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Key injuries are hampering SEC teams we thought had promise

Tennessee coach Butch Jones has seen his offensive line hampered by injuries in 2015. Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The injury bug has been working overdrive this season. All around the sport, key players are dropping like flies thanks to devastating, season-ending injuries and no one is safe from a bizarre rash of injuries spreading.

Of course, injuries are part of the game, and it's how coaches and teams respond to them that make or break paths to success. In the SEC, a few teams have done a solid job overcoming injuries, but three haven't been so lucky.

Injuries have helped change the trajectories for Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee. They all have issues beyond injuries, but losing key players before the month of October has each floundering in 2015.

The 2-2 Tennessee Volunteers were the first to suffer a major, season-ending injury when starting left guard Marcus Jackson went down with a biceps injury in early August. With 17 starts to his name, the Vols lost a crucial member of an offensive line that dragged in September. Sophomore Jashon Robertson replaced Jackson, but Tennessee's offensive line has allowed nine sacks in four games (2.3 per game).

"He was one of our leaders up front, a senior, and you just don’t replace those individuals," coach Butch Jones said of Jackson.

Weeks later, the Vols lost offensive lineman Austin Sanders for the season and then potential starter Rashaan Gaulden to a season-ending foot injury. Gaulden appeared locked into the starting nickel spot and was a tremendous special teams player.

Things worsened when star pass-rusher Curt Maggitt went down with a hip injury against Oklahoma that will keep him out indefinitely. Maggitt isn't just an outstanding player who led the team with 11 sacks last year, he's the emotional leader for Tennessee. His absence was dramatically felt by this defense during the losses to Oklahoma and Florida. Tennessee is on pace for 24 sacks, compared to the 37 it had last year with Maggitt.

"He meant so much to us," Jones said. "Obviously first of all, he’s a very, very talented football player. You just don’t replace his productivity. You don’t replace his experience. He’s also our team leader. So not only do we miss his productivity, but we miss his leadership and his experience as well."

Arkansas suffered a substantial loss when workhorse running back Jonathan Williams went down with a season-ending foot injury in August. Williams was such an intricate part to Bret Bielema's beastly running attack that also features Alex Collins. What really made this offense go was their productivity together, as Arkansas averaged 218 rushing yards per game in 2014. Arkansas is averaging a respectable 186, but hasn't consistently worn down fronts like before and registered just 103 rushing yards in the loss to Toledo.

Things got worse when No. 1 receiver Keon Hatcher went down with a foot injury against Toledo, and is out six weeks.

"It obviously takes a toll from a skill standpoint," Bielema said of the losses of Williams and Hatcher. "That’s overstating the obvious."

Arkansas also lost receivers Cody Hollister (broken foot) and Jared Cornelius (broken arm).

Auburn's inexplicably bad 2-2 start has revolved around poor quarterback play and a struggling defense missing two extremely valuable weapons. The biggest loss is defensive end Carl Lawson, who exploded during his short return from an ACL injury in 2014. During the first half of Auburn's win over Louisville, Lawson was the best player on the field, commanding double-teams that he continuously powered through and creating plays for teammates. Auburn registered four sacks before Lawson went down with a hip injury that will keep him out for an extended period of time.

Auburn allowed 241 yards and 24 points in the second half against Louisville and now owns the SEC's worst defense, allowing 413.5 yards and 26.5 points per game.

"When you lose an impact player, it definitely changes the dynamics of everything else," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Lawson. "I feel like after we lost Lawson the first couple of weeks, Will got a really good understanding of what he have – or don’t have – and tried to put the pieces of the puzzle [together] for him so our defense can be the most effective.”

That puzzle already lost a key piece in September when cornerback Josh Holsey tore his ACL. The Tigers have head to cycle in younger, more unproven players in the back and have struggled in one-on-one coverage.

There's more to these teams' downward spirals, but these injuries certainly are factors. They've lost production and leadership, which affects the psyche of a team, something Georgia's Mark Richt knows about all too well. He thinks most players and coaches can get over the mental hurdle when guys go down, but the bigger the player, the tougher it can be to move on.

“Every once in a while there’s a player that’s just been so productive for so long, and if something were to happen to him it does probably shake everybody up a little bit -- even the coaches," Richt said.