NCF Nation: Bobby Petrino

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It is hard to miss the giant poster of Teddy Bridgewater hanging in the lobby of the Louisville football complex, celebrating the Cardinals’ momentous win over Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl two years ago.

Bridgewater's rise was concurrent to the football program’s latest ascent to national prominence, but the truth is he was the most notable player on a defensive-minded football team led by a defensive-minded coach who stressed a physical, ball-control style of football that did not always showcase its talented quarterback.

[+] EnlargeBobby Petrino
AP Photo/Garry JonesBobby Petrino is stepping up the tempo in practice in his second stint at Louisville.
Nobody will ever say the same about offensive guru Bobby Petrino, who has single-handedly made everything different this spring in his second stint as Louisville's head coach. His philosophy is different. Practices are different. Schemes are different. Strength and conditioning is different. Even conference affiliation is soon to be different.

Petrino says he is different, too, eight years after he left the Cardinals for the NFL. A well-publicized scandal at Arkansas three years ago -- a scandal many thought could end up ruining him -- forced him to get his priorities in order.

He now has his second chance to do right after Tom Jurich gave him a lifeline in January following Charlie Strong’s departure for Texas. Petrino's reputation, however, remains in limbo, putting more pressure on his football acumen. When asked to note how he and the program differ from when he was hired the first time in 2003, Petrino says, “I don’t look at the differences a whole lot. I’m having a great time.”

While Petrino the man needs to be different, Louisville is banking on the same Petrino who initially took Louisville to the heights Strong recently matched. To do that, Petrino is coaching the way he has always coached. Practices are now run at a much faster tempo than under Strong. Petrino is constantly in his players' faces, yelling at them to get it right. All that was quite an adjustment initially. “Hustle!” and “Go faster!” are two key phrases that have returned to the Louisville lexicon.

“At first, everybody was looking around like, ‘What’s going on?’ but for the most part, everybody’s taken it in stride,” said defensive end Sheldon Rankins. “We have gone along with everything he’s saying, and been pretty positive about it because at the end of the day, we’re all a team. We’re all here together and we have to make it work.”

The changes have been especially dramatic on offense, and most especially with the quarterbacks. Bridgewater might have been the centerpiece in Louisville the last three years, but he is gone, and that leaves quite a conundrum. Petrino places much heavier demands on quarterbacks; they have more checks to make, more complicated schemes to learn and different timing routes to perfect with their receivers, all while practicing at a breakneck pace.

No passer on the current roster has started a college game. Will Gardner, who was the backup last year, has taken the lead in the quarterback competition, but the offense has much to improve on before it functions the way Petrino wants it to function. One practice last week lasted 2 hours, and several practice periods were repeated until the players got everything right.

“They think they’re going fast right now, but we’re not even close to where we need to be,” Petrino said. “My dad gave me a bad time about it. He said, ‘That was the longest practice I’ve ever seen of yours,’ and I said, ‘It’s because we’re not going fast enough to get the reps in.’ We have a set amount of reps we have to get done, but we can’t go quick enough.”

Petrino They think they're going fast right now, but we're not even close to where we need to be.

-- Louisville coach Bobby Petrino
Part of the issue is players not being in the type of condition they need to be in to go at optimum speed. Petrino says players did make strides in winter workouts, but they need a full offseason program to meet the demands that are now required.

Up-tempo offense means the defense has to practice faster, too. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who is installing a new base 3-4 scheme that will feature players used in multiple ways, says, "The tempo thing is very good for both sides of the ball because it makes you think fast, react fast and get ready to play,” adding that the pace of practice also helps create mental toughness.

Not much has happened in the way of rebellion, either. The transition from one staff to another has been as smooth as can be expected, especially given the radical differences between style and scheme. This spring, being different never felt so good.

“Everybody’s excited,” Gardner says. “Everybody knows the history of all these coaches and how successful their teams have been, so everybody’s looking forward to what this year brings.”
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There are universal challenges every first-year coach must face, whether he is a veteran or a newbie: getting to know new players, implementing schemes, setting a foundation, making sure there is buy-in across the locker room.

Then there is the challenge facing Bobby Petrino at Louisville. As he embarks on his second stint with the Cardinals, he has to go through all these getting-to-know you moments while also:

Replacing potentially the No. 1 quarterback in the upcoming NFL draft.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIn his first season back at Louisville, coach Bobby Petrino has several questions on both sides of the ball.
Replacing his leading tackler.

Replacing his leading sack producer.

Replacing his all-conference tandem at safety.

But wait, there’s more.

Petrino also must get his players prepared for a much more grueling schedule, in a much more grueling conference home. Gone are the days when Temple, UConn and USF clogged the league schedule. The Cards open at home against Miami without much let-up to follow, as they join Florida State and Clemson in the much tougher ACC Atlantic Division.

Of all these tasks, one stands out as the most difficult.

“The biggest challenge for us is to replace a guy like Teddy Bridgewater, one of the premier players in the country,” Petrino said in a recent phone interview. “We have to go out in spring and compete and find out who it’s going to be. We have a couple guys who have the talent, just real inexperience.”

Will Gardner and Kyle Bolin are at the top of the list when spring practice opens next week. Gardner spent last season backing up Bridgewater. He played in five games, and has attempted 12 career passes. Bolin, a redshirt freshman, has never played in a college game. Incoming freshman Reggie Bonnafon, a four-star recruit, joins the mix this summer.

Petrino is known as an offensive guru, but growing pains at the position are expected. Bridgewater, who guided the Cardinals to 23 wins over the past two seasons, had plenty of them when he took over as a starter during his freshman season in 2011. But he blossomed each successive year.

He was the unquestioned leader of this offense last season and an absolute extension of then offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. Bridgewater had the ability to change plays at the line based on what he saw in the defense. He rarely made the wrong call. That type of functionality in an offense takes years to develop.

On defense, Louisville loses Preston Brown (leading tackler), Marcus Smith (leader in sacks), safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor (another potential first-rounder), and three other starters. The Cards were one of the most underrated defenses in 2013, ranking No. 1 in the nation in total defense and rushing defense and No. 2 in scoring defense.

The biggest challenge for us is to replace a guy like Teddy Bridgewater, one of the premier players in the country.

New Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino on his team's transition to the ACC.
Finding replacements for Hakeem Smith and Pryor ranks among the biggest challenges on this side of the ball. One player to watch here is Gerod Holliman, a former ESPN 300 recruit who was rated as the No. 3 safety in the class of 2011. He was Louisville's highest-rated player in that class, which also included Bridgewater, Pryor and terrific returning receivers DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers.

“We do have some big and talented guys there [at safety], but they’re inexperienced,” Petrino said. “They’re going to have to be students of the game, because the most impressive things with the safeties we lost were how intelligent they were and how they ran the defense.”

One more challenge is building depth, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines. Generally when teams transition to better conferences, they are at a deficit in both categories. The good news is Louisville returns four starters on the offensive line. In fact, the top three players returning with the most career starts are on the offensive line -- Jake Smith (38), John Miller (34) and Jamon Brown (27).

The defensive line, however, returns only Lorenzo Mauldin among its starters.

“Depth is huge, particularly up front to be able to rotate your defensive linemen in to stay fresh, and be ready to rush the passer in the second half when the game is on the line,” Petrino said. “One of the advantages we have coming in is we are going to be a fast team.

“We’re very athletic in the secondary and at wide receiver so when you look at the game, it’s a lot about speed and athleticism at the skill positions and the speed of your defensive front, the physicalness of your offensive front. We have starters coming back on the offensive line that are really good players, but have depth issues there that we have to solve.”

The speed and athleticism are hugely important, especially when you look at the speed and athleticism of Florida State and Clemson. Plus, Petrino and new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham have coached in the SEC, the model for speed and athleticism. Their experiences there will allow them to help their players understand what to expect.

“When you play in a major conference, you have to understand each week is a new week,” Grantham said. “Anyone on your schedule can beat you. Enjoy your win on Saturday, but come Sunday go back to work. You’ve got to maintain that consistency.”

All while dealing with a major set of challenges.
Virginia Tech quarterback Mark Leal looked around his position meeting room this winter and realized just how empty it was. True freshman Andrew Ford, who enrolled early, and redshirt freshman Brenden Motley were his only company.

None of them has ever started a game.

“This is probably the most slim it’s been since I’ve been here,” said Leal, a fifth-year senior. “We’ve always had at least five or six guys, but right now it’s only three.”

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett, Garrett Leatham
Lance King/Getty ImagesJacoby Brissett (12) is one of several transfers who could move into starting roles in the ACC in 2014.
Sounds like the entire ACC, where six schools have absolutely zero quarterbacks returning with any starting experience, and four schools brought in transfers to help.

As spring practices begin throughout the conference, the ACC kicks off its 2014 season with a complete overhaul at the quarterback position. It was only a year ago that Florida State’s Jameis Winston was an unproven rookie who had yet to start a game. Now, the 20-year-old reigning Heisman Trophy winner is the veteran of the league, as nine of the 14 schools will have a first-year starting quarterback, and the competition is open at 11 programs. Florida State, Duke and NC State are the only programs that have definitively named starters, and even NC State doesn’t know what to expect out of first-year starter and Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett.

Brissett, though, knows what’s expected.

“Go make sure it was earned,” he said, “not given.”

Count on that to be a trend in the conference this spring.

Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are all starting from scratch, without any starting experience at the quarterback position. Some of the league’s most recognizable names have to be replaced, including Tajh Boyd, Logan Thomas and Teddy Bridgewater. Coaches at North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia have deemed their competitions open, in spite of experienced starters returning.

“I looked at that and was kind of surprised,” said Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, the frontrunner to take over the job after Vad Lee’s decision to transfer. “It should even the playing field out a little bit, but at the same time, we all have to go through our parts.”

Not to mention spring and summer auditions.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said it’s likely the competition between Chad Kelly, Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson will extend beyond this spring -- and possibly into the season.

“Going in, Cole starts out as No. 1 simply because of where we finished the season -- basically by default, if you will,” Swinney said. “He’s the senior. It’s basically his to lose going in, but it’s incredibly close. You’re talking about -- in my opinion -- three guys who are going to play in the NFL. I believe with all my heart that Cole Stoudt is going to play in the NFL. And the same thing with Chad Kelly, and the same thing with Deshaun Watson, if they stay healthy. So you’ve got three NFL players competing to be the guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people say, well, if you don’t have one quarterback then you have none. But that’s not the case here.”

It could be the case elsewhere, though.

Virginia Tech (Michael Brewer), Boston College (Tyler Murphy), Miami (Ryan Williams) and NC State (Brissett) are all hoping that transfers can give the position an immediate boost, but former Texas Tech quarterback Brewer won’t join the Hokies until this summer. While none of them has started a game at their current schools, all but Brewer have started at least three games at their previous programs.

Williams started 10 games while he was at Memphis, and he’s the leading candidate to replace Stephen Morris, but “it is wide open,” according to offensive coordinator James Coley. And Williams knows it.

"You have to earn it, you have to earn everything,” Williams told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I don't want anything given to me. If it's given to me, I didn't work hard enough.”

Brissett started three games at Florida, and Murphy started six games for the Gators after starter Jeff Driskel was lost for the season. Murphy went 2-4 with 1,216 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions before missing the final three games of the season with a shoulder injury.

Nothing is guaranteed in Chestnut Hill this spring, either, as the Eagles also have Darius Wade, a true freshman who enrolled early, and James Walsh, who will be a redshirt freshman.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals are about to embark on life without Teddy Bridgewater.
“They’re all real green,” offensive coordinator Ryan Day said of the Eagles’ quarterbacks. “It’s obviously an open competition. I’m looking forward to getting out there and seeing them throw and run the offense. We’ll see. All three of these guys are mobile, they can run. They’re dual threats. We’re going to use that as a weapon for us. We’re not going to totally change what we do, but we’ll add that component to it.”

All eyes will be on Louisville’s quarterback competition, as the Cardinals enter their first season in the ACC without Bridgewater, who left early to enter the NFL draft. Will Gardner and Kyle Bolin will be the top two candidates this spring, and they’ll be joined by incoming freshman Reggie Bonnafon this summer.

“It’s wide open,” first-year coach Bobby Petrino said. “We’ll go through spring and see who comes out 1-2-3 and then obviously we’ll give Reggie an opportunity in the fall to compete with those guys.”

With the addition of Louisville, the ACC enters this season perceived by many to be the strongest it has ever been.

Now it just needs to find a few quarterbacks to help prove it.
Louisville's Bobby PetrinoAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesLouisville coach Bobby Petrino has plenty of experience in taking a team to a higher level.

Chances are, Bobby Petrino could stuff a three-ring binder full of notes that perfectly illustrate how to successfully maneuver around the two biggest challenges the Louisville football program faces when it moves into the ACC for the 2014 season.

Because Petrino has faced them both.

Back in his first stint as Cardinals coach, he shepherded Louisville from Conference USA to the Big East. Within two years, Louisville was in a BCS game.

Then at Arkansas, he quickly made the Hogs competitive in one of the toughest divisions in college football: the SEC West. Within three years, Arkansas went 6-2 in league play and made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl.

Now, of course, Louisville is hoping for the same on-field success in its new league home, playing in the ACC’s most difficult division, which features national champion Florida State and Orange Bowl champion Clemson.

Though Louisville figured to be making the transition under former coach Charlie Strong, athletic director Tom Jurich made quite a strategic hire when he gave Petrino a second chance to lead the program last month.

Jurich said in a recent interview that the biggest factor in his decision to re-hire Petrino centered on whether the coach had learned from well-documented previous mistakes and indiscretions. There was no need for Jurich to delve into on-field success.

“He knows what he’s looking at,” Jurich said.

Petrino gives Louisville even more cachet than it had a month and a half ago, when the Cardinals pounded Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, serving notice to the rest of the ACC. Of the nine teams that have changed conferences since 2012, three had first-year head coaches. Of those three, Petrino is the only one with previous head-coaching experience on the "power five"-conference level, and his experience came in the most powerful conference in America.

Not only that, Louisville brings with it a terrific track record of recent success, posting back-to-back 11-win seasons. In fact, four of the five 11-win seasons in school history either happened in the past two years or under Petrino. That makes Louisville better positioned for immediate success than former Big East mates Pitt and Syracuse, which transitioned into the ACC last year.

But there is little doubt that Louisville faces a steep rise in level of competition, one that raises many questions headed into the first season. Louisville has three teams on its schedule projected to start the season in the Top 25. The last time it had to play that many ranked teams in one season was 2008, when the program was struggling under Steve Kragthorpe. In the past five seasons, Louisville has played just four teams ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the matchup.

[+] EnlargeTom Jurich
Timothy D. Easley/AP PhotoLouisville athletic director Tom Jurich has led the Cardinals to new heights, and now a new chapter.
Now, the Cardinals will play Florida State and Clemson every year.

“The thing they’ve got a head start on us [in] is their tradition. They have a long history,” Jurich said. “Our history is fairly recent, but our last 15 years we could go head to head with anybody in college football or any sport across the board. We want to make sure we continue to grow off that. We’ve got a good foundation in place and I don’t want to say any more than a really good foundation. We want to keep building and building.”

Building requires taking a look at the competition ahead. Petrino said in a phone interview that the work has already begun breaking down teams in the ACC, so the coaches know what types of offenses and defenses they will be facing.

“The one thing that makes it harder is the league is so competitive week in and week out so you have to have the depth and develop young men,” Petrino said. “We’ll have to have some guys that can play early. Some conferences you’re in, you have two or three games a year where if you don’t make mistakes, you should win the game because you have better players than they do.

“But this is going to be very competitive. Everyone’s going to have very good players, everyone’s going to be really well coached, and that’s what makes the challenge a lot of fun.”

Petrino has lived through those challenges, and he believes he can help prepare his players because of his own experiences. Coaching in the SEC can be a teaching tool for coaching in the ACC, especially on the road. Louisville has to play at Death Valley and Notre Dame this year.

“In the SEC it was so competitive, so you had to really understand how to get your team ready each week and be able to go on the road and handle the noise and the crowd and the hostility,” Petrino said. “We have some great road games; there will be great crowds. You have to be able to perform under the pressure with the crowd there and be able to communicate, and use your hand signals and operate when you really can’t hear anything, so you take a lot of those experiences with you.”

Petrino’s background and track record can only do so much. Louisville has to replace a potential top-five NFL draft pick in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and seven starters on defense. Given the tougher schedule, new coaching staff and new-look team, can the Cardinals realistically be a weekly Top 25 team in contention for a league title?

“We’re going to have high expectations,” Petrino said. “That’s something I believe in, is setting your expectations high. We want to get in position to compete for the conference championship.”

Spoken like a coach who has been there, done that.

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is one of the most respected administrators in collegiate athletics. But he just made the biggest gamble of his career, all in the name of three letters:

ACC.

It is inconceivable that Jurich would make such a high-risk hire in Bobby Petrino without a pending move to a new league home. Louisville simply cannot afford to take any steps back as it faces a much tougher league and much tougher schedule beginning in 2014.

[+] EnlargeBobby Petrino
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesBobby Petrino is going back to a place he couldn't wait to leave the first time, as Louisville hired its former coach from Western Kentucky.
So Jurich decided to hire a proven on-field winner in Petrino despite every sign that should have stopped him. This move is not about the welfare of the student-athlete or integrity or honor, loyalty, commitment, character or values. Petrino stands for none of those.

This move is about winning.

Hey, at least Louisville has nakedly telegraphed its intentions here. Where others speak in hollow platitudes about molding men, Louisville has kept it real. In the big-business world that collegiate athletics has become, winning generally trumps all.

So Petrino -- identified as one of the biggest villains in Louisville football history -- is now being welcomed back to a place he seemed eager to ditch in nearly every waking moment he previously held the job. The only plausible explanation is because he knows how to win.

And the urgency to win has increased since Monday night, when Florida State won the national championship, serving notice it is now a force once again.

Louisville must now face Florida State every year in the Atlantic Division. Louisville also must face Clemson every year in the Atlantic Division. As much as outsiders have made it a hobby to disrespect the ACC, the two-headed monster atop the Atlantic is a formidable one. One of those two schools has played in the ACC championship game for five straight seasons. Both made BCS games this year. Both won.

As if that is not difficult enough, the 2014 schedule also features a trip to Notre Dame and a rematch with Miami, making this one of the most difficult slates Louisville has played in recent memory. Louisville went 12-1 in 2013 but failed to earn national respect because it played one of the weakest schedules in the country. The Cardinals finished No. 15 in the AP poll, behind 11 teams with multiple losses.

"When you look down on the schedule and see who we get to bring here and play and where we get to travel, it's a great challenge," Petrino said during his introductory news conference Thursday. "I'm not going to have a lot of sleep, but it's also what Tom and Dr. (James) Ramsey have worked towards for so many years, to be in a conference like we're in."

Petrino knows how to deal with difficult schedules, too. When he coached at Arkansas, he took the Razorbacks to a BCS game out of the stacked West Division following the 2010 season, beating three ranked teams along the way. In his final two years there, Petrino took Arkansas to double-digit wins and 6-2 division marks.

His success in the SEC West serves as a better measuring stick for potential ACC success than his 41-9 record at Louisville from 2003-06, if only because he won in a much more difficult conference. When he took the Louisville job back in 2003 -- the first head-coaching job of his career -- the Cardinals were in Conference USA.

They are a far cry from there today. Louisville has an $85 million athletics budget, which would rank it No. 1 in the ACC. The expectation is to continue on an upward trajectory after former coach Charlie Strong got the program back to where Petrino had it before leaving for the NFL.

All the W's and L's and X's and O's show Petrino gives Louisville that chance. His high-flying style of offense fits right into the league, and the Atlantic in particular. But that is all he gives Louisville -- a chance to win games.

Whether that ultimately overshadows the unseemly part of this hire is on Jurich.

Current Western Kentucky and former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino interviewed Tuesday with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich for the head-coaching job at the school, a source told ESPN's Brett McMurphy.

Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris also are among the six individuals who interviewed for the job, a source said.

Current Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford interviewed as well, according to a source.

To continue reading this story, click here.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn might have been born in Texas, but he spent the majority of his life in nearby Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeMitch Mustain, Gus Malzahn
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsCurrent Auburn coach Gus Malzahn returns to Arkansas this weekend, and his Tigers have a lot at stake in this matchup.
The first-year head coach in the SEC attended Fort Smith (Ark.) Christian High School. He walked on to the University of Arkansas as a wide receiver but transferred to Henderson State after two seasons. He coached 15 years of high school football in his home state before becoming the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator in 2006, his first college job.

After coaching stints with Tulsa and Auburn, Malzahn returned home in 2012 when he accepted the head-coaching position at Arkansas State. He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record and the Sun Belt championship (he did not coach their bowl win over Kent State).

It came as no surprise that Malzahn’s name came up when his alma mater was searching for a new coach after last season. He had interviewed at Arkansas once before, following Houston Nutt’s departure, but the job went to Bobby Petrino. This time, the Razorbacks passed on him in favor of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.

On the same day, Bielema was hired in Fayetteville, Ark., Malzahn was introduced as Auburn’s new coach.

Now, nearly 11 months later, Malzahn is 7-1 and has the Tigers in control of their own destiny in the SEC West, while Bielema has yet to win an SEC game. On Saturday, the two will meet for the first time as head coaches.

“Right now, with where are going each week, we’re trying to do everything in our power to win,” Malzahn said. “It doesn’t make any difference if we are going to Arkansas or going to [Texas] A&M or anywhere else. There’s enough to it without anything else added to it.”

But don’t think Malzahn didn’t have this game circled on the calendar when he took over on the Plains. It’s his fourth trip back to Fayetteville since leaving in 2006, and he’s yet to win as an opposing coach inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, losing twice at Auburn (2009 and 2011) and once at Tulsa (2008).

However, Malzahn isn’t want to let his emotions get the best of him or his team.

“Coach is old-school,” Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. “He’s going to treat it like another game. I don’t think he’s going to worry about anything as far as personally for him. I think he’s going to treat it like an SEC game, and he knows how important this four-game stretch is. It’s just like any other SEC game to him.”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee knows Malzahn better than anybody. He’s been his right-hand man since the two were at Springdale (Ark.) High School together nearly a decade ago.

“Coach is pretty locked in all the time,” Lashlee said. “I would think these next several weeks are going to be pretty amped-up no matter what. Let’s be honest, it’s a place we’re from and we’ve been before. It’s a big game, but it’s a big game because we have a lot of opportunity out in front of us.

“I have known coach, and back in high school it didn’t matter who we were playing, he prepared the same way. That’s what I anticipate we’ll do.”

Malzahn and Lashlee aren’t the only two coaches who will have more friends and family in attendance than normal come Saturday. It’s also a homecoming for running backs coach Tim Horton and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, who both coached for Arkansas at one time or another during their careers.

“I’ve been there and done it before,” Malzahn said. “Those guys, a lot of them haven’t. We hadn’t really talked about it. We’ve been focused on preparing and trying to give our guys the best chance of being successful.”

There will continue to be plenty of talk this week surrounding Malzahn’s return. Regardless of what he says, there’s going to be extra emotion leading up to the game. But come Saturday, it’s about winning the next game on the schedule.

That would make for the perfect homecoming.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
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The second week of the college football season is upon us.

Some exceeded expectations in Week 1, others fell short. In the SEC, a few coaches made debuts at new programs, a few key players suffered injuries that will affect their teams and there is buzz, both good and bad, surrounding some of the league’s most visible stars.

Here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 2:

[+] EnlargeClowney
Gerry Melendez/Getty ImagesAfter his lackluster showing in the season opener, all eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney when South Carolina faces Georgia.
1. What will Clowney do? South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has endured much criticism after a pedestrian performance in the Gamecocks' season-opening win against North Carolina. After a three-tackle, no-sack performance, some observers questioned Clowney's conditioning and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Clowney was definitely affected by the heat. This week, the No. 6 Gamecocks meet No. 11 Georgia and you can bet people will watch Clowney even more closely as the stakes are raised as each team opens SEC play.

2. What's next for Manziel? Johnny Manziel's return to the field for Texas A&M yielded terrific on-field results (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdown passes) as well as a firestorm of media criticism as a result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed and a few celebrations. Whether he likes it or not, all eyes are on him and as Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said, "people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now." Will there be more non-football conversation circulating Manziel after the Aggies play Sam Houston State on Saturday?

3. Jones returns for UF: Sophomore running back Matt Jones returns to the Florida lineup this weekend as the Gators travel to Miami. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones missed three weeks of practice while recovering from a viral infection and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Jones will see plenty of touches in his return, perhaps as many as 25 carries.

4. Familiar foe for Malzahn: Auburn and new coach Gus Malzahn are hosting a team that he's quite familiar with -- Arkansas State. Malzahn spent last year as the Red Wolves' head coach, leading them to a 9-3 record and a conference championship before departing for Auburn prior to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Arkansas State's new coach is former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his debut. Meanwhile, Malzahn's new team escaped with a 31-24 win over Washington State behind new starting quarterback Nick Marshall.

5. Prescott likely to start for Mississippi State: Starting quarterback Tyler Russell sustained a concussion in the Bulldogs' loss Saturday to Oklahoma State and is doubtful to play this weekend against Alcorn State. That means coach Dan Mullen will likely turn to backup Dak Prescott, a 6-2, 230-pound sophomore, to fill in. The dual-threat quarterback brings an ability to run the football to the Bulldogs' offense, recording 131 yards on 32 carries in spot duty last season. Mullen said he's confident in Prescott.

6. Adjustments to be made for Georgia: A season-opening 38-35 loss to talented ACC foe Clemson yielded an injured receiver (Malcolm Mitchell is out for the season after an ACL injury suffered while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown) and displayed a struggling offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Murray rarely had time to throw against Clemson and the Bulldogs are facing a talented South Carolina defensive front. But the Clemson loss can be easily forgotten if the Bulldogs open SEC play with a win over a top-10 team and fellow SEC East squad.

7. Can Stoops and Kentucky bounce back? There was a lot of buzz surrounding the debut of new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops but it was killed by a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky. The Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) and are double-digit favorites. It's imperative to erase the taste of last week's loss with a win this week for UK.

8. Intriguing matchup in Knoxville: Tennessee cruised to a win over FCS foe Austin Peay in the opening week but now get a little bit of a tougher test in Bobby Petrino's Western Kentucky squad, which is fresh off its upset of Kentucky. The Volunteers are favored and rightfully so, and they're a higher caliber opponent than Kentucky. It would be a tough task for the Hilltoppers to pull off in Neyland Stadium, but it's worth at least keeping an eye on as Petrino tries to start 2-0 against SEC foes while Tennessee's Butch Jones looks to keep positive momentum going.

9. Ole Miss looking for others to emerge: The Rebels lost guard Aaron Morris to a season-ending knee injury and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche for 4-6 weeks because of a meniscus tear. Though they have an FCS foe in Southeast Missouri State, the Rebels will need others to step up in their absences.

10. Mettenberger looking to build on Week 1: In his first game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger did enough to guide the Tigers to a 37-27 win over TCU. This week against UAB, he told reporters he has to be a little more accurate than his 16-for-32 showing, which was otherwise solid, yielding 251 yards and a touchdown pass.
Kentucky's season opener against Western Kentucky has found a TV slot.

The Wildcats will face the Hilltoppers on ESPNews at 7 p.m. ET on Aug. 31, the Sun Belt Conference announced Monday. The game will be played at LP Field in Nashville and will bring Bobby Petrino back to SEC country against a team that he was linked to before he took the job at Western Kentucky.

With Petrino manning things, this certainly won't be an easy opener for Kentucky or new coach Mark Stoops. The Hilltoppers were a bowl team last year and should be even better under Petrino. It'll be a challenging opener for Stoops, but that might not be a bad thing for him.

Kentucky fans are very excited about the Stoops era getting started on the field and getting a win against someone like Petrino will definitely give Stoops some momentum. No, it's not Arkansas, but Western Kentucky bested Kentucky last year and just having the Petrino name on the other sideline will make this a very intriguing game. Every win will be big for Stoops in his first year, but starting off the season with a win will go a long way.

Hope springs in the SEC

May, 22, 2013
5/22/13
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Monday, we took a look at the 100-days checklist for the SEC. Today, we're taking a look back at what the SEC was able to do during the BCS era. In short, the conference has had a ton of success and is hoping to close out the BCS the way it began it -- with yet another national championship.

Here's a look at the best and worst for the SEC during the BCS era:

Best

1. Rings/crystals for days: The SEC and the BCS have had a great relationship. The SEC kicked the BCS era off with a bang in 1998 when Tennessee took home the first BCS national championship with its 23-16 win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. Five years later, LSU won the conference's second BCS title with a 21-14 win over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. But things really got out of hand starting in 2006, when Florida's 41-14 win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl sparked a string of seven straight BCS national titles for the SEC. Florida won again in 2008, Alabama has won three (2009, 2011, 2012), two-loss LSU won in 2007 and Auburn won in 2010. The SEC has won nine of the 15 BCS national championships, and its only loss came to itself when Alabama beat LSU 21-0 in the Allstate BCS National Championship in 2011.

2. Two's company: If five straight championships wasn't enough, the SEC got really greedy in 2011, when Alabama and LSU met in New Orleans, shutting the rest of the country out of a chance at the belt. This game sparked a ton of controversy after LSU had already defeated Alabama 9-6 in Tuscaloosa earlier in the season. But the Crimson Tide went unbeaten afterward and jumped up to the No. 2 spot in the BCS standings after Oklahoma State was upset by Iowa State. After LSU beat Georgia in the SEC championship game, the all-SEC title game was set, in which Alabama would have its revenge.

[+] EnlargeLSU vs. Alabama
AP Photo/Tom HauckAlabama's win over LSU was the only time two teams from the same conference faced off for the national title during the BCS era.
3. Alabama's dominance: Nick Saban brought LSU a national title in 2003, but he's done real wonders at Alabama. With Alabama's 42-14 win over Notre Dame in last season's Discover BCS National Championship Game, the Crimson Tide became the first team in modern history to win three national championships in four seasons. Alabama has won two straight national championships, has dynasty status and should be one of the favorites to win it all in 2013.

4. Heisman collection: The SEC's dominance during the BCS era hasn't just been about bling. The league also has a nice collection of bronze statues, as four of the past seven Heisman Trophy winners have come from the SEC. Last season, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the award, while Florida quarterback Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win it in 2007 when he became the first player to rush and throw for 20-plus touchdowns in a single season. Alabama running back Mark Ingram took home the trophy in 2009, while Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who became the first SEC player to run for at least 1,000 yards and pass for at least 2,000 in the same season, won in 2010.

5. Dominating the NFL draft: The SEC couldn't have won all those BCS titles without a little talent here and there. In last month's NFL draft, the league had 63 players drafted. That's a record for any league. The next closest was the ACC with 31 picks. The SEC had 32 players drafted within the first three rounds, including 12 in the first round.

Worst

1. Auburn getting snubbed: It wasn't often that the SEC got the short end of the BCS stick, but it certainly did in 2004 when Auburn was left out of the national championship after going undefeated during the regular season and winning an SEC title. Auburn went on to beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, while Oklahoma, which passed Auburn in the BCS standings late, was blown out by USC in the national championship.

2. Not showing up: The SEC had two Sugar Bowl appearances it would love to get back. Fresh off its only blemish of the season in its loss to Florida during the 2008 SEC championship game, Alabama truly looked uninspired a month later in its 31-17 loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Last season, Florida, which was No. 3 in the BCS standings at the time, laid a real egg with its 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. Both Alabama and Florida were favorites and the more talented teams.

3. The Albert Means scandal: Back in 2002, the NCAA placed Alabama on five-year probation, gave the Tide a two-year bowl ban and reduced football scholarships by 21 over three years for major recruiting violations. The NCAA said a booster agreed to give Means' high school coach more than $100,000 to get Means, a highly-rated defensive lineman, to sign with Alabama. He signed with the Tide but later transferred to Memphis. Alabama narrowly missed getting the death penalty, but, as chairman of the infractions committee Thomas Yeager said, it was "absolutely staring down the barrel of the gun."

4. Tennessee's fall: The Vols might have captured the first BCS title, but Tennessee's program has been a shell of its former self since. Tennessee has endured losing seasons in four of the past five, has missed out on bowl trips in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the late 1970s and will enter the fall with its fourth different head coach in the past six seasons. Since winning it all in 1998, the Vols have been to the SEC championship game three times -- all losses.

5. Bobby Petrino's disgraceful exit: Last spring, Arkansas felt like a legitimate national championship contender. With the talent Bobby Petrino had assembled, the Razorbacks appeared equipped with the team ready to take the SEC West and more. However, Petrino's motorcycle accident in early April changed everything. He was caught lying about an affair he was having with a woman he hired and was later fired. Arkansas hired former special teams coach John L. Smith, who brought more giggles than wins, as Arkansas fell from contender to pretender with a 4-8 season. Petrino completely embarrassed himself and the program, but confidence seems to have been restored with the hiring of former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.
Bret Bielema guided Wisconsin to Big Ten championships and Rose Bowl appearances each of his last three seasons in Madison.

But when Arkansas called, he was immediately interested and admits that there was a burning desire to see how he would fare in college football’s toughest conference.

Bielema takes over an Arkansas program that fell flat on its face in 2012 following the Bobby Petrino scandal last spring and Petrino’s subsequent firing. The Hogs dipped to 4-8 last season under interim coach John L. Smith after winning 10 or more games each of the previous two seasons under Petrino and playing in the Sugar Bowl following the 2010 season.

The Hogs are still searching for their first SEC championship, and Bielema said that’s the goal.

Here’s Part II of our Q&A with Bielema:

Was it even more crucial, moving over to the SEC, to make sure you brought in proven recruiters?

Bret Bielema: It was extremely important to hire a group of coaches who were relentless recruiters. I think this is the first time I can say that all nine of my assistants are detail guys and they love to recruit. That’s going to pay dividends, and they all have a vast amount of experience. We’ve got NFL. We’ve got SEC. We’ve got every type of conference known to man. It’s going to be fun to watch this group grow. If you talked to every one of my assistants, no one is enjoying this more than we are. I’ve got a group that’s engaged with a lot of different chemistry and a lot of different personalities coming through, and they’ve all been great.

[+] EnlargeRandy Shannon
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArkansas assistant Randy Shannon, the former Miami head coach, should provide a lift to the Hogs' recruiting efforts in Florida.
You went down to South Florida and got a couple of coveted prospects in your first signing class (running back Alex Collins and offensive tackle Denver Kirkland). What recruiting territories will be critical for you at Arkansas?

BB: With Randy (Shannon) and Charlie (Partridge) and my success in South Florida, we expected to have success there and thankfully had it. A big push for us is that we’re putting six recruiters in the state of Texas. We have to be more than competitive in North Texas and East Texas for us to have a chance here at Arkansas. We play Texas A&M for the next 10 years in Dallas. That has to be a big, big area of emphasis for us.

What will be your biggest adjustment as a head coach in the SEC?

BB: Without a doubt, the recruiting landscape. It’s not an adjustment, just different from what I’ve done. Great recruiters can recruit anywhere. That’s the philosophy I took into this year, and we’ll carry it forward.

What about the league? How long will it take you to get up to speed on the league?

BB: My summer project is to watch seven to 10 complete games of everybody on our schedule. I’ll watch the TV copy and football copy and get a feel for what’s happening during the course of the game. It will be great teaching. I also have to get to know the personality of my team, if I can go for it on fourth-and-2 or do I kick a field goal. Those are all things in progress for me.

Have you gotten a feel for the leadership on this team yet?

BB: The most pleasant surprise when I came here was the group of 22 seniors who walked into my office who have tremendous respect for Arkansas and what it can be. They’re extremely eager to jump in and change gears. The last 18 months haven't been something that was very special to them. There’s been a lot of disappointment and a lot of heartache, and they’re hungry. I really don’t care how many of those guys are going to be All-Americans or NFL draft picks. But it’s been very apparent to me that it’s very important to them to be at Arkansas and to be a Hog.

Even with all your success at Wisconsin, did you find yourself wondering about the SEC and whether or not you could win big in this league?

BB: As the SEC began to build its superiority in college football, that naturally appealed to any competitor. As we had success at Wisconsin, I had more and more opportunities. I’m not one of those coaches that likes to have my name out there. Other coaches throughout the world of college football love to see their name being mentioned for different jobs. I’m just not one of those guys. That’s why we took the world by storm when I came here. Nobody really knew about it. I made sure it was done that way.

What about the Arkansas job appealed to you?

BB: A lot of it was finding the right fit in the SEC. I’m not saying Arkansas and Wisconsin are identical twins, but I think they’re from the same family. They’re proud states, have great fan support and have a handful of good players every year. You’re going to have to go out of state every year to complement your whole team to win a championship, and that’s some of the challenges we have here at Arkansas.

Does your philosophy change any now that you’re in the SEC?

BB: In today’s world of up-tempo offenses and all the things that go into it, you need to have depth in the defensive line. And offensively, you’ve got to be able to knock somebody off the line of scrimmage. You can’t rely on tricking somebody. If your offensive game plan is built around tricking someone, you don’t have a chance. You’ve got to be able to put a hat on a hat and play big-boy football and be able to play in a world where you’re tougher than the guy in front of you.
Is there a direct correlation to highly ranked signees and wins in the SEC?

Well, you be the judge.

Over the past four years (2009-12), Alabama and Florida have tied for the most ESPN 150 prospects signed with 41 apiece. During that span, the Crimson Tide have won an SEC-high 49 games and three national championships.

The Gators, meanwhile, have won 10 fewer games (39) than the Crimson Tide and haven’t won any SEC or national titles during that span. In fact, they’ve been shut out of the SEC championship game the last three years.

The most ESPN 150 prospects any SEC school has signed in one year going back to 2009 was Florida in 2010 when the Gators signed 17 ESPN 150 prospects.

For perspective, that’s more than eight SEC schools -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- have managed to ink in each of their last four signing classes.

Every SEC school has signed at least one ESPN 150 prospect over the past four years, although Kentucky and Vanderbilt have both been limited to one each. The Wildcats’ only ESPN 150 signee during that period was quarterback Morgan Newton in 2009, while the Commodores signed running back Brian Kimbrow last year.

The school doing the least with the most over the last four years has been Tennessee. The Vols have signed 20 ESPN 150 prospects since 2009, which is tied for the fifth most in the SEC. However, the Vols are just 23-27 during that stretch (9-23 in the SEC) and have suffered through three straight losing seasons.

Tennessee signed six ESPN 150 prospects in 2009, Lane Kiffin’s only signing class in Knoxville. But four of those players (Jerod Askew, Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, Jr., and Nu’Keese Richardson) were kicked off the team, and the other two (Bryce Brown and David Oku) wound up transferring out of the program.

The school doing the most with the least has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have signed 13 ESPN 150 prospects since 2009, which is seventh in the league. But the Gamecocks have the third-best record over the last four years (38-15) behind only Alabama and LSU. They’re also one of two teams in the league (along with Alabama) to have won 11 or more games each of the last two seasons.

As the Head Ball Coach himself would say, somebody’s coaching ‘em up in Columbia.

Arkansas, prior to its collapse this past season, had managed a nice run despite not reeling in very many highly ranked signees under former coach Bobby Petrino. The Hogs won 11 games in 2011 and 10 games in 2010, including a trip to the Sugar Bowl, and signed just five ESPN 150 prospects between 2009-12.

Below is a breakdown of how many ESPN 150 signees each SEC school has signed over the past four years along with each school’s overall and SEC record during that span. We’ve also included Missouri and Texas A&M even though they’ve just played one season in the SEC.

Of the Aggies’ nine ESPN 150 prospects signed over the past four years, five came last year in Kevin Sumlin’s first signing class.

One other interesting nugget is South Carolina is the only team to have played in the SEC championship game over the past four years that hasn't signed at least 20 ESPN 150 prospects during that span.

Here’s a closer look:
  • Alabama: 41 ESPN 150 signees, 49-5 (.907), 27-5 SEC
  • Florida: 41 ESPN 150 signees, 39-14 (.736), 22-10 SEC
  • LSU: 28 ESPN 150 signees, 43-10 (.811), 25-7 SEC
  • Georgia: 26 ESPN 150 signees, 36-18 (.667), 21-11 SEC
  • Auburn: 20 ESPN 150 signees, 33-19 (.635), 15-17 SEC
  • Tennessee: 20 ESPN 150 signees, 23-27 (.460), 9-23 SEC
  • South Carolina: 13 ESPN 150 signees, 38-15 (.717), 20-12 SEC
  • Texas A&M: 9 ESPN 150 signees, 33-19 (.635)
  • Ole Miss: 6 ESPN 150 signees, 22-28 (.440), 8-24 SEC
  • Arkansas: 5 ESPN 150 signees, 33-18 (.647), 17-13 SEC
  • Mississippi State: 4 ESPN 150 signees, 29-22 (.569), 13-17 SEC
  • Missouri: 3 ESPN 150 signees, 31-20 (.608)
  • Kentucky: 1 ESPN 150 signee, 20-30 (.400), 7-25 SEC
  • Vanderbilt: 1 ESPN 150 signee, 19-31 (.380), 8-24 SEC

Final 2012 SEC power rankings

January, 8, 2013
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We've reached the end to another college football season, and yet again Alabama is on top. Nick Saban is the king of college football, and his Crimson Tide are looking down at the rest of the sport.

So how does the rest of the SEC stack up? Well, we have our final power rankings of the year right here:

1. Alabama (13-1, 7-1 SEC): Total domination in the championship game and three titles in four years? A load of NFL talent on both sides of the ball? Alabama had it all (again), and even with a team that didn't exactly have the same sort of defensive talent as it did a year ago, the Crimson Tide still made it to the BCS title game and came away with a commanding 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in a game that was over when the Tide arrived on South Beach. With the talent Alabama has coming back, the Tide could once again be in the national championship picture.

2. Texas A&M (11-2, 6-2 SEC): Thanks to Johnny Football, the Aggies ended the season as one of the nation's hottest teams. There are some out there who think A&M might be the best team in the country, despite its two losses. Johnny Manziel was the nation's best player and even without Kliff Kingsbury helping him on the sideline against Oklahoma, he ran all over the Sooners for a bowl-record 516 total yards in a total rout. Imagine if both of those Aggies tackles return in 2013.

3. Georgia (12-2, 7-1 SEC): The Bulldogs capped off the 2012 season with a 45-31 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It wasn't exactly the bowl the Bulldogs wanted to be in, after coming up just yards short of making it to the BCS title game in Alabama's place, but you have to admire how this team came out and won like it did. Back-to-back SEC title game appearances is nothing for this team to be ashamed of.

4. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC): The Gamecocks had a legitimate shot at our No. 3 spot, but at the end of the day, Georgia's appearance in Atlanta, coupled with its 14-point bowl win, kept South Carolina behind the Bulldogs. Still, what a year for the Gamecocks. Behind the coaching of Steve Spurrier, South Carolina won 11 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. The Gamecocks also beat back-to-back ranked opponents to close out the season.

5. Florida (11-2, 7-1 SEC): After entering the postseason with arguably the country's best résumé, the Gators fell flat on their faces against Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Their 10-point loss didn't show just how bad the game was for Florida. The Gators might not have wanted to be there and Florida clearly didn't show up for its first BCS bowl since 2009. But you can't discount what Florida did during the regular season. It didn't have a pretty offense, but it defeated four top-10 teams, including ACC champ Florida State in Tallahassee in a year in which the Gators weren't expected to win nine games.

6. LSU (10-3, 6-2 SEC): The Tigers had a very up-and-down year, and it ended on a very down note with that last-second loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. LSU was totally off its offensive game in the second half, turning to the pass more than the run. With that offense struggling in the fourth quarter, LSU's defense was left huffing and puffing as Tajh Boyd & Co. gutted it for three straight scoring drives. But LSU did win double-digit games for the third straight year, and it took Alabama down to the wire and beat Johnny Football.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 5-3 SEC): The Commodores ended the season in historic fashion, with a seven-game winning streak (the longest since 1948), and won five conference games for the first time since 1935 and nine total games for the first time since 1915. That ninth win came in dominating fashion with a 38-24 win over NC State in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The Commodores turned into the team that no one wanted to play at the end of the season, and they carry a ton of momentum into 2013.

8. Ole Miss (7-6, 3-5 SEC): The Rebels had quite the first year under new coach Hugh Freeze. For a program that won just six games in the two previous seasons, Ole Miss grabbed seven, including its first bowl win since 2009, this year. The depth was lacking all year, but the heart wasn't, as the Rebels were much more competitive and won three SEC games after entering the season on a 14-game conference losing streak. Freeze did a tremendous job of changing the culture in Oxford, but the players did a great job of responding to adversity all season.

9. Mississippi State (8-5, 4-4 SEC): A year that started with such promise after a 7-0 start imploded and led to a lot of criticism about the talent on both sides of the ball. The second half of the season proved the first seven games were a farce. A lot of the defensive deficiencies were masked until the month of November, as the Bulldogs went 1-5 to end the year, including a blowout loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

10. Missouri (5-7, 2-6 SEC): The Tigers would love to forget their first season in the SEC. This was supposed to be the Big 12 team that succeeded in its first year out of its comfort zone. This team returned too much not to win a few games in the SEC East. But injuries, most notably to quarterback James Franklin and that offensive line, and an offense that was constantly going in reverse made for a rough start in Missouri's new home. Offensive coordinator David Yost resigned at the end of the year, and this team has to find some sort of rhythm/chemistry on offense in 2013.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC): The Derek Dooley era ended with quite a whimper. For the second straight season, Tennessee missed out on the postseason because of a loss to one of its rivals. Last year, Kentucky ended the Vols' bowl hopes. This time around, Vandy's blowout win on Nov. 17 bounced Tennessee from a postseason appearance. For as much fun as the offense was to watch, the defense was awful for the majority of the season, finishing dead last in the SEC in total defense. New coach Butch Jones has some solid talent to work with, but a ton of questions surround this program.

12. Arkansas (4-8, 2-6 SEC): Many thought the Razorbacks' dreams of a championship season probably ended when Bobby Petrino took that infamous motorcycle ride in April. Boy, were they right. John L. Smith tried to bring some energy to the program, but he and his players fell flat in a 4-8 season that saw the Hogs give up 30 or more points in seven games. The offense lacked its usual explosion and the Hogs began the year 1-4, with a shocking loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock, Ark.

13. Auburn (3-9, 0-8 SEC): On paper, the Tigers had a host of young talent, but on the field, they were outmanned just about every single weekend. Auburn roamed around the bottom of most offensive and defensive categories in the SEC all season long. Coach Gene Chizik was fired only two years removed from winning a national title after going winless in conference play and being outscored 129-21 in his final three SEC games, including a 38-0 loss to Georgia and a 49-0 loss to Alabama in the season finale.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC): Outside of blowing out a Kent State team that was a win away from making a BCS bowl, nothing went right for the Wildcats this year. Injuries ravaged this team, as it had to turn to two true freshman quarterbacks and never found a consistent playmaker to help out on offense. The offense hovered around the bottom of the SEC all year and the defense surrendered 31 points per game, and coach Joker Phillips was fired before the season even ended.

Pregame: Little Caesars Bowl

December, 26, 2012
12/26/12
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Western Kentucky (7-5, 4-4 Sun Belt) vs. Central Michigan (6-6, 4-4 MAC)

WHO TO WATCH: Western Kentucky running back Antonio Andrews. The 6-foot, 211-pound junior leads the country with 2,977 all-purpose yards and is the only FBS player with more than 1,500 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving. He’s averaging 248.1 all-purpose yards per game and needs 274 yards in the bowl game to break Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for all-purpose yards in a season. Sanders amassed 3,250 yards in 1988 on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Andrews, who was a quarterback in high school, is one of four finalists for the Paul Hornung Award, which is given annually to the nation’s most versatile player.

WHAT TO WATCH: Central Michigan has given up points in bunches, and Western Kentucky has given up the football in bunches. Which of those troubling trends will continue? The Chippewas are allowing 33.3 points per game and were riddled for 40 or more points in five of their six losses. The Hilltoppers, on the other hand, are minus-1 in turnover margin. They’ve fumbled the ball 21 times this season and lost 12. They’ve also thrown 12 interceptions.

WHY TO WATCH: Even though he won’t be coaching, newly hired Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino will still be a hot topic. He takes over a Western Kentucky program that has progressed miles under Willie Taggart, who left to take the South Florida head-coaching job. Defensive coordinator Lance Guidry is serving as the Hilltoppers’ interim head coach for this game, a role that’s familiar to him. He stepped in as the interim head coach for Miami (Ohio) at the end of the 2010 season (after Mike Haywood left for the Pittsburgh head-coaching job) and led the RedHawks to a 35-21 victory over Middle Tennessee in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

PREDICTION: Western Kentucky 31, Central Michigan 17. It wasn’t too long ago that Western Kentucky was playing its first official season in the FBS ranks. The Hilltoppers finished 0-12 in 2009, but here they are, in their first bowl game. Central Michigan is the hot team coming in. The Chippewas had to win three in a row to close the season just to become bowl eligible. The Hilltoppers snapped a three-game losing streak with a 25-24 win over North Texas in their regular-season finale. Western Kentucky’s ability to run the ball and eat up the clock will be the difference in this one, keeping Guidry’s perfect record as an interim head coach intact.

Best/worst in 2012: Arkansas

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
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A closer look at the best and worst moments for Arkansas in 2012:

BEST

After four straight losses and the season unraveling, Arkansas managed to stop the bleeding -- at least temporarily -- with a 24-7 win at Auburn. It was easily Arkansas' most impressive performance of the season defensively. The Hogs collected eight sacks, forced five turnovers and held Auburn to 40 rushing yards. That's after giving up a total of 145 points in their previous three games. Trey Flowers had 3.5 sacks for the Hogs, who followed up the win at Auburn with a 49-7 rout of Kentucky the next week. But those would end up being the only two wins of the season in SEC play, as Arkansas finished 4-8 overall.

WORST

Take your pick. A season of hope went down the drain really about the time former coach Bobby Petrino skidded off the road on his motorcycle last spring with his mistress on the back. About 10 days later, he was out as the Hogs' coach, and they were never the same. The second game of the season was an indicator of how bad it would get. Arkansas, ranked No. 8 at the time, blew a 21-point lead in the second half and lost 34-31 in overtime to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock. Quarterback Tyler Wilson was knocked out of that game with a concussion and was unable to play the next week against No. 1 Alabama. That 52-0 drubbing at the hands of the Crimson Tide was the low point for the Hogs, who suffered their first shutout at Razorback Stadium in more than 40 years. Afterward, Wilson asked to speak to the media even though he didn't play and referenced some of his teammates giving up in the game. The next week, Arkansas responded by losing at home to Rutgers.

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