SEC: David Cutcliffe
ATLANTA -- They lined up inside the bowels of the Georgia Dome hoping to catch one final glimpse of Johnny Football. One boy wore his No. 2 Texas A&M jersey, shifting nervously from one foot to another as he waited impatiently for his hero's arrival. His father barely noticed, his eyes trained on where the team bus should arrive.
Suddenly a security attendant shouted something inaudible, a pair of doors swung open and a rush of cold air swept inside. The Aggies went by like a blur as they readied for the start of the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke on Tuesday night.
"Did you see him?" one Texas A&M fan asked another when all the players had passed.
"He must have come in earlier to avoid all this," they decided, shaking their heads in defeat.
Kevin Sumlin was easy to spot. Texas A&M's coach was as dapper as ever in a well-tailored navy blue suit, a baby blue shirt and a pink paisley tie.
Mike Evans couldn't be missed, either. Texas A&M's unstoppable sophomore receiver stood at an unattainable 6-foot-5, a head taller than most of his teammates.
But Johnny Manziel was nowhere to be found. Favorably listed as 6-foot-1, Texas A&M's quarterback instead kept to the middle of the procession, pulled a grey hoodie over his head and turned his face down as he listened to music on a pair of oversized headphones.
It was like he never was there. Some saw him pass by, most didn't. Like a ghost, Manziel reached the locker room without the usual glow of cameras flashing upon his every arrival.
"There he is. You see him?" a Duke fan shouted at his friends in the front row of the Dome a few minutes later, grabbing a buddy by the shoulder as he pointed to Manziel near midfield, now in shorts and a T-shirt as he warmed up, sporting the same headphones he used to block out the world.
If anyone missed Texas A&M's superstar quarterback, all they had to do was look for the hoard of cameras documenting his every move. Hundreds of photographers lined the end zone, snapping shot after shot of what could prove to be Manziel's final game with the Aggies. The NFL could be the next stop for the redshirt sophomore with mind-boggling statistics and breathtaking athleticism. He's done so much in two years at College Station -- some the NCAA would like you to know, some it would like you to forget -- that moving on seems natural.
But if the Chick-fil-A Bowl was indeed Manziel's final hurrah, it felt appropriate.
Two years ago the undersized quarterback won the starting job at Texas A&M to no acclaim. He hit the field to no applause and won fans over with each dazzling play. Not everyone came to his games knowing what he looked like, but everyone left with an impression of Manziel forever burned in their minds. Enough noticed that he won the Heisman Trophy.
Tuesday felt the same way. The nation's focus has been on places like New Orleans, Dallas, Miami and Pasadena, not Atlanta. But Manziel got fans' attention anyways by doing what he's always done -- the impossible. Manziel led a comeback for the ages, bringing the Aggies back from 21 down to beat Duke 52-48.
Manziel accounted for 455 yards and five touchdowns and was named the game's Most Outstanding Player on offense.
"It was an unreal feeling," Manziel said afterwards, not quite dodging questions about the NFL, but somehow avoiding them entirely.
He wanted to talk about the game, and who could blame him? While the Aggies defense was pulverized, failing to make a single stop in the first half, Manziel rallied the troops on the sidelines, grabbing teammates by the collar and even talking up defensive coordinator Mark Snyder -- saying and doing anything he could to end the season a winner.
Offensive tackle Jake Matthews had never seen Manziel so riled up.
"It was special to watch, special to be a part of," he said.
Fellow offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi was just as in awe.
"We forgot how great he is," he said of Manziel. "This game we saw that he is one of the best players in college football history."
After the game, Manziel wasn't the off-the-field diva he's sometimes been portrayed to be. He was reserved, sluggish even. He was getting sick, he said, coughing as he told reporters to keep a safe distance. He didn't know if he had the flu coming on. He slouched and sat on the floor outside the media room, checking his phone as he waited for Duke coach David Cutcliffe to finish up inside.
If he were listening, he would have heard Cutcliffe say how he "spun the ball really well" and just how "special" he was. All that coming from a coach who mentored NFL icon Peyton Manning.
Manziel, for his part, was as understated as ever at the podium, deflecting praise to his offensive linemen and wide receivers. He didn't thump his chest. He didn't bring his trophy into the news conference like his teammate Toney Hurd.
When asked to look back on his career at Texas A&M, he said what he had pretty much all night: that he couldn't believe it.
"It's unreal how things have played out," he said.
He didn't answer any more questions as he walked back to his team's locker room. A reporter asked once again if he'd turn pro, and he didn't answer. He just kept walking, his head down in that familiar zone.
But as he left the locker room, a fan begged him to stop and pose for a picture, and he obliged. He stood still for two shots and smiled before turning down the tunnel and out into the night.
Manziel wasn't a ghost as he left the Georgia Dome early Wednesday morning. He wasn't a blur. He was a legend in full view for the world to see.
After so much talk and so much acclaim the past two years, he left a quiet winner.
The Aggies, with their effervescent quarterback Johnny Manziel and their high-flying offense, were so often a thrill to watch, full of touchdowns and big plays, but ultimately not enough wins to compete for an SEC title.
Duke, meanwhile, had what could only be called a dream season when compared to the history of the program. David Cutcliffe was named Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year after leading the Blue Devils to their first 10-win season and a spot in the ACC championship game.
How it will end for both teams depends on who shows up ready to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).
Here's a quick preview of the game:
Who to watch: Manziel has been careful not to make any official NFL announcement yet, but all indications point to the redshirt sophomore leaving Texas A&M early to enter the draft. And he might not be alone. Receiver Mike Evans, another redshirt sophomore, is a prime candidate to bolt for the pros as well. So get your fill of them while you can because they're arguably the best at their positions in the country. Manziel's talents, by now, speak for themselves. But Evans might be the bigger concern for Duke because at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he's downright unstoppable. Just ask two of the best teams in the SEC, Alabama and Auburn, which combined to allow 566 yards and five touchdowns through the air to him this season.
What to watch: Don't forget to pay attention to those pesky Blue Devils, though, as wide receiver Jamison Crowder and linebacker Kelby Brown are ones to watch. But Duke, without suspended leading rusher Jela Duncan, is in a pickle. Throwing the ball often will be a temptation, but as quarterback Anthony Boone said, it's a fool's errand to try to outduel Manziel because "that doesn't win football games." Instead, Josh Snead, Duke's backup tailback who ran for 547 yards this season, will be asked to do more. If the Blue Devils stay balanced on offense, they have a shot against what has been a porous Aggies defense. But if Boone, who has thrown 11 interceptions to 10 touchdowns, is asked to do too much, Duke could be in big trouble.
Why to watch: Soak it all in because these two programs appear to be headed toward a crossroads. Duke has never had success like this before. How will it respond if its dream season ends with two straight losses? Can the entire coaching staff stay together? Is one player suspension a sign of more to come? And more questions can be asked of Texas A&M, which might shun the idea of rebuilding next season, but with the possibility of Manziel and Evans leaving, it's definitely a matter of hitting the "reset" button. Coach Kevin Sumlin is locked up under a new contract, but with so many NFL head coaches being fired this week, do the pros start beckoning him as well? Whatever the case, Texas A&M and Duke fans should savor the final game of their seasons and hope that next season holds just as much success.
Prediction: Texas A&M wins it running away from Duke, 48-28. Had the Blue Devils showed better against this season's Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, I might have been swayed to pick otherwise. But Florida State gave Texas A&M the blueprint to moving the ball offensively. Manziel will have his way against the Duke secondary and end his career as an Aggie with a flourish, accounting for a handful of touchdowns that should leave us as in awe of his penchant for making something out of nothing.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Like his offense, Kurt Roper prefers to go fast.
That's why it's no surprise the Florida Gators and their new offensive coordinator made such quick work of the hiring process. An interview was set up on Sunday, and just after 6 a.m. the next morning, Florida's private jet was in Raleigh-Durham International Airport to whisk Roper off to Gainesville. A few hours later he was back at home discussing everything with his family.
It didn't take much longer for both sides to agree they found the right fit.
"Well, you know, everything happens pretty fast," Roper said on Thursday from Atlanta, where he will coach Duke's offense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M on Tuesday night.
The Gators and head coach Will Muschamp are banking on Roper turning around an offense that has scuffled for four straight years ... and turning it around fast.
How's that for pressure?
"The expectations are great. I understand that going in," Roper said, "and the challenge is to meet those expectations. We’re at the University of Florida that obviously has a great tradition and has met those expectations a lot in the past. I’m just looking forward to it.
"... They've won a lot of games at Florida and won a lot of championships at Florida. But like I said, it's all going that way. You know, we won 10 here at Duke this year.
How quickly he can breathe life into UF's offense remains to be seen, but Roper's success in running an uptempo offense at Duke speaks loudly.
In his second year at Duke in 2009, the Blue Devils had the nation's ninth-ranked passing offense, averaging 305 yards per game. Since then, Duke has ranked 22nd, 28th, 31st and 63rd in passing offense.
The last two seasons have been particularly strong. And fast.
In 2012, the Blue Devils ran 990 offensive plays (76.2 per game), the most in Roper's six seasons as offensive coordinator. Duke ranked No. 55 in total offense, averaging 409 yards per game. This year, Duke ran 934 plays (71.8 per game), ranking 68th in total offense (408 YPG).
Roper's confidence in himself is obvious. He calmly dispatched a question on Thursday about whether he was ready to step outside the sizable shadow of an SEC warhorse such as David Cutcliffe, who has been Duke's head coach for the last six seasons.
"No, been doing it too long," he said. "I won’t have any nerves."
Cutcliffe understands the move and certainly understands the lure of SEC football. After spending 14 of the last 15 years together, Cutcliffe is just as confident in the continued success of his understudy.
"This is an opportunity for him somewhat to be out on his own, and I think he’s looking forward to that," Cutcliffe said on Thursday. "As far as the pressures go, he’s definitively ready for that.
"He’s been in the Southeastern Conference at two institutions and understands the intensity level that’s involved in that league in football. His work ethic, that’s what that’s ultimately about. They’ll be prepared, and they’ll be prepared well."
What else can Florida expect?
"His style would be intensity, tempo and quality of repetition," Cutcliffe said. "From the minute they hit the field it's gonna be intense. I wouldn't call him a laid-back football coach by any stretch of the imagination."
Roper will find a kindred spirit in the always-intense Muschamp. And there's familiarity on the field. The two squared off in the SEC West from 2001-03 while Roper was the play-caller at Ole Miss and Muschamp was defensive coordinator at LSU.
"He has obviously been a great defensive coach for a long, long time and was hard to battle against," Roper said of Muschamp. "He was always multiple and caused problems and pressures, and his guys always were physical and intense. I'm looking forward to working with Coach Muschamp."
Roper also will reunite with Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, who was offensive coordinator at Kentucky when Roper spent one season there in 2005. That year has turned out to be pivotal in Roper's coaching journey.
“That was a great year working with Joker and Coach [Rich] Brooks and that whole staff," Roper said. "I learned a lot of football and created a lot of good relationships there. But Joker, when he was offensive coordinator, wanted to install a no-huddle system so we could go in and out of huddle or no-huddle or whatnot. So really that was my first experience with it.
“Yeah, Joker and I get along great. I think he’s a heck of a football coach first, but we’re really good friends. I think he’s a good man, a great recruiter. I think he’s a guy that I’ll enjoy being around every day. And so I’m looking forward to getting back with him."
With his thoughts split between Duke and Florida, Roper has one last game to coach in Blue Devil blue -- "and be my best for these guys one last time " -- before heading down to Gainesville.
He'll dive right into film study, player evaluations and the early stages of teaching his fast-paced offense. But first Roper plans to hit the recruiting trail "as soon as I can."
What other speed would you expect?
Auburn is headed to the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and Gus Malzahn can add another accolade to his resume. On Monday, the Tigers' first-year coach was named the AP national coach of the year after orchestrating one of the greatest turnarounds in college football.
“It’s very humbling,” he told the AP Monday. “Any time you get awards like this, it’s a team thing, as far as our staff and our players. It’s been fun to be a part of this year.”
Malzahn took over an Auburn team that finished 3-9 in 2012 and failed to win a conference game for the first time since 1980. In his first season, the Tigers went 12-1, won the SEC championship and will play Florida State for the national championship. Only Hawaii’s 8.5-game turnaround from 1999-2000 matches Auburn’s one-year improvement.
Malzahn received 33 of the votes, edging Duke’s David Cutcliffe (17 votes) for the honor. Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to their first-ever 10-win season. Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio each received three votes.
Malzahn becomes the second Auburn coach to win the award. Tommy Tuberville was named the AP coach of the year in 2004 after leading the Tigers to an undefeated season. It’s the fifth time an SEC coach has won the award, which was created in 1998.
- Tre Mason was on the outside looking in on this Heisman race before running 46 times for 304 yards in Saturday's SEC championship game against Missouri. With ballots due today at 5 p.m., he's in the thick of it.
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on his new contract: “This is where I want to be.”
- The SEC issues a statement on oversigning loopholes.
- Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops -- whose team will play Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl -- bristled Sunday when reminded of his comments questioning the overall strength of the SEC.
- An AT&T Cotton Bowl berth and a matchup against Oklahoma State is a worthy prize for SEC runner-up Missouri, which won its division in just its second season in the conference.
- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the Capital One Bowl is “by far is the best bowl for our university” to play in on Jan. 1.
- The Advocate's Matthew Harris writes that there's not much sizzle in this Outback steak for LSU.
- Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Duke's David Cutcliffe discuss their upcoming Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup.
- With Texas rumors circulating, Sumlin must still sign his new contract with the Aggies.
- Alabama named CJ Mosley, AJ McCarron and Kevin Norwood as its permanent team captains for this season.
- Georgia will face Nebraska for the second straight year in its bowl game.
- Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen break down their upcoming bowl matchups.
- Vanderbilt will play out of state in its bowl game for the first time under James Franklin when it faces Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
- Jim Chaney takes over as Tennessee's interim head coach.
- David Cutcliffe says he will be at Duke next season and isn't a candidate at Tennessee.
- Tennessee must put its Hart and soul into its next football hire, writes David Climer of The Tennessean.
- Checking out the list of possible coaching candidates at Tennessee.
- Auburn's offensive line is in flux heading into the Iron Bowl.
- Like it or not, the SEC is back, writes Cecil Hurt of The Tuscaloosa News.
- The stakes are clear for Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
- Georgia coach Mark Richt is talking only about Georgia Tech.
- It's just like the old days with Florida vs. Florida State carrying national implications.
- LSU's defense is giving up yards, but taking away the football.
- Les Miles unplugged at his human best.
- Arkansas fans want Jon Gruden so much that they're creating songs for him.
- What is Sheldon Richardson's future at Missouri?
- Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel is sitting pretty in the Heisman Trophy race.
- Kentucky denies offering Cincinnati's Butch Jones the Wildcats' head coaching job.
- Vanderbilt gets another coach fired.
Jacob in Lexington, Kent., writes: I love Sonny Dykes for the Kentucky head coach. He's young, and can coach well. Plus, he used to assist at UK, and knows offense. If we can't get him, I like Neal Brown or Brent Pease. What are your thoughts? Who'd be the best fit?
Edward Aschoff: Dykes is one of those up-and-coming names that is sure to hear his name a lot when it comes to openings this winter. Kentucky is certainly one that he's being linked to and it sounds like Kentucky is interested. And why not? Louisiana Tech is 8-1 and has the No. 2 scoring offense. His team also ranks third nationally in total offense, averaging 570.9 yards per game. Kentucky wants an offensive mind to come in and bring some excitement back to the football program. Dykes has that ability. Duke's David Cutcliffe could also hear his name thrown in. He'll be taking Duke to a bowl game for the first time since 1994 and has had success in the SEC during his time as an assistant at Tennessee and as Ole Miss' head coach. Keep and eye on Pease, he seems interested and spoke openly about the job earlier this week. Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart will probably get a mention, but you have to wonder if he's holding out for something else or if he's ready to coach in the SEC. I think Kentucky has to go after someone who will help bring offensive playmakers back to Lexington because the Wildcats are really hurting in that department.
JJ in Tumalo, Ore., writes: How do you guys rate the SEC overall this season? Obviously the bottom half is not better than the bottom half of other conferences. Do Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, MIZZOU, Kentucky and Vandy play "All World SEC D?" As a Duck fan I am most interested in seeing how the Bama D' handles A&M with but a week instead of 40 days to prepare against a dangerous spread offense. Look at Oregon's future schedule. We Duck no one. How about a home-and-home with Bama? I know it won't happen. Why challenge yourself on the road when 100K will pay to watch you blow out Georgia State? All the best and thanks for the great SEC coverage.
Edward Aschoff: Lots of stuff in that one, but I'll see if I can help you out a little. To answer your first question, I think the SEC is still on top. Not sure you can shrug that off when you have five teams ranked within the top eight of the BCS standings. All of those teams could still make a BCS bowl game as well, including Alabama, which just has to win out to make it to the national championship. As for "All-World" defenses, Alabama, LSU, Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri all rank within the top 25 nationally in total defense. So, two of those teams you mentioned have been very good on defense this year. Missouri might not have an impressive record, but that defense has been pretty impressive this season. Vandy is third nationally in pass defense, as well. They might not be All-World, but they're pretty good. I'd also love to see Alabama play Oregon, or any SEC team play Oregon outside of a BCS bowl game. Home-and-home? Bring it on. I'm sick of seeing weak nonconference games on SEC schedules. Good football makes everyone happy. Also, expect Alabama's defense to be ready this weekend.
Dave in Savannah, Ga., writes: Is it now time for the tired old stat that UGA is X of XX against Florida to be retired? UGA has won four of the last nine, three of the last six and is on a two-game win streak against Florida. Are losses against a Florida team dating back to when current players were in diapers or not even born truly relevant? Seems intellectually lazy for sports writers to keep qouting those old numbers just for dramatic impact. What's your take?
Edward Aschoff: Honestly, I think you're right about retiring this old stat. Florida absolutely dominated Georgia during the 1990s and for most of the past decade, but, like you said, most of the players on either side could care less. Especially with Georgia winning two straight. Right now, the Bulldogs have all the momentum and can crow as loud as they want. This team can forget the past. Florida fans don't have to, but they shouldn't use it to tease Dawgs fans.
JE in Dallas writes: What do you think A&M has to do to beat Alabama? Short of zero turnovers, and not getting bulldozed at the line of scrimmage by Bama's O-line, what do you think are the keys to a possible upset?
Edward Aschoff: Making sure Manziel is upright and finding his guys. Alabama's defensive line isn't elite, but it can cause problems for offenses. It can be pretty disruptive. But we know that Texas A&M's offense revolves around Johnny Football. He has great weapons at receiver and talented running backs to work with, but the offense lives and dies by his effectiveness. Look at the second half of the Florida game and the LSU game. LSU showed some holes in Alabama's defense. Will they be there Saturday? I don't think so. I think the Tide's defense will be much more sound, but the Aggies have the ability to make some big plays. But it call comes down to Manziel. Oh, and yes, the defensive line has to be able to get past that O-line ...
Les Miles in Baton Rouge, La., writes: It's funny when my bag of tricks work they love me, but if I wasn't as aggressive as I was they would've questioned me as a coach. Whats it gonna take to please those in Tigerland?
Edward Aschoff: See, I thought that national championship in 2007 made fans more appreciative. Or the fact that you guys went on a historic run until the national championship last year. So far, you've never won less than eight games during your eight seasons at LSU. Still, it's an interesting bunch down there. They just get a little frustrated by all those heart-stopping calls, or the head-scratchers. You really can't blame them. In a league in which winning means so much, you tug at their hearts with a lot of the decisions you make. Those fourth-down decisions last week? Really? You don't get how that can frustrate fans? Winning cures all, but know that this fan base is itching for a championship with all that talent it has.
Matt in Athens, Ga., writes: Ed- Why do you and Chris have Georgia in the Outback bowl? Would losing to Alabama in the SEC championship really make Georgia go that far down? Why not Capital One?
Edward Aschoff: If Georgia makes it to the SEC championship game and loses to Alabama, I think the Capital One Bowl would jump all over Florida, especially if it finishes the season 11-1 and doesn't make it to the Sugar Bowl. If LSU wins out, it will be hard for the Sugar Bowl to turn the Tigers down. Two losses might still get the Gators in as well. They'd probably have a better chance with just one, but it's still possible. The Gators were last there following the 2007 season and Florida would be a big draw in Orlando. I'm not saying Georgia wouldn't be, but I think the Capital One Bowl would be very interested in bringing the Gators back to Orlando.
Tim in Atlanta, writes: Is it your sense among SEC-land that folks prefer to see a Alabama-Oregon matchup compared to Bama-KSU? If so, do you think the desire for that matchup will move the polls to ensure it, or do you think the pollsters are largely locked into their votes now?
Edward Aschoff: I think people in the SEC would love to see Alabama-Oregon because they couldn't be any different. Oregon has all the offense and no defense. Alabama has all the defense and a balanced offense. It's Nike speed vs. SEC power. We saw it in 2010 and 2011, but this is Alabama. It's the No. 1 team in the nation and it's going for its second consecutive national championship, while there are plenty of people out there saying Oregon deserves the No. 1 spot right now. People in SEC country are tired of hearing that. They want this settled on the field more than the players do. I just think it'd be a great game.
It sounds like former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino is interested in coaching in the SEC again and according to his father, he's interested in making his home at Kentucky.
"I just know this, that he's interested in Kentucky," Bobby Petrino Sr. told the Louisville Courier-Journal on Wednesday. "He wants to stay in the SEC. That was his life's goal was to go to the SEC."
Kentucky announced on Sunday that coach Joker Phillips would not be back next season and that the coaching search would begin immediately. While Petrino might want to throw his name into the mix, he might be a long shot for the job.
Yahoo! Sports already reported that Kentucky wouldn't be interested in pursuing Petrino, who was fired from Arkansas after he lied to athletic director Jeff Long about an affair he was having with a woman he hired.
Yes, Petrino knows the state of Kentucky well. He went 41-9 at Louisville from 2003-06, and even won the Orange Bowl. His Cardinals teams showcased some of the most exciting passing games in college football at the time. Then, he had a ton of success at Arkansas, getting back-to-back double-digit-win seasons and taking the Razorbacks to their first BCS bowl game.
He even thought his 2012 team was his best one and labeled it a legitimate national title contender. He would put a bunch of people in the seats at Commonwealth Stadium and bring some much-needed excitement back to Kentucky's football program.
But is he worth all the baggage for athletic director Mitch Barnhart? Is he really worth the public relations nightmare for Kentucky and the mounds and mounds of criticism that will be hurled Barnhart's way? And will he even stick around Lexington long enough to make the Wildcats any sort of contender in the SEC East? He really doesn't have a very good track record with staying at places very long (just ask the Atlanta Falcons).
There are plenty of good potential candidates for Barnhart to seek. There are qualified SEC assistants and up-and-coming coaches around the country that would surely be interested in this job.
Expect to hear Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes' name more and more. Louisiana Tech is currently 8-1 and owns the nation's No. 2 scoring offense (52.4 points per game) and the nation's third-best offense (570.9). Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who is a former Kentucky assistant, has shown interest in the job as well.
Duke's David Cutcliffe could also be a candidate. He has the Blue Devils bowl eligible for the first time since 1994 and has plenty of SEC experience as both a longtime assistant at Tennessee and as Ole Miss' head coach. He went 44-29 during his six years with the Rebels.
Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, whose Hilltoppers beat Kentucky earlier this year, and current Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's name has also been lumped in with potential candidates.
So there are plenty of options for Barnhart not named Bobby Petrino, and I think it will stay that way.
The Wildcats have stumbled through 2012 with a 1-9 record (0-7 in SEC play), will miss out on a bowl game for the second straight year and have won just 12 games during Phillips’ three-year tenure.
Kentucky’s athletic director has a very strong relationship with Phillips, but at the end of the day, the wins weren’t there and improvement wasn’t being made. Yes, injuries have crippled this team, but week in and week out, the Wildcats just weren’t getting any better and Barnhart had to make a change.
"We, as coaches, are measured on results," Phillips said in a statement. "We didn't get the results we had worked and hoped for, therefore change is needed.”
The fans knew it. They said everything by not saying much at all, as hardly anyone showed up for Kentucky’s 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday. Big Blue Nation clearly felt it deserved better than what it was seeing -- or not seeing -- inside Commonwealth Stadium.
It had to be tough to let go a man who has spent 22 years around this program as both a player and a coach, but Phillips’ 12-23 record wasn’t good enough. Phillips is a great individual, but being nice wasn't his job. Winning games was and he didn't do it enough. After making five straight bowl games, Kentucky won’t be playing in the postseason for the second straight season.
The Wildcats are currently 10th or worse in the SEC in all major offensive and defensive categories, including being last in total offense, scoring and rushing offense.
This might be a team littered with youth because of all of the injuries, but it wasn’t making positive strides. The Wildcats just weren’t getting any better as the weeks went on and that’s an indictment of coaching.
You have to wonder if players were buying in. It’s one thing to lose with youth, but it’s another to lose because of a lack of discipline and mental mistakes. Those happen when players are careless, and players get careless when they don’t have the right drive. Again, that goes back to coaching.
Recruiting has been a major issue as well. Kentucky isn’t a program that can afford to miss in recruiting. It doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing like Alabama, LSU, Florida and Georgia. It has to evaluate better and more thoroughly than the big boys.
That clearly hasn’t been happening and it shows in all the struggles Kentucky’s younger players have had this season and it’s obvious Kentucky has missed on a few players in its recent recruiting classes.
It hasn’t helped that Vanderbilt continues to trend up in the SEC under second-year coach James Franklin, who is 2-0 against Phillips. He’s also a win away from taking the Commodores to their second straight bowl game for the first time in school history. For Barnhart to see Franklin's immediate success has to eat at him.
Things have completely changed at Vanderbilt. There’s excitement around the program and the Commodores are no longer overlooked. Barnhart can't say any of that about Kentucky.
The 40-point thrashing Vandy handed the Wildcats showed how different the paths these two programs are on.
Now, the search for a new coach begins. A handful of names will be thrown out there in the coming weeks. Bobby Petrino’s name will likely come up, especially with his history at Louisville. But is Barnhart really prepared to deal with all that baggage?
Duke’s David Cutcliffe could have his name thrown into the bunch, and so could Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart. Both have had obvious success, especially with Cutcliffe getting Duke bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. Cutcliffe is no stranger to the SEC. He was a longtime assistant at Tennessee before taking over as Ole Miss’ head coach in 1998. He went 44-29 in six seasons in Oxford.
Taggart bested Phillips earlier this season with an overtime win in Lexington, but you have to wonder if he’s ready to take on a job in a big-time conference like the SEC.
If other jobs in the SEC open up, it’ll certainly complicate things for Barnhart, but this was change Kentucky needed and it’ll be important that he finds someone one who can coach, recruit and develop his way out of Kentucky’s current situation.
As we continue to take a look at the coaches we love to hate this week, we're looking at SEC coaches who have left their respective schools in a lurch.
We already discussed Bobby Petrino's more than awkward departure at Arkansas, so we're going with three other recent departures that happened unexpectedly.
Let the bad memories return:
Urban Meyer, Florida: He announced that he'd be stepping away from coaching in 2010, but is now coaching at Ohio State. There was no question that Meyer was one of the best coaches to swing through Gainesville. During his six-year tenure, he won two national championships and took the Gators to three SEC championship games. But it was the way he left that sent Gator Nation into a frenzy. First, he announced his retirement for health reasons a couple of weeks after the loss to Alabama in the 2009 SEC championship game. His retirement barely lasted 24 hours, but Meyer and Florida were never the same. The 2010 season was a major step back, as Florida went 8-5, and Meyer stepped away again after the regular season concluded. Meyer said he was taking time off because of his health and his desire to spend more time with his family. Then, he took over at Ohio State (one of his dream jobs) for the fired Jim Tressel. But it wasn't just leaving Florida for a Big Ten school barely a year later that upset Florida fans. It was the fact that he left new coach Will Muschamp with what Meyer himself deemed a broken program. Muschamp dealt with discipline and attrition issues during his first season, in which he went 7-6. While Meyer was the king of winning the recruiting ranking game, he too often missed on character.
Tommy Tuberville, Ole Miss: He left Ole Miss after the 1998 season for Auburn. Tuberville took over a struggling Ole Miss program in 1995 and helped the Rebels to three winning seasons in four years. But four years wasn't what the Ole Miss faithful expected to get from Tuberville; he made it seem that he would be there for much longer when he uttered those now-infamous words: "They’ll have to carry me out of here in a pine box." That pine box apparently had to be filled with money, as just a couple days after he emphatically stated that he wanted to stay in Oxford and be the Rebels' coach, he took a pay raise that doubled his salary and headed off to Auburn. Soon after Tuberville left without so much as telling his players, Ole Miss fans donned T-shirts inspired by the movie "Liar, Liar" with Tuberville's face on them instead of Jim Carrey's. Tuberville went 7-3 against his old team during his time at Auburn. David Cutcliffe, Tuberville's replacement, guided Ole Miss to five winning seasons in his six years, including a 10-win season that ended with a Cotton Bowl victory.
And that was just a small sampling of the overflow crowd that squeezed into Cokesbury United Methodist Church’s Epworth Hall, all trying to make sense of a tragedy that rips at your heart in more ways than you ever thought imaginable.
The 21-year-old Douglas, who had just started to rekindle a promising football career at Alabama, was found dead this past Thursday morning in Fernandina Beach, Fla. Authorities are still investigating the cause of death.
Douglas’ college football career never completely took off. He was a freshman All-American at Tennessee in 2009 before transferring to Arizona Western College following Lane Kiffin’s departure and then resurfacing in the SEC this spring at Alabama. He was battling for the Crimson Tide’s left tackle job.
Those who knew Douglas best -- family members, friends, coaches and teammates -- all tell a similar story, that his heart was as big as his hulking 6-foot-7, 280-pound body.
His parents, David and Karla, were both athletes at Tennessee. David was an offensive lineman on the Vols’ 1985 SEC championship team and played several seasons in the NFL. Karla was a member of the 1987 Lady Vols’ national championship basketball team.
In some small way, their grief had to be eased by seeing how many different people’s lives their son had touched despite such a short life of his own.
In attendance were three men who’ve won national championships as head coaches -- Nick Saban, Phillip Fulmer and John Majors. They all sat up front with the family.
It hardly stops there, either.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, a longtime assistant at Tennessee, was there. So was former Tennessee assistant Dan Brooks, who’s now at Clemson and recruited Douglas to Tennessee.
Tennessee defensive line coach Lance Thompson was on hand along with former Vol great and current assistant athletic director Condredge Holloway, associate athletic directors David Blackburn and Carmen Tegano and Tennessee radio broadcaster Bob Kesling.
Alabama, still dealing with the fallout from the devastating tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa earlier this month, brought two planes full of people.
In addition to Saban, athletic director Mal Moore, offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and former offensive line coach Joe Pendry made the trip.
Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran left a family vacation in Florida and drove to Tuscaloosa so he could fly to Knoxville with the Alabama contingent and be at the service.
That’s not even counting the more than 30 members of the Alabama football team who carpooled together and drove on their own dime to pay their last respects to a fallen teammate they'd known for less than six months.
There were also several of Douglas’ former Tennessee teammates in attendance, including Nick Reveiz, Chris Walker, Jonathan Crompton, Cody Sullins, Cory Sullins and Josh McNeil, not to mention Douglas’ Maryville, Tenn., high school coach, George Quarles, and scores of his former high school teammates.
Arkansas assistant coach Steve Caldwell, also a former Tennessee assistant, had a conflict and couldn’t be at the service Sunday, but Caldwell flew in Saturday to visit with the family.
Agent Jimmy Sexton, who represented Douglas’ father when David was playing in the NFL, was there. So were members of Alabama’s academic and training staff, members of Tennessee’s equipment staff along with current and former team managers for the Vols.
Even Douglas’ first babysitter was there.
They were all there to say a tearful goodbye to a young man who was taken from us much too soon.
I think I speak for all of us in the SEC when I say this is an area where we’re all on the same team.
No matter where you live or who your allegiances are to in the fall, when you get home tonight, hug your kids a little longer and a little tighter.
Cutcliffe, the Vols' offensive coordinator for two different stints, has decided to stay at Duke after talks with Tennessee officials on Thursday failed to produce an agreement.
Tennessee has continued to talk with different candidates and remains hopeful of having a coach named as early as Friday.
The Air Force coach issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying he would be the Falcons' coach in 2010.
Calhoun's statement read: "We are more than grateful and proud to be closely involved with the character building of our cadets and the mission of the United States Air Force Academy. We are diligently recruiting and working with our team to prepare for the upcoming season. We look forward to coaching and being a part of the Air Force Academy team both on and off the field in 2010.”
Duke's David Cutcliffe remains in the thick of the Vols' search, which could be wrapped up as early as Thursday night or Friday morning. Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley is also on the list, while two others Tennessee has shown interest in are Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Temple's Al Golden.
The two names that appear to be at the top of the Vols' list, in no order, are Air Force's Troy Calhoun and Duke's David Cutcliffe.
Both coaches have had discussions with Tennessee officials, and Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton has a history with both coaches.
Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee on two different occasions before getting the Duke job. Calhoun was a finalist for the Vols' head job when Lane Kiffin was hired, and at least one of the members of the Vols' search party at the time had Calhoun No. 1 on his list. Calhoun also has NFL coaching experience, which works in his favor with Tennessee.
Calhoun has a team meeting scheduled for later today, so we'll see how that pans out.
Hamilton knows he needs to have a coach in place before recruiting kicks back into full gear this Sunday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
The NFL is about proving yourself all over again.
For former Tennessee All-SEC tailback Arian Foster, it will also be about building back his reputation.
Foster is the exception to the rule that says going back to college for your senior season is usually the wisest choice. He received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee last year, but elected to return to school for his final season.
|Jim Brown/US Presswire|
|After a disappointing senior season, Arian Foster is still hoping for a shot in the NFL.|
"I saw the talent we had returning, and I honestly thought we could win an SEC championship," Foster explained. "That's what was missing in my college career, and that's what brought me back. We were so close the year before. I wanted another shot at it."
What he got was a shot to his draft stock and a sobering reminder of how quickly things can turn in the SEC.
The Vols suffered through a dismal 5-7 season, which led to Phillip Fulmer's firing. Foster, who was just 685 yards away from becoming Tennessee's all-time rushing leader heading into the season, never meshed with new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, and Foster finished with 570 rushing yards and one touchdown on 131 carries.
That's after rushing for 1,193 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns the year before while carrying the ball 245 times.
It was a bitter pill for Foster to swallow.
His coaches lost their jobs. He lost a chance to write his name into the Tennessee record books, and worse, endured a second losing season in Knoxville.
But as this weekend's NFL draft has neared, Foster also realized that he gained something that's been even more difficult to shake: The label of being a bad character guy and somebody who can divide a locker room.
It's a question that has come up with countless general managers, personnel directors and coaches he's met with -- and he can't understand it.
Neither can some of the men who coached him at Tennessee.