Tag: SEC

Dark horse college football contenders for every division

The 2015 college football season has begun! Last season, we saw the four-team playoff get its start and we were gifted with the chance to see the first iteration of an actual playoff — even if it was just two games.

This year, the bowl schedule has expanded to 41 overall games including the national championship. The Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl will host the semifinals, while the national championship will be held in Glendale, Arizona. But to earn a bowl bid, teams must win their division. There are favorites who are predicted to cruise through division play (Alabama and the SEC, anyone?) but every so often a dark horse candidate emerges and makes things interesting for everyone else.

Who are those dark horse college football candidates and how much of a chance do they have of winning their division title?

SEC – Georgia

It’s odd to call a team a dark horse when they have averaged nine wins per season since 2001, but that’s what Georgia is. The team will install a West Coast style offense (i.e. a lot of play-action passes built around Heisman candidate Nick Chubb) which is tailor-made for a team that still doesn’t know who the starting quarterback will be with the season starting in a week. They just need to get past Nick Saban. Kudos to anyone that finds a picture of Saban smiling.

ACC – Louisville

Bobby Petrino is an evil man. Just search “2007 Atlanta Falcons” and see. With that said, this evil man is a genius when it comes to offense. Like Georgia, they are still debating on the starting quarterback, but on sheer coaching alone the offense can manage. The defense is shaky but they can rush the passer with the aggressive play-calling of Todd Grantham. The only problem? Florida State.

Big 12 – Texas Tech

Kliff Kingsbury has risen from low-level assistant to head coach of a Power 5 school in just five years. With David Gibbs bringing his Tampa 2 scheme to the often trounced Red Raiders defense, they can pin their ears back and play more aggressively knowing that they will surely be playing with the lead. But can they get past powerhouses like Baylor or TCU?

BIG 10 – Penn State

If you were to hire a coach to bring a school back to life from the well-documented past, James Franklin would be that guy. He brings the swagger that the school desperately needs he can go full steam ahead without the NCAA sanctions. The team brings back Christian Hackenberg at quarterback and he is equipped with an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver. Once again, they have a powerhouse to get through, mainly defending national champion Ohio State.

PAC-12 – Oregon State

New Coordinator David Baldwin is bringing a spread option style offense to the team. The problem is that all quarterbacks on the roster have zero playing experience. Enter Storm Woods (awesome name, kudos to his mom) who stands 6’4’’ and weighs 235 pounds. He’s a freak athlete at receiver and will have any quarterback thanking the heavens for being on his team. But Stanford, UCLA, and Oregon are looking at them like younger brothers. Can they compete against such prestigious programs?

Conference USA – RICE

Kudos to anyone that finds a picture of Rice head coach David Bailiff angry. His high energy is infections. From the assistants, to the ball boy, all the way to his players. Throughout numerous games last year, the defense went through some crazy illness called the “don’t-you-even-think-about-getting-a-first-down” flu. With the best defense in the conference, all they will need is a quarterback that won’t lose the game. “We are coming for you Marshall,” says Bailiff. Find that picture yet?

MAC – UMass

If you go from winning two games in two years to taking an SEC team to the brink (it was Vanderbilt, but an SEC team nonetheless) then you know there is something brewing. UMass is leaving the MAC after this year, but having an NFL late-round sleeper at quarterback in Blake Frohnapfel with a rocket arm can’t hurt. The defense can rush the passer with relative ease, as they finished in the top 30 in the country in quarterback pressures last year.

SUN BELT – Georgia Southern

Georgia Southern took the Sun Belt conference by storm last year. Having a top-20 defense and having the No. 1 rushing team in the country is a gift when you are moving up to the Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision. Georgia Southern runs the triple option offense just as well as Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech, who are the Godfathers of the triple offense. They can also stop the run and run the ball and that’s as close to your grandfather’s style of football as you are going to get.

MOUNTAIN WEST – Utah State

This team in another “ouch that hit hurt” old school style football team. They finished in the top-15 in points allowed on defense. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton was in the discussion of being a first-round pick before injuries ended that discussion last year. They bring a blitz heavy, man to man defense that can scare the dickens out of opponents with tall, physical corners that can eliminate any receiver they play. Utah state is just like Alabama. They just don’t have those country strong big uglies on the lines of scrimmage.

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Why Everyone Needs to Stop Hating on Jeff Driskel

Watching UF’s latest game against LSU last weekend was a frustrating one for Gator fans. After skimming a 10-9 win against Tennessee the week before, LSU was a huge game Florida needed to win. And they dropped the ball…literally.

Which is exactly why Gator fans need to give the Jeff Driskel hatred a rest.

I attended the game against the Kentucky Wildcats and noticed a lot of ball dropping all throughout the game. From the angle of my seats, it was hard to tell if it was Driskel’s fault or the receivers’. But the case of the butterfingers was bad enough to where they should’ve had glue on those gloves.

In the first two games of the season, Driskel’s stats were decent with a 68.9% completion rate against Eastern Michigan while rushing for a total of 295 yards at the Kentucky game. Not completely horrible.

After the Kentucky game, things went south. Fast.

Only nine completions were made against ‘Bama, which resulted in the first loss of the season for the Gators. Then there was the whole 59-passing yards against Tennessee that wasn’t a good look. But in the LSU game, Driskel seemed to get more involved and came out with 183 passing yards, a 56% completion average, and 71 total rushing yards.

From a spectators standpoint watching at home, this last game against LSU wasn’t Driskel’s fault.

I understand being the quarterback, he’s going to get the criticism if they do bad, yet get all the praise when they win. Driskel threw some dirty passes that were caught and he threw some very clean passes right into receivers’ hands that were dropped.

I’m referring specifically to the would-have-been touchdown pass Driskel threw to tight end Tevin Westbrook (87) towards the ends of the game.

In case you missed the epic ball drop:

Tevin Westbrook

Photo Credit: PHIL SANDLIN/AP PHOTO

Listen, Jeff Driskel has some work he needs to do, there’s no denying that. But instead of beating him down, I think a little compassion is in order. He’s under an immense amount of pressure after a disappointing season last year, he’s young and not everyone is able to handle that kind of pressure with ease. He started off in the first two games great. I’m sure there were a lot of pep talks, a lot of enthusiasm amongst the team and rapport building at the beginning of the season.

It seems that after the loss to Alabama, things are getting to him. To have a football legend like Emmett Smith tweet trash talk about you doesn’t feel good. Although Emmett ended up deleting the tweet and calling up Driskel to apologize, I’m sure that got him down.

I mean, wouldn’t you get down if that happened to you?

Driskel needs his teammates and all of Gator Nation to stand by him. He needs a pick-me-up instead of continuously getting put down. College football is such a competitive sport and being in the SEC puts a thousand more pounds of pressure, especially when playing against another SEC school. The trash talking doesn’t solve anything.

No team who has players that are out there playing for themselves is going to be a team that is successful. There needs to be unity, leadership and positivity for a team to thrive. Watching the UFvsLSU game it was apparent to me that the unity isn’t there. Teammates were making hand gestures to Driskel after bad plays which doesn’t help the situation and in the end breaks the team. If they don’t trust in his leadership, they’re going on a downward spiral for another season.

Coach Muschamp is standing by Driskel and so should the rest of Gator Nation. We should all love our teams whether they do well or not. It’s frustrating for a fan when they’re not doing so hot, but our players can feel the atmosphere when they’re out there playing. The negativity is almost visible to them when they’re out on the field.

It’s time we start pouring some positivity into our players. If you tell someone they’re doing terrible at something, they’re eventually going to start reflecting that. I’m sure once they win the next game and his confidence boosts, we’ll be seeing a major change.

 

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Can Auburn Do It Again? 2014 SEC Preview

The SEC is entering unfamiliar territory in 2014. For the first time in nearly a decade, the nation’s premier college football conference will not have the defending national champion. Florida State ended the conference’s 7-year streak of dominance when it defeated Auburn in last year’s national championship game, but don’t consider it the end of an era. The league is as good as ever and will certainly boast a plethora of national playoff contenders.

However, the loss did reveal a chink in the SEC’s armor. No longer is the conference a sure thing where you can automatically pencil in its champion for a title game slot. Florida State is still out there, and a strong case can be made that the Pac-12 is a deeper league.

Plus. the SEC is experiencing a significant turnover at quarterback. Gone are guys like Aaron Murray, James Franklin, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, Zach Mettenberger, and A.J. McCarron. Mississippi’s Bo Wallace is the most experienced quarterback in the conference. The new guys are going to have some big shoes to fill, and it puts the conference’s teams at a disadvantage if they have to go against someone like Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota.

There are plenty of other questions facing the conference, as well.

Was Auburn a one-year wonder, or can the Tigers do it again? What about their in-state rivals, the Alabama Crimson Tide? How will they respond after getting handled by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and having to replace A.J. McCarron?

Was Missouri’s SEC title a one-time thing, or are the Tigers for real? Can South Carolina finally get over the hump and win the league, even without Jadeveon Clowney and Shaw? Can Georgia stay healthy?

Texas A&M lost Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. Will the Aggies still be potent on offense without them? Can their defense be less sieve-like?

Can Ole Miss take the next step and be a conference contender? Can Mississippi State live up to the hype and make some noise?

How about longtime league powers Tennessee and Florida? Can they get back to their winning ways? Will Vanderbilt remain relevant without coach James Franklin?

2013 Year in Review

For much of 2013, it was business as usual for Alabama. The Crimson Tide were their usual dominant selves, starting out 11-0 and at the top of the polls. However, the season didn’t end as planned. A stunning loss to archrival Auburn–in which Auburn scored a late TD to tie it then returned a missed field goal 109 yards to win the Iron Bowl in dramatic walk-off fashion–was followed by a crushing 45-31 defeat at the hands of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

The “Pick Six” was just the latest in a number of amazing moments in Auburn’s miracle season. The Tigers went worst-to-first and had a number of incredible finishes along the way. A fortuitous deflection off a tip on 4th-and-18 with 36 seconds left led to a Hail Mary touchdown to give the Tigers a victory over Georgia and set up that clash against Alabama. In the SEC title game, the Tigers put up over 500 yards rushing against the best defensive line in the SEC. They fell short against Florida State, but the ride was one that will be remembered for ages.

Missouri answered the skeptics who felt the Tigers couldn’t compete in the SEC. Gary Pinkel’s squad finished 12-2 on the year, winning the SEC East and giving Auburn all it could handle in the SEC championship game. Michael Sam was the league’s defensive player of the year and anchored the best defensive line in the conference.

South Carolina has been consistently good the past few years but has been unable to get over the hump and take that next step in the SEC. The Gamecocks went 11-2 and finished fourth in the country, yet they failed to win their division and didn’t play in the SEC championship game. The Gamecocks handed Missouri its only conference loss of the regular season and beat Clemson for the millionth year in a row, but an upset at the hands of Tennessee handed the division title to Missouri.

LSU churned out another 10-win season, finishing the year 10-3 and handing Auburn its only conference defeat. Zach Mettenberger threw for over 3,000 yards with 22 touchdowns; Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. had big years with each posting over 1,100 receiving yards. The defense was good but not up to LSU’s usual standards, especially when it came to run defense.

Texas A&M couldn’t quite match its breakout 2012 season. Johnny Manziel was as spectacular as advertised, but a young, porous defense held the Aggies back as they finished 9-4.

Another team that couldn’t quite deliver on the hype was Georgia, although that wasn’t through any fault of their own. The Bulldogs were decimated by injuries; top receiver Malcolm Mitchell was lost for the season in the first game, and eventually star quarterback Aaron Murray and standout running back Keith Marshall were lost as well. Even then, the Bulldogs even nearly defeated Clemson and would have beaten Auburn if not for that incredible Hail Mary touchdown.

Vanderbilt continued its relevance, ending the season on a five-game winning streak that allowed the Commodores to finish 9-4 and ranked in the top-25.

Ole Miss & Mississippi State started the year slow, but a late season surge allowed the Bulldogs to become bowl-eligible. The Bulldogs nearly beat Auburn, lost by ten to Texas A&M, and hung tough against Alabama.

Tennessee has fallen on hard times since replacing Philip Fulmer. Butch Jones was brought in to rebuild the once-mighty program, and his year showed plenty of promise. The Volunteers signed a top-ten recruiting class, beat South Carolina, and narrowly lost to Georgia. Tennessee still failed to make a bowl game, but a really young team took its lumps while preparing for a bright future.

New Kentucky coach Mark Stoops made headlines with a top-notch recruiting class, but the Wildcats are a major rebuilding project. Kentucky was still dreadful on the field, as the Wildcats won just two games and went 2-10. However, there were signs of progress. It’s going to take awhile, but for the first time in eons, there is hope at Kentucky.

After the whole Bobby Petrino/John L. Smith fiasco, Arkansas brought in Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to turn the program around. What happened in 2013 wasn’t what Hog fans had in mind as the Razorbacks were a lowly 3-9. The season started off promising, with Arkansas winning its first three games. Then, Bielema’s wife posted her infamous “#karma” tweet after a controversial Wisconsin loss. Turns out she was right, as karma struck swiftly; Arkansas lost nine straight.

At least the Razorbacks can use off-field distractions and a new coach as an excuse. Florida was coming off an 11-win season and started the year 4-1, but injuries and ineffective offense were the culprits as the Gators dropped their last seven games to finish 4-8. The low point was a 26-20 loss to FCS Georgia Southern, a game in which two Florida players blocked each other on the same play.

Looking Ahead to 2014

SEC East

Georgia is Dangerous

Aaron Murray is gone, so Hutson Mason gets his chance at quarterback for Georgia. He was unspectacular in the season-opening win against Clemson, but he won’t have to be with the playmakers the Bulldogs have on offense. This unit is loaded and explosive. Todd Gurley is a beast–the junior posted 293 all-purpose yards and 4 touchdowns against Clemson–and on the short list of Heisman contenders. Keith Marshall returns from an ACL injury, and freshman Nick Chubb rushed for 70 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown run, in Saturday’s game. Mitchell is still working himself back from injury, but with Chris Conley, Michael Bennett, and Justin Scott-Wesley, the Dawgs have plenty of playmakers at receiver.

Jeremy Pruitt was brought over from Florida State to replace the departed Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator, and he’ll have to shore up a shaky secondary. Georgia’s front seven has the potential to be really good, though. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins had 12 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, and defensive end Ray Drew tallied 8 tackles for loss with 6 sacks.

If Georgia can survive its first two games, then the schedule shapes up pretty nicely. The Bulldogs have already beaten Clemson, and they’ll next have to go to a South Carolina team that had hype but got blown out in its opener against Texas A&M. A road contest against Missouri won’t be easy, and who knows what Florida is going to do this year, but other than those games and a home game against Auburn, Georgia should be clear favorites in every game.

Is this the Year South Carolina Puts it All Together?

The Gamecocks lost a lot of star power in the offseason, starting with number one overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, but plenty of other players return to a deep, experienced team. Quarterback Connor Shaw is gone, but his replacement, Dylan Thompson, has seen significant playing time filling in for Shaw over the years. Running back Mike Davis is a star (1,183 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns; 342 receiving yards), and while the Gamecocks lost top receiver Bruce Ellington, every other receiver returns.

South Carolina’s defense was hard hit as well. Aside from Clowney, linemen Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton are both gone. There are plenty of blue-chip recruits waiting in the wings, but none are proven. It’s much the same situation in the secondary; the top three cornerbacks are gone, and the replacements are inexperienced but have a high upside. The safeties are experienced, though, and the linebackers should be among the conference’s best. The unit got torched by Texas A&M, but considering the insane numbers the Aggies have put up–especially against Alabama–maybe that says more about the Aggies’ offensive prowess than South Carolina’s defensive deficiencies.

South Carolina’s early schedule does them no favors. They already received a shellacking from Texas A&M, have to face a tough East Carolina team, then host Georgia. If they can get past that, however, they should be in good shape. They get Missouri at home. A road trip to Auburn will be tough, but road games against Florida and Clemson are winnable. The opener was disheartening, but if the Gamecocks can rebound from that and beat Georgia, they’ll be the favorites in the SEC East.

Can Missouri Defend Its Title?

People are discounting Missouri after last year’s surprising run to the SEC championship game, but as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend!” Don’t count the Tigers out. Sophomore Maty Mauk is the starting quarterback after a promising freshman season that saw him show plenty of promise in filling in for injured starter James Franklin. Mauk threw 11 touchdowns against 2 interceptions last year, but he’ll need to vastly improve his completion percentage (51.1 percent). In the season opener against South Dakota State, he completed nearly two-thirds of his passes, so that’s promising.

Running back Henry Josey is gone after running for 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, but Russell Hansbrough is back after rushing for almost 700 yards. He ran for 126 yards on 20 carries in the opener. Senior Marcus Murphy also returns after contributing 600 rushing yards of his own in 2013, so the running game should be in good hands. It will need to be because the top three wideouts needs to be replaced.

Mizzou boasted perhaps the conference’s best defensive line last year with ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, the league’s defensive player of the year. Those two are gone, but Markus Golden and Shane Ray are back after combining for 11 sacks last season. The secondary is a bit of a concern. Braylon Webb is a standout at safety, but the cornerbacks are relatively unproven.

It’s tough to see Missouri repeating as division champs with how freakishly good Georgia looks and the fact that Mizzou has to travel to South Carolina, but the Tigers should still be pretty good. A road contest against Texas A&M will be tough but not quite as daunting (the Tigers are familiar with College Station from their Big 12 days), but every other game but those three is winnable. Nine wins seems pretty likely, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Mizzou pulls an upset or two.

Florida’s Offensive Woes

Kurt Roper was hired from Duke to revamp the Florida offense. The Gators will benefit from the return of quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of 2013 due to injury. Mack Brown (no, not THAT Mack Brown) and Kelvin Taylor each ran for 500 yards last year, but Quinton Dunbar is the only returning player who caught more than 20 passes and had more than 130 receiving yards. There are plenty of guys who were highly recruited in high school, but Florida’s offensive struggles the pass few years temper any optimism.

Florida’s defense should once again be good. The unit is full of high-upside guys, and the secondary ought to be outstanding. Florida always recruits well, and even with last year’s debacle of a season, the defense was still one of the better ones in the country.

Schedule-wise, there is no way Florida goes 4-8 again. Aside from the annual rivalry game with Florida State, the non-conference schedule is a joke: Idaho, Eastern Michigan, and Eastern Kentucky. The Gators do have to play Alabama, but they get South Carolina and Missouri at home. Florida should get to a bowl game, but with that offense, it’s hard to see the Gators doing much more than that.

Tennessee’s On the Way Back, Just Not This Year

Justin Worley returns after missing time last year due to injury, and he played pretty well in the opener, throwing for 273 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. He has plenty of young, talented receivers to work with. Josh Smith, Jason Croom, and Marquez North all showed promise as freshman last season, and when you add junior Pig Howard, Tennessee has a nice group of receivers to throw the ball to. Running back Rajion Neal and his 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground must be replaced, but Marlin Lane rushed for 500 yards last year. A big concern is an offensive line that has just six games of starting experience combined.

The defensive line must be rebuilt as well. It’s awfully young and lacking in experience, which is a huge concern in the SEC. Linebacker is also a position full of youth and inexperience, but middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is a steadying force. The secondary should be in good shape, though.

Tennessee figures to be much-improved, but a brutal schedule combined with rebuilding both lines means that progress wont’ show up on the scoreboard. Getting past Utah State was huge and impressive–the Aggies have been one of the best mid-major teams in the country over the past couple years–but Tennessee now has to contend with another quality mid-major in Arkansas State. After that, the Volunteers have to go to Oklahoma and Georgia. They also have road trips to Ole Miss and South Carolina along with a home game against Alabama. Six wins and a bowl trip is certainly doable, though.

Can Vanderbilt Sustain Success Without James Franklin?

Former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was hired to replace James Franklin, and while it’s just one game, the debut was not promising. Vanderbilt got destroyed at home by Temple, 37-7. The Commodores were pretty much inept on offense and committed seven turnovers. You know that saying that if you have two quarterbacks, you have none? Well, Vanderbilt used three in the opener and produced zero offensive points. Patton Robinette say some action last year but was hit-or-miss. Johnyy McCrary was 0-for-3 against Temple with a pair of interceptions while Stephen Rivers threw for 186 yards but completed less than 50 percent of his passes.

The running game should be okay, but the passing game must make do without star receiver Jordan Mathews and number two wideout Jonathan Krause. The top returning target is running back Jerron Seymour, who had 19 catches for 126 yards; the top wideout caught 15 passes for 123 yards.

Mason was instrumental in turning Stanford’s defense into one of the most feared units in the country, and he should have some pieces to work with at Vanderbilt. He is transitioning from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, so expect some growing pains. The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense, as the secondary must undergo a rebuilding year after all four starters from last year graduated.

There is no way Vanderbilt wins nine games again, but a bowl game isn’t out of the question, assuming the Temple game was an aberration and not a sign of things to come. The Commodores have most of their toughest games at home, and road games against Kentucky and Mississippi State are winnable.

Just Keep Making Progress

Kentucky has plenty of potential, but this is a young team that will make its share of mistakes. Patrick Towles won the starting job and had a nice performance in his 2014 debut, albeit against Tennessee-Martin. The receiving corps is deep and gained plenty of experience after being thrown into the fire last year, and the running backs are an intriguing mix of youth and experience. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard rushed for 116 yards and 2 touchdowns on just two carries in the opener.

Kentucky’s defense was awful last season and should struggle again this year. Ends Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith combined for 16 sacks, but the middle of the line is suspect. The secondary returns plenty of experience, but that’s not necessarily a good thing since they were among the worst in the country.

The Wildcats should surpass last year’s total of two wins, but not by much. Ohio, Vanderbilt, and Louisiana-Monroe appear to be the only somewhat winnable games remaining on the schedule, and even those could go against Kentucky.

SEC West

Roll Damn Tide

A.J. McCarron is gone, but that shouldn’t cause too much trouble for the Crimson Tide. Not to take anything away from McCarron, but Alabama’s offense isn’t predicated on other-worldly quarterback play. Senior Blake Sims beat out Jacob Coker for the starting job, and he was solid if unspectacular in a season-opening win over West Virginia. With players like running backs T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, and Kenyan Drake, and receivers Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, and DeAndrew White, Sims won’t have to be amazing, just smart.

Alabama’s defense is consistently among the best in the country and full of future NFL talent, but some cracks have started to appear of late. Texas A&M has shredded the Tide ‘D’ the past two seasons, and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight scorched it in the Sugar Bowl. Even more concerning, West Virginia–4-8 a year ago–had little trouble moving the ball at will against Alabama as Clint Trickett finished with 365 yards passing. Heading into the season, secondary was a major concern, and the unit’s performance against West Virginia did little to ally those concerns.

Still, this is Alabama and Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide are without question one of the best teams in the country and the favorite to win the SEC. Alabama has to go to Ole Miss and LSU but gets A&M and Auburn at home. Getting out of the SEC West, let alone the SEC, isn’t easy, but one has to like ‘Bama’s chances.

Start of Something Special or Just a Fluke?

Auburn took a little while to get going, but once things clicked, the Tigers offense was pretty much unstoppable. Quarterback Nick Marshall returns and is a potential Heisman candidate. The senior threw for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns. Star running back Tre Mason is gone, but Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for over 600 yards last year. The offensive line returns four players with starting experience, too, so this rushing attack should be as devastating as ever. If there is a weakness to this offense, it’s in the passing game. Marshall originally started his career as a defensive back, so he isn’t as practiced as most quarterbacks. He has improved immensely, though, and does have his top returning targets back, including big-play wideout Sammie Coates and the hero of that Georgia game, Ricardo Louis.

Auburn’s defense suffered some significant losses, and their production must be replaced. Star lineman Dee Ford is now in the NFL, and corner Chris Davis–who returned that field goal against Alabama–is gone as well. Gus Malzahn and his staff have recruited well, but all that potential isn’t proven yet. The pieces are certainly there, but the defense needs to gel in a hurry as Auburn faces a brutal schedule. A Thursday night game against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas has trouble written all over it. The Tigers have to face Georgia from the East–in Athens, no less–travel to Ole Miss, and end the season at Alabama. They do get LSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M at home, although none of those are easy games.

Post Johnny Football

Well that was quite the debut. Granted, it’s only one game, but it looks like Texas A&M is going to do just fine without Johnny Manziel. All his replacement, Kenny Hill, did in his first collegiate start was break Manziel’s single game passing yardage record with a 511 yard, 3 touchdown performance against South Carolina. The Aggies piled up 780 yards in their 52-28 win over the Gamecocks.

Hill will have plenty of help. A trio of experienced running backs, led by junior Trey Williams, should provide a competent ground game, and despite losing receiver Mike Evans to the NFL, A&M has plenty of options at receiver. Malcome Kennedy caught 14 passes for 137 yards in the season opener, and four other wideouts had at least 50 yards receiving. Throw in a talented, experienced offensive line, and the A&M offense will be as potent as ever.

The thing that held the Aggies back in 2013 was a porous defense, and that was the major question mark heading into this season. The unit was full of freshmen and sophomores who were unproven, and it showed. The defense did get better as the year went along, so it should be improved this year. How much so, will determine how far the Aggies go this year. The Aggies did give up two long passing touchdowns to South Carolina and 28 points overall, so the jury is still out.

Winning the opener against South Carolina was huge, and A&M shouldn’t have much difficulty until the second-half of the season when they have to play at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and at Alabama followed by a season-ending stretch of at Auburn then home games against Missouri and LSU. However, if the Aggies can play at that level all season, the sky’s the limit.

Rebuilding in Baton Rouge (So Another 10-win Season?)

LSU lost a lot on offense, at least in the passing game. The Tigers must replace last year’s starting quarterback along with both starting wideouts. Sophomore Anthony Jennings won the starting job and threw for 239 yards and 2 touchdowns with no interceptions in the season opener against Wisconsin. However, he only went 9-for-21. The receivers are in the same boat: young and talented, but devoid of experience. The leading returning receiver, Travin Dural, had 7 catches for 145 yards in 2013. The running backs are experienced, though. Kenny Hilliard rushed for 110 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown, and Leonard Fournette arrived on campus with all sorts of hype.

The defense suffered losses along the line and at linebacker, but luckily, five-star recruits seems to grow on trees in Baton Rouge. The secondary is deep, talented, and experienced, but the pass rush must improve. Rush defense is still a concern after Wisconsin rushed for 268 yards. Granted, the Badgers boast one of the best rushing attacks in the country, but that spells trouble since LSU will be facing some pretty good ground games in the SEC.

Make no mistake, the Tigers are talented, but the bevy of youth and having to break in a new quarterback will result in some growing pains. LSU likely won’t contend for the conference crown but should be a top-15 team again. Watch out for the Tigers next year, though.

Young, Talented Rebels Look to Take Next Step

With the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, a boatload of top-tier talent, and a nasty defense, expectations are high in Oxford for the Ole Miss Rebels. Senior Bo Wallace threw for nearly 3,500 yards a season ago with 18 touchdowns, but he must improve his consistency and take fewer sacks. If he can do that and stay healthy, Ole Miss has the makings of a good offense. A trio of returning tailbacks combined for 1,600 yards last year, and while star receiver Donte Moncrief is gone, Laquon Treadwell is back after a promising freshman season. He’ll be joined by Vince Sanders, a senior who was limited in 2013 by injuries.

Former number one recruit Robert Nkemdiche anchors a defense brimming with talent. Safety Cody Prewitt had six interceptions a year ago while linebacker Serderius Bryant tallied 12.5 tackles for loss. There are experienced players or blue-chip recruits all over the two-deep roster for Ole Miss, and this defense should be one of the most exciting in the conference.

Meeting last season’s total of eight wins shouldn’t be a problem, but surpassing it will be a challenge. The Rebels would have to take a game from Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, or LSU. Ole Miss did beat LSU last season, but that was at home. The Rebels have to go to LSU and A&M, which won’t be easy. Both Auburn and Alabama come to Oxford, but asking Wallace & Co. to keep up with Auburn or move the ball consistently against Alabama is probably too much.

A Heisman Contender in Starkville

Quarterback Dak Prescott gets the keys to the Mississippi State offense and has been generating some Heisman hype. While that is unwarranted, it is easy to see why people are high on the dual-threat quarterback. He rushed for 897 yards and 13 touchdowns last year despite not being the full-time starter, and he also threw for nearly 2,000 yards with 10 touchdowns (albeit against 7 interceptions). The Bulldogs have plenty of good, experienced receivers, led by Jameon Lewis (64 receptions, 923 yards in 2013), and junior running back Josh Robinson rushed for 459 yards and 3 touchdowns last year in a backup role.

The strength of this team, though, is its defense. It was really good a year ago, and pretty much everyone is coming back. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney had 7 tackles for less and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore, and returning corners Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love combined for 6 interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

The Bulldogs have a pretty nice schedule, too. There are seven winnable games, and then they get Texas A&M and Auburn at home. Going to LSU and Alabama is impossible, but a home upset and maybe knocking off Ole Miss on the road means an 8-9 win season, which would be rather welcome in Starkville.

#Karma

Just like Bielema’s Wisconsin teams, Arkansas could run the ball. Alex Collins ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman while junior Jonathan Williams returns after posting 900 yards of his own. The offensive line is experienced, so expect the run game to be strong again. The passing game struggled, though, as Brandon Allen completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw for only 1,500 yards with 13 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Tight end Hunter Henry returns after a solid freshman season, but two-of-the-top-three receivers from last year are gone.

Arkansas’ defense was atrocious in 2013. The silver lining is that plenty of young players saw significant playing time a year ago, so between a year’s worth of experience and a defensive coaching staff that was overhauled in the offseason, the defense should be better.

Even with improvement, it’ll be tough for the Razorbacks to show it with a tough schedule. Arkansas already got drubbed by Auburn to open the season, and the Hogs still have to go Texas Tech and play mid-major power Northern Illinois. Arkansas’ home slate includes Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss, and they have to go on the road to Texas A&M, Missouri, and Mississippi State. It’s shaping up to be another long year in Fayetteville.

 

 

East Champion

Georgia

The Bulldogs just have too much firepower. Todd Gurley is arguably the best player in the conference, and that defense will be good enough. The secondary is shaky, yes, but the passing games in the SEC are going to be affected by all the new quarterbacks around the league. South Carolina should be solid on both sides of the ball, but they just can’t match Georgia big play for big play. Same with Missouri. Nobody in that division has as much potential as Georgia.

 

West Champion

Auburn

This is a tough one because there are a number of teams that can stake a legitimate claim here. Alabama has the talent, pedigree, and track record. So does LSU. Texas A&M can score on anybody.

What it’s going to come down to is that these teams are going to beat up on one another. Alabama has shown themselves vulnerable to some high-powered spread offenses while A&M hasn’t been able to hold up defensively. Auburn is the one team that can really go toe-to-toe offensively with A&M, and they’ve proven they can beat Alabama. The Tigers emerge as the last one standing.

 

Conference Champion

Georgia

Another tough call, but Georgia is just a more well-rounded team. There are fewer questions in the passing game, and the defense is more proven. In a shootout, Georgia has the weapons to hang with Auburn. Plus, the Bulldogs would have won last year if not for a miracle touchdown off a deflection. Georgia’s due for some good luck.

 

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Coaches Fired, SEC Offensive Shootouts, and Looking Ahead

As awful as Week 4 was, Week 5 was just as good. There was plenty of action on the field, and the big matchups actually lived up to the hype, for the most part. It wasn’t just the on-field stuff that provided drama, either, as a couple of coaches’ hot seats finally reached their boiling points.

Week 5 in Review

Coaches on the Hot Seat

Week 5 certainly provided plenty of fireworks, and not just on the field. The axe fell for the first time this season as embattled coaches Lane Kiffin and Paul Pasqualoni were both fired following humiliating losses.

Kiffin’s seat had been growing hotter week-by-week, and this past weekend’s 62-41 blowout loss to Arizona State–a team USC had beaten in 12 of the past 13 meetings–was the last straw. USC’s defense had been the strength of the team this season, but the Sun Devils piled up 612 total yards. The decision was made during the game and announced afterwards. Assistant coach Ed Orgeron will be the interim head coach.

UConn fired coach Paul Pasqualoni after the Huskies were thrashed 41-12 at the hands of Buffalo. Under Pasqualoni, UConn was just 10-18, including an 0-4 start to this season. The Huskies blew a second-half lead to Michigan, but the low point was a 33-18 to FCS squad Towson to start the season. Offensive coordinator T.J. Weist will coach the team for the remainder of the season.

Top 25 Thrillers

As for the on-field action, it did not disappoint. South Carolina battled back to hold off a pesky UCF squad despite losing starting quarterback Connor Shaw, as the Gamecocks rallied from a 10-0 deficit to win 28-25. Florida State’s Jameis Winston threw for 330 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Seminoles avoided an upset against a determined Boston College team, winning by a score of 48-34.

Ohio State survived its first test of the season, prevailing 31-24 over Wisconsin behind a stellar outing from Braxton Miller. The junior quarterback returned from injury and threw 4 touchdowns to lead the Buckeyes while OSU’s defense held the Badgers’ vaunted rushing attack to just 104 yards.

Another OSU was not so fortunate. Oklahoma State entered the weekend undefeated and ranked #11, but the Cowboys were upset by West Virginia 30-21. The Mountaineers have struggled this season and were coming off a 37-0 shutout loss at the hands of Maryland, but WVU’s much-maligned defense managed to stagnate Oklahoma State’s potent offense.

The highlight of the week, though, definitely occurred down south in the SEC. While the Alabama-Ole Miss game fizzled out–the Crimson Tide returned to form and shut out the Rebels 25-0–the showdown between Georgia and LSU lived up to the billing and then some.

The two titans traded blows until Georgia took the lead for good with just under two minutes left and hung on for a wild 44-41 victory. Senior quarterback Aaron Murray was outstanding, completing 20-of-34 passes for 298 yards and 4 touchdowns with an interception. He also tacked on a rushing touchdown.

LSU’s Zach Mettenberger–who started his career at Georgia before transferring–was just as good, going 23-for-37 for 372 yards with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. Unfortunately for Tigers fan, he was unable to rally LSU one last time.

The win was Georgia’s second against a top ten opponent in three tries already this season.

Looking Ahead to Week 6

The best news about this upcoming weekend is that we’ll have some triple-option academy football. The shutdown of the federal government had put the service academies’ games this weekend in jeopardy, but the Department of Defense announced that Navy-Air Force and Army-Boston College will be played. Now if the government could just play nice and agree on a budget.

There are some interesting, under-the-radar games this weekend. Undefeated Oklahoma has looked good this year and is coming off a 35-21 victory over Notre Dame. The Sooners are hosting a TCU squad that is scuffling a bit but still boasts a tough defense the likes of which Oklahoma hasn’t seen yet this year. Elsewhere in the Big 12, high-flying Baylor has lit up every defense it has faced thus far, but the Bears will be going up against a West Virginia unit that held limited Oklahoma State’s potent offense to just 21 points.

Down in the ACC, #8 Florida State takes on undefeated and #25 Maryland, definitely one of the surprise teams of 2013. The Seminoles had a much more difficult time than anyone expected against Boston College while the Terrapins are coming off a 37-0 shutout of West Virginia in their previous game. Another ACC game to keep an eye on is Georgia Tech against Miami. The Hurricanes are undefeated but will face a stern test against Georgia Tech’s vaunted triple-option offense.

Up north, College Gameday will be heading to Evanston, Illinois for the Big Ten showdown between 5-0 Ohio State and 4-0 Northwestern. It’s the biggest game for the Wildcats in years, and they’ll be facing an Ohio State squad coming off a big win against Wisconsin. Will the Buckeyes experience a bit of a letdown? OSU will also be without starting safety Christian Bryant after he broke his ankle in the latter moments of last week’s win over the Badgers. On the flip side, running back Venric Mack returns for the Wildcats after missing most of the season with an injury. The senior ran for nearly 1,400 yards last year and is a weapon returning kicks.

Finally, the spotlight this week belongs out west in the Pac-12. The undercard is Arizona State taking on Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas. Notre Dame isn’t as strong as it was last year, but this is still a big game for an Arizona State team looking to take that next step and gain some national recognition. The Sun Devils, particularly quarterback Taylor Kelly, have been rolling and just hung 62 points on USC and got Lane Kiffin fired. Can they keep up the momentum against one of college football’s most storied programs? Will the Irish be able to slow down Kelly & Co. while putting up points of their own? USC was done in by turnovers, and that’s an ominous sign for turnover-prone Irish quarterback Tommy Reese.

The main event for the weekend is a battle of unbeaten, top-15 teams when #5 Stanford hosts #15 Washington. The Huskies handed the Cardinal its first loss last year and are arguably the nation’s most improved and impressive team thus far. Running back Bishop Sankey is the nation’s leading rusher, quarterback Keith Price has regained his form after struggling last season, and Washington’s defense is allowing just 3.8 yards per play, best in the Pac-12.

Stanford has Kevin Hogan, however. The junior didn’t take over the starting job until late last season, so he didn’t factor in the game a year ago. Since Hogan took over the job, Stanford has yet to lose a game. Hogan is 9-0 as a starting quarterback. To make matters worse for the Huskies, Stanford has won 11-straight games at home and is 9-1 in home games against ranked opponents since 2009. Plus, Stanford has a stingy, tenacious defense of its own. This one should be fun.

 

Photo via Daniel Shirey / USA TODAY Sports

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