SEC: Florida Gators

A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The guy who's dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a Big Three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a Big Five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more importantly, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the last few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach (G.A.) Mangus and coach (Steve) Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter on Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys (from 2013) were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."

SEC morning links

August, 22, 2014
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1. You’re up LSU. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback on Thursday night, leaving only one starting battle -- LSU’s -- publicly open. Tennessee (Justin Worley), Kentucky (Patrick Towles), Texas A&M (Kenny Hill) and now Vanderbilt have all announced the victors in their quarterback races lately after allowing the races to extend well into preseason camp. At Vandy, Robinette, who came into August as the favorite, won out over LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. “We were just looking for the most consistent guy day in and day out. He had very few lows, a lot of highs and really just did a great job of keeping his composure,” Mason said in announcing his decision.

2. You’ve probably seen 100 lame, subjective lists where some bored columnist ranks the best SEC fan bases -- usually in a summertime column when there’s no actual news to cover. Emory University’s sports marketing analytics group tries to gauge fan support in a more scientific fashion (you can read about its methodology here) and it found that six of the top 12 fan bases are in the SEC, led by Nos. 3-6 Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. Surely Alabama and LSU fans can find some nits to pick with this study, but take that up with the folks at Emory. As they explained, evaluating the quality of a sports brand is a complicated endeavor.

3. Let’s revise that item from this post yesterday. It turns out that the organizers of a charity fundraiser in Mobile, Alabama, don’t want infamous Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke to be associated with the event after all. That’s the smart move. This is an event designed to engender goodwill for a great cause, not give a jerk the dunking or pie in the face that he so richly deserves. Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee, is involved in the event, which will be held in tribute of a 7-year-old boy who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. Here’s hoping it turns into the successful event it should have been all along before adding Updyke threatened to turn it into a sideshow act.

More from the SEC
Tweet of the day

 
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp found a receptive audience when he told his players their Wednesday night practice to break camp was cancelled in favor of a little party at his house.
 
The Gators feasted on steaks and played some games, but the real winners of the night were these four players who sang the Backstreet Boys' "I want it that way."
 
After the festivities came to a close, Muschamp accepted the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from his former boss, Nick Saban. Muschamp issued the challenge to his assistant coaches as well as three of his former players -- Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and Matt Elam.
 On Thursday, three of those coaches -- offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, offensive line coach Mike Summers and wide receivers coach Chris Leak -- accepted the challenge and paid it forward.
 
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Preseason camp is a time of constant evaluation, with players' fortunes rising and falling in each day of competition.

That part is over for the Florida Gators, who now shift into preparations for Week 1 opponent Idaho.

UF held its 16th and final preseason practice on Wednesday, and in recent days the Gators' depth chart has begun to take shape.

"We'll sort through the depth chart of guys we can count on moving forward, and guys that need to get more reps, and guys whose reps will dwindle," coach Will Muschamp said. "I mean, that's just part of it.

"Your tape is your résumé. The guys that are producing and playing well and doing it the way we want to do it, those are the guys that'll play."

Muschamp listed his biggest concerns, and they haven't changed much throughout the last two weeks.

Florida needs to develop depth behind its starters on both lines. The offensive line is the bigger concern. Roderick Johnson and Trip Thurman have emerged as reliable backups, but that still only gives UF seven linemen it can count on.

"We need to have eight or nine," Muschamp said. "That's a critical issue."

As of now, Florida is turning to juco transfer Drew Sarvary to be the backup center and Antonio Riles to play guard on the second unit. Riles was a defensive lineman until he changed positions late in the spring.

The issue on Florida's defensive line is mainly a matter of experience, as young players such as Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Caleb Brantley will be pressed into duty. Ivie is the only player of the three who has ever taken a snap for the Gators.

Still, Muschamp is bullish on their potential.

"Jay-nard Bostwick is a guy that’s improved tremendously," he said. "We really worked on his lower-body flexibility. He’s really made some big strides. I think Caleb Brantley has made some strides. Joey Ivie has made some strides."

Another large concern is at backup quarterback. The Gators are planning to turn starter Jeff Driskel loose in the running game, and with his history of injuries, the need for a backup is greater than ever.

The candidates are Skyler Mornhinweg, a third-year sophomore who started the final three games of last season; true freshman Will Grier, who enrolled in January and participated in spring practice; and true freshman Treon Harris, who arrived in the summer.

Mornhinweg is more of a pocket passer, while Grier and Harris are more athletic and can run the ball.

Muschamp has said Florida will play its backup QB in the first game. He also said he wouldn't want to rotate quarterbacks.

"I'd rather name a guy and go with it," he said. "I think it's hard, especially with an inexperienced player. They need to get as many reps as possible."

While UF coaches haven't seen any of their backup QBs separate themselves, there is a sense of urgency as the team is days away from its first game week.

"It’s obviously getting close to decision-making time," offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said on Tuesday, "but I also think it’s a fluid thing that can change at any time just because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

"So obviously we've got to start on who’s going to spend the time getting the two reps as much as possible."

A handful of other jobs remain up for grabs, such as placekicker and punter. Nowhere is the competition more wide open than in the secondary, where Florida is very young and inexperienced.

"Still no separation in the secondary other than Vernon [Hargreaves III] and Keanu [Neal]," Muschamp said of his top cornerback and top safety, respectively. "Got some guys who have done some decent things, we just have to be more consistent."

With just over a week before kickoff, the clock is ticking on UF's final decisions.

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.

SEC morning links

August, 20, 2014
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1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been sweeping social media and the SEC along with it. On Tuesday we posted a rundown of some of the notable challenges accepted by SEC nation, including Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, LSU coach Les Miles and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. Later on Tuesday, two of the biggest-named coaches who hadn't yet been doused with the cold stuff took the challenges: Alabama coach Nick Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Saban challenged Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Mark Ingram (an Alabama product), U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (a friend of Saban's from West Virginia), Florida coach Will Muschamp and none other than Paul Finebaum. Spurrier handed his challenges out to Saban, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and their respective coaching staffs. Saban had his team do the challenge with him and Spurrier had his coaching staff take the dousings with him. These challenges continue to raise a significant number of funds for the ALS Association and have provided some fun videos to boot.

2. Florida's offense is looking for a huge boost this season after a dismal season in 2013 and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is what the doctor ordered. On Tuesday, Roper reflected on his journey from his own days as a high school quarterback to being the son of a coach. After the work he did at Duke last season and his extensive time coaching in the SEC, he should be a good fit for the Gators. Making the offense more high-paced and wide-open will allow the Gators to utilize the talents of quarterback Jeff Driskel and expect them to take a significant step forward, with Roper orchestrating the attack.

3. Many of us figured that Cleveland Browns fans would want a certain SEC product to be their starting quarterback when the Browns season begins next month, but who knew that that SEC quarterback would be Connor Shaw? In a poll on Cleveland.com asking readers to vote for who they think should be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Shaw -- a South Carolina product -- is winning in a landslide over first-round pick Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Of course, considering the way Manziel (and Brian Hoyer) performed and the timing of the poll, some reactionary votes are to be expected. But by that wide a margin? Wow. Give Shaw credit, he was the model of toughness and a winner during his South Carolina days and no doubt there are many happy for him after he performed well on Monday night against Washington.

More from around the SEC:
Tweet of the day

On Sunday, esteemed ACC writer Andrea Adelson wrote a piece talking about how Florida isbehind instate rivals Florida State and Miami -- two teams the Gators lost to in 2013.

While I agree that Florida is behind these two at the moment, Andrea and I had a bit of an argument when it comes to the 2014 season. Even though Florida went an embarrassing 4-8 last year, I think that with an improved offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper and what yet again should be a fierce defense, the Gators will have a better record than Miami, which went 9-4 last fall.

Andrea disagrees, saying Florida's offensive questions and schedule will be too much, while the Canes have a more manageable schedule and a more proven offense.

We decided to take our argument to the public and debate both sides for you all to see:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Getty ImagesJeff Driskel is back from his 2013 season-ending injury, and he's looking more comfortable in the new Florida offense.
Edward Aschoff: I have to admit, Andrea, your piece on Sunday about the three power schools in the state of Florida was spot on. I agree with everything you wrote, but then came Monday, when our conversation left us in disagreement. You think Miami, which went 9-4 and beat Florida last year, will finish this season with a better record than Florida. I have to disagree. Last year was a disaster of epic proportions in Gainesville, but the Gators lost 15 players to season-ending injuries, including starters such as Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Dominique Easley and Chaz Green. Florida won't have the same injury problems this fall, and expect a lot more from this offense with Roper (you know him pretty well) running the spread. I talked to Driskel and his receivers about the offense and they are way more comfortable with Roper's system, and they've been gassing a pretty good defense with the uptempo. The receivers are incredibly confident in the new system, and it's clear this is the offense Driskel was born to run. Florida does play Alabama and LSU from the Western Division, but LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri and Florida State are all games the Gators will play in the state of Florida. Call me crazy, but I think that if this offense figures things out and the defense plays to its potential, Florida has a chance to win nine games in the regular season. Miami? How about eight?

AA: Edward, take the Gator head off and breathe deeply. Nine wins against that schedule? I agree Florida will be better, but it is hard to find more than seven wins given the opponents and all the unknowns on offense. And that is not just coming from me. A few months ago, a Gator fan walked up to me at a speaking engagement here at the Orlando Touchdown Club and said, "I will be so happy if we go 7-5!" How expectations have shifted in state. While it is true I have some doubts about Miami, too, I have two words to counter your argument: Duke Johnson. Miami has him; Florida does not. Maaaaaybe if the Gators had a dynamic skill player, I'd believe you. But they don't. Miami was 7-0 before Johnson got hurt last year -- including a win over the Gators -- and 2-4 without him. Need I go on?

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsFlorida doesn't have a proven skill player on a par with Miami's Duke Johnson.
EA: Gator head? Real original. Remember two names: Kelvin Taylor and Demarcus Robinson. Both sophomores have a chance to be special for the Gators. Taylor is leaner, quicker, faster and stronger. The coaches have raved about his improvements since spring practice began, and he should have no problem being the lead back from the start this year. He isn't as explosive as his father -- All-American Florida back Fred Taylor -- but he's shiftier and will be a real weapon in Roper's offense. As for Robinson, he barely did anything last year, but has finally found his focus. He's a big-play threat in this offense, and the coaches trust in him a lot more right now. He has really come into his own during practice this fall. The folks in Gainesville see him as that playmaker at receiver they have desperately needed. Driskel shouldn't have a problem using them. Speaking of quarterbacks, you suiting up to throw the ball for the Canes?

AA: Miami does have a hole at quarterback, a hole I have pointed out repeatedly (and much to the chagrin of Miami fans). But I don't mean to sound like a broken record here. Talented skill players have this way of making their quarterback look good. Driskel has struggled, in part, because he has had no help. Miami will provide its starter with a plethora of help, from potential 1,000-yard receiver Stacy Coley, to deep threat Phillip Dorsett to tight end Clive Walford. Just to name three. Aside from Johnson, Miami is deep and talented at running back, too, and its offensive line has been solid. I am not going to win any arguments between the Miami D vs the Florida D. Gators have the edge there going away. But a talented (and high-scoring) offense can easily cover up for an average D. Miami has one of the tougher schedules in the ACC with difficult crossover games, just like the Gators. In the Canes' case, it's Florida State and Louisville. They've also got a tough nonconference game at Nebraska. When I look at the schedule, I think Miami has 10 winnable games. Doesn't mean they are going to win all of them, but it means they have a better shot at getting there than Florida.

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Who will have a better season in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 8,075)

EA: I told you to watch out for Robinson and Taylor, but Florida has a few more options at both receiver and running back. I expect veterans Quinton Dunbar and even Andre Debose to make noise in this offense, but really keep an eye on sophomore Ahmad Fulwood. He can stretch the field and is a big boy over the middle. We know about Matt Jones and Mack Brown at running back, but freshman Brandon Powell could be really special. He missed spring but has been blowing up in fall practice. He can do a little bit of everything out of the backfield. Florida will be more competitive using a lot more space in Roper's offense. As for the schedule, it isn't easy. Florida plays six teams ranked in the AP top 25, including No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Alabama on the road. But I'll continue to stress that three of those games are at home and Georgia is in Jacksonville, Florida. An improved offense that can actually take some pressure off the defense can get three wins out of that slate.

AA: Maybe I should tint my glasses rose to match yours. Seriously, though, this debate serves as a reminder that these rivals need to play more often (that is a different debate for a different time). This needs to be settled on the field! The race to chase Florida State is tough to handicap. I don't think Miami is quite back to returning to its past glory, but I do think the Canes have the capability of building on their success from a year ago. Quarterback might look messy now, but coaches have been raving about the maturity and ability true freshman Brad Kaaya brings to the table. The defense looks better so far in preseason camp, and Denzel Perryman could have an All-American type season. If Miami is solid at quarterback and makes improvements on defense, this team will be better than Florida. Again.
With the College Football Playoff finally here, we will be meticulously dissecting every game with any team anyone thinks could find itself in this year's final four.

People have voiced their concern about a playoff taking away the importance of every game. You guys can be scared, but I'm not. Games will still be big, and will affect the playoff. All that's happening now is that some early games might not end the season for some teams.

Oh, what a crime!

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn and his Tigers face five key games this season that could alter their playoff hopes.
And honestly, we've seen teams lose in the middle of the season and still make it to the BCS national title game (I see you Alabama), so I think this is getting blown way out of proportion.

SEC teams vying for a playoff spot -- or two -- could likely get away with one loss, but you can never be too careful with the human element. Winning is still the goal.

There are going to be quite a few games that impact the playoff this season. Here are the top 10 games involving SEC teams that will affect the playoff (in order of appearance):

1. Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston, Texas), Aug. 30: If Wisconsin is going to push itself past Big Ten favorites Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers need to start off fast with a win against LSU. The Tigers have questions on both sides of the ball, but people will be salivating over seeing the matchup between Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and LSU's incredibly athletic front seven. These are the games LSU coach Les Miles thrives in, but Wisconsin won't be intimidated.

2. Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13: A lot of people think the winner of this game will head back to Atlanta. The winner will also have a clearer path to the playoff and could serve as an early elimination game. Last season, we saw 71 points, 990 yards and just one turnover in the Bulldogs' thrilling win in Athens. This time, the game is in Columbia, where the Gamecocks have won two straight against the Dawgs.

3. LSU at Auburn, Oct. 4: Even though Auburn lost this game last season, it changed the dynamic of the team's season. The fight and comeback they had in the second half injected an incredible amount of confidence into an Auburn team that ran all the way to the final BCS title game. Could this game have the same affect for either squad in 2014? With the upcoming schedules both of these teams have, a loss here could throw off their playoff plans.

4. Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 4: A lot of folks already have this game circled as the conference's first big upset of the season. And why not? Alabama might be the SEC favorite, but it's far from perfect and will be breaking in a new starting quarterback against an Ole Miss defense that has a fierce two-deep. A win for Ole Miss, which has its highest expectations in years, would propel the Rebels into the thick of playoff talk.

5. South Carolina at Auburn, Oct. 25: Another game involving the defending SEC champs, and this one will be very important for both teams. Each should be right at or near the top of their respective divisions just before the final month of the season, meaning this game is important for both the playoff and the SEC. Expect a lot of points with two teams that averaged more than 30 points a game last season and have some defensive unknowns. You want to enter November controlling your own destiny.

6. Auburn at Ole Miss, Nov. 1: If both of are undefeated when the Tigers arrive in the Grove, this game will have major playoff implications. Even if they aren't, the SEC Western Division will still be on the line, and we all know the eventual SEC champion will be an almost lock to make it in the playoff. The playoff picture will be much clearer when these two meet, and as the season ticks down, you want to control your own destiny.

7. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 8: Of course this game will affect the playoff. It's Alabama-LSU! Ever since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, this game has been decided by less than 10 points six times. However, Alabama has won the past two by 21 points. Both of these teams will know a whole lot more about each other at this point in the season, and while Alabama could be at the top of the polls, LSU's young talent could become dangerous.

8. South Carolina at Florida, Nov. 15: If South Carolina is going to make the playoff, the Gamecocks will need to win this game. We can't quite put our finger on Florida, but a loss to a bad Florida team isn't getting you any playoff love. But what if Florida is a contender in the East? Well, the division could be on the line, and it's going to be very hard for any team not playing in its conference title game to make the playoff.

9. Auburn at Georgia, Nov. 15: We all know how last season's game ended. One bat down, and Auburn's Cinderella story is short-lived. You know the Dawgs have this game circled on their calendar. It's another game that could have SEC title implications, and of course that means it will affect the playoff with the season winding down. A loss for Auburn would likely end its playoff chances, while a win for a Georgia team in the East hunt would do wonders.

10. Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29: The Iron Bowl changed the landscape of the BCS title game last season and we have no reason to believe it won't have an impact on this year's College Football Playoff. Remember the “Kick Six?” Well, you better believe Alabama does. The Crimson Tide gets its archrival at home this year and Saban is 8-1 at Alabama in revenge games. The loser of this game will be without bragging rights and a playoff spot.
Now that the AP preaseason poll is out, we know exactly who will make up the College Football Playoff.

If only it were that easy.

History has shown that preseason polls really don't mean as much as we'd like to think they do. Still, they're fun and give us a nice easel to work with.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss could be a threat to sneak out of the West.
As we dive into this poll, you'll see that most of the team everyone is talking about to be in the playoff at season's end are right at the top of the poll -- Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Auburn. Only four teams can make it into the playoff, but most people have some sort of combination of these teams.

Good luck with that.

According to ESPN stats guru Brad Edwards and ESPN Stats & Information, "There has been only one year in the last seven (2011) in which more than two of the preseason top-10 teams finished the regular season ranked in the top four."

In short, that means that more often than not, the final four in the AP poll -- which we'll use as a means of determining the fictitious four-team playoff from the past -- started the season well outside of the early playoff sphere.

The same can be said about the final BCS standings of the regular season. Only once since 2006 have two teams ranked inside the top four of the AP preseason poll finished the regular season ranked inside the top four of the BCS standings. Yep, 2011 when Alabama and LSU ranked second and fourth, respectively, and finished the regular season as the top two teams in the country and played in the BCS national championship game.

Since 2006, five SEC teams have started the season ranked inside the top four of the AP poll and finished the regular season inside the top four of the BCS standings. Alabama has done it three times (2011, 2012, 2013) and LSU has done it twice (2007, 2011). Alabama won the BCS national championship twice in that span (2011, 2012), while LSU won it all in 2007.

So this all bodes well for Alabama, which is ranked second in the AP poll. This also bodes well for the SEC in general when it comes to the playoff, because at least one team has finished in the top four of the BCS standings each year since 2006 (remember the seven straight BCS titles for this conference?).

Want to take it even further? The SEC has placed two teams in the final four of the BCS standings in three straight seasons and five times total since 2006, so we can't rule out the SEC double-dipping in the playoff.

Now, the selection committee will make things a little different, as more the human element replaces the computers that were very nice to the SEC. Regardless of the humans and the preseason poll, history has taught us that an SEC outsider will make a strong playoff run this year.

There are eight SEC teams ranked inside the AP preseason poll, and there's a chance that each one will have a big hand in the playoff. But which outsiders have a chance to make a real playoff run? Here are four teams that could make a magical run from outside the top 10:

  • Ole Miss: The immediate talent is very impressive in Oxford, but for the first time in a while, Ole Miss has a very talented two-deep on defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace has to be more consistent, and he'll be working with a healthy throwing shoulder for the first time in two years. Having Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home will help. If the Rebels stay healthy, they are a legitimate threat in the Western Division.
  • Georgia: The defense has a lot of question marks, but that offense has the potential to score for days. Quarterback Hutson Mason should have no problem replacing Aaron Murray with the experience and quality talent coming back at receiver and running back. The tests come early with a visit from No. 16 Clemson before a trip to No. 9 South Carolina.
  • Mississippi State: For some reason, these Bulldogs will enter the season unranked (only 22 votes received?). All they do is return 18 starters and the deepest, most talented team coach Dan Mullen has had during his time in Starkville. This could be the year the Bulldogs get over the hump and push for the West title.
  • LSU: There will be a new quarterback, new receivers and there are still some unknowns on defense. A strong running game and offensive line should help a program that has never really needed a huge passing game under Les Miles. That linebacking corps and the secondary have scary athleticism. Watch for a late run by the Tigers.

Flying under the radar?

Florida and Missouri: If Florida figures things out with Kurt Roper's new spread offense, the Gators might take the East with the defense they have. The Tigers lost a ton of leadership and need answers at receiver, but they love the underdog role, and their defensive line and running game are filthy.
It has been nearly a decade since Florida sat at the bottom of the Big Three in its own state, a situation only made worse by watching bitter rival Florida State win the national championship last season.

But even when Florida State outperformed Florida over the last 10 years, the Gators could always count on being better than Miami.

Now, there is not much to count on at all, no guarantees to be made, no automatic Ws on the schedule. Not after Georgia Southern. Not after a miserable losing season. No guarantees for coach Will Muschamp, either, essentially coaching for his job in 2014.

It is easy to see why Florida State has separated. But where both Florida State and Miami have separated from Florida is in their recruitment and development of skill players on offense, an area the Gators once dominated.

Florida has lacked a dynamic playmaker since Percy Harvin in 2008. That is simply unacceptable for a program in a state the produces enough supremely fast and ultra-talented recruits to fill multiple FBS rosters.

So what has happened in recruiting? Let us take a look back at the players all three programs have signed between 2011 -- when Muschamp signed his first class at Florida -- and 2013. During that time, Florida signed 12 ESPN 150 players at either quarterback, running back, receiver or tight end. Six have transferred.

In 2012, when Muschamp brought in the first class he recruited entirely on his own, he stacked his defense with elite recruits. The only two ESPN 150 offensive players in that class outside the offensive line were two tight ends: Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor. They have both left the program.

Now take a look at what Florida State and Miami have done. Since 2011, Florida State has signed eight ESPN 150 players at the same four offensive positions. The Noles have hit on nearly all of them. Karlos Williams, Nick O'Leary, Rashad Greene, Kermit Whitfield and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston are expected to be All-ACC selections or All-Americans. James Wilder Jr. was drafted a few months ago.

Kelvin Benjamin and Devonta Freeman, four-star recruits out of high school, are in the NFL, too.

Miami has signed nine ESPN 150 skill-position players over the same time frame. While the Canes have missed on some, they have hit on several key players who helped them get to nine wins a season ago. Running back Duke Johnson, receivers Stacy Coley and Malcolm Lewis and tight end Standish Dobard are starters. Receiver Phillip Dorsett, a three-star recruit in 2011, is better than anybody Florida has on its roster.

Muschamp has focused his efforts on building a strong defense, something Miami has lacked over the last several years. While the old adage is that defense wins championships, you need a little more than a rusted-out shell of an offense to win games in today’s era.

That holds true most especially in Florida. Consider the two Gators coaches who have won national championships -- Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer -- were offensive coaches. Each had a quarterback who won the Heisman.

Florida State and Miami have won their championships with terrific skill players -- and Heisman winners -- as well. If we look at what Florida State accomplished last season alone, the Seminoles were stellar on both offense and defense with playmakers at the skill positions all over the field. All three programs have produced equally impressive offensive and defensive players in their championship seasons.

So, it seems, Florida is missing a giant piece to its puzzle.

That is a big reason why the Gators have fallen behind both Miami and Florida State for the first time since 2004. Not even 2004 was as bad as 2013, mind you. Because at least in 2004, Florida beat Florida State and finished above .500.

At that time, Florida was in the middle of the Ron Zook era (or error, depending your point of view), but the down times did not last long. Three years later, Florida won its first national championship under Urban Meyer.

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley is banking on a short-lived dip, a big reason why Muschamp still has his job. Most believe Florida will be better. But how much better? Foley is putting his faith in a man who has shown equal propensity to win big and lose big.

So the objective for Muschamp seems pretty simple. Improve the offense and win. But we are not talking about merely finishing with a winning record, no matter how good 7-5 looks right about now. Florida must once again flex its power in state.
To finish out our week-long look at the players poised to be at the top of the stat charts at their respective positions, we're checking out the guys picked to man the skies.

Who will be able to snag five or more interceptions in the SEC in 2014? Well, last year, the league had four players -- Ole Miss' Cody Prewitt (six interceptions), Missouri's E.J. Gaines (five), Vanderbilt's Kenny Ladler (five) and Mississippi State's Nickoe Whitley (five). This year, I'm going to go with five.

Here are the guys with the best chance of reaching five or more interceptions in 2014:

1. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Considered one of the nation's best cornerbacks, Hargreaves is the league's best cover man. He led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended last year.

2. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss: He led the SEC with six interceptions last year, but thinks he left a few more out there in 2013. Prewitt is a legitimate ball hawk and moves around the field so much that he'll have no problem finding the ball a lot again this fall.

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss' Cody Prewitt led the conference last season with six interceptions.
3. Taveze Calhoun, CB, Mississippi State: The long, rangy Calhoun can move all over for the Bulldogs as well. He has a nose for the ball and is an elite cover corner. He'll nab more than the three interceptions he had last season.

4. Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Collins can do just about everything on the field. He takes away the deep ball, can play in the box and is actually very good in coverage. As the seasoned guy in Alabama's secondary, he'll find his way to the ball even more this season.

5. Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU: Another elite player in man-to-man situations, White led LSU with nine passes defended, but had just two interceptions in 2013. For as much as he likes to be around the ball, expect both of those numbers to increase in 2014.

6. Brian Randolph, S, Tennessee: He bounced back from a season-ending injury in 2012 with a monster year last season. He was tied for fifth in the SEC with four interceptions in 2013 and should be even better this fall at finding the ball in the air.

7. Jonathan Mincy, CB, Auburn: With Mincy moving to boundary corner this fall, he should be even more of a headache for quarterbacks looking to go deep on the outside. He's another player who just knows how to find the ball. Mincy led the Tigers and was second in the SEC with 15 passes defended and had one interception.

8. Jamerson Love, CB, Mississippi State: Throwing on the Bulldogs could be a mistake for opponents most of the time this fall. With Calhoun on one side and Love on the other, expect a lot of takeaways. Love defended 10 passes and had three interceptions last year.

9. Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss: Extremely athletic, fast and versatile, Conner finds ways to move all over the field for the Rebels. He defended only seven passes and snagged one interception last year, but he'll be an even bigger threat with teams trying to shy away from Prewitt.

10. Deshazor Everett, CB, Texas A&M: A struggling Aggies defense did produce a pretty solid player in Everett last season. He can play both corner and safety, which means his instincts will frustrate plenty of quarterbacks. Last year, he defended nine passes and grabbed two interceptions.

11. Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina: He might not line up in the secondary like the rest of the guys on this list, but Moore has ways of getting himself involved in a lot of plays during games. He covers so much ground for a linebacker and actually led the Gamecocks with four interceptions last year.

SEC morning links

August, 15, 2014
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1. The first quarterback race is over. Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who said a decision was coming soon, named his starting quarterback Thursday. It will be Justin Worley. The senior started seven games last year and finished with 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He missed the final four games after suffering a injury to his thumb in Week 9 against Alabama, but as GoVols247 reports, Worley plans to take the Vols' quarterback job and 'run with it.' So who's next to name a starter? Across the state, first-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has already said he's going to wait until the first game to name his starter. At Auburn, is it already a foregone conclusion that Jeremy Johnson will start the opener in place of Nick Marshall? And will a true freshman really start under center for either LSU or Texas A&M?

2. Not mentioned above is maybe the most-talked about -- unless you're Nick Saban -- quarterback battle in the SEC, the battle between Jacob Coker and Blake Sims at Alabama. Coker transferred in from Florida State with the size, the big arm and the lofty expectations, but Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com is starting to think that Sims might actually start the season opener against West Virginia. Saban spoke highly of Sims during the SEC Network's launch ... but he made sure to compliment Coker, too. Some say both will play against the Mountaineers. A two-quarterback system? The last time Alabama tried that it didn't go so well. Maybe Saban and his staff know who the guy is and they're just playing us all. Maybe not.

3. Sad news Thursday as Georgia officially announced that Merritt Hall's football career was over. The junior fullback was medically disqualified for recurrent concussions. The latest incident came last week when he sustained a concussion during practice. The Bulldogs have since moved linebackers Detric Dukes and Christian Payne to fullback where they will remain during the season, but this brings back up the question, how do we prevent football players from sustaining similar injuries in the future? Tackling better? The USA Football organization, the youth partner of the NFL, is sponsoring the Heads Up Football campaign, one that teaches players to tackle an opponent by wrapping their arms around them, rather than ramming them with their heads. It's a start.

More around the SEC
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Now that we've taken the time to look at offensive players who could pile on the stats in 2014, it's time to take a look at the defenders who make this league so scary.

Today, we're talking sacks and who could reach double digits in that category in 2014.

Last year, the SEC only had two players reach that mark -- Missouri's Michael Sam (11.5 sacks) and Auburn's Dee Ford (10.5) -- after three did in 2012 and 2011.

This season, the SEC has a lot of talent and potential within its various front sevens. So how many players do I see reaching 10 or more sacks? I'm going to go with three.

Here's my list of potential double-digit sack artists for 2014:

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIGeorgia linebacker Leonard Floyd is looking to build off of his strong freshman season.
1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: During his first year at Georgia, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 QB hurries. He explodes off the line and is a beast for linemen to handle. He could be the SEC's best pass-rusher in 2014.

2. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Golden had 6.5 sacks last year. Even as a backup, Golden could have left for the NFL after last season. He's back, and he won't be fun to deal with off the edge.

3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE, Kentucky: Get used to this name because he's gotten better each year he's been on campus. After moving to defensive end last year, Dupree had a team-high seven sacks, but feels his game is even better this time around. He has All-SEC written all over him.

4. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida: He can play with his hand in the ground or upright. Fowler can absolutely fly and has tremendous strength to bully his way through opposing lines. Expect him to vastly improve on the 3.5 sacks he had last year.

5. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: He might not have a very recognizable name right now, but you should hear a lot about Ray in the coming months. He's incredibly fast and athletic. Add his strength, and he'll have no problem zipping past his 4.5 sacks from 2013.

6. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: He'd be higher on the list if there weren't questions about the guys around him. Flowers is a monster, but he had the benefit of working with stud Chris Smith on the other side. He'll have to work even harder this year. Still, Flowers is too good not to at least approach the five sacks he had last season.

7. C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: A devastating leg injury cost him most of his 2013 season, but he's back and says he feels better than ever. He changes Ole Miss' defense so much when he's on the field and is the Rebels' best pass-rusher. With people keying in on Robert Nkemdiche inside, Johnson should be a menace off the edge.

8. Curt Maggitt, DE/LB, Tennessee: He might not have played last year, but Maggitt is arguably one of the best at his position. He'll play more defensive end this year, but his goal every time he's on the field is to hit the quarterback. If he can stay healthy, he'll do that a lot.

9. Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU: He only had three sacks last year, but Hunter could be a breakout star for the Tigers. Pictures of him from this summer tell me that he's loaded up on the lean protein and hopes to dine on quarterbacks this fall.

10. Caleb Azubike, LB, Vanderbilt: One of Vandy's most athletic defenders, Azubike seems to really be taking to his new position at outside linebacker. With his speed, he could be a terror outside in the Commodores' new 3-4 scheme. He had four sacks in 2013.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In order for the Florida Gators to rebound from last year's disaster of a season, the offense has to get better.

It's hard to say if a more obvious sentence has been written.

But while most of the offensive talk has centered around quarterback Jeff Driskel and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, the key might rest with the guys lining up outside, not under center.

[+] EnlargeAndre Debose
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images"I feel like we can be great. We can be the best in the SEC," receiver Andre Debose said.
Driskel is incredibly important to this team's success, but Florida's receivers want the responsibility of carrying this offense. They want Driskel to rest easy while they play hard. Roper's spread approach centers around creating space for receivers, and those players believe they hold the power when it comes to making Florida's offense go in 2014.

“There's no added pressure, it's just on us,” senior receiver Quinton Dunbar said of the receiving corps. “If we make plays, we win games and that's how we want it. We wouldn't have it any other way.”

That might be big talk for a unit that hasn't had anyone catch more than 44 passes or register even 600 yards in a single season since 2009. But this group is oozing confidence. Dunbar might be the leading returning receiver with 40 catches and 548 yards from a year ago, but you'd think the core players of this unit all had 1,000-yard pedigrees with the swagger they project.

"I feel like we can be great. We can be the best in the SEC," fifth-year senior Andre Debose said. “With the offense we have I feel like the coach puts us in a lot of good situations to make plays. I feel like with this offense we'll flourish.”

Yes, this is coming from players who were a part of a disastrous 4-8 Florida team that ranked at the bottom of the SEC in every major offensive category a year ago and was 107th nationally with 170.9 passing yards per game.

The confidence might sound a little premature, but Florida's receivers not only trust their ability, they trust their new OC and his offense. Roper's plan to use more three- and four-receiver sets has players excited.

Last year served as a big black eye in Florida's history books, but players are moving on. The present appears loose and happy, and the players see something special at receiver, even if skeptics loom.

"Since I've been here this is probably the most talented receiving group we've had,” Dunbar said. “I feel like everybody is going to trust each other this year to get better. I feel like we've got depth, and a lot of people can make plays."

One major advantage Florida's receivers believe they possess is an uptempo scheme. The Gators would like to run at least 80 plays a game as fast as possible.

So far, the receivers love it. Sophomore Ahmad Fulwood, whose 17 catches from last year are the second most coming back, said the receivers rejoiced when they heard they were running a no-huddle offense. They might not have the statistics to intimidate opponents, but Fulwood believes they have the speed and endurance to consistently frustrate them because he sees it in practice against a defense that could be one of the SEC's best.

“We've gotten used to putting the defense on their heels now,” Fulwood said. “They used to have the advantage last year, but now this year when we're in practice we give them a run for their money. With the tempo we run at and the tempo they're trying to run at, we cause some stressful times for them.”

Added fellow sophomore Demarcus Robinson: “When we're going fast and the defense doesn't have any time to sub anyone in but we do, that's when we really get them.”

The question still lurking is if Florida has the capable weapons to keep defenses spinning. Dunbar has the experience, but is looking for the big-play gear. Debose has impressive athleticism and speed, but has always struggled with putting things together in games, and he is returning from an ACL injury.

Fulwood's size (6-foot-4, 204 pounds) and speed create matchup problems for defenders on the outside, while Robinson arrived with the title of “instant playmaker,” but caught just five passes last season and dealt with a multiple suspensions.

Maybe redshirt freshman Alvin Bailey steps up or true freshmen C.J. Worton and Ryan Sousa develop faster than expected.

Even with all the talk, there are still plenty of questions surrounding this group. Those questions really won't be answered until the season arrives, but for now, Florida's receivers are creating some believers.

“These guys are staying open constantly and it's really hard to cover them because you have to have your eyes on the quarterback, you have to have your eyes on them ... and you can lose them at times," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “These guys are really shifty, really talented and really fast.

“I'm really eager to see what it's going to look like against another team because I think a lot of people are going to have a hard time with this offense.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Andre Debose took a look at the interview table that was set up with his name in front of an empty seat and leapt over it in one great bound.

For an audience of journalists gathered for media day, hours before the Gators opened preseason camp, there was no better way for the Florida wide receiver to show, not tell, everyone that he was completely healthy.

"I'm feeling great!" he said. "I'm feeling real good."

[+] EnlargeAndre Debose
AP Photo/John RaouxAndre Debose said he's pleased to be back in the spread offense again at Florida.
Almost one year ago to the day, Debose tore his ACL in one of Florida's first fall practices. He missed the entire season and was later granted a sixth year of eligibility.

Debose's injury was one of several that contributed to something of a doomed feeling heading into the 2013 season, according to players like running back Kelvin Taylor.

“Everybody kept falling, kept going down," Taylor said. "Just lots of frustration and we got some of our key players going down. When Debose went down it was like, 'Dang, man. One of our captains went down.'"

Always a tantalizing talent with a bright smile and personality, Debose has been an enigma throughout a career that started back in 2009 with Urban Meyer calling him "the next Percy Harvin."

Debose has rarely lived up to that sort of hype. He's seemingly had more injuries than big games, but did lead Florida in receiving yards in 2011 and owns the school record with four kickoff-return touchdowns (also tied for the SEC record).

"We missed his playmaking ability last year," coach Will Muschamp admitted.

This year, Debose's return is one of Muschamp's reasons for excitement in a pressure-packed, make-or-break season.

The coach has high hopes for Debose, whom he says is a better fit in Florida's reinvented offense. The Gators plan to use the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Debose out wide, in the slot and will even get the ball in his hands on speed sweeps.

Debose couldn't be happier. He's returning to the type of offense that once made him the No. 2 high school wide receiver prospect in the country.

"Great offense," he said. "I love the spread. This is what I was originally recruited for here at Florida.

"This is exactly what I did in high school."

Many of his high school peers have long since left college. Some of his fellow top prospects are playing in the NFL. Debose, though, is back with a second shot at a last impression.

Perspective has been easy to come by.

Time has matured Debose, once scorned by his coaches for questionable focus and work habits. His journey has transformed him from a puerile high school star to a 23-year-old man with one last kick at the can.

"I'm definitely not the same person I was five years ago when I was sitting in this same chair," he said. "I've had a lot of humbling experience with these injuries, so I've had a lot of time to sit back and just think and reflect on everything that's happened in my career."

With a clean slate, a new offense and a clean bill of health, Debose was clearly one of the Gators most excited to start a fresh season.

"Oh, I'm very optimistic," he said. "I haven't been this anxious to play in Lord knows how long."

There was one more thing that gave Debose a spring in his step on media day -- he was just a few days from graduating.

"It feels amazing," he said. "I started something and I finally finished it. ...

"I know that I've been through a lot, been through a lot of ups and downs, seen this team be successful and unsuccessful. It's definitely going to be a great experience just to walk off that stage and know that I'm done with the school part."

Next on Debose's college bucket list -- one last chance to pen the final chapter of his playing career.

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