SEC: Pig Howard


Florida stumbled and bumbled for most of Saturday afternoon, but it rallied late to beat Tennessee 10-9 and extend its winning streak in the annual rivalry to 10 games. Here is how it happened:

How the game was won: The Vols didn't have to do much for their 9-0 lead through three quarters, as Florida was as inept as ever on offense. Quarterback Jeff Driskel threw three interceptions, but his receivers were as much to blame with several drops and tipped passes. Just before the third quarter ended, Florida coach Will Muschamp went to true freshman Treon Harris, who provided an immediate spark and led the way to 10 unanswered points.

Game ball goes to: Harris gave the Gators a lift, but running back Matt Jones did the heavy lifting. The junior plowed through a Tennessee defense that routinely stacked the box. He finished with 23 carries for 114 yards and a touchdown. Jones also led all Gators receivers with four catches for 19 yards.

What it means: Florida fans had their pitchforks ready in case of another ugly loss, but Muschamp made the critical switch at quarterback in time to save the day. The defense might get overshadowed by the quarterback controversy, but the Gators held the Vols to 233 yards, 145 below their average. There is no moral victory for the Volunteers, who lost another winnable game. Tennessee had three turnovers and committed critical penalties at the wrong times. There is still a long way to go on Rocky Top before Tennessee learns how to win games.

Best play:

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With 51 seconds left in the game, Florida safety Keanu Neal sealed the win with a fingertip interception. Vols quarterback Justin Worley had driven Tennessee to Florida's 48-yard line looking to set up a go-ahead field goal. He overthrew slot receiver Pig Howard, who had beaten Florida's Marcus Maye. Neal scooped the ball inches off the turf, and the Gators began to celebrate.

What's next: Florida (3-1, 2-1 SEC) plays LSU at home next Saturday and will spend the week deciding whether to give Harris his first start at quarterback. If so, he might match up against fellow true freshman quarterback Brandon Harris. Tennessee (2-3, 0-2) stays home to face Chattanooga. The Vols have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to improve in clutch situations, as reaching six wins and going bowling for the first time since 2010 is in doubt.

At first glance: SEC Week 5

September, 22, 2014
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Another week in the SEC provided more intrigue after Mississippi State went into Death Valley and upended LSU, Missouri was stunned by Indiana and Auburn went into the Little Apple and pulled off a tough win over Kansas State.

The SEC West continues to flex its muscle with four teams in the top 10, five in the top 14 and six in the top 17 of the rankings. It’s hard to know what to make of the SEC East right now but this week could go a long way in providing some clarity with three intradivisional games. Let’s see what’s in store.

A quick look at the week ahead:

Game of the week: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M
"College GameDay" is going to Missouri-South Carolina but some of the pizzazz has escaped after the Tigers’ loss to Indiana. Keep an eye on the Aggies and Razorbacks, a game that provides a clash of contrasting styles (power running versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a chance for each team to prove something. Arkansas (3-1), a team that has already matched last season’s win total, could take a huge step forward with a win. It has already shown signs of progress with a road win at Texas Tech and when it battled toe-to-toe with Auburn for a half before the Tigers ultimately pulled away. No. 6 Texas A&M raced out of the gate with a big season-opening win over South Carolina but have had what has basically amounted to three straight preseason games against overmatched opponents since then. The Aggies run defense has yet to be truly tested (the Gamecocks were behind early and were mostly without Mike Davis) and the Razorbacks are the best in the SEC at running the ball. This was an interesting affair in Fayetteville last season; JerryWorld will set the scene for a potential shootout here.

Players under pressure: Missouri’s offensive line
The Tigers struggled mightily in its loss to Indiana. They committed three false start penalties, allowed two sacks and Indiana collected 11 tackles for loss, the most the Hoosiers have had in nearly two years. There were bad snaps and even worse, the Tigers lost senior left guard Anthony Gatti to a torn ACL during the game. Missouri hasn’t run the ball as well as it did a year ago (the Tigers are averaging 4.76 yards per carry, ninth in the SEC, compared to 5.66 yards per carry last season) and quarterback Maty Mauk was under pressure often against the Hoosiers. If the Tigers are going to bounce back from Saturday’s loss and start SEC play on the right foot at South Carolina, the offensive line play has to be better.

Coach under the microscope: Florida coach Will Muschamp
The Gators don’t play this weekend and that might be a bad thing after the taste left in their mouths following a 42-21 loss at Alabama. The week off will allow the “hot seat” talk of Muschamp’s job to only intensify during an idle week. Florida had a chance to redeem itself in Tuscaloosa after a home scare courtesy of Kentucky but allowing 645 yards to the Crimson Tide will only fan the flames. There will be talk about other topics (see: Jeff Driskel) and there are nine games left for Florida to turn things around but the bottom line is the Gators are 6-10 in their last 16 games including 4-6 in their last 10 SEC contests.

Storyline to watch: LSU’s quarterbacks
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris battled for the starting job all offseason and Jennings won the competition, but Saturday night’s relief performance by Harris against Mississippi State raised a few eyebrows. Jennings, a sophomore, was 13-of-26 for 157 yards but left the game with an injury. Harris, a true freshman, entered in the fourth quarter to give the LSU offense a lift and rally the team back into the ballgame in the final minutes, going 6-of-9 for 140 yards and two scores. Was it simply a case of Harris taking advantage of LSU’s hurry-up offense at the time while the Bulldogs enjoyed a seemingly-comfortable lead or is it a sign of things to come for Harris? Should the Tigers change quarterbacks? Will Harris see more time playing time, even if the Tigers don’t make the change? This will be an interesting situation to monitor.

Intriguing matchup: Tennessee versus Georgia
These two teams played a dramatic, memorable game in Knoxville last year, a 34-31 overtime win for Georgia. The Bulldogs were without star running back Todd Gurley; Aaron Murray led a gritty game-tying drive in regulation and who can forget the image of Pig Howard giving maximum effort by diving for a touchdown at the pylon in overtime only to have it overturned and ruled a fumble? This time, the game is in Athens and both are looking for their first SEC win of the season. Tennessee had time to regroup in an off week after its loss to Oklahoma while Georgia cruised to a win over Troy last week. Can the rematch meet the drama last season’s battle provided?
HOOVER, Ala. -- So what will Day 2 in Hoover hold? Let’s take a look and see, in order of appearance.

South Carolina (10 a.m. ET): This is Steve Spurrier’s element, so sit back and enjoy. Expect the Head Ball Coach to hold court in his 13th SEC media days appearance. And he won’t even have to discuss Jadeveon Clowney this go around. So what shall we talk about? At the risk of answering a rhetorical question: plenty. How is Dylan Thompson settling in at quarterback now that Connor Shaw is gone? Is Mike Davis a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender? Where does the defense go without Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton up front? And how do you navigate a schedule that starts with Texas A&M and rounds out with Auburn, Florida and Clemson? You better believe Spurrier will have something to say about scheduling and more, so make sure you’re tuned in.

Mississippi State (11:30 a.m. ET): Welcome to the Era of Expectations, Bulldogs fans. This isn’t your father’s Mississippi State. After five seasons building the program in his image, Dan Mullen is on the clock. He’s got a potential star at quarterback, a burgeoning group of playmakers at receiver and running back, and a defense that’s as talented and deep as any in the SEC. All of that must translate into wins. But how? That’s the overarching question for a program that has only recently become accustomed to going to bowl games. How will Dak Prescott respond to being the man at quarterback? How will Benardrick McKinney wrap his head around no longer being an underdog? What about the ever-present threat of Ole Miss? Mississippi State has plenty of reasons to hope for a great 2014. Now it’s time to really start talking about it.

Texas A&M (1 p.m. ET): We hope Kevin Sumlin is ready to hear about two dozen variations of the question "What’s life without Johnny Manziel going to be like?" because that’s probably what’s on the minds of most. Sumlin is likely to reply poignantly, citing something about how he has worked with successful quarterbacks his entire career. And who is the quarterback going to be anyway -- Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill? (Don't hold your breath for a clear answer to that one.) Aside from that, questions abound about the defense, which was mostly awful last season, and what about the off-the-field incidents? The Aggies had nine arrests this offseason and dismissed three players. How will the rash of off-the-field incidents impact the Aggies this fall?

Tennessee (2:30 p.m. ET): How quickly can the Volunteers turn their recent recruiting success into on-field results? Butch Jones brought in the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class in the 2014 cycle, impressive for a team that hasn't been as successful on the field as it has historically been accustomed to. Are the Vols ready to take the next step, and perhaps go bowling? Also, questions about who the starting quarterback will be will certainly be directed at Jones. One other topic of discussion is likely to center on the status of leading receiver Pig Howard, who took a leave of absence from the team during spring practice for personal reasons and who Jones said in May would be part of summer strength and conditioning but has "certain stipulations and requirements that must be met for him."

SEC position rankings: WR/TE

June, 11, 2014
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We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 15, 2014
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If you're like me, you're yearning for some football but it seems so far away (more than three months until the season opener). Fortunately, the college football talk doesn't stop and today's lunch links includes some current and former SEC players, as well as one interesting, off-the-wall idea:
Tennessee will enter spring practice on Friday without one of its top offensive weapons, as wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard is taking a leave of absence from the team.

[+] EnlargePig Howard
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAlton Howard led Tennessee with 44 catches in 2013.
Coach Butch Jones said that while Howard won’t be with the team, he is still enrolled in school. Jones added that Howard is "dealing with some personal circumstances."

The question is whether Howard will return to the team any time soon, if ever. We all know there are no guarantees when something like this happens, and the Vols can’t afford to lose Howard.

Howard was one of the more unheralded offensive players in the SEC last season. He led Tennessee with 44 receptions and three touchdown catches and was also second on the team with 388 receiving yards. Nothing mind blowing, but on a team that lacked any sort of offensive consistency, Howard was very valuable.

If Howard can’t return, more will be put on rising sophomore Marquez North, who led the team with 496 receiving yards last year, and true freshman Josh Malone, who enrolled early this spring. North could be a special player for the Vols. He really came on late last season and will be going through his first spring practice this year. That’s more reps and more time.

As for Malone, getting him on campus early is big for Tennessee, even before Howard’s situation. He’ll get an early jump on the playbook but has to realize he’s going to have even more pressure put on him to get things done early. He was an ESPN 300 prospect for a reason, and the Vols might have to see it right away.

Vols break through with signature win

October, 19, 2013
10/19/13
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Butch Jones, that bricklayer extraordinaire who also coaches a little football at Tennessee, promised there would be days like this when he took the job.

Of course, when the bottom falls out of a program the way it has at Tennessee over the past few years, days like this probably seem a lot closer to fantasy than they do reality for even the most orange-blooded fans.

But not Saturday and not with this Tennessee team, or, as Jones refers to it, "Team 117."

This was as real as it gets, and the Vols’ march back to relevance suddenly seems a lot more realistic after their last-second 23-21 victory over No. 11 South Carolina, setting off the kind of joyous scene in Neyland Stadium that was once the rule in these parts.

Jones, whose brick-by-brick mantra has taken hold on Rocky Top, chest-bumped everybody in sight, from his players, to Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, to “Duck Dynasty” star Justin Martin.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTennessee coach Butch Jones celebrates the biggest win of his coaching career after his Vols edged No. 11 South Carolina.
“I thought our team took a valuable step forward two weeks ago (in a 34-31 overtime loss to then-No. 6 Georgia),” Jones said. “It was gut-wrenching, but our kids believed and they built confidence. Confidence is a powerful thing. Belief is a powerful thing.

“We had pointed to this game for a long time, and our kids were ready to go.”

Really, it had been forever since the Vols (4-3, 1-2 SEC) had been able to enjoy anything other than a few recruiting classes ranked fairly highly on national signing day.

They’d endured coaching changes, NCAA investigations, 19 consecutive losses to nationally ranked teams and a long, painful fall from college football’s upper crust.

“Everybody had forgotten about us, and when they did talk about us, it’s like we didn’t even exist,” Tennessee receiver Pig Howard said. “Coach Jones gave us a reason to believe again. We believe in him and believe in each other, and this was a big step in what we want to do.”

The Vols won it on Michael Palardy’s 19-yard field goal as time expired, capping a 63-yard drive that was highlighted by a sensational, one-handed 39-yard catch by freshman Marquez North. Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley delivered the clutch throw on third-and-10, and the Vols did what they couldn’t do two weeks ago against Georgia.

They finished the game.

“This is just the start, and it’s something we’ve been building toward,” said senior defensive end Marlon Walls, who was recruited by Phillip Fulmer and has played for three different head coaches at Tennessee.

“We deserved this. We did this for each other. We did this for Coach Jones. We did it for all those great players who came before us here at Tennessee. We knew we should have won the game (against Georgia). We weren’t going to let this one get away.”

Jones had invited more than 200 former lettermen to come back for Saturday’s game, and several of them ran through the giant “T" before the game. Tony Robinson was there. So was Jamal Lewis, Al Wilson and even two players from the 1951 national championship team -- Herky Payne and Pat Shires.

“We talk about family, and once a Vol, always a Vol,” said Jones, who has gone out of his way to embrace former players and bring them back into the fold.

The other thing he’s done is create a culture the players have bought into completely and totally, and their confidence has soared ever since a 59-14 beating at No. 2 Oregon the third week of the season.

South Carolina was the fourth ranked opponent the Vols have played this season. No. 1 Alabama will be the fifth next week, and then it’s on to Missouri, which is the lone unbeaten team right now in the SEC’s Eastern Division.

“We can play with anybody,” Walls said. “But you’ve got to go out there and prove it on the field. That’s what we’re doing right now, and the best thing is that we can still get a lot better.”

Tennessee took a 17-7 lead into halftime Saturday against a South Carolina team that obliterated Arkansas 52-7 on the road last week. The Gamecocks, after their lackluster start, came charging back in the third quarter and took a 21-17 edge.

“There wasn’t any panic. We knew it was still our game,” Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers said.

Indeed it was.

The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) had to finish the game without starting quarterback Connor Shaw, who injured his left knee and was scheduled to undergo an MRI later Saturday night. But even before Shaw had to leave the game, South Carolina was struggling to get anything going against Tennessee’s defense in the fourth quarter.

South Carolina was held to 12 total yards in the fourth quarter and had four consecutive three-and-outs.

“Give Tennessee credit,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “I think they outplayed us, although we were within a play or two of winning it, but we didn’t do it.”

Nope, this day belonged to Tennessee.

“We needed that badly, desperately,” Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said. “It’s been a long time.”

SEC Power Rankings: Week 6

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
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Things are getting very interesting in the SEC and we have a little more movement in our Power Rankings this week:

1. Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC; last week: 1): Alabama did everything it was supposed to do in its tuneup against a very overmatched Georgia State team. Nick Saban wanted to get a chunk of his youngsters into the game and 70 players saw action. After its most complete game of the season, Alabama travels to Kentucky for another chance to work on execution.

2. Georgia (4-1, 3-0 SEC; LW: 2): The Bulldogs won a wild one against Tennessee Saturday, but they lost three key players on offense. Running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are both out for the year with season-ending knee injuries, and receiver Michael Bennett will miss Saturday's game with a knee injury. Aaron Murray has been superb, but now it's time for this defense to step up and make crucial improvements if Georgia is going to make it back to Atlanta.

3. Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC; LW: 3): The Aggies were off over the weekend, which gave this team a chance to rest and work on everything concerning its defense. Texas A&M still owns the SEC's worst defense (476.8 yards allowed per game), but when you have Johnny Manziel making play after play, it takes some pressure off everyone else. Still, this defense will have to be on point against Ole Miss' high-powered offense in Oxford.

4. LSU (5-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 4): Well, the Tigers offense just looks terrific right now. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. should all be in contention for the title of "best at their position" in the SEC. The Tigers have churned out more than 400 yards in every game and more than 500 in two. The defense still has its issues, especially stopping the run, but this offense is deadly.

5. Florida (4-1, 3-0 SEC; LW: 6): Believe it or not, the Gators are looking more and more like the most balanced team in the SEC East. Florida owns the SEC's best defense (217 yards allowed per game) and the offense has amassed 400 yards of offense three times this season. In Florida's blowout win over Arkansas on Saturday, new quarterback Tyler Murphy threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns. With this defense and an improving offense, are the Gators turning into a legit contender in the SEC?

6. South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 5): No, the Gamecocks didn't lose to Kentucky over the weekend, but this team just doesn't look focused right now, especially on defense. In their past three games, the Gamecocks have blown a 28-point lead to Vanderbilt, an 18-point lead to UCF and a 21-point lead to Kentucky. The good news is that South Carolina has gone 3-0 during that span, but that sort of sloppy play will catch up to you in this league.

7. Missouri (5-0, 1-0 SEC; LW: 8): Don't look now, but here come the midwestern Tigers! Mizzou is turning into quite the unit, especially on offense, after blowing out Vanderbilt in Nashville. With its trail mix of offensive talent, the Tigers dropped 51 on the Commodores and found themselves back in the Top 25. Mizzou is second to only Texas A&M in offense in the SEC and has registered more than 500 yards three times, including against Vandy.

8. Auburn (4-1, 2-1 SEC; LW: 9): These Tigers tried to give away a 27-9 lead in the third quarter against Ole Miss, but held on for a huge 30-22 win. One thing that really helped out Auburn was the play of its defensive line, as the Rebels only had 124 rushing yards Saturday. On offense, Auburn knows it's going to have to rely heavily on its running game, which churned out 282 yards and three touchdowns Saturday.

9. Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2 SEC; LW: 7): This team has now lost two in a row after such a hot start. The offense was shut out against Alabama and then couldn't run on Auburn's defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace made some bad decisions in Saturday's loss and this team just became way too one-dimensional on the Plains. Who's next? Oh, that would be Johnny Football.

10. Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3 SEC; LW: 10): The Commodores need a lot of help on defense. It's clear that there are holes all over and if Vandy is going to continue its upward progression, the defense has to improve. Vandy's defense has given up more than 500 yards twice and more than 360 yards four times.

11. Arkansas (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 11): When Florida forced Arkansas to throw the ball, the Razorbacks just couldn't get anything going. Brandon Allen completed only 17 of his 41 pass attempts, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and registered a QBR of 9.8. For the second time this season, the Hogs had no spark on offense when the running game got stuffed.

12. Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 13): What a fight by Tennessee in that heartbreaking loss to Georgia. The Bulldogs did sustain some serious injuries, but Justin Worley delivered some big-time throws and wide receiver Pig Howard is turning into a real playmaker, except for that goal-line fumble. This defense still has a long way to go, but Saturday showed that this team truly has heart.

13. Mississippi State (2-3, 0-2 SEC; LW: 12): This defense was impressive in the Bulldogs' two victories over lesser competition, but in three losses, Mississippi State has given up more than 400 yards each time. LSU racked up 59 points and more than 500 yards of offense Saturday. The Bulldogs kept things close for most of the night against the Tigers, but were totally overmatched in the fourth quarter, getting outscored 28-0.

14. Kentucky (1-4, 0-2 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats put up quite the fight against South Carolina and almost pulled off a huge upset at home. You could see some improvement and development on the offensive side against the Gamecocks, and it's important that it carry over going forward. This team just doesn't have the horses right now to really compete in the SEC.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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Another solid weekend of SEC football is in the books. Georgia and Tennessee gave the fans a treat, but there were plenty of other takeaways. Here are five things we learned from around the league in Week 6:

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIGeorgia quarterback Aaron Murray was 19-of-35 passing vs. Tennessee, with 196 yards and three touchdowns.
Murray, Georgia have the clutch gene: Remember when people wondered whether Aaron Murray could or would ever win a big game? That's been pretty much put to rest, especially after last week's 44-41 win over LSU, but on Saturday, Murray and Co. came up with a touchdown drive when they absolutely had to have it in the final minutes of regulation to send their dramatic battle with Tennessee into overtime. The Bulldogs benefited from a fumble by Tennessee running back Pig Howard as he dove for the pylon in the first overtime, but still, credit is due to Georgia for finding a way to win when Tennessee came roaring back from a two-touchdown deficit to take a 31-24 lead with all of Neyland Stadium singing "Rocky Top." Not to mention, injuries eliminated key player after key player from the Bulldogs' lineup, leaving them depleted in some areas -- particularly receiver and running back -- down the stretch. The Bulldogs' title hopes are still alive as a result of their fight.

Tennessee has reason for optimism: The loss hurts and it looked like the Volunteers were going to pull off the upset of the No. 6 team in the country, but there are definitely positives to be taken away. For starters, the kind of fight and grittiness Tennessee showed is what you want to see in your football team and something that hasn't necessarily been there in recent years. The Vols could have easily folded up like a tent when down 17-3 and Georgia was on the verge of taking a three-score lead before a missed field goal. Instead, they fought to the point that they put themselves in position to win. That's a huge positive for new coach Butch Jones. Secondly, quarterback Justin Worley played his best game of the year and made some big-time throws down the stretch. The execution by Worley down the stretch -- as well as the offense as a whole on three fourth-down plays in the second half -- was terrific.

Auburn and Mizzou are worth keeping an eye on: We weren't sure what to make of undefeated Missouri coming into Saturday, because all of the Tigers' opponents had been of the nonconference variety and none were particularly formidable. But in their first SEC contest on Saturday, the offense did what it has done much of the season -- score points -- en route to a 51-28 win over Vanderbilt. Missouri racked up 523 yards and got a great performance from quarterback James Franklin (19-of-28 passing, 278 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions). Mizzou is now 5-0 heading into a showdown with Georgia in Athens next week. Auburn, meanwhile, withstood a late rally from Ole Miss to secure a 30-22 win. Defensively, Auburn was relentless in rushing Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, collecting six sacks. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall gave the Rebels trouble on the ground, rushing for a team-high 140 yards and two touchdowns while also throwing for 93 yards on 11-of-17 passing. Auburn's now 2-1 in the SEC and has surpassed its win total from a year ago.

Odell Beckham Jr. is the truth: He has already shown how good he is this season by recording more than 100 receiving yards in three games, but on Saturday against Mississippi State the LSU junior receiver recorded career highs in catches (nine) and receiving yards (179) with two touchdowns in a 59-26 road win. The Bulldogs had absolutely no answer for Beckham all night as LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw him a variety of passes, including some jump balls that he made look unfair to defenders.

South Carolina is struggling to close games: Last week the Gamecocks saw Central Florida reel off 15 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes, but they hung on to win 28-25, and on Saturday, Kentucky rallied to make another Gamecocks win close late. South Carolina came into the fourth quarter with a 27-7 lead but the Wildcats pulled to within six with 11:50 remaining and seven with 4:02 to go. The Gamecocks held on, but it certainly isn't all roses for Steve Spurrier and Co. Not to mention, Jadeveon Clowney sat out the game with bruised ribs.

Opening camp: Tennessee

August, 1, 2013
8/01/13
4:30
PM ET
Schedule: The Vols begin practice at 4:30 p.m. ET on Friday. Tennessee will hold an open practice on Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. ET at Neyland Stadium. The plan is for it to simulate a preseason game. Players will be in pads for the first time on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

On the mend: Linebacker Curt Maggitt (knee, shoulder) and safety Jaylen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) both missed the spring. Keep an eye on Maggitt. He hopes to be 100 percent once the season starts. Safety Brian Randolph is returning to the field after tearing his ACL early last season.

Key battle: The Vols left spring without the quarterback spot being settled. Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman were about as even as they could have been this spring, but there's a sense that Worley, who has the only college experience, has the edge heading into fall camp. Still, first-year coach Butch Jones won't say who leads and is hoping that one took over as more of a leader during the offseason. Finding a quarterback is the top priority for the Vols heading into the season.

Of note: With the loss of the team's top four pass-catchers from 2012, the Vols will have to replace the 2,914 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns they combined for last year. That won't be easy, as receiver Alton "Pig" Howard is the only pass-catcher who returns with double-digit catches (10) from a year ago and Vincent Dallas returns the most receiving yards (149) from a year ago.

Predicted order of finish: Picked to finish fifth in the SEC East at SEC media days.

They said it: "We always talk about inches make the champion and everyone is searching for the inches. I'm a firm believer in team chemistry and I think we all know this, it's not a secret. Are we going to be the most talented team this year? No we're not. We all understand that, but talent doesn't win championships. Teams win championships." -- Jones

Strong and weak: Tennessee

July, 3, 2013
7/03/13
9:00
AM ET
It’s time to check out Tennessee's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season.

Strongest position: Offensive line

Tennessee lost a ton on offense from a year ago, and the Vols were plenty explosive even though they didn't win a lot of games. In fact, they lost four games in which they scored more than 30 points. The good news for first-year coach Butch Jones is that four of the five starting offensive linemen return, and all four are likely to wind up in an NFL camp somewhere. Junior Antonio "Tiny" Richardson is a franchise left tackle. Go back and look at the job he did on both Jarvis Jones and Jadeveon Clowney last season (except for that last play against the Gamecocks). Senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James is also a future pro, while senior Zach Fulton is one of the top guards in the league. Throw in senior center James Stone, who has 27 career starts, and it all adds up to the best offensive line in the SEC. When you're good up front on offense, it masks other problems on that side of the ball. The Vols will lean heavily on their offensive line in 2013 and will need those guys to play up to their talent level and then some.

Weakest position: Receivers

All you really need to know about Tennessee's receiving corps is that every wide receiver or tight end who caught more than 13 passes a year ago is gone, including three players -- Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Mychal Rivera -- who were taken in the NFL draft. In addition, underrated Zach Rogers signed as a free agent with the Jets. That's 26 receiving touchdowns gone. There were as many errors as big plays from the Vols' receivers this spring, and Jones has admitted that they have a long way to go. Sophomore Pig Howard is the top returning wide receiver, but he's not a big target at 5-8 and 185 pounds. Redshirt freshman Jason Croom is coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him a year ago, and junior Vincent Dallas is somebody who's at least played. Sophomore Cody Blanc could be a sleeper, and it's a given that true freshmen MarQuez North and Paul Harris will have to play early. North was the gem of the 2013 signing class, but will have to learn on the run. He wasn't on campus for spring practice. It's never ideal to count on freshmen, but that's were the Vols are right now at the receiver position -- and they're equally unproven at tight end.
2012 record: 5-7

2012 conference record: 1-7, (sixth, Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; Defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Rajion Neal, RB Marlin Lane, OT Antonio Richardson, OT Ja’Wuan James, LB A.J. Johnson, LB Curt Maggit, S Brian Randolph, S Byron Moore

Key losses

QB Tyler Bray, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Justin Hunter, OG Dallas Thomas, TE Mychal Rivera, DE Darrington Sentimore, LB Herman Lathers, CB Prentiss Waggner

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Rajion Neal* (708 yards)
Passing: Tyler Bray (3,612 yards)
Receiving: Justin Hunter (1,083 yards)
Tackles: A.J. Johnson* (138)
Sacks: Darrington Sentimore (4)
Interceptions: Byron Moore* (5)

Spring answers

1. Buying into the new staff: There are always those awkward first moments with a new coaching staff, but the Vols seemed to go through spring pretty smoothly with new coach Butch Jones and his staff. This team didn’t have time to question Jones and his guys because the program has been trending downward for sometime now. Thanks to Jones, you could tell there was a lot more excitement in Knoxville this spring.

2. Defensive comfort: It looks like Tennessee’s defense adjusted back to a 4-3 defense will this spring. After struggling all year with the SEC’s worst defense in a 3-4 scheme under Sal Sunseri, Vols defenders really took to defensive coordinator John Jancek’s 4-3. With good experience coming back in the front seven, which proved to be a much more aggressive front this spring. If those guys continue to improve, it will help mask some of the issues in the secondary.

3. Sapp's emergence: With Herman Lathers gone, the Vols were in search of a valuable replacement, and it looks like they found it in senior Dontavis Sapp. He entered the spring with just two career starts and was Lathers' backup at the Will spot last year, but was Tennessee's most consistent defender this spring. His development this spring was very important with Curt Maggitt out for the spring while he recovered from the ACL injury he suffered last fall.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback competition: Jones left the spring saying that both Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman were about even for the starting quarterback spot. Worley was a little more consistent this spring and has game experience, but Jones is now putting the team in their hands, as they head into the summer. This competition won’t officially be decided until fall camp, so neither can afford to slip now.

2. Wide receiver issues: The Vols lost 2,914 yards and 26 touchdowns from their top four pass-catchers in 2012. Tennessee is in desperate need of finding quality replacements to help its inexperienced quarterbacks this fall. Pig Howard is expected to make an impact this fall, but struggled this spring. Sophomore Cody Blanc showed good strides, and the staff needs more out of redshirt freshmen Drae Bowles and Jason Croom.

3. Thin secondary: Tennessee still has some work to do in its secondary. Brian Randolph's return will be nice, but the numbers are still thin throughout the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback. Justin Coleman emerged as the Vols' top option at corner, but the spot opposite him still hasn't been determined. Having Eric Gordon away from the team for disciplinary reasons doesn't help, either. There were signs of improvement from the secondary, but it's still very much a work in progress.

Opening spring camp: Tennessee

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
2:30
PM ET
Schedule: The Vols open spring practice Saturday at 10:30 a.m. ET and will conclude the spring on April 20 with their annual Orange & White game at 2 p.m. ET in Neyland Stadium.

What’s new: Butch Jones is the Vols’ fourth different head coach in the past six years. He was previously at Cincinnati for three seasons and guided the Bearcats to first-place finishes in the Big East each of the past two seasons. Several assistants followed him from Cincinnati, including offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, offensive line coach Don Mahoney, tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Mark Elder, defensive coordinator John Jancek, associate head coach and defensive line coach Steve Stripling and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. Zach Azzanni is the receivers coach and recruiting coordinator after coaching last season at Wisconsin. Tommy Thigpen is the linebackers coach after coming over from Auburn. Former Florida running back Robert Gillespie will coach the running backs after spending the past two seasons on the West Virginia staff. Jones had originally re-hired Jay Graham from the previous Tennessee staff to coach running backs, but Graham left last week to take a job at Florida State.

On the mend: Linebacker Curt Maggitt (knee) and safety Jaylen Reeves-Maybin will both miss the spring. Offensive tackle Antonio Richardson will be limited.

On the move: Devrin Young will shift from running back and get a look at slot receiver this spring. Brent Brewer is moving from safety to linebacker. Corey Vereen and Jacques Smith will both get work at the stand-up defensive end position in the nickel package. Justin King will move to tight end from fullback.

Question marks: The Vols need to solidify the secondary. Getting safety Brian Randolph back will be huge. He was their best defensive back before tearing his ACL in the Florida game last season. The Vols will be careful with him this spring. All of Tennessee’s top receivers are departing -- Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera. It’s a big spring for all of the younger receivers, in particular Pig Howard, Drae Bowles and Jason Croom. Heralded signee MarQuez North arrives this summer. The Vols also need to find more playmakers and more depth up front defensively. Daniel McCullers and Maurice Couch will be key on the interior of that defensive line.

New faces: Junior college cornerback Riyahd Jones has a chance to be a starter from the outset. The Vols struggled to cover anybody last season. True freshman Paul Harris, an early enrollee, could crack the receiver rotation.

Key battle: The Vols have to find a replacement for Tyler Bray at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman is a good athlete who can move around and make plays. He was recruited by Jones and Bajakian at Cincinnati. Junior Justin Worley has the most experience and has a few starts under his belt. He’s not as athletic as Peterman, but is smart and has improved his arm strength. It should be a close race.

Breaking out: Redshirt freshman LaTroy Lewis would have played extensively last season as a true freshman, but was injured during preseason camp. He’s moving to defensive end from outside linebacker in the Vols’ new 4-3 scheme and has everything it takes to be a dynamic finisher off the edge. The Vols haven’t had more than 17 sacks in a season since 2010.

Don’t forget about: Tennessee’s offensive line should be one of the best in college football next season with four returning starters who all have a chance to play in the NFL. Six offensive linemen are returning who’ve started games for the Vols. Alex Bullard and Marcus Jackson will compete for Dallas Thomas’ left guard job.

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