SEC: Antonio Allen

South Carolina spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
7:30
AM ET
2011 record: 11-2
2011 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners:
WR Ace Sanders, OG A.J. Cann, QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore, CB Akeem Auguste, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Shaq Wilson, Spur DeVonte Holloman, S D.J. Swearinger

Key losses:
WR Alshon Jeffery, OT Rokevious Watkins, OG Terrence Campbell, Spur Antonio Allen, DE Melvin Ingram, CB Stephon Gilmore, DT Travian Robertson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Marcus Lattimore* (818 yards)
Passing: Connor Shaw* (1,448 yards)
Receiving: Alshon Jeffery (762 yards)
Tackles: Antonio Allen (88)
Sacks: Melvin Ingram (10)
Interceptions: Stephon Gilmore (4)

Spring answers

1. Shaw's development: The goal for quarterback Connor Shaw this spring was to work on the passing part of the position. The run-first quarterback showed flashes of transformation in his mindset toward the end of last season and it bled over to this year. He seems to be more confident in his passing and that will go a long way for the Gamecocks offense, as the downfield passing game was missing for most of South Carolina's season in 2011.

2. Running back depth: With Lattimore sitting out the spring, South Carolina turned to reserves Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles. Both performed well, but Miles was named the offensive player of the spring. He wrestled with returning to the Gamecocks, and still seems to be creating some drama about his return this fall, but if he comes back he'll be the No. 2 back. Miles made major strides in his game and his return would mean South Carolina has some insurance at running back if Lattimore struggles. Even if he returns at full health, having Miles there will give the Gamecocks a solid option to keep Lattimore fresh.

3. Shell's development: South Carolina's coaches were anxious to see what redshirt freshman Brandon Shell could do and he didn't disappoint. He ended spring as the starter at left tackle -- the same position that Rokevious Watkins manned last season. The Gamecocks lost two starters along the offensive line, but Shell provided a nice spark at the most important position along the line.

Fall questions

1. Lattimore's health: While word out of South Carolina's camp is that Lattimore was ahead of schedule with his knee rehab, it's still unknown if he will be back to his old self. It's hard to believe that anyone could come back from an ACL injury in this amount of time and be as effective and as good as Lattimore was, but his coaches think he can do just that. Until we see him play, there will still be some uncertainty. A healthy Lattimore makes this an SEC contender and maybe more.

2. Secondary: South Carolina has veterans Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger returning in its defensive backfield, but both dealt with injuries in the spring and the Gamecocks must replace three of its top four cornerbacks from last season. The injuries gave young guys the opportunity to get more reps, but questions still remain. Victor Hampton, listed as a starter, might be South Carolina's most athletic returning corner, but he has limited experience and a history of off-field issues. Brison Williams should enter the fall as a starter at strong safety, but has just one career start. He's one of two players at strong safety with game experience. Jimmy Legree and Cadarious Sanders are the only other corners with game experience. Expect redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian to compete for time as well.

3. Wide receiver: The Gamecocks will start the summer still wondering about the wide receiver position. Ace Sanders returns as the team's most productive receiver, but after that there isn't a lot of production. The good news was that Bruce Ellington returned to football this spring, but the bad news is that even with him back, Sanders is still the only receiver returning with 20 or more catches (29). Speedster Damiere Byrd showed progress and the coaches expect to get more from D.L. Moore, but the position is still a mystery. Incoming freshman Shaq Roland will be relied on a lot when he reports in the summer.

Top performer: Tackles

May, 14, 2012
5/14/12
2:00
PM ET
Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the top tacklers.

Past producers:
The SEC returns three of the top 10 tacklers from 2011, but don't let that fool you. There's still a lot of quality out there on those SEC defenses. Last season's tackling king, Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan, is gone, and so are his 143 tackles. But the league's No. 2 tackler is back.

Here's a look at the top tackler returning in the SEC:

Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles and had 50 solo stops. He also averaged 9.5 tackles per game. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder found ways to take down opposing offensive players by roaming all over the field for the Bulldogs. Lawrence started on the outside, but made his presence known on many different areas of the field with his speed and relentless attitude. Lawrence picked up right were he left off this spring, and the coaches expect him to be just as valuable this fall. It'll be tough to stop Lawrence from taking the tackling crown in 2012.

The SEC returns two more of its top tacklers:
  • Daren Bates, LB, Auburn: He registered 104 tackles, including 59 solo, and averaged eight tackles a game.
  • Jonathan Bostic, LB, Florida: He registered 94 tackles, including 60 solo, and averaged 7.2 tackles a game.

Those three will certainly get their chances to fight for the crown, but there are other players to keep an eye on as well this fall. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at Alabama, but that means Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley will have the chance to take some of that lost production.

Missouri linebacker Andrew Wilson was a stud last season with his team-high 98 tackles, so he'll definitely be in the race this season. So will South Carolina's Devonte Holloman, as he moves back to the Spur position that he lost last season to Antonio Allen, who led the Gamecocks in tackles. Georgia's Jarvis Jones will also take a crack at it. He was the best when it came to making plays behind the line of scrimmage last season, but you better believe offenses will look to protect the backfield more against him. That means he'll have more opportunities to make plays past the line, and he's just as deadly when he isn't rushing the passer.

Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry had a solid season in 2011, accumulating 81 total tackles. He's turned into a better player, and with the Rebels lining up in all sorts of different defensive formations, he'll be moving all around the field to make plays. Also, keep tabs on Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and defensive end/linebacker Tenarius Wright. Highsmith had a tremendous 2011 season, racking up 80 tackles, and with the team's top tacklers gone, expect his production to increase. And if Wright stays at linebacker, he'll have more opportunities to add to his tackling numbers.

Two other players to watch out for are Texas A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart and Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham. Stewart led the Aggies with 98 tackles last season, and Garnham moves into Chris Marve's spot in the middle. A spot where Marve registered a team-high 91 tackles.

The SEC's top players: Missing the cut

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
4:11
PM ET
Our postseason countdown of the SEC's top 25 players is out there for all to see, and the feedback has been nothing but positive.

Everybody agrees with all of our selections, and there hasn't been any second-guessing.

Right.

If you believe that, you'll also believe that the SEC has decided to outlaw tackling, and go to two-hand touch next season ... sort of like they do in some of the other conferences around the country.

The truth is that our countdown has been highly scrutinized (just as it is every year), and you've showered us with eight to 10 players you insist were absolute locks for the countdown -- and yet didn't make it.

Hey, we can't squeeze 35 players into 25 spots. It's impossible to pick just 25 players in a league as talented as the SEC, and even after you seek input from several different people and then agonize over the list for a week, you look at the finished product and ask yourself how Player X or Player Y could be omitted.

With that said, here's a look at the five players who just missed the cut. All five had excellent seasons and could have (and maybe should have) been on the list.

The players are listed alphabetically:

Antonio Allen, LB/S, South Carolina, Sr.: Playing the hybrid "Spur" position in the Gamecocks' defense, Allen was a relentless ball-hawk. He forced four fumbles and recovered three, while also intercepting three passes. The 6-foot-2, 202-pound Allen led South Carolina with 88 total tackles, including 9.5 for loss. He scored a pair of defensive touchdowns, one on an interception return and another on a fumble return. Allen was a second-team All-America selection by the Associated Press.

Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas, Sr.: The only thing holding back Bequette last season was a nasty hamstring injury during the early part of the season that forced him to miss three games. Otherwise, he would have easily cracked our top 25 countdown. Even with the late start, Bequette finished with 10 sacks in 10 games, leading the SEC in sacks per game, and also forced five fumbles. Bequette was a first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches.

Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn, So.: It wasn't a memorable season for the Auburn defense, but Lemonier put up monster numbers for the Tigers. He was third in the SEC with 9.5 sacks, and against league competition, was second with 8.5 of those sacks. Lemonier finished with 13.5 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hurries, five forced fumbles, and a blocked a kick. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches.

Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU, So.: An integral part of LSU's menacing defense, Montgomery was as good against the run as he was rushing the passer. He led the Tigers with nine sacks, and was second on the team with 13.5 tackles for loss. Montgomery was named an All-American by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and earned first-team All-SEC honors from both the coaches and the Associated Press.

Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee, So.: After Justin Hunter went down with a knee injury in the third week, Rogers became the Vols' go-to target and led the SEC with 67 catches. He was second in the league with 1,040 receiving yards, and also had nine touchdown catches. Rogers was a first-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press, and a second-team All-SEC selection by the coaches.
Schedule: South Carolina opens spring camp at 4:15 p.m. ET Tuesday at the Bluff Road Practice Fields. The Gamecocks will conclude spring with the Garnet & Black Spring Game on April 14, beginning at 1 p.m. ET at Williams-Brice Stadium. All 15 of practices are open to the public, unless determined otherwise.

What's new: Four of South Carolina's nine assistants are new. John Butler, Jay Graham, Jeep Hunter and Ellis Johnson are all gone. Lorenzo Ward was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator, replacing Johnson. Ward will still focus on the cornerbacks this season. Head coach Steve Spurrier also added Kirk Botkin to coach linebackers/Spurs, Grady Brown to coach the secondary, Joe Robinson to coach special teams/tight ends, and Everette Sands to coach running backs. Joe Connolly also replaces Craig Fitzgerald as South Carolina's strength and conditioning coach. Also, South Carolina will be looking to replace kicker Jay Wooten and punter Joey Scribner-Howard. Walk-ons Landon Ard and Adam Yates will compete at kicker this spring, and sophomore Patrick Fish should be No. 1 at punter.

On the move: Safety DeVonte Holloman is looking to transition back to the Spur position after spending 2011 at safety. He worked at the Spur last spring, but the departing Antonio Allen played there last season. Also, Damario Jeffery is slated to move from the Spur to Will linebacker this spring. Jimmy Legree is moving back to cornerback after making a couple of starts at free safety last season.

On the mend: The Gamecocks will be without star running back Marcus Lattimore, who is still recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered halfway through the 2011 season. Running back Shon Carson is also out and recovering from a knee injury suffered last season. Sophomore offensive lineman Mike Matulis will sit out the spring after recovering from shoulder surgery, and senior cornerback Akeem Auguste will be limited as he tries to get over a foot injury that kept him out of all but one game last season. Safety D.J. Swearinger will miss the spring after having an operation on his foot. Offensive lineman Brock Stadnik will sit out the spring following shoulder surgery.

Questions: Auguste and Swearinger are dealing with injuries, South Carolina must replace three of its top four cornerbacks, and Holloman is moving back to the Spur, meaning the Gamecocks' secondary is loaded with questions. Sophomore Victor Hampton is expected to take one of the cornerback spots. He's talented, but has had off-field issues. He has the potential to be a key player for the Gamecocks. Depth behind him is a question, as Legree and Cadarious Sanders are the only other cornerbacks with game experience. A big spring from redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian could put him in the thick of it for a starting cornerback spot. Sophomore-to-be Brison Williams takes over at strong safety after playing in eight games last season, but depth behind him is a concern, as rising sophomore Kadetrix Marcus, Edward Muldrow and Sheldon Royster enter spring with six games of experience, all from Marcus. South Carolina must also find players at free safety.

Key battle: With Alshon Jeffery taking his talents to the NFL, and Bruce Ellington sticking to basketball, South Carolina enters the spring with little experience at wide receiver. Ace Sanders is the only returning receiver with 20 or more catches (29), and Nick Jones is the only other one with 10 or more catches (12). There are bodies, but not production. D.L. Moore and DeAngelo Smith should enter the spring as starters, along with Sanders. Both showed promise in the past, but they combined for just 11 catches last season. Lamar Scruggs is a junior, but didn't catch a pass last season. Speedster Damiere Byrd is back after missing four games last season because of NCAA issues. Also, redshirt freshmen Shamier Jeffery (Alshon Jeffery's brother) and K.J. Brent will need to have big springs. South Carolina is expected to get good use out of incoming freshman Shaq Roland, but the Gamecocks need to find at least two solid options before he arrives this summer.

Don't forget about: South Carolina's front seven should be solid again in 2012. Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor will man the defensive end positions, while rising sophomore Kelcy Quarles, who enjoyed a tremendous freshman season, will help ease the loss of Travian Robertson inside. At linebacker, South Carolina only lost Rodney Paulk, and returns seniors Reginald Bowens and Shaq Wilson, who combined for 96 tackles in 2011. Seniors Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will also get time at the Will spot.

Breaking out: The coaches are very excited about the potential redshirt freshmen offensive tackle Brandon Shell possesses. He was a standout high school player, and will have every chance to earn the starting spot at left tackle this spring. He has supposedly had a good offseason so far, and has gotten stronger. If he's as good as the coaches say, he'll help shore up a line that has to replace two starters, including left tackle Rokevious Watkins.

All eyes on: Quarterback Connor Shaw saw vast improvements in his game as the 2011 season went on. He started to develop into more of a passer than a runner. While he still likes to run at times, you could tell that Shaw was making a conscious effort to rely on his arm first. In his last three games, Shaw averaged 219 yards and threw eight touchdowns to one interception. Now is the time for him to really come into his own as a passer. For South Carolina's offense to be successful, Shaw has to play smarter, and has to boost the Gamecocks' passing game. He'll also need to create better chemistry with his unproven receivers. South Carolina's offensive players will feed off Shaw's spring.
After the NFL combine, Mel Kiper has been hard at work to deliver us a handful of news and notes. It seems as though he works just as hard as the participants do throughout the week.

He has updated his list of the top five players at each position heading into April's NFL draft and the SEC is very well represented, getting 20 players on his list and having at least one player listed at each position.

Here is Kiper's updated list and a little analysis from him on some players:

QUARTERBACK
RUNNING BACK
"Richardson is a rare running back who has the chance to crack the top 10 on draft day, but he'll need to prove his knee is fine. My guess is he will."
FULLBACK
WIDE RECEIVER
TIGHT END
OFFENSIVE TACKLE
  • No. 5: Bobbie Massie, Ole Miss, 6-6, 316, Jr.
OFFENSIVE GUARD
"Glenn is a massive guy, a versatile lineman who can move outside to tackle in a pinch. I still think he's best suited at guard."
CENTER
DEFENSIVE END
"Ingram is closing, and had a good week in Indy. Branch has the size and athleticism to move to 3-4 outside linebacker."
DEFENSIVE TACKLE
"Brockers and Cox profile similarly in terms of scheme, as 4-3 defensive tackles or even 3-4 defensive ends depending on what kind of looks a team is working with."
INSIDE LINEBACKER
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
"I think Upshaw could be drafted into pretty much any scheme and succeed, but at 272 pounds, there are fair questions about whether he's a tweener -- too small to handle 4-3 DE, and too big to be an every-down 3-4 OLB. His talent is significant, but that's something we'll need to watch."
CORNERBACKS
"Claiborne was a revelation this season, and the film tells the story. The guy is exceptionally instinctive, and while he lacks the same level of athleticism as Patrick Peterson, he is every bit as good and probably better as a pure cover corner. Kirkpatrick has good size and maintains above-average quickness, and is safely in Round 1."
SAFETY
KICKER
"Going into the year, Walsh to me seemed like a lock to hold down the top spot. But his inconsistency became, well, consistent, and he dropped. He may need to battle through the UFA process if he wants to make a team."
PUNTER
"Butler actually boomed his punts farther as a sophomore, but over the past two seasons, he's become a master at getting maximum distance while eliminating returns. That's what NFL teams want -- a guy who can get off big punts, but not so long that they limit coverage."
Now that you've seen Chris' top 10, here's mine. Let's see where we were the same and where we differed:

1. LSU's Tyrann Mathieu against Arkansas: Mathieu replaced the injured Eric Reid and played safety for the first time in his career. All he did was record eight tackles, force two fumbles, and recovered a fumble. With LSU down 14-7 in the second quarter, he ignited a dominating run when he returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown in LSU’s 41-17 win over Arkansas. A loss to the Hogs might have cost LSU a chance at the national title game.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Boykin
Jeff Griffith/US PresswireGeorgia's Brandon Boykin recorded a safety, had a punt return TD and a TD catch in the Outback Bowl.
2. Georgia’s Brandon Boykin in the Outback Bowl: Boykin sure went out in style, scoring three different ways in the loss to Michigan State. On Michigan State's first offensive play, he recorded a safety when he tackled Keshawn Martin in the end zone on a pass play. He later scored on 92-yard punt return, which is the longest play in Outback Bowl history, and scored on a 13-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter to give Georgia a 27-20 lead. He also had seven tackles, including two for loss.

3. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in the SEC championship game: He saved LSU yet again with his special-teams work. His 62-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter got LSU on the board after trailing 10-0. On Georgia’s first drive of the second half, Mathieu recovered a fumble at the Bulldogs’ 27 to set up the Tigers’ second touchdown. He set up LSU's third score with a scintillating return that left just about every Georgia player's head spinning.

4. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson against Texas A&M: Wilson not only helped orchestrate a tremendous second-half comeback against the Aggies, but he passed for a school-record 510 passing yards, had three touchdowns and no interceptions on 30-of-51 passing.

5. Alabama’s Trent Richardson against Ole Miss: Richardson couldn't be stopped in Oxford, as he rushed for 183 yards and four touchdowns in Alabama's 52-7 drubbing of the Rebels. Richardson grabbed his signature play as well when he put on a show at the end of his 76-yard touchdown run by literally shaking Ole Miss' Senquez Golsen to the ground with his cut seen round the college football world.

6. Georgia’s Jarvis Jones against Florida: Jones had four sacks in the Bulldogs’ 24-20 win over Florida and forced a fumble at the Gators' 18-yard line in the third quarter that led to the game-tying touchdown. His fourth sack came in the fourth and basically sealed the Bulldogs' win.

7. Arkansas’ Jarius Wright against Texas A&M: Wilson couldn't have done his thing without Wright, who caught 13 passes, which tied a school record, for a school-record 281 yards and a touchdown. Wright surpassed the old record of 204 yards by halftime. He also recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown that tied the game at 35 in the fourth quarter.

8. Florida’s Chris Rainey against Florida Atlantic: Rainey kicked off the Will Muschamp era by scoring touchdowns three different ways in the season opener. He scored rushing, receiving and on a blocked punt. Rainey also registered 146 yards of total offense.

9. South Carolina’s Antonio Allen against East Carolina: Allen started the year off pretty well when he had 16 tackles, forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and broke up two passes in a season-opening 56-37 win over East Carolina. He also returned a fumble 25 yards for a touchdown.

10. LSU’s Brad Wing against Alabama Part I: In a game in which kicking mattered, four of his six punts were downed inside Alabama's 20-yard line. One punt was downed at the 5 and another at the 4. His 73-yarder in the fourth quarter saved LSU's defense from having to work with a short field and helped propel the game into overtime.

Here are five more that just missed the cut:

  • South Carolina's Melvin Ingram ran for a 68-yard touchdown on a fake punt against Georgia and scored a second touchdown on a 5-yard fumble return. He sealed the Gamecocks' 45-42 win when he recovered an onsides kick.
  • Tennessee's Tyler Bray passed for a career-high 405 passing yards, had four touchdown passes and no interceptions in a 45-23 win over Cincinnati. He also had a rushing touchdown and completed 34 of 41 passes.
  • Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy rushed for 184 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-7 road victory over Wake Forest that sent the Commodores bowling. Stacy also became the school’s single-season record holder for rushing yards after his performance.
  • Kentucky’s Danny Trevathan registered 17 tackles, including 12 solo and three for loss in a 19-10 loss to Georgia. He also forced two fumbles.
  • Arkansas' Joe Adams had one of the best special-teams performance of the season in Week 1 against Missouri State when he had two punt returns for touchdowns of 69 and 61 yards in the 51-7 win. He had a school-record 174 yards on six punt returns.

SEC's top individual performances, Part I

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
10:51
AM ET
Tyrann MathieuChris Graythen/Getty ImagesTyrann Mathieu had a knack for the big play all season for LSU.
We’re already looking ahead some to the 2012 season in the SEC, but we haven’t completely forgotten about 2011.

We’re finishing up our postseason position rankings and taking another look at the top 25 players in the league based on what they did during the 2011 season.

Today, we’ll rank the top 10 individual performances from this past season. I’ll go first (That’s what happens when you dominate the picks contest), and Edward will follow.

We’ll also have a poll for the fans later today, so you guys will get your chance to weigh in as well and tell us how right or wrong we were.

Please don’t hold back, although you never do.

Here goes:

1. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu vs. Arkansas: Moving over to safety for the injured Eric Reid, the Honey Badger put on a show for all shows. The only thing he didn’t do was clean up Tiger Stadium afterward in the 41-17 win over the No. 3-ranked Hogs. Mathieu had eight tackles, forced two fumbles, recovered a fumble and returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown. His punt return tied the game at 14-14, and the Hogs were toast from there.

2. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in the SEC championship game: Yep, it’s the Honey Badger again. The Tigers were dead in the water in the first half against Georgia, but Mathieu returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to get LSU on the board. Mathieu followed that up by recovering a fumble at the Bulldogs’ 27 to set up the Tigers’ second touchdown. He then returned another punt 47 yards, this one even more spectacular than the first, to set up LSU’s third touchdown, and a close game suddenly became a 42-10 rout.

3. Georgia’s Jarvis Jones vs. Florida: It was a case of Jones simply not allowing his team to lose. He racked up four sacks in the 24-20 win over the Gators and forced a fumble at the Florida 18-yard line in the third quarter that led to the game-tying touchdown. His fourth and final sack came on fourth down late in the game and all but finished the Gators, lifting Georgia to just its fourth win over Florida in the last 22 meetings.

4. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson vs. Texas A&M: With the Hogs trailing 35-17 at the half, Wilson brought them back with a school-record 510 yards passing in a 42-38 victory over the Aggies. Wilson finished 30-of-51 with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. He also had the 2-point conversion run that tied the game at 35-35.

5. Georgia’s Brandon Boykin in the Outback Bowl: The Bulldogs fell to Michigan State 33-30 in three overtimes, but don’t blame Boykin. The senior cornerback scored three different ways. He recorded a safety to open the game, also had a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown and scored on a 13-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter to give the Bulldogs a 27-20 lead. He finished with seven tackles, including two for loss.

6. Arkansas’ Jarius Wright vs. Texas A&M: Don’t forget about Wright in the Hogs’ dramatic comeback win over the Aggies. He tied a school record with 13 catches and set a school record with 281 receiving yards. The old record was 204 yards, and Wright surpassed that by halftime. He also caught a 68-yard touchdown pass and pounced on a loose ball in the end zone in the fourth quarter that wound up being the tying touchdown.

7. LSU’s Brad Wing vs. Alabama: Without Wing’s heroics, LSU doesn’t win that first game against Alabama. It’s just that simple. He kept the Crimson Tide bottled up all night. He punted six times and four were downed inside the Alabama 20-yard line. One was downed at the 5 and another at the 4. His 73-yard punt in the fourth quarter completely changed the game and helped get the Tigers to overtime, where they prevailed 9-6.

8. Alabama’s Trent Richardson vs. Ole Miss: There were so many great performances by Richardson that it’s difficult to pick out just one. But he rolled up 183 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the 52-7 rout of Ole Miss, and they’ll be showing the highlights of his dazzling 76-yard touchdown run for a long time to come. He averaged 10.8 yards per carry that night and finished with 213 all-purpose yards.

9. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray vs. Cincinnati: It’s about as perfect a game as a quarterback could have. Bray lit up the Bearcats in the second week of the season for a career-high 405 passing yards, four touchdown passes and no interceptions. He also had a rushing touchdown and completed 34 of 41 passes in the 45-23 victory. In the second half, Bray completed all but one of his 14 passing attempts, and his 83 percent completion rate set a school record.

10. South Carolina’s Antonio Allen vs. East Carolina: It’s one of the great performances of the season that nobody really remembers because it came in the opener. Allen, the Gamecocks’ “Spur” linebacker/safety, totaled 16 tackles, forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and broke up two passes in the come-from-behind 56-37 win over East Carolina.

Here are five more that just missed the cut:

  • South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram running for a 68-yard touchdown on a fake punt, scoring a second touchdown on a 5-yard fumble return and recovering an onside kick to preserve a 45-42 win over Georgia.
  • Florida’s Chris Rainey rushing for 108 yards and also totaling 104 receiving yards in a 33-23 win over Tennessee. Rainey accounted for 233 all-purpose yards and had an 83-yard touchdown catch to put the Gators ahead 30-7 in the third quarter. He also blocked a punt in the second quarter, leading to a Florida field goal.
  • South Carolina’s Connor Shaw passing for 210 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown in a 34-13 victory over Clemson. Shaw finished 14 of 20 passing without an interception.
  • Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy rushing for 184 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-7 road victory over Wake Forest that made the Commodores bowl eligible. Stacy had touchdown runs of 40 and 20 yards on his way to becoming the school’s single-season record-holder for rushing yards.
  • Kentucky’s Danny Trevathan totaling 17 tackles, including 12 solo stops, for the second week in a row. He had three tackles for loss and also forced two fumbles in the Wildcats’ 19-10 loss to Georgia.
We move to linebackers today in our postseason position rankings.

Defensive lines are very important in this league, but there are other guys in the box who have to be pretty reliable as well in this league. This league has done a pretty solid job of producing some top talent at this position as well.

You can see what are preseason linebacker rankings looked like here.

And here are our postseason rankings:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDont'a Hightower had career highs in tackles (79), sacks (3.0) and interceptions (1) this season.
1. Alabama: This unit was at the top of our preseason rankings and didn't budge throughout the season. When you have two All-Americans in Courtney Upshaw, who was the defensive MVP in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, and Dont'a Hightower it's pretty understandable to see why. Those two combined for 136 tackles, including 29 for loss. Nico Johnson was fourth on the team in tackles, while C.J. Mosley added 37 of his own. Alabama's defense was first nationally in total defense and first in rushing defense, allowing 74.2 yards per game.

2. Georgia: Linebackers are essential to any 3-4 defense, and the Bulldogs' group did quite well in 2011. Georgia ended up with one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC with 19 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. He also had 49 quarterback hurries. Michael Gilliard was third on the team behind Jones with 65 tackles. While Alec Ogletree missed part of the first half of the season, the speedster still finished with 52 tackles, including 7.5 for loss. Cornelius Washington, Amarlo Herrera Christian Robinson combined to add 101 more tackles, as Georgia's defense ranked fifth nationally.

3. Arkansas: Arkansas' defense had a lot of bend in it last season, but the linebackers found ways to make plays. Newcomer Alonzo Highsmith was third on the team with 80 tackles, led with 12.5 tackles for loss and had 4.5 sacks. The star continued to be Jerry Franklin, who led the team in tackles (101) for the fourth straight year. Then there was Jerico Nelson, who was all over the field as that hybrid linebacker/safety. He came away with 70 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Ross Rasner, who played outside with Nelson, added 53 more tackles and two sacks.

4. Florida: The Gators' defense ranked eighth nationally in part because of the aggressive play of its front seven. Jon Bostic commanded the middle, leading the team with 94 tackles, including 10 for loss. Jelani Jenkins seemed to come more into his own outside, finishing third on the team in tackles. The big surprise was Lerentee McCray, who played both Sam linebacker and the hybrid Buck. He was one of Florida's most active linebackers and grabbed 7.5 tackles for loss. Ronald Powell started at the Buck, but saw most of his production from defensive end.

5. Vanderbilt: The Commodores entered the season needing to replace three starting linebackers and ended the year with a very impressive linebacking corps. It was led by vet Chris Marve, who was 10th in the league in tackles. Archibald Barnes had a solid year at the Will, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and grabbing two interceptions. Chase Garnham and Al Owens manned the Sam position and combined for 72 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Against conference foes, Vandy's rush defense ranked fourth in the league.

6. LSU: The Tigers were in search of that dominant middle linebacker all season and might have found a budding star in Kevin Minter, really grew into the position by the end of the season and was fifth on the team in tackles. He started 11 games, but shared time with Karnell Hatcher, who finished with 24 tackles. Ryan Baker was LSU's best linebacker, was an outstanding leader and was fourth on the team with 64 tackles. Stefoin Francois was the starter at Sam, but he accumulated just 11 tackles, while backup Tahj Jones registered 27. Still, LSU owned the No. 2 national defense.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks saw improvement from this group as the season went on. While the defensive line got a ton of credit, the linebackers did their part in securing the defense's No. 3 national ranking. Antonio Allen spent some time in the box at the Spur position and led South Carolina with 88 tackles and had 9.5 for loss. Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson, who returned from injury, rotated at the Mike and combined for 109 tackles. Will linebacker Reginald Bowens added 44 tackles.

8. Kentucky: The Wildcats owned the SEC's top tackler in Danny Trevathan (143), who should have received more national attention. Trevathan was one of the most active defenders around at the Will. Winston Guy played the hybrid linebacker/safety and was third in the SEC with 120 tackles. Ronnie Sneed added 71 more tackles. Kentucky's defense was much more aggressive under new defensive coordinator Rick Minter and got more exotic looks from its linebackers.

9. Mississippi State: Cameron Lawrence was a beast for the Bulldogs in 2011. He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles, and had 49 solo. Senior Brandon Wilson added 94 more tackles. Brandon Maye, who transferred from Clemson, was expected to make a bigger impact for the Bulldogs, but played behind Wilson and was 11th on the team in tackles. Sophomore Deontae Skinner added 69 tackles and Mississippi State ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total defense.

10. Tennessee: The Vols' top three tacklers were linebackers. The leader was senior Austin Johnson, who finished the season with 81 tackles, including 41 solo. Next were two true freshmen on the outside in A.J. Johnson (80) and Curt Maggitt (56). Both freshmen experienced up-and-down seasons, but were SEC All-Freshman selections. Herman Lathers, who was a projected started, missed 2011 with a fractured ankle, and after the big three, the Vols didn't get a ton out of their linebackers, as Dontavis Sapp was their next most productive linebacker with 20 tackles.

11. Auburn: The Tigers' defense really struggled in 2011 and gave up more than 200 rushing yards a contest. Auburn had to basically start over at linebacker, but lone returning starter Daren Bates had a heck of a year, ranking fourth in the league with 104 tackles. He really tried to make sure he played all over the field last fall. After that, the play was up-and-down. Senior Eltoro Freeman took over in the middle halfway into the year and finished with 58 tackles, while Jake Holland and Jonathan Evans combined for 83 tackles.


12. Ole Miss: The Rebels' defense had all sorts of problems defensively, including allowing 256.5 yards per game and 21 rushing touchdowns. The linebackers took a major hit with the absence of D.T. Shackelford, who missed the season with a knee injury. Mike Marry stepped up at the Mike and led Ole Miss with 81 tackles and five for loss. Freshman Serderius Bryant and junior Joel Kight combined for 122 tackles. Damien Jackson played the Spur and added 64 tackles, but Ole Miss' defense ranked dead last in the SEC.

SEC players invited to NFL combine

February, 7, 2012
2/07/12
4:00
PM ET
The NFL has released its list of invites to this years NFL combine. Of the more than 300 prospects taking part in the pre-draft shenanigans starting Feb. 22, 62 are from the SEC (for fun we are including Missouri and Texas A&M).

Here are the SEC representatives: School breakdown:
  • Alabama: 9
  • Arkansas: 4
  • Auburn: 3
  • Florida: 3
  • Georgia: 8
  • Kentucky: 2
  • LSU: 8
  • Missouri: 4
  • Mississippi State: 4
  • Ole Miss: 2
  • South Carolina: 5
  • Tennessee: 2
  • Texas A&M: 6
  • Vanderbilt: 2

Boykin's stock up at Senior Bowl

January, 27, 2012
1/27/12
10:21
AM ET
Georgia's Brandon Boykin won the the Paul Hornung Award this past season as the most versatile player in college football.

It should come as no surprise to anybody then that Boykin's physical skills have caught everyone's attention this week at the Senior Bowl. Kevin Weidl of ESPN Scouts Inc. lists Boykin as one of the players whose stock is up this week.

This is what Weidl had to say about Boykin:
"He is fluid and explosive, and he showed off good top-end speed and an extra gear to recover and make up ground when in a trail position. Boykin flashed the ability to turn his hips and run with receivers to limit separation, and even when he was beaten initially, he was able to recover. There are some concerns about his overall instincts and playmaking ability, whether he is a better athlete than football player at this point, but Boykin was one of the top performers on either roster."

Along with Boykin, some of the other SEC players at the Senior Bowl who've established themselves as solid Day 2 picks, according to the ESPN Scouts Inc. team, are Arkansas receiver Joe Adams, South Carolina safety Antonio Allen and LSU safety Brandon Taylor.
Now that Edward has unveiled his five most improved players from the SEC this season, I’ll take my shot.

In some cases, guys went from being a very good player to a great player. In other cases, guys went from being a reserve to a key starter. There were also some guys who bounced back from injury-plagued seasons.

Here’s what I came up with. The players are listed in alphabetical order:

[+] EnlargeJarius Wright
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJarius Wright led the Razorbacks in yards, receptions and touchdowns last season.
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama: Flip on the game tape, and it’s obvious that Hightower was a different player this season. He was back to his explosive, instinctive self after conceding that mentally and physically he wasn’t all the way back a year ago from reconstructive knee surgery, which cut short his second season in 2009. As the Crimson Tide’s middle linebacker in their base defense and edge pass-rusher on third down, Hightower led the team with 85 total tackles, including 11 for loss. He also had eight quarterback hurries, forced a fumble and blocked a kick. In short, he made a lot more things happen in 2011 than he did the year before and saved one of his best efforts for the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said Hightower was one of the guys who made the Crimson Tide’s No. 1-ranked defense go, and with his knee back to full strength, the 6-4, 260-pound junior went from a good player in 2010 to one of the best linebackers in college football in 2011.

Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: When Lawrence came to Mississippi State, he was more of a utility man. In fact, he played quarterback, receiver, safety and linebacker during his first season. But he settled in at one of the outside linebacker spots and had a monster junior season, finishing second in the SEC with 123 total tackles, including six for loss. The 6-2, 230-pound Lawrence also forced two fumbles and helped fill a huge void at linebacker after the Bulldogs lost all three starters the year before. Lawrence’s chief role prior to this season was on special teams, and he’d recorded just 31 tackles in his first two seasons combined. He passed that total by the fourth game of the season this year on a defense that finished 16th nationally in points allowed.

Eric Reid, S, LSU: Tyrann Mathieu had the catchy “Honey Badger” nickname and collected a ton of highlight-reel plays, but Reid was one of the most improved and consistent players on LSU’s team in what was a breakout sophomore season for him. He tied with Mathieu for the team lead with 76 total tackles and also had two interceptions and two forced fumbles. His interception at the 1-yard line in the first game against Alabama was the play of the year in the SEC. Reid was as good in coverage as he was against the run and wound up earning second-team All-SEC honors. He showed flashes as a true freshman when he wound up starting the last three games of the regular season, but put it all together this season to become one of the better all-around safeties in the league.

Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt: Part of the credit goes to an improved Vanderbilt offensive line, but no player in the SEC improved more from last season to this season than Stacy. The 5-9, 208-pound junior set school records with 1,193 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, and he also caught 20 passes. Stacy averaged 5.9 yards per carry, and more than once, demonstrated that he could break the big one. He had three runs of 50 yards or longer. Stacy’s rushing total this season was nearly 400 yards more than he had in his first two seasons combined. Stacy rushed for 331 yards a year ago, but missed the last three games after suffering a blow to the head against Florida. He also shared the carries with Warren Norman the first two seasons, and Norman redshirted this season after undergoing knee surgery. Stacy worked hard on his strength and explosiveness last offseason, and seeing the opportunity to be the Commodores’ go-to back this season, he ran with it all the way to a record-setting season and All-SEC honors.

Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: Even before his senior season, Wright had been a key member of the Hogs’ receiving corps and one of their strongest leaders. But in 2011, he blossomed into the most productive receiver in the SEC and set several school records along the way. Wright had always possessed great speed, but he became a better player after the catch this season, which made him even more difficult to defend. He finished with 66 catches for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns, while averaging 16.9 yards per catch. Wright was a consensus first-team All-SEC selection and leaves Arkansas as the single-season record-holder in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. The 12 touchdown catches match the number of touchdowns Wright caught in his first three seasons combined, and he had 24 more catches this season than he did a year ago as a junior.

Here are 10 more players that just missed the cut:
There were plenty of SEC players who made improvements in 2011. Complacency wasn't an option for these players, therefore, they made tremendous strides.

Today, we'll look at players who either improved their play, rose from the ranks of reserve to really impress or returned from injury. I'll go first with my five players who I thought made the most improvement from 2010 to 2011. Chris will follow up with his top five later today. We haven't communicated about our choices, so we could have some that overlap or we could have five completely different picks.

Regardless, this should create some pretty fun debate for readers.

Here's a look at my five most improved players in the SEC:

    [+] EnlargeFletcher Cox
    Nelson Chenault/US PresswireMississippi State's Fletcher Cox is projected to be a first-round pick in April's draft.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: As a sophomore, Cox started 11 games and accumulated 29 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. But last year, he proved to be one of the top defensive tackles in the SEC. He had 56 total tackles, including 14.5 for loss and five sacks. He also blocked two kicks, recovered a fumble and forced a fumble. He's expected to be a first-round pick in April's NFL draft.
  • Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU: As a reserve, Mathieu had a productive year in 2010, when he ranked first in the SEC and fifth nationally with five forced fumbles and tied for first in the league with three fumble recoveries. He also led LSU with seven pass breakups. He became a national star and a Heisman finalist in 2011, as he tied for the team lead with 76 tackles, tied for first nationally with five fumble recoveries, and tied for fourth with six forced fumbles. He was also fifth nationally with a 15.6 average on punt returns and took two back for touchdowns.
  • Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: Montgomery missed most of 2010 with a knee injury, but still managed two sacks. Last season, you would have never guessed that he was coming off an injury. Montgomery was one of the league's most productive players off the edge, ranking sixth in the SEC with nine sacks and had 13.5 tackles for loss.
  • Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt: He finished the 2010 season as Vanderbilt's second leading rusher with 331 yards and had three touchdowns. He looked like a completely different player in 2011, becoming one of the top running backs in the SEC. He was third in the SEC with 1,193 rushing yards and was second with 14 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged 5.7 yards per carry in conference play.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: Wright left Arkansas as one of the best receivers to ever step foot in Fayetteville, but he saved his best season for last. After catching 42 passes for 788 yards and five touchdowns in 2010, Wright was the SEC's top receiver last season with 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also led the league with 93.1 yards per game.

Here are 10 more that just missed the cut:
We've seen how pro prospects rank overall and where they might go in April's NFL draft, so it's time to take a look at where players matchup head-to-head with others at the same position.

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has provided us with that opportunity by ranking the top five players at each position Insider heading into this year's draft.

Here's a look at where SEC players placed:

RUNNING BACK
No. 1 Trent Richardson, Alabama
Thoughts:
This should come as no surprise at all. Richardson possesses a tremendous combination of strength and speed that made him so tough to bring down during his three years at Alabama. The Doak Walker Award winner led the SEC in rushing, averaging nearly 6 yards per carry, and was a Heisman finalist.

WIDE RECEIVER
No. 5 Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina
Thoughts:
With the season that Jeffery had in 2010, many thought he might battle Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon for the top spot at wide receiver. However, Jeffery received much more attention from defenders and struggled in 2011. Still, his size makes him extremely imposing and tough one-on-one.

TIGHT END
No. 2 Orson Charles, Georgia
Thoughts:
Charles can really be a beast on the field and become a total mismatch for defenders. He can be too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs. Tight ends are becoming bigger components to NFL offenses, and Charles has the potential to make an impact early.

OFFENSIVE GUARD
No. 2 Cordy Glenn, Georgia
Thoughts:
Glenn had no problem moving outside to left tackle this season, but he might be better suited inside at the pro level. But with his versatility, he could move outside if needed, which would make him a very attractive option in the draft.

CENTER
No. 4 William Vlachos, Alabama
Thoughts:
Vlachos isn't the biggest, or most intimidating player up front, but he never quits. He has an absolute motor and can give bigger defensive linemen fits. His size could hurt him, but his determination won't.

DEFENSIVE END
No. 2 Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
Thoughts:
He could end up playing outside linebacker in a 3-4. Ingram has tremendous speed outside and had a real knack for making plays. He didn't get 10 sacks and score three touchdowns last season by accident.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES
No. 2 Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State
Thoughts:
After bursting onto the scene in his second year, Cox was arguably the SEC's top defensive tackle in 2011. Kiper thinks he can play in a 4-3 or a 3-4. With his build and athleticism, Cox would no doubt succeed in either.

No. 3 Michael Brockers, LSU
Thoughts:
His jump to the NFL was a bit of a surprise -- until you look at how productive he was as a third-year sophomore. Brockers not only clogs up the middle but has a tremendous wingspan that disrupts opposing passing and kicking games.

INSIDE LINEBACKER
No. 3 Dont'a Hightower, Alabama
Thoughts:
It didn't look like Hightower was coming off a knee injury last year. Hightower was all over the field for Alabama and helped create a dynamic duo at linebacker with Courtney Upshaw. Having Hightower lurking on your defense is definitely a good thing.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
No. 1 Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
Thoughts:
He didn't have a ton of tackles last year, but it wasn't like Upshaw didn't cause offenses headaches. With his speed, he's a tremendous pass-rusher and that's probably how he'll earn his paychecks at the next level. He can cover when he needs to and always seems to find the ball.

CORNERBACK
No. 1 Morris Claiborne, LSU
Thoughts:
Was there a better cover corner in the country? Claiborne didn't get Honey Badger-like attention, but that didn't mean he wasn't great last year. Claiborne defended 12 passes last year and took away one side of the field when he was out there.

No. 2 Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama
Thoughts:
Kirkpatrick has some questions to answer when it comes to his coverage ability, but his size will certainly help him at the next level. Kirkpatrick broke up nine passes last season and has ideal athleticism that will be attractive to teams.

No. 5 Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
Thoughts:
Like Kirkpatrick, Gilmore will have to answer questions about his coverage skill. He got caught looking a few times in 2010, and while he improved last season, he was beaten a few times on jump balls. But his speed and athleticism will have teams very interested in him come draft time.

SAFETY
No. 1 Mark Barron, Alabama
Thoughts:
You'd be hard pressed to find a better safety in the country. Barron is big, though and knows how to take the deep ball away. He also isn't afraid of playing down in the box and taking the run away.

No. 2. Antonio Allen, South Carolina
Thoughts:
Allen made a ton of plays for the Gamecocks last year in the Spur position and could be a real player at the next level. He quietly led South Carolina with 88 tackles and also forced four fumbles and grabbed three interceptions.

KICKER
No. 3 Blair Walsh, Georgia
Thoughts:
He was supposed to be the top kicker in the country, but was extremely inconsistent throughout the season and struggled with his distance. He's a talented player, but missed 14 kicks in 2011, including the one that ended Georgia's season with a loss.

PUNTER
No. 1 Drew Bulter, Georgia
Thoughts: He might not have the most powerful leg, but Butler knew how to direct his kicks. He downed 21 inside the 20-yard line and also forced 15 fair catches.

Gamecocks seniors seeking bowl win

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
12:15
PM ET
When Antonio Allen looks back at his South Carolina career, he can’t help but feel that it was almost perfect.

Almost.

Though South Carolina has undergone a tremendous transition since the senior safety stepped on campus, he has yet to savor the sweet taste of a bowl victory.

He has hoisted no trophies with his teammates at the end of the season, and until he does, his South Carolina career will feel incomplete.

Getting a win Monday against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl would end a three-game losing streak in bowl games for the Gamecocks and it would also give the program its first 11-win season.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Allen
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireAntonio Allen and the Gamecocks are hoping to secure the program's first 11-win season.
“It would be great to get that 11th win because no one has ever done it in South Carolina history. We want to be the first to make history,” Allen said.

South Carolina didn’t exactly have a rich tradition before Steve Spurrier arrived. Spurrier has done wonders for the program, but this group of seniors has also been a major factor in elevating South Carolina to a program that made it to its first SEC championship game in 2010 and won 10 games for only the second time in school history in 2011.

“We came a long way,” senior defensive tackle Travian Robertson said.

“It’s been a great ride coming from the bottom and trying to get to the top.”

But that run has come without much success in the postseason. Spurrier is just 1-4 in bowl games and the Gamecocks have been outscored 77-38 in their last three losses.

Allen said the losses have been frustrating, but what’s been more frustrating is seeing a lack of chemistry at times. Allen said that before last season’s run to Atlanta, he noticed that players were never as close as they should have been. The Gamecocks were more of a group than a team.

Now, Allen said he sees more of a family inside South Carolina’s football complex. There is more trust and players are happier around each other. That mentality has the Gamecocks feeling much more confident heading into the Capital One Bowl.

With South Carolina’s recent success have come heightened expectations. Robertson and Allen agreed that fans are proud of where the program has come but expect the winning to continue and expect the Gamecocks to be competing for championships more often.

Allen and Robertson are OK with that because they feel South Carolina is on track to do just that.

“We came in with the purpose to win and try to win championships,” Robertson said. “We’ve accomplished some of our goals, but it feels great to know that we started something that’s going to be great around here. I know that once we get it started, Coach Spurrier and all of the other coaches are going to keep it going.”

Regardless of Monday’s outcome, Allen said he’d always look back at his South Carolina career and feel as though he helped accomplish a lot for the program.

Still, hoisting that bowl trophy for the first time wouldn’t be so bad.

“Hopefully it means a lot and I can tell my kids and they can tell their kids about it,” he said. “Hopefully, the tradition doesn’t stop with me and it goes along with my kids.”

Season report card: South Carolina

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
5:20
PM ET
The Gamecocks lost their starting quarterback and running back, but still managed to get 10 wins for only the second time in school history:

OFFENSE: C+

South Carolina's offense was hard to watch for most of the year. There were times when the Gamecocks really moved the ball down field, but had a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot with mistakes that cost them points. They scored less than 20 points in four SEC games, including 13 to Auburn, which ranked near the bottom of the SEC in every major defensive category. The Gamecocks entered the year with one of the best one-two punches in running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. They even had a seasoned quarterback in Stephen Garcia. But Garcia's troubles on and off the field caught up with him at the beginning of the year. Garcia passed for just 844 yards with four touchdowns and nine interceptions before being dismissed from the program after Week 6. Shortly after, Lattimore went down with a season-ending knee injury. Before his injury, Lattimore was among the nation's best with 818 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Jeffery rarely looked like his old self, grabbing just 614 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, and South Carolina never found a consistent secondary receiver. It did, however, find replacements in quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Brandon Wilds. Shaw struggled here and there, especially throwing, but recorded just one loss as a starter, while Wilds, who was a redshirt candidate, rushed for 100-plus yards in three of his five starts. The Gamecocks' inconsistency hurt, as South Carolina averaged 25 points in conference games, but led the league with 21 turnovers in league play.

DEFENSE: A

All it took was some quiet encouragement from defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson after the Navy game to jump start this unit. Players acknowledged that their play during the first three games wasn't up to par, but after that, South Carolina's defense was one of the best in the country. Up front, the Gamecocks got a ton of production out of veterans Melvin Ingram, an All-American, and Travian Robertson, and freshmen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles blossomed. Antonio Allen quietly had one of the most productive seasons in the league, recording 81 tackles, three interceptions, defended five passes and scored two touchdowns. Opposing backfields were constantly harassed, as South Carolina totaled 25 sacks and was sixth in the SEC in rushing defense. Against the pass, the Gamecocks were even better, ranking second nationally and tied for first in the SEC in interceptions (18) and takeaways (30). South Carolina currently ranks fourth nationally in total defense and is allowing 4.2 yards per play.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-

The Gamecocks were rarely ever a threat in the kicking game. South Carolina was last in the league in kickoff coverage, with a net average of 40.1 yards. Jay Wooten also recorded just six touchbacks on his kicks. While Ace Sanders scored on a punt return, the Gamecocks have averaged just 7.6 yards per punt return. Wooten missed six total kicks (three field goals and extra points), while Joey Scribner-Howard was near the bottom of the SEC in punting, averaging 38.9 yards per punt. He pinned 10 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

COACHING: A

Steve Spurrier led a South Carolina team to 10 wins for only the second time in school history even after losing his starting quarterback and one of the nation's best running backs. Spurrier made the right adjustments, put a lot of trust in Wilds and slowly turned Shaw into more of the right passer for his offense. It also helped that Johnson did a tremendous job with his defense. Yes, the Gamecocks were loaded with athletes on that side of the ball, but he helped create a new mentality after the first three games of the season. For a second straight year, South Carolina was a legit SEC East contender.

SPONSORED HEADLINES