NCF Nation: Larry Smith


Cincinnati dropped the SEC to 1-1 in bowl play with a 31-24 win against Vanderbilt, in what was a pretty exciting AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

After a bit of a sluggish first half from both offenses, each team found more ways to find the end zone in the last two quarters, combining for 34 points. The Bearcats put more of an emphasis on the running game, pounding Vandy's defense with Isaiah Pead, and another costly turnover doomed the Commodores.

How the game was won: Defenses led the way in the first half, as the offenses combined for 292 yards and 21 points. But things were very back-and-forth in the fourth quarter. There were three lead changes before two minutes passed in the quarter. Cincinnati took the lead for good when Ralph Abernathy took a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown immediately after Vanderbilt took a 21-17 lead on a 68-yard touchdown reception by Chris Boyd. Pead sealed the Bearcats' win with his 12-yard touchdown run, three plays after a costly interception thrown by Vandy quarterback Larry Smith.

Best call: With Vanderbilt's offense stumbling through the first two quarters, coach James Franklin made the decision early in the third to permanently sit starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers after Rodgers suffered an injury. Smith replaced him, and the Commodores compiled 183 yards and 17 points with Smith under center. Rodgers appeared to be healthy enough to return, but Franklin stuck with Smith.

Turning point: Vanderbilt's offense was much more efficient with Smith at quarterback, but he made a fatal mistake with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth when he threw behind receiver Jordan Mathews and into the hands of Cincinnati's Nick Temple, who returned the ball 12 yards to Vandy's 31-yard line. Three plays later, Pead's touchdown run made it 31-21 Cincinnati.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 15 punts for an average of 42.5 yards per kick. Four punts went for 50-plus yards and three were down inside the 20-yard line.

Player of the game: Pead was an absolute workhorse for the Bearcats. He carried the ball 28 times for 149 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Unsung hero: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros returned from his broken ankle and showed good game management late. He was far from great and was shaky early, but he limited his mistakes for the most part. He did have just 80 passing yards and two interceptions, but for as rusty as he looked early, he could have been a lot worse.



Second guessing: With the score tied 7-7 with less than three minutes remaining in the first half, Franklin decided to go for a fourth-and-2 at the Cincinnati 44-yard line. On the play, running back Zac Stacy took the handoff, but then tried a jump pass to tight end Brandon Barden. The pass was way off and Cincinnati took over. The Bearcats then drove 56 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 halftime lead.

What it means: Cincinnati, which might have been in a BCS bowl game if not for Collaros' injury, heads into the offseason with a ton of momentum following a 10-win season. Vanderbilt will have to deal with losing another big game because of costly mistakes. Still, things feel different at Vandy, and even with the loss, the Commodores have to feel good about Franklin's first year.

Record performance: With his two interceptions Saturday night, Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward tied Leonard Coleman for first all-time in Vanderbilt history with 15 career interceptions.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 23, 2011
10/23/11
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The countdown began weeks ago, but now it's not just the media and fans talking about Alabama-LSU. The players and coaches can finally get in on all the fun.

Here's what we learned over the weekend:

1. An all-SEC national title game isn't farfetched: With all the craziness that occurred Saturday night, our dreams of an Alabama-LSU national championship game don't seem so crazy now. Both teams proved once again that they are the best in college football, while those around them fell at the worst of times. Oklahoma was stunned 41-38 at home to Texas Tech and Wisconsin fell to Michigan State, thanks to a beautiful Hail Mary pass as time expired. Those were two losses the SEC giants needed if a rematch was going to be possible. Obviously, the SEC isn't out of the woods yet. Oklahoma State, Clemson, Stanford and Boise State all probably have to lose, and, of course, the loser of the Nov. 5 matchup has to keep it super close and win out in style afterward. It will take some more help, but today it doesn't seem as impossible as it did before Saturday's chaos.

[+] EnlargeJordan Rodgers
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyJordan Rodgers led Vanderbilt to a victory in his first start at quarterback.
2. LSU gets stronger and more dominant every week: When the Tigers should look weak after losing key players, they just reload. There is no letdown on this team. When you talk about the most mentally tough squads in college football, LSU had better be at the top of your list. The Tigers began the season without starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and playmaking wide receiver Russell Shepard and all they did was steamroll over each opponent they faced without their two starters. Not to mention arguably LSU's top offensive lineman, senior Josh Dworaczyk, has been out all year with an injury. So, when LSU was without freak cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, running back Spencer Ware and corner Tharold Simon for the Auburn game, we should have shaken it off, like the Tigers did. They pounded Auburn 45-10 and might have played their most complete game of the season in the process.

3. Arkansas can't afford more slow starts: We all know that Arkansas has the talent, but the mental focus seems off sometimes with this team. Saturday, the Razorbacks were as sluggish as they could be coming out of the gate against Ole Miss and quickly fell behind 17-0. Arkansas had absolutely nothing going for it on offense in the first half, but stormed out onto the field in the third quarter and bumrushed the Rebels, outscoring them 19-0 in their eventual 29-24 win. But this one was way closer than it should have been. If Ole Miss was a stronger team, Arkansas might not have recovered from the early deficit. Rough starts against Alabama and Texas A&M were worrisome, and this one didn't make us feel great about the Hogs. You have to commend the strong second-half push, but a start like this against a team like LSU or maybe even South Carolina could result in a disappointing outcome for the Hogs.

4. Jordan Rodgers was the right pick: Talk about Rodgers' play at Vanderbilt's camp over the summer was mostly positive, but without the entire spring to work through the playbook, Larry Smith kept his starting job. So Rodgers patiently waited, and after replacing Smith in consecutive games, Rodgers was given the starting nod by coach James Franklin for the Army game. With an offense struggling all season, Franklin needed to shake things up, and getting some new blood in at the quarterback position was the right move as Rodgers passed for 186 yards, rushed for 96 and had two touchdowns in the Commodores' 44-21 win. He sparked the entire offense that put up a season-high 530 yards, including 344 rushing yards. The Commodores finally found some consistency within their offense and Rodgers was a main reason for that. He took total command of the huddle and directed the Commodores efficiently all night. He's starting to get more and more comfortable out there and his numbers will start to improve going forward.

5. Tennessee has fight, but not the manpower:
For two quarters, Tennessee stood toe-to-toe with one of the mammoths of college football. We saw the most fight out of Tennessee since wide receiver Justin Hunter went down in the Florida game. Then, Alabama got its second wind and the game was over before the fourth quarter even began. But when you're without four key components to your team and you have depth issues across the board, a loss like that isn't a shock. Tennessee just doesn't have enough dogs for a fight like that. There is a lot of good, young talent at Tennessee, but most of it is starting. Behind it, there isn't much, thanks to poor recruiting before coach Derek Dooley got there. He's having to play a bunch of youngsters out there and that can trigger ugly outcomes in this league. If you look at special teams, the Vols can't get their best athletes out there because the coaches don't want wear them out after defensive series. This team is still a year away from being close to where Dooley wants it and that should have been expected. It was always a three-year plan with him and he's working in the right direction.

Jordan Rodgers gets start for Vandy

October, 21, 2011
10/21/11
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If Vanderbilt wants to make it to its first bowl game since the 2008 season, it will need to get more out of its offense.

Coach James Franklin knows that, so he decided to make a change at the quarterback position. Wednesday, Franklin announced that junior Jordan Rodgers would get the start against Army over longtime senior Larry Smith.

[+] EnlargeJordan Rodgers
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireJordan Rodgers got the call over Larry Smith because of "the playmaking he brought" according to coach James Franklin.
"Jordan will start the game," Franklin said. "He’s having a good week of practice and we thought he made some really good plays on Saturday. There are some things that we’ve got to get cleaned up, but they’re very correctable things."

This couldn't have been an easy decision for Franklin, but it was the right one. Smith began his career with the hero tag attached to his name after guiding the Commodores to their first postseason win in 53 yards in his first-career start. Since then, it's been a rocky journey for Smith. He struggled through back-to-back 2-10 seasons with the Commodores. During that span his completion percentage has dipped below 50 percent and he threw 12 interceptions to 10 touchdowns.

When Franklin arrived, he said there would be an open competition at quarterback, but with Rodgers limited during the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, Smith held on to his starting spot.

Rodgers relieved Smith against Alabama when Smith went down with an ankle injury and replaced him again a week later against Georgia. The offense played much better with Rodgers in the game as he guided the Commodores to three touchdown drives in the second half. While his numbers weren't great (45 yards passing, 80 yards rushing), he came close to leading the Commodores on a game-winning drive at the end of the game.

"It was a combination of some of the playmaking he brought," Franklin said of starting Rodgers. "I thought how he fought, how he competed and how he broke tackles, he really gave us some momentum plays when we needed it. I think we kind of fed off that, so we’ll keep going with it and see what happens."

Rodgers, who is the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, should give Vanderbilt a much-needed jolt to its offense. He can make plays with his feet and has a very strong throwing arm. With more reps this week, he should be better prepared to play a full game as the Commodores' starter. Keeping a quarterback in who is a threat to run and pass should make it easy for the offensive line to adjust to Rodgers in the game.

His first test as a starter comes against an Army team that is giving up 227 passing yards per game. The Commodores currently average just 133 passing yards a game and have five touchdowns through the air.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
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We're at the halfway point in the college football season, so teams will be a little more on edge from here on out.

Conference races are really heating up and things will only get more and more exciting.

We start the second half in the SEC with the countdown to the Nov. 5 slugfest between Alabama and LSU, but we also start with some quarterback controversy lurking within the league.

Exciting stuff.

Here is some more exciting stuff to keep an eye on this weekend:

1. Musical quarterbacks: Outside of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU, there are quarterback issues in this league. Florida and Tennessee are playing without their starters (John Brantley and Tyler Bray, respectively) due to injuries, while Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have opened up their quarterback competitions. South Carolina benched Stephen Garcia for Connor Shaw, then officially said goodbye to Garcia earlier this week. Shaw showed off last week against Kentucky, but the depth behind him is beyond worrisome. Auburn will play both Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier against Florida, but the more athletic Frazier has been getting more and more snaps with each game and coach Gene Chizik is having to answer more questions about Trotter's status as the starter. And Ole Miss is hoping that Randall Mackey is the guy from here on out. But wasn't Barry Brunetti the guy before Zack Stoudt was?

2. Mr. 100: I guess Trent Richardson really was ready to take over as Alabama's workhorse in the backfield. The junior running back has had his hat thrown into the Heisman ring and it doesn't look like it will be coming out anytime soon. That makes sense, considering the tear he's currently on. Richardson has rushed for 100-plus yards in five straight games and he's looking to get to six straight this weekend. Well, Alabama faces an Ole Miss defense that is giving up 193 rushing yards per game, so things appear to be in Richardson's favor this weekend.

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThough he remains the backup, Jordan Jefferson should see his role increase in LSU's offense.
3. More Jefferson: While LSU coach Les Miles continues to say that there is absolutely no quarterback controversy in Baton Rouge, Jordan Jefferson will continue to get more snaps behind Jarrett Lee. As he should. Jefferson brings another element to the offense that Lee doesn't -- his feet. Jefferson's touches went up from four in his first game back to eight in his second and his numbers should increase this weekend against Tennessee. But make no mistake about it, Lee is the starter until something unforeseen happens. Both players want to be the starter, but Lee has earned it and he deserves to keep it. The Tigers are just as successful with the Jefferson element on the field and having both play isn't hurting the team, so Jefferson's role should continue to expand going forward.

4. Swing game on the Plains: Auburn and Florida will play a season-defining game this weekend. A win for either team could be the difference between a winning record and a .500 record. Auburn's youth has shown at times, but so has its heart, which has carried it to three close-call wins this season. The Tigers still have LSU and Georgia on the road before the Iron Bowl comes back to Auburn, so getting a win this weekend will definitely go a long way. As for Florida, the Gators will be equipped with two true freshmen -- Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel -- getting the snaps at quarterback until senior Brantley comes back. That could be for the Georgia game, but Saturday, it's up to the kids. A Florida win would keep the Gators in the East hunt and give them momentum going into the bye. A loss could send this team really scrambling.

5. Shaw's second go-round: Connor Shaw will make his second start in a row for South Carolina this weekend and he'll do so on the road against a tough Mississippi State secondary. This won't be easy by any means, and this will be the first chance we get to see the sophomore perform on the road this year. He was calm and composed against Kentucky, but he'll be going against a team desperate for a conference win and a fan base looking for some sort of hope this season. Can Shaw duplicate last week's outing? Can he at least be consistent for the Gamecocks for two weeks in a row? The team thinks so, but Davis Wade Stadium isn't the easiest place to maneuver if you're a young quarterback.

6. Simms begins the gantlet: Matt Simms was in this position last year when he had to start against Tennessee's toughest opponents before Bray took over for him. With Bray out for an extended period of time, Simms' number has been called yet again and his first opponent is the No. 1 team in the country in LSU. It's an LSU team carrying the league's second-rated defense and a host of defensive playmakers. It won't be easy for Simms, but he says he's ready. However, this is just the first step for the senior. He'll still face Alabama (on the road), South Carolina and Arkansas (on the road) in the next four weeks. That's tough for any quarterback. Starting off with an impressive debut will help the psyche of this team. He doesn't have to be perfect, but does have to be effective enough to inject some confidence into this team for the road ahead.

7. Like brother ... like brother? Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers could make his first start for the Commodores this weekend against Georgia and if he's anything like his Super Bowl-winning older brother, Aaron, Vanderbilt's fan base should be stoked. Now, this wouldn't exactly be the best game for him to really kick off his Vandy career in, with Georgia giving up less than 180 passing yards a game, but if he does get the start, there will no doubt be a little more excitement in the air in Nashville. Larry Smith hasn't gotten the job done for the Commodores, so it might be time for a move. Vanderbilt needs to shake things up on offense and starting Rodgers could be a way to do that.

8. Mississippi State's lost offense: The Bulldogs have a mound of offensive problems. They haven't seen the dynamic duo of quarterback Chris Relf and Vick Ballard do much of anything since Week 2 and the offensive line is a mess. The execution has been lacking and this team is scrambling to figure things out when it has the ball. After Tyler Russell rescued an offense that went scoreless against UAB in the first half, he's in a battle with Relf for the starting spot. Would starting Russell provide a spark for this reeling offense? And would it matter against a revamped South Carolina defense? The Gamecocks love to bring a lot of pressure and could make either quarterback's day miserable Saturday.

9. Florida's rushing defense: If you're Auburn running back Michael Dyer, you have to be pretty happy with your odds of clearing the century mark against the Gators Saturday. Florida has given up a total of 464 rushing yards in the last two games and both Alabama's Trent Richardson (181) and LSU's Spencer Ware (109) went into triple digits in the rushing department. Dyer has rushed for more than 100 yards four times this season. We might have given Florida's front seven way more credit than it deserved to start the year, as the last two weeks have been far from nice for this unit. With Dyer's blend of power and speed, Florida's defense has yet another tough runner to keep in check this week.

10. More of the Honey Badger: The legend of LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu grows larger and more fantastic with each week. Those Honey Badger T-Shirts floating around LSU's campus are easily the best in the sport right now and he really does take what he wants. This weekend, he faces yet another backup quarterback making his starting debut for the season. Yes, Simms is experienced, but the Honey Badger doesn't care (or don't care). He will no doubt make Simms' day that much more frustrating because of his ability to somehow pop up wherever the ball is on the field. Just remember, he takes what he wants.

SEC power rankings: Week 7

October, 10, 2011
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After another week of college football and we have some movement in the middle our power rankings. The top, however, isn’t budging at the moment:

1. LSU (6-0, 3-0): It seemed like the Tigers were just going through the motions at times over the weekend. Florida entered Death Valley with a true freshman quarterback and left with its pride shattered. LSU made it look so easy on both sides of the ball and Florida’s offensive and defensive lines were absolutely abused in the process. The Tigers have been on another level compared to their competition so far and LSU is playing out of its mind. The Tigers have also used their two-quarterback system with Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson perfectly through two games. How the coaches are ranking the Tigers behind Oklahoma is baffling.

2. Alabama (6-0, 3-0): LSU might be the top team in the power rankings – and the country – but Alabama is a very, very close second. The Tide’s defense has been better statistically and while we still think LSU has the most athletic defense around, Alabama’s is equally as suffocating and has dismantled its opponents with ease thus far. Nov. 5 can’t come soon enough! One thing that Tide fans should be even happier about was quarterback AJ McCarron’s four-touchdown, turnover-free performance against Vanderbilt’s talented secondary. He just gets better every week and is starting to develop more of a downfield passing element.

3. Arkansas (5-1, 1-1): The Razorbacks aren’t on the same level with LSU or Alabama, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good team. The defense took some heat for its struggles against Texas A&M, but we saw a much-needed transformation Saturday against Auburn. Arkansas completely took Auburn’s passing game out of the equation and forced three interceptions in the process. Tyler Wilson and his band of receivers continue to impress us, and while the running game still needs some work, getting big plays out of Joe Adams out of the backfield has really helped. Making sure the defense doesn’t regress will be key for the Hogs going forward.

4. South Carolina (5-1, 3-1): Connor Shaw was exactly what South Carolina’s offense needed. After back-to-back embarrassing showings by Stephen Garcia, Shaw came in and really sparked this Gamecocks offense with his arm in a blowout win over Kentucky. He threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns as South Carolina put up 54 on the Wildcats. It was the strongest showing of the season for this offense and with the defense continuing to play up to its potential the Gamecocks are back to being seriously considered in the East race.

5. Auburn (4-2, 2-1): The early-season defense Auburn was afraid of seeing again reared its ugly head against Arkansas over the weekend. The Tigers were hurt by the Hogs’ passing game and surrendered a 92-yard run by Joe Adams. Quarterbacks Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier struggled mightily and couldn’t get Auburn back in the game. It’s time for coach Gene Chizik to go back and make some adjustments defensively and in the passing game. He made great defensive modifications after Auburn’s first loss, so we’ll see what he’s got in store this weekend against Florida.

6. Georgia (4-2, 3-1): The Bulldogs struggled on offense again, and eventually that has to become pretty worrisome, but the defense shut down Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray. Georgia’s defense held him without a touchdown, snapping a 10-game streak of Bray passing for at least two touchdowns in a game, and swallowed up Tennessee’s running game (minus-20 yards). Georgia's defense has steadily improved each week and the Bulldogs are right in the thick of the East race. With the not-so-treacherous road ahead, winning out and making it back to Atlanta is a definite possibility for this team. South Carolina still needs to lose, but Georgia is feeling pretty good about itself after this four-game winning streak.

7. Florida (4-2, 2-2): Florida was down to its third-string quarterback against LSU, but was beaten at every position on the field. Even with a youngster (Jacoby Brissett) making his first start, we expected some sort of creativity in the game plan and the Gators had none. The fact is that this team tremendously misses John Brantley under center and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has to come up with a better strategy while the senior is out. Defensively, the front seven was punished against Alabama and LSU, giving up a combined 464 rushing yards in back-to-back weeks.

8. Tennessee (3-2, 0-2): You gotta feel for the Vols here. Quarterback Tyler Bray was one of the top offensive weapons in the league before he went down with a broken thumb that will keep him out at least four weeks. Top deep threat Justin Hunter was already out and running back Tauren Poole now has a hamstring injury. This team showed fight in both of its SEC losses, but the road ahead is very tough with LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas all meeting the Vols during a five-week stretch. It might get worse before it gets better in Knoxville.

9. Vanderbilt (3-2, 1-2):
The Commodores are struggling to get anything going on offense. It might be time to hand the keys to this offense over to quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who replaced starter Larry Smith against Alabama after the senior went down with a leg injury. Neither was great when they were in against the Tide, but Vandy’s offense is broken and it needs to get fixed in a hurry. Vandy’s bowl chances might rest on what the offense does in the second half. Defensively, we still like this secondary, but it was shredded by Alabama’s AJ McCarron over the weekend.

10. Mississippi State (3-3, 0-3):
The Bulldogs might have won over the weekend, but they didn’t look very good doing it. Mississippi actually trailed UAB 3-0 at the half because the offense failed to show up. It wasn’t until Tyler Russell replaced Chris Relf at quarterback in the third quarter that the Bulldogs finally showed offensive life. Russell threw three touchdowns in the second half to keep the Bulldogs from getting upset. Overall, the offensive execution on this team needs major work.

11. Ole Miss (2-3, 0-2): We can only imagine the preparation the Rebels went through during their bye week to get ready for a visiting Alabama team that is just running through opponents right now. Ole Miss is sticking with Randall Mackey at quarterback after his solid performance at Fresno State, and the hope is that the offense finally gets a consistent lift with him out there. We saw a better, more explosive offense with Mackey in the game, but expecting a duplicate performance this week would be like expecting the cast of Jersey Shore to be invited back to Italy after what we’ve seen in Season 4.

12. Kentucky (2-4, 0-3): Can things get any worse for the Wildcats’ offense? Kentucky is last in the SEC in scoring (13 points per game), total offense (229 yards per game), passing (119 ypg), passing efficiency (78.5), turnovers (17) and red zone scoring (75 percent). Quarterback Morgan Newton might be a junior, but he looks worse than he did during his freshman season and it doesn’t help that he doesn’t have consistently reliable targets to throw to. The defense is improved, but it can’t carry this team. Major offensive changes need to take place during the bye week.

Quarterback issues litter the SEC

October, 10, 2011
10/10/11
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If you’re looking for fall work, turn no further than the SEC.

There should be a slew of “Quarterbacks Wanted” signs on the locker room doors of most SEC facilities.

We’re halfway into the 2011 season and there are still a handful of teams in search of a consistent starting quarterback.

You can send your applications to just about anywhere outside of Tuscaloosa, Fayetteville and Athens.

We might be celebrating the year of the quarterback here at ESPN, but the SEC certainly is not.

Currently, only three quarterbacks -- Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson and Aaron Murray -- are averaging more than 200 passing yards a game, and 72 interceptions have been thrown in the SEC. Eight teams have a team quarterback efficiency less than 150.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
AP Photo/Rich GlicksteinConnor Shaw added a spark to the South Carolina offense against Kentucky.
With teams preparing for the second-half stretch, some coaches should look at their quarterback situations and think about changes.

South Carolina is a perfect example. Senior Stephen Garcia disappointed for two straight weeks before coach Steve Spurrier benched him for sophomore Connor Shaw.

Shaw blew the doors off South Carolina’s offense against Kentucky, passing for 311 yards and four touchdowns. The offense clicked with him leading the way and actually looked alive. The question is if he can keep it going, because we know Spurrier prides himself on his quarterbacks’ play and won’t stand for more ineptitude at the position.

There are more teams that should consider following Spurrier’s lead.

Kentucky’s offense just can’t get anything going in general, but junior Morgan Newton has really regressed. The league’s coaches named him a SEC All-Freshman selection two years ago, but he looks nothing like his former self. Newton has thrown six touchdowns to seven interceptions, is averaging 110 yards a game and his passing efficiency is 86.5.

Yuck.

Backup Maxwell Smith hasn’t looked great by any means, but with the Wildcats sitting at 2-4 and winless in conference play, it might be time to use the bye week to prep the freshman more. Does Newton really give Kentucky that much more of a chance to win?

Mississippi State entered the year with senior Chris Relf riding a wave of hype that he surfed on late in the 2010 season. Viewed as one of the best dual-threats in the league, Relf has hit the wall. He’s averaging a paltry 115.8 yards in the past four games and has four interceptions compared to one touchdown. He also has just 73 rushing yards and zero scores on 45 carries in that span.

Tyler Russell replaced Relf at the half against UAB, throwing three touchdowns in a 21-3 comeback win.

Coach Dan Mullen didn’t say much about the quarterback situation, but Relf told reporters he expects to keep his job, for now.

"Coach Mullen said I'm still going to be the starting quarterback," Relf said. "It's just a matter of me going out there and playing hard. It's just a matter of them believing in me to throw the ball in the game. That's how I see it."

Vanderbilt’s offense is just trying to keep its head above water at this point. Quarterback Larry Smith has received a ton of criticism during his Commodore career and he’s hearing even more now. With bowl hopes on the line, it might be time to take this offense in a new direction.

Smith went down with a leg injury against Alabama, forcing Jordan Rodgers into the game. Rodgers wasn’t spectacular, but he did complete 11 of his 18 passes for 104 yards, but had two interceptions.

Smith has thrown for just 412 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. His season-high? Just 140 yards against Connecticut.

Then, you have schools like Florida and Tennessee, who have to deal with injuries to their starting quarterbacks. The Vols seem to be in a much better position with senior Matt Simms taking over for Bray, who was the league’s top passer before Saturday. The Gators are working with a trio of freshmen with John Brantley out. Jeff Driskel was supposed to be the No. 2, but he sprained his ankle against Alabama and missed the LSU game, giving Jacoby Brissett his first-career snaps and start.

Brissett wasn’t awful, but he didn’t look ready for LSU. However, none of Florida’s backups would have.

Florida needs Brantley more than ever, and Tennessee is hoping Simms can get through a five-week stretch that features LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas.

Auburn and Ole Miss aren’t free from quarterback issues, either. The Rebels might have finally found their guy in Randall Mackey, but it took five weeks and three losses to do it. Mackey hasn’t been spectacular, but he has to be the best option, right?

The Tigers have started to use more of the two-quarterback system with Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier. Trotter passes, Frazier runs, but neither did much against Arkansas over the weekend. The question is if Frazier starts throwing more, will he eventually get the majority of the snaps?

There is still time for teams to regroup from their quarterback problems, but for now, SEC quarterbacks have seen better days.

Much better.

Final: South Carolina 21, Vanderbilt 3

September, 24, 2011
9/24/11
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It's a final here in Williams-Brice Stadium. Things were uglier than they were pretty tonight, but South Carolina came away with the 21-3 win over Vanderbilt.

South Carolina's defense really came to play. Vanderbilt never consistantly moved the ball, getting more than three offensive plays in a drive just four times on 14 total drives. Vanderbilt finished the night with 77 total yards (73 passing, 4 rushing).

The Gamecocks defense looked nothing like the unit that struggled to tackle through the first three weeks. It had five sacks at the half and just overpowered Vanderbilt's offensive line for most of the night. Vanderbilt quarterbacks Larry Smith and Jordan Rodgers had barely any time to do anything in the pocket.

Marcus Lattimore was again South Carolina's most valuable offensive weapon, carrying the ball 20 times for 78 yards and a touchdown. He also had 73 yards receiving, including a 52-yard touchdown.

Without him, the score would have been much lower, as South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia continued his trend of playing mistake-filled football. While he did throw for 228 yards and touchdown, he had four interceptions, which caused a flurry of boos from the fans.

South Carolina also had nine penalties for 67 yards. Still the Gamecocks left with a victory and are still undefeated, including being 2-0 in conference play. The mistakes have to be cleaned up, but South Carolina will gladly take a 4-0 start.

Vanderbilt QB Larry Smith shaken up

September, 24, 2011
9/24/11
9:43
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith was helped off the field after taking a violent hit while going after his own fumble.

Smith was stripped by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney on the first play of Vanderbilt's third drive of the third quarter. As Smith dove for the ball in front of him, he was hit head-on by a South Carolina defender.

Trainers tended to him on the field for a couple of minutes before helping him off with a little more than two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- If Vanderbilt is going to crawl back into this game, its offense has to get something going -- and quick.

After the first two drives, Vanderbilt had just 12 yards on seven plays. Eleven of them came on a run by Zac Stacy. With the Commodores trailing 21-3, the defense needs a lot of help because South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore is starting to wear down this unit.

On the night, Vandy quarterback Larry Smith has just 44 yards passing and the running game has produced zero net yards on 19 attempts.

South Carolina just had a touchdown wiped off the board and missed a field goal, but should the Gamecocks really be worried? Vanderbilt can't move the ball. The longest play for Vanderbilt is a 17-yard run by Smith. Bubble screens aren't working, running certainly isn't and Smith doesn't have enough time to get the ball down the field thanks to the tremendous effort from South Carolina's defensive line.

Honestly, I'm not sure how Vandy can come back at this point without getting points directly off turnovers.

Oh, and how about that? South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney forces Smith to fumble and South Carolina has the ball at Vandy's 31.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It has been an ugly first half of football inside of Williams-Brice Stadium, but South Carolina leads 14-3.

Stat of the half: You could go with the 174 combined offensive yards by both teams or the 10 combined penalties for 100 yards. There are almost more penalty yards than yards of offense. Vanderbilt hasn't done much and is only on the scoreboard because of an interception by Casey Hayward that was returned to South Carolina's 22-yard line. South Carolina had nothing going on offense until a screen pass to Marcus Lattimore went 52 yards for a score before the half, but a couple of big plays have been negated by holding penalties.

Best player of the half: Hayward's two interceptions were nice, but the player(s) of the half is South Carolina's defensive line. Vanderbilt has -4 yards rushing on 16 attempts and South Carolina has five sacks. Vanderbilt quarterback hasn't had much time to breathe in the pocket with all of the pressure he's faced. Vanderbilt's line has been demolished by the Gamecocks. End Melvin Ingram has two of the five sacks. One sack by Jadeveon Clowney resulted in a defensive touchdown for the Gamecocks as well.

Play of the half: South Carolina's offense was doing absolutely nothing until a perfectly called screen play from Stephen Garcia to Lattimore that went for a 52-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left in the half, putting the Gamecocks up 14-3. That was the longest pass play for the Gamecocks this season. With the way this game has gone, that could be enough for the Gamecocks.

Quarterback mistakes becoming a trend

September, 24, 2011
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Those weren't roosters you heard inside Williams-Brice Stadium, those were boo birds. Lots of them.

That's because embattled quarterback Stephen Garcia just threw his third interception of the game. And again he threw it directly to a defender. Casey Hayward grabbed the first two, but Andre Hal was the beneficiary of Garcia's latest mistake. That was the first of Hal's career.

Fans let Garcia know how they felt, but coach Steve Spurrier probably let him know even more.

However, Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith wouldn't let Garcia be outdone in the mistakes department. Three plays after Garcia's blunder at Vandy's 36-yard line, Smith was pressured by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, who forced Smith to fumble the ball. Spur Antonio Allen then picked it up, raced toward the end zone, fumbled and Melvin Ingram recovered the ball in the end zone to put South Carolina up 7-3.

After South Carolina's score, Vanderbilt had minus-9 yards of offense (25 passing, -34 rushing) and South Carolina was working with three Garcia interceptions.

U-G-L-Y.

Vanderbilt strikes first in Nashville

September, 17, 2011
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Someone has finally gotten on the board in Nashville.

After an unproductive first quarter of "action" Vanderbilt broke the scoring drought in the second quarter when quarterback Larry Smith found a hole in Ole Miss' defense, cut to the right on a draw and sprinted into the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown.

But things didn't stop there. Almost exactly a minute later, Vandy's Trey Wilson intercepted Zack Stoudt's pass and returned it 52 yards for the score, making it 14-0. That makes two interceptions for Stoudt in the game and three defensive touchdowns for the Commodores in the past three games.

With the second quarter dying down, both teams had combined for 215 yards and three turnovers. Yuck.

One bright spot for the Rebels, who have just 104 of those yards, is that running back Brandon Bolden is back in the lineup after suffering a fracture in his ankle in the season opener against BYU. He currently has 27 yards on five carries and one catch for 14 yards.

Franklin, Commodores living in the moment

September, 16, 2011
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Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin is fully aware what the skeptics are saying about him.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Jim Brown/US PresswireCoach James Franklin has Vanderbilt players believing they can turn the program around.
“Probably the most criticism I’ve gotten since I’ve arrived here is that I’ve done a lot of talking,” Franklin said. “My point is that all I’ve really done is sold our kids and sold our program and sold what this university has to offer.

“If there’s something wrong with that, then they’re just going to have to keep on criticizing me.”

It’s a massive sales job, indeed.

Vanderbilt has had just one winning season in the past 28 years and finished with three wins or fewer 11 times in the past 16 seasons.

The Commodores’ reputation as the SEC’s perennial doormat has almost become ingrained throughout the conference.

That would be a tough history for any coach to overcome.

But a big part of what Franklin is selling is that he doesn’t care about history. All he cares about is what’s right in front of him, and on the heels of a 2-0 start, the Commodores like what they see heading into Saturday’s home game with Ole Miss.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence. Coach Franklin and his staff are confident guys, and that’s rubbed off on all the players,” said Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward, who returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown to turn last week’s Connecticut game in the Commodores’ favor.

“We like it that coach Franklin is out there selling us and not afraid to tell people that he wants to compete for championships. This is not the same old Vanderbilt, and we plan on going out there and backing up coach Franklin with our play. The way you do that is to win one game at a time.”

The atmosphere around campus for Saturday’s game against Ole Miss might not rise to the fever pitch it did back in 2008 when the Commodores were 4-0 and hosting No. 13-ranked Auburn with the ESPN GameDay crew on hand.

Still, there’s a real buzz on the West End about football, and it’s a buzz that will only grow louder if Vanderbilt can take down Ole Miss for the third time in the past four seasons and go to 3-0.

We’re back on that history thing again, which isn’t one of Franklin’s favorite topics, but it’s worth noting that the Commodores have started a season 3-0 only four times in the past 60 years.

Don’t look for that tidbit to be a part of Franklin’s pregame speech to his players Saturday.

Rather, his message will be that there’s nothing different about this game than the previous two.

“We’re not at a point in our program where we start thinking about the significance of this game compared to another,” Franklin said. “I want our kids staying in the moment and focusing on six seconds. I don’t ask them to play great for three hours. I want them to give me their entire focus, effort, attitude and passion for six seconds at a time and then let’s do it again and again and again.

“Let’s focus on this game this week. I don’t care what the future holds, and I don’t care what we have or haven’t accomplished here in the past.”

The Commodores have hardly been dominant through two games. But what they have been is resourceful, and they’ve shown a penchant for doing something they’ve rarely done in the past.

Finishing games.

Vanderbilt led Elon 21-14 in the third quarter of the season opener, but scored 24 unanswered points to pull away and win easily.

Last week, the Commodores led 14-3 early, then fell behind 21-14 when Connecticut returned a fumble for a touchdown, but had the presence to regain the lead thanks to Hayward’s pick-six and some key defensive stops in the fourth quarter.

It’s a veteran defense with just about everybody back from last season, and the Commodores are playing that way right now.

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has also done a nice job of mixing things up and bringing pressure at key times. Vanderbilt leads the SEC in turnover margin at plus-4, which includes seven forced turnovers.

“When you look on the defensive side of the ball, we have more senior leadership and more seniors that have played and been productive,” Franklin said.

The Commodores are still searching for some consistency on offense, although their issues in the offensive line aren’t likely to go away any time soon. They lost starting left guard Jabo Burrow last week after he gave up football because of concussion concerns, moving redshirt freshman Chase White into the starting lineup.

Connecticut sacked Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith seven times last week.

“We knew the offensive line was going to be a challenge coming into this year,” Franklin said. “Then we lose a starting guard and had to move guys around. Until we’re able to get that group working for a couple of weeks together and build up some rapport between them and cohesion, that’s going to be an issue.”

In the meantime, this is a team that’s going to have to win with defense.

“We’ve got each other’s backs,” Hayward said. “That’s the way it is with this team and the way it’s going to be all season.”

SEC predictions: Week 2

September, 8, 2011
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We have one week in the bag and it looks like the new guy is on top.

Yes, it was a week littered with cupcakes, but like every coach in America says, "A win is a win."

After the first week of games, I sit at 11-1 (.917), while fellow SEC blogger Chris Low is 10-2 (.833). Chris and I both missed on Ole Miss and Chris went with Georgia. I tried to tell him, but he just wouldn't listen.

And while I'm gloating, how about my almost dead-on picks? I had Mississippi State beating Memphis 52-14 and the score was 59-14. I had Tennessee beating Montana 44-13 and the Vols won 42-16. And I had Alabama topping Kent State 56-7 and the Tide won 48-7.

I know, the kid is good.

Oh, and Chris, remember that Nick Saban likes his bad questions loud and right after some player has ticked him off.

We finally start the conference season with South Carolina visiting Georgia and Auburn hosting Mississippi State, so things are getting even more interesting.

On to the picks:

Edward Aschoff: This weekend is all about tuning up that passing game. Jarrett Lee passed for less than 100 yards, but was efficient in the win over Oregon. Look for him to reach triple digits before halftime. ... LSU 48, Northwestern State 3

Chris Low: The Tigers deserve at least one glorified scrimmage in the month of September, although the real trick might be getting their starters out of the game by halftime with next Thursday’s trip to Mississippi State looming. … LSU 42, Northwestern State 0

Edward Aschoff: Tyler Wilson was good, but not great in his starting debut last week. The Razorbacks didn't need him to be great, but he should improve this week and spread the ball around even more. ... Arkansas 44, New Mexico 7

Chris Low: The Hogs put a couple of special teams touchdowns on the board last week in the opener thanks to Joe Adams’ punt return prowess. Don’t be surprised if the defense gets into the act this Saturday in a second straight rout for the Hogs. … Arkansas 48, New Mexico 10

Edward Aschoff: Ole Miss' offense sputtered through the opener, while the defense looked much sharper than it did last year. It even scored a touchdown, while the offense didn't. The Rebels could use all three quarterbacks, but should win comfortably Saturday. ... Ole Miss 31, Southern Illinois 10

Chris Low: It’s hard to find much wrong with Ole Miss’ defensive performance in the opener, but the Rebels have to get a lot better on offense and will be without top running back Brandon Bolden for the next few weeks. … Ole Miss 35, Southern Illinois 7

Edward Aschoff: Kentucky's offense was mostly nonexistent until that very late game-winning drive, but the defense took a step forward. The Wildcats' offense needs to find playmakers and this week would be a good start. ... Kentucky 27, Central Michigan 14

Chris Low: It looks like Rick Minter has the Wildcats’ defense playing with an edge. Now, it’s on quarterback Morgan Newton, his receiver sand that offensive line to get it going. True freshman running back Josh Clemons looks like a keeper. … Kentucky 27, Central Michigan 13

Edward Aschoff: Vanderbilt's offense will get a nice test with UCONN's aggressive defense coming to town. This is a chance for Larry Smith to show that he can lead Vandy in the big game, but will it be enough? ... UCONN 23, Vanderbilt 21

Chris Low: Remember what happened the last time the Commodores started out 2-0? They had their first winning season in 26 years and won their first bowl game in 53 years. Here’s a great chance at home to get off to a similar start as the 2008 season. … Vanderbilt 24, Connecticut 20

Edward Aschoff: This is the kind of a game I love: an all-out southern shootout! Tennessee's passing game looked solid last week, but this will be a major test for the Vols' young defense. First one to 35 wins! ... Tennessee 41, Cincinnati 35

Chris Low: If you like offense, this one has a chance to be a dandy. Both teams can score quickly and from long distance. The home field will be enough for the Vols to survive along with three more Tyler Bray touchdown passes. … Tennessee 35, Cincinnati 31

Edward Aschoff: Chris Rainey said the Gators ran just six different plays on offense last week. I predict at least three new ones as Florida prepares for Tennessee. I also expect the offense click even more this week. ... Florida 45, UAB 7

Chris Low: The Gators historically don’t break much of a sweat in their first two games as they warm up for the SEC opener. They cruised last week in Will Muschamp’s debut and shouldn’t have much trouble in Week 2, either. You’ve got to be impressed with that front seven on defense. … Florida 37, UAB 7

Edward Aschoff: I'm going to put the over/under on how many times we hear the name Cam Newton during the broadcast at 10. I will also put the number of cowbells confiscated at the gates at 20, which is probably low. Oh, and Mississippi State's offensive players must be salivating at the chance to play Auburn's defense. ... Mississippi State 34, Auburn 23

Chris Low: We’ll dub this the Cecil Newton Bowl. Something says Mississippi State won’t be warmly greeted on the Plains, but the Bulldogs look ready to take that next step and become a legitimate contender in the West this season. That starts with winning on the road. … Mississippi State 31, Auburn 24

Edward Aschoff: Penn State is older and deeper this season, but so is Alabama, and that's going to be an issue. Alabama is taking two young quarterbacks on the road, but the defense should keep Penn State from giving the Tide a scare. ... Alabama 27, Penn State 13

Chris Low: Penn State couldn’t generate enough offense to have a chance last season against Alabama. Playing at Beaver Stadium will level the playing field a bit for the Nittany Lions, but not enough to take down the Crimson Tide. … Alabama 28, Penn State 13

Edward Aschoff: Mark Richt says he doesn't feel pressure. Aaron Murray says there is no pressure. But this game will go a long way to determining the SEC East champ and the Bulldogs came away from Week 1 with more questions than before. South Carolina's defense looked far from great last week, but the offense was actually in good hands with Stephen Garcia. ... South Carolina 31, Georgia 24

Chris Low: Regardless of what anybody in Athens says, this is one of those win-or-else games for Georgia. The Bulldogs will play with emotion and play with intensity. They just won’t be able to stop Marcus Lattimore when it counts. … South Carolina 28, Georgia 23

SEC senior QB class back for more

August, 9, 2011
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The SEC’s senior class at the quarterback position includes five returning starters -- Florida’s John Brantley, South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, LSU’s Jordan Jefferson, Mississippi State’s Chris Relf and Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith -- who’ve started a combined 104 games.

Sounds like a lot, and it is.

Garcia, Jefferson and Smith are all entering their third seasons as the full-time starter. Brantley and Relf started in every game a year ago.

Yet, the only one of the five who’s the closest thing to being a lock to go the whole way this season as the starter is Relf, who was easily the SEC’s most improved quarterback last season.

“He was always a big, strong guy who did athletic things at the quarterback position,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “But he’s now become a quarterback and getting better every day.”

Relf would seem to be entrenched in Starkville, and that’s not to say the other four seniors aren’t. It’s just that each of their situations is a little bit different than what you might expect from a group of veteran quarterbacks with more than 100 combined starts.

Right there at the top is Garcia, whose career has been about as maddening as it gets.

He’s 17-13 as a starter and is only the third quarterback in South Carolina’s history to throw for more than 6,000 yards -- Todd Ellis (1986-89) and Steve Taneyhill (1992-95) are the others.

He’s also one of the few players in college football history (maybe the only one) to survive five suspensions and still be playing.

A fifth-year senior, Garcia is back in Steve Spurrier’s good graces, at least for now, and the Head Ball Coach is even openly bragging about how much more focused Garcia is and how he’s poised for a big season.

Of course, back in the spring when Garcia was serving one of his two suspensions that forced him to miss most of spring practice, all Spurrier wanted to talk about was sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw and how much progress he’d made.

The reality is that Garcia is the Gamecocks’ quarterback and will be their quarterback until he screws up off the field again or doesn’t throw to the right receiver one too many times on the field.

As we've seen over the years, Spurrier can have a pretty quick hook with his quarterbacks.

To his credit, Garcia has been one tough customer, and his teammates have rallied around him.

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina's Stephen Garcia
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina senior quarterback Stephen Garcia has been suspended five times.
This is his final chance to put it all together -- on the field and off -- and to cement his legacy as one of South Carolina’s greatest quarterbacks.

But can he do it for an entire season and play and lead with the kind of consistency that it takes to win a championship?

That’s a question that will hover all season.

“I’m not really worried about my legacy, per se,” Garcia said. “I’m more worried about the team in general. The ultimate goal, of course, is to win the SEC championship. And if you do that, you have a pretty good shot at winning the national championship, as the last five years have indicated.”

Garcia is asking the South Carolina fans to trust him … again.

“Hopefully, they take me back one more time,” he said.

At LSU, Jefferson’s problems haven’t been off the field. They’ve been on the field, and in particular, in games.

The Tigers’ passing game was woeful last season, even though they managed to start 7-0 and ended up winning 11 games.

All of the reports on Jefferson since spring have indicated that he’s made significant strides under new quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe and is throwing the ball with as much confidence as he ever has.

He needs to, for LSU’s sake and his sake.

The Tigers have a team capable of winning a national championship in 2011. But to do so, their passing game has to take several steps forward from where it was a year ago.

And if it doesn’t take those steps, it’s probably not going to take long for talented junior college newcomer Zach Mettenberger to supplant Jefferson as the starter.

Count Florida’s Brantley as another senior quarterback in the SEC with everything to prove this season.

[+] EnlargeJohn Brantley
Kim Klement/US PresswireFlorida quarterback John Brantley will be switching to a pro-style offense this fall under new coordinator Charlie Weis.
His first year as a starter in Urban Meyer’s old spread offense was a huge disappointment last season. He never looked comfortable, and his confidence plummeted.

But with Charlie Weis taking over the offense for first-year head coach Will Muschamp, the Gators are switching to a pro-style attack, and Brantley’s teammates say he looked like his old self in the spring.

Muschamp has been clear that Brantley’s his starter, but it’s also no secret that the Gators brought in the top quarterback prospect in the country, Jeff Driskel, who enrolled early and went through spring practice.

As disappointing as last season was for Brantley, it wasn’t a total loss.

“I learned that when things go wrong to forget about it, move on and keep my head up,” said Brantley, who finished with nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. “If you keep your head down, other people’s heads are going to go down.”

Smith’s ride at Vanderbilt has been a rough one ever since making his first career start as a redshirt freshman in the Music City Bowl in 2008, which just happened to be the Commodores’ first bowl win in 53 years.

But the Commodores have struggled mightily in the passing game each of the past two seasons, and while Smith’s numbers haven’t been pretty, he hasn’t had much help at the receiver position.

The Commodores hope sophomore Jordan Matthews can be that big-play threat this season, and Smith feels like he’s more equipped fundamentally to make things happen after working with first-year quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne.

He’s going to have people pushing, too.

The Vanderbilt staff is getting its first comprehensive look this preseason at junior Jordan Rodgers, who did very little in the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. Rodgers, the brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, redshirted last season after coming over from junior college.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is also eager to see what the three freshman quarterbacks he signed in this class have to offer -- Lafonte Thourogood, Josh Grady and Kris Kentera.

“I’m excited to have a competition,” Franklin said. “I thought Larry had a great spring. I thought he had a great summer, but he really didn’t compete against anybody. I want to see him have an opportunity to compete against somebody and how he reacts to that. I want to create the most competitive environment we can here.”

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