SEC: Jeff Driskel

SEC lunchtime links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Seven SEC coaches, including Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and LSU’s Les Miles, will go through ESPN’s “Car Wash” on Monday, appearing on "Sportscenter," "College Football Live," "First Take" and more. Stay tuned throughout the day.

In the meantime, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links to get your SEC fix.
We're nearly finished rolling out the college football award watch lists. By the end of the week, the lists for 14 of the biggest awards will be public knowledge.

Today's watch list is for the Davey O'Brien Award, which goes to the nation's top college quarterback.

The SEC accounted for two of the three finalists for the award last season -- Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Alabama's AJ McCarron, with Florida State's Jameis Winston winning -- but both SEC finalists are earning NFL paychecks these days. Their departures are part of the widespread quarterback turnover that has taken place in the conference this season.

Nonetheless, the SEC still boasts five of the 39 quarterbacks on the O'Brien watch list, and Georgia's Hutson Mason is the only member of the group who is among the conference's many first-year starters.

Here's the list:

Jeff Driskel, Florida
Nick Marshall, Auburn
Hutson Mason, Georgia
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
THIBODAUX, La. -- The campers who attend the Manning Passing Academy each summer at Nicholls State University certainly get a kick out of learning from the first family of quarterback play -- Archie Manning and sons Peyton, Eli and Cooper -- and a who’s who of college quarterbacks.

But those counselors from the college ranks might get even more out of the experience than the kids. The opportunity to interact with and learn from such successful NFL quarterbacks -- and fellow college players such as Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Baylor’s Bryce Petty -- lured 42 college quarterbacks from across the country to Thibodaux, a small town in south Louisiana.

“It might be even better to be a counselor,” said Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley, who attended the camp prior to his junior and senior seasons of high school. “I’ve enjoyed it day in and day out. Just being around these guys and talking to them … it’s a very select, elite group. We speak a different language sometimes.”

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia's Hutson Mason said he has been taking notes at the Manning passing camp.
Several of the college players who met with the media after Friday morning’s practice cited the appeal in learning from the Mannings and other NFL personnel on hand as reasons to attend. And not just learning new throwing drills, but also how to carry oneself like a professional.

“I’m an observer, so I just observe the way [Peyton] does things,” Winston said. “He’s so detail-oriented and how he carries himself – I’m really trying to see how he carries himself because I want to be the guy 10, 15 years from now that’s viewed like a Peyton Manning or an Eli or an Archie.”

Entering his first season as Georgia’s starting quarterback, Hutson Mason -- one of seven SEC quarterbacks in attendance -- said he immediately started learning new things from the pro and college players upon arrival at the camp on Thursday.

For one thing, he said Peyton and Eli emphasized that a quarterback’s pregame routine should include more than just warming up with a few deep balls and skeleton-style throws with no defender. They told the college players to focus on quarterback-specific drills where they practice moving inside the pocket and keeping their eyes focused downfield.

“I think that’s what I was looking forward to is not only asking these guys how they do things at their school and maybe taking a little bit from them, but also the Mannings have drills that I’ve never really done. Yesterday I went and wrote them down so I wouldn’t forget them,” Mason said. “We kind of get repetitive with the drills we do, so it’s good to go into like a new library, use new resources, so to speak. You can’t get anything better than these guys.”

A welcome reprieve: The campers and counselors aren’t the only ones who continue to learn lessons about how to handle their high-profile position.

Archie was impressed with the way Peyton shook off the humiliation of his Denver Broncos’ 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl and found a way to move on with life. The week after the big game, the five-time NFL MVP decided to become a late entrant into the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

“You’d better not get over it immediately, but he handled it,” Archie said. “I think Peyton gets wiser every year. He turned around the week [after] that game and went and played in the AT&T golf tournament -- smartest thing he ever did. He played well and the PGA so much appreciated him coming, and it was good for him, too. You can’t sit around and mope when you lose a football game, so Peyton, he handled it.”

Alma mater connections: Among the several dozen college quarterbacks in attendance are seven from the SEC: Mason, Worley, Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, Florida’s Jeff Driskel, Missouri’s Maty Mauk and South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson.

It’s no coincidence that two of those players, Worley and Wallace, are the presumptive starters at the alma maters of Peyton (Tennessee) and Archie and Eli (Ole Miss).

Both college players say they’ve developed bonds with the Mannings since arriving at their respective schools.

“Usually when I see Eli, it’s just, ‘How are you doing?’ I’ve never really gotten pointers or anything like that,” Wallace said. “I’ve gotten texts from Archie before games before, but it’s never been pointers or anything like that. It’s usually just friendly talk.”

Worley said in addition to his time working with the family at the camp, Peyton has worked a bit with the Voluntseer quarterbacks in Knoxville.

“We’ve got a very good relationship,” Worley said. “He came back a couple weeks and we threw for a couple days and had a meeting with him.”

Potential 2014 SEC villains

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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It’s over now, so you can admit it.

AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel are gone, so it’s time to come clean.

Chances are you hated one or both. How much they won, how they won -- you hated it all. There might have been some respect for their play, but above all, most of you couldn’t stand them.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsSEC fans don't have Johnny Manziel to kick around anymore.
It’s OK. AJ and Johnny were the SEC’s necessary villains last season. And for that they will be sorely missed.

This year won’t be the same without them. Who will you boo? Who will you tune in to watch in hopes of seeing them fail?

It’s totally unreasonable, but it’s also unavoidable: SEC fans are haters.

Who will fill their unceremonious shoes in 2014? Who will be the ones SEC fans love to hate?

Note: Before we get to the candidates, let us apologize to them. We’re sorry, fellas. It’s not fun being disliked, but look at it this way: The more people boo you, the more you’re probably doing something right. So take this as a badge of honor. After all, villains make the SEC a more entertaining place.

Subjects are listed is in alphabetical order, as there is no scientifically known way to measure levels of dislike.

Jacob Coker, Alabama: He’s no McCarron. Let’s get that out of the way first. Unlike his predecessor, Coker is about as unassuming as a major talent can get. He started out as a humble three-star recruit, and his disposition has remained the same. But with the runaway hype machine that’s surrounded his landing at Alabama -- not to mention that he transferred to Alabama in the first place -- you’ve got the perfect recipe for blind dislike.

Jeff Driskel, Florida: Is anyone else tired of hearing about how Driskel is going to get better? Before you start, that was a rhetorical question. The answer, for everyone outside of Gainesville, is a resounding yes. You can hear the chants of “O-VER-RATED” now, can’t you? Because he’s Florida’s starting quarterback, Driskel has to be discussed. Because he has a cannon for an arm and good mobility, his potential is a constant source of discussion. And because he’s so discussed, he’s so disliked. If Driskel does progress into an All-SEC quarterback, he’ll have plenty of detractors. They’ll boo him because he plays for Florida and they’ll boo him because they’ll all want to know what took so long to get there.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesNew Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has said some things that caused a stir in SEC country.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Coordinators are rarely the subject of such scorn, but the hate for Kiffin burns more intensely than for any head coach in the SEC. And the naysayers need only focus on his tumultuous time at Tennessee. There, he “turned in” Urban Meyer for a recruiting violation only to find that no violation was committed and that he, in fact, was the one violating an SEC rule by mentioning a recruit by name. He also made the Alshon Jeffery “pumping gas” comment, which didn’t exactly ingratiate himself to the rest of the league. Then, after one season, he left the Vols to return to USC. And now, after flunking out of Southern Cal, he’s back as offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: He’s as quiet as a church mouse, but Marshall has baggage. His unflattering dismissal from Georgia ruined whatever reputation he had long before he found his way to Auburn. Then he led the Tigers to the BCS title game and invoked the ghosts of Cam Newton. Marshall might not have invited the limelight a fraction of the way Newton did, but hate is unreasonable like that. They’ll obsess over his supposed shortcomings as a passer and neglect his utter effectiveness as a runner and orchestrator of Gus Malzahn’s offense. Marshall’s quiet nature ultimately will be mistaken for cockiness and fans will hate him just the same.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He’s been a rock star since he was 16 years old, and that alone is enough to do him in. It’s a matter of overexposure and jealousy. By simply choosing to commit to Ole Miss in the first place, he offended every other fan base that was actively pursuing him. In many ways, Nkemdiche is the face of Hugh Freeze’s out-of-the-blue 2013 signing class. Fans cried foul when the Rebels finished in the top five of the recruiting rankings that year, and Nkemdiche was the primary target. The fact he plays with so much fire will be wrongly taken as showboating, and if he dominates on the defensive line the way he should, he’ll accumulate haters quickly.

Most important game: Florida

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
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We continue our series looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at Florida.

Most important game: Nov. 1 vs. Georgia

Key players: Georgia tailback Todd Gurley was the big difference-maker in last year's contest, a 23-20 win that was the Bulldogs' third in a row in this contentious border war. Gurley had 187 total yards and two touchdowns, doing most of his damage in a 17-0 first quarter before Florida's defense regained its composure. There were lots of scuffles and penalties in that game, so the Gators will need leaders such as quarterback Jeff Driskel, wide receiver Quinton Dunbar, linebacker Michael Taylor and safety Jabari Gorman to keep their focus between the white lines.

Off the field, Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt -- two newcomers to this game -- will engage in a fascinating chess match. Roper's new no-huddle spread offense won't be so new and mysterious by the eighth game of the season, so the Gators will likely have to beat Pruitt's attacking 3-4 defense in the trenches. If the UF offensive line can stay healthy, Roper will have a number of running backs with which to pound away. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor, who got his first career start in last year's Florida-Georgia game and ran for 76 yards, is the likely starter. Mack Brown and Matt Jones, whom the coaching staff expects to be back at full strength after he tore cartilage in his knee last season, are capable backups.

The quarterback matchup also poses an interesting contrast. Driskel is a dual-threat athlete, while Georgia senior Hutson Mason is more of a pocket passer. In his 15 career starts, Driskel has not shown much command of the passing game with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14-10. But Roper expects Driskel to be more efficient in his offense. And against Georgia, Driskel will be facing a secondary that has lost three starters in the offseason. Mason, on the other hand, gets to tangle with a Florida secondary that features stud sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III. But Mason has plenty of confidence going into his fifth season in Mark Richt's offense. He threw for 619 yards in starting Georgia's final two games last season after Aaron Murray was injured.

Why it matters: Speculating on head coach Will Muschamp’s future has become a cottage industry for Gator fans ever since Florida went 4-8 last season. Muschamp has never tasted victory in seven Florida-Georgia games -- four as a safety at Georgia from 1991-94 and the last three seasons as UF's head coach. Georgia's three-game winning streak has reignited a rivalry that Florida had dominated in recent years with 18 wins in 21 games since 1990. The Gators might play bigger, more significant games than this one in 2014, but no opponent has been circled by more Florida fans than Georgia. The same fans who are trying to guess how many wins Muschamp needs to keep his job are pinpointing Nov. 1 as one game day that will carry more weight than any other. Simply put, if Muschamp is ever going to win back Florida fans, he absolutely cannot allow UGA to stretch its streak to four. Oh, and did we mention that this game always seems to play a major role in determining the SEC East champion? That will hardly matter to UF in this game. The division race will be a distant subplot, as Florida is likely to be fueled by hatred for the Bulldogs and determination to prove that last season was an aberration.
It's that time of year when we start to see all those fun watch lists come out.

Sure, they might not mean much now, but it's another sign that we are getting closer and closer to the college football season. Today, the National College Football Awards Association released the 2014 watch lists for the Bednarik Award, which is given annually to the nation's best defensive player, and the Maxwell Award, which is presented each year to the college football player of the year.

The SEC is well represented, with 15 players from the league making the Bednarik watch list and 13 on the Maxwell watch list. There were 76 total players on each list.

Bednarik
Maxwell

SEC lunchtime links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
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Sunday was a sad day in the SEC. Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen died in a car accident at just 23 years old, and though I never had the privilege of covering him, it was easy to see the impact he had on people based on the response on Twitter and elsewhere. Read more tributes to Lutzenkirchen in today’s lunch links.
For the most part, surprises usually annoy me, but every once in a while, we find some things we like to call "pleasant surprises" that can actually generate smiles and or applause. For example, Auburn and Missouri were pleasant surprises in the SEC last season. The spider that fell from the ceiling and onto my shoulder the other day was not.

Follow me?

Well, resident college football expert Phil Steele has come up with his list of college football's 10 surprise teams Insider for the 2014 season. At the top of his list is Georgia, and Ole Miss and LSU also made the cut.

All three are excellent choices. Georgia has the offense to score close to 100 each week, but its defense has the ability to surrender that as well. Imagine if the defense caught up to a third of what the offense could do.

Ole Miss has playmakers on both sides of the ball, and I have the Rebels pegged as a dark horse to take the West this year. Can quarterback Bo Wallace finally put a consistent season together?

Then there's LSU, which has a load of talent sprinkled about, but we don't know who the quarterback is or who will catch the majority of passes at receiver. Also, is that defensive line going to step up this fall and generate a more intimidating pass rush?

So which other SEC teams could surprise us this fall? I figured I'd take a stab at it:

FLORIDA

If the Gators' offense can get it together under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, this will be a dangerous team when it comes to the East and the SEC as a whole. Florida already has the defense -- arguably the most talented in the SEC East -- but just has to find a pulse on offense. Will Muschamp thinks he'll have more than just a pulse with quarterback Jeff Driskel running a more comfortable spread attack.
  • Why Florida will surprise: Driskel will be a much more threatening quarterback using his legs more in the zone-read. It will open up the running game and will help take a lot of pressure off of what could be a more athletic Gators defense.
  • Why Florida won't: Have you seen that schedule? The Gators go to Alabama and Tennessee before home games against LSU and South Carolina and the annual trip to Jacksonville to play Georgia. Florida gets South Carolina at home, too, but has to travel to Florida State to end the season.
MISSOURI

Wait, the team that won 12 games and the East is in this category? Well, the Tigers aren't getting much love heading into the fall because of some key losses from last year's team. But some of those key spots are getting more than qualified replacements. The confident and experienced Maty Mauk takes over for James Franklin at quarterback, while potential stars Markus Golden and Shane Ray take over for Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Also, watch out for running back Russell Hansbrough.
  • Why Missouri will surprise: Mauk won't have any jitters taking over after starting for the month (and losing just one game) when Franklin was hurt last year. That defensive line could be really fun to watch with good experience and quality ability to keep up the harassment it displayed last season.
  • Why Missouri won't: Mauk is good, but who is he going to throw to? None of Mizzou's returning pass-catchers made more than 26 receptions last year. The loss of Dorial Green-Beckham won't be easy to get over. Two starters are gone at linebacker and the secondary is incredibly inexperienced.
MISSISSIPPI STATE

This team returns 18 starters, including a potential dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Dak Prescott. The defense is experienced, but vastly underrated. The attitude is different and the confidence is soaring in Starkville. This is the most talented team Dan Mullen has had during his tenure with the Bulldogs, and seven wins would be a considered a disappointment.
  • Why Mississippi State will surprise: Prescott did so much in so little time last season and is the ideal quarterback for this offense. Also, his top-five pass catchers from last year are back. The schedule also isn't too daunting, especially with Auburn and Texas A&M at home.
  • Why Mississippi State won't: With the way the schedule sets up, the Bulldogs could have seven wins by mid-November. We've seen this before. In 2012, Mississippi State started 7-0 before dropping three straight and five of its last six. For the most part, the better teams have had their way with the Bulldogs.
TENNESSEE

This team has to completely rebuild its offensive line and defensive line, but there's no doubt that this team has talent at all around and could be sneaky good. The quarterback position has to be figured out, but with receivers such as Marquez North and Josh Malone on the field, any quarterback should be happy.
  • Why Tennessee will surprise: The Vols have playmakers at receiver, running back, linebacker and in the secondary. While there are questions up front on both sides, Tennessee has a pretty good supporting cast around it. Running back Jalen Hurd could be a major player for the Vols.
  • Why Tennessee won't: Quarterback is a major issue, and that's before you look at a line with five new starters. The defensive line lost six seniors and four starters. There are no gimmes on the schedule in September, and road trips to Georgia, Oklahoma, Ole Miss and South Carolina won't help.

Ranking the SEC quarterbacks

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
1:00
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Earlier, we ranked all 14 quarterback groups in the SEC. Now, we'll look at who we think will be the top 10 quarterbacks in the league this season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesWith his experience and talents, Nick Marshall is the SEC's top QB heading into the 2014 season.
1. Nick Marshall, Sr., Auburn: With a spring practice under his belt and a year in Gus Malzahn's offense, Marshall gets the nod as the top quarterback in the league. His athletic ability is off the charts, and even though he was erratic throwing the ball at times last season, he's improved in that area and has some big-time playmakers around him. Marshall also seems to thrive with the game on the line, which is perhaps the best quality a quarterback can possess.

2. Dak Prescott, RJr., Mississippi State: Prescott's upside is tremendous. He's a bullish runner with an equally strong arm and showed some real courage last season playing through injuries and his mother's death. The challenge is for him to become a more polished passer. But in Dan Mullen's offense, Prescott is a perfect fit and should have an All-SEC type of year.

3. Bo Wallace, RSr., Ole Miss: The dean of SEC quarterbacks, Wallace seems to finally be healthy after battling shoulder issues each of the past two seasons. If he stays healthy, he could easily shoot up to the top of these rankings. He needs to cut down on his 27 interceptions over the past two seasons, but he's also accounted for 54 touchdowns during that span.

4. Maty Mauk, RSo., Missouri: Even though the Tigers are losing a ton of firepower at receiver, look for Mauk to be one of the more improved players in the league. He got a taste of it in critical situations last season while filling in for the injured James Franklin, and he delivered. He has the athleticism, arm strength and toughness to be an elite quarterback.

5. Jacob Coker, RJr., Alabama: Every year, it seems, a quarterback comes out of the shadows in the SEC to have a huge year. Cam Newton did it in 2010, Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Marshall last season. Coker could be that guy in 2014 after transferring in from Florida State. His former coach, Jimbo Fisher, says Coker will be the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has had at Alabama.

6. Jeff Driskel, RJr., Florida: The Gators and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper are building what they do offensively around Driskel's strengths. He's a super athlete (and trimmed down some by nearly 15 pounds) and is throwing the ball with renewed confidence. Coming off a broken leg, Driskel has the physical skill set to flourish in Roper's system as he enters his fourth season of college ball.

7. Dylan Thompson, RSr., South Carolina: There wasn't a better reliever in the SEC over the past couple of years than Thompson, who came off the bench in several pressure situations and led the Gamecocks to big wins. With Connor Shaw gone, Thompson now gets a chance to prove that he can get it done as an every-game starter. His forte is throwing the ball from the pocket.

8. Hutson Mason, RSr., Georgia: Mason has waited his turn while sitting behind the record-setter Aaron Murray and even redshirted in 2012 to get this opportunity. He's an accurate passer and knows the offense inside and out. He played late last season after Murray was injured, which should help the transition. Mason's another one who could easily shoot up this list.

9. Justin Worley, Sr., Tennessee: The best news for Worley is that he'll have more guys around him who can make plays. The Vols played their best football last season before Worley injured his thumb. They nearly knocked off Georgia and upset South Carolina with Worley at the helm. He's improved his arm strength and has worked hard this offseason. His senior season should be his best yet.

10. Brandon Allen, RJr., Arkansas: Not much of anything went right with the Hogs' passing game last season, and much of that centered around Allen never really being healthy. To his credit, he continued to fight through injuries and is looking forward to showing what he can do now that he's back to 100 percent. If he stays healthy, Allen could be one of the league's top bounce-back players.
Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular-season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 4-8
2013 SEC record: 3-5, fifth in the Eastern Division
Record all time against Alabama: 14-23
Last meeting: Lost 38-10 in 2011

Starters returning
Offense: 8; Defense: 9; Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Jeff Driskel, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, WR Quinton Dunbar, RB Kelvin Taylor, DE Dante Fowler

Key losses
WR Solomon Patton, TE/H Trey Burton, OL Jon Halapio, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, DL Dominique Easley, LB Ronald Powell, S Cody Riggs, CB Marcus Roberson

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Mack Brown (543 yards)
Passing: Tyler Murphy (1,216 yards, 6 TD, 5 INT)
Receiving: Soloman Patton (556 yards)
Tackles: Michael Taylor* (62)
Sacks: Ronald Powell (4)
Interceptions: Vernon Hargreaves III* (3)

What they're saying:
“We lost confidence and belief in what we were doing offensively, and it affected our whole football team. That's something we've gotten back,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp.

Three things to watch:

1. Muschamp on the hot seat: Just this week Muschamp conceded again that he’s on the hot seat in Gainesville. “I was 29 years old at LSU calling defenses in the SEC,” he told reporters. “If you want to coach at Florida, it's the championship expectation. Criticism comes with the job.” Hiring former Duke play-caller Kurt Roper to run the offense was a move in the right direction, but it’s going to take more than a new face and a new scheme to turn around last year’s 4-8 disaster. The psyche of the program seemed broken to the point where even the Gators’s stout defense lost its vigor. Getting that edge back won’t be easy, but Muschamp has never been accused of lacking fire. And Florida has never been confused with lacking talent. With so many question marks, though, it’s probably a good thing that UF starts next season with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. Getting the Wildcats at home won’t be easy, but the ultimate test of how far Florida’s come will be Sept. 20 at Alabama. If he can steal a win against the likes of Alabama, LSU or Florida State this year, he could cool his position on the hot seat.

[+] EnlargeDriskel
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida QB Jeff Driskel has the talent, but has been inconsistent and hasn't had many playmakers around him in the past. That could change this fall.
2. Help for Driskel: A pass-catching tight end is a quarterback’s best friend, so count the addition of former Virginia tight end Jake McGee in the win column for Florida. Driskel, who has been up and down throughout his career under center, could use a safety blanket with McGee’s résumé. There have been times where Driskel has flashed pro potential; good mobility, a strong arm, even good accuracy. But there have been times where all that’s come unraveled. To be fair, though, he hasn’t had much help around him. That could change this season with the addition of McGee, who led the Cavs in receptions last season, and the development of receivers Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. If the O-line can hold together and a playmaker or two emerges, Driskel could see his production skyrocket.

3. The Roper effect: There are no silver bullets in college football, but Florida fans are pinning their hopes to Roper having the Midas touch. The Gator offense was miserable last season, lacking any semblance of an identity. The passing game never got off the ground, yet an on again, off again relationship with the running game persisted, leading to UF placing dead last in the SEC in scoring. It was hard to watch, especially the 7-point output against rival Florida State to end the season. Roper, in other words, has his hands full. He must restore confidence in his quarterback, establish playmakers and find the right balance between the running and passing game. The good news: there’s nowhere to go but up. After watching him succeed with lesser talent at Duke, there’s reason for optimism. I was in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl and saw first-hand his touch as a play-caller. The question for him is how long it will take for Florida’s players to buy in and understand what he’s asking of them. The aforementioned early portion of the schedule will help in that respect, and Alabama shouldn’t expect to see a full playbook from Florida until it travels to Tuscaloosa.
By now we should have our legs about us. No more early season mistakes. Make sure the cooler is stocked, the oil has been changed and the GPS is fully updated.

If you’re just now getting on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the season by plotting out the top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to Houston, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. Three weeks down, 11 more to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 4:

Sept. 20
Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Florida at Alabama
Northern Illinois at Arkansas
Troy at Georgia
Mississippi State at LSU
Indiana at Missouri
South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Texas A&M at SMU

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Mississippi State at LSU

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDak Prescott and the Bulldogs will get their first tough test of the season when they visit LSU on Sept. 20.
Expect the hype for this game to be considerable. Mississippi State, barring a considerable collapse, should enter Baton Rouge, La., undefeated and ranked in the Top 25. If LSU survives its season opener against Wisconsin, it will be in the same boat.

With a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback, a burgeoning group of playmakers on offense and a deep, veteran defense, the Bulldogs are a team worth keeping an eye on. The momentum Mississippi State gained from beating Ole Miss and Rice to end last season was huge. In a wide-open West, Mississippi State is in as good a position as any to make it to Atlanta, especially with its schedule. Early season games against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama should be a breeze. In fact, I’d be concerned about playing down to the level of competition.

LSU will be a considerable obstacle, however.

Against LSU, we’ll see if Mississippi State is for real. Against a John Chavis-Les Miles defense, we’ll see just how good Dak Prescott is and how far Dan Mullen’s offense has come.

Along those same lines, we'll learn a lot about LSU's retooled defense and its overhauled offense, which features exactly zero returning starters at quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

This game should be a good one. And the fact that it will be played in the renovated Tiger Stadium only makes it that much more appealing. If it’s not a night game, and I don’t get to hear the P.A. announcer say, “It’s Saturday night in Death Valley,” I’ll be thoroughly disappointed. There’s not a better environment in all of college football, for my money.

Sam Khan’s pick: Florida at Alabama

After Florida's rough 2013 season, this game at first glance might not have much appeal. That's fair, but both teams are likely to head into this one unbeaten. It will be the Crimson Tide's conference opener after nonconference tilts against West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Mississippi, while Florida has dates with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky before heading to Tuscaloosa.

Florida's offense can't be as inept as it was last season, right? Kurt Roper's arrival as offensive coordinator should help the Gators improve vastly in that area and help quarterback Jeff Driskel make significant progress. The defense should be fine. Overall, as long as the Gators can avoid the rash of injuries they encountered last season, things are looking up for a sizeable leap in the wide-open SEC East standings.

Alabama is Alabama and will be one of the favorites to take the SEC title once again. But Florida -- if the Gators are playing well defensively -- will provide a good test for the new Crimson Tide quarterback, whether it be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker or someone else. The Tide have a new offensive coordinator, too -- Lane Kiffin -- and there will be plenty of eyes watching to see how the offense develops under Kiffin.

If the Crimson Tide roll to an easy victory, it will probably come as no surprise. But as we saw last season with the Gators' fall and Auburn and Missouri's rise, things can change quickly, even in the span of one year. Alabama is likely to be a heavy favorite, but if the Gators get off to a good start and show signs of life during their early season slate, it should provide some intrigue in the buildup to this early season conference clash.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For a team that was desperate for playmakers on offense last season, the Florida Gators have growing hopes for 2014.

Enthusiasm has been building since spring football ended, and it's not just because starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy or the young receivers and running backs have another year of experience and maturity.

[+] EnlargeJake McGee
Lee Coleman/Icon SMIJake McGee's 45 catches last season at Virginia were 41 more than Florida's entire tight end corps had.
It's the tight end position, and one player in particular.

Fifth-year senior Jake McGee, the former Virginia standout who announced his transfer to Florida last week, gives the Gators a dynamic threat that defenses will have to account for.

"I'm very excited," head coach Will Muschamp said to a gathering of media on Tuesday in Orlando, Fla. "He's a guy that has tremendous ball skills, very good athlete at 6-5, 245 pounds and runs extremely well. I think he’s a good addition to our team, and he’ll certainly compete well."

The Gators haven't had a pass-catching tight end since 2012, when Jordan Reed led the team with 45 catches for 559 yards and three touchdowns. He was Driskel's safety net and go-to target. Not coincidentally, the Gators had their best season under Muschamp, winning 11 games.

"I think it was a very offensive position when Jordan Reed was here," Muschamp said.

Last year, it was just plain offensive.

It won't be hard for Florida to improve on the production it got out of the tight end position last season -- a total of four catches.

Florida returns seniors Tevin Westbrook (three catches in 2013) and Clay Burton (one catch), who have been used primarily as blockers. The Gators also are building depth at the position with three true freshmen. DeAndre Goolsby enrolled in January and made a good first impression in the spring, while C'yontai Lewis and Moral Stephens are due to arrive in June.

With McGee on board, however, the freshmen won't need to be rushed into early playing time.

The focus throughout the spring was for the tight ends to learn the no-huddle spread offense brought from Duke by new coordinator Kurt Roper. His B position uses the tight ends and fullbacks in a variety of roles and disguises -- from motioning and blocking out of the backfield to inline blocking, lining up in the slot, or splitting out wide.

In every one of those wrinkles, Roper expects his players to be pass-catching threats.

"It's going to be an important position," he said during spring, "and it's going to be a playmaking position for us, so we're counting on them. ...

"I think I've seen growth. Those guys haven't done a whole lot of [receiving]. I think they enjoy doing it. I think they enjoy being part of the pass game. Because of that they go out and work hard and get better at it."

It's a work very much in progress. Now with McGee, suddenly the Gators have a more polished, vastly more experienced puzzle piece. He comes to UF with plenty of accolades.

McGee was Virginia's leading receiver last season with 43 catches for 395 yards and two touchdowns despite a lingering shoulder injury. With his speed and athleticism, the Florida coaching staff is also excited about what he brings on special teams.

McGee was drawn to Florida by Muschamp who recruited him in high school, and Roper, who led Duke's offense against Virginia while McGee took note.

"Their offense, being on the other side, was sort of fun to watch," McGee said to Scott Carter of Gatorzone.com, Florida's official athletics website. "They did a lot of cool things and really did a lot with the tight end position that excites me as a player. There’s a lot of versatility with the position to create mismatches and be allowed to do all sorts of different things."

Those feelings of eagerness and optimism are very much mutual, as both parties anticipate a sudden impact. UF coaches know they very well might have recruited a game-changer in McGee, whose graduation from UVA last month enabled him to transfer without having to sit out a year.

"To be able to have a guy that defenses know they have to account for in terms of is he a receiver, is he a tight end, can he create a three-man blocking surface?" Muschamp gushed. "That changes things in the run game. It changes things in protection and how people will attack you. ...

"We feel like he's a very talented player and a great addition for our team."
With former Virginia tight end Jake McGee transferring to Florida, the Gators got a major upgrade to their group of pass-catchers.

And this is an immediate upgrade because McGee has already graduated from Virginia and will attend grad school at Florida. Yep, McGee can start playing right away this fall, and it sounds like the Gators plan to use him a lot in the passing game this fall as another weapon for quarterback Jeff Driskel to throw to.

With plenty of questions at the tight end spot this spring, McGee not only brings the talent to stretch the field and be more of a playmaking tight end for the Gators, he has plenty of experience. McGee caught 71 passes for 769 yards and seven touchdowns in his last two years with the Cavs. Last season, he caught a team-high 43 passes for 395 yards. He also had two touchdowns. Returning tight ends Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton, both seniors, have combined to catch six career passes for 54 yards and zero touchdowns.

McGee's arrival will give the Gators a much-need receiving threat for a team that hopes to generate more consistency in the passing game. Florida is still looking for its go-to receiver, and McGee is expected to be used as a flexed tight end, meaning he'll do a lot more than block in Florida's offense. McGee was moved to receiver this spring because of his athleticism, and Florida's coaching staff plans to take full advantage of his athletic ability.
This year, the SEC has a few schools that will be relying heavily on their quarterbacks to help them get out of a bit of a rut. These guys have the responsibility of taking their programs either up, or down. It's the price for wanting to be a star in this league.

Jobs are on the line. Fan bases are hungry. These quarterbacks will have to deliver for their respective programs to get on track in 2014.

So who are the potential program-saving quarterbacks in the SEC? We have three:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel must bounce back from injury for the sake of the Gators and the future of Will Muschamp.
1. Jeff Driskel, RJr., Florida: He didn't get to show off the growth his teammates and coaches saw last year after an early leg injury cut his 2013 season short, but the pressure is on Driskel to perform -- and win -- in 2014. He's running a more Driskel-friendly spread under new OC Kurt Roper and looked a lot more comfortable in the shotgun this spring. After a disastrous 4-8 season, the direction of the program -- and coach Will Muschamp's job -- could rest heavily on Driskel and how he evolves under his third offensive coordinator in four years.

2. Brandon Allen, Jr., Arkansas: Allen trudged through last season by averaging less than 150 yards per game and completing less than 50 percent of his passes. The Hogs weren't a passing threat, and if this program is going to see any sort of improvement, Allen has to make the passing game respectable again. The pressure increases without a proven star receiver to throw to, but it sounds like Allen improved this summer and separated himself in the quarterback battle. Coach Bret Bielema would love to pound opponents with his running game, but if teams don't respect the pass, they'll gobble up the running game.

3. Drew Barker, Fr., Kentucky: While he will still be in the thick of a heated competition with redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles this fall, there's no question that Barker is being viewed by most as the future of Kentucky's program. The future could be sooner than later if he continues develop through fall camp. Barker being the guy doesn't mean the Wildcats will make it back to a bowl game this season, but it could start the wheels in motion for this program to rebound. That's a lot for a true freshman to take in, but he signed up for this.

Honorable mention: Johnny McCrary, RFr., Vanderbilt: The quarterback competition at Vandy is far from over, but McCrary might be the most talented quarterback on the Commodores' roster. He brings a little bit more to the table athletically and could be a real difference-maker if he's the guy this year and could be the quarterback of the future to help continue Vandy's momentum.

What about guys who could help bring in top talent at the position with a solid year? We have a few more:

1. Dylan Thompson, Sr., South Carolina: We all know that Connor Mitch is waiting in the wings, but a solid season by Thompson could make throwing the pigskin at South Carolina look that much more desirable to high school prospects. Connor Shaw might have started that trend, and Thompson could ramp up excitement.

2. Maty Mauk, RSo., Missouri: Mauk really impressed when he took over from James Franklin for a month last season. Now, he has a chance to be a terror for SEC defenses on a regular basis. Seeing another quarterback put up monster numbers in Mizzou's offense will have younger QBs drooling.

3. Nick Marshall, Sr., Auburn: Everyone knows that Auburn loves to run the ball, but the Tigers want to evolve into more of a passing team. Marshall has been working more on his throwing, and if he can make this team more dangerous through the air, Auburn should start hearing from more elite young passers.

4. Justin Worley, Sr., Tennessee: There's about an 80-percent chance that Worley will be the starter to begin the season. We've seen only flashes from him, but if he can direct the Vols to a winning season or a bowl berth, this job will be more attractive to top recruits.

5. Dak Prescott, Jr., Mississippi State: He's revamping parts of his game this year in order to be a more complete player. Getting wins and making Dan Mullen's offense look really fun to play in will make more quarterbacks take notice of the Bulldogs.

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