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August 28, 2013

7 at 7: Taking a stroll around the SEC

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — In case you didn’t know by now, it’s Wednesday, folks.SEC_new_logo

(Cue up the annoying Geico “Hump Day!!” camel ad. I’m just not a fan. Hope that doesn’t offend anyone, and if it does … well, deal with it.)

But back to more important matters. Now that it’s just three days away from Auburn’s season opener, we’ve already settled into a routine here at War Eagle Extra as far as weekly content is concerned. I’ll post the finalized schedule soon enough, but until that happens, take note: Every Wednesday, “7 at 7″ will consist of links from around the SEC, both Auburn and otherwise.

Without further ado, I give you today’s batch of items from around the league:

1. To keep with a time-honored tradition (dating back to last month), I’ll begin by shamelessly self-promoting the things posted to the blog the previous day, beginning with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s declaration that Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne are neck-and-neck at the top of the running back depth chart heading into Saturday. We also had wire-to-wire video coverage of Malzahn’s 16-minute press conference as well as a feature on left guard Alex Kozan. Oh, and don’t forget Tuesday’s notebook, which detailed Malzahn’s intrigue regarding Nick Marshall’s debut in an Auburn uniform.

2. Josh Kendall, the South Carolina beat writer for The State in Columbia, S.C., had an interesting article on Tuesday. As hard as it is to believe, the Gamecocks have only five seniors (!!!) listed on this year’s roster. Kendall explains how that came to be. And ESPN.com SEC blogger Chris Low had a good piece on Kelcy Quarles, one of South Carolina’s “other” defensive linemen, who is trying to do whatever he can to escape the long shadow of Jadeveon Clowney.

3. You’ve probably heard about the GQ profile on Nick Saban. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s your chance. It doesn’t disappoint, making Saban out to be the maniac everyone would think given his normal joyless demeanor.

4. Just how good is Robert Nkemdiche, the unquestioned top recruit in the Class of 2013? Hugh Kellenberger of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger tries to find an answer.

5. Speaking of highly-regarded recruits, LSU picked up a massive commitment for its 2015 class on Monday. The Tigers were able to keep hometown running back Nicholas Brossette to stay in Baton Rouge. An Auburn target, he also had offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Tennessee, UCLA and Vanderbilt — just to name a few — after he rushed for a school-record 2,118 yards and 44 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.

6. Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops announced that the Wildcats will play two quarterbacks against Western Kentucky in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday. It consists of the sophomore pair of Max Smith and Jalen Whitlow. And yes, they have settled on a starter — Stoops just refused to reveal it to reporters.

7. Georgia will play in this week’s marquee game when it heads on the road Saturday night to square off against Clemson. For Bulldog tight end Jay Rome, it will be an opportunity to beat his father’s alma mater. (Stan Rome lettered in football in 1975, but he was an even better basketball player, as he still ranks 14th on the Tigers’ all-time scoring list.)

And since I normally like to end these with a video when I can, why not embed a video of one player leaping over another one? Besides, when you have a video like that, I think you’d probably have to find a reason not to post it, right? My colleague at The Telegraph in Macon, Seth Emerson, talked to linebacker (and Harris County graduate) Jordan Jenkins about his leap over freshman running back Brendan Douglas during one of the Bulldogs’ preseason scrimmages.

The video is provided below. And it didn’t end up being all for show — Jenkins’ display of athleticism led quarterback Christian LeMay to throw the ball right into the hands of linebacker Amarlo Herrera.

August 24, 2013

Auburn football: With ‘the past’ behind him, Nick Marshall looks to turn around Tigers’ fortunes

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Nick Marshall’s feats with his feet are well-documented.

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. All Auburn's starting quarterback cares about is this season and getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. Marshall’s sole focus is getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Sure, many quarterbacks can extend plays and make something out of nothing thanks to fancy footwork. But few have shown the ability to excel at Marshall’s level. Take a look at the 1,095 yards he ran for last year in junior college. Also take note of the 19 touchdowns he accounted for on the ground, the second-most of any player in the National Junior College Athletic Association in 2012.

Or one could just check out his 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash.

Elusive as he may be, there are two storylines Auburn’s new signal-caller won’t be able to outrun this fall.

The first is the way his career at Georgia ended.

The other narrative, which will have far longer shelf life, is tracking his trajectory against the backdrop of a pair of SEC quarterbacks blessed with similar skill sets.

Richt: ‘I hope Nick has success’

Even though he was a record-setting quarterback at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Ga., that meant nothing to the Bulldogs, already set at the position with Aaron Murray. A member of Georgia’s heralded “Dream Team” class in 2011, Marshall shifted to cornerback upon arrival, playing in 13 games that fall. His tenure with the Bulldogs came to an unceremonious end, being dismissed along with fellow cornerback Chris Sanders and wide receiver Sanford Seay for a violation of team rules in February 2012. The three were reportedly involved in stealing money from a teammate’s dorm room.

No charges were ever filed in the case, however.

Following the dismissal, Marshall hit the reset button. He enrolled at Garden City Community College in Kansas and returned to quarterback. After one stellar season at the junior college level — along with his aforementioned rushing totals, he also threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns — he became part of the Tigers’ 2013 recruiting haul in February. Now, he’s entering the season as Auburn’s starter after coming out on top of the team’s four-man quarterback battle during fall camp.

He’ll make his debut Saturday in Auburn’s season opener, taking on Washington State in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Marshall hasn’t — or won’t — allow himself to reflect on his journey to this point, especially when the topic of the Bulldogs is broached.

“I don’t too much worry about that,” he said. “I’m an Auburn player now, so that’s in the past. I’m just going to move forward.”

Georgia never looked back, either. The Bulldogs have won back-to-back SEC Eastern Division titles, and are favored to make it three straight this season. His team’s lofty goals didn’t prevent Georgia head coach Mark Richt from being happy for Marshall when he heard Auburn’s quarterback search had come to a close.

“I like Nick,” he said. “I hope Nick has success other than our game.”

If he was still with the Bulldogs, Richt believes they would have already taken advantage of Marshall’s talents, building specific packages for him to shine offensively.

“We were thinking that we would somewhere along the line in his career,” he said, “but we never got to it.”

Marshall joined LSU’s Zach Mettenberger in a strange club: Both former Georgia players begin this fall as the starting quarterback at another SEC school. It’s a startling statistic; given other teams’ success with his former players, Richt was asked whether he would consider adding any ex-SEC castoffs in the future.

Depending on the circumstances involved, he wouldn’t rule it out.

“You just have to know all the facts and decide if this person would be in the best interest of Georgia and (if) the person, whatever they did, learned from it,” he said. “It would be a possibility.”

Marshall deflects comparisons with other QBs

The script nearly writes itself.

A highly-touted recruit runs into off-the-field trouble at an SEC school, transfers to a junior college — lighting up the circuit along the way — and then finds redemption as Auburn’s starting quarterback.

Obviously, this arc describes Marshall’s path to Auburn. It also is strikingly similar to Cam Newton, almost to the letter.

Like Marshall, Newton is a native of the Peach State. Regarded as one of the top players in the Class of 2007 out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, Newton ended up committing to Florida. Things never got off the ground for him in Gainesville, Fla., though. He spent two seasons with the Gators, departing in 2008 after being suspended by then-head coach Urban Meyer. The suspension stemmed from an arrest, as Newton was accused of stealing another student’s laptop. The charges were eventually dropped after he completed a pretrial diversion program for first-time offenders. Newton pushed on and finished out the fall semester of 2008 before leaving Florida in what he said was a search for more playing time.

And he found exactly what he was looking for at Blinn College in Texas.

Newton led the Buccaneers to a national championship in 2009 and pledged to Auburn soon after. In another piece of symmetry with Marshall, Newton came out on top of his own four-way quarterback competition at Auburn in the spring of 2010.

Everyone knows how Newton’s story goes from there.

In one of the most remarkable seasons in recent memory, Newton took the college football world by storm. With uncanny athleticism for a player his size and a knack for rising to the occasion when he was needed most, Newton led the Tigers to a 14-0 record and their first national title since 1957. His gaudy individual numbers — 2,854 passing yards and 30 touchdowns and another 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground — also landed Newton the Heisman.

Not surprisingly, when his name was mentioned during Marshall’s first meeting with reporters, Auburn’s newest quarterback immediately shut down anyone seeking to draw parallels.

“I really can’t compare myself to him,” Marshall said. “I’ll just be myself.”

What sets the two apart is sheer size. Newton has four inches (6-foot-5 to 6-foot-1) and 35 pounds (245 to 210) on Marshall. That’s why Matt Miller, Marshall’s offensive coordinator at Garden City, invoked the name of another winner of the bronze trophy whose stature is more reminiscent of his former protege: Johnny Manziel.

Once more, Marshall rejected any notion of being compared to another player.

“Again, I don’t worry about what everybody else does,” he said. “I just worry about me and worry about my team.”

While he wouldn’t acknowledge coming in with a chip on his shoulder, Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn picked up on it the moment he began recruiting Marshall.

“He definitely had something to prove,” Malzahn said. “He’s had that attitude since he’s been here. He’s really studied hard. He’s worked hard. He’s been in that playbook. He’s showed (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee that it’s very important to him. He showed his teammates, too. And that’s the most important thing. He’s got a lot of respect from his teammates, and they’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

Yes, he knows he won over the Tigers with his play on the field. But Marshall said that wouldn’t have come without watching extra hours of film by himself.

Everyone around the program knows the expectations already being placed upon Marshall are sky-high. That’s why the Tigers are going to give him every opportunity to succeed this fall.

“We’ve got a good line, we’ve got some good backs, we’ve got some wideouts that are going to have to step up and make plays for him, and that’s the key,” Lashlee said. “Don’t feel like you have to do too much. Play within the system, and over time the system will grow as you feel better with it.”

In Lashlee’s estimation, the most memorable play Marshall has made thus far is an example of the patience he hopes to see from the quarterback once the regular season begins. In one of the Tigers’ scrimmages during camp, the offense faced a third-and-14. Lining up in a four-wide receiver set, Marshall’s protection broke down. Instead of tucking the ball and running at the first sign of distress, however, Marshall stood tall and dumped it off to his safety valve on the play, Corey Grant. The running back took care of the rest, picking up 16 yards to keep the drive alive.

Lashlee, a former quarterback, couldn’t have been more pleased if he had run the play himself.

“We convert a third-and-14 just because he does his job and doesn’t try to do more than he has to do,” he said. “And to me, that showed great maturity and that, ‘Hey, he’s buying in. He’s trying to play within the system and do what we asked him to do.’”

That doesn’t mean Marshall will always decide to stay in the pocket. Far from it. He just knows his limitations.

Playing one year in the SEC — even if it was on defense — taught him to pick his spots.

“In this league, you can’t take too many hits at quarterback,” Marshall said. “I’ll use it to my advantage to get out of bounds or just get down.”

Undoubtedly, the questions about his one-year stay at Georgia and Newton will surface in myriad forms for the duration of the season. Whether Marshall will ever respond at length is up to him. People shouldn’t hold their breath on either count.

All Marshall cares to talk about is getting Auburn back on the right track.

“I know the team is behind me and I’m behind them 100 percent,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and win games.”

July 26, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 6

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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

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

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

4. TEXAS A&M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. GEORGIA

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

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

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

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

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

July 18, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia administrative assistant might get LSU week off

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

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

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

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

Extra motivation

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

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

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

July 15, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Georgia

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. On the sixth and final day of our series, we begin with the Georgia Bulldogs. The Tigers will host the Bulldogs for the second straight season in Game No. 11 this fall.

Who: Georgia

When: Saturday, Nov. 16UGA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 1, 2011

2011 opponent preview: Georgia

It’s going to be a busy day for the opponent previews. We’re going to try to cram Georgia, Samford and Alabama all in on the same day. So check back for updates.

Our previous entries have included Mississippi StateClemsonFlorida AtlanticArkansasFloridaLSU and Ole Miss.

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Georgia Bulldogs

  • Head coach: Mark Richt (11th season at Georgia, 96-34; was assistant at Florida State and East Carolina)
  • 2009 record: 6-7 (3-5, t-3rd SEC East), lost to Central Florida 10-6 in Liberty Bowl
  • Returning starters: 9 (4 offense, 5 defense)
  • Total offense: 385.0 ypg (8th SEC, 56th nationally)
  • Total defense: 328.5 ypg (4th SEC, 23rd nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 54-52-8
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 49-31 last year in Jordan-Hare Stadium
  • Consensus prediction: Second in SEC East

Five-week schedule glimpse

  • Oct. 29: vs. Florida (in Jacksonville)
  • Nov. 5: New Mexico State
  • Nov. 12: Auburn
  • Nov. 19: Kentucky
  • N0v. 26: at Georgia Tech

We’ve reached Amen Corner with our opponent previews. First up is Georgia. The Bulldogs struggled to a 6-7 mark last year, Mark Richt‘s worst record in all his time in Athens, capped off by an uninspired Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida. It didn’t help ease the heat the coach had been feeling. But Richt gained some momentum back with a strong recruiting class in February and hopes that, an additional year in the 3-4 defensive scheme and the arrival  of super frosh running back Isaiah Crowell will jumpstart the program. this year.

To find out if it will happen, I went to Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph (who also provides our Bulldogs stuff at the Ledger-Enquirer.) Follow him on Twitter here, read his work online here and make sure to check out his blog’s new site here. Here are his answers to a few questions:

AB: Freshman running back Isaiah Crowell (Carver High) figured to be a big part of the offense when he signed. Then, every conceivable road block to him getting on the field moved out of the way this summer (Washaun Ealey transferred and Caleb King was ruled academically ineligible). How quickly will the Bulldogs make Crowell the featured back? And can he have a Marcus Lattimore-like impact this year?

SE: I always figured, after Crowell signed, that either Ealey or King would be quietly shown the door. Turns out it was Ealey, but then they lost King, who the coaches wanted to be a veteran presence to go with Crowell. So they’ve moved back Richard Samuel, who played his first two seasons (’08 and ’09) at tailback before spending last year at linebacker while he redshirted. They say Samuel will enter the preseason No. 1 on the depth chart, so my guess is he and Crowell will be 1A and 1B. I’m downgrading my expectations on Crowell for that reason, and away from being a Lattimore-type impact player. But I still think he and Samuel can really upgrade the running game this year, and Crowell has a chance to have a special career.

Of course, I’m basing all that on what I hear and sense about summer workouts. Ask me again after a few weeks of actual scrimmages and practices, and I’ll probably have another take.

AB: The Bulldogs are stocked at tight end and have perhaps the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Murray. But the receivers are a question mark after losing A.J. Green and Kris Durham. Who is going to step into their place? And how much do you think not having those two will affect Murray’s growth as a quarterback?

SE: It’s too bad for Georgia this isn’t the NFL and they couldn’t trade some of their tight ends for receiver help. Tavarres King is their top returning receiver, and he needs to make a big step this year if he’s to be considered a go-to guy. But players and coaches are raving about a freshman, Malcolm Mitchell from Valdosta. Linebacker Christian Robinson said he’s never seen anyone, including Green, who was better at pivoting on his route than Mitchell. Having said all that, Georgia still needs to lean on tight end Orson Charles, a preseason first-team All-SEC guy. They also have senior Aron White and Jay Rome, one of the nation’s top-rated freshman. I do think it’ll be interesting to see if Murray’s production drops because of the absence of Green — although he was still pretty solid the first four games last year without Green.

AB: The defense lost end/outside linebacker Justin Houston and linebacker Akeem Dent but benefits from going into its second year under Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme. Will the group be better in Year 2 just because of their comfort in the system? Who are going to be the new headliners on defense?

SE: Houston and Dent are big losses, no doubt. What they were hoping is that Jarvis Jones (another Carver kid, who sat out last year) would step into the outside linebacker role and flourish. So they’re anxiously awaiting a resolution of the Tony Adams/parks and rec fund situation. The biggest addition, literally, is nose tackle John Jenkins, a junior college grad. DeAngelo Tyson played out of position last year at nose and has switched to end. Grantham likes to say that the nose tackle is the most important spot in the 3-4, and with a natural nose guard this year in Jenkins (and the improved Kwame Geathers) they feel the entire defense will be improved. We’ll see.

Robinson and fellow inside linebacker Alec Ogletree can make tackles, as can safety Bacarri Rambo. The question is whether this revamped defense has enough guys that can get to the ball and actually stop plays. They’re hoping Jones and Jenkins can help do that.

AB: Special teams often gets overlooked, but Georgia has some of the best around with veteran kicker Blair Walsh, punter Drew Butler and return man extraordinaire Brandon Boykin. How much of an impact can these guys make this year?

SE: All three of those guys were around last year and were pretty good, and it didn’t make enough of a difference. That’s not to mitigate the importance of special teams; Georgia just didn’t have many close games go its way last year.

But yes, when it comes to special teams Georgia is probably set up better than anybody in the country this year. Butler’s presence should give their defense a bit more room, Walsh’s leg should be worth a few more points, and Boykin should cause some teams to kick away from them.

AB: Head coach Mark Richt has a lot invested in the “Dream Team” recruiting class from last February, especially after a disappointing 6-7 mark last year. Are there legitimate concerns about his job security this year or will the administration give him enough time for this strong class of recruits to develop into contributors before making any important decisions regarding his employment?

SE: I don’t think there’s any doubt that his job is on the line this year, but I do think there’s a disconnect between the perception inside and outside Georgia of how hot his seat is. It seems regional and national people expect the job to open if he doesn’t win the East; but athletics director Greg McGarity has said he wants to see “improvement,” and that could mean just eight wins, under certain circumstances. The Bulldogs just got another big group of recruiting commitments for future years, including some from Florida and South Carolina. And Richt has a lot of goodwill built up from the important people at Georgia, whether it’s the president, board members or influential boosters.

Now obviously if the team struggles on the field, and/or there are more off-field problems, this might be it for the Richt era. But this is not like the end of the Tommy Tuberville era at Auburn, or Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee; the difference here is if it’s a close call, I believe Richt will still be the coach in 2012.

NCAA ’12 says …

No. 16 Auburn 23, No. 25 Georgia 16. Barrett Trotter threw for three touchdowns, including a 21-yarder to Travante Stallworth that proved to be the difference. Mike Dyer topped 100 yards again, reaching 104. Daren Bates was the defensive star, making nine tackles, three tackles for a loss and a half a sack. The Tigers improved to 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the SEC. That puts them in a tie with Alabama atop the SEC West, a half game in front of 4-2 Arkansas.

Big thanks to Seth for helping me out with this one. This is another game that’s always entertaining. And I always enjoy a trip to Athens, one of the better cities on the SEC circuit.

Up next: A mini-preview of Samford.

July 23, 2011

SEC Media Days: Recapping a long three days

The blog is back home in the land of working Internet, so I finally have a chance to post all of our work from this week. Here’s everything, in case you missed it from all three days in Hoover for the SEC media days.

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Thursday’s stories

Friday’s stories

Saturday’s stories

May 26, 2011

Season over: Auburn falls to Georgia in SEC tournament, not postseason eligible

HOOVER, Ala. — A season of missed opportunities ended, appropriately, with a game of missed opportunities for the Auburn baseball team, which lost to Georgia 3-2 in the elimination round of the SEC tournament at Regions Park Thursday.

And like that the Tigers’ hopes of making an NCAA regional in back-to-back years vanished, done in by a rule requiring teams to finish above .500 overall.

Auburn, at 29-29, didn’t make the cut.

“Anytime your season ends, it’s tough to accept,” said Tigers coach John Pawlowski, whose team lost six of seven to finish the season. “But we certainly put ourselves in this position. The rules are what they are.”

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Bulldogs starter Alex Wood (5-7) threw his first career complete game, giving up two runs on seven hits and striking out eight for fifth-seeded Georgia (29-29), which kept its slim NCAA regional hopes alive with a victory.

The Bulldogs, who play the loser of South Carolina-Vanderbilt in an elimination game at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET Friday, need to win at least two more games to be postseason eligible.

“I told them, flat out, we don’t want to be the ‘sympathy team,’” Georgia coach David Perno said. “The team that played the tough schedule, had tough adversity during the year. We wanted to be the team that was respected. … I said, ‘If we come up short, if we don’t get where we want to go, at least show your identity today.’ I felt like we did that.”

Instead, Auburn became the SEC’s first sympathy team, one that won 15 games in the deepest conference in the country, had a top-10 strength of schedule and an RPI of 36, numbers that probably would have warranted an NCAA regional berth had the Tigers been eligible.

But a number of mid-week disappointments, a stunning ninth-inning collapse against Georgia three weeks ago and a flat final weekend in which it lost two of three to last-place Tennessee will keep Auburn’s name from being called during the selection show Monday.

It looked good early for the eighth-seeded Tigers. Casey McElroy hit a solo homer in the fourth and Tony Caldwell an RBI single in the fifth, giving Auburn a 2-0 lead

But the Tigers couldn’t add to it. They had first and third with nobody out in the fifth. Two strikeouts and a ground out later and Auburn was kicking itself for not adding to its advantage.

“Missed opportunities like that, especially against anybody in this league, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it’s going to be tough for you,” said senior first baseman Kevin Patterson, one of the strikeout victims.

The Bulldogs made them pay, rallying for all three of their runs in the sixth off Auburn ace Derek Varnadore (6-3), who threw a three-hit shutout against Georgia earlier this season.

After two singles, Zach Cone ripped an RBI double into the left field corner. Chase Davidson followed with a grounder to short that McElroy skipped to first. Two runs scored on the error, giving the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead.

“At the start I felt great. It was probably the best I’ve felt since the last time I played them,” said Varnadore, an Athens, Ga., native who wasn’t recruited by the Bulldogs. “But I think as the game went on, the ball kept creeping up. And it finally just came back to bite me.”

Auburn had no answer. Wood set down 11 of the last 12 batters, punctuating the win with a strikeout of senior Justin Hargett.

“For sure didn’t end the way I wanted it to end,” Patterson said. “I thought we had a squad that could go to the regional or super regional. It didn’t work out, so very disappointed.”

HOOVER, Ala. — A season of missed opportunities ended, appropriately, with a game of missed opportunities for the Auburn baseball team, which lost to Georgia 3-2 in the elimination round of the SEC tournament at Regions Park Thursday.
And like that the Tigers’ hopes of making an NCAA regional in back-to-back years vanished, done in by a rule requiring teams to finish above .500 overall.
Auburn, at 29-29, didn’t make the cut.
“Anytime your season ends, it’s tough to accept,” said Tigers coach John Pawlowski, whose team lost six of seven to finish the season. “But we certainly put ourselves in this position. The rules are what they are.”
Bulldogs starter Alex Wood (5-7) threw his first career complete game, giving up two runs on seven hits and striking out 10 for fifth-seeded Georgia (29-29), which kept its slim NCAA regional hopes alive with a victory.
The Bulldogs, who play the loser of South Carolina-Vanderbilt in an elimination game at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET tonight, need to win at least two more games to be postseason eligible.
“I told them, flat out, we don’t want to be the ‘sympathy team,’” Georgia coach David Perno said. “The team that played the tough schedule, had tough adversity during the year. We wanted to be the team that was respected. … I said, ‘If we come up short, if we don’t get where we want to go, at least show your identity today.’ I felt like we did that.”
Instead, Auburn became the SEC’s first sympathy team, one that won 15 games in the deepest conference in the country and had RPI of 36, numbers that probably would have warranted an NCAA regional berth had the Tigers been eligible.
Instead, a number of mid-week disappointments, a stunning ninth-inning collapse against Georgia three weeks ago and a flat final weekend in which it lost two of three to last-place Tennessee will keep Auburn’s name from being called during the selection show Monday.
It looked good early for the eighth-seeded Tigers. Casey McEelroy hit a solo homer in the fourth and Tony Caldwell an RBI single in the fifth, giving Auburn a 2-0 lead
But the Tigers couldn’t add to it. They had first and third with nobody out in the fifth. Two strikeouts and a ground out later and Auburn was kicking itself about not adding to its advantage.
“Missed opportunities like that, especially against anybody in this league, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it’s going to be tough for you,” said senior first baseman Kevin Patterson, one of the strikeout victims.
The Bulldogs made them pay, rallying for all three of their runs in the sixth off Auburn ace Derek Varnadore (6-3), who threw a three-hit shutout against Georgia earlier this season.
After two singles, Zach Cone ripped an RBI double into the left field corner. Chase Davidson followed with a grounder to short that McElroy skipped to first. Two runs scored on the play, giving the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead.
“At the start I felt great. It was probably the best I’ve felt since the last time I played them,” said Varnadore, an Athens, Ga., native who wasn’t recruited by the Bulldogs. “But I think as the game went on, the ball kept creeping up. And it finally just came back to bite me.”
Auburn had no answer. Wood set down 11 of the last 12 batters, punctuating the win with a strikeout of senior Justin Hargett.
“For sure didn’t end the way I wanted it to end,” Patterson said. “I thought we had a squad that could go to the regional or super regional. It didn’t work out, so very disappointed.”