cases in which that mindset makes more sense than others.

Here are 10 situations in the SEC in which players need to send a message, loudly and clearly:

Quarterback Chad Kelly, Ole Miss: Kelly is a classic “something to prove” prospect this spring. Talent is not the question with Kelly, who transferred from East Mississippi Community College in January. The problem is volatility. Kelly left Clemson last year under horrible terms, and then was arrested in December in Buffalo, New York, and faced multiple charges including assault and resisting arrest. Ole Miss has a vacancy at quarterback after Bo Wallace’s departure, and Kelly will compete for the job with DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan. Kelly passed for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions last fall. Now we’ll see whether he can keep his act together after Rebels coach Hugh Freeze gave him second and third chances.

Running back Keith Marshall, Georgia: Marshall was the more highly regarded prospect when he and Todd Gurley signed with the Bulldogs in 2012, and they formed a dangerous duo that fall. Marshall ran for 759 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman but has barely played since suffering a knee injury five games into the 2013 season. Gurley’s gone to the NFL, but Georgia has Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at the top of the running back depth chart now. Where does Marshall fit in? He’s been out of the picture for so long, it’s tough to say at this point.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonJake Coker has the opportunity now to regain the starting job at Alabama.
Quarterback Jacob Coker, Alabama: Most thought Coker would take over as Alabama’s starting quarterback last year when he transferred from Florida State. Instead, it was Blake Sims who grabbed the job and never gave it up. Sims is gone now, though, clearing the way for Coker to claim the position in 2015. Can he get the job done?

Wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: Aggies fans expected superstardom when Kevin Sumlin’s staff signed Seals-Jones in 2013, but he missed almost all of his freshman season with a knee injury. Seals-Jones played in all 13 games last season, finishing with 465 yards and four touchdowns on 49 receptions. Those are fine numbers but nothing close to what A&M fans envisioned when he signed two years ago. He has plenty of time to develop into a star, however. Maybe he’ll take a step toward that level of production this year.

Gerald Dixon and South Carolina’s entire defensive line: No sense singling out Dixon here. South Carolina’s defensive front was horrible in 2014. The line’s ineffective play was the key reason why the Gamecocks tumbled from a spot as one of the SEC’s best defenses to one of the worst. Dixon and his fellow starters are on notice as the Gamecocks open spring practice. If they don’t play better, South Carolina’s coaches will have to give somebody else a chance. Last season wasn’t nearly good enough.

WR Nate Brown, Missouri: Missouri has to replace its top three receivers from last year, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White, all of whom were seniors. The Tigers will turn to a new collection of wideouts this year, led by Brown. The sophomore made just five catches for 45 yards a season ago, but his size/speed combination makes him the safest bet to make an impact this fall.

LSU’s quarterbacks: Last season was a mess at the quarterback position for LSU. Somebody -- either junior Anthony Jennings or sophomore Brandon Harris -- needs to take this job and run with it. Jennings completed just 48.9 percent of his passes while starting 12 of 13 games, but Harris’ lone start at Auburn was a complete dud. He’s a talented player, but Harris has to prove to Les Miles and his staff that he won’t make catastrophic errors if they put him on the field. He hasn’t convinced them yet.

Running back Alvin Kamara, Tennessee: Kamara was one of the nation’s most highly recruited running backs when he signed with Alabama in 2013, but he disappeared on the Crimson Tide’s depth chart and was twice suspended during his year in Tuscaloosa. Kamara transferred to Hutchinson Community College last season and rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 touchdowns in nine games. Now he has a second chance to prove that he’s an SEC-caliber back, forming what could be a dangerous one-two punch with Jalen Hurd at Tennessee. If Kamara can keep his head on straight, he has an excellent opportunity to make an impact with the Volunteers.

Quarterback Maty Mauk, Missouri: Mauk wasn’t the quarterback in 2014 that many expected after an impressive freshman season. He was inconsistent and prone to poor decision making at times. He passed for 2,648 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, which is not horrible, and helped the Tigers claim their second straight SEC East title. But Mizzou desperately needs its quarterback to improve upon his 53.4 completion percentage and become a more consistent performer as a junior.

Texas A&M’s defense: Texas A&M hopes John Chavis is the key piece that was missing over the past two years, when the Aggies featured one of the SEC’s worst defenses. The former LSU and Tennessee defensive coordinator has gotten results wherever he’s been, but Chavis has his work cut out at A&M. The Aggies were 102nd nationally (450.8 ypg) in total defense and tied for 75th in scoring defense (28.1 ppg). Considering how effectively the Aggies typically score, trotting out a defense that is simply better than awful might help them become more competitive in the tough SEC West.
As we get closer and closer to spring practices popping up all around the country, it's time to dive a little deeper into the substance of the 2015 season. That substance talk really starts right after the season, grows after national signing day and then starts to snowball during spring practice.

We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:

1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:
  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • LSU
  • Ole Miss
  • South Carolina
  • Vanderbilt

So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.

2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will look to running back Nick Chubb to carry the offensive load in 2015.
3. Will Auburn, South Carolina and Texas A&M see significant defensive improvements?
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.

4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.

5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.

6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.

7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.

8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.

9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.

10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
Missouri’s 11-3 season with an SEC East Division title and a bowl win meant there were plenty of good performances across the board. But there are still areas that could use improvement heading into 2015 and we look at one of them today:

Position to improve: Quarterback.

Why it was a problem: Missouri ranked 10th in the SEC in passing yards per game and 13th in yards per attempt. Against SEC competition (including the SEC title game), Maty Mauk completed only 48.9 percent of his passes and threw nine touchdowns to seven interceptions in those nine games. The Tigers want to take the next step from SEC East Division champions to SEC champions, and improved play at quarterback has to be part of that equation. Mauk is a playmaker who can make great throws, improvise with his feet and produce highlight-worthy plays, but more consistency is needed from him if the Tigers are going to move into elite status.

How it can be fixed: Gary Pinkel voiced confidence in Mauk, even during his struggles, saying, “He’s our guy” in the aftermath of the Tigers’ 34-0 loss to Georgia in October. The Tigers then reeled off six straight wins. It stands to reason that, barring unforeseen circumstances, Mauk will remain Mizzou’s guy heading into his junior season. So it’s on Mauk simply to play better in 2015. The Tigers are 14-4 when Mauk starts, so despite some shaky play at times, Missouri has still been successful with Mauk behind center. Backup quarterback Eddie Printz, a redshirt freshman last season, attempted only one pass in three appearances in 2014. Corbin Berkstresser, the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, will be a senior this fall. The Tigers are bringing in a highly touted prospect at the position, ESPN 300 quarterback Drew Lock, a four-star prospect who is the No. 107 overall player nationally and the sixth-ranked pocket passer. Lock, an in-state prospect from Lee’s Summit High, is a nice acquisition, but this will still be Mauk’s team going into 2015.

Early 2015 outlook: With an offseason to improve and 18 starts under his belt, next season has some potential for Mauk. Can he improve his completion percentage and lower his interception total? If he can without taking away from his improvisational ability and style that makes him compelling to watch, it would be huge for the Tigers’ offense. Missouri says goodbye to its three leading receivers from 2014 – Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White – who were all seniors. Mauk has to quickly establish a rapport with the new crop of pass catchers, if he can, it bodes well for the Tigers. Moments like this one and the way he finished the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl win over Minnesota provide optimism. If Mauk can play that way more consistently, the Tigers will be in good shape.
Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.

Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?

The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.

Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:

EAST

Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.

Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.

Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.

Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.

WEST

Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.

Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
Bowl games are a tricky barometer in college football.

People can sometimes over-analyze any sort of outcome from one game and think it overshadows everything done prior. For instance, the SEC West's embarrassing performance (2-5) in postseason play helped leave the SEC out of the national championship game for the first time since 2005 and left the rest of the college football world celebrating. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, and the perception of the SEC is that it's free falling a little because the West's top five teams all lost -- four to teams ranked inside the top 18 of the College Football Playoff rankings.

Because of that, you have the term "overrated" being floated out there, despite the division's full body of work.

Which brings us to the East. What are we to make of it?

This was a division more laughed at than praised this season after five teams finished with seven or fewer wins and its champion -- Missouri -- failed to claim the SEC title for the sixth consecutive year. There was an inexplicable home loss to Indiana, 10 losses to the West, Georgia's implosion and four teams finishing the season with losing records in conference play.

Then came bowl season. The East went 5-0, with two wins over Top 25 opponents (the West had zero). If we apply the same logic that the West is now down because of its postseason futility, then is the East now on the rise after it strolled through bowl play?

Eh, it's too early to tell -- and the caveat is that the East's competition wasn't exactly comparable to the West's -- but you can't ignore the East's undefeated run. And while I'm not ready to crown anyone in the East as the 2015 SEC champ, I do think the division made nice strides during the postseason and has a solid foundation to help it be more competitive with the West in 2015.

Georgia, which is coming off a disappointing season in which the division was there for the taking, returns arguably the East's best team. In fact, with so many starters returning, Georgia might be a quarterback away from a playoff run. Four offensive line starters return to block for the SEC's best returning running back in freshman Nick Chubb (1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns), and senior-to-be Malcolm Mitchell leads a young, talented corps of receivers.

Defensively, Georgia is loaded at linebacker with Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Reggie Carter all returning, and the secondary is full of young defensive backs who all have good game experience.

With a pretty favorable schedule in 2015, Georgia has a chance at a special run through the SEC.

Two-time defending champ Missouri loses a little more firepower with its top three receivers and return specialist/running back Marcus Murphy graduating. However, quarterback Maty Mauk, who must improve his in-game composure, returns along with four starting offensive linemen and top running back Russell Hansbrough (1,084 yards, 10 touchdowns).

Mizzou's defense yet again should lose both rush ends in Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss. But three starting linebackers return, along with three starters in the secondary, including top corner Aarion Penton.

Tennessee could make the biggest jump in 2015. Coach Butch Jones has some very good pieces in place on both sides to make a legitimate title run in Knoxville. It starts with a young but talented offensive group led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs (who really came alive in the second half of the season), freshman running back Jalen Hurd (899 yards, five touchdowns) and what should be the East's best receiver group in 2015.

After basically losing two whole lines after 2013, the Vols return seven starting linemen and have a front seven on defense that will be led by elite pass-rusher Curt Maggitt (11 sacks) and youngsters Derek Barnett (10 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The secondary is also loaded, with three starters returning, including dynamic duo Cameron Sutton and Brian Randolph.

I caution: Do NOT sleep on Tennessee.

Then, there are a couple enigmas. South Carolina has to find a new quarterback, a new left side to its offensive line and some receivers, but the Gamecocks return what has to be a better defense. Florida has a brand-new coaching staff, along with questions and depth issues at every offensive position. However, that defense has the makings of once again being an elite unit, so imagine this team with a competent offense.

But what can either do in 2015? If South Carolina's defense can't make improvements, the Gamecocks are sunk. Meanwhile, Florida needs to find an offensive pulse under new coach Jim McElwain, who has a proven offensive track record but very little to work with in Gainesville right now. The Gators return 59 scholarship players, and only eight of them are offensive linemen.

Kentucky and Vanderbilt have the tools needed to improve, but neither is built for a championship run. The Wildcats must rework things at receiver and lose three valuable parts to their front seven. Vandy has a host of new coaches who will have to develop a relatively young team.

The East's postseason romp didn't make it better than the West, but it did raise some eyebrows. We learned the East has some bite, and there's a chance it could carry that over into the new year.

ATLANTA -- In one of Alabama's most complete performances of the season, the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1 SEC) took home the SEC title and clinched a spot in the College Football Playoff with a resounding 42-13 win over No. 16 Missouri (10-3, 7-1) inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday.

Missouri has now given up 101 points and 1,181 yards in back-to-back SEC championship appearances -- both losses.

Once again, Alabama's offense, beautifully organized by coordinator Lane Kiffin, pushed he tempo, mixed up formations and wore down the Tigers' front line. On the other side, Alabama's defense dominated for most of the game up front, but did get beat on a few deep passes. Maty Mauk and Jimmie Hunt made the deep jump ball look easy. Still, it wasn't nearly enough to keep up with the Tide Saturday.

Here's how Alabama took home yet another SEC championship:

How the game was won: Alabama's offense got off to a fast start with a touchdown on the game's opening drive. The Tide then raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead thanks to 160 first-half passing yards from Blake Sims. Missouri lost a major part of its defense when star defensive end Shane Ray was ejected for targeting in the second quarter. Mizzou outscored the Tide 10-0 in the third, but thanks to a 10-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that ended the third and started the fourth, Alabama pushed its lead to 28-13. Alabama sealed things after a nifty 17-yard run from Sims and a 26-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry with 7:38 remaining. Alabama's offense is fun to watch, but the defense deserves credit for holding the Missouri running game to a season-low 41 yards and forcing Mauk to press throughout.

Game ball goes to: How about the visor-wearing, touchdown-signaling playcaller who made Mizzou's defense absolutely miserable for most of the day? Kiffin was brilliant for just about the entire game, throwing in some misdirection, using quick passes, and even calling the quarterback draw with an empty backfield on third down. He put his players in great positions to make plays against one of the SEC's best defenses. Once again, Kiffin was dialed in as Alabama outgained Missouri 252-108 in the first half, before finishing the game with 504 yards and 28 first downs. That game plan helped star wide receiver Amari Cooper finish with an SEC championship-record 12 catches, along with 83 yards.

What it means: The SEC is in the playoff and will be competing for its eighth national title in nine years. The SEC Western Division has now won six straight SEC championship games. Alabama is almost guaranteed to stay within the top two of the College Football Playoff rankings, and coach Nick Saban is now 3-1 in SEC title games at the school.

Playoff implication: Alabama has clinched a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Tide entered the game as the No. 1 team in the CFP rankings, but with Oregon's 51-13 win over Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday, there's a chance the Ducks could jump Alabama. Still the Crimson Tide are all but guaranteed a trip to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

What's next: Alabama sits back and awaits its opponent in the first round of the playoff to be announced on Sunday, while Mizzou awaits its bowl bid.

SEC has been entertaining in 2014

November, 24, 2014
11/24/14
9:00
AM ET
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 plays of the week: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
11/16/14
4:30
PM ET
Another interesting week in the SEC and plenty of great plays league-wide. Let's take a look at our five favorites from Week 12:

Chubb train coming through
This was originally ruled a touchdown but later overturned (correctly) but that doesn’t make the play any less spectacular because Georgia freshman running back Nick Chubb's broken tackle is what makes it. Chubb powers through Auburn’s Jonathon Mincy to stay on his feet and if not for his right foot stepping on the out of bounds, he would have been in for six. As it is, it winds up as a nice 27-yard gain on a screen pass from Hutson Mason

video Heard’s timely block
Florida held a 17-10 lead with less than a minute left and that’s when South Carolina came up with a huge special-teams play. Receiver Carlton Heard sprinted up the middle and got his hands on the Kyle Christy punt, giving South Carolina possession in a prime area for the eventual game-tying score.

video Mizzou magic
Missouri had much success on third down in its win over Texas A&M but this was perhaps the best conversion of the night. On third-and-5, Maty Mauk found himself under pressure, backing up almost 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage before firing a strike to Darius White, who hauled in the pass one-handed for a 21-yard gain and a first down.

video Extra effort
Tennessee is enjoying offensive success since Joshua Dobbs took over as the quarterback. Saturday was a nice day as he threw for 297 yards and three touchdowns and one of them came courtesy of some extra effort by Von Pearson. On this play, Pearson is met by a Kentucky defender near the goal line but Pearson simply continues churning his legs and forcing his way into the end zone for six.

video Cooper’s catch
Amari Cooper is quite simply one of college football’s best receivers and he shows us weekly why he has that status. On Saturday in Alabama’s win over Mississippi State, he caught eight passes for 88 yards but none prettier than his 50-yard reception from Blake Sims in which Cooper high-pointed the ball on a leap in between two Bulldogs defenders. The catch set up a 1-yard Derrick Henry touchdown run that gave Alabama a 19-0 lead.
(No video, CBS game)

Happy Halloween in the SEC

October, 31, 2014
10/31/14
11:00
AM ET
Gather round, ravenous SEC fans, for today marks the last day before the league devours itself. It's only fitting that the eve of what could be a gruesome month of southern cannibalization falls on Halloween.

All the playoff love could all come crashing down in the next few weeks, as the SEC feeds on itself. By the 30th of next month, the league could look like a horde of pesky zombies from "The Walking Dead."

It's a scary good time in the SEC, but if you can't stand the sight of carnage, maybe you should cover your eyes and turn on the lights before your dreams are haunted with carcasses of elephants, tigers and bears.

In honor of teeth gnashing into flesh, here's how you celebrate Halloween -- and NICK SABAN'S BIRTHDAY!! -- in the SEC:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Butch DillThere are two holidays in some sectors of SEC country on Oct. 31: Halloween and Nick Saban's birthday.
Godzilla: Not a horror movie icon, but he's easily the greatest, most destructive monster ever. Kinda reminds me of the way Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott manhandles defenses. Like Godzilla, he's been virtually unstoppable this season. Prescott is undefeated, has 2,393 yards of offense and 26 touchdowns, and is the Heisman Trophy front-runner.

"Jaws": Aptly named the "Landsharks," Ole Miss' defense has been terrifyingly good this season. It's barely allowing 300 yards of offense a game and gives up an SEC-low 4.35 yards per play. This group also tops the SEC and ranks second nationally with 24 takeaways.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street": Will the Gators ever wake up from this grisly nightmare? Things were supposed to be better with a fresh start after last year's injury-plagued season, but Florida is 3-3, has an offense in reverse and is in danger of missing out on a second straight bowl appearance. Will Muschamp is also coaching for his job, and faces Georgia next ...

"Children of the Corn": Like the twisted youngsters that resided in Gatlin, Nebraska, the LSU Tigers should be feared. One of the youngest teams around, its's scary how freakishly good these guys look when they put everything together. They aren't perfect, but they beat No. 3 Ole Miss and are getting better and maturing. A night in Baton Rouge truly is terrifying for intruders.

Cujo: These Georgia Bulldogs really do have bite. You might even say they're possessed, they're playing so well. Since that ugly loss to South Carolina, the Dawgs have reeled off five straight wins, most of them in convincing fashion. The defense is playing out of its mind, and the offense is clicking even without Todd Gurley.

Pinhead: Don't let the name full you; he's one of the most sinister horror movie villains around. The bone-chilling star of the "Hellraiser" movies is kinda like Les Miles in the way he tortures his victims. Woeful opponents venture into a stadium looking to challenge Miles, only to be be sucked into a wicked realm of pain and confusion. He's diabolical, yet very intriguing and extremely dangerous.

"Night of the Living Dead:" What happened to Vanderbilt? The Commodores used to be so vibrant and exciting. Now, they're lifeless and stumbling around the bottom of the SEC under new coach Derek Mason, with no bowl hopes in sight. After back-to-back nine-win seasons under James Franklin, Vandy is 2-6 and owns the SEC's worst offense. George A. Romero would be proud.

"Jeepers Creepers": It's becoming harder and harder to watch Missouri's offense and the downward spiral of Maty Mauk's play, but the Tigers keep winning. Like the Creeper lurking rural back roads, the Tigers are dangerous but rough on the eyes. Even at 6-2 and a game out of first place in the SEC East, the Tigers are last in the league in total offense in conference games (232.8) and 11th in scoring (21.8). Mauk is averaging 97 passing yards and has five interceptions to two touchdowns in league play.

Michael Myers: No one terrorizes opposing backfields -- as Myers did the hapless folks of Haddonfield, Illinois -- better than Missouri defensive end Shane Ray. While he doesn't stalk his prey with slow, stealthy movements, Ray is even more dangerous because of how fast he gets to quarterbacks. He leads the SEC with 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

Jason Voorhees: Alabama just won't go away. This team certainly isn't the same as past championship contenders, but it's threatening and is still on the playoff/SEC path. Jason had sloppy moments, too, but you could never count him out for a valiant return.

Trick: Remember when we thought South Carolina would win the SEC East? Well, the Gamecocks are all but out of race with four losses, and the defense's numbers have been gruesome in conference play. South Carolina allows 457.5 yards per game and nearly 40 points a contest.

Treat: The state of Mississippi has lost just once, has two teams ranked in the top four and could find its way into the first College Football Playoff. Kentucky has five wins and is on the verge of making a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 18, 2014
10/18/14
11:58
PM ET
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.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
10/12/14
2:23
AM ET
The SEC began to separate the contenders from the pretenders on Saturday, and the only thing we can safely say is that the state of Mississippi is still king.

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
AP Photo/Bob LeveyCody Prewitt scored one of Ole Miss' two defensive touchdowns in the Rebels' 35-20 dismantling of Texas A&M.
The Egg Bowl is the new Iron Bowl: Who would’ve thought that Mississippi State and Ole Miss would both be ranked in the top three midway through the season? One week after the Magnolia State took over the college football world, it was back for an encore. The Bulldogs began the day with a 38-23 win over No. 2 Auburn in a game where you couldn’t hear yourself think over the sound of cowbells. The defense forced four turnovers, and quarterback Dak Prescott accounted for more than 350 total yards and three touchdowns. Not to be outdone, Ole Miss dominated No. 14 Texas A&M in the nightcap, scoring two defensive touchdowns in a 35-20 win. There’s still plenty of football to be played, but the Egg Bowl, not the Iron Bowl, is the place to be the last weekend in November.

Defending champ down, not out: Auburn didn’t look much like a playoff contender in the first quarter Saturday. The Tigers turned the ball over on their first two plays from scrimmage, and before you could blink, it was 21-0 in favor of Mississippi State. But they rallied back and made it a one-possession game in the second half. It was reminiscent of last year’s loss to LSU, which ultimately turned around their season, as Auburn went on to win its next nine games. After Saturday’s game, coach Gus Malzahn said he believes that his Tigers are still one of the better teams in college football. The only problem is that they are likely going to have to be perfect the rest of the way if they want to make the playoff, and with trips left to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, that’s no walk in the park.

No Gurley, no problem for Georgia: Let’s be clear. Georgia is still the team to beat in the SEC East. Yes, Todd Gurley is a star. Yes, he’d probably be the Heisman Trophy favorite had he played this week. But even without him, the Bulldogs are still the best team in a mediocre division. They proved that Saturday with an impressive 34-0 win at Missouri. Freshman Nick Chubb filled in admirably for Gurley, rushing for 143 yards and a touchdown on 38 carries, and Jeremy Pruitt’s defense played as well as it has played all season. Georgia forced five turnovers, including four Maty Mauk interceptions, and held Missouri to 147 total yards. We still don’t know how much time Gurley is going to miss, but regardless, the Bulldogs are the clear favorite to reach Atlanta and play for the SEC championship.

Keep an eye on the freshman RBs: Chubb’s day was impressive, especially given his workload, but he wasn’t the only true freshman running back to put on a show. LSU's Leonard Fournette, the nation’s top recruit in the 2014 class, rushed for a career-high 140 yards and two touchdowns in a thrilling 30-27 win at Florida. He looked like a grown man when he ran over a defender on his way to the end zone in the first quarter. Auburn freshman Roc Thomas saw more action Saturday than he had all season and responded with 42 yards on six carries against a very good Mississippi State defense. And then there was Stanley Williams. Coming off a one-game suspension, the Kentucky back ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run and finished with more than 100 yards in the Wildcats' 48-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe. Defenses beware.

The honeymoon is over at Alabama: It feels like ages since Alabama hung 42 points on Florida and Lane Kiffin was being tabbed the best coaching hire this past offseason. In the two games since, the Crimson Tide’s offense has sputtered, and they were lucky to escape Arkansas with a 14-13 win on Saturday. Quarterback Blake Sims played OK as he went 11-of-21 for 161 yards and two touchdowns, but the running game never got going and Amari Cooper was held to just two catches for 22 yards. There was one point in the fourth quarter when Sims tried to convert a fourth-and-1 by jumping straight up, and Nick Saban looked like his head was going to explode. It didn’t appear as if the Alabama coach loved the play call or the execution. Kiffin’s offense better pick it up when Texas A&M comes to town next weekend.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Georgia played as if it had everything to prove.

Meanwhile, Missouri looked asleep at the wheel.

The Todd Gurley-less Bulldogs took advantage of a lackadaisical Tigers team on the road, jumping out to an early lead and never looking back to win 34-0 and improve to 5-1 overall.

How the game was won: Give credit to Georgia’s playmakers, but coach Mark Richt might have been on to something when he nudged the SEC for a noon kickoff time. The early start affected the home team Missouri Tigers, whose sideline lacked much in the way of enthusiasm. Georgia was a beat faster on both sides of the ball. Where Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk was sloppy, Hutson Mason was sharp for Georgia. Neither team could hang onto the football, but when Georgia put the ball on the ground it found a way to keep possession. That goes to effort, which one team was clearly lacking. By the time Missouri woke up in the second half, it was down 20 points with little hope of a comeback.

Game ball goes to: Mason was crisp and Nick Chubb was the heart and soul of Georgia’s offense, but ultimately it was the Bulldogs' defense that won the day. Leonard Floyd, who was unstoppable off the edge, wreaked havoc on Missouri’s up-tempo passing game. He had strip-sack of Mauk, jarring the ball loose just as the quarterback was getting things going before halftime. Floyd was a big reason Mauk committed five turnovers and finished with just 97 yards passing.

What it means: Maybe Georgia’s offense doesn’t have to do it all. Maybe the defense can be the thing that carries the Bulldogs to a successful season. With Floyd rushing the edge, the pressure on the secondary is diminished. Jeremy Pruitt can then expand his playbook and give opposing offenses different looks. You saw that Saturday as Mauk was forced into four interceptions and Missouri rushed for just 50 yards. With Gurley sidelined for the time being, the defense is in position to buy Mason, Chubb and the offense time to find an identity.

Playoff implication: With their Heisman Trophy candidate sidelined, these Bulldogs won’t get much love from the selection committee, at least not in the style department. But Mason and Georgia continue to win, and their strength of schedule is plenty respectable with a signature nonconference win against Clemson. Though they might not pass the eye test week in and week out, that’s not enough to keep Richt’s squad out of the playoff conversation. That is the beauty of being in the East; so long as you win the division and reach Atlanta, you’re essentially facing a play-in situation to reach the final four.

What's next: Nothing in the SEC East is certain, even after Saturday’s game. Georgia might sit atop the division at 5-1, but things can change in a hurry, especially when you look forward to next Saturday’s game in Arkansas. A year ago, that would have been a gimme. Not anymore. Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks will give Georgia everything it can handle.

Three key factors in UGA-Missouri game

October, 10, 2014
10/10/14
9:00
AM ET


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.
If we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that SEC teams with one loss are still very capable of reaching the national championship game. There is an even greater chance of that happening this season with the debut of the College Football Playoff. That’s good news for teams like Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M and Missouri.

With that said, all four of those one-loss teams still have deficiencies they need to overcome to get back in the playoff conversation.

Alabama: A compliment to Cooper

Amari Cooper has been exceptional this season. Through the first five games, he leads the SEC in receptions (52) and yards (746), and is tied for second in the league with five touchdowns. But despite Cooper’s best efforts against Ole Miss, nine catches for 91 yards, the Alabama passing game still struggled in last Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss.

That is because the Crimson Tide need somebody else to step up.

There is no lack of talent in Tuscaloosa. Tight end O.J. Howard is as gifted athletically as you will find at the position, but he is hardly used. Howard finally made a big play last weekend, but he was also responsible for a critical holding penalty on the last drive.

The bigger surprise has been wide receiver Christion Jones. The senior was expected to play a bigger role this season, but he is averaging two catches per game, and his season-high in yards is 52 against Southern Miss. To make matters worse, it was his fumble on a kickoff return that led to Ole Miss scoring the game-winning touchdown.

The loss of Kenyan Drake didn’t help either. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had been using him out wide in certain sets, and no other back on the team provides that type of versatility.

Georgia: Help in the secondary

At this point, do we even know who’s playing in Georgia’s secondary? The scarier question might be who comes in if one of the starters goes down with injury.

It hasn’t been easy for first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs dismissed two starting defensive backs this offseason, and a third transferred to Louisville. In the past week and a half, the team lost three more defensive backs for various reasons.

Rico Johnson was given a medical disqualification because of a spinal cord injury, Sheldon Dawson is no longer with the team, and Shaquille Jones was dismissed from the team after he was charged with shoplifting. The mass exodus in the secondary leaves Georgia with 10 scholarship defensive backs and very little experience among them.

It didn’t hurt them last week in a win against Vanderbilt, but both Dylan Thompson and Justin Worley have thrown for more than 250 yards and three touchdowns against the Bulldogs already this season. On Saturday, they travel to Missouri to face Maty Mauk, one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks.

It’s too late to add depth at this point, but this UGA secondary is going to have to grow up in a hurry if it wants to reach the playoff.

Missouri: More options for Mauk

Speaking of Mauk, he played his worst game of the season the last time out against South Carolina. At one point in the fourth quarter, he was 9 of 29 for just 52 yards passing. He did lead the Tigers to a stunning come-from-behind victory, but it wasn’t pretty.

The biggest reason for Mauk’s struggles? He was missing two of his top wide receivers -- Jimmie Hunt and Darius White. The two had combined for more than 400 yards receiving and eight touchdowns in the first four games, but the offense wasn’t the same without them. As talented as Mauk is, he still needs playmakers to throw to, and Bud Sasser can’t do it all by himself.

Both Hunt and White are likely to return this Saturday against Georgia in what has become a critical game in the SEC East. That will certainly help, but can you imagine if Missouri still had Dorial Green-Beckham on its roster? It would take an above average position group and make it exceptional.

Instead, the Tigers are going to have to make do with what they have and hope everybody remains healthy the rest of this season.

Texas A&M: Somebody who can tackle

OK, that might seem a bit harsh, but the Aggies' defense looked downright awful last week against Mississippi State. It’s not everybody. Freshman Myles Garrett is a star in this league, and the defensive line has actually played pretty decent this season. The same can’t be said for the linebackers and the secondary, though.

It’s typically not a good sign when three of your top four tacklers are defensive backs. That means running backs are getting to the second level and wide receivers are catching their fair share of passes. It also means your linebackers aren’t making plays.

Justin Bass is second on the team in tackles, but he was a walk-on prior to this season. Jordan Mastrogiovanni is a solid captain for the defense, but he’s missed time because of injury and the jury is still out as to whether he can be a good SEC linebacker.

Texas A&M is missing players like Darian Claiborne, who was dismissed from the team in June. He was third on the team last season with 89 tackles. The loss of TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard, who dislocated his ankle in the season opener at South Carolina, was another big blow to this defense. The staff had high expectations for him.

With three of the next four games against top-10 opponents, the Aggies need to play better on defense to have any chance of making the playoff.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
9/27/14
11:32
PM ET
With Saturday’s action complete, we’re more than one-quarter of the way through the regular season.

Can you believe that?

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the latest batch of games.

1. Texas two step: Tip your cap to Arkansas. If anything, the Hogs showed they’re worthy of being ranked in the Top 25. But if you’re Texas A&M, what are you thinking? You just got roughed up by a team that hasn’t won a conference game since October 2012. An undeniably one-dimensional offense racked up four touchdowns and 485 yards against you, 286 of which came on the ground. It wasn’t a secret what they were doing, and still, you couldn’t stop it. Your defense, the one you said again and again was better than the past year, showed it still has a long ways to go in the 35-28 overtime win. There were more missed tackles than an early-morning Pee Wee football game. Texas A&M’s offense is still plenty potent with Kenny Hill under center and a better-than-advertised running game, but without a defense to match, we very well could be looking at a team that’s less steak than sizzle.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesHutson Mason might need to be more aggressive to help take the strain off star RB Todd Gurley.
2. Need more from Mason: Georgia's Todd Gurley is a beast worthy of every bit of the Heisman Trophy hype he receives. But he can’t do it alone -- not for an entire season, at least. No matter how strong he might be, nobody can withstand that type of punishment on a consistent basis. At some point, Hutson Mason must step up and provide his star running back some help. Sure, Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Jonathon Rumph have all missed time with injuries, but Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jay Rome are a pretty good group of targets. Still, against Tennessee, Mason barely fit the role of game manager. Georgia won 35-32, but he completed just 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. For Georgia to make a playoff push, Mason needs to take greater control of the offense and push the ball downfield. Playing as passive as he has just won’t cut it.

3. Missouri isn’t dead: It was a fashionable move, writing off Missouri after the past week’s embarrassing loss to Indiana at home. But by going into Columbia, South Carolina, and beating the Gamecocks 21-20 in a hotly contested game, the Tigers proved they’re nothing if not alive and well in the race to win the SEC East. The loss to Indiana means nothing when it comes to that. The fact that Missouri has an offense that can score in a hurry (see its final two drives) and a defense that absolutely harasses the quarterback (see Shane Ray’s two sacks), means there’s nothing to say the Tigers can’t be the class of the division. That secondary is going to get better, and quarterback Maty Mauk should find his stride eventually. If those two things improve, Missouri will be as tough an out as anyone in the conference.

4. No standouts in the East: Five teams in the West are undefeated with hopes of competing for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff: Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The East, well, the East has a bunch of guys with obvious Achilles heels: Georgia has a great running back and little else, Missouri has an inconsistent passing game and a secondary that gives out yards like candy on Halloween, South Carolina can’t decide from week to week if it wants to nap or play football, and Florida must be kicking itself for letting quarterback Jacoby Brissett go to NC State. There’s no separation in the East because there are no great teams in the division.

5. But there’s real parity overall: Take Vanderbilt out of the equation. The Commodores couldn’t navigate the Big Ten with that offense. But if you put Derek Mason’s rebuild aside, you’re looking at an SEC with no gimmes. No one wants to play Tennessee after the hurting the Vols put on Georgia, and not with Justin Worley and that group of skill players on offense. No one wants to play Kentucky, either, not with A.J. Stamps, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith flying around on defense. And then there’s Arkansas. Who wants to see those big uglies coming at you? Armed with an enormous offensive line, a pair of bruising fullbacks and three workhorse running backs, the Razorbacks can wear down even the best defenses.

SPONSORED HEADLINES