SEC: Mark Richt

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.”

Video: Georgia coach Mark Richt

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
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video 

Georgia coach Mark Richt praised his team for its effort as the No. 12 Bulldogs held off Tennessee, 38-35, on Saturday.
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Mark Richt

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, 16, 2014
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It's a fact frequently brought up in Missouri circles but not necessarily around the league, and it's one I find fascinating. The Tigers continued their nation-long active streak of forcing turnovers to 47 consecutive games on Saturday and it started with an interception by Missouri defensive tackle Josh Augusta. That triggered a run that would see the Tigers collect four turnovers in a 38-10 rout of Central Florida. It was one of the highlights of a great day by the Tigers' defensive line, including a strong performance from Shane Ray, who was eventually named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. The Tigers continue to simply play well and win. They have one more non-conference game (Indiana) before getting their chance to defend their SEC East division crown.

If Florida wants to be successful defensively, pressuring quarterbacks is paramount. On Saturday against Kentucky, Dante Fowler Jr. did a good job of it but didn't have a ton of help. That has to change when the Gators play Alabama this week. The individual matchup involving Fowler should be interesting -- he is facing Alabama true freshman Cam Robinson, the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class. For what its worth, the Gators said they needed some adversity, like Saturday's game provided, before going to Tuscaloosa.

Days after its loss at South Carolina, Georgia is still the subject of much conversation. A lot of it centers around the offensive playcalling and coordinator Mike Bobo. My colleague Edward Aschoff said not giving the ball to running back Todd Gurley near the goal line late in the game was the wrong call. That topic was even the first question posed to Mark Richt by a caller on his weekly radio show and he admitted that “I think we were all thinking the same thing on the ride home.” The Bulldogs play Troy this week, so don't expect that chatter to calm anytime soon.

Read more here.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

SEC morning links

September, 15, 2014
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Arkansas' 49-28 win at Texas Tech was a big one for the Hogs in the Bret Bielema era, perhaps the biggest to date. It's a sign of a program showing improvement after a rough 2013. In the aftermath, much of the discussion focused on the Razorbacks' running game, led by Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and that big Arkansas offensive line. Rightfully so. But what is easy to overlook is the performance of the Razorbacks' defense, which took some body blows early but had an impressive second half, holding the high-powered Red Raiders to just seven points. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith's crew stood up to the challenge Texas Tech presented and helped Arkansas score a seminal win as a result.

Though they lost, Kentucky opened a lot of eyes on Saturday night in the Swamp. Taking Florida to three overtimes in a 36-30 loss is notable for a program that has been a cellar dweller. One of the reasons for the Wildcats' ability to compete is the increased talent on the field they've gathered in recruiting under coach Mark Stoops. Several of those young Wildcats, especially receiver Garrett Johnson, give Kentucky reason for hope in the future.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is often cited as one of the most detailed-oriented coaches around. That may be true, but it doesn't apply to every part of the game, apparently. Asked after Saturday's win over Southern Mississippi about the play of left guard Leon Brown, Saban admitted that he doesn't pay much attention to the offensive linemen. As a former quarterback and defensive back, he focuses on the skill players. He emphasized that the linemen are important but that he doesn't even "watch them during individual [drills]." You can see the video, where Saban smiles and jokes his way through the soliloquy, here.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

SEC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
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UMass at Vanderbilt, FSN
When these teams met last season in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it was a competitive game before a Vandy team that would win nine games locked down a 24-7 victory. UMass gave Colorado a scare before falling 41-38 last weekend, so reeling Vandy had better come to play or it might be on upset alert.

Central Florida at No. 20 Missouri, SEC Network
When last we saw UCF, the Knights were suffering a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Penn State in their season-opening matchup in Ireland. Mizzou is a 10-point favorite over the Knights, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season before stars Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson jumped to the NFL, but the opener made it clear that UCF can still compete with Power 5 opposition.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Georgia
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and No. 6 Georgia are looking for a second consecutive win over No. 24 South Carolina.
No. 6 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina, CBS
Georgia's visits to South Carolina are almost always must-see TV, although these trips are rarely much fun for Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Even when Georgia has won in Columbia -- and it has lost its past two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium -- the outcome has frequently been in doubt even in the final seconds. Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley should get plenty of work for Georgia in this one.

Arkansas at Texas Tech, ABC
Here's a fun clash of cultures for a national TV audience, which will see Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound face Kliff Kingsbury's passing attack. Texas Tech has a couple of nail-biter nonconference wins on its resume, while Arkansas is coming off a 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State. The home team is a narrow favorite here, but this could be a good one.

4 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 14 Ole Miss, SEC Network
This looked like a sneaky good game before the season, with ULL coming off three consecutive bowl appearances. But the Ragin' Cajuns absorbed a 48-20 beating from Louisiana Tech last week and Ole Miss dominated Vanderbilt in Nashville, so it doesn't look like an upset is in the cards for this one.

Mississippi State at South Alabama, ESPNEWS
This will be the first time an SEC opponent has played at South Alabama and excitement is high in Mobile -- particularly after the Jaguars opened the season with a win and Mississippi State struggled to put away UAB for a while last Saturday. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott and company need to turn in a complete performance with a trip to LSU ahead next week.

6 p.m. ET

Southern Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama, ESPN2
Alabama gets another opportunity to kick around an overmatched nonconference opponent, just as it did last week against Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson Tide, a 48-point favorite, is that most of the starters should be watching from the sideline in the second half, resting up for a visit from Florida next Saturday.

7 p.m. ET

Louisiana-Monroe at No. 10 LSU, ESPNU
Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 against in-state opponents and most of those games have been blowouts, so there is little reason to believe this will be a close contest. That said, the Tigers' secondary should face a reasonable challenge from the Warhawks' no-huddle spread attack.

7:30 p.m. ET

Kentucky at Florida, ESPN
Wildcats running back Jojo Kemp (a native Floridian) poked the bear this week when he made comments about how good it would feel to beat a couple of his former high school teammates -- and current Gators -- and rub it in their faces. Kentucky looks to be a greatly improved team, but it will be a major upset if this game is still close in the fourth quarter, and Kemp's comments probably didn't help the Wildcats' cause.

8 p.m. ET

Tennessee at No. 4 Oklahoma, ABC
As with Kentucky, this is a major measuring-stick game for an improving Tennessee team -- going on the road to face an opponent that virtually nobody expects the Volunteers to challenge. Butch Jones' Vols have been impressive so far, but their inexperience along the line of scrimmage will be their undoing in this one.

9 p.m. ET

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, ESPN2
For the second straight Saturday, the Aggies can help SEC viewers get to sleep by drubbing an in-state opponent in a late-night matchup. Rice, a 31-point underdog, might put up more of a fight than Lamar did in losing 73-3 to Texas A&M a week ago, but it won't be much more of one. Kenny Hill and the Aggies win big again.
Todd GurleyScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley leads the nation in yards per attempt with 13.2 yards per carry.
It's a question that perplexes defensive coordinators and causes players to laugh: How do you stop Georgia running back Todd Gurley? Better yet, how do you stop this Todd Gurley?

Clemson certainly couldn't do it. After getting into the best shape of his life leading into the 2014 season, Gurley embarrassed Clemson's defense with a career-high 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns on -- wait for it -- 15 carries. Really? Fifteen carries?

Oh, and in the middle of all that foolishness, he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Sorry folks, but Gurley isn't a human being. I don't know if he's a cyborg or even from this planet, but there's a reason he played a character resembling Superman in teammate Chris Conley's "Star Wars" movie.

This version of Gurley, who is eerily elegant in the way he either bulldozes opponents or sprints right past them, looks unstoppable. So unstoppable that even Gurley wouldn't want the task of trying to tackle himself.

"Watching film and seeing how other guys get tackled, I'm not sure guys like tackling me," Gurley said. "I watch Clemson, and saw how they were tackling [South Carolina running back] Mike Davis and other backs, and it wasn't the same. I don't blame them. I'm 6-1 and 230 pounds. DBs are 5-10 and 180 [pounds]. Why would you want to tackle a guy as big as me?"

Step right up South Carolina, because that's your responsibility Saturday.

"I don't know if I've faced a back of Gurley's capability and is big, strong, fast, can run around you, can run over you, breaks a lot of tackles, has great hands out of the backfield," South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said of Gurley. "I can't say that I've faced a complete back like Gurley."

But can Gurley be stopped Saturday, especially with South Carolina's defense limping in and allowing 150.5 rushing yards (5.0 yards per carry) so far this season?

How exactly do the Gamecocks intend to stop one of the nation's best running backs Saturday afternoon?

"I don't know," South Carolina safety Brison Williams said with a chuckle. "… He's showed that you can't game plan against him."

In one respect, Williams is right to be hesitant with a real answer. How do you stop a train?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gurley registered a career-high 102 yards after contact and seven rushes that gained at least 10 yards against Clemson. In Gurley's career, he has averaged 46 YAC per conference game (2.8 YAC per carry) and has 89 rushes of at least 10 yards (which is tops in the SEC over the past three seasons).

That means you have to put a lot of hands on Gurley at the same time in order to bring him down and stop those tree trunks he calls legs from churning.

Do you push him outside or keep him running through the middle? Well, that's a tough one to answer when you consider this: According to ESPN Stats & Information, over the past two seasons, Gurley has averaged the fourth-most yards nationally per rush (6.0) inside the tackles (minimum 100 attempts) and fifth most outside the tackles (7.6).

"We have to have 11 hats on the ball," said Ward, who wants to stack the box more when Gurley is in. "We can't be tackling one-on-one, we have to have gang-tackling all day."

Through two games, the Gamecocks' defense has been a shell of its former self, allowing the fourth-most yards in the nation (1,133). South Carolina has been atrocious against the pass, allowing the most yards after the catch (454) of any Power 5 defense, according to ESPN Stats & Information. You think that will get Gurley more involved in the passing game Saturday?

Gurley has been stopped before. South Carolina proved that in 2012, holding him to 39 yards. He has missed out on 100 yards in 11 of his 25 career games. It must be noted -- and this isn't taking anything away from teams that legitimately contained Gurley -- that nagging injuries and the fact that Georgia just hasn't needed to run Gurley down in every game have played a part in that.

There's a very, very good chance that if Gurley were allowed to go all Playstation on teams (not leaving games ever), that number would be much closer to 25.

"He can do just about anything he wants to do back there, and that's what makes him dangerous," Georgia coach Mark Richt said of Gurley.

Gurley is just that good. Despite the nagging injuries that he has dealt with during his career, Gurley entered the 2014 season with 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns on 387 carries.

You think that's impressive? Well, ponder this for a second: Add his season-opening numbers, and he has rushed for just 50 negative yards on 402 carries.

"He's a horse, man," Williams said with a laugh. "He runs the ball real hard. He's a physical runner, he runs down field, he's fast and big. We can't have no one-on-one tackles, it has to be a group of guys tackling him."

Good luck.
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.”


ATHENS, Ga. -- The two teams are in very distant corners.

Three hours east, in Columbia, South Carolina, the Gamecocks are reeling after what coach Steve Spurrier described as an “embarrassing” loss at home to Texas A&M, followed by a so-so showing last weekend in a narrow win over heavy underdog East Carolina. Dylan Thompson has been solid in his first year starting at quarterback, but the real Mike Davis hasn’t shown up yet and the defense still seems to be trying to figure out exactly what its identity is.

Here, on the University of Georgia’s campus, the Bulldogs have every reason to feel on top of the world. After beating No. 23 Clemson in primetime to kick off the season, Georgia is a sudden favorite to win the SEC East and represent the conference in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Todd Gurley is a Heisman Trophy front runner, quarterback Hutson Mason is playing with confidence, and Jeremy Pruitt’s young defense is improving with each passing day.

But Mark Richt has seen this play out before. After 13 seasons leading the Bulldogs, the coach knows what to expect when the whistle blows and these two rivals touch gloves on Saturday in Columbia.

“I got a feeling this game could get a little bloody,” Richt said on Tuesday. “I think both teams are tough, physically. ... Before it’s over, it may get down to a bit of a fistfight.”

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Bulldogs
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsHutson Mason says the Bulldogs have found some swagger in the early going.
Whether it was said metaphorically or not, Georgia isn’t resting easy with its No. 6 ranking in both the Associated Press and coaches polls. It’s toughened up and “let [Clemson] kind of fade off into the distance,” according to Richt.

“The coaches did a great job of bringing us back down after that game,” receiver Chris Conley said. “I think it was Coach Richt who said, ‘Thank God for film,’ because that first day we came in and watched the film from Clemson we realized how many holes we had in that game and how many mistakes and how many times we were literally mere feet away from a run not being broken, a touchdown not being scored, momentum not shifting.

“We can’t allow those mistakes to come into a game again.”

There’s simply too much on the line not to be ready for a battle, said Mason, who expects South Carolina to load the box and force him into passing situations.

“We’ve kind of got some confidence and some swagger going into it,” he said. “South Carolina didn’t start off like they wanted to, but they got better in the second game. I don’t expect them to be the same team we all watched and saw playing against Texas A&M. ... They’re understanding more of their identity. Teams like that are dangerous. They’re playing at home, let alone that’s a really tough place to play. One or two things goes their way, as you’ve seen the last couple of years we’ve played there, it’s hard to get the ball turned and going our way.”

Mason said he expects a “big, physical, downhill, tough game” where it’s “may the toughest man win, so to speak.”

“You’re talking about if we win this game on Saturday we have a three-game advantage over them, and if they win they have the head-to-head tiebreaker over us,” he said. “It kind of seems like over the past couple of years that that’s what it’s come down to in the East.”

Linebacker Amarlo Herrera knows exactly what awaits in Columbia. It will be loud, it will be hostile and it won’t be anything for the faint-hearted, he said.

“Everybody in the world knows we’re going to run the ball, and everyone knows South Carolina likes to run the ball,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard-nosed game. Everyone has to come to play and come to hit somebody.”

“That’s my type of game,” he added. “I like to hit people.”

SEC morning links

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
8:00
AM ET
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.
Georgia coach Mark Richt hasn’t turned into Evil Richt.

On Thursday, Deadspin published a letter that Richt allegedly wrote to a Clemson fan after the Bulldogs’ 45-21 blowout of the Tigers at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night.

According to the report, the Clemson fan wrote Richt this summer, telling the UGA coach how, among other things, the Tigers’ speed “would blow those hedges away” in the teams' opener.

Deadspin reported that Richt replied to the fan with a letter of his own, in which he allegedly wrote, “There was a reason Georgia was ranked above Clemson in the preseason polls, and I am sure we showed why last night.”

The letter even included a postscript from Richt, in which he crowed about UGA running back Todd Gurley’s record-setting performance of 293 all-purpose yards: “PS: Todd told me he didn’t have a good game.”

The letter, which was mailed from Augusta, Georgia, on Tuesday, according to a photo of an envelope on Deadspin, also included a cut-out of the headline: “Georgia stomps Clemson 45 to 21.”

Did the Clemson fan really push the normally stoic Richt over the edge?

Alas, UGA spokesman Claude Felton told ESPN.com on Thursday night that the letter wasn’t authentic and wasn’t written or mailed by Richt.

“Not true,” Felton said.

Richt followed with his own response.

SEC slant: More RBs the better

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
2:00
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Gone are the days of Herschel Walker and Barry Sanders. We may never see another Eddie George or Ron Dayne pounding between the tackles for four quarters. Feature backs have gone the way of the dodo as more and more teams have moved toward multiple-back offenses. Part of it is the position's devaluation, part of it is getting the most bang for your buck.

There are no more workhorses

College football has, for the most part, stopped relying on one running back to shoulder the load. Alabama doesn't ask T.J. Yeldon to tote the rock 30 times a game. LSU spreads it around, too. At Wisconsin, Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon splits carries with Corey Clement.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon, Terrell Chestnut
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's T.J. Yeldon was one of four players to notch rushing carries in the Crimson Tide's win against West Virginia in Week 1.
Thirteen backs averaged 20 carries per game last season. In 2004, that total number was 23.

Despite having fewer feature backs, running games haven't diminished. Last season, 30 teams averaged 200 yards rushing per game. In 2004, only 19 teams reached that magic number.

By rotating in fresh legs, both overall production and effectiveness have improved. In 2004, 57 teams averaged 4 yards per rush or more. Last season 83 teams hit that number. Over that same period of time, the number of teams with a touchdown-per-rush percentage of at least 6.0 rose from 11 to 29.

In 2004, FBS teams averaged 58 runs of 10 yards or more. In 2013, that number rose to 70.

Two backs means double trouble for defenses

Over the past decade or so, coaches have learned that featuring multiple running backs is better not just for the player's health, but for the team.

In the SEC, only former Auburn player Tre Mason had more than 220 carries last season. Thirty-four players in the league had at least 400 yards rushing, compared to 18 in 2004.

When the defense wears down, Alabama can substitute in fresh legs. If Yeldon has carried the ball on consecutive plays, coach Nick Saban can bring on Derrick Henry. Good luck to the tired linebacker trying to hold on to that 6-foot-3, 240-pound truck.

And if that's not enough, late in the fourth quarter, Kenyan Drake can pop off the bench and sprint past the gassed defense.

"I would rather have guys touch the ball 15-20 times a game for every game all year than a guy that has to be a workhorse and do it 30 or 35 times, and at some point in the season he's not the same kind of guy," Saban said.

Take Georgia's Todd Gurley, for instance. Instead of hitting the defense over the head with Gurley, coach Mark Richt can vary the looks he gives offensively, throwing a change-up with the slippery Keith Marshall, a fastball with burner Sony Michel or a brush-back pitch with the physically imposing Nick Chubb.

During the first half on Saturday, Georgia had just 45 yards on 12 carries. In the second half, it turned up the heat on Clemson, rushing for 283 yards on 29 carries.

The NFL agrees

If you're a running back in high school, think about trying out a new position. As Saban explained, "It's the position that has the shortest shelf life relative to your career."

ESPN.com's Chris Low detailed the decline in the value of running backs for ESPN The Magazine. In his piece, he raised the non-existent interest of Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who won the Pac-12's offensive player of the year award one year, posted even better numbers the next and then fell all the way to the fourth round of the NFL draft. Low went on to cite this eye-catching statistic: In the past five NFL drafts, only three running backs have been top-20 picks.

Like the college game, the NFL has seen the number of one-back offenses dwindle. Even in Seattle, star running back Marshawn Lynch accounted for slightly less than 60 percent of all Seahawks' rushing attempts last season, sharing carries with the likes of Robert Turbin. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing attempts last season with 314. But that number pales in comparison to a decade earlier when Ricky Williams ran the ball 392 times.

It just doesn't pay to be a workhorse anymore. According to NFL.com, none of the NFL's 20 richest contracts for 2014 belong to running backs, and only Peterson cracks the top 28.

Missing the good 'ol days

The Heisman Trophy is, in all its bronzed glory, a sculpture of Ed Smith.

Who is Ed Smith you ask? Well, he was a running back at NYU in the early 1930s.

Unless you live in a time capsule, that should seem like a long time ago. NYU, after all, doesn't have a football team anymore. What's more, the Heisman rarely goes to running backs now. It used to, with 17 of the first 25 award recipients playing the position, but today quarterbacks have confiscated the trophy.

The past four Heisman winners -- Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton -- all played quarterback. Since 2000, 12 QBs have won the award, with only Alabama's Mark Ingram and USC's Reggie Bush breaking up the streak. And in the case of Bush, he had to return the trophy at the behest of NCAA investigators.

There's some hope this season with Gurley leading the Heisman charge after his three-TD performance in Week 1, but even so there are concerns about his durability. Yeldon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah are in the mix, too, according to ESPN's panel of experts, but whether they'll get enough carries to post eye-popping numbers is up for debate. Nonetheless, the majority of Heisman contenders are quarterbacks.

Don't expect that to change anytime soon. Because while multiple running back systems pay dividends for teams on the field and for players' careers at the next level, it does nothing to help their chase for the game's ultimate trophy.
ATHENS, Ga. – Mark Richt has heard all the criticism that he has lost control at Georgia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC morning links

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
8:00
AM ET
1. So while Blake Sims earned the right to start for Alabama in the season opener against West Virginia, his 250-yard performance in the Crimson Tide's 33-23 win wasn't enough to cement him as the starter going forward. He'll likely be the guy who walks out with the starters against Florida Atlantic on Saturday, but expect to see him share snaps with Jake Coker. As Nick Saban puts it, there's still a quarterback competition going on in Tuscaloosa. The good news is that the Tide doesn't really need a true starter until the week of the Florida game, which isn't until Sept. 20. Don't have a starter set then? Well, that certainly isn't ideal. Speaking of quarterbacks, it didn't matter who Auburn threw out under center, Arkansas' defense just couldn't stop either of them. Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for nearly 300 yards, with Johnson throwing for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Now, here's the problem for Arkansas: Expect a lot more of that read-option because that's what the majority of the SEC West will be running this fall.

2. You guys have to feel bad for the Gators, right? I mean put your college colors aside for a second and think about the fact that a program looking to rebound from a disaster of a season was soooooo ready to get back on the field and debut its new offense only to be washed away by a swamp inside the Swamp. So instead of joining all the fun with everyone else in the country, Florida and Idaho huddled inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for hours while it poured and lightening bolts shot through the skies. Florida coach Will Muschamp, who is very much coaching for his job this year, said he supported the officials' decision to suspend the game due to weather and unsafe field conditions. Whether or not that game will be played at a future date is unknown at this point. They both have a bye week on Oct. 25, which just so happens to be the week before Florida's crucial game with Georgia. Yeah, you try convincing Muschamp and athletic director Jeremy Foley to play a game during the open week before Georgia. No, seriously. ... Well, the good news for the Gators is that when their season officially opens this Saturday against Eastern Michigan they'll have three suspended players back. Now, before you bash Mushcamp, remember that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin did something similar in 2012 with the postponed Louisiana Tech game.

3. Georgia coach Mark Richt thinks the running back group that he has now is the best he's ever had. Yeah, I'd agree with that when you consider that the Bulldogs had 328 rushing yards and averaged 8 yards per carry against Clemson. Todd Gurley, who I think is the nation's best player, got 198 of those yards and had three rushing touchdowns. Chubb had 70 yards and a touchdown on four carries and Sony Michel had 33 yards on six carries. By the way, those two are true freshmen. And Keith Marshall will only get better as he comes back from his knee injury.

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