SEC: Justin Worley

Planning for success: Tennessee

September, 30, 2014
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ESPN’s Paul Finebaum nailed it in 140 characters or less when he tweeted compliments to Tennessee for its moral victories against Oklahoma and Georgia, but added that his alma mater’s football team now must justify the hype building in Knoxville.

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That starts with a win Saturday against Florida (2-1, 1-1 SEC) -- a program that has defeated the Volunteers (2-2, 0-1) nine straight years and in 17 out of the past 21 meetings.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones wouldn’t categorize those two road losses -- 34-10 at No. 4 Oklahoma and 35-32 this past weekend against No. 13 Georgia -- as moral victories. Not publicly anyway. That is what a loser would do, and he clearly doesn’t think that way.

"Every individual in this organization believed that we were going to win," Jones said after the Georgia game. "I am proud of them, but we have to continue to learn from this and then move on. We are going to be a good football team and we are going to win a lot of football games."

As of now, Jones’ record at Tennessee might show that he is a loser (the Vols are 7-9 overall and 2-7 in SEC play since he arrived last season), but nobody who has watched Jones’ young team play would expect that trend to continue for long. Despite playing 22 true freshmen, the most of any FBS program in 2014, Tennessee hung with Oklahoma for most of that game and very easily could have defeated Georgia on Saturday. Considering how well Jones’ staff has recruited lately, the Vols look like a sure bet to rank among the favorites in the SEC East in the near future.

Heck, they might even contend this season, but it has to start with a win against the Gators on Saturday. Will Muschamp’s Florida team spent an entire offseason stewing over a humiliating 4-8 record last fall, and things don’t seem much more pleasant right now after Alabama dominated the Gators prior to last Saturday’s open date.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsA victory against rival Florida would be an important step for QB Justin Worley and the young Volunteers.
The Gators are ripe for the picking, and Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium provides a tremendous opportunity for Jones’ program to end its losing streak in what once ranked among the SEC’s top rivalry games. It is relegated to a noon time slot this season while SEC West showdowns dominate the headlines, which indicates one thing: neither program is winning consistently enough.

Jones used last season’s 23-21 upset of South Carolina as evidence that things were moving in the right direction in his first season in Knoxville. That is his only win in nine tries against ranked Tennessee opponents, however. Eventually, showing progress -- but still losing -- against rivals or ranked opponents gets old. That is why Jones’ club needs to end its slide against Florida now, just as Finebaum noted.

Justin Worley has performed well at quarterback and delivered a memorable performance during a comeback effort against Georgia after leaving the game with an elbow injury. Jalen Hurd is a future superstar at tailback. The Vols’ receiving corps is loaded with size and talent.

The offensive and defensive lines face steep experience gaps against most opponents, but their on-the-job training will eventually pay off. And the Vols actually rank first nationally in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 20.8 percent of the time.

There is a lot to like about what is happening at Tennessee, especially if the Vols reach the postseason for the first time since 2010. However, playing in a bowl game becomes a much greater challenge if the Vols fall to 2-3 on Saturday. They still must play Alabama and Ole Miss from the SEC West, along with remaining division games against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. The only non-division gimme left on the schedule is an Oct. 11 date with Chattanooga.

In other words, now is the time, Vols, if you want to show that the "Brick by Brick" stuff that Jones preaches is actually leading toward something meaningful.

This is a beatable Florida team. Tennessee fans could make a reasonable argument that their team is playing better football this season, and this is the Vols’ chance to prove it. Another moral victory won’t be enough this Saturday.
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ATHENS, Ga., -- With No. 12 Georgia (3-1, 1-1 SEC) defeating Tennessee (2-2, 0-1) 35-32 inside Sanford Stadium on Saturday, the Bulldogs matched their longest winning streak in the series (1909-1924).

How the game was won: This one was back-and-forth from the start, but it cooled a little as both defenses perked in the third quarter. Tennessee stayed in this one with some big throws from quarterback Justin Worley and some key takeaways, but Georgia running back Todd Gurley was too much for Tennessee. A late fumble recovery in the end zone by Josh Dawson proved to be the game winner for the Dawgs.

Game ball goes to: Gurley, who Georgia fans will tell you isn't getting the ball enough. And there were some questionable moments in Saturday's game when it didn't seem as though he was getting the ball enough. Still, he carried it 28 times for 208 yards and two touchdowns. All you need to know is that the Vols elected to onside kick it with two minutes left and three timeouts because they didn't think they could stop Gurley ... which they didn't.

What it means: This keeps the Bulldogs very much alive in the SEC Eastern Division race. Georgia is still behind South Carolina after losing to the Gamecocks a couple of weeks ago, but we all know no one is to be trusted in the East this season. ... Tennessee certainly isn't out of the East race, either, and is a much better team this season. Worley has really improved, and freshman running back Jalen Hurd could be a special player.

Playoff implication: Even though the Bulldogs are still behind South Carolina in the East, they are currently ahead of South Carolina in the polls. All they have to do is keep on winning, and they could find themselves in the final four. Having some teams in front of them lose, too, wouldn't be bad.

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Best play: With the game tight midway through the fourth quarter, Gurley did what he does best. He zipped through both lines and needed just one move to beat a lonely Tennessee defender before he was off to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown.

What's next?: The Bulldogs host a struggling Vanderbilt team next week before saying goodbye to the state of Georgia for the following four games. It doesn't really matter what the Commodores look like right now, they beat Georgia last season, and you better believe the Dawgs will be looking to exact some revenge on the Dores. ... Tennessee heads home to play rival Florida, which is coming off of a blowout loss against Alabama and a bye week. The Gators have beaten Tennessee nine straight times.
Hutson MasonAP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtThe Volunteers' secondary will be a good test to see whether Hutson Mason can stretch the field.

Georgia's showdown with Tennessee on Saturday is the perfect test for the Bulldogs at this point in the season. The Vols (2-1, 0-0 SEC) pose the exact threat that Georgia needs in order to take the next step in its 2014 progression.

We know the 12th-ranked Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1) can run for days (they're second in the SEC averaging 304 rushing yards per game and lead the league with 7.7 yards per rush), but the jury is still out on whether quarterback Hutson Mason can consistently throw down field. We also need to see Georgia's secondary step up and show that it can start limiting the big plays in the passing game.

Look, the East is an absolute mess right now. There is no dominant team, but even though the Dawgs are looking up at South Carolina in the division after a head-to-head loss in Columbia, they still might have the best path to Atlanta. Having running back -- and Heisman Trophy contender -- Todd Gurley gives Georgia a chance in any game. And did I mention that the East is a total crapshoot?

But if the Dawgs are going to avoid another loss or slogging through conference play, they have to be able to throw the ball and stop the pass.

Mason knows this offense backward and forward. No one is debating that, but what we haven't seen from him is any sort of down-field threat. The longest pass Mason has completed this year is a 36-yarder to Isaiah McKenzie on the first play from scrimmage for the Dawgs against South Carolina. After that, Mason was reduced to intermediate passes against a defense that wanted Mason to try and win the game, meaning they were more concerned with Georgia's running game.

Think about this: South Carolina's defense, which had allowed 832 passing yards in its first two games allowed Mason to throw for just 191 yards.

You have to take advantage of a defense like that, and Mason didn't.

I totally get that not having Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley on the field takes away two huge big-play threats, but Chris Conley is a vertical monster and you can't sit there and tell me that no one else is able to run some deeper passing routes in that receiving corps. Whether there's a confidence issue there with the receivers or Mason, if Georgia's offense is going to take some heat off of Gurley, it needs to be able to spread the field more with its passing game, and Tennessee's secondary provides a nice challenge for Mason.

Tennessee cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Justin Coleman and safety Brian Randolph pose the biggest threat to Georgia's passing game so far. The Vols had yet to allow 200 yards passing until Oklahoma's Trevor Knight threw for 308 two Saturdays ago, but with two weeks to prepare, you have to think that this secondary will be polished for the Dawgs. but here's something that should perk Mason's ears: Tennessee surrendered five passing plays of 20-plus yards to Oklahoma.

Saturday could prove to be a real turning point for Mason, as a passer, if he performs well against Tennessee's secondary. The Vols won't make it easy, but it's a great way to boost his confidence if he can start to get into rhythm throwing down field.

As for Georgia's secondary, the combo of quarterback Justin Worley (721 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions) and receiver Marquez North (14 catches, 173 yards and two touchdowns) is a challenge for anyone. Worely has mad some fantastic throws during the early part of the season, while North continues to show why he needs to be in the conversation with the league's top receivers.

You also can't forget about Alton "Pig" Howard or Josh Smith, who have combined for 23 catches this year. Smith is still nursing a high-ankle sprain, but he hasn't been ruled out of Saturday's game.

Need a dynamic weapon to take some pressure off of North, well, the Vols have one in freshman receiver Josh Malone, who seems to be improving each week.

Georgia's secondary looked good against Troy, but so has everyone else this year. It didn't look good against South Carolina when Dylan Thompson torch the Dawgs over the middle of the field and finish with 271 yards and three touchdowns.

There has been a lot of rotation in Georgia's defensive backfield, and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has made it clear that he's going to challenge his secondary and put them in more man-to-man situations.

Well, this is a great game to see how far those guys have come.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier beamed when he sprang into his postgame press conference room Saturday evening. He had just watched his Gamecocks shock No. 6 Georgia -- the team picked by many to represent the SEC in the College Football Playoff after just one game -- 38-35 with a gutsy, yet controversial, call to go for it on fourth-and-inches.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier again got the best of Georgia and showed that South Carolina will make noise in the SEC Eastern Division.
The Head Ball Coach, who was labeled "done" by some after an unconvincing 1-1 start that featured an epic beat down from Texas A&M, was smiling once again after besting his favorite SEC pinata -- Georgia.

Spurrier got his 16th win over Georgia -- the most by any coach over the Dawgs -- and his fourth out of the last five meetings. He and his team also showed that what we thought of South Carolina heading into last weekend wasn't exactly true. There are still issues with the Gamecocks, especially on defense, but we were quick to write off the very team picked in the preseason to win the SEC Eastern Division.

"This is a good one," Spurrier said of Saturday's win. "I knew we had a good chance to beat them when I heard [ESPN radio host Paul] Finebaum picked them [Georgia] to win by about 25 points. He picked Alabama to beat Oklahoma by 25 [in last season’s Allstate Sugar Bowl] too. I said, 'We gotta chance tonight then.'”

Yeah, all that negativity we showed the Gamecocks last week didn't go unnoticed in Columbia.

“I’m not going to lie and tell you that I wasn’t watching TV, seeing people say that Georgia was the No. 1 team, have them winning the playoff," South Carolina running back Mike Davis said. "Watching GameDay and seeing all those guys pick UGA, and having [ESPN college football analyst] Kirk [Herbstreit] being the only one who said we were going to win. This is a big confidence booster for our team.”

So South Carolina isn't dead, and it's clear that the SEC East is still very much wide open.

What else were we quick to assume about the SEC?

1. Jake Coker isn't ready: We all thought Coker would be Alabama's starting quarterback. Well, it's Florida week and veteran Blake Sims is very much the guy and has a big lead on Coker. Unlike Coker, Sims is limited with his arm, but he's done nothing to lose the starting job, while Coker has done nothing to take it.

2. Arkansas isn't the pushover it has been: We figured it'd be another ho-hum year for the Razorbacks. Then they challenged Auburn in the first half of their opener and literally ran over Nicholls State and Texas Tech with 933 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Arkansas looks like it can run on anyone.

3. Vanderbilt is in trouble: We thought the talent was still there for Vanderbilt to make another quality run under Derek Mason in his first year with the Commodores. Well, we aren't sure what's up, but the Commodores are lucky to be 1-2 at this point. After getting outscored 78-10 against Temple and Ole Miss, the Dores needed a last-second missed field goal to escape the UMass game.

4. Florida's defense has to climb back to elite status: We questioned Florida's offense, which still has concerns, but we didn't press the defense. Well, it turns out that there are actually real concerns with this younger unit. Coverage breakdowns fueled 369 Kentucky passing yards and three touchdowns. Also, can anyone besides Dante Fowler Jr. rush the passer?

5. Mississippi State's secondary has questions: It's early, but the Bulldogs have had issues in the back end of their defense. Through three games, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 311.7 passing yards per game. Corner Taveze Calhoun, who garnered tons of preseason praise, and the guys around him at corner and safety have really underperformed to start the season.

6. Texas A&M is still pretty good: Wasn't this team supposed to take a few steps back without Johnny Manziel? Well, the Aggies didn't get the memo. Texas A&M upset South Carolina 52-28 to start the year, the defense looks better and quarterback Kenny Hill leads the SEC with 1,094 yards and has 11 touchdowns. I can't believe someone didn't think an A&M quarterback would throw for 3,000 yards this season ...

7. Kentucky can upset someone: If you watched any part of Florida's triple-overtime win over Kentucky, you'd know the Wildcats are better than they have been in years. Patrick Towles threw for almost 400 yards on the Gators with a handful of playmakers to use that this team hasn't had in a while. Also, that defense is much better with Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith battling for the top defensive end duo in the SEC.

8. Tennessee doesn't have a quarterback issue: We thought there was too much uncertainty surrounding Tennessee's quarterbacks. Well, we were wrong, as Justin Worley has been solid, making tremendous throws through the first two games. He struggled against Oklahoma but is averaging 240 yards per game and has six touchdown passes.

9. Missouri isn't ready to take a step back: We thought there were a lot of questions for Mizzou on both sides of the ball, and there still might be, but this team isn't ready to bow out in the SEC. The competition hasn't been great, but Mizzou has done exactly what's been asked, outscoring teams 125-52.

10. Leonard Fournette isn't Michael Jordan ... yet: We thought Fournette would have at least 1,000 rushing yards and, like, 20 touchdowns at this point. What a disappointment! It's a long season folks, but Fournette is still learning and has just 162 yards and two touchdowns. He'll be great, but we actually have to be patient with him.

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
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The SEC quarterback competitions are fading fast. Nick Marshall is back for Auburn. Patrick Towles (Kentucky) and Justin Worley (Tennessee) have exceeded expectations. And Kenny Hill has gone from competing for the starting job to competing for the Heisman Trophy.

That leaves Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt. All three schools seem to have settled on a signal caller for the time being, but how long will it last? We should find out a lot more this Saturday as they all have SEC opponents on the docket.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Alabama fans are starting to accept that Sims is the team’s quarterback and why not? The senior hasn’t done anything to relinquish the job. If anything, he’s shown improvement with each game. On Saturday against Southern Miss, he completed 12 of his 17 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 46 yards and a score. Both Coker and Alec Morris came in during the second half, but neither played meaningful minutes.

What it means: Sims is the starting quarterback until he gives up the job. If he keeps managing the offense and not turning over the football, the coaches are not going to pull him. That said, he faces his toughest test this Saturday against Florida. The Gators return all four starters on the defensive line, and with Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Sims can no longer only throw the ball to his favorite receiver Amari Cooper. Will we see Coker? Not unless things go awry, but Sims has to play well for Alabama to win. – Greg Ostendorf

Sims’ hold on position: 8.5

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Although Jennings (11-for-18 for 139 yards, INT) tossed his first interception of the season in last Saturday’s 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe, he continues to do a solid if unspectacular job at quarterback. His passing numbers would have been better if not for a series of drops and he’s minimizing his mistakes. He also showed some nifty moves in escaping from a sack and then ran for a 22-yard gain. To this point, he has been what LSU’s coaches want him to be: A steady game manager.

What it means: The ULM game made it even more evident that Jennings holds a clear lead over Harris as the starter. Jennings played every offensive snap until the Tigers led 24-0 late in the third quarter. Once Harris got into the game, he screwed up at least two play calls and had to scramble for yardage once everyone else ran a different direction than he expected. Until he has a firm grasp on the playbook, Harris won’t truly challenge for the starting job. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 8

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Wade Freebeck, Stephen Rivers, Johnny McCrary

How Robinette performed: Exploring all options to find a quarterback, Derek Mason went with the true freshman Freebeck against UMass. That experiment lasted all of a quarter before Mason pulled him in favor of Robinette, the team’s original starter. The sophomore took advantage. In three quarters, Robinette threw for 147 yards, rushed for 35 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the Commodores back from an 11-point second-half deficit and notch their first win of the season.

What it means: Has Vanderbilt finally settled on a quarterback? Don’t assume anything with Mason calling the shots, but he did say Tuesday that Robinette is their guy until something happens to change that. It sounds like Robinette will have a longer leash this Saturday against South Carolina, and maybe that will give him a little added confidence. It also wouldn’t be surprising if a different quarterback finished the game. – Greg Ostendorf

Robinette’s hold on position: 4
NORMAN, Okla. -- Another SEC opponent. Another Oklahoma win.

Behind a sharp effort from quarterback Trevor Knight and a swarming defense that forced three turnovers, the Sooners coasted past Tennessee 34-10 to remain undefeated.

Here were the three plays that spearheaded Oklahoma's victory:

1. HAYES BRINGS THE HAMMER EARLY

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After Oklahoma scored a field goal on its opening drive, Tennessee came right back and was stringing together a drive of its own. Tennessee QB Justin Worley connected with Pig Howard for a 19-yard pass that pushed the Vols to the Oklahoma 40-yard line. But on the next play, Sooners defensive coordinator brought Quentin Hayes on a safety blitz. Worley never saw him coming, and Hayes belted into Worley's blindside, knocking the ball loose. After rolling through Worley, Hayes popped up and recovered the fumble, too. The turnover not only thwarted Tennessee's first potential scoring opportunity, it set up a Trevor Knight-to-Keith Ford touchdown pass six plays later to give the Sooners an early 10-0 lead and control of the game.

2. NEAL GETS SOONERS GOING AGAIN
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Despite a rocky start, Tennessee kept the Sooners from running away with the game in the first half, and trailed only 20-7 at halftime. But the Oklahoma offense, which struggled to end the second quarter, got rolling again in the third. With the Vols focused on Sterling Shepard on the boundary side, Knight flipped his vision the other way and tossed a strike to a wide open Durron Neal running a slant route. Neal slipped through a pair of defenders downfield, then raced to the Tennessee 9 for a 43-yard gain. Two plays later, Knight was in the end zone, giving the Sooners a commanding 27-7 lead.

3. WILSON DELIVERS THE EXCLAMATION POINT
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Tennessee trailed 27-10 early in the fourth quarter, but had one final chance to get back in the game. Facing third-and-2 at the Oklahoma 4-yard line, Worley tried to force a pass to Marquez North at the front of the end zone. But before the pass could get to North, Oklahoma linebacker Jordan Evans tipped the ball in the air over North and into the arms of Sooners cornerback Julian Wilson. With a convoy leading the way, Wilson sprinted 100 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Officials reviewed the play to make sure Wilson crossed the goal line before he dropped the ball. But replay confirmed he was in the end zone first.

How Tennessee can hang with Oklahoma 

September, 12, 2014
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Trevor KnightKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsThe Vols would be wise to blitz QB Trevor Knight and force OU to rely heavily on the passing game.
Tennessee has held steady at most Vegas books as a three-touchdown underdog Saturday at Oklahoma. It would clearly be a significant, ahead-of-schedule upset if the Volunteers were to win in Norman, Oklahoma.

Even UT coach Butch Jones was aware this week of Bob Stoops’ 88-5 home record. (I tried to be comforting, reminding Jones that three of the five losses have come since 2011.)

But c'mon, we've learned enough about college football to know that the unexpected is to be expected. Week 3 looks on paper like a dud, so naturally it will provide indelible games and impactful results. That’s how it goes.

For Tennessee, here's the game plan that can, at minimum, keep the Vols hanging around in the second half on the road against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Knight under center



Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight is the central character, after talking with Big 12 and SEC coaches about the game.

If Tennessee has designs on winning, or at least staying in the game, it needs to do the following where Knight is concerned:

Hit him: “Knight doesn’t like [to be hit],” a Big 12 coach told me. “He didn’t finish some games last year.”

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating trying to injure a player, not at all, but it’s significant to note that coaches still aren’t sold on Knight’s durability.

We know Knight became a darling after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama -- but he could not finish the previous game against Oklahoma State. Backup Blake Bell entered and bailed out the Sooners with a late TD drive, the only offensive TD of the game for OU.

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
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After Week 2, the quarterback battles in the SEC seem to be dwindling. Nick Marshall returned as the starter for Auburn while it looks like both Kentucky and Tennessee have found their man. The same can’t be said just yet at Alabama and LSU, and nobody knows what’s going on at Vanderbilt. The SEC quarterback tracker is back. Have a look.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Sims continues to do what coach Nick Saban and his staff value most: manage the offense. It might not be flashy, but Sims has taken what the defense has given him time and time again. Relying on mostly short, quick passes, Sims threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns on 12 of 14 passing against Florida Atlantic. He also ran in a touchdown from 7 yards out.

What it means: Sims has done nothing to lose the starting job, but it's still what he hasn't done -- throw the football deep -- that's most troubling. Coker, on the other hand, can do that. In fact, he seemed intent on chucking it deep in his first real action under center for the Crimson Tide. Coker was 15 of 24 for 202 yards and a touchdown against FAU. But it was what he couldn't do -- manage the offense, minimize mistakes -- that is keeping him from truly challenging Sims. – Alex Scarborough

Sims’ hold on position: 8

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson

How Marshall performed: After missing the first half in the opener, Marshall returned as the starter in Week 2 and played well. He threw for over 100 yards, rushed for over 100 yards and scored twice. A solid effort, but by no means was it perfect. He completed just 10 of his 19 pass attempts, and he fumbled on the opening drive. With that said, the Auburn offense still racked up over 400 yards through three quarters with Marshall under center.

What it means: The big takeaway from Saturday was that Johnson didn’t see the field until the fourth quarter with the Tigers already ahead 45-13. That’s not the “role” we all envisioned for Johnson after Week 1. I believe it was Gus Malzahn’s way of re-enforcing the fact that Marshall is this team’s quarterback. If there was any doubt at all after the Arkansas game, he wanted to make it crystal clear on Saturday. – Greg Ostendorf

Marshall’s hold on position: 10

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker and Reese Phillips

How Towles performed: After passing for 377 yards in the opener, Towles did his damage on the ground in a 20-3 win against Ohio. Towles had 22 rushing attempts (five of which were sacks) for 59 yards, with six runs covering 10 yards or more. He also went 17-for-31 for 170 yards and tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Dorian Baker for the Wildcats’ first score. If there was anything to criticize, it’s that the Wildcats’ offense bogged down after jumping out to a 17-0 lead.

What it means: It was another impressive, and turnover-free, start from Towles, who won the starting job during preseason camp. He’s about to face an enormous step up in competition, however. Saturday’s visit to Florida, which allowed just 125 yards in its season-opening 65-0 win over Eastern Michigan, is going to be one of the toughest tests of the season for Kentucky’s reconstructed offense. If Towles can stay composed and move the offense against the Gators, Kentucky will truly have something to get excited about. – David Ching

Towles’ hold on position: 9

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Jennings took the majority of snaps in a 56-0 rout of Sam Houston State and connected with Travin Dural for three touchdown passes -- including a 94-yard score on LSU’s first play from scrimmage. Jennings also ran eight times for 43 yards and played by far his most efficient game yet out of three college starts. It was another step in the right direction after a solid second half in the Tigers’ comeback win against Wisconsin in the opener.

What it means: We saw Harris (4-5, 62 yards, TD) get his first substantial playing time against SHSU, too, and the freshman made a couple of huge plays -- most notably a 46-yard touchdown run. LSU coach Les Miles was critical of the freshman’s fourth-quarter fumble, but it was overall a strong home debut for Harris. He’s probably not ready to push Jennings for the starting job yet, but we’re going to see a lot more from the freshman as the season progresses. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman

How Worley performed: It was another impressive performance from Worley. He completed nine straight passes to start the game and finished 22 of 38 for 247 yards and two touchdowns. He even rushed for a third score. The only negative came in the third quarter when Arkansas State defensive back Money Hunter, son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, dove in front of one of Worley’s passes and intercepted it.

What it means: Through the first two games, Worley is looking like the most improved player in the SEC. The two touchdown throws to Marquez North on Saturday were not easy throws, and he put them on the money. The senior quarterback will have to play a nearly flawless game this weekend if the Volunteers hope to upset Oklahoma on the road, but win or lose, Worley is still the guy for Tennessee. – Greg Ostendorf

Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen

How Hill performed: Hill wasn't quite as accurate in his second game (17-of-26) as he was in his debut (44-of-60) but still performed well, throwing for 283 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said he wants to see Hill improve on his intermediate and deep-pass accuracy and the Aggies took more shots downfield in their win over Lamar than they did in their season opener vs. South Carolina. Allen got some work in both the first and second half once the Aggies had a big lead.

What it means: Spavital called the game in such a way to work on some areas where Hill isn't as strong and by doing that, Hill was out of his comfort zone a little, but he handled it well overall and turned in a strong performance. A game against an FCS opponent was an opportune time to get a live look at how Allen would perform. He had some freshman moments, like throwing an interception on his first drive, but bounced back well. Still, Hill did just fine and while Allen is not backing down, Hill is the starter. – Sam Khan

Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: TBD
Options: Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary, Stephen Rivers, Patton Robinette

How Rivers performed: Rivers got the nod last week but the performance wasn't pretty. He was 6-of-25 passing for 60 yards and no touchdowns in a 41-3 loss to Ole Miss. Head coach Derek Mason noted that "we should have done a better job of using those guys' skill sets and getting the ball in playmakers' hands," and said that they've made schematic changes as a result. It is worth noting that Mason stuck with Rivers for the entire game Saturday rather than playing musical chairs with the quarterbacks, as he did in the season-opening loss to Temple.

What it means: The Commodores still don't have a starter at the moment, as Mason referenced the quarterbacks will compete for the right to start this week. Now, there's a fourth name in the mix in addition to Rivers, Robinette and McCrary -- Freebeck, the true freshman from Florida. Mason said he's very much in the competition this week. Who starts this weekend against Massachusetts is anyone's guess. For what it's worth, Mason promised "explosive offense." We'll see. – Sam Khan

Rivers’ hold on the position: 0

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 1

September, 3, 2014
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The SEC appears to be loaded with true freshmen who will make immediate impacts with their teams this season. Let's take a look at five who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from the first weekend of the fall.

NICK CHUBB, GEORGIA

What he did: Chubb ran like a grown man against Clemson, particularly on a 47-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that essentially put away the Bulldogs' victory. Chubb took a pitch right and burst through a pile of Tigers -- literally dragging linebacker Stephone Anthony for 5 yards after Anthony grabbed him by the left ankle -- before breaking into the open field and outrunning all defenders. Chubb finished the day with four carries for 70 yards.

What it means: Chubb and Sony Michel proved against Clemson why they generated preseason buzz, with both freshmen making plays that helped the Bulldogs earn a key opening win. Chubb is going to be a superb complement to Todd Gurley in Georgia's backfield, as both players have shown the ability to run with speed and power. Gurley might be the nation's top tailback, but the freshmen have proven that the Bulldogs have more than one dynamic weapon in the backfield. -- David Ching

MYLES GARRETT, TEXAS A&M

What he did: The five-star defensive end showed why he has received so much offseason buzz, having an immediate impact in the Aggies' win over South Carolina. Garrett had a sack and two quarterback hurries and came close to hitting Dylan Thompson several more times. Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said Garrett's stat line didn't show his total impact, and forcing Thompson into errant throws is “as good as sacks.”

What it means: He has the look of an All-SEC Freshman Team selection right out of the gate. The Aggies had virtually no pass rush last season (they were last in the SEC in sack percentage), but the addition of Garrett remedies that immediately. Combined with returning defensive end Daeshon Hall, the Aggies have speed on the edge to pressure quarterbacks and Garrett looks poised to live up to his lofty status as the No. 4 player in the 2014 class. -- Sam Khan Jr.

JALEN HURD, TENNESSEE

What he did: Freshman running back Hurd enjoyed his introduction to the Neyland Stadium faithful, scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown on a 15-yard screen pass from Justin Worley. Hurd struggled to find much running room out of the backfield, rushing 11 times for 29 yards, but his touchdown pushed the Volunteers' lead to 31-0 in a momentum-building 38-7 victory against Utah State.

What it means: Tennessee needs to develop a more dangerous running game, so the shifty moves Hurd displayed on his touchdown might be a positive sign of things to come. He was a U.S. Army All-American and former Mr. Football in Tennessee in high school, so Vols fans expect big things from the freshman back. Last Saturday provided just a small taste of his capabilities, but he looked awfully natural slipping tacklers and exploding into the end zone for his first career touchdown. -- David Ching

SPEEDY NOIL, TEXAS A&M

What he did: Noil didn't have quite the explosive start that some expected, but still performed well in his collegiate debut. He caught five passes for 55 yards and served as the team's primary punt returner. He did drop a pass, but that's easily corrected, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. Spavital said he was impressed with Noil's physical ability as a blocker when the Aggies ran the football.

What it means: As long as drops don't become a trend, Noil should be an impact receiver for the A&M offense. The Aggies have plenty of receivers to go to and Kenny Hill threw to 12 different players on Thursday night, but Noil's speed and physicality are going to make him a factor in the Aggies' offense. He won a starting job for a reason, so while Thursday didn't blow anybody away, expect him to prove his worth sooner rather than later. -- Sam Khan Jr.

CAM ROBINSON, ALABAMA

What he did: He had his freshmen moments -- at one time Blake Sims had to literally move him into the proper position -- but Robinson more than held his own against West Virginia. Neither he nor the entire Alabama offensive line allowed a single sack in Atlanta, helping the offense stay balanced with 288 yards rushing and 250 yards through the air.

What it means: The former five-star prospect showed all the tools that earned him the job of starting left tackle: ideal size, great feet and good hands. Granted he'll make some mistakes this season, but his ceiling is off the charts. As he begins to play with more confidence, he could become a real road grader for the Tide. -- Alex Scarborough

Other notables:

Leonard Fournette, LSU: Ran eight times for 18 yards and returned five kickoffs for 117 yards (23.4 ypr, with a long of 33 yards) against Wisconsin.

Mikel Horton, Kentucky: Ran seven times for 45 yards and scored touchdowns of 18 and 14 yards against UT-Martin.

Sony Michel, Georgia: Ran six times for 33 yards, caught three passes for 20 yards and made two tackles on special teams against Clemson.

J.K. Scott, Alabama: Only punted twice, but one of them was a booming 62-yard effort that led to West Virginia taking over at its own 7-yard line. That helped the freshman average 50.5 yards per punt in the win.

Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Started at safety and had an interception, two pass breakups and three tackles in a win over South Carolina.

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 1

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
9:00
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Week 1 is in the books, and the big storyline in the SEC was quarterback play. There were some who took the starting job and ran with it, and there were others who struggled at times, opening the door for the backup. As the second weekend approaches, here’s the latest on all the SEC quarterback battles and where each team stands.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker
How Sims performed: Nick Saban couldn’t have asked for more from Sims, who stayed out of trouble and got the ball to his playmakers in space. Completing 72.7 percent of his passes was better than anyone expected, but he did turn the ball over once on an interception and missed a handful of open receivers. He’ll need to work on that and getting the ball downfield more effectively, but for a first start he played quite well.
What it means: If it wasn’t before, it’s now Sims’ job to lose. Though he might not be an electric passer that strikes fear into a defense, he does bring some nice tools to the table, especially his escapability. But until we see Coker actually attempt a pass, nothing is settled. We’ll get that chance on Saturday when Alabama hosts Florida Atlantic in Tuscaloosa. If Sims continues to play well, he shouldn’t be in trouble. If he struggles some and Coker looks solid, we could be in for a race. – Alex Scarborough
Sims’ hold on position: 6.5

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson
How Johnson performed: Marshall’s suspension stemming from an incident this offseason gave Johnson an opportunity to start the season opener, and he took full advantage of it. The sophomore, listed No. 2 on the depth chart, played the first half and went 12 of 16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall returned in the second half and re-energized the Tigers, but statistically, it was clear that Johnson had the better day.
What it means: Maybe nothing. Maybe a whole lot. After the game, Gus Malzahn said that while Johnson will certainly have a role this season, Marshall is still the team’s quarterback. So expect Marshall to return to the starting lineup this weekend against San Jose State and for the foreseeable future. Don’t be surprised if fans start calling for Johnson if Marshall slips up down the road against a Kansas State or an LSU, though. It’s not a bad problem to have, but the last thing the coaches want is a controversy. – Greg Ostendorf
Marshall’s hold on position: 9

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker or Reese Phillips
How Towles performed: After winning the job during preseason practice, Towles got off to an outstanding start against overmatched UT-Martin. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 263 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the Wildcats went up 35-0. Towles turned it over to Phillips in the fourth quarter, finishing the day with a line of 20-for-29 for 377 yards and one TD, plus a 23-yard TD run.
What it means: It’s just one game against a mid-level FCS program, but Towles didn’t do anything in the opener to lose ground to Barker or Phillips. He gave a composed performance and the Wildcats’ offense looked great in the 59-14 rout. Kentucky hosts Ohio this weekend before facing a huge test in its Sept. 13 SEC opener at Florida. That will provide the first legitimate litmus test for Towles and the revamped Wildcats offense. – David Ching
Towles’ hold on position: 8

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris
How Jennings performed: Jennings and LSU’s offense looked awful in the first half against Wisconsin, but the sophomore performed a bit better down the stretch. He was 4-for-6 for 119 yards and a touchdown in the second half after his improvised 80-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the first quarter provided nearly all of the Tigers’ offensive production in the opening half. Jennings played every possession but one, while Harris underwhelmed in his single series under center.
What it means: LSU has a couple of easier non-conference games ahead -- Saturday against Sam Houston State and the following week against Louisiana-Monroe -- so Harris should get some much-needed work against live competition. Likewise, Jennings will benefit from some more game reps before the Tigers host Mississippi State on Sept. 20. He looks like the clear leader for now. – David Ching
Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman
How Worley performed: Tennessee clearly made the right decision in going with Worley as its starting quarterback. The senior looked like a completely different player than last year as he went 27 of 38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State. The most impressive part was his decision-making. He didn’t try and force any balls. He took what the defense gave him and simply picked it apart.
What it means: For starters, it means that barring injury, Dobbs and Peterman will have to wait until next year before they see the field. Worley is the guy. Even if he struggles in two weeks against Oklahoma, he showed enough improvement in the first game that Butch Jones will likely ride it out. However, before the Volunteers head to Norman, Worley has a chance to put up big numbers again this Saturday against Arkansas State. – Greg Ostendorf
Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen
How Hill performed: The sophomore, who was making his starting debut, was nearly flawless. Considering the circumstances (on the road against a ranked opponent in a hostile environment), you couldn't ask more of Hill, who broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school records for passing yards (511) and completions (44). He was poised and productive against South Carolina.
What it means: Life after Manziel won't be so rough. If this is what the Aggies can expect from Hill moving forward, the ceiling on their season changes drastically. Most assumed there would be growing pains, but Hill seems to be a natural fit for the Aggies' Air Raid-inspired offense. He has numerous talented weapons to throw to and an excellent offensive line protecting him. Allen made it a close battle in camp and continues to compete, but the Aggies made the right decision as Hill was ready to take the reins. Sumlin's not the type to shuffle quarterbacks, so this looks like Hill's job for the forseeable future. – Sam Khan
Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Stephen Rivers
Other: Johnny McCrary
How Robinette performed: Robinette's numbers weren't bad (4-for-6 passing, 38 yards) but the offense was unable to generate much while he was in, punting four times and turning it over in five drives. Unfortunately for Robinette, he was yanked before having a real chance to develop a rhythm in favor of Rivers, who went 12-for-25 for 186 yards and an interception.
What it means: The Commodores don't have a starting quarterback. The musical chairs that played out in the 37-7 loss to Temple (redshirt freshman McCrary appeared briefly that night, too), means Vanderbilt is searching for an answer. Derek Mason told reporters this week that the quarterbacks know who will start Saturday vs. Ole Miss but he won't announce who it is publicly. The Vanderbilt quarterback depth chart for the Ole Miss game reads: Stephen Rivers "OR" Patton Robinette "OR" Johnny McCrary. – Sam Khan
Robinette’s hold on the position: 0
There’s been quite a bit of excitement in Knoxville recently, and it was easy to see why with Tennessee’s opening-day performance Sunday. In front of a capacity crowd -- the first sellout in a home opener since 2007 -- the Volunteers dominated a dangerous Utah State team who many thought could pull off the upset, 38-7.

A little old, a little new

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After scoring the opening touchdown, Tennessee’s special teams came up with a big play, and it was fitting that senior linebacker A.J. Johnson made the play. Johnson, an All-SEC talent who could’ve left early for the NFL, ran down on kickoff coverage and jarred the ball loose from the Utah State returner. To nobody’s surprise it was Todd Kelly Jr., one of 21 UT true freshmen (and 32 newcomers) to play Sunday night, who was there to recover the fumble.

Fourth-down stand

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All we’ve heard about this offseason is how the Volunteers are having to replace every starter on both their offensive and defensive lines. Well, the defensive line is tired of hearing about it. They held Chuckie Keeton and Utah State to 34 yards rushing in the first half, and when the Aggies tried to go for it on 4th-and-1 early in the second quarter, Jordan Williams and Derek Barnett were there to fill the hole and stuff Utah State, forcing a turnover on downs.

Welcome to Rocky Top, Von

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Everybody saw the sick one-handed touchdown grab that junior college transfer Von Pearson made in spring practice, so it should come as no surprise that Pearson caught a touchdown in his first game as a Volunteer. No, the catch wasn’t an instant SportsCenter Top-10 nominee, but it was certainly more meaningful. The play capped off a 13-play, 69-yard drive that ate up six minutes of clock and gave Tennessee a 24-0 lead.

More from Johnson

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Did you think Johnson was done just yet? The guy didn’t turn down the NFL and come back to Tennessee to not make plays. With the Volunteers already up 31-7 early in the fourth quarter, Johnson got the capacity crowd back into it when he intercepted Keeton and nearly took it back for a touchdown. It’s safe to say he’s not regretting his decision to stay. If anything, his stock will continue to rise with more games like this.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
1:10
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Wow, what a first weekend of football around the SEC. And it’s not over yet, since Tennessee-Utah State will wrap up the weekend on Sunday.

For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and Georgia made a loud statement with their 45-21 trouncing of Clemson on Saturday.
The league looks wide open: If we learned anything over the last couple of days, it’s that both of these division races will be wide open. It started when Eastern Division favorite South Carolina laid an egg against Texas A&M on Thursday, but several of Saturday’s games only solidified the point.

Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.

With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.

Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.

Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.

Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.

Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.

Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.

But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.

Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.

We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.

Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.

How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.

Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.

Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
8:00
AM ET
Noon ET

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

3:30 p.m. ET

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

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

4 p.m. ET

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

5:30 p.m. ET

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

7 p.m. ET

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

7:30 p.m. ET

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

9 p.m. ET

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

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

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

Top Week 1 stories:

SEC morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
8:00
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1. You’re up LSU. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback on Thursday night, leaving only one starting battle -- LSU’s -- publicly open. Tennessee (Justin Worley), Kentucky (Patrick Towles), Texas A&M (Kenny Hill) and now Vanderbilt have all announced the victors in their quarterback races lately after allowing the races to extend well into preseason camp. At Vandy, Robinette, who came into August as the favorite, won out over LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. “We were just looking for the most consistent guy day in and day out. He had very few lows, a lot of highs and really just did a great job of keeping his composure,” Mason said in announcing his decision.

2. You’ve probably seen 100 lame, subjective lists where some bored columnist ranks the best SEC fan bases -- usually in a summertime column when there’s no actual news to cover. Emory University’s sports marketing analytics group tries to gauge fan support in a more scientific fashion (you can read about its methodology here) and it found that six of the top 12 fan bases are in the SEC, led by Nos. 3-6 Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. Surely Alabama and LSU fans can find some nits to pick with this study, but take that up with the folks at Emory. As they explained, evaluating the quality of a sports brand is a complicated endeavor.

3. Let’s revise that item from this post yesterday. It turns out that the organizers of a charity fundraiser in Mobile, Alabama, don’t want infamous Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke to be associated with the event after all. That’s the smart move. This is an event designed to engender goodwill for a great cause, not give a jerk the dunking or pie in the face that he so richly deserves. Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee, is involved in the event, which will be held in tribute of a 7-year-old boy who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. Here’s hoping it turns into the successful event it should have been all along before adding Updyke threatened to turn it into a sideshow act.

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Tennessee Volunteers season preview

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
10:30
AM ET

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Tennessee Volunteers:

2013 record: 5-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 5.4 wins

Bovada over-under: 5.5 wins

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

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