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September 3, 2013

A farewell and a new beginning: War Eagle Extra is moving

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Nothing lasts forever.

This holds true for anything in life, and War Eagle Extra is no exception. The article you are reading is the final piece of content that will be posted to this blog. Have no fear, though. War Eagle Extra isn’t going away — it’s just moving. Yes, five years after staking out on its own, War Eagle Extra is being integrated back into the Ledger-Enquirer’s homepage.

It’s been quite a run, comprising five different beat writers (David Ching, Andy Bitter, Joel Erickson, Aaron Brenner and myself) and totaling close to 4,800 posts. Auburn is now working on its third different football coach during that span, which began in the final season of the Tommy Tuberville era, with a national title and a fired coach (Gene Chizik) bridging the gap to current head man Gus Malzahn.

Aside from the pages looking slightly different, you shouldn’t notice any variation as readers. The content won’t change. You’ll still be able to read the notebooks, features and other articles about Auburn’s football team as well as watch video of their interviews.

Don’t view this as an end as much as a new beginning.

In an ode to the blog’s past, I’m reminded how War Eagle Extra’s first reporter, Ching, ended his introductory post: “This should be a lot of fun…”

Click here to visit War Eagle Extra’s new home. Take a look around. Looks pretty similar, doesn’t it?

So join me as we begin our transition and begin to (literally) write the next chapter in War Eagle Extra’s history.

It should be a lot of fun.

August 30, 2012

Thursday links: Kiehl Frazier, notes, Big Ten Network

Photo by Anthony Hall

Remember to join our live chat at 3 p.m. ET today

AUBURN, Ala. — Prodded to name his proudest parenting moment, Robin Beach can summon more options than a spread offense.

It might be the moment after Shiloh Christian (Ark.) won a playoff game, when reporters and cameramen flocked to speak with Kiehl Frazier, who politely excused himself to celebrate with his little buddy: an autistic boy. The star quarterback and the youngster grabbed a Shiloh banner, waving it as they ran up and down the field.

Or perhaps it’s four years ago when Robin’s father was in his final days, and Frazier made sure to visit the hospital multiple times, showing genuine compassion toward his grandfather. Kiehl was a sophomore in high school.

Maybe Beach resorts to the big picture — not once was he called into the principal’s office for Kiehl getting in trouble. Not in elementary school, not in junior high, not ever.

Wait for this weekend, and another choice could top the list: when Frazier takes charge at the sold-out Georgia Dome, making his first start as the centerpiece of Auburn’s new-look offense against defending ACC champion Clemson in a made-for-primetime event on ESPN Saturday night.

It’s impossible to project how a green quarterback performs in the spotlight. One thing you won’t see, if Frazier’s track record on and off the football field stays consistent, is a person swallowed up by his nerves.

“He always stays calm under pressure, just like in his everyday life,” says Josh Floyd, Frazier’s high school coach at Shiloh. “He’s a pretty laid-back guy. I think that transfers over to the field too.”

Read the rest here: Kiehl Frazier plays it cool on & off the field

**********

Photo by Todd Van Emst

AUBURN, Ala. — Brian VanGorder is not just a man of gristle. He’s nitpicky.

Auburn’s defensive players are just fine with that.

Now accustomed to their volatile new defensive coordinator, the Tigers will continue to sort out their best lineup early  on in the season based on in-game performance.

A different scoreboard has sorted out the positional battles so far. Coming off more than 20 years in the business and  the last five with the Atlanta Falcons, VanGorder instituted mental errors – or “MEs” for short – to evaluate everybody  from the linemen to the safeties.

“It can be alignment – if you’re nine yards deep and it’s supposed be eight yards, you get an ME,” junior cornerback  Ryan White said. “Once you get so many MEs, he pretty much doesn’t look at you any more.”

White, one of the surprise breakouts in camp, didn’t make it through a practice without getting slapped with an ME.

“I don’t know if it’s possible. He’s that strict,” White said. “Once you start paying attention to detail, the Ws will come.”

**********

And for my last link this morning, Big Ten Network first found viewers over the airwaves five years ago today. Here was my final story for the Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa) on how BTN evolved from every fan’s villain to a network smash.
-AB

August 19, 2012

Thanks for the warm welcome

Aaron Brenner, WarEagleExtra.com

Welcome.

It’s a warm word, a word associated with comfort and pleasantries.

You can’t really go wrong with ‘Welcome Home’, ‘You’re welcome’ and ‘Welcome to Auburn.’

Within three hours of my introductory tweet at @WarEagleExtra – which was sent Saturday at 7 a.m. – I had more than a dozen responses. Nine of them included the word ‘welcome’.

We’ll get along just fine, my friends.

My name is Aaron Brenner, and my goal is to maintain the solid reputation of Auburn beat writers for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

I’m pumped to be here and, like all of you, can’t wait until the season opener in Atlanta, can’t wait until the SEC opener in Starkville, can’t wait until the home opener against ULM, and can’t wait until, of course, the 77th edition of the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa. Oh, I suppose there’ll probably be a bowl game to follow all of that.

A few things you might like to know about me:

First, I don’t mind sharing personal details or poking fun at myself, when it contributes to the product … but primarily, my allegiance is to you, the reader. You’re what makes this tick, the lifeblood of the Auburn Tigers program and college football in general. It ain’t about me.

I spent the past three-plus years with the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa covering prep sports and, most recently, Iowa men’s basketball. The Quad-Cities are three hours west of Chicago, and a couple hours south of Madison, Wisc. – my college stomping grounds. Yes, I’m a Wisconsin alum. While I didn’t cover or attend the game, I remember Barry Alvarez’s final go-around being a 24-10 victory in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day 2006, which was a big deal considering Auburn was coming off its undefeated season. For those who remember Andy Bitter: yep, he and I are fellow Badgers.

I was born and raised in Denver, Colo. That’s a big pro sports town, but college? Not so much. I never really grasped the whole college thing until I was an actual student.

This seems like as good a time as any to mention I am a fan of the Rockies, Broncos and Nuggets. Sorry about XXXIII. I hope we can still be friends.

Likes: tennis, working out, coffee, music, skiing, Family Guy, meeting new people, my new apartment in Opelika, the fact I live near a college town again, and many, many other things I’m forgetting right now.

Dislikes: fast food, flaky people, horror movies, my current smartphone (c’mon, Apple, release the new iPhone already!), poor grammar, ESPN beating storylines to death, and … well, the list isn’t that long. I’m generally a positive person.

Now, look: I’m not from around here. I’m starting this job just two weeks before opening kickoff. You don’t have much time to get used to my style, and I don’t have much time to get super-acquainted before the routine weeks begin.

I’m going to make one promise up front: I will not try to pretend to know more than I do.

I’m not an SEC lifer by any stretch. To be fair, I’m not a Big Ten lifer either. I knew nothing about Wisconsin or Iowa or anyone else before I hit college. I picked it up as I went along, but I surely didn’t try to outsmart myself or (especially) my readers.

My mission is to cover the 2012 Auburn football team as best as I can. The historical stuff will filter in, the more I learn about the program. I’m a smart guy, I will pick that up, but it will take time.

On WarEagleExtra.com, you’ll see an emphasis on passing along lengthy storylines, an assortment of news and notes, and links from around the SEC as well as nationally.

Lastly, I’m perfectly open to praise as well as criticism. I’m always accessible on @WarEagleExtra as well as abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com.

Let’s get this thing started.

August 1, 2012

2012 Opponent Preview: Alabama

Photo by Robin Trimarchi

Auburn’s first practice is something like six hours away, so the time for prognosticating the Tigers’ 2012 season has just about come to an end.

And that’s a good thing, because the blog has reached the end of Auburn’s schedule, a date that traditionally features a certain team to the West. Auburn’s on the road in Tuscaloosa this season, but the Crimson Tide do not have the juggernaut roster that won the national championship last season, at least in terms of experience.

By the time Thanksgiving week rolls around, we’ll likely have a better idea of what the game will look like, but it still doesn’t hurt to take a look at Alabama heading into the 2012 season.

For news, notes and video from Auburn’s two-a-day practices, follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook.

Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Head coach: Nick Saban (6th season, 55-12)
  • 2011 record: 12-1
  • Returning starters: 13 (7 offense, 4 defense, 2 special teams)
  • Total offense: 429.62 ypg (31st, NCAA)
  • Scoring offense: 34.95 ppg (20th)
  • Total defense: 183.62 ypg (1st)
  • Scoring defense: 8.15 ppg (1st)
  • Series: Alabama leads 41-34-1
  • Last time out: Alabama 42, Auburn 14

Outlook

Alabama’s been picked second in the SEC West — and therefore, the SEC as a whole — by the media this season, but the Crimson Tide face their fair share of challenges. Replacing seven starters on the defense will be no easy task, especially given the quality of those starters. On offense, there are plenty of returners, but the key name missing is running back Trent Richardson, the Heisman finalist who was the heart and soul of the offense last year. For Alabama to make a run at its third national title in four years, the Crimson Tide are going to have to replenish the talent pool and bring the young guys up to speed fast.

Proven commodity: Offense

Alabama’s offensive line will be fine. Other than the move of left tackle Barrett Jones to center — and remember the Crimson Tide have a guy like Cyrus Kouandijo available to protect the blind side — Alabama’s offensive line returns almost intact. With Jones, a capable, smart guy and the reigning Outland Trophy winner, in the middle, there should be no dropoff from the departed William Vlachos at center. At right tackle, D.J. Fluker is another player who can be dominating at times, and Jones has said that he thinks left guard Chance Warmack is underappreciated. Warmack, according to Jones, might be the best player on Alabama’s line.

On shaky ground: Offense

Alabama’s top four receivers all graduated, leaving the Crimson Tide looking for reliable pass-catchers to take pressure off of a running back crew that includes Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler and T.J. Yeldon. Both Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood have already shown an ability to catch the ball against big competition — Norwood, in particular, had four catches in the national championship game — but the young receivers will need to step up to give returning quarterback A.J. McCarron somebody to rely on in the passing attack. Without the threat of play-action, teams would be able to load the box to stop the run.

Proven commodity: Defense

The names that Alabama lost off of the nation’s most suffocating defense are significant, especially in the back seven. Losing guys like Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw and Dre Kirkpatrick will hurt. Up front, though, Alabama is in good shape despite the loss of nose tackle Josh Chapman. With Chapman on to bigger and better things, former end Jesse Williams moves into the middle and defensive end Damion Square is back on the outside. In Alabama’s 3-4 defense, the linemen don’t get much glory, but their chief responsibility — keeping linemen off of the linebackers — makes the whole operation go.

On shaky ground: Defense

Three starters are gone off of Alabama’s secondary, and replacing them will be key. Beyond returning starter Robert Lester, who had eight interceptions in 2010, the Crimson Tide are breaking in a whole new group. Safety Vinnie Sunseri and cornerback Dee Milliner have the inside track on two spots, and three players are battling for the other cornerback spot. Against SEC passing attacks like the ones led by Arkansas’s Tyler Wilson, Tennessee’s Tyler Bray and Missouri’s James Franklin, Alabama’s secondary will have to get up to speed fast.

July 30, 2012

2012 Opponent Preview: Georgia

Photo by Todd Van Emst

Auburn’s finishing stretch to almost every season is well known by Tigers fans. Like any good college football season should, the Tigers almost always end with their two biggest rivalries, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry and the Iron Bowl.

Now, in recent years, the schedule makers have put a nice little rest in between those two games, and the 2012 season is no different. But given Georgia’s status as the SEC East favorites and Alabama’s status as the defending national champs, the month of November should still be an awfully tough closing test for the Tigers.

Unlike last season, Auburn gets Georgia at home this season, along with a bunch of the big-time teams already covered in the blog’s walk through the schedule. But it’s hard to predict what games in late November will look like before two-a-days start. Big-time injuries, either to a specific player or a position group, could severely affect the game, although Georgia, as mentioned above, is expected to be a big-time contender to reach Atlanta for the second year in a row.

For more on Auburn football, follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook.

Georgia Bulldogs

  • Head coach: Mark Richt (12th season, 106-38)
  • 2011 record: 10-4
  • Returning starters: 14 (5 offense, 9 defense)
  • Total offense: 408.50 ypg (39th, NCAA)
  • Scoring offense: 32.0 ppg (33rd)
  • Total defense: 277.21 ypg (5th)
  • Scoring defense: 20.57 ppg (23rd)
  • Series: Auburn leads 54-53-8
  • Last time out: Georgia 45, Auburn 7

Outlook

Most of the questions surrounding Georgia this season involve a slew of offseason arrests and subsequent suspensions, but the fallout from those off-the-field issues will likely be long gone by the time Auburn hosts the Bulldogs in mid-November. Losing Isaiah Crowell was a high-profile mishap, but the Columbus Carver product was only the lead back in a very deep stable, and incoming freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley were highly-rated players who could help ease the loss of Crowell.

Proven commodity: Offense

In quarterback Aaron Murray, Georgia might have the SEC’s best offensive weapon, depending on whether or not a fan prefers Murray or Arkansas star Tyler Wilson. Coming off of a year in which Murray racked up 3,149 yards and 35 touchdowns, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo knows he can unleash the passing game, which is led by a returning crew of wide receivers that is led by Tavarres King, who had 47 catches, deep threat Malcolm Mitchell and a host of others. Barring injury, Murray should be one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks again, and he will make Georgia’s play-action attack downright deadly, as Auburn fans will remember from last year.

On shaky ground: Offense

Protecting Murray in the vicious SEC — the nation’s best pass-rushing conference — will be a lot tougher without tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson, not to mention center Ben Jones. Georgia has plenty of depth and experience at guard, but finding somebody to replace the two bookends will be huge for a Bulldogs team that knows it has to keep Murray from facing constant pressure off the edges. Finding reliable blockers on the outside is a must for the Bulldogs. No quarterback can be effective if he’s under constant pressure all day long.

Proven commodity: Defense

Other than defensive end DeAngelo Tyson, Georgia’s entire front seven returns, led by All-American outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who had 13.5 sacks in a breakout sophomore season, massive nose tackle John Jenkins and Tyson’s old bookend, Abry Jones. The key is another Carver graduate, Jarvis Jones, who might be the SEC’s best returning pass rusher and a force that could not be stopped at times last season. In defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme, Jones will be all over the field, and while teams are trying to find him, the rest of the Bulldogs’ experienced front seven will be bearing down on opposing quarterbacks hard.

On shaky ground: Defense

Safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams were big-time playmakers for Georgia last season, but with Rambo, Sanders Commings and Branden Smith all facing suspensions for off-the-field indiscretions, the Bulldogs felt the need to move their most explosive wide receiver, Mitchell, over to the defense to help out in the back end. Granted, the secondary will have help from Georgia’s ferocious pass rush, but those guys have to come back strong after their suspensions to ensure the Bulldogs return to their top-five defensive ranking.

2012 Opponent Preview: New Mexico State

Photo by NMSU Athletics

After a regularly-scheduled break to throw up another post on an award watch list — seriously, college football may hand out too many trophies — it’s time to move on through Auburn’s 2012 football schedule, and the blog is starting to get awfully close to the end of Auburn’s 2012 schedule.

Now, the blog moves into November with Auburn’s second “cupcake” of the season in New Mexico State, a team picked to finish fourth in the WAC by the conference’s coaches this season. Other than the oddity of playing a team called the Aggies for the second week in a row, the biggest draw for Tigers fans has to be the fact that Auburn has designated the New Mexico State game as Homecoming.

As far as New Mexico State goes, the bet here is that most Auburn fans don’t know much about the Aggies. Hopefully, this post will help.

For more on Auburn football, follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook.

New Mexico State Aggies

  • Head coach: DeWayne Walker (4th year, 9-29)
  • 2011 record: 4-9
  • Returning starters: 10 (5 offense, 3 defense, 2 special teams)
  • Total offense: 398.08 ypg (47th, NCAA)
  • Scoring offense: 24.54 ppg (79th)
  • Total defense: 462.15 ypg (112th)
  • Scoring defense: 36.77 ppg (112th)
  • Series: Auburn leads 2-0
  • Last time out: Auburn 55, New Mexico State 20* – *2007

Outlook

New Mexico State has made minor progress in Walker’s three years as head coach, but the Aggies face a heavy task in trying to take  the next step and take a bowl game this season. Almost every playmaker from 2011 graduated, leaving the Aggies with just eight starters left who don’t play exclusively on special teams. In a sport where experience matters more than almost anything, New Mexico State may struggle in the WAC, given the youth of a struggling program.

Proven commodity: Offense

The left side of the offensive line returns. Left tackle Davonte Wallace is a possible All-WAC candidate after making 24 starts the past two seasons, and left guard Maveu Hiemuli has been his running mate for most of that time. With three new starters at the other three offensive line spots, Wallace and Hiemuli will have to be rocks for New Mexico State’s offensive line to gel, and the Aggies need the big guys up front to make some waves for an unproven group of skill players. Only receivers Austin Franklin and Kemonte’ Bateman, who caught 34 and 26 passes in 2011, respectively, have some playing time under their belts.

On shaky ground: Offense

New Mexico State’s offense was built around departed 1,000-yard rusher Kenny Turner, who left a year early to take his shot at the NFL Draft. In his place, the likely replacement, Robert Clay, struggled against most defenses last season. Another junior college transfer, Akeelie Mustafa, may push Clay for the job, but if neither grabs control of the job, New Mexico State’s offense — which will feature a new starting quarterback, too — will sputter.

Proven commodity: Defense

Hard to find a proven commodity on one of the nation’s worst defenses, but defensive tackle Walton Taumoepeau has shown he can be a reliable starter after making 20 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks. Given that New Mexico State returns only three starters, Taumopeau is going to have to be a rock up front while a bunch of new faces gel behind him.

On shaky ground: Defense

New Mexico State’s entire defense looks a little shaky heading into the 2012 season. As discussed above, the Aggies return only three starters off of an abysmal unit. To replenish talent, the Aggies hauled in as many junior college transfers as possible, but any team that’s breaking in eight new starters on defense is going to have some serious growing pains, and New Mexico State doesn’t have much of a base to build on after last year’s mediocre performance.

2012 Opponent Preview: Texas A&M

Photo by Texas A&M athletics

With reporting day fast approaching, and the Olympics in full swing, it’s time to take another look at a 2012 Auburn opponent. So far, the blog has already hit the first seven games on the schedule, and more will be coming fast and furious over the next couple of days.

Texas A&M, obviously, is a bit of a wild card for the Tigers, along with the rest of the SEC and the rest of the Aggies’ schedule. By the time the Aggies visit Jordan-Hare Stadium in late October, though, there will be plenty of tape on Texas A&M, and Auburn should have a good idea of what the Kevin Sumlin-led version of Texas A&M will look like.

Unlike the 2011 season, when October was a relentless stretch, the middle and end of the month should be an easier stretch than either September or November for Auburn. Whether or not that comes true depends on how good  a team like Texas A&M is in its first year as an SEC member.

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Texas A&M Aggies

  • Head coach: Kevin Sumlin (1st year)
  • 2011 record: 7-6
  • Returning starters: 16 (9 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams)
  • Total offense: 409.23 ypg (7th, NCAA)
  • Scoring offense: 39.08 ppg (11th)
  • Total defense: 378.15 ypg (59th)
  • Scoring defense: 28.15 ppg (70th)
  • Series: Texas A&M leads 2-0.
  • Last time out: Texas A&M 36, Auburn 16* – * 1986 (Cotton Bowl)

Outlook

Texas A&M had few problems moving the football last season. Former starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill was taken with the eighth pick by the Miami Dolphins, running back Cyrus Gray went to the Kansas City Chiefs in the sixth round and supersized wide receiver Jeff Fuller was also picked up by the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent, leaving Kevin Sumlin without some of the core of the Aggies’ offense as he tries to install his wide-open spread attack. On the other hand, running back Christine Michael and receiver Ryan Swope are both back. Where Sumlin faces a big challenge is on the other side of the ball, after Texas A&M found itself a punchline because of the number of fall-from-ahead losses the Aggies took last year. To make an impression in their first year in the SEC, Texas A&M will have to learn to finish.

Proven commodity: Offense

Whoever Texas A&M chooses as the starting quarterback should have some time to throw. Both of the Aggies’ offensive tackles, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, were highly-regarded in the Big 12, although the caliber of pass rusher they are about to face is about to get considerably better. Even so, experience on the offensive line will be huge, as it gives Texas A&M a group to rely on as they go into an SEC West full of top-notch pass rushers.

On shaky ground: Offense

Sumlin has a reputation as a bit of a quarterback whisperer due to his work with Case Keenum over the past couple of years, but he’s got his work cut out for him finding somebody along the same vein in College Station. For the moment, sophomore Jameill Showers has emerged as the frontrunner in a four-man race. Swope, who will be Texas A&M’s No. 1 target, had lots of good things to say about Showers at SEC Media Days, but he’s still a first-time starter who only attempted five passes last season. In an offense dependent on the quarterback, Showers — or one of the other three passers — has to come up big in 2012.

Proven commodity: Defense

Texas A&M is switching back from a sack-happy 3-4 to a 4-3, but the Aggies still have plenty of guys available who can rush the passer. Linebacker Sean Porter, who had 79 tackles last season, also posted 9.5 sacks, and former linebacker Damontre Moore is moving to defensive end after posting 8.5 sacks last season. Throw in Jonathan Stewart, who had 98 tackles and three sacks, and the Aggies’ front seven should be solid, especially at linebacker.

On shaky ground: Defense

Texas A&M got torched in the passing game by Big 12 offenses last season, and most of the starting-caliber talent graduated, leaving a defense that ranked 109th in the country against the pass without a group of experienced players to lead Texas A&M into SEC play. JUCO transfer Tremaine Jacobs could help, but the Aggies face big questions in the secondary going into 2012.

2012 Opponent Preview: Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt athletics

After a brief hiatus for the weekend, the blog’s march through Auburn’s 2012 schedule continues today with a look at the Tigers’ road trip to Nashville to play Vanderbilt, a game that used to be a gimme for SEC teams.

The Commodores no longer like to play doormat. For Auburn, the game comes smack-dab in the middle of the schedule, and it’s the second game in a row on the road. For the Tigers, it’s not the toughest stretch of the season, but it may involve the most travel.

Keep an eye on the blog over the next couple of days. The opponent previews will be coming fast and furious.

Follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook.

Vanderbilt Commodores

  • Head coach: James Franklin (2nd year, 6-7)
  • 2011 record: 6-7
  • Returning starters: 18 (9 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams
  • Total offense: 339.08 ypg (98th, NCAA)
  • Scoring offense: 26.69 ppg (61st)
  • Total defense: 322.77 ypg (18th)
  • Scoring defense: 21.62 ppg (29th)
  • Series: Auburn is tied, 20-20-1
  • Last time out: Vanderbilt 14, Auburn 13* – *2008

Outlook

Vanderbilt made a drastic improvement in James Franklin’s first year at the helm. Beyond making a bowl — a rarity for the Commodores in the SEC — Vanderbilt gave some of the top teams in the SEC a close battle, dropping games to Georgia, Florida and Arkansas by less than a touchdown before falling to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. With almost all of its starters returning on offense, the Commodores will try to turn that momentum into an even better season against a new-look SEC East that features Missouri. By the time Auburn plays Vanderbilt in mid-October, most football observers will know whether or not the Commodores have been able to take the next step.

Proven commodity: Offense

Like a lot of SEC teams in 2012, Vanderbilt will have no problem figuring out who to hand the ball to in the running game. Zac Stacy is back after racking up 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago, numbers that make Stacy a candidate to make a push for All-SEC honors this time around. A bowling ball at 5-9, 210 pounds, Stacy has the size to mix it up inside, and enough breakaway speed to get out and go. With another year under his belt, Stacy should be a dynamic playmaker again, and probably the first player to try to stop for opponents.

On shaky ground: Offense

Four offensive linemen return, so Vanderbilt should be set up front, along with the 1-2 punch of Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd on the outside at receiver. What could take the Commodores’ offense to another level — and after finishing near the bottom of the NCAA in total yards, it needs to get there — is the development of quarterback Jordan Rodgers. An effective runner, Rodgers still threw 10 interceptions and only nine touchdown passes last season. He has to get more efficient to keep teams from stacking teh box to stop Stacy.

Proven commodity: Defense

All three linebackers return for the Commodores, a big asset in the SEC East, where South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri all figure to have strong running attacks in 2012. Chris Marve, Vanderbilt’s best linebacker a year ago, is gone, but junior Chase Garnham has already started some and appears ready to take over Marve’s spot inside. On the outside, Archibald Barnes had 59 tackles, three forced fumbles and two interceptions in nine starts, and Tristan Strong made 13 tackles in four starts early in the year. Expect Vanderbilt’s linebackers to be playmakers in 2012.

On shaky ground: Defense

The secondary lost Casey Hayward, an All-American and  a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers who had seven interceptions last season and has impressed early in Green Bay’s training camp. In addition, three-year starter Sean Richardson is gone at safety, leaving two big spots open to fill in the secondary. Two players return, but filling the shoes of Hayward and Richardson will be difficult.

July 27, 2012

2012 Opponent Preview: Ole Miss

Photo by Robin Trimarchi

Auburn’s brutal September lingers a little into October with a tough home game against Arkansas, but then the SEC schedule offers a minor break, or at least as much of a break as the SEC can offer.

The Tigers had very little trouble with Ole Miss last season, but then again, neither did the rest of the SEC, and it resulted in a completely new era in Oxford. Hugh Freeze has taken over, and while he said all the right things at SEC Media Days, the reality is that it’s going to take Freeze some time to rebuild the Rebels into a team that can put a scare into anybody in the SEC West.

Keep an eye on the blog over the next couple of days, the opponent previews will be coming fast and furious, or at least as fast as my schedule will allow while in the middle of switching apartments.

Follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook.

Ole Miss Rebels

  • Head coach: Hugh Freeze (1st year)
  • 2011 record: 2-10
  • Returning starters: 17 (8 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams)
  • Total offense: 281.25 ypg (114th, NCAA)
  • Scoring offense: 16.08 ppg (116th)
  • Total defense: 419.33 ypg (90th)
  • Scoring defense: 32.08 ppg (96th)
  • Series: Auburn leads 27-9
  • Last time out: Auburn 41, Ole Miss 23

Outlook

One glance at the statistics above should give a hint to how much Freeze needs to change to make Ole Miss a viable contender to get out of the cellar in the toughest division in the country. With the schedule the Rebels face, Freeze will have to do a good job just to get Ole Miss off of a winless streak in the SEC that stretches back to 2010. Ole Miss will be helped by the return of 17 starters, one of the highest numbers in the SEC, but those guys are all learning a completely new system under Freeze and the rest of the coaching staff.

Proven commodity: Offense

Hard to pick a player off of a unit that finished almost at the bottom of the country in both total yards and scoring, but at least Ole Miss knows what it will get out of running back Jeff Scott, who rushed for 585 yards and six touchdowns last season. Scott is fast to the edge, versatile enough to make an impact in the passing game and dangerous in the return game, especially on punts. Freeze would be wise to find a bunch of different ways to get Scott the ball this season.

On shaky ground: Offense

Freeze wants to go up-tempo, spread the ball around and run the same type of hurry-up attack that netted him a 10-win season at Arkansas State, but he has to have a quarterback able to handle those duties, and right now, the Rebels’ starter is up in the air. After using Randall Mackey liberally at the end of last season, Ole Miss has moved Mackey to receiver, leaving a two-man battle between junior college transfer Bo Wallace and West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti. Somebody has to step up and win the job during camp for Ole Miss to have a chance.

Proven commodity: Defense

Ole Miss was slightly better on defense last year, but that’s not saying much, given the state of the Rebels’ anemic offensive attack. One player who stood out before suffering a late season-ending injury was linebacker Mike Marry, who posted a team-high 81 tackles in 2011 before going down. Marry gives defensive coordinator Dave Wommack somebody to build around in the running game, always a must given the smashmouth offenses at the top of the SEC West.

On shaky ground: Defense

Ole Miss got very little push out of its defensive line last season. The Rebels came up with only 13 sacks, a number that left Ole Miss 110th in the nation and gave opposing passers plenty of time to tear apart  a young secondary led by safety Charles Sawyer. With still-developing corners on the outside — see Senquez Golson — Ole Miss has to find a way to get to the quarterback, a job that will fall mostly to defensive ends Channing Ward and C.J. Johnson. If those two can’t get home to the passer, it will be a very long year for the Rebels’ defense again in 2012.

2012 Opponent Preview: Arkansas

There might be no bigger wild card on Auburn’s 2012 schedule than Arkansas, a team that has plenty of returning talent but one big personnel change could throw a wrench into the Razorbacks’ national title hopes. Unless you’ve been living under a rock or out of the country for a while, you know that former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino is long-gone, knocked off by a scandal that rocked the Razorbacks in the spring.

How John L. Smith manages the difference between him and Petrino as a game planner will go a long way toward determining whether the Razorbacks’ potential allows the team to challenge LSU and Alabama in the SEC West this season. The talent is there, but there are two new coordinators, and that kind of change always leaves a little uncertainty.

Auburn gets Arkansas after a bye, but the Tigers will also be coming off of a big home game against LSU. Playing both teams at Jordan-Hare Stadium won’t hurt, but two weeks after the offense gets its first really big test against LSU’s defense, Arkansas will test Auburn in a different way.

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Arkansas Razorbacks

  • Head coach: John L. Smith (1st year)
  • 2011 record: 11-2
  • Returning starters: 15 (7 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams)
  • Total offense: 438.08 ypg (29th NCAA)
  • Scoring offense: 36.77 ppg (15th)
  • Total defense: 362.85 ypg (47th)
  • Scoring defense: 22.23 ppg (33rd)
  • Series: Auburn leads 11-9-1
  • Last time out: Arkansas 38, Auburn 14

Outlook

Arkansas should have all the pieces in place, at least on offense, to make itself a player in the SEC West once again, at least in terms of scoring points. On the other hand, much rests on the shoulders of Smith, first-year offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and first-year defensive coordinator Paul Haynes. Petrino has to take over the play-calling duties for his brother — Bobby Petrino is regarded as one of the better play-callers in the nation — and Haynes has the task of turning Arkansas’s defense from solid to SEC-caliber despite losing three of his best players.

Proven commodity: Offense

Both quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis could go in this category, as both are expected to be at the top of their positions in the SEC this fall. With Davis coming off of an injury, though, all eyes are on Wilson, who might be the SEC’s best quarterback, although Georgia’s Aaron Murray may try to make his case. Having an experienced passer is huge in the SEC West; Points come at a premium against the conference’s defenses, and Wilson has enough experience — 3,638 yards, 24 touchdowns, six interceptions — that the loss of Bobby Petrino shouldn’t kill Arkansas’s explosive attack.

On shaky ground: Offense

Arkansas lost three receivers to the NFL Draft, although Wilson said at SEC Media Days that he thinks returning star Cobi Hamilton might be better than any of them. Even if Hamilton, who caught 34 passes for 542 yards and 542 yards, is everything Wilson’s cracked him up to be, Arkansas’s offense works best when the Razorbacks have too many weapons for defenses to match up against. Tight end Chris Gragg (41 catches) will help, but that still leaves three spots open for Arkansas to fill.

Proven commodity: Defense

On a team that lost defensive end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas, linebacker Alonzo Highsmith will loom large as the defensive leader for a unit that needs to raise its level of play to match the high-flying offense Arkansas puts on the field. Highsmith is effective in both the running game (80 tackles) and as a pass-rusher (4.5 sacks), and he should give Haynes a weapon to deploy in several different ways this fall.

On shaky ground: Defense

Highsmith may be a proven commodity, but Haynes is not. Not yet, at least. After coming over from Ohio State, where he was the co-defensive coordinator, Haynes will serve as both defensive coordinator and defensive backs, and his charge will be to take Arkansas’s defense to the next level in 2012. An elite defense — and Arkansas has not been terrible, just not a top-10 defense like five SEC teams were last year — could be all that’s separating the Razorbacks from a run at the national title, provided that Smith can manage the tumultuous transition from Bobby Petrino to a new regime in the offseason.