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July 31, 2011

2011 opponent preview: Ole Miss

We press on with another opponent preview: Ole Miss.

Our previous entries have included Mississippi StateClemsonFlorida AtlanticArkansasFlorida and LSU.

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Ole Miss Rebels

  • Head coach: Houston Nutt (4th season at Ole Miss, 22-16; 19th season overall; 133-86 at Murray State, Boise State, Arkansas and Ole Miss)
  • 2009 record: 4-8 (1-7, 6th SEC West)
  • Returning starters: 9 (6 offense, 3 defense)
  • Total offense: 399.8 ypg (6th SEC, 43rd nationally)
  • Total defense: 399.2 ypg (11th SEC, 81st nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 26-9
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 51-31 last year in Oxford
  • Consensus prediction: Sixth in SEC Wast

Five-week schedule glimpse

  • Oct. 15: Alabama
  • Oct. 22: Arkansas
  • Oct. 29: at Auburn
  • Nov. 5: at Kentucky
  • N0v. 12: Louisiana Tech

We’re coming up to the home stretch, finishing off the October slate with Ole Miss. The Tigers crushed the Rebels last year in Oxford, really hitting their offensive stride (this game was when Mike Dyer started taking over). Houston Nutt worked wonders with the recruit left over from the Ed Orgeron era, but things are getting a little restless in Year 4 after a sub-par season.

To find out just how heated Nutt’s coaching seat might be, I went to David Brandt of the Associated Press in Mississippi. You can follow him on Twitter here, and basically anything sports-related from Mississippi will have his byline on it. Here are his answers to a few questions:

AB: Houston Nutt gave up a large part of control this offseason, handing the offensive coordinator position and play-calling duties to David Lee, who worked with him at Arkansas, and bringing in Gunter Brewer from Oklahoma State as passing game coordinator. How big of a difference will these moves make?

DB: It shouldn’t be a seismic change. Lee and Nutt have a lot in common when it comes to offensive philosophy. They both are big on establishing the run to soften the defense and then try to hit for big gains with the passing game. Considering Barry Brunetti and Randall Mackey, two dual-threat quarterbacks, are the top two contenders for the starting job, the Rebels should feature a heavy dose of running. Brewer was an intriguing hire after he helped Oklahoma State to some huge offensive years as co-offensive coordinator. He’ll be asked to guide a talented incoming class of WRs, including Tobias Singleton, Nick Brassell and Donte Moncrief. Their development is crucial in determining how much the Rebels will throw.

AB: The Rebels gambled with Jeremiah Masoli and had mixed results. Masoli played well but the team still managed only four wins, without grooming a quarterback for this year. Nathan Stanley left the team in spring, adding to the problem. Between Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti, who is going to win the competition?

DB: I’d say Brunetti. He’s intelligent, is a dual-threat and seems to be less mistake-prone than the other two. Brunetti isn’t as good as Masoli, but he does provide a lot of the same skills. Mackey is almost the exact some player as Brunetti, but with a higher risk-reward. Mackey has a very good arm and can really make spectacular plays happen, but it remains to be seen how good his understanding of the offense will be by September. Stoudt is a classic drop-back passer who flashed a good arm during spring practice, but I can’t see him winning the job unless Brunetti and Mackey really struggle.

AB: The offensive line returns four starters and should be among the better units in the SEC. Brandon Bolden is back at tailback after a 976-yard, 14-touchdown season, along with backup Jeff Scott. Is the running game enough to offset the inexperience at quarterback?

DB: I really do think Ole Miss will score points this season, it’s stopping somebody that will be the problem. The offensive line has 10 guys returning who started at least one game last season — including seasoned tackles Brad Sowell and Bobby Massie — and they’re gigantic. Bolden and Scott are two solid options in the backfield, and can provide a one-two punch. Bolden is more of a bruiser while Scott is all speed. The quarterback situation is unsettled, but I do think one of the three will be a decent option since they won’t have to carry the full load.

AB: Ole Miss got a huge boost when defensive tackle Kentrell Lockett was awarded a sixth year of eligibility after tearing his ACL last season. But what else does the defense have, especially now that linebacker D.T. Shackelford is out for the year with an ACL tear? Will the defense be better than 11th in the SEC like it was last year?

DB: I’ll be honest –- I doubt it. If the Rebels could just be middle of the pack in the SEC, they’d be thrilled. There’s some good pieces returning, like Lockett, LBs Joel Kight and Mike Marry and cornerback Charles Sawyer. But there’s also a lot of question marks at a lot of positions –- especially at defensive tackle and in the secondary. The Rebels need quick development from a lot of people to show marked improvement. That’s not impossible, but it’ll be tough.

AB: Nutt had the state in his pocket after winning back-to-back Cotton Bowls in his first two years. But after missing the postseason last year after going 4-8 and watching state rival Mississippi State pass by in the standings — and do so in a loud way — is Nutt’s support in Oxford dwindling? What does he need to do this year to shift the momentum back his way?

DB: The shine has certainly worn off of Nutt’s tenure after such an embarrassing 2010 season. But I don’t think reasonable Ole Miss fans expect miracles right away. A good UM season will happen if two goals are reached: 1) Making a bowl, and 2) Beating Mississippi State. Nutt needs both to get his stature back. If he goes one for two, he’s probably fine, but his seat will still be warm. If he goes zero for two, it could be a very interesting offseason in Oxford. But remember, Nutt’s buyout is a hefty $6 million. That’ll make Ole Miss think twice before making any decisions.

NCAA ’12 says …

No. 19 Auburn 42, Ole Miss 21. The Tigers bounce back with a big offensive performance, racking up 442 yards. Dyer finished with 130 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Barrett Trotter added 151 passing yards and two scores, one to Dyer and one to Quindarius Carr. Jake Holland led the defense with 10 tackles, Demetruce McNeal had a pick and Jeffrey Whitaker had five tackles and a sack. The win lifted the Tigers to 6-3 overall (making them bowl eligible) and 4-2 in the SEC.

We’re cruising now. Only a few teams left. Big thanks to David for helping me out with this one.

Up next: Georgia.

2011 opponent preview: LSU

Normally I wouldn’t post as much stuff on the weekend, but we’re trying to get these opponent previews in before the start of practice. So there’ll be two more today. If you missed a past one, here are the ones we’ve covered so far: Mississippi StateClemsonFlorida AtlanticArkansas and Florida.

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LSU Tigers

  • Head coach: Les Miles  (7th season at LSU, 62-17; 11th season overall; 90-38 at LSU and Oklahoma State)
  • 2009 record: 11-2 (6-2, t-2nd SEC West), beat Texas A&M 41-24 in the Cotton Bowl
  • Returning starters: 10 (6 offense, 4 defense)
  • Total offense: 341.3 ypg (11th SEC, 86th nationally)
  • Total defense: 307.2 ypg (3rd SEC, 12th nationally)
  • Series: LSU leads 24-20-1
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 24-17 last year at Jordan-Hare Stadium
  • Consensus prediction: Second in SEC Wast

Five-week schedule glimpse

  • Oct. 8: Florida
  • Oct. 15: at Tennessee
  • Oct. 22: Auburn
  • Oct. 29: Off
  • N0v. 5: at Alabama

America’s favorite coach to kick around is back, although Les Miles always seems to get the last  laugh. Yes, he wears his hat funny. Yes, he talks in a strange way. Yes, he eats grass. (Well, that one’s kind of weird.) But, despite his strange and occasionally reckless ways, the man knows how to coach. Despite all the heat he was feeling last year and an offense that was horrible, the Tigers won 11 games and hammered Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, giving LSU fans hope that it was a springboard to this season.

To see just how good the Tigers will be, I went to someone who’s helped me three straight years with this stuff, Randy Rosetta, who now works for the Scout website Tigers Sports Digest. Follow him on Twitter here and read his work online here. Here are his answers to a few questions:

AB: Jordan Jefferson has toiled three long years at quarterback, always tantalizing fans with a strong bowl performance before reverting back to his erratic play to start the next season. Now that it’s his last shot to make good on his career, is there a better chance he’ll be for real? How much of a mentor will Steve Kragthorpe be? And, for that matter, how much of a motivating factor will Zach Mettenberger be?

RR: A lot of folks have compared Jefferson to former Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell because for three years, two as the full-time starter, he has tantalized LSU fans with flashes of brilliance here and there but has never quite turned the corner. Now, similarly to Campbell, Jefferson enters his last season with a new offensive coordinator in Kragthorpe, who is regarded as a better quarterbacks coach than his predecessor, Gary Crowton. That all sounds good right now, and Jefferson has said the right things about a fresh start and being coached differently, He genuinely seems invigorated under Kragthorpe. But the proof will come the first time Jefferson faces a defense with enough athletes to frustrate him and the Tigers by taking away a facet, whether it’s what is expected to be more diverse running game or a passing game that Jefferson obviously keys.

Mettenberger’s arrival and the lingering presence of fellow senior Jarrett Lee should definitely motivate Jefferson because Miles had made it clear he won’t hesitate to shuffle quarterbacks if the offense sputters. Lee remains the immediate backup after sparking two wins last season and playing a key role against Alabama. And Mettenberger is looming in the background as the QB of the future – and perhaps the present if Jefferson falters. All of this adds up to Jefferson being more motivated than he’s ever been and that’s timely for LSU because its hopes of being a national championship contender rest on his shoulders.

AB: Are the parts in place for Jefferson to succeed? How are the Tigers going to replace Stevan Ridley? Is Russell Shepard’s recent compliance issue something to watch? And how good will the offensive line be?

RR: Yes, there is a ton of offense talent around Jefferson, although experience doesn’t equal the potential yet. LSU will be deeper and more versatile in the backfield with sophomore Spencer Ware as the likely starter, a guy who is a better receiver than Ridley and equally as adept at making holes when there isn’t one. Michael Ford and Alfred Blue give LSU some different changes of speed and freshmen Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee could also jump into the mix.

In the receiving corps, Rueben Randle enters his third year with an eye on being a more consistent deep-ball threat and Shepard gives LSU a dual-threat along the lines of former Florida star Percy Harvin. His compliance run-in shouldn’t cause much trouble, though he could sit out a game as punishment. There aren’t a bunch of other receivers who have logged much time, but the depth there is appealing with three promising sophomores and a crew of freshmen poised to take their cracks. The offensive line is a team strength, with eight players back who have started at least two SEC games, giving Miles more depth up front than he’s had in his seven-year tenure.

AB: The Tigers lost a lot of prime talent on defense (CB Patrick Peterson, LB Kelvin Sheppard), but they always seem to be loaded on that side of the ball. Where will the stars be on defense and are there any glaring question marks?

RR: The answers here are yes and yes. LSU’s defense is as talented as it’s been since the 2003 national championship season, but most of that talent is raw and untested. That could lead to some early growing pains, but the parts are in place for a dominant defense, especially in a loaded secondary and up front where defensive line coach Brick Haley has the luxury of mixing and matching players to fit whatever scheme the Tigers are facing.

The glaring question mark is at the linebacker level, where LSU has to replace middle linebacker and unquestioned team leader Sheppard. Senior Ryan Baker will shoulder the leadership role from an outside spot, but there isn’t much experience to work with in the middle and the strongside will feature hybrid backers Stefon Francois and Karnell Hatcher, both converted safeties. Regardless of how the linebackers evolve, LSU is poised to run more 4-2-5 this season because of the talent glut in the secondary – in particular so playmaker Tyrann Mathieu will be on the field as much as possible.

AB: Alabama, LSU and Arkansas are expected to be near the top of the SEC West this year. The Tigers go to Tuscaloosa but host the Razorbacks in the regular season finale. What kind of shot do you think they have to claim the division title and get back to Atlanta for the first time since 2007?

RR: As usual, the West Division shapes up as a dogfight and I think LSU is in prime position to contend for a spot in Atlanta because of the way the schedule breaks. Besides having Arkansas at home to conclude the regular season, the Tigers’ home schedule is also favorable with Florida and Auburn headed to Baton Rouge this fall. I don’t think anybody will get through the West unscathed, but Alabama’s road schedule is more rugged than the Tigers and even a win against LSU in Tuscaloosa might not be enough.

AB: Miles answered some of his critics with an 11-win season last year, but now there are some lingering NCAA issues. First, the sanctions that were handed down last week that led to the school being put on one year of probation. Now the ongoing Willie Lyles saga. Are these going to be minor bumps in the road or something larger once all is said and done?

RR: Because Miles and the university were proactive with the previous infractions and have followed a similar method with the Lyles situation, the bumps don’t seem to be major right now. The big issue will be if the matter with Lyles lingers as a distraction, particularly when the calendar turns to October and Novemer. Should the NCAA clear LSU before then, there will become minor but those are unknown ifs at this point. Because Lyles provided information to LSU on Mettenberger and a handful of other lower-profile recruits who are on campus, and because the school paid only $6,000 compared to Oregon’s $25,000, the flags aren’t nearly as red as they seem in Eugene right now.

NCAA ’12 says …

No. 13 LSU 36, No. 12 Auburn 26. Fourteen unanswered fourth-quarter points, spurred by an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown by Mathieu lifts the Bengal Tigers to the win. Jefferson threw for four touchdowns to overshadow Barrett Trotter‘s 273-yard, two-touchdown day. Mike Dyer had 87 rushing yards for Auburn, which dropped to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the SEC.

And that’s a wrap for the Bengal Tigers. This is always a great matchup, one that usually plays a big factor into who wins the West. Auburn didn’t fare so hot the last time it went to Baton Rouge, which is always a tough place to play. And this year’s team will be inexperienced, so that’ll be something to watch. Thanks again go out to Randy for helping me out.

Up next: Ole Miss.

July 30, 2011

2011 opponent preview: Florida

We continue to press on with our 2011 opponent preview series. We’ re up to the Florida game. If you missed a past opponent, here are the ones we’ve covered so far: Mississippi StateClemsonFlorida Atlantic and Arkansas.

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Florida Gators

  • Head coach: Will Muschamp  (1st season at Florida; was defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn and Texas)
  • 2009 record: 8-5 (4-4, 2nd SEC East), beat Penn State 37-24 in Outback Bowl
  • Returning starters: 7 (5 offense, 2 defense)
  • Total offense: 350.9 ypg (10th SEC, 82nd nationally)
  • Total defense: 306.5 ypg (2nd SEC, 9th nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 42-38-2
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 20-17 in Gainesville in 2007
  • Consensus prediction: Third in SEC East

Five-week schedule glimpse

  • Oct. 1: Alabama
  • Oct. 8: at LSU
  • Oct. 15: at Auburn
  • Oct. 22: Off
  • Oct. 29: vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville)

After three seasons off the schedule, Florida rotates back on. And there are big changes from the last time the Gators and Tigers met on the field. Urban Meyer is out; Muschamp is in. The spread offense is out; the pro-style is in. It’s a whole new ballgame in Gainesville. Muschamp is a first-time head coach, but he’s been given the keys to the kingdom in a football haven.

To see how well he’ll do, I went to Rachel George of the Orlando Sentinel. Follow her on Twitter here and read her work here. Also, big thanks to her for knocking out these questions just before her vacation (because I didn’t send them until the last second), even though I ended up having to postpone the start of the series. Here are her answers to a few questions:

AB: Florida didn’t waste any time hiring Will Muschamp after Urban Meyer resigned last December, but he’s a first-time head coach and, at age 39, one of the youngest in the league. Obviously he has all the credentials to be a great head coach, with the pedigree to boot, but how do you think he’ll transition to running the show for the first time in his career?

RG: One of the big questions from outside the program is whether Muschamp can be that same fired up coach as he was when he was a coordinator. He earned the nicknames Coach Boom and Coach Blood for a reason, and former players say it feels like he wants to put on a helmet and get into the game. Muschamp has maintained that he’s going to be himself, but I suspect he would tone it back a little bit. Teams reflect their coaches, and he wouldn’t want the Gators to be so volatile.

A lot has been made of Muschamp’s age – he’ll be 40 next week – but he’s surrounded himself with some experienced coaches. Certainly, Charlie Weis is the most well-known of that group, but someone like offensive line coach Frank Verducci has been in the business for a long time. He’ll learn things just because he’s never been a head coach before, but he’s got people on his staff who aren’t afraid to speak up. That will help.

AB: The Gators’ offense was a mess by the end of Meyer’s run last year, but Muschamp overhauled the scheme by hiring Weis from the NFL ranks. Weis has made a career of developing quarterbacks. Will he be able to work some magic with John Brantley, a talented player who struggled last year as a first-time starter?

RG: Magic might not be needed since Brantley’s skills should better fit this offense. By all accounts, he’s adjusting under Weis and learning. While Brantley certainly had a difficult year, it’s necessary to point out there wasn’t many good things going on around him. Despite the experience on the line, it underperformed at times. Deonte Thompson, who was expected to be Florida’s best receiver, had problems with drops all year. No other receivers really distinguished themselves. And the Gators were struggling to manufacture a running game for much of the year with Chris Rainey suspended for five games and Jeff Demps hurt.  So, yes, I think everyone is expecting Brantley to have a better season in part because the hope is those around him will be better.

AB: Weis’ pro-style offense is an adjustment from the spread attack Meyer employed. How long of an adjustment period are the Gators in store for? Will it be a jumpstart to players like Rainey and Thompson, who had down seasons last year? And what will happen with Trey Burton, who dabbled in a bit of everything last season?

RG: The offense is the big unknown, which is why a lot of people are leaving the door open for the Gators to surprise them despite an incredibly difficult schedule. Rainey was suspended for five games, but made an impact when he returned. Thompson, for his part, said he hopes for his best season and that he and Brantley are doing well in the new offense. Of course, they had high expectations last year as well.

Burton will be a factor, but not at quarterback. Muschamp said in the spring that he wouldn’t play there, but can play several other offensive positions. He’s one of the smartest players on the team, so I think the expectation is that he can affect the game wherever they put him.

The biggest question mark, to me, is whether the receivers can prove something this year. They’re high on potential, and Muschamp hates that word. He says it means they haven’t done something yet, but they really haven’t. It’s a mostly young group with a lot to prove. Fortunately for them, it seems there will be plenty of chances in the new offense.

AB: Muschamp is a defensive coach at heart, so he’ll obviously take a larger role on that side of the ball. How do you think he tweaks a group that lost nine starters from a year ago to better fit his preferred style of play? And what are the biggest concerns for the defense?

RG: Given all that Florida lost on defense, no one really knows what it could look like. Muschamp is happy with the tackles, with upperclassmen Jaye Howard and Omar Hunter providing some experience while sophomores Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley were some of the top recruits in their class. There’s a lot of questions at end, where Florida had two seniors last year. Ronald Powell, the top-ranked recruit in the class of 2010, will play a hybrid end-linebacker position called the buck. Again, a lot of potential but not a lot of unknowns.

At linebacker, Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins are the best two returning players, but neither had great seasons last year. Muschamp retained linebackers coach D.J. Durkin, and I’d expect him to help Durkin get more out of this group.

The secondary is probably the area of greatest concern, with strong safety and defensive leader Ahmad Black getting drafted and weakside safety Will Hill leaving early for the draft. Janoris Jenkins’ departure from the team after his second marijuana-related arrest this year leaves a huge hole as the All-SEC corner transferred to North Alabama. Jeremy Brown is the most experienced player, but has missed a lot of games with injuries. In short, Florida could have a lot of growing pains in the secondary.

AB: Meyer had some historic recruiting classes in the latter part of his time in Gainesville. Who are some players from those groups that are going to burst on the scene this year?

RG: Well, many of them have been mentioned. That 2010 class was one of the best, if not the best, in the country, and many experts say it was the best defensive haul in the past 20 years. Floyd, Easley, Powell and safety Matt Elam were all some of the best at their positions nationally and will have a chance to make an impact this year. On offense, receiver Ja’Juan Story is someone who could have an impact as a freshman because of his size.

NCAA ’12 says …

No. 16 Auburn 28, No. 15 Florida 16. Barrett Trotter threw two touchdowns, Mike Dyer added another and linebacker Daren Bates had a 79-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ victory. Philip Lutzenkirchen had six caches for 99 yards. Dyer had 64 on the ground and Onterio McCalebb added 66. Auburn improved to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the SEC.

That will do it for the Gators. This should be an interesting matchup after the long layoff in the series. Games against Florida always seem to be memorable ones. Big thanks to Rachel for helping me out on this one.

Up next: LSU.

2011 opponent preview: Arkansas

Because I was a little late getting the questions out to my fellow beat writers, I think I caught a couple of them on vacation this week. As such, we’ll have to skip past the South Carolina game for now to Arkansas (I’ll circle back later).

If you missed Mississippi StateClemson or Florida Atlantic, you can go back and read them.

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Arkansas Razorbacks

  • Head coach: Bobby Petrino  (4th season at Arkansas, 23-14; 8th season overall, 64-23 overall at Louisville, Arkansas)
  • 2009 record: 10-2 (6-2, t-2nd SEC West), lost to Ohio State 31-26 in Sugar Bowl (later vacated)
  • Returning starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
  • Total offense: 482.5 ypg (2nd SEC, 9th nationally)
  • Total defense: 347.9 ypg (5th SEC, 36th nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 11-8-1
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 65-43 last year at Jordan-Hare Stadium
  • Consensus prediction: Third in SEC West

Five-week schedule glimpse

  • Sept. 24: at Alabama
  • Oct. 1: vs. Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas)
  • Oct. 8: Auburn
  • Oct. 15: Bye
  • Oct. 22: at Ole Miss

The Razorbacks had their breakthrough season under Petrino last year, getting to a BCS bowl for the first time and winning 10 games (could have been more if the Ohio State five hadn’t been allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl). Even though Ryan Mallett is gone, Arkansas has got some talent. It had 14 preseason All-SEC selections on the first, second and third teams. Alabama, the conference favorite, had 16. That’s pretty good company.

To see just how good the Razorbacks are, I went to Robbie Neiswanger of the Arkansas News Bureau. Follow him on Twitter here and read his work here. Here are his answers to a few questions:

AB: Tyler Wilson wasn’t fazed when Ryan Mallett went down last year against Auburn, coming off the bench to throw for 332 yards and four touchdowns. Was that a fluke or is Wilson going to settle in nicely as Arkansas’ signal caller now that Mallett is in the NFL?
RN: I don’t think it was a fluke. Wilson may not have Mallett-like arm strength, but who does? What he does have a good arm, better mobility than Mallett and three years of experience in Petrino’s offense. Not only that, he has a wealth of weapons around him. So all signs point to Wilson making a pretty smooth transition into the job. That said, there’s something we didn’t get to see with Wilson in the late-game appearance he made last season. Nobody devoted an entire week (or two or three) to preparing for him. So it will be interesting to see how he plays when defenses like Alabama, LSU, etc., know all of his strengths and weaknesses. But I think he’ll do well.
AB: Knile Davis is perhaps the most underrated running back in the league, having rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago. But the Razorbacks’ receiving corps — Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton — might be the best in the country. Which is more integral to the offense’s success: Davis or the receivers?
RN: Davis and the run game. We saw what Arkansas looked like as a one-dimensional outfit against Alabama last September and the lack of a run game led to its frustrating loss. The Razorbacks are going to move the ball through the air with the talent they have at wide receiver and tight end. But they won’t win a championship without Davis, Ronnie Wingo, Dennis Johnson, etc., enjoying success on the ground. Davis was the MVP of Arkansas’ stretch run to the Sugar Bowl last season and his performance will be critical to any success once again.
AB: How are things going to shake out on an offensive line that lost three starters from last year? Is Bobby Petrino as renowned at developing linemen as he is skill players or is this group going to need some time to jell before the offense can take off?
RN: That’s the big question for this team. What happens up front? Especially at tackle. Losing Anthony Oden (who dismissed earlier this month) is a big blow because he could’ve been a starter. It leaves the Hogs with junior Grant Freeman, junior college transfer Jason Peacock and true freshman Brey Cook. None of them are proven. Arkansas feels good about its interior with center Travis Swanson and guards Alvin Bailey and Grant Cook, but it’s going to take some time for this group to jell. The good news is that the SEC opener at ‘Bama is week four.
AB: Defense always seems to get overlooked because of the Razorbacks’ emphasis on offense, but this sounds like one of the best the Hogs will have under Petrino’s watch. What is the forecast for this year’s group? Are there any areas of concern?
RN: It definitely has the makings of his best group because of the amount of experience returning. It didn’t seem too long ago that guys like defensive end Jake Bequette and linebacker Jerry Franklin were starting as redshirt freshmen and taking their share of lumps. But they’ve gained so much experience along with others like linebacker Jerico Nelson and safety Tramain Thomas. Arkansas also has a defensive line Petrino has said finally looks like the ones the Razorbacks face every week. And there’s solid depth there as well. That’s key. But is there enough depth at linebacker outside of Franklin and Nelson? Is there enough depth in a secondary that lost two starters, especially at cornerback? These are questions that will determine just how much success Arkansas’ defense enjoys this season.
AB: Arkansas did well for itself in a tough SEC West race last year, earning the conference’s second BCS bid (and coming within a late interception toss by Mallett of beating an Ohio State team that would vacate the victory anyway). The West figures to be tough again, but the Hogs should be in the mix. What will it take for them to break through and get to Atlanta for the first time under Petrino’s watch?
RN: Road wins. When you look at Arkansas’ schedule it’s clear their most challenging games on paper are the trips to Tuscaloosa (Sept. 24) and LSU (Nov. 25). Arkansas was awful on the road in 2009, but gained a lot of confidence during SEC road trips last season. If that carries into 2011 (and assuming they don’t trip up in home games along the way) the Razorbacks could be a legitimate threat to win the SEC West.

NCAA ’12 says …

We have to fast forward a week to get to this matchup. In that time, Auburn pulled off a 31-28 road win against South Carolina, getting back up to No. 12 in the rankings. The Tigers followed it up with a 24-10 loss to Arkansas, however. The Razorbacks scored the only two touchdowns of the second half, getting 137 yards and a touchdown out of Davis. Arkansas ran for 199 yards. Clint Moseley replaced Barrett Trotter for some reason (not sure if for injury) and threw three interceptions. It dropped Auburn to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the SEC.

And that’s a wrap for the Hogs. Thanks to Robbie for helping me out. I look forward to the trip to Fayetteville this fall. It was a fun town last time we beat writers were there.

Up next: Florida.

July 29, 2011

Auburn releases early August practice schedule

Auburn released its football practice schedule for early August today, although like past years the workouts will be closed to the public.

Some important dates include reporting day (next Tuesday), the start of practice (Wednesday), the first two-a-days (Aug. 9), first scrimmage (Aug. 10), Fan Day in the Auburn Arena (Aug. 14) and the first day of classes (Aug. 17).

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While they are closed for fans, the access isn’t much better for us media types, who have six open periods to watch, all around 25-30 minutes (trust us, it’s mostly stretching).

Auburn begins its season Sept. 3 against Utah State at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Here’s the full early August practice schedule, which is subject to change (all times CT):

  • Tuesday, Aug. 2 4 p.m. (Reporting day)
  • Wednesday, Aug. 3: 7:30 p.m. (First practice)
  • Thursday, Aug. 4: 4:30 p.m.
  • Friday, Aug. 5: 4:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, Aug. 6: 5 p.m.
  • Sunday., Aug. 7: Off
  • Monday, Aug. 8: 5 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 9: 10 a.m. Practice #1,  5:40 p.m. Practice #2 (First two-a-days)
  • Wednesday, Aug. 10: 10:45 a.m. (First scrimmage)
  • Thursday, Aug. 11: Off
  • Friday, Aug. 12: 10 a.m. Practice #1, 5:40 p.m. Practice #2
  • Saturday, Aug. 13: 10:50 a.m.
  • Sunday, Aug. 14:2-4 p.m. (Fan day at Auburn Arena), 7:10 p.m. practice
  • Monday, Aug. 15: Off
  • Tuesday, Aug. 16: 10:50 a.m. Practice #1, 5:40 p.m. Practice #2
  • Wednesday, Aug. 17: 7:40 p.m. (First day of class)

2011 opponent preview: Florida Atlantic

I told you we were going to move at a quick pace through these. If you missed Mississippi State and Clemson, you can go back and read them. Up next is Florida Atlantic.

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Florida Atlantic Owls

  • Head coach: Howard Schnellenberger (11th season at FAU, 57-63; 27th season overall, 157-140-3 overall at Miami, Louisville, Oklahoma and FAU)
  • 2009 record: 4-8 (3-5 Sun Belt, t-6th)
  • Returning starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
  • Total offense: 302.6 ypg (9th Sun Belt, 107th nationally)
  • Total defense: 401.3 ypg (7th Sun Belt, 85th nationally)
  • Series: First meeting
  • Last meeting: First meeting
  • Consensus prediction: Seventh in Sun Belt

Five-week schedule glimpse

  • Sept. 3: at Florida
  • Sept. 10: at Michigan State
  • Sept. 17: at Auburn
  • Sept. 24: at Louisiana-Lafayette
  • Oct. 1: at North Texas

Auburn is back to a break in the schedule against Florida Atlantic, a program that’s made major strides under head coach Howard Schnellenberger‘s watch but has been mired near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference lately. This year doesn’t figure to be too different for the Owls, who open with five straight road games, three against major conference schools.

To find out about the Owls, I went to Ted Hutton of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Follow him on Twitter here and read his FAU blog here. Here are his answers to a few questions:

AB: The Owls return all five members of their offensive line, which struggled last year. Does this continuity mean a big improvement is on the horizon? And if so, how much is that music to the ears of running back Alfred Morris?
TH:  The good news is the line can’t be any worse, but the big question is how much better can they be? They were green, undersized and out-muscled last season, and have had a chance to increase their strength and size, but they have a long, long way to go. My best guess is they will be marginally better at the start of the season, and get better as the season progresses, but still won’t be good enough to avoid being dominated by teams like Auburn. That said, they will focus on the run, since they will have a new QB and new receivers, but Morris will probably still have problems finding daylight.
AB: Jeff Van Camp is gone, leading to a quarterback competition between Graham Wilbert and David Kooi. Wilbert enters August atop the depth chart (although you’ve noted that might just be a motivational ploy by head coach Howard Schnellenberger, aka “The Voice”), but neither has a wealth of experience. Who is going to emerge as the starter and how successful could he be this year?
TH: Well, Wilbert heads into camp as the No. 1, but Schnellenberger said he probably won’t make a final call until 10 days before the season opener. Wilbert and Kooi have had two years to separate themselves, and neither have been able to do it. They have not looked all that great in practice or scrimmages, so it is hard to say what the QB play will be like this season. Since both have had very limited playing experience, I am not expecting much, which is why I expect to focus on the running game.
AB: Florida Atlantic is transitioning to a 3-4 defense to combat the prevalence of spread offenses in the college game. The Owls have struggled defensively of late (four straight seasons giving up more than 400 yards and 28 points per game). Will this move play to the team’s strengths and break that trend or is it just change for the sake of change?
 TH: This is a long-overdue move. Schnellenberger is old-school, and resisted this move, which has been suggested by assistant coaches for years, but finally relented after realizing his defense was not going to stop the spread without a substantive change. FAU has always had trouble finding enough quality defensive linemen, but had no problem finding linebackers, so the 3-4 makes sense. It also allows the Owls to be more aggressive and add different blitz packages. In spring the defense looked much-improved with the new alignment. It also increases depth on the line, since they only need 6 in the rotation instead of 8. And moving Corey Henry from the line to linebacker should allow him to get more pressure on the QB.
AB: The schedule is brutal, starting with road games against Florida, Michigan State and Auburn. Did Schnellenberger overschedule a bit or is that common of this upstart football program? And, with an 0-3 start likely, are the Owls a good enough team to bounce back without letting it affect them? Is a bowl game possible?
TH: You didn’t mention that FAU is also playing its first five games on the road, which adds to the brutality.  They open on the road to be sure the new stadium currently under construction is ready, with the first game scheduled for Oct. 15. Schnellenberger has always overscheduled, and likes to say he will play “anyone, anywhere.” It is also an economic necessity, as FAU hopes to get $2 million a year in guarantee games to help balance the budget. FAU has never really been competitive in the games, though, and will likely get trounced in the first three this year. As to an 0-3 start, that is expected, and no, FAU does not have the experience this year to bounce back from that and become bowl-eligible. Reaching .500 would be a very good result for this team.
AB: Schnellenberger is 77 years old. He’s the school’s first and only football coach, transitioned the team from FCS to FBS, won the school’s first bowl game and conference title and will usher in a new era with a brand new stadium this year. How much longer do you think the iconic coach will be on the sideline and who might be a logical replacement if he does decide to step down?
TH: That is the biggest question surrounding the program right now, as Schnellenberger’s contract ends after this season. But it won’t be answered until after the season, as Schnellenberger and the athletic director have agreed to put off talks about a possible extension until then. My take is that unless FAU gets to a bowl game and shows that its current slide is over, this will be Schnellenberger’s final season. FAU has to pay off the $45 million loan for the new stadium, and winning is what will put fans in the seats. Schnellenberger will realize a long-time dream of playing in an on-campus stadium, and so him leaving after this season would let him go out on a good note, no matter what the team’s record is.

NCAA ’12 says …

No. 18 Auburn 49, Florida Atlantic 7. Bounce-back win for the Tigers, who got 324 yards and three touchdowns out of Barrett Trotter, two touchdowns each from Onterio McCalebb (118 yards) and Mike Dyer (53), two touchdowns from Philip Lutzenkirchen and one from Quindarius Carr. Linebacker Harris Gaston led the D with six tackles and a sack.

And that’s that. Big thanks to Ted for the help with the questions because quite frankly, I know next to nothing about Florida Atlantic.

Up next: South Carolina. Or I might have to go out of order again and skip ahead to Arkansas. You’ll have to come back and see to find out.

2011 opponent preview: Clemson

We’re moving on to Auburn’s Week 3 matchup against Clemson in the latest opponent preview. If you missed the first one — Mississippi State — you can read it here.

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Clemson Tigers

  • Head coach: Dabo Swinney (4th season at Clemson, 19-15; was assistant at Alabama, Clemson before that)
  • 2009 record: 6-7 (4-4 ACC, t-4th Atlantic), lost to South Florida 31-26 in Meineke Car Care Bowl
  • Returning starters: 13 (8 offense, 5 defense)
  • Total offense: 334.6 ypg (10th ACC, 88th nationally)
  • Total defense: 309.7 ypg (2nd ACC, 19th nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 34-11-2
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 27-24 last year in overtime at Jordan-Hare
  • Consensus prediction: Second in the ACC Atlantic

Five-week schedule glimpse

  • Sept. 3: Troy
  • Sept. 10: Wofford
  • Sept. 17: Auburn
  • Sept. 24: Florida State
  • Oct. 1: at Virginia Tech

Pick a game last year that Auburn had the highest possibility of losing and, outside of the Iron Bowl, it was probably Clemson. The Tigers trailed 17-0 in the first half, went to overtime and escaped by the skin of their teeth after Kyle Parker overthrew a wide open receiver for what would have been the game-winning touchdown before Clemson missed a chip-shot field goal that would have sent it to double overtime. Now things get tougher in Death Valley, where Clemson has traditionally played better. Swinney is starting to feel a little heat. He overhauled the offensive staff, bringing in a Gus Malzahn clone, which should make for an entertaining game at the very least.

To find out the scoop on the Tigers, I went to Greg Wallace of the Anderson Independent-Mail. Follow him on Twitter here and read his work online here. Here are his answers to a few questions:

AB: Clemson overhauled its offense, hiring Gus Malzahn protege and former Texas high school coaching star Chad Morris after he had spent only one year in the college ranks at Tulsa. Morris is an up-tempo, no-huddle disciple, a radical change from the Tigers’ recent offenses. How do you think the transition will go?

GW: I really feel the transition will be fairly smooth. Morris installed about 60 percent of his offense in spring practice, much of which was devoted to indoctrinating Clemson into his fanatic pace – he hopes to run 80-85 offensive snaps per game. He’ll install the rest in August.  From talking with players, you get the idea that the offense is really pretty easy to pick up. The principles are similar to what Clemson was using under Billy Napier, who always said he wanted to run a run-based offense; Morris says he wants his offense to be run-based. Only the terminology is different. If the Tigers prove they can handle Morris’ pace, a talent infusion, courtesy of a standout recruiting class, should give him plenty of pieces to work with.

AB: After years of wondering what Kyle Parker’s true passion was — football or baseball — Tigers fans don’t need to worry about that with Tajh Boyd, who emerged near the end of last year and was named the starter coming out of spring. How secure is his job and will he be ready to take over the reigns of Morris’ fast-paced offense?

GW: Boyd’s job is quite secure. He’ll be the starter, with one of two true freshmen (Cole Stoudt, son of former NFL QB Cliff Stoudt, or Tony McNeal) serving as his backup. He has virtually lived in the WestZone football complex this summer, studying film and working with his teammates in seven-on-seven drills. Morris made it clear that Boyd must improve his footwork and ball protection skills this summer, and the first month – with an Auburn-Florida State-Virginia Tech stretch – will be a huge test.

AB: Running back Andre Ellington is back, along with four offensive lineman. Is there enough around Boyd to help him be successful, particularly when it comes to a young but interesting receiving corps?

GW: Ellington’s rehab from surgery to correct a foot injury that virtually ended his season after eight games has reportedly gone well; if he’s healthy, he could be a darkhorse ACC Player of the Year candidate. For Clemson and Boyd to thrive, a much-hyped recruiting class must live up to its billing. Five-star tailback Mike Bellamy has been compared to C.J. Spiller for his speed and game-breaking ability, and wideout Sammy Watkins, a five-star Florida native, should make an immediate impact in the receiving corps. In addition, four-star receiver talents Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant could also see early playing time. Sophomore wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins set numerous Clemson freshman receiving records in 2010; he has excellent hands and leaping ability, but coaches have charged him to get better without the ball.

In the backfield, former Auburn commit D.J. Howard did a little bit of everything in the spring with Ellington sidelined; coaches like he and fellow east Alabama native Demont Buice as change-of-pace options. The offense has potential, but ultimately, the freshmen and their speed infusion will determine whether it stalls or thrives this fall.

AB: When Malzahn came to Auburn, the defense’s statistics took a hit (shorter drives means more time on the field for the defense). Does defensive coordinator Kevin Steele adapt any of his philosophies because of the new style of offense, especially considering how successful his defenses have been in the past? And how good can the group be this year after losing Da’Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins?

Steele and Swinney have discussed psychological adjustments, i.e., not losing your cool if you’re forced back onto the field quickly following a short drive. Steele and defenders believe that going against the fact-paced system will ultimately be a plus, because they’ll be in excellent condition after dealing with the quick tempo all summer. That said, Steele knows that his team must still prepare for the slower pace that other non-Auburn offenses will throw at them.

Losing Bowers and Jenkins will hurt, and Steele acknowledges that no one player can replace the 15.5 sacks he contributed in 2010. Defensive tackle Brandon Thompson is likely the next to follow their path to the NFL; he’s a run-stuffer who coaches consider the line’s bell cow and leader. Senior Andre Branch is an excellent pass-rusher, and coaches are hoping Malliciah Goodman can make the leap into a productive full-time starter after two years of successful spot duty. If sophomores like Tyler Shatley and freshmen like Tavaris Barnes, Corey Crawford and Josh Watson can provide depth, it’ll be key; that’s the great unknown.

Depth at linebacker was an issue last year, too; five-star recruits Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony should help that. Clemson must hope cornerbacks Coty Sensabaugh and Bashaud Breeland are ready to step into full-time roles following the graduations of steady starters Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell.

5. Clemson went 6-7 last year, its first losing season since 1999, yet head coach Dabo Swinney won the Atlantic Division title in 2009, something his predecessor, Tommy Bowden, never did. Is Swinney feeling any heat for last year or will the Tigers brass give some of his recent changes time to work before that’s a possibility?

I think Swinney is feeling heat from the fan base, but his bosses – particularly Terry Don Phillips – have provided public support. Phillips, who hired Swinney in 2008, survived a very public job review by Clemson’s Board of Trustees in December, and the board, Clemson president James Barker and Phillips affirmed their support for Swinney afterward.

Hiring Morris and revamping his offensive staff, as well as the standout recruiting class, significantly helped his standing with many fans. Still, if the changes fail to result in a significantly improved record, possibly including a win over South Carolina (Clemson has lost back-to-back games to the Gamecocks for the first time since 1970), Swinney will be under fire again. Count on it.

NCAA ’12 says …

Clemson 28, No. 9 Auburn 18. Clemson rolled up 466 yards of offense, building an 18-point  lead it did not give back this time. Auburn’s secondary couldn’t slow down Clemson’s quarterbacks, who combined to go 24-for-40 for 368 yards and four touchdowns. Auburn got 100 yards and a touchdown from Mike Dyer but not much else. Barrett Trotter completed only 12 of 33 passes.

So there it is. I, for one, am looking forward to going to Death Valley for the first time (somehow in five years covering the ACC, Virginia never played there because of the unbalanced schedules). Big thanks to Greg for the help on this one.

Up next: Florida Atlantic.

July 28, 2011

Auburn gets 13th commitment for 2012 from South Carolina DE Gimel President

Auburn picked up commitment No. 13 for 2012 when Mt. Pleasant, S.C., defensive end Gimel President said he’d sign with the Tigers in February.

President’s local paper, The Post & Courier, reported the news this afternoon.

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The 6-foot-3, 240-pound President had offers from 14 schools. He recently visited Auburn, North Carolina and South Carolina.

“Auburn feels like family,” President told the Post & Courier. “The players made me feel like I was at home. The coaches and the people who worked in the office made me feel like I was at home.”

President is a three-star player, according to the recruiting websites. Scout ranks him as the No. 37 defensive end nationally.

He made 72 tackles and six sacks as a junior at Wando High.

President is the second defensive lineman in the Tigers’ 2012 class, joining Darius Philon of Prichard, Ala.

Here’s the full list. Ratings are by Rivals/Scout/247Sports:

  • Shane Callahan, OL, 6-6, 277, Parker, Colo. (Chaparral High), 4-star/4/3
  • Joshua Holsey, CB, 5-9, 171, Fairburn, Ga. (Creekside High), 4-star/4/3
  • Darrion Hutcherson, ATH, 6-7, 245, Dadeville, Ala. (Dadeville High), 3-star/4/3
  • Will Latu, OL, 6-2, 315, St. Petersburg, Fla. (College of the Canyons), NR/3-star/NR
  • Ricardo Louis, WR, 6-2, 190, Miami Beach, Fla. (Miami Beach High), 4-star/4/4
  • Cassanova McKinzy, LB, 6-3, 220, Birmingham, Ala. (Woodlawn High), 4-star/4/4
  • Ricky Parks, TE, 6-3, 230, Hogansville, Ga. (Callaway High), 4-star/4/4
  • Darius Philon, DL, 6-2, 265, Prichard, Ala. (Vigor), 3-star/3/3
  • Zeke Pike, QB, 6-5, 220, Fort Mitchell, Ky. (Dixie Heights High), 4-star/5/5
  • Gimel President, DL, 6-3, 240, Mt. Pleasant, S.C. (Wando High), 3-star/3/3
  • Jovon Robinson, RB, 6-1, 218, Memphis, Tenn. (Wooddale High), 4-star/4/4
  • JaQuay Williams, WR, 6-3, 204, Tyrone, Ga. (Sandy Creek High), 4-star/4/4
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, 6-2, 205, Daphne, Ala. (Daphne High), 4-star/4/4

2011 opponent preview: Mississippi State

It’s time to fill up the post-media days, pre-reporting day void with our yearly feature, previewing all 12 of Auburn’s opponents by asking questions of my fellow beat writers.

I like how these turn out, and the feedback is usually pretty good, but this is really an imposition on my part. These people have busy schedules and are trying, just like me, to squeeze in one little last bit of down time before the college football season renders our fall over. So I thank every one again for helping me out.

The posts will be coming fast and furious in the next week, with two going per day until the start of camp, so follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook to know when they’re posted.

You might be asking why Utah State is not the first one. Well, I’m still waiting to hear back on the questions from that beat writer. So while it pains me to go out of order, I’m starting the series with the second game.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

  • Head coach: Dan Mullen (3rd season at Mississippi State, 14-11; was assistant at Florida, Utah before that)
  • 2009 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC, 5th West), beat Michigan 52-14 in Gator Bowl
  • Returning starters: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
  • Total offense: 401.3 ypg (5th SEC, 42nd nationally)
  • Total defense: 356.9 ypg (8th SEC, 49th nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 59-23-2
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 17-14 in Starkville last year
  • Consensus prediction: Fourth in the SEC West

Five-week schedule glimpse

  • Sept. 1: at Memphis
  • Sept. 10: at Auburn
  • Sept. 15: LSU
  • Sept. 24: Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 1: at Georgia

We’ll start with a matchup a lot of Auburn fans are looking forward to. There’s sure to be some resentment of Mullen and Co. after the Cam Newton mess last year, with many feeling the reports were being fueled out of Starkville. That’s less the case with the players and coaches, but should make for an interesting atmosphere in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 10. The Bulldogs are coming off a solid year, one in which they won nine games for the first time since Jackie Sherrill was the coach in 1999. That was a four-win improvement from Mullen’s first year and sets the Bulldogs up to try to take the next step into the SEC West’s elite, not an easy task given the competitiveness of the division.

To find out how the Bulldogs will do this year, I went to Brandon Marcello of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. Follow him on Twitter here, read his blog here and read his work here. Here are his answers to a few questions:

AB: Chris Relf seized control of the quarterback position last year, throwing for 1,789 yards, 13 touchdowns and only six interceptions. With a talented group of wideouts at his disposal, will he continue to progress as a passer enough that teams have to respect the Bulldogs’ passing game as much as their running game?
BM: That’s the hope permeating the streets of Starkville. Relf had his best games at the end of the season, when he averaged more than 200 yards per game as Mississippi State went 2-1 against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Michigan. Sure, those passing numbers were great but he did it against some not-so-spectacular defense. In the case of Michigan, a wet paper bag would have proven tougher than the Wolverines’ secondary. But here’s the good news for Relf and those on his bandwagon: he’s sure to pick up two or more yards running the football between the tackles and he has a very talented stable of receivers. He’s surrounded by play-makers.
AB: MSU was second in the SEC in rushing last year, averaging 214.9 yards per game. Running backs Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins return, in addition to the mobile Relf, but All-American left tackle Derek Sherrod is gone. How will this year’s rushing attack compare to last year’s?

BM: The big question is left tackle, but we all know you don’t have to be a left-handed team to be successful running the ball. The backfield is deep and the offensive line will be fine, but the battle between Blaine Clausell and former defensive tackle James Carmon will be pivotal for the success of the passing game. Running the ball will not be a problem, but center Quentin Saulsberry will need to develop some chemistry with Relf after spending most of his time at guard last season.

AB: Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz parlayed last year’s success into the same job at Texas. Now the Bulldogs will go with Chris Wilson (defensive line coach/co-defensive coordinator last year) and new linebackers coach Geoff Collins (formerly of Florida International) as co-defensive coordinators. Will that be a smooth transition or will losing defensive standouts like defensive end Pernell McPhee and linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright mean a step back for the unit?

BM: The staff is fine, the scheme is similar but the players are different. Losing all three starting linebackers from last season will hurt the Bulldogs, but gain Clemson transfer Brandon Maye, a three-year starter from the ACC. I think the Bulldogs will be OK at linebacker, but the real concern is at defensive end. Sean Ferguson will be a story to watch as he steps in Pernell McPhee‘s place but there’s not much depth to help stellar defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. McPhee drew double teams in nearly ever game last season; Ferguson may not. I’m very interested how Wilson and Collins scheme to overcome those weaknesses.

AB: The Bulldogs went from five wins to nine in head coach Dan Mullen’s second year, a big improvement that still left them in the second tier of teams in the highly-competitive SEC West. Can MSU make another jump this year into the upper echelon of the league or is it going to take more time?

BM: If Mississippi State somehow manages nine-win seasons in back-to-back years in the strongest division in the country, I’ll go ahead and say it: the Bulldogs have turned the corner. It’s going to be tough. I don’t think anyone will argue that the SEC West today is the toughest it’s ever been. What’s holding MSU back from taking that next step is its record against the SEC West in Mullen’s first two seasons. He has yet to beat a team from his division that is not named Ole Miss and until he does that, a 10-win season will elude him. Mullen told me earlier this summer his team might be better than the 2010 version, but it might not win nine games. Sometimes it’s about a few lucky breaks. The Bulldogs got a couple (vs. Kentucky and UAB) and caught Florida in an eyebrow raising down year. The SEC schedule is brutal, and traveling to Auburn and Georgia is tougher than the prognosticators in the preseason magazines are letting on.

AB: Mullen interviewed with Miami in the offseason but ended up signing an extension with MSU that bumped his annual pay from $1.5 million to $2.65 million. With the program on an upward trend and his salary commensurate with his fellow SEC coaches, is Mullen in it for the long haul in Starkville or will he keep looking elsewhere when jobs pop open?
BM: First off, I’m not so sure Mullen interviewed with Miami. I believe Miami gauged his interest, but nothing advanced past a quick chat in a hallway. Dan Mullen always brushes aside the chatter that he might leave Starkville some day. The reality is that, if a few elite jobs come open and he’s at the top of the list, he would be a fool not to at least listen. He knows that, the administration knows it and the fans know it. State might have bought itself a couple more years with Mullen, but who’s to say MSU keeps winning with Mullen at the helm? If he falls below the six-win line again, his name will quickly fall off those radar screens. If the former Florida offensive coordinator has another nine-win season and an elite job comes open (see: Penn State or Georgia), we’ll be on Mullen Watch once again.

What’s often overlooked outside Mississippi is this fact: MSU folks are getting serious about winning in the SEC. Mullen will soon have a brand new $25 million football facility at his disposal and a major overhaul of Davis Wade Stadium is only three years away. Will Mullen still be in Starkville in 2014? Your guess is as good as mine.

NCAA ’12 says …

After not buying the game last year, I decided it was worth a purchase this year. The create-a-player mode where you can have someone play his senior year in high school before being recruited to a college was too enticing. Naturally, I made Tim Riggins of the Dillon Panthers and eventually signed with Texas. We’ll see if the fake Riggins has a more successful post-high school life than the real Riggins (and yes, I just called a TV show real).

ANYWAY, Auburn won the Utah State simulation 41-13, setting up a matchup between the No. 12 Tigers and No. 18 Bulldogs. The final? Auburn 28, MSU 27. Mike Dyer‘s touchdown run with 1:35 to play lifted the Tigers to a dramatic victory and 2-0 record. Barrett Trotter threw touchdowns to Emory Blake, DeAngelo Benton and Philip Lutzenkirchen. Eltoro Freeman made 13 tackles on defense.

So there you have it. One down, 11 to go. (We’ll loop back for Utah State once I get those answers). Thanks again to Brandon for helping me out.

Up next: Clemson.

Iron Bowl rivalry to be the subject of ESPN documentary airing in November

Remember the excellent 30 for 30 series of documentaries ESPN did for its 30th anniversary last year? Well, the creators of the series are back for more, and one of the new docs is about the Iron Bowl.

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Titled “Roll TideWar Eagle” (edit: they could have done better there), it’ll take a look at the history of the rivalry.Martin Khodabakhshian is the producer. Here’s the description:

With two Heisman trophies, two national championships and one crazed fan, the biggest rivalry in college sports, Auburn vs. Alabama, has reached new heights in the last two years. This is the story of the history between the two programs, the bad blood between its fans and how this intense rivalry came to a pinnacle, just when they ended up needing each other most.

The documentary will air Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, two and a half weeks before this year’s Iron Bowl in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

It’s one of seven new docs running this fall. Check out the full list here. The Bartman one looks particularly good. So does the Chuck Wepner one. But I’ve got a feeling I know which one will draw the most viewers in SEC country.