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August 27, 2013

7 at 7: A look around the NCAA

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 21, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 1

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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

So what better time to unveil a preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC? Starting today and ending next Saturday, we’ll count down the teams, two at a time, from worst to first. The format will involve a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.

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

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

14. KENTUCKY

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

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

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

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

13. TENNESSEE

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

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

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

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

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

July 14, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Tennessee

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 5, we continue with the Tennessee Volunteers. The Tigers will travel to Knoxville, Tenn., to face the Volunteers in Game No. 10 this fall.

Who:  Tennessee

When: Saturday, Nov. 9

Where: Neyland Stadium (102,455) | Knoxville, Tenn.

All-time series: Auburn leads 27-21-3

When last they met:The-University-of-Tennessee-Knoxville-01742867 When Auburn traveled to Neyland Stadium in 2009, Gene Chizik was still in his honeymoon period as the Tigers coach. Auburn was 4-0 heading into the game, and Tennessee provided an opportunity for the Tigers to pick up the first signature win of Chizik’s tenure. And the Tigers went out and did exactly that, grabbing a lead in the first quarter and never trailing in the 26-22 victory, marking Auburn’s fifth straight win over Tennessee, its longest streak in a series that dates back to 1900. The Tigers jumped out to a 13-0 lead following running back Ben Tate’s 11-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The teams then went on a series of scoring runs until Auburn kicker Wes Byrum nailed a 22-yard field goal with 39 seconds remaining to extend the Tigers’ advantage to 26-16 and put the game out of reach. Tennessee added one more six-pointer, as quarterback Jonathan Crompton connected on a 32-yard touchdown pass to wideout Denarius Moore as time expired to cut the final margin to 26-22. The Volunteers declined to kick an extra point. Auburn used this win to improve to 5-0 on the season — its best start since 2006 — but the zero in the loss column was erased the following week,  losing at Arkansas in the first of what would be three straight defeats. Auburn went on to finish with an 8-5 record in Chizik’s debut season. Meanwhile, this 26-22 defeat dropped Tennessee to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in conference play. The Volunteers would circle the wagons the following week, decimating Georgia in a dominant 45-19 home victory. Tennessee continued to be a streaky squad for the remainder of 2009, but it still managed to put together a winning season (7-5) in Kiffin’s first year.

The coach: Butch Jones (First year as Tennessee’s head coach; 50-27 record overall, going 23-14 in three seasons at Cincinnati from 2010-12 and 27-13 in three seasons at Central Michigan from 2007-09)

2012 record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC; finished in sixth place in SEC East

Total offense: 475.92 ypg (18th in Division, 2nd in SEC)

Scoring offense: 36.17 ppg (22nd, 4th)

Total defense: 471.33 ypg (107th, 14th)

Scoring defense: 35.67 ppg (104th, 14th)

2012 Year-in-Review: The numbers above should be able to tell it all. The Volunteers had an explosive passing attack, averaging over 315 yards per game behind quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. They also had the fourth-best scoring offense in the league, just a tick above 36 points per contest. But Tennessee’s rushing attack proved inconsistent when it was called upon to help run time off the clock and hold leads. Even the most time-consuming offense imaginable might not have been enough when you trot out a defense like the Volunteers had last season, though. Tennessee wasn’t just bad; it was historically, embarrassingly bad. The unit ranked in the bottom quarter of the conference in every major statistical category. In some areas, the Volunteers were the league-worst, such as total defense and scoring defense. (Again, see numbers above.) The defense gave up nearly 190 yards per game on the ground, which ranked ahead of only Auburn in the SEC. The low point of the 2012 season — in a year filled with innumerable moments Tennessee fans would rather forget — came in a too-close-for-comfort win against Troy on Nov. 3. The Volunteers escaped with a victory (and escaped is putting it lightly), but not without the Trojans taking a blow-torch to Tennessee’s record book in the 55-48 scoring fest. The Sun Belt Conference school, which came into the game with a .500 record, racked up a mind-numbing 721 yards (496 passing, 225 rushing) of total offense in defeat, setting a new standard for a Tennessee opponent. That victory moved the Volunteers to 4-5 overall, but the momentum was short-lived, as they lost back-to-back games to Missouri (51-48 at home in overtime) and Vanderbilt (a 41-18 shellacking on the road). After the 23-point loss to the Commodores — which marked the most points they’ve scored against the Vols since a 51-7 obliteration in 1923 and their largest margin of over Tennessee since a 26-0 win in 1954 — Derek Dooley was finally relieved of his duties as coach. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was promoted to interim coach for Tennessee’s regular season finale against Kentucky. The Volunteers beat the Wildcats 37-17 to make sure they wouldn’t go winless in the SEC for the first time in school history. (And here, let us pause as all Tennessee fans give thanks that Kentucky fields a football team.)

Biggest area of concern: No surprise here: The Volunteers have to find a way to replace the production of the departed Bray, Patterson and Hunter. At quarterback, Justin Worley will likely step in after appearing in nine games in his Volunteers career. Though he didn’t start a game last season, he was in the starting lineup three times during the 2011 season, experience the two other contenders for the job — redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshman Riley Ferguson — can’t say. The receiving corps, on the other hand, was decimated last season. The Volunteers lost their top four players in terms of receiving yardage in Hunter, Patterson, tight end Mychal Rivera and wide receiver Zach Rogers. Alton Howard, listed as “Pig Howard” on Tennessee’s official roster, is the leading returner at wide receiver in receptions (13), and expect that total to vastly improve this year. The Volunteers also have a backfield that can buttress their passing game, as both senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane are blessed with good hands. The duo combined for 377 yards (on 48 catches) and four touchdowns in 2012.

Key returning player/unit: Aside from quarterback and wide receiver, Tennessee brings back a wealth of experience elsewhere on offense. Four starters on the line return, led by left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, a 6-foot-6, 332-pound behemoth. He is joined by center James Stone, right guard Zach Fulton and right tackle Ju’Wuan James. No matter who starts at quarterback or eventually develops at receiver, the line should be able to provide ample time for Neal and Lane to find running lanes for big chunks of yardage.

Extra point: Dooley left with the lowest winning percentage (.417, 15-21 overall) of any Volunteers coach with at least three seasons on the job. You have to go back over 100 years to find the next-lowest in George Levene, who held the position from 1907-09. But even he won nearly 60 percent of his games, going 15-10-3 (.589) in his three years leading the Tennessee football program.

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