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August 30, 2013

THE WAIT IS OVER: Predictions on games around the country this weekend

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Everyone likes making predictions.

You do. I do. It’s a fun diversion, especially when you don’t have to worry about losing any money on the outcome of the games. (Well, at least I don’t.) Each Friday afternoon, I’ll make my picks on 15 different games around the country, with scores included for each one. And yes, I’ll even pick Auburn’s game every week, too. (I’m already preparing myself for derision the first time I pick against the Tigers. Such is life.)Auburn Spring Football

Now, to the picks. (Please note that all times listed are Eastern. Thanks in advance.)

Strictly SEC

Toledo at No. 10 Florida, 12:21 p.m.

This game might sound like an easy win for the Gators on paper, but don’t underestimate the Rockets. They return three big-time playmakers in running back David Fluellen, receiver Bernard Reedy and quarterback Terrance Owens. Fluellen is undoubtedly the top threat after rushing for 1,498 yards last season. And be aware Florida will also have five starters missing from the game due to injury, with right tackle Chaz Green and right guard Jon Halapio gone as well as running back Matt Jones. Those losses don’t help a unit already lacking much of a punch.

Florida will be fortunate to escape by the skin of its teeth.

Black picks: Gators 24, Rockets 21

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, 1 p.m.

Most years, this game would draw little attention. Then Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel went and won himself a Heisman last year. Throw in all of his off-the-field issues since the end of last season — and the fact he’ll be sitting out the first half of this game due to “secondary violations” of the NCAA rules on allowing an athlete’s likeness to be used for commercial purposes — and anyone who calls themselves a college football fan will be following the happenings in College Station closely. Has the second half of a regular season game ever been more anticipated?

It might not be competitive, but it will be compelling.

Black picks: Aggies 52, Owls 10

Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Oklahoma State (at Reliant Stadium in Houston), 3:30 p.m.

The Bulldogs’ top three pass-catchers from last season are gone. That’s not good news knowing that you normally have to score points in bunches to beat the Pokes.

Black picks: Cowboys 41, Bulldogs 20

Louisiana-Lafayette at Arkansas, 4 p.m.

“Real American football” gets off to a good start in Fayetteville, Ark., on Saturday afternoon, but the Ragin’ Cajuns will make them work for it until midway through the fourth quarter.

Black picks: Razorbacks 34, Ragin’ Cajuns 24

Virginia Tech vs. No. 1 Alabama (at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta), 5:30 p.m.

These ain’t your grandfather’s (or your father’s) Hokies. Virginia Tech isn’t ranked and is coming off a lackluster 7-6 showing last season. The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, resemble the program people would recall during the halcyon days of Bear Bryant, which is bad news for Frank Beamer’s crew in this contest. Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler — who, you might remember, held the same position at Auburn last year — will once again “match wits” against Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.

This won’t end well.

Black picks: Crimson Tide 41, Hokies 10

Austin Peay at Tennessee, 6 p.m.

The Volunteers help Butch Jones begin his tenure at Tennessee with a ‘W.’ It only gets tougher from here, though, as they’ll have faced Florida and Oregon (on the road in both) before September is over.

Black picks: Volunteers 38, Governors 14

Western Kentucky vs. Kentucky (at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.), 7 p.m.

My head is urging me not to pick against Bobby Petrino. But something tells me that somehow, someway, first-year coach Mark Stoops isn’t going to let the Wildcats lose this game. And for his sake, the result better not be a one-sided loss, lest he wants to hear from a fan base that will wonder why the Wildcats didn’t give Petrino — a former Louisville coach who tortured Kentucky during his time there — a chance to run their program since he was in the market for a job during the offseason.

Black picks: Wildcats 42, Hilltoppers 38

Murray State at Missouri, 7 p.m.

After an injury-plagued 2012 season, Tigers quarterback James Franklin gets back on the right track with this layup game in the season opener. Here’s another mini-prediction: Dorial Beckham-Green goes for 200-plus receiving yards and two touchdowns in this one.

Black picks: Tigers 55, Racers 14

No. 20 TCU vs. No. 12 LSU (at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas), 9 p.m.

Both teams have question marks on offense. For LSU, it’s whether running back Jeremy Hill will start after being reinstated to the team during the offseason — or will he play at all? Tigers head coach Les Miles has played coy all week. TCU still hasn’t announced which quarterback — senior Casey Pachall or sophomore Trevone Boykin — will take the field with the first-team unit. These schools have always been known for their defenses, and it should be no different this year, even with LSU losing eight defenders to the NFL after last season.

It should be a good one, but when in doubt, go with the SEC team. (It usually pays off, after all.)

Black picks: Tigers 31, Horned Frogs 20

Other National Games of Some Renown

Louisiana-Monroe at Oklahoma, 7 p.m.

As many recall, the Warhawks came within a whisker of starting 3-0 last season, dropping Arkansas in the season opener and suffering close losses to Auburn (in overtime) and Baylor (which won 47-42). They’ll push the Sooners for a half or so in this one, but “Big Game Bob” Stoops normally takes care of business in regular season games at home, posting an incredible 81-5  (94.2 percent) record since taking over in 1999.

Black picks: Sooners 52, Warhawks 24

No. 19 Boise State at Washington, 10 p.m.

Isn’t absence supposed to make the heart grow fonder? Heck, these two teams closed last season against each other in the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas, with the Broncos coming out on top 28-26. Obviously, Boise State head coach Chris Petersen’s record (84-8 in eight seasons) is impossible to knock, but his team isn’t unbeatable. In fact, it lost its opening game last season to Michigan State. It says here that the Huskies, who return 20 starters from 2012, make that to two years in a row.

Black picks: Huskies 38, Broncos 28

No. 22 Northwestern at California, 10:30 p.m.

Sonny Dykes is an offensive whiz, as he proved last year when his Louisiana Tech squad led the nation in scoring at 51.5 points per game. In the wide-open, pass-happy Pac-12, he’s the perfect fit to turn the Golden Bears around. It just won’t happen against Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is 7-0 in season openers. This should be a whale of game, but the bigger question is this: Will you stay up to watch it?

Black picks: Wildcats 30, Golden Bears 27

No. 11 Florida State at Pittsburgh (Monday), 8 p.m.

Mark it down: Hueytown, Ala., native (and new Seminoles signal-caller) Jameis Winston will make a few highlight reel plays on Monday en route to leading Florida State to a season-opening victory on the road.

Black picks: Seminoles 31, Panthers 10

The Game You Really Care About

Washington State at Auburn, 7 p.m.

For those who joined the live chat on Thursday, this pick won’t come as a surprise: I predicted the Tigers will win by two touchdowns in Gus Malzahn’s debut as the head coach on the Plains. Yes, the Cougars pass-heavy attack will test a Tigers secondary weakened due to mitigating factors (Jonathan Jones’ injury, Demetruce McNeal’s dismissal). As the game goes on, however, Auburn’s physicality up front will wear its opponent down, creating holes for Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Nick Marshall to gash the Cougars for big plays.

And since everyone always asks about Marshall, I’ll say he ends with just over 300 yards of total offense: 217 passing yards (one touchdown, no interceptions) and 84 rushing yards (one touchdown).

Toomer’s Corner should be rocking.

Black picks: Tigers 31, Cougars 17

GAME OF THE WEEK

No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson, 8 p.m.

I’ve gone back-and-forth on this matchup. The teams are nearly identical: great on offense and mediocre on defense. Points should be aplenty, but I’ll take the Bulldogs in a nail-biter.

(Though if it comes down to a field goal, Georgia will likely be kicking itself — pardon the pun — since starting kicker Marshall Morgan will likely miss the game due to an offseason arrest for boating under the influence. As Steve Spurrier would point out, Morgan kept up a long tradition of Georgia players doing stupid things to get them suspended for early-season games.)

Black’s pick: Bulldogs 45, Tigers 38

August 28, 2013

7 at 7: Taking a stroll around the SEC

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — In case you didn’t know by now, it’s Wednesday, folks.SEC_new_logo

(Cue up the annoying Geico “Hump Day!!” camel ad. I’m just not a fan. Hope that doesn’t offend anyone, and if it does … well, deal with it.)

But back to more important matters. Now that it’s just three days away from Auburn’s season opener, we’ve already settled into a routine here at War Eagle Extra as far as weekly content is concerned. I’ll post the finalized schedule soon enough, but until that happens, take note: Every Wednesday, “7 at 7″ will consist of links from around the SEC, both Auburn and otherwise.

Without further ado, I give you today’s batch of items from around the league:

1. To keep with a time-honored tradition (dating back to last month), I’ll begin by shamelessly self-promoting the things posted to the blog the previous day, beginning with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s declaration that Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne are neck-and-neck at the top of the running back depth chart heading into Saturday. We also had wire-to-wire video coverage of Malzahn’s 16-minute press conference as well as a feature on left guard Alex Kozan. Oh, and don’t forget Tuesday’s notebook, which detailed Malzahn’s intrigue regarding Nick Marshall’s debut in an Auburn uniform.

2. Josh Kendall, the South Carolina beat writer for The State in Columbia, S.C., had an interesting article on Tuesday. As hard as it is to believe, the Gamecocks have only five seniors (!!!) listed on this year’s roster. Kendall explains how that came to be. And ESPN.com SEC blogger Chris Low had a good piece on Kelcy Quarles, one of South Carolina’s “other” defensive linemen, who is trying to do whatever he can to escape the long shadow of Jadeveon Clowney.

3. You’ve probably heard about the GQ profile on Nick Saban. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s your chance. It doesn’t disappoint, making Saban out to be the maniac everyone would think given his normal joyless demeanor.

4. Just how good is Robert Nkemdiche, the unquestioned top recruit in the Class of 2013? Hugh Kellenberger of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger tries to find an answer.

5. Speaking of highly-regarded recruits, LSU picked up a massive commitment for its 2015 class on Monday. The Tigers were able to keep hometown running back Nicholas Brossette to stay in Baton Rouge. An Auburn target, he also had offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Tennessee, UCLA and Vanderbilt — just to name a few — after he rushed for a school-record 2,118 yards and 44 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.

6. Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops announced that the Wildcats will play two quarterbacks against Western Kentucky in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday. It consists of the sophomore pair of Max Smith and Jalen Whitlow. And yes, they have settled on a starter — Stoops just refused to reveal it to reporters.

7. Georgia will play in this week’s marquee game when it heads on the road Saturday night to square off against Clemson. For Bulldog tight end Jay Rome, it will be an opportunity to beat his father’s alma mater. (Stan Rome lettered in football in 1975, but he was an even better basketball player, as he still ranks 14th on the Tigers’ all-time scoring list.)

And since I normally like to end these with a video when I can, why not embed a video of one player leaping over another one? Besides, when you have a video like that, I think you’d probably have to find a reason not to post it, right? My colleague at The Telegraph in Macon, Seth Emerson, talked to linebacker (and Harris County graduate) Jordan Jenkins about his leap over freshman running back Brendan Douglas during one of the Bulldogs’ preseason scrimmages.

The video is provided below. And it didn’t end up being all for show — Jenkins’ display of athleticism led quarterback Christian LeMay to throw the ball right into the hands of linebacker Amarlo Herrera.

August 27, 2013

7 at 7: A look around the NCAA

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — There have been both long and short versions of “7 at 7″ before.

Consider this one the latter. Starting this week and tentatively scheduled to run for the duration of the football season, Tuesday’s “7 at 7″ will have links from across the country, highlighting the biggest stories and (what I consider to be) the best pieces of writing. There should be a full schedule posted later today of what content to expect each day of the week.

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel reportedly met with NCAA investigators for six hours on Sunday. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel reportedly met with NCAA investigators for six hours on Sunday. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Stay tuned.

1. The curious case of Johnny Manziel’s autograph odyssey could be coming closer to a resolution. According to a source close to the investigation, the NCAA met with the sophomore quarterback for six hours on Sunday.

2. Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer will likely get his fair share of carries at Louisville this season; however, he won’t be the starter in the Cardinals’ opening game. That honor goes to senior Senorise Perry.

3. A pair of teams finally named their starting quarterbacks on Monday:  Justin Worley will enter the year as Tennessee’s signal-caller, while Jake Waters will be the man running Kansas State’s offense this season.

4. Paul Myerberg of USA Today gives you five coaches to know heading into the season — that is, if you haven’t brushed up on them already.

5. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was one of the first people to reach out and aid Alabama in April 2011 following a string of tornadoes that ripped through the state.

6. Oklahoma is dealing with an array of arrests as it prepares for its season opener against Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday. Offensive lineman Jake Reed was arrested and charged with one count of first-degree burglary, one count of assault and battery and one count of domestic abuse after breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s home and threatening to kill another man. He has already been suspended from the team and the university while the case continues. Two other Sooners arrested during the offseason — starting cornerback Cortez Johnson and starting defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue — will sit out Saturday’s game as part of their punishment.

7. We end with a feature on former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, now the head man at Cincinnati. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports writes that the 59-year old is happier than he’s ever been. He also noted Tuberville’s personal golf cart — which he first used at Auburn and then took with him to Texas Tech and now Cincinnati — is still going strong.

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 18, 2013

SEC Media Days, Day 3: James Franklin refuses to address dismissed players, Nick Saban needles media

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

HOOVER, Ala. — Vanderbilt coach James Franklin was asked 18 questions on Thursday during his time with reporters at SEC Media Days. One-third of queries aimed his way dealt with player behavior.

The line of questioning comes as no surprise, of course, after four Commodores were kicked off the team last month as police in Nashville, Tenn., continue to investigate whether a sex crime occurred at a campus dormitory.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin deflected any questions dealing with four dismissed players from the football program on Thursday at SEC Media Days.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin deflected any questions dealing with four players recently dismissed from the football program on Thursday at SEC Media Days. (AP Photo)

Franklin refused to offer any updates on the case, other than to repeatedly say it is an “ongoing” process.

Instead, the coach made sure the discussion centered around the players still on the team.

“We’ve been focusing on our team and our players and making sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do academically this summer,” Franklin said. “We have taken classes in June and July. We had some guys study abroad in May, which is an unbelievable experience for them.”

One reporter asked whether success on the field and trouble off it have a direct correlation. Vanderbilt’s third-year coach replied that he hadn’t “done enough studies” to lend any insight on the matter.

“When those things pop up, I do think they’re probably magnified,” he said. “A little bit more success you have, things are magnified. I couldn’t get into the details or specifics.”

Franklin also disputed that to “compete at the highest level of college football,” as one reporter phrased it, teams have to take chances on recruits with questionable backgrounds. While he couldn’t speak about other programs, Franklin made sure to emphasize he didn’t allow Vanderbilt to operate that way.

“It’s never been that way in the past. It’s not that way presently,” he said. “It will never be in the future. That’s not what we’re all about.”

Franklin doesn’t rule out Commodores playing at LP Field — eventually

Sharing a city with an NFL team, the Commodores are in a situation that sets them apart from their SEC brethren. In other cities, such as Pittsburgh and Houston, college teams play in the same stadiums as their professional counterparts. The Commodores play their homes games at Vanderbilt Stadium, which is located on the grounds of the university’s main campus.

Franklin was asked about the possibility of the Commodores hosting a game at LP Field, the stadium used by the Tennessee Titans.

Right now, it’s just that: a possibility.

“We have had some discussions depending on our schedule if we can get an eight-game schedule, the possibilities of taking one of those games to LP Field, which I think would be great for the city as well, great for our program,” Franklin said. “But we want to make sure that the nucleus, at least seven games, are on our campus every year.”

Saban fires back at Miles’ schedule complaints

Before finishing his time in front of media members on Thursday, LSU coach Les Miles once again expressed his frustration over the SEC’s unbalanced schedule, which will see his Tigers play both Florida and Georgia in cross-divisional matchups this season. Those two teams went 14-2 in conference play in 2012. Alabama, on the other hand, will play SEC East teams Kentucky and Tennessee, two teams that combined to go 1-15 against league competition last year. (The lone win was the Volunteers’ 37-17 victory over the Wildcats in the season finale for both teams.)

“I’d have to say there’s a repeated scheduling advantage and disadvantage for certain teams in this conference based on tradition and traditional matchups,” the LSU coach said.

Saban heard Miles’ remarks loud and clear — and responded every bit as forcefully.

“There can never be an equal path to the championship,” he said. “Unless everybody plays everybody, that’s the only equal path to championship.”

And Saban even got in one last dig at both Miles and his former school.

“I understand where Les Miles is coming from. I coached at LSU,” he said with a smile. “We played Florida every year, too. So if anybody understands it, I understand it.”

Media’s prognosticating futility turns into fun for Saban

Saban also found some time to poke fun at media members, noting their abysmal record picking the eventual SEC champion.

Media members have correctly picked the champion only four times in the last 21 years, Saban said, and the two-time defending national champion coach couldn’t help but point out what that type of record would mean in his profession.

“Now, if I was 4-17 as a coach, I would be back in West Virginia pumping my gas at my daddy’s gas station,” he said. “We don’t really want to go there.”

July 15, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Alabama

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. On the sixth and final day of our series, we conclude with the two-time defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tigers will host their arch-rival in the regular season finale for both teams on Nov. 30.

Who: Alabama

When: Saturday, Nov. 30alabamalogo

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

All-time series: Alabama leads 42-34-1

When last they met: Gene Chizik probably couldn’t have scripted a worst ending to his four-year tenure on the Plains if he had tried. Entering the game 0-7 in SEC play, and not scoring a point against Georgia in their previous outing against a league foe, few expected the Tigers to be able to inflict much damage upon their arch-rival in the annual Iron Bowl matchup. And as it turns out, they didn’t. It was all Alabama from start-to-finish, as the Crimson Tide played with a resolve determined not to show any semblance of weakness as they prepared for a showdown with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. The Crimson Tide won going away in a 49-0 victory over the Tigers, which was the second-most points Alabama had ever scored in an Iron Bowl and the second-largest margin of victory in the series for either team. Only the 1948 contest was more lopsided, when Alabama won 55-0. Alabama was up 42-0 at the half, led by Eddie Lacy’s two scores on the ground and Amari Cooper’s two receiving touchdowns. Alabama pulled its starters after its first series of the third quarter, with the victory well in hand. One day later, Chizik was fired.

The coach: Nick Saban (159-55-1 record overall in 17 seasons; NOTE: NCAA adjusted Saban’s record to 154-55-1 after Alabama had to vacate its first five wins of the 2007 season due to NCAA violations relating to players illegally obtaining free textbooks for other students; went 9-2 in one season at Toledo in 1990, 34-24 in five seasons at Michigan State 1995-99, 48-16 in five seasons at LSU from 2000-04 and 68-13 in six seasons at Alabama since 2007; four national titles, one at LSU in 2003 and three at Alabama, coming in 2009, 2011 and 2012)

2012 record: 13-1, 7-1 SEC (won SEC Western Division title; beat Georgia 32-28 in SEC Championship Game; beat Notre Dame 42-14 in BCS National Championship Game)

Total offense: 445.50 ypg (31st in Division I, 4th in SEC)

Scoring offense: 38.71 ppg (12th, 2nd)

Total defense: 250.00 ypg (1st, 1st)

Scoring defense: 10.93 ppg (1st, 1st)

2012 Year-in-Review: Alabama got the season started off right, crushing Michigan 41-14 in its season opener at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Crimson Tide’s next seven opponents offered little resistance, winning those games by a combined score of 284-51. Alabama was finally tested when it visited Baton Rouge, La., to take on LSU. Thanks to some last-minute heroics from quarterback AJ McCarron and freshman tailback T.J. Yeldon — the two hooked up for the go-ahead 28-yard score with 51 seconds to play — the Crimson Tide left Tiger Stadium with a 21-17 victory and their undefeated season intact. That changed a week later versus Texas A&M. Dazzling redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, the eventual Heisman winner, helped the fifth-ranked Aggies upend the Crimson Tide in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama was no longer in control of its own destiny in the BCS title chase, but got help when both Kansas State and Oregon lost on the same Saturday just one week later. Closing out the regular season with identical 49-0 victories over Western Carolina and Auburn, Alabama met Georgia in the SEC Championship, in what was a de facto semifinal for the right to face Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. In one of the most memorable games the Georgia Dome had ever seen, the Crimson Tide punched another ticket to the national title contest after Georgia receiver Chris Conley caught a tipped pass at the 5-yard-line on the game’s chaotic final play. With no timeouts left, the Bulldogs had to watch the Crimson Tide celebrate as confetti streamed down to the Georgia Dome’s turf. And Alabama sucked any drama the BCS title tilt might have had in the early going, scoring three touchdowns by the opening minute of the second quarter. The Crimson Tide tacked on two more touchdowns before the Fighting Irish ever got on the board, romping to a 42-14 win — the second-largest margin of victory in a BCS title game — to earn their second national championship in a row and third in four years.

Biggest area of concern: Concern may not be the right word. Slightly apprehensive, maybe? A tad uneasy? Yes, they have to replace three fantastic offensive linemen in center Barrett Jones, left guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker (All-Americans, all), but does anyone really think the Crimson Tide weren’t prepared for this? Anyone who doubts Alabama’s ability to reload, regardless of the amount of talent lost, does so at their own peril.

Key returning player/unit: The Crimson Tide are filled to the brim with NFL-ready talent at nearly every position. You name it, and they probably have it. But when you’re a team chasing the kind of history that Alabama is after this season, it helps to have a quarterback used to playing in high-pressure situations. McCarron certainly fits the bill. Cooper will return as McCarron’s go-to target in what should be one of the best receiving corps Alabama has had under Saban. And when McCarron feels like handing the ball off — which he should do quite often this fall — he’ll have an almost-unfair number of options who can ably handle the job. Even with Lacy moving on to the NFL, Yeldon leads arguably the deepest unit on the team, joined by fellow returnees Kenyan Drake (a speedster), Dee Hart (another burner who moved to defensive back in the spring but could still get carries in some situations) and the bruising Jalston Fowler, a short-yardage extraordinaire. Then, since they didn’t have enough talented tailbacks already, the Crimson Tide signed four of the best in the 2013 class in Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Tyren Jones and another member of the “all-cool name first-team,” Altee Tenpenny. McCarron has lost only two games in as many seasons as Alabama’s starting quarterback (against 25 victories), and it seems unlikely many defeats will be added to his total in the coming year, barring some (very) unforeseen circumstances.

Extra point: With its win in the national title game, Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012) became only the third school in the “wire service era” (since 1936) to capture three titles in a four year span, joining Notre Dame (1946, 1947, 1949) and Nebraska (1994, 1995, 1997). No team in the aforementioned “wire service era” has won three consecutive national championships, which the Crimson Tide are gunning for this season.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES

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July 9, 2013

7 at 7: A new beginning at War Eagle Extra (and links)

Hello, I’m Ryan Black.

OK, maybe it doesn’t have the same gravitas as, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” OK, it definitely doesn’t. That being said, I extend my greetings to all readers of War Eagle Extra. I’m glad to be here, and thankful for the opportunity, to — as my predecessor, one Aaron Brenner, put it last year when he started this job — “maintain the solid reputation of Auburn beat writers for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.”

He obviously did that, and that’s one of the reasons I’m continuing Brenner’s popular “7 at 7″ format here in my debut post.

Ryan Black

As you may note below in the story highlighting my hire, yes, I graduated from the University of Georgia. Yes, if you “Google search” my name, it will come up with hundreds upon hundreds of stories I wrote about the Bulldogs. But not one of them is “slanted” toward Georgia. I pledge no allegiance to the Bulldogs, the same thing I’d say about the Tigers or any other team I’m assigned to cover. It’s not my job to “cheer” for a team, or be “against” one. I’m a journalist. All I want to see is a good, competitive game, folks. If I’m rooting for anything, it’s for a good story. (And please, pardon that cliché if you like.)

I’m going to report the news, good and bad. I’ll deliver analysis, too. Will we always agree? No. Besides, where is the fun in that? Do you really only talk to people you agree with? I don’t think so. If I ever criticize the Tigers, which — and I’m going out on a limb here — will probably happen at some point, don’t let your immediate reaction be, “There it is. Exactly what I was expecting. What a Georgia homer. He hates Auburn.” Put down your pitchforks. Reporters cover “rival” schools of their own alma maters all the time. It’s the nature of the business.

I don’t profess to be perfect. I’m quite open to criticism. (And quite open to praise, too.) So if you have any questions about the team or other feedback you’d like to send along, please don’t hesitate to contact me. You can tweet to @wareagleextra or shoot me an email at rblack@ledger-enquirer.com.

The season is getting ever closer, and I know you readers are as ready for it as I am.

1. Before delving into other links of more recent vintage, I figured I could share a pair of my older stories, one showing my willingness to criticize Georgia (here) and another being a feature centered around Auburn’s struggles last season, told from the Bulldogs’ perspective (here).

Enjoy.

2. Now, on to the Tigers. Auburn defensive end Dee Ford was named to the Bednarik Award preseason watch list on Monday. The award is given annually to the nation’s top defensive player. Ford, a senior, is the Tigers’ top returnee on the defensive line, as he led the team in sacks last season with six, as well as tallying 34 total tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss.

Along with Ford, 75 other players were named to the watch list, which is presented by the Maxwell Football Club. The semifinalists will be announced Oct. 29, and the three finalists for the award will be released Nov. 19. The winner will be named during the Home Depot College Awards show on Dec. 12.

3. Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer hasn’t given up on playing in Division I’s Football Bowl Subdivision. Far from it. All he’s looking for right now is a chance, according to USA Today. After washing out of both Auburn and Arkansas State due to myriad issues, Dyer is immediately eligible to play this season and would be classified as a junior. He graduated with an associate’s degree from Arkansas Baptist College last month.

To read the whole story on Dyer, check out George Schroeder’s piece on the USA Today website.

4. If you’ve got $10,200 to spend in one lump sum — a luxury I can’t afford, unfortunately — there is one-of-a-kind opportunity awaiting you, Auburn fans. Want to have all 17 letters that once graced the entrance welcoming you to Jordan-Hare Stadium? Well, you’re in luck. The letters are for sale.

Thanks to the folks over at The War Eagle Reader, we know an Ebay seller in Lewisville, Texas is willing to part with the letters for $10,000. (The additional $200 is the cost to ship it to your home.)

The description on the Buy It Now Listing is as follows:

“We are offering something very special for vintage sports collectors and Auburn football fans! In 2011, the entrance to the stadium got a new sign. Through another dealer we were able to purchase the entire sign that was removed! It is big, it is heavy, and it is one of a kind! These have seen Heisman winners and National champions!

“The letters are heavy cast aluminum, 8-12 pounds each and two foot tall! These were on the northeast side of the stadium, or to orient yourself, they overlooked the intersection of Donahue Dr & Heisman Dr. If you go on Google Maps Streetview, you can see these on the stadium! Google: 251 S Donahue Dr, Auburn, AL”

The 17 letters would be quite an addition to any person’s collection.

If nothing else, they would make for a great conversation starter at your next party.

5. Love him or hate him, Paul Finebaum knows how to stir the pot. He did so once more on Monday during a radio interview with ESPN personalities Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo. Widely-regarded as one of the biggest games of the coming season, the Alabama/Texas A&M tilt didn’t get high marks in Finebaum’s book, since he’s predicting a one-sided affair.

“I think Alabama is going to win that game and I think they’ll win it easily, Finebaum said. “That doesn’t make A&M a bad program. I mean they’re in the top five in the country and Manziel is certainly on everyone’s list to repeat, although we both know he won’t.”

“Even though it’s a revenge game for Alabama, I think the pressure’s on A&M. They’re still newbies with all this fame and fortune and I think there’s just going to be too much pressure.”

“This is the biggest game maybe in Texas A&M history and I just don’t think they’re quite there yet in spite of everything they did last year.”

I’m sure those comments will go over just fine in College Station. Don’t be surprised if Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin responds to Finebaum in kind. It wouldn’t be the first time “The Prez” gets the better of an exchange with Finebaum, after all.

6. Speaking of the Crimson Tide, there’s a new writer joining the beat in The Anniston Star’s Marquavius Burnett. My colleague tipped me off to the “great reporting” in this article by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com, as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft broke his silence on Aaron Hernandez.

Regardless of how this case eventually unfolds, it is a tragedy for all involved.

7. And to make sure we end my initial posting on an upbeat note, check out a couple of lighthearted links I came across on Monday.

The first came from a Cleveland Browns fan named Scott Entsminger, who died on July 4 at the age of 55. According to his obituary in The Columbus Dispatch, the accomplished musician and longtime season ticket holder had one last favor to ask of his beloved team: “He respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns pall bearers so the Browns can let him down one last time.”

Zing!

While the last link isn’t a story, it doesn’t need words. Pictures sometimes speak for themselves, right? This photo of Larry Brown while he was coaching at North Carolina in 1975 does just that. Take a second and let it sink in. Or take a look at it, walk outside and come back to it later.

Let us all be grateful that wardrobe is exactly where it should be: in the past.

April 15, 2013

Long on speed and patience, Auburn RB Corey Grant making most of a major opportunity

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – When the offensive line plowed over primary tacklers, and the wide receivers sealed off the corners, Corey Grant’s only job was to use his track-star speed to score a couple of live scrimmage touchdowns.

No need to wait. For once in his college career, patience wasn’t necessary.

“It has helped getting more reps, because you see more things happening,” Grant said. “I think it’s an opportunity for me to get into the groove of the offense.”

Cameron Artis-Payne has 3,412 rushing yards in college, including the 2,000-yard milestone his sophomore year at Allan Hancock Community College.

Tre Mason has 1,163 rushing yards in college, including the 1,000-yard milestone his sophomore year at Auburn, when he accounted for nearly a third of the team’s total offense.

Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford were each in the vicinity of 1,700 rushing yards their senior years in high school, and will look to contribute immediately upon reaching campus this summer.

Grant has a whopping 29 yards the past three years. He redshirted at Alabama in 2010, shifted to Auburn for the 2011 season and sat out due to NCAA transfer rules, and settled for nine carries in 2012 buried on the depth chart behind Mason, Onterio McCalebb and Mike Blakely.

Grant, a local favorite from nearby Opelika High School, wasn’t even awarded an Auburn scholarship until August 16 preceding last season.

None of this fazes Grant, a junior-to-be who scored the first touchdown of Auburn’s spring drills in March, busted out for two long TD runs in Saturday’s scrimmage and appears like a bona fide contender for significant carries this fall, the way he’s carrying himself whether he’s surrounded by linebackers or reporters.

“I’m more focused, I think. Trying not to let any opportunity slip by,” Grant said. “Every opportunity I can get, I try to take that chance and run with it.”

Running, Grant can do. He won the Alabama Class 6A 100-meter dash his last two years of high school, and was rumored to run a sub-4.3 second 40-yard-dash at Alabama.

“He’s always been good. He’s fast; he’s explosive,” junior wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “We expect that out of Corey.”

Pure speed isn’t the only reason Grant has the coaching staff’s attention.

“He’s a very hard worker. He does a lot of dirty work and he made a couple of good runs,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He had some success, which was good to see.”

Grant’s been a roster afterthought before – as a four-star recruit with the Crimson Tide, he had little choice but to toil on the 2010 scout team, behind reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, future 2011 Heisman finalist Trent Richardson and likely first-round NFL draft selection Eddie Lacy.

Grant is very confident he’s finally in a Malzahn-paced offense that suits him, since it’s the system used by Opelika High School.

“I think so: using my speed, it helps me get outside or hit creases harder and faster,” Grant said “Overall, this is a better offense for me.”

An ankle sprain for Mason has allowed Artis-Payne and Grant to show their stuff to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and running backs coach Tim Horton, neither of whom have any preconceived notions about the presumed pecking order.

“We’ve told our guys from Day One: No jobs are set,” Lashlee said. “Really, each day, your job is up for grabs. We’re still giving guys equal reps. Each day is an evaluation.”

Mason is constantly in Grant’s ear, giving him pointers when he gets a breather in favor of Artis-Payne.

“You’ve got to earn your respect from your coaches, your teammates,” Grant said. “When fall comes around, we know such-and-such guy, he can get the job done.”

Artis-Payne hasn’t met with reporters yet – none of the three early-enrolled junior college transfers have – but Grant reports he’s a grinder on the field and a goofball off it.

“When we get to football, he’s serious and he puts on his work-hard face. But outside of football, he’s a funny guy, great guy.”

The Tigers won’t pressure Mason to return for A-Day or any of the other four remaining practices.

“We want to get guys back 100 percent,” Lashlee said. “It’s really been good for Cameron and Corey and some of those guys to get more reps, and to see how they handle it when the load increases.”

April 10, 2013

Ray of hope? Ex-Alabama commit, Dodgers minor-leaguer longs to make mark at Auburn

10Auburn4

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – It didn’t take long for Melvin Ray to long for the gridiron.

Once a four-star member of Alabama’s star-studded 2008 signing class, Ray never academically qualified to reach Tuscaloosa. So he decided he’d return to the family sport of baseball, drafted 997th overall by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 33rd round of the 2008 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft.

Ray never made it out of Rookie League ball, turning in an unproductive three seasons setting out as a teenager and ending as a 21-year-old. The outfielder batted .184 and struck out in nearly half his plate appearances.

So when did he start missing football?

“From day one,” Ray said, now an Auburn wide receiver following Wednesday’s spring practice. “Of course, I took baseball. It was an opportunity. I loved it, I played it my whole life.”

One of Ray’s best friends in the minors was Dee Gordon, currently in Triple-A but the owner of 56 stolen bases in 143 major league games from 2011-12.

“It was the first sport I ever played, following my dad and my brother,” Ray said. “Once I started football around 10th grade, I realized that was a sport that physically was probably better for me overall.”

A 6-foot-3, 218-pounder who turns 24 years old on April 23, initially attempted a return to Alabama, but wasn’t offered a scholarship or a fighter’s chance. The Tallahassee, Fla. native turned his eyes across the state, landing at Auburn last fall in camp and playing in all 12 games on special teams.

Ray still remembers his return to football, when he was deadset on returning to Alabama and not seeing it work out.

“It was just … I want to play college football,” Ray said. “Coming back here was more about ‘OK, now I need to start to think about a future’, so when I decided to do that and I took the opportunity to come here and check things out, I fell in love with Auburn and it became a second home to me.”

Now he’s getting his shot as wide receiver, more present in positional groups – particularly in first-team and second-team drills when applicable – than any other walk-on.

Oh, yes, he’s technically a walk-on. Ray’s father, Melvin Ray Sr., told the Tuscaloosa News in 2010 his Dodgers contract dictates the MLB club will pay for his college tuition.

An Auburn spokesman earlier this spring said Ray is still considered a walk-on, and wasn’t sure where the coaching staff stood with offering him one of the few scholarships available for the fall.

Either way, with a shortage of receivers in camp, Ray’s running with the likes of Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis and Jaylon Denson.

“He’s a big, athletic guy. I think if you ask him he’s thinking a lot about where to line up and his assignment instead of just playing football,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “At times he’s made some plays.”

Ray’s older and wiser than the rest of the roster, which he said has forced him to adjust simple aspects of his life like his diet – he stays away from fast food – and being patient with inexperienced teammates.

His goals are simple and independent: earn a scholarship, earn a college degree, start a career in something, anything.

“Of course when I came out of high school, I’m thinking about ‘ball, ball, ball’,” said Ray, a communications major. “I work hard to make sure I play on Saturdays and – you never know, hopefully I get an opportunity to play on Sundays – but thinking realistic, I have to worry about making sure I put myself in a position to get a job first.”

March 30, 2013

Auburn AD Jay Jacobs “extremely saddened” by former Alabama AD Mal Moore’s death

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs’ statement on former Alabama AD Mal Moore passing away at the age of 73 this morning in Durham, N.C.:

“I’m extremely saddened by the passing of my friend and colleague, Mal Moore. He served his alma mater with grace and dignity, and spent a majority of his life giving to the university that he loved. Mal was an outstanding leader, fierce competitor and most important, an outstanding human being. He will be missed, but his legacy at Alabama will live on forever. On behalf of the Auburn Family, our thoughts and prayers are with his daughter, Heather, the extended Moore family, as well as everyone associated with the University of Alabama.”

A moment of silence was observed before Alabama and Auburn played the rubber match of a three-game baseball series Saturday afternoon at Plainsman Park.