NCF Nation: Tray Matthews

Georgia Bulldogs season preview

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
10:30
AM ET
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs

2013 record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC). Lost 24-19 to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

Key losses: QB Aaron Murray, TE Arthur Lynch, DL Garrison Smith, S Josh Harvey-Clemons, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins, OT Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, OG Dallas Lee, DL Jonathan Taylor.

Key returnees: RB Todd Gurley, LB Ramik Wilson, LB Amarlo Herrera, OLB Leonard Floyd, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OT John Theus, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Chris Conley, DE Ray Drew, C David Andrews, PK Marshall Morgan, WR Justin Scott-Wesley.

Instant impact newcomers: OLB Lorenzo Carter, RB Sony Michel, RB Nick Chubb, CB Malkom Parrish, DT Lamont Gaillard, DB Shattle Fenteng, TE Jeb Blazevich.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIAfter leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman last season, big things are expected of Leonard Floyd in 2014.
Breakout player: Floyd. The lanky outside linebacker led Georgia with 6.5 sacks in 2013 and added 9.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. He’ll benefit from having a full year in Georgia’s conditioning program and could become a star in his second season.

Most important game: Sept. 13 at South Carolina. Two of the favorites in the SEC East will meet early in the season in Columbia, where the Gamecocks haven’t lost since 2011. They’ve beaten Georgia in their last two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium, including a 35-7 thrashing in 2012. The margin for error is typically narrow within the division, so the winner of this one will be the early team in the East driver’s seat.

Biggest question mark: The secondary is easily Georgia’s biggest area of concern. The Bulldogs’ pass defense was spotty at best in 2013, and the offseason departures of three regulars has left plenty of personnel questions. Coach Mark Richt kicked two starting safeties -- Harvey-Clemons and Matthews -- off the team, and cornerback Wiggins transferred to Louisville, so there is plenty of playing time available. Swann’s presence is big at cornerback, and converted running back J.J. Green was impressive in the spring, but junior college transfer Fenteng and Parrish will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact in August.

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Missouri. This could be a tricky game that might not get as much attention as it deserves with matchups against Clemson, South Carolina, Florida and Auburn also on Georgia’s schedule. The defending SEC East champs lost a ton of firepower, so Mizzou seems likely to take a step backward. But it’s a long road trip that kicks off a stretch of more than a month when the Bulldogs won’t play at home once -- and it could easily become a loss if Georgia doesn’t have its act together.

Key stat: 36.7. The average score of a Georgia game was 36.7 to 29.0 in 2013. Even if what was an inexperienced defense improves this fall, the Bulldogs will still likely rely on their star-studded offense. They might need to keep scoring at that prolific clip, which is somewhat uncertain with three longtime starting offensive linemen to replace, to allow time for the defense and their new set of coaches to develop some continuity.

Team’s top Twitter follows: The Bulldogs have some good choices here. Seeing as how he’s never started a game, it might seem surprising that senior offensive lineman Watts Dantzler (@WattsDantzler) has 12,000 Twitter followers. But he’s a natural-born entertainer who has a nationwide following that grew substantially when he live tweeted a harrowing spring break trip back to Athens on a bus. Another good pick is tight ends coach John Lilly (@JohnLillyUGA), who is a much more creative on Twitter than the typical coach. Lastly, Conley (@_Flight_31) regularly updates his 27,400 followers on his latest film exploits; he produced and starred in a well-received “Star Wars” tribute film over the summer and has started work on a new movie in recent weeks.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 9.06 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5 wins

Our take: Georgia was better than an eight-win team last season, but the Bulldogs were absolutely decimated by injuries to key players like Mitchell, Gurley, Scott-Wesley, tailback Keith Marshall and eventually Murray. If new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can get things straight on his side of the ball, the ceiling is extremely high for this team. The offense has an impressive array of talent surrounding senior quarterback Hutson Mason and should be difficult to contain. If the Bulldogs open with a win against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, this could easily become a 10-2 or 9-3 season where Georgia is once again in the thick of the East race.
With fall camp beginning Friday, Auburn will turn its focus to 2014 and put last season behind it. But what a season it was. The Tigers, who were picked fifth in the West, went on to win the SEC championship and came 13 seconds from winning a national championship.

It was a sensational run by Gus Malzahn in his first year as head coach, reestablishing Auburn as a premier program in college football, but it didn’t come without a few breaks. It happens to every great team. A certain play or a certain call goes their way and keeps the dream season alive. Call it destiny if you will.

As we take one more look back at 2013, let’s revisit a few of those plays or moments that went Auburn’s way and see how they helped shape the Tigers’ season.

Week 3: What if illegal touching was called on C.J. Uzomah’s touchdown?

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn, Nick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe amazing 2013 season turned in by coach Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers was aided by several improbable plays.
Everybody remembers Uzomah’s touchdown grab with 10 seconds left to beat Mississippi State, but what people forget is that the play was actually reviewed to see if Uzomah stepped out of bounds before making the catch. The touchdown stood after the refs ruled he was pushed out by a defender, but what if they had instead called illegal touching and pushed Auburn back five yards? With so little time left, the Tigers might have had one more shot at the end zone, but the more likely outcome would have been a mid-range field goal attempt and a shot at overtime. The right call was made, but if the refs didn’t see the contact on the replay or if Uzomah failed to haul it in, there is a chance Auburn could have still been looking for that elusive SEC win.

Week 8: What if Johnny Manziel doesn’t hurt his shoulder?

Let’s set this up. It’s the beginning of the fourth quarter, Texas A&M is already up 31-24 and Manziel rushes for eight yards down to the Auburn 2-yard line. The only problem is that the reigning Heisman Trophy winner injures his shoulder on the play and is forced to come out. Backup Matt Joeckel comes in, throws an incomplete pass and the Aggies have to settle for a field goal. After an Auburn touchdown, Joeckel comes back on the field and the Aggies go three-and-out. Auburn would score again, and though Manziel eventually returned to the game, we all know how it ended. Had Manziel stayed on the field, that field goal might have been a touchdown and that three-and-out might not have happened.

Week 12: What if Josh Harvey-Clemons is a step slower?

Georgia’s defense looked to be in good position on the 78-yard touchdown pass that is now known as the “Prayer at Jordan Hare.” In fact, both Tray Matthews and Harvey-Clemons could have made the interception on the play, but as it turns out the two former Georgia safeties collided and batted the ball in the air where Ricardo Louis pulled it in for the touchdown. On second glance, Harvey-Clemons arrived late and essentially knocked it out of his teammate’s hands. Had he been a step slower to the ball, Matthews would have likely intercepted it or at least batted it down, forcing a turnover on downs, and we would have been talking about Georgia’s fourth-quarter comeback rather than the miracle play that kept Auburn’s season alive.

Week 14: What if O.J. Howard doesn’t get called for holding?

The easy one from the Iron Bowl would have been what if the last second ticks off and Alabama never gets a chance to attempt the 57-yard field goal? The game goes to overtime, where nobody knows for sure what the outcome would have been. I take you back to a holding call on the Tide's Howard with three minutes left. Had he not been called, Alabama would have had first-and-goal from the Auburn 5-yard line leading 28-21. Instead, the Tide was pushed back 10 yards, and after an incomplete pass, Cade Foster's 44-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Even if Alabama doesn’t pick up the first down on the play with holding, it still would have been in much better field-goal range to put the game away.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Nick Saban could have stepped to the microphone last week at SEC media days and delivered a stern message to his team at Alabama. After an offseason colored by two DUI arrests, one player getting caught with marijuana and another getting arrested for disobeying a police officer, it seemed like a prime opportunity to fire a shot across the bow. Or, at the very least, to make a statement about the direction the program is headed.

But Saban wasn’t interested in doing that. As he has done with each off-field incident since last season ended, he insisted that issues will be handled internally. He argued, essentially, that to do otherwise would be akin to kicking your own child out of the family for disappointing you.

“We have to try to support them, teach them, get them to do the right things because we love them, we care about them,” he said.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/AL.com/Vasha HuntNick Saban on discipline: "I want you to know that there's not one player, not one player, since I've been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything ..."
Saban spoke about a “disparity in the behavioral culture of our young people” and how they must “control their impulsive behaviors.” He closed his mini-sermon by saying that the process -- his process -- “really does work.”

“I want you to know that there's not one player, not one player, since I've been a head coach that I kicked off the team that ever went anywhere and amounted to anything and accomplished anything, playing or academically, all right?” he said.

All right.

Saban did levy a little bit of discipline. Harkening back to “guys learning how to control their impulsive behavior,” he said, “those players are suspended, but they’re not kicked off the team.” But which players? It could be Jarran Reed, Kenyan Drake, Altee Tenpenny or Dillon Lee. It could be all four that are “suspended from activity” until “they prove ... they’re ready to come back.”

In Saban’s eyes, discipline isn’t punishment.

“That’s what you all think: What are you going to do to the guy? How many games is he getting suspended? Are you going to kick him off the team? This guy kicked this guy off the team because he did this, and that was a good thing,” he said. “Well, but what about the kid? What happens to him? Well, I’m telling you what happens to him: I’ve never seen one go anyplace else and do anything.”

While Saban did drop some occasionally strong remarks -- “There’s an end of the rope for everybody.” “Sometimes you have to get the wrong people off the bus.” -- he never really dropped the hammer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some coaches whose track records as disciplinarians is lacking, but Saban isn’t one of those men.

“Are there consequences?” he said. “Yeah, we don’t have to depend on the guy. They might get suspended for some games, because that’s the one thing that will change their behavior because they all want to play. I get that part, and we do that. But I don’t usually announce that. I don’t usually say we’re going to do that. I tell you before the game, ‘These three guys aren’t going to play.'"

It was interesting, however, to note the tonal change at media days between what Saban said and what Mark Richt said a few hours earlier.

Richt has long been a lightning rod on the subject of discipline. Type “Mark Richt lost control” into Google and you will get roughly 29,000 results. But this offseason Richt developed an image of being tough on crime. Rather than offering starters Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons a route back to school, he dismissed them from Georgia. Rather than worrying about the program’s strong drug policy creating a competitive disadvantage, he said, “It doesn’t bother me.”

“We don't want our guys to do drugs, OK? I don't want my son to do drugs,” he said. “We've got policies that are stronger maybe than some when it comes to the punitive part of it. That's kind of what everybody talks about. Georgia ends up suspending their guys a little bit sooner in the policy, which I've got no problems with.”

“It's a lot more than just the punitive part,” he said later. “There's a punitive part, there's an educational part, then we love 'em. You made a mistake. You have these consequences. Now let's turn in the right direction and become a better man for it.”

Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson said it’s simple: “Do the right thing is all they ask.”

“You’re either going to do it Coach Richt’s way or you’re going to go home,” he added.

Strong words, wouldn’t you say?

Saban and Richt want the same thing when it comes to keeping players on the right track and on the right side of the law. But for at least one day and one offseason, the coach we expected to play the role of disciplinarian was not the one who showed up to take the stage.
HOOVER, Ala. -- The fourth and final day of SEC media days will likely be a circus with Alabama coming through, but there will be no shortage of storylines on all four teams in attendance Thursday. Let's take a look.

Georgia (10 a.m. ET): The expectations are high for this team, but if you ask Mark Richt who he has left in the secondary, it might take him a minute to respond. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were both dismissed from the team, and Shaquille Wiggins transferred away from the program. That leaves the Bulldogs extremely thin on the back end, but star linebacker Ramik Wilson, who will be on hand Thursday, is back for another season. Wilson led the SEC last season with 133 tackles. On offense, it's all about Todd Gurley. If he's healthy, he's one of the best running backs in college football. However, Aaron Murray is no longer there, which means it's now up to Hutson Mason to take the reigns at quarterback. Between questions about the dismissals and questions about Mason, Richt will be plenty busy Thursday.

Ole Miss (10:30 a.m.): Are the Rebels ready to take that next step? Hugh Freeze surprised everybody, including himself, when he led his team to a bowl game in his first season, and he was able to duplicate that success last year. But with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace returning and 10 starters back on defense, a bowl game might not be good enough this season. They have the talent and experience to compete in a stacked SEC West. The other major talking point for Thursday will be the sensational freshman class from a year ago. The likes of Tony Conner, Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all a year older, which is good news for Ole Miss fans but bad news for opponents. Treadwell, in particular, could be in line for a huge season with Donte Moncrief now in the NFL.

Alabama (12:10 p.m.): This edition of SEC media days will have a different feel for Alabama if for no other reason than the Crimson Tide aren't defending national champs for the first time in a while. How will the team respond to losing back-to-back games to end last season? And, maybe more important, how will it deal with the manner it lost to Auburn, falling to its bitter rival in the most dramatic way possible? Alabama coach Nick Saban will no doubt have an eye toward the future and the redemption it holds. But first he'll have to answer questions about a rebuilt secondary, two new starters on the offensive line, and the biggest question mark of all -- quarterback. It's safe to assume the starting job is Jacob Coker's. Just don't be surprised when Saban scoffs at the assumption.

Kentucky (1:40 p.m.): Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If you're looking for a main storyline to follow with the Wildcats on Thursday, it's how well Mark Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and how that's beginning to pay dividends on the football field. The top-to-bottom talent isn't quite there to compete with the upper echelon of the SEC yet, but it's on the right path. And maybe with a few surprise players and a break here or there, Kentucky might play the role of spoiler in 2014. Za'Darius Smith and Alvin Dupree are two of the more underrated defensive players in the league, and Jojo Kemp and Javess Blue are two similarly under-the-radar playmakers on offense. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard could provide some much needed depth at tailback, and Drew Barker has the skill set to play immediately at quarterback as a true freshman. But how will Stoops put all those pieces together? His program is improving with each recruiting class, but it needs time to mature.
The news of Tray Matthews' dismissal from Georgia's football team on Tuesday is yet another reminder of how much work the Bulldogs' defense has in front of it in 2014.

Matthews was far from perfect last year, and was known more for his unspeakable gaffe with Josh Harvey-Clemons against Auburn than any real positive impact he had on the field in 2013. But he had experience and time to improve. Even if Matthews was never going to be the all-world performer he was pumped up to be before his Athens arrival, his absence certainly doesn't help in the depth department.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Jason GetzOffseason departures will make new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's job even more difficult.
However, Matthews, who was also one of four Georgia players arrested and charged with theft by deception in March, is gone, leaving the Bulldogs without three starters from last year's secondary.

From an experience standpoint, it isn't an ideal situation for new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but there's nothing he can do about it now. When I spoke to him in his office this spring, he made it clear that he understood the tall task he was undertaking by guiding this defense, and he didn't take the job for a quick fix. He said he left Florida State to build something at Georgia.

Right now, it's going to take a lot from him to even build something for fans to rally around this fall. The secondary will be overrun with youngsters and the defensive line is still waiting for a great, consistent player to emerge. Georgia should be fine at linebacker with the likes of Leonard Floyd, Ramik Wilson, Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera returning, but they can't do everything.

This spring, Pruitt's task was getting his new group to buy in to what he was selling. At the same time, he was trying to get a read on who his players were and what they brought to the table during 15 practices. That isn't a lot of time to get a lot done when you're new, or you're an embattled group that gave up a school-record 377 points last year and allowed 375.5 yards per game, the most during the Mark Richt era.

Pruitt saw good work ethic and some promise, but there's still plenty that has to improve before the season opener against Clemson on Aug. 30.

“I don’t know how it was here before. I know our coaching staff is very focused on attention to detail, playing with effort, playing with toughness," Pruitt told ESPN.com in April. "We have a long ways to go to get to where we want to be.

“We have to get guys to do it right all the time.”

Pruitt isn't going to cry about the players he has lost. He has to get a plan together before he gets to work with the guys who will actually play for him this year.

The fact of the matter is this defense doesn't have the talent that the 2011 and 2012 teams had. Outside of the linebacker group, especially Floyd and Wilson, there are a lot of unknowns, but Pruitt understands that what he can do to make this defense more competitive is to have them win the mental battle. They have to be disciplined and tough enough to make opponents earn yards.

Pruitt said his guys have to work hard over and over to challenge opponents. If you get beat, he said, make sure it's by ability, not carelessness.

It's on Pruitt to put his players in good positions this fall, but the guys who actually move around on the field have to have a little more pride about them. They have to want to get better and play tougher.

Where Pruitt hopes to get a spark is from some new faces. Looking at the secondary, there's a chance that three or four newcomers could find starting jobs in a group in which senior Damian Swann is the only cornerback who has started more than one game.

Finding players to nail down spots at the boundary corner positions will be key. Redshirt freshman Reggie Wilkerson is returning from his ACL injury and 2014 signees Malkom Parrish, Shaq Jones, and Shattle Fenteng (junior college transfer) will all get the chance to take a corner spot. True freshman Dominick Sanders also will take reps at safety.

“I’m hoping that these young guys we have coming in can help us in the secondary," Pruitt said. “I’m going to give those guys a chance right off the bat. They’re going to have to prove to me that they can’t do it.”

Georgia's defense will go through a lot of growing pains in 2014. There will be plenty of frustrating moments for Pruitt and his group, but there will still be chances for growth.

How fast that growth begins will depend on how Pruitt and his players attack the steep hill in front of them.

Offseason exodus in the SEC

June, 4, 2014
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It's that time of year that coaches dread, when unfortunately there tends to be as much activity off the field as on the field.

On Tuesday, we saw three projected defensive starters in the league -- Georgia safety Tray Matthews and Texas A&M linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden -- shown the proverbial door.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's Darian Claiborne is one of three several projected SEC starters who were dismissed by their schools on Tuesday.
In the case of Claiborne and Golden, they were already on double-secret probation and ran out of chances after being arrested and charged with robbing three victims at gunpoint on May 23 after the three men agreed to purchase marijuana from Claiborne and Golden. Claiborne had already been arrested twice and Golden once in the last seven months.

Much will be made of the Aggies, especially as bad as they were on defense a year ago, being in no position to lose young talent the caliber of Claiborne and Golden. But Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is smart enough to know when enough is enough, and when you've got guys on your team who already have previous brushes with the law and are accused of robbing people at gunpoint (in a drug deal, no less), it's past time to cut your losses.

At Georgia, coach Mark Richt had obviously had enough with Matthews, who started six games a year ago in an injury-plagued freshman season. Matthews had shown promise and was a big hitter, but Richt's statement concerning Matthews' dismissal spoke volumes. Matthews was arrested in March, along with three other players, and charged with allegedly cashing school-issued financial aid checks twice.

"We are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right," said Richt, who almost never publicly calls out players, be it current players or former players.

Ironically, Matthews tweeted that he'd likely wind up at Auburn or Louisville, a pair of schools that have become a safe house of sorts for Georgia players who get into trouble or decide to leave the program. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins have transferred to Louisville, and Nick Marshall is entering his second season as Auburn's quarterback.

Just in the last five or six years, Richt has cut loose a ton of highly regarded talent. Other than Matthews, Harvey-Clemons and Marshall, some of the other names include Isaiah Crowell, Zach Mettenberger, Chris Sanders, Ty Flourney-Smith, Brent Benedict and Washaun Ealey.

Below is a list of the some bigger names around the SEC who've either been dismissed or have decided to transfer for various reasons since the end of last season:

Alabama: RB Alvin Kamara

Florida: S Cody Riggs, QB Tyler Murphy

Georgia: S Josh Harvey-Clemons, QB Christian LeMay, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins

Kentucky: QB Jalen Whitlow

LSU: QB Stephen Rivers

Missouri: WR Dorial Green-Beckham

Ole Miss: OT Austin Golson

Tennessee: QB Riley Ferguson

Texas A&M: LB Darian Claiborne, DT Isaiah Golden, QB Matt Joeckel, S Kameron Miles
Georgia announced the dismissal of Josh Harvey-Clemons on Tuesday with a two-sentence press release.

[+] EnlargeHarvey-Clemons
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesJosh Harvey-Clemons let a big opportunity get away after being dismissed from Georgia.
No “We wish him well” quote from Mark Richt. No olive branch for a player who was one of the Bulldogs' most-coveted signees in a strong 2012 recruiting class.

This was goodbye and good riddance, which is a genuine shame.

Nobody is happy to see a player's refusal to follow the rules result in his unceremonious exit from a program. This is somebody's life, and now it's in turmoil after rumors swirled for a couple of weeks about his status on the team. As in the case of another recent five-star Bulldog who departed Athens too early -- tailback Isaiah Crowell, the SEC’s 2011Freshman of the Year whose arrest led to his dismissal before the next season -- this feels particularly galling when that player seems to be wasting such promise.

This kind of reaction wasn't limited to fans and media members after Georgia's announcement. Take what 2013 senior tight end Arthur Lynch tweeted in response to the news: “Just to be clear, those who decide not to do it the RIGHT way do not deserve to don the Red & Black. It is a privilege, not a right.”

Harvey-Clemons is far from the first Georgia player to run afoul of the program's substance policy -- assuming such a violation was the last straw here, as in the previous suspensions involving the rising junior safety -- and he won't be the last. The program's strict rules regarding drug and alcohol issues mean that Richt consistently deals with suspensions related to substance problems.

Whatever the reason for Harvey-Clemons' departure, it is clear that Richt has had enough. He certainly wouldn't kick one his most talented players off the team, when the Bulldogs' shaky defense could certainly use all the help it can get, unless Harvey-Clemons left him no other option.

Harvey-Clemons will almost certainly land somewhere else -- he's too talented for this to be the end of his career -- but he will carry this label from now on. Whenever someone searches for his name on Google. At his next college stop. Whenever NFL teams evaluate his readiness to become a reliable professional.

He clearly wasn't a reliable college player, getting himself suspended at least twice before Tuesday's announcement. And that lack of reliability leaves Georgia in a lurch at one of its thinnest positions. The Bulldogs struggled at safety a season ago and now players like Tray Matthews, Tramel Terry, Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore face even more pressure to perform after a veteran who started 11 games last season has unexpectedly left the team.

Perhaps this is for the best in the long term, since Harvey-Clemons' absences and injuries to other safeties created continuity issues that impacted Georgia's secondary for much of last season. Perhaps starting fresh and knowing who will be available allows new defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt to better prepare his defensive backs this fall.

For now, though, this feels like a sad day -- one where someone who could have become a Georgia great instead became another castoff because he couldn't get his act together. It's a difficult lesson for Harvey-Clemons to learn just two days before his 20th birthday, but here's hoping that Richt's actions on Tuesday caused his message to finally resonate and that Harvey-Clemons takes better advantage of his second chance than he did with the opportunity he just squandered.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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Here are five players (or groups) from around the SEC who earned helmet stickers with their performances on Saturday.

Nick Marshall and Ricardo Louis (and Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons): Let's be clear. It was nothing more than a 1-in-1-million occurrence that allowed Louis to catch a 73-yard pass from Marshall, deflected between Matthews and Harvey-Clemons, to score the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds remaining on Saturday. But the Tigers scored that touchdown, and kept their SEC championship hopes alive in the process. Marshall finished the day with 229 passing yards against his old team, plus 89 rushing yards and two more scores. And Louis had 131 receiving yards, 66 rushing yards and two touchdowns. It was certainly a winning combination.

Aaron Murray: The Georgia quarterback's ridiculous second half will fade in relevance over time, but the only reason Marshall even needed to complete the last-minute touchdown pass to Louis was because Murray carried his team into the lead in the second half. Georgia stunk it up in the first half, but Murray rallied the Bulldogs to a 38-37 lead with 1:49 to play after trailing by 20 points early in the fourth quarter. Murray finished with 415 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception, while also rushing for 37 yards and two more scores -- including a diving go-ahead touchdown in the closing minutes -- although Auburn's Hail Mary minimized the importance of Georgia's rally.

Alabama's defense: By this point, this should be obvious. The reason anyone is talking about AJ McCarron contending for the Heisman Trophy is that we can't collectively give it to his defense. Alabama turned the ball over four times Saturday against Mississippi State -- including two interceptions from McCarron -- but the defense allowed just seven points and 197 total yards. Heck, State's one touchdown came on a fumble forward into the end zone. Alabama led 10-7 at one point in a mediocre third quarter, but the defense didn't allow things to get truly scary. McCarron should be taking THOSE guys out to dinner this week.

Jordan Matthews: The Vanderbilt receiver caught 12 passes for 141 yards, becoming the first Commodores wideout to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and rushed twice for 31 yards in Vandy's 22-6 win over Kentucky. He's within three catches of former Vandy receiver Earl Bennett's SEC record of 236 career catches. And the Commodores (6-4) are bowl eligible for three straight years for the first time in program history -- thanks in large part to the contributions from their senior receiver.

Elliott Fry: I almost went with Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace here -- his four touchdowns in Ole Miss' 751-yard effort against Troy were impressive -- but place-kicker Fry's four field goals in Saturday's 19-14 win against Florida were much more important. The Gators led 14-13 entering the fourth quarter on Saturday, but Fry knocked down a 22-yard kick with 6:43 remaining and a 43-yard field goal with 2:16 to play to extend the Gamecocks' lead to five points. Fry went 4-for-5 on field goals Saturday and hit his only PAT as South Carolina put pressure on Missouri to claim the SEC East title.

Injury impact: SEC

October, 24, 2013
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The injury bug has been sucking the life out of teams in the SEC this season. The SEC East has been hit especially hard this season, and here are the three teams in the league that have been affected the most:

1. Florida: Not exactly what the Gators want to be ranked first in, but Florida runs away with this one. The 4-3 Gators lost starting right tackle Chaz Green (shoulder) and wide receiver Andre Debose (knee) for the season during fall camp and have seen six more season-ending injuries since, including quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Matt Jones and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. They dressed only 13 healthy defenders in the loss to Missouri. Quarterback Tyler Murphy is still dealing with a lingering shoulder injury.

2. Georgia: The 4-3 Bulldogs lost top receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the year to a freak ACL injury in the season opener and then lost running back Keith Marshall and Justin-Scott Wesley to ACL injuries against Tennessee. Starting running back Todd Gurley (ankle) has been out since the LSU game (Sept. 28) and receiver Michael Bennett hasn't played since the Tennessee game (Oct. 5) due to a knee injury. Receiver Chris Conley (ankle) and safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons (foot) and Tray Matthews are questionable for next week's Florida game.

3. Arkansas: The Razorbacks, who have lost five straight, felt the injury bug before the season when top receiver Demetrius Wilson was lost for the year with a preseason ACL injury while linebacker Otha Peters has played in only five games after breaking his arm during fall camp. Coach Bret Bielema estimated that 10-12 players went down with injuries during fall camp. Quarterback Brandon Allen suffered a shoulder injury early this season and starting defensive tackle Robert Thomas is out for the season with a broken leg.


Welcome to Missouri's world, SEC East. It isn't so pretty, is it?

A year ago, the Tigers were wrapped in bandages and chugging Robitussin every week of their debut season in the SEC. Now, it seems like the top teams in the SEC East are doing the same thing as we head into the sixth week of the 2013 season.

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are dealing with injuries, and it looks like Missouri is actually the healthiest team and is starting to make some noise in the conference after its 51-28 thrashing of Vanderbilt in Nashville over the weekend.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesGeorgia sophomore running back Keith Marshall is out for the season with a torn ACL.
It literally looks like the last man standing will win the SEC East this year, as injuries continue to pile up.

Just look at the Georgia Bulldogs. Heavy favorites to win the division after their 44-41 win against LSU two Saturdays ago, the Bulldogs are now in the realm of the unknown after losing three key offensive players to knee injuries in a thrilling overtime win over Tennessee. Running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are out for the rest of the season with ACL injuries, while receiver Michael Bennett will have to undergo surgery to find out the extent of his knee injury and will miss Saturday's game against Missouri.

Receiver Malcolm Mitchell was already lost for the season with an ACL injury, and running back Todd Gurley is sidelined with an ankle injury. Punter Collin Barber left Saturday's game early with a concussion, and Georgia was without receiver Jonathon Rumph (hamstring) and safeties Tray Matthews (hamstring) and Connor Norman (concussion) for the entire game.

So, Mark Richt, have you ever seen that many injuries in a game before?

“Not like that," he said following Saturday's game. "It's just such a shame."

It really is for the Bulldogs, and now Georgia's lead in the East doesn't look so insurmountable.

Florida came away from the weekend with quite the performance in its 30-10 win over Arkansas. What was so impressive, other than another dominating defensive performance? Well, the passing game stepped up when the Hogs buried Florida's running game.

Yes, you read that correctly. Florida's passing game stepped up and quarterback Tyler Murphy, who just so happens to be in for the injured Jeff Driskel (broken leg), threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns.

Arkansas certainly doesn't have the most intimidating defense, but Florida has to be feeling pretty good about last Saturday. Can the Gators sustain that? This team is down Driskel and its best overall player in defensive tackle Dominique Easley (ACL). Another big injury could cost the Gators a shot at Atlanta. Murphy has to stay upright if this team is even going to have a chance.

South Carolina watched quarterback Connor Shaw go down with a shoulder sprain against Central Florida only to bounce back and play well against Kentucky Saturday. Do injuries even affect this kid anymore? Still, his aggressive style makes him very susceptible to injuries.

It's become clear that injuries are affecting Jadeveon Clowney, who has played well below average this season. He's dealt with illness, a toe injury and now ribs. His coaches didn't even know he wasn't playing against Kentucky until right before the game.

"[If Clowney] wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants," Spurrier said after the game. "But if he doesn't want to play, he doesn't have to play. Simple as that."

The problem is that having him on the field -- even if he isn't playing close to 100 percent -- creates an issue for offenses. They've directed plays away from him and now they don't have to. Against the Wildcats, South Carolina's defense surrendered a 21-point lead. This defense has struggled, and it absolutely cannot afford anymore injuries at this point.

Then there's healthy, confident Mizzou. This was the team that couldn't get out of the infirmary last year. Now it's second in the SEC in total offense (543.8 yards per game), scoring (46.6) and sacks (15).

Mizzou has a chance to take a mighty step forward this weekend with a trip to Athens. The Dawgs beat up on the Tigers last year, but it's Georgia that enters Saturday's game battered and bruised. Mizzou should already be considered a threat in the East, but if the Tigers can keep bandages off their stripes, it'll be an exciting four-team race to Atlanta in the East.

SEC freshmen power rankings

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
10:30
AM ET


We're continuing to look at the first quarter of the 2013 college football season today by checking out the effect true freshmen have had. We know that the days of freshmen sitting back and watching are over, and SEC teams have made sure to get the youngsters on the field as quickly as possible.

Who has received the best results from their freshmen through the first four weeks? Who not only has quantity but quality when it comes from the freshmen impact? Take a look:

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesTrue freshman WR Laquon Treadwell has been one of several instant-impact rookies for Ole Miss.
1. Ole Miss: The Rebels might have had the most talked about recruiting class this past spring, and boy has it delivered. Coach Hugh Freeze was concerned about the class receiving too much hype, but these kids haven't had trouble adapting to the college game. Heading into this week's Alabama game, Ole Miss has five true freshmen as starters on the depth chart. The headliners in the class have been defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who has 10 tackles, including four for loss, and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who is averaging 5.3 catches per game and has 154 receiving yards. Tight end Evan Engram has also had a major impact, catching 11 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns, while offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil will make his second straight start at left tackle. Starting nickel corner Tony Conner intercepted a pass on his first career defensive snap, while offensive lineman Austin Golson has played around 50 percent of the snaps.

2. Georgia: The Bulldogs knew they were going to have to get a lot out of their freshman class, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Through the first four weeks of the season, six of Georgia's top 15 tacklers are freshmen: safety Tray Matthews (14), linebacker Leonard Floyd (12), cornerback Brendan Langley (10), safety Quincy Mauger (five), defensive lineman John Taylor (four) and linebacker Reggie Carter (four). The Bulldogs have played 14 true freshmen this season, which ranks third nationally. Ten of them have played on the defensive side of the ball and three of them -- Matthews, Floyd and Langley -- have started. In addition, freshman receiver Reggie Davis has two catches for 134 yards, including a school-record 98-yard touchdown reception against North Texas.

3. Arkansas: The first thing you think about when you see this Razorbacks team is the running game. Alex Collins became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine straight in 2004. Collins leads the SEC with 481 rushing yards, is averaging 120.3 yards per game and has been named the SEC Freshman of the Week twice. Tight end Hunter Henry is second on the team with eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. Offensive tackle Denver Kirkland grabbed a handful of snaps against Southern Miss, while fellow tackle Dan Skipper blocked a field goal against Rutgers. Cornerback D.J. Dean has received a lot of snaps this fall as well.

4. Tennessee: Fourteen true freshmen and 22 freshmen overall have played for the Vols this season. Three true freshmen have made starts this season: wide receiver Marquez North (four), defensive back Cameron Sutton (four) and wide receiver Josh Smith (two). North, who leads the team with 12 catches for 112 yards, became the first true freshman to start the season opener for Tennessee at receiver since Marsalis Teague in 2009, while Sutton is the first true freshman defensive back to start a season opener since Justin Coleman in 2011. Defensive back Malik Foreman intercepted a pass in his debut against Austin Peay, becoming the first true freshman to record a pick in his Vols debut in the season opener since Dwayne Goodrich in 1996. Defensive back Devaun Swafford recorded a pick-six in Tennessee's loss to Florida last week.

5. LSU: The Tigers have played 14 true freshmen this season, and eight of those are defensive players. Cornerback Tre'Davious White is the only freshman to make a start this year, doing so against Kent State and Auburn. White has 17 tackles on the season, including one for loss, and has also forced a fumble and broken up a pass. Kendell Beckwith has received some good snaps at linebacker and on special teams. He also lines up at defensive end to provide more of a pass-rushing threat on third downs. Defensive lineman Christian LaCouture has seen time in the rotation along the Tigers' defensive line.

Defense rules in sloppy Georgia win

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
7:20
PM ET

ATHENS, Ga. -- Sloppy play plagued his team -- particularly on special teams -- and drew boos from some waterlogged fans on a rainy afternoon, but Georgia coach Mark Richt found at least one satisfying aspect of Saturday's 45-21 win against North Texas.

Once Richt's team absolutely had to get serious, it stopped playing around. The Bulldogs (2-1) used a solid effort from their defense and a 24-0 run to close out the game after a North Texas (2-2) blocked punt resulted in a touchdown that made it 21-all early in the third quarter.

“We got ourselves into a fight,” Richt said. “It was tied, obviously, in the second half and it could've got real ugly, but it didn't. We continued to settle the game down by playing great defense and continued to move the ball and get some points, and we were able to finish the game without a lot of drama. It could've been very dramatic. It was very dramatic until we pulled away a little bit.”

No. 9 Georgia moved the ball seemingly at will Saturday, outgaining North Texas 641 yards -- fourth most in school history -- to 245. The Mean Green had barely exceeded 200 yards of total offense before their final drive against mostly reserves from Georgia. Yet thanks to a North Texas 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the blocked-punt score and an Aaron Murray interception in the Mean Green end zone, the outcome was in doubt far later into the afternoon than the pregame 32-point spread might have indicated.

However, Todd Grantham's defense delivered its first strong performance of the season, limiting North Texas to just one offensive touchdown a game after surrendering just six points in the second half of a win against South Carolina. The Bulldogs' run defense was particularly stout, allowing just seven yards on 25 attempts -- which tied for the fewest surrendered in any Football Bowl Subdivision game this year.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia freshman safety Tray Matthews' interception in the second half gave the Bulldogs all the momentum they needed to pull away.
“I thought them guys played their tails off,” Grantham said. “They hung in there, were put in some tough spots, showed mental toughness. Tray [Matthews] got a turnover. I'm proud of the way those guys played.”

In hindsight, freshman safety Matthews' interception -- the first of his career and first of the season for the Bulldogs -- might have been one of the biggest plays of the game. Georgia had just taken a 28-21 lead when North Texas had driven to the Bulldogs' 27. Matthews easily picked off a Derek Thompson pass -- he credited cornerback Damian Swann for re-routing a North Texas receiver who should have been in the vicinity -- at the Georgia 5 to halt a potential game-tying drive.

The Bulldogs then drove 95 yards in 12 plays, taking a 35-21 lead on Murray's 4-yard pass to Chris Conley, and North Texas didn't threaten Georgia's lead again.

“We were on the sideline, and I was like, 'Dang it's close, man,'” Matthews said. “I swear, [defensive line coach Chris Wilson] was like, 'Man, we need to create some turnovers.' It just stuck in my head that we need to create turnovers. He said we need an alpha dog on the defense, somebody that's going to lead the team and get the team pumped up. I was like, 'Man, I want that to be me, so I feel like I need to go out and make a play.'”

There were plenty of offensive highlights to go around.

Murray connected with wideout Reggie Davis on a 98-yard touchdown pass -- the longest pass play in school history, Murray's 100th career touchdown pass and the freshman's first career reception, no less -- and finished the day with 408 yards and three touchdown passes, plus a 1-yard rushing score.

Murray also passed David Greene to become Georgia's career total offense leader with 11,352 career yards. He is third in SEC history behind Florida's Tim Tebow (12,232) and Chris Leak (11,380).

“Really, it's a huge honor. Those are some studs right there, so just to be alongside those guys is a great feeling,” Murray said. “But most importantly it was a great win today. The team played great. We had some rough patches, but I really loved the way we were able to fight through it.”

Records and special-teams mishaps aside, the big story in Saturday's win was that Georgia's defense provided its first competent outing of the season. North Texas had just two offensive plays that covered 20 yards or more, failed to move the ball on the ground and saw its quarterbacks repeatedly hammered by oncoming Georgia rushers.

“Every time [Thompson] threw it away, I decided next time I was going to hit him even harder,” said outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who had two of the Bulldogs' 10 tackles for negative yardage. “Every time we hit him, two or three times he said, 'Oh [no],' because he was scared at times. But when you get hit that many times, I would be too.”

After surrendering an average of 460.5 yards per game against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season -- and with LSU preparing to visit next Saturday -- this was exactly what Grantham's defense needed, even if the final score was closer than one might have expected beforehand.

“I feel like this is something that we really enjoyed,” Jenkins said. “It showed the younger guys and just showed the nation how we can play when we all click and what our defense is going to be like in the future.”

Defense still seeks competent play

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
7:00
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Winning is the best salve in sports, so Georgia's defensive lapses aren't as painful as they would have been if the Bulldogs had lost to South Carolina on Saturday and entered their bye week with an 0-2 record.

That alone is a relief for the young defenders who allowed 34 points and 460.5 yards per game against Clemson and South Carolina, surrendering 6.7 yards per play to the two highly ranked opponents.

“It definitely would have stunk. We probably would have been in full pads every day, hitting,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said of the bye-week practices. “It wouldn't have been a fun environment in Athens for these next two weeks.”

The members of Todd Grantham's defense realize that their shoddy tackling would have been the reason for the extra hitting, just as it was the reason they practiced in full pads twice last week leading up to the South Carolina game. They are simply nowhere near where they need to be if Georgia is to remain in the national championship conversation through the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeAmarlo Herrera
AP Photo/John Bazemore)Amarlo Herrera forces a fumble by South Carolina QB Connor Shaw.
The Bulldogs' offense has mostly bailed them out thus far, but there have been too many missed tackles and busted coverages preventing Georgia's defense from even being considered competent to this point.

“We've still got some things to fix,” Jenkins said. “There were still some moments where some guys didn't know what to do. It still wasn't as much as it was last week, but we're just a defense that's coming along and we've just got to fix some small things. I know that's getting repetitive, but I feel like this week was really something that we needed as a defense.”

South Carolina finished with 454 yards of total offense and actually averaged more yards per play than did Georgia -- 7.4 to 7.1 -- but there were a couple of bright spots for the Bulldogs in the second half.

For starters, Amarlo Herrera continued his difference-making play at inside linebacker. A week after notching 12 tackles against Clemson, Herrera made another 12 stops -- none bigger than when he met Gamecocks running back Mike Davis at the goal line on a fourth-down option run and forced a turnover on downs.

“They just came out in a formation that we knew and [South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw] checked, so I kind of knew by the alignment what play they were going to run,” Herrera said. “So I just ran to the running back.”

Herrera also tracked down Shaw from behind in the third quarter and forced a fumble that Josh Harvey-Clemons recovered at Georgia's 25-yard line.

Because of those two giveaways, the Gamecocks mustered just six points in the second half on Saturday, despite generating 221 yards of offense and averaging 7.9 yards per play in the half.

Some of those yards played out in ugly fashion for the Bulldogs, such as when Davis broke a 75-yard run deep into Georgia territory, setting up a 3-yard touchdown run where he ran straight through tackle attempts by Herrera, Ramik Wilson, Harvey-Clemons and John Taylor. Or when Nick Jones twice burned freshman cornerback Brendan Langley for touchdown catches in the second quarter.

“It's not easy to play corner in this league, or any league for that matter, in college football,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “You're going to get challenged, especially if you're a rookie. And he got challenged. He got beat once or twice, but he hung in there.”

Certainly some of Georgia's early problems were to be expected. With a big group of inexperienced players taking over for 12 major contributors -- most notably NFL first-round picks Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree -- from the 2012 defense, naturally there have been some growing pains.

Langley is a true freshman who lined up against All-American Sammy Watkins and an array of other talented Clemson receivers in his first college game. Other new starters like Leonard Floyd, Harvey-Clemons, Sterling Bailey, Wilson and Tray Matthews intrigue the coaches with their talent, but sometimes frustrate them by not performing as consistently as they'd like.

“We're young and we're learning,” Harvey-Clemons said. “A lot of us -- like me and Corey [Moore] -- this is our first time playing, so once we get together and get some games under us and get that chemistry going, I feel like there will be a lot of trouble for offenses to come."

The open date comes at a good time for the Bulldogs (1-1), allowing them to regroup from as tough a first two weeks as Georgia has ever faced in program history. With a week off followed by a visit from North Texas (1-1) before LSU (2-0) comes to Athens on Sept. 28, Grantham and company can use the rocky first two games as a teaching tool in a low-pressure environment before life gets difficult again.

LSU has diversified its offense this season and will present a bigger challenge than its run-heavy attacks of the past. And Tennessee's and Missouri's offenses will likely try to spread the field and tear holes in Georgia's defensive scheme, as well.

In short, this is a nice break, but the Bulldogs must be better prepared to be on the defensive soon. They know it as well as anyone.

“We find a way to make a play, make a turnover, keep grinding,” Grantham said. “I think that I saw some improvement over last week. I thought our front guys were physically stout at the line of scrimmage. I think we've got to do a better job on the edges in the run game. … We've just got to keep working and if we do that, we'll be fine.”

Five things: Georgia-Clemson

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
8:00
AM ET


No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson will end a 10-year hiatus in their historic rivalry Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Death Valley n in one of the most intriguing matchups of opening weekend.

Let’s examine five key elements involved in a game that could impact this season’s BCS championship chase:

Big-play offenses: Las Vegas is predicting two of the nation’s most-prolific offenses to combine for around 70 points on Saturday night. And research provided by ESPN Stats and Information gives us plenty of reasons to see why many analysts expect a high-scoring game between the Bulldogs and Tigers.

Beyond simple scoring and total offense stats, they both ranked among the nation’s top big-play offenses a season ago. Georgia ranked first nationally or tied for first in touchdowns of at least 20 yards (31), 30 yards (22) and 50 yards (12) and led the nation with an average of 7.09 yards per play.

Clemson, meanwhile, led the nation in completions of 25 yards or more (51) and touchdown passes that covered at least 25 yards (20). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had 11.2 percent of his passes go for completions of at least 25 yards, which was the highest of any quarterback in the country who attempted at least 150 passes.

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.1) and percentage of attempts to gain 20 yards or more (16.1).

Both quarterbacks improved their accuracy on passes of 20-plus yards last season, with Murray completing 46 percent of such throws (an increase of 17.3 percent) and Boyd hitting on 51 percent (an increase of 14 percent).

Will Watkins step up?: With Georgia breaking in a largely rebuilt secondary, this game would seem like a prime opportunity for Clemson’s 2011 All-American receiver Sammy Watkins to exploit the Bulldogs’ youth.

Watkins talked a big game about beating Georgia during the offseason, but will he reclaim his spot as the Tigers’ top receiving target after losing that title last fall to DeAndre Hopkins. Watkins was third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,288) in 2011, but totaled fewer than half as many a year later (1,073). His touchdowns-per-touch ratio dropped from 1-in-9.6 to 1-in-17.8, as well.

Clemson quarterbacks targeted Watkins 44 fewer times (from 123 in 2011 to 79 last year) and his catch (82 to 57), receiving yardage (1,219 to 708) and touchdown (12 to three) totals all dropped severely.

Hopkins led the nation with 11 touchdown catches of 25-plus yards last season, so the Tigers desperately need Watkins to live up to the standard he set in 2011 and replace some of the departed star’s production. Watkins is more than capable, posting 11 TD catches of 25-plus yards in his first two seasons as a Tiger.

Pound the run?: An interesting subplot to Saturday’s game is how Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers also have some concerns in the secondary -- this on the heels of surrendering 7.32 yards per pass attempt a season ago. But conventional wisdom seems to dictate that Georgia uses its powerful running game -- paced by All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- to extend drives and provide time for its defense to rest between series against Clemson’s up-tempo offense.

Both players averaged better than 6 yards per carry last season, due in large part to their capabilities as home-run threats. They combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, eight of which went for touchdowns. Gurley alone had 27 carries that went at least 15 yards, which tied for fifth in the FBS.

Clemson ranked 57th nationally against the run last season, surrendering 155.92 yards per game on the ground in Brent Venables’ first season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 71st against the pass at 240.3 ypg.

Murray on the big stage: Fair or unfair, Saturday’s game -- and the upcoming matchups with South Carolina and LSU in September -- will serve as another referendum on Murray’s status as a big-game performer.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite big-name offensive talent, Georgia-Clemson could come down to young defenders like Tray Matthews.
Georgia’s quarterback caught plenty of guff over shortcomings against ranked opponents well into last season. He’s 3-11 in his UGA career against teams that ended the season ranked in the AP Top 25 with 23 touchdowns versus 16 touchdowns against those teams. He’s 25-2 with 72 touchdowns and 16 interceptions against teams that finished unranked.

The positive sign for Murray is that he has won two of his last three games against opponents that finished the season as a ranked team: Florida and Nebraska last season. Following an atrocious first half against Florida last season, Murray has tossed seven touchdowns against three interceptions in 10 quarters against ranked opponents, including the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.

Fresh-faced defenses: Let’s have some fun with numbers concerning Georgia and Clemson’s defensive depth charts.

After losing 12 key players from last season’s defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham appears set to trot out a large group of newbies. Of the 22 players listed on the Bulldogs’ defensive two-deep in this week’s game notes, 16 of them have never started a college game. Heck, nine of them, including seven true freshmen, have never PLAYED in a college game.

But a number of them -- including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive lineman John Taylor, safety Tray Matthews and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- could play big roles on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Clemson has some experience issues of its own. Ten of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep have never started and three of them are freshmen. They’re expected to be without injured freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who at No. 4 in the 2013 ESPN 150 was Clemson’s highest-rated signee in its most recent recruiting class.

It’s easily conceivable that Saturday’s outcome could be determined by which team’s young defensive personnel acquits itself more effectively in its first game in leading roles.
A year ago, three newcomers earned either first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the coaches.

Leading the way was Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who as a redshirt freshman burst onto the scene with an SEC-record 5,116 yards of total offense and captured the Heisman Trophy. Manziel was the first-team quarterback along with junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, who was the first-team all-purpose player in his only season at Tennessee. Georgia true freshman Todd Gurley earned second-team honors at running back.

Who are the new faces this season most likely to earn All-SEC honors?

SportsNation

Which newcomer is most likely to earn first- or second-team All-SEC honors this season?

  •  
    18%
  •  
    21%
  •  
    23%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,105)

We'll let you tell us by voting in our SportsNation poll.

It's always an educated guess at this point. After all, Manziel didn't even win the Aggies' starting quarterback job until last preseason when he beat out Jameill Showers.

We've come up with five choices (And, yes, there are others who could have easily been on the list), but we're counting on you to tell us which newcomer will make the most profound impact this season.

Four of the five will be true freshmen. Of the true freshmen, Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Georgia safety Tray Matthews enrolled early and both went through spring practice, although Henry is coming off a broken fibula in the spring. The reports this preseason, though, are that the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry is still as tough as ever to get on the ground. Matthews was one of the stars of the spring on Georgia's defense and is a big-time hitter.

Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 high school prospect in the country last year, and Arkansas running back Alex Collins both arrived on their respective campuses this summer. They both had a lot of hype coming in and haven't disappointed during preseason practices.

Texas A&M running back Brandon Williams is a transfer. He sat out last season after playing as a freshman at Oklahoma. The 6-foot, 192-pound Williams has some serious acceleration and is an absolute blur when he gets into the open field. The Aggies are hoping for more than a few big plays from Williams.

Get your votes in and we'll review the results next week.

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