SEC: Vanderbilt Commodores

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier beamed when he sprang into his postgame press conference room Saturday evening. He had just watched his Gamecocks shock No. 6 Georgia -- the team picked by many to represent the SEC in the College Football Playoff after just one game -- 38-35 with a gutsy, yet controversial, call to go for it on fourth-and-inches.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier again got the best of Georgia and showed that South Carolina will make noise in the SEC Eastern Division.
The Head Ball Coach, who was labeled "done" by some after an unconvincing 1-1 start that featured an epic beat down from Texas A&M, was smiling once again after besting his favorite SEC pinata -- Georgia.

Spurrier got his 16th win over Georgia -- the most by any coach over the Dawgs -- and his fourth out of the last five meetings. He and his team also showed that what we thought of South Carolina heading into last weekend wasn't exactly true. There are still issues with the Gamecocks, especially on defense, but we were quick to write off the very team picked in the preseason to win the SEC Eastern Division.

"This is a good one," Spurrier said of Saturday's win. "I knew we had a good chance to beat them when I heard [ESPN radio host Paul] Finebaum picked them [Georgia] to win by about 25 points. He picked Alabama to beat Oklahoma by 25 [in last season’s Allstate Sugar Bowl] too. I said, 'We gotta chance tonight then.'”

Yeah, all that negativity we showed the Gamecocks last week didn't go unnoticed in Columbia.

“I’m not going to lie and tell you that I wasn’t watching TV, seeing people say that Georgia was the No. 1 team, have them winning the playoff," South Carolina running back Mike Davis said. "Watching GameDay and seeing all those guys pick UGA, and having [ESPN college football analyst] Kirk [Herbstreit] being the only one who said we were going to win. This is a big confidence booster for our team.”

So South Carolina isn't dead, and it's clear that the SEC East is still very much wide open.

What else were we quick to assume about the SEC?

1. Jake Coker isn't ready: We all thought Coker would be Alabama's starting quarterback. Well, it's Florida week and veteran Blake Sims is very much the guy and has a big lead on Coker. Unlike Coker, Sims is limited with his arm, but he's done nothing to lose the starting job, while Coker has done nothing to take it.

2. Arkansas isn't the pushover it has been: We figured it'd be another ho-hum year for the Razorbacks. Then they challenged Auburn in the first half of their opener and literally ran over Nicholls State and Texas Tech with 933 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Arkansas looks like it can run on anyone.

3. Vanderbilt is in trouble: We thought the talent was still there for Vanderbilt to make another quality run under Derek Mason in his first year with the Commodores. Well, we aren't sure what's up, but the Commodores are lucky to be 1-2 at this point. After getting outscored 78-10 against Temple and Ole Miss, the Dores needed a last-second missed field goal to escape the UMass game.

4. Florida's defense has to climb back to elite status: We questioned Florida's offense, which still has concerns, but we didn't press the defense. Well, it turns out that there are actually real concerns with this younger unit. Coverage breakdowns fueled 369 Kentucky passing yards and three touchdowns. Also, can anyone besides Dante Fowler Jr. rush the passer?

5. Mississippi State's secondary has questions: It's early, but the Bulldogs have had issues in the back end of their defense. Through three games, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 311.7 passing yards per game. Corner Taveze Calhoun, who garnered tons of preseason praise, and the guys around him at corner and safety have really underperformed to start the season.

6. Texas A&M is still pretty good: Wasn't this team supposed to take a few steps back without Johnny Manziel? Well, the Aggies didn't get the memo. Texas A&M upset South Carolina 52-28 to start the year, the defense looks better and quarterback Kenny Hill leads the SEC with 1,094 yards and has 11 touchdowns. I can't believe someone didn't think an A&M quarterback would throw for 3,000 yards this season ...

7. Kentucky can upset someone: If you watched any part of Florida's triple-overtime win over Kentucky, you'd know the Wildcats are better than they have been in years. Patrick Towles threw for almost 400 yards on the Gators with a handful of playmakers to use that this team hasn't had in a while. Also, that defense is much better with Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith battling for the top defensive end duo in the SEC.

8. Tennessee doesn't have a quarterback issue: We thought there was too much uncertainty surrounding Tennessee's quarterbacks. Well, we were wrong, as Justin Worley has been solid, making tremendous throws through the first two games. He struggled against Oklahoma but is averaging 240 yards per game and has six touchdown passes.

9. Missouri isn't ready to take a step back: We thought there were a lot of questions for Mizzou on both sides of the ball, and there still might be, but this team isn't ready to bow out in the SEC. The competition hasn't been great, but Mizzou has done exactly what's been asked, outscoring teams 125-52.

10. Leonard Fournette isn't Michael Jordan ... yet: We thought Fournette would have at least 1,000 rushing yards and, like, 20 touchdowns at this point. What a disappointment! It's a long season folks, but Fournette is still learning and has just 162 yards and two touchdowns. He'll be great, but we actually have to be patient with him.

SEC morning links

September, 18, 2014
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1. The big storyline Wednesday wasn’t from the SEC. It was from the ACC. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, a name SEC fans surely know by now, will sit the first half against Clemson for yet another off-field incident. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach summed it up well in his column: “Funny, the last time I checked, you can’t spell Jameis without ‘me’ and ‘I.’” This got me thinking, though. What player in the SEC could their team not afford to lose for a half? Auburn already showed it can win without its quarterback Nick Marshall, who sat out the first half against Arkansas. Losing Todd Gurley would be rough, but Georgia has a full stable of running backs behind him. Maybe Amari Cooper at Alabama? Or how about on the other side of the ball with Vernon Hargreaves III at Florida? The two will be squaring off this Saturday. But what do you think? Who’s the SEC’s most indispensable player?

2. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will turn 49 next month, one year away from the big 5-0, but that’s nothing compared to his coaching counterpart Thursday night. Bill Snyder, who is in his second stint at Kansas State, is 74 years old. The stadium his team plays in is already named after him. Not a lot of coaches can say that. As for Malzahn, he doesn’t see himself coaching at 74 because according to him, “college football ages you in dog years.” It’s not all that uncommon in the SEC, though. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier turns 70 in April, and others -- including Nick Saban (Alabama), Gary Pinkel (Missouri), and Les Miles (LSU) are all over the age of 60. My guess is that Malzahn will be coaching in the NFL long before he reaches that age, but you never know.

3. It’s been awhile since Mississippi State last beat LSU -- 15 years to be exact. In fact, the Bulldogs have never beat Les Miles since he’s been in Baton Rouge, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen this season. On Wednesday, Miles called this Mississippi State team “as talented and as complete” as any Mississippi State team he’s coached against. He’s not taking this game lightly, and neither will the fans. You can bet that the newly renovated Tiger Stadium will be rocking Saturday night. There are games -- like Sam Houston State and Louisiana Monroe -- and then there are SEC games. This weekend marks the first SEC game.

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SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
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The SEC quarterback competitions are fading fast. Nick Marshall is back for Auburn. Patrick Towles (Kentucky) and Justin Worley (Tennessee) have exceeded expectations. And Kenny Hill has gone from competing for the starting job to competing for the Heisman Trophy.

That leaves Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt. All three schools seem to have settled on a signal caller for the time being, but how long will it last? We should find out a lot more this Saturday as they all have SEC opponents on the docket.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Alabama fans are starting to accept that Sims is the team’s quarterback and why not? The senior hasn’t done anything to relinquish the job. If anything, he’s shown improvement with each game. On Saturday against Southern Miss, he completed 12 of his 17 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 46 yards and a score. Both Coker and Alec Morris came in during the second half, but neither played meaningful minutes.

What it means: Sims is the starting quarterback until he gives up the job. If he keeps managing the offense and not turning over the football, the coaches are not going to pull him. That said, he faces his toughest test this Saturday against Florida. The Gators return all four starters on the defensive line, and with Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Sims can no longer only throw the ball to his favorite receiver Amari Cooper. Will we see Coker? Not unless things go awry, but Sims has to play well for Alabama to win. – Greg Ostendorf

Sims’ hold on position: 8.5

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Although Jennings (11-for-18 for 139 yards, INT) tossed his first interception of the season in last Saturday’s 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe, he continues to do a solid if unspectacular job at quarterback. His passing numbers would have been better if not for a series of drops and he’s minimizing his mistakes. He also showed some nifty moves in escaping from a sack and then ran for a 22-yard gain. To this point, he has been what LSU’s coaches want him to be: A steady game manager.

What it means: The ULM game made it even more evident that Jennings holds a clear lead over Harris as the starter. Jennings played every offensive snap until the Tigers led 24-0 late in the third quarter. Once Harris got into the game, he screwed up at least two play calls and had to scramble for yardage once everyone else ran a different direction than he expected. Until he has a firm grasp on the playbook, Harris won’t truly challenge for the starting job. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 8

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Wade Freebeck, Stephen Rivers, Johnny McCrary

How Robinette performed: Exploring all options to find a quarterback, Derek Mason went with the true freshman Freebeck against UMass. That experiment lasted all of a quarter before Mason pulled him in favor of Robinette, the team’s original starter. The sophomore took advantage. In three quarters, Robinette threw for 147 yards, rushed for 35 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the Commodores back from an 11-point second-half deficit and notch their first win of the season.

What it means: Has Vanderbilt finally settled on a quarterback? Don’t assume anything with Mason calling the shots, but he did say Tuesday that Robinette is their guy until something happens to change that. It sounds like Robinette will have a longer leash this Saturday against South Carolina, and maybe that will give him a little added confidence. It also wouldn’t be surprising if a different quarterback finished the game. – Greg Ostendorf

Robinette’s hold on position: 4

SEC morning links

September, 17, 2014
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Much was made of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's hire at Florida this offseason. He was brought to inject life into a struggling unit and so far, he has done that -- hiccups in the first half against Kentucky notwithstanding. The true measuring stick for the Gators' offensive progress will come this week at Alabama. Fortunately for the Gators, Roper has experience against the Crimson Tide, though it wasn't a good experience (Duke lost to Alabama 62-13 in 2010 when Roper was with the Blue Devils). These are different circumstances and Roper has Will Muschamp -- who knows Nick Saban well from his days as an assistant on his staff -- as a resource. While Florida still has plenty of room for improvement, Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa will be revealing when it comes to understanding how far the Gators' offense has come in a short time.

Texas A&M hasn't taken a step back -- like many thought they would in the post Johnny Manziel-era -- and contributions from the Aggies' freshmen is a big part of that equation. So far, 14 true freshmen from the Aggies' fourth-ranked 2014 recruiting class have seen the field and several have become impact players immediately: defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and receiver Speedy Noil, just to name a few. The Aggies' move to the SEC did quite a bit for the program in terms of visibility, fundraising, image but the impact has probably been felt most in recruiting, where the Aggies have hauled in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and are on track for a third straight this fall.

Vanderbilt started three different quarterbacks in their first three games, and suffice it to say, it has been an adventure. Against Massachusetts, true freshman Wade Freebeck started but Patton Robinette -- the Game 1 starter -- came in later to lead a comeback victory. What to make of the way coach Derek Mason has handled quarterbacks? It certainly has been a guessing game for fans and observers. This week, Mason said Robinette is starting and he's sticking with him until there's a reason to go another direction. Here's hoping that is the case. Robinette was pulled quickly in the opener against Temple but perhaps gained confidence from his relief performance last week. Confidence can be a fragile thing with a quarterback since it's a position of high visibility. Hopefully Mason can help Robinette keep that confidence up and stick with him through thick and thin, which would show the rest of the team that it should be confident in him as well.

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SEC morning links

September, 15, 2014
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Arkansas' 49-28 win at Texas Tech was a big one for the Hogs in the Bret Bielema era, perhaps the biggest to date. It's a sign of a program showing improvement after a rough 2013. In the aftermath, much of the discussion focused on the Razorbacks' running game, led by Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and that big Arkansas offensive line. Rightfully so. But what is easy to overlook is the performance of the Razorbacks' defense, which took some body blows early but had an impressive second half, holding the high-powered Red Raiders to just seven points. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith's crew stood up to the challenge Texas Tech presented and helped Arkansas score a seminal win as a result.

Though they lost, Kentucky opened a lot of eyes on Saturday night in the Swamp. Taking Florida to three overtimes in a 36-30 loss is notable for a program that has been a cellar dweller. One of the reasons for the Wildcats' ability to compete is the increased talent on the field they've gathered in recruiting under coach Mark Stoops. Several of those young Wildcats, especially receiver Garrett Johnson, give Kentucky reason for hope in the future.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is often cited as one of the most detailed-oriented coaches around. That may be true, but it doesn't apply to every part of the game, apparently. Asked after Saturday's win over Southern Mississippi about the play of left guard Leon Brown, Saban admitted that he doesn't pay much attention to the offensive linemen. As a former quarterback and defensive back, he focuses on the skill players. He emphasized that the linemen are important but that he doesn't even "watch them during individual [drills]." You can see the video, where Saban smiles and jokes his way through the soliloquy, here.

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The 2016 season can’t get here soon enough. That’s when the SEC mandate for at least one Power 5 nonconference game will go into effect. But how will the SEC fare when that day does arrive? Exactly how good is the conference outside its own borders? And how does its scheduling practices match up with others?

Bowls are only one thing

The SEC went 7-3 in bowl games last season. Since 2000, the league is a robust 26 games above .500 in bowl games, which is a better win-loss differential than the ACC (minus-5), Big 12 (even), Big Ten (minus-23) and Pac-12 (plus-5).

Go ahead, fans of the SEC: Thump your chest at that.

But don’t go too far. Because bowls are only one piece of the puzzle, and it might not be all that significant in the first place. Given the long delay between the end of the regular season and the start of bowl season, coupled with the lack of motivation to play for a better tomorrow, is it really a fair sample to draw from?

If you think so, don’t try telling that to Alabama coach Nick Saban, who said it was a challenge to get his team to “try to play a consolation game” against Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.

Besides, the real test of scheduling isn't who you were selected to play, but who you decided to play of your own free will.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Butch DillDan Mullen and Mississippi State are among the teams that schedules a lot of FCS opponents historically. But that only tells part of the story.
Last Saturday was horrific for fans

Saturday came and went without a single game of consequence in the SEC.

A week after scheduling nonconference games even Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops would qualify as “toughies” -- West Virginia, Wisconsin, Boise State, Clemson -- the SEC reverted to form and ordered up a bunch of cupcakes.

Alabama dominated Florida Atlantic, LSU trounced Sam Houston State and South Carolina survived East Carolina. Kentucky walloped Ohio and Missouri thumped Toledo. Florida saw Eastern Michigan’s troublesome cinder block wall and launched the Eagles right through it. All told, SEC teams outscored opponents by a cannon-wide margin of 462 points.

It certainly helped that none of those opponents were from Power 5 conferences. Sadly, one wasn’t even an FBS-level program, which we’ll have to get used to as teams pay for the right to beat teams like Western Carolina and Chattanooga.

Since 2004, SEC teams have scheduled 121 FCS opponents. Only four times have they lost. The average margin of victory: 31.5 points per game.

The top five worst offenders at scheduling games against teams outside the major conferences since 2004: Mississippi State (35), Ole miss (33), Arkansas (30), Alabama (30) and Tennessee (30). Outside of SEC newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri, Georgia had the fewest such games with 21.

During the regular season, the SEC is still king

It’s easy to poke fun at the SEC scheduling. When you’re on top, criticism comes with the territory.

But when it comes to scheduling nonconference games against Power 5 opponents, the SEC isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, contrary to the buzz outside the Southeast.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, the SEC has played 111 total regular-season games against Power 5 schools since 2004. Its 69-42 record is the best of the all Power 5 conferences, ahead of the Pac-12 (53-42), the Big 12 (42-42) and the Big Ten (36-45).

Over that time, the SEC has gone 42-23 against the ACC, 12-7 against the Pac-12, 9-8 against the Big 12 and 6-4 against the Big Ten.

Simple math says the SEC hasn’t shied away from playing its Power 5 brethren. The ACC leads the way with its 117 such nonconference games, but the Pac-12 (95), the Big 12 (84) and the Big Ten (81) all lag behind the SEC’s 111 total Power 5 matchups.

It’s going to get better -- sort of

Mark your calendars. Clear out your entire day on Sept. 3, 2016.

College football will (hopefully) be reborn on that day. Why? Because all the talk about improving strength of schedule will finally come to fruition. Alabama will play USC, UCLA will take on Texas A&M and Notre Dame will go to Texas. And those are just the games inside the Lone Star State. LSU and Wisconsin will do battle at Lambeau Field, and Clemson and Auburn will kick off in Atlanta.

It’s going to be a great day for college football fans. Just don’t expect it to last all season. Because while teams are beginning to go all in on premier nonconference games, it’s important to remember that it’s in the singular sense of the word. As in, only one per regular season.

According to FBSchedules.com, the week after Alabama plays USC, it hosts Western Kentucky. LSU, in the six weeks after playing Wisconsin, is set to welcome Southern Miss, Jacksonville State and South Alabama to Baton Rouge. And Auburn? It will be so exhausted with Clemson that it has to play Arkansas State in Week 2.

Unless something changes between now and the opening week of the 2016 season, Mississippi State will start out against South Alabama while Florida hosts the mighty UMass Minutemen. In Week 2, the Gators get the North Texas Mean Green.

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
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After Week 2, the quarterback battles in the SEC seem to be dwindling. Nick Marshall returned as the starter for Auburn while it looks like both Kentucky and Tennessee have found their man. The same can’t be said just yet at Alabama and LSU, and nobody knows what’s going on at Vanderbilt. The SEC quarterback tracker is back. Have a look.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Sims continues to do what coach Nick Saban and his staff value most: manage the offense. It might not be flashy, but Sims has taken what the defense has given him time and time again. Relying on mostly short, quick passes, Sims threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns on 12 of 14 passing against Florida Atlantic. He also ran in a touchdown from 7 yards out.

What it means: Sims has done nothing to lose the starting job, but it's still what he hasn't done -- throw the football deep -- that's most troubling. Coker, on the other hand, can do that. In fact, he seemed intent on chucking it deep in his first real action under center for the Crimson Tide. Coker was 15 of 24 for 202 yards and a touchdown against FAU. But it was what he couldn't do -- manage the offense, minimize mistakes -- that is keeping him from truly challenging Sims. – Alex Scarborough

Sims’ hold on position: 8

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson

How Marshall performed: After missing the first half in the opener, Marshall returned as the starter in Week 2 and played well. He threw for over 100 yards, rushed for over 100 yards and scored twice. A solid effort, but by no means was it perfect. He completed just 10 of his 19 pass attempts, and he fumbled on the opening drive. With that said, the Auburn offense still racked up over 400 yards through three quarters with Marshall under center.

What it means: The big takeaway from Saturday was that Johnson didn’t see the field until the fourth quarter with the Tigers already ahead 45-13. That’s not the “role” we all envisioned for Johnson after Week 1. I believe it was Gus Malzahn’s way of re-enforcing the fact that Marshall is this team’s quarterback. If there was any doubt at all after the Arkansas game, he wanted to make it crystal clear on Saturday. – Greg Ostendorf

Marshall’s hold on position: 10

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker and Reese Phillips

How Towles performed: After passing for 377 yards in the opener, Towles did his damage on the ground in a 20-3 win against Ohio. Towles had 22 rushing attempts (five of which were sacks) for 59 yards, with six runs covering 10 yards or more. He also went 17-for-31 for 170 yards and tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Dorian Baker for the Wildcats’ first score. If there was anything to criticize, it’s that the Wildcats’ offense bogged down after jumping out to a 17-0 lead.

What it means: It was another impressive, and turnover-free, start from Towles, who won the starting job during preseason camp. He’s about to face an enormous step up in competition, however. Saturday’s visit to Florida, which allowed just 125 yards in its season-opening 65-0 win over Eastern Michigan, is going to be one of the toughest tests of the season for Kentucky’s reconstructed offense. If Towles can stay composed and move the offense against the Gators, Kentucky will truly have something to get excited about. – David Ching

Towles’ hold on position: 9

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Jennings took the majority of snaps in a 56-0 rout of Sam Houston State and connected with Travin Dural for three touchdown passes -- including a 94-yard score on LSU’s first play from scrimmage. Jennings also ran eight times for 43 yards and played by far his most efficient game yet out of three college starts. It was another step in the right direction after a solid second half in the Tigers’ comeback win against Wisconsin in the opener.

What it means: We saw Harris (4-5, 62 yards, TD) get his first substantial playing time against SHSU, too, and the freshman made a couple of huge plays -- most notably a 46-yard touchdown run. LSU coach Les Miles was critical of the freshman’s fourth-quarter fumble, but it was overall a strong home debut for Harris. He’s probably not ready to push Jennings for the starting job yet, but we’re going to see a lot more from the freshman as the season progresses. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman

How Worley performed: It was another impressive performance from Worley. He completed nine straight passes to start the game and finished 22 of 38 for 247 yards and two touchdowns. He even rushed for a third score. The only negative came in the third quarter when Arkansas State defensive back Money Hunter, son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, dove in front of one of Worley’s passes and intercepted it.

What it means: Through the first two games, Worley is looking like the most improved player in the SEC. The two touchdown throws to Marquez North on Saturday were not easy throws, and he put them on the money. The senior quarterback will have to play a nearly flawless game this weekend if the Volunteers hope to upset Oklahoma on the road, but win or lose, Worley is still the guy for Tennessee. – Greg Ostendorf

Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen

How Hill performed: Hill wasn't quite as accurate in his second game (17-of-26) as he was in his debut (44-of-60) but still performed well, throwing for 283 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said he wants to see Hill improve on his intermediate and deep-pass accuracy and the Aggies took more shots downfield in their win over Lamar than they did in their season opener vs. South Carolina. Allen got some work in both the first and second half once the Aggies had a big lead.

What it means: Spavital called the game in such a way to work on some areas where Hill isn't as strong and by doing that, Hill was out of his comfort zone a little, but he handled it well overall and turned in a strong performance. A game against an FCS opponent was an opportune time to get a live look at how Allen would perform. He had some freshman moments, like throwing an interception on his first drive, but bounced back well. Still, Hill did just fine and while Allen is not backing down, Hill is the starter. – Sam Khan

Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: TBD
Options: Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary, Stephen Rivers, Patton Robinette

How Rivers performed: Rivers got the nod last week but the performance wasn't pretty. He was 6-of-25 passing for 60 yards and no touchdowns in a 41-3 loss to Ole Miss. Head coach Derek Mason noted that "we should have done a better job of using those guys' skill sets and getting the ball in playmakers' hands," and said that they've made schematic changes as a result. It is worth noting that Mason stuck with Rivers for the entire game Saturday rather than playing musical chairs with the quarterbacks, as he did in the season-opening loss to Temple.

What it means: The Commodores still don't have a starter at the moment, as Mason referenced the quarterbacks will compete for the right to start this week. Now, there's a fourth name in the mix in addition to Rivers, Robinette and McCrary -- Freebeck, the true freshman from Florida. Mason said he's very much in the competition this week. Who starts this weekend against Massachusetts is anyone's guess. For what it's worth, Mason promised "explosive offense." We'll see. – Sam Khan

Rivers’ hold on the position: 0

SEC morning links

September, 9, 2014
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How good was Calvin Johnson last night? If you missed the game, Megatron put on a show with seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. That got me thinking. Is there a future Calvin Johnson in the SEC? Even though he’s on pace to shatter the record book at Alabama, Amari Cooper isn’t nearly as big or as physical as Johnson. He reminds me more of a Keenan Allen or a Reggie Wayne in his prime. When I think of Johnson, I think of players such as Marquez North at Tennessee or Ricky Seals-Jones at Texas A&M. Former Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, now at Oklahoma, is another one that fits the bill. It will be interesting to see how all of these guys translate to the NFL one day. Both Cooper and Green-Beckham are among Todd McShay’s top 32 prospects for 2015 (Insider).

Despite all of the emerging wide receivers, the SEC is still a running back-driven league this season. After Week 1, Georgia’s Todd Gurley established himself as the early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. As he prepares for Saturday’s showdown at South Carolina, here are 10 things to know about the Dawgs’ star. The Gamecocks have a pretty good back of their own in Mike Davis, and he certainly has Georgia’s attention after rushing for 149 yards and a touchdown in last year’s matchup. T.J. Yeldon is another obvious name, but how about Cameron Artis-Payne at Auburn? The senior has rushed for 289 yards through two games, the most by an Auburn back in his first two games since Rudi Johnson in 2000.

It was not a huge surprise to see Maty Mauk named the SEC offensive player of the week. He threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns against Toledo this past weekend, and there’s a lot more where that came from, especially with the deep ball. Seven of Mauk’s 34 completions this season have been of 25 yards or more. Meanwhile, Toledo will have to find a new quarterback. Former Alabama transfer Phillip Ely tore his ACL in Saturday’s game and will miss the rest of the season. Gary Pinkel’s thoughts? “I don’t wish that on any team -- even Kansas.” A quick jab from Pinkel. It’s too bad the two schools don’t play each other anymore. That was one of the more underrated rivalries in college football.

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Unless you're invested in a college football fantasy league with a team stockpiled with SEC talent, Saturday was hard to stomach.

Too many utterly overmatched opponents got their brains bashed in by the hands of superior SEC opponents, leaving most viewers yawning by sundown and SEC haters lambasting the conference for not challenging itself.

Hey, the haters were right. Oregon-Michigan State, Stanford-USC and Ohio State-Virginia Tech blew the SEC's slate out of the Mississippi River. After a decent opening week, the SEC went soft with its scheduling to pad stats and work some kinks out before things get a little tougher going forward.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLeonard Fournette and the LSU Tigers had no problems handling Sam Houston State -- blanking them 56-0.
The SEC outscored its nonconference competition 550-126 on Saturday, and while many will laugh at the conference's efforts, teams did exactly what they needed to do against lesser competition. Just about every SEC team made needed improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. There were no real scares, like Nebraska and Iowa (oh, Big Ten). No team let an opponent like Memphis scare it at home (hello, UCLA). No team needed a last-second interception to thwart a shocker, like North Carolina. And no team got upset, like Purdue (oh, man, Big Ten).

Outside of Vanderbilt, which was throttled at home by Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, which forgot how to play defense against UAB, every SEC team improved.

While we scoffed at the games, this wasn't a throwaway weekend for teams still looking to work through things before conference season gears up.

A perfect example of that is Florida. Coming off a disastrous 4-8 season and a canceled opener, the Gators stomped Eastern Michigan with 655 yards, scored on their first five possessions and averaged 7.6 yards per play with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper running things. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has had an up-and-down Florida career, completed 31 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown.

It was Eastern Michigan, which failed to master the art of the pregame run-out, but for a program desperately looking for an offensive pulse, this is exactly what the Gators needed.

"We needed a win and to get out and play," coach Will Muschamp said. "We're much improved. That's not false bravado. It's real. We are a better football team, and we are much improved."

Same for Arkansas. The Razorbacks thrashed Nicholls State 73-7 behind 684 yards. The Hogs needed to stop a 10-game losing streak, and they needed to shake off a bad second half against Auburn. They did with 495 rushing yards and quarterback Brandon Allen throwing for 117 yards and four touchdowns on just four completions.

Alabama's secondary played much better and was much more composed against FAU, while Nick Saban figured out more about his quarterback situation. Blake Sims is ahead and is the more composed player, but he is limited with his arm, unlike Jake Coker.

LSU played a complete game, Leonard Fournette shook off the nerves (13 carries, 92 yards and a touchdown), and we saw a more relaxed and confident Anthony Jennings at quarterback (188 yards and three touchdowns) in a 56-0 win over Sam Houston State.

Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk looked like a seasoned veteran on the road, throwing for 325 yards and five touchdowns in what could have been a trap game against Toledo.

Auburn's offense clicked with Nick Marshall back at quarterback and the defense made vast improvements in a 59-13 win over San Jose State.

Texas A&M's offense is still scoring on Lamar, but the defense didn't allow a touchdown and didn't allow at least 430 yards for the first time since last year's UTEP game (Nov. 2).

And South Carolina got a must-win over a feisty East Carolina team that took it down to the fourth quarter. But the Gamecocks got their running game back just in time for Georgia. Now, if they can figure things out on defense.

Many won't cheer the SEC's past weekend, and that's totally legitimate, but the league did what it needed to, considering the circumstances. It might have been ugly scheduling, but at least the outcomes didn't look like the Big Ten's weekend.
You really can't take a lot from a week that featured more cupcakes on the slate than your neighborhood bakery, but we did learn a little more about SEC teams Saturday:

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
John Raoux/Associated PressDemarcus Robinson was a key cog in Florida's explosive offense on Saturday.
1. Florida's offense is better: OK, so it was against Eastern Michigan, but there's no question Florida's offense looked better during the Gators' 65-0 route of the Eagles than it has since Tim Tebow was running things in Gainesville in 2009. The Gators outgained an incredibly outmatched EMU team 655-125 and averaged 7.6 yards per play. Quarterback Jeff Driskel returned from last year's season-ending injury to throw for 248 yards and a touchdown on 31 completions. Running backs Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones, Mack Brown and Brandon Powell combined to rush for 215 yards and four touchdowns, while backup quarterback Treon Harris threw for 148 yards and two touchdowns on two passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Florida posted the most points (65), yards (655) and 30-yard plays (six) in any game under coach Will Muschamp. This isn't what Florida's offense will look like every week, and its opponent wasn't much competition at all, but it was the exact dress rehearsal Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper wanted -- and needed. Roper had the Gators' offense moving with that tempo, as Florida ran 86 plays and had run 49 plays on EMU's side of the field by the early part of the fourth quarter. Driskel looked comfortable throwing downfield, as he went through his progressions and his receivers were actually finding space and making plays. Keep an eye on sophomore receiver Demarcus Robinson, who caught six passes for 123 yards and a 70-yard touchdown.

2. New Vanderbilt looks more like old Vanderbilt: After three great years with James Franklin manning Vandy's ship, the anchor appears to have dropped on this program. Through two weeks, the Commodores have been absolutely embarrassed in their home city by Temple (37-7) last week and Ole Miss on Saturday (41-3). Vandy is without an offensive touchdown and averaging just 222.5 yards of offense per game. This team looks nothing like the three that went to three consecutive bowl games and had back-to-back nine-win seasons. The body language was bad, and there just didn't seem to be much rhythm among the players or between the players and the coaches. Quarterback Stephen Rivers finished Saturday's game completing 6 of 25 passes for 60 yards and an interception. Vandy's defense surrendered 547 yards of offense to the Rebels, who moved up and down the field at will and never punted. Vandy is the only team in the SEC without a win, and it appears next week's game against UMass is far from a given for the 'Dores. Oh, and this.

3. Alabama's quarterback competition is ... complicated: We finally saw extensive work from Jake Coker, but we also saw a very efficient Blake Sims in Alabama's 41-0 win over FAU. So now what? Well, as my esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough said earlier, it's complicated. Sims finished the day with 214 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-13 passing. Coker threw for 202 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-24 passing. Sims did everything he was asked to do, but where Coker clearly has the advantage is throwing downfield. He has a cannon for an arm and might be the best solution down the road when it comes to facing better defenses, but he still struggled with directing the offense and failed to score close to the goal line just before halftime. He hasn't earned the starting job, and Sims is clearly ahead right now. Still, Coker will have every chance to win the job. Both get one more tuneup in Southern Miss before they host Florida.

4. Mississippi State's defense has some fine-tuning to do: For all the positive talk about a very talented -- and deep -- defense coming back in Starkville, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said the pass defense in the Bulldogs' 47-34 win over UAB was "embarrassing." And he was right. Mississippi State, which allowed just 205 passing yards per game this past season, surrendered 435 passing yards and touchdowns of -- wait for it -- 75, 81 and 88 yards Saturday. The Blazers averaged 27.2 yards per completion. UAB's offense exposed Mississippi State's secondary and its pass rush. The good news for the Bulldogs is they get cream puff South Alabama next.

5. The SEC West worked out some kinks: Remember that saying about teams making the biggest jumps from Week 1 to Week 2? Well, that can be said about the SEC West. After contenders Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss all had their struggles, they bounced back royally Saturday. Yes, Bama and LSU were playing overmatched, nonconference opponents, and this certainly isn't the Vandy we've seen the past couple of years, but all three played exactly like they should. Alabama's secondary made vast improvements against FAU, while LSU ran, threw and stuffed Sam Houston State. Ole Miss went from ugly in Week 1 to a swan with its rout of Vandy, with Bo Wallace throwing for 320 yards with a touchdown and zero interceptions. Auburn made quick work of San Jose State, and Arkansas ran for 495 yards and scored 73 points in their route of Nicholls State. Texas A&M manhandled Lamar 73-3 and didn't allow a touchdown. Mississippi State was the only West team to take a step back, but the offense still registered 516 yards.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 2

September, 6, 2014
Sep 6
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Florida Atlantic at No. 2 Alabama, SEC Network
This one could get ugly, as the Crimson Tide defense -- the secondary, in particular -- looks to bounce back and earn some trust from coach Nick Saban after last week's too-close-for-comfort 33-23 win over West Virginia. The Owls, who lost 55-7 in their season opener at Nebraska last week, should be just what Alabama needs in its home opener. All eyes will be on Bama's quarterbacks after Saban said he would "probably" play ballyhooed backup Jake Coker along with Blake Sims, the starter. Sims was solid as a game-manager type in Week 1, but if he slips at all, Coker could make a bid for the starting job.

No. 24 Missouri at Toledo, ESPN
Gary Pinkel was the coach at Toledo from 1991 to 2000 before taking the same position at Missouri, so he's doing his old school a solid by playing on the road this week. Toledo played at Mizzou last season and lost a competitive game 38-23, but this version of the Rockets is improved. Quarterback Phillip Ely, an Alabama transfer, threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns in the Rockets' season-opening 54-20 win against New Hampshire. The Tigers are just a five-point favorite in this game, according to Bovada. Missouri QB Maty Mauk and Co. will look to continue their big-play ways, but Toledo is one of just two teams that hasn't allowed a touchdown of 40 yards or more since the start of the 2013 season.

Arkansas State at Tennessee, SEC Network
The Vols opened some eyes with a convincing 38-7 victory in their opener against Utah State. Particularly impressive was their defense, which held Utah State and dangerous dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton to 244 yards of total offense. The Volunteers will need a repeat performance against an Arkansas State offense that should not be overlooked. The Red Wolves have been to bowl games in each of their past three seasons and added the formidable offensive mind of coach Blake Anderson, formerly the offensive coordinator at North Carolina.

2 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated PressDak Prescott and Mississippi State were clicking in last week's rout of Southern Miss.
UAB at Mississippi State, ESPN3.com
MSU had a terrific opening week. We knew the defense was one of the best in the SEC, but quarterback Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs' offense showed a lot of bite in a 49-0 rout of Southern Miss. Prescott threw for a career-high 284 yards, and two of his four passing touchdowns went to electric athlete De'Runnya Wilson. Mississippi State faces another Conference USA foe this week in the Blazers, who could provide more of a test for MSU's run defense. UAB rushed for 338 yards in a 48-10 Week 1 win against Troy, including Jordan Howard's standout effort (179 yards and two TDs).

3:30 p.m. ET

Ohio at Kentucky, ESPNU
The Wildcats kicked the basketball offseason to the back burner last week when their fast-breaking offense captured everyone's attention in a 59-14 feel-good win against Tennessee-Martin. The 59 points were especially crowd-pleasing after Kentucky averaged just 20.5 last season. Sure, Tennessee-Martin offered little resistance, but UK quarterback Patrick Towles showed a command of the offense in his first start, racking up 377 yards passing. The only downer for the Cats is that former Nebraksa transfer RB Braylon Heard, who dazzled last week with touchdown runs of 73 and 43 yards, is doubtful with an ankle injury.

4 p.m. ET

Eastern Michigan at Florida, SEC Network
The Gators are chomping at the bit to play after last week's deluge wiped away their season opener against Idaho. And guess what? There's a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms on Saturday as well. Because this will be Florida's first game of the season, it's worth noting that UF has the nation's second-longest winning streak in season openers with 24 (behind Nebraska's 29). The Gators' defense should feast on EMU's run-heavy offense. On the other side of the ball, Florida is debuting a no-huddle spread offense that should better suit athletic dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel.

Nicholls State at Arkansas, SEC Network
The Razorbacks are riding a losing streak of epic proportions -- a school-record 10 games, dating to last season. They haven't won since Sept. 14, coach Bret Bielema's third game. Almost a year later, Arkansas has a plum chance to get off the schneid against an FCS team that will be facing an SEC foe for the first time in its history. Arkansas might have gained a measure of pride from their first-half performance at Auburn last week, but the offense generated just 61 second-half yards after piling up 267 in the first half. The defense showed it still has a long way to go, giving up 595 yards to the Tigers' offense.

4:30 p.m. ET

No. 15 Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, ESPN
Finally, a competitive game to discuss. This week's sole conference matchup pits permanent interdivision rivals who have been separated by a total of five points in their past two meetings. Ole Miss won last season but is just 1-9 in its past 10 conference openers. These teams have something in common. Vanderbilt would like to forget last week's embarrassing 37-7 loss to a Temple team that won just two games in 2013. Ole Miss would like to forget the first 3½ quarters its offense needed to get back on track against Boise State. Rebels QB Bo Wallace had 387 yards and four touchdowns passing last week but raised some eyebrows with three first-half interceptions.

7 p.m. ET

San Jose State at No. 5 Auburn, ESPN2
Nick Marshall makes his first start of the season at quarterback for the Tigers. He sat the first half last week as punishment for being cited for marijuana possession in July. His understudy, Jeremy Johnson, impressed in Auburn's season-opening win against Arkansas and will surely see time in this one, even if it's just garbage time. The Spartans are an improving Mountain West program, but their SEC history has been flat-out ugly. They have played SEC teams four times and lost all four, giving up 113 points (while scoring just six) in their past two meetings with SEC foes.

East Carolina at No. 21 South Carolina, ESPNU
The Gamecocks heard all offseason about what a dangerous and underrated opponent they've got in Week 2. But South Carolina was humbled last week in the first national spotlight game of the young season and should have every motivation to rebound in a big way against the Pirates. After getting torched for 680 yards and 52 points by Texas A&M's offense, South Carolina has to shore up its pass defense against ECU quarterback Shane Carden, who threw for a school-record 4,139 yards last season and led the Pirates to 10 wins. Gamecocks QB Dylan Thompson and his offensive line performed well in Week 1. This one's all on the defense.

7:30 p.m. ET

Lamar at No. 9 Texas A&M, SEC Network
Who's this Lamar fella and how is he going to keep up with Kenny Hill? In all seriousness, the Lamar Cardinals are a middling FCS program based in Beaumont, Texas. This game promises to be a lopsided affair, but at least Hill likely won't have to play all four quarters. Before his record-breaking coming-out party against the Gamecocks, Hill supposedly was in a close competition for the starting job with talented true freshman Kyle Allen, the No. 1 rated quarterback coming out of high school last year. If Hill plays anywhere close to the level of his debut, Allen should get some quality time with A&M's voluminous weapons.

Sam Houston State at No. 12 LSU, SEC Network
Coming off a dramatic comeback win against then-No. 14 Wisconsin last week, it just doesn't seem fair for the Tigers to face an FCS opponent in Death Valley. The Bearkats are averaging more than 600 yards of offense in their first two games. But LSU has played FCS opponents six times in Les Miles' nine years and outscored them by a combined 232-64. The real intrigue here is the Tigers' QB situation. Sophomore starter Anthony Jennings completed less than half of his attempts last week, but freshman Brandon Harris looked worse in his only series.

Top Week 2 stories:
Nobody will argue that the Ole Miss-Vanderbilt series has the acclaim or reputation of Alabama-Auburn or Florida-Georgia. It certainly isn’t close to being as volatile, either.

But to those around the programs and those invested in these teams, this series is very much a rivalry. Mississippi State and LSU might bring out more passion in Ole Miss fans, and Vandy’s followers might have more hatred for Tennessee, but this game resonates with folks in Oxford and Nashville.

Saturday marks the 89th meeting between the schools. They recruit many of the same players out of the Tennessee area and the series has been pretty competitive in its long history. Ole Miss leads the series 48-38-2 but is 27-22-2 in Nashville, where Saturday’s game will be played.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss coach Hugh Freeze and quarterback Bo Wallace will try to beat Vanderbilt for the second year in a row.
“They’re a tough team because they bring it every time, no matter what,” said Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who made his college debut in last year’s Vandy game. “They’re in the SEC, and SEC teams are always good. The Southeastern Conference is a hard conference; I don’t care who you play. If you do sleep on a team, you can lose. I don’t see us sleeping on no team.”

The series has been played annually since 1970. Vandy has won six of the last nine against Ole Miss, including three of the last five in Nashville. Ten of the last 15 meetings have been decided by eight points or fewer, and the last two were decided a combined five points.

The only team that Vandy has played more than Ole Miss (88 times) is Tennessee (108).

“It’s always been a fun and exciting game to be a part of,” junior Vanderbilt offensive lineman Spencer Pulley said. “I know the community and fans have really gotten into it, especially the last couple of years. As far as a rivalry, over the last couple of years it’s really turned into a good one.”

In 2012, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw a career-high 403 yards and wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan caught eight passes for 160 yards – both career-highs -- only for the Rebels to blow a 17-point lead. The Commodores scored 14 unanswered points in the third quarter and won 27-26 on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Rodgers to Chris Boyd with 52 seconds remaining.

Last year, Ole Miss snapped the Commodores’ three-game winning streak with 29 second-half points in a 39-35 victory, capped by an exhilarating 75-yard touchdown run with 1:07 left.

The images of a cutting, darting Scott still plays in the minds of some Vandy players, and it’s added a little fuel to Saturday’s game.

"It sticks with me, 'cause every time I think about Ole Miss, I think about that last play,” Vandy defensive lineman Adam Butler said. “And I just think about if we would've stayed with our fundamentals, which is an area that coach said we didn't really stick with in this past game.”

Ah, yes, the last game. A comedy of errors for the Commodores. With seven turnovers, seven penalties, less than 280 yards of offense and no points on offense, Vandy was steamrolled in its home opener 37-7 to a Temple team that won just two games last year.

Head coach Derek Mason is embarrassed, and so are his players. But they’re motivated by the fact that Ole Miss visits for a late afternoon game at LP Field, just down the road from Vandy’s campus.

Mason will be baptized into this rivalry on Saturday, but players filled him in on the importance – and bragging rights – this game holds.

“The veterans got up and talked about the rivalry between the two schools and how tight it’s been,” Mason said. “That’s when your leadership starts to come out and shows you what the scope of this game is. Not only is it an SEC opponent, it’s a rivalry game. There’s always a little more on these rivalry games, but I think it helps us understand where we need to go, what the level of intensity is going to be.”

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is very familiar with this game. He spent three years in it as an assistant at Ole Miss from 2005-2007, when the Rebels went 1-2 against the Commodores. As the head coach he’s 1-1, and knows it’s dangerous to discount the Commodores.

“We’re not going to overlook them,” said Freeze, whose 15th-ranked Rebels are coming off a 35-13 victory over Boise State. “We’ll get them ready. It’s an SEC football game on the road.

“They’ve always played us tough up there, for whatever reason.”

What will add a little more to this game is the atmosphere inside LP Field. With a large contingent of Ole Miss fans residing in and around the Nashville area, there’s a chance that this could actually feel like a home game for the Rebels. The short drive from Oxford, Mississippi – roughly 230 miles – should also help pack a lot more red and blue into "Nashvegas."

“This game is going to be a live atmosphere,” Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell said. “I can’t wait.”

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 1

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
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Week 1 is in the books, and the big storyline in the SEC was quarterback play. There were some who took the starting job and ran with it, and there were others who struggled at times, opening the door for the backup. As the second weekend approaches, here’s the latest on all the SEC quarterback battles and where each team stands.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker
How Sims performed: Nick Saban couldn’t have asked for more from Sims, who stayed out of trouble and got the ball to his playmakers in space. Completing 72.7 percent of his passes was better than anyone expected, but he did turn the ball over once on an interception and missed a handful of open receivers. He’ll need to work on that and getting the ball downfield more effectively, but for a first start he played quite well.
What it means: If it wasn’t before, it’s now Sims’ job to lose. Though he might not be an electric passer that strikes fear into a defense, he does bring some nice tools to the table, especially his escapability. But until we see Coker actually attempt a pass, nothing is settled. We’ll get that chance on Saturday when Alabama hosts Florida Atlantic in Tuscaloosa. If Sims continues to play well, he shouldn’t be in trouble. If he struggles some and Coker looks solid, we could be in for a race. – Alex Scarborough
Sims’ hold on position: 6.5

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson
How Johnson performed: Marshall’s suspension stemming from an incident this offseason gave Johnson an opportunity to start the season opener, and he took full advantage of it. The sophomore, listed No. 2 on the depth chart, played the first half and went 12 of 16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall returned in the second half and re-energized the Tigers, but statistically, it was clear that Johnson had the better day.
What it means: Maybe nothing. Maybe a whole lot. After the game, Gus Malzahn said that while Johnson will certainly have a role this season, Marshall is still the team’s quarterback. So expect Marshall to return to the starting lineup this weekend against San Jose State and for the foreseeable future. Don’t be surprised if fans start calling for Johnson if Marshall slips up down the road against a Kansas State or an LSU, though. It’s not a bad problem to have, but the last thing the coaches want is a controversy. – Greg Ostendorf
Marshall’s hold on position: 9

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker or Reese Phillips
How Towles performed: After winning the job during preseason practice, Towles got off to an outstanding start against overmatched UT-Martin. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 263 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the Wildcats went up 35-0. Towles turned it over to Phillips in the fourth quarter, finishing the day with a line of 20-for-29 for 377 yards and one TD, plus a 23-yard TD run.
What it means: It’s just one game against a mid-level FCS program, but Towles didn’t do anything in the opener to lose ground to Barker or Phillips. He gave a composed performance and the Wildcats’ offense looked great in the 59-14 rout. Kentucky hosts Ohio this weekend before facing a huge test in its Sept. 13 SEC opener at Florida. That will provide the first legitimate litmus test for Towles and the revamped Wildcats offense. – David Ching
Towles’ hold on position: 8

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris
How Jennings performed: Jennings and LSU’s offense looked awful in the first half against Wisconsin, but the sophomore performed a bit better down the stretch. He was 4-for-6 for 119 yards and a touchdown in the second half after his improvised 80-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the first quarter provided nearly all of the Tigers’ offensive production in the opening half. Jennings played every possession but one, while Harris underwhelmed in his single series under center.
What it means: LSU has a couple of easier non-conference games ahead -- Saturday against Sam Houston State and the following week against Louisiana-Monroe -- so Harris should get some much-needed work against live competition. Likewise, Jennings will benefit from some more game reps before the Tigers host Mississippi State on Sept. 20. He looks like the clear leader for now. – David Ching
Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman
How Worley performed: Tennessee clearly made the right decision in going with Worley as its starting quarterback. The senior looked like a completely different player than last year as he went 27 of 38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State. The most impressive part was his decision-making. He didn’t try and force any balls. He took what the defense gave him and simply picked it apart.
What it means: For starters, it means that barring injury, Dobbs and Peterman will have to wait until next year before they see the field. Worley is the guy. Even if he struggles in two weeks against Oklahoma, he showed enough improvement in the first game that Butch Jones will likely ride it out. However, before the Volunteers head to Norman, Worley has a chance to put up big numbers again this Saturday against Arkansas State. – Greg Ostendorf
Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen
How Hill performed: The sophomore, who was making his starting debut, was nearly flawless. Considering the circumstances (on the road against a ranked opponent in a hostile environment), you couldn't ask more of Hill, who broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school records for passing yards (511) and completions (44). He was poised and productive against South Carolina.
What it means: Life after Manziel won't be so rough. If this is what the Aggies can expect from Hill moving forward, the ceiling on their season changes drastically. Most assumed there would be growing pains, but Hill seems to be a natural fit for the Aggies' Air Raid-inspired offense. He has numerous talented weapons to throw to and an excellent offensive line protecting him. Allen made it a close battle in camp and continues to compete, but the Aggies made the right decision as Hill was ready to take the reins. Sumlin's not the type to shuffle quarterbacks, so this looks like Hill's job for the forseeable future. – Sam Khan
Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Stephen Rivers
Other: Johnny McCrary
How Robinette performed: Robinette's numbers weren't bad (4-for-6 passing, 38 yards) but the offense was unable to generate much while he was in, punting four times and turning it over in five drives. Unfortunately for Robinette, he was yanked before having a real chance to develop a rhythm in favor of Rivers, who went 12-for-25 for 186 yards and an interception.
What it means: The Commodores don't have a starting quarterback. The musical chairs that played out in the 37-7 loss to Temple (redshirt freshman McCrary appeared briefly that night, too), means Vanderbilt is searching for an answer. Derek Mason told reporters this week that the quarterbacks know who will start Saturday vs. Ole Miss but he won't announce who it is publicly. The Vanderbilt quarterback depth chart for the Ole Miss game reads: Stephen Rivers "OR" Patton Robinette "OR" Johnny McCrary. – Sam Khan
Robinette’s hold on the position: 0

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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There were several key SEC games over the weekend and plenty of recruiting news to go along with them. From Texas A&M’s impressive victory over South Carolina to Georgia’s dominating second half performance against Clemson, recruits from all over the country had a chance to finally see teams they are considering in action. Here is a closer look at some of the top recruiting news around the SEC.

Texas A&M catches the attention of top recruits

Even though Texas A&M has put together a tremendous recruiting class this year, many expected it to be a down year on the field for the Aggies. After all A&M lost three first-round draft picks including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Much to the delight of the Aggie faithful, Texas A&M dominated SEC East opponent South Carolina last Thursday evening.

The Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t handle the hurry-up. Clint Trickett might as well have blown kisses to Nick Saban the way he paraded West Virginia's offense up and down the field.

The Auburn Tigers struggled with the power running game. The same Arkansas Razorbacks' offense that ranked last in the SEC a year ago manhandled the Tigers’ front seven, posting 21 points by halftime.

The South Carolina Gamecocks just didn’t show up. Steve Spurrier’s defense laid down for the Texas A&M Aggies. His star running back, Mike Davis, shouldn’t have bothered dressing out.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles and LSU joined several SEC teams who won their openers, but looked flawed in the process.
They all entered their season-openers with hopes of competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the SEC’s three highest-ranked teams showed significant flaws in Week 1. The Gamecocks had their doors blown off. The Tide and Tigers won, but it wasn’t pretty. Even the LSU Tigers, a popular dark horse pick to reach the final four, had to be bailed out by a bit of Les Miles magic and the Wisconsin's' abrupt aversion to the running game.

By the time Monday rolled around, the dust settled and the big picture of the SEC became clear, it wasn’t what anyone expected. Somehow it was the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M left standing as seemingly the league’s best hope of reaching the playoff.

But with all due respect to Todd Gurley’s inhuman exploits and Kenny Hill’s inspired performance, should we be sold? For that matter, should we be ready to call anyone the class of the SEC?

Right now there are far more questions than answers. Everyone, it seems, has flaws.

The East is a toss-up. Georgia certainly holds promise, but quarterback Hutson Mason still needs to show he can carry an offense, Gurley has to stay healthy and the secondary must continue improving despite missing so many starters from a season ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, has to do a complete 180 or it will lose to Georgia in two weeks and find itself in an insurmountable hole. Then there are the Florida Gators, who are a complete unknown given Mother Nature’s refusal to let them finally turn the page on 2013.

The West is even more convoluted. Texas A&M might be the real deal, but its offense is so young and it is still too early to say whether Mark Snyder has orchestrated the most impressive turnaround in history with that defense. Alabama has serious questions on defense, too, and at quarterback we might be jumping the gun a bit in proclaiming Blake Sims the answer. LSU could very well settle on Anthony Jennings under center, but he has the potential to be a reboot of Jordan Jefferson, which isn’t a good thing. Then there is Auburn, stuck with too many quarterbacks and not enough defenders, not to mention its brutal schedule.

If you’re looking for one of the favorites to run away with it, don’t hold your breath. In fact, if Week 1 showed us anything, it’s that while there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC, there is no one dominant team like in years past.

The Missouri Tigers won handily, the Ole Miss Rebels turned it on in the second half and the Mississippi State Bulldogs cruised to victory. All three should feel good about their dreams of reaching Atlanta.

Arkansas looked improved. So did the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers. Though none of the them should go booking trips for the postseason, they could play the role of spoilers.

The only real slouches are the Vanderbilt Commodores.

When it comes time for playoff jockeying and the "my conference vs. your conference" disputes, parity will be the SEC’s No. 1 point of emphasis. But it will also be the reason it doesn’t yield an undefeated or even a one-loss team.

Alabama will get better. So will LSU and Auburn. Even South Carolina should improve with time. It is, in fact, only Week 1 we’re talking about.

But first impressions do mean something, and the first look we had of the SEC revealed a pack of teams loaded with potential but saddled with problems.

Until we find out who is ready to take a step forward and lead, it will continue to be a wide open race.

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