SEC: Butch Jones

SEC morning links

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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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.

Around the SEC
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SEC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
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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.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:

SEC morning links

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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1. We made it! The college football season is here and SEC play begins tonight. First on the docket this evening is No. 9 South Carolina hosting No. 21 Texas A&M. This game matches two compelling teams, both beginning life without megastars that made lasting imprints on their respective campuses last year. It also pits two dynamic offensive-minded coaches -- the cagey, SEC veteran Steve Spurrier against the relative SEC newcomer but charismatic Kevin Sumlin. How do they stack up? Let's look at the tale of the tape. Both of them had their moments at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama and Spurrier is known for not having a filter, saying what he thinks at all times. Sumlin doesn't have that reputation, but is beginning to show more and more personality as the years go by (see his responses to Johnny Manziel questions in Hoover as evidence). By the way, if you missed it yesterday, do yourself a favor and read Chris Low's in-depth feature on Spurrier, who is different from many in the profession when it comes to office hours and leisure time. Notably, Sumlin -- a friend of Spurrier's -- is big on family time and the health of his staff also.

2. Next up on the SEC schedule is No. 18 Ole Miss hosting Boise State. Need to get up to speed on the Rebels? Here's an in-depth discussion of the offense and the defense. Interestingly, both head coaches in this game, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Boise State's Bryan Harsin, got their FBS head coaching starts at Arkansas State. Both speak fondly of their time there but acknowledged the difficulty of leaving so soon. The Rebels are one of the handful of SEC programs returning a starting quarterback and there's hope that a big year is ahead for Bo Wallace. The senior himself said he feels a lot more confident than he did at this point a year ago.

3. Finally, tonight's SEC slate concludes with Vanderbilt hosting Temple. New Commodores head coach Derek Mason makes his head coaching debut tonight, doesn't plan to be out in the forefront. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, James Franklin, Mason would rather blend in tonight. Linebacker Kyle Woestmann said "It's definitely centered a lot more around us. It's always player-first. Coming out of the tunnel, he wants it to be us first. Whatever we do, he wants it to be us first." It's also the time for quarterback Patton Robinette to take the wheel. He was named the starter in camp and though Mason acknowledged on Wednesday that it was a close race, he doesn't want Robinette looking over his shoulder and is confident in his signal-caller.

More from around the SEC:
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videoUnlike a wide-eyed freshman, nothing is exactly new for Tennessee defensive end Curt Maggitt, but he does enter the 2014 season hoping for a fresh start after injuries ravaged the better part of his first three years on campus.

There was the lingering high school shoulder injury his freshman year, and his sophomore season brought turf toe, an everlasting shoulder stinger and an eventual season-ending ACL injury.

After multiple surgeries, and some frustratingly long recovery time, Maggitt sat out all of the 2013 season.

An ankle injury is currently nagging Maggitt during fall camp, but all indications are that his coaches have held him back for precautionary measures, making sure he’s ready for the season, because Tennessee needs a healthy Maggitt in 2014.

“We missed Curt a lot [last season] because we know what he can bring to the table,” said linebacker A.J. Johnson, who is Maggitt’s roommate. “He’s like a brother to me and we missed him a lot. We know how much he’s going to help us and how much work he’s put in to get back to be ready for this season.”

What the Vols missed was an elite pass-rusher and finisher. Last season, Tennessee was last in the SEC with 18 sacks and 12th in the league with 65 tackles for loss.

Getting Maggitt back – and fully healthy – would be a major upgrade for a team completely rebuilding its defensive line. Maggitt will line up all over at linebacker this fall, but will spend most of his time with his hand in the ground at defensive end, a position Maggitt said he prefers to outside linebacker.

Maggitt has endured a career-long struggle with his body at Tennessee. The once-prized recruit from West Palm Beach, Florida, arrived in Knoxville and promptly recorded 56 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, despite a surgically repaired shoulder that needed surgery again after the season.

In 2012, Maggitt suffered a nasty case of turf toe in the season opener when his foot got caught in the turf of the Georgia Dome while he blocked NC State quarterback Mike Glennon during an interception return by teammate Prentiss Waggner.

Trainers made him a thick, plastic cast for his toe, which forced him to wear a size 14 shoe on his right foot and a normal size 13 on his left.

“You really realize how important that big toe is,” Maggitt said. “Every time I would try to plant or push off of it, it would hurt.”

The cast helped, but it created an awkward, wobbly running style. Maggitt couldn’t stop properly on his right foot, which he thinks resulted in his subsequent ACL injury against Missouri on Nov. 10, while landing awkwardly on his right foot after hurdling Mizzou quarterback James Franklin.

Maggitt missed spring and part of summer before he, his father, Roosevelt, and coach Butch Jones decided to officially shut his season down after the Oregon game.

The heart of Tennessee’s defense was forced to helplessly sit and watch, as the Vols suffered through Jones’ inaugural 5-7 season.

“When he’s been playing ball since he was 9 years old, it’s really tough because he has it in his bloodstream to be out there,” Maggitt’s father said. “No matter the intensity level of the game, whether it’s in the backyard, he loves playing. It was tough for him.”

Maggitt said he got down on himself a lot and needed extra comfort from his teammates at times. His injuries kept him away from football and normal workouts. He went from having a max bench press of 330 pounds to not being able to lift the bar.

While he still assumed the role of the team’s top leader, Maggitt felt the pain of separation during road games, when Maggitt couldn’t travel.

“It was weird because since Day 1 when I was a freshman, I was never left behind,” Maggitt said. “It was kind of a salty feeling, feeling like you’re being left, put up for adoption almost.”

However, Maggitt found his release by taking advantage of his time away from the field. He recorded his highest GPA of 3.5 for a semester and began to plan for a future without football.

Very personable, Maggitt’s interest in becoming a sales rep for a business drew him to an internship with Omega Technical Services in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There, Maggitt shadowed a business developer and did everyday work, like writing and sending emails, organizing meetings and sitting in on meetings with potential clients.

The day-to-day work helping to organize and develop a business really interested Maggitt, but that’s for the future. For now, his focus is on getting back on the field and making an impact for his team.

Maggitt is excited about having a more versatile role within Tennessee’s defense and already knows the first time he steps on the field he’ll have his eyes pierced on the quarterback lining up opposite him, waiting to make first contact.

“I’m excited about that,” he said. “It’s been a long time, especially in Neyland [Stadium]. “If I get a sack in Neyland, man, I might just end up laying on the ground for a little bit and soak that moment up.”

Tennessee Volunteers season preview

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Tennessee Volunteers:

2013 record: 5-7

Final grade for the 2013 season: Butch Jones' first season on the field at Tennessee was a mixed bag. The Vols took Georgia to overtime and upset South Carolina two weeks later. They also lost for a second straight season to Vanderbilt, lost four of their final five games to end the season and wound up below .500 for the fourth straight season. All in all, it was just a notch below average, so a C-minus sounds about right.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith more weapons around him this season, Justin Worley is aiming to deliver Tennessee to a bowl game.
Key losses: RB Rajion Neal, OT Ja'Wuan James, OT Antonio Richardson, DT Daniel McCullers, DE Corey Miller, PK/P Michael Palardy

Key returnees: QB Justin Worley, WR Marquez North, OG Marcus Jackson, DE Curt Maggitt, DE Corey Vereen, LB A.J. Johnson, CB Cameron Sutton

Instant impact newcomers: RB Jalen Hurd, WR Von Pearson, WR Josh Malone, TE Ethan Wolf, OT Coleman Thomas, DE Derek Barnett, CB Emmanuel Moseley

Breakout player: Most of the preseason drama at Tennessee revolved around the quarterback race, but Jones ended that last week when he named Worley the starter. Had he not injured his thumb and missed the remainder of the season a year ago, the Vols probably would have gone to a bowl game. He's been put in some tough positions during his career, including being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman before he was ready. But he's persevered. His arm has gotten stronger. He's healthy now, and he also has more playmakers around him this season. Nobody's pushing him for the Heisman Trophy or even All-SEC honors, but here's betting Worley has a very solid senior season after throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (11) in his previous three seasons.

Most important game: We'll cheat and go 1A (Florida on Oct. 4) and 1B (Missouri on Nov. 22). Both games are at home, and both will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Vols can make it to the postseason. They've lost nine in a row to Florida, so ending that drought would be a big step in the right direction for Jones and the program. The Missouri game is sandwiched between a home game with Kentucky and the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt. It could be that the Vols have to win all three to go bowling.

Biggest question mark: It's gotta be the defensive line. The Vols don't return any starters up front defensively and are hopeful Maggitt can stay healthy and become that finisher off the edge after moving from linebacker to end. He missed all of last season with a knee injury and has been banged up in preseason camp. The Vols like their collection of young defensive linemen, but how well they're able to hold up right there in the middle of their defense is a huge concern.

Upset special: Right out of the gate, Tennessee had better be on its toes. Chuckie Keeton and Utah State aren't coming to Neyland Stadium on Aug. 31 to soak up the sights and sounds. The Aggies are coming to win.

Key stat: Tennessee is the only FBS team in the country without a returning starter in the offensive or defensive lines.

They said it: “We’re going through the realities of building a football program. Sometimes, I think of us as an expansion team. But our players have done a great job. They’ve really embraced everything. Our older players are really mentoring the younger players. The whole key for us is how we manage the natural adversities that a football season brings about." -- Tennessee coach Butch Jones

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 5.4 wins

Bovada over-under: 5.5 wins

Our take: The killer for Tennessee is being so unproven in both the offensive and defensive lines. The Vols will be counting on a ton of players up front who are seeing their first meaningful SEC action. The good news is that they've added speed on both sides of the ball and have more players at the offensive skill positions capable of making big plays. Jones has given everybody in the Tennessee family a reason to believe again with his recruiting prowess. The Vols are still a year away from contending in the East, but should be able to squeeze out six wins and get to a bowl game in 2014.

SEC morning links

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
8:00
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Yes, you’re reading this right. And, no, you’re not reading this at the wrong time, either.

“SEC lunchtime links” is no more. But don’t cue the funeral procession music. We wanted to give you more to read earlier in the day, so we’ve shifted the post to the morning. And rather than focusing solely on providing you with links from every team around the SEC, we’re instead going to make the post more multi-faceted with fewer quotes, more analysis and, hopefully, more fun.

With that said, let’s get on with our maiden voyage.

Saban gets defensive

Don’t call it a tirade, because it wasn’t. But when Nick Saban was asked on Saturday how he and the staff were preparing for hurry-up, no-huddle offenses, he didn’t exactly answer in kind.

“You know, in all honesty, guys, you all make way too much of this,” he said.

Oh, do tell.

“I mean, [Auburn] had 21 points against us with 30 seconds to go in the game, and I don’t think anybody held them to 21 points all year long,” Saban said. “I saw them score 60 in the SEC Championship Game, or whatever. We shut Ole Miss out here. We had four turnovers against Oklahoma that led to 28 points; two [touchdowns] the defense never even got back on the field.”

You know what that sounds like? Excuses.

Before you go ballistic, think about it. Did Alabama play all that poorly against HUNH offenses last season? Maybe not, compared to the rest of the country. But since when does Alabama compare itself to anyone? As Kirby Smart said prior to last season, “A lot of people think our standard is to be first in the SEC, be first in the country. ... We really don't go by that motto. We go by: Be the best Alabama defense there's been.”

From 2009-11, it seemed like no one could score on the Tide. Now, uptempo offenses are having some success poking holes in Alabama’s aura of invincibility. Are they big holes? Maybe not, but they are there nonetheless. Nearly 300 yards rushing by Auburn says so. Oklahoma throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns says so. Texas A&M racking up 628 yards -- the most ever allowed by an Alabama defense -- says so, too.

When Saban said, “We make it out like we’re horrible when we play a (no-huddle) team,” his argument was essentially that the scheme is sound, the preparation is good, but that the tempo makes it difficult to implement because of the trouble communicating from the sideline. But that sounds like a distinction without a difference. If you study all week for an exam, bring the sharpest No. 2 pencils and then answer most of the questions incorrectly, you still fail.

“We need to improve on it,” Saban said of defending the HUNH. “But I think we need to improve on defense, period.”

Both are true. But what good is one without the other?

Scrimmage season

From now until the season begins, you’ll hear a lot of talk about scrimmages. At Georgia, Hutson Mason called the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage a “draw.” At Alabama, Saban said both quarterbacks “did a lot of good things." And at Tennessee, Butch Jones said he saw "marked improvement."

That’s cause for celebration, right? Well, maybe.

Talk is great, but seeing is believing. And with many scrimmages these days, no one in the media or the general public is allowed to see anything.

So practice caution with the post-scrimmage news conferences, and beware of the stat sheet you’ll see shortly thereafter. The picture they paint is often a little too rosy.

Just look at Georgia, where somehow 51 passes were attempted without a single interception or touchdown. Alabama provided some rushing and receiving stats, but nothing from the QBs. Tennessee, meanwhile, didn’t provide any statistics whatsoever.

South Carolina, on the other hand, had a scrimmage open to the media in which Pharoh Cooper continued to impress and Dylan Thompson connected on 9 of 15 passes for 114 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Around the SEC
Last year, the SEC welcomed four first-year coaches to the league. They were four fresh faces who had each taken a unique road to get there. Some enjoyed tremendous success right off the bat while others endured a much more difficult struggle in Year 1. But ultimately, it proved to be a learning experience for all four rookie coaches.

Now, as they embark on Year 2, they’re all at different places in their respective programs, and their messages reflect that.

Better in Year 2

Gus Malzahn had an advantage when he arrived at Auburn -- he had been there before. Malzahn spent three years as offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2011, so he was familiar with some of the players, the administrators and even the fans.

It showed because the transition from coordinator to head coach was seamless. Malzahn helped orchestrate one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, taking a 3-9 team the year before and winning 12 games plus an SEC championship. The Tigers came within 13 seconds of winning their second national championship in four years.

Despite how successful his first year was on the field, Malzahn learned that off the field there were a lot of things that go into being a head coach in the SEC -- things that have nothing to do with football in some cases.

The returning Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year believes he’s better prepared for Year 2 and his goal is improve on Year 1, both on and off the field.

“It definitely helps that you’ve been through it a year and you understand it better,” Malzahn said. “And like anything else, you do something once you know the challenge is being better at it the second time.”

The power of one

Butch Jones didn’t have the same success as Malzahn in his first year at Tennessee, but when asked about the biggest difference between Year 1 and Year 2, he too talked about the familiarity that he now has with the league and his team.

“I know exactly where we’re at in our football program,” Jones said. “Our improvements that need to be made, understanding the league even that much more -- the dynamics of it, the daily grind of going through an SEC season.

“I know much more about the lay of the land and where we’re at in terms of the hierarchy in the conference, in recruiting, on the field, off the field, so much more in just one year.”

Similar to Malzahn, Jones has a new challenge ahead of him albeit a much bigger one. Tennessee lost its entire offensive and defensive lines, and nearly 50 percent of this year’s players will be going through their first college football season.

The goal last year was to play in a bowl game, and at 5-7, the Volunteers came up just short. This year, the goal is simply “the power of one.”

“With us being as youthful as we are, we have to focus on each moment, one practice, one day at a time, one snap at a time,” Jones said. “We can never get ahead of ourselves. That’s going to be the challenge.”

Don’t flinch

Bret Bielema is a Big Ten guy. He was born and raised in Illinois, he played at Iowa, and he spent seven seasons as Wisconsin’s head coach. That’s what made it so surprising when he left the Badgers for a job in the SEC at Arkansas.

Nevertheless, Bielema wanted to bring that power, smash-mouth style to the SEC. The only problem is that the SEC wasn’t having it. The Razorbacks lost nine consecutive games to finish the season and failed to win a conference game for the first time since joining the league in 1992. It didn’t help that his counterpart Malzahn, an Arkansas native who butted heads with Bielema at times, enjoyed the success that he did on the Plains.

Don’t look for Bielema to start implementing his own hurry-up, no-huddle offense this season, though.

“I think the biggest thing I took away, especially after the season, is you have to be true to who you are, what you've been,” Bielema said. “Don't flinch. There's a lot of times there's some teams that go through some adversity, you know, for sure a team that doesn't win a game in their conference, they're going to change out philosophy, got a new idea, new this, new that. I believe you have to do what you do better.”

Never look back

Before Mark Stoops arrived, Kentucky went 2-10 and lost every SEC game by an average of 25 points. The cupboard was essentially bare. The fans were too busy waiting on basketball season to show up for the football games. It wasn’t a good situation.

In Stoops’ first year, the results on the field were no different as the Wildcats finished 2-10 for the second straight season and failed to win a conference game for the second straight season. However, the players’ attitude was different -- they showed fight -- and the second-year coach believes you’ll see more of that this coming season.

“We showed signs of it last year, and I know everybody at Kentucky appreciates that -- being scrappy, being tough, playing with that great passion, playing with that great energy,” Stoops told Kentucky Sports Radio last week. “This year’s team is going to have that, and we’re going to never look back.”

Stoops doesn’t want his team looking back at last season. He certainly doesn’t want them looking back at what happened two years ago. He wants them focused on the present, and it starts Aug. 30 with a home game against UT-Martin.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 5, 2014
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Traditions, position changes, underrated players, suspension news and even anonymous scouting reports on SEC teams. It's all here for you in today's lunch links:

SEC lunchtime links

July, 28, 2014
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Here we go. Football practices are about to start at campuses across the SEC, meaning we'll have actual football stuff to discuss for the next several months. Let's take a quick spin around what's happening in the SEC as camp approaches.

• AL.com gives us five storylines to know heading into preseason camp at both Auburn and Alabama.

• Benardrick McKinney was hardly a major prospect, but he's making the most of his opportunity at Mississippi State.

• USA Today's Dan Wolken explores how private gurus such as Ken Mastrole and George Whitfield seem to be growing their influence among college quarterbacks.

• In a weekend speech before the Houston A&M Club, Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin addressed some of the team's offseason disciplinary issues -- as well as the scheduling criticisms lobbed by Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.

• LSU's quarterback competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris should be a hot topic once the Tigers open camp in a week.

• Tennessee coach Butch Jones is fine with the prospect of fielding a team of unknowns.

• South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott knows his group has the experience and skill to rank among the SEC's top lines, but he's taking a wait-and-see approach.

• Former Mississippi State quarterback Dylan Favre is aiming to have a big season at Tennessee-Martin this fall.

• Darrion Landry hopes to become the next Kentucky receiver to experience success immediately after joining the Wildcats as a junior college transfer.

• Adding Korliss Marshall to last season's highly productive tandem of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, Arkansas has three strong options at running back.

• Florida players like Jeff Driskel, Clay Burton, Latroy Pittman and Demarcus Robinson shared their knowledge with campers at the Brantley Quarterback Camp over the weekend.

• Davin Bellamy's weekend arrest will shuffle the deck for Georgia's outside linebackers early in the season.

Butch Jones: Vols have 'momentum'

July, 24, 2014
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The Tennessee Volunteers are coming off its fourth straight losing season and faces what could be another difficult season in 2014, especially with a killer schedule.

But spend a few minutes with second-year coach Butch Jones, survey the Vols’ recruiting and talk to a few of their fans, and it’s anything but gloom and doom on Rocky Top.

“We have great momentum,” Jones explained. “We have the greatest resource of all – people. You couple people with the vision of what’s going on at Tennessee, the new dormitory, the new football complex, but I also think it’s what Tennessee can be and what it will be.

“Everything in life is about timing, and this is the right place at the right time.”

In other words, Jones sees pretty clearly through all the dark clouds that have engulfed Tennessee’s program ever since Phillip Fulmer was forced out at the end of the 2008 season.

The Vols pulled in the No. 5-ranked recruiting class nationally last year and are currently ranked No. 10 by ESPN in the 2015 class.

“Our players are compelled, and they’ve been our greatest ambassadors,” Jones said of the Vols’ recruiting success.

The good news for Tennessee is that the Vols are starting to reel in four- and five-star prospects with regularity the way they did back in the 1990s when Fulmer had the program rolling. The bad (or scary) news is that a lot of those freshmen are going to have to play key roles this season.

Tennessee is the only team in the country that doesn’t return a single starter on the offensive or defensive line, although Curt Maggitt is moving to defensive end after missing last season with an injury and starting as an outside linebacker two years ago.

“We’re going through the realities of building a football program,” Jones said. “Sometimes, I think of us as an expansion team. But our players have done a great job. They’ve really embraced everything. Our older players are really mentoring the younger players. The whole key for us is how we manage the natural adversities that a football season brings about.”

Jones said first-year players will be a staple in the defensive line rotation this season, and the offensive line will be equally inexperienced.

“But we have great competition heading into camp,” he said. “Last year at this time, we had zero players who could squat 600 pounds, and we were a veteran group. This year, we have nine.”

The Vols were able to get all 32 signees in this class in school, which includes the ones they counted back as part of the 2013 class. Several of those players are expected to play key roles, namely running back Jalen Hurd.

Jones said the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Hurd doesn’t look like a true freshman, nor has he performed like one since enrolling early back in January.

“He’s got the elusiveness of a smaller back. He can make you miss and get the tough yards like a big back and has good speed,” Jones said. “For his size, he’s able to do some things I haven’t seen from a back in a while.

“He’s one of several young guys we’re going to be leaning on this year. It’s never ideal when you’re playing so many of those guys, especially when their first road trip is going to be Oklahoma. But that’s just where we are right now.”

It’s not where the Vols expect to stay, though.
HOOVER, Ala. -- As SEC media days roll on, this is the time of year when everybody is optimistic. It doesn’t matter if its Auburn, the defending champ, or the Tennessee Volunteers, a team having to replace nearly half its roster, everybody is optimistic about the upcoming season.

“Obviously, it’s an exciting time of year right now,” Butch Jones said Tuesday. “Everyone starts at 0-0.”

Jones, who is entering his second season at Tennessee, has already turned around the perception of the program. Whether its the recent recruiting success or simply faith in their head coach, people are once again excited for Volunteer football.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsButch Jones said at SEC media days that the "whole dynamic of our football program has changed."
It doesn’t matter that last season's team won five games, one shy of reaching the postseason. As Jones told the media, no two teams are alike, and this season’s squad is different from last year’s, just like like last year’s was different from the one the year before.

“I think the whole dynamic of our football program has changed,” Jones said. “From a work capacity, from a mentality, from a passion to represent the University of Tennessee, we had some great seniors last year and are very indebted to them, but overall as an organization, losing is a disease. We’ve been sick, we’ve been ill, and we’re working to get over those ills.

“This football team has worked exceptionally hard, and they have a great competitive component about them.”

Will this be the group that gets Tennessee back to a bowl game, that lays the foundation for future teams and begins the restoration process for a once-proud football program?

“I know we’re going to turn it around,” senior linebacker A.J. Johnson said. “We were a couple plays away, a couple inches away last year. We’re going to better ourselves this season, so it’s going to turn around. I didn’t come back for my senior season to not win.”

There are still plenty of question marks surrounding this Vols’ team: How do you replace both interior lines? Who starts at quarterback? How will the freshman respond? But with the SEC East wide open, what is stopping Tennessee from making some noise? It happened just last year with both Auburn and Missouri.

“That’s the great thing about this conference,” Jones said. “Everybody’s talented and anybody is capable of beating anybody. That’s why we just have to focus on the process and never get ahead of ourselves. Don’t worry about the end result.”

Maybe Tennessee will be that team in 2014. Now is the time for optimism.
HOOVER, Ala. -- So what will Day 2 in Hoover hold? Let’s take a look and see, in order of appearance.

South Carolina (10 a.m. ET): This is Steve Spurrier’s element, so sit back and enjoy. Expect the Head Ball Coach to hold court in his 13th SEC media days appearance. And he won’t even have to discuss Jadeveon Clowney this go around. So what shall we talk about? At the risk of answering a rhetorical question: plenty. How is Dylan Thompson settling in at quarterback now that Connor Shaw is gone? Is Mike Davis a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender? Where does the defense go without Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton up front? And how do you navigate a schedule that starts with Texas A&M and rounds out with Auburn, Florida and Clemson? You better believe Spurrier will have something to say about scheduling and more, so make sure you’re tuned in.

Mississippi State (11:30 a.m. ET): Welcome to the Era of Expectations, Bulldogs fans. This isn’t your father’s Mississippi State. After five seasons building the program in his image, Dan Mullen is on the clock. He’s got a potential star at quarterback, a burgeoning group of playmakers at receiver and running back, and a defense that’s as talented and deep as any in the SEC. All of that must translate into wins. But how? That’s the overarching question for a program that has only recently become accustomed to going to bowl games. How will Dak Prescott respond to being the man at quarterback? How will Benardrick McKinney wrap his head around no longer being an underdog? What about the ever-present threat of Ole Miss? Mississippi State has plenty of reasons to hope for a great 2014. Now it’s time to really start talking about it.

Texas A&M (1 p.m. ET): We hope Kevin Sumlin is ready to hear about two dozen variations of the question "What’s life without Johnny Manziel going to be like?" because that’s probably what’s on the minds of most. Sumlin is likely to reply poignantly, citing something about how he has worked with successful quarterbacks his entire career. And who is the quarterback going to be anyway -- Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill? (Don't hold your breath for a clear answer to that one.) Aside from that, questions abound about the defense, which was mostly awful last season, and what about the off-the-field incidents? The Aggies had nine arrests this offseason and dismissed three players. How will the rash of off-the-field incidents impact the Aggies this fall?

Tennessee (2:30 p.m. ET): How quickly can the Volunteers turn their recent recruiting success into on-field results? Butch Jones brought in the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class in the 2014 cycle, impressive for a team that hasn't been as successful on the field as it has historically been accustomed to. Are the Vols ready to take the next step, and perhaps go bowling? Also, questions about who the starting quarterback will be will certainly be directed at Jones. One other topic of discussion is likely to center on the status of leading receiver Pig Howard, who took a leave of absence from the team during spring practice for personal reasons and who Jones said in May would be part of summer strength and conditioning but has "certain stipulations and requirements that must be met for him."
Auburn is the favorite to win every game this season except the Iron Bowl, but the Tigers have only the fourth-best odds of winning the SEC title for a second straight season. This according to the preseason projections that ESPN’s Stats and Information team released on Tuesday.

Using its preseason Football Power Index as a guide, the Stats and Information group’s projections covered a wide range of categories including likelihood of going undefeated, odds of winning conference and division titles, likelihood of winning individual games and projected win totals.

The data showed Florida State as a heavy favorite to repeat as the national champion, with the Seminoles having a 40 percent chance of going undefeated and at least an 87 percent chance of winning each of its games. The next-closest team, Oregon, has a 13 percent chance of going undefeated.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kansas (projection of 3.3 wins), Purdue (3.6), Wake Forest (3.6) and California (3.8) are the teams from the Big Five conferences that are projected to win the fewest games.

The projections covered every FBS program, but we’re here to discuss the SEC, where -- surprise, surprise -- Alabama is the favorite to hoist the conference championship trophy in Atlanta. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide has a 23 percent chance to win the conference title according to ESPN’s projections, leading South Carolina (17 percent), Georgia (17) and Auburn (16), which was certainly a much bigger underdog at this point a season ago.

Obviously Gus Malzahn's 2013 club proved that things can change a great deal between July and December -- and the Stats and Information group’s projections will be updated throughout the season -- but here’s where each SEC team sits for now, a little less than a month away from the start of preseason practice.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide is projected to win 9.9 games and has a 4 percent chance of going undefeated. In addition to its 22.6 percent chance of winning the SEC, Alabama has a 38 percent chance of winning the SEC West. Alabama is the favorite in every game and has at least a 64.5 percent chance of winning all but the LSU (57.5) and Auburn (57.8) games.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks play the SEC’s toughest schedule (No. 4 in the nation) and are projected to win 4.9 games. They have a 0 percent chance to win the conference title and a 0.01 percent chance of winning the West. In individual games, however, Arkansas is favored to win only against UAB (96.8 percent chance of a win), Nicholls State (96.7) and Northern Illinois (71.7).

Auburn: The only other team in the nation’s top 10 in strength of schedule (the Tigers are 10th), Auburn is projected to win 9.2 games. They have a 1 percent chance of going undefeated, a 16.3 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 26.7 percent chance of winning the West. The Tigers have at least a 60 percent chance to win every game except Alabama (42.2) and Georgia (54.4).

Florida: Projected to win 7.6 games, Florida has a 6.2 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 16.3 percent chance of winning the SEC East. The Gators are favored in seven games and underdogs against LSU (49.9), South Carolina (45.6), Georgia (35.7), Alabama (20.7) and Florida State (8.9).

Georgia: Oddly enough, while South Carolina has a slightly better chance of winning the SEC according to ESPN’s projections, Georgia has a small edge over the Gamecocks with a projection of 9.1 wins. The Bulldogs have a 17.1 percent chance of winning the conference and a 37.5 percent chance of winning the East. They have at least at 63.4 percent chance of beating every opponent except South Carolina (41.1) and Auburn (45.6).

Kentucky: ESPN’s projections have Kentucky making a step forward in Year 2 under Mark Stoops, winning 5.5 games this fall. The Wildcats have a 0.03 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.09 percent chance of winning the East. They are favored to beat Tennessee-Martin, Ohio, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe, but there next-best chance of winning is 37.9 percent against Tennessee.

LSU: Les Miles’ Tigers are projected to win 8.0 games, with a 4.6 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 9.5 percent chance of winning the West. However, the Tigers are favored in nine games -- all but Auburn (26.8), Texas A&M (38.0) and Alabama (42.5).

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are projected to win 8.5 games, with a 4.7 percent chance of winning the conference and 9.7 percent chance of winning the West. Mississippi State is favored in eight games -- all but Ole Miss (47.0), Auburn (40.0), LSU (39.7) and Alabama (25.5).

Missouri: Projected to win 7.0 games, Missouri has a 2.3 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 7.1 percent chance of representing the East in Atlanta for a second straight season. The Tigers are favored in eight games and underdogs against Georgia (36.6), Florida (32.3), Texas A&M (22.2) and South Carolina (21.9).

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze’s club is projected to win 7.7 games and has a 2.9 percent chance of winning the conference and a 6.5 percent chance of winning the West. The Rebels are favored in eight games and are underdogs against Alabama (35.5), Auburn (35.0), LSU (34.7) and Texas A&M (31.2).

South Carolina: The Gamecocks are projected to win 8.9 games, have a 17.9 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 37.2 percent chance of winning the East. South Carolina is favored in all games except Clemson (47.5) and Auburn (30.4).

Tennessee: Projected to win 5.4 games, Butch Jones’ Volunteers have a 0.02 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.1 percent chance of winning the East. The Vols are favored to win five games: Utah State, Arkansas State, Chattanooga, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Texas A&M: The Aggies are projected to win 8.3 games and have a 4.8 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 9.5 percent chance of winning the West. Texas A&M is favored in eight games and is an underdog against Mississippi State (47.6), South Carolina (41.4), Alabama (30.5) and Auburn (30.1).

Vanderbilt: The James Franklin-less Commodores are projected to drop to 4.9 wins under first-year coach Derek Mason. They have a 0 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.02 percent chance of winning the East. Vandy is favored against UMass, Charleston Southern, Temple and Old Dominion.

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