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July 21, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 1

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

The SEC Media Days are over. For just about all involved, this is a relief. But teams don’t open camp until the beginning of next month. The season itself doesn’t start until the last week of August. Needless to say, we have time (and space, though this term should be loosely given the unlimited expanse of the Internet) to fill before the 2013 campaign gets rolling.SEC_new_logo

So what better time to unveil a preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC? Starting today and ending next Saturday, 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.

Where will two-time defending national champion Alabama rank? How about Auburn? Texas A&M? Georgia? South Carolina?

Let’s start answering those questions now, featuring the two teams looking up at the rest of the conference heading into the fall. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …

14. KENTUCKY

New Wildcats coach Mark Stoops didn’t say anything particularly enlightening during SEC Media Days. He dodged the toughest question directed his way, which involved his older brother, Bob, the head coach at Oklahoma. Had the younger Stoops talked to his brother about comments the elder Stoops made earlier this offseason, which took shots at the SEC by saying its perceived dominance was “a lot of propaganda?”Kentucky-logoA

“Not really, to be honest with you,” Mark said on Wednesday. “It didn’t surprise me. We talk a lot. But I wasn’t at Kentucky last year, so (it) didn’t offend me that bad.”

While this season will likely be a struggle on the field, Stoops has hit the ground running in recruiting, picking up six commits from Class of 2014 prospects ranked four-stars or better.

  • Best-case scenario: Kentucky escapes with a win against Bobby Petrino-led Western Kentucky in the opener, then makes it two in a row against Miami of Ohio. The Wildcats lose a tight game to arch-rival Louisville in Week 3, as Teddy Bridgewater throws the go-ahead touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. That loss is followed by three more — to Florida, South Carolina and Alabama — but Kentucky acquits itself well in each game. The Wildcats get their first big road victory of the Stoops era when they leave Starkville, Miss., with a win over Mississippi State, ease past Alabama State and cap the season with a home victory over Tennessee. Five wins for Stoops in his first year can’t be considered anything other than a success. The Wildcats continue to do well on the recruiting trail, and people start to think a bowl is a real possibility in 2014. Best of all, football holds fans’ attention for a few days longer than normal before they start trying to memorize the bios of every player on the basketball team. Meanwhile, the preseason hype of Bridgewater possibly being a Heisman contender never materializes, as the Cardinals fall flat on their face in conference play. Losing a pair of winnable games to Houston and South Florida, any hopes Louisville had of landing an outside shot at the national title with an undefeated season (and a lot of luck) go up in smoke.
  • Worst-case scenario: Petrino rides out of Nashville, Tenn., on his motorcycle — by himself, and without wrecking — with a victory in the season opener, spoiling Stoops’ debut and leading some Wildcats’ fans to question why they didn’t make a more concerted effort to hire the former Louisville and Arkansas coach despite his checkered past. That defeat sends Kentucky’s 2013 season into a tailspin. The Wildcats win just twice (against Miami of Ohio and Alabama State) and get blown out in every game against a highly-ranked foe, with the low point being a 70-3 obliteration at home courtesy of Louisville — the second-most lopsided score in the history of the series, trailing only Kentucky’s 73-0 win in 1922 — and causing disgusted Big Blue fans to head for the exits minutes before halftime. In two games against opponents thought to be of equal measure, the Wildcats can’t hold up at home against either Missouri or Tennessee. The goodwill built up during the Wildcats’ record spring game attendance (over 50,000 fans) and on the recruiting trail quickly dissipate. The rebuilding is going to take even longer than Stoops had anticipated. Worst of all, Kentucky fans never give football a second thought, too busy looking at the latest high school basketball phenoms — and future one-and-done collegiate players — John Calipari has signed as the hoopsters gear up for another run at the Final Four. Meanwhile, Bridgewater is a Heisman finalist after a fantastic season which sees him throw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns (against only eight interceptions). Though the Cardinals finish 12-0, their weak American Athletic Conference schedule does them no favors, and they get passed over for a shot at the national title game. Instead, they head to the Fiesta Bowl, taking on the artist formerly known as “Big Game Bob” Stoops and his Oklahoma Sooners. Louisville wins 31-20, improving to 2-0 against the Stoops family in 2013 to complete the best season in school history.

13. TENNESSEE

Yes, joining Kentucky in the bottom of the rankings is Tennessee, its fellow SEC East cellar dweller last season. The Volunteers went 1-7 in league play last year, with the solitary ‘W’ coming against the Wildcats in the season finale; by that time, Derek Dooley had already been fired as Tennessee’s coach, while Kentucky’s Joker Phillips was coaching his last game, having been told weeks earlier he wouldn’t return.

Tennessee should be able to count on its offensive line (four starters returning) and a strong running game (its top two rushers in 2012 in Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are back) this season. But there are gaping holes everywhere else. Quarterback Tyler Bray and the team’s top four receivers from last season — most notably Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter — have departed. That’s not even mentioning the Volunteers’ defense, which will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. The unit had one of the most dismal seasons in the school’s storied history in 2012, allowing 471.33 yards and 35.67 points per game, respectively, with both marks being SEC-worsts.The-University-of-Tennessee-Knoxville-01742867

Much like Stoops, first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones has done an incredible job on the recruiting trail, with the Volunteers’ 2014 class checking in at No. 1 in the latest team rankings for all three major recruiting sites in Rivals, Scout and 247.

The problem for Tennessee, of course, is none of those players will be able to help this fall.

  • Best-case scenario: Tennessee runs out to a 2-0 start behind victories over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky before hitting the meat of its schedule. The next six games has Tennessee facing five teams ranked in the top 25 — Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. The Volunteers go 1-4 during that brutal stretch, stealing a game against Georgia at home. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray, attempting to lead a game-winning drive, has a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage, which ends up in the hands of Georgia native and Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson to seal the upset. After tossing South Alabama aside, Tennessee has four wins in the bag, needing just two more to get to bowl eligibility in Jones’ debut season. Though Tennessee loses to Vanderbilt again, the Volunteers pick up three victories, beating Missouri, Auburn and Kentucky. Who cares if they have to go to Shreveport, La. for the Independence Bowl? It’s still a bowl. There, Tennessee faces another team with a first-year coach in North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren. The Volunteers dispatch the Wolfpack just like they did in the 2012 season opener in the Georgia Dome, winning 31-17 behind three touchdowns (two rushing and one receiving) from Neal. The good vibes carry over into the offseason, as the Volunteers sign one of the top classes in the country. With eight wins in his first season and a highly-touted freshman class set to arrive next fall, talk turns to a possible SEC East title for Tennessee in 2014. Some fans lead a viral campaign to have Cincinnati’s 45-23 loss to Tennessee in 2011 — when Jones was the Bearcats’ coach — expunged from the record books, even hiring the Arkansas fans who courted Jon Gruden with a stirring rendition of “Hey Grude” to come up with a Beatles-inspired song to express their feelings. (For the record, they settle on reworking the lyrics to “Yesterday,” stating how long ago both the Lane Kiffin and Dooley eras feel now that Jones has put his stamp on the program.)
  • Worst-case scenario: The Volunteers start off 1-0 after easily beating Austin Peay in the opener … but that’s as good as it gets. Western Kentucky comes into Neyland Stadium the following week and knocks off the Volunteers, helping Petrino go 2-0 on his “SEC Revenge Tour 2013: The Schools Who Had Openings During the Offseason and Didn’t Hire Me” after dropkicking Kentucky in the season opener. Things only get worse from there, as Tennessee loses all five games it plays against ranked opponents in its next six games — comprised of Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama — with the only reprieve in that span coming against South Alabama. The season ends with three more defeats (Missouri, Vanderbilt and Auburn), salvaging the season finale against Kentucky for the second straight year to finish 3-9. By then, the excitement surrounding Jones is long gone. The highly-regarded 2014 recruiting class comes apart at the seams, with commits jumping ship as the Volunteers’ season capsizes. There is no talk of a possible SEC title run, and fans start to express their frustration with missing a bowl for the third straight season — the first time that has occurred at Tennessee since a four-year drought from 1975-78 — by wondering aloud why they hired a coach who couldn’t even beat Dooley when he was at Cincinnati. Some fans take it a step further, hiring the Arkansas fans who serenaded Jon Gruden with an impassioned plea to take the Razorbacks’ job last year to take the opposite tack on a Volunteers-centric song with Jones, dripping with vicious cynicism in every line. (For the record, they settle on reworking the lyrics to “Get Back,” which articulates their belief that Jones should “Go back to Cincinnati!” Somewhere, my predecessor, Aaron Brenner, is smiling.)

March 12, 2013

How much do Malzahn’s assistants bank? Just a little bit less than their Auburn predecessors, and less than Tennessee & Arkansas staffs

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – As much experience and star power Auburn’s esteemed group of assistant football coaches bring to their new school, it’s still a less pricey bunch than its predecessors and a couple of conference rivals.

Former head coach Gene Chizik ($3.5 million) led a nine-man staff with annual salaries combining for $3.635 million, which translated to the sixth-most expensive coaching crew in America per USA Today’s salary database.

New head coach Gus Malzahn ($2.3 million) has hauled in big names like seasoned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson ($800,000), Auburn lettermen Rodney Garner ($500,000) and Dameyune Craig ($350,000), and former recruiting coordinators Charlie Harbison ($425,000) and Tim Horton ($250,000).

The nine new coordinators and position coaches will make approximately $3.41 million, according to figures obtained through Open Alabama Financial Reports. Adding Malzahn’s deal, the total price of Auburn’s 2013 coaching staff settles in at roughly $5.71 million.

That would mean Malzahn’s assistants bring in $225,000 less per year than the previous staff.

Gus Malzahn 9

Auburn has yet to release official contracts for seven co-coordinators and position coaches, despite the other three SEC institutions with new regimes (Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas) doing so in January.

Tennessee and Arkansas, led respectively by Butch Jones and Bret Bielema, are paying their entire staffs (head and assistants) more than $6 million, while Kentucky’s price tag for Mark Stoops and company is just under $4.7 million.

Rich Bisaccia, who was hired Jan. 3 to coach Auburn running backs and special teams, banked $38,044 for three weeks of work before leaving to coach the Dallas Cowboys’ special teams. The NFL coaching veteran stood to make half a million dollars this year had he stayed.

Bisaccia’s spot was replaced by the promotion of Scott Fountain from support staff to an on-field coaching position, though Fountain does not appear to have received a raise from last year’s $210,000 salary based on the financial report.

29-year-old offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s salary is $350,000. The staff is completed by offensive line coach J.B. Grimes ($275,000) and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith ($250,000).

The Tigers’ ten coaches have been in college coaching for a combined 197 years, including 99 in the SEC in some capacity.

Photo by Todd Van Emst

Of course, Auburn University still owes hefty buyouts to Chizik and his assistants after firing them in early December. Via their contracts, any income earned through coaching, broadcasting, publishing media or any other type of football-related endeavors through the expiration of those contracts will be subsidized from Auburn’s financial commitment.

Chizik and ex-assistant head coach Trooper Taylor remain unemployed, though Chizik was part of ESPNU’s National Signing Day coverage as a guest analyst.

The other eight Chizik assistants have found full-time jobs: defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is coaching New York Jets linebackers, Scot Loeffler (offensive coordinator) and Jeff Grimes (offensive line) are at Virginia Tech, Tommy Thigpen (linebackers) and Willie Martinez (defensive backs) are with Tennessee, Curtis Luper (running backs) is at TCU, Mike Pelton (defensive line) is with Georgia Tech and Jay Boulware (special teams/tight ends) made his way to Oklahoma after initially being hired by Wisconsin.

Some but not all of their new contracts have been released. Based on Open Alabama Financial Reports released for the month of February, those eight coaches figure to subtract upwards of $1.5 million per year from Auburn’s buyout as long as they remain employed.

Chizik’s buyout, which opened at $7.7 million when he was terminated Nov. 25, will be paid in monthly installments through Dec. 31, 2015. The Loeffler, VanGorder and Taylor buyouts last through June 30, 2014, while the other six assistants are off the books on June 30 of this year.

February 8, 2013

Auburn to practice 15 times in 25 days

Photo by Todd Van Emst

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn lives his life and works his craft 20 miles an hour over the speed limit. All day, every day.

It comes to no surprise, then, that Auburn will cram 15 spring football practices, concluding with the annual A-Day scrimmage, into 25 days. For the math-disinclined, that means a minimum of four instances with back-to-back days on the practice field, somewhat of a rarity in spring ball.

But hey, no better way to establish the helter-skelter tempo of Malzahn’s ways from the first whistle.

Auburn announced Friday Malzahn will hold his first spring practice as the Tigers’ head coach on Wednesday, March 27. The rest of the schedule is yet to be determined, leading up to A-Day at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, April 20. Kickoff time and TV arrangements will also be released in the near future.

Just for comparison, four other SEC schools that have announced their spring schedules – Arkansas, Ole Miss, Missouri and Tennessee – will let their spring schedule drag out for at least five weeks.

Tennessee’s new coach Butch Jones opens March 9, and Arkansas, under new head man Bret Bielema, starts March 10, meaning the Volunteers and Razorbacks start two and a half weeks before Auburn … yet all three programs finish up the same date of April 20.