SEC: Tajh Boyd

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.

Aaron Murray targets Georgia's pro day

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
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ATHENS, Ga. – When Aaron Murray says he intends to participate in Georgia's pro day before the NFL draft, consider the source.

In April, he'll be about five months removed from surgery to repair a torn left anterior cruciate ligament when he and his fellow draft prospects take the field before a horde of scouts, coaches and front office reps. While that might seem like a quick return, this is the same player who broke his leg in a mid-October game as a high school senior, only to return for his team's final two playoff victories in a state championship run.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Murray expects to be close to full health by pro day and to be at 100 percent by the time his future NFL team opens training camp.

To read more, click here.

This rivalry now belongs to Gamecocks

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
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COLUMBIA, S.C. – Everywhere you looked late Saturday night in Williams-Brice Stadium, they were holding up five fingers.

Well, at least everywhere but the Clemson sideline.

The script in this Palmetto State rivalry has become as predictable as Charlie Brown having the football pulled out from under him every Thanksgiving.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina QB Connor Shaw threw for 152 yards and rushed for 94 yards in the win over the Tigers. Shaw has 20 passing touchdowns and one interception this season.
Only the roles have reversed.

South Carolina won its fifth in a row over Clemson, 31-17, in a game that could have been a carbon copy in a lot of ways of the previous four.

The Gamecocks didn’t turn it over a single time. The Tigers turned it over six times. The Gamecocks made key plays. The Tigers made critical mistakes.

The Gamecocks turned up the pressure on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and sacked him five times. That’s 16 times in the last three games in this series that Boyd has been sacked.

The Tigers wilted under the pressure and will have another entire year to explain how they can play so well much of the season, and yet, so crummy when they meet up with their arch-rivals the final weekend of the regular season.

“They’ve got a good team, but continue to not play very well when they play us for some reason,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, doing his best to play nice after becoming the first coach in South Carolina history to win five in a row over Clemson.

Of course, the Head Ball Coach just continues to rack up firsts at South Carolina.

The Gamecocks (10-2) have now won 10 or more games in three consecutive seasons. Before Spurrier arrived in 2005, they’d won 10 or more games in a season only once in school history.

“I was thinking back to all the teams I’ve had, and these guys may have achieved the most for such a young bunch of guys that haven’t played all that much and don’t have that much experience,” Spurrier said.

The only bummer for the No. 10 Gamecocks was that they didn’t get the help they were looking for Saturday night out of Columbia West. Missouri held off Texas A&M 28-21 at home to win the Eastern Division title and will face Auburn next Saturday in the SEC championship game.

“We’re still going to celebrate,” South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said. “A lot of us grew up in this state and know what this rivalry is about. No matter what happens, I can always say that I don’t know what it feels like to lose to Clemson because I never have and never will.”

For the No. 6 Tigers (10-2), it was a bitter pill to swallow. They’ve specialized in lighting up scoreboards, but haven’t scored more than 17 points in any of the their last five losses to the Gamecocks.

“We are playing a top-10 team, and every year, we have lost the turnover margin,” said Boyd, who was intercepted twice and lost a fumble. “Ultimately, I think that sums up the story every year.”

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtClemson signal-caller Tajh Boyd threw for 225 yards but had two interceptions vs. South Carolina.
The South Carolina players view it a little differently.

Senior quarterback Connor Shaw, who finished his career 17-0 as a starter at home, suggested that it’s not just a coincidence that the Tigers seem to stink it up every year in this game.

“It’s like blood in the water when we play these guys,” said Shaw, who threw a touchdown pass and rushed for a touchdown. “We have respect for them, and they’re a good team. But I don’t know how they would do if they had to play in our league, just the grind of the SEC.

"We’ve played better teams than them this year. That’s just how we feel.”

Clowney, who said in the preseason that he could tell Boyd was scared when the Gamecocks faced him, wasn’t backing down from those comments after seeing Boyd struggle once again.

“Every year, we talk about the same thing when we talk about them,” Clowney said. “We watch them play other teams, [and] nobody is really putting a lot of pressure on him. We know that we can get to him, contain him and add pressure. Once we hit him a few times, he starts getting the jitters a little bit and starts throwing crazy balls.

“That’s what he did tonight. We got the interceptions off those, and it worked out in our favor.”

But, then, that’s becoming the norm in this rivalry for the Gamecocks. Everything seems to work out in their favor.

“It’s just special for this program and for all the players on this team to know that we've never lost to Clemson,” Shaw said. “That’s something that nobody can ever take away from you.”

SEC Week 14 primer

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
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Finally, a full slate of SEC games after a couple of weeks of scattered byes and FCS opponents. And what a slate it is.

Seven games remain after Thursday's Egg Bowl and Friday's Arkansas-LSU game, none bigger than No. 1 Alabama at No. 4 Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl. One of the best rivalries in college football has a lot more juice this year, as it's only the second time Alabama and Auburn will play when both are ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall, Gus Malzahn
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and Nick Marshall lead Auburn past No. 1 Alabama?
Hundreds of RVs started arriving on the Plains last week in anticipation of today's battle for SEC West supremacy and the right to represent the division in Atlanta for the SEC championship game next week. Coming off a bye week, the Tigers have a chance to cap their remarkable turnaround season with an upset many thought improbable before the season began.

And while it might be a victory for AU to simply be in a game of this magnitude after going Oh-for-the-SEC last season, try telling Gus Malzahn or QB Nick Marshall to settle for a consolation prize. Alabama's Nick Saban and QB AJ McCarron, on the other hand, look to extend their already loaded legacies with another shot at postseason glory.

The next biggest game on today's slate will decide who represents the SEC East in Atlanta, as Missouri plays host to Texas A&M. These Tigers have a turnaround season of their own brewing, having gone 5-7 with a 2-6 conference record in their first shot at the SEC last year. What better way to complete the 180 and win a division crown than to face the team they came into the SEC with last season?

When the two met for the first time as SEC foes last year in College Station, Texas, Johnny Manziel was 32-of-44 passing for 372 yards and three TDs while running for 67 yards and two more scores. The Aggies cruised in a 59-29 romp that sealed Manziel's Heisman Trophy résumé. This season, Johnny Football is again vying for the Heisman, but he's coming off the worst loss of his career and coach Kevin Sumlin's brief tenure at A&M. The Aggies will have to prove they haven't lost their edge as this season's goals have dwindled. Mizzou, on the other hand, expects to be on a high with a sold-out, black-out-attired crowd urging on what would be one of the biggest wins in school history.

Waiting in the wings for Missouri to falter is South Carolina, which plays at home in its annual game against in-state rival Clemson. This Palmetto State showdown is a star-studded affair that features two top-10 teams, but the recent history is lopsided in the Gamecocks' favor. Clemson's record-breaking senior QB Tajh Boyd has never beaten South Carolina and will have to shake off the nightmares of last season's game when Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney set USC's school record for sacks in a game with 4.5. The Gamecocks have a chance to do something they've never done before in a series that began in 1896 -- win five games in a row.

Another SEC-ACC showdown looks far less competitive down in the Sunshine State, where sad-sack Florida has the daunting task of trying to end its epic six-game losing streak against the powerhouse No. 2 team in the nation, Florida State. Aside from an unbeaten season, the prospect of a BCS championship game berth and a Heisman Trophy for redshirt freshman sensation Jameis Winston on the line, the Seminoles have a score to settle after last season's 37-26 collapse against the Gators in Tallahassee. Always one of the more physical and intense rivalry games in the nation, Florida-Florida State this year feels more like a mismatch, as the Gators have suffered enough injuries and humiliation to last decades.

The other two SEC-ACC games are also somewhat subdued by recent events, as Georgia visits Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt plays host to Wake Forest. The Bulldogs are still reeling from the loss of star quarterback Aaron Murray, who suffered a torn ACL last week. He will be replaced by Hutson Mason, a fourth-year junior who has the confidence of his coaches and teammates. The taller task for Georgia today will be stopping the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack.

After beating three straight SEC East foes, Vanderbilt and coach James Franklin have already made history with a third consecutive season that will culminate in a bowl appearance. Facing the Demon Deacons simply provides another opportunity to extend an amazing streak of wins in the month of November. The Commodores haven't lost in November since 2011 and haven't lost to Wake since 2010, before Franklin arrived.

Rounding out the conference schedule is UK's annual tilt with Tennessee, two of the league's bottom-three teams. Had they upset Vanderbilt last week, Butch Jones' Vols could have been playing for a feel-good bowl berth, but the Dores pulled out a last-second comeback and ripped UT's heart out on a fake jump-pass quarterback keeper. Mark Stoops' Wildcats, on the other hand, would be thrilled with any kind of SEC win. Kentucky is 0-7 this season after going winless in league play last year and hasn't won a conference game in its last 15 tries.

  • Florida State at Florida, noon ET, ESPN
  • Wake Forest at Vanderbilt, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC TV
  • Alabama at Auburn, 3:30 p.m., CBS
  • Georgia at Georgia Tech, 3:30 p.m., ABC
  • Clemson at South Carolina, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
  • Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
  • Texas A&M at Missouri, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

What to watch in the SEC: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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Call it rivalry week, hate week, whatever you like. It's here, and it should be as memorable as ever when matchups between in-state rivals highlight the SEC lineup. Let's take a look at some of the key points around the league this weekend.

1. For all the marbles: Have you heard the Iron Bowl is this weekend? If not, you probably don't live in Alabama. Allow me to fill you in. Top-ranked Alabama will visit No. 4 Auburn on Saturday. It's a game with major conference and BCS implications, as the winner will represent the SEC West in the league championship game. Likewise, the Eastern Division remains up for grabs. No. 5 Missouri leads, but must defeat No. 21 Texas A&M in order to represent the division in Atlanta. With an A&M win, No. 10 South Carolina will win the East thanks to its victory against Mizzou.

2. In-state hate: The Iron Bowl, which is likely the nastiest in-state rivalry of them all, will receive the most national attention this week because of its championship implications. However, it's certainly not the only place you'll find distaste for the cross-state enemy. It kicks off with Thursday's Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Then you've got Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State all on Saturday.

3. ACC vs. SEC: The ACC thought last season that it might finally break through in rivalry games against opponents from the mighty SEC. Then Georgia wiped the floor with Georgia Tech, South Carolina controlled its game against Clemson, and Florida used a 24-point fourth quarter to beat FSU 37-26. This weekend might be a different story, however. At 4-7, Florida is enduring its worst season in decades and enters as a decided underdog against unbeaten FSU. Georgia faces uncertainty with quarterback Aaron Murray sidelined when it visits Tech. And while South Carolina is favored by five points, No. 6 Clemson is ranked higher and is certainly capable of winning in Columbia.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsCan Johnny Manziel keep his Heisman bid alive?
4. Manziel's recovery: Johnny Manziel's chances of winning another Heisman Trophy took a blow with his stumble against LSU last weekend (16-for-41 for 224 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). They aren't dead yet, though. Manziel's numbers remain competitive -- he ranks fifth nationally with an 89.5 opponent-adjusted Total QBR -- and he has one final chance to impress voters in a marquee game on Saturday night. Missouri's pass rush has been impressive, so Manziel could place himself back in the center of the Heisman conversation with a strong effort against the Tigers.

5. Battle for the boot: How can it be that No. 17 LSU and Arkansas ranked first and third nationally just two seasons ago when they met? When the Razorbacks visit Baton Rouge on Friday with the Golden Boot trophy at stake, they will be 25-point underdogs. Certainly some of that point spread has to do with the Tigers' impressive 34-10 win against Texas A&M. More of it is that Arkansas has been awful for most of the season. The Razorbacks have lost eight straight games, by an average margin of 21 points, as they enter this weekend's finale. While the Battle for the Boot has often ended in crazy fashion, it would be a surprise to see this installment remain competitive into the fourth quarter.

6. Murray's replacement: For the first time since the 2009 season, someone other than Murray will start at quarterback for Georgia. The SEC's all-time leading passer underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he tore Saturday against Kentucky. The starting nod will go to Hutson Mason, who led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against the Wildcats. Georgia Tech has to like seeing a different quarterback under center for the Bulldogs, as Murray was 48-for-65 for 738 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception in three career starts against the Yellow Jackets.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJames Franklin has Vandy on the right track.
7. Will Vandy's run continue? Vanderbilt looked like a possible bowl team at midseason, but that was before the Commodores won four of their past five games -- and could complete the regular season with a four-game winning streak by beating Wake Forest on Saturday. Posting back-to-back eight-win regular seasons would make yet another statement about the progress the program has made under coach James Franklin.

8. Bowl bid at stake in Starkville: Not only will Dan Mullen's Mississippi State club (5-6) be playing Thursday to recapture some of the in-state mojo it lost to Ole Miss in the past year, the Bulldogs must beat the Rebels in order to achieve bowl eligibility. Mullen's three-game winning streak against the Rebels ended last fall when Hugh Freeze's club won handily, 41-24, and then Ole Miss added insult to injury by signing one of the most heralded recruiting classes in school history. It would be another embarrassing blow if Ole Miss beats the Bulldogs to prevent them from reaching the postseason.

9. Clowney vs. Boyd: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney harassed Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in last season's win, earning Boyd 4.5 sacks as the Gamecocks beat the Tigers for the fourth time in a row. Boyd finished 11-for-24 for 183 yards and tossed two interceptions -- one of which led to Dylan Thompson's win-clinching touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington. Boyd has been terrible in two starts against South Carolina, and he'll have to perform more consistently against Clowney & Co. in order to end the losing streak.

10. Tennessee tumble: There was a point when Tennessee was 4-3 and looked like an SEC East darkhorse after the Volunteers nearly beat Georgia and shocked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Then came a run of lopsided losses to three consecutive top-10 teams (Alabama, Missouri and Auburn) and a last-minute defeat against Vanderbilt. With Tennessee now 4-7, we know first-year coach Butch Jones won't lead the Vols to a bowl game, but his team could at least remove some of the bitter taste from its mouth by beating Kentucky, which has lost 15 straight SEC games.

Move over Archie Griffin, Johnny Manziel is on his way to joining your elite club as the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner.

Manziel's case is crystal clear, but if he isn't at or near the top of your Heisman list, you aren't watching the game correctly.

There just isn't a better, more exciting player to watch. Manziel has the wins, the stats, more stats and the swag to back it all up. But for some reason, Heisman talk has been pretty quiet surrounding Manziel. Sure, he won the award last year, and his in-your-face offseason created some Manziel fatigue, but you can't ignore Manziel's 2013 body of work.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel is playing better this year than he did in last year's Heisman Trophy season.
Through 10 games, Manziel leads the SEC and ranks third nationally with 3,313 passing yards. He's second nationally with a completion percentage of 73.0 and 31 passing touchdowns, and he is third with an efficiency rating of 186.9. He leads the SEC with 331.3 passing yards per game and is also 12th in the league with 611 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Manziel has thrown for more than 300 yards six times -- and in four of those he surpassed 400 yards -- and has thrown three or more touchdowns seven times.

He ranks fourth nationally with a QBR of 88.5.

At this point last year, Manziel had 2,780 passing yards and 18 touchdown passes. Yeah, he's thrown for 533 more yards and 13 more touchdowns this season.

No, Manziel isn't slicing up defenses with his feet like he did last year, but he's a much better passer and he's still capable of doing mind-blowing things like this.

This was supposed to be a season in which the fame and offseason gallivanting clouded Manziel's on-field vision. No way was he going to sniff duplicating his fantastic freshman campaign. His focus wouldn't be there, and he'd more than likely turn into a shell of his former self.

Well, Johnny Football only got better! He goes through his progressions, reads defenses and likes to throw first. Sure, he could carve up any defense at will, but he'd rather throw this year. He'd rather look at his second and third options before taking off. And when he does take off, good luck. The quarterback/ballerina can shimmy and shake his way past a drove of defenders with relative ease, but he has been more guarded this season, and that hasn't been a bad thing.

Manziel also is putting up Playstation numbers with his own defense collapsing around him. The Aggies' defense has been dreadful, giving up a league-high 454.4 yards per game and more than 30 points a contest. Manziel is trampling defenses in spite of his defense.

But Manziel has two losses, you'll shout! He has 11 interceptions, you howl. Yes and yes, but he also had two losses and nine interceptions last year, yet ran away with the Heisman.

Look at his numbers in losses. In the 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama, which ranks sixth nationally in total defense, he rallied his team back from a 35-14 deficit with 464 passing yards, five touchdowns and 98 rushing yards. In the 45-41 loss to Auburn, Manziel threw for 454 yards and four touchdowns, while adding 48 rushing yards and another score. What was even more impressive about his play was that he completed 10 passes for 102 yards and ran for a touchdown after an apparent shoulder injury.

Compare his numbers in losses to those of former Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota in Oregon's loss to Stanford, and it's not even a close race. Mariota threw for 250 yards and two scores against the Cardinal, but he ran for minus-16 and didn't lead the Ducks to a scoring drive until the fourth quarter. Manziel either gets in the end zone or leads his teams to scores while lighting up the stat sheet no matter the outcome.

Injuries don't faze him. You saw it against Auburn, and you saw it when his knee buckled during his 470 total-yard performance in the Aggies' 41-38 win over Ole Miss.

The kid is a machine, and he's darn near impossible to stop.

As the clock winds down on college football season, we finally can get into the nitty gritty of the Heisman race. At this point, it's all about Johnny Football and Florida State freshman quarterback phenom Jameis Winston, who trails Manziel by 1,106 total offensive yards and nine touchdowns.

Teddy Bridgewater and Tajh Boyd are mere afterthoughts, while AJ McCarron and Bryce Petty are making runs that likely will fall short late, but not after a nice good job, good effort.

Famous Jameis is great. He's the future of the sport, and the future looks radiant. But he just doesn't put on the show that Manziel does.

In what could be Manziel's final collegiate year, he has turned in a wonderful final act that's more than worthy of that classy bronze statue.
ATHENS, Ga. -- James Franklin's reputation as a physical runner precedes him to the point that Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins knows his nickname is “The Tank.”

“If you let him get going a little bit, he's going to be a hard guy for some of the smaller linebackers and DBs to tackle,” Jenkins said of Franklin, who will lead Missouri's potent offense against the Bulldogs on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsMissouri quarterback James Franklin poses a threat to the Georgia defense because of his ability to scramble outside the pocket.
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Franklin presents a different challenge than most dual-threat quarterbacks the No. 7 Bulldogs (4-1, 3-0 SEC) have faced in recent seasons. He is a capable passer and is quick enough on his feet, but it's his willingness to run over defenders that separates him from signal-callers who mix some runs in with their passing skills.

Keeping Franklin bottled up -- and getting him on the ground -- will be a major test for Georgia's shaky defense. No prideful defensive player wants to get flattened by a quarterback, but Franklin has already done his share of flattening.

He comes in averaging 5.2 yards per carry as one piece of Missouri's four-pronged rushing attack that leads the SEC with an average of 258.8 yards per game.

“He's a quarterback. If he comes my way, I'm going to try to kill him. That's just it,” Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said. “I've seen games where he does lower his shoulder like that. That's the last thing you want to do is get run over by a quarterback.”

Georgia has faced plenty of dual-threat quarterbacks since Todd Grantham became the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator in 2010 and has experienced mixed results against the group as a whole. They were 5-5 in his first two seasons against BCS-conference quarterbacks who rushed for at least 200 yards in a season – surrendering at least 70 rushing yards to a quarterback four times in those 10 games.

Overall, the Bulldogs have done a better job limiting the damage against dual-threat quarterbacks since then, surrendering 70 rushing yards to a quarterback twice -- both times it was South Carolina's Connor Shaw -- and posting an 8-2 record against teams whose offenses utilized a mobile quarterback.

That includes a 41-20 win against Franklin and Missouri last season, when Georgia did its best to take away the run and force Franklin to try and win with his arm. He threw 41 passes that game, completing 25 for 269 yards and two scores, but picked up only 25 rushing yards on 20 attempts.

“Last year our focus was really making him play quarterback and not run over [us] because all we heard from the reports was that he was a big quarterback, he could move and that he's just a guy that's not easy to take down,” Jenkins said. “We're just really going to try and focus on keeping him in the pocket at times.”

Largely while trying to pass from the pocket, Franklin absorbed a Jarvis Jones-led beating that night in Columbia that affected him for the rest of the season. Jones harassed Missouri's quarterback into multiple turnovers and hit him hard enough that Franklin missed the following week's game against Arizona State. Truthfully, Franklin was not the same player for the rest of the season, as injuries set in and prevented him from playing the physical style that suits him best.

“The Tank” seems to be back, however, as Franklin has led No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0) to an undefeated start by passing for 1,407 yards and 13 touchdowns against three interceptions and rushing for 278 yards and two scores.

“James is healthy and he's more confident. He's running well. ... He's standing in the pocket with a lot of confidence and he's very accurate,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of Franklin, who is completing 68 percent of his passes. “He's on target and he looks like he's in his element.”

Taking him out of his element for a second straight season will be the goal for Georgia's defense -- but it must do so without Jones around to wreak havoc in the Mizzou backfield. In fact, only three starters remain from the group that took the field last season in Columbia, so Franklin and the rest of Missouri's explosive spread offense appear to be a major match-up challenge for Grantham's young defense.

“Anytime you've got a quarterback that can run the ball in the spread, they make you defend the entire field with the formations and with what they're doing,” Grantham said. “Anytime the quarterback runs the ball, you've got truly 11-on-11 and he can create an extra gap, so when you do that, you obviously create some issues that you've got to address.”

Shaw and Clemson's Tajh Boyd, both talented dual-threat quarterbacks, exploited those issues and enjoyed success against the Bulldogs earlier this season.

Defensive lineman Garrison Smith emphasized that the Bulldogs don't necessarily need a performance like the one Jones delivered last season in order to fare better against Franklin, but that his fellow defenders must play with improved discipline. The Bulldogs must do a more consistent job of playing their assignments correctly on Saturday, or the Tigers will almost certainly put together another explosive offensive showing.

“You've got to make individual plays,” Grantham said. “This game is about winning one-on-one matchups and when you get into those situations, you've got to make it.”

Gurley is off and running for Georgia

September, 10, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- As he does each Sunday, Mark Richt sat down and rewatched his Georgia team's game from the previous day -- this time a 41-30 win against then-No. 6 South Carolina.

Asked Sunday evening what he took away from that second viewing, Richt's first comments concerned his starting tailback, Todd Gurley.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley is seventh in the nation with 286 rushing yards and tied for fourth with four TDs.
“Just watching Gurley run was fun,” Richt said. “He's just such a powerful back. He's got such great balance, speed.”

Fans -- and Heisman Trophy voters -- have had the opportunity to make similar observations over the last two weeks as Richt's Bulldogs played two top-10 opponents. And all Gurley has done is dominate in both games, despite missing a portion of the opener at Clemson with a quad injury and despite facing one of the nation's better run defenses from last season in South Carolina.

Gurley on Monday received two rounds of treatment on the thigh injury that kept him from practicing much last week, but it didn't prevent him from dominating on the ground Saturday and fulfilling one of his few stated offseason goals of contributing more in the passing game. He hauled in his first career touchdown catch in the third quarter of the Bulldogs' win.

“I really didn't sit down this offseason and say, 'I'm trying to do this, I'm trying to do that,' ” Gurley said. “One of my main things was just to get more plays in the passing game and just work on playing without the ball. That was about all.”

After his 30-carry, 132-yard effort, which included one rushing and one receiving touchdown, Gurley is seventh nationally with 286 rushing yards and tied for fourth with four touchdowns.


“He probably is at the top of the group of running backs who are going for the Heisman right now,” said Chris Huston, whose Heisman Pundit website tracks the race closely throughout the season. “I'd say he has pushed himself to the top of that group.”

Obviously it's early, but Gurley has already continued his upward trajectory from a breakout freshman season where he rushed for 1,385 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.

There was his 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson where he exploded through a hole and outran everyone to the end zone. And then there were runs Saturday like the one where he somehow stayed on his feet when South Carolina defensive lineman Kelcy Quarles ripped off his helmet by the facemask, and very well might have scored a helmetless touchdown if not for the rule that requires such a play to be blown dead. Or when he burst down the sideline during a second-quarter touchdown drive and easily tossed Gamecocks cornerback Jimmy Legree aside with a vicious stiff-arm.

“Watching film on him, he's by far in my opinion -- anyone who watched him would probably agree with me -- the best player in the country. I don't think there's anyone like Todd,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said Monday.

He might not enjoy the spotlight, but Gurley possesses the total package that a Heisman-contending running back needs in order to generate national attention. Now he needs his teammates to help him remain in the conversation.

Spread-offense quarterbacks have the odds in their favor in this day and age, although that position held the advantage even before dual-threat passers like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel claimed each of the last three Heismans. Quarterbacks have won 11 of the last 13 years, so Gurley not only needs to separate himself from other running backs with impressive yardage totals and highlight-reel runs, he needs Georgia to remain in the BCS conversation in order to remain a viable alternative to quarterbacks like Manziel, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's Braxton Miller.

“It's hard for a running back to win, but if he does win, he has to have as little competition from other running backs in the race as possible,” Huston said. “Gurley's first task is to sort of establish himself as the running back alternative to whatever quarterbacks there are.”

Then again, he must also separate himself from his own teammate to become a true Heisman frontrunner.

Murray reignited his Heisman hopes with a nearly flawless 309-yard, four-touchdown performance against South Carolina. Interestingly enough, however, Huston said the perception that two contending teammates might siphon votes away from one another isn't necessarily accurate.

As an example, he used the 2004 race where USC quarterback Matt Leinart won and running back teammate Reggie Bush finished fifth. Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson and Jason White finished second and third that year. In other words, members of the two teams that played for the BCS championship took up four of the top five spots in the voting -- and their respective abilities likely helped their teammates from a performance and publicity standpoint.

“You could argue that Jason White's support cost Peterson the Heisman, but you could also say that Bush's support cost Leinart more votes in that situation,” Huston said. “Would Peterson have gotten more votes if White wasn't as good? So it's kind of a symbiotic relationship between the two. If Aaron Murray wasn't as good, Gurley probably wouldn't be as successful because teams would be able to key on him more.”

Shaw will test UGA defensive discipline

September, 3, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps because of Georgia’s offensive ineptitude in last season’s 35-7 loss to South Carolina, Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw’s impressive performance seems to fly under the radar.

Look over Shaw’s run-pass line from that game -- 6-for-10 passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns, plus 78 rushing yards and another score -- and you won’t mistake him for dual-threat Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesGeorgia knows from painful experience just how dangerous Connor Shaw is running or passing.
But make no mistake, Shaw’s ability to make things happen with his arm and legs played a major role in South Carolina jumping out to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Containing the shifty quarterback will be a major order of business in Saturday’s rematch.

“Most of the time when you have a quarterback like that, you might see an opening just to go inside on a tackle or something like that and he just slips outside and that’s when the big plays happen,” Georgia’s Josh Dawson said. “So staying to your keys and being fundamental, that’s going to be the biggest thing of containing a quarterback like that. Just try to apply as much pressure as you can. I feel like if we can do that, we can have a chance.”

Georgia had difficulty with the fundamental aspects of defending him a season ago in Columbia.

On the second play of the game, Shaw launched a jump ball that Damiere Byrd snatched away from Bulldogs safety Bacarri Rambo for a 42-yard gain. Three plays later, Shaw hit a wide-open Bruce Ellington with a 20-yard touchdown pass and the Gamecocks were quickly ahead 7-0.

Shortly after an Aaron Murray interception on the ensuing drive, South Carolina was on the move again, moving 69 yards in 11 plays and scoring on a 14-yard pass from Shaw to Rory Anderson.

In just those two drives, Shaw went 5-for-6 for 100 yards and two scores, plus he ran twice for 17 more yards. And with a defense as good as South Carolina’s, Shaw’s early efficiency had a devastating impact on Georgia’s chances.

“Connor Shaw is a very difficult quarterback to manage in how he runs the football and he threw the ball extremely well,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

Shaw also ran for a 7-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to help put South Carolina up 28-0.

Although Georgia’s defense did not exactly hem in Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, who totaled five touchdowns in Saturday’s season opener, the Bulldogs believe there was some value in facing one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks before facing Shaw in their conference opener.

“You tend to figure out what running quarterbacks’ tendencies [are],” Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said. “Like if they don’t see something open, they’ll tuck it and run it just about every time. So it’s really like practice leading up to playing South Carolina’s quarterback.”

Their teams’ offensive philosophies -- South Carolina’s grinding offense is built around physicality, including the running style of its hard-nosed quarterback, while Clemson’s wide-open scheme attempts to get its large group of talented skill players into open space with big plays a regular possibility -- are extremely different , and so are their quarterbacks.

That makes a comparison between Georgia’s strategy against Boyd versus its strategy against Shaw somewhat invalid, said defensive lineman Mike Thornton.

“I don’t think it’s worth comparing those two because they’re two totally different teams with I feel like two different philosophies as far as running the ball and having an outside passing attack,” Thornton said. “So I wouldn’t compare the two, but we definitely have to get after Connor Shaw.”

That much is certain. The Bulldogs learned that lesson the hard way a season ago.

Their rocky 2013 debut reminded the Bulldogs of the importance of playing their assignments properly on defense, and they will be tested in that area again on Saturday.

They know Shaw will be looking to test them in that department in an effort to run circles around them the way he did early in last season’s blowout.

“[We have keep staying] to our keys and just knowing what can happen when you get out of your gaps and whatnot,” Dawson said. “Playing Boyd was an eye-opener and it was something we needed early in the season. Coming into the South Carolina game, you have Connor Shaw, who does the same thing, so it’s something that’s going to help us this week.”

Instant analysis: Clemson 38, Georgia 35

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- No. 8 Clemson made a statement in its season-opening 38-35 win against No. 5 Georgia, beating a historic rival in a game with clear BCS championship implications. Let's take a closer look at how the Tigers got it done:

It was over when: Facing third-and-goal from Georgia’s 9-yard line, Stanton Seckinger caught a touchdown pass to put Clemson up 38-28 with 7:40 to play. The Tigers drove 87 yards in 12 plays -- none bigger than a highlight-reel 36-yard run by Roderick McDowell to Georgia’s 6 -- on the game-clinching drive.

Game ball goes to: Clemson’s defensive front. Although Georgia gained 545 yards, Clemson’s front made huge plays after the Bulldogs built early momentum. In particular, Stephone Anthony forced an Aaron Murray fumble at Georgia’s 20, leading to a touchdown, and Corey Crawford halted Georgia’s next drive with an interception at Clemson’s 17.

Stat of the game: 1,012. Clemson-Georgia was billed as a meeting of explosive offenses and they didn’t disappoint. They combined for 73 points and 1,012 yards (467 by Clemson and 545 by Georgia).

Best call: Georgia was in jeopardy of letting Clemson run away with the game in the third quarter when the Bulldogs faked a punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 34. Collin Barber's 5-yard run kept the drive alive and Todd Gurley later tied it at 28 with a tackle-breaking 12-yard touchdown run.

What it means for Clemson: Clemson keeps its BCS championship hopes alive with a résumé-building win against one of the nation’s top programs of 2012.

What it means for Georgia: The Bulldogs don’t have long to regroup. Georgia will host South Carolina -- which hammed the Bulldogs 35-7 last year -- next Saturday.

Five things: Georgia-Clemson

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
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No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson will end a 10-year hiatus in their historic rivalry Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Death Valley n in one of the most intriguing matchups of opening weekend.

Let’s examine five key elements involved in a game that could impact this season’s BCS championship chase:

Big-play offenses: Las Vegas is predicting two of the nation’s most-prolific offenses to combine for around 70 points on Saturday night. And research provided by ESPN Stats and Information gives us plenty of reasons to see why many analysts expect a high-scoring game between the Bulldogs and Tigers.

Beyond simple scoring and total offense stats, they both ranked among the nation’s top big-play offenses a season ago. Georgia ranked first nationally or tied for first in touchdowns of at least 20 yards (31), 30 yards (22) and 50 yards (12) and led the nation with an average of 7.09 yards per play.

Clemson, meanwhile, led the nation in completions of 25 yards or more (51) and touchdown passes that covered at least 25 yards (20). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had 11.2 percent of his passes go for completions of at least 25 yards, which was the highest of any quarterback in the country who attempted at least 150 passes.

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.1) and percentage of attempts to gain 20 yards or more (16.1).

Both quarterbacks improved their accuracy on passes of 20-plus yards last season, with Murray completing 46 percent of such throws (an increase of 17.3 percent) and Boyd hitting on 51 percent (an increase of 14 percent).

Will Watkins step up?: With Georgia breaking in a largely rebuilt secondary, this game would seem like a prime opportunity for Clemson’s 2011 All-American receiver Sammy Watkins to exploit the Bulldogs’ youth.

Watkins talked a big game about beating Georgia during the offseason, but will he reclaim his spot as the Tigers’ top receiving target after losing that title last fall to DeAndre Hopkins. Watkins was third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,288) in 2011, but totaled fewer than half as many a year later (1,073). His touchdowns-per-touch ratio dropped from 1-in-9.6 to 1-in-17.8, as well.

Clemson quarterbacks targeted Watkins 44 fewer times (from 123 in 2011 to 79 last year) and his catch (82 to 57), receiving yardage (1,219 to 708) and touchdown (12 to three) totals all dropped severely.

Hopkins led the nation with 11 touchdown catches of 25-plus yards last season, so the Tigers desperately need Watkins to live up to the standard he set in 2011 and replace some of the departed star’s production. Watkins is more than capable, posting 11 TD catches of 25-plus yards in his first two seasons as a Tiger.

Pound the run?: An interesting subplot to Saturday’s game is how Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers also have some concerns in the secondary -- this on the heels of surrendering 7.32 yards per pass attempt a season ago. But conventional wisdom seems to dictate that Georgia uses its powerful running game -- paced by All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- to extend drives and provide time for its defense to rest between series against Clemson’s up-tempo offense.

Both players averaged better than 6 yards per carry last season, due in large part to their capabilities as home-run threats. They combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, eight of which went for touchdowns. Gurley alone had 27 carries that went at least 15 yards, which tied for fifth in the FBS.

Clemson ranked 57th nationally against the run last season, surrendering 155.92 yards per game on the ground in Brent Venables’ first season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 71st against the pass at 240.3 ypg.

Murray on the big stage: Fair or unfair, Saturday’s game -- and the upcoming matchups with South Carolina and LSU in September -- will serve as another referendum on Murray’s status as a big-game performer.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite big-name offensive talent, Georgia-Clemson could come down to young defenders like Tray Matthews.
Georgia’s quarterback caught plenty of guff over shortcomings against ranked opponents well into last season. He’s 3-11 in his UGA career against teams that ended the season ranked in the AP Top 25 with 23 touchdowns versus 16 touchdowns against those teams. He’s 25-2 with 72 touchdowns and 16 interceptions against teams that finished unranked.

The positive sign for Murray is that he has won two of his last three games against opponents that finished the season as a ranked team: Florida and Nebraska last season. Following an atrocious first half against Florida last season, Murray has tossed seven touchdowns against three interceptions in 10 quarters against ranked opponents, including the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.

Fresh-faced defenses: Let’s have some fun with numbers concerning Georgia and Clemson’s defensive depth charts.

After losing 12 key players from last season’s defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham appears set to trot out a large group of newbies. Of the 22 players listed on the Bulldogs’ defensive two-deep in this week’s game notes, 16 of them have never started a college game. Heck, nine of them, including seven true freshmen, have never PLAYED in a college game.

But a number of them -- including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive lineman John Taylor, safety Tray Matthews and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- could play big roles on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Clemson has some experience issues of its own. Ten of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep have never started and three of them are freshmen. They’re expected to be without injured freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who at No. 4 in the 2013 ESPN 150 was Clemson’s highest-rated signee in its most recent recruiting class.

It’s easily conceivable that Saturday’s outcome could be determined by which team’s young defensive personnel acquits itself more effectively in its first game in leading roles.
Aaron Murray and Tajh BoydGetty ImagesAaron Murray and Tajh Boyd have had their big-game struggles, but both had huge performances to end the 2012 season.


The game between Clemson and Georgia has so many intriguing storylines to follow. One of the most intriguing, of course, is the quarterback matchup between Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray.

The two players are longtime friends and have already talked some friendly smack to each other in the offseason. But with Boyd on Twitter lockdown, the good natured back-and-forth between them has stopped.

That, however, will not stop ACC blogger Andrea Adelson and SEC blogger Edward Aschoff from debating which quarterback has the upper hand headed into the game.

AA: With all due respect, Edward, I am trying to figure out what there is to debate here. Murray has not exactly done well in the big games he has played in throughout his career. Georgia coach Mark Richt was asked as much after the SEC championship game loss to Alabama a year ago, growing angry and defensive at the mere implication that Murray comes up small on the big stage. Well, there's a reason Richt was asked. Murray is 3-11 against teams that ended the season ranked in the Top 25; his best win would be against No. 2 Florida last year. But he did nothing to win that game. Murray threw for 150 yards and had three passes intercepted; the Gators gave that one away with six turnovers. Boyd, on the other hand, has won a conference championship, was an AFCA first-team All-American last year and has been selected as the 2013 preseason player of the year in his league. That's a trifecta Murray can't match.

EA: Yes, Murray has had his issues against ranked teams. I'm not going to turn my head and act as if he hasn't struggled when the big boys line up against him. But I'm pretty sure we are talking about taking a quarterback right now, today. And who wouldn't take Murray? He's not as mobile or as physically imposing, but he throws a much more catchable ball than Boyd. He has better technique, and he has put up far better numbers. I know people like to harp on his first-half performance against Florida, but why not talk about what he did after that half? If you won't, I will. After the first half of the Florida game, Murray finished the season throwing 20 touchdowns to just three interceptions. During that time, he threw for 300-plus yards in three games, including his 427-yard, five-touchdown outing against Nebraska in Georgia's 45-31 Outback Bowl win. He was playing his best ball at the end of the season and enters the 2013 season with the SEC passing yards record and touchdown record in sight. As for Boyd, he hasn't been great against ranked teams, either. He went 1-2 against ranked opponents last year and went 2-4 to end 2011, throwing nine interceptions.

AA: Wait, you mean to tell me you would pick Murray over Boyd because he had a few 300-yard games to close the season? None of them came against a defense ranked in the top 30. He had a nice game against Nebraska in the bowl game? Nebraska, which gave up 70 points to Wisconsin in the biggest, most embarrassing conference championship game beatdown last season? I think I could have lined up and thrown for 300 yards against that team. But since you brought up bowl performances, this is why anybody who wants to win picks Boyd. The way he willed Clemson to victory over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl is the biggest reason the Tigers go into the year with as much hype as they do, and the biggest reason Boyd has played himself into early Heisman consideration.

You were at the game, Edward.

You must remember how Boyd and the Tigers' offense took possession at their own 20 with 1:39 left in the game, down two. You must remember his incredible 26-yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins on fourth-and-16 to help get Clemson into field goal range. You must remember the way Boyd was battered and bruised in that game, but he kept getting up, refusing to lose. Boyd threw for 346 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and set career highs for attempts and completions against a defense that finished the season ranked No. 8 in the nation. Yes, Boyd has struggled against South Carolina the way Murray has. Both are 0-for-the Gamecocks, a sore point without a doubt. But overall, Boyd does have a winning record against Top 25 teams. He is more mobile and has a higher QBR than Murray, too. Boyd over Murray is an easy choice.

EA: You're right, I was there to watch Clemson's comeback, upset win over LSU. But I distinctly remember LSU handing the other Tigers that victory late. Now, I'm not taking anything away from Boyd. He played a heck of a game, but if LSU didn't get away from running the ball (what in the world were the coaches thinking?) in the fourth quarter, we wouldn’t be talking about Boyd. It's just another SEC win over an ACC team. Murray gets hammered for his past play against ranked teams, but the game that really stands out to me is last year's SEC championship game.

Murray might have played his best game in a Dawgs uniform, but all anyone will remember is Chris Conley's catch to end the game that handed Alabama the win. All they'll remember is the mind-boggling decision by Georgia's coaching staff not to clock the ball on that final drive. There was no excuse for such a mental lapse. But look at what Murray did in the biggest game of his career, against the best team in the country, in what most people around these parts consider to be the real national championship. He threw for 265 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but completed five of his seven pass attempts in that last drive, including his final four, for 76 yards. Remember, this was against Alabama.

This wasn't against Maryland, NC State, UNC or Virginia Tech. This was against the best defense in the country. Murray did everything in his power to win, and there's absolutely no way you blame that loss on him. Look to the sideline for help there. The bottom line is that Murray was hitting his stride at the end of the season, and that will carry over to the fall. He's incredibly efficient and is about to break every major career-passing record in the nation's toughest conference, where he faces the sport's top defenses each week. Both are great, but if I'm taking a quarterback today, I'm taking this version of Aaron Murray.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
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Ready or not, it's here. The start of the college football season is upon us with all of its promise and potential.

Throughout the SEC, there's a sense of new beginnings, of hope, of the fresh start so many programs have been longing for. Gus Malzahn will lead Auburn for the first time as its head coach, Bret Bielema and Butch Jones will coach their first games in the SEC at Arkansas and Tennessee, respectively, and Mark Stoops will take the first steps in rebuilding a Kentucky program that's struggled historically.

Everyone is on an even keel today, but that all changes when the lines are painted and the football is teed up for the start of the season. So as you get ready for all that Week 1 has to offer, keep an eye on these few things:

1. Return of the champs: Alabama has all the ingredients to make another run at a national title. AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon are Heisman Trophy contenders, and the defense is once again littered with potential All-Americans. With a league-best 16 players chosen to the Coaches' Preseason All-SEC Team, there's no doubting the talent assembled in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But can Nick Saban fend off complacency again and help his team meet its full potential? That remains to be seen, though a season opener against Virginia Tech is a good place to start. The Hokies are a three-touchdown underdog that Alabama could easily overlook with a bye week and Texas A&M to follow. Will overconfidence get the best of the Tide? If UA comes out with anything less than 100 percent effort, that could signal trouble for the road ahead.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray will aim to lead Georgia past Clemson in the Bulldogs' opener.
2. An early title test for Georgia: Mark Richt's Bulldogs won't get a chance to test the waters before jumping in headlong this season, as Clemson awaits in Game 1. Never mind letting Aaron Murray and his talented tandem of tailbacks get their bearings, and never mind allowing the revamped defense to find its stride; Georgia will encounter its first obstacle on the road to the national championship right away. Tajh Boyd and the Tigers offense are prolific -- and dangerous -- averaging 512 yards per game a season ago, which was good enough for ninth in the country. And while there's no doubting Georgia's ability on offense, there are some serious questions on the other side of the ball. After all, 10 of the 22 players listed on Georgia's two-deep depth chart have never played a down of FBS football.

3. Can LSU's offense turn the corner?: There have been glimpses of potential, but LSU's offense has never reached its full potential under Les Miles. The defense has been great, sure, but when it's come to scoring points, the Tigers left something to be desired. Not having the right quarterback had something to do with that, though, but this season, that excuse and all others won't be enough as Zach Mettenberger enters his senior season under center and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron takes control. LSU will still line up and play power football, which it has always done well. The passing game, though, could use some spark, and Miles hopes Cameron is the guy to light that fire, starting with the season opener against TCU. Just because the Horned Frogs come from the defensively challenged Big 12 doesn't mean coach Gary Patterson's squad can't play ball. TCU has long been SEC-like on defense with playmakers like defensive lineman Devonte Fields and cornerback Jason Verrett. They'll get after Mettenberger and give LSU fans an early look at what the Tigers' offense is truly capable of.

4. Florida seeking playmakers: The Gators' woes on offense have been well documented. After all, Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver in almost a decade. Since Tim Tebow left, there hasn't been a lot of chomp to the Gators' bite. For all of Jeff Driskel's faults as a young quarterback, it was hard to figure out exactly who he was supposed to get the football to last season. There was no Percy Harvin to be found. While there doesn't appear to be an All-American brewing at wide receiver now, this season should be better. Losing Matt Jones for the season opener hurts, but it should give other players a chance to step up and make plays. With a date with in-state rival Miami looming, coming out with a bang against Toledo could serve as the springboard to bigger and better things in 2013.

5. Which Johnny Football will it be?: It's only Rice, but Johnny Manziel needs to come out and set the tone right away for what kind of season he hopes to have. The Aggies’ success depends on it. After an offseason filled with turmoil, it's time for all of College Station to turn the page. We've heard time and time again that it will get better when Manziel can put aside the distractions and focus solely on football. Now, he has to prove it. If he really is tired of the college life and ready to move on to the NFL, he'll have to show he's capable of handling the spotlight and performing on the football field. Veterans like Luke Luke Joeckel, Ryan Swope and Damontre Moore are gone. For better or worse, it's Manziel's team, and the pressure is on him now more than ever.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Scour the locker rooms at Georgia and Clemson and it might be difficult to find a player who knows much about their historic rivalry.

“You know me, I don’t know much about Georgia’s history from before I got here,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray chuckled in one such response about the longtime rivalry between schools separated by only about 70 miles.

Murray is far from alone in that regard. The 22-year-old Floridian was 13 the last time Georgia and Clemson met, in 2003, and was not even alive when the annual 1980s meetings between the Bulldogs and Tigers often carried national-title implications.

Fans of a certain age might harken back to those days on Saturday, however, when the rivalry resumes -- ending the longest gap between games since the series started in 1897 -- and No. 5 Georgia visits No. 8 Clemson in Death Valley.

[+] EnlargeClemson, Danny Ford
AP Photo/Kathy WillensCoach Danny Ford and Clemson beat Georgia 13-3 in 1981 and went on to win the national championship.
“Georgia was really good every year, so it meant that doggone it, somebody was going to get a lot of publicity and a lot of press, whoever won that football game,” said former Tigers coach Danny Ford, who will be enshrined in Clemson’s Ring of Honor on Saturday. “You could still be a good football team if you lost that game, but it just put a cramp in everything and it was so early in the year -- the first or second game or third game every year -- and you kind of knew what kind of football team [you had].

“It was kind of like a Wednesday where the kids in school call it Hump Day, you know? You’re in the middle of the week, get your classes over with and you’re about halfway to the weekend. That was the same kind of a hump game, where if you get off and win that football game, you’ve got a great chance to have a good year.”

Back then, your season could be more than good if you slipped away with a win. Thanks to a 67-yard punt return touchdown by Scott Woerner and a 98-yard Woerner interception return that set up another score, Georgia edged Clemson 20-16 in 1980 despite failing to register a single first down in the opening half.

“At the end, they’re back down there and Jeff Hipp makes an interception on about the 1-yard line right at the end of the game,” recalled former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who posted a 15-6-1 record against Clemson in his 25 seasons as the Bulldogs’ coach. “But statistic-wise, they just knocked us all over the place.”

The 10th-ranked Bulldogs went on to win the national title that season after barely surviving the Tigers’ upset bid. And Clemson returned the favor the following year, generating nine turnovers to beat Herschel Walker and No. 4 Georgia 13-3 en route to a national title of its own.

Clemson’s 1981 win marked the only time that Georgia lost in the regular season during Walker’s three seasons on campus.

“They’re the only team that he played more than once in his college career and didn’t score a touchdown against,” said UGA grad Kyle King, whose new book detailing the Georgia-Clemson series history, “Fighting Like Cats and Dogs,” was published, oddly enough, by the Clemson University Digital Press. “So they really were the ones who -- to the extent anyone had Herschel’s number -- they’re the ones who had his number.”

[+] EnlargeVince Dooley
Dale Zanine/US Presswire for ESPN.comIn 25 years as coach at Georgia , Vince Dooley posted a 15-6-1 record against Clemson.
Just how close were the two teams in their respective pursuits of the national title? Georgia scored exactly 316 points during the 1980 regular season before beating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to claim its first national title since 1942. The following year, Clemson matched that scoring total to the number, notching the very same 316 points in the regular season before beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to claim the school’s first national championship.

The series continued to produce memorable outcomes on an annual basis throughout the 1980s. Take 1982, for example, when No. 7 Georgia hosted No. 11 Clemson in the first night game in decades at Sanford Stadium. Much like Saturday’s game at Clemson, the 1982 game aired before a prime-time national TV audience on ABC -- that year on Labor Day evening.

Bulldogs defenders picked off four passes by Clemson quarterback and Athens native Homer Jordan en route to a 13-7 win and another undefeated regular season. Once again, the Georgia-Clemson winner played in the game that would determine the national champion, although the Bulldogs lost this time, 27-23 to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.

Nonetheless, those first three games set the standard for one of the nastiest rivalries of the 1980s -- one where defense, big special-teams plays and general hard-nosed aggression became trademarks.

“I remember it was always a tough game for Georgia. It was a tough game, period,” said Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon, who appeared in the series’ last two games, in 2002 and 2003, and whose father Willie preceded him as a Georgia player and coach. “It was always one of the biggest games out there in the country and it’s a lot like this year, to be honest with you. You never knew who was going to come out on top. Both teams always had high expectations going into each year, let alone that game. It was always a hard-fought war out there on the field.”

There was the 1984 game where Georgia beat No. 2 Clemson 26-23 on a 60-yard Kevin Butler field goal -- a play that produced what King called Bulldogs announcer Larry Munson’s most memorable call from a home game, when he estimated that Butler would “try to kick one 100,000 miles” and then proclaimed that “the stadium is worse than bonkers” once the kick cleared the uprights.

Clemson enjoyed its own kicking-game heroics in 1986 and 1987, when David Treadwell booted game-winning field goals at the end of the Tigers’ respective 31-28 and 21-20 victories.

“We were so evenly matched, and so many came down to a field goal or a touchdown, and we were so evenly matched that all of them kind of run together in my thoughts,” Ford recalled. “They’d win one and we’d win one.”

That proved true throughout Ford’s 11-year tenure at Clemson. A rivalry that Georgia once dominated -- the Bulldogs are 41-17-4 all-time against the Tigers and went 11-1-1 against Frank Howard, the winningest coach in Clemson history -- was extremely even in the 1980s.

Ford went 4-4-1 against Georgia while at Clemson. The scoring differential during that period? Georgia 153, Clemson 152.

“It was more about respectability for us because Georgia had the upper hand for so long back when Coach Howard [was here],” Ford said. “I tell the story all the time that Coach Howard would have to play Georgia and Georgia Tech, who was in the SEC back then, Alabama and Auburn and lose four games to have enough money to make his budget and then win the ACC conference. But back then he had to do that and he couldn’t hardly ever get them to come play at our place. It was just a thing of respectability I think, more so for us in the '80s."

Respectability is no longer a problem for either of the programs who will renew their longtime rivalry on Saturday in Death Valley. Georgia’s Mark Richt led his team within an eyelash of playing for the BCS title last year, and the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game with their highest preseason ranking since opening the 2008 campaign in the No. 1 spot. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has led the Tigers to a 21-6 record over the last two seasons and, blessed with a Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Tajh Boyd, should boast one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

The programs no longer resemble the Ford- and Dooley-era squads that relied on defense and the kicking game to win low-scoring games, but considering the standing the Georgia-Clemson game once held in the national championship race, it seems fitting that Saturday’s reunion occupies a marquee spot in college football’s opening weekend.

“I grew up with this game being played pretty much every year, and it was at a time that Georgia beat Florida every year, and Georgia beat Georgia Tech every year, so Clemson and Auburn were really the two games that you went into the year thinking, ‘Boy, I hope we can get out of that one with a W,’ ” King said. “I didn’t want to lose that, and that was really what ultimately inspired me to go back and write this book.

“We’re going into a season where it looks like you have two top-10 teams, two frontrunners in their conferences, two top-drawer quarterbacks going up against one another,” he added. “I think it’s important to remind fans that this isn’t a new thing. We butted heads with these guys in big games before, and hopefully we’ll get the chance to keep doing it in the future.”
ESPN's "College GameDay" will open the college football season in Death Valley for the Clemson-Georgia game on Aug. 31. The game will later broadcast live at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

"GameDay" last visited Clemson on Oct. 21, 2006. It was the first and only time the Tigers hosted the show.

One new addition to ESPN's broadcast is that "GameDay" will expand to four hours for the opening weekend. The show will begin airing on ESPN at 9 a.m. ET and will run until 1 p.m. ET. The college football pregame show also plans to air for three hours (9 a.m. -- noon ET) each Saturday after Week 1.

This game will display two of the country's top offenses. Clemson finished the 2012 season ranked ninth nationally in total offense (512.7 yards per game), while the Bulldogs finished 22nd (467.7). Record-breaking quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray return for a year in which both are considered early Heisman Trophy candidates.

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