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July 26, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 6

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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

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

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

4. TEXAS A&M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. GEORGIA

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

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

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

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

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

SEC Media Days, Day 2: Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin on expectations, Kliff Kingsbury

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

HOOVER, Ala. — Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze are both entering their second seasons as coaches in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division. Much like Freeze did on Tuesday, Sumlin took to the podium at SEC Media Days on Wednesday doing his best to temper the sky-high expectations people have for the Aggies at the outset of the 2013 campaign.
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin spoke on Wednesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. The second-year coach spoke on the high expectations people have for his team this season as well as former assistant Kliff Kingsbury taking over at Texas Tech.

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin took to the podium on Wednesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. The second-year coach spoke on the high expectations people have for his team this season as well as former assistant Kliff Kingsbury taking over at Texas Tech.

“The excitement level is really, really high,” Sumlin said. “What we have had to do with our football team is separate ourselves from our fans, not from a closeness standpoint, but from a reality standpoint.”

Sumlin had no problem with students and alumni of the university allowing themselves to dream big and ponder the prospects in front of the Aggies this season. Sumlin’s more worried about making sure his team doesn’t rest on its laurels after an 11-2 season in 2012, which included handing national champion Alabama its only loss and routing former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

“As a team, we have to set the reset button,” he said. “We signed 31 new players, 31 guys over the last year that are going to come in. Many of them are going to have to help us this season as true freshman. That’s quite a large number when you have 85 guys on scholarship.”

Sumlin cited last season’s success as a key factor helping the team on the recruiting trail. But the good vibes from last season haven’t just helped the Aggies on the field, as the coach noted it has led to a rise in applications to the university as well as more donations from donors. On top of a $450 million expansion to Kyle Field, Texas A&M has made plans for multiple other facility upgrades.

This includes a player development center with a new weight room, a nutrition center named after former Aggies coach R.C. Slocum and an expansion to the lobby at the team’s football facility.

“You add all those up, the new player development center was about $9 million, lobby expansion $5 million, nutrition center (was) $12 million,” he said. “That’s (all) donor-funded. We haven’t borrowed a dime for that.”

Sumlin: Aggies ‘solidified’ offensive line in spring, have question marks in secondary

Despite the loss of Outland Trophy winner and the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft in Luke Joeckel as well as center Patrick Lewis, Sumlin said the offensive line is set heading into the fall.

“We’ve rotated some guys in there and we were able to get through spring football with what I think is a solidified starting five,” he said. “We’ve created a little more depth there.”

The same can’t be said of the team’s back end on defense, as the starters in the secondary are still up in the air.

“Our secondary has a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of capable guys. We have more depth back there, more experience, but the key will be to get those guys in the right place.”

Kingsbury ‘a very, very talented individual’

One of the biggest pieces of the Aggies’ success last season was offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who called the plays for the conference’s top-ranked offense. However, when his alma mater, Texas Tech, came calling at the end of last year, Kingsbury couldn’t turn down the opportunity. Sumlin said of all the accomplishments  in his coaching career, having his assistants which includes West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen and Nevada head coach Brian Polian move on and take over their own programs is something he takes great pride in.

“I think we’ve developed a culture and a mind-set and really helped guys become head coaches,” he said.

There was no doubt in Sumlin’s mind that Kingsbury will do great things in Lubbock, Texas.

“He’s a very, very talented individual,” Sumlin said. “He’s a guy that understands the game of football, understands the politics of the position.”

It didn’t hurt Kingsbury’s career that he’s had a mentor in Sumlin, either — and he made the most of it, as the 33-year-old coaching wunderkind was constantly jotting down notes during their talks.

“(It) kind of bugged me because he was writing stuff I was saying all the time,” Sumlin said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. He’s been able to talk a bunch of times to me about things that happened. There’s no handbook for this job. Things come up that you don’t realize (will) come up that are outside of football.”

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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Arkansas State

Mississippi State

February 13, 2013

Pre-spring Q&A: Malzahn mystique, the QB duel are big storylines going into late March

Photo by John Reed

During the season, I conducted Q&As with beat writers with Auburn opponents to take their temperature going into each Saturday’s matchup.

Here in February, The Saturday Edge (@SaturdayEdge), a sports blog encompassing college football around the country turned the mike around. It’s still a long wait of six weeks before Gus Malzahn blows the whistle on his first practice, but here’s what we’re looking at going into spring ball.

The Saturday Edge: 2012 review – How’d Auburn do last year vs. how you thought they’d do? Was Chizik the main reason for Auburn’s disappointing season last year?

Brenner: There’s no way anybody thought whatever … that … was in 2012 could possibly happen on the Plains. The program’s first 0-8 SEC season ever. And that ignominious record doesn’t tell the whole story; Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama were playing the backups by the third quarter in utter destructions of the Tigers. Just three wins – one over an FCS foe, one over a 1-11 WAC team, and one that would’ve been a loss to Louisiana-Monroe if its kicker was halfway capable. Without question, the worst season since a winless 1950 campaign.

Gene Chizik had to go, regardless of what happened in 2010. The program was in dire need of a new direction – we’ll get to that in a minute – and while there were many culprits for last fall’s disaster (poor gameplanning, underachieving stars, a slew of strange injuries, etc.), the responsibility sure landed at the feet of a man who hoisted the BCS crystal ball just two years prior.

The Saturday Edge: What are Auburn’s main strengths heading into spring practice?

Brenner: We can start with Tre Mason, who rushed for his 1,000th yard on the final merciful snap of Auburn’s 2012 season. Let’s just say Adrian Peterson isn’t the only tailback who faces nine-man fronts play after play after play. A junior-to-be, Mason will have some help, too, in the form of highly-touted junior college back Cameron Artis-Payne and a couple of top incoming freshmen Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford. The offensive line and secondary are young, but those positions bear some experience thanks to some growing pains.

Defensive end Dee Ford, if healthy, gives Auburn a bona fide quarterback disrupter. Punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey will be seniors, and they’re both rock-solid. Finally, this is a top-notch coaching staff Gus Malzahn crafted, and the assistants should be counted upon to whip this squad into shape in no time.

Jonathan Wallace

The Saturday Edge: What are Auburn’s main weaknesses?

Brenner: We’ve all heard it said: when you have two quarterbacks, you have none. How about five? Auburn will let Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace duke it out at quarterback in the spring, before three freshmen join the fray this summer. There’s no clear-cut Cam on this squad, so that’s Gus Malzahn’s top task. Calling wide receiver a black hole in 2012 is an insult to black holes – the Tigers must develop some trusted talent there.

The front seven will look much better in the fall than the spring – because recruiting prizes Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel are still wrapping up high school. Just because the new coaches have impressive credentials doesn’t guarantee their schemes will work immediately – the veteran players are now learning their third playbook in as many years.

The Saturday Edge: Your thoughts on the coaching change?

Brenner: Even before the hire was made, you could find a decent amount of Auburn fans who credited the mastermind of Gus Malzahn (Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11) more so than Gene Chizik’s genius for the 2010 national championship. We’ve all seen the seismic shift in college football (and now NFL) offensive philosophies – faster is better. Chip Kelly perfected it, Kevin Sumlin erupted with it, and now it’s Malzahn’s turn to prove to the nation he can manage an entire football program while terrorizing defenses with his hybrid, hurry-up-no-huddle attack.

Malzahn is an absolute machine with his work habits – he will outwork just about anybody else on the recruiting trail, in the film room and everywhere else. Malzahn cleaned house upon his arrival, making it clear this is his program and the past is the past. Throw in the addition of seasoned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, and an army of position coaches with recruiting coordinator experience, and Auburn has most certainly won the offseason. Soon enough, we’ll see if Auburn can win the regular season.

January 18, 2013

Brenner: Sports scandals are sad tales of heroes and hoaxes

AUBURN, Ala. — Call it the Michael Jackson factor.

Or Britney Spears, or Lindsay Lohan, or the Olsen twins.

Does the American public more enjoy watching a darling rise to grace, or a rascal in disgrace? A shooting star, or a falling star? A fairy tale made for Disney, or a scandal made for TMZ?

More often than not, especially in sports, it’s hard to tell.

We cheered Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they battered home run after home run, chasing and ultimately clubbing baseball’s most hallowed record. Of course, their accomplishments were just a hoax, aided by performance-enhancing drugs.

We cheered Lance Armstrong as he became the world’s most dominant cyclist, vindicating his sport as relevant in the United States with a closetful of yellow jerseys. Of course, his accomplishments were just a hoax, aided by performance-enhancing drugs.

We thought Danny Almonte was genuine, a super-duper stud baseball pitcher taking Little League by storm advanced beyond his years. Except as it turns out, he wasn’t — deceit about his age tarnished whatever legacy he’d crafted.

We thought Joe Paterno was genuine, a god among college football coaches who more importantly than winning oodles of games was the eternal teacher, looking out for the best interests of young men. Except as it turns out, he wasn’t — deceit about his right-hand man’s interaction with young boys tarnished whatever legacy he’d crafted.

We admired Tiger Woods, Brett Favre and Michael Phelps as the Golden Boys of their sports. Until deep, dark secrets about their personal lifestyles came to light, and we never viewed them as heroes the same way again.

We admired Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Phelps as ambassadors of their sports. Until deep, dark secrets about their hatred for their craft, how it was merely a means to an end, came to light, and we never viewed them as heroes the same way again.

And now, the unbelievable, the unthinkable, the can’t-wrap-your-mind-around-the-revelation that is this Manti Te’o story.

For as much attention as Te’o drew to himself, his university and his heritage as a Samoan and Mormon man who happens to be very, very good at playing linebacker, he’ll be remembered five times more for the Deadspin report and subsequent nationwide coverage that Te’o’s girlfriend, a leading subject of Te’o’s emotional tale during Notre Dame’s run to the BCS championship game, never existed.

She was a hoax.

Much like too much else in sports.

We’re all sports fans. Which means we’re united in that to whatever degree you choose, we crave greatness.

We want to believe Nick Saban, Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt have adorned their trophy cases on the strength of their character, not their NCAA violations.

We want to watch Kevin Sumlin and Brad Stevens grow into incredible coaches for many, many years, but also serve as role models for even longer.

We want to see LeBron James and Johnny Manziel make mistakes and redeem themselves when given a second chance.

We want to root for Derek Jeter and Jimmie Johnson, for Rory McIlroy and Bryce Harper, for Usain Bolt and the U.S. Gymnastics team.

We want to be captivated by Chuckstrong.

Which, come to think of it, is a term conceived out of another that was uncovered as a lie in and of itself.

Is nothing sacred?

We sure hope that’s not the case.

More often than not, it’s hard to tell.

Aaron Brenner, abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

October 26, 2012

Behind Enemy Lines: An Inside Look at Texas A&M with David Harris, College Station Eagle

Due to the crazy rush of news Thursday, we pushed back our look at the opponent a day. But have no fear, David Harris (@DavidHarrisBCS) of the College Station Eagle’s analysis is just as solid, fashionably late.

Aaron Brenner: People in power seem to be really welcoming of Texas A&M to the SEC, and not just in an obligatory polite way. Why have the Aggies fit in so well, so soon, on and off the football field?

David Harris: For one, on the field at least, they’ve won more than expected. That assuredly speeds up the process, whereas Missouri is struggling to do much of anything. Not only that, but the Aggies have a personality on the field. They’re explosive, exciting and have shown an innate grittiness. Off the field, there isn’t much not to like. The fans embraced this move from the get-go and have done everything in their power to be “SEC-ready.” And I think that’s showing something. The crowds here have been exceptional. The tailgating has ratcheted up. Yet still, the Aggies have continued to be an extremely welcoming bunch. It’s difficult for the opposition and fellow conference members, I’m sure, to drum up hatred towards the Aggies.

Brenner: Texas A&M has put up 70, 59 and 58 points in games this year. Give me some reasoning that doesn’t include the words “Johnny Manziel” or “Johnny Football” how this offense has been so explosive.

Harris: How about “Touchdown Johnny?” Haha. I kid. Sure, Manziel has been incredible, for lack of a better word. But people forget about the front five, which boasts two probable 2013 first-round picks in junior tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. They’ve given Manziel more than enough time to pick defenses apart or, you know, improvise as he does. Not only that, but the surprising play of redshirt freshman Mike Evans has given the offense a huge lift. He’s a big kid, who is explosive on the edge and can get up and make plays. Couple those things with Manziel and this team’s uptempo style and you get an offense that can score and score aplenty.

Brenner: OK, now let’s talk about Johnny Manziel. Did you see this coming? How has he been unnaturally poised and powerful as a redshirt freshman?

Harris: To put it mildly, no, I had no earthly idea what A&M had. In fact, I’m sure Mike Sherman is wishing he knew what he had in Manziel last year because it may have saved his job. Manziel was a cult-like legend in high school but played a style that seemed like it wouldn’t translate. When we watched him in the spring, we just assumed he’d back up Jameill Showers. Not to mention, Manziel wasn’t all too impressive in the limited amount of time we saw him in the fall. But that athleticism and awareness, evidently, can do wonders – even in the big, bad SEC.

Brenner: Auburn head coach Gene Chizik described A&M’s defense as ‘elaborate’ and ‘exotic’. Could you detail what he’s talking about, and who are some individual impact defenders?

Harris: Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is getting all he can out of a unit that really isn’t all that talented. The front four was a question mark coming in, but has been incredibly efficient. Because of that, Snyder has been able to bring his linebackers and secondary quite frequently. As for players you need to watch out for, it all starts with Damontre Moore, who has had a breakout junior season at defensive end. He’s leading the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss and is leading A&M in tackles. He’s a big, athletic guy with freakishly long arms that does whatever it is he pleases when he’s single-blocked.

Brenner: Road game, the first of three in a row for A&M, and it’s at night in one of the most electric atmospheres in college football when it gets going. How do you anticipate the Aggies reacting to the atmosphere, especially considering there are even more daunting challenges in the weeks ahead?

Harris: You know, with the way the LSU contest went, I think you’ll see a fired-up A&M team. This squad follows its head coach when it comes to demeanor, and Kevin Sumlin is an awfully confident fellow. I think you’ll see A&M jump out early — which they’ve done all season long. They know they can quiet the Auburn fans pretty easily — considering the 1-6 start. In the end, I think A&M’s offensive firepower is the difference and the Aggies win by double-digits.

October 22, 2012

The Hangover, Part VII: Scouting Texas A&M

Who:  No. 20 Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC) at Auburn (1-6, 0-5)

When: Saturday, 6 p.m. CT

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

TV: ESPNU (Clay Matvick, Matt Stinchcomb, Allison Williams)

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

Line: Texas A&M -14

What to know about the Aggies: Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin called SEC commissioner Mike Slive expressing interest in joining the SEC on July 21, 2011. A&M notified the Big XII on Aug. 25 it was exploring outside options, the SEC received A&M’s application letter on Sept. 5, and on Sept. 25, 2011, league presidents and chancellors unanimously voted to unconditionally accept Texas A&M as the SEC’s 13th member … if moving to the SEC was supposed to put the shackles on the Aggies’ offense, somebody forgot to tell freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, whose 1,413 total yards of offense against conference opponents (353.2 per game) leads the SEC. Manziel’s over 100 rushing yards per game overall, but in leading A&M to a 2-2 league record halfway through the program’s first SEC slate, Manziel has four passing touchdowns against five interceptions … the Aggies are on pace to break school records for total, passing and scoring offense … Kevin Sumlin has won his last nine road games (six as Houston’s head coach, three with A&M).

When last they met: Texas A&M 36, Auburn 16 … Jan. 1, 1986 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas: In a matchup of top-16 ranked squads, the Aggies topped Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson and the Tigers. Behind a Cotton Bowl record-setting passing day by Kevin Murray, A&M racked up 478 yards to cap its Southwest Conference championship season. Jackson scored both of Auburn’s TDs, a 5-yard run and a 73-yard reception.

All-time series: Texas A&M has won both previous meetings. The Aggies also beat Auburn 16-0 in Dallas on Oct. 21, 1911.

Which Tigers are licking their chops: Sophomore tailback Tre Mason (67.7 rushing yards per game, 167 in his last two). Just because he’s Auburn’s hottest player. The Aggies aren’t exactly world-beaters at any one position, but they have no glaring weaknesses either.

Who’s keeping the Auburn coaches up at night: Other than Manziel, we’ll go with junior defensive end Damontre Moore, who leads the SEC with 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss. Right tackle Patrick Miller will have his hands full.

Extra point: Seven of Texas A&M’s eight losses going back to Opening Day 2011 have been decided by a touchdown or less. That includes two overtime defeats (one in four overtimes, at Kansas State) and losses of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 points. The outlier is a 41-25 loss at No. 7 Oklahoma.

-AB