Tag Archives: Kirby Smart

Five Way Too Early Predictions for SEC Football in 2017

I know we still have a while to go until we get our beloved SEC football Saturdays back, but I just can’t wait. SEC football is on my mind all the time. So here are just a few of my recurring thoughts about this coming season.

Georgia will be the team to beat in the East

Let’s be honest, Kirby Smart’s first season in Athens was a little underwhelming. The worst moment of the season for the Dawgs had to be that last-minute loss to the Vols at home. Just when Jacob Eason had led them down the field to take the lead, Josh Dobbs and Jauan Jennings connected for an unbelievable Hail Mary. I fully expect Georgia fans to be able to put that pain behind them next season. Eason will have more experience, the defense will have more experience, and coach Smart will also have more head coaching experience.

South Carolina will have more than one good upset win

This past season wasn’t particularly impressive for South Carolina in its first year under Will Muschamp. But, the Gamecocks did manage to get a pretty nice upset win over the Vols. They were a huge part of why Tennessee never made it to Atlanta. The Gamecocks showed promise in most games, even many of the losses. The only game they might want to erase from memory is that Clemson thrashing at the end of the season. But with another year under Muschamp’s guidance and with his recruits coming in, I anticipate two upset wins out of the Gamecocks this season.

Butch Jones will get run out of Knoxville

This call may be a little early. But with all his press conference clichés, I think this might be the year Tennessee fans grab their pitchforks and run Jones out of town. Heck, after that Vanderbilt loss to end the regular season my dad had decided not to renew his season tickets for 2017. Guess he doesn’t want to be part of another championship of life. Or maybe he just doesn’t have that five-star heart. All this being said, the Vols may be in trouble next season. Their defense is a huge question mark and now they have a question mark starting at quarterback too. Just ask the Gators how well that second question mark works out in the SEC.

Alabama will win the West…again

No other team was truly a tough match for Alabama in the West last year, with the biggest challenges coming from LSU and Ole Miss. Ole Miss later lost star quarterback Chad Kelly to injury and its season tanked. The Rebels were more of a pretender than an actual contender. LSU had a slow start, but ended up in some good games under then-interim (now head) coach Ed Orgeron. But at the end of the day, Alabama was still dominant in the SEC. Alabama dominated all the way until the national championship game that it lost to Clemson. That loss may sting, but with quarterback Jalen Hurts having more experience, I expect Alabama to be number one in the West and headed right back to Atlanta again in December. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Alabama still has Nick Saban.

But LSU will make it close

The LSU Tigers had arguably one of the most interesting seasons out of the entire SEC in 2016. Les Miles was fired and replaced on an interim basis by Defensive Line Coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron led the team to a 5-2 finish (after starting the season 2-2 under Miles). Additionally, LSU dominated Louisville and its Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson in the Citrus Bowl. On top of all this, Orgeron put together a top ten recruiting class in his first time recruiting as LSU’s head coach. With Orgeron leading, talent returning, and talent coming in, the Tigers are poised to finish second in the SEC West and maybe even give the Crimson Tide a run for its money.

You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KristenBotica.

Image courtesy of Sean Davis, Flickr.

Picking Up the Pieces of the 2016 SEC Football Season

The championship games are now in the book as well as a few straggling regular season games. Army-Navy remains. That being said, let’s do some housekeeping and tidy up a few odds and ends concerning the SEC.

First, we’ll saunter back to SEC Media Days and review how the scribes’ picks turned out.

As you see in this article, Alabama was picked to win the SEC West and Tennessee was the choice to represent the SEC East in Atlanta. Alabama, obviously, held up their end of the deal but the Vols did not. The Florida Gators managed to take the division by default. The Crimson Tide steamrolled the West in dominant fashion. They won their division by three games over who? The Auburn Tigers.

Auburn was picked not second, or third, of fourth, or fifth. They were picked sixth in the West behind LSU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Arkansas.

Bravo for the Tigers! And they were rewarded with a trip to the Big Easy and the Sugar Bowl. They will take on Big 12 champion, Oklahoma. It could be one of the better games of the entire bowl season. More on that, and other bowls, in later columns.

What about the cellar dwellers? South Carolina was the choice to bring up the rear in the East, but the Gamecocks, modestly exceeded expectations and came in fourth. Missouri had the distinction of finishing last in the “Easy.”One of the Mississippi teams was tagged by the media to sink to the bottom in the grueling West. But it was the Bulldogs of Mississippi State that was chosen for that “honor.” Ole Miss, much to the surprise of most every football fan in the country, plummeted to the number seven spot while predicted to come in third.

Here is a complete look at how the standings shook down in 2016.

Here is how the media sized up the All-SEC selections.

And here are the coaches’ choices (the only one we have when this article was composed) for All-SEC.

Glaring discrepancies on the first team offense? Chad Kelly at quarterback, Leonard Fournette at running back, Nick Chubb at running back, Calvin Ridley at wide receiver, and O.J. Howard at tight end.

Jalen Hurts, Kamryn Pettway, Derrius Guice, ArDarius Stewart, and Evan Engram took those slots.

Defense? As you peruse the lists you will note that things went pretty much as expected. Good job media!

The coaches individual award winners on offense, defense, and coach went to Jalen Hurts, Jonathan Allen, and Nick Saban. As Gomer Pyle used to say, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”But, in all fairness, who’d a thunk Jalen Hurts would walk off with the offensive player of the year? No one could have seen that coming.

In this interim, between the regular season and bowl season, and beyond, there are some questions we look forward to seeing answered.

What will the NCAA decide in the way of punishment for Ole Miss?

Will Nick Saban retire? (Wishful thinking)

What underclassmen might surprise us by succumbing to the lure of dollars and the NFL?

How hot is Butch Jones’ fanny?

Kevin Sumlin’s?

Will Lane Kiffin take a head coaching position? (More wishful thinking)

How about Rhett Lashlee?

Will Jim McElwain ever find a quarterback?

Will Gus Malzahn?

Will Kirby Smart be a bust?

Will Barry Odom?

Who might be the next Jalen Hurts or Kamryn Pettway?

Is anyone capable of bridging the gap between Alabama and everybody else?

And… is the SEC still the top of the heap in the world of college football.

The bowl games are upon us and, with their conclusion, the season of 2016 will be but a memory.

What does 2017 hold for us as college football fans?

In the words of a wise man… we shall see.

 

E-mail Bird at bird [dot] lecroy [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @Autull.

 

Butch Jones is Winning the Championship of Life

When Butch Jones was hired in 2013 to be the head coach of the University of Tennesse football team, he brought with him all of the hopes and dreams that accompany all new coaches. Jones was going to restore the greatness of the Volunteer football program that hadn’t been seen since Phil Fulmer was leading the program to conference and national championship games.

But hopes and dreams don’t always turn out as planned.

Since arriving in Knoxville, Jones has collected an impressive array of talent. There have been high-profile recruits all over the field for Jones. Nevermind that much of that talent didn’t stick around Knoxville. Even with this level of attrition, there was still enough talent left that fans and the media began expecting and anticipating championship caliber years.

The fact-of-the-matter is that none of the championship expectations ever materialized. Since taking over the Volunteer program, Jones has lost the SEC East to Missouri and Florida. Both Missouri and Florida have each won the East twice. It’s far easier for Volunteer fans to accept losing the division to Florida as opposed to Missouri. Missouri is the team that Tennessee fans like to beat up on. But Missouri has had far more recent success than Tennessee. That has to be tough to swallow.

So what does Jones have to hang his hat on during his tenure on the Tennessee sideline? Life. In his recent press conference, Jones said that his team may not have ever won the SEC East, but in his mind, his team has won the championship of life.

This sounds ridiculous. Jones attempted to detract from his team’s on-field performance by talking about how mature his players are.  No, coach Jones, the perceived maturity of your players doesn’t balance the scales when weighed against the lack of high-level success.

Jones talked about this year’s senior class bringing Tennessee back. But Tennessee really isn’t back. The Vols haven’t won a divisional SEC East championship since 2007 and haven’t won the SEC championship since 1998. Tennessee isn’t back.

The graduation rate was also referenced by Jones. Yes, a high percentage of his players have and will graduate. We all know about the academic prowess of Joshua Dobbs. But the graduation rate of his players isn’t going to pacify the fans. As the years tick by, Tennessee fans won’t accept Missouri winning divisional titles even with the high graduation rate of Jones’ program.

Speaking of Dobbs, he had his coach’s back and defended the championship of life comment.

Dobbs should be commended for sticking up for his coach, but it doesn’t make Jones’ comment any less absurd. And in defending Jones the way that Dobbs did, Dobbs came off sounding just as ignorant as Jones. When Dobbs and his teammates look back on their time in Knoxville, wins and losses will matter. Dobbs’ record is what will define his Tennessee legacy. Not the relationships that he built or how he affected the people he came in contact with. And what will matter least in defining his legacy will be how much he enjoyed his experience at Tennessee. Dobbs will leave Tennessee with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Great. The fact remains that Tennessee never won as much as a divisional championship with Dobbs as the full-time starting quarterback.

Jones has to be savvier than this. He has to know that he can’t minimize the lack of championships being won in Knoxville. Especially this year. Tennessee should have run away with the East. The Vols had talent and depth and Jones should have been considered the gold standard of coaches in the East. Remember, Barry Odom and Kirby Smart have never been head coaches before this year and Will Muschamp is in his first year at South Carolina. Jim McElwain is a fine enough coach, but his Florida team doesn’t have an offense that anyone trusts. This is what Jones and Tennessee lost the division too. Jones continues to be unable to win a division that is often times referred to as “hot garbage.”

Jones seems content to take a We Are The World attitude as his team wins championships of life. He needs to acknowledge the reality of the situation. His teams haven’t been good enough to beat “hot garbage.”

E-mail Seth at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SethMerenbloom.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Georgia Bulldogs Should Brace for Brutal Beatdown

Earlier this week, I called Ole Miss a fraudulent contender.  No, the Rebels are not making the Playoff but, that doesn’t mean they can’t muck things up in the Hog-eat-Dawg SEC.  Man, do I wish I’d saved that one for week seven when Georgia heads to Arkansas.

Anyway, someone call the other SEC because we’ve got another fraud alert.

See, the thing is, while Ole Miss is committing rather harmless mail fraud, Georgia is credit card scamming folks out here.

The Georgia Bulldogs are the third best team in the SEC East this year and that’s only because four of their division mates have already proven they don’t deserve to even be mentioned by name.

Kirby Smart is surely smart for parlaying his eight-year stint as Alabama’s defensive coordinator into his dream job.

Smart is now the head man at his alma mater.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  Other than being the man heading the most consistently dominant unit in all of college football, that is.

By the way, props to Jeremy Pruitt for playing the Lester Holt to Smart’s Brian Williams.  Remember kids, patience is a virtue and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a big promotion when one of the higher-ups does something stupid.  Don’t worry, they always do.

I’m sure you’ve heard this one, too.  You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.  Kirby might have to learn that one the hard way.

Then again, Smart could be on the fast track to emerging as the Crimson Tide’s new nemesis.  Time will tell.

I emphasize the capital T on Time.  This is not Kirby Smart and Georgia’s time.  Ole Miss is Alabama’s current kryptonite, despite the result in the matchup of the mirrored states.

The point is that the Rebels show up for big games and now that they’ve lost, they’ve become an even more dangerous opponent.

Even if that weren’t true, the Bulldogs would still be an overrated mix of mangy mutts.

In the past two weeks, Georgia has beaten Nicholls and one of those SEC East unmentionables, by a combined three points.

The Dawgs’ one quality win came against my Tar Heels, who prefer to lose the first game to make their season more interesting.

Nick Chubb is going to get some Heisman love as he works his way through what has to be his final college campaign.  Right now though, he’s trending down.

After rushing for 222 yards in the opener, Chubb has fallen short in each of the past two games.  Again, those were against a relatively unknown FCS squad and an SEC bottom-feeder that will continue to remain nameless.

But, but, but, Ole Miss has gotten killed on the ground, you say.  Yeah, that was against two teams with quarterbacks who could take off whenever they needed, hell, whenever they wanted.  Georgia does not have that luxury weapon.  Jacob Eason ain’t going anywhere quickly.

Do you expect that pocket-passing freshman to be able to pick apart this secondary with a focused pass rush pressing in on him?  I don’t.

Interestingly enough, Eason will be the third freshman QB the Rebels will face this fall.  Let’s keep the clichés coming.  That’s right; the third time’s the charm.

Though the numbers aren’t large, there’s significance to Georgia’s defense giving up positive rushing yardage to every quarterback it’s chased around this season.  Chad Kelly can tuck it and chuck it, though I’d certainly not call great at either one.  Still, Kelly’s dual-threat ability will present problems for the Bulldogs this weekend.

In the first real test for Georgia, Chubb’ll struggle; Eason will see the reason why true freshman don’t lead SEC championship-caliber teams; and Chad Kelly will do rad cellys in the endzone.

The Rebels are going to give the Bulldogs one quarter to brace for a brutal beatdown that should put them, and your expectations, back in their proper place.

So, Smart puppies, go crawl back into the SEC East division doghouse.  We’ll call you when it’s your time to entertain us.

 

E-mail Mitch at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @GreatGatzke.

Photo: Wikipedia

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5 Teams I’m Glad I’m not a Fan of

While editing Damien Bowman’s I Hate All of Your Team’s Except for These 6 last night, I was inspired.  I started to think about which teams I will not be supporting this fall.

It didn’t take long for me to come up with these five:

That Baptist School in Waco, Texas

This school shouldn’t even be allowed to field a football team this season.  I’m serious.  Let all the players transfer out without having to sit for a year, if they’d like.  Put a pause on the entire program for a season.

Come back next spring with brand new everybody, top to down.  Then you’ll get football back.  Unfortunately, the time for this punishment to be imposed has passed and this school will likely remain relatively unpunished.

It’s often a joke that the state of Texas treats its football as a religion.  So, how ironic is it that a Baptist institution of higher learning knowingly prioritized the well-being of 58 percent of its student body underneath its desire to watch the boys play ball?

This is a systemic issue.  Forget chopping the head off of the snake.  Throw it into a wood chipper and see what emerges.  The gooey byproduct would probably resemble this school’s color scheme.

Georgia Bulldogs

I don’t get the hype at all.  This is a program that routinely underachieves.  A new head coach comes in and the Dawgs are supposed to be off the chain?  I don’t buy it.

Kirby Smart has never been a head coach before.  Of course, he was an outstanding defensive coordinator the last eight years at Alabama.  Life gets much more difficult when you’re no longer a part of Nick Saban’s rolling Tide.

Smart will be forced into wisening up if he can somehow get his team to the SEC championship.  That’ll be real tough to do with three conference losses.

Miami Hurricanes

Truthfully, I would love to see the U stage a real comeback.  I think Mark Richt might actually be the coach to put dream that within reach.  I just know it won’t happen this season.

Also, that monstrosity they play in is now going by Hard Rock Stadium.  I cannot support that.

Richt’s experience earns him more trust than I can afford Smart.  That won’t be enough, though.  I’ve still got that 58-0 ass whoopin’ the Canes took from Clemson vividly replaying in my mind.

It’ll take more than the U has to give us this season for me to erase it.

Kansas Jayhawks

There’s something about this perpetually putrid program that intrigues me.  I find myself rooting for the Jayhawks to lose, and I think it’s only because their ineptitude is so epic.

Kansas hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009 when it started 5-0 and finished 5-7.  The Jayhawks have won 12 games since then.

Occasionally, I’ll happen upon that repulsive Big 12 matchup they try to hide on your local Fox Sports channel.  Texas Tech is in Lawrence and there I am, making sure Ryan Gosling’s Red Raiders get the job done so Kansas can continue to be awesomely awful.  In a way, it’s like I’m rooting for them.

Anything more than a second consecutive 0-12 campaign would be a disappointment.  Although, I would love to watch the Jayhawks rock chalk that Baptist school in Waco, Texas.

Oh*o State Chocolate and Peanut Butter Candies

I have to.  It’s figuratively in my DNA.  I will always hate on theee Oh*o State University.  It’s just too much fun because the whole damn state roots for this team and they all get so worked up about it.

Your colors are ugly.  Your stadium is missing some pieces and about 5,000 seats.  Your band isn’t the best in any land I know of.  Oh, and your state isn’t nearly as far south of the Mason-Dixon Line as you like to pretend it is.  Before I get personal…

I am proud of you all for one thing, though.  After all the repetition, I think everyone’s finally learned how to spell Oh*o.

We’ll see ya November 26.  Go Blue.

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Watching Only One SEC Football Game Each Week: Part Two

A little over a week ago, I introduced this idea. What if, for some terrible reason, I could only watch one SEC football game each weekend this season? Which games would I watch? Part one featured my picks for weeks one through six of the SEC football season. Here are my picks for the remainder of the season.

Week 7: #1 Alabama @ #10 Tennessee

This is probably the one game I’m most excited to watch all season. The Crimson Tide may have lost some key pieces to their championship team but they have plenty of recruits from their past few classes that can fill in those gaps. They also have Bo Scarbrough to replace Derrick Henry, and he definitely cannot be ignored. On the other hand, Butch Jones and Tennessee didn’t really lose important pieces to their puzzle at all. They return experienced players on both sides of the ball. The defense will be solid, and the offense has the potential to be explosive. If Josh Dobbs can pass for more than ten yards this season, the Volunteer offense will be hard to stop.

This game was a close one in Tuscaloosa last year, with Alabama obviously being the eventual victor. This year the two teams meet in Knoxville and I’m sure Neyland will be rocking. I don’t know that I’m right about this but I think the Vols will have a good chance to get a win at home over the Crimson Tide. And I’d be laughing at Lane Kiffin the whole time. He might have to block me on Twitter if they lose.

Week 8: #12 Ole Miss @ #6 LSU

There are a few Ole Miss games that will definitely have my attention this season. This game in Death Valley is liable to be one of the most exciting SEC West games we’ll get to watch all season. I’ve talked about him plenty in Part One of this duo of lists, but Chad Kelly will be huge for Ole Miss this season.

The Rebels lost Laquon Treadwell to the NFL at the end of last season, but Damore’ea Stringfellow has the potential to be just as important to their offense. Playing opposite Treadwell last year, he already put up some pretty impressive stats (36 catches, 503 yds., 5 TDs) for the Rebels. LSU returns Fournette who was mostly a force to be reckoned with last season. More importantly, their quarterback Brandon Harris now has more experience and can hopefully help balance Fournette’s rushing attack with his passing attack.

These two offensive powerhouses meeting in Baton Rouge should make for a fantastic, explosive football game. The winner? Whichever team has fewer turnovers.

Week 9: #25 Florida vs. #16 Georgia (at EverBank Field)

The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party will always draw my attention as a Gator. Heading into this season, both teams are expected to be strong but both have some pretty big question marks. The Gators need to actually move the ball on offense and they need to choose a quarterback to do that…again. Their defense will be as solid as ever as they retain the title “DBU.”

Georgia will have running back Nick Chubb again and an exciting new coach in Kirby Smart. That combination could prove to be very dangerous. As far as SEC defenses go, theirs may be pretty average. But an average Bulldog defense might overpower a below average Gator offense. At the end of the day, I’d give this one to the Gators. But I don’t say that with much confidence.

Week 10: #1 Alabama @ #6 LSU

Alabama and LSU are the two highest-ranked SEC West teams in the preseason coaches poll, making this game an easy choice. Last season, the Alabama defense shut down Heisman hopeful running back Leonard Fournette in this matchup. The question is whether or not they’ll be able to repeat that feat now that LSU has a more experienced quarterback with Brandon Harris returning.

For LSU, containing the Alabama offense will be a must. Last season, they allowed them to outgain the Tiger offense by about 250 yards. If they allow Alabama to gain over 400 yards again, they’ll be hard-pressed to win this game. Fournette and Harris will be a destructive duo, but I expect the Alabama defense to be able to contain them pretty well. And for this reason, I anticipate Alabama winning this game, despite LSU’s home field advantage.

Week 11: Auburn @ #16 Georgia

I honestly have no idea what to make of Auburn at this point. Last season I expected them to be solid but I would consider their 6-6 regular season record anything but solid. Surprisingly, they only lost to Georgia by a touchdown. That team they played a close game with was not the same team that Georgia has this season. Mark Richt was replaced with a shiny new head coach straight from Alabama, Kirby Smart. And since running back Nick Chubb is returning from his injury, the Georgia offense will undoubtedly be more difficult to stop.

The Auburn defense under Will Muschamp’s replacement, Kevin Steele, will be what decides this game. Steele has worked with a number of impressive programs: Alabama, Clemson, and LSU, to name a few. Whether or not he’ll be able to resurrect a defense that struggled during most games last year remains to be seen. Because of my doubts for Auburn’s defense and my faith in Georgia’s offense, I give them the clear advantage in this game. But I don’t expect a blowout.

Week 12: Arkansas @ Mississippi St.

Arkansas is in a similar position to Tennessee this season, even though their outlook isn’t quite as favorable as that of the Volunteers. Head Coach Bret Bielema is entering his fourth year here after a decent season last year. In theory, he should finally have his players and his system in place.

Meanwhile, Dan Mullen has had to return to the drawing board for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs lived and died by quarterback Dak Prescott the past two years. Last year, they had pretty much no offensive production unless Prescott was involved. Now that Prescott is gone, Mullen is going to have to completely revamp their offense if he wants any chance of surviving in the SEC West. Since Arkansas seems to be on more of an upward trend here, I see them winning this game at Mississippi State.

Week 13: Rivalry Week

Sorry guys, but I really can’t pick just one this week. There are far too many interesting rivalry matchups.

All rankings listed are according to the Preseason Amway Coaches Poll, released on August 4th, 2016. Featured photo courtesy of wikimedia via user Neomrbungle.

E-Mail Kristen at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @OGKristenB.

Free Maurice Smith: Fixing College Football’s Transfer Problem

Folks, Alabama just can’t catch a break. As if having Nick Saban, 16 National Championships, and the top spot in last Thursday’s Coaches Poll weren’t bad enough, the Crimson Tide now face a cruel and unusual punishment: Alabama -might- must replace their Nickelback.

I know what you’re all thinking. How could a team with back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back top-ranked recruiting classes (that’s six back’s) possibly replace a defensive back boasting a career average 1.7 tackles per game? Where would they possibly get the depth? We all know Nick Saban is a god, but he’s not a miracle worker.

What is Alabama to do?

Trash that defensive back’s locker, bar him from the team training facility, denigrate his play, bicker with his family, and walk out on his mother. Roll damn Tide.

If that sounds ridiculous, settle in- we’ve just scratched the surface of college football’s obscene transfer problem. As the Maurice Smith saga continues to unravel and media coverage continues to accelerate, a living, breathing example of NCAA hypocrisy is unfolding right before our eyes. It’s time to free Maurice Smith.

College football has an uncanny capacity to make villains out of heroes, thereby tarnishing the brand and its cornerstone program. Whether you side with Saban or not, Maurice Smith is anything but a villain. For three seasons, Smith demonstrated nothing but loyalty to the Crimson Tide. He participated in thirty-seven wins, chipped in on defense and on special teams, and contributed to one of those sixteen national championships. Plus, he recently received his diploma. That’s a sufficient resume for most players at most programs. Alabama, however, isn’t most programs.

Regardless, as a graduate, Smith has earned the right to further that resume at any program in the country. As a player, Smith has also earned the right to follow defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to any program in the country if he so chooses. Smart, as well as other coaches, made a commitment to Smith, just as Smith made a commitment too Smart. The only difference is that Smith is a student-athlete deprived of any leverage; Smart is a coach that can change jobs on a dime thanks to tremendous leverage.

Smith’s attempt to transfer constitutes his only ounce of leverage. Nick Saban’s leverage to block in-conference transfers, of course, trumps Smith’s leverage. While it’s shameful that Saban refuses to afford Smith the respect of granting the request, who can blame him? College football hands head coaches the keys- why wouldn’t they lock the castle?

The NCAA holds a moral responsibility to remove the conflict interest abused by Saban and others for the sake of the student-athlete. Let’s overhaul transfer rules, clarify gray areas, and establish that student-athletes have as much a right to control their destinies as the coaches they play for.

First and foremost, in-conference restrictions for graduate transfers should be completely abolished. The NCAA pretends to prioritize student-athletes over programs, but the fact players can’t freely decide where they transfer indicates the NCAA protects the competitive interests of programs like Alabama before protecting the personal interest’s players. Do I understand the frustration of grooming a player only to see him flock to a bitter rival? Yes. Do I understand the risk of transfers, for example, sharing information about their former team’s playbook? Yes. Do I understand why Kirby Smart can transfer in conference while Maurice Smith can’t for those reasons? I don’t.

But even non-graduate transfers deserve coaching continuity, which is why all players- freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior- should be permitted to follow a coach or coordinator without forfeiting a year of eligibility. Coaches get promoted to larger programs because of their success, much of which is thanks to the athletes they recruit. Chaining athletes to their old program creates a perpetual system (particularly among the Group of 5) where success chases coaches towards better jobs, fractures the program, and consequently disrupts player development.

Of course, coaches still withhold the right to deny transfers, preventing the mass exodus many of you might be envisioning. Players will almost always act in their best interest. It won’t be in forty players’ best interests to move from, say, Bowling Green to Syracuse. In fact, I would argue it isn’t in anyone’s best interest to move to Syracuse.

Most importantly, solving college football’s transfer problem shields the NCAA from public relations nightmares like the one unfolding now with its defending national champion. The atrocious optics on the Smith-Saban feud aren’t the preseason chatter anyone at Alabama was hoping for.

This isn’t going anywhere either. In an interview with AL.com, Smith vowed that he’s “willing to go as far as it takes” to be a Georgia Bulldog. “I believe that this will not only help me but help anyone else who comes in my situation in the future,” he noted. “That’s why I say it’s almost bigger than me.”

It is bigger than Smith. It’s even bigger than the Almighty Saban. The NCAA’s image digresses with each passing controversy, making the cause to address Smith’s situation increasingly urgent. Transferring schools should be more of a right and less of a privilege. And in the meantime, I’m sure Alabama can find another Nickelback.

E-mail Cole at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck Marks Changing of the Guard at MAC Media Days

Last Thursday, Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher took the podium at Ford Field to deliver his annual State of the MAC address, kicking off media day festivities and, more importantly, signaling that the long wait for 2016 #MACtion is drawing quickly to a close. In his remarks, Steinbrecher discussed the MAC’s reputation for “respecting the grind.” He discussed adjustments to challenge procedures. He voiced proposed restrictions on satellite camps. He even took the time to recite his favorite sections of A Tale of Two Cities. Sexy stuff.

The remainder of the day was dominated by coaches and their respective programs. Frank Solich gave us a glimpse into Ohio University’s improved front seven. Terry Bowden discussed building upon Akron’s program-record eight wins last season. Mike Jinks announced his plans to continue Bowling Green’s explosive success with the air raid offense. In short: standard, run-of-the-mill, coaching speak.

Then there was P.J. Fleck.

Nearly four years ago, the Western Michigan Broncos had just completed a disastrous, 4-8 campaign with a loss to Eastern Michigan, the Broncos’ worst finish since 2004. Head coach Bill Cubit took the resulting fall, his tenure in Kalamazoo ending after seven seasons, three bowl appearances, and – count ‘em – zero postseason victories. Still yet to claim a bowl victory or a MAC title in its history, the Broncos found themselves once again searching for a savior to resurrect a stagnant program.

Jesus Christ was resurrected at 33. P.J. Fleck was hired at 32. Jesus Christ is a pretty good recruiter. P.J. Fleck might just be better.

Fleck steered into the skid his first season at the helm, limping to a 1-11 season as the youngest coach in the FBS (he still is). But shortly thereafter, Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mentality propelled the program to back-to-back eight win seasons, back-to-back bowl appearances, and – finally – a bowl victory. Fleck’s marked improvements to the culture of Western Michigan even birthed a new language: Bronconese. While nuggets like Row the Boat and F.A.M.I.L.Y. might strike outsiders as a foreign language, recruits are clearly fluent in it. Fleck hauled in the MAC’s top recruiting classes in 2014, 2015, and 2016, in addition to what’s currently a sizable lead for the 2017 cycle.

Those recruits haven’t delivered a MAC title yet, but this season’s preseason media poll indicates those fortunes may be changing. Despite the fact Northern Illinois has claimed an FBS record seven straight division titles, the Broncos are the media’s overwhelming favorite to take the conference crown, signaling not only a changing of the guard among MAC elite, but among college football at large.

A 35-year-old coach in his fourth season is taking the Group of 5 by storm. And can we really be surprised?

Certainly Fleck isn’t the first coaching phenom to rise from a mid-major school, but he’s certainly a far cry you’re your average MAC coach. College football, more commercialized than ever, has assumed a climate where the P.J. Fleck’s of the country can thrive even in mediocre programs and mediocre conferences. Look towards Michigan’s recent uniform reveal, following a nearly $200 million deal with Nike. Look towards college football’s loosened restrictions on Twitter as a recruiting tool, a welcomed development for a man this skilled in the art of Twitter.

Western Michigan might not have Fleck for long, but the overall trend is going nowhere. I’m a college kid myself, and hearing Fleck’s narrative in articles and interviews makes a nerd like me want to run through walls. Young coaches like P.J. Fleck, Tom Herman, Dabo Swinney, and Kirby Smart represent a new wave of college coaches in a new era of college football. These guys aren’t sullen and curmudgeonly like certain high-profile coaches, they’re brand-oriented, message-driven inspiratory uniquely tooled to address millennials as near-millennials themselves. It’s happening in the MAC, and it’s happening countrywide.

Jon Steinbrecher, Frank Solich, Terry Bowden, and other seasoned figures across the college football landscape will continue the same old song and dance, and that’s fine. But don’t be mistaken, P.J. Fleck is the future of college football. It’s reflected in recruiting rankings, on the field, and in the locker room. The question isn’t whether or not P.J. Fleck will stick, the question is whether other programs will take notice, opting to abandon traditional, X’s and O’s coaching candidates, to find a media-savvy brand builder fit to revive a program in the reality of 21st Century college football.

So when a Power 5 school looks to fill a coaching vacancy this winter, they’ll survey a myriad of candidates. Those candidates will come with thick resumes, foolproof pro-style offenses, and run-of-the-mill coaching speak.

And then there’ll be P.J. Fleck.

E-mail Cole at [email protected] or follow him in Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

Photo courtesy of larrysphatpage – Flickr

Watching Only One SEC Football Game Each Week: Part One

The Amway Preseason Coaches poll was just released and it inspired me to look forward to some of the best games that lay ahead. In all honesty, I would gladly watch college football, even just SEC football, all day each Saturday starting next month. But unfortunately that isn’t always possible, because let’s face it, not all people are the as awesome as us die-hard college football fans.

And for that reason I decided to create a list of the SEC football games I would watch this season if for some terrible reason I could only watch one game per week. Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to this, but if it does at least I have you (and myself) covered.

Week 1: #12 Ole Miss vs. #4 Florida State

While I could’ve easily picked #1 Alabama vs. #17 USC or #6 LSU vs. Wisconsin, but the Ole Miss-Florida State matchup takes the cake here. I fully expect Alabama to be able to handle the Trojans and although Wisconsin wasn’t bad last year, LSU should be able to handle them between Leonard Fournette and a much-improved Brandon Harris. Ole Miss and Florida State is most intriguing of these matchups to me because I expect it to be the closest game. Ole Miss is returning a fantastic quarterback in Chad Kelly and while Florida State may not have quite the same kind of weapon at quarterback, they do have one of the best offensive lines in the country. Usually I watch games for the defense, but this time I’ll definitely be watching for the offense. And as much as I ride for SEC football, I have to admit I do expect the Seminoles to come out victorious.

Week 2: Arkansas @ #14 TCU

Arkansas may not be a team picked by too many to have a great season this year, but I do think they’re a team to watch early in the season. If the Razorbacks can get off to a good start with what Coach Bret Bielema might call a “borderline erotic” (no, I’m not letting that one go yet) victory over TCU, then the sky’s the limit. Arkansas may have an inexperienced quarterback, but they make up for that lack of experience elsewhere. They return numerous starts on the defensive side of the ball and they have plenty of options for offensive production when you look at potential running backs. The TCU Horned Frogs will undoubtedly be a formidable opponent, but I’d definitely put this game on “upset alert” right now. And who wouldn’t want to watch a good upset?

Week 3: #1 Alabama @ #12 Ole Miss

This game needs very little explanation. Both were great teams last year, both are expected to be about equally great again this year. Ole Miss has proven to be somewhat of a stumbling block for the Crimson Tide lately, so Alabama needs to find a way to overcome whatever the issue is and get off to a better start this season. While Chad Kelly is going to be a fantastic quarterback for the Rebels, I’d put my money on Alabama’s suffocating defense just about any day. Do I expect Ole Miss to get its third victory in a row in this series? No, but I do anticipate a very interesting football game.

Week 4: #25 Florida @ #10 Tennessee

For me, this is the hardest game to watch every single season. I was raised a Volunteer but became a Gator when it was time to go to college. Since I’ve been a Gator, Florida has yet to lose to Tennessee. They’ve actually won eleven in a row in this rivalry…but who’s counting? This year I truly do expect that winning streak to come to an end. The game may ultimately come down quarterbacks. Josh Dobbs is reliable as a threat on the ground, but will he become a real passing threat this season? The Gators are likely to start Luke Del Rio this season, but he may not be the answer to all their offensive woes. I will say that the Gators aren’t going to be a pushover in the SEC East this season but the Vols return too much talent, both offensively and defensively, for the Gators to be able to handle them once again. I could be wrong about that, but again this one is bound to be another really good game to watch.

Week 5: #10 Tennessee @ #16 Georgia

I’m just going to throw this out there but the last time Tennessee was ranked #10 in the preseason poll was in 1998. The last time Tennessee won a National Championship was also in 1998. So, there’s obviously something to be said for their preseason ranking. Georgia is still a bit more of an unknown heading into the season. Nick Chubb returns this season after he was injured on the first play of the Tennessee game last year and that could be big. Not to mention, Georgia did one of the smartest things you can do when hiring a new head coach. They sought out a former Alabama coach to lead their team, Kirby Smart. Florida will tell you what a great idea that type of hiring decision can be. Since the game is in Athens, this could be a tough one for the Vols to win. But if the Vols do get that win then it’s safe to say they are national contenders and Alabama better watch out for them in a couple weeks.

Week 6: #6 LSU @ #25 Florida

The hype heading into this game last season was incredible and I expect the same kind of energy this year. While LSU returns Leonard Fournette at running back and now has a more experienced Brandon Harris at quarterback, Florida has made some adjustments. Like previously mentioned, quarterback transfer Luke Del Rio is expected to start for the Gators. If they had him at the helm of their offense last year, they might have even been able to get a win in Death Valley. On top of that, the Gators can still claim the title of being the “Real DBU” with Jalen “Teez” Tabor picking up right where Hargreaves left off last season. And let’s not forget that Florida might actually have a kicker in Eddy Pineiro to help them out in those tight games this year. With the Tigers traveling to the Swamp, I give a slight edge to the Gators here. This is another one of those games that will be highly entertaining, regardless of the outcome.

Be on the lookout for part two of this article, coming next week!

 

All the rankings listed above are according to the Preseason Amway Coaches Poll, released on August 4th, 2016.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tate Nations

If you feel the need to debate my picks for each week, feel free to interact with me on Twitter, @OGKristenB.

SEC Links: Coaches, Dawgs and Cats

Kevin Sumlin probably has as much heat on him as any coach in the SEC this year. Questions, both on and off the field, have been swirling around him and the program like a Texas tornado this offseason. In spite of winning 36 games over the past four years, the pressure to win more continues to mount. And on top of that, he lost his father back in March.

Sumlin recently sat down with Pete Thamel, of Sports Illustrated, and candidly spoke on these and other topics, such as Johnny Manziel.

The Aggie coach is doing everything he can to improve his team by hiring Noel Mazzone away from UCLA to be his offensive coordinator, and making changes to the strength and conditioning program. There is a new athletic director, Scott Woodward from Washington, and, of course, Kyle Field was completely renovated prior to the 2015 season, and is now one of the great show palaces in all of college football.

There is no doubt that there is elite talent at A&M, it’s just a matter of pulling all of these moving parts together into one cohesive unit. Can that be done? Yes. Will that be done? It remains to be seen.

Brandon Adams, a contributor to SEC Country, thinks the Aggies could be poised to make huge strides upward in 2016. Strides that could carry them to the top of the SEC West.

Say what? Yes, Trevor Knight might work out for them at quarterback. And yes, Myles Garrett is a beast, but it’s going to take more than him to get the defense turned around and stop yielding points in bunches. The D has been the Aggies’ Achilles heel during Sumlin’s tenure and it must improve dramatically in order for them to even approach the pinnacle of the toughest division in all of college football.

I remain of the opinion that Texas A&M will finish behind Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn, and Arkansas in the West. That leaves them ahead of only Mississippi State. Something is a wee bit off kilter in College Station and I don’t think all the pieces will fit so snugly together this fall.

Everyone is optimistic in May. Prove it in September. That opportunity will present itself on the opening weekend of the season when the Aggies go head-to-head with the UCLA Bruins, in College Station, on September 3.

Pressure. There’s that word again. Kirby Smart says he is feeling the pressure of the entire state of Georgia on him as he approaches his first fall as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs.

“Let’s be honest. Georgia, if you get the best players in this state, you should be winning championships,” says Smart, who hasn’t slowed down since he returned to his alma mater in January.

Bingo!

How are Georgia fans and a new puppy similar? You can’t get either of them to stop whining.

And whine they will if Smart does not win the East soon. Yes, they are on a honeymoon that is hot and heavy, as we speak, but if the Dawgs don’t find themselves in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December, soon, that whining will become a deafening howl.

I have the Bulldogs penciled in as second in the division in 2016. If they do, somehow, manage to dethrone the already-anointed Tennessee Volunteers, then the honeymoon will transition into a full- blown love fest unseen since the early eighties.

But wait! What’s this? Is that a cat that I see sneaking up on those Dawgs?

Jay Clemons, of SEC Country, along with Kirk Herbstreit, see the Kentucky Wildcats as having a coming out party of their own. Clemons actually calls for the Cats to claw the Dawgs into submission on November 5.

Now, what was that I was saying about honeymoons and love fests? If that does transpire, in Lexington, that deafening howling will commence.

I do think Kentucky will continue to improve, and make a lower tier bowl game, but I do not see them toppling Georgia or Tennessee. Florida is a better possibility, but that game is in Gainesville. I’ll take the Big Blue to beat Southern Miss, New Mexico State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Austin Peay. In the last game of the season, Louisville will be favored to down the Wildcats, in Louisville, but I believe Kentucky has a very good shot in that one.

We began this thing with coaches and now let’s end it with coaches. Edward Aschoff, of ESPN, presents his list of the five best coaches in the SEC of the past ten years.

I’m with him on Saban, Meyer, Spurrier and Les, but I’ll quibble with Fulmer for the sake of argument.

First man on his “just missed the cut” is Gene Chizik. I do love Chiz and I will be forever grateful for him bringing home a crystal football to Auburn, but the 3-9 season, in 2012, simply won’t allow that. I would take Gus over Chiz. And I thought Tommy Tuberville was a damn good football coach when he was on the Plains.

How about Derek Dooley? Just kidding!

James Franklin did a remarkable job at Vanderbilt. And sure, Freeze, Mullen, Pinkel, and Richt all deserve careful consideration.

Ok, I can see The Great Pumpkin (as the AJC’s Jeff Shultz was want to call Fulmer) as one of the top five.

That’s another edition of SEC Links in the books.

Adios!