SEC: Steve Spurrier
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Already a Hall of Fame lock when he returned to the college coaching ranks nearly a decade ago, Steve Spurrier has found his second wind at South Carolina.
He’s also found a home.
The Head Ball Coach will always be a Florida Gator, and he’ll proudly tell you as much in his familiar, high-pitched twang. But South Carolina has grown on him in more ways than one.
So much so that he and his wife, Jerri, plan on staying in the Columbia area even when he’s done coaching.
“People always ask where I’m going to live when my coaching days are over,” said Spurrier, who owns a vacation home in Crescent Beach, Fla. “Usually, your last stop is where you end up, if your last stop is successful. Bobby Stoops wants to be in Norman.
And for the record, Spurrier plans on resigning and not retiring. In his mind, there’s a big difference.
“I like resign a lot better,” Spurrier said. “Retiring sounds too much like you’re going to sit around and not do a whole lot. I’m not a sit-around kind of guy.”
Now, for those South Carolina fans who get sweaty palms when Spurrier even broaches the subject of his retirement (oops, his resignation), relax.
He’s having way too much fun -- and success -- to even think about walking away right now, and he feels and looks a lot closer to 49 than his actual age of 69. He misses a day of working out about as often as he concedes a 3-foot putt, which is never.
A devout family guy, Spurrier’s two sons, Steve Jr., and Scott, are both working under him on the South Carolina coaching staff, and the Gamecocks are enjoying the kind of unprecedented run that few others in college football have been able to rival the past three years.
But even with three straight top-10 finishes, three straight 11-win seasons, five straight wins over rival Clemson and the longest current home winning streak in the country, don’t tell Spurrier he’s exceeded expectations.
“No, we’ll exceed them when we win the SEC,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, to push for that. We’ve made some really good progress, on the field and financially. When I got here, we’d had one person to give a million dollars to athletics, and her name is on the stadium, Mrs. [Martha] Williams-Brice, and that was in 1972.
“Since then, we’ve found 10 or 11 wealthy people who’ve given over a million dollars. We were way behind financially to most of the schools in the SEC and are still trying to catch up. But we’ve been able to get the facilities upgraded, and once we did that, we were able to sign our top in-state kids. That’s been huge.”
Spurrier’s renowned feel for calling a game and exploiting opposing defenses’ weaknesses ranks up there with any coach who’s ever roamed the sideline in the SEC, or any conference, for that matter.
But it’s his unwavering confidence and presence that have permeated the South Carolina program and been the difference in a ton of close wins over the years. The Gamecocks are 11-3 the past three seasons in games decided by a touchdown or less.
“People are always going to love him here because he’s changed the culture, but he’s not satisfied,” South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson said. “That says something about him and where this program is right now.
“We’re always pushing to take it to new heights.”
In some ways, Spurrier is about as old-school as it gets. Both his wife and longtime football operations director, Jamie Speronis, aren’t sure how many times Spurrier has turned on a computer by himself. If he wants to read something on the Internet, Speronis is generally the one who prints it out for him.
In the corner of Spurrier’s office, he has a stack of old play-by-play sheets from games going back who knows how many years, and he can get to the one he wants in a matter of seconds.
Even though he owns an iPhone, nobody is really sure if he knows how to use it. He’s still rocking the old flip phone.
So while technology might not be Spurrier’s thing, don’t think for a minute that he has any trouble relating to today’s athlete. His wit is as sharp as ever, and nobody is spared.
“As an offensive lineman, you probably don’t want him saying much of anything to you,” senior guard A.J. Cann quipped. “I try to stay on his good side. He might be pushing 70, but he’s still coaching as hard as he ever has, and man, does he know how to push your buttons.”
Thompson added: “I love playing for him. He has his way of doing it and isn’t going to stop until you do it that way. When you get there, he’ll be happy. But until then, he’s going to keep grinding on you.”
And doing so in vintage Spurrier fashion.
In the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom and became a pillar of salt.
“He does a really good job of relating to whoever you are,” Thompson said. “I’m a Christian, and any time he can relate a Bible story to something we’re doing, he’ll do it. He’ll call Kane Whitehurst ‘Abel’ sometimes, off-the-wall stuff, and you think he’s crazy.
“But you always listen.”
For some SEC purists, it’s hard to fathom that Spurrier is just three seasons away from equaling the 12 seasons he spent as Florida’s head coach.
He’s not sure he’s ever had more fun coaching than he has these past few years, especially given the fact that South Carolina has accomplished so many firsts on his watch. As part of his new contract, Spurrier has the option to stay on as a special adviser to the president and athletic director when he does hang up his coaching visor for good.
But as Spurrier himself says, he can’t imagine not coaching football.
“What else are you going to do?” he said. “Every time I go to the beach now, after about three days, I say, ‘Jerri, let’s go.’ I’m not going to play golf every day. I’ve got my enthusiasm up, too. I got two epidural shots in my back [recently] and am feeling pretty good. I still have some arthritis, but it doesn’t hurt to work out.
“We’ve got a lot to look forward to here and a lot more we want to do.”
Plus, it’s home.
South Carolina: Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson exits the spring as the Gamecocks' clear starter at quarterback, but coach Steve Spurrier is still trying to settle on his backup. Thompson saw limited action in the spring game and finished 8-of-11 for 129 yards to lead the Black to a 28-10 victory over the Garnet in front of a crowd of 36,412 at Williams-Brice Stadium. Battling for the backup job are Connor Mitch and Brendan Nosovitch. Mitch threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to running back Shon Carson. For stats and interviews from the game, go to South Carolina's official web site.
Tennessee: The Vols' fans came to last Saturday's Orange and White spring game excited about some of the freshmen enrolled early and were treated to a show by freshman receiver Josh Malone, who caught six passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns. The "old" man of the receiver group, Marquez North, had five catches for 106 yards and caught a 50-yard touchdown pass. Josh Dobbs had the best day of the quarterbacks and made up some ground on Justin Worley and Riley Ferguson, but coach Butch Jones was not pleased with the defense as a whole in the game and called it "unacceptable." For more on the Vols' spring game, which drew a crowd of 68,548, go to Tennessee's official web site.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores, in their first spring game under new coach Derek Mason, didn't show a lot by design. But freshman running back Ralph Webb was hard to miss with his 114 yards on 14 carries, including a 60-yard touchdown run. The defense held the offense to two touchdowns, and it appears that the quarterback competition will extend into the summer. Mason gave the edge on Saturday to redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, but sophomore Patton Robinette also had his moments. For stats and more from the game, which drew 8,400 fans, go to Vanderbilt's official web site.
Check out Jeff Barlis' piece for a closer look at Florida's spring game, and Edward Aschoff was on hand for Georgia's spring game.
- No arrests will be made in the burglary investigation that involved Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham but that doesn't necessarily mean he will escape further discipline (he already is suspended indefinitely by Gary Pinkel) based on the details that have emerged.
- Meet the Bag Man: Stories from someone who claims to deliver cash to football recruits.
- Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee was arrested Thursday on a DUI charge and running back Altee Tenpenny could get a marijuana possession charge dropped if he can stay out of trouble for a year.
- Vanderbilt's spring football game may determine the leader in the quarterback battle between sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary.
- Sophomore Brandon Greene and freshman Cameron Robinson are the two players battling for the right to replace Cyrus Kouandijo as Alabama's left tackle.
- Jay Prosch was a key member of Auburn's offense, so the Tigers are searching high and low for replacement candidates at H-back.
- Mississippi State unveiled new uniforms that it will wear for its season opener against Southern Miss on Aug. 30.
- Arkansas' receivers are making progress this spring, particularly Drew Morgan.
- There's a report that former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel scored highest among quarterbacks on his Wonderlic test.
- Some notes from Tennessee's final fully padded practice before its spring game on Saturday.
- Florida receiver Andre Debose is ready to show he has NFL potential in his sixth and final season.
- Steve Spurrier took in the Masters for a few hours before South Carolina's Thursday practice.
- A ranking of all 128 FBS coaches (spoiler: Nick Saban tops the list).
That’s it. That’s the list.
Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.
But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.
Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.
Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.
“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”
Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.
“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.
“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”
Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.
“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.
“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”
While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.
"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."
Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.
Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."
So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.
Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”
“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”
The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.
Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.
“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”
Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.
Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.
This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.
This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.
“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”
Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.
“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."
Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.
With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.
Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.
Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.
Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.
Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.
Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.
LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.
Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.
Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.
Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.
Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.
Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.
Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
Steve Spurrier knew Davis would be special even before last season's season opener. He told anyone who would listen how good his sophomore would be. But even now, some seven months after South Carolina blistered North Carolina on primetime television, the head coach of the Gamecocks is marveling at how some people are still sleeping on his running back.
Davis ran for 100-plus yards in seven of his first nine games last season, outpacing SEC favorites Todd Gurley, T.J. Yeldon and Tre Mason. Through the first week of November, Davis ranked ninth in the country in total rushing yards (1,058) while also averaging the 13th-best yards per carry (6.37, minimum 100 attempts). He carried a heavy load with 166 carries, but he didn’t lack burst, rushing for 10 or more yards 26 times -- more than Mason, Yeldon and a fella by the name of Johnny Manziel.
But the wear and tear eventually caught up with him. Davis would rush for only 54 yards against Florida, miss the next game against Costal Carolina and fail to break the 50-yard rushing mark in each of South Carolina’s final two games against Clemson and Wisconsin. Even though he finished a respectable fourth in the SEC in rushing yards and fifth in all-purpose yards, it wasn’t his best. He simply wasn’t himself.
“It slowed me down a lot,” Davis said. “I don’t think people realized how much I was injured. The small injuries added up and hit me toward the end.”
Thankfully for South Carolina, Davis doesn’t appear to have the injury concerns of Lattimore before him. It was a series of minor injuries that took their toll, and now after a few months off, Davis is back to being fully healthy, he said. He’s taking it easy this spring and enjoying the emergence of his fellow running backs, most notably Shon Carson and former four-star David Williams, whom Davis called “electrifying” and someone “you like to watch in practice.”
All eyes are still on Davis, though. The rising junior has gone from unknown to a marked man in the SEC in one season. According to one sports betting site, Davis is at 18-to-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy, trailing names such as Jameis Winston, Braxton Miller and Marcus Mariota, while also coming in ahead of the likes of Nick Marshall, Trevor Knight and Dak Prescott.
“What does Davis think of the attention?
It's kind of like you're playing Madden or something. If you need yards, you just hand it off and let him go. It's cool.” -- South Carolina QB Dylan Thompson on RB Mike Davis
“It’s an honor, especially coming from where I’m from,” he said. “Everybody still calls me Little James or James Davis’ brother. I kind of wanted my own name growing up.”
Those who saw him play last season understand that Davis is his own man. When he’s healthy, he is as good as any running back in the country. Spurrier didn’t hesitate to say he could be the best running back in the SEC.
Dylan Thompson, who has already been named the full-time starter at quarterback by Spurrier, said it’s almost unfair to have someone like Davis to hand the ball off to.
“It’s kind of like you’re playing Madden or something,” Thompson said. “If you need yards, you just hand it off and let him go. It’s cool.”
The good news for both South Carolina and Davis is that he won’t have to carry the entire load this fall. Spurrier said he’ll give the ball to Davis only three or four times during scrimmages this spring, noting how he has the enviable problem of having “too many running backs” to incorporate into the lineup.
Beyond Carson and Williams, whom Thompson said ran a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash in spring testing, South Carolina also has Brandon Wilds to turn to.
There’s no question, though, that Davis will be the centerpiece.
Now at “110 percent,” he wants to get even better than he was last season.
“If there’s anything I can do to get better and have an edge on my opponent, I’m always down for it,” he said. “So as far as getting faster, getting in the weight room and getting stronger, I’m always for it.”
Spurrier, who has never shied away from a quarterback competition, was sure about it. In fact, the head coach of 300 college football games and nine seasons with the Gamecocks didn’t even understand why people were asking.
“Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ ” Spurrier told ESPN.com. “Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ He’s a fifth-year senior. He’s the only one with any experience.”
The Head Ball Coach isn’t playing footsie with redshirt sophomore Brendan Nosovitch or former four-star prospect Connor Mitch this spring. It’s Thompson vs. the field, and the field doesn’t stand a chance.
“It’s not like those other guys are going to challenge him,” Spurrier said. “Plus, he’s our best player. I think he’s by far our best player right now.”
Emphatic enough for you?
The only real question is whether he’s up for being the guy at South Carolina. He might not have the jitters when it comes to experience or talent, but he’s never had the starting job to himself. He’s never had everyone looking up to him -- not just his teammates, but everyone.
“Being the quarterback at this school and being from in-state, it’s a fun thing,” Thompson said. “It’s a lot of fun having people look at you and ask you stuff wherever you go.”
The questions have changed from “How’s the team looking?” to “Are you ready for this year?” Thompson said. It’s been more pointed, more directed at him. Right or wrong, whether South Carolina wins the SEC East is up to him.
And, by all accounts, he’s fine with that.
This offseason he wanted to stand out as the leader of the team. So every morning he got to the gym first, and every night he was last to leave.
Thompson spent the final spring break of his college career in South Florida, but he wasn’t there for the beaches. Instead, he worked with Ken Mastrole at his passing academy, working on his footwork and mechanics.
Running back Mike Davis, who is no slouch in the gym himself, remembers running the 300-yard shuttle run during winter workouts. Looking ahead, he saw the future starting quarterback leading the pack more often than not. It’s not that he was shocked, Davis explained, but “you could tell from his effort that he was ready to go.”
“Dylan has stepped it up a lot,” Davis said. “As far as taking control of anything, he’s there. As far as any events going on, he’s there. And as far as running as a group, he was the guy trying to be out front, and most of the time he was. If anyone should be impressive this year, it should be Dylan.”
Said Thompson: “I want them to know I’m putting in more time than any quarterback in the SEC and in the country. I’m sure there are a lot of guys that work hard, but I always try to remind myself that there’s somebody at Baylor, at UCLA, at another university that’s working to be great. Where have I done myself today to be great?”
Thompson is working closely with quarterback coach G.A. Mangus. The two “went at it and broke down a lot of my stuff from last year -- what I missed, why I missed on throws, just in-game situations,” Thompson said, noting how a big goal is improve his completion percentage on first down and put the offense in a manageable down and distance.
In other words, he’s not trying to do too much. And considering the help around him on offense, that’s probably a good thing. Davis has emerged as one of the best running backs in the SEC and the group of receivers isn’t too shabby, either.
“I think our offense is really solid, and I think that helps me a lot,” Thompson said. “I think our offensive line is as good as it’s ever been here. We’ve got guys that should be in the NFL next year.”
Spurrier thinks Thompson “could be the best quarterback” in the SEC.
“Dylan is going to be ready,” he said. “He’s a fifth-year senior. He and Connor Shaw came in together. Connor was not redshirted and Dylan was, so this is his opportunity, and he’s going to make the most of it.
“I think he’s a really good player and he’s going to prove it to people this year.”
He has the experience. He has the arm. And he has the weapons. While some might have hoped for a quarterback controversy at South Carolina, there’s none to be had. Thompson has done everything to earn it from his head coach.
“Anyone I know, well, their first thing is, ‘How is Coach Spurrier?’ I always say, ‘Man, this guy, he works. He wants you to be the best you can be.’ ” Thompson said. “That’s something I really love about him. If you put your time in in the weight room, in the film room, in the practice field, in the summer and in the offseason, you’re going to be rewarded. He demands perfection, but we have a good time with it, too. It’s not like some burden that hangs over you. You know what the expectation is for your work ethic. You’re either going to get there or you’re not going to play.”
Was it good to have Spurrier come out and say, "You’re the guy?"
“It’s cool,” Thompson said, “but I kind of figured it.”
While we’ll have to wait a few months until a playoff takes over college football, we thought we’d have a little fun with our own SEC tournament now that the first weekend of games have concluded in this year’s NCAA tournament.
As a tribute to the Big Dance, Chris Low and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s). We’ll spice things up by having different seedings for all 14 teams in our individual tournaments. We have different sites, the top two seeds will receive an opening-round bye and we’ll have an upset or two.
Our first round will feature the No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed and the No. 4 seed playing the No. 13 seed, etc.
I’ll debut my bracket first, while Chris will have his prepared later Monday.
After countless hours of deliberation with the selection committee, namely my cat Meeko, here’s what my seedings look like:
1. AuburnFIRST ROUND
4. Ole Miss
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Texas A&M
In Nashville, Tenn.
No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Kentucky: The Bulldogs might be without Aaron Murray for the first time in a long time, but Hutson Mason has plenty of offensive options to pick from. Not having Todd Gurley as an option hurts, but Georgia has enough to get past the Cats in Nashville. Winner: Georgia
No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Tennessee: You'd better believe the Gamecocks are still fuming after that loss to the Vols that eventually cost them a chance to go to Atlanta for the SEC title game last fall. A lot is different for the Gamecocks, but Dylan Thompson works some magic late to avoid the first upset of the tournament. Winner: South Carolina
In Kansas City, Mo.
No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Arkansas: The Rebels could be a dark horse to win the SEC this fall, and with so much talent coming back on both sides, Ole Miss could make a nice run in this tournament. Arkansas just has way too many questions on both sides to pull the shocker. Winner: Ole Miss
No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Vanderbilt: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. There's always one. But the Tigers still have a lot of firepower returning on offense, a stout defensive line and are playing in front of what should be a home crowd. Also, James Franklin and Jordan Matthews are both gone. Winner: Missouri
In Tampa, Fla.
No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 Florida: The Bulldogs are a team on the rise after winning their last three to close the 2013 season. They return a lot from their two-deep and could have a special player in quarterback Dak Prescott. The Gators suffered a rash of injuries, but have quarterback Jeff Driskel back with an offense that fits his skills more. Playing close to home will give the Gators an advantage and the defense will make a stop late to pull our first upset. Winner: Florida
No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 LSU: Both teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and playmakers at receiver. LSU's defense is getting revamped again, but there's still a lot of athleticism across the board. This one is coming down to the wire, but LSU's young, yet stealthy corners will be the difference in another upset. Winner: LSU
In Orlando, Fla.
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: Last fall, this was the game the served as the emotional turning point for Auburn, even though it was a loss. Auburn has a lot to work with once again on the Plains, and while the defense still has its questions, these Tigers will get revenge in a fun one in the Sunshine State. Winner: Auburn
In New Orleans
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 Florida: The Gators will be more consistent on offense in this one. Alabama is still looking to find its defensive playmakers, but will have the advantage in the running game. This one is coming down to the fourth quarter, where corner Vernon Hargreaves III seals it for the Gators with a pick in the end zone on a Cooper Bateman pass intended for Amari Cooper. Winner: Florida
No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Missouri: Two fast offenses take the field, and the Rebels would love to get back at the Tigers after last season's loss. Maty Mauk has what it takes to direct this Missouri team to a deep run, but Ole Miss' defense is the difference in this one. Keep an eye on that defensive line, which gets a major upgrade in the return of end C.J. Johnson. Winner: Ole Miss
In Charlotte, N.C.
No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: The hope in Athens is that the defense will be improved with Jeremy Pruitt running the show, but watch out for Mike Davis. South Carolina's pounding running back gets the edge in this one with Gurley on the mend. Expect a lot of points in this one, but Davis grinds this one out for the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter. Winner: South Carolina
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Ole Miss: You want fast, fast, fast? How about these two teams playing? I mean, Ole Miss got to see tons of speed against Mizzou, and now has to take on Auburn? Expect marathon of scoring, but Bo Wallace is the hero in the end. A gritty fourth-quarter performance puts the Rebels in the title game. Winner: Ole Miss
In Arlington, Texas
No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Florida: It's been a fun run for this spring's Cinderella. Florida's offense is catching up to its defense, but the Gamecocks will find holes in the Gators defense. Thompson hits a few big plays to receiver Shaq Roland and defensive end Gerald Dixon forces a late fumble on a sack of Driskel to run out the clock. Winner: South Carolina
No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is back in Atlanta with a gritty team hungry for a title. The Rebels have the advantage with that high-flying offense and will get some huge catches out of Laquon Treadwell against the inexperienced secondary. Thompson and Davis will keep the Gamecocks in this one for most of the game, but true freshman safety C.J. Hampton seals it for the Rebels with a game-ending interception at midfield. Winner: Ole Miss
Here's a quick taste:
• Georgia players are buzzing about how an entirely new set of defensive coaches will give the Bulldogs a fresh start this spring.
• With Auburn's spring practice approaching on March 18, AL.com's Joel Erickson takes a look at the Tigers' quarterback depth chart.
• Quarterback was a subject of discussion at Alabama on Wednesday, too, as Nick Saban said that his staff will be in no hurry to name a starter.
• Florida on Wednesday released the contracts for the three new coaches on Will Muschamp's staff – including a three-year deal for new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
• LSU's quarterback competition is front and center, as the Tigers prepare for their first spring practice on Saturday.
• DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan are among the candidates to become Ole Miss' backup quarterback behind Bo Wallace.
• Kentucky announced its ticket distribution plan for the April 26 Blue-White spring game.
• Missouri revealed on Wednesday that five players with eligibility remaining have “decided to graduate and not play football going forward” according to a team spokesman.
• Multiple reports on Wednesday night declared that Texas A&M has dismissed safety Kameron Miles.
• Vanderbilt assistant Vavae Tata will not coach with the Commodores in 2014 after pleading guilty on Wednesday to a February DUI charge. His long-term status with the program remains unclear.
• South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and Clemson's Dabo Swinney are united on at least one point -- their relief that college football's rules committee withdrew a controversial 10-second rule designed to slow down college offenses.
• The Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown looks at five questions facing the Tennessee football team as it prepared to open spring practice.
• Bret Bielema covered a variety of subjects in speaking with the media at Arkansas' pro day.
- After putting on a show at the combine, offensive tackle Greg Robinson didn’t participate in on-field workouts at Auburn’s pro day. He’s still aiming for the No. 1 spot in May’s draft.
- It wasn’t long ago that John Calipari did to Kentucky basketball what Saban did to Alabama football, but at this rate, expect Saban to get back on top before Calipari.
- Spring practice has always been closed to Florida fans, but coach Will Muschamp is changing his policy this year.
- LSU opens practice Friday. Here are six key positions battles to keep an eye on this spring.
- A new deal is imminent for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. It will pay him at least $3 million and include raises for his assistant coaches.
- When Ole Miss opened practice Tuesday, Denzel Nkemdiche was nowhere to be found. He’ll miss the entire spring as part of his punishment for an offseason arrest.
- South Carolina is proving that winning can be contagious throughout the sports program, and Steve Spurrier is at the center of it.
- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin says the spring game is good for the fans but worthless for the team. The Aggies won’t have one this year because of stadium renovations.
He was referring to the entire South Carolina athletic program. The women’s basketball team just won its first SEC championship, and the Gamecocks’ nationally ranked baseball team is fresh off a three-game sweep of rival Clemson.
The Head Ball Coach knows a little something about winning. He won six SEC championships at Florida, seven if you ask him. The Gators had the best SEC record during his first season in Gainesville in 1990 but weren’t eligible for the title because of NCAA sanctions incurred on the previous staff’s watch.
And before he retires, he’s determined to get an eighth.
Spurrier, who turns 69 in April, has transformed South Carolina’s football program from the epitome of mediocrity to one of the pillars of consistency nationally.
South Carolina is one of four schools nationally to have won 11 or more games in each of the last three seasons. The other three are Alabama, Oregon and Stanford.
The Gamecocks have recorded three consecutive top-10 finishes and were the only team in the country last season to beat three teams that finished the season in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll.
There’s also a five-game winning streak over Clemson -- the longest by either school during the modern era of that rivalry -- and the last time the Gamecocks lost at home was the fifth week of the 2011 season.
With everything Spurrier has done at South Carolina, the timing might seem right to some for the Head Ball Coach to ride off into sunset and bask in his Hall of Fame career while playing golf full time ... and making his playing partners putt everything out.
But that’s not the way he’s wired.
As long as he’s winning big, and at least knocking on the door of playing for an SEC championship, he’s not going anywhere.
The Gamecocks have lost key players -- several of them early to the NFL draft -- in each of the last few seasons. But they’ve kept on winning.
The challenge this next season will be equally steep with Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Bruce Ellington all departing.
Spurrier, though, is confident that the standard has been set at South Carolina. The Gamecocks were scheduled to open spring practice Tuesday only to have it postponed by poor weather.
It doesn’t mean the Gamecocks have the best players or that they have out-recruited the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and LSU.
As Spurrier is fond of saying, “The most talented teams don’t always win. Sometimes, you just have to play better than the other guy.”
The Gamecocks have made a living of doing just that under Spurrier, and as he enters his 10th season in Columbia, all those people who were convinced that he would never sniff an SEC title at South Carolina aren’t quite as convinced anymore.
Spurrier already is an SEC icon, both as a player and as a coach.
If he can bring an SEC title to South Carolina before he hangs up his visor for good, you’ll be able to count his peers in this league on one hand.
Heck, maybe on two or three fingers.
What’s new: From a staff standpoint, not a lot. For the first time in a while, South Carolina’s coaching staff will return intact.
On the mend: Receiver Damiere Byrd will miss the spring after injuring his knee during bowl practice in December. Fullback Connor McLaurin will miss the spring after suffering a broken left fibula just days before the bowl game. Cornerback Ali Groves will be limited after undergoing shoulder surgery. Offensive tackle Mike Matulis has undergone surgeries on each of his shoulders and redshirted last season.
New face: Junior-college defensive tackle Abu Lamin enrolled in January and will go through spring practice. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Lamin has three years of eligibility remaining, and the Gamecocks are hoping he can be a run-stopper in the middle of that defensive line.
Question marks: Cornerback is at the top of the list. Only four recruited scholarship cornerbacks are on the roster this spring, and there’s little experience. Redshirt sophomore Rico McWilliams is the “veteran” of the group and has all of two career starts. The Gamecocks are bringing in several heralded cornerbacks in this signing class, but Wesley Green and Chris Lammons won’t be on campus until the summer. With Jadeveon Clowney leaving early for the NFL, the Gamecocks also need to find some disrupters off the edge on defense. It’s a big spring for redshirt sophomore Darius English, who has beefed up close to 245 pounds. Gerald Dixon is another redshirt sophomore who played some last season and showed a lot of promise. Cooper also could help in pass-rushing situations. He recently ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and is up to 235 pounds. He’s one of the best pure athletes on the team.
Key battle: Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward will have several options at linebacker, meaning guys will be jockeying for playing time this spring. It’s doubtful anybody will unseat sophomore Skai Moore at weakside linebacker, but Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman will battle it out at middle linebacker. Fifth-year senior Sharrod Golightly returns at the hybrid “spur” position, and sophomore Jordan Diggs is one to watch there, as well. Sophomores Larenz Bryant and Jonathan Walton will also be hard to keep off the field this fall at the linebacker/spur positions, where the Gamecocks should have plenty of depth, especially once top signee Bryson Allen-Williams arrives on campus this summer.
Breaking out: Pharoh Cooper was one of Steve Spurrier’s favorites last season as a true freshman, and you can bet the Gamecocks will look for more ways to get the ball in his hands in 2014 with Bruce Ellington leaving early for the NFL draft. The 5-11, 200-pound Cooper will get plenty of reps this spring, especially with Byrd still recovering from his knee injury. Cooper could be a force in the slot, and now that he has a season under his belt, should develop into one of the better after-the-catch players in the league. Staying at the receiver position, junior Shaq Roland could also be poised for a big season provided that he has matured off the field.
Don’t forget about: The Gamecocks are deep at running back, and Mike Davis is coming off an 1,183-yard season. Brandon Wilds should also be healthy, but redshirt freshman David Williams adds that breakaway dimension that’s so valuable in this league. The 6-1, 215-pound Williams posted the fastest 40 time on the team during winter conditioning (Byrd didn’t run) and has a chance to emerge as a nice complement to Davis, Wilds and Shon Carson.
All eyes on: Now that Connor Shaw has moved on after going 27-5 as the Gamecocks' starting quarterback, fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson gets his shot to show that he can lead this team and get it done on an every-down basis. He has been terrific in relief roles and was one of the stars of the Gamecocks’ offseason conditioning program. While he's not the extend-the-play quarterback Shaw was, Thompson can stand back there in the pocket and make precision throws. Not only that, but he has one of the biggest and best offensive lines in the SEC returning.
Need a little perspective?
The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.
“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.
Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.
So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.
The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.
Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.
The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.
The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.
“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.
“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”
While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.
Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.
“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.
The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.
There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.
Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.
The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.
Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.
Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”
With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.
We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.
The driving force behind the rule is player safety, yet there has been no real evidence that up-tempo, hurry-up offenses lead to more injuries. Still, Bielema isn't backing down from his stance on the proposal and wants to make sure something catastrophic doesn't happen.
"If one of those players is on the field for me, and I have no timeouts, I have no way to stop the game," Bielema said. "And he raises his hand to stop the game, and I can't do it. What am I supposed to do?
"What are we supposed to do when we have a player who tells us he's injured?"
Shortly after news of the rule proposal broke, it was discovered that Bielema and Alabama coach Nick Saban voiced their concerns about the effects up-tempo, no-huddle offenses have on player safety to the NCAA committee.
Having one of the sport's most powerful figures backing such a proposal certainly gives it stronger legs, but it isn't winning over current coaches, who find the rule silly and want more evidence of it actually being a true concern for player health.
Even defensive-minded Florida coach Will Muschamp told ESPN.com on Thursday that he isn't in favor of the rule. While he ran more of a run-first, traditional pro-style offense during his first three years with the Gators, the addition of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has the Gators shifting to more of a spread, up-tempo look in 2014.
Muschamp said he did a study two years ago and learned that on average, four to six snaps a game come before 10 seconds tick off the game clock.
"You're talking four to six plays, come on," Muschamp said. "It's not that big of a deal. It's not about player safety. To me, it's funny that everybody wants to argue whatever their point is. It's not really about what's good for the game, it's about what's good for me, at the end of the day. All these hurry-up guys want to snap as fast as they can snap it, and the guys who don't hurry-up want the game slowed down."
To Muschamp, it's more about the administration of the game by the referees in games, who sometimes can't get set in time before a ball is snapped. That's the concern Muschamp has when it comes to evolution of offenses.
“"That's the issue," he said. "[Officials] have a hard time administering the game when it's moving that fast. There's times that they don't even have the chains set and the ball is being snapped. Is that good for the game? I don't think so, but I'm not making the decision. But it's comical to me to hear all these people come out and say their point of view and say it's what's best for the game. No, it's what's best for them; let's make that clear.
I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too.” -- Georgia coach Mark Richt
"As much as anything, it's the administration of the game that we need to help the officials. I'm not saying slow the game down, I'm just saying it's ridiculous that we can't even get the chains set and we're snapping the ball. Is that good for the game? We don't even know where the first down was? Where's the next first down? It's stupid, but that's just the way it goes."
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier went as far as to call the new proposal the "Saban Rule" and hopes that "it's dead now." He even left a voicemail for Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, who is the chairman of the rules committee, stating his disapproval for the rule.
"I just told him I was against it," Spurrier told USA Today. "It's ridiculous. Let's let everybody keep playing the way they've been playing."
Georgia coach Mark Richt stood by Spurrier, saying defensive players should be able to adapt to staying on the field longer, just like offensive players.
"I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too," Richt told the Athens Banner-Herald.
Spotlight: Quarterback Dylan Thompson, 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, senior
2013 summary: Serving as Shaw's backup last season, Thompson threw for 783 yards and four touchdowns with three interceptions on 52-of-89 passing. He started the win at Missouri in 2013, but was replaced by Shaw in the fourth quarter. Thompson also netted 27 rushing yards and had three more scores on the ground.
The skinny: Now that the titanium-built Shaw is gone, Thompson is officially the guy at quarterback. He has started three games in his career (3-0) and performed very well when replacing Shaw because of injuries. While he didn't look as sharp in 2013 as he did in 2012, Thompson has the arm strength and accuracy to be a quality starting quarterback in the SEC. Fans have gone back and forth in the past about who would better lead the Gamecocks, and now they'll get to see just what Thompson can do when coach Steve Spurrier gives him the keys to the Gamecocks' offense full time. Thompson might be a better pure passer than Shaw, but does he have the intangibles that made Shaw such a special player? Can he take the hits that Shaw took and still be able to play? Can he overcome pain and lead the Gamecocks to wins in the process? Thompson certainly doesn't have to be Shaw, and one thing that will prevent him from having to prove if he can run through walls like Shaw did is that he doesn't run the ball a lot. Thompson ran the ball just 50 times in the past two seasons compared to the 285 times Shaw ran. What he has to show is that he can consistently lead the team. In his two starts in 2012, he threw for more than 300 yards and had three touchdowns. He also threw for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the bowl win over Michigan, including the 32-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds remaining. He finished that season with 1,027 yards and 10 touchdowns with two interceptions. With redshirt freshman Connor Mitch around, Thompson will likely have some nice competition for the starting job. It worked out perfectly for the Gamecocks and Thompson in the past, and we all know that Spurrier won't hesitate to rotate his quarterbacks in and out.