SEC: SEC Countdown to Kickoff 2013

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 1 day

August, 28, 2013
No more waiting. No more counting down the days. It's here. The college football season kicks off Thursday night, and three SEC teams will be in action.

South Carolina takes on North Carolina in Columbia, S.C., at 6 p.m. ET, while Ole Miss and Vanderbilt follow from Nashville at 9:15 p.m. ET. Both games will be televised by ESPN.

We end our countdown with one final number, but a telling one: 7.

It's hardly a secret that the SEC has won seven straight national championships. SEC commissioner Mike Slive might be a little biased, but he doesn't think we'll ever see another streak like this in college football. The fact that Alabama has won three of the last four national titles speaks for itself, but three other SEC schools -- Florida in 2006 and 2008, LSU in 2007 and Auburn in 2010 -- have been a part of this remarkable run. Where will it end? Well, Alabama opens the 2013 season No. 1 in the polls, and four other SEC teams are ranked in the top 10. Even though Alabama has won the last two titles, the Crimson Tide did so despite losing November games at home. Alabama in 2009 and Auburn in 2010 are the only two teams during the SEC's streak to go unbeaten, so the odds are always going to be against anybody making it through the SEC unscathed. Alabama probably has the best chance this season, especially if the Crimson Tide can get out of College Station alive on Sept. 14. For the second straight season, Alabama avoids Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the East in the regular season. If everybody in the SEC has at least one loss for the second straight season, what are the chances of the ball bouncing just right again for the SEC and other teams losing late to pave the way for a one-loss SEC team to slide into one of those top two spots in the final BCS standings? If the SEC's streak is going to end this season, that's probably how it's going to happen -- two unbeaten teams from other leagues keeping a one-loss SEC team out of the title game. Ohio State is certainly a threat to go unbeaten. The same goes for Louisville, and maybe this is the year that Oregon, Stanford, Florida State or some other team lurking in the shadows manages to go unbeaten. We still have one more year of the BCS system before the four-team College Football Playoff is unveiled in 2014. The best hope for the rest of the country is that the SEC beats up on itself this season and is squeezed out of the BCS National Championship Game. The SEC is 9-1 in BCS National Championship Games, and that only loss came in 2011 when LSU fell to Alabama in an all-SEC affair. Let's face it. The BCS era has been the SEC era, and everybody else has been playing for second place.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 3 days

August, 26, 2013
Hey, it's game week, which means our countdown is nearing its completion. The 2013 season begins in just three days.

One of the things that will shape the SEC championship race this season is how much Florida improves on offense, particularly in the passing game. The Gators finished last in the league a year ago in passing offense and threw just 13 touchdown passes. They should again be outstanding on defense, which will give them a chance in every game. But if they're going to win their first SEC title since 2008, they will need to rev up that passing game considerably.

The number on the docket today: 19.
Naturally, much of the focus on whether the Gators will take a step forward in the passing game has centered around junior quarterback Jeff Driskel. It didn't help that he was slowed this preseason after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Timing and practice reps are a huge part of generating a consistent passing game, but Driskel demonstrated this spring and summer that he was ready to make a big jump and should be fine. Several coaches around the SEC have indicated that they expect Driskel to be one of the more improved players in the league. The key will be how well the people around him play, specifically the Gators' receivers. They made very few plays down the field last season in the deep passing game. In fact, the longest scoring pass play last season in an SEC game by a returning player was Quinton Dunbar's 19-yard touchdown catch against Kentucky. The Gators return just two players who caught more than four passes last season -- Dunbar (36) and Trey Burton (18). Burton has lined up just about everywhere during his Florida career and will mostly play in the slot this season. The longest pass play, period, a year ago by a returning player was a 32-yard catch by Burton. So, again, it's crucial that the Gators find more big-play ability in their passing game, which is where freshman Demarcus Robinson comes in. He separates well from defenders and makes plays down the field. Another true freshman, 6-4, 200-pound Ahmad Fulwood, has also shown that he should be able to help, and Dunbar has played well enough this preseason to think that he could be in for a breakout season. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease wants to get the wide receivers and running backs more involved in the passing game this season. Tight end Jordan Reed (now in the NFL) was the go-to guy a year ago. The X-factor is Loucheiz Purifoy, who spent most of his time this preseason at cornerback. He's one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC and could get a chance to catch a few passes on offense as well as intercept a few on defense. The feeling coming out of camp, though, is that the Florida receivers have made enough strides that Purifoy won't have to pull as much double duty as originally expected back in the spring.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 6 days

August, 23, 2013
Rumor has it that they play a little defense in the SEC.

Six of the seven teams winning national championships during the SEC's title streak have finished in the top 6 nationally in either total defense or scoring defense. The only one that didn't was Auburn in 2010.

Alabama finished first nationally in total defense and scoring defense each of the last two seasons on its way to winning back-to-back national championships, which leads us to our number of the day as we get ever so closer to the start of the 2013 season: 3.
Only three times in the last 28 games has Alabama's defense allowed more than 17 points, which stretches back to the 49-7 win over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl at the end of the 2010 season. In 16 of those 28 games, the Crimson Tide allowed fewer than 10 points, and they've gone 34 straight games without allowing anybody to score 30 or more points against them. The last time that happened was midway through the 2010 season in a 35-21 loss to South Carolina in Columbia. It's true that this has a chance to be one of the most explosive offenses the Crimson Tide have put on the field under Nick Saban as they shoot for their third consecutive national championship, but defense has and always will be the cornerstone of this program. That's not going to change this season. Even with the loss of four players on defense to the NFL draft, Alabama still had nine defensive players named Thursday to the coaches' preseason All-SEC first, second or third teams. As defensive coordinator Kirby Smart noted a few weeks ago, there's a standard on defense at Alabama that never wavers. Really, all you need to know about that standard is that Smart said last year's defense was "not exactly up to par" to the other defenses the Tide have fielded in the Saban era. That's despite finishing first nationally in total defense, first in scoring defense, first in rushing defense and second in passing defense. What's still fresh on Smart's mind -- and Saban's mind -- are the 21 points the Alabama defense yielded to Georgia in a narrow escape in the SEC championship game (one of the Dawgs' touchdowns came on a blocked field goal) and the 29 points allowed to Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel in the November home loss to Texas A&M. "We put in a lot of work to improve on defense," Smart said. The 2011 defense remains the measuring stick under Saban. Nobody scored more than 14 points against the Tide's defense all season. Will this defense be that good? Stay tuned. But if it is, the 2013 season is likely to have a familiar ending to it.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 7 days

August, 22, 2013
We’re down to a week until the 2013 SEC season kicks off next Thursday with a pair of games.

Today, we’ll take a closer look at the defensive backfields in the league, and more specifically, who’s been best at picking off errant or ill-advised passes. Of course, sometimes those passes aren’t poorly thrown -- the defensive back just makes a good play.

The number to ponder: 55.
LSU has intercepted an SEC-high 55 passes over the past three seasons and is the only team in the league to swipe 18 or more passes in each of those years. Alabama isn’t too far behind, with 53 picks over the past three seasons, and the only other team in the league with 50 or more interceptions during that span is Florida, with an even 50. It’s also worth looking at the other end of the spectrum. Auburn has the fewest interceptions in the SEC over the last three seasons with 25. The Tigers managed just two last season. Auburn and Arkansas are the only two teams in the league who haven’t picked off more than 12 passes in a season at least once over the last three years. Even though LSU lost a pair of players early to the NFL draft (safety Eric Reid and cornerback Tharold Simon), the Tigers should again be strong in the secondary. Sophomore cornerback Jalen Mills returns after playing last season as a true freshman. He has a chance to be special and follow in the footsteps of Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne. Sophomore cornerback Jalen Collins also played extensively last season as a redshirt freshman, but true freshman Tre'Davious White has been terrific during preseason camp and will be hard to keep off the field at cornerback. Getting safety Craig Loston back for his senior season was a huge boost for the LSU defense. If Loston can stay healthy, he’ll push Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to be the top safety in the league. It’s too early to say definitively who has the best secondary in the SEC. Florida, with the cornerback tandem of Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, would be right up there. Vanderbilt should also be outstanding … again. Alabama certainly won’t be shabby, and look for Auburn to be much improved. But LSU just seems to breed great players back there (and pile up the interceptions), and this season shouldn’t be any different.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 8 days

August, 21, 2013
What looks like a killer schedule right now may not look as menacing five or six weeks into the season. The opposite of that is true, too. Did anybody have Texas A&M pegged as a top-10 team this time a year ago?

The truth is that it's easier to evaluate schedules at the end of the season than it is at the beginning. But as we get ready for kickoff in the SEC next week, it's worth examining who has the toughest road to hoe based on the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll.

Our number today: 5.
Tennessee and Kentucky are the only two teams in the country this season that play five top-10 teams in the AP preseason poll. The Vols play four of the top-6 teams -- No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Oregon, No. 5 Georgia and No. 6 South Carolina. They also face No. 10 Florida. The Wildcats face No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 Georgia, No. 6 South Carolina, No. 9 Louisville and No. 10 Florida. Tennessee gets the unenviable task of having to play Alabama, Florida and Oregon all on the road. The Vols are zero for their last 15 against top-10 opponents. Their last win came in 2006 when they beat No. 10 Georgia 51-33 on the road. The Wildcats last won against a top-10 foe in 2010 when they knocked off No. 10 South Carolina 31-28 at home. And you want the irony of all ironies? The two teams that have won just four SEC games between them over the last two years -- Kentucky and Tennessee -- have to face more preseason top-10 teams than anybody else in the league. Not only that, but Alabama and Texas A&M are the only two teams in the SEC that don’t have to play at least two top-10 teams this season. They face each other on Sept. 14, and that’s it. They both obviously have to play LSU, and the Tigers could easily be a top-10 team when those games are played. But LSU enters the season ranked No. 12 in the AP poll. The team with the most brutal stretch of games is Arkansas, and it’s really not even close. The Hogs are the only team in the country that has to face four preseason top-10 teams in four consecutive weeks. They play Texas A&M at home on Sept. 28, Florida on the road on Oct. 5, South Carolina at home on Oct. 12 and Alabama on the road on Oct. 19. Georgia gets the nod for having the toughest schedule to open the season. The Bulldogs play at No. 8 Clemson in the Aug. 31 opener, then face No. 6 South Carolina at home the next week and take on No. 12 LSU at home to close the first month on Sept. 28.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 9 days

August, 20, 2013
One of the great equalizers on offense is being able to strike quickly. Georgia had that capability last season and should again in 2013.

If you're going to beat the Bulldogs this season, you had better be prepared to score a lot of points. What makes them even more dangerous is that they have players all over the field who are capable of scoring from long distance.

The number to ponder today in our countdown: 15.
Georgia coach Mark Richt said the Bulldogs had as many big plays on offense last season as he can ever remember, especially in the running game. "It's amazing how many long runs we had," Richt said. "I was wondering if we could ever get a long run in our league again after a while, but those guys did a great job." The best news for Georgia fans is that "those guys" are back. The Bulldogs had 15 offensive touchdowns of 30 yards or longer last season by players who are returning. Sophomore running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combined for seven of those scoring plays. Of those seven, six were 50 yards or longer. Their ability to break long runs makes Georgia's offense all the more lethal, particularly with a fifth-year senior quarterback such as Aaron Murray, who has thrown 35 or more touchdown passes in each of the last two seasons. But Murray also has a couple of big-play receivers returning. Michael Bennett is coming back from an ACL tear, and Malcolm Mitchell was the Dawgs' top deep threat last season. Throw in Chris Conley and that's three returning receivers who combined for seven touchdown receptions of 30 yards or longer a year ago. Senior tight end Arthur Lynch also had a 36-yard touchdown catch. For the record, Alabama had 13 offensive touchdowns of 30 yards or longer last season from players who are back for the 2013 season. So don't blink when either one of those teams has the ball this fall.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 10 days

August, 19, 2013
We're 10 days and counting until the SEC kicks it off with a Thursday night doubleheader. The Gamecocks take on North Carolina in the first game on Aug. 29, and then Ole Miss and Vanderbilt follow later that night from Nashville.

Most of the quarterback battles around the league have been settled. One of the more interesting ones was at Missouri, where senior James Franklin successfully re-established himself as the Tigers' starter.

That brings us to today's number: 21.
Franklin enters his senior season with 21 career starts. Only Georgia’s Aaron Murray (41) and Alabama’s AJ McCarron (27) have more at the quarterback position in the SEC. But while Murray and McCarron were firmly entrenched as starters, Franklin had to hold off a challenge from redshirt freshman Maty Mauk this preseason to win back his job. This is the third straight season that Franklin has opened as Missouri’s starting quarterback. But whereas his sophomore season was outstanding with 21 touchdown passes, 15 rushing touchdowns and 3,846 yards of total offense, his junior season a year ago was marred by injuries and inconsistency. Franklin was already coming off surgery to his right throwing shoulder entering last season and then proceeded to take a wicked beating from there. He missed three entire games and was knocked out of two others with a combination of shoulder and knee injuries and finally a concussion. Franklin accounted for just 10 touchdowns (zero rushing) and threw seven interceptions. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel made it known that the quarterback competition was wide open, and a healthy Franklin responded by calmly winning back his old job. The Tigers need him to stay healthy in 2013 and regain that same form that saw him come within 19 rushing yards of passing for 2,800 yards and rushing for 1,000 yards as a sophomore. A year ago, only Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel -- who won the Heisman Trophy -- put up those kind of numbers. Manziel finished with 3,706 passing yards and 1,410 rushing yards.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 14 days

August, 15, 2013
Once again, Alabama enters the football season chasing history. That seems to be a recurring theme under Nick Saban, who's guided the Crimson Tide to three of the last four national championships.

A year ago, Alabama was trying to become the first team since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995 to repeat as outright national champions. Heading into this season, Alabama is trying to make it three in a row, which would be the first time a team has won three straight national championships in football since Minnesota in 1934-36.

But what about repeating as SEC champions? That leads us to today's number in our countdown: 15.
Even though the SEC has produced the last seven national champions, it’s been 15 years since a team has repeated as SEC champions. Tennessee won the league crown in 1997 and 1998 and hasn’t won since. Really, the only team that’s come close to repeating over the last 15 years was Florida. The Gators won in 2008 and went into the 2009 SEC championship game ranked No. 1 in the country, but lost 32-13 to No. 2 Alabama. The Tide went on to win their first national title under Saban. Only twice since the Vols’ repeat in 1997 and 1998 has a team won the SEC title and gone back to Atlanta the next season with a chance to make it two in row. Florida did it in 2008 and 2009, and Georgia did it earlier that decade after winning the title in 2002 with a 30-3 rout of Arkansas and then going back the next year and losing to LSU 34-13. When Steve Spurrier had it rolling at Florida in the 1990s the Gators won four consecutive SEC titles (1993-96). Alabama, which has won a league-high 23 SEC championships, has repeated as SEC champions more than any other school. The Tide have done it four times, most recently in 1977-79 when they won three straight titles and were a combined 19-0 in SEC play. They won five straight from 1971-75 and lost only one SEC game during that stretch, a 17-16 setback to Auburn in the famous “Punt Bama Punt” game in 1972. Alabama won three straight league titles from 1964-66 and also won in 1933 and shared the title with Tulane the next year.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 15 days

August, 14, 2013
No stat is more important to coaches than turnover margin. To win at a high level, you better be able to take care of the football on offense and take it away on defense.

That's why Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze right now isn't thrilled with some of junior quarterback Bo Wallace's decision-making. Wallace might have finished fifth in the SEC last season in total offense with 3,384 yards, but there's another number that Freeze can't get out of his head: 21.
Wallace threw a league-high 17 interceptions last season and also lost four fumbles, giving him 21 turnovers. That's more than eight SEC teams had a year ago. In fairness, Wallace made more than his share of plays, too, and was at his best down the stretch when Ole Miss played its way into a bowl game. But coaches are prone to remember the bad plays, and Freeze saw a few interceptions last week from Wallace in practice that looked eerily similar to some of the ones he tossed a year ago in games. Freeze notes that interceptions are usually a combination of several things, including poor protection, a route being a little off or maybe the timing being off. But Freeze said about half of Wallace's interceptions last season came as a result of his "trying to make a phenomenal play instead of understanding that it was time to punt or play another down. That was kind of his mentality coming out of the system he played in in junior college." Freeze is leaning hard on Wallace to get out of that mentality -- and with good reason. If the Rebels are going to make a move this season in the West, they can't afford to turn it over 29 times again. Only Arkansas (31 turnovers) turned it over more last season in the SEC. What's more, go back and look at the last six SEC champions and what they did in the turnover department. None of the six had more than 17 turnovers, and five of the six were plus-14 or better in turnover margin.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 16 days

August, 13, 2013
Auburn's Gus Malzahn is one of four new head coaches in the SEC this season along with Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee and Mark Stoops at Kentucky. It looks like all four of those schools will have new starting quarterbacks in 2013.

In fact, does anybody remember the last time Auburn went into a season with the same starting quarterback for a second year in a row? Before we answer that question, we'll throw out the number to chew on today as we continue our countdown to kickoff in the SEC: 7.
Auburn has narrowed its quarterback race to a pair of newcomers. Junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson will get the bulk of the first-team reps this week as the Tigers try to settle on a starter. Malzahn said sophomore Jonathan Wallace also remains in the picture, but junior Kiehl Frazier has requested a move to safety. What this all means is that Auburn will have its seventh straight different starter at quarterback to open the season. The last time the Tigers had a returning starter at quarterback was 2007 with Brandon Cox, who was a three-year starter. Frazier started the first five games last season, but struggled to throw the ball effectively and was benched in favor of Clint Moseley. The Tigers finished the season with Wallace under center. Marshall and Johnson have both been impressive in scrimmages this preseason, and Malzahn said a few weeks ago that he would try to get it down to two as quickly as possible. Marshall is a dynamic athlete who started his career at Georgia as a cornerback before detouring through junior college. Johnson is the better passer of the two, although both players have shown the ability to throw the ball down the field. Malzahn is accustomed to going into a season with a new quarterback. He’s had a different starting quarterback every year he’s been in the college game going all the way back to 2006 when he moved from the high school ranks to Arkansas as the Hogs’ offensive coordinator. One thing we’ve come to count on under Malzahn, regardless of whether it’s Marshall or Johnson who wins the job, is that he’s going to spread the ball around on offense while still emphasizing the power running game.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 17 days

August, 12, 2013
The days are dwindling until we kick off this season in the SEC. At LSU, there will be several new faces playing key roles on defense, and that's just fine with veteran coordinator John Chavis.

Today's number to dissect: 3.
Sacks aren’t the end-all when it comes to evaluating how well a team rushes the passer, but they’re certainly a gauge. LSU was loaded with guys who could get to the passer last season. But the Tigers return just three sacks from their defensive line. Junior tackle Anthony Johnson is the only returning defensive lineman who recorded a sack last season, and he had three. There’s not a single end on the LSU roster who had a sack last season. Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Lavar Edwards combined for 17 (Mingo also had 12 quarterback hurries), and all three players are now in NFL camps. So who’s going to be the Tigers’ finisher (or finishers) off the edge this season? Junior end Jermauria Rasco, along with sophomore end Danielle Hunter, would be a good place to start. Chavis has never been shy about playing freshmen, either, so Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower are a pair of newcomers to watch at end. The Tigers will also generate pressure from other places in Chavis’ scheme. Safety Micah Eugene had 3.5 sacks last season, and you can bet LSU will get some push up the middle from the Ego Ferguson-Johnson tandem. Chavis isn’t the least bit worried about the talent or speed on this defense. Experience will be an issue, but he’s confident the Tigers will keep the standard right where it’s been defensively ever since he arrived on the Bayou in 2009. LSU has racked up 34 or more sacks each of the past three seasons and finished in the top-12 nationally in total defense all three of those seasons. The Tigers have ranked in the top-12 nationally in scoring defense in all four of Chavis’ seasons in Baton Rouge.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 20 days

August, 9, 2013
In less than three weeks, we'll have some SEC football to dissect. Until that time, we'll dissect some of the more compelling storylines entering the 2013 season.

On the Plains, they're hoping that first-year coach Gus Malzahn can help that program -- in Malzahn's own words -- get its edge back. Auburn plummeted to 3-9 last season and didn't win a game in the SEC, sending Gene Chizik packing and opening the door for Malzahn to return.

Even though Malzahn's an offensive guy, our number of the day revolves around the Tigers' defense: 2.
Of all the dubious numbers associated with the Tigers' forgettable season a year ago, it's hard to top their paltry two interceptions. That's right ... two. For perspective, all but two other teams in the SEC (everybody but Arkansas and Kentucky) had managed to intercept two passes by the third game. Auburn had two picks in 12 games, and the secondary was responsible for just one of those -- that one coming during mop-up time of a 51-7 rout of Alabama A&M. Backup safety Trent Fisher picked off a pass in the final minutes and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown. It goes without saying, but the Tigers simply didn't make a lot happen on defense last season. When's the last time an SEC team went the entire season and didn't have a cornerback intercept a single pass? That said, it wasn't just all on the secondary, either, and there are telltale signs that Auburn will be appreciably better across the board on defense this season under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. Much of that optimism centers around a secondary that should be more settled, more experienced and more equipped to take the ball away. Senior cornerback Chris Davis is healthy after battling a series of injuries the last few years and has everything it takes to be a premier corner in this league. He's exactly the kind of playmaker Johnson wants at cornerback. The same goes for versatile sophomore Josh Holsey, who earned a starting position at cornerback last season as a true freshman, but is lining up at safety right now with senior Demetruce McNeal sidelined while recovering from surgery due to a staph infection. Getting McNeal back will give Johnson even more flexibility in his 4-2-5 scheme because the Tigers would like to use Holsey in a couple of different spots. A healthy McNeal also gives the Tigers some quality depth. Junior Jonathon Mincy is the other starter at cornerback alongside Davis, while junior Jermaine Whitehead is back after starting 11 games at strong safety last season. As a group, the Tigers' secondary has a chance to be one of the most improved units in the league and is a lot more talented than the numbers from a year ago would suggest. In Wednesday's scrimmage, the defense had three interceptions, so the Tigers are already way ahead of last season's pace. Now, there's the business of creating those takeaways in games.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 21 days

August, 8, 2013
There's no substitute for talent, experience and depth on the offensive line. Great offensive lines have a way of making ordinary skill players look a lot better than they are.

The jury is still out on what kind of firepower Tennessee will have on offense this season after losing their top four pass-catchers from a year ago and their starting quarterback, but the Vols should be plenty stout up front. That's always a good place to start in this league, which leads us to our latest number as we count down the days to kickoff: 123.
Butch Jones takes over a Tennessee program that has suffered through three straight losing seasons, and while there are glaring question marks at several different positions, the offensive line isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s hard to find a more experienced offensive line anywhere in college football entering the 2013 season. Four full-time starters return up front for the Vols, and all four are likely to play in the NFL. Counting everybody, Tennessee returns 123 career starts on its offensive line. Only Texas returns more. Senior right tackle Ja’Wuan James is the “old man” of the group. He’s started in every game of his college career (37) since his true freshman season in 2010. Senior right guard Zach Fulton is right behind him with 28 starts, while senior center James Stone has 27 starts. Senior Alex Bullard, who started his career at Notre Dame, slides in for Dallas Thomas this season as the starter at left guard. Bullard has 14 career starts. Junior Antonio “Tiny” Richardson is the most talented of the bunch and returns at left tackle after starting in all 12 games last season. Richardson is a future first-rounder and will likely come out after this season. The Vols are still trying to build depth, although junior Marcus Jackson started in five games at left guard in 2011. Third-year sophomore Kyler Kerbyson would probably be the seventh man in the rotation. Tennessee led the SEC with only eight sacks allowed last season, which was 10 fewer than the next closest team. The challenge was becoming more physical in the running game, and the Vols are eager to prove that they can knock people off the ball as well as they can protect the passer. It’s not going to be easy in Jones’ first season. Simply making it to a bowl game would be a coup. If the Vols are going to get there, they’ll do so with their big, talented (and experienced) offensive line clearing the way.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 22 days

August, 7, 2013
The head coaches come and go in the SEC like the latest reality show on television. One day, they're here. The next day, they're gone.

The exception has been Mark Richt, who's entering his 13th season at Georgia. He's the dean of SEC coaches who's coached in the league at one school, which leads us to today's number as we continue to count down the days to kickoff: 38.
Going back to 2001 when he was hired away from Bobby Bowden's staff at Florida State, Richt has been the face of Georgia football. He’s also been the ultimate survivor in a league that chews up and spits out its head coaches. Anybody got any guesses on how many head coaches have been on the payroll at the other 12 SEC schools (not counting Missouri and Texas A&M) since Richt entered the league in 2001? That figure is an eye-popping 38 head coaches. Seven of the schools have had four different head coaches during Richt’s tenure, and every school’s had at least three head coaches during Richt’s stay except for LSU and South Carolina. Just in the past six seasons, counting the four new head coaches in the league this season, there have been 27 different head coaches at the 12 existing SEC schools. Again, that doesn’t count Missouri and Texas A&M since they just joined the league last year. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Richt despite his rock-solid consistency. He’s won 10 or more games in eight of his 12 seasons and has been to the SEC championship game each of the past two seasons. However, the Dawgs followed up a ho-hum 8-5 season in 2009 with Richt’s only losing season of his tenure in 2010, prompting the loudest outcry yet among some in the Georgia fan base that it might be time for new blood in Athens. But, hey, that's just life in the SEC. Richt’s Bulldogs have gone 7-1 in the league each of the past two seasons and were a tipped pass away against Alabama last season in the SEC championship game from potentially playing for the national title. Georgia hasn’t won an SEC title since 2005. If some new faces can come through on defense, this could be the season that drought ends, and maybe then Richt would get the credit he truly deserves. He's been more than just a consistent winner. He's been a steady hand in guiding that program, and he's always done it with the utmost class.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 23 days

August, 6, 2013
The days are drawing shorter until the start of the 2013 college football season. All 14 SEC teams have started practice, and everybody has visions of a big season. That's just the way it is this time of year.

History suggests, though, that only a handful of teams are legitimate SEC championship contenders, which brings us to our number of the day: 6.
It’s no secret in these parts (or anywhere in college football) that the SEC has produced the last seven national champions. Obviously, Alabama has won three of those, but three other teams in the league -- Auburn, Florida and LSU -- have been a part of that streak. Still, one of the knocks on the SEC is that it’s top-heavy. How true that is depends on how you look at it. Four different teams from the same league winning national titles over the last seven years would seem to speak for itself, and five SEC teams finished in the top 10 nationally last season in the final polls. But when it comes to winning this league championship, that’s been a very exclusive group. Going back to 1977, only six different schools have won SEC titles: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU. A team hasn’t repeated as SEC champion since Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. Florida won four straight from 1993-96, and from 1989-2000, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee won a share of all but one title during that 12-year stretch. Is there room for somebody else to rush this six-school fraternity, which has remained unchanged for 35 years? South Carolina in the East and Texas A&M in the West are the most likely candidates this season. It’s a select group of schools, for sure, that have been strong enough to capture the league crown over the last three decades. But here’s something else to chew on for those who dismiss the SEC’s balance: Over the past eight years, five different schools have won league titles -- all having to win league championship games.