NCF Nation: Mike Hartline

HOOVER, Ala. -- Gone are the offensive weapons that provided the excitement in Kentucky’s 2010 offense.

Do-everything athlete Randall Cobb is gone. Quarterback Mike Hartline, who was second in the SEC in passing a year ago -- adios. And running back Derrick Locke and receiver Chris Matthews, who were both instrumental offensive cogs, have hit the road as well.

The cupboard isn’t bare, but it’s full of new, shiny objects that have yet to really get much grease on them.

Except when you look up front.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Newton
AP Photo/Butch DillMorgan Newton is looking forward to working behind a veteran offensive line.
Kentucky returns four veteran starters on the offensive line that has the makings of being one of the best in this league, accumulating more than 60 combined starts in their careers.

Senior guard Stuart Hines leads the group with 24 career starts and has enjoyed the praise he and his other fellow linemen have received this year and expects it to be the guiding force for the Wildcats’ offense this fall.

“There’s a lot of pride behind that. We’ve worked hard as a group to be where we are right now and we just want to continue to improve and continue to get better,” Hines said. “It’s a great starting spot to build your offense around.

“People [say] we lost a lot of guys, well we return a lot of guys on the offensive line.”

Hines might be the heart and keeps the focus in the trenches, but a lot of the hype has surrounded second-year starter Larry Warford.

After playing mostly as a reserve during his freshman year, Warford burst onto the scene last season, starting 13 games and leading Kentucky’s line with 43 knockdown blocks. He enters his junior year with some nice preseason accolades as well.

Hines admits that Warford was a bit lazy when he first arrived, thinking his ability alone could carry him, but now he sees a determined athlete with relentless drive on and off the field.

“He’s worked his butt off to get into shape and shed a few pounds and keep his weight down,” Hines said. “He’s done a great job of doing of that and getting the extra stuff with Coach ‘Rock’ [Oliver]. It’s great to see a guy that dedicated to doing what he has to do to be a good player.”

Kentucky also returns junior Matt Smith at center and senior Chandler Burden, who missed spring but will return in August, at left tackle. Senior Billy Joe Murphy left spring as the starter at right tackle.

By last count, that makes three of the five up front residing in Kentucky’s senior class, a welcomed realization for new quarterback Morgan Newton.

“Everyone knows the offensive line is a big key,” Newton said. “Those guys are as good as anybody. That group, we talk about guys that work and don’t really say a lot, that’s that group.

“That’s one of the best offensive lines in the country. Having a group like that is a great start for a special offense.”

And it will have to be a great start. Along with the baby-faced Newton, the Wildcats also have a new group of young running backs to utilize. Hines said it’s important for the line to make those players feel comfortable about running up the middle. They need to provide quality holes for the backs to limit the dancing around in the backfield.

Like any offensive line, this one is very close-knit. Hines said one major reason is the pride four of them take in being from the state of Kentucky. To Hines, there is something about being Kentucky bred that contributes to their on-field success.

“I guess we eat a lot of Kentucky country food or there’s something in the water,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. A bunch of cornbread or something.”
Six years ago, a voice injected some much-needed juice into Kentucky’s program.

Former tight end Jacob Tamme delivered a sermon that hit straight to the core of those inside Kentucky’s program when he announced to the team that SEC wasn’t coming down to the Wildcats’ level.

They were going to have to move up to the elite level.

Kentucky has now played in five straight bowl games and has won three of them. Second-year coach Joker Phillips is looking to take the Wildcats to their sixth straight bowl game -- something Kentucky football has never done.

For a school known more for hoops than pigskin, that’s an accomplishment. But it’s not enough for Phillips.

Phillips said he and his players are focused on something else, something more exciting. Phillips doesn’t just want to reach bowl games, he wants to compete for SEC titles.

“We’re happy with bowls games, but we want to see how long we can stay in the [SEC] race,” Phillips said at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., last week.

Kentucky appeared primed to be in the thick of the SEC East race in 2007 before bowing out during the second half of the season. The next three seasons saw the Wildcats hovering around six and seven wins.

However, Phillips sees a change in the way his program is perceived. The new TV deal has brought in more viewers and they’ve increased their level of competition on the field, Phillips said.

“The perception is changing,” he said.

Since 2006, the Wildcats have beaten Georgia twice, a No. 1-ranked LSU team, a 10th-ranked South Carolina team, and Florida State in a bowl game.

“We’ve beaten some of the traditional powers in this league,” Phillips said. “The thing we have to try to do is do it on a consistent basis.”

The 2011 season brings up a handful of questions for the Wildcats. For starters, they lost playmakers on offense, including do-everything weapon Randall Cobb and quarterback Mike Hartline, who was second in the league in passing last fall. The defense is also going through changes with new defensive coordinator Rick Minter installing more of a multiple scheme.

Publicly, Phillips hasn’t expressed any concern with those issues. He looks at 11 of the top 13 tacklers on defense coming back, four returning starters to the offensive line and much improved progress by the offense from the fall to the spring.

Replacing Cobb, who lined up as a wide receiver, wildcat quarterback, kick returner, punt returner and the holder, won’t be easy, but Phillips thinks his job(s) will be taken care of by committee, especially after signing five receivers in the 2011 class.

“We have to find out who our next up and coming star is,” Phillips said. “We have a lot of potential on our football team and we have a lot of potential guys in our recruiting class.”

Getting the ball to those guys might be the most comforting thought. Frustrated by two up-and-down seasons, Morgan Newton is finally the guy. He has no real competition for his spot and Phillips said he saw a more mature and comfortable Newton under center this spring.

He improved so much this spring that Phillips believes he’s ahead of where Hartline and Andre Woodson were his age -- which is saying a lot.

“We’ve been able to develop quarterbacks and we feel Morgan Newton is one of those guys who we feel will be a big-time quarterback in time at Kentucky,” Phillips said.

The SEC's most improved players in 2010

January, 27, 2011
We’re not going to completely turn the page on the 2010 season.

I’ve spent much of this week compiling the 10 players that I thought were the most improved players in the SEC this past season.

We’ll name it the All-Nick Fairley Team, which ought to tell you who the captain of the team is.

Here goes:

1. Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley: He went from two starts and 3.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore to the Lombardi Award winner and most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football as a junior. He led the SEC with 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks and could end up being the No. 1 pick overall in April’s NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeArkansas running back Knile Davis
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonKnile Davis scored 14 touchdowns last season.
2. Arkansas sophomore running back Knile Davis: He had trouble overcoming injuries and a crowded Arkansas running back stable earlier in his career. But after rushing for only 163 yards as a freshman, Davis exploded this season to lead all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards.

3. Mississippi State junior quarterback Chris Relf: He got better all season, but saved his best game for the Gator Bowl when he passed for three touchdowns and ran for one in the 52-14 rout of Michigan. Relf finished with 13 touchdown passes and only six interceptions and was second on the team in rushing with 713 yards to go along with five more touchdowns.

4. Alabama sophomore safety Robert Lester: After playing mostly on special teams as a redshirt freshman, Lester was presented with a huge opportunity this season with the Crimson Tide losing just about everybody from their secondary on the 2009 national championship team. He responded by tying for second nationally with eight interceptions.

5. Ole Miss junior offensive tackle Bradley Sowell: Remember Sowell trying to block South Carolina’s Eric Norwood early during the 2009 season? It was a mismatch, but Sowell came back strong later that season and even stronger this season, settling into his left tackle spot and earning second-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press.

6. LSU junior running back Stevan Ridley: What Ridley really needed was a chance, and he got one this season. He finished with 1,147 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns and was the heart and soul of the LSU offense. That’s after combining for 57 carries and 272 yards in his first two seasons. Ridley entered his name in the NFL draft following the season.

7. Kentucky senior quarterback Mike Hartline: The suspension for the bowl game was unfortunate, but it doesn’t diminish what was a brilliant senior season for Hartline. He’d been plagued by inconsistency throughout much of his career and had the knee injury as a junior, but passed for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns while completing 66.2 percent of his passes this season.

8. Kentucky senior receiver Chris Matthews: In his first season at Kentucky after coming over from junior college, Matthews showed flashes. But this season, he emerged as one of the most productive receivers in the league. He was second only to South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery with six touchdown catches against SEC competition.

9. Tennessee sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner: He moved from safety to cornerback midway through the season, developing into one of the best ball hawks in the league. Waggner intercepted five passes, returning three for touchdowns, on his way to second-team, All-SEC honors by the Associated Press. That’s after finishing with six total tackles and no interceptions as a redshirt freshman.

10. Arkansas senior linebacker Anthony Leon: A position change made a world of difference for Leon, who seemed a step slow at safety, but was a disruptive force at outside linebacker. He was one of the chief reasons the Hogs improved so much this season on defense and finished second on the team with 12.5 tackles for loss.

Final SEC power rankings for 2010

January, 11, 2011
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Here’s a look at the final SEC power rankings for the 2010 season.

After Monday night’s Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, there’s not much drama at the top spot:

1. Auburn: The Tigers (14-0) completed a perfect season with their first national championship since 1957. Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton was the story for most of the season, both on and off the field, but the Tigers proved in their 22-19 win over Oregon on Monday that they could win even when Newton doesn’t play his best football.

2. LSU: After winning 11 games or more for the fourth time in six seasons under Les Miles, LSU (11-2) must now stave off Michigan’s run at Miles. The Mad Hatter is going to listen to what his alma mater has to say. His Tigers beat four teams that finished in the Top 25 of the final BCS standings this season and were 5-2 against nationally ranked foes. They were extremely impressive in their AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M.

3. Alabama: As pleasing as it had to be for Alabama fans to see the Crimson Tide (10-3) destroy Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, they’re probably wondering where that team was all season long. Nobody in the league was more talented than Alabama, but the Tide didn’t always play that way.

4. Arkansas: If only the Hogs (10-3) could have capitalized in the fourth quarter against Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, what was a very good season could have been a great season. Arkansas beat four teams that finished in the Top 25 of the final BCS standings and was 3-3 against nationally ranked teams.

5. Mississippi State: The award for the most-improved team in the league goes to the Bulldogs (9-4). They routed Michigan in the Progressive Gator Bowl and promptly sweetened Dan Mullen’s deal. The downer was that defensive coordinator Manny Diaz got away and went to Texas.

6. South Carolina: Once again, the Gamecocks (9-5) bombed pretty badly at the end. And in doing so, Steve Spurrier finished with his sixth straight season of at least five losses or more at South Carolina. All in all, though, getting to the SEC championship game for the first time was a coup.

7. Florida: The Gators (8-5) made sure Urban Meyer went out a winner by taking care of business in the Outback Bowl against Penn State. Otherwise, this was not a season they will remember fondly in Gainesville. The offense hit rock bottom. The Gators finished 10th in the league in total offense and tried to make a spread quarterback out of pocket passer John Brantley.

8. Georgia: What a pitiful performance by the Bulldogs (6-7) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The only reason they’re not ranked even lower is because they routed Tennessee 41-14 head-to-head this season. Mark Richt is down to one last chance to get this program turned around. If the Bulldogs are not back among the SEC’s elite next year, Richt will be gone.

9. Tennessee: The Vols (6-7) were another one of those Eastern Division teams that finished with a losing record. Four of the six teams in the East had losing seasons. Tennessee didn’t get any help from the officials in its overtime loss to North Carolina in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, but the Vols did win four in a row to get to the postseason.

10. Kentucky: Kentucky (6-7) managed to stink it up even more in its bowl game than Georgia did, if that’s possible. The Wildcats were inept offensively in the 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh without starting quarterback Mike Hartline and weren’t good enough everywhere else to make up the difference. Other than the second-half comeback against South Carolina, it’s a season that fell short of expectations.

11. Ole Miss: About the only thing the Rebels (4-8) won all year was the appeal with the NCAA for quarterback transfer Jeremiah Masoli to be able to play prior to the first week of the season. After that, it was all downhill. The Rebels lost at home to FCS foe Jacksonville State in the opener and also lost by two touchdowns at home to Vanderbilt. Defensive struggles persisted all season long.

12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores (2-10) at least won an SEC game this season after going winless in the league the previous season. Robbie Caldwell was already in a tough spot from the outset, and then the injuries set in. The Commodores struggled at quarterback, couldn’t finish drives and also saw their normally reliable defense suffer. Caldwell stepped down at the end of the season, giving way to former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin as Vanderbilt’s head coach.

Compass Bowl keys for Kentucky

January, 7, 2011
Here are three keys for Kentucky in its BBVA Compass Bowl matchup Saturday against Pittsburgh:

1. Shut down the running game: Pittsburgh and Dion Lewis put up impressive numbers in the running game last season, but it’s been a struggle for much of this season. The Panthers were 5-0 when rushing for 150 yards, so the last thing the Wildcats want to do is allow Pitt to establish itself on the ground and dictate the flow of the game by running the football.

2. Get Newton off to a good start: Look for the Wildcats to put replacement quarterback Morgan Newton in an early position to make some easier throws and generate a little confidence. It’s been a while since he’s been in this situation. So having some success early will probably be even more important. And that confidence thing isn’t confined to just him. His teammates also need a reason to believe in him and rally around him.

3. Get the ball to Cobb: The best thing Newton will have going for him is Randall Cobb, who may see more than a few snaps at quarterback in the Wildcat package. Cobb’s been off for more than a month and is rested, so there’s no such thing as wearing him out at this point. He ought to get 15 touches at a minimum and maybe even 20. Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats have several new plays in place to get him the ball. Newton’s probably not going to be as efficient as Hartline throwing the ball, which means Kentucky may have to work harder at making sure Cobb gets his touches.

Stepping up in the bowls: Kentucky

December, 20, 2010
Kentucky makes its fifth straight postseason appearance, taking on Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.

The Wildcats (6-6) lost several close games this season and failed to take advantage of a down year in the Eastern Division. But by winning over the Panthers, they could ensure their fifth straight winning season. The last time that happened in Lexington was the 1950s.

Who's going to step up for the Wildcats?

Sophomore quarterback Morgan Newton: Kentucky coach Joker Phillips made a statement that reverberated throughout the entire football program when he suspended senior quarterback Mike Hartline for the bowl game. Hartline, coming off his best season at Kentucky, was arrested on disorderly conduct and alcohol intoxication charges. It was a tough decision for Phillips, but he elected to sit Hartline down for his final game. That means Newton will get another shot to lead the team after finishing up last season as the starter when Hartline injured his knee. There's also a chance that redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski could see some time, although Newton is up first. The most important thing he needs to remember is that he doesn't have to do it by himself. Randall Cobb was second nationally this season with 2,192 all-purpose yards and was tied for the SEC lead with 79 catches. The guy on the other side of the field from Cobb also had a big season. Senior Chris Matthews led the team with nine touchdown catches, and senior running back Derrick Locke should be as healthy as he's been for the bowl game. Newton has playmakers all around him. Being smart, protecting the football and getting Cobb, Matthews and Locke the ball will be his role.

SEC's Super Seniors

December, 10, 2010
As we wind down the season and point toward the bowl games, I wanted to pay homage to the seniors in this league.

Yes, there are a ton of talented underclassmen in the SEC, many of whom are destined to leave early for the NFL.

But seniors are important in every program, and senior leadership is critical.

Here’s my tribute to the 12 seniors on each team in the league who rose above and beyond this season in terms of on-the-field performance, leadership and sacrificing for the good of the team.

We’ll call it our SEC’s Super Seniors, and it’s something we hope to do every season:

[+] EnlargeFlorida safety Ahmad Black
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFlorida safety Ahmad Black led all defensive backs for most tackles in the SEC.
Ahmad Black, S, Florida: Not even Urban Meyer was sure Black was going to make it at Florida when he first arrived. He wasn’t very big, nor exceptionally fast. But he’s proven to be a staple in the Gators’ secondary for the last three seasons. Black led Florida with 102 tackles this season, leading all SEC defensive backs. He was third on the team with 10 tackles for loss and also had three interceptions and three forced fumbles.

Josh Bynes, LB, Auburn: You talk about instant energy. Bynes was Mr. Pick Me Up all season for the Tigers, who fed off his intensity and his passion. He was the guy who rallied the defense all those times when Auburn fell behind by big margins, and he was an invaluable presence in the locker room. A three-year starter, Bynes led Auburn this season with 71 total tackles and also had three interceptions, including two big ones in the Arkansas game.

Jonathan Cornell, LB, Ole Miss: He’s not real loud. In fact, he’s pretty quiet. But Cornell did his talking with his play this season, putting up All-SEC numbers and winning the respect of everybody on his team by the way he went about his business each day. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt called him the “backbone,” and Cornell was indeed a steadying presence in what was a tough season for the Rebels. He led the team with 80 total tackles and was fifth in the league with 14 tackles for loss.

Akeem Dent, LB, Georgia: Without a doubt, Dent was one of the more underrated players in the SEC this season. He was second in the league with 122 total tackles. First-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will tell you that Dent was invaluable to that defense this season from his middle linebacker position. He called all the signals, made the checks and made one key stop after another for the Bulldogs.

Mike Hartline, QB, Kentucky: Despite his arrest early Friday morning, Hartline came through with the most productive season of his career and was a rock for the Wildcats both on and off the field. The first part of his career had been marred by injuries and inconsistency, but Hartline stayed the course and put up huge numbers this season. He was second only to Ryan Mallett in the SEC with 3,178 passing yards and also threw 23 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

Spencer Lanning, PK/P, South Carolina: Lanning was more than just a kicker for the Gamecocks. He was a strong voice in the locker room and demonstrated the kind of work ethic that was infectious. As a kicker, he was one of the best dual-threats in the country. He was 16-of-23 on field goals, ranking him fourth in the league, and was fifth in punting with a 44.2-yard average. Not bad for a guy who started his career without a scholarship and wound up becoming a captain.

Greg McElroy
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAlabama quarterback Greg McElroy had the most productive season of his career.
Greg McElroy, QB, Alabama: One of the smartest guys you’re ever going to meet on a football field, McElroy had his most productive season of his career. His 19 passing touchdowns broke Alabama’s single-season record, and with 2,767 passing yards, he has a chance in the bowl game to break the single-season record for passing yards. McElroy has been a leader ever since he stepped into the starting quarterback role last season, compiling a 23-3 record as a starter.

Nick Reveiz, LB, Tennessee: Here’s another guy who started his career without a scholarship. But he quickly went from playing on the scout team to leading the Vols in tackles. A true inspiration with how he fought back from a serious knee injury last season, Reveiz piled up 94 total tackles this season and was the defensive quarterback on the field. He made big plays, got teammates in position to make plays and made a profound impact on everyone around him with the way he competed on every down.

Kelvin Sheppard, LB, LSU: The Tigers had a few veteran players to build around on defense, but they were also very young in a lot of spots. Sheppard was the centerpiece of the defense in every way. A fiery leader, he brought out the best in all of his teammates and wasn’t afraid to get in guys’ faces when it was warranted. His 108 total tackles ranked him third in the SEC. Included were 11 tackles for loss.

Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: The names have changed in Mississippi State’s backfield the last two seasons, but the Bulldogs’ productivity in the running game just keeps churning along. Sherrod has been a big reason why. One of the best left tackles in college football, he was a multiple winner of SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors this season and is one of those guys everybody on the team looks up to for guidance.

John Stokes, LB, Vanderbilt: Headed to medical school, Stokes has been the quintessential student-athlete during his career at Vanderbilt. He also had the best season of his career on the football field. Injuries had plagued him in previous seasons, but he came fighting back to finish third on the team with 78 total tackles. With Vanderbilt being such a young team, Stokes was there every step of the way providing his senior leadership.

D.J. Williams, TE, Arkansas: The recipient of the Disney Spirit Award as college football’s most inspirational player, Williams had a dream senior season. The Hogs are going to the Sugar Bowl, and he also won the Mackey Award as the top tight end in the country. He leads the team with 49 catches and has become a much more complete tight end over the last couple of seasons. Moreover, he’s been the consummate team guy and is a big reason Arkansas’ team chemistry has been so good.

BBVA Compass Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Pittsburgh Panthers (7-5) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (6-6)

Jan. 8, noon ET (ESPN)

Pittsburgh take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: If you would have told Pittsburgh before the season it would be be playing an SEC team in a bowl, the Panthers would have envisioned the Sugar Bowl, or maybe even the BCS title game. Expectations ran that high.

Playing Kentucky in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl? Never. But that's how disappointing this season has been.

Pitt was widely expected to win the Big East, and it did earn a share of the conference title. But it was one of the hollower championships you'll ever find as the Panthers finished 7-5 and spit the bit in all their crucial games (Utah, Notre Dame, Miami, UConn and West Virginia).

The offensive line was a mess early, but problems ran deeper than that. First-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri had his ups and downs, reigning Big East defensive player of the year Greg Romeus barely contributed because of injuries, the linebackers looked lost, etc. But mostly, Pitt just kept making mistakes in costly situations.

Head coach Dave Wannstedt still has enough individual talent -- like running back Dion Lewis, receiver Jon Baldwin and defensive end Jabaal Sheard -- to beat just about anybody, especially a middling SEC team like Kentucky. But as a team, Pitt has been untrustworthy in big situations, and that's why Wannstedt is on the hot seat.

Kentucky take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Making its fifth straight trip to a bowl game, Kentucky is in some pretty exclusive company in the SEC. The only other four schools who can say they’ve done that are Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.

The Wildcats (6-6) had high hopes for this season and looked like they might be on the verge of breaking through after rallying from an 18-point halftime deficit to beat South Carolina at home on Oct. 16. But that wound up being their final real highlight, and they lost three of their last four SEC games, including a 25th consecutive setback to Tennessee.

The thing Kentucky did do all season was keep defenses on its toes. Senior quarterback Mike Hartline had his best season with 3,178 passing yards and 23 touchdowns. It hurt the Wildcats when senior running back Derrick Locke went down during the middle of the season with a shoulder injury. He’s back now and should be completely healthy for the bowl game.

The Wildcats’ top playmaker, and one of the best all-around players in the country, is junior receiver Randall Cobb. Cobb accounted for 16 touchdowns four different ways this season and is ranked second nationally with 2,192 all-purpose yards.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 28, 2010
Two of the best teams in the league are off this week. Alabama and LSU both take a break before getting it on next week in Baton Rouge.

The top team in the league, not to mention the top team in the BCS standings, hits the road. Auburn travels to Ole Miss on Saturday.

Here’s a look at what to watch this week in the SEC:

1. Feeling the grind: This will be the ninth straight week that Auburn has played without a bye. It’s about this time that the proverbial piano really starts to jump on an SEC team’s back when it hasn’t had a bye. The Tigers have attempted to play more guys on defense. But with some of the injuries they’ve suffered, there simply isn’t a lot of depth at linebacker or in the secondary. Cornerback T’Sharvan Bell, who didn’t play last week with a hamstring pull, is probably a game-time decision this week. Outside linebacker Daren Bates is also a question mark after injuring his shoulder in the LSU game.

2. Taking to the road: The schedule has been about as travel friendly as it gets to this point for Auburn. This will be only the Tigers’ third game away from Jordan-Hare Stadium this season when they travel to Ole Miss on Saturday. They’ve been a different team on the road, although most teams are. Auburn held on to beat Mississippi State 17-14 in Starkville the second week of the season. Cam Newton was held to 70 rushing yards on 18 carries in that game and didn’t score a rushing touchdown. Three weeks ago, Auburn nipped Kentucky 37-34 in Lexington on Wes Byrum’s 24-yard field goal on the last play of the game. So both of the Tigers’ road ventures this season have been harrowing.

[+] EnlargeJeremiah Masoli
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireAuburn will have its hands full with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
3. Masoli’s momentum: Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is coming off his best game of the season in last week’s 38-24 loss to Arkansas. Auburn hasn’t faced a dual-threat quarterback of his caliber this season. Masoli racked up a career-high 425 yards in total offense against the Hogs, including 327 yards passing and 98 yards rushing. He’s one of only four quarterbacks in the country to average at least 50 rushing yards per game and 180 passing yards per game. Auburn has given up 14 touchdown passes, which is the most in the SEC.

4. King’s return: Georgia tailback Caleb King returns to the lineup for the Bulldogs after being suspended the past two weeks. They may need him, too, because Washaun Ealey has been slowed this week in practice by a knee injury. He said he sprained his MCL in the fourth quarter of last week’s 44-31 win over Kentucky. Ealey has rushed for 100 yards in each of the two games King missed and scored five touchdowns last week. Still, Georgia would prefer to have both of them healthy and keep a fresh back in the game at all times. Ealey said he will definitely play against Florida, although he may not start.

5. Passing the buck: Florida hasn’t had much success throwing the football this season and enters Saturday’s game ninth in the SEC in pass efficiency. Quarterback John Brantley is averaging just 180.8 passing yards per game and has thrown six touchdown passes and five interceptions. The Gators have struggled to get much of anything going down the field in the passing game, but that’s where Georgia has been vulnerable. The Bulldogs are 11th in the league in pass efficiency defense and have given up 12 touchdown passes, the third most in the league.

6. On the receiving end: David Paschall of The Chattanooga Time Fress Press asked Kentucky coach Joker Phillips this week if he could ever remember a season when there were this many elite receivers in the league. Phillips agreed that you go up against one every week and that's what sets this season apart is all the long, athletic receivers in the league. Phillips’ top playmaker at Kentucky, Randall Cobb, is one of the best do-it-all players in college football. But picking the top two receivers in this league right now would be an impossible task when you start trying to sort it out among Alshon Jeffery, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Chris Matthews, Darvin Adams and Cobb.

7. Finishing the deal: It’s that time of the season again for South Carolina, the time of the season that hasn’t been especially good to the Gamecocks. They face Tennessee on Saturday night in the first of three straight SEC games that will determine whether or not the Gamecocks will make their first-ever trip to the SEC championship game. Their fate is in their own hands. History is working against them. Going back to the 2000 season, they’re just 7-22 in SEC games played the final weekend of October and extending through the month of November. In the past four years, they’re just 2-10 during that same span. Simply, they haven’t finished very well, and that has to change if the Gamecocks want to be in Atlanta on Dec. 4.

8. Distracted Hogs? Arkansas starting defensive tackle DeQuinta Jones was arrested this week and charged with marijuana possession. The Hogs are pretty deep at the tackle position, although the distraction of having a player arrested during game week on drug charges is never ideal. The Hogs could also be without junior receiver Joe Adams, who’s been slowed by an ankle injury and has missed the past two days of practice. Greg Childs was also nursing an ankle injury suffered in last week’s Ole Miss game, but returned to practice Wednesday and looks like he’ll be able to play.

9. Slowing down the Cats: Mississippi State has tackled well for most of this season. The exception was last week’s 29-24 win over UAB when defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said the Bulldogs missed 11 tackles, including four on one play. They look to extend their winning streak to six straight games Saturday when they take on a Kentucky team that has specialized in making people miss. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said he’s still unsure if leading rusher Derrick Locke will be able to play after missing the past two weeks with a shoulder stinger. But Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews have been two of the most dynamic receiving threats in the league, and Mike Hartline is the SEC’s hottest quarterback right now after passing for more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns in his past two games.

10. Kitchings’ debut: Next up is Des Kitchings. He takes over a Vanderbilt offense that has been held to seven points in the past two games and has been painful to watch for most of the past two seasons. The Commodores are last or next to last in the SEC in just about every major offensive category. Coach Robbie Caldwell decided it was time to give Kitchings a shot and elevated him to offensive coordinator this week from his position as running backs coach. One of Kitchings’ priorities Saturday against Arkansas and for the rest of this season will be to generate some drives and keep the offense on the field. The Commodores are 118th nationally in time of possession. Look for running backs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy to take on increased roles.

SEC superlative tracker

October, 27, 2010
Our weekly look at the offensive player of the year, defensive player of the year and coach of the year races in the SEC:

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: He carved apart the best defense he’s faced last week against LSU with a career-high 217 rushing yards. He’s already rushed for 1,000 yards this season and has accounted for 27 touchdowns.

2. Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: Last week wasn’t Cobb’s best game, and he didn’t score a touchdown for a change. But he’s still second in the league with 47 catches, third in all-purpose yardage and one of college football’s best players with the ball in his hands.

3. South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery: Every week, Jeffery makes a big play for the Gamecocks and is making a strong case as the best receiver in this league. He’s averaging 121.1 receiving yards per game to lead the league.

4. Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline: He’s the hottest player in the league right now, having thrown eight touchdown passes in his last two games. Hartline leads the league with 2,144 passing yards and 17 touchdown passes.

5. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: Returning to the lineup last week after suffering a concussion against Auburn, Mallett still leads the SEC with an average of 291.4 passing yards per game and is second with 15 touchdown passes.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley: His dominance up front was a major reason Auburn was able to beat LSU last week. Fairley is now second in the country with 17 tackles for loss.

2. LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: He’s been running a close race with Fairley as the top interior defensive lineman in the league. Nevis still leads all SEC tackles with 40 total tackles.

3. Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston: The SEC’s sacks leader with 8.5, Houston is playing his best football right now. He’s second in the league with 14 tackles for loss.

4. Mississippi State linebacker Chris White: Another 14-tackle effort for White last week has established him as one of the best linebackers in the league. He’s third in the SEC with 12 tackles for loss.

5. Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward: He’s been one of the more productive cornerbacks in the league. He’s tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions and leads all cornerbacks with 43 total tackles.

Coach of the Year

1. Auburn’s Gene Chizik: The Tigers keep finding ways to win close games, which is always a mark of quality coaching.

2. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: He has the Bulldogs ranked for the first time in nine years and riding a five-game winning streak.

3. South Carolina's Steve Spurrier: The Head Ball Coach is trying to get to an SEC championship game with his second different team.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 9

October, 25, 2010
Auburn’s hot, so hot that the Tigers took over the No. 1 spot in the BCS standings this week.

It’s that time again when we take a look at who/what is Hot and who/what is Not in the SEC:


[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Dave MartinAuburn QB Cam Newton has rushed for more than 600 total yards in his past three SEC games.
Newton’s Heisman chances: Every week, Auburn’s Cam Newton does something that makes you think back to past greats in this league. His 49-yard touchdown run against LSU had Heisman Trophy written all over it. For the umpteenth time, 6-6, 250-pound guys aren’t supposed to have those kind of moves, that kind of acceleration and that kind of speed. He’s rushed for more than 600 yards in his past three SEC games. Not even the great Bo Jackson had a three-game stretch against SEC foes that prolific, and he was a tailback. More and more, though, it looks like Newton and Jackson will have one thing in common – the Heisman Trophy.


Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston: He burst onto the scene last season as one of the best pass-rushers in the SEC. After 2.5 sacks last Saturday against Kentucky, Houston now leads the SEC with 8.5 sacks.


Kentucky vs. the East: The Wildcats are just 6-17 against Eastern Division teams going back to the 2006 season, which was the start of their four-year bowl streak.


Tennessee running back Tauren Poole: The Vols’ junior tailback did last Saturday night what nobody else had done for 41 straight games, and that’s rush for 100 yards against Alabama’s defense. Poole finished with 117 yards on 14 carries, including a 59-yard touchdown run.


LSU’s tackling: It’s been demonstrated repeatedly this season that Cam Newton isn’t easy to tackle. But there were times last Saturday when LSU defenders looked like they didn’t want to tackle him. The Tigers picked a bad time to have their worst tackling performance of the season.


Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline: He didn’t lead the Wildcats to a win this time, but find a quarterback any hotter throwing the ball right now than Hartline. In his past two games, he’s passed for 702 yards and eight touchdowns, while completing 68.6 percent of his passes and throwing just one interception.


Florida-Georgia loser: An already disappointing season will become an insufferable season for the team that loses this game. It’s the first time in 31 years that at least one of the teams in this game hasn’t been nationally ranked.


This last month: We wanted high drama in this league for a change, and we’re going to get it. The West might come down to that Alabama-Auburn showdown on Nov. 26, which could also have national championship implications. The East is still wide open, with South Carolina having the inside track but Florida and Georgia still very much in the picture.


Tennessee’s substitutions: The Vols have issues when it comes to talent, experience and depth. They also have issues when it comes to getting the right personnel on the field. It’s a recurring problem and something you thought they’d get fixed after the unlucky 13 fiasco at LSU.


LSU’s passing game: You think back to all the talented skill people LSU has signed over the years and the fact that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee were both highly rated quarterbacks coming out of high school, and it’s hard to believe the Tigers are this bad in the passing game. They’re 113th nationally (out of 120 teams) in passing offense this week. They’ve thrown five touchdown passes all season and nine interceptions. One of those touchdown passes came last week in the 24-17 loss to Auburn, but there’s a catch. Running back Spencer Ware threw it after gathering in a lateral and finding Rueben Randle down the field. The longest pass Jefferson or Lee completed all day was for 12 yards.
Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline is playing the best football of his career.

Determined to make the most of his senior season, he’s done that and then some.

After Hartline carved apart South Carolina’s defense for career highs of 349 passing yards and four touchdowns last week in the Wildcats’ 31-28 win, the Gamecocks’ assistant head coach for the defense, Ellis Johnson, said Hartline might be the best pocket passer in the league.

[+] EnlargeMike Hartline
Mark Zerof/US PresswireQuarterback Mike Hartline has thrown 13 TD passes and just three interceptions this season.
This is the same guy who had to win the starting job in the preseason, beating out sophomore Morgan Newton and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski.

When Kentucky coach Joker Phillips announced that Hartline had won the job, there was more than a little grumbling. Some of the fans wanted to see the Wildcats go the youth route.

But Hartline’s consistency was what set him apart, and it was clear to both Phillips and Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders that he was the best choice.

Here’s the other thing: Hartline earned the job, whereas he was pretty much handed the job the previous two seasons.

“This is really the first time he had to compete for the job,” said Phillips, noting that Curtis Pulley was kicked off the team during Hartline’s sophomore season, leaving Hartline as the only choice, and that Newton and Mossakowski simply weren’t ready last season.

“I liked the way Mike competed. We played a lot faster when Mike was in there, and the rest of the team rallied around him when he was in there. So we went with him and are excited with what he’s done with the position.”

What Hartline has done is become one of the SEC’s most productive passers. He’s second in the league with 1,791 passing yards and tied for second with 13 touchdowns passes. His ratio of 13 touchdown passes to three interceptions leads all starting quarterbacks in the league.

And in conference games only, Hartline is the leading passer with an average of 277.8 yards per game, and his eight touchdown passes against SEC foes are tied for the league lead along with South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia.

“Before, we used to ask Mike to manage the game,” Phillips said. “Now, we’re asking him to go win games, and he’s doing that for us.”

With Georgia coming to town this Saturday, Hartline said there’s no doubt that he and the rest of the Kentucky offense are in a rhythm right now. The Wildcats are second in the SEC in scoring offense and third in total offense. Hartline said Sanders deserves a big chunk of the credit.

“He’s made it easy for us by molding the offense around what we do best and scheming up plays for us to be aggressive,” Hartline said. “Sometimes, we may not make those plays, but it doesn’t change the way he coaches. We’re always going to be aggressive.”

That’s the part of Hartline’s game that has grown the most. He knows now when to take a chance and when not to and when it’s time to try and squeeze one in a tight window and when not to.

He’s matured tremendously as a quarterback and as a leader.

“You still have to manage the game well, but there are always going to be opportunities in games where you need to take risks,” said Hartline, who’s engineered five comeback victories in the fourth quarter during his career. “I’m not saying you go out there and start making a bunch of arrogant throws, but you give guys chances to make plays within the discipline of the offense.

“The thing you never want to do is put your team in a bind.”

The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Hartline is also a testament to the power of perseverance.

He’s been booed by the Kentucky fans during his career. He’s been benched, and he’s been injured. He was playing well a year ago when he went down with a knee injury against South Carolina that ultimately ended his season.

Through it all, Hartline never quit believing in himself, and he never quit believing that his best was yet to come.

He said his older brother and Miami Dolphins receiver, Brian Hartline, was a big influence on keeping his focus where it needed to be and not worrying about what people were saying on the outside.

“I’ve never been one of those guys to shy away from competition and tell myself that I wasn’t good enough for something,” Hartline said. “My whole life, I’ve been good enough. I wasn’t going to settle for less here and was going to push myself to reach my full potential.

“My brother was a big motivator. He just said, ‘Nobody’s going to hand you anything, that you have to go out there and keeping fighting no matter what.’

“I really just took that to heart.”

And in doing so, he’s won a few hearts along the way in the Bluegrass.

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 8

October, 18, 2010
When you’re hot, you’re hot. When you’re not, you’re not …

Nothing like a little Jerry Reed to take us into this week’s Hot and Not in the SEC:


Jordan-Hare Stadium: There are a lot of places that rock around the SEC, and there are a lot of places around this conference that hold noise and make you feel like your ear drums are about to explode. But it’s that way from the opening kickoff at Auburn and only picks up steam from there. I’ve been to just about all the stadiums in the league the last few years, and I say with confidence that Jordan-Hare Stadium is as consistently loud and electric throughout the game as any stadium I’ve been to, and I think it’s gotten even more intense this season. When that crowd sensed blood in the fourth quarter last Saturday against Arkansas, even Toomer’s Corner was rocking several blocks away. They call it the Loveliest Little Village on the Plains, but there ain’t nothing lovely about it if you’re the other team.


[+] EnlargeAuburn
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesCam Newton had 328 yards of total offense and rushed for three touchdowns against Arkanasas.
Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton: He’s less than 150 yards away from becoming only the second quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. And with 13 passing touchdowns and 12 rushing touchdowns, he’s got a real shot at joining Tim Tebow in the 20/20 club.


Instant replay: Is it just me, or does it seem like in the SEC that the replay official’s definition of indisputable video evidence is different than everybody else’s? Arkansas got hosed on Mario Fannin’s fumble at the goal line. That ball was out before he crossed the goal line.


Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson: Yes, he threw those two late interceptions, but to come in and perform the way he did in that kind of environment tells you all you need to know about the Hogs’ sophomore backup. After Ryan Mallett went down, Wilson passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn and kept the Hogs in the game.


Florida coach Urban Meyer: Let’s preface this by saying that Meyer is one of the best coaches in America. He’s won two of the past four national championships. That said, there’s no way the Gators should be this bad on offense with the way they’ve recruited the past few years. They have backups on offense who would be starting for a lot of other teams in this league.


Mississippi State’s running game: The Bulldogs, third in the SEC in rushing offense, went old school on the Gators last Saturday night in the Swamp. They ran the ball over and over again and made the Gators like it.


Arkansas’s defense/special teams: There were positive signs, lots of them, for Willy Robinson’s defense. Arkansas genuinely looked like a much improved defensive football team for the first five games. That all changed last Saturday in the 65-43 loss to Auburn. The Hogs gave up 470 yards in total offense, including 330 rushing yards. John L. Smith’s special teams were equally bad. The Hogs gave up a 99-yard kickoff return, had a punt blocked and were repeatedly tackled short of the 20-yard line on kickoff returns.


Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline: Have you noticed who owns the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the SEC? It’s Hartline, who is having a terrific senior season with 13 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He’s shown tremendous resolve throughout his career at Kentucky.


Auburn’s pass defense: In a word, it stinks. Making matters worse, the Tigers are losing some players to injury in the secondary, too, and will have even less experience on the field against LSU. Auburn is 108th nationally against the pass and was shredded for 428 passing yards and five touchdown passes last week against Arkansas. That’s going to get them sooner or later if they don’t start covering somebody.


South Carolina’s secondary: Stopping somebody’s passing game is a two-way street. You have to get pressure on the quarterback, and you have to cover somebody. The Gamecocks got decent pressure on Kentucky’s Hartline last week and knocked him around some. The problem was they didn’t cover anybody. How many tackles can you miss back there? How many bad angles can you take? How many busted assignments can you make? Randall Cobb was so open on the game-winning touchdown that he had time to rip the fair-weather Kentucky fans on Twitter before he even caught the pass. But back to the South Carolina secondary, which isn’t short on talent. Depth might be a concern, but talent isn’t. The Gamecocks are ranked last in the SEC (and 110th nationally) in pass defense. They’re making Auburn’s pass defense look good right now, and that’s saying something.

Vote: Capital One Impact Performance

October, 18, 2010
Time once again to vote for your Capital One Impact Performance of the week.

Here are your nominees:
  • USC quarterback Matt Barkley ties a school record with five touchdowns against California.
  • Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline goes 32-of-42 for 348 yards with four touchdown passes in a win over South Carolina.
  • Zac Dysert throws a 71-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Cruse with 19 seconds to go to give Miami (Ohio) a 27-20 win over Central Michigan.
  • Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton tallies 329 yards and four total touchdowns in a win over Arkansas.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 7

October, 17, 2010
After another topsy-turvy weekend in the SEC, the choices for helmet stickers were tough ones.

We could easily hand out 10 or more, but here are the five we came up with in what was a wild Week 7:

Mississippi State linebacker Chris White: The Bulldogs’ defense was just one of the stories Saturday in the 10-7 win over Florida, the first time Mississippi State has won in Gainesville since 1965. Setting the tone for that defense was White, who was everywhere. The Bulldogs’ senior middle linebacker finished with 11 total tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Manny Diaz’s Mississippi State defense has held five of its seven opponents to 17 points or less this season.

Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline: Making a strong bid as the SEC’s most improved player this season, Hartline was also long on courage Saturday night. He stood in there repeatedly against a fierce South Carolina rush and completed 32 of 42 passes for 349 yards, for four touchdowns and no interceptions. His 24-yard scoring pass to Randall Cobb on a fourth-and-7 play was the game-winner for the Wildcats in their 31-28 victory over the Gamecocks. Hartline, who’s been through the ringer during his career at Kentucky, threw three of his touchdowns in the second half to rally the Wildcats from a 28-10 halftime deficit.

Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: Another week, another helmet sticker for Newton. He accounted for four touchdowns in Auburn’s 65-43 win over Arkansas and had 328 yards of total offense. The 6-6, 250-pound Newton rushed for 188 yards on 25 carries and scored three touchdowns on the ground. He also had a 15-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake. Newton has accounted for 25 touchdowns on the season -- 13 passing and 12 rushing. He also has 860 rushing yards in seven games. Only one quarterback in SEC history has ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. Auburn’s Jimmy Sidle had 1,006 yards in 1963.

Alabama running back Trent Richardson: The Crimson Tide’s sophomore running back broke the game open with an 85-yard screen pass for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Alabama’s 23-10 win over Ole Miss. Richardson finished with 220 all-purpose yards. He leads the SEC in all-purpose yardage, averaging 183.1 yards per game.

Kentucky coach Joker Phillips: A lot of teams would have folded their tents after getting down 28-10, especially coming off three straight losses. But there’s a toughness and a resilience about the Wildcats that reflects their head coach. Their 31-28 comeback win over South Carolina was Kentucky’s first ever over a Steve Spurrier-coached team, and props go out to Phillips for keeping his team in tune mentally and emotionally during a very difficult stretch.