Planning for success: Tennessee

September, 30, 2014
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ESPN’s Paul Finebaum nailed it in 140 characters or less when he tweeted compliments to Tennessee for its moral victories against Oklahoma and Georgia, but added that his alma mater’s football team now must justify the hype building in Knoxville.

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That starts with a win Saturday against Florida (2-1, 1-1 SEC) -- a program that has defeated the Volunteers (2-2, 0-1) nine straight years and in 17 out of the past 21 meetings.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones wouldn’t categorize those two road losses -- 34-10 at No. 4 Oklahoma and 35-32 this past weekend against No. 13 Georgia -- as moral victories. Not publicly anyway. That is what a loser would do, and he clearly doesn’t think that way.

"Every individual in this organization believed that we were going to win," Jones said after the Georgia game. "I am proud of them, but we have to continue to learn from this and then move on. We are going to be a good football team and we are going to win a lot of football games."

As of now, Jones’ record at Tennessee might show that he is a loser (the Vols are 7-9 overall and 2-7 in SEC play since he arrived last season), but nobody who has watched Jones’ young team play would expect that trend to continue for long. Despite playing 22 true freshmen, the most of any FBS program in 2014, Tennessee hung with Oklahoma for most of that game and very easily could have defeated Georgia on Saturday. Considering how well Jones’ staff has recruited lately, the Vols look like a sure bet to rank among the favorites in the SEC East in the near future.

Heck, they might even contend this season, but it has to start with a win against the Gators on Saturday. Will Muschamp’s Florida team spent an entire offseason stewing over a humiliating 4-8 record last fall, and things don’t seem much more pleasant right now after Alabama dominated the Gators prior to last Saturday’s open date.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsA victory against rival Florida would be an important step for QB Justin Worley and the young Volunteers.
The Gators are ripe for the picking, and Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium provides a tremendous opportunity for Jones’ program to end its losing streak in what once ranked among the SEC’s top rivalry games. It is relegated to a noon time slot this season while SEC West showdowns dominate the headlines, which indicates one thing: neither program is winning consistently enough.

Jones used last season’s 23-21 upset of South Carolina as evidence that things were moving in the right direction in his first season in Knoxville. That is his only win in nine tries against ranked Tennessee opponents, however. Eventually, showing progress -- but still losing -- against rivals or ranked opponents gets old. That is why Jones’ club needs to end its slide against Florida now, just as Finebaum noted.

Justin Worley has performed well at quarterback and delivered a memorable performance during a comeback effort against Georgia after leaving the game with an elbow injury. Jalen Hurd is a future superstar at tailback. The Vols’ receiving corps is loaded with size and talent.

The offensive and defensive lines face steep experience gaps against most opponents, but their on-the-job training will eventually pay off. And the Vols actually rank second nationally in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 23.3 percent of the time.

There is a lot to like about what is happening at Tennessee, especially if the Vols reach the postseason for the first time since 2010. However, playing in a bowl game becomes a much greater challenge if the Vols fall to 2-3 on Saturday. They still must play Alabama and Ole Miss from the SEC West, along with remaining division games against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. The only non-division gimme left on the schedule is an Oct. 11 date with Chattanooga.

In other words, now is the time, Vols, if you want to show that the "Brick by Brick" stuff that Jones preaches is actually leading toward something meaningful.

This is a beatable Florida team. Tennessee fans could make a reasonable argument that their team is playing better football this season, and this is the Vols’ chance to prove it. Another moral victory won’t be enough this Saturday.

SEC morning links

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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1. Alabama's players wouldn't bite. When asked about Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt's comments -- "We don't really think Bama is as good as they have been" -- none of the four Crimson Tide players interviewed Monday said anything noteworthy in response. After all, what did you expect? This is Alabama we're talking about. Landon Collins had fans forward him a link to the bulletin board material, but he wasn't about to lob any shots in return. "We're definitely going to give them our best game and see who comes out with the W," Alabama's star safety explained. If he had gone any further, Nick Saban would have had his head. And, frankly, there was no reason to fan the flames. Neither team is what it has been. Blake Sims has played well, but he's no AJ McCarron. C.J. Mosley ain't walking through that door. This isn't your daddy's Ole Miss, either. Prewitt and that secondary are tenacious. The front seven can get after it. As Saban said, "This is the best team we've played all year." If anything, Prewitt's slight jab was just what we needed to set the week off right.

2. I'll admit it: we were a little myopic on the SEC Blog Monday. In a roundtable discussion, our writers were asked to pick their game of the week. The options: Alabama-Ole Miss, Texas A&M-Mississippi State and LSU-Auburn. The reason? Well, it's obvious, seeing as all three games have College Football Playoff implications. But to make sure we cover all our bases, it felt like we ought to make note of the other games on the SEC slate. No, Vanderbilt-Georgia doesn't hold much intrigue. We can skip that. But you could argue that Florida-Tennessee and South Carolina-Kentucky mean something. For the Gators, this feels like a must win. Jeff Driskel needs to crawl out of the hole he's dug for himself, and his coach, Will Muschamp, needs a W to keep his job. The Vols, meanwhile, have to say enough is enough with moral victories and finally close out a big game. And in the case of South Carolina-Kentucky, you're looking at two teams heading in opposite directions. The Gamecocks fell all over themselves yet again Saturday, blowing a late lead against Missouri. Kentucky, on the other hand, broke its winless streak in the SEC by beating Vandy. The Wildcats may be young, but they're dangerous. With a deep group of tailbacks, Bud Dupree and Za'Darious Smith rushing off the edge, and A.J. Stamps making plays in the secondary, South Carolina and the rest of the East better watch out.

3. Not to end our morning jaunt on a sour note, but I was struck by news Monday of the Indianapolis Colts releasing Da'Rick Rogers. I shouldn't be surprised, I know. This is par for the course with Rogers, after all. But once again I was reminded of what a waste of potential the former Tennessee receiver was. To this day I remember seeing him play at Calhoun High in Georgia. He's the best high school player I've ever witnessed in person. Sadly, on the list of all-time SEC talents that never amounted to much, Rogers is right up there with names like Ryan Perrilloux, Mitch Mustain and B.J. Scott. Rogers was everything you wanted in a receiver: tall, physical, explosive. Even in the NFL he flashed All-Pro talent. But something never clicked for him. Maybe there's still time, but not likely. If anything, his story is a cautionary tale for any four- or five-star prospect who thinks talent alone can get the job done.
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Muschamp knows criticism is part of being the QB at Florida but feels that Driskel will make the gator nation proud.

Florida must start finding some answers

September, 29, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After barely escaping Kentucky's upset bid in Game 2, Florida coach Will Muschamp said his team's problems were correctable.

That tune changed after the Gators were blown out by Alabama the following week. During the bye week UF went back to the drawing board and back to basics with some training camp-like practices to address fundamentals.

Make no mistake, time is running out for Florida to show the progress that is expected after its 4-8 season in 2013.

Here's what's wrong and how to fix it.

Subpar quarterback play
[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SportswireThe Gators could look to freshman backup QB Treon Harris to spark the offense.
The problem: Patience is running thin with fourth-year junior Jeff Driskel. He has consistently failed in the passing game, whether it's reading defenses or giving his receivers a chance on deep throws.
The solution: No one should think true freshman backup Treon Harris, a teenager who has thrown all of two passes in his short career, is ready to replace Driskel as the starter. But a two-quarterback system is Florida's best chance at minimizing the damage that comes with Driskel's shortcomings. It should also be noted that Harris' two passes were completed for long touchdowns. He offers more accuracy and better vision. It's up to Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to develop Harris now, because he'll be needed this season.

Push from the offensive line
The problem: After giving up 66 sacks the past two years, Florida's offensive line has shown improvement in pass protection (just two sacks allowed this season). But the Gators need more from their retooled offensive line, which is benefiting from a new scheme that has the ball coming out quicker in the passing game. Florida ran for big yardage against Eastern Michigan and Kentucky but was held to 107 yards by Alabama. In order for the Gators to win games without putting too much in the shaky hands of the quarterback, the running game must step up.
The solution: The pieces are there. Senior guard Trenton Brown, a juco transfer, has improved significantly in his second season at UF and is a road-grader at 6-foot-8, 344 pounds. Redshirt freshman right tackle Roderick Johnson has been one of the Gators' biggest surprises, playing very well in two starts when left tackle D.J. Humphries was hurt. Even with Humphries expected back for the Tennessee game, Johnson should stay in the starting lineup. Moving senior tackle Chaz Green to guard would improve Florida's starting lineup and its bench.

Lack of a pass rush
The problem: The Gators have struggled to pressure quarterbacks ever since tackle Dominique Easley was hurt early last season. But with a year to improve and one truly dangerous edge-rusher in Dante Fowler Jr. to play off of, Florida should be able to muster more than two sacks a game. What's worse, the inability to consistently generate a pass rush has exposed Florida's young secondary to big plays.
The solution: The Gators have gotten almost nothing from their defensive tackles, which means Muschamp is likely to move junior end Jonathan Bullard inside more often. Bullard at least has the quickness to make a play or two. At the other end position, Florida must utilize third-year sophomore Alex McCalister, who had the team's only sack against Alabama. Senior OLB Neiron Ball has also shown some ability to get around offensive tackles. Overall, it doesn't look like there are enough pass-rushers emerging this season, so Muschamp will have to get creative with his blitz packages. It's more risky, but nothing is worse than giving a quarterback time to pick apart your secondary.

Gaping holes in the secondary
The problem: After the last three seasons of defense under Muschamp, this year's drop-off has been stunning. Busted assignments, lack of communication, missed tackles and poor coverage have led to a plethora of big plays by UF opponents. Florida saw all four of its starters in the defensive backfield depart after last season and lost both of its starting safeties to the NFL the season before that. There's no doubt a lot of the errors this season can be chalked up to youth. But aside from stalwart corner Vernon Hargreaves III, the Gators' few veterans are also making big mistakes.
The solution: Play the young guys. If the experienced players keep making mistakes, there's nothing to lose. Muschamp said as much last week: "What you’re doing is not working so you might as well try somebody else. That’s where I am right now." The Gators have some very talented true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Jalen Tabor and four-star DB Duke Dawson had the benefit of enrolling in January and participating in spring practice. Along with four-star DB Quincy Wilson, Florida has options. More playing time will only help speed their development.

Justin Worley ready for Florida

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee expects to have quarterback Justin Worley at full strength for Saturday's game with Florida.

The status of Worley's receiving corps is less clear.

Worley sat out three series of the Volunteers' 35-32 loss at Georgia last week when Bulldogs linebacker Jordan Jenkins' helmet hit him in the elbow during a pass rush, but the senior quarterback returned to direct two fourth-quarter touchdown drives.

"He's fine," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Monday. "He kind of hit his funny bone and all that, but he's fine. He'll be 100 percent for the game."

Jones isn't as sure about wide receivers Von Pearson and Josh Smith, who both have high ankle sprains.

Pearson has missed Tennessee's last two games, while Smith sat out the Georgia game. Pearson has seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. Smith has 10 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown.

"I'll know a little bit more as the week progresses, but right now I'd say Von is ahead of Josh in terms of recovery," Jones said.


(Read full post)


At first glance: SEC Week 6

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
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Finally we've reached the heart of the SEC schedule where nonconference blowouts are a thing of the past. No more directional schools, this week it's nothing but mano-a-mano conference battles.

We're going to start separating the pretenders from the contenders, as division races heat up. It's time to find out a whole lot more about the powerful SEC West, where a whopping six top 15 teams square off. Buckle up!

Game of the week: Alabama at Ole Miss
The No. 3 Tide still have the best chance to win the SEC West -- a 31-percent chance to be exact, according to ESPN's FPI (Football Power Index) -- but their biggest threat of being upset will be waiting at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday. The No. 11 Rebels admitted they were looking ahead to the big game after slogging past Memphis 24-3, but they still turned in another impressive performance by what has become one of the nation's most dominant defenses. Ole Miss kept Memphis out of the end zone and has allowed just two touchdowns on 38 drives this season. The Rebels' run defense was particularly nasty, limiting Memphis to 23 yards on 31 attempts. Alabama is coming off a bye and a dominant, complete performance of its own in a 42-21 thrashing of Florida. It all sets up to be quite a clash in Oxford, Mississippi, the first of what will likely be a handful of glamorous SEC West showdowns.

Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Last time we saw them, the Bulldogs made quite the statement in beating then-No. 8 LSU for the first time in nearly 15 years and winning in Baton Rouge for the first time in nearly 24 years. Prescott showed all of his dual-threat brilliance in carving up the Tigers' defense, and MSU shot up in the polls after a very big win. In order for the Dogs to keep momentum on their side they now have to beat another top 10 foe. Prescott will be the central figure, and the pressure he'll face is sure to be literal as well as figurative. Texas A&M leads the SEC with 17 sacks in four games. True freshman end Myles Garrett has been a force with 5.5, while linebacker Shaan Washington returned from a broken collarbone last week and recorded two sacks in his first game of the year. One more thing: Prescott will be without his starting center, as Dillon Day will serve a one-game suspension for stomping on two LSU players.

Coach under the microscope: Florida's Will Muschamp
Muschamp probably has this category to himself until his Gators start winning and pulling off upsets. Florida's loss to Alabama was not unexpected, but the way it went down -- more ineptitude on offense and a school record for yards allowed on defense -- pushed fans to the brink. Even some of Muschamp's die-hard supporters had to be talked off their nearest ledge. If the noise was that loud after UF's loss to a juggernaut program like Alabama, what would happen if the Gators lose to Tennessee for the first time in nearly 10 years? The Volunteers are an improving bunch. They came oh-so-close to beating Georgia on the road last week, and they're still hungry for respect. Florida, coming off a bye, will have to get its act together in order to pull off a win at Neyland Stadium.

Storyline to watch: Will Brandon Harris start?
LSU's visit to No. 5 Auburn has an entirely different feel after the Bayou Bengals' season-long quarterback controversy took a turn for the decisive. True freshman Brandon Harris was electrifying in relief of Anthony Jennings. Harris was 11-of-14 passing for 178 yards and directed the LSU offense to seven touchdowns on seven possessions. After the game, coach Les Miles declined to name Harris the starter, saying LSU's way is to thoroughly evaluate before making a decision. With all due respect, that's a bunch of hooey. Harris obviously gives LSU its best chance to pull what would be an enormous upset both in terms of the national stage and the division race. It won't be easy against Auburn's improving defense. The Tigers have allowed only three plays of 25 yards or more this season, tied for the second fewest in the FBS.

Intriguing matchup: South Carolina at Kentucky
While the West division deserves all the attention it's going to get on Saturday, the East is quietly trying to sort itself out. Upstart Kentucky finally removed a very large monkey off its back by beating Vanderbilt and snapping a 17-game conference losing streak. In order to earn respect, the Wildcats' next task is to score an upset. Kentucky and its fans will be fired up for this home game, and the Gamecocks are ripe for the picking after blowing a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter against division-leading Missouri. Kentucky's improving offense will stretch USC's struggling defense. But the most intriguing matchup in this one is on the other side of the ball, where the Cats' defense is coming off its best performance against an SEC foe since 1996. UK held Vanderbilt to 139 yards last week. If the Wildcats can contain the Gamecocks' offense, it might not even take a shootout to earn that elusive signature win.

SEC morning links

September, 29, 2014
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1. Fresh off its win over Memphis on Saturday, Ole Miss was already taking shots at Alabama. Safety Cody Prewitt said he doesn’t believe the Crimson Tide are as good as they have been in recent years. It might be a little early to say that; after all, just last year, Prewitt’s Rebels were shut out in Tuscaloosa, 25-0. A lot has changed since that game, though. The Ole Miss defense, which has allowed just two touchdowns through the first four games, is much improved, and quarterback Bo Wallace is a year older. At Alabama, the offense looks more balanced under new coordinator Lane Kiffin, and they’re even using their own version of the no-huddle offense. It’s one of many intriguing matchups in the SEC this weekend.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertWill LSU turn to Brandon Harris in hostile territory at Auburn?
2. Speaking of intriguing matchups, how about LSU traveling to Auburn on Saturday? Les Miles' team has won six of the last seven against Auburn, but his Tigers opened up as 7.5-point underdogs on the road. A big reason for that is the uncertainty at quarterback. Miles has yet to name a starter, but after Saturday’s victory over New Mexico State, it was pretty clear who played better. The question will be whether Miles wants to give freshman Brandon Harris his first start on the road, in a hostile environment. The Auburn defense isn’t worried as much about the opposing quarterback; it’s worried about getting healthy after three starters were banged up in a 45-17 victory over Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

3. What happened to South Carolina on Saturday? It looked like the Gamecocks were well on their way to beating Missouri and grabbing hold of the SEC East. Then, all of a sudden, it all slipped away. A day later, Steve Spurrier saw his team’s streak of 69 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25 come to an end. The good news is that despite the loss to Missouri and despite dropping out of the polls, South Carolina is still not out of the SEC race. The bad news is that they have to travel to Lexington this weekend to face much-improved Kentucky team, and the local beat writers are already saying that Spurrier’s team looks beatable again this week. We’ll know a lot more about both teams following Saturday’s game.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the Weekend

SEC bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
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Alabama was off this week, so it remains in the top spot as a College Football Playoff representative, but we have some movement in the next couple of teams in this week’s SEC bowl projections.

We’re moving Auburn up a spot in place of Texas A&M, which won but showed it might still have some work to do after needing a furious rally and a few breaks to escape with an overtime win over Arkansas.

Also, despite the Razorbacks’ loss, we’ll stick with them finding a way to get three more wins and bowl eligibility this season. They proved they’re a quality team that’s making progress, although they have a brutal schedule to navigate the rest of the way.

Here is our full SEC list entering the sixth week of the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Alabama
Orange Bowl: Auburn
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Texas A&M
Capital One Bowl: Georgia
TaxSlayer Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Mississippi State
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Ole Miss
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Arkansas
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Florida

SEC Power Rankings: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
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There's a new No. 1 this week following Texas A&M's struggles to get by a rapidly improving Arkansas team. But considering Auburn took down those same Razorbacks 45-21 earlier this season, the Aggies' overtime victory wasn't enough to keep them on top. Beyond that, South Carolina keeps sliding, while the conference gets ready for a trio of huge games Saturday in Ole Miss-Alabama, Mississippi State-Texas A&M and Auburn-LSU.

Edward Aschoff, Jeff Barlis, David Ching, Sam Khan Jr., Chris Low, Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough contributed to these rankings.
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Two of college football's proudest programs are scraping close to rock bottom this year. Combined, Michigan and Florida have lost 15 of their last 20 games. Which program is in a worse spot at the moment? Edward Aschoff and Dan Murphy debate:

Edward Aschoff: In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately realm that college football resides in, Florida and Michigan haven't exactly done a lot for their respective fan bases in the last couple of years.

But which team is in the most troubling situation? Well, here’s why Florida has to get things back on track faster than Michigan: Look at how strong the SEC is right now compared to the Big Ten? The talent gap in the SEC between the top of the conference and the middle of the pack is tightening, while the bottom is getting better ... even if Vanderbilt has fallen off since James Franklin left.

Florida's 42-21 loss at Alabama this past weekend did coach Will Muschamp no favors with Florida’s fan base. The defense, which is Muschamp’s specialty, surrendered 645 yards, the most allowed in school history. And the offense looked as anemic as it did last season, even when Alabama’s defense gave it plenty of early opportunities to make some big plays.

And while things got a little more discouraging for fans in Gainesville, things are looking good for other teams around the league. Georgia and South Carolina haven’t exactly looked like world-beaters this year, but would anyone pick the Gators to beat either right now? What about Missouri? Kentucky took Florida to three overtimes, and you have to think that Tennessee will be favored next week at home against the Gators.

Arkansas already looks much better than it did last year, and both of the Mississippi schools are ranked inside the top 15. Do I need to say anything about Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M when it comes to the national spotlight?

The fact of the matter is that we still don’t know what kind of team Florida is. The offense went from looking good to regressing. The defense is younger and needs a lot of work. Against arguably the best team on its schedule, Florida was blown away and was barely competitive. Remember, Florida fans were looking for a moral victory heading into this game. No way that’s the new standard, right?

Recruits are on the fence about the Gators, and we just don’t know in which direction this program is going inside a league that's more competitive from top to bottom than we've seen in a long time.

Things could turn around after that bad Alabama loss, but if they don’t, Florida’s program could be playing a really dangerous game of catch up in the nation's toughest conference.

Dan Murphy: The same things creating a sense of urgency for the Gators -- recruiting and the power of the SEC that Edward mentioned -- are what ultimately put them in a better position than Michigan to pull out of their current rough spot. The road to recovery for the Wolverines looks longer and more painful than for their counterparts at Florida.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Robin Alam/Icon SportswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines are at recruiting disadvantage with SEC schools like Florida.
Even the most institutional college football powers go through their ebbs and flows. It wasn’t that long ago that people questioned if Alabama could ever return to its Bear Bryant-era glory days. The two proven ways to pull out of that cycle are to catch lightning in a bottle with a special player (Look at what Johnny Manziel has done to bring Texas A&M back to the upper echelon) or to scrap everything and start fresh, like the Crimson Tide did by hiring Nick Saban in 2007.

In either case, Florida has an innate advantage to get back on track faster.

The recruiting grounds around Gainesville are far more fertile than in the Midwest. The SEC's reputation as “big boy football” has top players from outside that corner of the country clamoring for a chance to play against the best. Florida has finished higher than Michigan in recruiting ranks every year since 2010, when it had the No. 1 class in the nation. Lightning is unpredictable, but the odds of a special, program-changing athlete choosing the Gators are higher.

Michigan can't compete with those natural resources. Other resources (facilities and bank account) at Michigan are on par with just about any athletic department in the country. The available talent and regional passion, though, make the SEC a more popular choice among rising coaching stars just like for the prospects. Both programs have the means to make a big-splash hire if they decide to part ways with their current coaching staffs, but the Gators are probably picking from a bigger pool of candidates.

Finally, the questions and complaints around Michigan’s program don’t stop with head coach Brady Hoke. Everyone from the backup quarterback (whoever that might be this week) to Hoke to athletic director Dave Brandon has come under fire during a lackluster 2-2 start to the season.

Brandon's future in Ann Arbor is as much in doubt as Hoke's. Jeremy Foley has been Florida's athletic director for more than 20 years and worked in the department since 1981. He at least provides a solid foundation for a smoother changing of the guard if that time should come.

Florida AD to evaluate after season

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
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Florida Gators coach Will Muschamp will be judged on his program's entire body of work this season, athletic director Jeremy Foley said in an interview earlier this month.

The Florida defense has given up 1,095 yards in the past two games, including a school-record 645 yards in a 42-21 loss to the Crimson Tide last weekend.

Foley, in an interview before the Alabama loss, said he's sticking by his coach but will re-evaluate everything after the season.

"You never judge or evaluate a program based on one game or one season," Foley told "Open Mike" on 740 The Game in Orlando on Sept. 10. "That's just not how we do things here. We're going to evaluate where we're headed -- where the players are, how is recruiting going, what type of staff we have, are we better?

"That's going to be plain for all of us to see, but it's also going to be played out over the course of 11 games, and we'll see where we are when we get to the end of the season."

Florida has won only two of its past 10 games dating to last season -- including a 1-6 mark against SEC teams. The Gators (2-1, 1-1 SEC) have a bye this week before visiting Tennessee on Oct. 4.

Asked about the team's performance, Muschamp was pretty blunt during Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference.

"We stunk on defense," Muschamp said. "I'm extremely disappointed two games in a row of giving up the big plays we've given up defensively. We've got to get some things tied together better on the back end. That's the bottom line. 

"The mistakes we've made in some situations back there are inexcusable."


(Read full post)


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Recruiting reporters Damon Sayles and Derek Tyson joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to discuss a pair of recent decommitments and a committed recruit who has two fan bases holding their collective breaths.
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Alabama, FSU, UF, Maryland and Oregon fans are going to have to wait on five-star DE Byron Cowart. Plus, Oregon State has made recruiting in LA a priority, so that’s why a good showing against the Trojans on Saturday is important.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp had a rather blunt assessment after reviewing the Gators' 42-21 loss to No. 3 Alabama last week.

"We stunk on defense," he said in Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference.

A few days of perspective did nothing to brighten the defensive-minded coach's feelings about the school-record 645 yards his Gators allowed. His frustration has been building since UF gave up 369 yards passing to Kentucky in the season's second game.

"I'm extremely disappointed two games in a row of giving up the big plays we've given up defensively," he said. "We've got to get some things tied together better on the back end. That's the bottom line. ...

"The mistakes we’ve made in some situations back there are inexcusable."

Other than All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, no one's job is safe in the secondary.

"That’s what I told them," said Muschamp, who seems particularly fed up with his more experienced players.

Normally the biggest factor in determining starters and playing time is consistency in practice. The coaches assume that a player making critical mistakes in practice is more likely to make them when the lights are on and the crowd is roaring.

But the mistakes just kept coming from players Muschamp thought he could count on, like senior safety Jabari Gorman, junior cornerback Brian Poole and third-year sophomore safety Marcus Maye.

"What you’re doing’s not working so you might as well try somebody else," Muschamp said. "That’s where I am right now."

Perhaps Florida will take some lumps with true freshman DBs like Jalen Tabor, Duke Dawson and Quincy Wilson. But it might pay off in the long run.

Sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis hopes the mistakes will be corrected in practice, even though he said that was where the problems originated. The Gators weren't technically sound, Davis said, and therefore got exploited by Alabama.

"You just have to work on your technique every time you touch that field," he said. "If you don’t do that every time you touch the field, on game day things are going to show up. It’s going to be exploited and you’re going to get hurt that way."

In the last two games the issues in the secondary have been further exposed because of a lack of pressure up front.

Pass rush continues to haunt the Gators. Muschamp's stance is that he'd like to have one.

He cited Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard as his only consistent rushers and said he wanted to find more playing time for defensive end Alex McCalister, who had a sack against Alabama.

"Past [them], we have not been very effective," Muschamp said.

The road doesn't get easier for a front seven that lost two senior starters to injury.

Muschamp said defensive tackle Leon Orr has a minor cartilage tear in his knee, and linebacker Michael Taylor has a bone bruise on his knee. Both are questionable for Florida's next game at Tennessee on Oct. 4.

Until then, it's back to the drawing board.

"We worked a lot on technique and fundamentals [in Tuesday's practice]," Muschamp said. "We've got a lot of things to work on."
There are plenty of stars in the SEC. Whether you're looking at Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board of NFL draft picks or the national rankings for receptions, passing yards or tackles, you're likely to find plenty of players from the Southeast. But through a quarter of the regular season, who in the SEC has separated themselves as the elite talent in the league? It's early, but let's take a look at three tiers.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama safety Landon Collins has firmly established himself in the elite category.
THE ELITE

  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior leads the Crimson Tide in tackles (32) and passes defended (2), and he's done all that in a secondary that hasn't had much stability. Collins' talent is unquestionable. He showed against Florida how disruptive a force he can be, whether that's in the passing game or playing near the line of scrimmage.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: We all knew how good the junior wideout could be. Heck, he broke Julio Jones' freshman records at Alabama two years ago. Now that he's fully healthy again, Cooper is defying all expectations, leading the country in receptions and receiving yards. His ability to pick up large chunks of yards after the catch is uncanny.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: He's a beast. There's no two ways about it. The junior has settled any debate heading into the season: He's the best running back in the country. In a one-dimensional offense, he shoulders the load. He averages 134 rushing yards per game. And he's explosive, with 13 runs of 10 or more yards through three games.
  • Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny who? The redshirt sophomore has made Aggies fans forget the mercurial Johnny Manziel. Hill's raw QBR (94.0) is the best of any quarterback in the country with at least three starts -- ahead of Oregon Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota. Hill's 13 passing TDs to one interception is ridiculous.
  • Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defense hasn't been the best this season, but it has nothing to do with the pass rush. Ray, a junior from Missouri, has played lights out. He leads the league in sacks with six and is tied for ninth in total tackles with 22.
STUCK ON THE FENCE

  • Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: He was being billed as a possible contender for the Heisman Trophy, but Davis hasn't played up to those expectations yet. Nagging injuries have kept the junior tailback from reaching his potential once again. His 264 yards rushing ranks 10th in the SEC.
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Don't put all of Cooper's 201 yards and three touchdowns on Hargreaves. The sophomore cornerback wasn't covering him the whole time, and when he did give up a TD in the second half, he was worn out from his offense's inability to stay on the field. Nonetheless, Hargreaves should be considered one of the best corners in the SEC.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: There had to be an A.P.B. put out on Howard earlier in the season. The dynamic sophomore wasn't getting the football. He had no catches in the first three games. The only time he'd been targeted, it resulted in an interception. Last Saturday was a move in the right direction -- two receptions for 22 yards -- but Howard has to find a way to become a bigger part of Alabama's offense.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: So much for a true freshman contending for the Heisman. But who really expected that would happen? Fournette has played well but not great. His 200 yards on 38 carries (5.3 average) is respectable but not noteworthy. Let's give the kid some time, why don't we?
  • Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: What was all that talk we heard this offseason about Marshall developing into a better passer? It hasn't happened yet. The senior's completion percentage is still stuck well below the 60 percent benchmark. His QB rating (126.8) is worse than it was last season (143.2).
RISING UP THE RANKS

  • Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas: For all the talk about Georgia and Alabama's running backs, it's been Arkansas with the most productive duo in the SEC. Collins leads the league in rushing yards (490) and Williams leads the league in rushing touchdowns (7).
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: If it weren't for Cooper, we'd be drooling over LSU's explosive sophomore. He was overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry last season, but not anymore. Dural is second in the league in receiving yards (494) and tied for second in touchdown receptions (4) despite getting the ball just 18 times, compared to Cooper's 43 or Malcome Kennedy's 30 receptions.
  • Myles Garrett, DL, Texas A&M: The true freshman defensive end was brought to Aggieland to rush the passer, and he's done just that. The former five-star prospect has lived up to his talent, ranking second in the SEC with 5.5 sacks.
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: Whether it's with his arm, his feet or even his hands, Mississippi State's junior quarterback is getting the job done. In addition to having the fourth-highest QB rating in the SEC (178.4), Prescott is tied for the league lead in scoring with 90 total points.
  • Duke Williams, WR, Auburn: The former junior college transfer arrived at Auburn to much fanfare, and he quickly lived up to the hype. A physical 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, he's become Marshall's favorite target. The Louisiana native is fifth in the SEC in receptions (21), sixth in receiving yards (324) and ninth in yards per catch (15.4).

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