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July 31, 2013

4 at 4: Assorted links (Auburn and otherwise) to whet your whistle on Wednesday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — How much more can I really say at this point?

You’re ready for football. I’m ready for football.

Let’s just jump right in to the links in today’s “4 at 4.”graphics4

1. If you didn’t get a chance to read either of my earlier stories today, well … here’s your chance. The first highlights five newcomers to watch for during Auburn’s fall camp, while the second notes how the Tigers will honor four of the greatest teams in school history during the 2013 season.

2. One former Tiger, Erique Florence, found a new home Tuesday. Troy University sent out an official release welcoming the Valley, Ala., native to the program. But could Auburn be bringing in another player looking for a new school in the near future? According to former War Eagle Extra beat writer Joel Erickson, dismissed Texas receiver Cayleb Jones lists Auburn as a school he’s interested in, along with Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, East Carolina, Clemson and UCLA. The Tigers do have one connection with Jones, as former receiver Emory Blake is his cousin. Wherever Jones decides to go, he’ll have to sit out a year; however, he will have three years of eligibility remaining.

3. Cam Newton always makes headlines, but on Tuesday, it was for good reason. Coming off the field following practice, Newton stopped and chatted with a Carolina fan with cerebral palsy. He then gave her his signed cleats and signed another football the family brought with them. Simply a heartwarming story regardless of what NFL team or player you cheer for.

But Tuesday also had some sobering news from another former Tiger in the NFL. Washington coach Mike Shanahan said that Tristan Davis has decided to retire, per the club’s official Twitter feed. Shanahan said the former Auburn running back told him “his heart wasn’t into playing football anymore.” The 27-year-old also had stints with Pittsburgh, Miami, Minnesota and Detroit after entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009.

Below is a YouTube clip of Davis in happier times on the field, when he ran 162 yards on eight carries against Kentucky in 2005. (Hat tip to Scott Scroggins for the link.)

4. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Polo Manukainiu and two others who were killed in a car wreck in New Mexico on Monday night. Manukainiu, a defensive end for Texas A&M, redshirted last season.

As excited as people are for football to be here, tragedies like these always help to remind us to treasure every moment of our lives.

Auburn to honor four anniversary teams during 2013 season

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Four of Auburn’s greatest teams are set to be honored at Jordan-Hare Stadium this fall.

Jordan-Hare Stadium

Auburn will recognize four anniversary teams at Jordan-Hare Stadium this fall.

In a release from the Auburn athletics department on Wednesday, it was announced the Tigers would recognize the 1963, 1983, 1988 and 1993 teams at four non-conference contests during the 2013 campaign.

The 1993 team will be recognized at the home opener against Washington State on Aug. 31, with the 1988 team being honored the following week against Arkansas State. On Oct. 12 against Western Carolina, the 1963 team will be celebrated on its 50th anniversary at the Homecoming game and the 1983 team will wrap things up on Oct. 26 versus Florida Atlantic.

All four of the anniversary squads finished in the top 10 in the country during their respective seasons. Members of each team will appear at an autograph tent located at Plainsman Park two hours prior to kickoff.

Here’s more background info on each of the anniversary teams.

1993 Auburn Tigers: Twenty years ago, the Tigers went 11-0 in Terry Bowden’s initial season on the Plains. Auburn, which finished the year at No. 4., was the only school to go undefeated in Division I that season. The Tigers were ineligible for postseason play, however, after being put on probation by the NCAA. (The team will be honored against Washington State on Aug. 31)

1988 Auburn Tigers: Auburn was a co-champion of the SEC in 1988 (along with LSU) while finishing the season 10-2 overall. Coached by Pat Dye, the Tigers had two narrow losses (7-6 to LSU and 13-7 to Florida State in the Sugar Bowl) en route to finishing with a No. 7 national ranking. (The team will be honored against Arkansas State on Sept. 7)

1963 Auburn Tigers: Ralph “Shug” Jordan’s Tigers went 9-2 overall in 1963. Auburn lost only one SEC game (13-10 to Mississippi State in Jackson, Miss.), with its only other defeat coming to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl 13-7. The Tigers ended the season ranked No. 5 in the country by the Associated Press. (The team will be honored against Western Carolina on Oct. 12)

1983 Auburn Tigers: Thirty years ago, Auburn fielded one of the most memorable teams in its history. Headlined by Bo Jackson and coached by Pat Dye, the 1983 Tigers went 11-1 overall and captured their first SEC title since 1957. Auburn went on to defeat Michigan in the Sugar Bowl 9-7 to finish No. 3 in most major polls, with some other ranking systems recognizing the Tigers as the national champions. (The team will be honored against Western Carolina on Oct. 26)

Auburn football: Five newcomers to watch during fall camp

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — The football season is tantalizingly close.

Auburn’s players report on Thursday and waste no time getting to work, as fall camp begins on Friday. Things are a bit different than in the past, when nearly all incoming freshman and junior college transfers didn’t arrive until “Report Day.” Now, many of the newcomers have been on campus during the summer; however, the only people who have seen a glimpse of what they may be able to do this fall are their fellow players. So who are some new Tigers to keep an eye on with fall camp just days away?

Nick Marshall is expected to come in and immediately be in the running to become Auburn's starting quarterback this fall.

Nick Marshall is one of four candidates in the running to become Auburn’s starting quarterback this fall.

The Ledger-Enquirer picked five candidates — a few who should already be familiar names to ardent Auburn fans.

Nick Marshall, QB (Garden City Community College, Garden City, Kan.): From the moment he signed with the Tigers, Marshall immediately leapt to the top of the quarterback depth chart in many people’s minds. With the ability to make plays with his feet and blessed with a rocket arm, the Georgia native appears to be the perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle attack. And Marshall will be given every opportunity to prove that during fall camp.

Carl Lawson, DE (Milton High School, Alpharetta, Ga.): One of the most highly-touted prospects in the country (other than another Peach State product in Robert Nkemdiche), Lawson should be able to step in and play immediately. And not just play, but possibly start. The left end position is held down by senior Dee Ford, but right end was still up for grabs at the end of the spring, with Nosa Eguae trying to fend off Kenneth Carter. Expect Lawson to throw in his name in the mix early on and push for a spot in the starting lineup.

Montravius Adams, DT (Dooly County High School, Vienna, Ga.): Auburn came out of nowhere to get Adams’ signature, though most would say it’s due to the relationship the defensive tackle had already developed with defensive line coach Rodney Garner. Whatever the reason, it will pay dividends for the Tigers this fall and beyond. Even though he’s joining one of the deepest units on the team at the tackle position, don’t be surprised if Adams garners significant playing time in 2013.

Elijah Daniel, DE (Avon High School, Avon, Ind.): While not talked about as much as Lawson — possibly because he’s from more of a hoops hotbed in Indiana than a football-crazy Southeastern state — Daniel shouldn’t be counted out during fall camp, either. He could easily be a part of the fight for the right defensive end position, and even if he doesn’t capture a starting job, he’ll likely figure prominently in the rotation this season whenever the first-teamers need a breather.

Tony Stevens, WR (Evans High School, Orlando, Fla.): Among the incoming receivers, none have turned more heads than Stevens. Tight end C.J. Uzomah couldn’t say enough good things about the Florida native after seeing what he could do during this summer’s player-led “captain’s practices.” Given the uncertain status of two of his fellow 2013 pass-catcher signees — Earnest Robinson is taking the junior college route after not qualifying academically and Jason Smith may do the same — Stevens may be able to take advantage of their absence if he continues to impress during fall camp.

July 30, 2013

4 at 4: Counting down the days until real, live football gets here

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Two days.

Just two more days until Auburn players report. Three days until fall camp opens. And we’re just a month away from the season kicking off, when the Tigers welcome the Washington State Cougars to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Aug. 31. It seems so close — and it is. But the closer it gets, the more anxious I am for it to finally begin. Of course, coaches, players and fans share in the excitement of a coming season every bit as much as media members do.

Ellis Johnson

Ellis Johnson

It reminds me of something defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said when he sat down for an interview with beat writers exactly one week ago today. In fact, it was the very first thing Johnson was asked: “How ready are you to get things started?”

It was a simple question, but the veteran coach gave a wonderfully detailed answer.

“We’ve kept away from them so much during this time of the year, and although they never leave, it’s not like the old reporting dates in the old days where they used to go home for the summer and you couldn’t wait to see them when they got back. At the same time, it’s still a time when you can get your hands back on them and get back on the field and get rolling again. You kind of get in these days right here, I can’t stand them. I either want to go back on vacation or I want to start practice. That in-between time is kind of hard to hold yourself back.”

Believe me, Coach, we all feel the same way.

In the meantime, let’s hit on a few small items in today’s edition of “4 at 4.”

1. A few tweets regarding myriad former members of Auburn’s football program have made the rounds on Twitter in the last 24 hours. The first, as was discussed in this space Monday, was in reference to former Tigers running back Michael Dyer. According to this tweet from Drew Deener, the play-by-play voice of the Louisville Cardinals, Dyer has not yet joined their program, per head coach Charlie Strong.

Speaking of head coaches, former Tigers head man Tommy Tuberville has not returned to Auburn since 2008, if this tweet from CBS Sports national college football reporter Jeremy Fowler is taken as fact.

It would probably be smart for former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to stay away from Auburn for a few years, too. Take a look at some of the comments he made at the Roanoke Valley Sports Club on Monday night, which were tweeted out by former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter, now covering Virginia Tech football for the Roanoke Times and Virginian-Pilot.

Needless to say, the current offensive coordinator of the Hokies didn’t think very much of the hand he was dealt last season.

Oh, and he thinks Nick Saban is smart. (Then again, what is he supposed to say when he couldn’t put a single point on the board against Alabama’s defense last year?)

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for an Auburn player to respond, as backup center Tunde Fariyike did the honors — with an edge.

And how about one more Fariyike tweet to top it off?

2. Gus Malzahn will be making his last stop on the 2013 Tiger Trek this evening. It will be in Montgomery at Riverwalk Stadium starting at 6 p.m. ET. James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser has all the details for those who might be interested.

3. At the risk of possible Johnny Manziel overload, I cannot recommend this article by ESPN The Magazine senior writer Wright Thompson enough. While reading it, I went through every emotion possibly toward “Johnny Football.” Anger. Pity. Fascination. Bewilderment. (One thing I must note about the story: It contains some graphic language and subject matter.)

Frankly, all you really need to know is that Thompson wrote it — for my money, one of the top sports journalists in the country without question. Read it for yourself and see how you feel about Manziel. Maybe it will cement your preconceived notions about him. Or maybe you’ll end up feeling differently about the 20-year-old lightning rod known as much for off-the-field controversies as his incredible on-the-field accomplishments.

4. Just in case you’re in Auburn this weekend, take heart: Parking will be free.

Via the Opelika-Auburn News article: “In conjunction with this weekend’s sales tax holiday weekend and Auburn University’s semester break, the Auburn City Council has suspended parking meter operations in downtown from Aug. 3-20.”

Most importantly, for you fellow football-lovers out there, yes, fall camp will have already started by this weekend.

Auburn defense has ‘got enough talent,’ but Ellis Johnson won’t guarantee one-year turnaround

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. Ellis Johnson knows a thing or two about immediate turnarounds.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will try to duplicate similar first-year turnarounds at Mississippi State and South Carolina this fall.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will try to duplicate similar first-year successes at Mississippi State and South Carolina this fall.

In his first year as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in 2004, the Bulldogs gave up 100-plus yards less to their opponents than the previous season. It was much the same at South Carolina. Taking over in 2008, Johnson helped the Gamecocks’ chop nearly 90 yards off their total defensive output, improving from ninth in the SEC (378.1 yards per game) to fourth (291.9) in just one season.

Now the question is whether he can replicate those feats at Auburn. Last season, the Tigers allowed 420.5 yards per game, which ranked next-to-last in the 14-team SEC. As much as people wanted to speculate, Johnson tried to tap the brakes on the possibility of another one-year quick fix when the topic was broached.

“I don’t know that I can make that judgment in 15 practices,” he said. ” … We’re probably deeper than we were at South Carolina or Mississippi State but I don’t know our players well enough yet to know what we’ll accomplish.”

Johnson noted he was blessed to inherit “a very physical and deep front” in his first year with the Gamecocks. That doesn’t mean the same could be said elsewhere.

“We were very thin in the secondary and up until the last game — the game at Clemson and the bowl game — we were very fortunate with injuries in the perimeter,” he said, “but we lost a couple of kids late and we played poorly in both those games.”

If Johnson is going to pull off the first-year magic he did at his previous SEC stops, there are question marks on the defense that need to be answered. First and foremost, Johnson said, is the pass rush.

“I’m talking about without bringing pressure,” he said. “How good are we? We didn’t have a lot of live, obvious third-down situations other than the ones that occurred in the scrimmages. By the time you get to the end of spring, each player probably had very, very minimal reps in that situation. I don’t know that we know that yet.”

The second concern is at safety, which thinned out when Demetruce McNeal missed the last five practices of the spring for unknown reasons.

“We’ve got to develop some depth back there,” he said. “It comes down to (McNeal) coming back and having a good reentry. The kid you’ve got to look at most quickly is (Brandon) King. He’s a junior-college player. We’ve heard great things, but he didn’t get spring practice. That’ll be a focal point in the secondary.”

While those areas will need to be addressed, there’s no person Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn would rather have doing the evaluating. Calling Johnson “one of the better defensive coordinators in all of college football,” Malzahn said the Tigers’ 2013 season is intertwined with how the defense progresses.

“The thing that stood out in the spring is that he’s very fundamentally sound,” Malzahn said. “He’s going to let our guys play. Line up and let them play. We’ve been working hard on identifying our top 11 guys and putting them on the field. I’m really looking forward to fall camp with our defense.”

Johnson didn’t want to declare that a dramatic defensive about-face was in the offing. No, it’s far too early for that. However, he felt the ingredients integral to future success are in place.

Now, the onus is on the Tigers to play like it.

“I think we got good, solid SEC players that when you play like they did last year, they’re going to have to play differently,” he said. “I don’t think we have to have different people, we have to have different performance. I don’t know that I’ve seen them enough, but at this stage I want to believe we got enough talent.”

July 29, 2013

4 at 4: Catching up on the weekend with some links

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Luckily for me, it was a slow news weekend. Why was that good, you ask? Well, when trying to move into a new place, the last thing you want is for a major story to break to prevent being able to get your life unpacked. But I’m ready and rarin’ to go now, and thankfully, things will pick up soon enough, as Auburn players report on Thursday and open fall camp on Friday.graphics4

Until then, we’ll be doing something similar to “7 at 7,” just in a shortened version.

I give you, good readers, “4 at 4.”

1. It appears former Auburn running back Michael Dyer’s landing place has now been uncovered. On Monday afternoon, Jonathan Lintner of The Courier-Journal in Louisville reported that Dyer might be joining the Cardinals, noting that “the school’s registrar’s office has Michael Dyer in its database, but the 2011 BCS MVP not yet admitted/enrolled.” Lintner’s article says the team can’t comment on Dyer’s situation yet, but that he has until Aug. 26 to register for the fall semester.

2. Could Stephen Davis Jr. follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Tiger? It’s definitely a possibility, the linebacker/defensive back out of Dutch Fork High in Irmo, S.C., told AL.com on Friday. Along with Auburn, Davis Jr. holds offers from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Clemson, Vanderbilt, Missouri and North Carolina. His father might have to work on him a little more, since the younger Davis noted Georgia, Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee are the schools that appeal most to him at the moment, and that he still “has to think” more about Auburn. He’s got a lot of time, though, since he doesn’t graduate until 2016. (The article includes a full video interview where Davis Jr. addresses all of these topics.)

3. Count former Auburn (and current Carolina Panthers) quarterback Cam Newton as a supporter of testing for human growth hormone in the NFL. The league and its players union are trying to iron out an agreement on testing for HGH that is both safe and not overly invasive, since it would likely involve drawing blood from players. It doesn’t bother Newton, since he said it “wasn’t a big deal” and that he’d “be prepared” to do any test the NFL requires.

4. After I linked to an article last week which reported Auburn’s Police Department had an aggressive ticket “quota” system in place, it’s only fair to link to the response to the accusations from the police chief at the time, Tommy Dawson. The City of Auburn also released a statement in regard to Tracy Oppenheimer’s piece for Reason.com.

CLASS CHECK-IN: Auburn’s 2014 recruiting class (so far)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — It’s been a week since Auburn added any new commits to its 2014 recruiting class. Within moments of each other on July 21, the Tigers got pledges from a pair of junior college prospects in reciever D’haquille Williams and defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence.

That being said, this lull in the action gives the War Eagle Extra blog time to update the 13 commitments the Tigers have received up to this point from Class of 2014 prospects. (It was once at 14, but Mobile offensive lineman Joshua Casher decommitted last week to give himself more time to decide. According to Steve Mask, his head coach at St. Paul’s Episcopal School, Auburn is still in the running to sign Casher. It just means Casher is now looking at Alabama, Florida, Florida State and Ole Miss as well.)

This doesn’t mean I’ll be breaking any news of commitments or decommitments — that will happen rarely, if ever. That’s the specialty of the folks over at Rivals, Scout and 247. However, each time a new player declares that he’s “going to be an Auburn Tiger,” it will be posted here, with each article including a running tally of those already committed at the bottom.

AUBURN CLASS OF 2014 COMMITS

  • Deshaun Davis, LB (Vigor High School, Prichard, Ala.)
  • Raashed Kennion, DE (First Coast High School, Jacksonville, Fla.)
  • Devaroe Lawrence, DT (Georgia Military College, Milledgeville, Ga.)
  • Chris Laye, TE (Lambert High School, Suwanee, Ga.)
  • Jakell Mitchell, TE (Opelika High School, Opelika, Ala.)
  • Derrick Moncrief, S (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss.)
  • Kamryn Pettway, RB (Prattville High School, Prattville, Ala.)
  • Nick Ruffin, CB (St. Pius X, Atlanta, GA)
  • Justin Thornton, DE (Vigor High School, Prichard, Ala.)
  • Stanton Truitt, ATH (Monroe Area High School, Monroe, Ga.)
  • Sean White, QB (University School, Miami, Fla.)
  • D’haquille Williams, WR (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss.)
  • Tre Williams, LB (St. Paul’s Episcopal School, Mobile, Ala.)

July 28, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 7

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

It’s Day 7 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which end Saturday as we unveil the two teams at the top of the league (in our opinion) entering the fall . The format, as has been the case all week, involves a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.SEC_new_logo

With 12 teams down, we are left with the last two. Which two teams are they?

Let’s  answer that question now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …

2. SOUTH CAROLINA

Some may be surprised to see South Carolina rank above both Georgia and Texas A&M. Yes, I know the Gamecocks lost their leading rusher (Marcus Lattimore), receiver (Ace Sanders) and top four tacklers (Shaq Wilson, D.J. Swearinger, Reginald Bowens and DeVonte Holloman) from 2012.

On the other hand, they return the best defensive player in college football, not to mention a potential Heisman Trophy finalist, in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. All-purpose threat Bruce Ellington returns, too. Some people may question South Carolina’s use of a two-quarterback system, using both senior Connor Shaw and junior Dylan Thompson in tandem with each other — and will occasionally be on the field at the same time, as Shaw has seen time at both running back and receiver in 7-on-7 workouts this summer, which he expects to continue this fall. Remember, however, that this is a squad that has won 11 games in each of the past two seasons.

The most important returnee for South Carolina is at the top, as Steve Spurrier enters his ninth season as head coach. Not that there should be any reason to doubt his coaching ability at this point, but keep these four facts in mind just in case: 1. He’s the winningest coach in Florida’s history (122 victories); 2. He’s the winningest coach in South Carolina history (66 victories); 3. In being the winningest coach at two different SEC schools, he joins Bear Bryant as the only other person to accomplish the feat. Bryant did so at Kentucky and Alabama. 4. Incredibly, Spurrier won an ACC title. At Duke. At Duke. At Duke. At. Duke. (Yes, it needs to be repeated multiple times.) No, the conference championship wasn’t on the hardwood, either. Spurrier led the Blue Devils to the ACC title in 1989.SouthCarolina_Logo11

  • Best-case scenario: South Carolina does what once would have been considered unthinkable for a team that has won only one conference championship (the ACC crown in 1969) in its history: It wins the national title. Even more impressively, the Gamecocks do so without losing a single game. They roll over North Carolina in Week 1 before Spurrier torments Georgia once more, beating the Bulldogs for the fourth straight year. South Carolina isn’t tested again until the regular season finale, when arch-rival Clemson pushes them to the brink. But Clowney pressures quarterback Tajh Boyd into throwing an off-target pass on the Tigers’ final drive, and the Gamecocks hold on for a 28-24 victory. In the SEC Championship Game, the nation gets a juicy game-within-the-game, as Clowney gets the chance to terrorize Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. In a classic conference title tilt, both Clowney and Manziel play their best football at the most important time. Clowney sacks Manziel four times and forces a fumble from Aggies running back Brandon Williams. Clowney and Manziel once again take center stage on the game’s deciding play. With Texas A&M trailing 24-20 with two minutes to play and the ball at South Carolina’s 30-yard line, the Aggies pick up a first down to get to the 18. But with no timeouts remaining, the Aggies waste more clock than they should, leading to a 4th-and-3 at the Gamecocks’ 11-yard line. Manziel drops back and looks for an open receiver to no avail. Reverting to instincts, Manziel takes off toward the first down marker. But Clowney is able to shed his blocker and make a shoe-string tackle to stunt the Aggies and seal the victory for the Gamecocks. Clowney becomes the first “pure” defensive player — referring to someone who didn’t contribute on offense or special teams, a la Charles Woodson — to win the Heisman, because doggone it, voters decided the absurdly talented defensive end was too good not to be awarded the bronze trophy. In the national title game, Clowney leads the way in South Carolina’s airtight defensive performance against the Ohio State Buckeyes, ending the Big Ten representative’s 23-game win streak in the process. Clowney does what everyone expects him to do by turning pro, but no one faults him. He’s done everything he could do at the college level, and now it’s onward and upward. Spurrier says he’ll stick around for as long as he can coach — and still play a lot of golf during his downtime. As if things weren’t good enough for South Carolina, Clemson lays an egg after being tabbed the odds-on favorite to win the ACC, finishing with an 8-5 mark following a loss in the Belk Bowl. Spurrier is equally pleased Georgia doesn’t play up the lofty preseason hype as the media’s pick to win the Eastern Divison for the third straight year, as the Bulldogs also finish 8-5. And with the “Ol’ Ball Coach” arriving at SEC Media Days 2014 as the reigning national champion, reporters anticipate Spurrier putting on the greatest performance in the event’s history.
  • Worst-case scenario: Heading into the most anticipated season in Gamecocks’ history, a team from the “other” Carolina spoils the party. In the season opener, the Gamecocks constantly misfire against the Tar Heels, who gladly take advantage of their opponent’s poor play and pull a stunning upset in Week 1. Instead of rallying back one week later, South Carolina falls to 0-2 when Georgia beats it for the first time since 2009. Already down on themselves, the Gamecocks sink to 0-3 when Vanderbilt comes into Williams-Brice Stadium and leave on top. Spurrier, caught flat-footed with his two-quarterback system an utter failure through three games, turns to redshirt freshman Brendan Nosovitch, who passed for over 13,000 yards during his prep career in Pennsylvania. South Carolina immediately responds, tearing off an eight-game win streak prior to facing arch-rival Clemson. The Tigers bring the winning streak to a halt, as Boyd and Clemson’s offense prove to be too much for the Gamecocks. An 8-1 finish after an 0-3 start isn’t bad, but it’s far from what anyone associated with South Carolina’s program — much less its fans — hoped 2013 would be. South Carolina says all the right things about being “happy to be in the postseason” and excited to “get the chance to play one more game.” The Gamecocks’ play says otherwise, as they fall to 0-3 against the ACC in 2013, losing to Georgia Tech 38-20 in the Music City Bowl. Clowney, not surprisingly, turns pro. Spurrier grimaces for a brief moment before his attention turns to hitting the links. And South Carolina fans let out a deep sigh as Clemson wins the Orange Bowl while Georgia wins the national championship.

1. ALABAMA

What is there to say about Alabama that hasn’t already been said? The Crimson Tide are the two-time defending national championships, and have won it all three of the past four years. They annually sign one of the top recruiting classes in college football, they own a rabid fan base, and have the man regarded as the top coach in the sport leading them on to the field each week.

Yeah, Alabama lost a tremendous amount of production to the NFL, particularly on the offensive line, where All-American performers departed. But when has a mass exodus of talent slowed down Alabama before, especially during Saban’s tenure? Even after losing those three linemen (D.J. Fluker, Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack) and its leading rusher in BCS National Championship Game Offensive MVP Eddie Lacy, Alabama’s offense will be fine with AJ McCarron at the controls. The signal-caller with a 25-2 record will have a embarrassingly deep running back unit at his disposal and one of the top receivers in the country in Amari Cooper.

Oh, and seven starters are back from a defense that was the nation’s best in total defense and scoring defense.

Any questions?alabamalogo

  • Best-case scenario: Elation for Alabama fans, and groans from the rest of the country. The Crimson Tide go undefeated and win their unprecedented third straight national championship. Alabama puts on a clinic in nearly every game it plays, tossing aside challengers at every opportunity. The Crimson Tide shut down Johnny Manziel in Game 2 en route to a 38-10 victory, and the only team to stay within single digits during the regular season is LSU, which loses to the Crimson Tide 24-20. In the SEC Championship Game, it’s the same story for the second year in a row. Georgia puts up a fight, but it isn’t enough to knock Alabama off its perch at the top of the mountain in the SEC, as the Crimson Tide win 34-24. After getting to the national championship game once more, Alabama makes sure not to let an opportunity to make history fall by the wayside. The Crimson Tide wallop fellow undefeated Ohio State 41-10, cementing Alabama as not only one of the top dynasties in the annals of college football, but in all of sports. Saban refuses to crack a smile in his post-championship game interview, saying there was “work to be done” in Tuscaloosa and that he could “celebrate this accomplishment when I’m dead.” The Crimson Tide once again lose a bumper crop of players to the pros, but it just means the next batch of high draft picks get their opportunity to shine in 2014, as they gear up to make it four national titles in a row. And who wants to bet against them?
  • Worst-case scenario: Calamity for Crimson Tide supporters, joy from everyone who doesn’t own a Tuscaloosa-area ZIP code. Alabama doesn’t have a terrible season by any means — most schools would sign up for a 10-3 season any day — but not by its impossibly-high standards. Texas A&M topples Alabama for the second year in a row in Game 2, coming out on top 31-28. The Crimson Tide lose only one other regular season game, when they are caught in another titantic tussle with LSU. The Tigers return the favor from the previous season, capturing a victory on the opponent’s home field. Alabama wins its final three regular season games (Mississippi State, Chattanooga and Auburn), though the Iron Bowl against the Tigers is a much tougher tilt than many expected. The Tigers push the Crimson Tide until late in the fourth quarter, losing 34-24. Alabama makes it to the Capital One Bowl, but with its dreams of winning a third straight national title long since squelched, the Crimson Tide find it hard to get up for a game against Wisconsin. The Badgers take advantage, beating the Crimson Tide 24-14. Saban is blunt during his postgame interview, alluding to the “work that must be done” back in Tuscaloosa to avert a similar season in 2014. Every underclassman eligible to declare for the NFL Draft does so, and much to Alabama fans’ chagrin, Auburn finishes with only one less victory (nine) in a remarkable first year for coach Gus Malzahn.

July 27, 2013

‘Eager to learn’ freshman defensive line trio don’t disappoint in summer workouts

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Not all players are built the same.

Carl Lawson

Carl Lawson

Take the much talked-about freshmen defensive line trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. All three arrived on campus physically fit far beyond their years.

It didn’t take their new teammates long to notice, either.

“Those guys came in with college bodies,” senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “We’re all looking forward to it. They’re all eager to learn. Me and Carl (Lawson), we sat down for 30 minutes just going over the playbook the other day.”

Eguae left little doubt that he believed all would be able to step in and help the Tigers from Day 1.

“Definitely, they do,” he said. “But you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to do it with the pads on. We all know that and they know that. We’re all looking forward to getting those pads on, getting with (defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner, getting into the grind of two-a-days and making plays.”

Then again, that doesn’t make the trio any different than the rest of Auburn’s 2013 recruiting class. Head coach Gus Malzahn said the expectation is that all first-year players — be they true freshmen or junior college transfers — will be given the chance to get on the field right away.

“That’s just where we’re at as a team,” he said. “We’re going to go into this thing and try to give them as many opportunities early in fall camp so we can evaluate them and try to make quick decisions. That’s the tough thing as a coach — you’ve got to make decisions fairly quick about moving forward, especially with young guys. But they’re all going to have an opportunity to help.”

The difficult equilibrium the coaching staff has to maintain is between pushing them to contribute instantly and expecting too much, too soon.

After 30-plus years in coaching, Tigers defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has confronted this issue on countless occasions.

“They’re very capable talent-wise, and we do have some areas where we think their ability is going to be key — third down, edge pass rush,” he said. ” … Still, until you get them on the field and start working with them in the big picture, you just never know.”

While Lawson, Adams and Daniel have yet to don pads, they have impressed their teammates all summer during “captain’s practices.” Perhaps the most readily-apparent trait they’ve brought is an endless supply of energy.

That exuberance can get a bit out of control at times, though.

“I have to remind some of them, ‘Listen, this is no pads,’” senior defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker said. “And they’ll look at me like, ‘No problem, no problem.’ And then they go out there and try to bullrush. And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no. We’re just walking through the steps. We’re going to be all right.’”

Reese Dismukes echoed Whitaker, noting how much enthusiasm the three have displayed during the player-led summer practices. But he wasn’t willing to go too far in his praise, pointing out that doing it in the summer is fine. What really counts is doing the same in front of the coaches during fall camp, and eventually, during the season itself.

“I mean, they all look good,” the junior center said. (But) you never know what the guy’s going to do until you put pads on, and you get out there and it’s 110 degrees and everything’s flying at you. You never know how anyone’s going to respond to that.”

Aside from their natural talent, Dismukes said the group has one other factor in its favor which others may not take into account.

“I think it’s better that they’re on the D-line,” he said. “They have more of a chance to step in and provide. I’m not real familiar with their scheme or anything, but I know that it’s not as intense as learning the whole offensive playbook. But I think they’ll all have a chance to succeed.”

An attribute all three have been blessed with is a quick first step, with members of both the offensive and defensive lines continually praising how well they “get off” the ball. It doesn’t hurt that they join an already-stacked unit to lean on for advice.

Left defensive end Dee Ford is one of the top players in the SEC at his position, joined by Eguae on the right side. Then there’s Whitaker, Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson at tackle, not to mention Kenneth Carter, who saw time at end during spring practice after spending his first three years at tackle. Needless to say, the Tigers have no shortage of talented defensive linemen — and that’s before throwing Lawson, Adams and Daniel into the mix.

Whitaker, for one, couldn’t contain his excitement. The defensive line is a sight to behold.

He hopes to be able to say the same this fall and in the years to come.

“When we were out there the other day during warmups, it was like a whole team of D-linemen,” he said. “It just makes you feel better about the young group. The future looks good.”

July 26, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 6

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

It’s Day 6 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which will end Saturday as the two teams at the top of the league entering the fall are unveiled. Until then, we’ll count down the teams, two at a time, from worst to first. The format will involve a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.SEC_new_logo

With 10 teams down, there are only four to go. How will the rankings shake out from here?

Let’s continue answering that question now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …

4. TEXAS A&M

An argument can be made that no team was playing better at the end of last season than Texas A&M. The Aggies ended the year on a six-game win streak, with one of those over eventual national champion Alabama. And that 29-24 win came on the road in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Texas A&M also romped over former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Eleven wins in its initial season in the nation’s toughest conference — and in the first year of Kevin Sumlin’s tenure in College Station — is nothing to scoff at.

Oh, and did you hear the Aggies’ quarterback won the Heisman Trophy? His name is escaping me at the moment. Don’t worry, it will come to mind soon enough.

In all seriousness, the best thing Texas A&M has going for it is its redshirt sophomore signal-caller, Johnny Manziel. He returns after an incredible 2012 season which saw him throw for 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns and run for another 1,410 yards and 21 scores. His 5,116 yards of total offense set a single-season SEC record, bettering fellow Heisman winner Cam Newton’s tally of 4,327 in 2010.

But “Johnny Football” had quite an interesting offseason. For the sake of length, I’ll refrain from referencing any specifics, since those stories have been repeated ad nauseam. What really matters is what he does on the field for an encore performance.

The Aggies have to replace a pair of starters on the offensive line (Luke Joeckel and Patrick Lewis) as well as their second-leading receiver in Ryan Swope. Defensively, the Aggies lost their top two tacklers from 2012 in Damontre Moore and Jonathan Stewart.

As long as it has Manziel, though, Texas A&M has a chance. It’s just a matter of how far he and the offense will be able to take the team if the defense doesn’t improve on its middle-of-pack rankings in total defense (390.23 yards per game; 9th in SEC) and scoring defense (21.77 points per game; 7th in SEC).TAM-Logo

  • Best-case scenario: Texas A&M was great in 2012. But it is even better in 2013. The Aggies, led by none other than Manziel, run through the season undefeated, capturing the school’s second national championship, the first since 1939. The Aggies are tested by Alabama in Game 3, but pull out a 27-24 victory within the confines of Kyle Field. LSU presents yet another challenge when Texas A&M travels to Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 23, but the Aggies once again leave victorious, winning 37-27. But the most memorable contest of the season comes in the SEC Championship Game against South Carolina. Arguably the two best players in the country square off against each other in Manziel and Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. They both take their best shots at each other — with Clowney notching three sacks and Manziel countering with three touchdowns himself — but the Aggies come out on top. On the game’s final drive, Manziel eludes Clowney on a third-and-goal from the 7-yard-line, scrambling away and finding Mike Evans in the back of the end zone, putting Texas A&M’s go-ahead and game-winning touchdown on the board in a 31-27 victory. In the BCS title game, Ohio State hangs with A&M for a half before Manziel outduels the Buckeyes’ Braxton Miller in the final 30 minutes, as the Aggies pull away for a 38-24 win. After the season, Manziel holds a press conference to announce his future intentions. In a shocking decision, he decides to come back to College Station for another go-round. Because when you’re the biggest celebrity college football has ever seen, why not? College bars across the nation rejoice. And a split-second after Manziel utters, “I’m back,” both Twitter and ESPN implode upon themselves.
  • Worst-case scenario: The Aggies are good. Just not great. With a year of film on Manziel, defensive coordinators in the SEC are able to devise schemes to knock the Aggies’ quarterback, and in turn, the entire offense, down a few pegs. Texas A&M eases past Rice and Sam Houston State in the first two weeks, but those warm-up games are far from what it needs to properly prepare for Alabama. The Crimson Tide return the favor from the year before, beating the Aggies in front of their home crowd 30-17. Texas A&M rights itself by beating overmatched Southern Methodist and Arkansas squads. But the Aggies drop their second game of the season as they go on the road in front of a record crowd in Oxford, Miss., and fall to the Rebels 34-31. Texas A&M puts together a four-game win streak (Auburn, Vanderbilt, UTEP and Mississippi State) before its next defeat, traveling to Tiger Stadium and losing to LSU 27-14. The Aggies whip the Missouri Tigers in their regular season finale 55-14, but even with nine wins, the year has fallen short of expectations. Texas A&M heads to Atlanta — it’s just for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, not the SEC Championship Game. Awaiting them is a motivated Florida State team coming off a listless showing in the ACC title game. The Seminoles outplay the Aggies for the win, taking a 34-28 victory in the final game of the 2013 calendar year. Fed up with college life, Manziel declares for the NFL Draft. Though the Aggies still sign a solid recruiting class on National Signing Day, it’s trumped by their sworn enemy, the Texas Longhorns, who snag 2014′s top class on the heels of their victory in the BCS Championship Game.

3. GEORGIA

For all the things Georgia accomplished last season — setting numerous school records on offense, winning a division title for the second straight year and capturing 12 wins for only the third time in school history — it couldn’t help but feel it left so much more on the table. With five more yards in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama, the Bulldogs could have had a shot at entering this fall as defending national champions. It was not to be, however.

The Bulldogs are expected to be back in the national title hunt this season after bringing back 10 starters from its record-setting offense, headlined by senior quarterback Aaron Murray and the sophomore running back duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.

But there are question marks defensively after losing seven starters to the pros, consisting of linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, defensive linemen Abry Jones and John Jenkins and defensive backs Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams and Sanders Commings. Two other players who made numerous stars during their career — defensive lineman Kwame Geathers and cornerback Branden Smith — also departed.

If the Bulldogs are to finally end their national championship drought that dates back to 1980, an experienced offense will have to continue setting a torrid pace while a young defense works to steady itself.UGA

  • Best-case scenario: The Bulldogs finally “finish the drill,” to borrow a team motto from year’s past, winning it all in Mark Richt’s 13th season in Athens. Georgia beats Clemson on the road in a Week 1 shootout, leaving Death Valley with a 48-42 victory. The South Carolina Gamecocks and arch-nemesis Steve Spurrier have Georgia’s number for the fourth consecutive season, nipping the Bulldogs 21-17 in Sanford Stadium. Georgia finishes the regular season with a flourish, however, winning its next 10 games in dominant fashion, with every victory in that span being by double-digits. The one that brings the biggest smile to the face of the Bulldog faithful is a 48-14 pasting of the Florida Gators in Jacksonville, Fla. It marks Georgia’s third straight victory in the series (the first time that’s been done since a similar three-year run from 1987-89) and the biggest margin of victory versus Florida since a 44-0 shutout in 1982. In the SEC Championship Game, Georgia gets a rematch against Alabama. This time, it is the Bulldogs, not the Crimson Tide, who move on to the national title contest. Consequently, the Bulldogs’ 34-24 win ends the Crimson Tide’s quest for three consecutive national championships. In the BCS title game, Richt faces former foe Urban Meyer, now leading Ohio State. But as Meyer quickly finds out, his old conference has this “winning national championships”-thing down pat. The Bulldogs and Buckeyes exchange the lead four times in the first half, but it’s a different story after halftime. Georgia’s balanced offensive attack keeps Ohio State caught off-guard on nearly every play, and the Bulldogs roll to a 41-21 victory. While Murray has finally used up his eligibility, it just means more carries for Gurley and Marshall in 2014. Speaking of 2014, the national title helps the Bulldogs ink the top-ranked class in the country on National Signing Day. Georgia fans are equally pleased to see both of their arch-rivals, Florida and Georgia Tech, fail to break .500 after entering their respective bowl games at 6-6 and losing.
  • Worst-case scenario: The offense can’t do everything. Though the Bulldogs are in contention to win against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in the first four games of the season, the youthful defense makes mistakes at key moments late in all three contests, which costs Georgia dearly. After four games, the Bulldogs’ record stands at 1-3. Georgia rebounds to win seven of its last eight games in the regular season, but it shouldn’t be hard to figure out who the lone loss was suffered to — Florida. Yes, the Bulldogs’ two-year win streak over the Gators is snapped in the final minute of the game. With Georgia driving toward a game-winning score, Murray is blindsided by defensive lineman Dominique Easley, fumbling the ball away to Florida. A furious Richt even musters a “Dadgummit!” on the sidelines as he watches the clock run out in the Gators’ 21-17 victory. Georgia doesn’t lose again until it heads back to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs are far from thrilled to make a return trip to EverBank Field, and it shows in their play. Murray’s career ends on a sour note, losing to the Michigan State Spartans in a bowl for the second time in his career. The Spartans force the senior into throwing three interceptions as they beat the Bulldogs 28-17. An 8-5 record is a massive disappointment for Georgia considering the expectations it had entering the fall. Recruits in the Peach State take note, as Georgia whiffs on many of the state’s top 2014 prospects. It doesn’t help that Georgia Tech ends the season with one more win (nine to eight) than Georgia, but there is one thing even harder to stomach: Florida wins the national championship behind the worst offense in the history of modern college football. Of course, Gators fans couldn’t care less, as they tout winning their third national championship in the BCS era (and fourth since 1996) over the Bulldogs’ heads.