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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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January 19, 2013

Nearly half the NFL Draft’s 73 declared underclassmen hail from the SEC

Auburn v. LSU Football Action

The NFL officially released its list Saturday of a record 73 underclassmen who have been granted special eligibility to be selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, a further commentary on the gap between SEC football and everybody else.

On the list are 32 players hailing from SEC schools.

From LSU alone, there are 11.

From the entire Pac-12, the SEC’s nearest competitor? Nine.

Now, submitting one’s name for the Draft, and thus foregoing any remaining college eligibility, does not guarantee an NFL team will come calling on April 25-27. Many juniors have tried their luck at the Draft, only to find themselves waiting on free agent calls from teams looking through the bargain bin or filling out a practice squad.

However, the NFL provides a service for players who have completed three years in college to submit paperwork to a committee which reviews game film and other factors, sending back an approximated grade of where that player might be taken in the Draft.

LSU’s whopping list of 11 underclassmen leaving the program includes five players who were listed anywhere on the all-SEC squads in the 2012 season – as well as Tyrann Mathieu, the “Honey Badger” and cornerback/returner phenom who was dismissed from the program following the 2011 season for failing drug tests.

Florida and Tennessee each have four Draft hopefuls going out, while Georgia has three, including consensus All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones, nose tackle Kwame Geathers and linebacker Alec Ogletree.

Alabama is bidding adieu to tailback Eddie Lacy and cornerback Dee Milliner, while Auburn sends off defensive end Corey Lemonier.

The NFL’s complete list of declared underclassmen can be found here.

SEC UNDERCLASSMEN DECLARED FOR THE 2013 NFL DRAFT

ALABAMA (2)

Eddie Lacy RB

Dee Milliner DB

ARKANSAS (2)

Alvin Bailey G

Knile Davis RB

AUBURN (1)

Corey Lemonier DE

FLORIDA (4)

Matt Elam DB

Sharrif Floyd DT

Jelani Jenkins LB

Jordan Reed TE

GEORGIA (3)

Kwame Geathers NT

Jarvis Jones LB

Alec Ogletree LB

LSU (11)

Chris Faulk T

Michael Ford RB

Bennie Logan DT

Tyrann Mathieu DB

Barkevious Mingo DE

Kevin Minter LB

Sam Montgomery DE

Eric Reid DB

Tharold Simon DB

Spencer Ware RB

Brad Wing P

MISSOURI (1)

Sheldon Richardson DT

SOUTH CAROLINA (2)

Marcus Lattimore RB

Ace Sanders WR

TENNESSEE (4)

Tyler Bray QB

Justin Hunter WR

Cordarrelle Patterson WR

Darrington Sentimore DT

TEXAS A&M (2)

Luke Joeckel T

Damontre Moore DE

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.