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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 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 26, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 6

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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

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

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

4. TEXAS A&M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. GEORGIA

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

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

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

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

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

July 18, 2013

SEC Media Days, Day 3: Mark Richt won’t push for standardized SEC drug policy

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

HOOVER, Ala. — Georgia is known for having one of the toughest drug policies in the SEC, suspending players for 10 percent of the season (or one game in football) for the first offense, and 30 percent of the season for a second positive test (four games).

Georgia head coach Mark Richt met with reporters on Thursday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt met with reporters on Thursday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

The Bulldogs had a pair of starting defensive players suspended in free safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree for the first four games of the 2012 season for reportedly failing drug tests for the second time in their Georgia careers.

When asked at SEC Media Days on Thursday whether he had proposed a league-wide drug policy in an attempt to level the playing field, Georgia coach Mark Richt said the issue was out of his hands.

“Well, I can’t really control that,” he said. “I think that would have to be handled on the presidential level, as far as that’s concerned. Would I like that? I would like that. I think that would be a good thing for the league to be in sync in that regard.”

Georgia administrative assistant might get LSU week off

During the week Georgia begins its preparations to take on LSU, one of the members of the Bulldogs’ football office staff will also double as one of the Tigers’ biggest fans. Tammy Mettenberger, the mother of LSU quarterback Zach, works as an administrative assistant for Georgia.

Given her split allegiances, Richt smirked when someone brought up the possibility that Mettenberger might want the LSU week off from work. Richt said he would leave the decision up to her.

“She’s been with us longer than I’ve been at Georgia,” he said. “She’s a mainstay there. If she wants to take a week off prior to that, we might work that out.

“We know her, love her and trust her, but I know she loves her boy. That’s for sure.”

Extra motivation

Georgia brings in motivational speakers to address the team “quite often,” according to Richt. From former players to “guys that have had tremendous success” in their respective fields, those who have talked to the Bulldogs run the gamut of life experiences and occupations.

But Richt left no doubt that Georgia alums always seem to have a way of being the speakers who leave lasting impressions with his current crop of Bulldogs.

“I think the ones that are the best for us are the ones that are former Georgia players,” he said. “Either guys talking about experiences in life that hurt them and use those gentlemen as a warning for our guys for certain things that can get them into trouble.”

July 15, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Georgia

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 begin with the Georgia Bulldogs. The Tigers will host the Bulldogs for the second straight season in Game No. 11 this fall.

Who: Georgia

When: Saturday, Nov. 16UGA

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

All-time series: Series tied 54-54-8

When last they met: It was a dismal night for Auburn when Georgia came to town last season. With an opportunity to play spoiler and prevent the Bulldogs from winning the SEC Eastern Division title for the second straight year, the Tigers could get nothing going offensively, never scoring in a 38-0 loss. Georgia’s defense was playing better than it had all season, as the shutout against Auburn came after allowing nine points and 10 points to Florida and Ole Miss, respectively, in its previous two games. While the Tigers’ offense couldn’t score, the defense was unable to find an answer to slow down the Bulldogs’ balanced attack. Georgia ran for 289 yards — with freshmen phenoms Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combining for 221 yards and a touchdown apiece — while quarterback Aaron Murray was coolly efficient, completing 75 percent of his attempts (18 of 24) for 208 yards and three scores. The Bulldogs’ shutout was the first in the series since they won 28-0 in 1976, and the victory evened the all-time record in “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” at 54-54-8. The only cheer of the night from the Tiger faithful came when Jordan-Hare Stadium’s video board put the end of the Alabama/Texas A&M game on the screen just before kickoff against the Bulldogs. When the Aggies completed the upset to snap the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s 13-game win streak, Auburn fans were given a brief moment to revel in their arch-rival’s defeat.

The coach: Mark Richt (118-40 record in 12 seasons at Georgia)

2012 record: 12-2, 7-1 SEC (won SEC Eastern Division title; lost to Alabama 32-28 in SEC Championship Game; beat Nebraska 45-31 in Capital One Bowl)

Total offense: 467.64 ypg (22nd in Division I, 3rd in SEC)

Scoring offense: 37.79 ppg (19th, 3rd)

Total defense: 357.79 ypg (32nd, 6th)

Scoring defense: 19.64 ppg (18th, 6th)

2012 Year-in-Review: In nearly any other season, and at nearly any other school, 12 wins and a bowl victory would be cause for massive celebrations. But Georgia’s feelings on those accomplishments were subdued, since it knew how much greater last season could have been. Coming within five yards of beating Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in a 32-28 defeat meant the Bulldogs saw their dreams of playing in the BCS National Championship Game dashed in the most agonizing way possible. The Bulldogs started out the season with two of their best defenders — free safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree — on the sideline for the first four games after reportedly failing drug tests. The defense, not surprisingly, was an up-and-down unit in their absence, usually putting one good half together in each of the team’s first five games, all victories. Then came South Carolina. The Gamecocks dominated the Bulldogs in every facet of a 35-7 demolition, making a laugher out of a game that pitted the No. 5 (Georgia) and No. 6 (South Carolina) teams in the country heading into the weekend. Two weeks later, Georgia got by SEC doormat Kentucky by the skin of its teeth in a 29-24 win, causing strong safety Shawn Williams — who rarely made himself available for interviews —  to call out his defensive teammates in front of media members for “playing soft” two days later. Coincidentally, Williams made his comments during the week of the Florida game. That lit a fire under the Bulldogs’ defense, as it allowed only 45 points over its next five games. While the defense took until the midway point of the season to find itself, Georgia’s offense was in a rhythm seemingly from the get-go. The Bulldogs set numerous records on offense on the arm of Murray and the two-headed tandem of Gurley and Marshall at tailback, including most points in a season (529) and highest average per game (37.8). After Georgia lost the SEC Championship Game to Alabama, it rebounded to beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl 45-31, the Bulldogs’ first bowl victory since the 2009 Independence Bowl against then-Big 12 member Texas A&M.

Biggest area of concern: Many may look at the linebacking unit and see that both master-of-havoc Jarvis Jones and Ogletree have taken their services to the NFL, and from there, draw conclusions that the unit was in serious trouble this fall. And that line of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, Jones and Ogletree were key contributors on the defense, but Jordan Jenkins, who roomed with Jones on every road trip last season, was being groomed to take Jones’ place whenever the Columbus native left. Jenkins proved it on the field, finishing second on the team in sacks (five) — behind his mentor, of course. Another starter at linebacker, junior Amarlo Herrera, will also be back to provide additional leadership. No, the area of greatest concern for the Bulldogs this season is the secondary. Losing three senior starters in Williams, Rambo and Sanders Commings — as well as longtime starter Branden Smith, who was knocked out of the starting lineup by Damian Swann last year — leaves the back end of Georgia’s defense to young, inexperienced players. Aside from Swann at one cornerback spot, the other three positions in the secondary are still fluid heading into the Bulldogs’ preseason camp.

Key returning player/unit: Undoubtedly, the most important piece back for the Bulldogs is their fifth-year signal-caller, Murray. He returns for one last go-round in the SEC on the verge of breaking nearly every passing-related record in league history. In 2012, he became the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three straight seasons. He needs just 1,438 yards to break David Greene’s school and conference record for passing yards (11,528) and with 95 touchdown passes, Murray is only behind former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel (114) on the SEC’s all-time list. To knock Wuerffel out of the top spot, Murray must toss 20 touchdown passes this season. Given what he has returning on offense — the Bulldogs are bringing back 10 starters from last season — it’s a good bet the Tampa, Fla., native becomes the record holder in both departments as long as he stays healthy.

Extra point: Georgia’s 12 wins last year marked only the third time in school history it had recorded that many victories in a single season. The other two teams (1980 and 2002) both won the SEC title. The 1980 team also won the national championship that year, while the 2002 squad set a school record for most wins in a season with 13.

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May 6, 2013

Garner still keeps up with old Georgia mates, but focused in on restoring Auburn football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

COLUMBUS, Ga. – Rodney Garner’s not about to wipe away 15 years of memories at Georgia. But he always was an Auburn man, and once again he’s got the appropriate windbreaker to prove it.

The featured speaker for the Columbus Phenix City Auburn Club’s spring meeting Monday night, Garner took time out from his never-ending duties as Auburn recruiting coordinator to visit the Green Island Country Club – settled close to the Georgia-Alabama border, and thus the SEC West-SEC East boundary.

Before he shook hands, shared smiles and delivered his remarks to a few hundred guests over dinner, the Tigers’ new defensive line coach and associate head coach reflected on why he made his move to his alma mater – less than a month after Auburn completed a 3-9 season.

“Me as an Auburn man, I didn’t like what they experienced last year, because whether you’re actually going through it or not, if you’re an Auburn person, you do experience it,” Garner said. “Even though I was at a rival school, it still hurt me to watch my school have the struggles that it did last year.”

Make no mistake: Garner’s still got Georgia on his mind. He’s got to, after a continuous stint since 1999 in Athens – an eternity in coaching circles to spend in one place.

Leading up to the NFL Draft April 25-27, Garner spoke to former Bulldogs Alec Ogletree (a first-round pick to the Rams), John Jenkins (third, Saints), Abry Jones and Kwame Geathers. On the recruiting trail last week, Garner caught up with Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend, who’s not considered the enemy.

“I really care about those guys and care about the coaches,” Garner said. “You develop relationships. I was there 15 years, which is a long time.”

Whereas many coaches bounce around from job to job a few years at a time, and can zone in on the present day, Garner’s fine with reflecting on where he spent the last nearly third of his life.

“It’s a good place, a special place. Definitely, I enjoyed my time there, left on really good terms,” Garner said. “It’s no animosity or anguish against them. I’ll definitely pull for them, except when we have to play them. It’s a bunch of good guys on that staff, a bunch of good guys on that team.”

In a separate line of questioning, Garner was quick to point out he’s got a bunch of good guys in his current position group. The rigors of spring football behind them, the Tigers are hoping to make swift and sweeping improvements from 2012.

“By no stretch of the imagination did we feel like we’ve arrived. But I really felt like our kids bought into what we were trying to do, what we were trying to teach,” Garner said. “I think they’ve bought into the culture.”

Senior pass-rusher Dee Ford and other defensive linemen are using their precious few days off to visit Chuck Smith, who played defensive end for the Falcons in the 1990s and is now a personal trainer based in Atlanta.

That’s the Garner-Georgia connection at work; an Athens native, Smith trained Bulldogs under Garner’s watch. Now Auburn players capture the offseason edge.

“The perception is they underperformed, for whatever reason. That’s why change came,” Garner said. “I think they are prideful young men, and I think they want to reach their expectations. I think they have high expectations of themselves.”

Junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright produced a light-hearted moment leading up to spring practices, when he joked Auburn’s got no nice coaches. Garner doesn’t take that personally – not with his no-nonsense style going from one SEC outpost to another.

“It’s not a nice league. I mean, it’s not. That’s why they chose to come to it. It’s a demanding league. I know these guys don’t like what they experienced last year,” Garner said. “So we’re going to do everything in our power to change that. The only way I know how to do it is through hard work, not taking shortcuts, being disciplined, being fundamental, and being tough.”

April 13, 2013

THE ROCK: Georgia-raised Mike O’Neal has been the Auburn staff’s lone source of stability

Michael O'Neal

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Mike O’Neal’s been a godsend for Auburn’s staff of starting pitchers, especially considering the carousel of his comrades remains plagued by a never-ending rocky road.

O’Neal befuddled Georgia – the team he’s been waiting eagerly to face – over seven innings as Auburn won 8-4 to open a doubleheader Saturday at Plainsman Park. The Tigers took the series, but couldn’t sweep when the Bulldogs responded with a 7-1 late-afternoon victory.

There was a fourth-inning jam reflecting why O’Neal, repping Pacelli and Chattahoochee Valley in his first year on SEC mounds, has been successful.

After a couple of Georgia hits, a run scored on a fielder’s choice to cut Auburn’s lead to 4-1 –Bulldogs shortstop Kyle Farmer beat the throw by a step on what would have been an inning-ending double play.

When O’Neal fell behind 2-0 on designated hitter Brett DeLoach, the next batter representing the tying run, Tigers head coach John Pawlowski walked out to the mound for a conversation.

“Throw strike one. We’re winning for a reason – don’t blow it, basically,” O’Neal said, relaying the gist of Pawlowski’s message. “He didn’t say those words, but it was more along the lines of, just do what you do. You’ve got it going for us, just get out of here.”

As O’Neal resumed the at-bat, reliever Chase Williamson raced from the dugout to the bullpen behind the Green Monster wall in left field … though O’Neal, a lefty, didn’t see Williamson with his back turned to the Auburn dugout.

O’Neal wasn’t rattled by any of it. The next three pitches: strike one, strike two, swinging strike three, and out of the jam with a cushy 3-run lead still in tact.

“You just feel confident in yourself, (when) you’ve done it a million times your whole life,” O’Neal said. “I’ve been pitching since I was nine years old, so I know I can throw strike one, I can get guys out from 2-0. I mean, you’ve got (runners on) first and third, you’re thinking: just get out of it.”

O’Neal has turned in a quality start (at least six innings pitched, no more than three earned runs allowed) in six of his nine outings; by comparison, seven different teammates have achieved the feat four times in 27 attempts.

Opening Day starter Daniel Koger and presumed No. 2 pitcher Rocky McCord were off the weekend roster with injuries. Will Kendall isn’t back in form recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Conner Kendrick’s been just okay in his promotion from the bullpen, still awaiting his first victory as a starter.

Meanwhile, O’Neal has quietly and routinely ranged from steady to spectacular – he recorded the first complete-game shutout of his life March 9 vs. Brown.

He suffered losses to LSU and Vanderbilt – allowing a total seven runs in those two outings, but departing each game with his team still scoreless at the time.

O’Neal improved to 7-2 with a 2.25 ERA – including 6-1 and 1.56 in his home park.

“I love pitching here. The fans are nice,” O’Neal said. “You’re not getting yelled at by other teams.”

The O’Neal cheering section – including his mom, Katharine, and dad, David – was doubled its usual figure to 15-20 supporters, for a good reason.

“My whole family’s Georgia fans besides me, my mom and my grandma,” said O’Neal, a Columbus resident. “Everyone else in my family was born in Georgia and raised Georgia fans, so you want to get a win.”

Auburn is 7-2 (3-2 SEC) when O’Neal starts; 15-12 (2-8) in all other games. The Tigers (22-14, 5-10) seem to be back on track with consecutive series victories and slowly crawling away from the league’s basement, thanks to an outburst of 25 hits in the first two Georgia games.

“Now we believe in ourselves,” O’Neal said. “We’re starting to hit balls out of the yard. The hitters look more confident, and it’s just amazing how much better their swings look like to me.”

Georgia (13-24, 2-13) pounced on Kendall with seven runs in the first four innings. DeLoach launched a 3-run bomb to left in the first frame, and Auburn never recovered.

Columbus product J.T. Phillips played all three games at first base, going 2-for-2 as a reserve in the finale after going hitless the first two games.

With at least five scheduled starts remaining, O’Neal’s in striking distance of becoming Auburn’s first 10-win pitcher in 10 years – Levale Speigner was a perfect 10-0 in 2003. His 2.25 ERA, if sustained, would also be the lowest of the five-year Pawlowski era.

“It’s pretty awesome, but it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t keep it going,” O’Neal said. “It shows hard work. I bust my butt every day and try to beat every team every weekend.”

April 12, 2013

Slumping Kelley’s go-ahead RBI double sparks 4-3 win; doubleheader slated for Saturday

12Auburn11

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Hunter Kelley was 2-for-21 in his previous ten games.

Well, somebody’s gotta come through in the clutch sometime.

Kelley socked the go-ahead punch in the Tigers’ 4-3 comeback victory over Georgia Friday night in a series opener before 3,526 fans at Plainsman Park.

Entering the game as a pinch-runner in the fifth inning, Kelley got his chance to bat in the seventh. After catcher Blake Austin lasered a one-out double in the gap, the junior followed suit to the exact same spot in left-center field to give Auburn its first lead of the night.

“Just hoping we would come through again. Finally, we did,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said. “Excited to see what Hunter Kelley did. He gets an opportunity to play, and comes up with a huge double when we needed it.”

It looked like another one of those nights for Auburn (21-13, 4-9 SEC), with all kinds of traffic on the basepaths but nobody able to deliver the clutch hit. The Tigers forced Georgia starter Patrick Boling to labor through 99 pitches in four innings, but stranded two runners in each of the first five innings while scoring just two runs.

“The hitting comes and goes – you can’t always go out there and put 12 hits up every game,” said junior center fielder Ryan Tella (4-for-5, 3 R). “It takes somebody to spark the lineup.”

Auburn has trailed in 17 of its last 18 games, so the Tigers are used to coming from behind. This was its 15th comeback victory of the year.

“Sooner or later. You have to keep the faith and keep believing good things are going to happen,” Pawlowski said. “These guys work too hard.”

Auburn has permitted 43 unearned runs just over the midway point of this season. All of 2012, the Tigers coughed up 49 unearned runs.

The Bulldogs (12-23, 2-11 SEC) have won just four of 14 games in which they score in the first inning. Georgia grabbed a couple of second-inning unearned runs to take a 3-1 lead, but were blanked the final seven frames.

“It’s been like that. We get off to a good start, and it seems like we just shut down,” Georgia coach David Perno said. “I don’t know. A little bit of credit to them, but they weren’t doing anything different than what we were seeing. Just too many dead innings.”

The Bulldogs, last place in the SEC, fell to 5-7 in one-run games, after winning their last three such affairs.

First baseman J.T. Phillips, a freshman and Columbus High product, was 0-for-4 at the plate for Georgia. Curt Powell and Hunter Cole topped the lineup in style, each producing a pair of hits.

Austin doubled twice for the host Tigers. Starting pitcher Conner Kendrick allowed three runs (one earned) and walked four against seven strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings of work, giving Auburn a chance to come back.

His team delivered, awarding reliever Justin Camp the win and Terrance Dedrick the clean 2-inning save. Blake Dieterich took the loss for Georgia.

Due to the threat of rain on Sunday, officials have scheduled a doubleheader beginning Saturday at 1 p.m. CT. Pacelli grad Michael O’Neal gets the ball for Auburn in the opener against Sean McLaughlin, while Georgia’s Jared Walsh and Auburn’s Will Kendall are slated for the nightcap 45 minutes following game one.

April 11, 2013

Auburn, Georgia look for a sweet sweep against their next-door neighbor at Plainsman

Athletics

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Here’s the thing about SEC conference baseball schedules: there are 10 series, with three games against each opponent.

As opposed to, say, football or basketball, each matchup could more significantly swing a team’s fortunes in baseball based on the reward of sweeping and the damage of being swept.

Auburn (20-13, 3-9 SEC West) and Georgia (12-22, 2-10 SEC East) are a long, long way from challenging for divisional crowns. LSU and Vanderbilt, each 11-1 in league play, have strongholds there.

But taking three games from an intrastate rival and fellow cellar-dweller could be huge for the Bulldogs or host Tigers, an opportunity threading Friday at 7 p.m. ET, Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Plainsman Park.

“You ask the guys in that clubhouse, they know where we stand,” Auburn head coach John Pawlowski said Thursday morning. “All of our goals, all of our dreams, all of our hopes and aspirations of this 2013 team, we can achieve all those.”

These next-door neighbors know the importance of a sweep against each other; four of the last five regular season series have gone 3-0 for somebody, with the Bulldogs taking all three from Auburn in 2006, 2007 and 2012 and the Tigers sweeping at Georgia in 2010.

The lone exception, 2011, would have been an Auburn sweep if the Tigers didn’t relinquish an 8-0 first-inning in Sunday’s game, eventually losing 14-11.

If the 2013 season ended today, Georgia would be left out of the SEC tournament 12-team bracket while Auburn would scrape its way in by virtue of a tiebreaker vs. Tennessee.

Georgia’s 2012 spring was ended with a 3-2 defeat to Auburn in the SEC tournament.

For Auburn, the schedule’s been brutal against the likes of Vanderbilt, LSU and Texas A&M. The Tigers waited until their eighth league game to taste victory, but might have righted themselves taking two of three when visiting the ranked Aggies last weekend.

“I think we’ve pitched consistently enough to win games,” Pawlowski said. “It’s just, are we going to have the consistency offensively? I thought our team did a good job and gained some confidence from (last weekend).”

Georgia’s season has nearly mimicked Auburn’s, opening 0-7 in SEC play before finally winning a series opener on April 5 vs. Missouri. But the Bulldogs have yet to win a series – in fact, they haven’t won consecutive games since March 8-9 against Liberty, suffering a 9-game losing streak in the process.

The Bulldogs will start left-hander Patrick Boling (2-4, 3.65 ERA) on Friday, following up with RHP Sean McLaughlin and LHP Jared Walsh. For Auburn, Pacelli and Chattahoochee Valley alum Michael O’Neal (6-2, 2.37) gets the ball Saturday, the only of Auburn’s three scheduled starters this weekend to have won a start this year.

“He just doesn’t throw a lot of pitches in the same spot in the zone,” Pawlowski said of O’Neal. “You know, those left-handers are a little different. They wear their hat a little different, throw off a different side of the rubber there. The ball moves tremendously, but he’s just so poised.

“He misses a lot of barrels, gets a lot of ground balls or balls off the end of the bat. Just a lot of deception.”

Conner Kendrick, promoted from the bullpen but still awaiting his first non-relief win, and Will Kendall bookend O’Neal, showing Georgia a set of southpaws.

Georgia locals include first baseman J.T. Phillips from Columbus High (.385 in conference games) and outfielder Cody Sheedy from Harris County.

The highlight of Plainsman Park’s promotions this weekend is Friday, which is Military Appreciation Night. The first 500 fans through the gates receive a camouflaged drawstring backpack.