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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 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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July 11, 2013

7 at 7: Recap of whirlwind Wednesday at War Eagle Extra (plus more links)

Some people may be wondering why my first two “7 at 7″ articles have been so link-heavy.

It’s a fair question.

I know my predecessor, Aaron Brenner, began the “7 at 7″ format originally as a links-based series, before eventually morphing it into more of an extra “football notes” package once the season got underway. My plan for the future of “7 at 7″ is to make it a mixture of both. On days when there might not be enough Auburn news to fill all seven items, there will be more links. On days teeming with Tiger-related happenings, there will be few, if any, links. And of course, there could days where hybrid notes/links versions of “7 at 7″ occur.

As you might expect, this is subject to change. When SEC Media Days conclude next week, I plan on posting a rundown of “what to expect on the War Eagle Extra blog” soon thereafter, letting you readers know which content to look for each day of the week during the season.

Until then, hang tight.

1. The War Eagle Extra blog was busy Wednesday. Not counting the “7 at 7″ entry, there were five other articles posted to the blog. Did you miss any of them? We had a pair of previews of Auburn’s first two opponents in 2013 (Washington State and Arkansas State, respectively) as well as more watch list recognition for Tiger players. Throw in Auburn announcing a time and place for its annual Fan Day and the Tigers landing their first commitment of the 2015 class, and you have a day chock-full of content.AUBURN FOOTBALL Cody Parkey

The War Eagle Extra’s Twitter feed broke the 9,000 followers barrier — and yes, I’ll refrain from making more than a passing reference to the “It’s Over 9,000!!!!” Dragonball Z meme here — on Wednesday, too. However, the War Eagle Extra’s Facebook page is still a far cry from 9,000, at just over 1,300 “Likes” entering Thursday. So why not go ahead and give it a like today? You’ll feel good about it later.

(For those intrigued by the “It’s Over 9,000″ mention but have no idea what I’m talking about, do a Google search for it. I would link to it, but some of the content is considered “not safe for work.” My apologies in advance.)

2. AL.com’s Brandon Marcello continues his trek across Arkansas, as he traces coach Gus Malzahn’s path to Auburn from the beginning. The second article in the series ran on Wednesday, and like the first, is an example of great writing and reporting.

3. Senior defensive end Dee Ford was honored earlier this week when he was named to the Bednarik Award’s preseason watch list. Phillip Marshall of AuburnTigers.com shares an inspiring story about the Odenville, Ala., native and how his football career nearly came to a premature end before he got his life on the right track.

4. We already knew which three players Auburn would be sending to SEC Media Days next week when Malzahn broke the news on his Twitter account on Tuesday. (That trio will consist of Ford, cornerback Chris Davis and fullback Jay Prosch.) We now know which players the rest of the conference will be bringing with them to Hoover, Ala., after the SEC league office released the full list on Wednesday.

Thankfully for us media types, the list doesn’t disappoint. You have two of the best players in the country in reigning Heisman winner and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. From my time on the Georgia beat, I can vouch that tight end Arthur Lynch will answer literally any question thrown at him, usually with detailed insight and the innate ability to place the query in proper perspective. (He’s a history major, after all.) Georgia defensive end Garrison Smith is a funny guy, the type who is liable to say anything.

And with both quarterbacks from last year’s SEC Championship Game — Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Georgia’s Aaron Murray — set to answer questions on Thursday, we have the potential for this situation to be revisited, as sports anchor/director Chelsa Messinger of NBC 38 in Columbus astutely noted. I’m almost certain someone will ask the pair about the tweets, despite how little it has to do with actual on-the-field events.

(My bet is on Clay Travis being the media member to ask it, though I’m aware that’s picking the odds-on favorite in a miniscule pool of candidates.)

5. David Jones, a columnist for The Harrisburg Patriot-News in Pennsylvania, boiled the SEC’s recent dominance down to a rudimentary factor: The South embraces college football more than any other region. By far.

In my estimation, it was an even-handed take. It was not a snobbish, “Of course they should be good. Look at how much time and money schools and fans in the South invest in the sport.” Rather, it was a respectful, balanced view of the matter, giving as much credit to SEC fans for the league’s remarkable run of success as players and coaches.

(Of course, should you feel differently after reading it, please let me know in the comments section.)

6. Two of the more controversial sporting figures you’ll ever find once again made news on Wednesday. Marshall Henderson, the, um, candid Ole Miss guard, was suspended for what was called a “violation of team rules.” CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish later tweeted that Henderson’s suspension came about due to a failed drug test. It certainly didn’t help the Rebels’ PR department that linebacker Denzel Nkdemiche — the older brother of prized incoming freshman and the football team’s would-be program savior, Robert Nkemdiche — appeared in a pair of Instagram videos with Henderson after the suspension was announced. (Both videos were later deleted.)

No stranger to courting negative headlines during his own playing career, surly former MLB closer John Rocker told Cleveland radio station CBS 92.3 The Fan he believed baseball was a “better game” when steroids still ran rampant.

Some folks just never learn, I suppose.

7. Thanks to Jon Bois of SB Nation, I’ve finally seen one of the craziest YouTube clips ever, involving a game between two Texas high schools, Plano East and John Tyler, in 1994. If you want to read his take on why it’s the “greatest video on YouTube,” you can click the link.

If you just want to watch the video, it is provided below.

Then you can decide for yourself how high (or low) it ranks among your personal favorite YouTube clips.

December 1, 2012

What a game, what a finish: Alabama survives epic SEC title shootout 32-28 over Georgia

ATLANTA – Nick Saban assured the masses they were in for a 15-round fight.

It felt like 50. And for everybody from SEC diehards to football purists, every twist and turn of Saturday night’s SEC Championship Game was glorious.

The SEC couldn’t have asked for a much better exhibit to showcase the degree of difficulty in winning the nation’s premier conference.

No program has done that more than Alabama, so in that regard it was fitting the Crimson Tide survived 32-28 over Georgia in an epic clash in front of 75,624 delirious fans at the Georgia Dome.

No. 2-ranked Alabama’s 23rd SEC title – and the Crimson Tide’s (12-1) subsequent reward of trying to defend its national championship Jan. 7 in South Florida vs. No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) – remained in doubt until every last second had ticked off.

“We kind of had that, I-would-not-be-denied attitude out there today,” said Saban, who improved to 4-1 in SEC Championship games. “This conference will test your mettle.”

Given 68 seconds (with no timeouts remaining) to go 85 yards, Georgia junior quarterback Aaron Murray nearly pulled off the most incredulous comeback imaginable.

A couple of downfield hookups to Tavarres King and Artie Lynch helped No. 3 Georgia (11-2) land 8 yards from victory, with 15 seconds to go. The clock winded when everybody was set, and the Bulldogs chose to go for it right then and there.

“Spiking the ball takes time,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We had plenty of time to call a play, so the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone.”

Murray’s pass was deflected and accidentally caught by flanker Chris Conley, who was immediately downed at the 5-yard-line. The final few seconds ticked off, and the Crimson Tide burst into pandemonium while Georgia’s sideline deflatedly sunk, staring out as the streamers cascaded from the rafters on victorious Alabama.

Though Saturday was dominated by the run game, Alabama junior quarterback AJ McCarron launched the game-winning pass, a 45-yard strike to true freshman Amari Cooper.

“That guy’s a freak of nature, especially for a freshman,” McCarron said of Cooper (seven receptions, 127 yards). “He’s a full-speed guy at all times.”

There were five lead changes from the final play of the first half on. The Bulldogs briefly held the largest advantage, going up 21-10 when Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal 55 yards midway through the third quarter.

“We made our mind up at the beginning of the week, that this was going to be a dogfight. Sixty minutes,” Alabama senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “That’s what we got. No matter what the adversity or circumstances, we kept fighting until the last whistle blows.”

And to think, there wasn’t a single point in the first quarter, unprecedented in the SEC title game.

Alabama’s 350 rushing yards set an SEC championship record. Game MVP Eddie Lacy (181 yards, two touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (153) were the first pair of teammates to each surpass the century mark in title-game history, which they each did by the end of the third quarter.

“He was pretty relentless – Eddie did as fine a job as anybody has ever done for us,” Saban said. “The way we were able to run the ball, especially in the second half, was probably the difference in the game.”

They were countered by Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who rolled up 122 rushing yards and with his two scores is now at 16 on the year, topping Herschel Walker for the program’s most touchdowns by a freshman.

Georgia saw its six-game winning streak snapped, and awaits its bowl destination announcement Sunday. Saban emphasized the opposing Bulldogs deserve to play in a BCS bowl game, though it’s unlikely with four other SEC teams in the top ten.

“I told them, I was disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed in them,” Richt said. “That was the main thing. I told them they were warriors. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight and everybody swung to the end.

“We had a chance at the end, we just didn’t get it done.”

The Crimson Tide won’t have to sweat it out. They’ll go for their third national title in four years, seemingly unthinkable a month ago after losing at home to Texas A&M before Kansas State and Oregon losses reopened the door.

“After that loss, we just had to stay focused, and we weren’t worried about the outcome of other games,” Lacy said. “The chips fell where they fell because we played the way we were supposed to.”

The SEC West has won four straight league titles, the division’s longest such streak.

November 30, 2012

The Hangover, Part XII: Scouting Georgia and Alabama, with ESPN.com’s Edward Aschoff

ATLANTA — No Auburn game this weekend, but I’m still covering football, so we need a breakdown from one of the best in the business.

Instead of traipsing behind enemy lines this weekend – Seth and Mark served us well for the Georgia and Alabama games – we go neutral, catching up with ESPN SEC blogger Edward Aschoff (@AschoffESPN). Dude knows his stuff, as I found out when he covered Auburn against Mississippi State and LSU … and he’ll be among the masses covering this national semifinal also known as the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Let’s go 5 Questions-style, for old times’ sake.

Aaron Brenner, WarEagleExtra.com: Both Georgia and Alabama had their gut-check moments this year: the Bulldogs got slaughtered at South Carolina and momentum was slow to return, while the Crimson Tide were knocked off on their own field by Texas A&M and nearly taken out of the national title picture. Is there a hidden advantage to being humbled on the way to the postseason?

Edward Aschoff, ESPN.com: I think so. Obviously, no team ever wants to lose, but when you have so much talent and everyone is telling you just how good you are, it can be nice to get humbled in some form or fashion. For Alabama and Georgia, their humbling moments came from losses. Jarvis Jones told me this week that losing that game made the defense realize how great it wasn’t. It made those players realize that talent alone wasn’t going to win games. They had to come together more as a unit and they had to throw away the arrogance. They knew how talented they were, but they weren’t playing like it. For Alabama, I think it just made them mad. They’d heard about how there were holes in the secondary and they showed it against LSU and A&M. You know how much those Alabama players/coaches hate being told they aren’t perfect.

Brenner: AJ McCarron has the big-game clutch gene, but Aaron Murray has the big-time stats. Who has the advantage Saturday at quarterback?

Aschoff: I think McCarron does. The first year that he was a starter, he played in and won the national championship. Remember, he hasn’t been here in the SEC Championship before. He went straight to the big game, but he played arguably his best game in an Alabama uniform. And the coaches told him they wanted him to control the game, not Trent Richardson. That’s huge. Murray has historically struggled in big games. He has just three wins against Top-25 teams and if not for an awful offensive performance from Florida, he wouldn’t even be in Atlanta after he threw three interceptions against the Gators. He told me this spring that he has a tendency to take on too much responsibility in big games and loses trust in his players. That makes him force throws, which lead to turnovers. He can’t be “Big Game Aaron” on Saturday because the pressure is on, and there’s more on him than McCarron.

Brenner: Manti Te’o gets all this talk about Heisman candidacy, but none of that seems to go Jarvis Jones’ way. Where do you rank Jones nationally, and how huge a game does he need to have to give Georgia a chance?

Aschoff: He is a game-changer. He’s like a bigger, stronger, more terrifying version of the Honey Badger. He finds ways to get to every play. He hunts the ball down like the Tyrann Mathieu did at LSU last year. Just look at the Florida game. You could argue that the Bulldogs don’t win that game without Jones making all of those plays. If he hadn’t have been injured this season, I think he’d get a lot more love nationally. Te’o is great, but you could argue that Jones, Damontre Moore (Texas A&M) and Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina) are just as good, if not better in the way that they dominate and change games. Georgia needs him to have a big game because Alabama is extremely balanced and Jones has the ability to take take momentum away.

Brenner: The cheapest ticket on StubHub for the SEC Championship Game is floating around $300. You can get in pretty easily to the ACC title game for 3 bucks. What does this tell us?

Aschoff: That tells you that the SEC championship game is the hottest ticket in the country because it actually means something every year. You’ll see Gators fans, LSU fans and Gamecocks fans at this thing because it is a semi-final for the national championship game and it has been for the last seven years. No other conference can say that, especially the ACC.

Brenner: Straight up, who do you like to run this town Saturday night? Tide or Dawgs?

Aschoff: I have the Tide winning 28-17. I just think that Alabama is angry. The Tide wanted to be undefeated and wanted to prove the doubters wrong. It didn’t help getting into the national championship. It destroyed its last two inferior opponents and it wants to do the same to Georgia. I don’t think Georgia’s line can keep Murray upright all game and I just think that with some of these players seeing two national championships before, the bright lights won’t get to Alabama. Did I mention that Alabama is angry and is ready to prove people wrong again?

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

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

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

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

Auburn

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

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

1981: 5-6 (t-6th) | 1982: 9-3 (t-3rd)

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

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

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

Alabama

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

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

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

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

Georgia

1990: 4-7 (t-7th) | 1991: 9-3 (t-4th)

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

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

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

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

Arkansas

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

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

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

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

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

Florida

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

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

South Carolina

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

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

Texas A&M

1954: 1-9 | 1955: 7-2-1

2003: 4-8 | 2004: 7-5

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

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

Other notable comebacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 28, 2012

SEC Power Rankings: Bowl Season Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Brenner, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer 

**All rankings BCS**

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

Last week: beat Auburn 49-0

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

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

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

Bowl prediction: BCS National Championship

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

Last week: beat Georgia Tech 42-10

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

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

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

Bowl prediction: Capital One Bowl

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

Last week: beat Missouri 59-29

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

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

Bowl prediction: Cotton Bowl

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

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

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

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

Bowl prediction: Sugar Bowl

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

Last week: beat Arkansas 20-13

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

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

Bowl prediction: Outback Bowl

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

Last week: beat No. 11 Clemson 27-17

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

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

Bowl prediction: Chick-Fil-A Bowl

 

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

 

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

Last week: beat Wake Forest 55-21

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

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

Bowl prediction: Gator Bowl

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

Last week: beat Mississippi State 41-24

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

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

Bowl prediction: Liberty Bowl

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

Last week: lost to Ole Miss 41-24

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

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

Bowl prediction: Music City Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last week: beat Kentucky 37-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last week: lost to Tennessee 37-17

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

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

November 21, 2012

SEC Rankings/Bowl Predictions: Week 12

Aaron Brenner, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer 

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

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

Last week: beat Western Carolina 49-0

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

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

Bowl prediction: BCS National Championship

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

Last week: beat Georgia Southern 45-14

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

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

Bowl prediction: Capital One Bowl

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

Last week: beat Sam Houston State 47-28

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

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

Bowl prediction: Cotton Bowl

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

Last week: beat Ole Miss 41-35

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

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

Bowl prediction: Sugar Bowl

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

Last week: beat Jacksonville State 23-0

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

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

Bowl prediction: Outback Bowl

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

Last week: beat Wofford 24-7

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

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

Bowl prediction: Chick-Fil-A Bowl

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

Last week: beat Tennessee 41-18

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

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

Bowl prediction: Music City Bowl

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

Last week: beat Arkansas 45-14

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

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

Bowl prediction: Gator Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last week: lost at Mississippi State 45-14

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

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

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

Last week: lost to Syracuse 31-27

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

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

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

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

Last week: lost at Vanderbilt 41-18

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

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

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

Last week: beat Alabama A&M 51-7

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

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

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

Last week: beat Samford 34-3

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

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

November 19, 2012

The Hangover, Part XI: Scouting Alabama

Who: Auburn (3-8, 0-7 SEC) at No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1)

When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT

Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821) | Tuscaloosa, Ala.

TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson, Tracy Wolfson)

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-FM 102.9 in Columbus)

Line: Alabama -31.5

What to know about the Crimson Tide: For the second straight league game, Auburn’s opponent looks at a win-and-they’re-in to the SEC Championship game scenario. So the stakes are fairly high … after Saturday night’s upsets to K-State and Oregon, the second-ranked Crimson Tide and third-ranked Georgia control their own destiny to the BCS Championship game … how’s this for symmetry: Alabama, nationally, ranks first in scoring defense (10.1 points per game), second in total defense (240.1 yards), third in rush defense (75.6) and fourth in pass defense (164.4). All figures are tops in the SEC. No matter what measure you use, the Nick Saban-Kirby Smart defense is pretty stout … the Crimson Tide’s offense has shown up too: its 38.1 points per game ranks second in the conference, and is up a field-goal average from the 2011 champs … A.J. McCarron’s 172.44 passing efficiency ranks third in the country. He’s just a hair behind Georgia’s Aaron Murray, the national leader (174.33) who carved up Auburn for three passing touchdowns two weeks ago … cornerback Dee Milliner is one of five finalists for the Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the nation’s best defender … Alabama’s 49-0 win over Western Carolina last weekend is the program’s 21st shutout in 21 seasons.

When last they met: No. 2 Alabama 42, Auburn 14 … Nov. 26, 2011 in Auburn: The Crimson Tide sailed through on their ultimate journey to the national championship, behind Trent Richardson’s 203 rushing yards and McCarron’s three first-half passing touchdowns. Auburn scored touchdowns defensively (Corey Lemonier forced a McCarron fumble which Kenneth Carter recovered in the end zone) and on special teams (Onterio McCalebb’s 83-yard kick return), but the offense were smothered to just 140 total yards and nine first downs. Clint Moseley completed 11-of-18 passes for 62 yards, and Quan Bray made five grabs.

All-time series: Alabama leads the rivalry 41-34-1. On campus, however, the Tigers hold a 14-5 advantage, including an impressive 7-1 in Tuscaloosa. The Tide’s lone home win was 36-0 in 2008, but the Tigers garnered revenge two years later by erasing a 24-0 deficit and roaring back to win 28-27 on their way to the national title. Auburn has won seven of the last ten matchups. The series took a two-generation hiatus from 1908-47 over financial and officiating discrepancies, after which the series remained in Birmingham for the next 40 years.

Which Tiger is licking his chops: Sophomore tailback Tre Mason, who needs to etch out 80 yards for his first 1,000-yard season. It would give Auburn its fourth straight season with a 1,000-yard rusher. As the previously mentioned Alabama run defense would indicate, though, it won’t come easily.

Who’s keeping the Auburn coaches up at night: It’s not an exaggeration to say Alabama plays team football better than anybody else in the country, in all three phases of the game.

Extra point: Mason and McCalebb’s yards-per-carry against non-SEC opponents: 8.3. Their YPC against the SEC: 4.2. They’ll need to find no worse than a middle ground to have a fighting chance Saturday.

-AB

November 15, 2012

SEC players embrace Twitter, while coaches remain guarded of its widespread effects

List of SEC quarterbacks on Twitter

AUBURN, Ala. — Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (@aaronmurray11) had chocolate-covered strawberries, drizzled in the design of miniature footballs, delivered from his parents for his 22nd birthday last Saturday. Then after thumping Auburn, Murray and his teammates celebrated back in Athens with a trip to Waffle House.

Vanderbilt signal-caller Jordan Rodgers (@JRodgers11) snagged a balcony seat at the Country Music Awards, Auburn quarterback Jonathan Wallace (@JWall_4) spends so much time at the football complex he wishes he had a bed to collapse into, and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron (@10AJMcCarron) enjoys communicating with the ladies en masse.

These are all tidbits fans can discover on the official pages of 12 SEC quarterbacks on Twitter, the social media platform exploding into everyday life as a whole new way of reaching out to everybody from celebrities to next-door neighbors.

College football coaches admit they’re wary of their players’ interaction on Twitter, where one can release some uncensored thoughts to the “Twitterverse” at the push of a button.

“Certainly, it’s something that’s been controversial,” Auburn @CoachGeneChizik said. “We just try to educate our guys on the fact that Twitter is something you’ve got to be very careful with. If we have a young man that we feel like is getting out of control with that, then we’ll take that away from him as an option.”

Florida State and Iowa have banned their players altogether from Twitter, but USC published its players’ handles on its preseason depth chart  – illustrating the wide spectrum of philosophies toward embracing or denouncing the forum.

“I’ve got mixed emotions,” said Ole Miss @CoachHughFreeze, who is extremely active on Twitter with more than 29,000 followers. “It can be a very good tool, depending upon how it’s used. I think it’s been a great thing for me and the relationship-building here, for us to get our message out of who we are and what our core values are. A lot of our kids have taken that to heart, too.

“Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and makes you question whether it should be a part of your program. It can also be very discouraging to read some of the things you see on there. I want kids to understand that could prevent them from getting a job one day. I’ve asked a few to get off of it.”

Coaches differ

Georgia coach @MarkRicht lays no Twitter restrictions up front with his players, except they have to shut it off beginning after dinner on Friday night preceding a football game.

“You do have to trust them. We haven’t had anything horrific happen. For the most part, it doesn’t become problematic,” Richt said. “It’s just the way people communicate nowadays, so I don’t want to sit here and strangle that with our players. I want them to have a relatively normal life. It’s more important to teach them how to manage it than shut it down.”

Then there’s South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who disbands the Gamecocks’ use of Twitter during the season.

When star running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury, a litany of support went viral to @LattTwoOne, yet Lattimore — who showed his appreciation in public comments — could not and did not respond once from his account.

“What can you ever gain by putting your business on the street?” Spurrier reasoned. “The bad outweighs the good.”

At Arkansas, director of football operations Mark Robinson (@CoachMRobinson) follows every player on Twitter, and the Razorbacks sign a preseason sheet declaring they’ll represent their team responsibly on social media.

LSU and Missouri train their players to understand every tweet or picture they send out is no different than a 15-second press conference.

Auburn sophomore Kiehl Frazier, who started the Tigers’ first five games, shut down his Twitter account the week before the season began.

Texas A&M freshman phenomenon Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) picked up more than 5,000 new followers in three days after the Aggies upset top-ranked Alabama on Saturday.

USC’s @MattBarkley became the first college athlete to have his account verified, to prove his account actually belongs to him. Many parody accounts fool followers into thinking that’s the real player — including a fake account with nearly 1,300 followers attributed to LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, not an active Twitter user.

“It’s a new way of communicating,” LSU coach Les Miles (@LSUCoachMiles) said. “I think it’s an opportunity for people to not be accountable and speak in wide exaggerations. The positives of the use of social media will be defined as we go forward.”

Software monitor

Many universities, including Auburn and several of its SEC counterparts, use software services like UDiligence and Varsity Monitor that flag certain terms or phrases to alert team officials of players sending controversial or obscene tweets.

Chizik doesn’t believe in completely banning his team from Twitter, but obviously gets worried about players airing out their dirty laundry, particularly if it’s football-related.

“Doesn’t matter what kind of year you’re having,” Chizik said. “Nobody out there on anybody’s football team should be talking about anything that sheds a negative light on anybody’s program.”

Within the past week, Auburn safety @DemetruceMcNeal and running back Mike Blakely (@941_blakely_22) each sent strange tweets that could have been perceived as announcing they were leaving the program. McNeal tweeted “Got some bad news today wonder what is next for me but jus know ima speak my mind” and “bottom line I’m gone” Tuesday, whereas Blakely on Sunday tweeted “up bored spending my last days in AU wisely! change is coming in my life but I know God has my back no matter what!

Both McNeal and Blakely quickly clarified their comments, tweeting they were referring to the upcoming semester break.

On the other hand, Wallace’s account is squeaky-clean, regularly scrubbed with Bible phrases and inspirational messages.

“I really like to stay positive and keep the fans into it. Just trying to be that light, that small light at the end of the tunnel,” Wallace said. “I don’t really say much. But when I do say something, it’s very meaningful.”

Even though he’s very new to the regional and national limelight, Wallace is quite cognizant that these days, fans hang on every word they read from their heroes — whether it’s expressed at a postgame podium or on a Twitter timeline.

“Whatever you put out there, it’s out there,” Wallace said. “There’s no taking it back, so you have to be very, very careful about what you put out there on the Internet.”

LEAGUE TWEETERS

Who’s who on Twitter, with their stats as of 6 p.m. Wednesday

School | Starting QB | Twitter handle | Tweets | Followers

Georgia | Aaron Murray | @aaronmurray11 | 2,949 | 54,512

Alabama | AJ McCarron | @10AJMcCarron | 2,521 | 51,322

Texas A&M | Johnny Manziel | @JManziel2 | 2,114 | 46,536

Tennessee | Tyler Bray | @tbrayvol8 | 719 | 34,747

Arkansas | Tyler Wilson | @Tyler_Wilson8 | 67 | 28,054

Florida | Jeff Driskel | @jeffdriskel | 764 | 14,412

Missouri | James Franklin | @JFrankTank1 | 4,522 | 11,173

Mississippi State | Tyler Russell | @Tyler17Russell | 1,254 | 11,085

Vanderbilt | Jordan Rodgers | @JRodgers11 | 975 | 8,075

Ole Miss | Bo Wallace | @bowallace14 | 291 | 7,279

Auburn | Jonathan Wallace | @JWall_4 | 3,997 | 3,402

Kentucky | Jalen Whitlow | @JWhitlow_2 | 8,381 | 2,175

**LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw are not on Twitter**