SEC: Russell Hansbrough

We continue our most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today, we take a look at Missouri.

Most important game: Oct. 11 vs Georgia

Key players: Is anybody else still wondering how Missouri reached the SEC championship game last season? People doubted the Tigers all year, and they proved us all wrong time and time again. That team lost a lot of talent, but the cupboard isn’t bare heading into this season.

Quarterback Maty Mauk will become the full-time starter and if last fall was any indication, he has a chance to be one of the top signal-callers in the league. In his four starts, all against SEC teams, he threw for 910 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He’ll have to be at the top of his game against Georgia, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Dawgs lost three starters in their secondary this offseason. To be fair, Missouri will be without its top three pass-catchers from a year ago, including sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham who was dismissed from the team in April. It will be up to Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt to pick up the slack.

It’s more likely that the Tigers will lean on its running back tandem this season. Henry Josey is gone, but Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy each rushed for over 600 yards and over 6.0 yards per carry a year ago. Expect them both to put up big numbers early in the season, but how will they fare once the SEC slate begins? The Georgia game will be a major test for them and for the offensive line.

The real question mark for Missouri isn’t the offense. It’s the defense. The Tigers reloaded at defensive end, replacing Michael Sam and Kony Ealy with Markus Golden and Shane Ray, but will that be enough to slow down Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and the rest of Georgia’s running backs? The key will be safety Braylon Webb and his ability to come up and play the run. He was second on the team in tackles last season.

Why it matters: The Georgia game could be the difference between Missouri making it back to Atlanta as SEC East champs or sneaking into a bowl game with six wins. That’s right. The schedule actually sets up nicely for the Tigers to make another run at the East. They open the season with four winnable games before heading to South Carolina for the SEC opener. A loss to the Gamecocks would hurt, but it’s still early. However, if Missouri loses to South Carolina and Georgia in back-to-back games, then the wheels start to fall apart. A win against Georgia could get the Tigers back on track and give them confidence before another road test at Florida. If they can win two of their first three conference games against the upper echelon teams in the East, they have a chance to make another run and contend for the title.
Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
Now that almost all the SEC schools are officially going through spring practices, it's time to see who could break out in the weeks ahead.

It's a fun time to prognosticate about players we might know, but didn't know were that good. Spring practice doesn't tell us a lot, but it does get players ready for the fall and can separate guys from the pack before summer workouts and fall camp gets underway.

Today, we're taking a look at five players from each division who have a chance to break away from the pack this spring at their respective schools. We'll start with the Eastern Division and take a look at the West a little later.

[+] EnlargeMissouri celebrates
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsMissouri running back Russell Hansbrough, left, could have many more opportunities to celebrate in 2014.
Here are our five breakout players from the SEC East (in alphabetical order):

  • Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina: Now that Bruce Ellington is gone, the Gamecocks are in search of a No. 1 wide receiver. It's like this happens every year now. Cooper only caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown during his freshman season in 2013, but Steve Spurrier was a big fan of Cooper last year. And with Damiere Byrd still dealing with a knee injury, Cooper should get a lot of work this spring, especially in the slot, where he could be really dangerous. With his speed, Cooper could be a real threat in the open field.
  • Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida: The Gators return a solid group of linebackers, but Davis is one to really keep an eye on this spring. He was the least heralded of Florida's freshman linebackers last year but was the best of the young bunch, registering 24 tackles and a start in 12 games. He's a hard worker, has great football intelligence, and is a workhorse on the field and in the gym. Coach Will Muschamp has raved about Davis' leadership skills and how well he's adapted to the college game. Davis will work inside this spring and will push for one of the starting spots there with Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor.
  • C.J. Duncan, WR, Vanderbilt: The Commodores are in search of some offensive weapons this spring, and Duncan has the talent and versatility to make quite the impression on his new coaches. He can play receiver and running back and should get a chance at both positions this spring. The Commodores need help at receiver, especially with Jordan Matthews gone, so Duncan will have every opportunity to make an impact there first. He doesn't have any game experience, but this entire team is basically starting over fresh with a new coaching staff.
  • Russell Hansbrough, RB, Missouri: Henry Josey might be gone, but the Tigers are in good hands with Hansbrough, who was second on the team last year with 685 rushing yards and tallied four touchdowns. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry and has a special blend of speed and power. This position is wide open, and Hansbrough will have to compete with a very steady and explosive Marcus Murphy, but he could be really special with Josey gone. Hansbrough can break the big plays and bowl you over with his strength. He'll have every chance to take the starting spot this spring.
  • Chris Mayes, NT, Georgia: The Bulldogs would love to get more consistency up front, and Mayes is a guy who quietly came into his own last season. He ended the season with seven straight starts at nose tackle and registered 31 tackles and a sack. He's an athletic, big body in the middle and should have a lot of fun learning from new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker. The junior will get some push from a couple other players in the middle, but if Mayes feeds off the momentum he gained at the end of last season, he could have a very good spring in Athens.

Opening spring camp: Missouri

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
Schedule: The Tigers begin practice on Tuesday and conclude on April 19 with Missouri’s annual Black and Gold scrimmage inside Memorial Stadium. All of Missouri’s practices are closed to the public.

What’s new: While coach Gary Pinkel did lose a few valuable pieces to his roster, he was able to keep his coaching staff intact for 2014.

On the mend: The Tigers should be relatively healthy entering spring practice. Missouri should get redshirt junior cornerback Ernest Payton back after he tore his ACL just before last season’s opener, causing him to miss the 2013 season. Also, redshirt junior wide receiver J'Mon Moore should be back after a shoulder injury bothered him all last year.

On the move: There could be some movement along the Tigers’ offensive line with starters Justin Britt (left tackle) and Max Copeland (left guard) gone. Keep an eye on starting right tackle Mitch Morse, who could move over to left tackle in order to keep some experience on that side of the line.

New faces: The Tigers have five early enrollees this year. The true freshmen are cornerback Logan Cheadle, offensive lineman Michael Fairchild, linebacker Brandon Lee and quarterback Marvin Zanders. Junior college cornerback Kenya Dennis is also on campus early.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDorial Green-Beckham will be back at Missouri catching passes, but who will step up beside him at wide receiver?
Question marks: Mizzou watched as its secondary was gutted after the 2013 season. Three starters, including All-SEC cornerback E.J. Gaines, are gone, and while the Tigers have bodies to throw on the field this spring, there isn’t a lot of experience. Rising sophomore Aarion Penton started two games in place of Gaines last season and played in all 14 games for the Tigers. He seems primed to take Gaines’ spot, but a gang of players will be vying for the spot opposite him. Look for Duron Singleton and Cortland Browning to compete for the open safety spot.

The loss of receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas means that someone needs to step up and help Dorial Green-Beckham. Green-Beckham is capable of being an All-American, but he’ll need assistance from guys such as Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White. Also, expect some youngsters to compete for more time at receiver. However, the biggest hole on offense might be at left tackle. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Williams, who moved from guard last season, could get the first looks there during camp, but watch out for Moore and Taylor Chappell. The Tigers also need to find a replacement for Andrew Wilson at middle linebacker. Michael Scherer has the most experience inside, but don’t be surprised if Mizzou’s coaches move Kentrell Brothers inside at times, too.

Key battle: Really, just take a look at any of the battles in the secondary. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in pass defense in 2013, but are losing a lot of experience and one of their best players in Gaines. Having rising senior Braylon Webb back is a plus, but filing three starting spots with a lack of quality experience will be quite the job for defensive coordinator Dave Steckel.

Breaking out: The Tigers certainly would have preferred for running back Henry Josey to stay one more season, but there are plenty of guys vying to be his replacement. The one who could make the biggest splash this spring is rising junior Russell Hansbrough, who was second on the team with 685 rushing yards last season. He also had four rushing touchdowns and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. Hansbrough is explosive, agile and tough to tackle. He can bounce off defenders and has the quickness to make guys miss. He also has the strength to grind out extra yards.

Don’t forget about: Many might point to the losses of defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy and wonder who the Tigers will turn to. But Mizzou actually should be fine up front, especially with redshirt senior Markus Golden deciding to stay one more year instead of jumping to the NFL early. Because of Sam and Ealy, Golden flew under the radar last season, but he was still able to finish the season with 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also had 55 total tackles and has a chance to be one of the SEC’s top pass rushers.

All eyes on: While Maty Mauk held his own during a month as Mizzou’s starting quarterback last season, everyone will be checking on him to see how he responds this spring. While Pinkel has said that it’s an open competition at quarterback, Mauk clearly has the upper hand and is the favorite to land the starting job. Fans have been itching to see him be the guy, but he won’t have James Franklin to lean on for guidance. Mauk is fully capable of stepping in and impressing (again), but a lot of pressure and hype surround him. He threw for more than 1,000 yards last season and had 11 touchdown passes. He fits Mizzou’s offense as good as anyone and has the moxie and confidence to be a solid leader for this team.
Missouri lost a key component to its explosive offense, as junior running back Henry Josey decided to bypass his senior year and throw his hat into the NFL ring, the school announced Tuesday.

Josey joins junior defensive end Kony Ealy as the second early entry from Missouri's football team.

More than a year removed from a devastating knee injury that left his football career in jeopardy, Josey stormed back to the playing field with 1,166 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. He was a major reason for Missouri's offensive revival in 2013 and will be sorely missed by the Tigers in 2014.

[+] EnlargeHenry Josey
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCTMissouri running back Henry Josey is taking the opportunity to leap into the NFL draft after a productive career with the Tigers.
Considered one of the best running backs in the Big 12 before his season-ending injury in 2011, Josey didn't appear to lose a step after losing an entire year of his football life. He was barely walking after his injury, yet sprinted past or cut by most of the defenders who attempted to bear hug him in 2013.

He only broke the century mark in four games this season but averaged 6.7 yards per carry. This was not a player you wanted to sleep on. He could churn out the extra tough yards to extend drives and could end drives in an instant with his home-run speed. Josey finished his Mizzou career with a bang, rushing for 92 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 16-yard run late in the fourth quarter to secure the Tigers' 41-31 win over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

Here's what Josey said about his departure in a release from the school:

“This is really a bittersweet decision to make. I’m so grateful to Mizzou and my coaches and teammates and fans for all of their support and everything they’ve meant to me these past four years. It’s difficult to think I won’t be with them next year. But I’m really excited to have a chance to play professionally and work on fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was a little kid. I can’t possibly express how much I owe to so many people for helping me get to this position, my doctors, trainers, strength coaches, everyone who pushed me and helped me and believed in me, and of course my coaches for trusting me. To the Mizzou fans, thanks so much for all of your prayers and thoughts the past couple of years, you truly inspired me to get back on the field. I’m going to miss my teammates but I know they’ll do great things and I will always be a Mizzou Tiger.”

It was a special season for a special player who almost had the sport that he loved taken away from him. While the Tigers had plenty of offensive threats to work with this season, Josey was a true X-factor for this team. He made the running game go and could cut the life out of a defense with a simple cut or burst.

The good news for Mizzou is that it has good experience at that running back position. Sophomore Russell Hansbrough ranked second on the team with 685 yards and four touchdowns on 114 carries this season, while junior Marcus Murphy added 601 yards and nine more scores. Oh, and new starting quarterback Maty Mauk isn't afraid to tuck the ball and run either, as he rushed for 229 yards on 41 carries this season.

Mizzou should be fine running the ball, but Josey's intangibles and overall skill will be tough to replace. He was a model player and citizen for the Tigers and the SEC will miss him. Well, maybe not defenders and their coordinators, but you get the point.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
Here are five individuals (or groups) from around the SEC who earned helmet stickers for their performances on Saturday.

Missouri's running game: The backfield committee of Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy, James Franklin and Russell Hansbrough led the way, as the Tigers racked up 260 yards rushing to handle Ole Miss on the road. Josey was Mizzou's statistical standout with 95 yards, a 6.3-yard average and two touchdowns. Murphy added 67 yards and a touchdown, and Franklin chipped in 42 yards in his return to the starting lineup. The senior quarterback, who averaged 5.3 yards a carry, showed just what a challenge he presents to defenses when they must account for his snap decisions to run, throw or do both. The Tigers have a reliable offense built on the foundation of their diverse running game. It should come in handy at home next week as they aim for Atlanta.

John Chavis: With an assist from some nasty weather, LSU's defensive coordinator architected what might have been a Heisman bid-killer in Death Valley on Saturday. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel was gunning for back-to-back trophies but ran smack into a determined Tigers' D. Manziel was only 16-of-41 passing (a career-low 39 percent) for 224 yards with two interceptions and two sacks. He also had only 54 rushing yards on 12 carries. All told, Johnny Football recorded a career-low 14.9 Total QBR on Saturday. Just as it was in a win at College Station last season, Chavis' key was having his front focus on containment in order to limit Manziel's improvisational magic. Mission accomplished.

Jordan Matthews: Any time Vanderbilt beats instate rival Tennessee in back-to-back seasons (Hint: It hadn't happened since 1925-26), a helmet sticker must be awarded. In a game that was more about two defenses fighting for every yard, the senior wide receiver caught 13 passes for 133 yards and broke the SEC record for career receptions. Matthews now has 246 career receptions and owns the mark previously held by Vandy's Earl Bennett, who caught 236 passes from 2005-07. Matthews also has the SEC record for career yards receiving (3,491).

AJ McCarron: We'll give a nod to Georgia QB Aaron Murray, who similarly feasted on an inferior opponent (four touchdown passes before leaving with an injury). But McCarron had much more on the line in leading the undefeated top-ranked Tide past Chattanooga. Like Murray at Sanford Stadium, McCarron also bore the emotional burden of playing in his final home game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He was a brutally efficient 13-of-16 passing for 171 yards and two touchdowns (95.9 Total QBR), and he even found time to deliver brother Corey his first career reception. But the most important statistic in McCarron's sterling legacy at Bama is his 36-2 record as a starter, which broke a tie with Jay Barker for the school record.

Terrence Magee: Sure, the junior tailback has played second fiddle to Jeremy Hill all season. But Magee broke out on Saturday with a career-high 149 yards rushing in LSU's win against visiting Texas A&M. The conditions -- cold, wet, blustery and generally miserable -- called for a strong running game. Magee answered the bell early with a 65-yard sprint that put the Aggies defense on its heels and set up the Tigers' first touchdown. Magee led the way for LSU to amass 324 yards on 55 rushes, a ground assault for which A&M had no answer.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 30, 2013
It’s officially hump day, and as SEC teams prepare for this weekend -- or next if you’re Alabama and LSU -- let’s take a look around the league with today’s edition of the lunch links.

Missouri still has a ton to play for

October, 28, 2013
So where does Missouri go from here?

After what began as a magical 7-0 start to the 2013 season took a temporary detour on Saturday when an Andrew Baggett field goal attempt dinged off the right goal post at Faurot Field against South Carolina in overtime. After that 27-24 loss, the undefeated season vanished, but it 2013 still can be a special one for the Tigers.

Missouri is No. 9 in the BCS standings, so it's not like this team has been reduced to rubble. The SEC Eastern Division crown is still Missouri's to lose, as it's the only East team that controls its own destiny with just one conference loss. A BCS bowl game isn't out of question, either. Winning out and taking home the SEC crown in Atlanta would at least guarantee a trip to New Orleans for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. And, hey, if Missouri wins out and beats No. 1 Alabama there's a chance the BCS title game will be waiting. Other teams in front of Mizzou would need to lose, but it isn't impossible.

[+] EnlargeHenry Josey, Evan Boehm
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri needs to shake the doldrums quickly because it still is in the SEC East driver's seat.
So, yes, Saturday was heartbreaking for Mizzou, but there's still plenty this team can accomplish. What has to happen now is mental regrouping. Saturday was rough, but it's over. Losses like this -- especially when you blow a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter and generate just 39 yards and two first downs in the final frame -- can have a negative effect on teams. They can linger and poison preparation and focus.

That has to be a real concern for a team that did a complete 180 after a 5-7 2012 year, so coach Gary Pinkel has to rally his guys. The good news is that there is a lot of veteran leadership. This team wouldn't even be in this situation without it. One roadblock can't derail this team.

But expect a lot of eyes to be on redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk. As long as senior James Franklin is on the sideline with that shoulder injury, this is Mauk's team. He was a proven winner in high school and is 1-1 as the Tigers' starter, but everything is different now. The pressure is on Mizzou, which means it's only growing for Mauk. Win, and you're in Atlanta. Lose, and the pressure mounts as teams like South Carolina, Georgia and Florida creep closer and closer.

Tennessee, Ole Miss and No. 12 Texas A&M are still on the schedule.

This team has had a ton of success already. The offense has been fantastic, averaging just under 500 yards a game. It's averaging almost 7 yards per play and 41.8 points per game. Three receivers -- L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas -- have more than 445 receiving yards and three running backs -- Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy -- have more than 400 rushing yards.

The defense leads the SEC with 25 sacks, and defensive end Michael Sam is making a strong case to be the nation's best defensive player with his 10 sacks (tied for first nationally) and nation-leading 16 tackles for loss.

But those achievements mattered little when the Tigers lost for the first time in almost a year. That second-half collapse, in which they allowed a gimpy Connor Shaw to throw for 209 yards and three touchdowns in a little more than a quarter of work, had to be tough to endure. Fifteen minutes away from essentially clinching the SEC East vanished with a valiant Gamecocks comeback. That game-ending missed field goal only piled onto those 15 minutes of pain.

But the Tigers can't let that final quarter and the overtimes define the season. There's too much left to do and too much talent on the field.

SEC Week 6: Did you know?

October, 4, 2013
Not a ton of marquee games matching up ranked teams this week in the SEC, but some interesting matchups nonetheless, like Auburn-Ole Miss, Missouri-Vanderbilt and Arkansas-Florida, among others. Here are some statistical notes from around the league, with an assist from ESPN Stats & Information:
  • Georgia senior quarterback Aaron Murray is likely to become the SEC's career passing yardage leader on Saturday when the Bulldogs travel to Tennessee. He trails the current leader, former Georgia quarterback David Greene, by just 99 yards on the all-time SEC passing yardage list (Greene's record total is 11,528). Murray (11,249 passing yards) has never thrown for fewer than 109 yards in a game throughout his 45-game career.
  • Murray still needs 573 total offensive yards to catch former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (12,232 yards) who holds the SEC's career total offense record. Murray has 11,659 total offensive yards to his name.
  • LSU has done well to avoid allowing one loss turn into two. The Tigers, who lost to Georgia in a thriller last week, haven't lost consecutive SEC games since 2009. They haven't lost two games consecutively, regardless of opponent, since 2008. Under head coach Les Miles, LSU is 20-1 following a loss (including season openers after a loss to end the previous season).
  • This is the first time in LSU history that the team has scored at least 30 points in each of the first five games of the season.
  • South Carolina's 169 rushes are the most the Gamecocks have recorded through four games since Steve Spurrier was hired as their head coach prior to the 2005 season. They've rushed for at least 220 yards in each of those first four games and are averaging 5.32 yards per carry, which is tied for 24th in the country.
  • Spurrier has been extremely successful against the Gamecocks' opponent this week, Kentucky. He owns a 19-1 career record against Kentucky.
  • Florida's rushing defense is No. 1 nationally in yards allowed per game (53.5) and it is the only defense to hold every opponent to fewer than 75 rushing yards this season. The average AQ conference team hits opponents at or behind the line of scrimmage 42 percent of the time; Florida has done it 57 percent of the time this year. The Gators also allow the second-fewest yards before contact per game, with 15. Only Michigan State (12.8 yards allowed before contact per game) has a better average.
  • While Florida's run defense has been dominant, Arkansas' rushing attack has been superb. The Razorbacks are second in the SEC in rushing yards per game (237) and freshman Alex Collins leads the conference with 597 rushing yards this year. So it will be interesting to watch who wins the battle when Arkansas runs the football against the Gators.
  • Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace is one of two quarterbacks in the FBS with at least 115 pass attempts and zero interceptions (Wallace has attempted 118 passes this year). Idaho's Chad Chalich is the only other player holding that distinction right now.
  • Auburn, which hosts Ole Miss, hasn't loss to the Rebels at home since 2003. The Rebels' quarterback that year? Eli Manning.
  • Alabama holds a 28-3 nonconference record under Nick Saban and is 21-0 in nonconference games since the start of the 2009 season. The Crimson Tide are also 13-1 all-time against current Sun Belt teams. The Tide host Sun Belt member Georgia State on Saturday.
  • Since taking over for injured quarterback Jeff Driskel, Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy has a 96.1 QBR, which would be second in the FBS if he had enough snaps to qualify for the national rankings. But in nine fewer drives than Driskel, Murphy has guided the Gators to more touchdowns (seven to Driskel's five), fewer turnovers (three to Driskel's seven) and fewer three-and-out series (four to Driskel's eight). A healthy Matt Jones at running back certainly doesn't hurt Murphy in that regard, either.
  • Tennessee has lost 18 straight games to teams ranked in the Associated Press poll. The last win by the Volunteers over an AP top 10 team was in 2006 against Georgia in Athens. The Vols will get a crack at Georgia, currently ranked No. 6, at Neyland Stadium.
  • Mississippi State has lost 11 consecutive games against ranked opponents. The Bulldogs’ last win over such a team was in 2010 over then-No. 22 Florida. As for top 10 teams, which their opponent on Saturday (LSU) is, the Bulldogs haven't beaten one of those since Sept. 30, 2000 (then-No. 3 Florida).
  • A Kentucky loss to South Carolina would drop the Wildcats to a 1-4 start in back-to-back seasons. The last time that happened was 2004-05.
  • Missouri is the only school in the country currently with four players who have rushed for 215 yards or more this season. The quartet consists of: running backs Russell Hansbrough (335 yards), Henry Josey (238), Marcus Murphy (224) and quarterback James Franklin (215).
  • Vanderbilt senior kicker Carey Spear hit a 50-yard field goal against UAB last week to become the Commodores' first kicker to hit four field goals of 50 yards or better in his career. His career best was 54 yards against South Carolina on Sept. 14 and that's also the second-longest field goal by an SEC player this season (Georgia's Marshall Morgan hit a 55-yarder against LSU last week).
The other day I was asked a question about the SEC that caught me off guard a little.

And no, it wasn't about Bob Stoops or scheduling.

I was asked if the league would be a quarterback or running back league in 2013. Obviously, when you think about the SEC, you think of pound-it-out, grind-it-out football. Games are won and lost in the trenches and running backs are usually a team's most coveted asset. The more the merrier, too.

But the SEC returns some pretty good experience at both positions.

At running back, the SEC will be without four of the league's top 10 rushers -- Eddie Lacy, Mike Gillislee, Zac Stacy and Kendial Lawrence -- from the 2012 season. The SEC will be without three of the top 10 passers -- Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson and Jordan Rodgers.

Now, my math skills tell me that seven top players at a position is better than six, but the SEC is deep at running back this season. Of the seven top quarterbacks returning, six reached 2,500 passing yards, while only two made it to 3,000 yards -- Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel. Nine true starters return (Kentucky's Maxwell Smith missed most of last season and ended the spring behind Jalen Whitlow). So five teams are breaking in new starters.

The SEC saw eight running backs hit the 1,000-yard mark last season. There's a chance the league could not only reach that number again but it could eclipse it.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanT.J. Yeldon takes over for running back Eddie Lacy as "the guy" for Alabama.
Alabama lost Lacy -- and his 1,322 yards/17 touchdowns -- but rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon appears more than ready to take over as the lead back. He rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and it sounds like he looked even better as the guy. He'll also have help from fellow sophomore Kenyan Drake, who played in 12 games last year, and Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, who are both returning from season-ending knee injuries. Remember, Fowler had nearly 400 rushing yards in 2011. True freshman Derrick Henry, who was tearing it up this spring before his leg injury, should help once he's healthy this fall.

Oh, and Alabama will welcome three more backs this summer, including ESPN 150 member Alvn Kamara.

Texas A&M and Florida will also have the luxury of a packed backfield. The Aggies return leading rusher (for a running back) Ben Malena (808 yards), but will also have rising sophomore Trey Williams, and transfers Brandon Williams and Tra Carson. Brandon Williams might be the most talented of the bunch, and none of these guys should get too tired with all those legs to work with.

The Gators lost Gillislee, but sophomore-to-be Matt Jones had an excellent spring. He knew the playbook backward and forward and showed a more physical style. He already has the goal of getting 1,500 yards. But he'll have help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who had a very solid spring, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor (early enrollee) and Adam Lane. The coaches feel very good about all four contributing a lot this fall.

Georgia is a little thin at running back, but with Gurley and Keith Marshall returning, the Dawgs could have the best running back duo in the SEC -- maybe the country.

Here's a quick look at how other SEC teams currently fare at running back heading into the summer:


The Razorbacks lack experience at the position, but sophomore Jonathan Williams made good strides this spring and looks poised to be the top back. He'll also have incoming freshman Alex Collins to help him this fall.


Tre Mason and his 1,000 yards return. He should have even more space to work with in Gus Malzahn's spread, which could spell trouble for defenses. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne had a solid spring, and Corey Grant returns.


Leading rushers Raymond Sanders (669 yards) and Jonathan George (504 yards) return with two talented youngsters to help out. Dyshawn Mobley had an excellent spring and Josh Clemons is back from a devastating knee injury he suffered in 2011.


Legal issues have Jeremy Hill's fall status unknown for the fall. If he returns, he gives the Tigers on of the top backs in the league. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue return, but LSU will be thin at the position without Hill.

Mississippi State

LaDarius Perkins returns after his 1,000-yard season. He's a complete back and can hurt teams running and catching. Josh Robinson returns after a productive year as the backup. Nick Griffin has a ton of skill, but still hasn't reached his potential.


Lawrence is gone, but Henry Josey is back and says he's 100 percent after his devastating knee injury in 2011. He was one of the Big 12's best and most explosive running backs before his injury. The Tigers have plenty of bodies at running back and should get good use out of Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough.

Ole Miss

Leading rusher Jeff Scott (846) is back and he'll be working with some solid sophomores in I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. True freshman Mark Dodson had a productive spring as well. Along with the six returning lettermen, Ole Miss will have three more signees on campus this fall.

South Carolina

Mike Davis isn't trying to be Marcus Lattimore, but he did a good job of taking his spot this spring. The rising sophomore can pound it or break out for that home run play. Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are back from injuries and ESPN 150 member David Williams will be in town this fall.


Marlin Lane's off-field problems didn't help things this spring, but Butch Jones was very happy with the play of Alden Hill and Rajion Neal this spring. Lane has every chance to come back and if he does the Vols will have a pretty solid three-headed rushing monster.


Stacy is gone, but Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow had good springs in Nashville. Jerron Seymour gives Vandy another body to use, as well. Tate and Kimbrow both have big-play ability, but they'll have to stay healthy because there isn't a lot of experience behind them.