SEC: Malcolm Mitchell
2. On a different note, we are officially one week from national signing day. Who’s ready? ESPNU will have wall-to-wall coverage next Wednesday with more than 15 live commitments and reporters on different college campuses across the country. There’s plenty of intrigue with six of the top 10 players in the ESPN 300 still uncommitted, and some believe Auburn, Florida and USC will make the most noise on signing day. The biggest name to watch will be five-star quarterback Kyler Murray, who is in the middle of a Lone Star recruiting battle for the ages. Will he stick with his current Texas A&M commitment or will he flip to the Longhorns and go play for head coach Charlie Strong? We’ll have to wait and see.
Around the SEC
- A look at why the Tosh Lupoi hire makes sense on multiple levels for Alabama.
- Film study: Auburn needs running mates for defensive tackle Montravius Adams inside.
- Can ACL injuries be prevented? Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is skeptical.
- Two South Carolina wide receivers have decided to leave the football team.
I love recruiting FLORIDA! 8 more days! #HottyToddy— Chris Kiffin (@Chris_Kiffin) January 27, 2015
The SEC, as usual, saw its fair share of early entrants. At last count, the conference led the nation in underclassmen turning pro.
While those who have declared for the draft have another 72 hours to go back on their decisions and return to school, for today's purposes we'll assume everything holds and declare three teams winners and three losers when it came to retaining talent.
- Alabama -- Yes, the losses of T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins and Amari Cooper are huge. But no one expected them to stay. Instead, Nick Saban welcoming three defenders back into the fold on defense was the big takeaway. Cyrus Jones is someone to build around in the secondary, Reggie Ragland provides continuity at linebacker, and Jarran Reed bolsters a defensive line that could be among the best in college football in 2015.
- Auburn -- QB Jeremy Johnson received a pleasant surprise when it was learned that star wideout Duke Williams would return for his senior year. But Johnson, the Tigers' expected starter, should be happy for the other side of the ball, too, as new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp gets Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy back at linebacker.
- Georgia -- Todd Gurley turning pro was a given, but for Mark Richt to keep John Theus, Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd in school was a coup. Theus gives Georgia four returning starters on the offensive line, which will be a boon for whoever wins the starting job at QB. Floyd gives defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt one of the best pass-rushers in the country.
- Florida -- Jim McElwain's hands are full as he attempts to rebuild Florida's offense, and that job wasn't made any easier with the decisions of Matt Jones, D.J. Humphries and Tyler Moore to enter the draft. That's two starting offensive linemen from a group that was already depth-challenged. Throw in the loss of pass-rush specialist Dante Fowler Jr. and you're looking at a depleted roster all the way around.
- LSU -- Les Miles needed Travin Dural and Jerald Hawkins back on offense, but his defense could have used help, too. Kevin Steele, who takes over as defensive coordinator after the departure of John Chavis, will be without three key starters: linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter.
- South Carolina -- With Mike Davis and Shaq Roland off to the NFL, the Gamecocks are without two of their most talented players on offense. Granted, consistency was a constant battle for Roland at receiver, but good luck replacing Davis' 2,000 rushing yards over the past two seasons.
When I look at Georgia, I see a team that appears to be a quarterback away from making a deep run through the SEC and hopping into the second-ever College Football Playoff. And really, the Bulldogs could be the best-equipped team in the SEC for such a season.
Much has been made of coach Mark Richt, who is now 136-48 at Georgia, and his lack of titles. It's been a decade full of missed opportunities since Georgia's last SEC title, but 2015 could provide the remedy for Georgia's blues.
Georgia isn't the perfect team, and won't be the nation's preseason No. 1, but the parts are there for a very big season. And if the Bulldogs fall short of at least a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, there will be a lot of justifiably upset Dawgs fans.
It's time for Georgia to get out of its own way and go win the SEC title before "Georgiaing" replaces "Clemsoning."
Yes, the quarterback situation -- which will be headed by current redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey, redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta and true freshman Jacob Park -- is a little hazy at the moment due to relative inexperience, but there are enough weapons returning on this offense for me to be comfortable throwing the ball. And don't expect any wholesale scheme changes under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
As long as the Dawgs are constantly feeding Chubb the ball, that offense will be fine. Much like Todd Gurley, Chubb plays like he's from a different planet. He rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns in just eight starts. When Gurley started 12 games as a freshman, he ran for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. Chubb also averaged 7.1 yards per carry compared to Gurley's 6.2. I'm not trying to say that Chubb is better than Gurley, which he very well could be, but I think the running game is in good hands with the youngster.
Also, don't forget about the speedy, elusive Sony Michel, who could have a bigger role in the offense this fall as well.
The offensive line returns four starters, all upperclassmen. Veterans Malcolm Mitchell and speedy Justin Scott-Wesley lead a talented, young receiving corps that should make up for the losses of Chris Conley and Michael Bennett.
And that's all before we get to what should be an even better defense in 2015. Pruitt did a masterful job getting players adjusted to his defensive philosophy and how he wanted guys to approach games and practice, and he will have an even older group to work with in 2015. The key was getting rush specialists Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd back. They could have flirted with the NFL, but decided to stay in Athens, which was the right move. The two combined for 11 sacks last year, but freshman Lorenzo Carter, who took some starts away from Floyd in 2014, could be a really special player after registering 4.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries.
The defensive line will need some retooling with a couple of seniors gone, but the rotation last year was good enough to get guys such as Sterling Bailey and Josh Dawson quality snaps.
Then, there's the secondary that outside of veteran Damian Swann was almost completely comprised of underclassmen, who matured and improved steadily as the season went on. Georgia finished the year second in the SEC in pass defense (170.4 yards per game) and didn't allow any team to pass for more than 142 yards in the final month of the regular season.
The schedule sets up nicely, too. Georgia has two road games within the first month -- Vanderbilt and Tennessee. The Bulldogs get Alabama, South Carolina and Missouri at home before trips to Auburn and Georgia Tech. Tennessee certainly won't be a walk in the park, but Florida and South Carolina are considerable unknowns and both Alabama and Missouri lose a lot from this season.
The bottom line is that this team is loaded and the road to Atlanta -- and potentially beyond -- sets up nicely for the Dawgs. It was set up well this season and Georgia didn't take advantage. That can't happen in 2015. With the state of the East and the strength of the Dawgs, it's unacceptable for the team not to make it to Atlanta. There's little room for excuses for the Dawgs.
Dawgs fans are rightfully restless and tired of the continuous shortcomings. Richt engineered the last title run, and he has a team capable of accomplishing that feat again.
People can sometimes over-analyze any sort of outcome from one game and think it overshadows everything done prior. For instance, the SEC West's embarrassing performance (2-5) in postseason play helped leave the SEC out of the national championship game for the first time since 2005 and left the rest of the college football world celebrating. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, and the perception of the SEC is that it's free falling a little because the West's top five teams all lost -- four to teams ranked inside the top 18 of the College Football Playoff rankings.
Because of that, you have the term "overrated" being floated out there, despite the division's full body of work.
Which brings us to the East. What are we to make of it?
This was a division more laughed at than praised this season after five teams finished with seven or fewer wins and its champion -- Missouri -- failed to claim the SEC title for the sixth consecutive year. There was an inexplicable home loss to Indiana, 10 losses to the West, Georgia's implosion and four teams finishing the season with losing records in conference play.
Then came bowl season. The East went 5-0, with two wins over Top 25 opponents (the West had zero). If we apply the same logic that the West is now down because of its postseason futility, then is the East now on the rise after it strolled through bowl play?
Eh, it's too early to tell -- and the caveat is that the East's competition wasn't exactly comparable to the West's -- but you can't ignore the East's undefeated run. And while I'm not ready to crown anyone in the East as the 2015 SEC champ, I do think the division made nice strides during the postseason and has a solid foundation to help it be more competitive with the West in 2015.
Georgia, which is coming off a disappointing season in which the division was there for the taking, returns arguably the East's best team. In fact, with so many starters returning, Georgia might be a quarterback away from a playoff run. Four offensive line starters return to block for the SEC's best returning running back in freshman Nick Chubb (1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns), and senior-to-be Malcolm Mitchell leads a young, talented corps of receivers.
Defensively, Georgia is loaded at linebacker with Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Reggie Carter all returning, and the secondary is full of young defensive backs who all have good game experience.
With a pretty favorable schedule in 2015, Georgia has a chance at a special run through the SEC.
Two-time defending champ Missouri loses a little more firepower with its top three receivers and return specialist/running back Marcus Murphy graduating. However, quarterback Maty Mauk, who must improve his in-game composure, returns along with four starting offensive linemen and top running back Russell Hansbrough (1,084 yards, 10 touchdowns).
Mizzou's defense yet again should lose both rush ends in Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss. But three starting linebackers return, along with three starters in the secondary, including top corner Aarion Penton.
Tennessee could make the biggest jump in 2015. Coach Butch Jones has some very good pieces in place on both sides to make a legitimate title run in Knoxville. It starts with a young but talented offensive group led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs (who really came alive in the second half of the season), freshman running back Jalen Hurd (899 yards, five touchdowns) and what should be the East's best receiver group in 2015.
After basically losing two whole lines after 2013, the Vols return seven starting linemen and have a front seven on defense that will be led by elite pass-rusher Curt Maggitt (11 sacks) and youngsters Derek Barnett (10 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The secondary is also loaded, with three starters returning, including dynamic duo Cameron Sutton and Brian Randolph.
I caution: Do NOT sleep on Tennessee.
Then, there are a couple enigmas. South Carolina has to find a new quarterback, a new left side to its offensive line and some receivers, but the Gamecocks return what has to be a better defense. Florida has a brand-new coaching staff, along with questions and depth issues at every offensive position. However, that defense has the makings of once again being an elite unit, so imagine this team with a competent offense.
But what can either do in 2015? If South Carolina's defense can't make improvements, the Gamecocks are sunk. Meanwhile, Florida needs to find an offensive pulse under new coach Jim McElwain, who has a proven offensive track record but very little to work with in Gainesville right now. The Gators return 59 scholarship players, and only eight of them are offensive linemen.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt have the tools needed to improve, but neither is built for a championship run. The Wildcats must rework things at receiver and lose three valuable parts to their front seven. Vandy has a host of new coaches who will have to develop a relatively young team.
The East's postseason romp didn't make it better than the West, but it did raise some eyebrows. We learned the East has some bite, and there's a chance it could carry that over into the new year.
Here's what West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley tweeted after Richardson's elbow struck him in the back of the head:
to the A&M coach, assistant, trainer whatever you wanna call yaself that punched me in the head.. just know ima see you again in life!— Daryl Worley #ã7ã (@dworley7) December 30, 2014
2. Georgia might be in the market for a new offensive coordinator, but one thing the new guy won't have to worry about is finding a No. 1 receiver for whoever the new starting quarterback is. That's right, Georgia will have a new starting quarterback in 2015 to go along with a new offensive coordinator and new offensive line coach. But let's forget about that for a second. The good news is that Malcolm Mitchell is coming back. @hile he wasn't his same dynamic self in 2014, with some time to heal and some time to get his feet back, Mitchell should have no problem being a very good No. 1 guy for the Bulldogs' next starting quarterback.
3. OK, so this is cheating a little, but when you get to run the links for a couple of days, you're allowed to do whatever you want. Because there was so much fun stuff with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin on Monday, here are some links to check out:
- Kiffin says he's "definitely" returning to Alabama as the offensive coordinator in 2015.
- Love him or hate him, Kiffin's time at Alabama has humbled him.
- Kiffin and quarterback Blake Sims bonded as coach and recruit.
- Kiffin has boosted Alabama, and vice versa.
- Kiffin said he would have paid Nick Saban for the chance he has at Alabama.
- Mississippi State defensive back Jamerson Love is wrapping up his "unbelievable career" in Miami with the Orange Bowl.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel creates continuity with the assistants on his coaching staff.
- Ole Miss is confident with its offensive line shuffle heading into the Peach Bowl.
- LSU coach Les Miles doesn't want a repeat of the 2010 Capital One Sinkhole Bowl.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said the Big 12 officiating crew that handled the Tigers' win against Kansas State last week operated “a little bit slower than what we were used to.”
- If you missed Ivan Maisel's piece on former Vanderbilt coach Watson Brown, do yourself a favor and check it out.
- Former Georgia cornerback Paul Oliver's family sued the NFL this week, blaming his suicide last year on sports-related concussions.
- Missouri's defense continues to surrender big running plays.
- South Carolina is struggling to generate much of a pass rush.
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.
This Nick Saban - Regions Bank ad is pretty great: https://t.co/7VZ06EXePH— Chuck Dunlap (@SEC_Chuck) September 22, 2014