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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 24, 2013

Auburn football: With ‘the past’ behind him, Nick Marshall looks to turn around Tigers’ fortunes

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Nick Marshall’s feats with his feet are well-documented.

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. All Auburn's starting quarterback cares about is this season and getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. Marshall’s sole focus is getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Sure, many quarterbacks can extend plays and make something out of nothing thanks to fancy footwork. But few have shown the ability to excel at Marshall’s level. Take a look at the 1,095 yards he ran for last year in junior college. Also take note of the 19 touchdowns he accounted for on the ground, the second-most of any player in the National Junior College Athletic Association in 2012.

Or one could just check out his 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash.

Elusive as he may be, there are two storylines Auburn’s new signal-caller won’t be able to outrun this fall.

The first is the way his career at Georgia ended.

The other narrative, which will have far longer shelf life, is tracking his trajectory against the backdrop of a pair of SEC quarterbacks blessed with similar skill sets.

Richt: ‘I hope Nick has success’

Even though he was a record-setting quarterback at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Ga., that meant nothing to the Bulldogs, already set at the position with Aaron Murray. A member of Georgia’s heralded “Dream Team” class in 2011, Marshall shifted to cornerback upon arrival, playing in 13 games that fall. His tenure with the Bulldogs came to an unceremonious end, being dismissed along with fellow cornerback Chris Sanders and wide receiver Sanford Seay for a violation of team rules in February 2012. The three were reportedly involved in stealing money from a teammate’s dorm room.

No charges were ever filed in the case, however.

Following the dismissal, Marshall hit the reset button. He enrolled at Garden City Community College in Kansas and returned to quarterback. After one stellar season at the junior college level — along with his aforementioned rushing totals, he also threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns — he became part of the Tigers’ 2013 recruiting haul in February. Now, he’s entering the season as Auburn’s starter after coming out on top of the team’s four-man quarterback battle during fall camp.

He’ll make his debut Saturday in Auburn’s season opener, taking on Washington State in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Marshall hasn’t — or won’t — allow himself to reflect on his journey to this point, especially when the topic of the Bulldogs is broached.

“I don’t too much worry about that,” he said. “I’m an Auburn player now, so that’s in the past. I’m just going to move forward.”

Georgia never looked back, either. The Bulldogs have won back-to-back SEC Eastern Division titles, and are favored to make it three straight this season. His team’s lofty goals didn’t prevent Georgia head coach Mark Richt from being happy for Marshall when he heard Auburn’s quarterback search had come to a close.

“I like Nick,” he said. “I hope Nick has success other than our game.”

If he was still with the Bulldogs, Richt believes they would have already taken advantage of Marshall’s talents, building specific packages for him to shine offensively.

“We were thinking that we would somewhere along the line in his career,” he said, “but we never got to it.”

Marshall joined LSU’s Zach Mettenberger in a strange club: Both former Georgia players begin this fall as the starting quarterback at another SEC school. It’s a startling statistic; given other teams’ success with his former players, Richt was asked whether he would consider adding any ex-SEC castoffs in the future.

Depending on the circumstances involved, he wouldn’t rule it out.

“You just have to know all the facts and decide if this person would be in the best interest of Georgia and (if) the person, whatever they did, learned from it,” he said. “It would be a possibility.”

Marshall deflects comparisons with other QBs

The script nearly writes itself.

A highly-touted recruit runs into off-the-field trouble at an SEC school, transfers to a junior college — lighting up the circuit along the way — and then finds redemption as Auburn’s starting quarterback.

Obviously, this arc describes Marshall’s path to Auburn. It also is strikingly similar to Cam Newton, almost to the letter.

Like Marshall, Newton is a native of the Peach State. Regarded as one of the top players in the Class of 2007 out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, Newton ended up committing to Florida. Things never got off the ground for him in Gainesville, Fla., though. He spent two seasons with the Gators, departing in 2008 after being suspended by then-head coach Urban Meyer. The suspension stemmed from an arrest, as Newton was accused of stealing another student’s laptop. The charges were eventually dropped after he completed a pretrial diversion program for first-time offenders. Newton pushed on and finished out the fall semester of 2008 before leaving Florida in what he said was a search for more playing time.

And he found exactly what he was looking for at Blinn College in Texas.

Newton led the Buccaneers to a national championship in 2009 and pledged to Auburn soon after. In another piece of symmetry with Marshall, Newton came out on top of his own four-way quarterback competition at Auburn in the spring of 2010.

Everyone knows how Newton’s story goes from there.

In one of the most remarkable seasons in recent memory, Newton took the college football world by storm. With uncanny athleticism for a player his size and a knack for rising to the occasion when he was needed most, Newton led the Tigers to a 14-0 record and their first national title since 1957. His gaudy individual numbers — 2,854 passing yards and 30 touchdowns and another 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground — also landed Newton the Heisman.

Not surprisingly, when his name was mentioned during Marshall’s first meeting with reporters, Auburn’s newest quarterback immediately shut down anyone seeking to draw parallels.

“I really can’t compare myself to him,” Marshall said. “I’ll just be myself.”

What sets the two apart is sheer size. Newton has four inches (6-foot-5 to 6-foot-1) and 35 pounds (245 to 210) on Marshall. That’s why Matt Miller, Marshall’s offensive coordinator at Garden City, invoked the name of another winner of the bronze trophy whose stature is more reminiscent of his former protege: Johnny Manziel.

Once more, Marshall rejected any notion of being compared to another player.

“Again, I don’t worry about what everybody else does,” he said. “I just worry about me and worry about my team.”

While he wouldn’t acknowledge coming in with a chip on his shoulder, Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn picked up on it the moment he began recruiting Marshall.

“He definitely had something to prove,” Malzahn said. “He’s had that attitude since he’s been here. He’s really studied hard. He’s worked hard. He’s been in that playbook. He’s showed (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee that it’s very important to him. He showed his teammates, too. And that’s the most important thing. He’s got a lot of respect from his teammates, and they’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

Yes, he knows he won over the Tigers with his play on the field. But Marshall said that wouldn’t have come without watching extra hours of film by himself.

Everyone around the program knows the expectations already being placed upon Marshall are sky-high. That’s why the Tigers are going to give him every opportunity to succeed this fall.

“We’ve got a good line, we’ve got some good backs, we’ve got some wideouts that are going to have to step up and make plays for him, and that’s the key,” Lashlee said. “Don’t feel like you have to do too much. Play within the system, and over time the system will grow as you feel better with it.”

In Lashlee’s estimation, the most memorable play Marshall has made thus far is an example of the patience he hopes to see from the quarterback once the regular season begins. In one of the Tigers’ scrimmages during camp, the offense faced a third-and-14. Lining up in a four-wide receiver set, Marshall’s protection broke down. Instead of tucking the ball and running at the first sign of distress, however, Marshall stood tall and dumped it off to his safety valve on the play, Corey Grant. The running back took care of the rest, picking up 16 yards to keep the drive alive.

Lashlee, a former quarterback, couldn’t have been more pleased if he had run the play himself.

“We convert a third-and-14 just because he does his job and doesn’t try to do more than he has to do,” he said. “And to me, that showed great maturity and that, ‘Hey, he’s buying in. He’s trying to play within the system and do what we asked him to do.’”

That doesn’t mean Marshall will always decide to stay in the pocket. Far from it. He just knows his limitations.

Playing one year in the SEC — even if it was on defense — taught him to pick his spots.

“In this league, you can’t take too many hits at quarterback,” Marshall said. “I’ll use it to my advantage to get out of bounds or just get down.”

Undoubtedly, the questions about his one-year stay at Georgia and Newton will surface in myriad forms for the duration of the season. Whether Marshall will ever respond at length is up to him. People shouldn’t hold their breath on either count.

All Marshall cares to talk about is getting Auburn back on the right track.

“I know the team is behind me and I’m behind them 100 percent,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and win games.”

July 25, 2013

SEC Preseason Rankings: Day 5

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextraSEC_new_logo

It’s Day 5 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.

With eight teams down, there are six 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.) …

6. FLORIDA

Is Will Muschamp done talking yet? He is? OK. We’re good then. All jokes aside, Muschamp delivered arguably the longest opening statement from a coach in SEC Media Days history, clocking in at just over 2,400 words. In it, he went over every change to his coaching staff and every single position on the Gators’ depth chart both offensively and defensively. I’m not making this up.

To save a lot of time, know this: Florida has to replace four defensive playmakers (safety Matt Elam, defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd and linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins) and find someone to match the production of departed running back Mike Gillislee, who ran for nearly half (1,152) of the Gators’ yards on the ground last season (2,445). Oh, and Florida has to discover some semblance of a passing game, after it ranked 114th in the country (and last in the SEC) in 2012 with a miniscule average of 146.31 yards per contest.

The Gators ability to find those answers (or not) will decide whether 2013 is more like Muschamp’s debut season (7-6) in 2011 or last year (11-2).Florida_Gators_logo

  • Best-case scenario: The Gators find a way to win in spite of their pop-gun offense for the second consecutive season. Florida opens the season with four straight victories, beating rivals Miami and Tennessee along the way. LSU hands Florida its first loss of the year in Tiger Stadium in Week 5, but the Gators brush it off to beat Missouri on the road the following week. For the third frustrating year in a row, though, Georgia knocks off Florida in Jacksonville, Fla. Motivated not to lose another game for the rest of the year, the Gators go out and do just that, beating Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia Southern and Florida State to close out the regular season. In a three-way tiebreaker with the Bulldogs and Gamecocks for the SEC East title, it’s the Gators who head to Atlanta to square off against Texas A&M. Just like last season, Florida has an answer for Johnny Manziel, as the Gators drop the undefeated Aggies 27-14 en route to their first SEC title since 2008. In the Sugar Bowl, Florida redeems itself for a pitiful showing against Louisville a year ago. In New Orleans, the Gators gum up the Clemson Tigers’ potent offense, slowing down quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins in a 20-14 victory. Riding high, the Gators sign a top-five recruiting class for 2014, arming themselves for their first national title run under Muschamp the following fall. Gators’ faithful enjoy watching former coach Urban Meyer, now at Ohio State, get torched by Stanford in the Rose Bowl 48-20. Florida fans get further enjoyment from laughing at their two arch-rivals, as Georgia is waxed in the Outback Bowl (losing to Wisconsin) and Florida State falls on its face in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (losing to Ole Miss).
  • Worst-case scenario: Florida’s lack of offensive punch finally catches up to it this fall. The Gators escape in the opener against the Toledo Rockets, a tougher-than-their-name-suggests foe from the MAC. Things don’t work out nearly as well in ensuing weeks, as Florida falls to in-state rival Miami and serve as the first signature win of Butch Jones’ tenure at Tennessee in Game 3. The Gators get their record back over .500 (3-2) following victories over Kentucky and Arkansas, but spend the last seven games of the regular season alternating losses (LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State) and wins (Missouri, Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern). A 6-6 record earns a bowl berth, but the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., is far from Florida’s idea of a “dream destination” for the postseason. And the Gators’ play bears that out, as they lose to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their triple-option offense 41-10. People start to question whether Muschamp’s physical, grinding style is fit for a Florida program that was built on the foundation of high-flying offensive attacks. It doesn’t help matters that Meyer makes it to the national title game in his second season at Ohio State, either. The Gators’ sign an underwhelming recruiting class for 2014. And Florida fans have to live through an offseason of taunts from its two most hated rivals in Georgia (which won the national title for the first time since 1980) and Florida State (which won the Orange Bowl for the second straight year).

5. LSU

Les Miles was his typical self at SEC Media Days — funny, random, passionate and serious all rolled into one.

The LSU coach went on another spiel about the scheduling inequities that exist in the SEC, as this season will mark the seventh time since 2000 the Tigers play Georgia and Florida in the same season, two teams which combined to go 14-2 in conference play last season. (Miles, of course, could only shake his head when talk turned to Alabama, which gets to play Kentucky and Tennessee, the two teams that finished at the bottom of the SEC East last year after going a combined 1-15 in the SEC.)

Though the Tigers lose a boatload of talent to the NFL every year, the number of defections after last season was unusually high even for them. The defense had seven starters jump to the pros, as well as a few backups who were key contributors. LSU does bring back four starters in linebackers Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones and a pair of players in the secondary in cornerback Jalen Mills and Craig Loston. But the Tigers have to replace the entire front four, including the fantastic defensive end duo of Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery along with tackles Bennie Logan and Josh Downs.

If quarterback Zach Mettenberger and LSU’s stable of running backs don’t help prop up a young defense, 2013 could mark the first time in Miles’ nine seasons in Baton Rouge the “Bayou Bengals” don’t win at least eight games.LSU-Logo

  • Best-case scenario: LSU shows that once again, no amount of talent lost can slow its program down, as it tosses aside what was thought to be a game TCU squad in the season opener in Dallas, winning 38-17. The Tigers follow it up with three more easy victories, rolling over Alabama-Birmingham, Kent State and Auburn, all within the confines of Tiger Stadium. But LSU suffers its first — and what turns out to be, only — setback of 2013, falling to Georgia on the road in a classic affair. The lead changes hands six times, and on three occasions in the final period alone. But Todd Gurley, the Bulldogs sensational sophomore running back, comes up with the play of the game, breaking multiple tackles on his way to the end zone from 32 yards out with less than two minutes to go, helping Georgia hold on for a 34-28 victory. LSU, learning from the mistakes it made in that loss, goes undefeated for the rest of the season, beating Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M along the way. In the SEC Championship Game, LSU stymies South Carolina 30-14 to clinch a spot in the national title game. Ironically, the Tigers face off against the Ohio State Buckeyes, the same team they beat when they last won the national title in 2007. Though this Ohio State team is better than the 2007 edition, it means little, as the Tigers win 28-17, picking up their fourth national title — their second under Miles — and extending the SEC’s stranglehold on the crystal football to eight years and counting. In a stroke of luck, LSU doesn’t lose a single underclassman who has the chance to go pro, as all elect to stay for the chance to win the first back-to-back national championships in school history. And of course, the momentum from the national title carries over into National Signing Day, as the Tigers sign the country’s top-rated class. Meanwhile, “Public Enemy No. 1″ in Louisiana, Alabama coach Nick Saban, is unable to get his team to play to the level of its predecessors. The Crimson Tide finish 9-4 after losing to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl.
  • Worst-case scenario: The Tigers’ defense is ill-prepared for a tough opener, as they lose to the Horned Frogs in Cowboys Stadium 34-24. LSU pulls it back together for the next three games, though it has a hard time slipping past Auburn in its SEC opener in Week 4. The “other Tigers” push the Bayou Bengals until the fourth quarter, when Mettenberger hooks up with Odell Beckham on a 56-yard touchdown pass to seal the game and the 28-20 victory. The Tigers then fall to 1-1 in conference play as Georgia and Aaron Murray throw all over Sanford Stadium in a 42-17 thrashing. LSU gets back to its winning ways one week later as it beats Mississippi State on the road, but at 4-2, the Tigers reach the peak of their winning percentage for the season. They lose consecutive games to Florida and Ole Miss, then get back over .500 after sweeping away Furman. The Tigers lose two in a row once more as Alabama and Texas A&M beat them in back-to-back weeks. LSU recovers to capture “The Golden Boot” against Arkansas for the third straight time, but a 6-6 showing in the regular season is far from what the Tigers or their fans expect. LSU is going to the postseason, as it heads to the Advocare V100 Bowl, also known as the “Independence Bowl.” And, of course, it’s in Shreveport. A lethargic LSU goes through the motions and loses 24-10 to a Wake Forest squad just happy to be there. The offseason doesn’t treat the Tigers any better, as their top two receivers in Beckham and Jarvis Landry, as well as Outland Award finalist La’el Collins, leave early. LSU doesn’t sign its usual top-10 recruiting class, and arguably the top prospect in the country, New Orleans running back Leonard Fournette, pulls a stunner by deciding to go out of state after having the Tigers at the top of his list throughout his recruitment. And to top it off, the Tigers’ arch-nemesis and former coach, Saban, continues his dynastic run over the rest of college football, with Alabama winning its third straight national title.

May 10, 2013

Tella, Ebert go deep as Auburn lead holds up

Staff report

The Auburn baseball team is used to coming from behind for its victories, which it’s done 20 times so far.

Just to change things up, the Tigers decided to hang onto a lead.

A 6-0 lead was trimmed, but not overcome by host Florida in Auburn’s 7-4 victory Friday night to open a three-game SEC series in Gainesville.

Shortstop Dan Glevenyak’s bat stayed scorching (3-for-5, 2 RBI, 2 R), while Ryan Tella’s three-run homer and Jordan Ebert’s solo shot provided the offense. The Gators finally broke through with a four-run seventh, but walks came back to bite Florida: three of the six walks issued turned into runs for Auburn (30-19, 10-15 SEC).

The teams take to the field again Saturday at 7 p.m. ET, with Pacelli product Michael O’Neal (8-3) taking the mound for Auburn.

April 3, 2013

Report by former SI, New York Times writer alleges Auburn wrongdoings; Thorpe, other ex-Tigers quoted vehemently condemn article

Neiko Thorpe2

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. — A report published Wednesday by Selena Roberts, a former Sports Illustrated and New York Times reporter, took more than 4,000 words to lob exhaustive charges toward the Auburn football program.

Multiple quoted ex-Tigers required much less verbiage to swiftly condemn how their remarks were used contextually in response.

“I can’t,” said former defensive back Neiko Thorpe, asked to make sense of the report as one of six former Tigers quoted. “I’m just trying to clear my name up and let Auburn fans and Auburn nation know the things that were said in that report were not my words.”

The narrative “Auburn’s Tainted Title: Victims, Violations and Vendettas” was posted Wednesday by Roopstigo.com. Roberts, the website’s founder and CEO and an Auburn graduate, is notable for previous SI and NYT work on Alex Rodriguez’s steroid usage and the Duke lacrosse team’s sexual assault scandal of 2006.

Wednesday’s report focuses on former Auburn safety Mike McNeil, who faces robbery charges stemming from a March 2011 arrest, two months after Auburn won the BCS national championship.

McNeil’s family presents its description of the circumstances involving McNeil’s role in the incident, including an account of Auburn University’s and then-head coach Gene Chizik’s handling of the matter.

The report went on to allege academic fraud, pay-for-play incentives and positive drug testing via conversations with players, both named and unnamed.

Former Auburn players Thorpe, Daren Bates, Mike Blanc, Darvin Adams and Antoine Carter are quoted in the story along with McNeil.

Neiko Thorpe

Thorpe, entering his second year with the Kansas City Chiefs and the only active NFL player of the bunch, told the Ledger-Enquirer Wednesday night he spoke with Roberts “a couple weeks ago” and was misled as to the article’s intent.

“She explained to me she was doing a story on Mike McNeil, and basically it was a story trying to be good information about him, just telling what a good person he was,” Thorpe said. “She told me she was just trying to do a good story on Mike – a character story, letting people know what kind of person he was.”

Thorpe – who said he hasn’t kept in touch with McNeil while focusing on his NFL career – denounced Roberts’ use of multiple quotes.

Adams said he was offered an undisclosed amount of “financial incentives,” and McNeil said he was given $500 to “entertain blue-chip (recruit) Dre Kirkpatrick.” (Kirkpatrick signed and play for Alabama.) Thorpe was quoted as saying “A special recruit was treated like a king.”

thorpe_neikoThorpe told the Ledger-Enquirer, “I was talking to her about recruits, and she asked me personally about my recruiting process. I let her know that you can’t just base your recruiting off just a visit – you’ve got to look at other things, such as being around the players, because that’s who you’re going to be around the most, and not just the coaching, because coaches can switch up at any time or any year. So that’s why going through my recruiting process I chose Auburn.”

In the framework of Roberts describing the university’s “underground society beneath the NCAA’s radar”, Thorpe was quoted as saying “Auburn does whatever Auburn wants.”

To that, Thorpe rebuked, “No. I don’t recall saying that. I don’t even know what kind of question would make me say that.”

The opening segment details a timeline presented by McNeil’s mother and grandfather the afternoon of March 11, 2011, when Chizik kicked McNeil and three teammates off the team for robbery charges. A starting safety for the championship squad, McNeil has maintained his innocence throughout, awaiting his trial scheduled to begin Monday — though the Opelika-Auburn News reported Wednesday his attorney, Ben Hand, has filed to withdraw from representation.

According to Roberts, coaches told Auburn players they could lose their scholarship if they contacted any of the accused players. Thorpe was quoted as saying, “Mike was like a brother. I wanted to talk to my brother. I’m sure with all that was going on, he felt betrayed.”

Thorpe said he was napping when Roberts’ report came out, and after an evening workout was stunned to be made aware of how his interview was used.

“She just took what I said, I guess, and tried to … make it to a story she wanted,” Thorpe said, “because it wasn’t even the story she told me what she was reporting about. It was kind of crazy when I had a chance to read it and see what she put wasn’t true.”

Thorpe was named Auburn’s “Defensive Most Valuable Player” in 2011. He was bestowed that same year with the Shug Jordan Award, which reads, “Down through the years, outstanding Auburn football players have become outstanding citizens. Knowing this truth, and having a deep abiding faith in these men, I am proud to honor Auburn University’s outstanding senior football player with this award.”

Asked if he had any reason to scath his alma mater, Thorpe insisted, “I don’t. That’s why I’m trying to clear my name up because I had a great time at Auburn my four years, and I have memories I’ll never forget.”

Gene ChizikAn Auburn spokesperson stated to the Ledger-Enquirer on behalf of the athletic department, “We will not have a comment regarding the claims in the story.”

Chizik, Auburn University and Auburn police all declined to comment.

Former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (now Florida’s head coach) is reported to have offered McNeil $400 cash after a 2007 practice. A Florida spokesperson Wednesday evening reiterated the university’s denial of Muschamp’s alleged payment from the article.

Bates, who graduates this year, had only one quote in the report, regarding McNeil: “He was the best teammate you could imagine. He took me under his wing. He would draw up defenses. And we’d watch film. He was a mentor to everyone.”

Bates initially responded to a Twitter follower’s question about Roberts, “I don’t even know who that is.” An hour later, Bates tweeted, “The one thing that is quoted by me is what I said, no more no less..END OF STORY”

Roberts made other allegations leading up to the 2010 season, including:

• Three players were told before the BCS championship victory over Oregon that up to nine teammates would be ruled academically ineligible, including star running back Michael Dyer, before unnamed school counselors fixed transcripts to keep them on the field. Said Blanc, “We thought we would be without Mike Dyer because he said he was one of them, but Auburn found a way to make those dudes eligible.”

• Several players indicated Chizik asked them to cut their dreadlocks in fear of being targeted by police.

• A trailer home on Wire Road was a frequent source of synthetic marijuana distributed to players, the scene of the crime scene involving McNeil, Antonio Goodwin (since found guilty and jailed 15 years), Dakota Mosley and Shaun Kitchens. The article stated “more than 40 players tested positive for recreational drugs after the national championship.”

A couple hours after the article’s release, Blanc tweeted, “Man this article is outrageous and isn’t true. The media will do anything for a juicy story smh #sad”

This is not Roberts’ first story regarding Auburn football. In January 2005 — shortly following Auburn’s undefeated season led by then-coach Tommy Tuberville — she penned a New York Times article reporting team chaplain Chette Williams (still working for the Auburn support staff) was paid by boosters in addition to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

The entire report can be found here.

February 15, 2013

Auburn notes: No. 7 Florida brings consistency to the matchup; high school coach welcomed to football support staff

Arkansas Auburn BasketballAUBURN, Ala. – Florida has risen to the No. 7 ranking in the country and the unquestioned leader of the SEC pack, simply due to consistency on both ends of the floor.

The Gators’ host on Saturday is still searching for steadiness, unable to string any kind of momentum together during this aging conference season. Florida and Auburn will tip off at 1:47 p.m. ET, with SEC Network carrying the action from Auburn Arena.

The Tigers’ most consistent scorer has been junior guard Chris Denson, and that says a lot considering the Shaw product has only played 13 games due to academic suspension and injury.

Denson is shooting 49 percent from the floor, averaging 12.2 points – and that includes two games where he only totaled one free throw as he shook off the rust from a stress fracture in his foot.

Even Denson’s minutes have been consistent, logging between 25 and 29 minutes in each of his past six games even while he bounces back and forth between a starting and reserve role. During the stretch, he’s averaged 13.7 points to lead the Tigers through a disappointing few weeks.

Leading scorer Frankie Sullivan saw his permanent starting spot slip away Wednesday vs. Arkansas, as he’s failed to score more than 14 since Jan. 16.

Head coach Tony Barbee benched his only two experienced big men – Rob Chubb and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum – for the final 10 minutes of Wednesday’s loss to the Razorbacks, going with rookie Jordon Granger in crunch time. He hasn’t ruled out changes to the lineup.

Meanwhile, Florida (20-3, 10-1) keeps churning along toward an SEC regular season title, with each starter averaging between nine and 13 points this year. It’s an experienced lineup of just juniors and seniors, guided by senior guard Kenny Boynton (12.9 points, 3.3 assists) and senior forward Erik Murphy, who makes 49 percent of his threes.

Billy Donovan’s squad ranks fourth in the nation defensively, allowing just 52.7 points per game.

Historically, Auburn does lead the all-time series 87-72, including 54-23 in Auburn. However, the Gators have won four straight in the matchup, and 14 of 15 going back to 1999. Barbee has never beaten Florida.

Front-office move: Spain Park High School coach Chip Lindsey will accept a position on the Auburn football team’s support staff, according to multiple reports. Lindsey will not be an Auburn coach.

Lindsey had coached Spain Park the past two seasons, and is expected to assist with recruiting efforts.

November 30, 2012

Tales from the Comeback Trail … yes, there is precedent for turnarounds after poor seasons

AUBURN, Ala. — It’s been well-documented; Auburn’s freefall from national champion to winless in the SEC is the most rapid collapse any college football program has ever seen.

Good news on the Plains: that’s now in the past. Looking to the future, based on track record, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the Tigers to spring back and have a pleasant season in 2013.

Here are some historic examples from Auburn, the SEC and around the country of when bad teams turned good in a flash.

Auburn

1934: 2-8 (SEC rank: 10th) |  1935: 8-2 (4th)

1973: 6-6 (t-8th) | 1974: 10-2 (t-2nd)

1981: 5-6 (t-6th) | 1982: 9-3 (t-3rd)

1992: 5-5-1 (5th West) | 1993: 11-0 (N/A – season played on NCAA probation)

Auburn’s quickest turnaround is a 6-win improvement: Jack Meagher recovered from a 2-8 rookie effort to go 8-2 in 1935, and Terry Bowden took Pat Dye’s swan song of a 5-5-1 campaign to go 11-0 in 1993 behind veteran quarterback Stan White.

Two legendary Auburn coaches oversaw quick fixes: Ralph “Shug” Jordan at the end of his career in the early 1970s, and Pat Dye in his first two years in Auburn in 1981-82 thanks to the arrival of Bo Jackson.

Alabama

2000: 3-8 (5th West) | 2001: 7-5 (3rd West)

2007: 2-6* (3rd West) | 2008: 12-2 (1st West)

Nick Saban’s first go-around yielded a 7-6 result, with five wins vacated stemming from textbook-related violations before Saban’s arrival. The Tide went 12-2 and lost the Sugar Bowl the very next year, before embarking on two national titles the next three seasons.

Dennis Franchione took over Mike DuBose’s 3-8 squad and, in 2001, went won the Independence Bowl.

Georgia

1990: 4-7 (t-7th) | 1991: 9-3 (t-4th)

1996: 5-6 (t-4th East) | 1997: 10-2 (t-2nd East)

2010: 6-7 (t-3rd East) | 2011: 10-4 (1st East)

Mark Richt had a losing team two years ago, but with quarterback Aaron Murray gaining experience, Georgia bounced back to double-digit victories last year and are 11-1 going into Saturday’s SEC Championship game.

The Dawgs also doubled their victories from 1996 to 1997, and experienced another five-win uptick two decades ago under Ray Goff.

Arkansas

1976: 5-5-1 | 1977: 11-1

2005: 4-7 (4th West) | 2006: 10-4 (1st West)

Under Houston Nutt, the Razorbacks went from losing to Vanderbilt at home one season, to playing in the SEC Championship Game the next.

Lou Holtz inherited Frank Broyles’ 5-5-1 squad, and went 11-1 in 1977, winning the Orange Bowl.

Broyles himself had three different year-over-year improvements of five or more victories (1958-59, 1963-64, 1967-68) for the Hogs.

Florida

1979: 0-10-1 (t-9th) | 1980: 8-4 (t-4th)

Charley Pell quickly turned things around at the turn of the decade, going from zero wins to a Tangerine Bowl victory. It portended great things for the future: Florida hasn’t had a losing season since that winless fall 33 years ago.

South Carolina

1999: 0-11 (6th East) | 2000: 8-4 (t-2nd East)

Lou Holtz inherited a 1-10 team, and went winless his first year of 1999. He promptly won the next two Outback Bowls, both over Ohio State.

Texas A&M

1954: 1-9 | 1955: 7-2-1

2003: 4-8 | 2004: 7-5

It was another rebuilding effort for Dennis Franchione, who turned it around quickly in 2004.

Franchione’s not the only Alabama-bred coach who helped out Texas A&M. Paul “Bear” Bryant started 1-9 with the Aggies in 1954, but went 7-2-1 for a follow-up effort.

Other notable comebacks

Kentucky (1945-46) tasked newly-hired coach Bear Bryant, in his second head coaching season ever, with a 2-8 program in 1945. He led the Wildcats to 7-3 the next year.

Miami (1997-98) hopped from 5-6 to 9-3 under Butch Davis.

Oklahoma (1999-2000) was a meager 7-5 in Bob Stoops’ first year, but roared back to run the table for a national championship.

Notre Dame (2001-02) had Tyrone Willingham take over after Bob Davie put up a 5-6 campaign. Willingham’s Fighting Irish responded with a 10-3 season.

Illinois (2006-07) shrugged off a 2-10 season, still under Ron Zook a year later, to make the Rose Bowl and finish 9-4.

Miami (Ohio) (2009-10) was 1-11 three years ago. The Redhawks ripped off nine more wins in response, going 10-4.

Ohio State (2011-12) went 6-7 last year, the program’s first losing season since 1988. The Buckeyes, knowing they could not play in a bowl in Urban Meyer’s first season, went 12-0, and should finish the year ranked in the Associated Press top three.

November 28, 2012

SEC Power Rankings: Bowl Season Edition

AUBURN, Ala. – I need a break from the words “Gene Chizik”, “sources”, “buyout”, “decommit”, “Bobby Petrino”, “sources” again, “Kirby Smart”, “Jetgate”, “SportsbyBrooks”, “Charles Barkley”, “show cause penalty” and “sources” a third time just because, yeah, seriously, it’s getting repetitive.

We interrupt this lead-in to inform you because I successfully used all those words in one sentence, and tagged this blog post as such, this is now the eighth-highest clicked article in Internet history. (The first seven all just list the word ‘Tebow’ over and over again.)

Anyway, you’ll find none of those words in my final SEC Power Rankings of the year. Enjoy the reprieve. I know I will. It won’t last long.

By the way, unless a new coach is named Friday (don’t do it, Auburn), I will be at the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, joined by L-E preps writer David Mitchell (@leprepsports) and supplementing the already-fine coverage of Mark Edwards (who covers Alabama at @DailyEdwards) and Seth Emerson (Georgia, @SethEmerson). So follow along for that.

It should be a fantastic game. At least, I was told so by reports from an unnamed source with information close to the situation.

Aaron Brenner, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer 

**All rankings BCS**

1) No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC); Last week, 1

Last week: beat Auburn 49-0

The back eight seems impenetrable. There’s really any number of ‘player of the year’ candidates on this team, which I will go ahead and name for each of the SEC squads. C.J. Mosley, Dee Milliner, Robert Lester, it’s just an uber-dominant defense. Good luck out there, Aaron Murray.

Next: SEC Championship Game vs. No. 3 Georgia (11-1, 7-1), 3 p.m. CT | CBS

Player of the Year: C.J. Mosley, jr., LB

Bowl prediction: BCS National Championship

2) No. 3 Georgia (11-1, 7-1); LW, 2

Last week: beat Georgia Tech 42-10

Oh, but Murray will have plenty of help. Todd Gurley’s the SEC’s best back, Keith Marshall’s the best backup back in the league, Jarvis Jones is maybe the best linebacker in the country. This should be a phenomenal game at the Georgia Dome.

Next: SEC Championship Game vs. No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1), 3 p.m. CT | CBS

Player of the Year: Aaron Murray, jr., QB

Bowl prediction: Capital One Bowl

3) No. 9 Texas A&M (10-2, 6-2 SEC); LW, 3

Last week: beat Missouri 59-29

Manziel, not Boyziel. Despite not speaking once to the media during the year, he’ll handle himself brilliantly in New York City a week from Saturday.

Player of the Year: Johnny Manziel, fr., QB

Bowl prediction: Cotton Bowl

4) No. 4 Florida (11-1, 7-1); LW, 5

Last week: beat No. 10 Florida State 37-26

The Gators have not allowed a single rushing gain longer than 24 yards all year. Filthy. And now they just hung 37 on the Seminoles in Tallahassee? You earned your Sugar Bowl trip.

Player of the Year: Marcus Roberson, so., DB

Bowl prediction: Sugar Bowl

5) No. 7 LSU (10-2, 6-2); LW, 4

Last week: beat Arkansas 20-13

So it sounds like Les Miles will not leave the Bayou for a ridiculous, bluff-type offer at Arkansas. Hopefully LSU gave Miles that raise because he earned it, not because a desperate league rival wants to play poker. Said LSU athletic director Joe Alleva Wednesday: “It’s been my plan all along to give coach a longer contract, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Player of the Year: Kevin Minter, jr., LB

Bowl prediction: Outback Bowl

6) No. 10 South Carolina (10-2, 6-2); LW, 6

Last week: beat No. 11 Clemson 27-17

The Gators and Gamecocks are basically twins this year. Except, well, Florida won the matchup. Which is why South Carolina is the sixth best team in its own conference, and can’t even book a New Year’s Day date in a historically top-heavy league.

Player of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney, so., DE

Bowl prediction: Chick-Fil-A Bowl

 

*****big gap here*****

 

7) Vanderbilt (8-4, 5-3); LW, 7

Last week: beat Wake Forest 55-21

If I were to tell you two teams in the SEC have six-game overall winning streaks (currently the longest in the conference), and gave you five guesses, I bet many of you would miss one. Georgia is one. The other is not Texas A&M, it’s not LSU, it’s not South Carolina. The Vanderbilt Commodores have not lost since losing gamely to Florida on Oct. 13.  They’ll trounce someone in a lesser bowl.

Player of the Year: Jordan Matthews, jr., WR

Bowl prediction: Gator Bowl

8) Ole Miss (6-6, 3-5); LW, 9

Last week: beat Mississippi State 41-24

Great bounceback effort after a three-game losing streak, sealing that long-awaited bowl eligibility. How about Bo Wallace, teetering on losing his job earlier this year, and responding by throwing five touchdowns in his biggest game of the year?

Player of the Year: Donte Moncrief, so., WR

Bowl prediction: Liberty Bowl

9) Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4); LW, 8

Last week: lost to Ole Miss 41-24

Chad Bumphis, 12 TDs. For a defensive conference, this certainly was a year for top receivers. Very little momentum though for the Bulldogs, losers of four in their past five.

Player of the Year: Darius Slay, sr., DB

Bowl prediction: Music City Bowl

10) Arkansas (4-8, 2-6); LW, 10

Last week: lost to No. 7 LSU 20-13

Eight months, the school has had, to make a decision on a long-term hire. Offering Les Miles the world shows you where the Razorbacks are at. This is by far the weakest of the three remaining SEC openings.

Player of the Year: Cobi Hamilton, sr., WR

11) Missouri (5-7, 2-6); LW, 11

Last week: lost to No. 9 Texas A&M 59-29

Talk about slinking away quietly. Not a lot of positives to build on going into year two of SEC football. Maybe the Big Ten should have gotten a longer look.

Player of the Year: Kendial Lawrence, sr., RB

12) Tennessee (5-7, 1-7); LW, 12

Last week: beat Kentucky 37-17

Next season hinges heavily on Tyler Bray’s decision whether or not to return.

Player of the Year: Cordarrelle Patterson, jr., WR

13) Auburn (3-9, 0-8); LW, 13

Last week: lost to No. 2 Alabama 49-0

“The Auburn people don’t deserve that.” said a certain former head coach. Was he talking about the three-hour slaughter just finished on the field, or the three-month disaster preceding it?

Player of the Year: Tre Mason, so., RB

14) Kentucky (2-10, 0-8); LW, 14

Last week: lost to Tennessee 37-17

Best of luck, Mark Stoops. If you last three years, it’ll be a modern marvel.

Player of the Year: Avery Williamson, jr., LB

November 21, 2012

SEC Rankings/Bowl Predictions: Week 12

Aaron Brenner, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer 

**All games Saturday unless noted … all times CT … all rankings BCS**

1) No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1 SEC); Last week, 1

Last week: beat Western Carolina 49-0

Many schools’ game notes will break out their listings by unit, which would be ordered just as you’d expect: offense, then defense, then special teams … or QBs, then RBs, then WRs, etc. etc. down to DBs, Ks, Ps and returners. Not Alabama’s. Defensive notes come first. It’s fitting, really. The Crimson Tide defense has become the college version of Tom Brady: even when it’s not a season for the ages, you look at the quiet statistics, and they still jump out at you. (For example, Alabama “only” ranks seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense.) Dee Milliner, Robert Lester, C.J. Mosley, the whole gang’s just good. Auburn’s offense gained 140 total yards and zero points last year at Jordan-Hare against the Tide. Why does this game smell about the same?

Next: vs. Auburn (3-8, 0-7), 2:30 p.m. | CBS

Bowl prediction: BCS National Championship

2) No. 3 Georgia (10-1, 7-1); LW, 2

Last week: beat Georgia Southern 45-14

Aaron Murray, deflecting NFL talk before he makes a decision whether to return for his senior year. “I’m having too much fun right now.” That’s what it’s all about. He’s probably leaving Athens soon, but what a ride it’s been for him.

Next: vs. Georgia Tech (6-5), 11 a.m. | ESPN

Bowl prediction: Capital One Bowl

3) No. 9 Texas A&M (9-2, 5-2 SEC); LW, 4

Last week: beat Sam Houston State 47-28

Yeah, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples said it best on the tricked-out Texas A&M page: “If the award is going to be for the most outstanding football player – for the guy who makes the biggest difference – there’s no question who that is. If you’re not thinking of voting for Johnny Manziel, you’re nuts.” In other words: hey, stuffy old farts who have a Heisman vote. Don’t care if it’s a freshman, a senior, a senior citizen, or Sam Gordon. You pick the best player. It’s not even close this year. Wasn’t even close before K-State went down, but hey, good guy and good player Collin Klein, appreciate you making this easier.

Next: vs. Missouri (5-6, 2-5), 6 p.m. | ESPN2

Bowl prediction: Cotton Bowl

4) No. 7 LSU (9-2, 5-2); LW, 3

Last week: beat Ole Miss 41-35

Really couldn’t have asked for a tougher slate for LSU this year. Had to play South Carolina AND Florida outside of the SEC West, and their two losses are to top-four squads by a combined 12 points. Tough submerging LSU below the Aggies, who the Tigers just beat at Kyle Field within the past month. But A&M’s been more impressive, and has the better offense more likely to compete with the top-flight foes.

Next: at Arkansas (4-7, 2-5), 1:30 p.m. Friday | CBS

Bowl prediction: Sugar Bowl

5) No. 4 Florida (10-1, 7-1); LW, 5

Last week: beat Jacksonville State 23-0

Quit ripping on Florida’s offense. The Gators have the NCAA’s second-longest FBS streak of games without getting shut out. You have to go back 307 games to Oct. 29, 1988: Auburn 16, Florida 0. (Gene Chizik was a graduate assistant at Clemson, and the eldest current Tiger, T’Sharvan Bell, was 10 months away from being born.)

Next: at No. 10 Florida State (10-1), 2:30 p.m. | ABC

Bowl prediction: Outback Bowl

6) No. 12 South Carolina (9-2, 6-2); LW, 6

Last week: beat Wofford 24-7

Goes without saying the Clemson offense against the South Carolina defense should be a fantastic matchup. But look for Connor Shaw (career record: 18-3) to quietly make enough plays for a big road win. Here’s a stat that may shock you, in the passer rating category: Shaw 156.93, Manziel 155.14.

Next: at No. 11 Clemson (10-1), 6 p.m. | ESPN

Bowl prediction: Chick-Fil-A Bowl

7) Vanderbilt (7-4, 5-3); LW, 8

Last week: beat Tennessee 41-18

Five magical words soon to be oft-uttered into the holiday season: “Wait, Vanderbilt has eight wins?” Fill in obligatory coach-killer joke here, after the Kentucky and Tennessee drillings. Watch your back, Jim Grobe.

Next: at Wake Forest (5-6), 2:30 p.m. | ESPNU

Bowl prediction: Music City Bowl

8) Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3); LW, 7

Last week: beat Arkansas 45-14

Stinks that the Egg Bowl’s been relegated to ESPNU. The Bulldogs, ranked in both human polls but not in the BCS top 25, are almost certainly heading to Jacksonville no matter what the outcome. They should be uber-motivated for a couple reasons: State’s got something to prove, since its four conference wins are against SEC teams with a combined 2-26 league record; and that state battle for bragging rights is something nasty.

Next: at Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5), 6 p.m. | ESPNU

Bowl prediction: Gator Bowl

9) Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5); LW, 9

Last week: lost at No. 7 LSU 41-35

You seem a likeable guy, Hugh Freeze. What’s with the player embargo this week? Prepare to get ripped if you blow this home game – and with it, a bowl shot.

Next: vs. Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3), 6 p.m. | ESPNU

Bowl prediction: Liberty Bowl with a victory, about a 50-50 proposition

10) Arkansas (4-7, 2-5); LW, 10

Last week: lost at Mississippi State 45-14

Only two more days until the sad conclusion of the ‘Smile’ era. A pity reporters can’t attend both Les Miles and John L. Smith press conferences. Can we dub this the Delightfully Weird Bowl?

Next: vs. No. 7 LSU (9-2, 5-2), 1:30 p.m. Friday | CBS

11) Missouri (5-6, 2-5); LW, 12

Last week: lost to Syracuse 31-27

Ooof, that’s gotta hurt. No reason not to take care of business against the Orange. That’ll deprive Mizzou of about 15 bowl practices, which really could have been useful.

Next: at No. 9 Texas A&M (9-2, 5-2), 6 p.m. | ESPN2

Bowl prediction: BBVA Compass Bowl with a victory, which is unlikely (could move up to Liberty Bowl if Ole Miss loses)

12) Tennessee (4-7, 0-7); LW, 11

Last week: lost at Vanderbilt 41-18

My hairstylist’s daughter said a friend told her she heard that Sam Gordon might be a candidate for the Tennessee job. Wanna tweet my report, Football Rumor Mill?

Next: vs. Kentucky (2-9, 0-7), 11:21 a.m. | SECN

13) Auburn (3-8, 0-7); LW, 13

Last week: beat Alabama A&M 51-7

Yer darn right I slipped multiple Sam Gordon references into these rankings. Oh, yes, right, something Auburn-y. Welp, Jonathan Wallace’s winning percentage currently exceeds that of Tyler Wilson. This is a fact. … Look, give Chizik this: he’s not lying when he says Auburn has to play its best football of the year to have a chance. In all reality, that can probably be tweaked to “perfect” football. The Tide will not take pity on the Tigers.

Next: at No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1), 2:30 p.m. | CBS

14) Kentucky (2-9, 0-7); LW, 14

Last week: beat Samford 34-3

Apparently, this rivalry is referred to as the Battle for the Barrel. However, there is no longer an actual barrel up for grabs, after a 1998 alcohol-related car crash killing Kentucky players. But this great American rivalry does, indeed, have a name. See. And you thought you wouldn’t learn anything new from this column.

Next: at Tennessee (4-7, 0-7), 11:21 a.m. | SECN