SEC: Arkansas Razorbacks

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 8

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Although Georgia’s Nick Chubb is the headliner for a second straight week after another ridiculous performance, this week’s SEC freshman tracker is heavy on defense -- including a couple of defensive linemen who have already emerged as breakout performers.

Here are five SEC true freshmen who stood out last Saturday (and five more worth mentioning):

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia

What he did:
Chubb continued to give Todd Gurley the Wally Pipp treatment by carrying 30 times for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ 45-32 win at Arkansas. He also caught a pass for an 8-yard gain. In the last two games, Chubb has run 68 times for 345 yards, and the Bulldogs have blasted Missouri and Arkansas on the road.

What it means: If and when Gurley returns to the lineup, he will obviously resume carrying the Bulldogs’ running game. But with the one-time Heisman Trophy frontrunner suspended and Sony Michel and Keith Marshall out with injuries, Georgia desperately needed Chubb to produce, and he has exceeded every reasonable expectation.

DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee

What he did:
Barnett logged his first game with double-digit tackles, recording 10 in a loss to Ole Miss, and also notched four tackles for loss and two sacks. The game wasn’t particularly competitive -- Ole Miss won 34-3 -- but Barnett clearly ranked among the Volunteers’ top defensive performers.

What it means: He hasn’t been getting the same kind of attention as Texas A&M freshman Myles Garrett, but Barnett might catch up soon. All of a sudden he’s second in the SEC with 9.5 tackles for loss, along with 38 tackles and three sacks.

DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss

What he did:
In the Rebels’ win against Tennessee, Haynes finished with five tackles, 2.5 sacks and his first career fumble recovery. That continued a dominant recent run in which he has totaled 4.5 sacks in the last two games.

What it means: Haynes leads arguably the SEC’s top defense with 7.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also leads the SEC with three forced fumbles. The Rebels already have a star-studded defense, and Haynes is quickly adding another name to the list of players to watch.

S Jamal Adams, LSU

What he did:
The Tigers’ highest-rated defensive signee in a well-regarded 2014 recruiting class, Adams had his best game yet in a win against Kentucky. He finished with a career-high eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack, plus he delivered the key block that sprung Tre'Davious White for a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown.

What it means: Simply put, the energetic Adams is showing why those around the LSU program believe he is the next Eric Reid at safety. He is the Tigers’ leading tackler on special teams and is already a leader on their nickel and dime defensive groupings.

S Dominick Sanders, Georgia

What he did:
Sanders started at safety for the seventh straight game and scored for the first time in his college career when he picked up a Brandon Allen fumble and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown. Sanders’ touchdown just before halftime gave Georgia a 38-6 halftime lead.

What it means: Sanders, who also made four tackles against Arkansas, has been one of the more reliable performers in Georgia’s depth-deprived secondary. The Bulldogs still have plenty to clean up on pass defense, but the overall defense continues to make progress under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Other notables:

WR Kendrick Edwards, Arkansas: Caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter as the Razorbacks attempted a late rally against Georgia.

QB Treon Harris, Florida: Rotated at quarterback with Jeff Driskel and finished 8-for-12 for 98 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and also rushed eight times for 26 yards.

RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Ran 13 times for 40 yards and caught two passes for 19 yards in a loss to Ole Miss.

WR Josh Malone, Tennessee: Caught five passes for 75 yards in a loss to Ole Miss.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Caught four passes for 32 yards and returned six kickoffs for 106 yards in a loss to Alabama.

SEC morning links

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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1. On Tuesday, my colleague Greg Ostendorf wrote about how Auburn freshman Roc Thomas is primed for a big second half to the season. Watching Thomas from afar, I'd have to agree. While he's not as fast as Corey Grant or as powerful as Cameron Artis-Payne, he's probably Gus Malzahn's most explosive running back when it comes to consistently picking up large chunks of yards. But Ostendorf's piece got me thinking: Who are some other potential second-half stars in the SEC? Here are four that come to mind:
  • Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama: A big body at linebacker who is just now beginning to scratch the surface of his ability. He'll be an integral part of stopping the run against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
  • Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: Too obvious? The longer Todd Gurley is sidelined, the faster the freshman back's star rises.
  • AJ Derby, TE, Arkansas: Bret Bielema told me this spring that the former QB had NFL talent as a tight end. We're starting to see more and more of that lately.
  • Brandon Holloway, RB, Mississippi State: A shifty running back with blinding speed that can catch the ball out of the backfield, Holloway is the perfect change of pace to the bruising style of Josh Robinson.

2. The Head Ball Coach took the Florida question in stride. Steve Spurrier says he's not leaving South Carolina for The Swamp to replace Will Muschamp. "No," Spurrier told reporters on Tuesday. "I tell everybody my next move is going to be to Crescent Beach, Fla." It was fun to imagine Spurrier roaming the Florida sideline again, but at 69 years old you knew it wasn't likely, if not altogether impossible. He's comfortable at South Carolina. Things might not be perfect there right now, but the work pales in comparison to what must be done at Florida. The Gators, should they choose to part ways with Muschamp, need a long-term solution, not a splashy stop-gap they'd have to replace sooner than later.

3. Texas A&M is going back to the drawing board. Even the QB position is up for grabs, said coordinator Jake Spavital. But that's not what caught my attention on Tuesday. What piqued my interest was coach Kevin Sumlin's comments about how Saturday's loss at Alabama was an "eye-opener." He said, "This program was founded on three things -- play hard, play smart, be physical." Texas A&M has done none of those things recently. It started with Mississippi State and Ole Miss, but it ended with Alabama breaking its will. There was no aggressiveness from the Aggies' sideline, no fire to show in the second half they're better than the score indicated. They gave up. They wanted to go home. And if you're a coach, that's the worst possible thing you can see. What we're seeing from A&M is that you can't survive in this league on talent alone. You have to have those three things Sumlin discussed, but you have to have them in more than name only.

Tweet of the day

SEC morning links

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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1. Credit goes to Dan Mullen and his coaching staff for turning Mississippi State into a player on the national stage of college football. It was a slow build, which made for a sturdy foundation. But if you're looking at the program's success today, you ought to look at the program before Mullen arrived. You ought to remember Sylvester Croom. No, he never got Mississippi State near the heights it's experiencing today, but he did a standup job during his five seasons as head coach there. Everyone marveled at the eight-win campaign he engineered in 2007 and the day on Nov. 10 when the Bulldogs finally beat Alabama, Croom's alma mater. It's good to know how gratifying it is for him today to watch where Mississippi State has come since his departure. In his own way, he was a part of it.

2. Bye weeks are a great opportunity for most teams to reboot and recharge. Florida, however, is not one of those teams. What's said to be good timing probably couldn't be any worse. There's no game to distract us. There's no opponent to focus on. The only stat to know is 38.9. That's UF's winning percentage since the start of the 2013 season. For the next week-plus, that's all we're going to hear about. We'll see tape of Jeff Driskel's mistakes and the reaction to Saturday's embarrassing loss to Missouri. Sure, a bye week means Florida can't lose another game, but it won't stop the bleeding. It won't stop the steady chorus of boos directed at Will Muschamp. It won't stop websites like HireDanMullen.com from popping up. Nothing about a week away will keep the wolves at bay. If anything, it will make their howls amplified.

3. It was a small nugget. In fact, it didn't even lead the story. But the fact that Korliss Marshall is suspended is news. As Bret Bielema said, he's out three to four weeks for unspecified reasons. But that's not the kicker. What should take you aback is what else Bielema said of the situation: "He’s only got one more opportunity to get it right. If he doesn’t get it right, it will probably be one of the saddest stories in my coaching career because he’s got a lot of talent, he’s got a great heart." Wow. That's sending a message. It sounds like whatever Marshall's done, it's not minor. Or at the very least it's the latest in a string of events. But either way, Bielema's right; if Marshall doesn't get back on the field for the Razorbacks, it's a shame. He has the potential to be an outstanding running back. The fact that we're already questioning the long-term viability of the sophomore's career is troubling to say the least.

Tweet of the day

SEC bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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The SEC’s ability to get two teams into the College Football Playoff field is what should and will generate the most headlines as we push toward the final month of the season.

Each highly ranked team that loses -- hello, Baylor, Notre Dame and Oklahoma -- makes it seem like more of a possibility, but we’re not yet ready to project that half of the playoff teams will come from the SEC.

We’ll stick with top-ranked Mississippi State as the SEC's playoff pick for now, but Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia remain in the middle of the discussion as well. Those teams still have several key games ahead that will determine the top half of the SEC’s postseason pecking order.

Meanwhile, the bottom half of the pecking order should also become a source of late-season drama. After their losses on Saturday, we’re dropping Arkansas (3-4) and Florida (3-3) from this week’s bowl projections and adding Tennessee (3-4), although none of those teams is a sure bet at this point. Kentucky (5-2) gets to stay in, but the Wildcats are coming off a 41-3 loss at LSU and will face a challenging second half of the schedule where earning another victory (and achieving bowl eligibility) might be tough.

At any rate, there is assuredly plenty of movement ahead in these projections, but here is where we are entering the ninth week of the regular season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Mississippi State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Ole Miss
Cotton Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Georgia
Citrus Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: Missouri
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Texas A&M
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Tennessee
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Kentucky

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ole Miss’ offense doesn’t have to be great -- just good enough: The No. 3 Rebels (7-0) took some time to get started offensively, as they went scoreless in the first quarter against Tennessee and were down 3-0 in the second quarter. No worries when you “Landshark D.” The 27-yard Aaron Medley field goal was the only points the Vols would get, quarterback Bo Wallace started making some plays, and Ole Miss cruised to a 34-3 victory. The offensive numbers weren’t great (383 total yards for the Rebels), but more importantly, they committed zero turnovers and won time of possession. With the type of defense Ole Miss has (it held Tennessee to zero yards rushing and 3-of-16 on third-down conversion attempts), that’s a recipe for success.
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This was supposed to be the upset pick of the week in the SEC. Many thought this would be the game in which Bret Bielema would notch his first conference win at Arkansas. The only problem was that No. 10 Georgia didn’t get the memo.

The Bulldogs -- sans Todd Gurley -- jumped out to a big 38-6 halftime lead and held off the Hogs in the second half to win 45-32 in Little Rock.

How the game was won: Where do we begin? Hutson Mason was sharp. Nick Chubb was on a different level. But for the second straight week, this Georgia defense set the tone early. Four turnovers forced, three sacks, a blocked extra point. The Bulldogs might have let their guard down at times in the second half, but it was still another impressive outing. Damian Swann led the way with 11 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception.

Game ball goes to: As good as Swann was on defense, Chubb was that much more impressive for the offense. The freshman carried the load once again with Gurley out, finishing with 30 carries for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Conley deserves a shout out here as well. He had five catches for 128 yards and a touchdown for the Bulldogs.

What it means: The SEC East finally broke through against the West. This was the best and potentially only chance for the East to win a cross-division game this season, and Georgia got it done. It was also the first time a team from the West had been beaten by somebody outside of its own division this season.

Playoff implication: All of a sudden, Georgia looks like a serious contender for the College Football Playoff and can you imagine if Gurley comes back at some point this season? This team could challenge the Magnolia State for bragging rights in the SEC.

Best play: Have we mentioned Chubb’s name yet? The freshman had a lot of impressive runs on the day, but his 43-yard touchdown in the second quarter was Gurley-esque. He exploded through the hole, outran the Arkansas safeties and raced into the end zone untouched. The score put the Bulldogs up 17-6, and they never looked back.

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What's next: Georgia gets a week off before its game with Florida in Jacksonville. Arkansas, who showed plenty of fight in the second half, will get UAB at home next week before a trip to No. 1 Mississippi State in two weeks.
If the SEC West is going to finally lose to a non-Western Division team this season -- it’s 26-0 so far -- Saturday’s game between No. 10 Georgia (5-1, 3-1 SEC) and Arkansas (3-3, 0-3) might be when the streak finally ends.

Even if Georgia star tailback Todd Gurley remains suspended, the Bulldogs are coming off an impressive 34-0 win at Missouri where freshman Nick Chubb established himself as a workhorse back. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks haven’t won a conference game since beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012, with their conference losing streak growing to 15 games with last week’s 14-13 loss to Alabama.

Regardless of who wins, a streak will end on Saturday. Here are some key elements to watch in the game, with an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group.

Run and run some more: Saturday’s game pits teams that have shared similar offensive philosophies this season. The question is who will do it better at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium when the SEC’s top two rushing offenses meet.

Everyone knows that ground-and-pound is Bret Bielema’s mantra, and the Razorbacks have embodied that philosophy by running the ball 64.6 percent of the time (268 runs in 415 plays). It might come as a surprise, though, that Georgia’s offense is just as run-heavy, keeping it on the ground on 64.3 percent of its plays (264 of 410).

The Bulldogs typically emphasize balance between the run and pass, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has leaned heavily on onetime Heisman Trophy frontrunner Gurley and a stable of talented running backs. With Gurley suspended indefinitely and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel out with injuries against Missouri, Chubb carried the load almost singlehandedly, totaling 38 carries and 143 yards and a touchdown.

Arkansas boasts one of the nation's best 1-2 backfield punches with Alex Collins (92-634, 6 TDs) and Jonathan Williams (86-569, 9 TDs), and that duo, coupled with an imposing offensive line, have helped the Razorbacks become the SEC’s top rushing offense at 278.7 ypg.

Georgia (275.7 ypg) is right behind Arkansas in the league rushing standings, with both teams having scored 21 rushing touchdowns and Georgia barely edging Arkansas in yards per carry (6.3 to 6.2).

Gurley vs. Chubb: If Gurley remains sidelined on Saturday -- and as of Thursday evening, Gurley’s status remained unclear -- Chubb (69-367, 3 TDs) and sophomore Brendan Douglas (and possibly J.J. Green, who practiced at running back this week after shifting to defense earlier this season) might have to carry the offense again. The duo combined for 208 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri, including a highlight-reel touchdown run by Douglas where he tried to jump over a Tigers defender and instead was hit in the legs and somersaulted into the end zone.

More impressive than Douglas’ acrobatics was Chubb’s tough running against the Tigers. He accumulated those 143 rushing yards despite being hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 22 of his 38 attempts. Gurley made it past the line of scrimmage before first making contact with a defender on 73 percent of his carries this season, compared to 52 percent for Chubb.

Bulldogs fans had been comparing the hard-running Chubb to Gurley since well before Georgia suspended the junior superstar while investigating whether he accepted money to sign autographs. Chubb’s production against Missouri was impressive, but he has enormous shoes to fill while trying to replace Gurley’s production (94-773, 8 TDs).



He’ll attempt to do that against an Arkansas defense that was stout last week against Alabama. On nine of the Crimson Tide’s 13 drives last Saturday, it failed to achieve either a first down or a touchdown -- its most such drives in any game since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007 and the most by an SEC team in the last three seasons.

Further, Alabama had just 15 yards before contact on its 37 designed runs against Arkansas, its fewest in a game and lowest average in the last four years.

In other words, Georgia’s offensive linemen had better pack their lunch pails for this trip because producing against Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Arkansas’ front seven might be tougher than it was against Missouri’s.

Big-play Razorbacks? Considering its run-based philosophy, it might come as a surprise how frequently Arkansas manages to post a quick score. The Razorbacks lead the FBS with 13 touchdown drives that required three plays or fewer. The next-closest FBS programs are Michigan State and Baylor with 11 apiece.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsArkansas is known for its ground-and-pound offense, but Alex Collins and company are capable of scoring touchdowns quickly.
Georgia’s six such drives are slightly above the national average (five).

Neither team has been especially explosive overall. Georgia has 87 plays that covered 10 yards or more and 26 that covered at least 20. Arkansas has 95 plays of 10-plus and 27 plays of 20-plus. The national averages for FBS teams are 88 and 29, respectively.

Quarterback play: The X-factors on Saturday might be which team gets the steadiest performance from its quarterback.

Arkansas’ Brandon Allen (79-137, 997 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs) has played better than he did last season, but still hasn’t been a game changer. For instance, he floated an across-the-field pass off his back foot that Alabama’s Landon Collins intercepted with 1:59 to play in last week’s narrow loss.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Hutson Mason (91-129, 843 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs) has been the epitome of a game manager for the Bulldogs. Mason’s average pass has traveled 6.1 yards past the line of scrimmage, the shortest average distance for any Power Five quarterback with at least four starts. The return of previously injured receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley might help Mason stretch the field, however.

If the running game keeps working for these teams on Saturday, don’t expect to see Allen and Mason throw it around too often. But it might come down to which of them can make key completions -- or avoid costly interceptions like Allen’s last week -- with the game on the line.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
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A look ahead to Saturday's games in the Southeastern Conference. All times Eastern:

Noon

Furman at South Carolina, SEC Network: Poor Furman, you couldn’t have picked a worse time to play South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been stewing the past two weeks about their loss at Kentucky. You think they will play with something to prove Saturday at home? For Mike Davis, Dylan Thompson and that offense, it’s a chance to put up a bunch of points and gain some much-needed confidence. For the defense, it’s a chance to take a step in the right direction and actually stop an opponent with some consistency. In reality, this game might as well be a scrimmage for South Carolina. But nonetheless, it’s an important springboard into the second half of the schedule, when the Gamecocks can either continue to circle the drain or rebound and regain the respect they have lost this season.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama will have their hands full against Texas A&M on Saturday.
No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 7 Alabama, CBS: Only one team will leave Bryant-Denny Stadium with hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. The Aggies, coming off back-to-back losses, are on the razor’s edge, and the Crimson Tide, coming off a loss at Ole Miss and a one-point win at unranked Arkansas, are teetering. Alabama’s defense has played much better of late, but its secondary will be put to the test by Kenny Hill and the A&M passing game. Conversely, Hill could feel the pressure considering his line hasn’t played well the past two games and Alabama’s defensive front has the size and talent to get into the backfield. One thing is certain, though: Emotions should be running high come kickoff as both teams have something to prove.

4 p.m.

No. 10 Georgia at Arkansas, SEC Network: Time to find out the answer to the question that has been on the mind of SEC fans everywhere: How would Arkansas do in the dreadful East Division? The Hogs have played well this season, but haven't been able to overcome Texas A&M and Alabama. Against Georgia, will Bret Bielema’s squad break through? The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are riding high after a dominant performance at Missouri in which the absence of Todd Gurley was hardly felt in the final outcome. They now lead the East, and the race hardly appears close. Leonard Floyd and that defense will be put to the test, though. And Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason won’t face as porous a secondary as Missouri’s this time around.

7 p.m.

Missouri at Florida, ESPN2: Watch out for turnovers. Florida and Missouri have combined to give the ball away 11 times in October alone. Just last week, Maty Mauk threw four interceptions against Georgia, and Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel had two costly interceptions against LSU. In other words, both defenses should be licking their chops. The difference in this game, however, could be the running backs. If Florida can establish the run and negate the pressure from Missouri’s Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the Gators should be in good shape. However, if Missouri can get Russell Hansbrough & Co. going, the pressure should fall off Mauk’s shoulders. It’s a lot of what-ifs, but for two teams headed in the wrong direction, should that really surprise you?

Tennessee at No. 3 Ole Miss, ESPN: The Vols have been knocking on the door this season, but the divide between competitive football and winning football has been tough to cross. Will they do it against No. 3-ranked Ole Miss? On the road? Now that’s asking a lot of Butch Jones' young squad, which is high on talent (Jalen Hurd, Cameron Sutton, etc.) but low on experience. The Rebs, meanwhile, have both confidence and experience on their side. If anyone thought their home win against Alabama was a fluke, they changed their mind after watching them go on the road and destroy Texas A&M. So long as quarterback Bo Wallace continues to take care of the football and that defense stays healthy, it’s hard to imagine Ole Miss having a hiccup game.

Kentucky at LSU, SEC Network: This game feels a lot like a battle of youth and momentum. On the one side, you have Kentucky, which has surprised many with the way it jumped out to a 5-1 record, most recently beating South Carolina at home. Patrick Towles has played well and the defense has been aggressive. But the Cats are young and don’t have pedigree on their side. On the other hand, you have LSU, which has gone from a dark horse playoff contender to unranked and outside the conversation in the West. But don’t count out Les Miles’ squad just yet. After beating Florida in The Swamp, the Tigers could have confidence going for them. And considering all the young talent in Baton Rouge, that is a scary thought.
Not everyone can be a first-team All-SEC selection. When we created our midseason all-conference team, we understood that some players would be left off. When you have Dak Prescott making a Heisman run, other quarterbacks are forgotten. But that doesn’t mean we should go without mentioning those who didn’t make the cut. Here’s a rundown of some of the SEC's most underrated players at the midseason point.

OFFENSE

QB: Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Bad Bo may be a thing of the past. The formerly inconsistent senior has strung together back-to-back big games when his team has needed them most. He’s currently No. 1 in the SEC in percent of completions gaining 10 or more yards (59.7).

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAlex Collins is averaging 6.9 yards per carry for the Razorbacks.
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
Todd Gurley is the class of the SEC. But Collins is as good as anyone behind him. The true sophomore is fourth in the SEC in rushing yards (634) and ranks third in percent of runs gaining 5 or more yards (55.4). He’s physical (seventh in yards after contact), but he’s also explosive (17 runs of 10 or more yards).

WR: Travin Dural, LSU
But when you say “explosive” you better reference LSU’s sophomore wide receiver. Dural ranks first in the SEC in yards per reception (26.1), second in receiving yards (626) and second in receiving touchdowns (8).

TE: Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt
Not a lot of people are watching Vanderbilt this season, for obvious reasons. But you’re missing out on one of the most productive tight ends in the league. Scheu is second on the Commodores with 19 receptions, 269 yards and one touchdown. Imagine if he had a better quarterback throwing him the football.

OL: David Andrews, Georgia
Forget the Todd Gurley drama, Nick Chubb's emergence and Hutson Mason's inconsistencies. What’s really fueling Georgia is its offensive line Leading that charge is senior center David Andrews. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs rank 12th nationally in rushing yards and Mason has been sacked just eight times.

DEFENSE

DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
There are a lot of reasons why Arkansas is a better football team this season. The running game is obviously one of them. But the play on the defensive line, and the continued improvement of Philon, is another. Philon has an impressive 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season.

LB: Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
Many around Tuscaloosa have been waiting for Dickson’s emergence at outside linebacker. It turns out he was waiting until his senior year. The Georgia native already has five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season, blowing away his previous career totals.

CB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
While we wait for Tennessee to break through as a program under coach Butch Jones, there’s one Vol who has already announced himself to the SEC: Sutton. The sophomore corner has come up big in big moments this season. He’s hauled in three interceptions, defended seven passes and even had four tackles for loss.

S: A.J. Stamps, Kentucky
Ever wonder what’s caused the Wildcats to come on so strong this season? Look no further than Stamps, a junior college transfer who has solidified the back end of Mark Stoops’ defense. Stamps has 27 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended.

SPECIALISTS

K: Francisco Velez, Florida
If you didn’t know his story, reading it should be enough to make you want to root for the guy. If that’s not enough, consider that he ranks fifth in the SEC in field goals made (8), second in overall field goal percentage (88.9, minimum six attempts) and tied for first in field goals of more than 40 yards (8).

P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
It’s not about quantity for Foster. But when it comes to punters in the SEC with a minimum of 20 attempts, he ranks first in percent of punts inside the 20, first in average distance from goal after return and first in fewest punts returned.

KR/PR: Darrius Sims, Vanderbilt
Here’s another Commodore you’ve probably never heard of. Sims, a defensive back by trade, is first in the SEC in kickoff return yards (431), second in yards per kickoff return (30.8) and tied for first in kickoff return touchdowns (2). Nine of his kickoff returns have gained 20 yards or more.
ATHENS, Ga. -- For any relationship to flourish, you need communication.

The same can be said for the maturation and development of Georgia's defense, as communication has been the key to the vast improvements we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

Since closing the month of September by allowing 401 yards of offense and 32 points in a three-point win against Tennessee, the Bulldogs' defense has been outstanding the past two games. Georgia held Vanderbilt to 320 yards and 17 points, then went on the road to shutout Missouri, allowing -- wait for it -- 147 yards. Yes, the Bulldogs, who were dealing with the emotions of not having top player Todd Gurley, went into a hostile SEC environment and completely shut down the Tigers.

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AP Photo/L.G. PattersonSterling Bailey and the Georgia defense held Missouri and QB Maty Mauk to 147 total yards Saturday.
The Dawgs' defense sacked Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk three times, intercepted him four times and held him to 97 yards on 9 of 21 passing.

"The communication in the back end is getting better and better," Georgia coach Mark Richt said about the defensive improvements. "I just think they’re understand more what [defensive coordinator] [Jeremy] Pruitt wants back there, and they’re just doing a good job of getting each other on the same page."

Pruitt, in his first season at Georgia, hasn't been afraid to constantly change things up this season, as Georgia has displayed six different starting defensive lineups in six games. But what has remained constant is the goal to get tighter, more concise communication throughout the defense. The evolution of that has helped players know exactly where they should be and where others should be, defensive end Sterling Bailey said.

What has been so great about a more talkative defensive unit is that even when plays get called wrong or offenses throw some shifts or motions out there, guys are moving together in order to be on the same page. Players are starting to learn how to change at the last minute together.

"You’ve got to be able to make adjustments on the fly," Richt said. "If you don’t, you’ll get exposed."

Through the first four games, Georgia's defense was allowing an average of 338.8 yards per game, 4.7 yards per play, 22.8 points per game and had three interceptions. Take out that 66-0 win against lowly Troy, and yards per game increases to 379.7 yards, and points per game shoots up to 30.3. South Carolina and Tennessee averaged 6.2 and 5.1 yards per play, respectively, against the Bulldogs.

Since then, the Bulldogs have given up 233.5 yards per game, 17 points, 4.2 yards per play, and the opponents' third-down conversation rate decreased from 31.7 percent to 10 percent. Georgia also has five interceptions.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, opponents' points per drive against the Dawgs is down from 1.65 through the first four games to .65 in the past two.

Players are evolving within the defense, but they are also using their words more to make things work. They are asking teammates and coaches more questions. Guys are getting calls right more often. The Dawgs are now performing well, both physically and vocally.

"We know that when we communicate, we execute," Bailey said. "When we don’t, things fall apart.

"It’s helping us learn his defense a lot better."

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who has the pleasure of facing Georgia's improved defense on Saturday, has been very impressed with the improvements made under Pruitt, because Pruitt has been able to mold his defense around the talent of the players he has. There is no 'square peg, round hole' in Athens.

"He’s built a scheme there at Georgia that fits his personnel there," Bielema said.

It has only been two games, but Georgia's defense is thriving and generating a ton of momentum for a second-half push. Saturday presents the task of stopping an Arkansas offense averaging 278.7 rushing yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry. That sounds intimidating, but Bailey said this unit isn't worried about numbers anymore. It's concerned with talking itself into a dominating frenzy each week.

"We are not taking any steps back," Bailey said.
Bret Bielema was fighting back tears when he gave his postgame press conference Saturday. His Arkansas team had just lost another nail-biter, this time to Alabama, and he felt the same pain his players felt. He knew how hard they worked, the time they put in, and to come up just short was devastating.

“I couldn’t put into words how proud I am of our guys,” Bielema said after the game. “As a coach, you sign up for this. I came here with a dream and an idea to do something, and it’s coming. I guarantee you it’s coming.”

The Razorbacks are still looking to give Bielema his first SEC win since arriving in Fayetteville prior to last season. They squandered a 14-point fourth-quarter lead against Texas A&M the week before, losing in overtime, and if it couldn’t get any worse, they lost by a single point, 14-13, to Alabama on Saturday.

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AP Photo/Tony GutierrezBret Bielema and the Razorbacks will get another opportunity to earn that elusive first SEC win when Georgia travels to Little Rock this weekend.
If not for a fumble here or a botched snap there, Arkansas would’ve upset the Crimson Tide and put an end to the losing streak. Instead, it’s back to the drawing board.

“We took away that every opportunity is precious,” Hogs defensive end Trey Flowers said. “We know how close we are. We know how good we are and how good we can be. We just have to take advantage of every opportunity.”

On Sunday after the loss, Bielema wished two things for his players: (A) that he could take away the pain of defeat and (B) that he could give them a win. But he also made clear that a win has to be earned and if you don’t earn it, it usually doesn’t mean much in time.

“We did a lot of really good things [against Alabama], but we did enough to take it away from us,” Bielema said. “Don’t lose sight of what’s in front of you. Think big picture. It’s not necessarily the win. It’s the compound effect of what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been building to get that win that’s really what everybody is seeking.”

Still, that first SEC win will be sweet, and the Razorbacks will get another crack at it this weekend in Little Rock against Georgia.

The Bulldogs, who still don’t know the status of star running back Todd Gurley, are riding high after a 34-0 shutout win at Missouri, but head coach Mark Richt knows this Arkansas team is much better than its 0-3 conference record would indicate.

“It’s very impressive how they play,” Richt said. “You watch the Texas A&M game, you watch the Alabama game, obviously they could’ve won either one of those games. They were in great shape to be in position to win either one of those games or both for that matter.

“They’re on the verge of doing some big things, and we’re just trying to keep it from being at our expense.”

The question for the Razorbacks is not whether they can compete against a team like Georgia. The question is can they do it three weeks in a row? Can they get up for another big game after back-to-back heart-wrenching losses?

“It’s not difficult,” Flowers said. “We’re football players. We love playing football, so we love going out there and competing each and every week. Obviously, it’s just frustrating afterwards because of all the investments you put into it, but we’re going to get up. We’re going to play football. We’re going to compete week in, week out.”

And Flowers, who finished with eight tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack on Saturday, knows how rewarding it will be when Arkansas finally gets that SEC win.

“There’s going to be a lot of smiles around here, a lot of happy people, a lot of happy fans,” he said. “It’s going to be worth all the work.”
An examination of the current state of SEC defenses will tell you a couple of things.

Scoring and yardage are both down halfway through the season in head-to-head conference play compared to where the league was at this point last year. On paper, defenses appear to be on pace to look more like they did in 2012 than 2013.

But the numbers – and there were lots of them – aren’t too far off from last season, compared to the halfway point and the final totals.

With nine teams breaking in new starting quarterbacks – five underclassmen – I wanted to see if there would be a drastic difference in how defenses looked statistically.

(Note: The numbers used in this research came via ESPN Stats & Information’s statistical database.)

SEC defenses are allowing 358.6 yards per game and 402.3 yards per game in conference play. Seven defenses are ranked within the top 50 in total defense; six made the cut halfway through last year. At this point last year, defenses were allowing 376.3 yards per game and 423.5 yards per game in SEC play. In 2012, when defense was king, those numbers were down to 361.3 and 373.8 at the end of the season.

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AP Photo/Gerald HerbertSEC defenses such as Mississippi State's are statistically a little more stout than they were in 2013.
Defenses are currently allowing 5.66 yards per play in league games and 3.28 offensive touchdowns per game. Last year, SEC defenses ended the season allowing 5.91 yards per play and 3.54 offensive touchdowns in conference play.

Those numbers aren’t too far off, but it’s interesting that at this point last year, defenses were allowing 3.68 offensive touchdowns per game and 6.14 yards per play in conference play. At the halfway point in 2012, those numbers were 2.75 touchdowns allowed in league play and 5.31 yards per play.

Those numbers dipped slightly in 2013, as eight teams finished in the top 50 in total defense, meaning SEC defenses got better as the year progressed in a league that featured a plethora of talented, veteran quarterbacks.

Scoring is down at the moment, as teams are averaging 1.92 points per drive in SEC play, down from 2.21 last year. Teams are also scoring touchdowns on 24.4 percent of drives after scoring on 27.7 percent last season. Overall, teams are scoring 21.6 points per game on SEC defenses, which is down from 24.2 through Week 7 of last year. The total scoring percentage in league play for offenses is the same as in 2012 (31.9), which is down from 36.9 percent last year.

While the numbers show that defenses are steadily improving, it’s important to note that prolific offenses appear here to stay in a conference built on stout defensive play. That becomes obvious when you look at the fact that teams are allowing just 21.2 less yards per game and almost the same amount of yards per play and touchdowns per game while facing a less-heralded group of quarterbacks.

With more offenses implementing some sort of variation of the spread, teams should continue to move the ball. The addition of more tempo around the league has helped teams, too.

“There has been a push to more athleticism and speed," LSU coach Les Miles said of the evolution of SEC offenses. "We’ve tried to make that adjustment.”

Another interesting note is that takeaways and sacks are up for defenses in 2014, yet offenses are responding well. Defenses have forced 81 turnovers with 48 interceptions. Midway through the 2013 season, defenses forced just 63 turnovers (34 interceptions). In 2012, teams forced 88 turnovers (45 interceptions).

As for sacks, teams have 91 this year after having 90 at this point last year and 123 in 2012, when teams were allowing just 198.85 passing yards per game halfway through the season.

Pressuring quarterbacks is up, but teams are still averaging 234.6 passing yards per game (nearly 10 fewer yards than last year at this time) in SEC play. To Florida coach Will Muschamp, spread offenses help counter the pressure.

"The ball is out of the quarterbacks' hands quickly," Muschamp said. "Pressure is a little overrated, in my opinion, depending on the type of passing game and the passing concepts they're using. You have to be able to play man-to-man. You gotta be able to deny the ball, mix zone with that. It certainly can expose you, as far as deficiencies in coverage and guys who can't tackle in space."

As we go forward, it’ll be interesting to see if defenses continue to trend up or if offenses heat up. Last year, numbers dropped as defenses adjusted to such good quarterback play. Last year's experience isn't there, but could quarterbacks -- and offenses -- catch up to defenses by the end of the year with teams working in space more?

“It’s a different style of football,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who runs the spread. “... It gives some people advantages that years ago they didn’t have.”

“The defense figures it out and the offense goes and finds something else."

SEC morning links

October, 15, 2014
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If you read this blog with any sort of regularity, you already know that SEC commissioner Mike Slive, 74, announced on Tuesday that he is retiring next summer. Let's devote this space to the man who transformed the SEC into college football's greatest juggernaut.

There's no doubt he will leave some massive shoes to fill, Slive also replaced a visionary leader. Roy Kramer, SEC commissioner from 1990 to 2002, expanded the conference to 12 teams, split it into two divisions and added the all-important conference championship game.

Slive took the league to new heights. Winning seven straight football national championships is a weighty legacy, but take a look at his track record in leading the SEC's business dealings: He negotiated a stunning 15-year, $2.25-billion TV rights deal with ESPN, expanded to 14 teams, launched the SEC network and more than tripled the total payout to member institutions from $95.7 million when he took over in 2002 to $309.6 million this year.

Slive became one of the most powerful people in sports. Naturally the announcement of his retirement was met with an outpouring of gratitude, admiration and exaltation.

The question on deck is who replaces this monolithic figure. The SEC presidents will decide on whom to hire, and the speculation has already begun. The ideas range from the light-hearted (Commissioner Steve Spurrier, anyone?) to the downright silly (Commissioner Lane Kiffin?) to the expected favorite (Slive's No. 2 man is SEC Chief Operating Officer Greg Sankey).

Whoever it is will have all the resources imaginable, greater autonomy and nothing less than the weight of the college football world bearing down. Good luck!

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SEC releases 2015 football schedule

October, 14, 2014
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Remember all the complaining we did in September about the drop-off in intrigue between the SEC’s opening-week schedule and the bonanza of nonconference snoozers the following Saturday?

That won’t be an issue in 2015, with the usual slate of SEC-versus-Power Five opponent openers -- including Alabama-Wisconsin, Auburn-Louisville, Texas A&M-Arizona State and the Thursday night opener between South Carolina and North Carolina -- followed by three conference games and Oklahoma-Tennessee in Week 2.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier and South Carolina will be test in 2015, as the Gamecocks play two Power-5 opponents along with eight SEC games.
The SEC released its full 2015 slate on Tuesday night, and those are only a few of the interesting details that fans are sure to obsess over now that their teams’ schedules are official.

After taking a quick glance at the schedules, here are a few more highlights and abnormalities:

  • Georgia’s non-conference slate is nothing special (Louisiana-Monroe, Southern, Georgia Southern, at Georgia Tech), but Mark Richt’s Bulldogs might have drawn the toughest cross-division slates with dates against Alabama and Auburn. Kentucky drawing a Thursday-night matchup against Auburn and a trip to Mississippi State isn’t much of a favor to Mark Stoops, either.
  • UGA-Alabama is one of the most interesting cross-division games on the list. The two programs haven’t met in the regular season since the Crimson Tide spoiled preseason No. 1 Georgia’s 2008 “Blackout” game at Sanford Stadium by jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead. A few others of interest are Florida-Ole Miss (Oct. 3), Florida-LSU (Oct. 17), Alabama-Tennessee (Oct. 24), Georgia-Auburn (Nov. 14) and a Thursday-night game between Missouri and Mississippi State (Nov. 5).
    2015 SEC cross-divisional games: Alabama (Oct. 3 at Georgia, Oct. 24 vs. Tennessee), Arkansas (Oct. 3 at Tennessee, Nov. 28 vs. Missouri), Auburn (Thursday, Oct. 15 at Kentucky, Nov. 14 vs. Georgia), Florida (Oct. 3 vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 17 at LSU), Georgia (Oct. 3 vs. Alabama, Nov. 14 at Auburn), Kentucky (Thursday, Oct. 15 vs. Auburn, Oct. 24 at Mississippi State), LSU (Oct. 10 at South Carolina, Oct. 17 vs. Florida), Ole Miss (Sept. 26 vs. Vanderbilt, Oct. 3 at Florida), Mississippi State (Oct. 24 vs. Kentucky, Thursday, Nov. 5 at Missouri), Missouri (Thursday, Nov. 5 vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 28 at Arkansas), South Carolina (Oct. 10 vs. LSU, Oct. 31 at Texas A&M), Tennessee (Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas, Oct. 24 at Alabama), Texas A&M (Oct. 31 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 21 at Vanderbilt), Vanderbilt (Sept. 26 at Ole Miss, Nov. 21 vs. Texas A&M).
  • As usual, opening weekend is when most of the SEC-versus-Power Five games will occur, but there are others sprinkled throughout the schedule. Four SEC teams aren’t scheduled to play a Power Five nonconference game, while South Carolina (North Carolina, Clemson) is the only SEC team set to play two.
  • We'll give Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks the early nod as the SEC team with the toughest nonconference schedule. In addition to the neutral-site game with UNC and home game against Clemson, South Carolina will host Central Florida and The Citadel.
    2015 SEC-versus-Power Five: Alabama (Sept. 5 vs. Wisconsin in Dallas), Arkansas (Sept. 19 vs. Texas Tech), Auburn (Sept. 5 vs. Louisville in Atlanta), Florida (Nov. 28 vs. Florida State), Georgia (Nov. 28 at Georgia Tech), Kentucky (Nov. 28 vs. Louisville), LSU (Sept. 26 at Syracuse), Ole Miss (None), Mississippi State (None), Missouri (None), South Carolina (Thursday, Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Charlotte, Nov. 28 vs. Clemson), Tennessee (Sept. 12 vs. Oklahoma), Texas A&M (Sept. 5 vs. Arizona State in Houston), Vanderbilt (None).

  • Texas A&M will actually leave the state of Texas only once in the first 11 weeks of the season (Oct. 24 at Ole Miss). Prior to its Nov. 21 visit to Vanderbilt, A&M will play seven home games and neutral-site games against Arizona State (in Houston) and Arkansas (in Arlington). The Aggies close the season on Saturday, Nov. 28 at LSU, not on Thanksgiving like this season’s finale with the Tigers.
  • With SEC teams getting just one open date apiece in 2015, Ole Miss’ schedule looks like a considerable challenge. The Rebels will play for 10 straight weeks -- including road dates at Alabama, Florida and Auburn -- before taking the weekend off on Nov. 14. They will close the season with a Nov. 21 home game with LSU and the Nov. 28 Egg Bowl at Mississippi State.

Those are just a few of the details that jump out after taking a look at the SEC’s 2015 schedule. Check out the SEC’s official site to see each team’s individual schedule and a week-by-week slate for next fall.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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As always there was a ton of recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference. There were a few big commitments, key visits and new offers over the weekend. Here's a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.

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