SEC: E.J. Gaines

Schedule analysis: Missouri

May, 28, 2014
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[+] EnlargePinkel
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsGary Pinkel and Missouri start the SEC season with a tough test at South Caolina.
Nonconference opponents (with 2013 record)
Aug. 30: South Dakota State (9-5)
Sept. 6: at Toledo (7-5)
Sept. 13: Central Florida (12-1)
Sept. 20: Indiana (5-7)

SEC home games
Oct. 11: Georgia (8-5)
Oct. 25: Vanderbilt (9-4)
Nov. 1: Kentucky (2-10)
Nov. 28: Arkansas (3-9)

SEC road games
Sept. 27: at South Carolina (11-2)
Oct. 18: at Florida (4-8)
Nov. 15: at Texas A&M (9-4)
Nov. 22: at Tennessee (5-7)

Gut-check time: Once Missouri enters SEC play, it jumps in with both feet. The Tigers start with a Sept. 27 trip to South Carolina, which has won 11 games in three straight seasons and will rank among the leading contenders to win the SEC East this fall. The Gamecocks have won 18 in a row at home since Auburn won at Williams-Brice Stadium in October 2011, so history will not be on the Tigers’ side -- particularly since they’re 0-2 against the Gamecocks since joining the SEC and suffered their only regular-season loss at home to the Gamecocks last year.

Trap game: It’s funny to call a Missouri trip to Florida a “trap game” considering the wildly different spots the two programs occupied in the national hierarchy over the last 25 years or so. But Missouri is unquestionably in the stronger position right now, having rolled over the Gators and to its first SEC East championship last year. Nonetheless, a trip to Florida remains as a daunting challenge for Missouri, particularly considering how much offensive firepower the Tigers lost from last season. Will Muschamp’s Gators will almost certainly rebound this season -- there’s too much talent on the roster to expect otherwise -- and the Tigers will have to be on their game to beat them for a second straight season.

Snoozer: Like last season, Missouri opens the season with four straight nonconference games. Unlike last year, one of those games -- the Sept. 13 visit from Central Florida -- comes against an opponent that played in a BCS bowl last season. The Knights will be without their two offensive stars from last season (quarterback Blake Bortles and tailback Storm Johnson), so even they will be in reloading mode when they visit Columbia. That’s the only game in the first month that should provide any intrigue whatsoever for Missouri fans, as FCS opponent South Dakota State and Toledo and Indiana should fail to mount much of a challenge.

Telltale stretch: Expand the “gut-check time” section even further. After the Tigers open SEC play with an enormous challenge at South Carolina, they take a week off following the South Carolina game, then the Tigers will host Georgia. The Bulldogs also will rank among the leading preseason favorites within the SEC East. Then comes the trip to Florida. That means in three consecutive games, the Tigers will face teams that won the division in seven of the previous eight years before Mizzou’s Eastern Division title last year. Making the challenge of this stretch even more difficult, Vanderbilt comes to town after the Florida game. The Commodores lost coach James Franklin to Penn State, but they have won nine games in consecutive seasons.

Final analysis: Missouri isn’t going to sneak up on anyone like it did last season, not that it will have much of an opportunity. The first month of the season should provide a 3-1, or maybe even 4-0, record, but the SEC slate gets tough quickly. The Tigers lost a ton of key offensive skill players, plus defensive stars Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and E.J. Gaines, so September will be a key time for Mizzou to begin generating some positive momentum with new talent. The Tigers will need to be clicking to knock off South Carolina on the road, much less Georgia, Florida and Vandy in the weeks afterward. And even after that, they still have to make trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee -- to stadiums that rank among the nation’s most hostile toward visitors -- in back-to-back weeks in November. Gary Pinkel did a phenomenal job in assembling a 2013 team that surprised longtime SEC fans by making it to Atlanta, but it will require all of his coaching acumen to navigate this schedule successfully and make it back there again in 2014 considering how many pieces the Tigers must replace.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

Opening spring camp: Missouri

March, 11, 2014
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Schedule: The Tigers begin practice on Tuesday and conclude on April 19 with Missouri’s annual Black and Gold scrimmage inside Memorial Stadium. All of Missouri’s practices are closed to the public.

What’s new: While coach Gary Pinkel did lose a few valuable pieces to his roster, he was able to keep his coaching staff intact for 2014.

On the mend: The Tigers should be relatively healthy entering spring practice. Missouri should get redshirt junior cornerback Ernest Payton back after he tore his ACL just before last season’s opener, causing him to miss the 2013 season. Also, redshirt junior wide receiver J'Mon Moore should be back after a shoulder injury bothered him all last year.

On the move: There could be some movement along the Tigers’ offensive line with starters Justin Britt (left tackle) and Max Copeland (left guard) gone. Keep an eye on starting right tackle Mitch Morse, who could move over to left tackle in order to keep some experience on that side of the line.

New faces: The Tigers have five early enrollees this year. The true freshmen are cornerback Logan Cheadle, offensive lineman Michael Fairchild, linebacker Brandon Lee and quarterback Marvin Zanders. Junior college cornerback Kenya Dennis is also on campus early.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDorial Green-Beckham will be back at Missouri catching passes, but who will step up beside him at wide receiver?
Question marks: Mizzou watched as its secondary was gutted after the 2013 season. Three starters, including All-SEC cornerback E.J. Gaines, are gone, and while the Tigers have bodies to throw on the field this spring, there isn’t a lot of experience. Rising sophomore Aarion Penton started two games in place of Gaines last season and played in all 14 games for the Tigers. He seems primed to take Gaines’ spot, but a gang of players will be vying for the spot opposite him. Look for Duron Singleton and Cortland Browning to compete for the open safety spot.

The loss of receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas means that someone needs to step up and help Dorial Green-Beckham. Green-Beckham is capable of being an All-American, but he’ll need assistance from guys such as Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White. Also, expect some youngsters to compete for more time at receiver. However, the biggest hole on offense might be at left tackle. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Williams, who moved from guard last season, could get the first looks there during camp, but watch out for Moore and Taylor Chappell. The Tigers also need to find a replacement for Andrew Wilson at middle linebacker. Michael Scherer has the most experience inside, but don’t be surprised if Mizzou’s coaches move Kentrell Brothers inside at times, too.

Key battle: Really, just take a look at any of the battles in the secondary. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in pass defense in 2013, but are losing a lot of experience and one of their best players in Gaines. Having rising senior Braylon Webb back is a plus, but filing three starting spots with a lack of quality experience will be quite the job for defensive coordinator Dave Steckel.

Breaking out: The Tigers certainly would have preferred for running back Henry Josey to stay one more season, but there are plenty of guys vying to be his replacement. The one who could make the biggest splash this spring is rising junior Russell Hansbrough, who was second on the team with 685 rushing yards last season. He also had four rushing touchdowns and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. Hansbrough is explosive, agile and tough to tackle. He can bounce off defenders and has the quickness to make guys miss. He also has the strength to grind out extra yards.

Don’t forget about: Many might point to the losses of defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy and wonder who the Tigers will turn to. But Mizzou actually should be fine up front, especially with redshirt senior Markus Golden deciding to stay one more year instead of jumping to the NFL early. Because of Sam and Ealy, Golden flew under the radar last season, but he was still able to finish the season with 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also had 55 total tackles and has a chance to be one of the SEC’s top pass rushers.

All eyes on: While Maty Mauk held his own during a month as Mizzou’s starting quarterback last season, everyone will be checking on him to see how he responds this spring. While Pinkel has said that it’s an open competition at quarterback, Mauk clearly has the upper hand and is the favorite to land the starting job. Fans have been itching to see him be the guy, but he won’t have James Franklin to lean on for guidance. Mauk is fully capable of stepping in and impressing (again), but a lot of pressure and hype surround him. He threw for more than 1,000 yards last season and had 11 touchdown passes. He fits Mizzou’s offense as good as anyone and has the moxie and confidence to be a solid leader for this team.
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 26, 2014
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Even more NFL combine talk, a player returns to his alma mater as a coach, recruiting and more in today's lunch links:

5 burning questions: SEC letdowns

February, 26, 2014
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It’s hard to stay on top. Just ask Alabama, which saw its season do a complete 180 after an improbable missed field goal return that stunned college football. Or what about Florida? Two seasons ago, the Gators were playing in a BCS bowl game. Last season, they finished 4-8 and lost to a FCS team for the first time in school history. Georgia and Texas A&M fell victim to letdowns, too, as both came into last season with high expectations.

The SEC is as good a league as there is in college football, and new teams rise to the top every year. The consequence of that is that some teams have to fall.

Last year, it was Auburn and Missouri which rose to the top, knocking some of the traditional powers off their pedestal. Neither team reached a bowl game the year before, but made it to Atlanta and played each other for the conference championship.

Now, as we count down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, can we expect a letdown from Auburn or Missouri? Will it be their time to fall?

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsThe return of QB Nick Marshall gives Auburn hope that it can make another run at the SEC title.
Auburn: Talent-wise, the SEC champions are better off than their title-game counterpart. The Tigers were just three years removed from winning a national championship, and their recruiting classes during that time reflected that. They had the players. They just needed a coach like Gus Malzahn to come in and rejuvenate the program.

Mission accomplished. Auburn nearly won another national championship. This time, however, the Tigers want to stay on top. They don’t want to fall like they did after the 2010 title.

It starts with the quarterback position. The loss of Cam Newton was too much to overcome back then, but fellow junior college signal caller Nick Marshall opted to come back and will do his best to defend Auburn’s conference title next season. He’s already being tabbed as an early candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

The offense will miss running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson, but eight starters return to give Marshall a strong supporting cast.

The big question is on defense. Auburn lost five starters from a defense that was suspect to begin with. The good news for the Tigers is that veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has had a knack for making improvements from Year 1 to Year 2, and this looks to be his latest reclamation project.

The schedule doesn’t do Auburn any favors with trips to Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, but with the talent returning and the current coaching staff, the Tigers should expect to be one of the SEC favorites again next season.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesQB Maty Mauk returns, but Missouri still has to overcome some key losses on both sides of the ball.
Missouri: The situation is a little more dire in Columbia. The Tigers haven’t recruited as well as Auburn in recent years and are losing seven starters on offense and seven starters on defense from last year’s team.

The loss of quarterback James Franklin isn’t as bad because Missouri has Maty Mauk coming up behind him. Mauk played well last season when Franklin was injured. The redshirt freshman finished with 1,071 yards passing, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and has a chance to be one of the top signal-callers in the SEC.

However, running back Henry Josey and wide receiver L'Damian Washington will no longer be at his disposal, making the presence of Dorial Green-Beckham that much more important.

Similar to Auburn, the real problem is on defense. The pass-rushing combination of Michael Sam and Kony Ealy was second to none in the SEC, but both players are gone, along with the team’s leading tackler, Andrew Wilson, and its lockdown cornerback, E.J. Gaines.

If there’s a saving grace for Missouri, it’s the schedule. The Tigers don’t have to play Alabama, Auburn or LSU, and based on the opponents, they have a chance to go 7-0 at home next season.

Still, the fans voted Missouri as the most likely SEC team to fall in 2014, and it’s hard not to expect some type of letdown from this team next season. They proved they belong, but maintaining that success is a brand-new challenge.

All-SEC: Where they stood as recruits

February, 4, 2014
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On the eve of national signing day, it's always fun to go back and examine where the top players in the SEC from this past season were ranked coming out of high school.

Of the 23 position players who made the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team, seven were three-star prospects, according to the ESPN Recruiting Nation rankings. The only five-star prospects were Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney was one of only two five-star recruits on the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team.
Even more telling, only eight of the 23 players were ranked among the top 10 players at their respective positions.

Of note, Vanderbilt's record-setting Jordan Matthews was ranked as the No. 153 receiver, Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson was the No. 125 offensive tackle, Arkansas' Travis Swanson was the No. 91 offensive guard, Missouri's Michael Sam was the No. 75 defensive end and LSU's Lamin Barrow was the No. 82 outside linebacker.

Here's a closer look:

OFFENSE
  • QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 39 QB, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • RB Tre Mason, Auburn: Four stars, No. 21 RB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Four stars, No. 55 overall prospect, No. 4 RB, Class of 2012. Grade: 81.
  • WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M: Three stars, No. 52 WR, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 153 WR, Class of 2010. Grade: 74.
  • AP Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: Three stars, No. 62 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 78.
  • TE Arthur Lynch, Georgia: No. 7 TE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • OL Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: No. 125 OT, Class of 2009. Grade: 74.
  • OL Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama: Five stars, No. 3 overall prospect, No. 1 OT, Class of 2011. Grade: 87.
  • OL Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect. No. 7 OT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • OL Greg Robinson, Auburn: Four stars, No. 10 OG, Class of 2011. Grade: 80.
  • C Travis Swanson, Arkansas: No. 91 OG, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
DEFENSE
  • DL Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: Five stars, No. 1 overall prospect, No. 1 DE, Class of 2011. Grade: 95.
  • DL Dee Ford, Auburn: No. 35 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 79.
  • DL Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: Four stars, No. 124 overall prospect, No. 11 DT, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • DL Michael Sam, Missouri: No. 75 DE, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia: Four stars, No. 11 ILB, Class of 2011. Grade: 79.
  • LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama: Four stars, No. 99 overall prospect, No. 7 OLB, Class of 2010. Grade: 81.
  • LB Lamin Barrow, LSU: No. 82 OLB, Class of 2009. Grade: 76.
  • DB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Four stars, No. 19 overall prospect, No. 2 S, Class of 2011. Grade: 84.
  • DB E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Three stars, No. 57 CB, Class of 2010. Grade: 76.
  • DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt: Three stars, No. 43 S, Class of 2010. Grade: 78.
  • DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: Three stars, No. 78 athlete, Class of 2011. Grade: 77.

Season report card: Missouri

February, 4, 2014
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Missouri’s 2013 report card is a little easier to view than it was at this time a year ago.

OFFENSE: A
Even with senior quarterback James Franklin injured for part of the season with a separated shoulder, Missouri was still one of the better offenses in the league. The Tigers were third in scoring offense (39.1 points per game) and third in total offense (490.7 yards per game). Their balance was especially impressive. They were the only team in the SEC to pass for more than 250 yards per game (252.9) and also rush for more than 230 yards per game (237.9). Henry Josey was a 1,000-yard rusher (1,166 yards) with 16 rushing touchdowns, while Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington combined for 22 touchdown receptions. Redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk also deserves big props for holding it together until Franklin returned for the last four games.

DEFENSE: B-
[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGary Pinkel and Missouri had a breakthrough season in their second year in the SEC.
If you take away the 59-42 SEC championship game loss to Auburn and the fourth quarter and two overtimes of the 27-24 loss to South Carolina, then Missouri is flirting with an "A" on defense. The Tigers held Ole Miss to 10 points in a key game and came back the next week and held Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in check to clinch the Eastern Division title. It's just hard to forget about those 545 rushing yards (and 59 points) Missouri gave up to Auburn in the SEC championship game. The same goes for those 17 fourth-quarter points the Tigers gave up to the Gamecocks at home after leading 17-0 at one point and then giving up the 15-yard touchdown pass on fourth down in the first overtime. Still, the Tigers were good enough on defense, particularly up front, to win 12 games and make their first SEC championship game appearance. Michael Sam and Kony Ealy formed the best defensive end tandem in the league, and E.J. Gaines established himself as one of the most complete cornerbacks in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
The Tigers would love to have that missed 24-yard field-goal attempt back against South Carolina. Andrew Baggett’s kick hit the left upright in the second overtime. It was one of three misses by Baggett from inside 29 yards on the season. But to his credit, he came back and made his last four field goals in the SEC title game and Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State. Baggett also led all SEC kickers with 120 points. Missouri’s return teams were just OK and didn’t produce any touchdowns on the season after Marcus Murphy had four in 2012, and the Tigers were 12th in the league in net punting (36.8 yards).

OVERALL: A
If not for what Gus Malzahn did at Auburn, Gary Pinkel would have been an easy choice for SEC Coach of the Year honors. He did a marvelous job in bringing Missouri back from an injury-plagued, disappointing first season in the SEC, and the Tigers overcame another injury to Franklin this season to win the East title. Giving up so many points to Auburn in the SEC championship game was disappointing, but Missouri showed its resolve by bouncing back in the postseason to beat Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. This was a senior-laden team with strong leadership and plenty of motivation after going 5-7 in 2012, its first season in the SEC. It's also a team that that made its own breaks, as evidenced by a plus-16 turnover ratio, which led the conference. Auburn's turnaround will be what most people talk about when they think back to the 2013 season, but Mizzou proved emphatically that it belonged in the SEC.

Past grades:
Mississippi State
LSU
Kentucky
Georgia
Florida
Auburn
Arkansas
Alabama

2013 SEC Super Seniors

January, 22, 2014
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For the fifth consecutive season, we pay homage to the top seniors in the SEC.

We’ve selected the best 12 seniors in the league, period, and not one senior on each team. These guys all rose above and beyond in terms of on-the-field production, leadership and overall impact on their teams.

There were a lot of tough calls, and this senior class ranks up there with any we've seen in this league. What that means is that several deserving players were left off. We looked hard at how players fared against league competition, their consistency and whether or not they were able to make it through the whole season.

Here’s introducing our 2013 SEC Super Seniors. They’re listed in alphabetical order:

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis made one of the most memorable plays in college football history.
Chris Davis, CB/RS, Auburn: Davis' kick-six to beat Alabama was the play of the year in college football, maybe the play of the last quarter-century. But that's what he did -- make plays. Davis led the league in punt return average (18.7 yards), tied for the league lead in pass breakups (15) and was second on Auburn's team with 74 tackles. It goes without saying that he was one of the key figures in the Tigers' improbable run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Much like Davis, Ford was one of the driving forces in the Tigers' rise from winless in the SEC in 2012 to playing for the national championship this season. Ford finished second in the league with 10.5 sacks, including two against Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and also tied for second in the league with 14.5 tackles for loss. He was the heartbeat of an Auburn defensive line that was clearly the strength of that defense.

E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri: Even though Gaines might have been overshadowed by some of the other marquee cornerbacks in the SEC to start the season, he demonstrated on the field that he didn't take a back seat to anybody. Gaines led SEC cornerbacks with 75 tackles and tied for second in the league with five interceptions. He was the essence of a shutdown cornerback, as evidenced by his work on Texas A&M star receiver Mike Evans, who had a season-low eight receiving yards, in the Tigers' 28-21 victory over the Aggies.

Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State: If you were to look up road-grader in the football dictionary, you'd almost certainly find a picture of the 6-4, 340-pound Jackson. One of the top interior offensive linemen in college football, Jackson was a rock in the middle of that Mississippi State offensive line. When the Bulldogs needed tough yards and/or key yards, they almost always ran behind big No. 61. Jackson started in all 52 games of his college career at left guard.

Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt: Go back over the last five or six years and count the quality defensive backs to come out of Vanderbilt's program. Ladler would be right up there near the top, and he saved the best for last with a tremendous senior season. He was the only player in the country (in the FBS ranks) with at least five interceptions and five forced fumbles and finished second among SEC defensive backs with 91 tackles.

Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: One of the best recruits the Aggies picked up last year was when Matthews decided to return for his senior season. He moved from right to left tackle and had an All-American senior season as Texas A&M led the SEC in scoring offense (44.2 points) and total offense (538.4 yards). Matthews excelled in pass protection, but was equally effective as a run-blocker.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiVanderbilt's Jordan Matthews made an SEC-record 112 receptions in the 2013 season.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt: Matthews leaves quite a legacy at Vanderbilt. Not only was he one of the centerpieces of a Vanderbilt team that won nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in history, but he set a slew of SEC records. His 112 catches this season were the most ever by an SEC player, and he's also the league's career leader in catches (262) and receiving yards (3,759).

AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron fell short this season of securing his third consecutive national championship ring as a starting QB, but he'll still go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in SEC history. The 2013 Heisman Trophy runner-up, McCarron was Mr. Clutch for the Crimson Tide and did some of his best work on the biggest stages. He was second in the SEC this season with 28 touchdown passes and third in passing efficiency.

C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Mosley blossomed into the ultimate do-it-all linebacker for the Crimson Tide and became the first player under Nick Saban at Alabama to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. But as good a tackler as Mosley was, he was just as good in coverage, blitzing the quarterback and chasing sideline to sideline. And as the "quarterback" of that defense, he was the guy who made the checks, got everybody lined up and helped clean up mistakes.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: Sadly, Murray's senior season was cut short when he tore his ACL against Kentucky. He'd been a warrior all season for the Bulldogs despite losing just about all of the playmakers around him to injury. Murray was brilliant in some of Georgia's biggest games, including victories over LSU and South Carolina and even the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. He finished second in the SEC in total offense (296.5 yards per game) and leaves as the SEC's all-time leader in passing yards (13,155) and touchdown passes (121).

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: Always a solid contributor for the Tigers, Sam emerged as a senior as one of the top big-play defenders in the SEC. He earned first-team All-American honors and led the league in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). His late sack and forced fumble in the AT&T Cotton Bowl resulted in a touchdown and was the decisive blow in Missouri's 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State.

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Arguably the most underrated player in college football, Shaw engineered the third consecutive 11-win season for the Gamecocks and battled through an assortment of painful injuries to have his best season yet. He finished with 24 touchdown passes and only one interception and accounted for 31 total touchdowns. His gutsy performance off the bench in the comeback win over Missouri on the road was one of the performances of the year in the SEC.

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
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Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

The SEC's 25 best players: No. 25

January, 20, 2014
1/20/14
10:00
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Before we start our postseason countdown of the top 25 players in the SEC in 2013, a few reminders are in order.

This list is based solely on performance during the 2013 season, those players who played the best -- particularly in key games and in clutch situations -- and had the most profound impacts on their teams. We consulted with coaches in the league, as well as analysts, scouts and other media members. And while we went back and examined stats, stats alone weren't always the determining factor.

When it was close, we looked at how players performed against SEC and/or nationally ranked competition. Other factors such as durability, versatility, consistency, leadership and a player’s ability to raise his teammates’ level of play were also considered.

This is not a list of the top NFL draft prospects. There will be some players who go in the top two or three rounds of the 2014 draft that are not in our countdown.

Again, our goal was to pick the SEC’s 25 best players from this past season without regard to position.

Here goes with No. 25. As usual, we’re sure everybody will be in full agreement:

No. 25: E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri, Sr.

2013 summary: Gaines led all SEC cornerbacks with 75 total tackles, including four for loss. He tied for second in the league with five interceptions and was a first-team All-SEC selection by both the coaches and Associated Press.

Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2013 preseason countdown.

Making the case for Gaines: A starter in the Mizzou secondary since his sophomore season, Gaines is fearless back there. He re-established himself this season as one of the top lockdown corners in the league and showed a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He had an 11-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the SEC championship game to give Missouri a second-quarter lead. Teams weren't always quick to challenge Gaines. But when they did, he was almost always in position to make a play. Gaines validated himself as one of the top corners in college football in Missouri's 28-21 win over Texas A&M to clinch the Eastern Division title in the regular-season finale. He helped hold Texas A&M star receiver Mike Evans to a season-low eight receiving yards on four catches.

Season wrap: Missouri

January, 15, 2014
1/15/14
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Missouri doesn’t belong in the SEC. The Tigers can’t hang with the upper echelon teams in college football’s premier conference. That’s all Gary Pinkel’s team heard last offseason after they finished 5-7 with just two league wins.

But the Tigers can hang. They proved that and more this season. They finished 12-1, 7-1 in conference, and earned a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game after winning the East. It was only their second year in the league, but they proved they’re a legitimate contender.

Despite a 59-42 loss to Auburn in the SEC title game, Missouri responded to knock off Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl and finish No. 5 in the final AP poll.

Offensive MVP: If you’re looking for the comeback player of the year, look no further than Columbia, Mo., and running back Henry Josey. The Mizzou star suffered a devastating knee injury two years ago, forcing him to miss all of last year, but he returned this season to post 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns. Now he’s on his way to the NFL after declaring for the draft a year early.

Defensive MVP: The obvious choice is defensive end Michael Sam, who led the SEC with 11.5 sacks, but fellow end Kony Ealy, who played better down the stretch, and cornerback E.J. Gaines are worthy candidates, too. Still, it has to be Sam. He went from being a three-star prospect nobody had heard of to one of the league’s most dominant players on defense. He had three sacks in three different games. The SEC quarterbacks will be glad he’s graduating.

Best moment: As special as Josey’s first touchdown run was, his first since the injury, it was his touchdown run against Texas A&M in the regular season finale that was the most memorable for Missouri fans. The Tigers and Aggies were tied with less than five minutes left. A win clinched the SEC East. A loss and there was no trip to Atlanta. Josey broke free and took it 57 yards to the house, scoring the game-winning touchdown. Chaos ensued after the game as fans rushed the field to celebrate the win and the division title.

Worst moment: The stakes wouldn’t have been as high for that Texas A&M game if not for an epic collapse against South Carolina earlier in the season. Missouri was at home, playing in prime time and surrendered a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter before losing in double overtime to the Gamecocks. Whether it was the fourth-and-goal South Carolina converted in the first overtime or the missed field goal in the second overtime, it’s a game the Tigers would like to forget.

SEC's lunch links

January, 7, 2014
1/07/14
12:00
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Well, that was fun. Another college football season is in the books. It's Day 1 of the long, hard offseason.
In case you didn't know, Friday's AT&T Cotton Bowl matchup between No. 8 Missouri (11-2, 7-1 SEC) and 13th-ranked Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) is a bit of a reunion.

Oklahoma State, proud members of the Big 12, will meet their old brothers who jumped ship for the SEC in 2012.

While a big deal has been made of Friday's meeting and its backstory, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam isn't moved by it. He's actually bored of it.

"I don't really care," Sam said. "We used to be in the Big 12; we're not any more. I think the media is blowing it way out of proportion. I could care less."

Sam might be on to something, but it is pretty cool when you think about the last two Cotton Bowls. This year, it's Mizzou-Oklahoma State. Last year, it was Texas A&M-Oklahoma.

Rematches of games that once had conference stakes on the line now feature bragging rights and even traitor talk in some circles. There are even whispers in Big 12 country that the Tigers ran away from their old league.

So while Sam might not care about the old Big 12 matchup, it does create an interesting storyline, and he'd be crazy to think that no one else in this game isn't intrigued by that aspect of the game.

"It is just a great opportunity to play a great Missouri team; they were in the Big 12, so it is a little rivalry there," Oklahoma State wide receiver Charlie Moore said. "You always want to play the best and always fun to play the SEC. It is going to be a good game no matter what conference they are in and it is fun to be in the Cotton Bowl."

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMichael Sam is tired of the Missouri vs. Big 12 storyline, but is eager to show the Tigers defense is better than it showed against Auburn.
And, like the Big 12 that Mizzou was used to, this one has the makings of being an old-fashioned shootout in the heart of Texas.

A year removed from an injury-plagued first season in the SEC, the Tigers bit back with one of the SEC's most potent offenses. Mizzou finished the regular season ranking in the top five in the league in passing offense, rushing offense, total offense and scoring. The Tigers went from averaging 356.4 yards a game and 25.8 points in 2012 to 492.9 yards and 39 points in 2013.

The Tigers also went from missing a bowl game to winning the SEC Eastern Division, beating Florida and Georgia and ranking as high as fifth in the BCS standings along the way. If they had beaten Auburn in the SEC championship game, these Tigers would be out in sunny California for the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

On the other side, the Cowboys are averaging 440.5 yards per game with an offense that features some "Air Raid," three-back and pistol. They'll throw in some zone-read just to make things interesting.

Sam said he's excited about facing Oklahoma State's passing game, which averages 268.5 yards per game. The Tigers ranked 13th in the SEC in pass defense (256 yards per game), but Sam made it clear that this defense hasn't had an issue defending the pass all season.

"We've never struggled stopping the pass," Sam said confidently. "We want to stop the run so they can be forced to pass. We hope they pass all night, to be honest with you."

Mizzou has 18 interceptions and has given up 16 passing touchdowns. But in games away from Faurot Field, the Tigers gave up 270.7 passing yards per game and quarterbacks enjoyed a combined efficiency rating of 129.3.

Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf has thrown for 200 or more yards in four of his past five games and has 11 touchdowns to four interceptions.

"It definitely takes you back, so I am excited to see the ball in the air a little bit more than the SEC does," cornerback E.J. Gaines said.

Regardless of how the Cowboys approach their offensive plan, this is a chance for Mizzou to show the country that its defense is still worthy of being called a solid unit. Before surrounding 677 yards to Auburn (545 rushing), Missouri held opponents to fewer than 400 yards in five of the previous six games. After being gashed by Auburn, the perception is that the Tigers aren't as steady on defense as they once appeared.

"We've been a great defense all season," Sam said. "We had one bad game and I don't think that should define our season."

What will help define this season is the outcome of tonight's game. A victory would serve as more validation that the new kids deserve their seat at the SEC's big-kid table.

"The win would just prove that we belong in the SEC and we should be respected by everyone in that conference," Sam said. "... I think we earned a lot of respect from our conference, [and a victory would] show we belong where we are and we are one of the best in the country.”

Seven named to FWAA All-America team

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
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More All-America teams are out, and there's more love for the SEC.

The Football Writers Association of America's 70th All-America Team was released on Wednesday, and seven players from the SEC made the first team and five made the second team. The SEC led the rest of the nation's conferences in first-team All-America selections.

Alabama led the nation with three first-team members, while Texas A&M had two. Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews was the only player to repeat as a first-team member this year.

Here's where SEC players were listed:

First team

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAggies senior Jake Matthews was the only repeat member of the FWAA's All-America Team.
OFFENSE

WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama

DEFENSE

DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

KR: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU

Second team

OFFENSE

QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Greg Robinson, Auburn

DEFENSE

DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri

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