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August 24, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first is the way his career at Georgia ended.

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

Richt: ‘I hope Nick has success’

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

No charges were ever filed in the case, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marshall deflects comparisons with other QBs

The script nearly writes itself.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone knows how Newton’s story goes from there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 26, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 6

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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

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

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

4. TEXAS A&M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. GEORGIA

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

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

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

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

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

July 18, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia administrative assistant might get LSU week off

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

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

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

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

Extra motivation

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

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

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

July 15, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Georgia

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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

Who: Georgia

When: Saturday, Nov. 16UGA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 8, 2013

Nick Marshall gets second chance in the SEC, this time at Auburn as a quarterback

NickMarshall

AUBURN, ALA. — Wilcox County High School coach Mark Ledford understands that not every player ‘gets it’ right away.

“College ball, and the professional league too, is full of players that’s had second chances,” Ledford said. “Some have had more than that.”

That said, Ledford had some tough love for his former pupil, Nick Marshall, the day after being sent home to Pineview, Ga., for screwing up his shot as a defensive back at Georgia.

It was just before last year’s Super Bowl, just after last year’s Signing Day, and Marshall was excused from Mark Richt’s program along with two other Bulldogs for a violation of team rules. That was later reported to be theft of teammates’ cash from a dorm room.

“First, I wanted to find out that he was remorseful for what happened there, and he was honest,” Ledford said. “He’s been honest with everyone in this process.”

So Ledford demanded his former quarterback go back to the position in which he’d thrived at Wilcox County. And do it far, far away from home.

“When I left Georgia, I just wanted to start over,” Marshall said. “I wanted to try quarterback – turned out to be the right decision.”

Marshall went on to Garden City (Kan.) Community College, scoring 37 touchdowns – splitting the scores evenly with his active arm and his fleet feet.

“He had a tremendous year,” Ledford said. “It was maybe a chance to get his priorities in order, and give him a chance to come back and do what he’s always wanted to do.”

Now, Marshall gets that long-awaited second chance in the SEC, after officially signing his national letter of intent Wednesday morning to join the crowded quarterback derby in Auburn.

The Tigers also signed four-star preps Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith, while already returning eight combined 2012 starts in junior-to-be Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. But the competition is wide open, and Marshall insisted “he’s playing quarterback, 100 percent” instead of automatically settling for a defensive back role.

“That (spread offense),” Marshall said, “is what I’m made for. “I think coming (out of Georgia) was the best move for me, so I could get out of there and have an open mind, and have a successful junior college season like I did.”

Marshall is already familiar with head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee from being recruited to Arkansas State last year, as well as new wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig when Marshall was a Florida State target out of high school.

“He’s a great athlete. He’s one of those impact players, throws the ball extremely well, has a very strong arm,” Malzahn said. “We feel like he can come in here and give us a chance right of the bat.”

Malzahn openly admitted he craved a crowd of quarterback candidates, since it’s his job to fix Auburn’s 116th-rated passing offense from last year.

Of course, that was in a pro-style system that meshed with Auburn’s particular personnel like ships mesh with storms. Malzahn prefers the hurry-up, no-huddle madness that helped Cam Newton lead the Tigers to the 2011 BCS National Championship with Malzahn as the offensive coordinator.

“As you’ve all seen in the past,” Malzahn said, “the dual threat type guys that can do a lot of different things, keep plays alive, can be very successful with what we do.”

Marshall’s ready to roll, after this long, strange road, granted a second chance in the nation’s most powerful college football conference – and first as a signalcaller.

“I think there have been players, such as Cam Newton, (Zach) Mettenberger, different kids who follow that route and have success,” Ledford said. “That’s the way the system works. Maybe when those kids make it back to a Division I program, maybe they’ve learned some lessons that they maybe need to learn, that they didn’t follow the first time around.”

Added Marshall, “I’m looking to go in and have a great season, compete for an SEC championship.”

December 20, 2012

Rodney Garner coming home to Auburn; lured away from Georgia as asst. HC, D-Line coach

Garner

AUBURN, Ala. – The homecomings keep rolling in.

This one is the first officially announced Auburn alum to return to the Plains, as longtime Georgia assistant head coach Rodney Garner was hired late Thursday night to join the Tigers’ staff in the same role.

“It was a very difficult decision,” Garner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve been approached about it many times about the opportunity. But it’s my alma mater. It may be more of a pride thing, just looking at where they are right now and feeling like I really wanted to be a part of getting them back on track. I just felt like God was leading me in this direction. It’s something I prayed about and it was not an easy decision. I would not have left for any other reason than Auburn.”

Garner will also coach the defensive line and serve as recruiting coordinator. Garner replaces Mike Pelton leading the defensive line, who was the only Auburn graduate on last year’s coaching staff.

“We are excited to announce Rodney Garner as our assistant head coach and defensive line coach,” Malzahn said. “Rodney is one of the top defensive line coaches in college football who has had great success in the Southeastern Conference. We’re excited to welcome an Auburn man back home.”

Garner was a utility man at Auburn in his post-playing days from 1990-95, helping as recruiting coordinator, tight ends coach, and assistant strength and conditioning coach. A nose guard in college, he was all-SEC and honorable mention All-America as a senior in 1988.

“Auburn has always been a very special place for me and my wife, Kimberly, who is also an Auburn graduate,” Garner said. “I owe a lot to Auburn and the men who helped mold me to who I am today both professionally and personally. I’m very appreciative to Coach Malzahn for this opportunity and I feel very strongly that I can be an asset to the program. I have a lot of love for Auburn and I felt this was a great chance to help give back to a place that has given me so much. I look forward to helping get Auburn back to where it belongs.”

Garner told the AJC “it’s a good deal” with Auburn, though financial terms with Garner were not released. He made $300,000 annually at Georgia.

Garner coached the Bulldogs’ D-Line and served as recruiting coordinator from 1998-2012. He helped coach Mark Richt lead Georgia to two SEC championships, five SEC East titles, and at least seven bowl victories and six top ten finishes leading into Georgia’s New Year’s Day date with Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.

The kitchen is fairly well-stocked for Garner’s entrance. Defensive ends Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford are set to return – though Lemonier has not yet made a decision whether to forego his senior year in favor of testing the NFL draft waters.

Nosa Eguae and Craig Sanders add depth at defensive end. Defensive tackles Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker, Gabe Wright and Kenneth Carter are also back in the fray.

Garner is originally from Leeds, Ala. He coached tight ends at Tennessee from 1996-97.

Malzahn’s staff now includes Garner, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and defensive backs coach Charlie Harbison. The remaining openings include running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, linebackers and special teams.

December 1, 2012

What a game, what a finish: Alabama survives epic SEC title shootout 32-28 over Georgia

ATLANTA – Nick Saban assured the masses they were in for a 15-round fight.

It felt like 50. And for everybody from SEC diehards to football purists, every twist and turn of Saturday night’s SEC Championship Game was glorious.

The SEC couldn’t have asked for a much better exhibit to showcase the degree of difficulty in winning the nation’s premier conference.

No program has done that more than Alabama, so in that regard it was fitting the Crimson Tide survived 32-28 over Georgia in an epic clash in front of 75,624 delirious fans at the Georgia Dome.

No. 2-ranked Alabama’s 23rd SEC title – and the Crimson Tide’s (12-1) subsequent reward of trying to defend its national championship Jan. 7 in South Florida vs. No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) – remained in doubt until every last second had ticked off.

“We kind of had that, I-would-not-be-denied attitude out there today,” said Saban, who improved to 4-1 in SEC Championship games. “This conference will test your mettle.”

Given 68 seconds (with no timeouts remaining) to go 85 yards, Georgia junior quarterback Aaron Murray nearly pulled off the most incredulous comeback imaginable.

A couple of downfield hookups to Tavarres King and Artie Lynch helped No. 3 Georgia (11-2) land 8 yards from victory, with 15 seconds to go. The clock winded when everybody was set, and the Bulldogs chose to go for it right then and there.

“Spiking the ball takes time,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We had plenty of time to call a play, so the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone.”

Murray’s pass was deflected and accidentally caught by flanker Chris Conley, who was immediately downed at the 5-yard-line. The final few seconds ticked off, and the Crimson Tide burst into pandemonium while Georgia’s sideline deflatedly sunk, staring out as the streamers cascaded from the rafters on victorious Alabama.

Though Saturday was dominated by the run game, Alabama junior quarterback AJ McCarron launched the game-winning pass, a 45-yard strike to true freshman Amari Cooper.

“That guy’s a freak of nature, especially for a freshman,” McCarron said of Cooper (seven receptions, 127 yards). “He’s a full-speed guy at all times.”

There were five lead changes from the final play of the first half on. The Bulldogs briefly held the largest advantage, going up 21-10 when Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal 55 yards midway through the third quarter.

“We made our mind up at the beginning of the week, that this was going to be a dogfight. Sixty minutes,” Alabama senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “That’s what we got. No matter what the adversity or circumstances, we kept fighting until the last whistle blows.”

And to think, there wasn’t a single point in the first quarter, unprecedented in the SEC title game.

Alabama’s 350 rushing yards set an SEC championship record. Game MVP Eddie Lacy (181 yards, two touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (153) were the first pair of teammates to each surpass the century mark in title-game history, which they each did by the end of the third quarter.

“He was pretty relentless – Eddie did as fine a job as anybody has ever done for us,” Saban said. “The way we were able to run the ball, especially in the second half, was probably the difference in the game.”

They were countered by Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who rolled up 122 rushing yards and with his two scores is now at 16 on the year, topping Herschel Walker for the program’s most touchdowns by a freshman.

Georgia saw its six-game winning streak snapped, and awaits its bowl destination announcement Sunday. Saban emphasized the opposing Bulldogs deserve to play in a BCS bowl game, though it’s unlikely with four other SEC teams in the top ten.

“I told them, I was disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed in them,” Richt said. “That was the main thing. I told them they were warriors. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight and everybody swung to the end.

“We had a chance at the end, we just didn’t get it done.”

The Crimson Tide won’t have to sweat it out. They’ll go for their third national title in four years, seemingly unthinkable a month ago after losing at home to Texas A&M before Kansas State and Oregon losses reopened the door.

“After that loss, we just had to stay focused, and we weren’t worried about the outcome of other games,” Lacy said. “The chips fell where they fell because we played the way we were supposed to.”

The SEC West has won four straight league titles, the division’s longest such streak.

November 30, 2012

Tales from the Comeback Trail … yes, there is precedent for turnarounds after poor seasons

AUBURN, Ala. — It’s been well-documented; Auburn’s freefall from national champion to winless in the SEC is the most rapid collapse any college football program has ever seen.

Good news on the Plains: that’s now in the past. Looking to the future, based on track record, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the Tigers to spring back and have a pleasant season in 2013.

Here are some historic examples from Auburn, the SEC and around the country of when bad teams turned good in a flash.

Auburn

1934: 2-8 (SEC rank: 10th) |  1935: 8-2 (4th)

1973: 6-6 (t-8th) | 1974: 10-2 (t-2nd)

1981: 5-6 (t-6th) | 1982: 9-3 (t-3rd)

1992: 5-5-1 (5th West) | 1993: 11-0 (N/A – season played on NCAA probation)

Auburn’s quickest turnaround is a 6-win improvement: Jack Meagher recovered from a 2-8 rookie effort to go 8-2 in 1935, and Terry Bowden took Pat Dye’s swan song of a 5-5-1 campaign to go 11-0 in 1993 behind veteran quarterback Stan White.

Two legendary Auburn coaches oversaw quick fixes: Ralph “Shug” Jordan at the end of his career in the early 1970s, and Pat Dye in his first two years in Auburn in 1981-82 thanks to the arrival of Bo Jackson.

Alabama

2000: 3-8 (5th West) | 2001: 7-5 (3rd West)

2007: 2-6* (3rd West) | 2008: 12-2 (1st West)

Nick Saban’s first go-around yielded a 7-6 result, with five wins vacated stemming from textbook-related violations before Saban’s arrival. The Tide went 12-2 and lost the Sugar Bowl the very next year, before embarking on two national titles the next three seasons.

Dennis Franchione took over Mike DuBose’s 3-8 squad and, in 2001, went won the Independence Bowl.

Georgia

1990: 4-7 (t-7th) | 1991: 9-3 (t-4th)

1996: 5-6 (t-4th East) | 1997: 10-2 (t-2nd East)

2010: 6-7 (t-3rd East) | 2011: 10-4 (1st East)

Mark Richt had a losing team two years ago, but with quarterback Aaron Murray gaining experience, Georgia bounced back to double-digit victories last year and are 11-1 going into Saturday’s SEC Championship game.

The Dawgs also doubled their victories from 1996 to 1997, and experienced another five-win uptick two decades ago under Ray Goff.

Arkansas

1976: 5-5-1 | 1977: 11-1

2005: 4-7 (4th West) | 2006: 10-4 (1st West)

Under Houston Nutt, the Razorbacks went from losing to Vanderbilt at home one season, to playing in the SEC Championship Game the next.

Lou Holtz inherited Frank Broyles’ 5-5-1 squad, and went 11-1 in 1977, winning the Orange Bowl.

Broyles himself had three different year-over-year improvements of five or more victories (1958-59, 1963-64, 1967-68) for the Hogs.

Florida

1979: 0-10-1 (t-9th) | 1980: 8-4 (t-4th)

Charley Pell quickly turned things around at the turn of the decade, going from zero wins to a Tangerine Bowl victory. It portended great things for the future: Florida hasn’t had a losing season since that winless fall 33 years ago.

South Carolina

1999: 0-11 (6th East) | 2000: 8-4 (t-2nd East)

Lou Holtz inherited a 1-10 team, and went winless his first year of 1999. He promptly won the next two Outback Bowls, both over Ohio State.

Texas A&M

1954: 1-9 | 1955: 7-2-1

2003: 4-8 | 2004: 7-5

It was another rebuilding effort for Dennis Franchione, who turned it around quickly in 2004.

Franchione’s not the only Alabama-bred coach who helped out Texas A&M. Paul “Bear” Bryant started 1-9 with the Aggies in 1954, but went 7-2-1 for a follow-up effort.

Other notable comebacks

Kentucky (1945-46) tasked newly-hired coach Bear Bryant, in his second head coaching season ever, with a 2-8 program in 1945. He led the Wildcats to 7-3 the next year.

Miami (1997-98) hopped from 5-6 to 9-3 under Butch Davis.

Oklahoma (1999-2000) was a meager 7-5 in Bob Stoops’ first year, but roared back to run the table for a national championship.

Notre Dame (2001-02) had Tyrone Willingham take over after Bob Davie put up a 5-6 campaign. Willingham’s Fighting Irish responded with a 10-3 season.

Illinois (2006-07) shrugged off a 2-10 season, still under Ron Zook a year later, to make the Rose Bowl and finish 9-4.

Miami (Ohio) (2009-10) was 1-11 three years ago. The Redhawks ripped off nine more wins in response, going 10-4.

Ohio State (2011-12) went 6-7 last year, the program’s first losing season since 1988. The Buckeyes, knowing they could not play in a bowl in Urban Meyer’s first season, went 12-0, and should finish the year ranked in the Associated Press top three.

November 15, 2012

SEC players embrace Twitter, while coaches remain guarded of its widespread effects

List of SEC quarterbacks on Twitter

AUBURN, Ala. — Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (@aaronmurray11) had chocolate-covered strawberries, drizzled in the design of miniature footballs, delivered from his parents for his 22nd birthday last Saturday. Then after thumping Auburn, Murray and his teammates celebrated back in Athens with a trip to Waffle House.

Vanderbilt signal-caller Jordan Rodgers (@JRodgers11) snagged a balcony seat at the Country Music Awards, Auburn quarterback Jonathan Wallace (@JWall_4) spends so much time at the football complex he wishes he had a bed to collapse into, and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron (@10AJMcCarron) enjoys communicating with the ladies en masse.

These are all tidbits fans can discover on the official pages of 12 SEC quarterbacks on Twitter, the social media platform exploding into everyday life as a whole new way of reaching out to everybody from celebrities to next-door neighbors.

College football coaches admit they’re wary of their players’ interaction on Twitter, where one can release some uncensored thoughts to the “Twitterverse” at the push of a button.

“Certainly, it’s something that’s been controversial,” Auburn @CoachGeneChizik said. “We just try to educate our guys on the fact that Twitter is something you’ve got to be very careful with. If we have a young man that we feel like is getting out of control with that, then we’ll take that away from him as an option.”

Florida State and Iowa have banned their players altogether from Twitter, but USC published its players’ handles on its preseason depth chart  – illustrating the wide spectrum of philosophies toward embracing or denouncing the forum.

“I’ve got mixed emotions,” said Ole Miss @CoachHughFreeze, who is extremely active on Twitter with more than 29,000 followers. “It can be a very good tool, depending upon how it’s used. I think it’s been a great thing for me and the relationship-building here, for us to get our message out of who we are and what our core values are. A lot of our kids have taken that to heart, too.

“Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and makes you question whether it should be a part of your program. It can also be very discouraging to read some of the things you see on there. I want kids to understand that could prevent them from getting a job one day. I’ve asked a few to get off of it.”

Coaches differ

Georgia coach @MarkRicht lays no Twitter restrictions up front with his players, except they have to shut it off beginning after dinner on Friday night preceding a football game.

“You do have to trust them. We haven’t had anything horrific happen. For the most part, it doesn’t become problematic,” Richt said. “It’s just the way people communicate nowadays, so I don’t want to sit here and strangle that with our players. I want them to have a relatively normal life. It’s more important to teach them how to manage it than shut it down.”

Then there’s South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who disbands the Gamecocks’ use of Twitter during the season.

When star running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury, a litany of support went viral to @LattTwoOne, yet Lattimore — who showed his appreciation in public comments — could not and did not respond once from his account.

“What can you ever gain by putting your business on the street?” Spurrier reasoned. “The bad outweighs the good.”

At Arkansas, director of football operations Mark Robinson (@CoachMRobinson) follows every player on Twitter, and the Razorbacks sign a preseason sheet declaring they’ll represent their team responsibly on social media.

LSU and Missouri train their players to understand every tweet or picture they send out is no different than a 15-second press conference.

Auburn sophomore Kiehl Frazier, who started the Tigers’ first five games, shut down his Twitter account the week before the season began.

Texas A&M freshman phenomenon Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) picked up more than 5,000 new followers in three days after the Aggies upset top-ranked Alabama on Saturday.

USC’s @MattBarkley became the first college athlete to have his account verified, to prove his account actually belongs to him. Many parody accounts fool followers into thinking that’s the real player — including a fake account with nearly 1,300 followers attributed to LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, not an active Twitter user.

“It’s a new way of communicating,” LSU coach Les Miles (@LSUCoachMiles) said. ”I think it’s an opportunity for people to not be accountable and speak in wide exaggerations. The positives of the use of social media will be defined as we go forward.”

Software monitor

Many universities, including Auburn and several of its SEC counterparts, use software services like UDiligence and Varsity Monitor that flag certain terms or phrases to alert team officials of players sending controversial or obscene tweets.

Chizik doesn’t believe in completely banning his team from Twitter, but obviously gets worried about players airing out their dirty laundry, particularly if it’s football-related.

“Doesn’t matter what kind of year you’re having,” Chizik said. ”Nobody out there on anybody’s football team should be talking about anything that sheds a negative light on anybody’s program.”

Within the past week, Auburn safety @DemetruceMcNeal and running back Mike Blakely (@941_blakely_22) each sent strange tweets that could have been perceived as announcing they were leaving the program. McNeal tweeted “Got some bad news today wonder what is next for me but jus know ima speak my mind” and “bottom line I’m gone” Tuesday, whereas Blakely on Sunday tweeted “up bored spending my last days in AU wisely! change is coming in my life but I know God has my back no matter what!

Both McNeal and Blakely quickly clarified their comments, tweeting they were referring to the upcoming semester break.

On the other hand, Wallace’s account is squeaky-clean, regularly scrubbed with Bible phrases and inspirational messages.

“I really like to stay positive and keep the fans into it. Just trying to be that light, that small light at the end of the tunnel,” Wallace said. “I don’t really say much. But when I do say something, it’s very meaningful.”

Even though he’s very new to the regional and national limelight, Wallace is quite cognizant that these days, fans hang on every word they read from their heroes — whether it’s expressed at a postgame podium or on a Twitter timeline.

“Whatever you put out there, it’s out there,” Wallace said. ”There’s no taking it back, so you have to be very, very careful about what you put out there on the Internet.”

LEAGUE TWEETERS

Who’s who on Twitter, with their stats as of 6 p.m. Wednesday

School | Starting QB | Twitter handle | Tweets | Followers

Georgia | Aaron Murray | @aaronmurray11 | 2,949 | 54,512

Alabama | AJ McCarron | @10AJMcCarron | 2,521 | 51,322

Texas A&M | Johnny Manziel | @JManziel2 | 2,114 | 46,536

Tennessee | Tyler Bray | @tbrayvol8 | 719 | 34,747

Arkansas | Tyler Wilson | @Tyler_Wilson8 | 67 | 28,054

Florida | Jeff Driskel | @jeffdriskel | 764 | 14,412

Missouri | James Franklin | @JFrankTank1 | 4,522 | 11,173

Mississippi State | Tyler Russell | @Tyler17Russell | 1,254 | 11,085

Vanderbilt | Jordan Rodgers | @JRodgers11 | 975 | 8,075

Ole Miss | Bo Wallace | @bowallace14 | 291 | 7,279

Auburn | Jonathan Wallace | @JWall_4 | 3,997 | 3,402

Kentucky | Jalen Whitlow | @JWhitlow_2 | 8,381 | 2,175

**LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw are not on Twitter**

November 9, 2012

Behind Enemy Lines: Breaking down the Bulldogs by Seth Emerson, Macon Telegraph

All right, Emerson. Finally, we meet.

I shared my five (okay, six) thoughts on Auburn’s side of the ball for the Macon Telegraph. Likewise, @SethEmerson was gracious enough to lend some Georgia insight on five (fine, six) burning topics going into the 116th installment of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.

Why six this week? Why not, I say. It’s rivalry week. Whatevs.

Aaron Brenner, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer: Alabama and LSU just played the Game To End All Games, and Texas A&M’s getting more and more pub as Johnny Manziel’s legend grows. But then, there’s Georgia over in the SEC East … seems like it’s kind of lurking. After the Florida upset and Ole Miss rout, is this definitively the Bulldogs’ peak so far this year? 

Seth Emerson, Macon Telegraph: Definitely, although it took until the second half against Ole Miss for that rout to happen. The Bulldogs have still yet to put together a well-played complete game on both sides of the ball, with the exception of the Vanderbilt game. Despite that, they are the highest-ranked one-loss team nationally, and still have an outside shot at a national title. Now that’s predicated on beating Alabama in the SEC championship game, which if it were Saturday I wouldn’t give the Bulldogs much of a shot. But they don’t play them Saturday, so they have three weeks to iron out things.

Brenner: How have the two freshman backs, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, had so much success as young centerpieces? And do you see Marshall breaking out of a big of a funk recently?

Emerson: Gurley and Marshall – or “Gurshall” as they’re being called – have been good for a number of reasons, starting with their ability to stay on the field. (As in, not get suspended or hurt.) They’re also different than what Georgia has had lately because they have that second gear that allows them to break off long runs. Even Isaiah Crowell seemed to have a problem getting into the secondary and past the safety. But Gurley and Marshall have been able to break open some long ones. Marshall (520 yards, 6.1 yards per carry) hasn’t really been in a funk, he just pales in comparison to Gurley, who now has six 100-yard games, and is the SEC’s top tailback rusher. (Manziel is the only one better in the SEC.) Gurley has a lot of skills, but what stands out to me is how rarely he gets tackled by the first guy. Besides that burst, the kid is also really hard to bring down.

Brenner: Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell will obviously have to step up with Marlon Brown’s career over. Is this receiving corps still more than capable against a young Auburn secondary?

Emerson: Yes. While Brown was tied for the team lead in catches, King is a senior who’s proven, and Mitchell would probably be leading the team in all receiving categories if he hadn’t been on defense the first four weeks of the season. The question, with Brown now joining Michael Bennett on the out-for-season list, is how much receiving depth will be a concern. Chris Conley, a sophomore with seven catches last year, showed a lot of promise last year, but got kind of lost in the shuffle this year. I think he’s the guy who will benefit now in terms of snaps.

Brenner: Jarvis Jones is looking at a second straight All-American campaign, all the more impressive since he commands more attention without Abry Jones around. He’s projected as a top-of-the-draft type of guy. Does he get better in clutch moments, like against Mizzou and Florida?

Emerson: I wouldn’t say there’s much deviation between the big and not-so-big games. He was also held sack-less against South Carolina, and this past weekend against Ole Miss. But he was held out of Florida Atlantic and Kentucky because of injuries, which were prime opportunities to pad his sack total. Either way, he’s on track to break David Pollack’s school record of 14. (Jones has 8.5). Jones is the real deal, a complete player who Georgia will move back into coverage when necessary and is also proficient against the run. Two years ago they had Justin Houston in the OLB spot, and Houston led the SEC in sacks until the postseason, when Nick Fairley overtook him. But Jones is a better all-around player.

Brenner: Speaking of Jones, Auburn OL Chad Slade was complimentary of Jones, but added “he can be stopped. It’s not that hard.” A Twitter follower of mine mentioned Georgia plays better when it’s called out, when the Bulldogs have a chip on their shoulder. Do you agree?

Emerson: Oh yeah. That was the story of the season until last week: Why the team got up for certain games because of outside motivation. Against Missouri, it was the “old man football” comments by a Mizzou player. Against Vanderbilt, it was last year’s postgame shenanigans between Todd Grantham and James Franklin. And against Florida it was their own player, safety Shawn Williams, calling out the unit. Those were Georgia’s best three games of the season. I’ll be curious if Slade’s comments ended up resonating. As you said, he was overall complimentary. But Jones was made aware right away – that day on the practice field – of what was said. Thing is, Jones doesn’t usually need the extra motivation. Georgia would have preferred that Slade say everyone on the defense was easier to block. In any case, Mark Richt seemed sure that the team didn’t need extra motivation anymore, so perhaps he’s right. We’ll see.

Brenner: BONUS QUESTION: Any chance Georgia screws this up Saturday, against its rival, with an SEC Championship game berth on the line?

Emerson: Before last week I pointed to the Auburn game as potentially more dangerous than Ole Miss, simply because it wasn’t in Athens, and the rivalry aspect of it. Then Georgia found itself down 10-0 at home to Ole Miss, before rallying. My sense is that game still has some trap qualities for the Bulldogs, especially if the Tigers get a decent home atmosphere and stay in the game for awhile. But on a simple Xs-and-Os level, I don’t see how Auburn scores more than, say, 17 points, while Georgia’s offense would seem to have a floor of 20 points. So there would have to be some wackiness, whether it be turnovers or special teams mistakes – which is certainly possible with Georgia. But the Bulldogs do seem to be on an upward trend.