SEC: Larry Smith

Earlier, we ranked all 14 quarterback groups in the SEC. Now, it's time to rank the top 10 SEC quarterbacks heading into the 2012 season.

Again, we are looking at overall talent, game-changing ability and experience. We also looked at past performances and projections for 2012.

Here are our top 10 SEC quarterbacks:

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
AP Photo/David QuinnArkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson passed for more than 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns last season.
1. Tyler Wilson, Sr., Arkansas: He could have easily left for the NFL after passing for more than 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. His big-time arm and incredible toughness weren't too shabby either. While his decision-making came into question sometimes last season, Wilson made tremendous strides this spring and should be an even smarter passer this fall.

2. Aaron Murray, RJr., Georgia: Murray has a chance to own a few more school and SEC records before his time at Georgia is up, but he does have to get over his turnover issues. Murray has some of the best technique and mechanics around, and when he's on and focused, he is one of the most talented passers out there.

3. Tyler Bray, Jr., Tennessee: Bray might have the strongest arm in the SEC, and has the ability to make some of the toughest throws in traffic. If he's healthy, he could go for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. His focus hasn't always been great, but he made sure to correct that this spring and appears to finally be transforming into the real leader he's wanted to be.

4. AJ McCarron, Jr., Alabama: He has the tools and the moxy to be a real star. As last season progressed, he looked better and better, and capped things off with a marvelous performance in the BCS title game. If coach Nick Saban is really going to let him loose, McCarron has to improve some of his on-field decisions.

5. James Franklin, Jr., Missouri: If he's healthy, Franklin will be the SEC's top dual-threat quarterback. During a breakout season last fall, he passed for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns, and rushed for 981 yards and 15 more scores. Franklin wants to be a pass-first quarterback in his new league, but his shoulder injury is a concern.

6. Connor Shaw, Jr., South Carolina: Shaw showed his inexperience when he was first thrown into the starting spot last season, but seemed to improve and calm down every week after. Coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be more of a pass-first quarterback, and that seemed to be the case at the end of last season and this spring.

7. Zach Mettenberger, Jr., LSU: Mettenberger was a top quarterback prospect coming out of high school, but has very little experience outside of a stint at the junior college level after leaving Georgia. Still, he's certainly an upgrade for the Tigers, and showed this spring that he should make LSU's passing game stronger and more explosive.

8. Jordan Rodgers, RSr., Vanderbilt: Rodgers was an instant playmaker for the Commodores when he replaced the struggling Larry Smith last year, but he struggled with turnovers. This spring was all about him improving his leadership skills and his game management. Vandy's coaches left spring more confident in Rodgers' play.

9. Tyler Russell, Jr., Mississippi State: He bided his time during his first two years, but is now the guy in Starkville. The hope is that he'll be more consistent and more comfortable now that he knows he's the starter. It looks like the Bulldogs will have a more downfield passing game with Russell taking over.

10. Maxwell Smith, So., Kentucky: Smith played in eight games last season, but proved to be a much more effective player than former starter Morgan Newton. Despite averaging just 102.4 passing yards per game, Smith earned SEC All-Freshmen honors last fall. Smith looked even better this spring, and it appears the Wildcats' starting quarterback spot is his to lose.
You've already seen Chris Low's to-do lists for the Western Division teams, so now it's time to check out what the East teams need to take care of before next fall:

  • Two major areas new offensive coordinator Brent Pease needs to hit during his first offseason with the Gators is running back and wide receiver. Florida must find a downhill running back for Pease's offense, and a reliable go-to wide receiver -- two things Florida lacked in 2011.
  • With quarterback John Brantley graduating, Pease must find a new starting quarterback. That means developing rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, who struggled in relief of Brantley at times last season, and Tyler Murphy, who has yet to take a snap.
  • Toughen up mentally and physically. The Gators ranked 89th nationally in penalties, and were called out by coach Will Muschamp as being too soft in his first season. Soft can't win in the SEC.
  • The Bulldogs' coaching staff needs to toughen running back Isaiah Crowell up. As the season went on he visited Georgia's training table more than the end zone in games. He was even booed by Georgia fans when he limped off the Georgia Dome field in the SEC title game. The Bulldogs were inconsistent running the ball because their lead back was always nicked up.
  • Getting the offensive line ready will be key to 2012. The Bulldogs will have to replace three seniors on that line, including All-SEC performers Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones.
  • Georgia also can't let the success of 2011 go to the Bulldogs' heads. We've seen what can happen to this team when expectations are high and the Dawgs are a favorite.
  • With how poorly Kentucky's offense performed in 2011, coach Joker Phillips' top priority should be finding offensive playmakers. There is hope that running backs CoShik Williams and Josh Clemons can help in that department, but finding a reliable receiver to complement La'Rod King will help, as no other receiver returns with more than 10 catches from last season.
  • Kentucky has to get its quarterback position settled before next season. Morgan Newton was supposed to be the guy last season, but major struggles and an ankle injury paved the way for Maxwell Smith. But neither threw a pass in Kentucky's 10-7 win against Tennessee to end the season.
  • Replacing linebacker Danny Trevathan's skill on the field won't be easy, but neither will be replacing his leadership skills. Trevathan was the heart of Kentucky's defense and the team's best leader. It's time for someone else to step up and lead the Wildcats.
  • As the new Tigers on the block, Missouri needs to get used to its new surroundings. That means making any and all offensive and defensive adjustments to match their new SEC foes. That also means getting used to recruiting more in the southeast, especially Florida and Georgia.
  • Missouri returns a lot of talent in 2012, but the Tigers need to find a big-play threat at wide receiver. T.J. Moe and Marcus Lucas are back, but one has to emerge as more than just a top target -- he needs to be someone who can consistently make plays on SEC defenses.
  • The Tigers' defensive line was supposed to be better than it was in 2011. The SEC is won in the trenches, and if Missouri's line can't hold up against SEC offensive big men, the Tigers will be sunk.
  • Marcus Lattimore is one of the best running backs in the country when he's healthy, so making sure his rehab for his knee goes smoothly might be South Carolina's top priority during the offseason. He expects to come back better and stronger, so proper rehab will go a long way.
  • Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, it's time for the Gamecocks to find a replacement. The Gamecocks didn't have any real receiving threats outside of Jeffery in 2011, and only Jeffery and Ace Sanders had more than 20 catches. South Carolina is a little undersized at the position, but developing a proper go-to is a must.
  • Tennessee must find the pieces to create a legitimate running game. The Vols ranked 116th nationally in rushing, and were the only team in the SEC not to average more than 100 rushing yards a game. Marlin Lane heads the rushing operation, but there are other bodies to help. Developing them is the next step.
  • Sal Sunseri takes over a defense equipped with a chunk of young, but talented players. Development in their games is the next step for these players, and that will rest on Sunseri.
  • The attitude of this team was questioned in 2011, so for Tennessee to get back to being truly competitive in the East, players need to totally buy in to what Derek Dooley is preaching.
  • Jordan Rodgers' emergence as Vanderbilt's starting quarterback during the second half of the season was a big plus for the Commodores' offense, but his confidence had to be shaken when he was basically benched for Larry Smith in the Liberty Bowl loss to Cincinnati. Rodgers had his ups and downs last season, but he needs to find the confidence that helped him make Vandy's offense explosive with him in charge.
  • James Franklin kept saying that this was a new Vanderbilt team, but the little mistakes that hurt Vandy throughout the years returned. Those mistakes cost them a chance at possibly winning nine games. Franklin must hammer home ball security and make sure this team is a little more mentally tough next season.

Hot and Not: SEC bowl edition

January, 4, 2012
Six bowl games involving SEC teams have given us plenty to digest.

Granted, two still remain with Arkansas taking on Kansas State on Friday night in the AT&T Cotton Bowl and then Alabama and LSU squaring off on Monday night in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

Before we look ahead, let’s look back with a special bowl edition of Hot and Not:


SEC momentum: The league is already 4-2 in bowl games and assured of winning its sixth straight BCS national championship. Not only that, but if Arkansas can take care of Kansas State, there’s a pretty good chance that four of the top 8 teams in the final polls will be from the SEC. Alabama, LSU and South Carolina are top 10 locks. And looking ahead to next season, the early feeling among several in the college football world is that Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina could all start the season in the top 15, maybe even the top 10. Arkansas isn't going away, either.


Georgia’s Brandon Boykin: What a show the do-it-all senior cornerback put on in the Outback Bowl. Too bad the Bulldogs’ collapse spoiled what was one of the better all-around performances you’re ever going to see from a college player. Boykin returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown, recorded a safety when he tackled Michigan State’s Keshawn Martin in the end zone and also caught a 13-yard touchdown pass. Boykin’s a terrific football player and vastly underrated. I’m as guilty as anybody for not giving him more props throughout his career.


Mississippi State’s Chad Bumphis: After catching one pass for minus-3 yards and rushing twice for minus-4 yards in Mississippi State’s 23-17 win over Wake Forest in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Bumphis went out and got arrested the next night in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss., on charges of public drunkenness and disorderly conduct at a local bar. Making it even worse for Bumphis is that he claims he did nothing wrong and was hit in the face with champagne bottles while posing for pictures. So much for a Happy New Year.


South Carolina’s defense: Not a bad debut at all for newly promoted defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. The Gamecocks held Nebraska scoreless over the final three quarters in their 30-13 Capital One Bowl win, and the Huskers had minus-15 total yards in the fourth quarter. They don’t call him “Whammy” for nothing.


Vanderbilt’s passing game: The Commodores had seemed to solve their passing game woes this season. But outside of Chris Boyd’s 68-yard catch and run for a touchdown, they didn’t make much happen through the air in their 31-24 loss to Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Jordan Rodgers started out ice cold and was injured. Senior Larry Smith came off the bench to throw the touchdown to Boyd on a short flip, but his late interception sealed the Commodores’ fate. Rodgers and Smith finished a combined 12-of-34 for 168 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.


Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter: He’d been forgotten about by most fans, but Trotter came off the bench for the injured Clint Moseley and saved some of his best passing of the season for the finale, leading Auburn to a 43-24 win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Trotter is a perfect example of an upperclassman who lost his starting job, didn’t sulk, hung in there and was ready to answer the call when his team needed him.


Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray: It wasn’t the return Murray was hoping for to his hometown of Tampa. The Bulldogs’ sophomore quarterback had a banner season with his school-record 35 touchdown passes, but the Outback Bowl turned in Michigan State’s favor on Murray’s two third-quarter interceptions. The first pick set up a touchdown, and the second pick was returned 38 yards for a touchdown, completely changing the complexion of that game.


Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn: We heard all season how bad the Gators were on offense -- and they were. It’s about time, though, that Quinn and that Florida defense get a little love. The Gators deserved better defensively this season and got it done in the 24-17 win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. It’s a defense that returns most of its key pieces next season and should be really good in 2012. Then again, the Gators ended this season ranked No. 9 nationally in total defense. Now, let’s see if they can move in the direction of building a top 10 offense.


Alshon Jeffery being kicked out: OK, he shouldn’t have been mixing it up with Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in the first place and should have been smart enough to walk away. That’s easier said than done when a guy is hounding you all day. But go back and watch the replay. Only one of the two threw a punch, and it wasn’t Jeffery. Yet, both were ejected from the game.


Mark Richt’s overtime strategy: His decision to play for a field goal -- a 42-yard field goal -- after Bacarri Rambo came up with the big interception in the first overtime was baffling enough. But then you consider how erratic the Bulldogs’ kicker, Blair Walsh, had been this season, and it’s even more baffling. Walsh had already missed 12 field goals coming into the game. The Bulldogs even took a 2-yard loss on second down to position the kick, and it backfired … badly. It was a good season for Richt and the Dawgs, especially the way they battled back from the 0-2 start, but the ending sure was weak.

Cincinnati dropped the SEC to 1-1 in bowl play with a 31-24 win against Vanderbilt, in what was a pretty exciting AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

After a bit of a sluggish first half from both offenses, each team found more ways to find the end zone in the last two quarters, combining for 34 points. The Bearcats put more of an emphasis on the running game, pounding Vandy's defense with Isaiah Pead, and another costly turnover doomed the Commodores.

How the game was won: Defenses led the way in the first half, as the offenses combined for 292 yards and 21 points. But things were very back-and-forth in the fourth quarter. There were three lead changes before two minutes passed in the quarter. Cincinnati took the lead for good when Ralph Abernathy took a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown immediately after Vanderbilt took a 21-17 lead on a 68-yard touchdown reception by Chris Boyd. Pead sealed the Bearcats' win with his 12-yard touchdown run, three plays after a costly interception thrown by Vandy quarterback Larry Smith.

Best call: With Vanderbilt's offense stumbling through the first two quarters, coach James Franklin made the decision early in the third to permanently sit starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers after Rodgers suffered an injury. Smith replaced him, and the Commodores compiled 183 yards and 17 points with Smith under center. Rodgers appeared to be healthy enough to return, but Franklin stuck with Smith.

Turning point: Vanderbilt's offense was much more efficient with Smith at quarterback, but he made a fatal mistake with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth when he threw behind receiver Jordan Mathews and into the hands of Cincinnati's Nick Temple, who returned the ball 12 yards to Vandy's 31-yard line. Three plays later, Pead's touchdown run made it 31-21 Cincinnati.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 15 punts for an average of 42.5 yards per kick. Four punts went for 50-plus yards and three were down inside the 20-yard line.

Player of the game: Pead was an absolute workhorse for the Bearcats. He carried the ball 28 times for 149 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Unsung hero: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros returned from his broken ankle and showed good game management late. He was far from great and was shaky early, but he limited his mistakes for the most part. He did have just 80 passing yards and two interceptions, but for as rusty as he looked early, he could have been a lot worse.

Second guessing: With the score tied 7-7 with less than three minutes remaining in the first half, Franklin decided to go for a fourth-and-2 at the Cincinnati 44-yard line. On the play, running back Zac Stacy took the handoff, but then tried a jump pass to tight end Brandon Barden. The pass was way off and Cincinnati took over. The Bearcats then drove 56 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 halftime lead.

What it means: Cincinnati, which might have been in a BCS bowl game if not for Collaros' injury, heads into the offseason with a ton of momentum following a 10-win season. Vanderbilt will have to deal with losing another big game because of costly mistakes. Still, things feel different at Vandy, and even with the loss, the Commodores have to feel good about Franklin's first year.

Record performance: With his two interceptions Saturday night, Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward tied Leonard Coleman for first all-time in Vanderbilt history with 15 career interceptions.

Season recap: Vanderbilt

December, 7, 2011

Record: 6-6, 2-6 SEC

First-year coach James Franklin promised changes, and he and his team delivered. The Commodores had attitude, bravado, and were actually pretty fun to watch when they had the ball. The thing that Franklin wanted his team to do was play week-to-week and forget about the woes of the past. And his team did right from the start.

The Commodores began the season 3-0, including a blowout victory at home over Ole Miss. The thing that really caught people’s attention was how aggressive the defense looked under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. A group used to getting manhandled in the past had new fire and caused headaches for offenses with its ability to force turnovers. Led by star cornerback Casey Hayward, the Commodores had a knack for interceptions. By the end of Week 3, Vandy had as many interceptions returned for touchdowns as offensive touchdowns given up (three). By the end of Week 4, the Commodores led the SEC with 14 picks.

Vanderbilt’s offense had its low points until Jordan Rodgers replaced Larry Smith at quarterback following the Georgia game. From there, Commodores offense took off. If not for some old mistakes that cost Vanderbilt in the past, this team might have ended up with eight or nine wins, but did make it back to a bowl for the first time since 2008.

Offensive MVP: Running back Zac Stacy. He quietly had one of the best seasons of any SEC ball carrier. Stacy finished the year third in the league with 1,136 rushing yards and was second with 13 touchdowns. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry against SEC teams and rushed for 120-plus yards in four of his final six regular-season games.

Defensive MVP: Hayward. Hayward certainly has a future in the NFL and should have had much more than just his five interceptions. He really sparked Vandy’s turnaround season in Week 2 with his game-tying, 50-yard interception-return touchdown late in the win against Connecticut. In addition to the five picks, Hayward finished the year with 14 pass breakups and 54 tackles.

Turning point: When Rodgers replaced Smith in the Georgia game, the offense completely changed. He nearly led Vanderbilt to a major upset in that one, and the offense averaged 32 points with him as the starter. Vandy came close to beating Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee along the way.

What’s next: Vanderbilt will play in its first bowl game in three years when it travels to Memphis, Tenn., for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Cincinnati. Vanderbilt’s offense is on fire, but the Bearcats rank 46th in total defense and sixth in rush defense.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 23, 2011
The countdown began weeks ago, but now it's not just the media and fans talking about Alabama-LSU. The players and coaches can finally get in on all the fun.

Here's what we learned over the weekend:

1. An all-SEC national title game isn't farfetched: With all the craziness that occurred Saturday night, our dreams of an Alabama-LSU national championship game don't seem so crazy now. Both teams proved once again that they are the best in college football, while those around them fell at the worst of times. Oklahoma was stunned 41-38 at home to Texas Tech and Wisconsin fell to Michigan State, thanks to a beautiful Hail Mary pass as time expired. Those were two losses the SEC giants needed if a rematch was going to be possible. Obviously, the SEC isn't out of the woods yet. Oklahoma State, Clemson, Stanford and Boise State all probably have to lose, and, of course, the loser of the Nov. 5 matchup has to keep it super close and win out in style afterward. It will take some more help, but today it doesn't seem as impossible as it did before Saturday's chaos.

[+] EnlargeJordan Rodgers
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyJordan Rodgers led Vanderbilt to a victory in his first start at quarterback.
2. LSU gets stronger and more dominant every week: When the Tigers should look weak after losing key players, they just reload. There is no letdown on this team. When you talk about the most mentally tough squads in college football, LSU had better be at the top of your list. The Tigers began the season without starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and playmaking wide receiver Russell Shepard and all they did was steamroll over each opponent they faced without their two starters. Not to mention arguably LSU's top offensive lineman, senior Josh Dworaczyk, has been out all year with an injury. So, when LSU was without freak cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, running back Spencer Ware and corner Tharold Simon for the Auburn game, we should have shaken it off, like the Tigers did. They pounded Auburn 45-10 and might have played their most complete game of the season in the process.

3. Arkansas can't afford more slow starts: We all know that Arkansas has the talent, but the mental focus seems off sometimes with this team. Saturday, the Razorbacks were as sluggish as they could be coming out of the gate against Ole Miss and quickly fell behind 17-0. Arkansas had absolutely nothing going for it on offense in the first half, but stormed out onto the field in the third quarter and bumrushed the Rebels, outscoring them 19-0 in their eventual 29-24 win. But this one was way closer than it should have been. If Ole Miss was a stronger team, Arkansas might not have recovered from the early deficit. Rough starts against Alabama and Texas A&M were worrisome, and this one didn't make us feel great about the Hogs. You have to commend the strong second-half push, but a start like this against a team like LSU or maybe even South Carolina could result in a disappointing outcome for the Hogs.

4. Jordan Rodgers was the right pick: Talk about Rodgers' play at Vanderbilt's camp over the summer was mostly positive, but without the entire spring to work through the playbook, Larry Smith kept his starting job. So Rodgers patiently waited, and after replacing Smith in consecutive games, Rodgers was given the starting nod by coach James Franklin for the Army game. With an offense struggling all season, Franklin needed to shake things up, and getting some new blood in at the quarterback position was the right move as Rodgers passed for 186 yards, rushed for 96 and had two touchdowns in the Commodores' 44-21 win. He sparked the entire offense that put up a season-high 530 yards, including 344 rushing yards. The Commodores finally found some consistency within their offense and Rodgers was a main reason for that. He took total command of the huddle and directed the Commodores efficiently all night. He's starting to get more and more comfortable out there and his numbers will start to improve going forward.

5. Tennessee has fight, but not the manpower:
For two quarters, Tennessee stood toe-to-toe with one of the mammoths of college football. We saw the most fight out of Tennessee since wide receiver Justin Hunter went down in the Florida game. Then, Alabama got its second wind and the game was over before the fourth quarter even began. But when you're without four key components to your team and you have depth issues across the board, a loss like that isn't a shock. Tennessee just doesn't have enough dogs for a fight like that. There is a lot of good, young talent at Tennessee, but most of it is starting. Behind it, there isn't much, thanks to poor recruiting before coach Derek Dooley got there. He's having to play a bunch of youngsters out there and that can trigger ugly outcomes in this league. If you look at special teams, the Vols can't get their best athletes out there because the coaches don't want wear them out after defensive series. This team is still a year away from being close to where Dooley wants it and that should have been expected. It was always a three-year plan with him and he's working in the right direction.

Jordan Rodgers gets start for Vandy

October, 21, 2011
If Vanderbilt wants to make it to its first bowl game since the 2008 season, it will need to get more out of its offense.

Coach James Franklin knows that, so he decided to make a change at the quarterback position. Wednesday, Franklin announced that junior Jordan Rodgers would get the start against Army over longtime senior Larry Smith.

[+] EnlargeJordan Rodgers
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireJordan Rodgers got the call over Larry Smith because of "the playmaking he brought" according to coach James Franklin.
"Jordan will start the game," Franklin said. "He’s having a good week of practice and we thought he made some really good plays on Saturday. There are some things that we’ve got to get cleaned up, but they’re very correctable things."

This couldn't have been an easy decision for Franklin, but it was the right one. Smith began his career with the hero tag attached to his name after guiding the Commodores to their first postseason win in 53 yards in his first-career start. Since then, it's been a rocky journey for Smith. He struggled through back-to-back 2-10 seasons with the Commodores. During that span his completion percentage has dipped below 50 percent and he threw 12 interceptions to 10 touchdowns.

When Franklin arrived, he said there would be an open competition at quarterback, but with Rodgers limited during the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, Smith held on to his starting spot.

Rodgers relieved Smith against Alabama when Smith went down with an ankle injury and replaced him again a week later against Georgia. The offense played much better with Rodgers in the game as he guided the Commodores to three touchdown drives in the second half. While his numbers weren't great (45 yards passing, 80 yards rushing), he came close to leading the Commodores on a game-winning drive at the end of the game.

"It was a combination of some of the playmaking he brought," Franklin said of starting Rodgers. "I thought how he fought, how he competed and how he broke tackles, he really gave us some momentum plays when we needed it. I think we kind of fed off that, so we’ll keep going with it and see what happens."

Rodgers, who is the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, should give Vanderbilt a much-needed jolt to its offense. He can make plays with his feet and has a very strong throwing arm. With more reps this week, he should be better prepared to play a full game as the Commodores' starter. Keeping a quarterback in who is a threat to run and pass should make it easy for the offensive line to adjust to Rodgers in the game.

His first test as a starter comes against an Army team that is giving up 227 passing yards per game. The Commodores currently average just 133 passing yards a game and have five touchdowns through the air.

SEC lunch links

October, 13, 2011
Making the rounds in the SEC:

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

October, 13, 2011
We're at the halfway point in the college football season, so teams will be a little more on edge from here on out.

Conference races are really heating up and things will only get more and more exciting.

We start the second half in the SEC with the countdown to the Nov. 5 slugfest between Alabama and LSU, but we also start with some quarterback controversy lurking within the league.

Exciting stuff.

Here is some more exciting stuff to keep an eye on this weekend:

1. Musical quarterbacks: Outside of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU, there are quarterback issues in this league. Florida and Tennessee are playing without their starters (John Brantley and Tyler Bray, respectively) due to injuries, while Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have opened up their quarterback competitions. South Carolina benched Stephen Garcia for Connor Shaw, then officially said goodbye to Garcia earlier this week. Shaw showed off last week against Kentucky, but the depth behind him is beyond worrisome. Auburn will play both Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier against Florida, but the more athletic Frazier has been getting more and more snaps with each game and coach Gene Chizik is having to answer more questions about Trotter's status as the starter. And Ole Miss is hoping that Randall Mackey is the guy from here on out. But wasn't Barry Brunetti the guy before Zack Stoudt was?

2. Mr. 100: I guess Trent Richardson really was ready to take over as Alabama's workhorse in the backfield. The junior running back has had his hat thrown into the Heisman ring and it doesn't look like it will be coming out anytime soon. That makes sense, considering the tear he's currently on. Richardson has rushed for 100-plus yards in five straight games and he's looking to get to six straight this weekend. Well, Alabama faces an Ole Miss defense that is giving up 193 rushing yards per game, so things appear to be in Richardson's favor this weekend.

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThough he remains the backup, Jordan Jefferson should see his role increase in LSU's offense.
3. More Jefferson: While LSU coach Les Miles continues to say that there is absolutely no quarterback controversy in Baton Rouge, Jordan Jefferson will continue to get more snaps behind Jarrett Lee. As he should. Jefferson brings another element to the offense that Lee doesn't -- his feet. Jefferson's touches went up from four in his first game back to eight in his second and his numbers should increase this weekend against Tennessee. But make no mistake about it, Lee is the starter until something unforeseen happens. Both players want to be the starter, but Lee has earned it and he deserves to keep it. The Tigers are just as successful with the Jefferson element on the field and having both play isn't hurting the team, so Jefferson's role should continue to expand going forward.

4. Swing game on the Plains: Auburn and Florida will play a season-defining game this weekend. A win for either team could be the difference between a winning record and a .500 record. Auburn's youth has shown at times, but so has its heart, which has carried it to three close-call wins this season. The Tigers still have LSU and Georgia on the road before the Iron Bowl comes back to Auburn, so getting a win this weekend will definitely go a long way. As for Florida, the Gators will be equipped with two true freshmen -- Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel -- getting the snaps at quarterback until senior Brantley comes back. That could be for the Georgia game, but Saturday, it's up to the kids. A Florida win would keep the Gators in the East hunt and give them momentum going into the bye. A loss could send this team really scrambling.

5. Shaw's second go-round: Connor Shaw will make his second start in a row for South Carolina this weekend and he'll do so on the road against a tough Mississippi State secondary. This won't be easy by any means, and this will be the first chance we get to see the sophomore perform on the road this year. He was calm and composed against Kentucky, but he'll be going against a team desperate for a conference win and a fan base looking for some sort of hope this season. Can Shaw duplicate last week's outing? Can he at least be consistent for the Gamecocks for two weeks in a row? The team thinks so, but Davis Wade Stadium isn't the easiest place to maneuver if you're a young quarterback.

6. Simms begins the gantlet: Matt Simms was in this position last year when he had to start against Tennessee's toughest opponents before Bray took over for him. With Bray out for an extended period of time, Simms' number has been called yet again and his first opponent is the No. 1 team in the country in LSU. It's an LSU team carrying the league's second-rated defense and a host of defensive playmakers. It won't be easy for Simms, but he says he's ready. However, this is just the first step for the senior. He'll still face Alabama (on the road), South Carolina and Arkansas (on the road) in the next four weeks. That's tough for any quarterback. Starting off with an impressive debut will help the psyche of this team. He doesn't have to be perfect, but does have to be effective enough to inject some confidence into this team for the road ahead.

7. Like brother ... like brother? Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers could make his first start for the Commodores this weekend against Georgia and if he's anything like his Super Bowl-winning older brother, Aaron, Vanderbilt's fan base should be stoked. Now, this wouldn't exactly be the best game for him to really kick off his Vandy career in, with Georgia giving up less than 180 passing yards a game, but if he does get the start, there will no doubt be a little more excitement in the air in Nashville. Larry Smith hasn't gotten the job done for the Commodores, so it might be time for a move. Vanderbilt needs to shake things up on offense and starting Rodgers could be a way to do that.

8. Mississippi State's lost offense: The Bulldogs have a mound of offensive problems. They haven't seen the dynamic duo of quarterback Chris Relf and Vick Ballard do much of anything since Week 2 and the offensive line is a mess. The execution has been lacking and this team is scrambling to figure things out when it has the ball. After Tyler Russell rescued an offense that went scoreless against UAB in the first half, he's in a battle with Relf for the starting spot. Would starting Russell provide a spark for this reeling offense? And would it matter against a revamped South Carolina defense? The Gamecocks love to bring a lot of pressure and could make either quarterback's day miserable Saturday.

9. Florida's rushing defense: If you're Auburn running back Michael Dyer, you have to be pretty happy with your odds of clearing the century mark against the Gators Saturday. Florida has given up a total of 464 rushing yards in the last two games and both Alabama's Trent Richardson (181) and LSU's Spencer Ware (109) went into triple digits in the rushing department. Dyer has rushed for more than 100 yards four times this season. We might have given Florida's front seven way more credit than it deserved to start the year, as the last two weeks have been far from nice for this unit. With Dyer's blend of power and speed, Florida's defense has yet another tough runner to keep in check this week.

10. More of the Honey Badger: The legend of LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu grows larger and more fantastic with each week. Those Honey Badger T-Shirts floating around LSU's campus are easily the best in the sport right now and he really does take what he wants. This weekend, he faces yet another backup quarterback making his starting debut for the season. Yes, Simms is experienced, but the Honey Badger doesn't care (or don't care). He will no doubt make Simms' day that much more frustrating because of his ability to somehow pop up wherever the ball is on the field. Just remember, he takes what he wants.

Commodores still evaluating quarterback

October, 12, 2011
Having gone two games in a row now without scoring a touchdown, Vanderbilt is evaluating a lot of things on offense.

It's not just the play at quarterback that has limited the Commodores, according to coach James Franklin, and that's just one of the positions that's getting a good, hard look this week.

Franklin still isn't saying whether it will be Larry Smith or Jordan Rodgers starting on Saturday against Georgia, but Franklin said this week is no different than any other week in making that decision.

"Every single week, we play the guy who gives us the best opportunity to win," Franklin said. "In any week, if we feel the other guy gives us a chance to win the game, then we make that change. Up to this point, we felt Larry gave us the best chance to win based on what we'd seen in practice and how he'd graded on tape. There have been some bumps along the way, but that's what we're deciding this week, which is no different than any other week."

Smith is ranked 10th in the SEC in pass efficiency. He's completing 58.1 percent of his passes and has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions.

And while Smith has had his struggles in games, Franklin said performance in practice will always be the way he determines who plays in the games.

"I'm not one of those guys who says there are gamers," Franklin said. "I'm a big believer that you work like crazy and produce in practice, and if you do that enough Sunday through Thursday, then the Saturdays will start taking care of themselves."

Lunchtime links

October, 11, 2011
Taking a stroll through the SEC with some links.

Midseason review: Vanderbilt

October, 11, 2011

Record: 3-2 (1-2 SEC)

Vanderbilt was a great early-season story in the SEC. The Commodores were unbeaten, had blasted an Ole Miss team by 23 points, had a ferocious secondary and were taking the ball away with ease on defense. Was new coach James Franklin really a genius? Were things really going to change for the Commodores under the new regime? Well, the energy and passion certainly are different and that defense is much improved, but the offense just can’t get things together. The Commodores rank 11th in the SEC in total offense (244.4 yards per game) and are scoring just 20.4 points a game. Embattled senior quarterback Larry Smith isn’t doing much to quiet the naysayers, who have been at him for most of his career, and Vanderbilt’s offense is suffering because of it. Vanderbilt’s defense can make plays, but it’s not ready to carry the entire team. The good thing is that this team is halfway from reaching six wins, which should get the Commodores back to postseason for the first time since 2008. The key to the second half is jump starting this offense. Turning to backup quarterback Jordan Rodgers might be a start, but the Commodores need more help from all components of the offense.

Offensive MVP: RB Zac Stacy. He might be Vanderbilt’s most exciting player left with Warren Norman possibly headed for a redshirt year. Stacy leads the team with 284 yards rushing and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry. His only touchdown came on a 77-yard run against Ole Miss.

Defensive MVP: CB Casey Hayward. We knew coming into the season that Hayward would be a key part of Vanderbilt’s secondary and he hasn’t disappointed us. The senior, who will no doubt hear his name called early in next year’s NFL draft, is tied for the league lead with four interceptions and has defended six passes through the first part of the season. He’s a cornerback, but he has the ability to find the ball all over the field.

Quarterback issues litter the SEC

October, 10, 2011
If you’re looking for fall work, turn no further than the SEC.

There should be a slew of “Quarterbacks Wanted” signs on the locker room doors of most SEC facilities.

We’re halfway into the 2011 season and there are still a handful of teams in search of a consistent starting quarterback.

You can send your applications to just about anywhere outside of Tuscaloosa, Fayetteville and Athens.

We might be celebrating the year of the quarterback here at ESPN, but the SEC certainly is not.

Currently, only three quarterbacks -- Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson and Aaron Murray -- are averaging more than 200 passing yards a game, and 72 interceptions have been thrown in the SEC. Eight teams have a team quarterback efficiency less than 150.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
AP Photo/Rich GlicksteinConnor Shaw added a spark to the South Carolina offense against Kentucky.
With teams preparing for the second-half stretch, some coaches should look at their quarterback situations and think about changes.

South Carolina is a perfect example. Senior Stephen Garcia disappointed for two straight weeks before coach Steve Spurrier benched him for sophomore Connor Shaw.

Shaw blew the doors off South Carolina’s offense against Kentucky, passing for 311 yards and four touchdowns. The offense clicked with him leading the way and actually looked alive. The question is if he can keep it going, because we know Spurrier prides himself on his quarterbacks’ play and won’t stand for more ineptitude at the position.

There are more teams that should consider following Spurrier’s lead.

Kentucky’s offense just can’t get anything going in general, but junior Morgan Newton has really regressed. The league’s coaches named him a SEC All-Freshman selection two years ago, but he looks nothing like his former self. Newton has thrown six touchdowns to seven interceptions, is averaging 110 yards a game and his passing efficiency is 86.5.


Backup Maxwell Smith hasn’t looked great by any means, but with the Wildcats sitting at 2-4 and winless in conference play, it might be time to use the bye week to prep the freshman more. Does Newton really give Kentucky that much more of a chance to win?

Mississippi State entered the year with senior Chris Relf riding a wave of hype that he surfed on late in the 2010 season. Viewed as one of the best dual-threats in the league, Relf has hit the wall. He’s averaging a paltry 115.8 yards in the past four games and has four interceptions compared to one touchdown. He also has just 73 rushing yards and zero scores on 45 carries in that span.

Tyler Russell replaced Relf at the half against UAB, throwing three touchdowns in a 21-3 comeback win.

Coach Dan Mullen didn’t say much about the quarterback situation, but Relf told reporters he expects to keep his job, for now.

"Coach Mullen said I'm still going to be the starting quarterback," Relf said. "It's just a matter of me going out there and playing hard. It's just a matter of them believing in me to throw the ball in the game. That's how I see it."

Vanderbilt’s offense is just trying to keep its head above water at this point. Quarterback Larry Smith has received a ton of criticism during his Commodore career and he’s hearing even more now. With bowl hopes on the line, it might be time to take this offense in a new direction.

Smith went down with a leg injury against Alabama, forcing Jordan Rodgers into the game. Rodgers wasn’t spectacular, but he did complete 11 of his 18 passes for 104 yards, but had two interceptions.

Smith has thrown for just 412 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. His season-high? Just 140 yards against Connecticut.

Then, you have schools like Florida and Tennessee, who have to deal with injuries to their starting quarterbacks. The Vols seem to be in a much better position with senior Matt Simms taking over for Bray, who was the league’s top passer before Saturday. The Gators are working with a trio of freshmen with John Brantley out. Jeff Driskel was supposed to be the No. 2, but he sprained his ankle against Alabama and missed the LSU game, giving Jacoby Brissett his first-career snaps and start.

Brissett wasn’t awful, but he didn’t look ready for LSU. However, none of Florida’s backups would have.

Florida needs Brantley more than ever, and Tennessee is hoping Simms can get through a five-week stretch that features LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas.

Auburn and Ole Miss aren’t free from quarterback issues, either. The Rebels might have finally found their guy in Randall Mackey, but it took five weeks and three losses to do it. Mackey hasn’t been spectacular, but he has to be the best option, right?

The Tigers have started to use more of the two-quarterback system with Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier. Trotter passes, Frazier runs, but neither did much against Arkansas over the weekend. The question is if Frazier starts throwing more, will he eventually get the majority of the snaps?

There is still time for teams to regroup from their quarterback problems, but for now, SEC quarterbacks have seen better days.

Much better.

SEC power rankings: Week 7

October, 10, 2011
After another week of college football and we have some movement in the middle our power rankings. The top, however, isn’t budging at the moment:

1. LSU (6-0, 3-0): It seemed like the Tigers were just going through the motions at times over the weekend. Florida entered Death Valley with a true freshman quarterback and left with its pride shattered. LSU made it look so easy on both sides of the ball and Florida’s offensive and defensive lines were absolutely abused in the process. The Tigers have been on another level compared to their competition so far and LSU is playing out of its mind. The Tigers have also used their two-quarterback system with Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson perfectly through two games. How the coaches are ranking the Tigers behind Oklahoma is baffling.

2. Alabama (6-0, 3-0): LSU might be the top team in the power rankings – and the country – but Alabama is a very, very close second. The Tide’s defense has been better statistically and while we still think LSU has the most athletic defense around, Alabama’s is equally as suffocating and has dismantled its opponents with ease thus far. Nov. 5 can’t come soon enough! One thing that Tide fans should be even happier about was quarterback AJ McCarron’s four-touchdown, turnover-free performance against Vanderbilt’s talented secondary. He just gets better every week and is starting to develop more of a downfield passing element.

3. Arkansas (5-1, 1-1): The Razorbacks aren’t on the same level with LSU or Alabama, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good team. The defense took some heat for its struggles against Texas A&M, but we saw a much-needed transformation Saturday against Auburn. Arkansas completely took Auburn’s passing game out of the equation and forced three interceptions in the process. Tyler Wilson and his band of receivers continue to impress us, and while the running game still needs some work, getting big plays out of Joe Adams out of the backfield has really helped. Making sure the defense doesn’t regress will be key for the Hogs going forward.

4. South Carolina (5-1, 3-1): Connor Shaw was exactly what South Carolina’s offense needed. After back-to-back embarrassing showings by Stephen Garcia, Shaw came in and really sparked this Gamecocks offense with his arm in a blowout win over Kentucky. He threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns as South Carolina put up 54 on the Wildcats. It was the strongest showing of the season for this offense and with the defense continuing to play up to its potential the Gamecocks are back to being seriously considered in the East race.

5. Auburn (4-2, 2-1): The early-season defense Auburn was afraid of seeing again reared its ugly head against Arkansas over the weekend. The Tigers were hurt by the Hogs’ passing game and surrendered a 92-yard run by Joe Adams. Quarterbacks Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier struggled mightily and couldn’t get Auburn back in the game. It’s time for coach Gene Chizik to go back and make some adjustments defensively and in the passing game. He made great defensive modifications after Auburn’s first loss, so we’ll see what he’s got in store this weekend against Florida.

6. Georgia (4-2, 3-1): The Bulldogs struggled on offense again, and eventually that has to become pretty worrisome, but the defense shut down Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray. Georgia’s defense held him without a touchdown, snapping a 10-game streak of Bray passing for at least two touchdowns in a game, and swallowed up Tennessee’s running game (minus-20 yards). Georgia's defense has steadily improved each week and the Bulldogs are right in the thick of the East race. With the not-so-treacherous road ahead, winning out and making it back to Atlanta is a definite possibility for this team. South Carolina still needs to lose, but Georgia is feeling pretty good about itself after this four-game winning streak.

7. Florida (4-2, 2-2): Florida was down to its third-string quarterback against LSU, but was beaten at every position on the field. Even with a youngster (Jacoby Brissett) making his first start, we expected some sort of creativity in the game plan and the Gators had none. The fact is that this team tremendously misses John Brantley under center and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has to come up with a better strategy while the senior is out. Defensively, the front seven was punished against Alabama and LSU, giving up a combined 464 rushing yards in back-to-back weeks.

8. Tennessee (3-2, 0-2): You gotta feel for the Vols here. Quarterback Tyler Bray was one of the top offensive weapons in the league before he went down with a broken thumb that will keep him out at least four weeks. Top deep threat Justin Hunter was already out and running back Tauren Poole now has a hamstring injury. This team showed fight in both of its SEC losses, but the road ahead is very tough with LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas all meeting the Vols during a five-week stretch. It might get worse before it gets better in Knoxville.

9. Vanderbilt (3-2, 1-2):
The Commodores are struggling to get anything going on offense. It might be time to hand the keys to this offense over to quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who replaced starter Larry Smith against Alabama after the senior went down with a leg injury. Neither was great when they were in against the Tide, but Vandy’s offense is broken and it needs to get fixed in a hurry. Vandy’s bowl chances might rest on what the offense does in the second half. Defensively, we still like this secondary, but it was shredded by Alabama’s AJ McCarron over the weekend.

10. Mississippi State (3-3, 0-3):
The Bulldogs might have won over the weekend, but they didn’t look very good doing it. Mississippi actually trailed UAB 3-0 at the half because the offense failed to show up. It wasn’t until Tyler Russell replaced Chris Relf at quarterback in the third quarter that the Bulldogs finally showed offensive life. Russell threw three touchdowns in the second half to keep the Bulldogs from getting upset. Overall, the offensive execution on this team needs major work.

11. Ole Miss (2-3, 0-2): We can only imagine the preparation the Rebels went through during their bye week to get ready for a visiting Alabama team that is just running through opponents right now. Ole Miss is sticking with Randall Mackey at quarterback after his solid performance at Fresno State, and the hope is that the offense finally gets a consistent lift with him out there. We saw a better, more explosive offense with Mackey in the game, but expecting a duplicate performance this week would be like expecting the cast of Jersey Shore to be invited back to Italy after what we’ve seen in Season 4.

12. Kentucky (2-4, 0-3): Can things get any worse for the Wildcats’ offense? Kentucky is last in the SEC in scoring (13 points per game), total offense (229 yards per game), passing (119 ypg), passing efficiency (78.5), turnovers (17) and red zone scoring (75 percent). Quarterback Morgan Newton might be a junior, but he looks worse than he did during his freshman season and it doesn’t help that he doesn’t have consistently reliable targets to throw to. The defense is improved, but it can’t carry this team. Major offensive changes need to take place during the bye week.

Final: South Carolina 21, Vanderbilt 3

September, 24, 2011
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It's a final here in Williams-Brice Stadium. Things were uglier than they were pretty tonight, but South Carolina came away with the 21-3 win over Vanderbilt.

South Carolina's defense really came to play. Vanderbilt never consistantly moved the ball, getting more than three offensive plays in a drive just four times on 14 total drives. Vanderbilt finished the night with 77 total yards (73 passing, 4 rushing).

The Gamecocks defense looked nothing like the unit that struggled to tackle through the first three weeks. It had five sacks at the half and just overpowered Vanderbilt's offensive line for most of the night. Vanderbilt quarterbacks Larry Smith and Jordan Rodgers had barely any time to do anything in the pocket.

Marcus Lattimore was again South Carolina's most valuable offensive weapon, carrying the ball 20 times for 78 yards and a touchdown. He also had 73 yards receiving, including a 52-yard touchdown.

Without him, the score would have been much lower, as South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia continued his trend of playing mistake-filled football. While he did throw for 228 yards and touchdown, he had four interceptions, which caused a flurry of boos from the fans.

South Carolina also had nine penalties for 67 yards. Still the Gamecocks left with a victory and are still undefeated, including being 2-0 in conference play. The mistakes have to be cleaned up, but South Carolina will gladly take a 4-0 start.