SEC: Josh Harvey-Clemons

Todd Grantham said he has not communicated with his former co-workers at Georgia in the eight days since learning that his new team, Louisville, will face the Bulldogs in the Dec. 30 Belk Bowl.

On a Monday conversation with reporters, the first-year Louisville defensive coordinator downplayed any competitive advantage he might have gleaned from practicing against most of the Bulldogs’ players over the previous four seasons as a Mark Richt assistant.

“It still gets down to getting off blocks, tackling people, winning one-on-one matchups on both sides of the ball, so I don’t think that’ll play as big a factor as you guys will make it out to be,” Grantham said. “I think it gets down to just playing football. Obviously they’re a talented team. They’re one of the best offenses in the country, so we know we’ve got to play well and be ready for a big challenge.”

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyTodd Grantham's Louisville defense leads the nation in interceptions and is tied for seventh in sacks.
A veteran assistant like Grantham has plenty of experience in situations like this, coaching against friends, former co-workers or ex-players several times each season. While he understands the intrigue surrounding his coaching against a program where he was on staff less than a year ago, Grantham said it doesn’t add extra juice to the bowl game from his perspective.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the people there -- both the coaches and the players,” Grantham said. “This isn’t the first time that a coach has faced a team that he was coaching the year before. It’s part of the business. We’ve had a great season. We went 9-3 and it’s a chance for us to send our seniors out the right way because they really did believe in our system when we came here.”

That they did. Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong left a strong defensive identity behind when he left for Texas after last season, and the Cardinals have thrived in the first season under Grantham’s leadership. Despite losing safety Calvin Pryor and defensive end Marcus Smith to the first round of the NFL draft, Louisville still ranks sixth nationally in total defense, allowing 293.3 yards per game.

Further, the Cardinals lead the nation in interceptions (25), rank fourth in third-down defense (28.2 percent) and are tied for seventh in sacks (3.25 per game). They’re in the top 20 in turnovers gained (T12, 28), scoring defense (18th, 20.5 points per game) and red zone defense (T19, 27 opponent scores in 36 red zone possessions).

Not bad for a first season in a new conference -- and Grantham said it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“Our main focus and vision is to win the ACC and compete for a national title, and after one year here and the recruiting class we’re having, I’m more convinced than ever that we can reach that goal,” Grantham said.

That sounds very much like the sales pitch that Grantham used to make while wearing Georgia’s red and black. Replace ACC with SEC and insert Florida instead of Florida State as the opponent he has circled as the roadblock standing between his team and the championships it wants to win.

Grantham’s tenure at Georgia ended with a bit of a flop -- the young Bulldogs surrendered 29 points and 375.5 yards per game last season -- as fans and media questioned his job security throughout the 2013 season.

“We obviously had a really young team last year and we kind of faced some veteran offenses, some veteran quarterbacks, and because of that, we had to take some shots with those guys, but I think they got better for it,” Grantham recalled. “They were able to mature and I think that’s one of the reasons they’re able to have some success right now.”

Two of those young players, cornerback Shaq Wiggins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, followed Grantham to Louisville and sat out this season as transfers. Grantham credited the former Bulldogs for their work on the scout team and said he expects them to compete for starting jobs in 2015.

As for Georgia, Grantham said he remains proud of what the program accomplished in his four seasons there -- a time where the Bulldogs won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012 and dominated rivals Florida, Georgia Tech, Auburn and Tennessee with an 11-1 record in his final three seasons.

That’s what Grantham said he remembers about his Georgia tenure, not the last season where he came under fire.

“I’ve always known I was a good coach in what I was doing,” Grantham said. “I think if you go back and look at the changes we were able to establish and make at the University of Georgia in my time there, we were able to win games, we were able to put, really, Georgia back on the map from being relevant.”

Grantham reunion 'interesting' for UGA

December, 8, 2014
12/08/14
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Mark down Georgia graduate assistant Christian Robinson for making the understatement of the year on Sunday shortly after the Bulldogs' bowl matchup became public knowledge.

"This will be interesting,” Robinson tweeted.

No kidding.



There are subplots galore in the Belk Bowl pairing between Georgia (9-3) and Louisville (9-3), but the biggest one centers around who will be standing across the field from the Bulldogs. Not just volatile defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who joined Bobby Petrino's Louisville staff in January after spending the previous four seasons at Georgia, but also defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons, who followed Grantham from Athens to Louisville.

Both sides will do their best to downplay any hurt feelings that accompanied those exits, where Grantham left after fans and media regularly questioned his job security during a disappointing 2013 season and Harvey-Clemons (dismissal) and Wiggins (transfer) leaving shortly thereafter.

In fact, Georgia coach Mark Richt attempted to do as much on Sunday. But rest assured, the winner will privately take a great deal of satisfaction in the outcome. That's nearly as much of an understatement as former UGA linebacker Robinson's tweet.

It was Grantham, after all, who was Robinson's defensive coordinator in the final three seasons of his career. In 2011 and 2012, Grantham's defense played a big role in the Bulldogs winning the SEC East both seasons and posting a combined 8-0 record against rivals Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech. It was Grantham, also, who helped Robinson land the graduate assistant-ship at his alma mater, bringing Robinson onto the 2013 coaching staff shortly after the St. Louis Rams released him during preseason camp.

But things went south last season, with a rebuilding defense struggling mightily by surrendering 29 points per game and Grantham becoming the target of much of the fans' wrath. When Louisville offered a pay raise and the chance to add his brother, Tony, to Petrino's coaching staff, it felt like the best move for all involved for Grantham to change locales.

By and large, the results have been positive for both parties. Richt hired an entirely new defensive coaching staff, led by new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and Georgia's defense has improved over its 2013 performance. And while Louisville lost two defensive starters to the first round of the NFL draft, Grantham's Cardinals defense still ranks sixth nationally by allowing 293.3 yards per game.

His defense is doing that without the services of Harvey-Clemons or Wiggins, who are both sitting out the season as transfers. But the awkwardness of the situation is not lost on the Bulldogs, current or former. Wiggins' tweet after the bowl announcement showed that he was amused by the pairing, and he and former UGA teammate Ryne Rankin traded messages about it later in the afternoon.


Compounding the potential unpleasantness is the presence of Petrino himself. It has been seven years removed from when he abandoned the Atlanta Falcons in midseason in order to take the head coaching job at Arkansas, but it's safe to say many sports fans in the Peach State will never forgive him for the way he handled his exit.

Former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley experienced the whole thing first-hand as a backup quarterback with the Falcons during Petrino's short tenure. He weighed in on the matchup Sunday, as well.



However, we've long since crossed this bridge with Petrino. He coached against Georgia twice during his time at Arkansas, so the stories about his coaching against a Georgia-based team have already been written.

Shoehorning his departure from the Falcons into some sort of rivalry with Georgia always felt like a stretch, anyway. Not so with Grantham. This is a game that the Bulldogs' former defensive coordinator desperately wants to win, and surely his former co-workers feel the same way.

Robinson was right. It's sure to be interesting when their teams meet up on Dec. 30.

SEC morning links

December, 8, 2014
12/08/14
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1. The four-team field for the first-ever College Football Playoff is set. Did the committee get it right? The Big 12 might disagree, but ESPN’s Ivan Maisel believes they did get it right. And who’s to complain? The matchups are fantastic. The SEC will go in with Alabama as its only representative, but the Crimson Tide did get the No. 1 seed. Their opponent in the first semifinal game? None other than Nick Saban’s old nemesis Urban Meyer and his Ohio State team. How great is that? It hasn’t been that long since the two were on top of the SEC, battling it out for supremacy every year. Some say Saban was the reason Meyer left Florida after the 2010 season. Either way, he’s back now.

2. The playoff is great, but that’s just the beginning. The new way of bowl selections might have been confusing, but it worked. There are plenty of intriguing matchups for SEC teams beginning with Ole Miss-TCU and Mississippi State-Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve as a part of the New Year's Six bowl games. Dan Mullen will return to Miami for the first time since he won the national championship there in 2007 with Florida, and in an unlikely matchup, the Rebels face a TCU team that has to be upset after getting snubbed from the top four. Other bowl games that jumped out to me included Auburn-Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, LSU-Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl, and Arkansas-Texas in the Texas Bowl.

3. The only “loser” in the SEC from Sunday’s bowl selections was Georgia. The Bulldogs didn’t end up in the Sunshine State like many predicted they would. Instead, they will make the short three-hour drive to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl. However, the SEC and ACC had to know what they were doing when they paired Georgia up with Louisville. For one, Todd Grantham will face his former team. The Louisville defensive coordinator held the same position at Georgia for four seasons under Mark Richt. The Cardinals also have a pair of former Bulldogs, Josh Harvery-Clemson and Shaq Wiggins. Georgia linebacker Ryne Rankin reached out to Wiggins on Sunday, tweeting “see ya over the holidays big dawg!” This should be fun.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

ATHENS, Ga. – Mark Richt has heard all the criticism that he has lost control at Georgia.

The coach, in his 14th year at the helm of the Bulldogs, just isn't biting on it.

Yes, there have been arrests and criminal charges and dismissals from the team. Richt isn't thrilled with them, either.

But since a dismal 2010 season that saw a fractured locker room due to some cancerous personalities, Richt has taken on a stronger stance with discipline, hence the numerous dismissals in recent years that have raised eyebrows. High-profile dismissals of running back Isaiah Crowell and defensive backs Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews for off-field actions have been troubling, but Richt defends his program and his actions.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/Athens Banner-HeraldMark Richt insists he's keeping a watchful eye on his program.
He has had to defend it a little more on the recruiting trail, but he said he has had positive conversations with prospects and their parents about how he runs his program.

“What some people get -- and most parents get -- is that I don’t want anybody on this team that’s going to be a distraction, who’s going to be a bad teammate, so to speak, a bad influence,” Richt said. “I want those parents to have peace that if I’ve got a bad element within the ranks that I don’t want him to be here influence your son. Sometimes guys make mistakes that cause them to lose their opportunity to be at Georgia. … Parents want their kids around a good group of guys, and I think we have that at Georgia.”

A rash of dismissals and transfers this year showed us that yes, Georgia --like every single program in the country -- had some bad apples inside its program, and that Richt isn’t risking integrity. He dismissed two starters in a secondary that entered the season with a lot of questions and a lot of unproven players. He also watched another starter walk away after what sounded like, umm, creative differences.

“What are we teaching these guys if we let guys go through their whole lives getting away with everything, and then when they get out in society they’re a mess? I want them to learn in the safety of this program, if possible,” Richt said.

Hey, Richt isn’t perfect, but he really has taken discipline seriously. Maybe he hasn’t always been consistent when it comes to games missed, but has any coach? Why is it that incidents surrounding Richt or his team are magnified?

Well, for one, Georgia has one of the SEC’s strictest drug policies, something Richt has vehemently supported during his tenure. And that has resulted in more suspensions for Georgia because a first offense by a player equals an automatic suspension.

“Because we have these policies some guys make mistakes,” Richt said. “Because we take playing time early, it becomes public. Our dirty laundry becomes public.”

Richt says he has tried to turn all of these situations into learning experiences for players. Whether they truly are or aren’t, Richt still pushes to teach his guys and even leaves lines of communication open for players who have left.

That’s one reason Georgia started the Paul Oliver Network, created in honor of the former Bulldog who took his own life in September 2013. It’s part reunion, part network to help former players transition from football to the real world. Richt has even welcomed back a couple of players who had been dismissed from the program.

“They just got hugged and loved and one of them got a job, actually,” Richt said, grinning from ear to ear.

While Richt has shared in the embarrassment and disappointment of having to dismiss players over the years, he’s no different than most coaches. He has had his fair share of issues and successes in Athens, but he says he wants what’s best for players and his program. Even if that means cutting them loose.

“Do I want them to have success, though? Yeah, I do,” he said. “I love the story of redemption for a guy who makes mistakes. I make mistakes, we all do.”

Georgia Bulldogs season preview

August, 8, 2014
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs

2013 record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC). Lost 24-19 to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

Key losses: QB Aaron Murray, TE Arthur Lynch, DL Garrison Smith, S Josh Harvey-Clemons, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins, OT Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, OG Dallas Lee, DL Jonathan Taylor.

Key returnees: RB Todd Gurley, LB Ramik Wilson, LB Amarlo Herrera, OLB Leonard Floyd, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OT John Theus, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Chris Conley, DE Ray Drew, C David Andrews, PK Marshall Morgan, WR Justin Scott-Wesley.

Instant impact newcomers: OLB Lorenzo Carter, RB Sony Michel, RB Nick Chubb, CB Malkom Parrish, DT Lamont Gaillard, DB Shattle Fenteng, TE Jeb Blazevich.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIAfter leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman last season, big things are expected of Leonard Floyd in 2014.
Breakout player: Floyd. The lanky outside linebacker led Georgia with 6.5 sacks in 2013 and added 9.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. He’ll benefit from having a full year in Georgia’s conditioning program and could become a star in his second season.

Most important game: Sept. 13 at South Carolina. Two of the favorites in the SEC East will meet early in the season in Columbia, where the Gamecocks haven’t lost since 2011. They’ve beaten Georgia in their last two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium, including a 35-7 thrashing in 2012. The margin for error is typically narrow within the division, so the winner of this one will be the early team in the East driver’s seat.

Biggest question mark: The secondary is easily Georgia’s biggest area of concern. The Bulldogs’ pass defense was spotty at best in 2013, and the offseason departures of three regulars has left plenty of personnel questions. Coach Mark Richt kicked two starting safeties -- Harvey-Clemons and Matthews -- off the team, and cornerback Wiggins transferred to Louisville, so there is plenty of playing time available. Swann’s presence is big at cornerback, and converted running back J.J. Green was impressive in the spring, but junior college transfer Fenteng and Parrish will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact in August.

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Missouri. This could be a tricky game that might not get as much attention as it deserves with matchups against Clemson, South Carolina, Florida and Auburn also on Georgia’s schedule. The defending SEC East champs lost a ton of firepower, so Mizzou seems likely to take a step backward. But it’s a long road trip that kicks off a stretch of more than a month when the Bulldogs won’t play at home once -- and it could easily become a loss if Georgia doesn’t have its act together.

Key stat: 36.7. The average score of a Georgia game was 36.7 to 29.0 in 2013. Even if what was an inexperienced defense improves this fall, the Bulldogs will still likely rely on their star-studded offense. They might need to keep scoring at that prolific clip, which is somewhat uncertain with three longtime starting offensive linemen to replace, to allow time for the defense and their new set of coaches to develop some continuity.

Team’s top Twitter follows: The Bulldogs have some good choices here. Seeing as how he’s never started a game, it might seem surprising that senior offensive lineman Watts Dantzler (@WattsDantzler) has 12,000 Twitter followers. But he’s a natural-born entertainer who has a nationwide following that grew substantially when he live tweeted a harrowing spring break trip back to Athens on a bus. Another good pick is tight ends coach John Lilly (@JohnLillyUGA), who is a much more creative on Twitter than the typical coach. Lastly, Conley (@_Flight_31) regularly updates his 27,400 followers on his latest film exploits; he produced and starred in a well-received “Star Wars” tribute film over the summer and has started work on a new movie in recent weeks.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 9.06 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5 wins

Our take: Georgia was better than an eight-win team last season, but the Bulldogs were absolutely decimated by injuries to key players like Mitchell, Gurley, Scott-Wesley, tailback Keith Marshall and eventually Murray. If new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can get things straight on his side of the ball, the ceiling is extremely high for this team. The offense has an impressive array of talent surrounding senior quarterback Hutson Mason and should be difficult to contain. If the Bulldogs open with a win against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, this could easily become a 10-2 or 9-3 season where Georgia is once again in the thick of the East race.
With fall camp beginning Friday, Auburn will turn its focus to 2014 and put last season behind it. But what a season it was. The Tigers, who were picked fifth in the West, went on to win the SEC championship and came 13 seconds from winning a national championship.

It was a sensational run by Gus Malzahn in his first year as head coach, reestablishing Auburn as a premier program in college football, but it didn’t come without a few breaks. It happens to every great team. A certain play or a certain call goes their way and keeps the dream season alive. Call it destiny if you will.

As we take one more look back at 2013, let’s revisit a few of those plays or moments that went Auburn’s way and see how they helped shape the Tigers’ season.

Week 3: What if illegal touching was called on C.J. Uzomah’s touchdown?

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn, Nick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe amazing 2013 season turned in by coach Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers was aided by several improbable plays.
Everybody remembers Uzomah’s touchdown grab with 10 seconds left to beat Mississippi State, but what people forget is that the play was actually reviewed to see if Uzomah stepped out of bounds before making the catch. The touchdown stood after the refs ruled he was pushed out by a defender, but what if they had instead called illegal touching and pushed Auburn back five yards? With so little time left, the Tigers might have had one more shot at the end zone, but the more likely outcome would have been a mid-range field goal attempt and a shot at overtime. The right call was made, but if the refs didn’t see the contact on the replay or if Uzomah failed to haul it in, there is a chance Auburn could have still been looking for that elusive SEC win.

Week 8: What if Johnny Manziel doesn’t hurt his shoulder?

Let’s set this up. It’s the beginning of the fourth quarter, Texas A&M is already up 31-24 and Manziel rushes for eight yards down to the Auburn 2-yard line. The only problem is that the reigning Heisman Trophy winner injures his shoulder on the play and is forced to come out. Backup Matt Joeckel comes in, throws an incomplete pass and the Aggies have to settle for a field goal. After an Auburn touchdown, Joeckel comes back on the field and the Aggies go three-and-out. Auburn would score again, and though Manziel eventually returned to the game, we all know how it ended. Had Manziel stayed on the field, that field goal might have been a touchdown and that three-and-out might not have happened.

Week 12: What if Josh Harvey-Clemons is a step slower?

Georgia’s defense looked to be in good position on the 78-yard touchdown pass that is now known as the “Prayer at Jordan Hare.” In fact, both Tray Matthews and Harvey-Clemons could have made the interception on the play, but as it turns out the two former Georgia safeties collided and batted the ball in the air where Ricardo Louis pulled it in for the touchdown. On second glance, Harvey-Clemons arrived late and essentially knocked it out of his teammate’s hands. Had he been a step slower to the ball, Matthews would have likely intercepted it or at least batted it down, forcing a turnover on downs, and we would have been talking about Georgia’s fourth-quarter comeback rather than the miracle play that kept Auburn’s season alive.

Week 14: What if O.J. Howard doesn’t get called for holding?

The easy one from the Iron Bowl would have been what if the last second ticks off and Alabama never gets a chance to attempt the 57-yard field goal? The game goes to overtime, where nobody knows for sure what the outcome would have been. I take you back to a holding call on the Tide's Howard with three minutes left. Had he not been called, Alabama would have had first-and-goal from the Auburn 5-yard line leading 28-21. Instead, the Tide was pushed back 10 yards, and after an incomplete pass, Cade Foster's 44-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Even if Alabama doesn’t pick up the first down on the play with holding, it still would have been in much better field-goal range to put the game away.
Another week, another off-field incident. That is the way it has been this offseason in the SEC, and this past week was no different.

Texas A&M suspended cornerback Victor Davis after he was arrested and charged with shoplifting, and defensive end Gavin Stansbury, who was arrested in April, left the team for personal reasons.

At Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed yet another player a day after defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault.

These incidents are just the latest in what has been a troubling offseason for the SEC. With media days behind us and fall camps about to begin, we want to know which team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions for this season.

SportsNation

Which SEC team's offseason issues will present the greatest on-field questions this coming season?

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    12%
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    13%
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    42%
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    8%
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    25%

Discuss (Total votes: 14,133)

In Tuscaloosa, the media's pick to win the SEC has had its fair share of off-field incidents. Dillon Lee and Jarran Reed were both arrested for driving under the influence, Altee Tenpenny was caught with marijuana, and Kenyan Drake was arrested for disobeying a police officer. None of the players involved has been dismissed, but this is becoming both a problem and a distraction for Alabama.

Across the state, Auburn is still trying to figure out what to do with quarterback Nick Marshall. The potential Heisman Trophy contender was given a citation for possession of marijuana this month, but will he miss any time as punishment? To make matters worse, teammate Jonathon Mincy was arrested for the same thing, possession of marijuana, just two weeks prior.

The school that has been in the news the most this offseason is Georgia. Four players were arrested in March for theft by deception. Two of those four, Taylor and Tray Matthews, were later dismissed for separate incidents. A third, Uriah LeMay, opted to transfer. Back in February, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons also was dismissed from the program following multiple violations of team rules.

At Missouri, it was three strikes and you're out for star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The sophomore was arrested for the second time on drug-related charges in January, and after being involved in an altercation with his girlfriend in April, he was dismissed from the team. Green-Beckham has since joined Oklahoma.

Lastly, there is Texas A&M, which has not seen any decline in off-field distractions since quarterback Johnny Manziel left. Quarterback Kenny Hill was arrested in March for public intoxication. Two months later, head coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed a pair of key defenders -- Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden -- after they were arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then the news broke this week with Stansbury’s departure and the suspension of Davis.

SEC media days preview: Day 4

July, 17, 2014
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HOOVER, Ala. -- The fourth and final day of SEC media days will likely be a circus with Alabama coming through, but there will be no shortage of storylines on all four teams in attendance Thursday. Let's take a look.

Georgia (10 a.m. ET): The expectations are high for this team, but if you ask Mark Richt who he has left in the secondary, it might take him a minute to respond. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were both dismissed from the team, and Shaquille Wiggins transferred away from the program. That leaves the Bulldogs extremely thin on the back end, but star linebacker Ramik Wilson, who will be on hand Thursday, is back for another season. Wilson led the SEC last season with 133 tackles. On offense, it's all about Todd Gurley. If he's healthy, he's one of the best running backs in college football. However, Aaron Murray is no longer there, which means it's now up to Hutson Mason to take the reigns at quarterback. Between questions about the dismissals and questions about Mason, Richt will be plenty busy Thursday.

Ole Miss (10:30 a.m.): Are the Rebels ready to take that next step? Hugh Freeze surprised everybody, including himself, when he led his team to a bowl game in his first season, and he was able to duplicate that success last year. But with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace returning and 10 starters back on defense, a bowl game might not be good enough this season. They have the talent and experience to compete in a stacked SEC West. The other major talking point for Thursday will be the sensational freshman class from a year ago. The likes of Tony Conner, Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all a year older, which is good news for Ole Miss fans but bad news for opponents. Treadwell, in particular, could be in line for a huge season with Donte Moncrief now in the NFL.

Alabama (12:10 p.m.): This edition of SEC media days will have a different feel for Alabama if for no other reason than the Crimson Tide aren't defending national champs for the first time in a while. How will the team respond to losing back-to-back games to end last season? And, maybe more important, how will it deal with the manner it lost to Auburn, falling to its bitter rival in the most dramatic way possible? Alabama coach Nick Saban will no doubt have an eye toward the future and the redemption it holds. But first he'll have to answer questions about a rebuilt secondary, two new starters on the offensive line, and the biggest question mark of all -- quarterback. It's safe to assume the starting job is Jacob Coker's. Just don't be surprised when Saban scoffs at the assumption.

Kentucky (1:40 p.m.): Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If you're looking for a main storyline to follow with the Wildcats on Thursday, it's how well Mark Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and how that's beginning to pay dividends on the football field. The top-to-bottom talent isn't quite there to compete with the upper echelon of the SEC yet, but it's on the right path. And maybe with a few surprise players and a break here or there, Kentucky might play the role of spoiler in 2014. Za'Darius Smith and Alvin Dupree are two of the more underrated defensive players in the league, and Jojo Kemp and Javess Blue are two similarly under-the-radar playmakers on offense. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard could provide some much needed depth at tailback, and Drew Barker has the skill set to play immediately at quarterback as a true freshman. But how will Stoops put all those pieces together? His program is improving with each recruiting class, but it needs time to mature.
If you're just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season.

So far we've been to some of the usual spots (Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa), and a few outside of the SEC footprint footprint in locals such as Houston and Oklahoma.

We've knocked out 11 weeks of trips in all, which means we've got only three more to go. The conference title game in Atlanta is right around the corner.

So without further pause, let's take a look at the best options for Week 12:

Nov. 15
Mississippi State at Alabama
LSU at Arkansas
Auburn at Georgia
South Carolina at Florida
Kentucky at Tennessee
Missouri at Texas A&M

Alex Scarborough's pick: Auburn at Georgia

This pick shouldn't require much in the way of explanation. If you saw the so-called “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” last year, then you know why the sequel should be appointment viewing for any SEC fan.

Georgia, minus its two biggest transgressors on the Hail Mary (defensive backs Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons), will be out to prove the loss at Auburn was a fluke. Meanwhile, Auburn must go to Athens and show it's more than a one-hit wonder.

And then there's the small matter of Nick Marshall returning to his old stomping grounds. Something tells me Bulldog fans won't warmly embrace their former DB turned quarterback.

As far as the product on the field, it should be a good one. Marshall and the Auburn offense are poised to be even better this season, with the addition of wideout D'haquille Williams and a stable of running backs eager to step out of Tre Mason's shadow. Georgia, on the other hand, has a solid quarterback in Hutson Mason and arguably the best ball-carrier in the country in Todd Gurley.

I wouldn't expect much in the way of defense -- not with the way last season went for both teams, and the attrition that followed -- but the game should nonetheless be entertaining.

Greg Ostendorf's pick: South Carolina at Florida

The East will likely be decided in Week 12, and while Georgia's outcome should certainly play a role, I'm headed down to Gainesville for South Carolina-Florida, the final conference game for both teams. Steve Spurrier might very well have his most talented South Carolina team to date, and I expect the Gators to be much improved this year.

No, last year's game didn't produce an ending quite like the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” but there was still drama. After Florida jumped out to a 14-6 halftime lead behind freshman running back Kelvin Taylor, South Carolina had to rally, and kicked a pair of fourth-quarter field goals to win 19-14. Taylor finished with a season-high 96 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.

I expect even more drama in this year's game, and there will be no lack of stars with Taylor, Mike Davis, Vernon Hargreaves III, Dante Fowler Jr. and others.

I also don't want to miss an opportunity to take in the Swamp this time of year. The weather should be ideal and given that last year doesn't repeat itself, the atmosphere will be second to none with Spurrier back in town. The Old Ball Coach has won three of the last four meetings against his old team, but he's won just once in Gainesville.
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.
The news of Tray Matthews' dismissal from Georgia's football team on Tuesday is yet another reminder of how much work the Bulldogs' defense has in front of it in 2014.

Matthews was far from perfect last year, and was known more for his unspeakable gaffe with Josh Harvey-Clemons against Auburn than any real positive impact he had on the field in 2013. But he had experience and time to improve. Even if Matthews was never going to be the all-world performer he was pumped up to be before his Athens arrival, his absence certainly doesn't help in the depth department.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
AP Photo/Jason GetzOffseason departures will make new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's job even more difficult.
However, Matthews, who was also one of four Georgia players arrested and charged with theft by deception in March, is gone, leaving the Bulldogs without three starters from last year's secondary.

From an experience standpoint, it isn't an ideal situation for new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but there's nothing he can do about it now. When I spoke to him in his office this spring, he made it clear that he understood the tall task he was undertaking by guiding this defense, and he didn't take the job for a quick fix. He said he left Florida State to build something at Georgia.

Right now, it's going to take a lot from him to even build something for fans to rally around this fall. The secondary will be overrun with youngsters and the defensive line is still waiting for a great, consistent player to emerge. Georgia should be fine at linebacker with the likes of Leonard Floyd, Ramik Wilson, Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera returning, but they can't do everything.

This spring, Pruitt's task was getting his new group to buy in to what he was selling. At the same time, he was trying to get a read on who his players were and what they brought to the table during 15 practices. That isn't a lot of time to get a lot done when you're new, or you're an embattled group that gave up a school-record 377 points last year and allowed 375.5 yards per game, the most during the Mark Richt era.

Pruitt saw good work ethic and some promise, but there's still plenty that has to improve before the season opener against Clemson on Aug. 30.

“I don’t know how it was here before. I know our coaching staff is very focused on attention to detail, playing with effort, playing with toughness," Pruitt told ESPN.com in April. "We have a long ways to go to get to where we want to be.

“We have to get guys to do it right all the time.”

Pruitt isn't going to cry about the players he has lost. He has to get a plan together before he gets to work with the guys who will actually play for him this year.

The fact of the matter is this defense doesn't have the talent that the 2011 and 2012 teams had. Outside of the linebacker group, especially Floyd and Wilson, there are a lot of unknowns, but Pruitt understands that what he can do to make this defense more competitive is to have them win the mental battle. They have to be disciplined and tough enough to make opponents earn yards.

Pruitt said his guys have to work hard over and over to challenge opponents. If you get beat, he said, make sure it's by ability, not carelessness.

It's on Pruitt to put his players in good positions this fall, but the guys who actually move around on the field have to have a little more pride about them. They have to want to get better and play tougher.

Where Pruitt hopes to get a spark is from some new faces. Looking at the secondary, there's a chance that three or four newcomers could find starting jobs in a group in which senior Damian Swann is the only cornerback who has started more than one game.

Finding players to nail down spots at the boundary corner positions will be key. Redshirt freshman Reggie Wilkerson is returning from his ACL injury and 2014 signees Malkom Parrish, Shaq Jones, and Shattle Fenteng (junior college transfer) will all get the chance to take a corner spot. True freshman Dominick Sanders also will take reps at safety.

“I’m hoping that these young guys we have coming in can help us in the secondary," Pruitt said. “I’m going to give those guys a chance right off the bat. They’re going to have to prove to me that they can’t do it.”

Georgia's defense will go through a lot of growing pains in 2014. There will be plenty of frustrating moments for Pruitt and his group, but there will still be chances for growth.

How fast that growth begins will depend on how Pruitt and his players attack the steep hill in front of them.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
4/10/14
12:00
PM ET
Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:

Opening spring camp: Georgia

March, 17, 2014
3/17/14
2:30
PM ET
Schedule: The Bulldogs will open spring practice on Tuesday at 4:25 p.m. ET. Their annual G-Day spring game is scheduled for April 12 at 1 p.m. in Sanford Stadium, followed by two more practices on April 15 and April 17 to wrap up the spring.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHutson Mason gets his chance to take over as Georgia's QB after being behind Aaron Murray for four seasons.
What’s new: Georgia enters the spring with an entirely new defensive staff. Jeremy Pruitt, after helping lead Florida State to a national championship last season, takes over for Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator. Grantham left to be the defensive coordinator at Louisville. Joining Pruitt, who will also coach the secondary, will be former Auburn All-American Tracy Rocker, who will coach the defensive line and weakside linebackers, while Kevin Sherrer will coach the strongside linebackers and star position/nickelbacks and Mike Ekeler inside linebackers and special teams.

On the move: Redshirt freshman Tramel Terry, who was injured and didn’t play last season, is moving from receiver to safety. Sophomore J.J. Green, who rushed for 384 yards last season as a freshman, is moving from running back to cornerback, and sophomore Quayvon Hicks is moving from fullback to tight end. A couple of outside linebackers, James DeLoach and Josh Dawson, are moving to defensive end.

On the mend: The Bulldogs will have several players who won’t participate in contact drills, and in some cases, will miss the entire spring while recovering from injuries/surgeries. Among them: running back Todd Gurley (ankle), running back Keith Marshall (knee), receiver Justin Scott-Wesley (knee), receiver Malcolm Mitchell (knee), tight end Jay Rome (foot) and cornerback Reggie Wilkerson (knee).

New faces: Quarterback Jacob Park, an ESPN 300 prospect from Goose Creek, S.C., was Georgia’s only early enrollee for the 2014 class and will go through spring practice.

Question marks: Solidifying the secondary is crucial, especially with safety Josh Harvey-Clemons being dismissed from the team. In Harvey-Clemons, the Bulldogs lost a starting safety and the "star" in their nickel package. They should be OK at cornerback, particularly if Green can make the transition. Damian Swann and Shaq Wiggins also return at corner, and heralded freshman Malkom Parrish will arrive this summer. But the Bulldogs need to be more consistent across the board on the back end of that defense next season. They also have to get better on special teams. Mistakes plagued them last season, and they were last in the SEC in punt return average and kickoff returns and next-to-last in kickoff coverage. Finding three new offensive line starters will be another priority this spring.

Key battle: Both of the safety positions are right there at the top of the list. Senior Corey Moore played better down the stretch last season, and sophomore Quincy Mauger was forced into action last season as a true freshman. Terry also could be a factor at one of the safety spots. The Bulldogs wouldn't have moved him if they didn't think he would be in the rotation. At the free safety spot, the Bulldogs need sophomore Tray Matthews on the field. He was injured for much of his freshman season and also battled some maturity issues. He's a terrific talent, and the Bulldogs need him to play that way.

Breaking out: Sophomore Reggie Carter gives the Bulldogs more speed and athleticism at inside linebacker. He didn't play a lot last season as a freshman, but could give veterans Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera a run for their money. Redshirt freshman Paris Bostick could be another player to watch at inside linebacker. Junior nose tackle Chris Mayes was one of the more underrated players on Georgia's team last season. He and senior Toby Johnson could both be primed for big seasons up front for the Dawgs defensively. Johnson wasn't completely healthy last season after coming over from junior college, but should be 100 percent in 2014.

Don’t forget about: Sophomore Leonard Floyd should be even better his second time through the league. He led Georgia with 6.5 sacks last season and is exactly what Pruitt is looking for as a pass-rusher in his 3-4 scheme. The good news for Floyd and all of the Georgia defenders is that they're not changing defenses. The system will be very similar to what they ran under Grantham, with Pruitt making a few tweaks.

All eyes on: Record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, which means senior Hutson Mason finally gets his chance to be the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. Mason stepped in at the end of last season after Murray was injured, and there's no question that he has a big arm and can stand in the pocket and throw it. He also has plenty of playmakers around him. He will get a chance to show that he can lead this team over the course of an entire season.
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.

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