SEC: Jalen Whitlow

SEC's lunch links

May, 22, 2014
May 22
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The College Football Hall of Fame is announcing its 2014 inductees today at 12:30 p.m. ET. You can watch it live at footballfoundation.org. Here's a breakdown of this year's nominees from the SEC.

SEC lunch links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Alabama, Auburn and Missouri will all hold their spring games this weekend. To get you ready for all the action, be sure to check out Friday’s lunch links.

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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Let them eat a late lunch!
Quarterback Jalen Whitlow's decision to transfer from Kentucky leaves a very big opportunity for early enrollee freshman Drew Barker and third-year sophomore Patrick Towles.

Both arrived at Kentucky with enormous hype and now could be barreling toward their own two-man race for the starting QB job for the Wildcats.

Both have dealt with early superstar status in Lexington, but with one more body out of the quarterback race, they better get used to the attention around them greatly increasing.

While coach Mark Stoops isn't in a hurry to name a starting quarterback for the 2014 season, the Wildcats now likely will have to speed up Barker's development and throw a little bit more at him. He's clearly the quarterback of the future for Big Blue Nation, and this is another step in that direction.

“He has every opportunity to take control because we’re so unsettled there,” Stoops told ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough last month. “He’s a guy that’s very mature. He’s a guy that has high expectations himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position.”

Barker, a former ESPN 300 recruit, better get ready for even more pressure. He already knew before arriving at Kentucky that he'd get every opportunity to take the starting job, either this spring or in the fall. Taking Whitlow out of the equation could expedite the process for a player who passed for 2,671 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013 at Conner Senior High in Hebron, Ky.

[+] EnlargeDrew Barker
John Albright/Icon SMIKentucky freshman Drew Barker, who was ranked as the No. 9 pocket passer in the country in the 2014 class, could start as a freshman.
What also works to Barker's advantage is that fellow QB Maxwell Smith is out this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery. That means that for the rest of spring, which concludes on April 26 with the annual Blue/White Spring Game, Barker will compete with Towles and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips.

Towles, who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Kentucky in 2011, has never really found his groove on the field since his arrival. After passing for 233 yards and a touchdown in five games as a freshman in 2012, he redshirted last season when Stoops and his coaching staff arrived.

Towles has played well this spring, especially in Kentucky's second scrimmage, and this could be his last chance to prove to the coaches that he can be the guy under center. Honestly, he might not get any more chances if Barker takes the job. Towles was labeled as the quarterback of the future before he even stepped on campus, but he has yet to live up to expectations. The time is now for him, if he truly wants it.

It's still very early in the process, but this is a very important battle for the Wildcats. Don't expect Stoops to slow Barker's progression because he's a freshman. If he's good enough to play, he will.

If Smith can return and Phillips makes headway, that's just another plus for the Wildcats. A more intense battle will go a long way for every quarterback, but for now Barker and Towles have the most to prove.
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
Alvin Dupree has seen the difference in the last year and a half since Mark Stoops took over at Kentucky.

“It feels like a football school,” the veteran defensive end told ESPN.com on Tuesday. “We’re becoming that much more of a football school and not just a basketball school. Coach Stoops has done everything to change the culture around.”

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsWildcats coach Mark Stoops said he would "love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter" at quarterback.
Mark Stoops isn’t going to be mistaken for John Calipari anytime soon. But Stoops and his players are getting noticeably more attention than in years past. Thanks to back-to-back strong recruiting classes and the influx of talent that has followed, Kentucky football has been put back on the map where it has historically been most difficult to come by: right at home in Lexington.

Despite a 2-10 record last season, there’s hope for better days ahead. The Wildcats were competitive in losses to Louisville, South Carolina and Mississippi State, and with a top-20 recruiting class already making its way to campus, they might just get over the hump. The next step toward being competitive in the SEC begins Friday when Kentucky starts spring practice with an eye on finding more playmakers and settling who will start at quarterback.

“Next year will be our year,” Dupree said. “Next year we’ll come out and we’ll shock a couple of people. We’ll start off with the first couple game in the nonconference, and then against Florida I think we’ll be ready to show how much Coach Stoops has changed the program.”

Dupree has reason to feel good about his team’s chances. He and fellow defensive end Za’Darius Smith put the NFL on hold in order to return for their senior seasons, believing the defense will take a big step forward.

“I’m so impressed with him,” Stoops said of Dupree. “I’ll tell you what, after working with him at linebacker and defensive end, he’s so versatile. He understands the game so well.

“The same with Z. He’s a guy that’s getting better all the time. He already looked good, but he’s put on some good weight and is getting stronger.”

You’ll have to forgive Stoops for gushing over his seniors. The way he and his staff have made hay on the recruiting trail, it seems all he’s asked about now are underclassmen.

But such is the case when you’re a program building from the ground up. The talent pool Stoops inherited in 2012 wasn’t what you would describe as deep or even that well populated. Now it’s growing with each signing class and each high-profile recruit; guys like defensive tackle Matt Elam, who chose to sign with Kentucky over Alabama.

“There will be over 50 new players in a quick year and a half,” Stoops said. “So I do feel like that change is happening fast.”

More than anyone, Stoops is anxious to see how last year’s freshmen have matured and how his seven early enrollees will hold up this spring. Two junior college transfers -- defensive tackle Cory Johnson and cornerback A.J. Stamps -- are expected to contribute immediately, along with several newcomers on offense.

“We definitely signed some of these guys to help us fill some holes,” Stoops said. “You never can tell until you get them in here and see how they can adapt to college football. But we love their athletic ability and their leadership. We’ll see how it goes but we do anticipate getting some of those guys coming in and having to play.”

The most anticipated newcomer is 6-foot-4, 217 pound quarterback Drew Barker, who was the crown jewel of the 2014 class.

“He has every opportunity to take control [at quarterback] because we’re so unsettled there,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that’s very mature. He’s a guy that has high expectations himself and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position.”

Asked for a quick scouting report, Stoops played along.

“He’s a guy that is a drop-back quarterback,” he said. “He can distribute the ball to any spot on the field. He’s a big guy. He’s strong and has good arm strength. But he also can run it when he needs to. He’s definitely a throwing quarterback first, but he has that ability to run it on a few quarterback-designed runs if we need to.”

Next year will be our year. Next year we'll come out and we'll shock a couple of people.

Kentucky defensive end Alvin Dupree on the Wildcats' improvement.
Whether it’s Barker or the field, Stoops said he’d “love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means Maxwell Smith, who will miss all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, is out of the running, leaving Jalen Whitlow and Reese Phillips as the other two top contenders.

One thing is certain, though. Stoops wants to make a decision and stick with it.

“I’m not really keen on going through the year like I did last year being unsettled,” he said.

Conceptually, the offense should look the same. Stoops said he’d like to run a version of the hurry-up sometime in the future, but for now he’s content to let his personnel dictate the system. The talent is improving, it just has a little bit further to go.

There’s a youth movement taking place at Kentucky, and even veterans like Dupree understand where the program is headed.

“If you really want to win, you’re going to go out of your way to help them get better,” he said. “You can’t be selfish. You have to sacrifice certain things, maybe even your own playing time to get other people on the field to help the team win now.”

If Kentucky is going to shake its basketball-only school status, the football program is going to have to step up.

Year 1 of the Stoops era brought promise. Year 2 must pay dividends.

“We need a drastic improvement,” Stoops said. “A year ago we were taking very small steps to understand concepts and things like that. We need to improve now as football players and as a football team. We need to have the ability to make some big plays on offense and on defense.”

In other words, Kentucky football needs to demand the spotlight.

Opening spring camp: Kentucky

March, 27, 2014
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Schedule: The Wildcats open spring practice Friday and will conclude it on April 26 with the annual Blue/White Spring Game at 3:30 p.m. ET inside Commonwealth Stadium.

What's new: Craig Naivar came from Texas State, where he was the defensive coordinator and safeties coach the past three seasons, to coach the Wildcats' special teams and safeties after Bradley Dale Peveto left to coach special teams at LSU.

On the mend: Quarterback Maxwell Smith will not throw this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Wide receiver Alex Montgomery will also be limited as he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered this past November. Linebacker TraVaughn Paschal will be limited to non-contact drills this spring as he recovers from offseason surgery. Safety Ashely Lowery will also miss contact portions of the spring as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.

On the move: As of now, the Wildcats don't have any significant position changes.

New faces: The Wildcats welcomed in five freshmen this spring: quarterback Drew Barker, wide receivers Thaddeus Snodgrass and T.V. Williams, running back Mikel Horton, and linebacker Dorian Hendrix. Kentucky also had two junior college transfers come aboard: defensive tackle Cory Johnson and cornerback A.J. Stamps.

Question marks: The Wildcats have experience coming back in the secondary, with four starters returning, but there has to be better consistency out of that group. With Lowery on the mend, younger players will get good work at one of the safety spots opposite Eric Dixon. Mark Stoops likes his defensive backs to be versatile, so players will get time at each position. Kentucky's secondary produced just one interception last fall, so each position is up for grabs.

[+] EnlargeJalen Whitlow
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJalen Whitlow threw for 1,033 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions in 2013.
Clearly, the Wildcats would also like to take a few steps forward with their quarterback situation. With Smith out, the battle comes down to Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and early enrollee Barker. Finding some headway at quarterback will be crucial this spring.

With the losses of defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble, the Wildcats are looking for some girth and help in the middle of their defensive line. Johnson might have to be the guy who takes the biggest steps this spring. He's already the most talented tackle on the team, but his development will be key.

The same issues still remain for the Wildcats: Who can be a true playmaker in this offense? Javess Blue could be that guy after leading the team in receiving in 2013. Up-and-comer Ryan Timmons could be another after making 12 catches last season. There's a battle at running back, highlighted by Jojo Kemp and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard. Can one of them step up to be a consistent threat in this offense?

The Wildcats also have to replace linebacker Avery Williamson, who was such a big spark on the field and in the locker room. Maybe Khalid Henderson can be that player, but it's an open competition to replacing his importance.

Key battle: It has to be quarterback. The Wildcats haven't had any stability there in years and have yet another wide-open battle. Whitlow has the most game experience, but he has to improve his mechanics and decision-making. Those two areas have held him back with his development, and if he wants this job, that can't happen this spring. Towles redshirted last season, but arrived in Lexington with a load of hype and high expectations. For some reason, it just hasn't clicked for Towles. This could be his last shot at taking the starting spot. Phillips redshirted last season and enters the competition with no on-field experience, but he'll be in the thick of the competition. Then there's Barker, who might have the most upside and talent of the bunch. He was an ESPN 300 selection and a top-10 QB prospect coming out of high school. Barker has a lot of upside and talent, and as the future at the position, he'll have every chance to be the guy this spring and fall.

Breaking out: Kentucky's coaches were pleased with the development off offensive lineman Ramsey Meyers last season. He redshirted in 2013 and will have a chance to be the starting right guard for the Wildcats during his second year on campus. He's a physical blocker and could be a big plus in pass protection. Also, keep an eye on defensive tackle Regie Meant, who also redshirted last season. He has good size and athleticism, which will come in handy along the defensive line. He has a chance to play right away at one of the tackle spots, but can also move around the line and add some versatility.

Don't forget about: One of the top Kentucky recruits in 2013, defensive end Jason Hatcher, could be primed for a breakout sophomore season. He had two sacks last in 2013 and started to really hit his stride during the second half. He's another versatile player who can play with his hand on the ground and standing up as an outside linebacker. Also, defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree has a chance to be a household name in this league. He gets overlooked a lot in the SEC, but he's had a very solid three-year career with Kentucky. Moving to defensive end only made him a better player, as he finished the 2013 season with seven sacks.

All eyes on: The offense. This is a unit that scored a league-low 14.8 points per game in conference play last fall. There was too much up-and-down play at quarterback, no running back registered at least 500 rushing yards and no receiver collected 600 yards. The defense wasn't great, but made strides and showed good flashes in 2013. The offense has to take the next step. Playmakers must emerge and a quarterback has to show some sort of consistency and control.
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.

Season report card: Kentucky

January, 30, 2014
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The first year under Mark Stoops was a rough one for the Wildcats, who didn't have much to celebrate in 2013:

OFFENSE: F

[+] EnlargeAlabama Defense
AP Photo/Garry JonesThings were never easy for Jalen Whitlow and the Kentucky offense this season.
With quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow switching in and out for most of the year, there was never really much rhythm with Kentucky's offense. The Wildcats ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total offense (341.3), scoring (20.5), passing (193.4) and rushing (147.9). Running backs Jojo Kemp and Raymond Sanders both rushed for more than 400 yards, but failed to rush for more than 42 yards per game. The Wildcats scored 30-plus points just twice in 2013.

DEFENSE: F

Stoops prides himself on being a defensive mind, but like offense, the Wildcats ranked in the bottom half of the league in all major defensive categories, including ranking 13th in scoring (31.2) and total defense (427.2). Kentucky surrendered 36.4 points per game in conference play. Kentucky was also last in the league on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 44.7 percent of the time. Defensive linemen Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith combined for 13 sacks, while linebacker Avery Williamson ranked sixth in the league with 102 tackles.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

Kicker Joe Mansour was Kentucky's leading scoring, connecting on 12 of 14 (85.7) field goals and 28 of 30 extra points, while punter Landon Foster averaged 41.3 yards per punt, had a long of 59 yards, sent seven 50-plus yards and downed 15 inside the 20-yard line. Kentucky ranked within the top half of the league against punt and kick returns, while Demarco Robinson ranked third in the league on punt returns (12.7 yards per return).

OVERALL: D-

Stoops certainly wasn't thrilled with the fact that he went 2-10 on the season and 0-8 in conference play, but his team didn't quit. At the end of the day, Stoops was working from behind in his first year in ever aspect. There were no true playmakers on offense, and the defense had holes at linebacker and in the secondary. It didn't help that there was so much inconsistency at quarterback, but the hope is that Stoops' current recruiting class helps both sides of the ball. Considering the circumstances, it's tough to give a first-year coach like Stoops a failing grade for all the adversity this program faced in his first year.

Past grades:

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
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We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
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We are officially in the sport's toughest month. Alabama has survived this month before without being perfect, but can the Crimson Tide afford that this season? The next few weeks will tell:

1. Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide were off last week, which sets up perfectly for Alabama's home showdown with LSU this weekend. Knock Alabama's cakewalk of an October all you want, but the Tide allowed just 20 points last month while scoring 45 or more in all four games.

2. Auburn (8-1, 4-1 SEC; LW: 2): The offense wasn't totally exciting in the win over Arkansas, but it's pretty clear that running back Tre Mason is knocking on the door of the elite running backs club in the SEC. He's third in the league with 921 rushing yards and leads the conference with 13 touchdowns. There's no need for Auburn to throw much when the Tigers are rushing for 5.1 yards per carry and crossing the 230-yard mark.

3. Texas A&M (7-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 3): We've been waiting to see a complete performance from the Aggies, and they looked pretty good on both sides of the ball against an overmatched UTEP team. Who cares what kind of talent the Miners didn't have; A&M needed this kind of game to start November. Behind six Johnny Manziel touchdowns and a defense that allowed just 198 yards and 3.2 yards per play, the Aggies rolled 57-7.

4. South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC; LW: 4): The Gamecocks are a victory over Florida away from sitting back and rooting for Ole Miss and Texas A&M to knock off Missouri and for Auburn to take down Georgia. If all that happens, the Gamecocks, who dismantled Mississippi State 34-16 on Saturday, will be headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Also, running back Mike Davis has been excellent and leads the SEC with 1,058 yards.

5. Missouri (8-1, 4-1 SEC; LW: 5): The Tigers throttled Tennessee 31-3 at home and still control their own destiny in the SEC East. Missouri hit the 500-yard mark on offense for the fifth time this season and harassed the Vols' offense all day, forcing three turnovers and allowing just 334 yards.

6. LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 6): The Tigers were off, which gives them an extra week to prepare for No. 1 Alabama. LSU has had a problem with focus in the last couple of games, but don't expect that to be an issue in Tuscaloosa, Ala. LSU won the last time it was there and gave Alabama a heck of a game last season. LSU, averaging 480 yards of offense per game, will be only the third team Alabama has faced that is averaging more than 400 yards.

7. Georgia (5-3, 4-2 SEC; LW: 7): Aaron Murray picked up his third consecutive victory over Florida and the Bulldogs are right back in the East race. They still need Mizzou to lose two more SEC games, but the Dawgs aren't out of it by any means. Georgia's 23-20 victory over the Gators wasn't exactly pretty with its second-half play, but the Dawgs put up 414 yards on the SEC's then-No. 1 defense.

8. Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3 SEC; LW: 8): The Rebels were off, but should still have some momentum churning after consecutive victories. The Rebels rank eighth in the conference in total offense (462.3) and sixth in total defense (379.4). Now, Ole Miss prepares to host an Arkansas team that has lost six in a row.

9. Florida (4-4, 3-3 SEC; LW: 9): It's been a very long and very frustrating season for the Gators. With their loss to Georgia, they are looking at a 6-6 season after winning 11 last year. But with Vanderbilt next, 5-7 certainly isn't out of the question. This team is struggling in all phases of the game, Will Muschamp is feeling the heat and it's clear that Florida's stale offense is too limited to drastically improve.

10. Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 SEC; LW: 10): Freshman Josh Dobbs is now the guy at quarterback, but he had a rough debut as the Vols' starter in the loss to Missouri. He threw for 240 yards, but had two interceptions and was sacked twice. This team still has a long way to go on both sides of the ball, but there has to be some encouragement with Dobbs' play. He certainly isn't perfect, and he needs a lot more help around him, but is composure has been better than expected.

11. Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4 SEC; LW: 11): After being blown out by Texas A&M, the Commodores were off. This team really is hurting without Chris Boyd on offense, and injuries on defense haven't helped. But Vanderbilt is still very much in the postseason race and takes on a Florida team that has now dropped three games in a row.

12. Mississippi State (4-4, 1-3 SEC; LW: 12:): The Bulldogs' two-game winning streak ended with a blowout loss to South Carolina. The Bulldogs hung around in the first half, but were outscored 17-6 in the second half. It didn't help the Bulldogs that quarterback Dak Prescott threw three interceptions after throwing just three on the season coming in. With Texas A&M, Alabama and Ole Miss remaining, making a bowl game won't be easy.

13. Arkansas (3-6, 0-5 SEC; LW: 13): A very long season for the Razorbacks only got longer with their 35-17 loss to Auburn. The good news for the Hogs is that the defense had one of its better performances in conference play and the offense hit the 300-yard mark for the first time since Sept. 28. But there just aren't enough working parts on either side of the ball for this team to be competitive under Bret Bielema.

14. Kentucky (2-6, 0-4 SEC; LW: 14): After losing five in a row, the Wildcats got back into the win column with a 48-14 victory over Alabama State. The competition wasn't great, but Mark Stoops and this bunch will take any wins they can at this point. Banged-up quarterback Jalen Whitlow had an impressive day, rushing for 101 yards and two touchdowns and throwing for 186 yards and two more scores. One of his rushing touchdowns came on an 88-yard run in the first quarter.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
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Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping Johnny Manziel will be able to play against Vanderbilt.
2. Manziel: To play or not to play? If it seems that we've been down this road before, it's because we have. People want to know whether Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play Saturday. He suffered an apparent shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss to Auburn but returned to finish the final 9:06 of the game, playing with pain in that throwing shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't tipping his hand, simply calling Manziel "hopeful" for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.

4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.

6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.

7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.

8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.

9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.

10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.

Midseason report: Kentucky

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
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Mark Stoops knew he had his work cut out when he took over as Kentucky's coach this season. There was simply not enough talent on hand to expect many wins in one of the most grueling stretches in school history -- the four-game run starting in mid-September where Kentucky would face Louisville, Florida, South Carolina and defending BCS champion Alabama.

The Wildcats (1-5, 0-3 SEC) were actually fairly competitive in the first three games of that stretch -- and especially in a scrappy 35-28 loss to South Carolina two weekends ago -- but Saturday's 48-7 loss to Alabama was disappointing on several fronts. Not only did the Wildcats lose quarterback Jalen Whitlow to an ankle injury, but they failed to even put up much of a fight against the Crimson Tide, who outgained them 372 yards to 62 in the first half.

That's how it goes with most rebuilding projects, and Stoops certainly has one on his hands at Kentucky. The new staff has generated some excitement on the recruiting trail and within the Kentucky fanbase, but they are probably a solid signing class or two away from what Rich Brooks had built several years back, when the Wildcats were regularly scaring the SEC's big boys and making annual bowl appearances. This season, however, Stoops' club would do well to improve upon last season's 2-10 mark.

Offensive MVP: Jalen Whitlow. Just before going down in the second possession the Alabama game with the left ankle injury, the sophomore quarterback had finally seized the starting job after splitting time with Maxwell Smith early in the season. Whitlow was one of the stars of Kentucky's resilient performance against South Carolina, completing 17 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing 17 times for 69 yards and a score. Overall, he is third on the team with 238 rushing yards and a team-high three touchdowns and has completed 66 percent of his passes (50-for-76) for 499 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. X-rays on the ankle were negative, so Kentucky fans no doubt hope that the injury will not keep Whitlow out for long, as he was starting to help the Wildcats' offense begin to function more consistently.

Defensive MVP: Avery Williamson. The SEC's leading tackler is a fairly easy choice here. With 64 total stops, Williamson's average of 10.7 tackles is not only tops in the conference -- it's 10th nationally. The senior linebacker finished second in the league with 135 stops a season ago, so this production is not particularly surprising. But it's definitely necessary. Kentucky's defensive two-deep is loaded with underclassmen and newcomers, so having a presence like Williamson at middle linebacker certainly helps stabilize the Wildcats' defense. He registered a game-high 13 tackles, half a tackle for a loss and recovered a T.J. Yeldon fumble at the Kentucky 2 on Saturday, or the loss to Alabama could have been even uglier than it was.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Trey DePriest was asked Monday whether he and the Alabama defense were preparing for two quarterbacks or just one when it faces Kentucky on Saturday. But UA's starting inside linebacker shrugged and said he hadn't even considered it. He hadn't even watched the film yet, he explained.

"The only thing I know about them is the teams they've played -- the bigger schools -- they've played tough: Louisville, Florida, South Carolina," he said.

And thus ended the pregame analysis from DePriest. But to be fair, it's hard for anyone to determine what type of team Kentucky is five games into the season. Mark Stoops is just beginning to make an impact on a program that's floundered for the better part of the past decade. It took until last week for the first-year head coach to settle on a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJalen Whitlow
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJalen Whitlow is a threat both running and passing, but Alabama says it will be ready for the Kentucky QB.
Jalen Whitlow, who led Prattville High (Ala.) to a state title game in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2011, has the job now after beating out Maxwell Smith. The dual-threat passer took every snap in last weekend's game against South Carolina, completing 14 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for another 69 yards and a score.

"He's a good runner," UA coach Nick Saban said, sizing up a player his staff once recruited. "He's really continued to improve as a passer and was effective last week in that regard."

Whitlow came on late last season, starting seven games. But he's one of only a few pieces on Kentucky's offense that isn't brand new. The Wildcats' top three receivers are first-year players: Javess Blue, who leads the team with 22 receptions for 275 yards, transferred from a junior college, and Ryan Timmons and Alec Montgomery are both true freshmen. Even Kentucky's leading rusher at tailback, Jojo Kemp, was playing high school football at this time last year.

Neal Brown was hired by Stoops to lead the offense in December. He helped orchestrate Texas Tech's "Air Raid" offense from 2010-12, helping the Red Raiders to top-10 finishes in passing offense each season. The high-powered air attack has translated to Kentucky with mixed results thus far. The Cats are 14th in the SEC in scoring offense despite averaging 388.8 yards per game. UK, though, already has more plays of 60 or more yards (6) than it did all of last season (4).

But the brightest spot on offense may have come this past weekend when Kentucky scored 21 fourth-quarter points against South Carolina.

"We need to come out and build," Brown told reporters in Lexington. "We had a good fourth quarter against South Carolina and we need to build off that."

Whitlow, who accounted for all three touchdowns in the failed comeback, is maturing every day, according to Brown. But Stoops recognizes that his young quarterback will face something of a brick wall on Saturday.

"They have no weakness in their defense," Stoops said. "They don't have any weakness on their team."

Saban, though, isn't taking Whitlow or any part of Kentucky lightly.

"We didn't play very well the last time we were on the road," he said, "so we certainly need to do a lot better job against a very different kind of offense in terms of what we've had to play against in the past, because it's such a good running quarterback and a good athlete at that position. It'll be a real challenge and test for us."

Alabama has faced its share of mobile quarterbacks already this season, first against Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel in Week 2 and then against Ole Miss and Bo Wallace a few weeks ago. Landon Collins, who will likely make his second career start at free safety this week in place of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, said the defense knows the drill.

"We played against a lot of dynamic quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel," Collins said. "Just playing sound and playing our defense, as a whole, we should be OK."

Said starting cornerback Deion Belue: "Well, you know, it’s just a scheme that we have to have for them. At the same time, the dual threat, Whitlow, you have to respect him because he can throw as well. He can throw as well as the dropback passer and then the other quarterback can also run, you really have to prepare for both of them the same. You can’t group the one as just passing and the other just running. You have to prepare for them the same."

Collins, who spoke with the media a day after DePriest, said he wasn't concerned with the idea of not knowing who Kentucky will put under center. Whether it's Whitlow or Smith, he feels the defense will be just fine.

"We just have to play sound defense," Collins said. "That’s what we’ve been playing the last few weeks. Once we do that, we’re playing against ourselves, really."

What to watch in the SEC: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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1. Avoiding the letdown: Georgia and LSU played a thrilling, memorable contest last weekend. But the Bulldogs and Tigers have SEC opponents on the docket Saturday, and it's imperative for each to not have a hangover from the previous week. Georgia travels to Tennessee, which struggled to beat South Alabama. LSU heads to Starkville, Miss., to meet Mississippi State.

2. First true test for Mizzou: Missouri is quietly undefeated (4-0) but has faced only one power-conference opponent so far (Indiana). Missouri hits the road for its first SEC game of the season at Vanderbilt, a team that has already suffered two SEC defeats (against Ole Miss and South Carolina). It's hard to know what to expect from the Tigers, but we know that both teams can pile up the yards and points, so it should be entertaining.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell
Marvin Gentry/US PRESSWIRETyler Russell is likely to return as the starter for Mississippi State on Saturday.
3. Tyler Russell returns: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen indicated that he plans to start quarterback Tyler Russell, who has been sidelined since suffering a concussion in the Bulldogs' season-opening loss to Oklahoma State on Aug. 31. Mullen did leave the door open, saying, "that’s still the plan, and we’ll see how it goes Saturday." But for now, it looks like Russell will start. Russell had a breakout season in 2012, throwing for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns.

4. Missing Clinton-Dix: Alabama coach Nick Saban indicated that standout safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. While the timetable, and the violation itself, is unknown, don't expect it to have a major impact, at least in the short term. Alabama has a layup of a game this week against Sun Belt squad Georgia State, and though the Crimson Tide resume SEC play after that, they'll get a struggling Kentucky team. So if anything, the timing of an absence for a star defensive player is good because the Tide can use the coming weeks to develop younger players such as Landon Collins and Geno Smith.

5. Low-scoring affair in the Swamp? Florida's methodical offense hosts an Arkansas team that isn't afraid to run the football, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be three yards and a cloud of dust Saturday evening. Arkansas showed that it can be an explosive offense and that it can throw the football when starter Brandon Allen returned from a shoulder injury last week and helped the Razorbacks keep up with No. 9 Texas A&M. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said this week that he still wants his team to have "explosive plays." Florida looks to remain unbeaten in SEC play; Arkansas is looking for its first SEC win under Bret Bielema.

6. Bounce back for Ole Miss? The Rebels’ offense was shut down in its showdown with No. 1 Alabama. The unit managed just 205 yards in a 25-0 loss. Now Ole Miss must go back on the road, traveling to Jordan-Hare Stadium to face an Auburn team that's coming off an open date. Gus Malzahn's crew suffered its first loss of the season against LSU on Sept. 21 If Ole Miss plans to stay in the Top 25, it has to bounce back with a strong performance on the road against the Tigers.

7. Similar backgrounds, philosophies: Speaking of Auburn-Ole Miss, the coaching matchup is a compelling one. Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn were both successful high school football coaches before finding themselves in the college ranks as rising stars. They both are believers in the uptempo style of offense that is becoming a staple in college football, so it should be interesting to see how the offenses fare on Saturday. Both teams are averaging 28.5 points per game this season.

8. Shaw to start: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw was knocked out of the Gamecocks' 28-25 victory over Central Florida with a shoulder injury and was expected to be out at least two to three weeks, but head coach Steve Spurrier said Wednesday that Shaw will be able to start this Saturday when the Gamecocks host Kentucky. Shaw has practiced this week and, according to Spurrier, looks good throwing. This weekend is also a chance to finish stronger against a struggling Kentucky squad after allowing UCF to linger last week, which led Spurrier to say that he thought his team might have deserved to lose.

9. Who takes charge at QB for UK? Kentucky coach Mark Stoops would like to settle on a starting quarterback between Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow but doesn't believe that either has shown enough to make the coaching staff comfortable enough to tab one of them as the guy. Stoops said they'll continue to evaluate the quarterbacks. In the meantime, he seems to be getting more frustrated as time passes, blasting his team for a poor practice Wednesday, calling it "a wasted day."

10. Tennessee's "smokey grays": The Volunteers, who usually have a classic look in orange and white, will change things up and wear what they call "smokey gray" uniforms against Georgia on Saturday. The team unveiled the uniforms in August. They'll wear gray pants and jerseys with orange numbers and lettering. Back when the jerseys were introduced, head coach Butch Jones noted that Tennessee's 1914 team went undefeated wearing gray. He can only hope it brings similar good fortune Saturday.

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