SEC: Malcolm Mitchell

Georgia season review

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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Should it cap the season with a win against Louisville in the Belk Bowl, Georgia (9-3, 6-2 SEC) has a chance to finish in the top 10 in the final polls. But this will go down as another season where the Bulldogs are left to consider what might have been.

What could they have done if star running back Todd Gurley hadn’t missed half the season -- first because of an NCAA eligibility case and later because of a season-ending knee injury? What might have happened if they had finished better in winnable games against South Carolina and Georgia Tech?

An SEC East title and a playoff spot were attainable goals for Georgia this season, so the Bulldogs have to feel some disappointment after the regular season because of their missed opportunities.

Let’s recap:

Best win: Only days after Georgia coach Mark Richt first sat down Gurley about the eligibility issue, the Bulldogs traveled to Missouri and blasted the Tigers 34-0. The Bulldogs picked off four Maty Mauk passes and held Mizzou to 147 yards of total offense, and freshman Nick Chubb proved to be a capable replacement for Gurley, rushing 38 times for 143 yards and a score. Honorable mention goes to Georgia’s 34-7 win against Auburn, when Gurley and Chubb led a rushing attack that accumulated 289 yards. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense also limited Auburn’s explosive offense to 292 total yards.

Worst loss: The circumstances behind Georgia’s 38-20 loss to Florida on Nov. 1 made the loss even more painful. The writing was on the wall that Gators coach Will Muschamp was on his way out, and Florida’s offense seemingly couldn’t do anything right leading into its trip to Jacksonville. But the Gators ran all over Georgia that day, posting 418 rushing yards -- the second most ever against a UGA defense -- en route to an enormous upset of then-No. 9 Georgia. Florida’s win stopped Georgia’s three-game series winning streak, and briefly gave Muschamp hope of staying on as head coach.

Player of year: Chubb. Gurley would have cruised to this honor since he was once the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. But you can’t win for half a season of work. Chubb was a force once the opportunity arrived. With Gurley available for the first five games, Chubb ran just 31 times for 224 yards. Over the final seven games, the freshman ran 155 times for 1,057 yards. Chubb ranks second in the SEC in rushing (1,281 yards), was named SEC Freshman of the Year, and made the first-team All-SEC squad for both the coaches and media.

Breakout player: Isaiah McKenzie. Since we have already discussed Chubb, how about a guy who breathed life into Georgia’s awful return game? Georgia hadn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since the 2011 season when McKenzie took one to the house against Troy. He repeated the feat with a 59-yard runback against Kentucky, on a day when he also took the opening kickoff back 90 yards for a score. At the end of the regular season, the freshman nicknamed "The Human Joystick" because of his slippery moves is averaging 12.1 yards per punt return and 28.1 yards per kickoff return.

Play of year: Instead of narrowing it down to one play, let’s recap five of Gurley’s greatest hits from the season. His UGA career ended in disappointment, but he’ll still go down as one of the greatest Bulldogs running backs ever. Here’s a reminder of why:

A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Clemson.

His 51-yard touchdown run against Tennessee.

A 26-yard run against Tennessee where he hurdled a defender.

When he took a direct snap in the Wildcat and floated a 50-yard pass to tight end Jeb Blazevich against Vanderbilt.

His first touch upon his return from suspension, when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Auburn (although it was called back on a penalty).

2015 outlook: Even without Gurley and some important seniors -- namely linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, cornerback Damian Swann, receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, and quarterback Hutson Mason -- Georgia still has reason for optimism next season. For starters, Richt announced over the weekend that outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and left tackle John Theus will all return. If Georgia can find a consistent replacement for Mason under center, Chubb and the returning skill talent should help the offense remain productive. It’s reasonable to expect the defense to keep improving in Year 2 under Pruitt, as well.
There was a time not so long ago where Mark Richt was arguably having one of his better coaching seasons as Georgia’s head Bulldog in charge. Today, you won’t find anyone who would make that argument.

Not after Richt’s decision to squib kick with 18 seconds left in regulation against Georgia Tech – a call that he later ranked among his dumbest decisions as Georgia’s coach – gave the Yellow Jackets time to tie the game with a last-second field goal and then win in overtime.

Or after a consistently terrible Florida offense suddenly looked like the mid-90s Nebraska Cornhuskers by running all over Georgia’s defense in an enormous upset, following two road wins where the Bulldogs seemingly could do no wrong.

Such has been the peaks-and-valleys nature of this season for the Bulldogs -- and that’s saying something at UGA, which frequently ranks among the nation’s most schizophrenic programs.

Flash back to Nov. 1, when the Bulldogs rolled into Jacksonville at 6-1. Sure, Georgia had suffered a disappointing loss to South Carolina early in the season, but Richt seemed to have righted the ship even while superstar running back Todd Gurley was suspended.

Richt sat down the Heisman Trophy front-runner only days before the Bulldogs’ key road trip to Missouri, when allegations began to emerge that Gurley accepted payment for signing memorabilia. The junior star eventually received a four-game suspension for breaking NCAA rules, but the daunting two-game road swing to Mizzou and Arkansas at the start of his suspension could not have gone better for Georgia.

The Bulldogs drilled Mizzou 34-0 and then jumped out to a 38-6 halftime lead over Arkansas before winning 45-32, with freshman running back Nick Chubb establishing himself as Georgia’s next backfield superstar.

Things were looking good. Although some Georgia fans were angry that the school didn’t obstruct the NCAA’s investigation as other programs have – thereby keeping their star player eligible to compete despite possible rules violations – Richt looked like a coach who was doing his job the right way and his short-handed team was still succeeding.

But that narrative ended against Florida, when the Gators rushed for 424 yards in a 38-20 victory. Only one Georgia opponent (Auburn with 430 in 1978) had ever rushed for more yards in a game against the Bulldogs.

It was arguably the worst loss in Richt’s 14 seasons at Georgia, and yet somehow the Bulldogs didn’t go into a tailspin. They blew out Kentucky and, more impressively, then-No. 9 Auburn in Gurley’s return to action.

Although Gurley suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the Auburn win, things still seemed to be looking up again for the Bulldogs. Having completed their SEC schedule at 6-2, they stood a good chance of representing the SEC East if Mizzou were to lose another conference game. They had a cupcake opponent left in Charleston Southern, followed by the home finale against Georgia Tech, which had beaten Richt only once in 13 tries.

It looked like Georgia was in good shape to reach Atlanta on a high note and maybe even gain some retribution for its heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game by knocking the Crimson Tide out of the playoff picture.

Maybe it was Georgia’s renewed optimism that made last weekend even more painful. Mizzou spoiled the Bulldogs’ SEC plans by rallying to beat Arkansas on Friday. Playing for an SEC title was out the window, and the Bulldogs played like a deflated bunch the following afternoon against Georgia Tech.

However, despite a sloppy performance, the Bulldogs were still in position to win after Malcolm Mitchell’s go-ahead touchdown catch with 18 seconds to play. That’s when Georgia’s decision to squib kick helped the Yellow Jackets open their final possession at their own 43-yard line. When quarterback Justin Thomas scrambled for 21 yards on the next play, the Yellow Jackets had a chance to attempt a game-tying field goal at the buzzer, and Harrison Butker was good from 53 yards.

The bungled final minute came back to haunt Richt and Georgia once Tech won in overtime, creating an understandable meltdown within the Bulldogs' fan base. In a matter of about 20 hours, the Bulldogs had slipped from SEC championship – and possible College Football Playoff – contender to likely participant in yet another mid-level bowl game. The weekend could hardly have turned out any worse.

Welcome to Georgia fandom over the last couple of seasons. Richt’s 2013 team entered the season with national title hopes only to have the year derailed by injuries to key players. They came into 2014 with more modest expectations, but the Bulldogs were still the best team in the East when it felt like proving it deserved that label.

Instead, the losses to two of its biggest rivals encapsulated what will go down as a disappointing season for the Bulldogs. They’ll enter bowl season with a 9-3 record, and getting to 10 wins would be a fine accomplishment, but this is a team that was capable of much more.

Georgia certainly good enough to win the East and had a decent shot at cracking the playoff field at one point.

Georgia didn’t accomplish any of those goals, though, and the Bulldogs have only themselves to blame for those failures.
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A thrilling renewal of the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry ended in overtime for a second straight year -- with Tech winning this time 30-24 on D.J. White's overtime interception.

Georgia (9-3) scored what it thought was the game-winning touchdown on a Malcolm Mitchell catch with 18 seconds left in regulation, only to have Georgia Tech (10-2) force overtime with a 53-yard Harrison Butker field goal at the buzzer.

Georgia was close to scoring the game-tying points on its first overtime possession when White picked off Hutson Mason at the 5-yard line to clinch the win.

Let’s recap the memorable meeting between the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets:

How the game was won: Georgia Tech’s grind-it-out rushing attack dominated the second half, but the Yellow Jackets needed Butker’s miraculous field goal at the last second to force overtime. Once they got into overtime, the Jackets ran it five straight plays to post what would become the game-winning touchdown on a Zach Laskey dive.

Game ball goes to: Laskey. The Georgia Tech running back was a force, scoring the Jackets’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and their winning touchdown in overtime. The tough runner finished the day with 140 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries.

What it means: Not only did Tech stop a five-game losing streak against Georgia, but it gained a measure of retribution. The Jackets blew a 20-0 lead against Georgia last season before losing in double overtime. Saturday they rallied in the final seconds to force overtime and spoiled senior day at Sanford Stadium with their victory.

Playoff implication: Probably none. Georgia is ninth in the College Football Playoff rankings, and Georgia Tech is No. 16. With Georgia not playing for the SEC title next week, its playoff chances were shot. And Georgia Tech is far enough back that even a win against Florida State probably wouldn’t help the Jackets crack the top four.

What’s next: Missouri’s win against Arkansas means that Mizzou, not Georgia, will play in the SEC title game next Saturday. Georgia’s next game will be its bowl appearance. Georgia Tech, however, gets one more game before bowl season. It faces FSU in the ACC title game next Saturday.

Four storylines for Auburn-Georgia

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
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No. 9 Auburn (7-2, 4-2 SEC) and No. 15 Georgia (7-2, 5-2) will renew one of the nation’s oldest college football rivalries on Saturday in Athens in a game that could have major implications in the SEC’s divisional races.

With an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group, here are four key storylines to watch on Saturday night.

Gurley’s return: ESPN’s Football Power Index shows Auburn has a 50.3 percent chance to win on Saturday, so this is truly a pick-’em game. The main reason for those even odds is that Georgia running back Todd Gurley will be back in the Bulldogs’ lineup after serving a four-game suspension for accepting money to sign memorabilia.

Freshman Nick Chubb was phenomenal as Gurley’s replacement, ranking 10th in the FBS in rushes per game (25.5), fourth in rushing yards per game (167.8) and tying for fifth with 17 runs of 10-plus yards during his time as the Bulldogs’ starter.

But former Heisman Trophy frontrunner Gurley brings an entirely different level of production to the offense. In case you forgot, here is what the junior star had accomplished before Georgia coach Mark Richt benched him prior to the Missouri game.

Not only is he a home-run threat -- Gurley (8.2 ypc) is on pace to become the third SEC player with at least 100 carries in a season to average at least 8 yards per carry, joining Arkansas' Felix Jones (8.7 in 2007) and Auburn's Brent Fullwood (8.3 in 1986) -- but he also possesses a remarkable ability to make something out of nothing.

That’s where the veteran Gurley truly separates himself from freshman Chubb. On runs where he is hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, Gurley still averages 4.0 yards per carry, where Chubb averages just 1.0. The average against Power Five opponents on such carries is 0.5 ypc.

Efficient Tigers offense: This isn’t just the Todd Gurley Show, however. Auburn’s offense is every bit the machine that Georgia’s is.

According to ESPN’s team efficiency rankings, Auburn has the third-most efficient offense in the FBS, trailing only Oregon and Baylor. Georgia is fifth.

That’s largely because of quarterback Nick Marshall -- a former Georgia cornerback -- Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and the other Tigers’ abilities on outside runs. On runs outside the tackles, Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (149.1) and runs of 10-plus yards (49) and is tied for the lead in touchdowns (13).

That’s an especially interesting matchup on Saturday because of Georgia’s problems against outside runs, particularly in its upset loss to Florida. The Bulldogs are allowing 6 yards per carry on runs outside the tackles (third worst in the SEC) and surrendered 392 rushing yards outside the tackles combined in their losses to Florida and South Carolina. In Georgia’s seven wins, they allowed a total of 364 yards on runs outside the tackles.

Will Georgia pass?: Largely because of its success running the ball, Georgia hasn’t shown much interest in putting the ball in the air. The Bulldogs have run on 62 percent of their offensive plays, and probably won’t alter that philosophy much with Gurley back in the lineup.

It might be a good idea for Hutson Mason to let it fly a bit more often, however. Auburn’s passing defense has been spotty at best in the last four games -- particularly last week, when Texas A&M freshman Kyle Allen tossed four touchdown passes in the first half of his SEC starting debut.

The Tigers have been especially atrocious defending receivers after completions, allowing 150.8 yards after the catch this season, the most of any SEC defense.

Mason (140-203, 1,515 yards, 15 TDs, 3 INTs) has been the definition of a game manager at quarterback, but Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo might need Mason to complete a few more passes this week and see if wideouts Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett can make something happen after the catch.

Tigers’ turnover trouble: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn spoke of attempting to shake things up in practice this week in an effort to get the Tigers off to a better start.

The Tigers turned it over on their first offensive play in both of their losses this season (to Mississippi State, where it actually lost turnovers on its first two plays en route to an early 21-0 deficit, and last week against Texas A&M, when the Aggies led 35-17 at halftime) and lost five fumbles in their games against Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M.

Auburn has allowed an SEC-high 35 points off turnovers in its last four games and has a 2-2 record in that period. During their 5-0 start, the Tigers did not allow any points off turnovers.

Georgia is tied for the SEC lead with a plus-13 turnover margin, which is fourth nationally, and has outscored opponents 62-6 off turnovers. Only Arizona (three points) has allowed fewer points off turnovers than the Bulldogs.
If the SEC West is going to finally lose to a non-Western Division team this season -- it’s 26-0 so far -- Saturday’s game between No. 10 Georgia (5-1, 3-1 SEC) and Arkansas (3-3, 0-3) might be when the streak finally ends.

Even if Georgia star tailback Todd Gurley remains suspended, the Bulldogs are coming off an impressive 34-0 win at Missouri where freshman Nick Chubb established himself as a workhorse back. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks haven’t won a conference game since beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012, with their conference losing streak growing to 15 games with last week’s 14-13 loss to Alabama.

Regardless of who wins, a streak will end on Saturday. Here are some key elements to watch in the game, with an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group.

Run and run some more: Saturday’s game pits teams that have shared similar offensive philosophies this season. The question is who will do it better at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium when the SEC’s top two rushing offenses meet.

Everyone knows that ground-and-pound is Bret Bielema’s mantra, and the Razorbacks have embodied that philosophy by running the ball 64.6 percent of the time (268 runs in 415 plays). It might come as a surprise, though, that Georgia’s offense is just as run-heavy, keeping it on the ground on 64.3 percent of its plays (264 of 410).

The Bulldogs typically emphasize balance between the run and pass, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has leaned heavily on onetime Heisman Trophy frontrunner Gurley and a stable of talented running backs. With Gurley suspended indefinitely and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel out with injuries against Missouri, Chubb carried the load almost singlehandedly, totaling 38 carries and 143 yards and a touchdown.

Arkansas boasts one of the nation's best 1-2 backfield punches with Alex Collins (92-634, 6 TDs) and Jonathan Williams (86-569, 9 TDs), and that duo, coupled with an imposing offensive line, have helped the Razorbacks become the SEC’s top rushing offense at 278.7 ypg.

Georgia (275.7 ypg) is right behind Arkansas in the league rushing standings, with both teams having scored 21 rushing touchdowns and Georgia barely edging Arkansas in yards per carry (6.3 to 6.2).

Gurley vs. Chubb: If Gurley remains sidelined on Saturday -- and as of Thursday evening, Gurley’s status remained unclear -- Chubb (69-367, 3 TDs) and sophomore Brendan Douglas (and possibly J.J. Green, who practiced at running back this week after shifting to defense earlier this season) might have to carry the offense again. The duo combined for 208 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri, including a highlight-reel touchdown run by Douglas where he tried to jump over a Tigers defender and instead was hit in the legs and somersaulted into the end zone.

More impressive than Douglas’ acrobatics was Chubb’s tough running against the Tigers. He accumulated those 143 rushing yards despite being hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 22 of his 38 attempts. Gurley made it past the line of scrimmage before first making contact with a defender on 73 percent of his carries this season, compared to 52 percent for Chubb.

Bulldogs fans had been comparing the hard-running Chubb to Gurley since well before Georgia suspended the junior superstar while investigating whether he accepted money to sign autographs. Chubb’s production against Missouri was impressive, but he has enormous shoes to fill while trying to replace Gurley’s production (94-773, 8 TDs).



He’ll attempt to do that against an Arkansas defense that was stout last week against Alabama. On nine of the Crimson Tide’s 13 drives last Saturday, it failed to achieve either a first down or a touchdown -- its most such drives in any game since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007 and the most by an SEC team in the last three seasons.

Further, Alabama had just 15 yards before contact on its 37 designed runs against Arkansas, its fewest in a game and lowest average in the last four years.

In other words, Georgia’s offensive linemen had better pack their lunch pails for this trip because producing against Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Arkansas’ front seven might be tougher than it was against Missouri’s.

Big-play Razorbacks? Considering its run-based philosophy, it might come as a surprise how frequently Arkansas manages to post a quick score. The Razorbacks lead the FBS with 13 touchdown drives that required three plays or fewer. The next-closest FBS programs are Michigan State and Baylor with 11 apiece.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsArkansas is known for its ground-and-pound offense, but Alex Collins and company are capable of scoring touchdowns quickly.
Georgia’s six such drives are slightly above the national average (five).

Neither team has been especially explosive overall. Georgia has 87 plays that covered 10 yards or more and 26 that covered at least 20. Arkansas has 95 plays of 10-plus and 27 plays of 20-plus. The national averages for FBS teams are 88 and 29, respectively.

Quarterback play: The X-factors on Saturday might be which team gets the steadiest performance from its quarterback.

Arkansas’ Brandon Allen (79-137, 997 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs) has played better than he did last season, but still hasn’t been a game changer. For instance, he floated an across-the-field pass off his back foot that Alabama’s Landon Collins intercepted with 1:59 to play in last week’s narrow loss.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Hutson Mason (91-129, 843 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs) has been the epitome of a game manager for the Bulldogs. Mason’s average pass has traveled 6.1 yards past the line of scrimmage, the shortest average distance for any Power Five quarterback with at least four starts. The return of previously injured receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley might help Mason stretch the field, however.

If the running game keeps working for these teams on Saturday, don’t expect to see Allen and Mason throw it around too often. But it might come down to which of them can make key completions -- or avoid costly interceptions like Allen’s last week -- with the game on the line.

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 8

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
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We’re not even at the halfway point of the season, and there’s already been a major shakeup among the SEC playoff contenders. The state of Mississippi is on the rise with wins over Alabama and Texas A&M last Saturday while LSU has fallen off the list after another bad loss to Auburn. Here’s a look at where the remaining contenders stand heading into Week 7.

Auburn
Record: 5-0 (2-0)
AP rank: No. 2
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 at Mississippi State

Reason for optimism: What’s not to like about Auburn’s win over LSU? Nick Marshall played his most complete game of the season; Sammie Coates looked like the deep threat we saw all of last year; and the defense continued to impress, holding LSU to 0 of 13 on third down. Through the first five games, the Tigers have only allowed 24 second-half points. This team seems to be playing its best football right now.

Cause for concern: Saturday’s matchup against Mississippi State won’t be easy. Dak Prescott is playing as well as anybody in the country right now, and the defense returns eight starters from a unit that held Auburn to a season-low 120 yards rushing last season. There’s also the fact that it’s on the road. Winning SEC West games on the road has proven mighty difficult.

Who they’ll be rooting for: Texas A&M over Ole Miss (If Auburn and Texas A&M both win Saturday, the Tigers will be the only undefeated team left in the SEC.) -- Greg Ostendorf

Mississippi State
Record: 5-0 (2-0)
AP rank: No. 3 (Tied)
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 vs. Auburn

Reason for optimism: Did you see the Bulldogs destroy LSU and Texas A&M in their first two SEC games? There’s hardly a reason NOT to be optimistic right now if you’re a Mississippi State fan. Prescott and the offense are rolling and the defense largely dominated the previously unbeaten Aggies, who had been posting video-game stats, last Saturday. State is definitely on a roll right now.

Cause for concern: Auburn brings two of the SEC’s most talented receivers to Starkville on Saturday in Coates and D'haquille Williams, and the Tigers have proven they can make plays down the field in addition to their potent ground game. State just did a good job against A&M’s passing game, but the Aggies still gained 365 yards and could have had many more if not for a flurry of dropped passes.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Ole Miss -- David Ching

Ole Miss
Record: 5-0 (2-0)
AP rank: No. 3 (Tied)
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 at Texas A&M

Reason for optimism: The Rebels just beat then-No. 3 Alabama, a team Ole Miss hadn’t beaten since 2003. The defense ranks fifth national in total defense (277.6 yards per game) and has given up just four touchdowns. Also, quarterback Bo Wallace had a tremendous performance against the Crimson Tide, throwing for 251 yard with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Cause for concern: The West is still the toughest division in college football. Yes, Texas A&M was embarrassed at Mississippi State, but the Rebels get the Aggies at the worst possible time. I’m positive they’ll be jacked up to knock the Rebels down a peg. The running game has to get better. Ole Miss ranks 12th in the SEC in rushing (143 yards per game and just 3.7 yards per carry).

Who they’re rooting for this week: Auburn over Mississippi State – Edward Aschoff

Alabama
Record: 4-1 (1-1)
AP rank: No. 7
Next big obstacle: Oct. 18 vs. Texas A&M

Reason for optimism: Alabama lost on the road by less than a touchdown to a ranked team. As far as losses go, it could have been worse. Against a traditional offense like Arkansas', the Tide defense should do alright. A win over the Razorbacks and then the next week against Texas A&M would surely right the ship.

Cause for concern: Not a whole lot went right against Ole Miss. Blake Sims regressed, the O-line struggled, the defense gave up too many big plays late, and the special teams were abysmal. Throw in the fact that Kenyan Drake is out for the foreseeable future and Ryan Kelly and Denzel Devall are sidelined for at least the next few weeks, and you're looking at possibly one too many question marks in a loaded SEC West.

Who they’ll be rooting for: Mississippi State can do Alabama some favors, first by knocking off undefeated Auburn on Saturday and then beating in-state rival Ole Miss down the road. – Alex Scarborough

Georgia
Record: 4-1 (2-1)
AP rank: No. 13
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 at Missouri

Reason for optimism: When you have Todd Gurley on your team, you can win any game you play because he’s the best player in the country. He leads the SEC with 773 rushing yards, 8.2 yards per carry and eight touchdowns. The East is still a mess, South Carolina now has three losses, Tennessee has two and Florida is an anomaly. Beat Mizzou, and the East could be Georgia’s.

Cause for concern: We still have to see if the Bulldogs will be able to throw the ball down field with some consistency. Malcolm Mitchell is back, which should help Hutson Mason, but we’ re still waiting to see if deep threat Justin Scott-Wesley will suit up. Gurley has Georgia’s longest pass -- 50 yards.

Who they’re rooting for this week: LSU over Florida -- Edward Aschoff

Texas A&M
Record: 5-1 (2-1)
AP rank: No. 14
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 vs. Ole Miss

Reason for optimism: The Aggies get four of their last six games at home, including the showdown with Ole Miss as well as Missouri and LSU. They also have two off weeks before season's end. Texas A&M's loss to Mississippi State hurts, but at the pace the Bulldogs are going, that could prove to be a better loss than most others, comparatively speaking, when the Aggies' resume is compared to other one-loss teams (should Texas A&M win out from here).

Cause for concern: These next two weeks are rough. Ole Miss comes in red hot after toppling Alabama and the following week, the Aggies must go to Tuscaloosa. If they happen to pass those two tests, a battle with Auburn in Jordan-Hare awaits on Nov. 8. Also, in the last two weeks, the Aggies have really only played two or three good periods out of their last nine (including overtime vs. Arkansas). They must improve from their awful showing at Mississippi State.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Mississippi State over Auburn. The more one-loss teams, the better for A&M. -- Sam Khan Jr.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Like many Georgia fans spoiled by the numbers and excitement former quarterback Aaron Murray generated during his illustrious Bulldogs career, quarterback Hutson Mason isn’t thrilled with the lack of a downfield passing presence within Georgia’s offense right now.

Four games into the 2014 season, Georgia’s passing game has been a shell of its former high-flying self, as Mason has yet to throw for 200 yards in a game and his longest pass has gone just 36 yards.

The good news is that the Bulldogs have just one loss and are a top-15 team, but Mason understands that this trend of a limited passing game can’t continue if the Dawgs want to make a run at the SEC title.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsShots downfield have been minimal this season for QB Hutson Mason and Georgia.
“We just gotta get better in the passing game all around,” Mason said. “From me to everybody else, we gotta get better.

“I’ll never apologize for winning a ball game. We did what we needed to do, but I will say we need to get better, I need to get better in the passing game.”

But when he was asked what it’s going to take for the passing game to improve, Mason admitted that’s the “million-dollar question.”

“Man, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “We’ll go back to work; I’ll go back to work. I’ll learn from my mistakes and all I can do is just keep trusting my protection.”

More importantly, Mason added, he needs to develop more chemistry and trust in his receivers. That right there is a major part of the passing game’s struggles. With Malcolm Mitchell nursing a knee injury and Justin Scott-Wesley dealing with an early-season suspension, Georgia’s receiving corps lost some valuable depth during the first month of the season.

Veterans Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, who have combined for 25 catches and 298 yards with two touchdowns, could be gassed from so many practice reps, and youngsters, like Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis are still learning.

Now, freshman running back Sony Michel, who has been exceptional in the passing game thus far, is out for a while with a shoulder injury.

While defenses have taken away the deep ball at times this season, Mason said there have been plenty of miscues, especially in the Tennessee game, by the offense. The biggest has come in the form of miscommunication between Mason and his receivers, he said. There were a few times last Saturday where receivers ran the wrong routes or didn’t hit their marks on routes. Some guys didn’t even turn around at the right time for certain passes.

Because of that, there’s been some trust lost between Mason and his receivers, especially when it comes to deeper throws. And while Mason admitted he’s been off on a few passes this season, the playbook has been limited because timing with this group of receivers hasn’t been as crisp as it needs to be.

“The more confident we get in each other, the more confidence I get in my guys, the more confidence we give [offensive coordinator] Coach [Mike] Bobo to call plays down the field, the better we’ll get,” Mason said. “That’s where it starts is execution, and right now we’re not executing so it’s hard for everybody to have full confidence in each other when you’re not executing it.”

Head coach Mark Richt said last Saturday that he hopes Mitchell and Scott-Wesley will return to practice this week. He also hopes to get senior Jonathon Rumph (hamstring) back soon, too. So help is coming, which should help open things up and should get some rhythm back in this passing game.

However, with the health of Mitchell and Rumph not a guarantee going forward, Mason and his receivers have to jell better. Mason said the passing game starts with him, and he hasn’t shied away from some of his shortcomings this season, but he also understands that the guys who need to catch the ball have to help out more, too.

“When you’re in there, you gotta execute,” he said. “There’s really no excuse. It’s my job to trust it, and if I don’t trust it then it’s not gonna work. That trust starts with you gotta execute it and you gotta make the plays. The more plays you make, the more trust Coach Bobo will have in throwing the ball down the field … and the more I’ll have trust in my guys.”

UGA still hasn't recovered from UT win

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
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Aaron Murray fans might remember last season's Tennessee game as one of the great individual performances of the ex-Georgia quarterback's career

Operating short-handed because of roster losses, Murray set up a fourth-quarter touchdown with a career-long 57-yard run, forced overtime with a touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten with five seconds left in regulation and helped the Bulldogs survive the Volunteers' upset bid 34-31 in overtime.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Jason GetzGeorgia running back Keith Marshall has not yet regained the form he showed prior to getting injured in last season's Tennessee game.
Mark Richt likely remembers the win in a far less sunny fashion. It was the point when a team that had designs on contending for conference and national titles started to crumble.

Sure, the victory was exciting and Murray played great. Yes, it kept Richt's Bulldogs in the Top 10 for one more Saturday after an exciting first few weeks of the season. But because of the series of injuries the Bulldogs suffered that day -- namely the season-ending knee injuries to running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley -- a high-scoring offense that had already lost receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the season and superstar tailback Todd Gurley for a month started to sputter.

Following the Tennessee win, the Bulldogs' record dating back to the start of the 2011 season was 26-7, and it seemed like they still stood a good chance of claiming their third straight SEC East title. Since that day in Knoxville, the Bulldogs are 6-5 and one could easily argue Mike Bobo's offense still hasn't completely recovered.

Entering this week's rematch with Tennessee, Scott-Wesley still hasn't appeared in a game yet in 2014, although Richt hinted he might make his debut next week against Vanderbilt. Same with Mitchell, who has missed 14 games since tearing his ACL in the first quarter of the Bulldogs' 2013 opener against Clemson.

But perhaps the most unfortunate injury from the Tennessee game was the one to Marshall.

He had existed in Gurley's shadow since the 2012 season started, but last season's Tennessee game looked like his chance to finally thrive as the Bulldogs' top back. He had enjoyed the best game of his career -- 164 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 75 and 72 yards -- the season before against the Vols and had performed well against LSU a week earlier (96 yards on 20 carries) after Gurley went down with an ankle injury.

But when the former five-star recruit crumpled to the ground after taking a shot to the knee from Cam Sutton while reaching to catch a first-quarter pass, he suffered an injury that to this point has prevented him from regaining the form that made him a perfect complement to Gurley during their freshman season.

Marshall has played sparingly this season, rushing 12 times for 24 yards before suffering another knee injury last week against Troy that will sideline him again for the time being. Freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb have emerged as stars-in-waiting behind Gurley, while Marshall has become an overlooked figure in Georgia's backfield.

Perhaps Marshall will return to the lineup and can still make an impact this season. Maybe Scott-Wesley will come back and build off the breakthrough performances he strung together last season prior to the Tennessee game. Same with Mitchell, whom many believed was on the verge of a huge 2013 season before suffering a freak injury while celebrating a Gurley touchdown against Clemson.

They won't be in the lineup against a much-improved Vols team this Saturday, though, and that's certainly not a good thing for Georgia. The Bulldogs still have Gurley, and their coaching staff has had more than enough practice turning lemons into lemonade since their visit to Neyland Stadium a year ago, so they're hardly the limping club that hit the skids after last season's overtime victory.

The Bulldogs have still fielded a serviceable -- and at times, truly impressive -- offense since then, despite all the injury absences. Eventually, Bobo might have all his weapons at his disposal once again. And SEC East defenses should take cover if that happens.

SEC morning links

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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Quarterbacks under fire: They might be on shorter leashes after last Saturday's implosions, but it looks like Anthony Jennings' and Jeff Driskel's starting jobs are safe – for now. LSU coach Les Miles and Florida coach Will Muschamp both said on Wednesday that they intend to stick with their embattled quarterbacks. But that doesn't feel like a permanent decision in either case, as freshman quarterbacks seem to be bearing down on the two starters. Florida fans are already clamoring forTreon Harris to get more action, and Muschamp said that's a possibility. Likewise, LSU freshman Brandon Harris outperformed Jennings last week against Mississippi State and Miles said he has earned more playing time, even if he hasn't overtaken Jennings as the starter. Both starters simply have to perform better if they expect to hold onto their jobs, though. The freshmen are still learning, but their teams' offenses both played horribly with the veterans under center in last week's losses. At some point, their coaches could decide it simply makes better sense to let the rookies get their shots.

Dillon Day fallout: It will be interesting to see how center Dillon Day's one-game suspension will affect Mississippi State's offense in the Bulldogs' outing against Texas A&M. Quarterback Dak Prescott said he doesn't think it will hurt his play. Archie Muniz is next on the depth chart, but he was responsible for a high snap -- a problem he experienced during spring practice, as well -- that expedited LSU's comeback last Saturday. It's entirely possible that guardBen Beckwith might take over for a game, although he hasn't played center in an actual game since high school in 2008. Regardless of who starts, it will be a position worth watching for the Day-less Bulldogs. Texas A&M's 16 sacks rank fourth in the FBS.

Bulldog nuggets: It was a newsy day at Georgia, particularly on the injury front. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said cornerback Shattle Fenteng probably won't play again this season and might need shoulder surgery, but Richt believes receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- who hasn't played since the first quarter of the 2013 opener against Clemson -- might be back for Georgia's Oct. 4 game against Vanderbilt. Among other Georgia notes, defensive back J.J. Green said he disagreed with the referees' targeting call against him in last week's game against Troy, saying the rule is “taking all the fun out of football.” Green was ejected on the third play of the game and watched the rest of the game from the coaches' locker room at Sanford Stadium. Finally, Mike Lutzenkirchen -- the father of former Auburn tight end Philip, who died in a June alcohol-related auto accident -- spoke to the Bulldogs before Wednesday's practice about making good decisions.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the Day (and why Auburn probably won't win the SEC West)

 

SEC morning links

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
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1. The SEC is all over the Top 25 this week, but let's just come right out and say it -- there's no dominant team. Oh, a few of the West's best will have their chances to make a case, but right now there isn't a team without some warts. Take Texas A&M for instance. The Aggie offense with Kenny Trill pulling the trigger is a nightmare to game plan against. But A&M's defense is scary, too, and not in a good way. This unit was the worst in the SEC last season in total defense and run defense. Sure, the Aggies have improved since then. Maybe a lot. But who have they played for us to be sure? Aside from the season-opening ambush of South Carolina (a game in which the Gamecocks piled up 433 yards), A&M has played Lamar, Rice and SMU. Kevin Sumlin and Co. would be wise to not overlook the Razorbacks. Since their loss to Auburn in Week 1, the Hogs have averaged 58 points of offense in winning their last three. Their SEC-best rushing attack has the potential to give Texas A&M some nightmares as well.

2. Despite the roller coaster the Gamecocks have already been on in the season's first month of games (you can just see it on Steve Spurrier's face), it should be noted that South Carolina leads the SEC East. Does anybody want to win this division? Maybe we'll get an answer on Saturday when Missouri visits USC. Spurrier isn't sounding too confident after the way his team looked against what had been a dreadful Vanderbilt team. On the other hand, Mizzou is banged up. Starting left guard and fifth-year senior Anthony Gatti tore his ACL and MCL in the Tigers' loss to Indiana. And second-leading receiver Darius White will be out with a strained groin. This one isn't exactly shaping up to be the epic battle for East supremacy that some thought it could be a month ago.

3. ESPN's "College GameDay" is headed to Columbia, South Carolina. Not to be outdone, the other big game in the SEC East -- Tennessee at Georgia -- will be the site of the SEC Network's pregame show "SEC Nation". The Vols have something to prove and will hit the road with a much-improved defense. UT is sixth in the SEC in total defense, giving up 343 yards a game. That should give Tennessee some hope in preparing to face Georgia's star running back Todd Gurley and his SEC freshman of the week understudy, Sony Michel. The Bulldogs are also short-handed with Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley among the injured. The biggest challenge for Tennessee, however, is likely to come on the other side of the ball. Georgia has an intimidating pass rush, and the Vols O-line has given up an SEC-worst nine sacks already this seasons. Buckle up.

Around the SEC
  • LSU's stunning pratfall in Saturday's home loss to Mississippi State will prompt some changes. Most notably, the QB battle is back on.
  • Mississippi State center Dillon Day, accused of stomping on two LSU players, wrote a letter to Bulldogs fans to defend himself. Day has some history, though. He was suspended for a half last year after he stomped on an Auburn player.
  • File this under "Oh, they're friends now." Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to Gus Malzahn after Auburn's win at Kansas State: "Some of you may faint. I shot Gus a congrats text and just said, 'Hey I know how tough that place is. Congrats.' "
  • Will Muschamp has fallen off the hot seat and directly into the fire. Here are some ideas for fixing Florida.
Tweet of the day

ATHENS, Ga. -- Aaron Murray couldn’t do it.

Neither could Matthew Stafford.

Even David Greene wasn’t able to pull it off.

There is just something about Williams-Brice Stadium. Georgia has found a way to win its fair share of games there, but it’s never been by lighting up the scoreboard. D.J. Shockley, Quincy Carter and every Bulldogs quarterback since Eric Zeier can attest to that.

It was Zeier, way back on Sept. 3, 1994, who became the last Georgia QB to score more than 20 points in Columbia, South Carolina, winning a nail-bitter, 24-21.

“To think that the last nine times, the most amount of points was 20 — that shocked me when I read that stat,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt on Tuesday. “I knew what it had been for us when I’ve been at Georgia, but I didn’t realize it went back that far.”

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsHutson Mason and the Bulldogs will need to be more balanced on offense to have success on Saturday.
Not many people did. But just about everyone can recall the last two matchups in South Carolina. Georgia lost both games, scoring one total touchdown and 13 points.

That was with Murray at quarterback. If the current SEC record-holder for passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense couldn’t manage, what makes anyone believe Hutson Mason will?

If Georgia hopes to stay undefeated and in the thick of the College Football Playoff hunt, Mason, a redshirt senior in his first year starting at quarterback, will have to come up big on Saturday and break the 20-year trend of 21 points or less in Columbia. While South Carolina may be reeling, its offense hasn’t been the problem as it’s averaged 437 yards and 30.5 points per game.

Mason and the Bulldogs will have to keep up -- and not rely exclusively on the running game.

A steady diet of Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb beat down Clemson in Georgia’s impressive season-opening win in Athens two weeks ago. But the offense was predictably lopsided as Mason threw for only 131 yards and no touchdowns.

South Carolina's stack-the-box, dare-you-to-pass defense isn’t likely to be so susceptible. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has struggled the first two weeks of the season, but Richt called him an “outstanding coach” who has had “lights-out defensive teams over the years.”

Richt he expects a “bloody” game in Columbia. Both teams have “outstanding” running backs and “can pound” the football, he said.

“Everybody in the world knows we’re going to run the ball, and everyone knows South Carolina likes to run the ball,” said Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera.

But while Richt is looking for “a fistfight” and Herrera is eager for a battle in the trenches, there has to be some balance, and Mason and the Georgia receivers must be the ones to provide it.

Mason said he can sleep easier knowing Jadeveon Clowney won’t be on the Gamecocks' sideline, but he might struggle after being told of the 20-year streak of offensive futility on Tuesday.

“I probably could have gone without knowing that," he said.

More realistically, though, it doesn’t mean much to him.

“The past couple of years I’ve been here I can recall what those games were like,” he said, “... but I’m not going through the film library looking at the 1997 Georgia vs. Clemson game."

Mason does expect some stress on Saturday, however. The noise will play a big factor, he said, as will South Carolina’s expected defensive tendencies.

“You can’t be naive,” he said. “Teams are definitely going to understand that Todd is our biggest weapon.”

“When we get those one-on-one opportunities against South Carolina, we have to be able to take advantage of them,” he added. “If we don’t, we may still be able to find a way to win. But I don’t really like our chances if we can’t throw the ball effectively.”

It’s going to be tough sledding, especially with Richt announcing that wide receivers Justin Scott-Wesley, Jonathon Rumph and Malcolm Mitchell aren’t expected to play.

Despite that, Chris Conley believes his fellow (healthy) receivers will perform. He said to count on Isaiah McKenzie, Kenny Towns and Blake Tibbs stepping up.

With South Carolina playing primarily a one-high safety scheme, he said, “You force people to throw the ball.”

“That’s just a basic fact of football,” he explained. “... Scheme wise, there are going to be those opportunities to throw the ball, but it’s going to come down to us executing the game plan and being on the right page.”

Even with so much of the focus directed on stopping Georgia's running game, don’t look for coaches to air it out.

“I just want us to execute what we call,” Richt said. “We’ve got a long track record of throwing the ball extremely well around here, but I know our number one goal is to win and do whatever it takes to win.”

“That particular trend [of not throwing a lot] wouldn’t bother me if we didn’t have to,” he continued. “And I’ll say this: Hutson’s main goal is to win. He doesn’t need to put any pressure on himself other than doing the things that will help Georgia win.”

Load the box, center David Andrews said. He dares anyone to do it.

“We still need to be able to run the ball even if they do load the box,” he said. “If not, that opens up our passing game. It’s just a win-win all the way around.”

SEC morning links

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
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After what was a dull weekend around the SEC, we get a bit more spice in the lineup this week. We’re a long way from Saturday, though. Let’s regroup and take a quick look around the league with several days to go before some big games arrive for SEC clubs.

Poll watching: I’d imagine some Alabama fans were a bit perturbed by dropping a spot in Sunday’s new Associated Press poll, from second to third, after dismantling Florida Atlantic on Saturday. It doesn’t matter much, though. Here’s why: teams ranked fifth, seventh, 10thand 14th are also on the Crimson Tide’s schedule. They’ll have more than enough opportunity to prove they deserve a higher ranking before long.

Many national writers have been having a field day lately writing early obituaries for the Big Ten. The weekend was an unmitigated disaster for that league, so that’s obviously fertile column material these days. Meanwhile, the SEC keeps on keeping on, placing four teams in the AP’s top seven (Alabama, Auburn at No. 5, Georgia at No. 6 and Texas A&M at No. 7) and five in the top 10 (LSU comes in at No. 10). Overall, eight SEC teams are in the top 25 (add No. 14 Ole Miss, No. 20 Missouri and No. 24 South Carolina).

The SEC’s lofty poll position only reinforces its spot as the home of the “Haves” in college football – a sport where the class divide between rich and poor seems to grow by the season. However, I never would have expected the Big Ten to languish among the “Have Nots” – not this early in the season, anyway. They usually wait until bowl season to receive that annual reminder.

Points to prove: Jokes aside, this is going to be an enormous weekend for a few of the ranked SEC teams. Specifically South Carolina and Missouri.

If Georgia goes into Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday and wins, not only will the Bulldogs jump into the driver’s seat in the SEC East, they might hand Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks an early knockout blow. South Carolina is already wobbly after a humiliating beating from Texas A&M in the opener, and the effects seemed to linger in Saturday’s 33-23 win against East Carolina. If they fall to 1-2 and 0-2 in league play, it will be time to re-evaluate things. They typically give Georgia all it wants in Columbia, though, so I’m sure Mark Richt doesn’t expect anything to come easily on Saturday. It never does for Georgia at Williams-Brice.

When it comes to Mizzou, I’ll be honest: I’m not impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Seriously, if the Tigers lose to Central Florida this weekend – I doubt that will happen, but UCF was a handful for Penn State in Ireland – I’m going to start wondering whether Mizzou will even become bowl eligble.

That would be an overreaction since Mizzou’s schedule is so weak that a decent non-BCS team would have a shot at getting to six wins. But reasonable Tigers fans can’t love what they’ve seen so far. South Dakota State was down by just three points about five minutes after halftime in the opener. And Toledo had 410 yards of total offense on Saturday, but repeatedly shot itself in the foot after gashing the Missouri defense for huge gains.

Nonetheless, the Tigers closed strong in both games and posted two 20-point wins while breaking in a bunch of new players. I didn’t think last season’s Mizzou team would be able to go the distance, either, and that group certainly proved me wrong. From what I’ve seen of these Tigers, though, they’ve got a lot of improving to do before they’re poll-worthy, much less legit contenders in the SEC East. But like I mentioned earlier with Alabama, Missouri will have the chance to prove where it belongs soon enough – particularly in the three-game stretch that arrives in a couple of weeks where it will visit South Carolina and Florida and host Georgia.

Gator believer: Here’s a team I am on board with, though: Florida. At least to the extent that I believe they’re going to make life interesting in the SEC East.

I’m not sitting in the front seat of the bandwagon yet, but it’s been apparent since Will Muschamp arrived in Gainesville that his teams will field a championship-caliber defense. The trick seemed to be building an offense that a smart-aleck sportswriter couldn’t accurately describe as “bumbling.”

The Gators appear to have at least that, and probably one that is much better than average, judging by its 65-0 win against Eastern Michigan. That defense will indeed be great and Kurt Roper seems to have things rolling with Jeff Driskel and company. The schedule is unforgiving, though, seeing how Florida’s cross-division games are against Alabama and LSU, plus they’ll have to face Florida State at the end of the year. But I’ve already seen enough to believe that Muschamp’s team is going to hang around the Eastern Division race this season – partially because the division is not that great and partially because this team looks to have legitimate firepower on offense, defense and special teams.

A few more links for the morning:

" LSU’s defense has held opponents scoreless for nearly six quarters.

" Auburn defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker continues to deal with an “irritating” knee issue.

" Richt called receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell doubtful for the South Carolina game.

SEC morning links

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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1. Raise your hand if you saw that coming from Texas A&M last night? Nobody? That's OK, I didn't and neither did my SEC colleagues, as evidenced by our Week 1 predictions. The Aggies coming out of Columbia, South Carolina with a win wasn't far-fetched but absolutely dominating? That was unexpected. Especially for the College Station-area Ashley Furniture store. Ashley promised customers free furniture if the Aggies beat the Gamecocks by 10 or more points. The result? More than $1 million in free furniture given away. The Aggies themselves were pretty fired up, evidenced by this celebration video involving Kevin Sumlin and the team. But the biggest story on Thursday night was none other than quarterback Kenny Hill, who -- in his first career start -- broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record for passing yards and completions. Hill proved that the Aggies are far from a one-trick pony.

2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.

3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."

More from around the SEC
Tweets of the day

Now that we've checked out the quarterbacks I think could reach 3,000 passing yards and the guys who could hit 1,000 yards rushing, it's time to see what this season's crop of receivers is all about.

Who can reach the 1,000-yard club?

Last season, four receivers made it to the 1,000-yard club -- Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews (1,477 yards), Texas A&M's Mike Evans (1,394 yards) and LSU's Jarvis Landry (1,193 yards) and Odell Beckham Jr. (1,152 yards). All four of those guys are gone. Actually, the SEC lost eight of its top 10 receivers from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsLaquon Treadwell scored five receiving touchdowns in his freshman season at Ole Miss.
There are still some talented pass-catchers lurking in the league, so I'm going to go with three 1,000-yard receivers. Here are the guys I think have the best chance of getting to that number (in order):

1. Amari Cooper, Alabama: One of the nation's best receivers, Cooper wasn't at his best and wasn't 100 percent healthy last season, but he still managed 736 receiving yards. He's playing at a faster level now and is tougher, which means he'll have no trouble crossing the 1,000-yard mark this fall.

2. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: He learned a ton from Donte Moncrief and still caught more passes than him in 2013. Treadwell is a physical specimen and is already the most athletic person when he steps out on the field. As the No. 1 guy in Oxford, he'll easily surpass the 608 yards he had last season.

3. Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State: He was so close to 1,000 yards and probably would have made it into triple digits if he didn't have to work with multiple quarterbacks all season. Lewis is still developing his game, but he's the perfect playmaker for Mississippi State's spread offense.

4. Sammie Coates, Auburn: Talk about coming out of nowhere. Coates was a real unknown before last season and somehow wound up with 902 yards. He's a deep threat and someone who isn't afraid to make plays over the middle. Getting pushed more by other players might cut into his numbers, though.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia: If Mitchell is healthy, he's one of the most athletic and talented receivers that this league has to offer. A knee injury cost him just about all of his 2013 season, and he's already have complications with his knee this fall. But if he's out there and ready to go, he'll be fun to watch.

6. Marquez North, Tennessee: In a struggling passing game, North finished the 2013 season with 496 yards. He's so much better than that, and he's playing like it this fall. He's added some needed weight and is understanding his role more and running his routes better.

7. Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: Another player who basically saw the 2013 season from the sideline, don't sleep on Seals-Jones. He was one of the nation's best recruits a couple of years ago and when he's at full speed, Seals-Jones can really fly. He'll make tons of plays inside and out.

8. D'haquille Williams, Auburn: The junior college transfer could be really special. He has all the talent to make a ton of plays in such a wide open offense. Williams will push Coates all season for the role as the Tigers' No. 1 target.

9. Shaq Roland, South Carolina: Dealing with the hype that came with him out of high school hasn't been easy, but the thought out of Columbia is that this could be a big season for Roland. He can stretch the field and is great in space.

Georgia Bulldogs season preview

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 9.06 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5 wins

Our take: Georgia was better than an eight-win team last season, but the Bulldogs were absolutely decimated by injuries to key players like Mitchell, Gurley, Scott-Wesley, tailback Keith Marshall and eventually Murray. If new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can get things straight on his side of the ball, the ceiling is extremely high for this team. The offense has an impressive array of talent surrounding senior quarterback Hutson Mason and should be difficult to contain. If the Bulldogs open with a win against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, this could easily become a 10-2 or 9-3 season where Georgia is once again in the thick of the East race.

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