NCF Nation: Robbie Caldwell

Dabo Swinney invests in his program

February, 16, 2012
Talk about putting your money where your mouth is.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has taken it upon himself -- basically out of his own pocket -- to give his assistants raises.

There is a clause in Swinney's contract stating that if he won the ACC, he would rise to a certain level from a salary standpoint among ACC coaches. When he won the 2011 title, that meant this year's contract would increase by $422,000. He is taking $265,000 of that to give to his coaches. Technically, it's an allocation -- not money he has already received. It is money he would have received -- and that is the key difference between what Swinney is doing and what Georgia coach Mark Richt did.

Regardless, it's a true investment in his program -- one I've never heard of or seen elsewhere in the college coaching ranks -- and odds are it will pay off. It is proof of the literal value of coaching stability.

Swinney's decision stems from today's announcement that the Compensation Committee of the Clemson Board of Trustees approved a proposal from athletic director Terry Don Phillips to grant salary increases totaling $450,000 for seven assistant football coaches, and the head strength coach. It will be in effect for two years, and 60 percent of that money is coming from Swinney. The remaining 40 percent, or $185,000 will be provided by the athletic department.

According to the school's release, Swinney is expected to make $1.9 million in 2012, which will rank 46th nationally according to the most recent data available to Phillips. The staff, including the head coach, is expected to rank between 12th and 15th.

“Coach Swinney has opted to invest in the stability of the program with money he earned in 2011,” Phillips said in a prepared statement. “We have a young football team returning for 2012 and 2013 and he felt it was imperative to have stability from a staff standpoint. These are all options that had been in his existing contract.”

“I am extremely grateful to the Board of Trustees for its approval of these salary increases,” Swinney said in the release. “We have a great staff and I want to do everything I can to keep it together at a critical time in our program. We have a young, but talented team and I feel we have a chance to do something very special in the near future.”

Earlier, it was announced that offensive coordinator Chad Morris would earn $1.3 million and defensive coordinator Brent Venables would earn $800,000 during the 2012 season, meaning Clemson’s nine full-time assistant coaches will earn $4.2 million.

Here is the official run-down of the remaining staff salaries recently approved by the Board of Trustees:

Joey Batson (strength coach) $200,000

Dan Brooks $310,000

Robbie Caldwell $310,000

Tony Elliott $205,000

Charlie Harbison $375,000

Marion Hobby $375,000

Danny Pearman $310,000

Jeff Scott $215,000
Ranking offensive linemen is not easy. But hey, either is being an offensive lineman. Here are your best "big uglies."

1. North Carolina: Three starters and one part-time starter return from last year’s team, and this line could be the biggest and best since Butch Davis was hired. Guard Jonathan Cooper (22 starts), center Cam Holland (20) and tackle James Hurst (12) have combined for 54 career starts. Travis Bond has four starts and is the leading candidate to take over at the other guard position.

2. Miami: The Canes return nine of their top 10 offensive linemen including four starters from last year, and Joel Figueroa was granted a sixth season of eligibility. Even with the coaching change, the Canes should be strong up front. Center Tyler Horn is a veteran, Brandon Washington is a difference-maker, and there’s enough competition that Seantrel Henderson spent most of the spring as a backup.

3. Clemson: First-year offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell has four returning starters to work with in Landon Walker, Antoine McClain, Dalton Freeman and David Smith. They also have top reserve Mason Cloy, who has 19 career starts and has played in 38 games. There is plenty of depth for a dependable rotation.

4. Virginia Tech: All four returnees started every game last year, and there is enough depth that the Hokies should be able to rotate the most players up front they ever have. It’s a veteran group led by Blake DeChristopher, Andrew Lanier, Jaymes Brooks and Greg Nosal.

5. Florida State: Despite the losses of Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon, there’s experience up front. This fall, the starting lineup will consist of tackle Andrew Datko, left guard Bryan Stork or David Spurlock, center Jacob Fahrenkrug, right guard Spurlock or Stork, right tackle Zebrie Sanders. Just how good they’ll be remains to be seen as the majority of them were out with injuries this past spring.

6. NC State: The Pack lost Jake Vermiglio and will be without injured left guard Andrew Wallace for about half of the season, but Zach Allen, Camden Wentz and R.J. Mattes are returning starters. There’s also a lot of talent waiting to emerge with young players like Duran Christophe, Rob Crisp, Tyson Chandler, Torian Box and Andy Jomantas.

7. Virginia: Four players return with a combined 64 career starts in Anthony Mihota, Austin Pasztor, Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses, who started the final seven games of the season as a true freshman. Pasztor is in his fourth season as a starter and has 32 career starts.

8. Boston College: Despite the losses of Anthony Castonzo, Thomas Claiborne and Rich Lapham, the Eagles are almost settled up front, it’s the experience behind the starters that’s reason for concern. The No. 2 offensive line is comprised entirely of redshirt freshmen. Mark Spinney returns at center, the projected starting guards are Nathan Richman and Ian White, who started three games as a freshman, and the tackles are Emmett Cleary and John Wetzel.

9. Maryland: It’s been an injury-prone group the past two seasons and that didn’t change this past spring. Left tackle Justin Gilbert, one of the top linemen on the team, reinjured the same knee he had ACL surgery on and will be out until October. R.J. Dill was also injured this spring, though he played in the spring game, and Justin Lewis was rehabbing from offseason surgery. Pete White also missed practices, so the group needs to solidify the two-deep roster.

10. Georgia Tech: The Jackets return three starters in guard Omoregie Uzzi, guard Will Jackson and tackle Phil Smith. Sophomore Jay Finch played extensively last season and Ray Beno and Nick McRae were key reserves. Redshirt freshmen Catlin Alford and Morgan Bailey could also work their way into the rotation. Uzzi will be the leader of the line, but they were outplayed by the defense this spring.

11. Wake Forest: Four starters are back, but the Deacs will sorely miss the experience and leadership of former center Russell Nenon. Garrick Williams started the final three games of 2010 -- two at guard and one at center, but he struggled with the snaps towards the end of spring and isn’t where the staff needs him to be yet.

12. Duke: The Blue Devils should take another step forward this season under offensive line coach Matt Luke, and they need to -- Duke’s running game was last in the ACC last year and 104th in the country. Brian Moore replaces a three-year starter at center, but given his experience at right guard the past two seasons, it should be a smooth transition. That will leave a hole, though, at the right guard position, where Laken Tomlinson and John Coleman are the top candidates.
Former Clemson offensive line coach Brad Scott has retired from coaching and former Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell has been hired as his replacement.

This is a great hire for Clemson, and an important piece to the offensive puzzle.

Caldwell has 33 years experience in college coaching, including stints at Furman (1978-85), NC State (1986-99), North Carolina (2000-01) and Vanderbilt (2002-10). He served as Vanderbilt’s head coach this past season after eight years as offensive line coach with the Commodores.

“Robbie Caldwell is a great fit for Clemson, our players and our coaching staff,” coach Dabo Swinney said in a prepared statement. “He is very similar to Coach Brad Scott in a number of ways and it should be a good transition for our players. It is a good time for a change from the standpoint that we have four returning starters in the offensive line.

“Robbie is one of the most respected coaches in the business. He is a proven offensive line coach and recruiter. He has 30 years of coaching experience and has developed some outstanding players over the years.

“He is a native of South Carolina who had a great career as a player and a coach at Furman. He knows this state and will be an asset to us in recruiting this area. We are pleased to have him join our staff.”

Scott will move into an administrative area within the Clemson athletic department, working primarily with the football office.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 6, 2010
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Here’s one final look at the SEC Power Rankings until after the bowl games:

1. Auburn: There’s no debate going into the bowl season on which the best team in the league is, and there hasn’t been for some time. The Tigers (13-0) own six wins over teams that finished in the Top 25 of the final BCS standings. Their 56-17 thrashing of South Carolina Saturday in the SEC championship game punched their ticket to play in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

2. Arkansas: The Hogs’ six-game winning streak down the stretch paid big dividends. They’re going to their first-ever BCS bowl when they face Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4. Arkansas (10-2) will get a chance to win 11 games in a season for the first time since 1977, Lou Holtz’s first season in Fayetteville.

3. LSU: The Tigers (10-2) lost out on a BCS bowl bid when they fell to Arkansas in Little Rock on the final day of the regular season. Still, their only two losses were to top-10 teams, and Les Miles’ club can likely a cement a top-10 finish in the polls with a win over Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

4. South Carolina: The Gamecocks (9-4) didn’t put up much of a fight in their 56-17 SEC championship game loss to Auburn, but there’s still something to be said for making it that far for the first time in school history. Even though the East was down this season, South Carolina did beat Alabama, which keeps the Gamecocks in the No. 4 spot.

5. Alabama: Had the Crimson Tide (9-3) been able to hold onto that 24-point lead over Auburn two weeks ago, they likely would be getting ready to play in the Sugar Bowl. But they didn’t and will have to settle for the Capital One Bowl. It’s one more chance for Alabama to put together a complete game, something that’s been a struggle all season.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs (8-4) got their Jan. 1 bowl date in Florida and deservingly so. They will take on Michigan in the Gator Bowl, although for a while last weekend it looked like they might get squeezed down to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.

7. Florida: When you’ve had a season like the one the Gators have, this is one of those bowl games that could either ease the pain or make it even worse heading into the offseason. Florida (7-5) is still stinging following its 31-7 loss to Florida State and looking for any semblance of offense it can find. The Gators get one last chance to find it in the Outback Bowl.

8. Georgia: The Bulldogs (6-6) kept alive their bowl streak. Their trip to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl to face Central Florida marks the 14th straight year they’ve played in a bowl game. They get a chance to keep alive another streak if they can win the game. Georgia hasn’t had a losing season since 1996.

9. Tennessee: The Vols (6-6) are one of those .500 teams that can’t wait to play again after finishing the regular season with four consecutive wins. They will take on North Carolina in the Music City Bowl, and most importantly, will get a couple more weeks of practice to continue developing one of the youngest collection of players in college football.

10. Kentucky: There was talk in the Kentucky camp back in the preseason of breaking through to that next level, but the Wildcats (6-6) could never string any quality wins together. They managed just two SEC wins, although one of those came over South Carolina. Still, they’re back in a bowl game for the fifth straight year, one of only five teams in the SEC that can say that.

11. Ole Miss: The third year for Houston Nutt at Ole Miss was anything but a charm. The Rebels (4-8) struggled from the outset when they lost to FCS foe Jacksonville State in the season opener, and it didn’t get any better from there. Nutt has preached patience to the fans after leading the Rebels to consecutive nine-win seasons in his first two years on the job.

12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores (2-10) suffered through their second consecutive 10-loss season, although they did manage to win an SEC game. It wasn’t enough for coach Robbie Caldwell to keep his job after just one season of leading the program, and Vanderbilt is currently searching for a new head coach.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 14

November, 29, 2010
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

With only the SEC championship game remaining before the bowl games, here’s a look at this week’s SEC Power Rankings:

1. Auburn: The Tigers (12-0, 8-0) completed a perfect regular season with their greatest comeback in school history, rallying from a 24-0 deficit to win 28-27 at Alabama on Friday. Gene Chizik’s club also went to No. 1 in this week’s BCS standings and deservedly so. It is the only team in the country with five wins against teams currently ranked in the Top 25 of the BCS standings.

2. Arkansas: What a finish to the season for Bobby Petrino and the Hogs. They took care of LSU 31-23 on Saturday in Little Rock to win their sixth straight game. Arkansas (10-2, 6-2) will now turn into big Auburn fans. If the Tigers can win Saturday in the SEC championship game, the Hogs will play in their first BCS bowl game in school history. They’ve averaged 42.5 points during their six-game winning streak.

3. LSU: Hoping to lock down a BCS bowl trip, the Tigers (10-2, 6-2) fell Saturday to Arkansas in a 31-23 loss. While 10-win seasons in the SEC are never anything to undervalue, LSU could have easily been in the national championship mix if not for a couple of big plays given up on defense. The 70-yard touchdown run by Onterio McCalebb in the fourth quarter of the Auburn game was a killer along with Arkansas’ 85-yard touchdown pass right before halftime. In fairness, though, the Tigers’ defense carried them for most of the season.

4. South Carolina: Here the Head Ball Coach is, in the SEC championship game for the first time in South Carolina history, and Steve Spurrier has the Gamecocks (9-3, 5-3) playing some of their best football of the season. What’s most impressive about what they’ve done these past two weeks after clinching the Eastern Division title at Florida on Nov. 13 is the way they’ve put teams away and played with a killer instinct. The Gamecocks romped past arch-rival Clemson 29-7 Saturday on the road.

5. Alabama: Nick Saban preaches consistency, but the Crimson Tide (9-3, 5-3) lacked consistency all season. That was never more apparent than this past Friday when they looked like the best team in the country in the first half against Auburn in building a 24-0 lead and then unraveling across the board in the second half and losing 28-27. The injuries to Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson didn’t help, and the inexperience in the secondary reared its head more than once, but this was a team that didn’t play to its talent level this season.

6. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen’s going to get some SEC Coach of the Year consideration, and the guys on his staff also deserve some props. The Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4) were limited on offense, but improved as the season went along and committed to running the football. They rose to the challenge defensively time and time again and had to go through the type of tragedy with senior defensive end Nick Bell dying that would have completely deflated a lot of football teams. The Bulldogs have been the essence of resilience and are easily the most improved team in the league.

7. Florida: The Gators (7-5, 4-4) were on top of the college football world in 2008 and 2009, winning 22 straight games at one point. Now, coming off a terribly disappointing 2010 regular season, coach Urban Meyer is suddenly talking about rebuilding things. That’s how bad this season was, particularly on offense. Florida was spanked 31-7 Saturday by bitter rival Florida State, the first time Meyer has lost to the Seminoles. The Gators scored seven points or fewer in three games this season.

8. Georgia: The Bulldogs (6-6, 3-5) were the second most disappointing team in the league this season behind Florida. It wasn’t a complete bust, though, because Georgia did beat Georgia Tech this past Saturday at home to become bowl-eligible. The season started ominously enough with star receiver A.J. Green being suspended for the first four games, and it never got a lot better. The Bulldogs didn’t beat anybody that finished the season with a winning record.

9. Tennessee: All of a sudden, things are looking up for the Vols (6-6, 3-5). They completed a November sweep with a 24-14 victory against Kentucky on Saturday and are headed to a bowl game, probably the Music City Bowl. This is a team that appeared to be dead in the water after going 0-for-October, but some strong senior leadership, a soft November schedule and the insertion of freshman quarterback Tyler Bray gave the Vols new life. Their base of young talent on offense is impressive.

10. Kentucky: The good news for the Wildcats (6-6, 2-6) is that that they’re going back to a bowl game for the fifth straight year. But their players and their coaches will be the first ones to tell you they didn’t get everything out of this season that they wanted. The biggest blow came Saturday when they lost for the 26th straight time to Tennessee. They did have the big win over South Carolina, which is the main reason they’re not 11th this week. They lost to Ole Miss head-to-head during the season.

11. Ole Miss: It was one of those seasons for the Rebels (4-8, 1-7) they’d like to purge from the record books forever. Nothing ever went right for them, starting with the very first game when they lost in double-overtime at home to FCS foe Jacksonville State. The defense was shredded all season long. There were multiple player suspensions, and you can’t help but wonder what impact bringing in quarterback Jeremiah Masoli at the last minute had on the team. The schedule was supposed to be easy this season, but the Rebels made it look hard.

12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores (2-10) suffered through their second straight 10-loss season with coach Robbie Caldwell going one-and-done. He announced prior to last Saturday’s 34-13 loss to Wake Forest that he was stepping down as coach. Caldwell was in a tough position to begin with, replacing Bobby Johnson just a few weeks before the start of preseason practice. Injuries decimated the Commodores this season along with an offense that simply was nowhere near SEC-caliber.

Caldwell steps down at Vanderbilt

November, 27, 2010
Robbie Caldwell was in a tough spot.

No, he was an impossible spot.

Caldwell, who announced Saturday he was stepping down following the season, was handed the keys to the Vanderbilt football program a mere weeks before preseason practice began this year when Bobby Johnson abruptly retired.

His Commodores probably played their two best games of the season in the first three weeks of the season. They lost a close one at home to Northwestern to open the season and then beat Ole Miss by two touchdowns on the road two weeks later.

Other than a rout of hapless Eastern Michigan, it’s been all downhill since.

Vanderbilt enters Saturday night’s finale against Wake Forest having lost its past six games by a combined margin of 230-65.

Even by Vanderbilt’s standards, the injuries have mounted to staggering proportions.

The offensive limitations that have gripped this program for the past couple of years have only intensified this season. The few playmakers the Commodores did have (Warren Norman and Zac Stacy) have been injured.

It’s also been a struggle the whole way for junior quarterback Larry Smith, who’s completed just 47.4 percent of his passes.

Whoever the Commodores go after has to figure out a way to pump some offensive life into this program.

And those who run the program have to be willing to give back.

If Vanderbilt is going to have any chance to genuinely compete in the SEC, there needs to be more of a commitment to improving facilities, renovating Vanderbilt Stadium and adding the kind of amenities that attract great football players.

Even then, this is one of the toughest jobs in all of major college football.

Some might say an impossible job.

And while Caldwell’s never going to be remembered for how many games he won as a head coach, he will be remembered for the way he treated people, the way he could light up a room and the way he was always willing to sacrifice for the good of his players, the good of his fellow coaches and the good of his team.

SEC predictions: Week 13

November, 24, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

It’s rivalry week in the SEC, which means the picks always get a little tougher.

Or course, with the roll I’m on right now, tougher is better.

I’m Larry Bird, and the basket looks the size of the Pacific Ocean.

I’m Jack Nicklaus, and the cup looks the size of the Grand Canyon.

I’m Les Miles, and the scrumptious blades of green grass stretch on forever.

You get the idea.

I was 6-0 last week and am now 72-16 (.818) for the season. Over the past five weeks, I’m a scorching 29-3.

They absolutely remember what you do in November, and here we go with my picks for Week 13:


Alabama 34, Auburn 31: It’s difficult to see either defense shutting the other offense down, which means it’s going to get down to who can make a clutch stand defensively in the second half or force a timely turnover. Alabama’s passing game will be the key. If Greg McElroy is on, which he has been for most of this season, look for him to take advantage of a suspect Auburn secondary. Cam Newton will get his yards, but the Crimson Tide will get the win.


Arkansas 31, LSU 21: It’s always a treat to watch one of the best offenses in the SEC go up against one of the best defenses. Of course, LSU didn’t play like one of the best defenses last week in its 43-36 escape against Ole Miss, and Arkansas’ offense is more explosive than ever now that Knile Davis has become such a home-run threat in the running game. The Hogs are playing as well as anybody in the league right now, which will only be reinforced Saturday in Little Rock.

Ole Miss 30, Mississippi State 24: The “school up north” hasn’t had a lot to cheer about this season. In fact, it’s been one of those seasons most fans of the “school up north” would just as soon forget. That’s why we have rivalry games. One win can help make up for an entire season of disappointment. The “school up north” is due to put one of those wins together Saturday at home.

Tennessee 37, Kentucky 34: The Vols and Wildcats should make an agreement before the game that the first team to 40 points wins. In other words, don’t look for a lot of defense in this one. The Vols are starting to believe right now after winning three in a row, and even though history doesn’t win football games, it’s difficult to get past Tennessee’s 25-game winning streak in this series.

Florida State 24, Florida 17: Urban Meyer has owned his rivals since taking over at Florida in 2005 and has never lost to Florida State. There’s a first time for everything, especially when your offense is as hit and miss as the Gators have been this season on that side of the ball. Playing at home, the Seminoles will turn to their defense to end a six-game losing streak to the Gators.

South Carolina 27, Clemson 21: Yes, I know all about the history in this rivalry and that Clemson has dominated and South Carolina hasn't won two in a row since the Gamecocks won three straight from 1968-70. But repeating something the Head Ball Coach said back in August, this is a different South Carolina football team, not to mention a South Carolina team with Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery taking turns carving opposing defenses apart. If the Chicken Curse were still hovering, South Carolina fans would have reason for concern. But it was permanently exorcised at the Swamp two weeks ago, meaning the Gamecocks get their ninth win of the season Saturday.

Georgia 38, Georgia Tech 21: Georgia redshirt freshman Aaron Murray has had time to rest up after taking a beating in the Auburn game two weeks ago. He should be good to go, and so should A.J. Green in what will almost certainly be his final game in Sanford Stadium. A couple of farewell touchdowns by Green will send the Yellow Jackets packing.

Vanderbilt 28, Wake Forest 24: As bad as Vanderbilt looked last week in a 24-10 loss to Tennessee, there’s still some life left in the Commodores. For one, they see a Wake Forest team that has lost nine in a row. They also may be playing for their coach, Robbie Caldwell, who conceded this week that there are no guarantees he will be back next season.

On tap: The ACC vs. SEC Challenge

November, 23, 2010
As we brace for the ACC vs. SEC Challenge this weekend, it’s important to note that the sport of choice will be football.

My ACC colleague, Heather Dinich, gets that confused sometimes.

The SEC went 3-0 a year ago during the final week of the regular season, and this year, we actually have four games. Vanderbilt also takes on Wake Forest at home.

The other three: Florida at Florida State, South Carolina at Clemson and Georgia Tech at Georgia.

Of the three, I’d say Florida has the toughest task. The Seminoles have a rock-solid defense and really get after the quarterback. The Gators, on the other hand, have been pretty rotten for much of this season on offense.

South Carolina will be battling history on Saturday. The Gamecocks, who beat up on Clemson 34-17 a year ago, haven’t won two straight over the Tigers since winning three in a row from 1968-70.

Georgia will be trying to win its second in a row over Georgia Tech after upsetting the Yellow Jackets last season in Atlanta. Mark Richt has definitely had Georgia Tech’s number. He’s 8-1 against the Yellow Jackets since taking over at Georgia in 2001.

And for Vanderbilt, this may well be Robbie Caldwell’s last game as the Commodores’ head coach. It’s also a chance to surpass last season’s win total of two. It’s been a struggle across the board for Vanderbilt this season, but the Commodores meet up with a Wake Forest team that’s struggled even more. The Deacons have lost nine in a row.

The SEC already has a head start. LSU beat North Carolina. Auburn beat Clemson, and Alabama defeated Duke earlier this season to give the SEC a 3-0 record.

By late Saturday night, the guess here is that we’ll be looking at a 6-1 tally in favor of the SEC.

The bowl season will give us two more ACC vs. SEC matchups in the Chick-fil-A and Music City bowls.

Those were both ACC wins last season, so the SEC has some unfinished business in the postseason.

And no, Heather, we’re not talking about the NCAA tournament.

Doctoring comes natural for John Stokes

November, 17, 2010
John Stokes’ football career is winding to a close, but he’s about to embark on another much more important career.

Stokes, Vanderbilt’s senior outside linebacker, plans on being a doctor. He was accepted into the Vanderbilt School of Medicine as a sophomore through the school’s early acceptance program.

Only a miniscule number of Vanderbilt sophomores are accepted into the program each year. To remain in the program, students have to maintain a 3.5 GPA while fulfilling their pre-med requirements.

It’s the kind of curriculum that isn’t for just anybody.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt linebacker John Stokes
AP Photo/Frederick BreedonLinebacker John Stokes (49) -- shown here carrying the "Anchor of Gold" with Tim Fugger (42) -- has been accepted into the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, but will test the NFL waters as a long snapper.
But imagine playing SEC football and trying to keep up with that kind of academic schedule.

Stokes doesn’t have to imagine. He’s done it for the last two years and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.

“This football team had a lot higher hopes, and I’m not going to sit here and say anybody is happy with the way this season has gone,” said Stokes, who’s third on Vanderbilt’s team with 69 total tackles. “But I love the people here, love my teammates, love this staff and love this school.

“It’s a great school, and I have great relationships with my professors and great friends. I’m a stronger, tougher person for having played football in the SEC and then going to class Monday through Friday at an institution the caliber of Vanderbilt and doing the best I can in both of those.

“I’m going to walk out of here absolutely happy, not necessarily with the way it’s gone in football, but with the experience as a whole.”

Stokes is scheduled to start med school in August 2011, although he has the option to defer enrollment for two years.

He may take a peek at making an NFL roster as a deep snapper, which was one of his duties for the Commodores until he tore a tendon in his pinkie finger.

“I haven’t really looked into it, to see if it’s an option or if I’m good enough,” Stokes said. “I plan on at least finding out what my chances are.”

While snapping footballs may be in his immediate future, helping people is where his heart is.

His desire to be a doctor only intensified this past May when he traveled to South Africa with his brother, Will, and spent four weeks working on AIDS relief and prevention through the United States Agency for International Development.

“It was neat to see the potential doctors have to really, really help people, and that’s what excites me the most about medicine,” Stokes said.

The South African trip was Stokes’ first medical out-of-the country experience, but hardly his first mission trip.

He’s been to Belize two different times during his time at Vanderbilt as part of Manna Project International, a nonprofit organization started at Vanderbilt that offers aid to Central America. Stokes serves on the campus group’s executive board.

“It was important to me to be as involved as I possibly could,” Stokes said. “When I was in South Africa, I dealt first-hand with people who were struggling and hurting, and to be able to change somebody’s life in a positive way is why you get into the medical field.”

Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell said Stokes personifies what a student-athlete is supposed to be.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around one in 35 years of coaching like John,” Caldwell said. “Matter of fact, I know I haven’t. He’s a leader on and off the field, in the locker room and in the community. You name it, and he’s done it. He’s an honor student and never missed anything football-related that I know of. When you’re a pre-med student, you could have all kinds of excuses, particularly here at Vanderbilt, but not John.

“Words can’t describe what he’s meant to our program. I mean this in the utmost way, but he’s been the Mother Teresa of football. He gives his effort, his energy, everything he has to make other people’s lives better.”

SEC predictions: Week 11

November, 11, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Just like making birdies on Nos. 14, 15 and 16, it’s nice to be hitting a hot streak in my picks as we approach Week 11.

I was 7-1 last week, the only miss being LSU’s 24-21 win over Alabama, which makes me 17-2 over the past three weeks. Yep, I'm pretty much in the zone right now.

For the season, I’ve climbed back to the .800 plateau with a 60-15 mark.

And get this: I’m still picking games that mean something. My esteemed ACC colleague, Heather Dinich, quit doing that the third week of the season.

Without further ado, my picks for Week 11:

Florida 28, South Carolina 21: The Head Ball Coach returns to the Swamp with a trip to the SEC championship game at stake. A lot of people never thought he would make it this far at South Carolina. But here he is. The only problem is that it appears the Gamecocks might have peaked too early this season. They’re not playing their best football, and the Gators are. Throw in the Swamp factor, and it all adds up to a Florida win and a third straight trip to the SEC championship game.

Auburn 38, Georgia 31: There may not be 108 points scored in this one like the Arkansas-Auburn shootout last month, but you might want to loosen up the old neck muscles before watching. It’s going to be a track meet. Georgia certainly has the offensive firepower to pull off the upset, and Auburn has had its share of off-the-field issues to deal with. But the Tigers have been clutch all season in the fourth quarter, and that’s not going to change now.

Alabama 24, Mississippi State 17: It’s been a while since the Crimson Tide have played a November game when they weren’t trying to keep alive their national championship hopes. Those hopes went down the drain last week at LSU, so we’ll see how Alabama responds. Mississippi State is still coping with the death of defensive end Nick Bell last week. The Bulldogs have won six in a row, but the Tide will find a way to pull this one out at home.

Tennessee 31, Ole Miss 28: The Vols haven’t had a lot of good things happen to them this season, but they’ve hung in there. Freshman quarterback Tyler Bray has provided a spark, and the receiving corps is finally healthy. Ole Miss is hopeful of getting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli back from a concussion. In the end, Tennessee’s defense will make more key stops than Ole Miss’ defense in the second half, and the Vols will keep alive their bowl hopes.

Kentucky 31, Vanderbilt 17: The Wildcats need one more win to ensure their fifth straight bowl appearance, and they will get it against a Vanderbilt team that’s limping to the finish -- literally. Every time Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell turns around, he’s losing another player. His entire running back stable has been decimated by injuries.

LSU 35, Louisiana-Monroe 3: They’re all of a sudden loving “The Hat.” Well, not everybody. There is always going to be that sect of fans who grumble following a big win because they think it means they’re stuck that much longer with Les Miles, who by the way is 59-16 at LSU. The Tigers shouldn’t have any problem this week, although it probably won’t be pretty coming off the emotional high of beating Alabama.

Arkansas 41, UTEP 14: Steve Spurrier said earlier this week that the Hogs were as good as any team he’s seen this season. Despite some key injuries, Bobby Petrino has his club playing some of its best football. Arkansas gets a breather this week before jumping back into SEC play. A 10-win season remains very possible for the Hogs.

SEC predictions: Week 8

October, 21, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Go ahead and throw me in the SEC’s Eastern Division.

That’s about where I belong with my mediocre record for picking games to this point.

I might have to pull an Urban Meyer and do an extensive self evaluation to see where it’s going wrong. Then again, I’m not ready to say I’m struggling as much as the Florida offense.

At least, not yet.

Anyway (as the Head Ball Coach would say), I was 4-2 last week and am now 43-13 (.768) for the season. I missed Kentucky’s win over South Carolina and Mississippi State’s win over Florida.

I need to start taking more chances if I’m going to get back to that .800 plateau. The tricky part is knowing when to take those chances. Where's Les Miles when you need him?

To get some of that Miles karma working this week, I had my hat sitting directly on top of my head in Miles-esque fashion when I made my picks. I can assure you there is a sincere want to achieve victory this week, but I will hold in abeyance any braggadocios chatter about what my record will be once we cease competition.

Here goes:

Auburn 28, LSU 24: This one was perhaps the toughest of the season so far to call. LSU is terrific on defense. Auburn is terrific on offense. Both teams have made a ton of clutch plays to get to this point. In the end, I just don’t see LSU being able to score enough points to keep up with Auburn, which has been a juggernaut in the fourth quarter this season. They're already stocking up on toilet paper at Toomer's Corner.

Alabama 27, Tennessee 10: It’s not the Third Saturday in October this year, and it hasn’t been much of a rivalry since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide have won three in a row, although Terrence Cody’s blocked field goal saved them last season. Cody won’t be around to save them this season. But it won’t matter. The Vols simply don’t have the horses and will be fortunate to even keep it close.

Georgia 35, Kentucky 31: The last time Georgia ventured up to the Bluegrass, it was a track meet with the two teams combining for 80 points. This one has that same feel. The Bulldogs are a different offense with A.J. Green in the lineup, and the Wildcats have playmakers all over the field. Kentucky has been awfully resilient this season, but Georgia looks like it’s hitting its stride at just the right time and finally starting to put it all together.

Arkansas 38, Ole Miss 28: The Houston Nutt Bowl III doesn’t have quite the drama the first two did. It’s sort of become old hat now, although I’m not sure Nutt and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino are exactly pen pals. Nutt has yet to lose to the Hogs since he left, but this will be the best Arkansas team he’s faced. In the end, the Rebels won’t be able to slow down the Hogs defensively.

South Carolina 28, Vanderbilt 17: The Commodores have been hard on the Head Ball Coach. In fact, Bobby Johnson sort of owned him these past couple of years. Johnson’s retired now and playing golf, and the onus is on Robbie Caldwell to figure out a way to get this game into the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks are still smarting from their loss at Kentucky last week, but they’ll find a way to snap their seven-game SEC road losing streak.

Mississippi State 31, UAB 14: There’s a lot of momentum right now in the Mississippi State program. The Bulldogs are playing well, playing with confidence and getting a little national love with their first appearance in the Top 25 polls in nine years. They get a chance to run their winning streak to five straight games Saturday. There might be a little bit of an emotional letdown coming off such a big win, but not enough to lose this game.

SEC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 18, 2010
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

For the second straight week, we’ve had some shakeup in the SEC power rankings:

1. Auburn: It’s hard to get much better than seven straight wins, and it’s hard to get much better than junior quarterback Cam Newton is playing right now. Here’s the other thing: The Tigers (7-0, 4-0 SEC) have owned the fourth quarter this season. Still, if they’re going to stay unbeaten, they will have to get better on defense, especially when it comes to stopping the pass.

2. Alabama: Nobody was talking up the artistic value of Alabama’s 23-10 win over Ole Miss this past weekend, but the Crimson Tide (6-1, 3-1) did look like they ironed out some things defensively. The offense is another story. The running game sputtered for a second straight week, making the No. 2 spot a close call between Alabama and LSU. Sooner or later, though, you know Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson are going to get it going again.

3. LSU: The Tigers (7-0, 4-0) get a chance to make believers out of everybody once and for all this Saturday at Auburn. A win on the Plains would shoot LSU to the top of the SEC Power Rankings, and more importantly, would enhance its positioning in the BCS standings. There’s no question that LSU has a championship-caliber defense. But as evidenced again in a sluggish 32-10 win over McNeese State, the jury is still out on the Tigers offensively. They finished with just 282 yards of total offense.

4. South Carolina: After blowing such a sweet opportunity to really position themselves nicely in the Eastern Division race and maybe even the first BCS standings, the Gamecocks (4-2, 2-2) probably don’t deserve to be this high. But who else are you going to put in this slot? Stephen Garcia’s pass there at the end of the 31-28 loss to Kentucky was a poor one. But why are you not going to Alshon Jeffery in that situation? South Carolina’s secondary didn’t even bother to make the trip.

5. Mississippi State: One of the hottest teams in the league is also the most improved team. The Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2) have won four straight and can make it five in a row this weekend with a win at home over UAB. The 10-7 win at Florida last weekend was their first in Gainesville since 1965. This defense is playing with a purpose, and the running game is the real deal. Dan Mullen has this club positioned for a nice bowl game if the Bulldogs can finish the job.

6. Arkansas: The big question around Fayetteville centers around quarterback Ryan Mallett. How badly is he hurt? He suffered a concussion in the first half of Arkansas’ 65-43 loss to Auburn. His symptoms are improving, according to Arkansas officials, but there are no guarantees for this weekend against Ole Miss. Tyler Wilson played extremely well for the Hogs (4-2, 1-2) in relief of Mallett until the two late interceptions. But that Arkansas defense, which had shown marked improvement, was pillaged last weekend on the Plains.

7. Georgia: A lot of people wrote off Georgia after that four-game losing streak, but the Bulldogs (3-4, 2-3) have put together two impressive games in a row, albeit against Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Still, Mark Richt and his staff have made some adjustments. The defense is starting to play better, and having A.J. Green back on offense makes a world of difference. If the Bulldogs can win at Kentucky this weekend, that makes the game in Jacksonville on Oct. 30 awfully interesting.

8. Florida: No need to rub your eyes. Florida is working its way a little further down the SEC Power Rankings each week. The Gators (4-3, 2-3) have lost three straight games, and by their own coach’s admission, aren’t a very good football team. More specifically, they’re not a very good offensive football team. In fact, they’re a bad offensive football team and getting worse. If ever a team needed a bye week to figure some things out, it’s this one. The Gators are off this weekend before facing Georgia on Oct. 30.

9. Kentucky: After so many close losses, Kentucky (4-3, 1-3) came through with a huge 31-28 win over South Carolina on Saturday. The Wildcats rallied from a 28-10 halftime deficit, which is particularly impressive when you consider they’d lost three in a row coming into the game. Senior quarterback Mike Hartline is playing the best football of his career, and this team took a big step toward securing its fifth straight bowl appearance.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels (3-3, 1-2) competed hard and played respectably in their 23-10 loss to Alabama, although Houston Nutt didn’t go to Tuscaloosa looking for moral victories. The bright spot was the way that the Ole Miss defensive line played and kept the team in the game. It’s the way most people expected the Rebels to play all season up front. They’re still going to have to turn it on down the stretch to ensure themselves a bowl game, starting with a trip to Arkansas this coming weekend.

11. Tennessee: The Vols (2-4, 0-3) are coming off a much needed week off and take on Alabama at home this Saturday. They’re trying to keep from going 0-for-October, although that’s going to be a chore. After Alabama’s visit, Tennessee travels to South Carolina to close out the month. The Vols should be healthier for this stretch. Offensive guard JerQuari Schofield (foot) is expected back at practice after being out since the Florida game. Defensive tackle Montori Hughes and offensive tackle Dallas Thomas have also had some time to recover from ankle injuries.

12. Vanderbilt: All the equity Vanderbilt built up with its win at Ole Miss earlier this season went down the drain Saturday and sent the Commodores (2-4, 1-2) spiraling to the bottom of this week’s SEC Power Rankings. The 43-0 loss to Georgia was Vanderbilt’s worst in seven years. The Commodores were outclassed in every phase of the game in what coach Robbie Caldwell called an embarrassing performance.

SEC predictions: Week 5

September, 30, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

At the very least, I proved last week that I am a man of my word.

There I was, sporting a Hog Head just off Dickson Street in Fayetteville and even did a video wearing it after promising to do so if I missed the Arkansas-Georgia pick, which I did.

And even though I picked against the Hogs for a second week in a row (and got it right this time against Alabama), I can’t emphasize enough what a blast it was to be there for such a highly-anticipated game, to experience what was an unbelievable atmosphere all weekend long and to meet so many great Arkansas fans.

I hope to be back soon.

That said, I also need to get back on track with my picks. I was 5-2 last week, missing Auburn’s 35-27 win over South Carolina and Mississippi State’s 24-12 win over Georgia.

I’ve picked against Auburn twice this year and gotten burned and picked Georgia to win twice and gotten burned.

Maybe I’ll learn at some point.

My overall record is 28-8 (.777), which has me squarely on the hot seat.

If we were shooting free throws, I’d be able to live with that percentage. But we’re not. We’re picking football games, and anything below .800 is disgraceful.

If my percentage drops much lower, I’m going to have my ACC colleague, Heather Dinich, come over and start picking games for me. She doesn’t have a lot to do. The ACC was out of the national championship picture several weeks ago, although basketball practice does start up here in a few weeks.

Anyway (as the Head Ball Coach would say), let’s take a look at my Week 5 picks:

Alabama 27, Florida 17: It always makes for high drama when the two biggest, baddest dudes on the block get it on. That’s what Alabama and Florida have been in the SEC the past couple of years. Their last two meetings were two of the most anticipated games in recent SEC history. This is their first regular-season meeting since 2006. The Gators’ defense will see to it that they hang around in this game, but the Crimson Tide’s offensive line and running game will see to it that they pull away in the second half.

LSU 28, Tennessee 9: With the way LSU has been struggling on offense, the Tigers’ margin for error isn’t very wide. Good thing they’ve been lights out on defense and Patrick Peterson is returning kicks for them. They get a Tennessee team on Saturday that has been dreadful on third down, both offensively and defensively. The Vols, who had to go into double overtime last week before defeating UAB, are painfully inexperienced and equally thin. This will also be their first road trip of the season. Tiger Stadium is no place to get acclimated to the road in this league.

Ole Miss 31, Kentucky 28: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt was throwing out Michael Jordan analogies this week to inspire his players. The Rebels haven’t had a lot go right this season, although they did erupt offensively last week in the 55-38 win over Fresno State. Jeremiah Masoli is starting to look more comfortable in that offense, and Kentucky’s defense looked spotty last week at Florida. The Rebels will get just enough big plays from Masoli to pull out the win.

Georgia 30, Colorado 17: Colorado gave up 52 points to Cal earlier this season. So if the Bulldogs are ever going to get it going offensively for an entire 60 minutes, this is their chance. Going across the country to play a football game is never easy, but getting star receiver A.J. Green back will be worth an extra touchdown or two. He’s that good. Moreover, getting him back should help everybody’s confidence. It goes without saying that Mark Richt and his embattled coaching staff could use a win, any win. They’ll get it Saturday in Boulder.

Connecticut 24, Vanderbilt 20: The Commodores have had a week off and should be healthier this week. Their running back stable was especially banged up coming out of that Ole Miss win two weeks ago. The Huskies were beaten soundly in both of their road games this season, at Michigan and at Temple, but have been a different team at home. The last time the Commodores beat a BCS nonconference opponent on the road was 2006 against Duke. Unfortunately for Robbie Caldwell’s club, that’s a drought that will continue.

Auburn 48, Louisiana-Monroe 10: The Tigers have had two tough games in a row at home, coming from behind both times and flexing their muscles in the second half. They get a tune-up game this week, their fourth home game of the season, and shouldn’t need to go into the second half to pull this one out. The real goal may be keeping quarterback Cameron Newton’s uniform clean. He’s already carried the ball 75 times this season. Maybe this is the game the Tigers get to rest most of their regulars in the second half.

Mississippi State 34, Alcorn State 7: The Bulldogs played with a real sense of urgency last week and were rewarded with a 24-12 win over Georgia. This is a defense that continues to improve under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz and has played well enough to win in every game. With quarterback Chris Relf playing one of the best games of his career last week, maybe this is a team ready to take off. The Bulldogs need to win these next two, starting with Alcorn State on Saturday, and be 4-2 going into that Florida game on Oct. 16.

Commodores' Caldwell ready for a break

September, 22, 2010
Fresh off Vanderbilt’s first SEC win since the end of the 2008 season, first-year coach Robbie Caldwell wouldn’t mind bottling that momentum and playing again this weekend.

But the Commodores, who didn’t have a bye a year ago and had to play 12 straight weeks, are idle this Saturday.

The more Caldwell surveys the situation, the better off he thinks the Commodores will be to have an open date before traveling to Connecticut on Oct. 2 and then coming home to face Eastern Michigan on Oct. 9.

As bleak as it looked for Vanderbilt following that 27-3 home loss to LSU the second week of the season, it’s not outlandish to think the Commodores could be 3-2 overall going into that Georgia game on Oct. 16.

Caldwell, who on his worst day could manage a few folksy jokes, said what he’s really looking forward to this Saturday is lying on the couch all day, doing nothing and watching football.

“Of course, my wife won’t let me do that,” Caldwell said. “I’ve got all them honey-dos. I’ve got to aerate the yard and throw out some grass seed. But believe you me, I’m going to throw me something on the grill and watch me a little bit (of football) and laugh at everybody else having all the pressure on them that day.”

Caldwell said this week will be especially beneficial for the Commodores’ running backs to get healthier. Warren Norman had some fluid drained from his knee.

“We hope that helps him pick up some quickness and a step he hasn’t had,” Caldwell said.

Norman had arthroscopic knee surgery in late August. Zac Stacy (knee) and Wesley Tate (foot) have also not been 100 percent because of injuries.

Even with the extra week off, Caldwell isn’t optimistic the Commodores will get back defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone (ankle) and tight end Brandon Barden (foot). Both players were injured in the 28-14 win over Ole Miss last Saturday.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 3

September, 19, 2010
With three weeks in the books, let the hype begin for two huge showdowns in the SEC next week.

Alabama travels to Arkansas and South Carolina travels to Auburn. The four teams are a combined 12-0.

Before we start looking too far ahead, though, let’s take a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 3:

Mark Ingram
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisMark Ingram was back to his old self in Saturday's win over Duke.
1. Alabama’s dominance: It’s hard to argue at this point that Alabama isn’t the class of the SEC by a wide margin, although we’re going to find out for sure over these next three weeks. The Crimson Tide have been dominant, their latest conquest a 62-13 demolition of Duke on Saturday. David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils’ coach, said afterward that it’s the best Alabama team he’s ever coached against, and Cutcliffe saw his share of powerful Alabama teams as a longtime assistant at Tennessee. Similar to the past two years, there just doesn’t appear to be any weaknesses with this Alabama team despite all the great players the Crimson Tide lost on defense from a year ago. Offensively, they’re more explosive than they’ve ever been, especially with Mark Ingram back as good as new from his knee surgery. If they need to win a shootout, they can. Yet, they’ve given up only one meaningless touchdown in their first three games on defense. What’s that old saying about reloading?

2. Florida’s offensive problems: After three games, it’s safe to say that Florida’s offensive problems are real. It’s not just a mirage we’ve all witnessed these first three weeks, and the reality is that maybe this is simply who the Gators are offensively right now. They start poorly. They’re not real creative, at least not to this point. They don’t throw the ball down the field very well. John Brantley’s longest pass remains that 25-yard heave against Miami (Ohio) that was tipped around and caught for a touchdown by Chris Rainey at the end of the game. They’ve struggled to make the tough yards, and Brantley is still learning on the job. He’s yet to throw for more than 175 yards in a game. They’re leaning on Jeff Demps, and he’s no doubt a special player. But at this rate, he’ll have a difficult time getting out of bed by the sixth week of the season. Simply, this is an offense that has to get a lot better if the Gators are going to even think about winning their third SEC championship in the past five years.

3. Door wide open for Gamecocks: That smacking sound you’re hearing coming out of Columbia, S.C., is the Head Ball Coach licking his lips. It goes without saying that this is unequivocally his best chance to get to Atlanta and play for the SEC championship since he took the South Carolina job in 2005. For one, this is his most complete football team at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks already have a key Eastern Division win over Georgia. Secondly, when you survey the rest of the East, South Carolina makes as much sense as anybody to win the division. The offenses in the East have all had their issues the first three weeks. In fact, Kentucky might have the best offense of the bunch. But the Gamecocks have a go-to running back in freshman Marcus Lattimore, some big, physical receiving threats in the passing game and a defense that’s always going to be a load under Ellis Johnson. The one thing working against the Gamecocks is their schedule. They have to play at Auburn and at Florida, with Alabama and Arkansas both coming to Columbia. Still, you get the feeling that if the Gamecocks are ever going to do it, this is their year.

4. Great receivers galore: When we did our preseason countdown of the Top 25 players in the SEC, eight of those players were either receivers or tight ends. The first three weeks of this season has only confirmed that the guys catching footballs in this league are a cut above, and the best one has yet to play. Georgia’s A.J. Green still has one more game to sit as part of his NCAA-mandated suspension, and the Bulldogs miss his quick-strike ability immensely. But look at all the other receivers and tight ends off to great starts in this league. Auburn’s Darvin Adams had been sort of quiet, but erupted Saturday against Clemson in the second half. Arkansas has three players among the league leaders -- receivers Greg Childs and Joe Adams and tight end D.J. Williams. South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery and Alabama’s Julio Jones have both been sensational to this point, and there’s not a better all-around player in college football than Kentucky’s Randall Cobb.

5. Commodore pride: It had been a rough ride for the Vanderbilt football program. Ten straight SEC losses has a way of wearing on anybody, especially when you’d scored just five offensive touchdowns during that stretch. But first-year coach Robbie Caldwell, his staff and his players kept the faith and never quit plugging along. That pride was obvious Saturday in the 28-14 win at Ole Miss. The Commodores were playing without a couple of key players in their secondary (safety Jay Fullam and cornerback Jamie Graham) and lost defensive tackle and co-captain T.J. Greenstone early in the game to an ankle injury. Still, they forced three turnovers, including an interception return for a touchdown by Eddie Foster, recovered from a dismal first quarter offensively to rush for 227 yards and proved emphatically that there’s still a lot of fight left in a team that some people left for dead following last week’s 27-3 home loss to LSU.