SEC: SEC

For everything Steve Spurrier has done at South Carolina, one thing has escaped the Head Ball Coach’s grasp in Columbia: an SEC championship.

After winning six SEC championships during his 12 years at Florida, including his first in his second year, Spurrier has yet to claim that coveted prize during his nine years as the Gamecocks’ coach.

Spurrier certainly had more to work with right away when he arrived in Gainesville, but chasing an SEC title in Columbia is eating at him.

“He’s one of the most competitive people I know, so yes, he wants that championship,” running backs coach Everette Sands said.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier has guided South Carolina to three consecutive 11-win seasons.
Spurrier was asked this summer if he felt unfulfilled without an SEC championship at South Carolina, and he shrugged it off. Spurrier doesn’t feel unsatisfied, but you can tell that an SEC title with a program he has built into a nationally relevant entity is something he craves.

But he’s also proud that he has taken the Gamecocks to new heights. The Gamecocks are coming off their third straight 11-win season and are one of only three teams to finish the past three seasons ranked inside the top 10 in the country. Spurrier’s 77 wins are the most by a coach in school history, and he has a winning record against rivals Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, including going 13-3 against them in the past four seasons. South Carolina was also picked by the media to win the SEC Eastern Division this fall.

Spurrier might not have an SEC title on his South Carolina résumé, but the Gamecocks have been a force in the SEC over the last few years. They’ve also owned their home state, going 6-3 against Clemson with five straight wins.

“What I've also learned at South Carolina, our fans realize there's more to life than winning the SEC championship,” Spurrier said. “They really do. We're in a state with Clemson. Clemson used to pretty much own South Carolina in football, no question about it. We have a state championship trophy. If you ask our fans at South Carolina, I can assure you a majority would say, ‘We would rather beat Clemson than win the SEC.’ That is how big it is to them, that one game.

“Personally I'd rather win the SEC. I don't mind saying that. Personally, that's the bigger trophy.”

And his players want the bigger trophy, too.

Redshirt senior defensive tackle J.T. Surratt knows the pain of missing out on an SEC title all too well. Having to watch the SEC championship from home during the Gamecocks' impressive three-year run, Surratt hasn’t had the stomach to complete an entire game. He has started to watch, but he cuts it off halfway through the first quarter each year.

Surratt will turn it back on in the fourth quarter, but not without a sick feeling in his stomach, he said.

“It always feels like we’re one or two games short,” Surratt said of continually missing out on the SEC title game.

“All those 11 wins are great, but 11 wins is still not enough. We’re still not satisfied.”

What gnaws at Surratt and Spurrier even more is the fact the Gamecocks have beaten the eventual SEC East champ the last three years only to, as quarterback Dylan Thompson said, “not get in the stinking game.”

Last year, the Gamecocks upset Missouri on the road in double overtime, but an earlier loss to Tennessee thwarted their SEC title hopes. A year earlier, South Carolina beat East champ Georgia 35-7, only to lose back-to-back games to Florida and LSU. And in 2011, the Gamecocks swept the East but lost to Auburn and Arkansas, sending Georgia to the SEC championship.

That 2010 trip to Atlanta seems so long ago, but Spurrier thinks he has another special group in Columbia. Stars like Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw are gone, but Spurrier has an offense that shouldn’t have trouble scoring with bullish running back Mike Davis, one of the nation’s best offensive lines and an experienced quarterback in Thompson. There are questions on defense, but the linebacker unit is solid and the defensive line is oozing underrated talent.

And with what Spurrier calls a “beautiful schedule,” the Gamecocks could find themselves back in Atlanta this December, nudging the Head Ball Coach another step closer to that elusive title.

“Hopefully we can add an SEC championship,” Spurrier said. “I can assure you, I tell those recruits, ‘If you come here, hopefully you'll be on the firstever SEC championship team ever.’ That's still our goal. We haven't quite done it. I think we've been close, but not close enough.

“We’re probably going to have to upset someone to win the SEC, I know that.”

SEC morning links

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
8:00
AM ET
1. The college football season is just a day away, and what better way to kick things off then with a premier matchup in the SEC between South Carolina and Texas A&M. In fact, it’s just one of many intriguing games during the first weekend. Feel blessed. In 2004, the best SEC game from the opening weekend was No. 3 LSU against a mediocre Oregon State team. Matchups like Alabama-Utah State or Georgia-Georgia Southern were more the norm. But let's get back to this season. Athlon Sports previewed the top five college football games of Week 1, and four of the five included SEC teams. I tend to agree that LSU-Wisconsin is at the top of my list just because I have no idea what to expect from the Tigers.

2. The other major matchup this weekend takes place between the hedges where Georgia will host Clemson in a clash of Top 25 teams. The two played a shootout last year, but both starting quarterbacks have moved on to the next level. To me, one of the bigger storylines from this game will be if Deshaun Watson takes the field for Clemson, and if so, how much will the talented freshman quarterback play? Georgia expects to see Watson at some point even though Cole Stoudt will start for the Tigers. Don’t forget that it’s somewhat of a homecoming for Watson. The nation’s top dual-threat quarterback hails from Gainesville, Georgia, and Mark Richt made a strong push to flip the in-state recruit.

3. We’ve already seen Greg McElroy take center stage on the SEC Network. How about analysis from another former Alabama quarterback? John Parker Wilson gives his take on the current quarterback battle going on in Tuscaloosa as part of AL.com’s “Film Room” series. Wilson goes over some plays that might help make like easer for both Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, and if there’s anybody who would know, it’s him. He played two seasons for Nick Saban. Meanwhile, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t amused with the ongoing quarterback competition. Holgorsen said too much has been made about the position and that the offense won’t change much regardless of who’s under center. He’s probably right.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The true measure of any recruiting class' worth isn't fully realized until a couple of years down the road. Regardless of the hype and golden stars racked up before signing day, getting the most out of a class takes time.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor
AP Photo/Stephen MortonRunning back Kelvin Taylor and the rest of the Florida Gators' underclassmen are looking to rebound from a 4-8 season in 2013.
For Florida, that time might have to be now for its 2013 class following last season's 4-8 debacle. It's a class that ESPN's RecruitingNation ranked second nationally with its 30 signees and 16 ESPN 300 members and held the nation's best high school cornerback -- Vernon Hargreaves III -- and running back -- Kelvin Taylor. It grabbed a potential game-changing receiver in Demarcus Robinson and 12 players who ranked within the top 10 at their respective positions.

The Gators will certainly need a lot from their upperclassmen, but the 2013 class could hold the key to Florida's present -- not just its future -- especially after a handful of its members were thrown into the SEC fire last season.

"We knew we wanted to come in and make an impact," said sophomore receiver Ahmad Fulwood, who caught 16 of his 17 passes in the final seven games of last season. "Not necessarily take someone's position or anything out of the ordinary, but we knew we had to come in and make an impact as a class and that's pretty much what we did."

For the most part, this class was mainly constructed of a group of contributors last season, with Hargreaves and Taylor being the headliners. Hargreaves was a third-team All-American member and ended up being one of the nation's best corners, leading the Gators with three interceptions and ranking third in the SEC with 14 passes defended. Taylor was a freshman All-SEC selection after rushing for 508 yards and four touchdowns.

Eleven members of the class lettered last season and collected 22 combined starts. With the majority of the class redshirting, even more is expected from this group, but players don't feel any added pressure. They don't mind the added responsibility.

"I feel like the guys who the coaches are looking at will definitely be able to step up," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "They know what to do and they know they're talented."

"These guys are ready to take on that role."

And it isn't just the talent and potential this class contains that has teammates and coaches trusting it. Once players saw injuries piling up, Taylor said the freshmen realized they were going to be counted on more so they started to buckle down with their preparation.

In a year in which this group could have resisted and pushed away from the core group, it grew closer and began to see older players looking up to them. Not even a year removed from high school, and this group was being relied on to help carry the team through some very dark weeks in 2013.

"You were a freshman, but they were depending on you to win games," Taylor said.

The wins didn't come, but resiliency did, redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor said. What impressed him the most was how this group continued to work through an exhausting seven-game losing streak.

"When you face adversity that you'll see in a 4-8 season, those guys kept fighting through all of it -- through the injuries, through the losses," Taylor said. "That's what shows that they have what it takes to take ownership of the team and lead us."

Moving forward, the contributions from this class will only grow. Keanu Neal, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington could be staples in Florida's secondary this year. Following a suspension-filled first year, Robinson has been one of the Gators' best offensive players during the offseason, and Fulwood has been even more consistent and could be a real vertical threat for the offense this fall.

Roderick Johnson is the next tackle in line after vets D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green, while linebacker Alex Anzalone has a chance to see time in Florida's linebacker rotation.

Davis was pegged as an early leader for the Gators last season and is right in the thick of a battle for a starting spot. Joey Ivie and Jay-nard Bostwick are in the early rotation along the defensive line, and Caleb Brantley has the chance to play his way in to as well.

This group has barely scratched the surface, but Taylor said guys are playing faster and thinking less. Last year this class was asked to learn, now, Taylor believes it will lead. Then, well, Taylor expects big things ... soon.

"Our whole mindset was that we were going to come here together and try to win a national title," he said.

"Now that we're so close, like brothers, it's going to be special in the future. We're looking forward to it."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sitting in a freshman humanities class, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III learned the harsh reality of losing in a Gators uniform.

The class was "What is the Good Life?" -- a required course for freshmen -- and students were asked to list their short-term life goals. With three football players -- Hargreaves, linebacker Matt Rolin and defensive back Nick Washington -- present, a student said she'd like to attend a Florida football game and actually see the Gators win.

Her words and eyes pierced through the players, shooting a humbling feeling through their bodies.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports"It's a humbling experience to go 4-8 at the University of Florida," Will Muschamp said.
"We really couldn't say anything because we didn't win so she was basically telling the truth," Hargreaves said.

It was an uncomfortable reminder of one of the worst seasons in Florida football history. A rash of injuries and loss of leadership resulted in a disastrous 4-8 year, the first losing season for the Gators since 1979 and a missed a bowl for the first time since 1990.

"People are going to bash Coach [Will] Muschamp, they're going to bash us, even around campus," Hargreaves said. "… If you don't win at Florida they're going to talk about you, and they're going to talk about you right to your face."

As the Gators enter Year 4 of the Muschamp era, they'll do so with the program at a critical crossroads. Rebounding could throw a program six years removed from its third national championship back on its intended track. Another let down could send Florida into a tailspin.

There is no Urban Meyer for athletic director Jeremy Foley to hire if Muschamp doesn't work out. Florida can't afford to fall any further behind Eastern Division rivals Georgia and South Carolina, and the gap between instate rival Florida State is already wide enough. Not to mention, Miami, which beat Florida and won nine games last year, and Tennessee are having recruiting resurgences.

Florida's own recruiting has been successful, but coaching turnover could cut into that, leaving unknowns for the future.

There's panic and unrest in the Gator Nation, as Florida finds itself in a make-or-break situation in 2014.

Muschamp isn't blind to that reality. While he refuses to publicly acknowledge any sort of talk surrounding his job, which he's very much coaching for this fall, he understands how important this season is for a program that won 11 games two years ago. There's a reason he decided to completely change his offensive philosophy and hire former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will run an uptempo, spread offense.

So far, Muschamp has liked the progress made during practices. The offense is moving more smoothly and the defense still has the patented Muschamp bite to it.

"I feel like everything is headed in the right direction, personally," said Muschamp, who is 22-16 at Florida. "Every year is a pivotal year. I don't put any more pressure on myself, I don't work any harder than I worked last year. I worked hard last year so it's not like I have renewed energy. ... I was energized last year."

"I'm excited about this football team and moving forward."

What this team -- and Muschamp -- has to show is significant improvement. That will start with an offense that finished last year's regular season ranked 112th in total offense, but end with more victories than losses.

How many wins? That's yet to be seen, and athletic director Jeremy Foley has even come out recently and said that he has no requirement for Muschamp, he just wants progress.

That means a competitive offense, a team in the postseason and some sort of run toward an Eastern Division title. Winning the East probably isn't a must for Muschamp, but being in the race late in the season could be.

Florida has a certain standard it should be living up to, and losing to the top teams on its schedule -- even by the smallest of margins -- isn't good enough. This is a program used to winning, not settling for close losses.

"This is the best team chemistry I've been around ever since I started playing football," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "I feel good about this year. I think this year's going to be special.

"We have a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys with bad tastes in their mouths and they're just ready to get it out."

After a year that featured an embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern, any sort of positive news out of a camp comes with cautious optimism for fans. For a program that achieved wild success in the 1990s and won two national titles under its last coach, Florida hit a wall last season.

Now we find out which direction this team will propel the program in.

"It's a humbling experience to go 4-8 at the University of Florida," Muschamp said. "You get your ass kicked enough and you get tired of it and you decide to do something about it. That's what this team has done."

SEC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
10:00
AM ET
Believe it or not, we are two days away from SEC football officially kicking off the 2014 season. And you thought we'd never get here!

Each season we make perfect prediction after perfect prediction. From weekly game picks to preseason teams, we think we've got this whole prognostication thing down to a science!

It's become a tradition here on the SEC blog to release our fearless predictions for the season ahead. I'm riding solo on them this year, but they shouldn't be any less correct this time around.

Here are my 10 fearless predictions for the SEC in 2014:

1. The SEC champion will have two losses ... but still make the playoff: With the talent gap between the teams at the top and the middle of the pack growing tighter, the SEC might be in store for the most exciting divisional races we've seen in a long time. No team is perfect. I've said this since the end of last season: No team will go undefeated in the SEC and no team will leave Atlanta with fewer than two losses. But with how strong the conference is this year, there's no way the SEC champ will be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesMike Davis rushed for 1,183 yards on 203 carries and 11 scores in 2013.
2. Mike Davis will lead the conference in rushing: He can steamroll over you or just run by you. Davis has everything you'd want in a back and even though he's dealing with a rib injury, he'll lead the SEC in rushing yards this season. It won't hurt that he has arguably the nation's best offensive line in front of him. Georgia's Todd Gurley has yet to make it through an entire season healthy, while T.J. Yeldon will undoubtedly have his carries eaten into by Derrick Henry. With what should be a solid passing game taking some pressure off him, Davis will blow by the 1,183 yards he had last year.

3. The SEC will have 12 bowl-eligible teams: Last year, the SEC saw 10 teams go bowling. This year, Florida and Tennessee will reach at least six wins this fall and join the teams that made bowl games last year. Yes, a Tennessee team with brand-new offensive and defensive lines will go bowling, and yes, Florida's offense will be much better.

4. Will Muschamp will finally beat Georgia: After going 0-3 against his alma mater, Muschamp will finally get a win at the World's Largest Outdoor, eh, Party. It's a rebound year in Gainesville with a better offense. Of course, the game will be close, but quarterback Jeff Driskel will engineer a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to end the bleeding the Bulldogs have caused the Gators the past three years. That means the SEC East title will come down to the Gators' home game with South Carolina on Nov. 15.

5. Arkansas will have two 1,000-yard rushers: The Razorbacks came close last year after Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined to rush for 1,926 yards. With so many unknowns still lurking in the passing game, coach Bret Bielema will have no problem handing the ball off to his duo as much as possible. Williams might even lead the Hogs in rushing this year after an impressive offseason. Stacking the box won't stop this duo.

6. The Mississippi schools will reach nine wins: It seems like whenever Mississippi State and Ole Miss have higher expectations, they fail to live up to the hype. Well, that ain't happening this season. With two very manageable seasons, and a host of talent returning, both of these schools will reach at least nine wins this season. Ole Miss gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home and should sweep nonconference play. Mississippi State has an extremely soft nonconference slate and gets Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Both Mississippi teams will pull a big upset on their way to nine wins.

7. Leonard Floyd will lead the SEC in sacks: Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks. This year, Georgia's best pass-rusher will push for All-American status by reaching double-digit sacks and leading the league. He's fast, strong and terrifying off the edge. Floyd had a great offseason and will be a nightmare for quarterbacks.

8. Vanderbilt will make it four bowl trips in a row: No James Franklin? No problem. What Franklin didn't take was the talented core of players the Commodores have. The Commodores return a strong offensive line and a deep, talented group of running backs. New coach Derek Mason also likes what he has defensively. The new 3-4 scheme will make the Dores faster off the edge with Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike moving to outside linebacker. Vandy should win its four nonconference games and will find two more wins to make it back to the postseason.

9. The SEC won't win the national championship: Look at prediction No. 1. While I think the SEC is stronger than ever as a whole, the winner of this league (I'm predicting Alabama) will be pretty beat-up come playoff time -- monthlong break and all. But it isn't just that. I think the country has a great set of teams at the top this year, and I don't see one SEC team really sticking out like seasons past. The seven straight titles were good for the league, but the conference will hit a two-year snag.

10. Ohio State will lose to another SEC team: The loss of quarterback Braxton Miller might have spoiled the Buckeyes' playoff hopes, but they'll find a way to meet an SEC team during the postseason and continue their time-honored tradition of losing to the SEC. Come January, the Buckeyes will be 0-11 against the SEC in bowl games.

SEC morning links

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
8:00
AM ET
1. A number of SEC schools released their depth charts Monday, giving the media and fans alike something to talk about. But do they really matter? At Alabama, we learned nothing about the quarterback position as Blake Sims and Jacob Coker are listed on the same line atop the depth chart. At Mississippi State, Chris Jones is currently a backup at defensive tackle. Even if Jones doesn’t start the season opener, you can’t tell me he won’t play the majority of the game. I agree that depth charts are interesting and it’s a chance to see who won some of the position battles in fall camp, but at the end of the day, I don’t think they matter. Coaches are going to do what they want to do regardless of what they put out on a depth chart. But for those of you keeping track at home, Auburn and Florida will release their depth charts Tuesday.

2. Speaking of Florida, Pat Dooley and Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun debated five hot topics about the upcoming college football season on Monday. For example, will the SEC get shut out of first ever College Football Playoff? Or is Jameis Winston a lock to win the Heisman Trophy? The two writers differ on their responses on these and the others. In my opinion, I can’t see the SEC getting shut out of the playoff, but I also don’t see the league getting two teams in. And no, I don’t think Winston is a lock for the Heisman. There’s a kid named Marcus Mariota who is getting a lot of hype out in Eugene, Oregon. However, the SEC’s chances of winning are shaky at best, writes Christopher Smith of Saturday Down South, and I tend to agree. The most likely candidates are Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, but it won’t be easy for either of them to beat out Mariota or unseat Winston.

3. If you haven’t seen Gene Wojciechowski’s "Big Man on Campus" column from Monday, I encourage you to go give it a read. It’s an expansive preview of the upcoming college football season in which he gives his predictions for conference standings, the Heisman Trophy and the first-ever playoff. What caught my eye was a look at who could be this season’s Auburn. He mentions Auburn (doing it again), Mississippi State and Florida from the SEC, but to accomplish what the Tigers did a year ago, a team would have to rise up from the bottom of the conference. That leaves Arkansas and Kentucky, which goes to show how improbable Auburn’s turnaround really was. I can’t see either the Razorbacks or the Wildcats winning the SEC this year, but don’t be shocked if Florida turns it around and win the East.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

AUBURN, Ala. -- If you don't follow Auburn football or if you didn't happen to catch the Tigers in action against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic last season, then there's a chance you don't know who Jeremy Johnson is. That's OK. You will.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
Brynn Anderson/AP PhotoAuburn QB Jeremy Johnson says he's ready to play football -- whether he's starting or not.
Johnson is currently the Tigers' backup quarterback behind Nick Marshall. The sophomore will be introduced to the SEC on Saturday when he will start -- or is expected to start -- the season opener against Arkansas in lieu of Marshall's marijuana citation this offseason. Both quarterbacks are expected to play, but it will easily be the biggest start of Johnson's life.

Nervous? Not Johnson.

"Football is football, and I'm a football player," he said. "That's why I'm here.”

The Auburn coaches aren't worried either. Although he hasn't officially named Johnson the starter for Saturday, head coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC media days that his backup quarterback could start for the majority of teams in college football. There are a few schools in the SEC who would love to have the 6-foot-5, 230-pound signal-caller right now.

In some areas, he's as good if not better than Marshall.

"Jeremy has a great upside,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "He has a big arm, lots of talent, throws a great ball. He's pretty athletic. He's big. He's got a lot of positives.”

But just because Johnson should be starting the season opener Saturday, it doesn't mean that he's going to take the quarterback job and run with it. This is still Marshall's team, and he knows that. That's why when he was facing the media during fall camp, he all but guaranteed his teammate and direct competitor would win the Heisman Trophy. After all, he had a front-row seat last season as Marshall led Auburn to the BCS title game.

"He led us to the national championship, and we were 13 seconds away,” Johnson said. "This year he better at passing, better at running, better at making reads. He's become a leader on this team, and I've never seen him so amped at practice every day the way he is, the way he comes out. So I know for a fact he'll win the Heisman."

Don't forget Johnson's name, though, because his time is coming. At this time next season, Marshall will have graduated and the starting quarterback job will be Johnson's for the taking.

The former ESPN 300 recruit gained some experience last season when he started two games as a true freshman and threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns, but the next step in his development process will be to start and play against SEC competition.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, that opportunity will likely come Saturday.

"It's going to really help him,” Johnson's high school coach Billy Gresham said. "Any time you get a chance to get your second-team quarterback in versus an SEC opponent is always good. He had some good, polished reps last year, but it wasn't the level that Auburn and the SEC are going to play week in, week out.

"Now he gets to test his skills, his knowledge and not only just play well, but manage the offense and the lead the offense on drives. It will be a great test for him.”

After Saturday, Johnson will be better prepared to step in if needed this season, and it will only make him a better quarterback for when it's his turn next year.

"Everybody has their time come, and I'm just waiting on my time,” he said.
videoWhat James Franklin did in his three seasons at Vanderbilt was nothing short of special. Call it astounding, fantastic or incredible.

Perennial SEC cellar dweller for most of its existence, Vanderbilt became relevant under Franklin.

No one will forget the transformation the program underwent thanks to Franklin, but it’s time to move on, and that’s exactly what the football team is doing now that the Derek Mason era is well underway.

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Images/Mark HumphreyVanderbilt wants to go from being competitive to champions under new coach Derek Mason.
 “James guided the ship, but those guys won games,” said Mason, who was Stanford’s defensive coordinator before arriving at Vanderbilt. “That’s what they see now. It’s really not about who’s at the helm, it’s about what they can get done collectively. You have to have great leadership in order to find great success.”

Franklin, who is now the head coach at Penn State, went 24-15 in three seasons at Vanderbilt and instilled a tough, winning mindset that catapulted the Commodores out of the “pushover” column. Last fall was a heck of a finale for Franklin, as Vandy beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all in the same season for the first time ever.

Now, the Commodores are looking to build off that success and take the next step with new management. They want to go from competitive to champions under Mason.

“We thirst for that,” defensive lineman Adam Butler said. “We thirst for the SEC championship. We thirst to be better than we were previous years. We feel like we’ve been downplayed for so long. It’s time to make a change.”

That’s something Vandy has never experienced, but this group believes Mason, who has yet to coach a game as a head coach, can take the program to that level because of his résumé and his more verbalized vision for the program.

The goal under Franklin was to win immediately -- one team, one game. For Mason, he wants his players thinking, breathing and talking championships. Mason’s theme is to think big in order to do big things. It sounds cliché -- because it is -- but it’s also a motivator for the Commodores. After having to stay quiet when it came to the word “championship” or even “bowl,” players are practically screaming about them.

“[Mason] thinks about championships – you gotta talk it to believe it,” safety Andrew Williamson said. “That’s what I really look forward to, just going out there working with him and working toward a championship because that’s really our next step.”

Butler said he also likes the approach Mason takes to work. He knows when to flash that infectious smile and when to show his tough, business side. It’s that side that Butler said has helped the Commodores keep their edge.

“Well, you know Coach Franklin, a lot of people like to call him a walking headline,” Butler said. “He’s about the camera, he loves the camera, he loves the media. So does Coach Mason, to an extent, but Coach Franklin had his own sort of way of saying things. It was in a more joking way. He was serious when he needed to be, but Coach Mason, he doesn’t play any games at all, and that’s what I love about him. He’s serious, he’s about business, and he’s about winning.”

And Mason sees that same personality in his players. They aren’t looking for sympathy after losing their last coach. He sees a little anger in guys and plenty of players looking to prove something, just like he is.

“We’re not afraid of anybody, and we’re not going to back down from anything,” Mason said. “We’re going to play every game, and I tell you what, we’re going to find ourselves on the big side of wins, rather than the small side of losses.

“This team is an audacious team. They understand who they are, and they understand what everybody’s perception is [of Vanderbilt]. The only perception that counts is theirs.”

And the perception in Nashville is that Vandy will continue to be a winner without Franklin. The metaphorical chip has been securely placed on the Commodores’ shoulders, and they’re ready to move on with their new captain.

“We have a tremendous amount of pride in what we’ve done here and what we’re doing,” tight end Steven Scheu said. “We’re building a power in the SEC, which pretty much everybody in the nation did not think Vanderbilt could do. It’s nice to be able to show everybody that we are to be reckoned with and that it’s not impossible to win at Vanderbilt.”

SEC morning links

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
8:00
AM ET
1. Game week is here. We are just three days away from South Carolina and Texas A&M. Steve Spurrier is ready. But there are still some question marks around the SEC, specifically at quarterback. Who does LSU go with against Wisconsin? Will Alabama ever name a starter before its first game? And how much will Nick Marshall play in Auburn’s season opener? The latter is yet to be determined, but Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday that both Marshall and backup Jeremy Johnson know what to expect as the Arkansas game approaches. If you’re like me, you’re just ready for all three schools to name a starter so we can stop talking about it.

2. For those hoping to see the SEC’s next Jared Lorenzen, it might be awhile. There was talk that Jeremy Liggins, who stands at 6-foot-3, 296 pounds, would take some reps as the Wildcat quarterback for Ole Miss this season, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, it will be Anthony Alford, a Southern Miss transfer who also plays baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Alford was taken in the third round of the 2012 MLB draft. Don’t sleep on Liggins, though. Rebels' coach Hugh Freeze says there are multiple packages where the former high school quarterback will line up at tight end. And since we brought up Lorenzen, I encourage you read this piece on the former Kentucky gunslinger and his lifelong battle with weight.

3. We at the SEC blog looked at the most important game for every SEC team in 2014. Along those same lines, David Climer of The Tennessean put out his 14 for ’14 – the defining game of 2014 for every SEC team. Some are more obvious like Georgia going to South Carolina early in the season or Alabama making the trip to Death Valley to take on LSU. But I was surprised to see that Tennessee’s “defining game” is the season opener against Utah State. Don’t get me wrong. Utah State has one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks in Chuckie Keeton, and the Vols can’t afford to lose that game. But the defining game? I’d make a case for the Florida game or maybe Vanderbilt at the end of the season. The Commodores have taken the last two in the rivalry. What do UT fans think?

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

video 

AUBURN, Ala. -- Who will the SEC’s next star be? It was the underlying theme at SEC media days as the coaches stole the spotlight, rather than the players, and there’s no doubt the conference lost some serious star power after last year, including one "Johnny Football." But to find the league’s next star, you must first ask yourself: What does it take to be a star?

Is it simply putting up big numbers in a conference loaded with talent? Do wins and losses matter? And how much does a player’s personality and charisma factor into his appeal?

If recent history is any indication, the latter plays a major role.

What do Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow have in common? They all won the Heisman Trophy, and they all had plenty of personality. Even Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, had a certain aura about him, a presence that captivated audiences nationwide.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/John BazemoreNick Marshall said winning games -- not the Heisman Trophy -- is his focus at Auburn.
The SEC’s next star doesn’t have that trait. He doesn’t have a money celebration or a Superman pose after he scores a touchdown. He’s not about to launch his Heisman campaign. He doesn’t even want to be in front of the camera. The only thing Auburn QB Nick Marshall wants to do is play football and win games.

“He’s not big on the spotlight,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He doesn't have to have the attention. He doesn't crave it, not that that's a bad thing, but he just likes to lay low, go about his business and do his thing. When it's game time, he likes to let it loose, let it rip and compete.”

It’s always been that way for Marshall. He didn’t grow up in the state of Texas or in a metropolis like Atlanta. As his high school coach, Mark Ledford, put it, “He grew up in a town [Pineview, Georgia] that’s got one caution light, and I’m not sure, really, it needs it.”

In high school, Marshall had a game where he threw six touchdowns to six different wide receivers, and he was happier for them than he was with what he did.

“That’s Nick,” Ledford said. “He’s never been one to reap all the glory.”

When Marshall arrived at Auburn last summer, he was a junior college quarterback with high expectations, but nobody knew anything about him other than his checkered past (in February 2012, he was dismissed by Georgia for violating team rules). In 2014, the expectations are even higher, yet Marshall himself is still a mystery.

“He’s not going to take the podium with a microphone stuck in his face and go try to be something that he’s not,” Ledford said. “What you’ve been getting with Nick, that’s about what you’re going to get.”

Auburn had planned to bring Marshall to media days, an opportunity to put their quarterback in the spotlight, but that fell through when he was pulled over just days before and given a citation for possession of marijuana.

An opportunity wasted. Instead of peeling layers back this offseason, more layers were added.

Now, as the 2014 season approaches, the usual suspects have already been mentioned for the Heisman Trophy -- names like Winston, Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty. Some pundits have included Marshall’s name, but his odds are higher. He’s more of a dark horse candidate than a front-runner.

“It’s a matter of opinion,” Auburn assistant coach Dameyune Craig said. “You can look at what Jameis did last year as a [redshirt] freshman; he won a national championship. You can look at Nick Marshall and say this kid was a first-year starting quarterback that played defensive back and he took us to the national championship game in the toughest conference in the nation.

“So I don’t see why he wouldn’t be in that category, based on what he did and his production. He put up over 3,000 yards of total offense, accounted for a lot of touchdowns."

Added Auburn coach Gus Malzahn: “You look at the people in the Heisman race, and they’re on winning teams. Nick just needs to lead us and keep winning. If he can do that, he’ll be in the mix.”

Marshall is not Newton, Tebow or Manziel. Marshall doesn’t embrace the spotlight as so many others before him, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be the next star in the SEC. He might even be the next Heisman Trophy winner, but don’t ask him about it. That’s not his style.

“I'm not too worried about the Heisman,” Marshall told reporters earlier this month. “I'm trying to gain the trust of my teammates and my coaches, and then I'm just trying to go out there and win games.”
The SEC is no stranger to losing underclassmen to the NFL draft each year, making finding true fourth-year stars harder than ever.

In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.

In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.

Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.

That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.

The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.

Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.

For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.

Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.

Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.

Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.

SEC morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
8:00
AM ET
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

 

Patton Robinette to start for Vandy

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:27
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback a week before the Commodores' season opener against Temple.
Mason announced his decision Thursday night.

"I'm excited for Patton as we prepare this team for the season opener next Thursday," Mason said in a statement. "Patton has really made strides and consistently improved from the spring to now. I believe he has worked to earn this opportunity."

The 6-foot-4 Robinette, the only quarterback with any starting experience at Vanderbilt, beat out Johnny McCrary and Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of Philip, who's quarterback for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. The Commodores started fall practice with six quarterbacks competing.

To continue reading this story, click here.

Malzahn remains mum on Auburn QBs

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:15
PM ET
AUBURN, Ala. – The season is less than 10 days away, and Auburn has yet to name its starting quarterback for the season opener against Arkansas. In his last media availability before game week, head coach Gus Malzahn wouldn’t divulge details as to who is starting or how much of the first game Nick Marshall will miss because of his suspension.

“We’ll have a plan,” Malzahn said. “Me and Rhett [Lashlee] will get together this weekend, and we’ll go from there.”

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesThere's no official word, but Jeremy Johnson seems to be the likely starter in Auburn's season opener.
For those wondering if Malzahn is leaving the door open for Marshall to start, he extinguished those rumors Tuesday, reiterating that Marshall will not start against the Razorbacks, a decision he announced at the beginning of fall camp following Marshall's citation for marijuana this offseason.

Malzahn also recently named true freshman Sean White the team’s third-string quarterback, which leaves sophomore Jeremy Johnson the front-runner and really only candidate to start the first game, though nothing has been made official.

On Saturday, Johnson said he hadn’t been told who the starter would be, but that he was preparing as he if were the guy.

“I still approach practice every day as the starter,” Johnson said. “I’m getting reps with both orange and blue, first team and second team, but if I’m called upon to start the first game, I’ll be ready.”

The depth chart for the first game comes out Tuesday, so Johnson shouldn’t have long to find out if in fact he is the guy. As far as Johnson’s mental psyche and the not knowing, Malzahn doesn’t believe it will affect the 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback.

“If I worried about anything like that, we’d already have done it,” Malzahn said. “But we don’t worry at all. We’ll have a good plan, and our guys will respond well. We know our guys pretty well.”

The uncertainty does not change the offense either.

“We’ll run our offense regardless [of who’s starting],” Malzahn added Thursday.

Johnson started two games as a freshman and finished 29 of 41 for 422 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, ranked No. 140 in the 2013 ESPN 300 and No. 6 in the state of Alabama.
Pick a word, any word.

That’s what I asked the 65 coaches from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame to do. Describe their team in one word.

Some coaches were one-word wonders, but a few insisted they needed two words. That’s fine because the descriptions shed some insight into how coaches view their team and/or what they want the public perception of their team to be.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/Athens Banner-HeraldGeorgia coach Mark Richt describes his team as 'wow.'
Of the 65 coaches, “hungry” was the most common description. Nine coaches went with it, making a “hungry” team the modern-day equivalent of the “taking it one game at a time” cliché. Four coaches used “unproven,” another four “experienced” and three said “young.” Two coaches each used “redemption,” “committed,” “improved” or “youthful."

In all, the 65 coaches used 44 different descriptions.

Well, here’s to taking it one “word” at a time. My word: Enjoy.

SEC

Alabama’s Nick Saban: Untested
Arkansas’ Bret Bielema: Motivated
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn: Experienced
Florida’s Will Muschamp: Hungry
Georgia’s Mark Richt: Wow
Kentucky’s Mark Stoops: Improved
LSU’s Les Miles: Unknown
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: Hungry
Missouri’s Gary Pinkel: Confident
Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze: Relentless
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: Decent
Tennessee’s Butch Jones: Committed
Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin: Eager
Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason: Audacious

SPONSORED HEADLINES