SEC: Tennessee Volunteers

SEC morning links

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
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1. The SEC is all over the Top 25 this week, but let's just come right out and say it -- there's no dominant team. Oh, a few of the West's best will have their chances to make a case, but right now there isn't a team without some warts. Take Texas A&M for instance. The Aggie offense with Kenny Trill pulling the trigger is a nightmare to game plan against. But A&M's defense is scary, too, and not in a good way. This unit was the worst in the SEC last season in total defense and run defense. Sure, the Aggies have improved since then. Maybe a lot. But who have they played for us to be sure? Aside from the season-opening ambush of South Carolina (a game in which the Gamecocks piled up 433 yards), A&M has played Lamar, Rice and SMU. Kevin Sumlin and Co. would be wise to not overlook the Razorbacks. Since their loss to Auburn in Week 1, the Hogs have averaged 58 points of offense in winning their last three. Their SEC-best rushing attack has the potential to give Texas A&M some nightmares as well.

2. Despite the roller coaster the Gamecocks have already been on in the season's first month of games (you can just see it on Steve Spurrier's face), it should be noted that South Carolina leads the SEC East. Does anybody want to win this division? Maybe we'll get an answer on Saturday when Missouri visits USC. Spurrier isn't sounding too confident after the way his team looked against what had been a dreadful Vanderbilt team. On the other hand, Mizzou is banged up. Starting left guard and fifth-year senior Anthony Gatti tore his ACL and MCL in the Tigers' loss to Indiana. And second-leading receiver Darius White will be out with a strained groin. This one isn't exactly shaping up to be the epic battle for East supremacy that some thought it could be a month ago.

3. ESPN's "College GameDay" is headed to Columbia, South Carolina. Not to be outdone, the other big game in the SEC East -- Tennessee at Georgia -- will be the site of the SEC Network's pregame show "SEC Nation". The Vols have something to prove and will hit the road with a much-improved defense. UT is sixth in the SEC in total defense, giving up 343 yards a game. That should give Tennessee some hope in preparing to face Georgia's star running back Todd Gurley and his SEC freshman of the week understudy, Sony Michel. The Bulldogs are also short-handed with Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley among the injured. The biggest challenge for Tennessee, however, is likely to come on the other side of the ball. Georgia has an intimidating pass rush, and the Vols O-line has given up an SEC-worst nine sacks already this seasons. Buckle up.

Around the SEC
  • LSU's stunning pratfall in Saturday's home loss to Mississippi State will prompt some changes. Most notably, the QB battle is back on.
  • Mississippi State center Dillon Day, accused of stomping on two LSU players, wrote a letter to Bulldogs fans to defend himself. Day has some history, though. He was suspended for a half last year after he stomped on an Auburn player.
  • File this under "Oh, they're friends now." Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to Gus Malzahn after Auburn's win at Kansas State: "Some of you may faint. I shot Gus a congrats text and just said, 'Hey I know how tough that place is. Congrats.' "
  • Will Muschamp has fallen off the hot seat and directly into the fire. Here are some ideas for fixing Florida.
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Hutson MasonAP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtThe Volunteers' secondary will be a good test to see whether Hutson Mason can stretch the field.

Georgia's showdown with Tennessee on Saturday is the perfect test for the Bulldogs at this point in the season. The Vols (2-1, 0-0 SEC) pose the exact threat that Georgia needs in order to take the next step in its 2014 progression.

We know the 12th-ranked Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1) can run for days (they're second in the SEC averaging 304 rushing yards per game and lead the league with 7.7 yards per rush), but the jury is still out on whether quarterback Hutson Mason can consistently throw down field. We also need to see Georgia's secondary step up and show that it can start limiting the big plays in the passing game.

Look, the East is an absolute mess right now. There is no dominant team, but even though the Dawgs are looking up at South Carolina in the division after a head-to-head loss in Columbia, they still might have the best path to Atlanta. Having running back -- and Heisman Trophy contender -- Todd Gurley gives Georgia a chance in any game. And did I mention that the East is a total crapshoot?

But if the Dawgs are going to avoid another loss or slogging through conference play, they have to be able to throw the ball and stop the pass.

Mason knows this offense backward and forward. No one is debating that, but what we haven't seen from him is any sort of down-field threat. The longest pass Mason has completed this year is a 36-yarder to Isaiah McKenzie on the first play from scrimmage for the Dawgs against South Carolina. After that, Mason was reduced to intermediate passes against a defense that wanted Mason to try and win the game, meaning they were more concerned with Georgia's running game.

Think about this: South Carolina's defense, which had allowed 832 passing yards in its first two games allowed Mason to throw for just 191 yards.

You have to take advantage of a defense like that, and Mason didn't.

I totally get that not having Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley on the field takes away two huge big-play threats, but Chris Conley is a vertical monster and you can't sit there and tell me that no one else is able to run some deeper passing routes in that receiving corps. Whether there's a confidence issue there with the receivers or Mason, if Georgia's offense is going to take some heat off of Gurley, it needs to be able to spread the field more with its passing game, and Tennessee's secondary provides a nice challenge for Mason.

Tennessee cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Justin Coleman and safety Brian Randolph pose the biggest threat to Georgia's passing game so far. The Vols had yet to allow 200 yards passing until Oklahoma's Trevor Knight threw for 308 two Saturdays ago, but with two weeks to prepare, you have to think that this secondary will be polished for the Dawgs. but here's something that should perk Mason's ears: Tennessee surrendered five passing plays of 20-plus yards to Oklahoma.

Saturday could prove to be a real turning point for Mason, as a passer, if he performs well against Tennessee's secondary. The Vols won't make it easy, but it's a great way to boost his confidence if he can start to get into rhythm throwing down field.

As for Georgia's secondary, the combo of quarterback Justin Worley (721 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions) and receiver Marquez North (14 catches, 173 yards and two touchdowns) is a challenge for anyone. Worely has mad some fantastic throws during the early part of the season, while North continues to show why he needs to be in the conversation with the league's top receivers.

You also can't forget about Alton "Pig" Howard or Josh Smith, who have combined for 23 catches this year. Smith is still nursing a high-ankle sprain, but he hasn't been ruled out of Saturday's game.

Need a dynamic weapon to take some pressure off of North, well, the Vols have one in freshman receiver Josh Malone, who seems to be improving each week.

Georgia's secondary looked good against Troy, but so has everyone else this year. It didn't look good against South Carolina when Dylan Thompson torch the Dawgs over the middle of the field and finish with 271 yards and three touchdowns.

There has been a lot of rotation in Georgia's defensive backfield, and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has made it clear that he's going to challenge his secondary and put them in more man-to-man situations.

Well, this is a great game to see how far those guys have come.

At first glance: SEC Week 5

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
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Another week in the SEC provided more intrigue after Mississippi State went into Death Valley and upended LSU, Missouri was stunned by Indiana and Auburn went into the Little Apple and pulled off a tough win over Kansas State.

The SEC West continues to flex its muscle with four teams in the top 10, five in the top 14 and six in the top 17 of the rankings. It’s hard to know what to make of the SEC East right now but this week could go a long way in providing some clarity with three intradivisional games. Let’s see what’s in store.

A quick look at the week ahead:

Game of the week: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M
"College GameDay" is going to Missouri-South Carolina but some of the pizzazz has escaped after the Tigers’ loss to Indiana. Keep an eye on the Aggies and Razorbacks, a game that provides a clash of contrasting styles (power running versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a chance for each team to prove something. Arkansas (3-1), a team that has already matched last season’s win total, could take a huge step forward with a win. It has already shown signs of progress with a road win at Texas Tech and when it battled toe-to-toe with Auburn for a half before the Tigers ultimately pulled away. No. 6 Texas A&M raced out of the gate with a big season-opening win over South Carolina but have had what has basically amounted to three straight preseason games against overmatched opponents since then. The Aggies run defense has yet to be truly tested (the Gamecocks were behind early and were mostly without Mike Davis) and the Razorbacks are the best in the SEC at running the ball. This was an interesting affair in Fayetteville last season; JerryWorld will set the scene for a potential shootout here.

Players under pressure: Missouri’s offensive line
The Tigers struggled mightily in its loss to Indiana. They committed three false start penalties, allowed two sacks and Indiana collected 11 tackles for loss, the most the Hoosiers have had in nearly two years. There were bad snaps and even worse, the Tigers lost senior left guard Anthony Gatti to a torn ACL during the game. Missouri hasn’t run the ball as well as it did a year ago (the Tigers are averaging 4.76 yards per carry, ninth in the SEC, compared to 5.66 yards per carry last season) and quarterback Maty Mauk was under pressure often against the Hoosiers. If the Tigers are going to bounce back from Saturday’s loss and start SEC play on the right foot at South Carolina, the offensive line play has to be better.

Coach under the microscope: Florida coach Will Muschamp
The Gators don’t play this weekend and that might be a bad thing after the taste left in their mouths following a 42-21 loss at Alabama. The week off will allow the “hot seat” talk of Muschamp’s job to only intensify during an idle week. Florida had a chance to redeem itself in Tuscaloosa after a home scare courtesy of Kentucky but allowing 645 yards to the Crimson Tide will only fan the flames. There will be talk about other topics (see: Jeff Driskel) and there are nine games left for Florida to turn things around but the bottom line is the Gators are 6-10 in their last 16 games including 4-6 in their last 10 SEC contests.

Storyline to watch: LSU’s quarterbacks
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris battled for the starting job all offseason and Jennings won the competition, but Saturday night’s relief performance by Harris against Mississippi State raised a few eyebrows. Jennings, a sophomore, was 13-of-26 for 157 yards but left the game with an injury. Harris, a true freshman, entered in the fourth quarter to give the LSU offense a lift and rally the team back into the ballgame in the final minutes, going 6-of-9 for 140 yards and two scores. Was it simply a case of Harris taking advantage of LSU’s hurry-up offense at the time while the Bulldogs enjoyed a seemingly-comfortable lead or is it a sign of things to come for Harris? Should the Tigers change quarterbacks? Will Harris see more time playing time, even if the Tigers don’t make the change? This will be an interesting situation to monitor.

Intriguing matchup: Tennessee versus Georgia
These two teams played a dramatic, memorable game in Knoxville last year, a 34-31 overtime win for Georgia. The Bulldogs were without star running back Todd Gurley; Aaron Murray led a gritty game-tying drive in regulation and who can forget the image of Pig Howard giving maximum effort by diving for a touchdown at the pylon in overtime only to have it overturned and ruled a fumble? This time, the game is in Athens and both are looking for their first SEC win of the season. Tennessee had time to regroup in an off week after its loss to Oklahoma while Georgia cruised to a win over Troy last week. Can the rematch meet the drama last season’s battle provided?

SEC morning links

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
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1. Missouri is still reeling from its surprising home loss to Indiana, a middling Big Ten team. Let that sink in for a minute. The Tigers were favored by 14 or 15 points in most spreads. And lost. For a team that was starting to look like a strong contender in the East Division, it was a shocking upset. Mizzou's worst loss in years. There is no panacea on the horizon. Up next is a road trip to South Carolina, which has ongoing problems of its own after barely escaping Nashville with a win against the Dores. As one would expect, Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier threw around some choice adjectives. The word embarrassing came up a lot. After giving up two kickoff returns for touchdowns, Spurrier announced on Sunday that he will be the Gamecocks' new assistant kickoff coverage coach. That oughta fix it. College GameDay will be in Columbia, S.C., this weekend, which prompted yet more Spurrier being Spurrier:

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2. There wasn't much to learn about Georgia in its 66-0 win against Troy. Or was there? We already knew Todd Gurley was one of the nation's finest players. He hardly broke a sweat on Saturday with six carries for 73 yards, but Georgia hasn't had to overwork Gurley, and still his 9.8 yards per carry leads the FBS. We knew the Bulldogs had some talented youngsters, but who knew true freshmen Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie were ready to completely overshadow another injury to former five-star running back Keith Marshall? It seems the only question surrounding Georgia is wither the passing game, fellas? Georgia welcomes Tennessee this weekend along with the chance to see if Hutson Mason needs to do anything other than hand off. For their part, the Vols enjoyed a perfectly timed bye week after three nonconference games and can now go about the business of clawing their way back to SEC relevance.

3. That sound of laughter you're hearing off in the distance? It's Lane Kiffin basking in the afterglow of Alabama's 42-21 smackdown of the Gators. His offense so thoroughly dominated Florida's defense, the Gators set a record for the most yards allowed in school history. Dating to his time as head coach at Tennessee, that kind of performance against the hated Gators was something Kiffin could only dream about. On Saturday, his quarterback threw for 445 yards -- second only to Scott Hunter's 484 in Alabama history -- and his money wide receiver was the clear winner in a much-anticipated matchup with one of the best cover cornerbacks in college football. Today, receiver Amari Cooper is a legitimate Heisman candidate. We suspected he might be the best wideout in the country, but there is now a totally different perception of quarterback Blake Sims (who deflected some of the praise to Kiffin, by the way). If Alabama's offense can keep up this kind of balance and ruthless efficiency, the only sound we'll be hearing will be the chattering teeth of defensive coordinators.

Around the SEC
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SEC bowl projections: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
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Alabama reinforced its position as a College Football Playoff contender by obliterating Florida on Saturday, while Mississippi State and Georgia also jumped in this week’s SEC bowl projections.

We’re also adding a 12th team -- Arkansas -- to the list after the Razorbacks crushed Northern Illinois to improve to 3-1. Arkansas has an awfully difficult schedule down the stretch, but we will give Bret Bielema's club the benefit of the doubt for now and project it to reach at least six wins.

Here is our full SEC list entering the fifth week of the season:

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

Video: Breaking down Kahlil McKenzie

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
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video

National recruiting analysts Craig Haubert and Tom Luginbill take to the touch screen to break down the tape of Tennessee commit Kahlil McKenzie, showing how scouts evaluate defensive tackle game film.

SEC morning links

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
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1. A lot has been made of the matchup of Amari Cooper and Vernon Hargreaves III, and rightfully so. But there's a piece to the puzzle that seems to have gone overlooked in the buildup to Alabama-Florida this week: the play of the offensive line. This is the SEC after all, and there's a good chance the game comes down to who controls the line of scrimmage best. If Blake Sims and Jeff Driskel aren't protected, it won't matter how well they throw the football. Florida center Max Garcia said the line plans to combat Alabama's defensive front, "with heart." Though the Gator o-line lacks depth, it's full of experience with all five starters being upperclassmen. On the other side is Alabama, which has a true freshman starting at left tackle in Cam Robinson. He could be the key to the game. Though the former five-star prospect has played well this season, he hasn't played in a game of this magnitude yet, and he hasn't seen a group of edge rushers like Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard yet. If there was ever a game not to make a rookie mistake, it will be Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

2. Jalen Hurd got a nice pick-me-up after Tennessee lost on the road at Oklahoma. The former four-star recruit turned promising freshman tailback checked his phone after the 34-10 loss and saw a notification on Twitter. And look at who it was. No, Faux Pelini didn't strike again. Instead, it was former Ohio State and NFL star Eddie George showing Hurd some love on the twittersphere. George, like a lot of us, saw in Hurd a potential star. Time will tell how Hurd's career turns out, but for now he can revel in the praise of an idol. "That just makes me happy," Hurd said.



3. For the first time in a long time, South Carolina doesn't have a two-quarterback system to worry about. In fact, we might not even know who Dylan Thompson's backup is at this point. It might be Pharoh Cooper, if you look at the number snaps taken in games. On the depth chart, Connor Mitch and Perry Orth are both listed as No. 2. It's a matter of semantics, of course, but the larger point might be the fact that there isn't even a whiff of a QB controversy in Columbia. When's the last time we could say that? Spurrier hasn't been the least bit tempted to pull Thompson from the game, and it's a testament to how well the veteran quarterback has played. So far, Thompson has made his four-year wait worth it. The redshirt senior has thrown eight touchdowns and three interceptions, and is averaging just over 300 yards passing per game. If he keeps this up, he might soon be in the conversation of the SEC's best quarterbacks. His 82.1 QBR rating ranks fourth in the league.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier beamed when he sprang into his postgame press conference room Saturday evening. He had just watched his Gamecocks shock No. 6 Georgia -- the team picked by many to represent the SEC in the College Football Playoff after just one game -- 38-35 with a gutsy, yet controversial, call to go for it on fourth-and-inches.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier again got the best of Georgia and showed that South Carolina will make noise in the SEC Eastern Division.
The Head Ball Coach, who was labeled "done" by some after an unconvincing 1-1 start that featured an epic beat down from Texas A&M, was smiling once again after besting his favorite SEC pinata -- Georgia.

Spurrier got his 16th win over Georgia -- the most by any coach over the Dawgs -- and his fourth out of the last five meetings. He and his team also showed that what we thought of South Carolina heading into last weekend wasn't exactly true. There are still issues with the Gamecocks, especially on defense, but we were quick to write off the very team picked in the preseason to win the SEC Eastern Division.

"This is a good one," Spurrier said of Saturday's win. "I knew we had a good chance to beat them when I heard [ESPN radio host Paul] Finebaum picked them [Georgia] to win by about 25 points. He picked Alabama to beat Oklahoma by 25 [in last season’s Allstate Sugar Bowl] too. I said, 'We gotta chance tonight then.'”

Yeah, all that negativity we showed the Gamecocks last week didn't go unnoticed in Columbia.

“I’m not going to lie and tell you that I wasn’t watching TV, seeing people say that Georgia was the No. 1 team, have them winning the playoff," South Carolina running back Mike Davis said. "Watching GameDay and seeing all those guys pick UGA, and having [ESPN college football analyst] Kirk [Herbstreit] being the only one who said we were going to win. This is a big confidence booster for our team.”

So South Carolina isn't dead, and it's clear that the SEC East is still very much wide open.

What else were we quick to assume about the SEC?

1. Jake Coker isn't ready: We all thought Coker would be Alabama's starting quarterback. Well, it's Florida week and veteran Blake Sims is very much the guy and has a big lead on Coker. Unlike Coker, Sims is limited with his arm, but he's done nothing to lose the starting job, while Coker has done nothing to take it.

2. Arkansas isn't the pushover it has been: We figured it'd be another ho-hum year for the Razorbacks. Then they challenged Auburn in the first half of their opener and literally ran over Nicholls State and Texas Tech with 933 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Arkansas looks like it can run on anyone.

3. Vanderbilt is in trouble: We thought the talent was still there for Vanderbilt to make another quality run under Derek Mason in his first year with the Commodores. Well, we aren't sure what's up, but the Commodores are lucky to be 1-2 at this point. After getting outscored 78-10 against Temple and Ole Miss, the Dores needed a last-second missed field goal to escape the UMass game.

4. Florida's defense has to climb back to elite status: We questioned Florida's offense, which still has concerns, but we didn't press the defense. Well, it turns out that there are actually real concerns with this younger unit. Coverage breakdowns fueled 369 Kentucky passing yards and three touchdowns. Also, can anyone besides Dante Fowler Jr. rush the passer?

5. Mississippi State's secondary has questions: It's early, but the Bulldogs have had issues in the back end of their defense. Through three games, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 311.7 passing yards per game. Corner Taveze Calhoun, who garnered tons of preseason praise, and the guys around him at corner and safety have really underperformed to start the season.

6. Texas A&M is still pretty good: Wasn't this team supposed to take a few steps back without Johnny Manziel? Well, the Aggies didn't get the memo. Texas A&M upset South Carolina 52-28 to start the year, the defense looks better and quarterback Kenny Hill leads the SEC with 1,094 yards and has 11 touchdowns. I can't believe someone didn't think an A&M quarterback would throw for 3,000 yards this season ...

7. Kentucky can upset someone: If you watched any part of Florida's triple-overtime win over Kentucky, you'd know the Wildcats are better than they have been in years. Patrick Towles threw for almost 400 yards on the Gators with a handful of playmakers to use that this team hasn't had in a while. Also, that defense is much better with Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith battling for the top defensive end duo in the SEC.

8. Tennessee doesn't have a quarterback issue: We thought there was too much uncertainty surrounding Tennessee's quarterbacks. Well, we were wrong, as Justin Worley has been solid, making tremendous throws through the first two games. He struggled against Oklahoma but is averaging 240 yards per game and has six touchdown passes.

9. Missouri isn't ready to take a step back: We thought there were a lot of questions for Mizzou on both sides of the ball, and there still might be, but this team isn't ready to bow out in the SEC. The competition hasn't been great, but Mizzou has done exactly what's been asked, outscoring teams 125-52.

10. Leonard Fournette isn't Michael Jordan ... yet: We thought Fournette would have at least 1,000 rushing yards and, like, 20 touchdowns at this point. What a disappointment! It's a long season folks, but Fournette is still learning and has just 162 yards and two touchdowns. He'll be great, but we actually have to be patient with him.

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
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Here are five true freshmen in the SEC who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from the Week 3:

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
What he did: Another week, another sack (or two) for Myles Garrett. In Texas A&M’s 38-10 win over Rice, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Garrett tallied 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and eight total tackles. He continues to live up to the hype that surrounded his recruitment and is now second in the country in sacks with 5.5 this season.

What it means: Garrett has already tied the Aggies’ school record for sacks in a season by a freshman and he is on pace to shatter Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC record for sacks by a freshman (eight). If Garrett continues to play the way he has as competition stiffens on A&M’s schedule, we're now talking about an All-SEC-caliber season. (Sam Khan)

Garrett Johnson, Kentucky
What he did: Johnson led the Wildcats with six receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He had three of UK’s biggest plays of the game: A 60-yard touchdown in which Johnson danced between two Florida safeties before running to the end zone; a back-breaking third-down conversion when he beat his man on a 30-yard catch and absorbed a big hit from the safety; then on the next play, Johnson gave Kentucky a 17-13 lead back when he streaked past a confused secondary and hauled in an easy 33-yard touchdown.

What it means: Johnson was Patrick Towles' favorite receiver in a triple-overtime game that opened a lot of eyes. Although the Cats lost, Johnson must have been especially pleased with his performance in The Swamp. The three-star recruit from Winter Garden, Florida, was rated the No. 84 prospect in the state and didn’t have a committable offer from the Gators. (Jeff Barlis)

Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
What he did: Although Oklahoma’s defense completely shut down the Tennessee running game in the first half, Hurd broke runs of 43 and 29 yards after halftime as the Volunteers tried to stay in the game. Oklahoma ultimately pulled away for a 34-10 win, but Hurd gave a standout performance with 97 rushing yards on 14 carries, plus 24 receiving yards on two catches. It was the best rushing outing by a Tennessee true freshman since Bryce Brown in 2009.

What it means: Although he hasn’t started yet, Hurd is Tennessee’s leading rusher with 48 carries for 209 yards and one touchdown. Each week he emerges a bit more as a star in the Vols’ backfield. Up next for Hurd and the Vols’ young offensive line will be a Sept. 27 trip to Georgia in Tennessee’s SEC opener. If the Bulldogs don’t clean up the run defense that South Carolina exploited last Saturday, Hurd might have a field day. (David Ching)

Armani Watts, Texas A&M
What he did: Watts had six tackles against Rice, but perhaps most notable was a play that won't end up on the stat sheet. After a blocked field goal, Watts raced to his own 7-yard line to pick up the ball and run across the width and length of the field for a 93-yard touchdown return. The only problem? A&M was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct as players on the sideline entered the field.

What it means: Though Watts' return didn't count, he has had three good games in an Aggies uniform. He has been one of the pleasant surprises at a position the Aggies sorely needed help: Safety. He's fifth on the team in tackles, leads in pass breakups (three) and has made an interception and two tackles for loss. He has been an impact player with a nose for the football, huge for an A&M defense trying to improve. (Sam Khan)

Darrel Williams, LSU
What he did: Williams took the fewest carries of anyone in LSU’s four-man tailback rotation, but he scored twice -- once on a nifty fullback dive where he broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and broke away for a 22-yard scoring run -- and again showed off a powerful running style. Williams finished the game against Louisiana-Monroe with seven carries for 37 yards and is now tied with senior Kenny Hilliard for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with three.

What it means: Williams has been impressive in limited work in the Tigers’ last two nonconference games. While he won’t become LSU’s No. 1 running back this season, he has flashed some versatility by contributing at both tailback and fullback. He and Hilliard took the bulk of LSU’s short-yardage carries against ULM, so Williams has clearly done enough to expect to see more of him once the Tigers open SEC play this weekend against Mississippi State. (David Ching)

Other notables:

OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Carter recovered a Brandon Wilds fumble at the South Carolina 26-yard line to set up a field goal that gave Georgia a 10-7 lead in the first quarter. He finished the day with three tackles, a fumble recovery and a quarterback pressure.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Fournette ran 10 times for 52 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown, caught a 20-yard pass and returned the opening kickoff 40 yards in a win against Louisiana-Monroe.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Noil caught three passes for 71 yards and scored on a 14-yard touchdown pass against Rice before leaving the game in the third quarter with an injury.

CB Henre' Toliver, Arkansas: Toliver started for the first time and helped the Razorbacks put the finishing touches on an enormous win over Texas Tech by intercepting a Davis Webb pass at the Arkansas 15-yard line on the Red Raiders’ final possession.

RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky: Williams made one of Kentucky’s plays of the night against Florida. On the Wildcats’ first overtime possession, he ran right after catching a pass, then reversed field all the way to the opposite sideline and dove to the pylon for a 25-yard touchdown that put Kentucky up 27-20.

SEC morning links

September, 15, 2014
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Arkansas' 49-28 win at Texas Tech was a big one for the Hogs in the Bret Bielema era, perhaps the biggest to date. It's a sign of a program showing improvement after a rough 2013. In the aftermath, much of the discussion focused on the Razorbacks' running game, led by Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and that big Arkansas offensive line. Rightfully so. But what is easy to overlook is the performance of the Razorbacks' defense, which took some body blows early but had an impressive second half, holding the high-powered Red Raiders to just seven points. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith's crew stood up to the challenge Texas Tech presented and helped Arkansas score a seminal win as a result.

Though they lost, Kentucky opened a lot of eyes on Saturday night in the Swamp. Taking Florida to three overtimes in a 36-30 loss is notable for a program that has been a cellar dweller. One of the reasons for the Wildcats' ability to compete is the increased talent on the field they've gathered in recruiting under coach Mark Stoops. Several of those young Wildcats, especially receiver Garrett Johnson, give Kentucky reason for hope in the future.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is often cited as one of the most detailed-oriented coaches around. That may be true, but it doesn't apply to every part of the game, apparently. Asked after Saturday's win over Southern Mississippi about the play of left guard Leon Brown, Saban admitted that he doesn't pay much attention to the offensive linemen. As a former quarterback and defensive back, he focuses on the skill players. He emphasized that the linemen are important but that he doesn't even "watch them during individual [drills]." You can see the video, where Saban smiles and jokes his way through the soliloquy, here.

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SEC bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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We're creeping closer and closer to the meat of conference season in the SEC. That just means things will get a little clearer in the bowl picture for the league.

We had a major shakeup at the top of our predictions with South Carolina's 38-35 upset win over Georgia, but we're still going with one SEC team making the College Football Playoff and 11 teams from the league making it into the postseason:

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

Video: No. 4 Oklahoma 34, Tennessee 10

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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video 
No. 4 Oklahoma improved to 3-0 on the season with a 34-10 victory over Tennessee.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
8:00
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Noon ET

UMass at Vanderbilt, FSN
When these teams met last season in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it was a competitive game before a Vandy team that would win nine games locked down a 24-7 victory. UMass gave Colorado a scare before falling 41-38 last weekend, so reeling Vandy had better come to play or it might be on upset alert.

Central Florida at No. 20 Missouri, SEC Network
When last we saw UCF, the Knights were suffering a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in their season-opening matchup in Ireland. Mizzou is a 10-point favorite over the Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season before stars Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson jumped to the NFL, but the opener made it clear that UCF can still compete with Power 5 opposition.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and No. 6 Georgia are looking for a second consecutive win over No. 24 South Carolina.
No. 6 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina, CBS
Georgia's visits to South Carolina are almost always must-see TV, although these trips are rarely much fun for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Even when Georgia has won in Columbia -- and it has lost its past two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium -- the outcome has frequently been in doubt even in the final seconds. Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley should get plenty of work for Georgia in this one.

Arkansas at Texas Tech, ABC
Here's a fun clash of cultures for a national TV audience, which will see Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound face Kliff Kingsbury's passing attack. Texas Tech has a couple of nail-biter nonconference wins on its resume, while Arkansas is coming off a 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State. The home team is a narrow favorite here, but this could be a good one.

4 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 14 Ole Miss, SEC Network
This looked like a sneaky good game before the season, with ULL coming off three consecutive bowl appearances. But the Ragin' Cajuns absorbed a 48-20 beating from Louisiana Tech last week and Ole Miss dominated Vanderbilt in Nashville, so it doesn't look like an upset is in the cards for this one.

Mississippi State at South Alabama, ESPNEWS
This will be the first time an SEC opponent has played at South Alabama and excitement is high in Mobile -- particularly after the Jaguars opened the season with a win and Mississippi State struggled to put away UAB for a while last Saturday. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and company need to turn in a complete performance with a trip to LSU ahead next week.

6 p.m. ET

Southern Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama, ESPN2
Alabama gets another opportunity to kick around an overmatched nonconference opponent, just as it did last week against Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson Tide, a 48-point favorite, is that most of the starters should be watching from the sideline in the second half, resting up for a visit from Florida next Saturday.

7 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Monroe at No. 10 LSU, ESPNU
Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 against in-state opponents and most of those games have been blowouts, so there is little reason to believe this will be a close contest. That said, the Tigers' secondary should face a reasonable challenge from the Warhawks' no-huddle spread attack.

7:30 p.m. ET

Kentucky at Florida, ESPN
Wildcats running back Jojo Kemp (a native Floridian) poked the bear this week when he made comments about how good it would feel to beat a couple of his former high school teammates -- and current Gators -- and rub it in their faces. Kentucky looks to be a greatly improved team, but it will be a major upset if this game is still close in the fourth quarter, and Kemp's comments probably didn't help the Wildcats' cause.

8 p.m. ET

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, ABC
As with Kentucky, this is a major measuring-stick game for an improving Tennessee team -- going on the road to face an opponent that virtually nobody expects the Volunteers to challenge. Butch Jones' Vols have been impressive so far, but their inexperience along the line of scrimmage will be their undoing in this one.

9 p.m. ET

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, ESPN2
For the second straight Saturday, the Aggies can help SEC viewers get to sleep by drubbing an in-state opponent in a late-night matchup. Rice, a 31-point underdog, might put up more of a fight than Lamar did in losing 73-3 to Texas A&M a week ago, but it won't be much more of one. Kenny Hill and the Aggies win big again.
videoThe last road game Jalen Hurd took part in was just over a year ago when his Beech High School Buccaneers traveled six miles to play Station Camp High School, a game televised on ESPN. The Tennessee commitment did not disappoint, rushing for 177 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries and even adding a late interception.

But that was then. This is now.

On Saturday, Hurd and his fellow Tennessee squad will travel to Norman, Oklahoma, to face a Sooners team that has a home record of 88-5 under current coach Bob Stoops. The hundreds of opposing spectators Hurd faced in high school will be replaced by 82,112 delirious fans inside Memorial Stadium.

[+] EnlargeJalen Hurd
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsRB Jalen Hurd stands out among a group of freshmen who have made an immediate impact with the Volunteers.
“It’s going to be different,” Hurd said. “But that’s when you come in, you look at your teammates and you know that you’ve got each other’s back. Every play you’re going to help your team out to try and get the win.”

Earlier this week, Tennessee coach Butch said that more than half his team will be making their first ever road trip. Some of the younger guys have never even flown in a plane before. It will certainly be a new experience for this young Volunteers squad.

“I’m excited to see how our team responds against one of the top three football teams in the country,” Jones said. “Is the stage too big for them? Do they embrace the challenge? Do we understand what it takes to play winning football on the road?

“I’m looking forward to seeing how fast we can grow up as a football team.”

Through two games, Jones can’t complain. The freshmen have exceeded expectations, and it’s a big reason why the Vols are sitting at 2-0. Hurd, in particular, rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown last Saturday against Arkansas State and became the first UT running back since Arian Foster in 2005 to earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors.

Other freshmen of note from Saturday’s win included tight end Ethan Wolf, who led the team in receptions, and defensive back Todd Kelly Jr., who made his first career start and finished with five tackles.

However, Saturday’s trip to Oklahoma will be a new challenge for the 22 true freshmen who have already played this season.

“It’s my first away game,” Kelly said. “I haven’t really experienced it before, but I know they have an awesome atmosphere. Their fans are great for their team, and we’re going in looking for a win. We’re trying to go 3-0 just as they are. I think it will be a great game, a competitive game, and we’re looking forward to it.”

The experts don’t give Tennessee much of a chance. The latest line from Bovada has the Sooners as a three-touchdown favorite, but there’s a different attitude in Knoxville this year that hasn’t been there in years past.

As Jones said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference, there’s a difference between believing you’re going to win and hoping to win. This team believes it can win.

“It will take a four-quarter game, and we’re going to have to come with our A-game, which we will,” Hurd said.

As a coach, that’s the attitude you want from your young stars. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do to try to prepare them. This isn’t Station Camp High School anymore. This is Oklahoma.

“You never really know,” Jones said. “You try to do the crowd noises and the different things in practice, but you never really know how they’re going to respond until you’re on that game field and it’s for real.”

This Saturday, it will be for real.

How Tennessee can hang with Oklahoma 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
8:19
AM ET
Trevor KnightKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsThe Vols would be wise to blitz QB Trevor Knight and force OU to rely heavily on the passing game.
Tennessee has held steady at most Vegas books as a three-touchdown underdog Saturday at Oklahoma. It would clearly be a significant, ahead-of-schedule upset if the Volunteers were to win in Norman, Oklahoma.

Even UT coach Butch Jones was aware this week of Bob Stoops’ 88-5 home record. (I tried to be comforting, reminding Jones that three of the five losses have come since 2011.)

But c'mon, we've learned enough about college football to know that the unexpected is to be expected. Week 3 looks on paper like a dud, so naturally it will provide indelible games and impactful results. That’s how it goes.

For Tennessee, here's the game plan that can, at minimum, keep the Vols hanging around in the second half on the road against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Knight under center



Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight is the central character, after talking with Big 12 and SEC coaches about the game.

If Tennessee has designs on winning, or at least staying in the game, it needs to do the following where Knight is concerned:

Hit him: “Knight doesn’t like [to be hit],” a Big 12 coach told me. “He didn’t finish some games last year.”

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating trying to injure a player, not at all, but it’s significant to note that coaches still aren’t sold on Knight’s durability.

We know Knight became a darling after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama -- but he could not finish the previous game against Oklahoma State. Backup Blake Bell entered and bailed out the Sooners with a late TD drive, the only offensive TD of the game for OU.

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