SEC: Cam Newton

It's the Season, as in singular. There can be only one, which means along the way we had to make some some gargantuan choices.

This is what we set out to determine -- one great season by an individual that can be considered the best in the history of all 128 FBS schools. ESPN.com writers and editors, in consultation with sports information directors, settled on one player for each school.

As you would imagine in the SEC, there were some incredibly close calls. These are the top three, and we'd like your help to see if we got it right.


Auburn

Cam Newton, quarterback, 2010
SportsNation

Who had the best season in Auburn history?

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    46%
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Discuss (Total votes: 4,700)

Newton played just one season at Auburn, and boy, was it epic. He won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, led the Tigers to an undefeated season and the BCS National Championship. His numbers were eye-popping: 4,369 yards of total offense, 51 touchdowns to lead the nation, 1,473 yards rushing to lead the SEC. It was, quite simply, one of the most dominant individual efforts in NCAA history.

Bo Jackson, running back, 1985
Twenty-five years before Newton, Jackson became a legend at Auburn with his intoxicating blend of speed, power and grace. He won the Heisman Trophy after running for 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry, which at the time was the best in SEC history. Jackson was recently named the greatest athlete of all time by ESPN Sport Science.


Tennessee

SportsNation

Who had the best season in Tennessee history?

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    77%
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    23%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,177)

Peyton Manning, quarterback, 1997
Few question Manning's place as the greatest Vol of all time. Heck, they even renamed one of the roads leading to Neyland Stadium, changing it to "Peyton Manning Pass." He surprised many by returning to Tennessee for his senior year and delivered an SEC championship after a 10-1 season. He threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns, which earned him the runner-up spot to Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in the Heisman Trophy voting. Manning was, however, a consensus first-team All-American and won plenty of hardware after his memorable final season at Tennessee, including the Maxwell Award, the Davey O'Brien Award and the Johnny Unitas Award.

Reggie White, defensive end, 1983
Before he became known as the "Minister of Defense," White was a relentless, dominating defensive end for the Volunteers. After a subpar junior year (by his standards), White was a force of nature in his final season wearing Tennessee orange. He set the school's single-season record with 15 sacks, and also had nine tackles-for-loss and an interception. White recorded 100 tackles, including 72 solo stops -- ridiculous numbers for a lineman. He was named the SEC Player of the Year, a Lombardi Award finalist and was a consensus All-American.


Ole Miss

SportsNation

Who had the best season in Ole Miss history?

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    40%
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    60%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,958)

Eli Manning, quarterback, 2003
Manning holds most of the Ole Miss passing records, but his senior season stands above the rest. He threw for a school-record 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns in leading the Rebels to a 10-3 record, a share of the SEC West crown and a Cotton Bowl victory. He was a first-team All-American and racked up several honors, including SEC Player of the Year, the Maxwell Award as the nation’s best all-around player, and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.

Archie Manning, quarterback, 1969
The patriarch of the first family of Southern football, Archie Manning is revered in his home state. He held several of the school records that were eventually broken by son Eli. In his junior season, Archie was named SEC Player of the Year after throwing for 1,762 yards and nine touchdowns. He also ran for 502 yards and led the SEC with 14 rushing TDs. Manning won the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy, given annually to the college football player of the year. He also earned All-America and All-SEC honors and came in fourth in the 1969 Heisman Trophy voting.

You can also vote on who had the best individual season in college football history. Stay tuned throughout the week as we narrow the list from 16 to one.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Michigan. USC. Stanford. LSU?

[+] EnlargeGeorge Whitfield Jr.
AP Photo/Nick LuceroGeorge Whitfield Jr. has become known as a tutor to such quarterbacks as Johnny Manziel.
Three of those football powers are known for their abilities to attract the nation’s top quarterback prospects. The fourth could join their ranks, said quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., largely because of his mentor, Cam Cameron.

“When your guy that you spend all day with -- meetings, practice, this and that -- has built and grown Drew Brees, [Philip] Rivers, [Joe] Flacco, who two of the three have won Super Bowls and the other one I think is one of the top six, seven, eight quarterbacks in the league, and now you get a chance to partake in this? That’s what I’m telling you. This is one of the top destination spots now,” Whitfield said during a visit to LSU.

“If I’m a big-time high school quarterback with aspirations to play in the NFL and I want to win in college, this is one of those places on one hand now that you’re going to find. And they will be for some time. The recruiting’s going to shift now.”

Whitfield’s respect for Cameron -- now entering his second season as LSU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after a decade in the NFL as a coordinator and head coach -- traces back more than 20 years. He first worked with Cameron as a pupil, picked his brain as a graduate assistant at Iowa and later interned under Cameron with the San Diego Chargers, where he learned about the importance of attention to detail.

“I would watch how pre-practice he would film quarterback-center exchange for 45 minutes,” recalled Whitfield, who interned with the Chargers in 2007, Rivers’ rookie season. “I admit there were times I was like, ‘Come on, there’s nothing to see here folks,’ but … he put a guy on the ground with a camera shooting up through the center, from the center’s head, and he put a guy on the ground shooting through Philip’s legs so they could see the snap.

“That’s how meticulous he was. And that’s when I thought to myself, ‘Oh I get it. I get it. It ain’t about rah-rah and a good little soundbite. There’s some diligence here.’ That’s why they never lost a snap, the Chargers, in I think like four or five years.”

Today, Whitfield has implemented Cameron’s lessons in his own professional life. He is a noted quarterback guru who runs a youth training academy in San Diego and annually works with some of the NFL draft's top quarterback prospects.

Among Whitfield's pre-draft clients were top overall selections Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, plus Johnny Manziel, one of this year’s top quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCam Cameron has a long history of working with quarterbacks, a skill he's brought to LSU.
“He’s passionate about quarterback play, cares about people and he’s become a pro,” Cameron said. “He’s not just some guy trying to make a buck teaching quarterback play, he’s a pro. Pros are passionate about what they do and experts at what they do, and I look at George that way.”

In a strange twist, Cameron was actually serving as a guest lecturer at Whitfield’s quarterback academy when an old coaching acquaintance, LSU coach Les Miles, called to gauge his interest in returning to college.

“I was out there and he called and obviously I was looking for a job at the time,” Cameron said. “That’s kind of where that thing kind of got going.”

Whitfield remembers well how intrigued his mentor seemed with the opportunity.

“He was so excited. And I was surprised by that,” Whitfield said. “This is a longtime NFL coach, now. He’d been a head coach, he hadn’t been in college since Indiana [in 2001] and the lowest position he’s held since he’s been in the NFL is coordinator.

“I said, ‘You’re about to go to college?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, but this isn’t any college. This is LSU.’ And he goes, ‘It’s really like a young NFL team. We can teach, coach.’ He said, ‘I can get back down here. It’s not about contracts, ‘Can we keep this guy? He’s got a bonus.’ It’s back to teaching.’ And I thought, ‘Holy cow.’ ”

In his first year on the job, Cameron helped Zach Mettenberger emerge as one of the most improved quarterbacks in the country. And now one of his star pupils, freshman Brandon Harris, is one of Whitfield’s protégées.

Not that it should come as much of a surprise. Whitfield’s reputation has grown to the point that he mentors elite quarterback prospects each year -- a point of pride for an old teacher who has enjoyed Whitfield’s rise.

“George and I would sit down at Denny’s and eat breakfast, and the biggest difference is I used to buy George breakfast and now he’s buying me breakfast,” Cameron chuckled. “So yeah, you do [enjoy his success]. I think any parent or any coach who sees a young man grow and flourish in what he’s passionate about, it’s something that you feel good about.”

Whitfield was 13 when he first convinced his parents to let him participate in a high school quarterback camp that Cameron led at Michigan, where he was then coaching receivers and quarterbacks. Their relationship recently came full circle, with Whitfield mentoring Cameron’s son Danny and taking him on a prospect tour to visit college campuses.

“It just meant the world that he’d say, ‘All right, I want you to work with my son,’ ” Whitfield said. “I started working with Danny a couple, three, four years ago and now I’m the same age I was when I was working with his dad. “I thought, ‘Man, I’m working with your son, but you taught me the majority of what I know, or the foundation, and I’m going to pass it on to your son.’ ”

Perhaps this mutual admiration society of coaches will someday span three generations.

If Danny -- a 2015 quarterback prospect -- one day enters the profession and similarly reflects on the influence that Whitfield had on his development, it would only be fitting. So many of those lessons came from a familiar source.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 11, 2014
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Here's to hoping Atlanta is better prepared for Snowmageddon 2.

Ultimate 300: SEC's top classes 

January, 30, 2014
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The SEC has dominated the recruiting world over the past several years. Since 2008, the SEC has had at least three schools finish in the top 10 of the ESPN recruiting class rankings each year. Last year, the conference had an impressive six schools ranked among the top 10 recruiting classes in the country. This year is much of the same, as seven SEC schools are ranked in the top 10.

Here’s a closer look at the five best recruiting SEC schools in the Ultimate ESPN 300.

The SEC's successes reach far beyond the college football landscape. Sure, the seven consecutive BCS titles -- which came to an end this year thanks to a pretty darn good Florida State team -- are well-documented, but most of the studs in this league eventually make it to the big leagues, where they continue to strut their stuff.

[+] EnlargeCameron Newton
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesFormer Auburn QB Cam Newton is one of 24 former SEC players in the Pro Bowl.
The NFL has always had an affinity for SEC players, and this year's Pro Bowl rosters blare that loud and clear, as 24 players from the SEC were selected for the all-star game in Hawaii. The SEC was represented by at least one player at every position except kicker and punter.

This year, the Pro Bowl changed its selection format. Former NFL greats Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders drafted from a pool of Pro Bowl players who were selected earlier in the season. Team Rice and Team Sanders went back-and-forth with their picks, and four of the first 10 players in the first Pro Bowl draft were former SEC players, including former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers), who went No. 3 overall to Sanders.

Tennessee led the SEC with four selections. The game is Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

The 24 former SEC players selected to this year's Pro Bowl:

QB
RB
WR
TE
OL
DL
LB
CB
S
RS
ATLANTA -- Matt Ritter watched in person as his Auburn team completed one of the most dramatic bounce-back regular seasons in college football history -- and that's when the real waiting started.

The 2006 Auburn grad and a group of friends then traveled across town to the Diesel Filling Station -- one of the Atlanta area's best-known Auburn-centric bars -- to watch a bit more football after the Tigers' 59-42 win over Missouri at the Georgia Dome in Saturday's SEC championship game.

Their reason? It was entirely possible that Auburn wasn't simply going to represent the conference in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. If either top-ranked Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State -- both of which were undefeated when the day started -- lost in their respective conference championship games on Saturday night, Auburn would play in the Vizio BCS National Championship Game.

"Obviously we're all about Michigan State right now,” Ritter said at halftime of the Big Ten championship game, when the Spartans led Ohio State 17-10. “We knew Duke had a very, very small chance of winning [against Florida State in the ACC title game], but we knew Michigan State had the No. 1 defense in the country. We knew Ohio State, they're a good team, but I don't think they're a fantastic team."

Sure enough, the bar full of fans wearing orange and blue were chanting, “Pa-sa-de-na!” by the end of the night, once Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford's late touchdown run put away the Spartans' 34-24 win and cleared a space for Auburn to face Florida State in sunny California with a BCS crown at stake.

Ritter and friends had plenty of company at Diesel -- a former filling station in the Virginia Highland neighborhood whose marquee still read “Bama, You're 109 Yards from a Win. Go Tigers,” referring to Chris Davis' 109-yard return of a missed field goal on last Saturday's final play against top-ranked Alabama. According to the Atlanta Auburn Club, the city's metro area is home to more than 22,000 Auburn "alumni, fans and friends," and plenty of them crammed into bars and restaurants across the city on Saturday to watch Tre Mason and the Tigers pull away from Mizzou with a relentless rushing attack.

That night, Auburn partisans reconvened to cheer as Michigan State jumped out to an early 17-0 lead over Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. On the other hand, things weren't going so well in ACC country, as Florida State took command early against heavy underdog Duke and eventually won 45-7. But the good news was that Auburn needed only one of the undefeated teams to lose, and Michigan State obliged its new fan club by delivering the win the Tigers needed.

Then it quickly became time to contemplate travel plans for a trip West in early January.

"We're talking about it,” said Jeremy Barrow, a first-year Auburn season-ticket holder. He and his wife, Danya, watched the Michigan State game at Diesel after staying home to watch Auburn's victory earlier in the day. “It's one of the reasons why we skipped the SEC game. We figured if we won, we'd need all that money to go."

But even without a trip to Pasadena, this would have gone down as one of the most remarkable seasons in Auburn football history.

Two seasons after Cam Newton carried the Tigers to the 2010 BCS crown, the Tigers bottomed out with a 3-9 record that resulted in coach Gene Chizik's departure and former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's return to the Plains. Considering how pathetic Auburn was in 2012, most Tigers fans entered the season simply hoping to reach bowl eligibility, with wins against highly ranked teams like Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M seeming far from likely.

Now here they were at 12-1 after beating each of those teams and throttling No. 5 Mizzou with 677 yards of total offense on Saturday. Further, Michigan State's win proved that Auburn's horseshoe still had plenty of good fortune left for the Tigers and their allies.

"It was beyond all expectations of what we thought,” Danya Barrow said. “I was really like, 'If we could just make a bowl, I'll be happy. If we could just make the Capital One, I could go and it would be cool.'"

Auburn fans are free to dream big again now, however.

This time a year ago, when Alabama was preparing to win its second straight BCS title and third in four years, morale was at its lowest point in decades among Auburn fans. Malzahn and his resilient team, which already has a number of last-minute wins on its resume, needed just one miraculous season to restore their fans' optimism -- and a spot in Pasadena only adds to their jubilation.

“We're just so proud of the team in general and this season and the turnaround,” Ritter said. “Last season was just so terrible. Just to be where we are right now, I think that Auburn in general, it restored a unity and pride back into the university and the football program. I think everybody's excited for things to come from here on out.”

Iron Bowl stakes have never been higher

November, 25, 2013
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Good luck finding a rivalry in college football as deep-rooted, passion-filled and polarizing in one state as the Iron Bowl.

Alabama and Auburn get it on every year in late November, and they spend the remaining 364 days in that state reliving the game.

It’s not just football. It’s life.

And while it’s a rivalry that has spawned scores of legendary names, games, moments and memories, it has been a while since an Iron Bowl has meant more for both sides going into the game than the one that will be played Saturday afternoon on the Plains.

[+] EnlargeJordan-Hare Stadium
Elsa Hasch/Getty ImagesThe anticipation for Saturday's Iron Bowl on The Plains is palpable.
It’s only the second time in Iron Bowl history that both teams have been ranked in the top five nationally. Alabama is No. 1 and Auburn No. 4 in the latest BCS standings.

The only other time came in 1971, when Alabama entered the game No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and Auburn was No. 5. The Crimson Tide rolled the Tigers and Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan 31-7 that day to capture the SEC championship.

The buildup to that game was obviously huge, especially with both teams being unbeaten and Sullivan being announced as the Heisman winner on Thanksgiving night, two days before the game.

The same goes for the 1989 game, which was the first Iron Bowl to be played at Auburn. Previously, the game had always been played in Birmingham at Legion Field, and there are a lot of Auburn people who will tell you that there will never be a more important game in the series for them than that 1989 affair.

Of course, it helped that the Tigers beat the No. 2 Crimson Tide 30-20 in Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium to earn a share of the SEC championship along with Alabama and Tennessee.

One of the strangest Iron Bowls was played in 1993, when Auburn was on probation after being hit with NCAA sanctions. The game couldn’t be shown on television. So other than those at Jordan-Hare Stadium that day, the only people who saw Auburn's 22-14 win were the 40,000 or so fans who watched the game on closed-circuit television at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Alabama’s campus. Auburn's victory completed an 11-0 season under first-year coach Terry Bowden.

The game in 2010 will go down as the most electrifying comeback in the series. Cam Newton and Auburn rallied from 24 points down to win 28-27 in Tuscaloosa and save the Tigers’ national championship season.

Legendary names on both sides have left their mark in this series.

Ken Stabler's Run in the Mud in 1967 will never be forgotten, nor will Bo Jackson's going over the top in 1982 to beat Alabama in what was Bear Bryant’s last Iron Bowl.

Perhaps the most stunning finish came in the 1972 Punt, Bama, Punt game. Auburn's Bill Newton blocked a pair of punts in the fourth quarter and both were returned for touchdowns by David Langner to give Auburn a 17-16 win over No. 2 Alabama.

It’s hard to find a more thrilling game than the 1985 classic. Van Tiffin booted a 52-yard field goal in the closing seconds to give Alabama a 25-23 win. There were four lead changes in the fourth quarter alone.

So as we try to put into perspective where Saturday’s game ranks in the annals of this storied rivalry, we could go on endlessly talking about the memorable players, plays and games that the Iron Bowl has provided.

But in terms of stakes for both teams, I’m not sure we’ve seen anything quite like this.

Alabama is chasing history and looking for a third straight national championship, something that hasn’t happened in the modern era.

Imagine the thrill for Auburn to be able to end the Crimson Tide’s historic run right there on the Plains, especially when you consider the way Auburn was reeling this time a year ago.

The Tigers were putting a miserable 3-9 season to bed in which they closed out their SEC schedule with a 38-0 blowout loss to Georgia and an even more lopsided 49-0 loss to Alabama.

Now, a year later, here they are going toe-to-toe with Alabama, with the SEC’s Western Division title on the line. Not only that, but Auburn could thrust itself right into the middle of the national championship picture with a win, especially if Florida State or Ohio State stumbles in these next two weeks.

For a rivalry that has given college football junkies just about everything we could ask for over the years (and then some), this game Saturday might be the most anticipated yet because of what it means to both sides.

Let’s hope the game can match the stakes.

SEC Friday mailbag: Week 13

November, 22, 2013
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It's time for another edition of the mailbag as we move closer toward season's end. Enjoy it while it lasts, because we're in the home stretch of the college football season. Thanks for the questions, as always.

GRIPR (@GRIPR08): Do you think this year's Iron Bowl is going to be as epic as 2010?

I certainly hope so, and based on the way the seasons have gone, but I think it might be hard to match because of everything that surrounded that game. There are some similarities: There weren't a ton of expectations for Auburn coming into this season, which was similar of the case in 2010 (though they were 8-5 in 2009 and 3-9 in 2012). There's a junior college transfer at quarterback for Auburn (Cam Newton then, Nick Marshall now) who can run the read-option well. And Alabama was favored going into that game, even though they had two losses and Auburn was undefeated. (I'm assuming Alabama will be favored this time around, too.) But when you think of the controversy that surrounded Newton at the time, the Tigers falling behind 24-0 and having to come back to win by a point with national championship dreams and a potential Heisman Trophy hanging in the balance, the 2010 game was one for the ages. If Auburn pulls off an upset this time, maybe it could get into the conversation, but the fashion in which the Tigers won in 2010 really made it special. Either way, it should be a great game because Auburn has a legitimate shot and Alabama has history in the balance as they try to continue marching toward a third consecutive national title.




Ethan Desai (@EDiddy8): Does an 10-2 A&M team go to the Sugar Bowl over a 10-2 Auburn? The Manziel factor has to play a big role for TV purposes.

If it plays out that way -- Auburn loses the Iron Bowl and Texas A&M finishes off by beating LSU and Missouri -- I do think it's very possible that A&M gets chosen for the Sugar Bowl over Auburn, even though the Tigers defeated Texas A&M earlier this season. The reason could be for the very one you stated: the Johnny Manziel factor. The allure of having Manziel for potentially his last college game is intriguing for a bowl game. And depending on how the BCS standings shake out, it's possible Texas A&M could finish the regular season ranked ahead of Auburn. I think both programs would be great choices because both are great stories: A&M with Manziel and Mike Evans and Auburn with the best turnaround of the season after going 3-9 in 2012. But I think you're intuition is correct if it plays out that way and Alabama punches its ticket into the BCS championship game.




Joe Losoya (@thirdcoastcoog): Is Manziel a system QB?

I don't think so. I know there have been quarterbacks who have carried that label after playing in the style of offense that Texas A&M employs (which can also be seen in variations at Texas Tech, Washington State, Houston and other places). People tried to give Case Keenum that label at Houston when Kevin Sumlin was the coach there. Does that offensive scheme make it easier to produce bigger passing numbers? Absolutely. The object is to get the ball out quickly to your good athletes in space, creating a high completion percentage and passing yardage. But if you watched Manziel at Kerrville (Texas) Tivy High School (where "Tivy Fight Never Dies" is the rallying cry) or just watched him in general throughout his A&M career, I think it's clear that he's a special talent. The Aggies actually modified their offensive scheme to fit what Manziel does well, adding designed quarterback running plays that you don't normally see in an "Air Raid"-style offense. Manziel, in my opinion, is a one-of-a-kind player at quarterback who has so many tools and incredible athleticism, it makes him almost impossible to defend. I think he'd succeed in any offensive system you put him in.

Enormous stakes for this year's Iron Bowl

November, 17, 2013
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Go ahead and get ready. This will be the most anticipated Iron Bowl that we've seen in 20 years.

After Auburn's unbelievable 43-38 win against Georgia on Saturday, the Tigers will still miraculously control their destiny when Alabama visits the Plains on Nov. 30.

Everybody who predicted that in August, raise your hands. For those two or three true believers, wow, congratulations. Your team is set to play in the most impactful meeting between the nation's most heated rivals since 1994. (I was there at Legion Field that night, and if you try to convince me Frank Sanders was short on that fourth down, I'll fight you.)

Sure, 2010 was huge -- and with the way that game evolved, with Cam Newton's Auburn team rallying for a 28-27 win, it lived up to every bit of the pregame hype. But Auburn and Alabama haven't entered this game with one or no losses since that crazy matchup I mentioned in Birmingham. And I expect every bit of the same buildup and mayhem that preceded that game, in the heyday of what has been an extremely cyclical rivalry ever since.

Back then, this was a fairly common occurrence. The Iron Bowl regularly had mutual national-championship implications in the late 1980s and early '90s. But this rivalry hasn't been in that position in some time, and here we are.

Auburn is off next week. And Alabama might as well be, with FCS opponent Chattanooga visiting Tuscaloosa next weekend. The outcome is incidental, as AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley will be on the sidelines early in the third quarter, while the reserves complete a sure blowout and only add to the buildup for a winner-take-all showdown in Auburn the following Saturday.

When they meet at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30, the implications are simple. Win and play for the SEC (and maybe the BCS) title. The loser ... well who cares where they go bowling? You win or you lose in this one, and that's all anyone in Atmore and Gordo and Sylacauga will discuss for the next 364 days -- and for a long while after that. Although I haven't lived in Alabama in the past 14 years, I can tell you who won the Iron Bowl every single year that I've been alive.

Comparatively, it flew under the radar, but we also gained a bit of clarity on who might face the Auburn-Alabama winner in the SEC championship game. With its heartbreaking loss, in which safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons failed to break up Auburn's game-winning Hail Mary touchdown pass, Georgia is out of the running in the SEC East. Meanwhile, South Carolina's 19-14 win over Florida ensured that the Gamecocks are still alive and well in the division race.

We could discover next weekend whether South Carolina or Missouri will face the Iron Bowl winner. But the West will go right down to the wire -- and it will see its two most heated rivals determine the division championship.

We haven't seen it come down to that most bitter rivalry for a while, but that's what is now approaching over the next two weeks. Buckle up. It's a trip straight into this league's past.
The ESPN.com college football reporters are on a foreign mission this week. We're venturing outside our conference footprints to see how folks in other parts of the country experience the game in their own unique ways. College football means different things to different people in different places. We're heading out there to soak it in and report back what we see, hear, smell and taste.

For those who don't know us, Adam covers Big Ten football from his Chicago base, while Edward is all over the SEC happenings from his headquarters in the ATL. We both have ties to our regions and attended schools in the leagues we now cover.

We'll trade places later this week, as Edward ventures north to Madison, Wis., for Wisconsin's game against Indiana, and Adam takes in the oldest rivalry in the Deep South: Georgia-Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It'll be different, eye-opening and a whole heck of a lot of fun.

Let's get started ...

Adam Rittenberg: Edward, I'll admit I'm a Yankee. I grew up first in the Northeast (New Jersey and Massachusetts), spent most of my formative years in Northern California and have called Chicago my sweet home for the past 14 years. If there's a blue state, I've probably lived in it. My experience in the South has been limited to major cities like Atlanta and New Orleans, one of my favorite places on earth. My college football roots are firmly in the Big Ten with a little Pac-12 mixed in. But after hearing about the SEC's game-day experience from you, C-Low, that Schlabach fella and others, I'm ready to see it for myself.

[+] EnlargeToomer's Corner
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe oak trees no longer stand on Toomer's Corner, but the tradition is still rich on The Plains.
Auburn is a great place to start. I'm looking forward to seeing what The Loveliest Little Village on the Plains is all about. Checking out Toomer's Corner and where the oaks once stood definitely is high on my to-do list, and I'll obviously head back if Auburn beats Georgia on Saturday. Sources tell me the lemonade isn't bad there, either. What's the War Eagle tradition all about? I'm going to find out. I'll check out the Tiger Walk -- and the Reverse Tiger Walk -- and the tailgating around Jordan-Hare. I'll talk to people who have been around Auburn football, and learn about Pat Sullivan, Zeke Smith, Bo Jackson, Terry Beasley and, yes, Cam Newton. I cover the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, considered the most intense in all of sports. Auburn fans surely will disagree, and will tell me why Auburn-Alabama is king.

I'll leave my heavy jacket at home, but should I bring my houndstooth hat along? Kidding, kidding.

My main objective is to have fun and to identify the answer to a question you and I have often discussed. Why does college football mean so much in the South? Don't get me wrong: It resonates in Big Ten country, too, but so do other sports, both at the college and professional levels. As you'll find out, Big Ten folks take great pride in their tailgates, their stadiums and their game-day traditions, but football seems to consume the communities more in SEC territory. Why is that the case, and how that passion impact the product on the field?

Auburn, here I come. Can't wait. What are you looking forward to in Mad City?

Edward Aschoff: Well, you certainly have done your homework when it comes to Auburn. Just make sure you check out Toomer's Drugs, where you can get the best lemonade under the Mason-Dixon Line. Oh, and watch your head because Auburn's War Eagles have a tendency to go rogue sometimes. You're gonna have a blast, especially with Auburn back in the national spotlight.

I'm so excited to see Madison on game day. You know, I have some Midwestern roots. Half of my family calls Iowa City/Cedar Rapids home, so the cold weather will be nothing new to this southern gentleman. And I've been to Madison a few times in the past, but never for a game. Actually, I've never been to Madison when the sun was shining or the temperature rose above 50 ... and I was there for a few days in July!

But I couldn't care less about the weather during this trip. I'm ready to see State Street and all its game day glory. I want to see Camp Randall on a Saturday when the students are at their very best. You know, when the, uh, "water" is flowing through their veins. I'm ready to smell the brats and cheese curds early Saturday morning. As a former member of the drum line at the University of Florida, I'm excited to see Wisconsin's band during its pregame concert at Union South and during the Fifth Quarter.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Badgers
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWisconsin students "jump around" after the third quarter at Camp Randall Stadium.
Obviously, I plan on throwing my body around with those Mad-town students during "Jump Around," and because I grew up in a household that embraced "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," I'm dying to school some kids in the Time Warp.

I also hear there's a pretty fun call-and-response between the students during games. We all know there's plenty of room for a potty mouth on game day!

Really, I'm just thrilled that I'll be stepping out of the South and into an environment where maybe the party really is bigger than the actual football game. I'm not saying that Badgers fans don't enjoy their football, but I just don't think it will be as ceremonial as it is down South. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm sure there's plenty of fun to be had up north!

Any other advice for me, other than packing my pea coat and mittens?

Rittenberg: The ATL Kid might end up being the Mad City Kid by the end of the weekend. You sound well prepared, my friend, certainly more than our pal Schlabach, whose system shuts down any time the temperature drops below 50 degrees.

Madison is my favorite town in the Big Ten, and you seem to have a good handle on it. Any place that ties its identity to beer, meat and cheese will warm a man's heart (and possibly block it). I expect you to come home 5-10 pounds heavier. Definitely check out State Street, buy a "Sconnie" T-shirt, check out the terrace and climb Bascom Hill on campus, where ESPN's "College GameDay" set up for its broadcast before the Wisconsin-Ohio State game in 2010.

Wisconsin's tailgating scene is arguably the best in the Big Ten (Penn State is also right up there), and despite the early start time, you should spend some time on Regent Street before the game. Stop by Lucky's for sure, as I saw people dressed up as sausages there before last week's game against BYU. The parties along Breese Terrace should be buzzing before and after the game. The neighborhood just west of Camp Randall is worth checking out.

Downtown Madison offers plenty in the way of fun, but to get a true sense of Wisconsin flavor, head on out to Quivey's Grove on the outskirts of town. It has been a regular stop for me the night before Badgers games. You'll leave stuffed and extremely happy. Other than that, you have most of your bases covered. You should spend some time in the student section, for sure, and enjoy one of the better in-game atmospheres. The Fifth Quarter also is a lot of fun. And if you can spend any time with Barry Alvarez, the face of Wisconsin's program, be sure to do it.

Any advice for me for my trip to the Plains?

Aschoff: I can already feel myself changing the word "Coke" to "pop" in my vocabulary. I'm really excited about everything. I actually have a Sconnie shirt and I'm on the email list, but I'll make sure I add to my collection.

If you think I'm going to gain some pounds, have fun getting in those pants after a few days with fried southern delicacies. While you're waiting for that prime-time kickoff, make your way to Momma Goldberg's and get a plate of nachos. They're simple, but well worth the trip and serves as a great pregame meal. Don't stay too long because you have to make it to what the folks on the Plains call the original Tiger Walk. Also, take a stroll near Samford Hall, which might be the most iconic building on Auburn's campus.

You'll certainly need to make enough time to walk around the glorious tailgating spots Auburn has to offer. Yes, expect to see chandeliers hanging in tents. The campus is absolutely gorgeous and don't worry if you don't have anything to share among your new family members, the folks at Auburn will have plenty for you to choose from ... as long as you aren't wearing red and black.

After the game, you'll have plenty of places to check out. Rumor has it that Good Ol' Boys has the best steaks in town and Niffer's Place is a great local spot. If want to try and run into Sir Charles Barkley while you're in town, check out Hamilton's, which is a bistro downtown.

You can also check out Cheeseburger Cheeseburger, which is a nice throwback place at the end of Toomer's Corner. You want a nice burger and a vintage milkshake? Well, then that's your place. Make sure you get there early because it will fill up quickly.

Trying to relive your college days where you try to outlast the moon, Adam? I'd head to the War Eagle Supper Club. There's live music, a bus bar out back, it doesn't close until the sun comes up and there's a van that will take you home. I mean, it just doesn't get any better than that.

I can't stress enough how much you need to get some of that Toomer's lemonade. According to urban legend, Abe Lincoln himself once sipped it.

Rittenberg: Lincoln was a Big Ten guy: Don't forget that, Aschoff. And please send along pictures of you wearing a Sconnie shirt, eating cheese curds and playing drums. You can let Bret Bielema know what he's missing.

Well, we both have plenty on our plates (literally) as we venture into the great football wilderness. But we need your help, too, to enhance the experience. Wisconsin/Big Ten fans, if you have some advice and recommendations for Edward when he hits the ground in Madison, send them here or tweet him at @AschoffESPN. Auburn/SEC fans, you can do the same for me here or tweet me at @ESPN_BigTen. Let's see what Southern Hospitality is all about.

That's it for now. War Eagle. On Wisconsin. It's time to hit the road.

Manziel in same category as AU's Newton

October, 17, 2013
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Gus Malzahn knows a thing or two about prolific quarterbacks. He coached former Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton when he was the offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2010.

On Saturday, Malzahn will face the reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel when his Auburn team visits Texas A&M.

“I would say probably those two are probably two of the best that ever played the game in college football,” Malzahn said. “We only got to see Cam Newton for one year, but this guy, he’s in the same element. They’re different, but they’re still some of the best to every play.”

Newton, who originally began his college career at Florida, played just one year at Auburn and led the Tigers to the 2010 national championship. He threw for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns, rushed for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdown, and he even caught a touchdown.

Last year, Manziel did his best Newton impression with 26 touchdowns through the air and 21 on the ground. He already has 19 combined scores this season.

“Johnny is a great football player, and he’s playing at a level that people don’t even really see, as well as Clemson’s Tahj Boyd,” Newton said. “There are a lot of players across the nation that are playing great football at the quarterback position.”

Still, Newton thinks Auburn will the game Saturday.

(Read full story)

Newton, Snyder spark juco rise

October, 9, 2013
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GARDEN CITY, Kan. -- In February, 167 junior college football players signed with schools that are part of the five power conferences, a 37 percent spike from 2008. Even traditional powers that have eschewed juco players in the past, like Penn State, Texas and Alabama, got in on the action.

The increase is part of a recruiting revolution that has seen the value of junior college players grow like never before. "We had Georgia, Alabama, USC, Washington, and about every top-40 school in the country coming through our place in the spring," Garden City (Kan.) Community College coach Matt Miller said. "That speaks volumes that everybody is trying to get some special players out of the junior college ranks. The stigma of the junior college player is a lot more positive now than it once was viewed as by colleges."

Players are at places like Georgia Military College, East Mississippi Community College or Tyler (Texas) Junior College for a reason. They failed to reach NCAA qualifying standards out of high school, ran into trouble off the field, transferred from another school in hopes of landing more playing time down the road or were lightly recruited out of high school but believe they have Division I talent.

Regardless of the reason, even as recently as five years ago many juco players were viewed as toxic by recruiters at the top programs in the country. One FBS assistant who didn't want to be named said his head coach used to tell him that juco recruits are "nothing but thugs, criminals or dummies," but that same coach was sent out on the road to visit every Kansas junior college this past spring. So what has changed? Recruiters and juco coaches across the country point to two people: Bill Snyder and Cam Newton.

Kansas State is located in the backyard of the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Football Conference, home to many of the nation's premier juco programs. When Snyder arrived in 1989, he immediately turned to the likes of Butler Community College, Hutchinson Community College and Garden City to supplement a lackluster in-state high school recruiting base. The plan worked. Snyder's Wildcats came within a game of playing for the national championship in 1998, won a Big 12 championship in 2003 and were ranked No. 1 in the BCS poll late into the 2012 season. Under Snyder, there were a number of individual success stories as well, none more so than quarterback Michael Bishop. After a perfect 24-0 record at Blinn (Texas) Junior College and two national championships, Bishop transferred to K-State, where he shattered school records and finished second in the 1998 Heisman Trophy voting.

Miller has seen firsthand "The Snyder Plan" in action. Before taking over at Garden City in January, he was a K-State assistant for 10 years. Since arriving at Garden City, he's talked to many of the college coaches on recruiting tours. "They truly have told me they're going to use Bill Snyder's Kansas State model to turn their program around," Miller said. "They've told me 'We want to get five, 10 good junior college prospects in this recruiting class,' and I'm talking about schools from the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, ACC. They're all coming in and all wanting to try to follow that blueprint that Bill Snyder built at Kansas State.

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AUBURN, Ala. -- It shouldn’t have come as any surprise Saturday when Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-22 victory over Ole Miss. Those are ordinary numbers compared to what he was putting up in junior college a year ago.

In his lone season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, Marshall averaged close to 100 yards per game on the ground. He eclipsed the 200-yard mark twice, including a game when he rushed for 216 yards and four touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn quarterback Nick Marshall is feeling more comfortable running.
“He can make every throw on the football field,” said his former offensive coordinator, Matt Miller. “But when the defense has everything covered, he can pull the ball down, go 50 yards and score a touchdown on you.”

After four games at Auburn, the only surprise was that Marshall hadn’t put up bigger numbers rushing the ball. He had just 148 yards total during that stretch.

The Auburn coaches recognized the problem. They had an extra week to prepare for Ole Miss, and they made it a point in practice to get Marshall more comfortable running the read-option and give him plenty of opportunities to make plays with his feet.

“We want him to be more aggressive running the football,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “I felt like he definitely had, not just statistically, but you could just tell he seemed faster. I think he was playing, just playing and reacting, and not thinking too much.”

On the opening drive, Marshall kept it once and scrambled for a gain of 28 yards, his longest run of the season. From there, he grew more confident and started picking up big chunks of yards against the Ole Miss defense. He looked like a natural directing the read-option, making the right call every time.

“I thought he helped us win the game and helped us win the game with his feet,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I think he is really talented with the read-option, and there’s a lot of pressure on defenses when we can execute it.”

The read-option always has been a big part of what Malzahn likes to do, going back to do his days as Auburn’s offensive coordinator, when Cam Newton ran it. However, the play puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback to read the defense and make a quick decision.

Early in the season, Marshall was handing the ball off more often, but the game plan clearly changed against Ole Miss.

“I was just taking what the defense gave me,” Marshall said. “Like I told Coach Malzahn, I was reading the defense and how they were [playing]. I really knew what was coming the majority of the time because I watched film with Coach Malzahn and Coach Lashlee.

“I feel way more comfortable now. I’ve settled into the offense more, and I can just really play to my abilities now.”

It could have been an even bigger day on the ground had it not been for an injury that left Marshall gimpy in the second half. He was able to play through it and finish the game, but he clearly wasn’t at full speed down the stretch.

“You've always got to worry about that, but we know that when Nick's playing, that's our game,” Lashlee said. “He's got to be a dual-threat guy.”

Marshall was treated by the staff Sunday, and he’s expected to return to practice and play against Western Carolina on Saturday.

Gurley is off and running for Georgia

September, 10, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- As he does each Sunday, Mark Richt sat down and rewatched his Georgia team's game from the previous day -- this time a 41-30 win against then-No. 6 South Carolina.

Asked Sunday evening what he took away from that second viewing, Richt's first comments concerned his starting tailback, Todd Gurley.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley is seventh in the nation with 286 rushing yards and tied for fourth with four TDs.
“Just watching Gurley run was fun,” Richt said. “He's just such a powerful back. He's got such great balance, speed.”

Fans -- and Heisman Trophy voters -- have had the opportunity to make similar observations over the last two weeks as Richt's Bulldogs played two top-10 opponents. And all Gurley has done is dominate in both games, despite missing a portion of the opener at Clemson with a quad injury and despite facing one of the nation's better run defenses from last season in South Carolina.

Gurley on Monday received two rounds of treatment on the thigh injury that kept him from practicing much last week, but it didn't prevent him from dominating on the ground Saturday and fulfilling one of his few stated offseason goals of contributing more in the passing game. He hauled in his first career touchdown catch in the third quarter of the Bulldogs' win.

“I really didn't sit down this offseason and say, 'I'm trying to do this, I'm trying to do that,' ” Gurley said. “One of my main things was just to get more plays in the passing game and just work on playing without the ball. That was about all.”

After his 30-carry, 132-yard effort, which included one rushing and one receiving touchdown, Gurley is seventh nationally with 286 rushing yards and tied for fourth with four touchdowns.


“He probably is at the top of the group of running backs who are going for the Heisman right now,” said Chris Huston, whose Heisman Pundit website tracks the race closely throughout the season. “I'd say he has pushed himself to the top of that group.”

Obviously it's early, but Gurley has already continued his upward trajectory from a breakout freshman season where he rushed for 1,385 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.

There was his 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson where he exploded through a hole and outran everyone to the end zone. And then there were runs Saturday like the one where he somehow stayed on his feet when South Carolina defensive lineman Kelcy Quarles ripped off his helmet by the facemask, and very well might have scored a helmetless touchdown if not for the rule that requires such a play to be blown dead. Or when he burst down the sideline during a second-quarter touchdown drive and easily tossed Gamecocks cornerback Jimmy Legree aside with a vicious stiff-arm.

“Watching film on him, he's by far in my opinion -- anyone who watched him would probably agree with me -- the best player in the country. I don't think there's anyone like Todd,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said Monday.

He might not enjoy the spotlight, but Gurley possesses the total package that a Heisman-contending running back needs in order to generate national attention. Now he needs his teammates to help him remain in the conversation.

Spread-offense quarterbacks have the odds in their favor in this day and age, although that position held the advantage even before dual-threat passers like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel claimed each of the last three Heismans. Quarterbacks have won 11 of the last 13 years, so Gurley not only needs to separate himself from other running backs with impressive yardage totals and highlight-reel runs, he needs Georgia to remain in the BCS conversation in order to remain a viable alternative to quarterbacks like Manziel, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's Braxton Miller.

“It's hard for a running back to win, but if he does win, he has to have as little competition from other running backs in the race as possible,” Huston said. “Gurley's first task is to sort of establish himself as the running back alternative to whatever quarterbacks there are.”

Then again, he must also separate himself from his own teammate to become a true Heisman frontrunner.

Murray reignited his Heisman hopes with a nearly flawless 309-yard, four-touchdown performance against South Carolina. Interestingly enough, however, Huston said the perception that two contending teammates might siphon votes away from one another isn't necessarily accurate.

As an example, he used the 2004 race where USC quarterback Matt Leinart won and running back teammate Reggie Bush finished fifth. Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson and Jason White finished second and third that year. In other words, members of the two teams that played for the BCS championship took up four of the top five spots in the voting -- and their respective abilities likely helped their teammates from a performance and publicity standpoint.

“You could argue that Jason White's support cost Peterson the Heisman, but you could also say that Bush's support cost Leinart more votes in that situation,” Huston said. “Would Peterson have gotten more votes if White wasn't as good? So it's kind of a symbiotic relationship between the two. If Aaron Murray wasn't as good, Gurley probably wouldn't be as successful because teams would be able to key on him more.”

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