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September 2, 2013

SEC Power Rankings: Week 2

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Not a ton of movement from our preseason rankings, as many of the opening weekend’s games went the way most predicted.

Two quick notes before getting started:SEC_new_logo

  • The rankings/receiving votes (designated by “RV”) are from the Associated Press poll.
  • Secondly, the landing spot for each team is a combination of how good I perceive each team to be in relation to the rest of the conference, with a dash of last week’s results thrown in, too. However, the former takes precedence. One example: Just because Tennessee and Missouri whupped up on tomato cans Saturday doesn’t mean they’ll rank above Georgia, which lost a tight game to a top-10 Clemson squad. Again, everything is relative.

(All games times ET)

1) No. 1 Alabama (1-0)

Last week: won vs. Virginia Tech 35-10

No, Saturday wasn’t the most convincing win Alabama has had in a season opener since Nick Saban assumed the reins of the program. It certainly didn’t come close to matching last year’s 41-14 decimation of then-No. 8 Michigan. The offense showed it needs work, and the Crimson Tide was helped immensely by Christion Jones’ punt and kick return touchdowns. But complaining about a 25-point win against a team from another major conference — especially versus a school with a winning tradition like Virginia Tech — is basically nitpicking. Then again, that’s just the absurdly-high standard Alabama is being held to these days.

Next: Idle

2) No. 6 South Carolina (1-0)

Last week: won vs. North Carolina 27-10

South Carolina jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and cruised from there. Jadeveon Clowney didn’t dominate, as he finished with just three tackles, but it’s not as if North Carolina was running it straight at him every play, either. He also looked a bit winded at times, but I’d chalk that up to the stomach virus he was reportedly battling the night before.

Hey, even Superman had kryptonite.

Next: at No. 5 Georgia (0-1), 4:30 p.m. | ESPN

3) No. 7 Texas A&M (1-0)

Last week: won vs. Rice 52-31

Johnny Football did what Johnny Football does best, Part I: create points. He threw three touchdowns (on just eight attempts) in the second half after sitting out the game’s first 30 minutes, serving his NCAA penalty for what was called an “inadvertent” violation of signing autographs during the offseason.

Johnny Football did what Johnny Football does best, Part II: create controversy. He was pulled after getting flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the fourth quarter. This followed an earlier exchange with another Rice defender, where Manziel mimicked signing an autograph. (Oy vey.)

While Manziel’s antics can easily be toned down — it’s not that hard, I swear — the bigger worry for the Aggies should be fixing their defense. Six starters on defense were suspended from playing in the first half for undisclosed violations of team rules. The unit was already a question mark heading into the season. Saturday did little to help that in the way of playing time. Needless to say, if Texas A&M gives up 31 points when Alabama comes to town on Sept. 15, it likely means the Aggies will end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

Next: vs. Sam Houston State (1-0), 7 p.m. | Texas A&M PPV

4) No. 12 LSU (1-0)

Last week: won vs. No. 20 TCU 37-27

A pretty good debut for Cam Cameron as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator: 448 yards (251 passing, 197 rushing) against a Horned Frogs’ team that prides itself on defense.Auburn v. LSU Football Action

While quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s numbers weren’t spectacular, accounting for just one touchdown and completing 50 percent (16 of 32) of his attempts, those should only improve going forward.

Next: vs. UAB (0-1), 7 p.m. | ESPNU

5) No. 5 Georgia (0-1)

Last week: lost to No. 8 Clemson 38-35

Another close loss for Georgia in a big game to begin the season. What’s new? It didn’t eliminate the Bulldogs from national title contention yet.

But a loss to South Carolina this weekend will.

Next: vs. No. 6 South Carolina (1-0), 4:30 p.m. | ESPN

6) No. 10 Florida (1-0)

Last week: won vs. Toledo 24-6

Between Jeff Driskel (finally) looking like a semi-effective SEC quarterback and backup tailback Mack Brown‘s career day, Florida’s offense didn’t resemble the unit that couldn’t score to save its life last season. (Apologies to Mike Gillislee.)

Surprisingly, a defense that ranked fifth in the country last season and had to replace eight starters and its coordinator (Dan Quinn) didn’t appear to miss a beat.

Next: at Miami (FL) (1-0), Noon | ESPN

7) RV Ole Miss (1-0, 1-0 SEC)

Last week: won vs. Vanderbilt 39-35

The Rebels finally ended their three-game losing streak to the Commodores. When was the last time any SEC team had such a run of futility against the Commodores?

Now they’ll get to enjoy a breather against Southeast Missouri State before their schedule begins in earnest, with five games in six weeks. There’s not a single “gimme” among them: at Texas, at Alabama and at Auburn before returning home to host Texas A&M and LSU.

Whew!

Next: vs. Southeast Missouri State (0-1), 7 p.m. | Ole Miss PPV

8) Auburn (1-0)

Last week: won vs. Washington State 31-24

Gus Malzahn was able to walk off the field a winner Saturday night, but judging from fan feedback following the game, Auburn supporters were expecting far more. It appears they were just echoing Malzahn’s own thoughts. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said in his postgame press conference, “but we’re committed to doing that.”

Translation: “I’m happy we won, but it was touch-and-go until the Cougars’ last possession. It’s going to be a long week at practice.”

Next: vs. Arkansas State (1-0), 7:30 p.m. | FSN

9) RV Vanderbilt (0-1, 0-1 SEC)

Last week: lost to Ole Miss 39-35

There was no reason for Jordan Matthews to hang his head last Thursday. The senior receiver left it all on the field, catching 10 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown against the Rebels. Even his own body couldn’t slow him down, as he went off the field for intravenous fluids early in the third quarter. It was one of the gutsier performances you’ll ever see.

Next: vs. Austin Peay (0-1), 7:30 p.m. | CSS

10) Arkansas (1-0)

Last week: won vs. Louisiana-Lafayette 34-14

It’s easy to poke fun at Bret Bielema’s expense, for far too many reasons to detail here. What’s no laughing matter is how the Razorbacks won on Saturday, easily dispatching the Ragin’ Cajuns by 20 points. Don’t let the name fool you: Louisiana-Lafeyette was coming off back-to-back 9-4 campaigns and considered the co-favorite (along with Louisiana-Monroe) to capture the Sun Belt Conference title this season.

Next: vs. Samford (1-0) in Little Rock, 7 p.m. | Arkansas PPV

11) Tennessee (1-0)

Last week: won vs. Austin Peay 45-0

Look, I know it was just Austin Peay. But considering a Pop Warner team could have scored on Tennessee’s defense last season, the Volunteers will take a shutout any way they can get it. Tennessee doesn’t care that the Governors have lost 17 consecutive road games, either, with Austin Peay’s last win away from home coming against Tennessee State on Sept. 18, 2010.

Whatever negativity you want to throw the Volunteers’ way right now will fall on deaf ears. They’re in a Kendrick Lamar state of mind: Don’t kill their vibe.

Next: vs. Western Kentucky (1-0), 12:21 p.m. | SEC Network

12) Missouri (1-0)

Last week: won vs. Murray State 58-14

Quarterback James Franklin threw for 300-plus yards for the third time in his career, finishing with 318 yards (completing 26 of 38 attempts) and three touchdowns in a little more than two quarters of work. This was different than his previous two 300-plus efforts in one respect: The Tigers actually won this time.

Toledo should provide a little better gauge of where Missouri is at this weekend, but the Tigers won’t see an SEC opponent until going on the road against Vanderbilt on Oct. 5. (Gotta get those non-conference wins while you can, I suppose.)

Next: vs. Toledo (0-1), 3:30 p.m. | ESPNU

13) Mississippi State (0-1)

Last week: lost to No. 13 Oklahoma State 21-3

It’s hard to come up with any positives for the Bulldogs. They went just two of 16 on third-down conversions. They racked up only 333 yards of total offense. Starting quarterback Tyler Russell left the game in the third quarter after taking a shot to the head and did not return.

The loss just continues the downward trend for Dan Mullen’s squad: Since starting last season 7-0, the Bulldogs are 1-7 in their past eight contests.

Next: vs. Alcorn State (1-0), 3:30 p.m. | CSS

14) Kentucky (0-1)

Last week: lost to Western Kentucky 35-26

Welp, that went about as horribly as the Wildcats could have scripted it for their opening game under Mark Stoops. Not only did they lose to the Hilltoppers — led by former Louisville and Arkansas head coach and noted motorcycle enthusiast Bobby Petrino — but they were thoroughly outclassed by their Sun Belt foe. Western Kentucky scored on three of its first four possessions, with each covering 75 yards or more.

One silver lining: Basketball season is getting closer every day. So there’s that.

Next: vs. Miami (OH) (0-1), Noon | Fox Sports

August 27, 2013

7 at 7: A look around the NCAA

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — There have been both long and short versions of “7 at 7″ before.

Consider this one the latter. Starting this week and tentatively scheduled to run for the duration of the football season, Tuesday’s “7 at 7″ will have links from across the country, highlighting the biggest stories and (what I consider to be) the best pieces of writing. There should be a full schedule posted later today of what content to expect each day of the week.

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel reportedly met with NCAA investigators for six hours on Sunday. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel reportedly met with NCAA investigators for six hours on Sunday. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Stay tuned.

1. The curious case of Johnny Manziel’s autograph odyssey could be coming closer to a resolution. According to a source close to the investigation, the NCAA met with the sophomore quarterback for six hours on Sunday.

2. Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer will likely get his fair share of carries at Louisville this season; however, he won’t be the starter in the Cardinals’ opening game. That honor goes to senior Senorise Perry.

3. A pair of teams finally named their starting quarterbacks on Monday:  Justin Worley will enter the year as Tennessee’s signal-caller, while Jake Waters will be the man running Kansas State’s offense this season.

4. Paul Myerberg of USA Today gives you five coaches to know heading into the season — that is, if you haven’t brushed up on them already.

5. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was one of the first people to reach out and aid Alabama in April 2011 following a string of tornadoes that ripped through the state.

6. Oklahoma is dealing with an array of arrests as it prepares for its season opener against Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday. Offensive lineman Jake Reed was arrested and charged with one count of first-degree burglary, one count of assault and battery and one count of domestic abuse after breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s home and threatening to kill another man. He has already been suspended from the team and the university while the case continues. Two other Sooners arrested during the offseason — starting cornerback Cortez Johnson and starting defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue — will sit out Saturday’s game as part of their punishment.

7. We end with a feature on former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, now the head man at Cincinnati. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports writes that the 59-year old is happier than he’s ever been. He also noted Tuberville’s personal golf cart — which he first used at Auburn and then took with him to Texas Tech and now Cincinnati — is still going strong.

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.”

August 14, 2013

4 at 4: Off day provides time to catch up on latest news in college football

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — It’s a rare day on the Auburn football beat.graphics4

First, there’s no media availability. Second, and of greater import to non-reporters, the Tigers aren’t practicing today.

Head coach Gus Malzahn said this day will be used exclusively for the coaching staff to continue its evaluations of every player, as well as to start to pare down the positions that are still up for grabs.

With that in mind, it seems like a good day for a “4 at 4,” with some links highlighting both Auburn and other teams around college football.

1. I normally like to lead off with links to recent content published on the blog for those who might not have had a chance to read them yet. I see no reason to change that, so let’s start with a few pieces from the last two days: Avery Young and Patrick Miller continue to tussle to become the team’s starting right tackle, while receiver Sammie Coates said the game has “slowed down” for him entering his third season on the Plains. We have a post which includes post-practice video interviews with Coates, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and center Reese Dismukes. Finally, we have quarterback content galore: an update on the competition from Lashlee’s perspective along with a pair of profiles on current (and former) signal-callers, with the first focusing on Jonathan Wallace and the second on the Tigers’ newest safety, Kiehl Frazier.

And something to keep in mind for Thursday: I’ll be live chatting at 3 p.m. ET. I hope you’ll join.

2. In other Auburn news, Jason Dufner sure seems to be reaping the rewards of his victory in the PGA Championship. Heck, he even slept with the Wanamaker Trophy. (Check out the photo posted by his wife, Amanda, on her personal Instagram account.)

And a good get from colleague Brandon Marcello, who tracked down Matt Miller, the offensive coordinator at Garden City Community College in Kansas, where Nick Marshall lit up the junior college circuit last year. His former coach thinks Marshall “could be as good as any quarterback in the SEC” and compared him to former Kansas State great Michael Bishop, the Heisman Trophy runner-up (to Ricky Williams) in 1998.

3. How about a few interesting stories around college athletics? According to The Washington Post, Maryland’s move to the Big Ten hasn’t paid immediate dividends, as the athletic department is projected to operate at a deficit “until at least the 2017-18 academic year.” Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant hopes the NCAA punishes Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel if the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is proven to accepted money in exchange for his autograph.

Speaking of punishment, Alabama has suspended starting inside linebacker Trey DePriest for a violation of team rules; meanwhile another SEC linebacker named “Trey” is looking to exit the league completely — LSU’s Trey Granier is seeking to transfer, according to Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune.

4. As we’ve done multiple times in the past, a tip of the cap to Scott Scroggins — the master statistician who works in the media relations arm of Auburn’s athletics department for finding another great video to bring today’s “4 at 4″ to a close.

Scroggins has been counting down the days until Auburn’s 2013 campaign begins, now standing 17. With that number on “Scroggins’ noggin,” he decided to link to the famous “Punt Bama Punt” game, which Auburn won 17-16 over Alabama in 1972, thanks to two blocked punts by Bill Newton. Both were returned for touchdowns by David Langner, who also came up with an interception on the final drive of the contest to seal the victory and help the Tigers topple the No. 2 Crimson Tide.

July 30, 2013

4 at 4: Counting down the days until real, live football gets here

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Two days.

Just two more days until Auburn players report. Three days until fall camp opens. And we’re just a month away from the season kicking off, when the Tigers welcome the Washington State Cougars to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Aug. 31. It seems so close — and it is. But the closer it gets, the more anxious I am for it to finally begin. Of course, coaches, players and fans share in the excitement of a coming season every bit as much as media members do.

Ellis Johnson

Ellis Johnson

It reminds me of something defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said when he sat down for an interview with beat writers exactly one week ago today. In fact, it was the very first thing Johnson was asked: “How ready are you to get things started?”

It was a simple question, but the veteran coach gave a wonderfully detailed answer.

“We’ve kept away from them so much during this time of the year, and although they never leave, it’s not like the old reporting dates in the old days where they used to go home for the summer and you couldn’t wait to see them when they got back. At the same time, it’s still a time when you can get your hands back on them and get back on the field and get rolling again. You kind of get in these days right here, I can’t stand them. I either want to go back on vacation or I want to start practice. That in-between time is kind of hard to hold yourself back.”

Believe me, Coach, we all feel the same way.

In the meantime, let’s hit on a few small items in today’s edition of “4 at 4.”

1. A few tweets regarding myriad former members of Auburn’s football program have made the rounds on Twitter in the last 24 hours. The first, as was discussed in this space Monday, was in reference to former Tigers running back Michael Dyer. According to this tweet from Drew Deener, the play-by-play voice of the Louisville Cardinals, Dyer has not yet joined their program, per head coach Charlie Strong.

Speaking of head coaches, former Tigers head man Tommy Tuberville has not returned to Auburn since 2008, if this tweet from CBS Sports national college football reporter Jeremy Fowler is taken as fact.

It would probably be smart for former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to stay away from Auburn for a few years, too. Take a look at some of the comments he made at the Roanoke Valley Sports Club on Monday night, which were tweeted out by former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter, now covering Virginia Tech football for the Roanoke Times and Virginian-Pilot.

Needless to say, the current offensive coordinator of the Hokies didn’t think very much of the hand he was dealt last season.

Oh, and he thinks Nick Saban is smart. (Then again, what is he supposed to say when he couldn’t put a single point on the board against Alabama’s defense last year?)

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for an Auburn player to respond, as backup center Tunde Fariyike did the honors — with an edge.

And how about one more Fariyike tweet to top it off?

2. Gus Malzahn will be making his last stop on the 2013 Tiger Trek this evening. It will be in Montgomery at Riverwalk Stadium starting at 6 p.m. ET. James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser has all the details for those who might be interested.

3. At the risk of possible Johnny Manziel overload, I cannot recommend this article by ESPN The Magazine senior writer Wright Thompson enough. While reading it, I went through every emotion possibly toward “Johnny Football.” Anger. Pity. Fascination. Bewilderment. (One thing I must note about the story: It contains some graphic language and subject matter.)

Frankly, all you really need to know is that Thompson wrote it — for my money, one of the top sports journalists in the country without question. Read it for yourself and see how you feel about Manziel. Maybe it will cement your preconceived notions about him. Or maybe you’ll end up feeling differently about the 20-year-old lightning rod known as much for off-the-field controversies as his incredible on-the-field accomplishments.

4. Just in case you’re in Auburn this weekend, take heart: Parking will be free.

Via the Opelika-Auburn News article: “In conjunction with this weekend’s sales tax holiday weekend and Auburn University’s semester break, the Auburn City Council has suspended parking meter operations in downtown from Aug. 3-20.”

Most importantly, for you fellow football-lovers out there, yes, fall camp will have already started by this weekend.

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 13, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Texas A&M

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 Day 4, we kick things off with the Texas A&M Aggies. Playing as well as any team in the country at the end of last season, the Tigers will head on the road to take on the Aggies in Game No. 7.

Who: Texas A&M

When: Saturday, Oct. 19TAM-Logo

Where: Kyle Field (82,600) | College Station, Texas

All-time series: Texas A&M leads 3-0.

When last they met: In short, it wasn’t pretty for Auburn. Texas A&M came into Jordan-Hare Stadium and obliterated the hosts 63-21, the most points the Tigers had allowed since Georgia Tech rolled to a 68-7 victory on Nov. 29, 1917. The Aggies moved the ball at will against the Tigers’ defense, as the visitors put it in the end zone on eight of its first nine possessions. Texas A&M piled up 621 yards of total offense, setting a record for the highest total by an Auburn opponent. At the center of the rout, not surprisingly, was Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel. The redshirt freshman phenom racked up 350 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns. He completed 16 of his 23 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns (two going to senior receiver Ryan Swope) and adding 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns with his dazzling feet. While Manziel and the Aggies’ offense was making it look easy, the Tigers were struggling to keep someone — anyone — at quarterback. Starter Clint Moseley left the game after just three plays, injuring his ankle following a sack. Kiehl Frazier was next up, but made little headway, going 6 of 11 for 89 yards. Finally, true freshman (and Columbus native) Jonathan Wallace came in and gave the offense a bit of a spark, leading the Tigers on three scoring drives. Of course, by then it was far too little, far too late. If you want to point to a game that put the final nail in the coffin on the Gene Chizik era, this was probably it.

The coach: Kevin Sumlin (11-2 last season in first year at Texas A&M; 46-19 record overall after going 35-17 in four seasons at Houston from 2008-11)

2012 record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC; tied for second in SEC West with LSU (beat Oklahoma 41-13  in Cotton Bowl)

Total offense: 558.54 ypg (3rd in Division I, 1st in SEC)

Scoring offense: 44.46 ppg (4th, 1st)

Total defense: 390.23 ypg (57th, 9th)

Scoring defense: 21.77 ppg (26th, 7th)

2012 Year-in-Review: All-in-all, it was a pretty decent debut season for Texas A&M in the SEC. OK, I’m being (a bit) facetious, but 2012 was an incredible year by any standard for the Aggies. A double-digit victory total, a blowout win over former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl and being the only team to hand Alabama a loss last year is difficult to top. Hard as it is to believe now, fellow league newcomer Missouri actually received more love at last year’s SEC Media Days. (Missouri was picked to finish fourth in the Eastern Division, somehow even receiving two votes to win the division crown. Meanwhile, Texas A&M was slotted fifth in the West, and didn’t have any media member toss a division title vote its way.) The Aggies decided to let their play do the talking for them. Texas A&M lost only two games, with one coming in the season opener against Florida, 20-17, which marked both the first contest of Sumlin’s tenure and Manziel’s first time as the starting quarterback. The Aggies then went on a five-game winning streak, escaping with a pair of close wins in back-to-back weeks on the road, versus Ole Miss (30-27) and Louisiana Tech (59-57), respectively. (Note: The game against the Bulldogs was originally scheduled to be the Aggies’ season opener Aug. 30, but had to be pushed back to October due to Hurricane Isaac.) Texas A&M suffered its second defeat the following week, falling to LSU 24-19 at home. The Aggies rallied back to close the season on a six-game tear, knocking off top-ranked Alabama 29-24 in Bryant-Denny Stadium — snapping the Crimson Tide’s 13-game win streak in the process — and pummeling Oklahoma 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl.

Biggest area of concern: After Outland Trophy winner Luke Joeckel left early to enter the NFL Draft (where he went No. 2 overall to Jacksonville) and center Patrick Lewis graduated, the Aggies have had to revamp their offensive line, shifting people all around. But at least the Aggies aren’t lacking for talent. Having Jake Matthews come back for one last go-round was big, with the Aggies electing to move him from right tackle to left to take Joeckel’s old spot. Junior Cedric Ogbuehi slid out from guard to fill Jake Matthew’s vacated right tackle position. Jarvis Harrison returns after starting all 13 games as an offensive guard last season, while Jake’s younger brother, Mike Matthews, will move into the starting lineup at center after seeing action in seven games last year. While the Aggies shouldn’t worry about the offensive line’s ability, it does need to be concerned about players getting comfortable starting in different positions than they have in previous seasons. It’s one thing to do it in practice, but a different thing altogether in live games. If it gels quickly, expect another magnificent season offensively for Texas A&M.

Key returning player/unit: Only a contrarian wouldn’t pick the reigning Heisman winner, right? Well, I’m not going to be “that guy (or gal).” Whether Manziel enters the fall as the best player in college football is an argument for another day, since South Carolina defensive end and freak-of-nature Jadeveon Clowney would have a lot to say about that title. But there is no doubt the whirling dervish of a quarterback is the most exciting player in the sport as he spins around every whichaway, keeping both opponents and his own teammates and coaches unaware what he might do next. (And yes, this could also be applied to his off-the-field life given his penchant for always making headlines, whether he’s appearing in a country music video, attending a 2 Chainz concert or taking in an NBA Finals game.)

Extra point: Texas A&M finished tied for fifth (along with fellow SEC member Georgia) in the final Associated Press Poll last season, its best end-of-season showing since 1956. That year, the Aggies also finished No. 5 in the final AP Poll. The only other top-five finish for the Aggies came in 1939, when they finished the season ranked No. 1 to capture their sole AP national title.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES

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Mississippi State

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.

April 11, 2013

Brenner: Patience is a virtue as Auburn spring football practices play out before our eyes

10Auburn8

AUBURN, Ala. – Three A-Days ago, Cam Newton only threw eight passes. Completed three.

Florida fans questioned Tim Tebow’s ability to go from gimmick to general for the 2007 season. Sam Bradford’s 2008 spring game at Oklahoma was marred by three interceptions; Johnny Manziel failed to complete half his passes and averaged just 5.7 yards an attempt in last year’s Texas A&M spring game.

Would four future Heisman winners be enough to sway you on where this is going?

I can’t sit here and tell you spring doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t, they wouldn’t bother with the activity – or at least we fans and media wouldn’t be dumb enough to squeeze four to six weeks of coverage and attention out of it. (Would we? Don’t answer that.)

But we’ve got to stop expecting any coaching staff – especially a brand-new one like Auburn’s, with very little preconceived notions of the existing players – to have answers for us without delay.

It’s a now-now-now world, where we stomp our feet like Veruca Salt and demand a depth chart this instant.

I roll my eyes at coachspeak as much as the next guy, but I can buy into any coach who downplays any questions about an inside linebacker playing outside or a third-string skill player gets a few snaps with the second-stringers.

Here’s where I think we can read into spring developments:

- Major position changes, like if a receiver starts playing cornerback or something. In this year’s case, I think Justin Garrett standing out at Ellis Johnson’s ‘star’ safety position in the 4-2-5 is quite significant.

- Guys missing significant time due to injury. Should Tre Mason be worried that his left leg injury is giving coaches more time to love Cameron Artis-Payne? It’s not unheard of for incumbent starters to lose their gig due to spring absence.

- Altered body types from the previous season. CJ Uzomah looks cut and ready to be a matchup nightmare. Kiehl Frazier looks like he needs to regain some athleticism after gaining weight in the offseason – he says he’ll burn it off quickly, but actions speak louder than words.

Other than that, it’s all conjecture. Yeah, it’s fun for water-cooler talk, but that’s about it.

Ultimately, these 15 practices in Auburn – and Arkansas, and Tennessee and Kentucky, come to mention it – are icebreakers in the heat of a Southern spring.

The “evaluation period” – apologies for coachspeak rubbing off – gives Johnson and Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner an opportunity to see who fits the schemes Auburn’s installing five months from now.

Spring ball’s a nice appetizer to fill a month, an interlude bridging March Madness to summer vacation.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Aaron Brenner, abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

January 24, 2013

Sportsman of the Month: 2012 in review

AUBURN, Ala. – Once again, my favorite magazine in the world got it all wrong.

I’ve been setting Sports Illustrated straight since my college days, taking names and kicking … off the new year by breaking down exactly who should have been named Sportsman of the Year.

But it’s no fun without some kind of build-up. Let’s go month by calendar month, revisiting some of the top performances throughout the year before revealing who should have been the top honoree of 2012. And no, it’s not LeBron James. Not in my mind.

January: Kyle Williams, WR, San Francisco 49ers

Everybody makes mistakes. The ones that are physical, accidental, are even more inevitable than mental or personal screw-ups. Sure, Williams’ punt return fumbles probably cost the 49ers a shot at the Super Bowl a year ago. But in the wake of receiving hate tweets and, even worse, death threats, Williams proved himself a champion by owning up to his actions and swearing to make himself better, leaning on his teammates to get through the tough times. That’s what it’s all about, in life and in sports. 

Hats off to: Blake Griffin | Novak Djokovic

February: Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants 

Do you realize that Eli Manning’s career passer rating (82.7) is tied with Brian Griese? Do you realize that 16 active quarterbacks have a better mark – including Matt Schaub, Andy Dalton and the immortal Shaun Hill? Do you realize the list of NFL QBs with a top-40 all-time passer rating and multiple Super Bowl rings without a championship game loss starts with Joe Montana … and ends with Eli Manning? Do you realize that the 49ers were a favorite in all four of Montana’s Super Bowl wins … and Manning was an underdog in both of his, only because he was going against Tom Freaking Brady? Eli’s hardly a Hall of Famer for his lack of stats or consistency, but his career’s fascinating factor is a top-five all-timer.

Hats off to: Jeremy Lin 

NorfolkState

March: Lehigh & Norfolk State men’s basketball teams

Sorry, Duke and Mizzou. That’s what March is all about. Even though we should have come to expect this in a land of Gonzaga and Butler and VCU, oh my.

Hats off to: Peyton Manning 

April: Stephen Strasburg, P, Washington Nationals

In September 2010, Stephen Strasburg had Tommy John surgery, an injury which takes 12 to 18 month to rehabilitate.

In September 2011, Stephen Strasburg started five games, pitching 24 innings. 1.50 ERA. 2 walks. 24 strikeouts.

In April 2012, Stephen Strasburg started five games, pitching 32 innings. 1.13 ERA. 6 walks. 34 strikeouts. The Nationals finished with the majors’ best record, before falling in the first round of the playoffs … in part since Strasburg was shelved in September. Imagine when they take the kid gloves off this guy.

Hats off to: Brittney Griner | Anthony Davis 

Kevin DurantMay: Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s almost enough that Durant currently holds the “Cute and Cuddly Superstar Impossible Not To Root For” belt. (Sorry, Russell Wilson, Gabby Douglas and Alex Morgan.) He averaged 28.5 points on 51.7 percent FGs, 7.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.5 steals in lifting the Thunder to the NBA Finals. And he does all this without sounding a peep despite playing in OKLAHOMA CITY with a ballhog for a point guard. You think Kobe would put up with Westbrook for more than 24 seconds? Chances are Durant would’ve been SI’s pick if OKC beat the Heat. Maybe next year.

Hats off to: Josh Hamilton | Clayton Kershaw | Bryce Harper

June: LeBron James, SF, Miami Heat 

OK, fine. You get one month, King James. Even your biggest Decision detractor has to give props for shaking that eight-ton gorilla off your back and winning the big one.

Hats off to: R.A. Dickey | Tiger Woods | Jonathan Quick 

July: Andy Murray, British tennis player

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have already been spoiling tennis fans with the greatest era of elite athletes playing one sport at one time … maybe, ever. Then Andy Murray has to enter the frame. And he’s honored this month not for winning, but for losing. Just watch the first minute http://youtu.be/XL5Ls4GDm2M, after coming so close to giving England its first Wimbledon winner in 76 years. It helps that Murray finished off his first Grand Slam victory in New York City a couple months later.

Hats off to: Pat Summitt | Roger Federer | Serena Williams | Mike Trout

August: Missy Franklin, Team USA swimmer

Let’s see: five medals, four gold, three Swimmer of the Year awards, two world records and one iconic ‘Call Me Maybe’ parody. Yeah, somebody had herself a month in London. Throw in her resistance to accepting a dime in endorsements so she can keep her commitment to swim for Cal, and shoot, she’s got to be a top contender for the SI award.

Hats off to: U.S. Gymnastics squad | Usain Bolt | Michael Phelps | Kayla Harrison | The Blade Runner | Alex Morgan

September: Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins 

You may have heard of him. In his first four professional games, RGIII scored eight touchdowns – four passing, four rushing – while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and winning at New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Football Gods, please grant this man a decade of mostly good health.

Hats off to: Geno Smith | Brandon McCarthy | Andy Roddick | Rory McIlroy

October: Chuck Pagano/Bruce Arians, coaches, Indianapolis Colts

Arians, for suddenly and unexpectedly taking the reins of a team that went 2-14 last year and leading it to an 11-5 record. Pagano, for vowing to dance with his daughters at their weddings. http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/0ap2000000090160/Chuck-Pagano-s-emotional-message. 

Hats off to: Pablo Sandoval | Miguel Cabrera

Johnny ManzielNovember: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M Aggies

Four games in November. Four wins in November. 12 TDs in November. 76.3 percent completions in November. Beat Alabama, the eventual national champ, in November. We had a chance to catch Manziel before our eyes on Halloween weekend at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and honestly, we saw this coming. Alert the hyperbole police: he’s got a chance to become the greatest player in college football history.

Hats off to: Sam Gordon | Calvin Johnson

December: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks & Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Too close to call. Wilson went 5-0 in December – you know, when it counts and such – including crucial wins over the Bears and 49ers, and became the most likely figure to someday supplant Durant as Captain Uni-Liked. (Seriously: his Google search image is of him and his wife dancing at their wedding. Cute. And. Cuddly.) Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson was mildly impressive as well. He only rushed for 861 carries in five games – which all alone would have trailed just 17 other backs, plus beating out LeSean McCoy and Michael Turner’s regular season production. He garnered 6.4 yards per rush, even though everybody in the building knew he was getting the rock. It wasn’t just stat-padding, either: the Vikings went 4-1 and snagged a playoff spot. Call it a draw.

Hats off to: Manti Te’o | Victor Cruz 

The Whole Year: My Sportsman of the Year could have bolted school early, but stuck around for another year – bucking all conventional wisdom that states if you could be a top pick in the draft, you leave, no questions asked.

My Sportsman of the Year not only was asked to turn around a 2-14 team. He was asked to replace a living legend in his new city.

My Sportsman of the Year’s head coach battled cancer this entire season.

My Sportsman of the Year’s teammates were, like him, largely rookies.

My Sportsman of the Year has a 10-5 record and playoff-bound team despite the odds.

My Sportsman of the Year would be a horrible garbageman. Because he’s incapable of talking trash for any of these accomplishments.

Sorry, SI. LeBron’s great and all. But can the 2012 Sportsman of the Year really be anybody but Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts?

Andrew Luck