SEC: Houston Nutt

SEC lunchtime links

August, 21, 2013
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Starters are being named, injuries are being assessed and coaches are seeking consistency. Yup, the season is drawing closer. Take a look around the SEC and see.
OXFORD, Miss. -- For the past few years, Denzel Nkemdiche has fought to create his own name.

When people saw or heard “Nkemdiche” he was barely an afterthought. The real excitement was reserved for his younger brother, Robert Nkemdiche, who was the best high school football player in the country last year.

[+] EnlargeRebels linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY SportsRebels linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche has stepped out from his brother Robert's shadow.
It was hard for Denzel to push away from the giant shadow his younger brother cast because people went to their games to see the youngster.

Robert was the next big thing. Robert had the one-way ticket to fame.

But Denzel's thirst to make his own path and create his own story fueled him when he made his way to Ole Miss and eventually onto the playing field.

While Robert's fame grew as a senior at Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga., Denzel played his way to an SEC All-Freshman year.

His younger brother, who is now on Ole Miss’ campus as well, might still generate more excitement and hype, but Denzel did everything he could in his first year of playing college ball to finally push further away from his brother’s shadow.

“I couldn’t be denied at all,” said Denzel, who registered a team-high 82 tackles and 13 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman in 2012. “I couldn’t be defeated.”

Denzel didn’t want any part of his brother’s recruitment in high school. He wasn’t the biggest, fastest or most talented player, but Denzel didn’t want his brother creating offers for him.

Grade issues almost forced Denzel to go the junior college route, but after getting his academics in order late, he looked to become a late signee in the 2011 recruiting class.

One thing that he offered schools was his versatility, with him playing defensive back his junior year and outside linebacker his senior year.

Ole Miss was on him for a while because of that, but schools like Georgia, Mississippi State and Miami pursued late. His grades certainly were a factor, but Denzel believed his brother was too, after Robert claimed he wanted to play wherever his older brother went.

That drew red flags in recruiting, especially when Georgia reached out. Denzel was weary of the hometown team because he felt Georgia’s interest stemmed from a potential packaged deal with his brother.

“I knew for a fact that one of the main reasons they were offering me [was] because Robert said he was going to go play wherever I played,” Denzel said. “I knew they were taking that into perspective and I felt like they were going to do either a grayshirt or a redshirt thing for me and I wasn’t going to get the chance that I needed to show them that I could play.”

With Ole Miss, there was the chance to play early and very little talk about his brother, Denzel said. It was a fresh start, and after a visit to Oxford to see then-coach Houston Nutt and his staff in May of 2011, Denzel found a new home.

“I just wanted to get on the field and see where someone would give me a chance,” he said. “I wasn’t highly recruited so wherever I went it depended on depth issues. I didn’t want to go there and waste four years. I wanted to go there and have a chance to make an impact early.”

Denzel didn’t see the field in 2011, as he moved to the hybrid linebacker/safety “Husky” position. The movement continued when Hugh Freeze took over after Nutt was fired during the 2011 season, as he went from Husky to free safety to rover safety before settling at “Stinger” linebacker.

Still not the biggest or fastest, Denzel tried to be the smartest. All that moving helped him understand the game and each position more. He was able to see plays before they happened, he knew where teammates should be and he consistently beat linemen to the ball.

His breakout game came in the loss to Alabama in late September when he earned SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors after registering 11 tackles, three for loss, including a sack, and two forced fumbles.

As the season went on, “Denzel Nkemdiche” started to mean more than just “Robert’s brother.” It had its own placement and its own buzz.

Denzel asked for his own path; now he’s on it.

“I can’t take steps behind,” he said. “I have something to live up to; I have expectations to meet. I have a season ahead of me where I have to do better than the season I had last year or I’m taking steps backwards.

“I know that, and I’m ready for the challenge.”

Paying SEC coaches to go away

January, 28, 2013
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Former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley didn’t stay unemployed for long.

He’s taken a job with the Dallas Cowboys as their receivers coach. Obviously, Dooley won’t make the kind of money he did as the Vols’ head coach ($2 million per year), but he’s also not hurting for dough. He walked away from Tennessee with a $5 million buyout.

The money that SEC schools have paid out to coaches just to go away over the past six years is staggering.

Ole Miss just recently settled with former coach Houston Nutt and paid Nutt a lump sum of $4.35 million to complete its remaining financial obligation to Nutt, who had a $6 million buyout payable over five years when he was fired toward the end of the 2011 season.

Ole Miss saved $500,000 by negotiating the $4.35 million lump sum with Nutt.

If you go back to the end of the 2007 season when Nutt received a $3.5 million settlement after he and Arkansas parted ways, SEC schools have doled out a staggering $38.65 million in buyouts.

That’s right, nearly $40 million for coaches not to coach.

And that’s just the head coaches.

Granted, just about all of these settlements were payable in installments that were spread out over several years.

Still …

Here’s a rundown:
  • Houston Nutt, Arkansas (2007) -- $3.5 million
  • Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State (2008) -- $3.5 million
  • Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee (2008) -- $6 million
  • Tommy Tuberville, Auburn (2008) -- $5.1 million
  • Houston Nutt, Ole Miss (2011) -- $5.5 million
  • Gene Chizik, Auburn (2012) -- $7.5 million
  • Derek Dooley, Tennessee (2012) -- $5 million
  • Joker Phillips, Kentucky (2012) -- $2.55 million
If Ole Miss isn't careful, it's going to win enough games to be eligible for the postseason.

Seriously.

For a team that was basically left for dead after two horrible seasons that produced just six wins and the start of a 15-game conference losing streak, the Rebels have some real fight in them this year, and new coach Hugh Freeze might know what he's doing over there in the Grove.

Through five games, Ole Miss has already surpassed last year's win mark by a game (three), and it actually has an offense that fans can stomach and get excited about. More importantly, it has a team that fights and plays for its coach.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
AP Photo/Bill HaberHugh Freeze seems to have things on the right track at Ole Miss.
You couldn't really say that last year about the Rebels, who eventually lost Houston Nutt before the season even finished.

But things are much different. The caliber of ball played by the Freeze-led Rebs is much better. So is the discipline and the attitude. The product is bearable. And the expectations are higher.

Yes, five games in and we have to seriously consider the Rebels for a bowl game. In fact, some kind of expect it with the way they're playing and with the way their opponents are playing, as well.

While Ole Miss is fresh off a 19-point loss to No. 1 Alabama, there are a few positives the Rebels can build off from that game. After being annihilated by the Tide last year with basically the same personnel, the Rebels put it to the defending champs for a while.

Alabama stood with the 33-14 win Saturday night, but if the Rebels wanted to, they could have easily claimed a moral victory in Tuscaloosa. It was certainly there for the taking when you consider that this team stopped Alabama's gaudy lead streak that dated back to Oct. 22, 2011, scored two touchdowns on that vaunted Tide defense and held Alabama to just 305 yards of offense, including not allowing any running backs to eclipse the 83-yard mark.

Think about how far this defense has come since that nightmarish 35-point loss to Texas.

Freeze wasn't interested in moral victories Saturday night. He wanted the real one, as improbable as it might have been.

“I’m pleased with the effort and attitude of our kids and how hungry they are to succeed,” Freeze said. “I’m disappointed because I feel like we should have been in it the fourth quarter and for whatever reason -- we can go through all of them -- we didn’t get there. The next step in this journey is to get there. Get in that fourth quarter. I don’t know if we’ll win it or not but sure would feel good to play as hard as they’re playing and get in one.”

Kudos to Freeze for being genuinely disappointed. If not for three costly turnovers, terrible special-teams play and some execution issues, Ole Miss really might have made a game of it in the fourth quarter. This is certainly something the Rebels can build on and be upset about.

Last year, we saw a team that didn't play for its coach. Really, it was a group of athletes playing, not a team. The leadership stunk and players admitted to giving up far before games were over.

You don't see that this season. You see a team determined to move out of the SEC West cellar. It has better quarterback play, with Bo Wallace taking over (his turnover issues have to stop), and Donte Moncrief might be the most underrated receiver in the SEC.

It's obvious Freeze's spread is working, as the offense ranks fourth in the SEC, and while the defense has its issues, it's nowhere near as clumsy as it was last season.

When you look at the rest of Ole Miss' schedule, believe it or not, a bowl berth isn't an impossibility. Who can seriously sit here right now and say the Rebels wouldn't be favored against Auburn (home), Arkansas or Vanderbilt (home)? Win those and the Rebels are at six wins and can head to the postseason.

And don't count them out in the game against Mississippi State, which is in Oxford. When you have a team that has been disrespected by its rival for three straight years and has a coach who knows this is the game to win, things can get interesting.

Ole Miss still has a lot of work to do, and the lack of overall depth could be an issue down the stretch, but when you look at the Rebels, it's clear the SEC losing streak is coming to an end. And it isn't crazy to think that this team could be playing a 13th game.
Ross Bjork understands the difficulties that come with running Ole Miss' athletic department, especially when it comes to football.

Ole Miss' new athletic director knows the sport is a major work in progress, but he's looking to expedite a return to being competitive.

Ole Miss' football program has yet to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game and has reached double-digit wins only once (2003) since 1971. While Ole Miss has had 13 winning seasons since 1990, the Rebels have churned out six losing seasons in the last eight years. Ole Miss has won just six games in two years and has lost 14 straight SEC matchups.

That disappointment led to Houston Nutt's dismissal last season. At the same time, then-athletic director Pete Boone also announced his resignation, meaning true change was coming to Ole Miss.

And Bjork, who left Western Kentucky's athletic director's spot for Ole Miss, is hoping to spearhead some positive change, as he embarks on his first year in Oxford.

"There's a big upside at Ole Miss," Bjork told ESPN.com during the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., in May. "Being the University of Mississippi, having the state power of the brand of the University of Mississippi, being the flagship institution, but also having the attraction and the passion at Ole Miss is a big advantage for us. People are hungry, from a fan perspective. The state of Mississippi and our alumni are hungry to get back to winning consistently in all of our sports."

Bjork, who at 39 is the youngest athletic director among BCS schools, brings the right charisma and determination with him to Ole Miss. He might be young, but knows the business. He might be new to the SEC, but he isn't intimidated. Athletic directors have to be aggressive and even ruthless in this league and Bjork seems ready to take on that personality. Western Kentucky saw an increase in athletic success and some facility upgrades during Bjork's short stint there, and he hopes to see similar improvements at Ole Miss.

In order to do that, Bjork said he's evaluating his coaches every day, including new football coach Hugh Freeze. There isn't necessarily a timetable for any coaches or any sort of leeway he has with them, but each evaluation comes with trying to find ways to make programs better and more competitive faster. If that means expanding the budget, Bjork will work to do that. If that means enhancing facilities, he'll aim to do that as well.

"To me, there's only one way to go, and that's to go up," he said. "We have a lot of great ideas, a lot of energy around these ideas. Now, we have to put them in place. We know that the expectations are to produce and that's why we're in this business."

Bjork wouldn't go into detail about those ideas, but they are things Bjork said motivate him every day. Winning and winning a lot consume his thoughts and that's something Ole Miss needs.

Bjork has been around Ole Miss only a short time, and is still adjusting to the culture of the town and university, but he's aiming high when it comes to athletics. He doesn't want middle-of-the road anymore, and he's looking for his programs to excel quickly.

"To me, we want to compete for and win championships," he said. "That will be the model, and if you're in the top quadrant of this league that means you're going to be in the top quadrant nationally. So we have to get our teams in the top quadrant consistently in this league.

"Some are there and some have a long way to go. Now, we have to sit down and figure out what it's going to take to get there."
OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss’ football program is stuck in the wilderness -- a scary place, filled with a plethora of overgrown obstacles.

When coach Hugh Freeze arrived last December, he says the jungle was as thick as ever and it didn’t look like his new team was ready to cut its way out.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
Shelby Daniel/Icon SMINew coach Hugh Freeze has set out an agenda for all Ole Miss players: "winning the day."
That was until Freeze offered a solution: his “Journey.” He told players that he didn’t know how long it would take for them to make it out or find some sort of salvation, but if they followed him, they’d find the light.

“The reasonable expectation for us in Year 1 is for us to compete passionately for this university for 60 minutes,” Freeze said. “And whatever that scoreboard says at the end of that 60 minutes we’ll have to live with.”

The Rebels will have to plod through this quagmire, but Freeze insists patience is the key to turning around a program that is less than three years removed from a second straight Cotton Bowl victory.

“It’s well-documented that we don’t have the talent level that people in the SEC West have right now at a lot of spots, at least not the depth,” Freeze said. “That’s not fixed overnight.”

And it’s just one of the handful of problems Freeze is looking to fix, as he replaces Houston Nutt, who was once heralded as Ole Miss' greatest hire. Academic and discipline issues are also on the agenda. As Freeze puts it, he has “a few mountains to climb” before he can shape things up, but since the journey began in December, progress has been made.

Freeze said probably 65-70 percent of the players have bought in, which might be a conservative number. It’s better than what he expected, considering the trust issues and players being set in their old ways of doing “what they’ve wanted to do for themselves for so long.”

“They think they like it the way they had it, even though, if they’re intelligent enough, they look at the results,” he said. “You’re will is something that’s hard to change once you get set.”

Freeze put the Rebels’ abysmal 6-18 two-year record and 14 straight SEC losses front and center as motivation, he made academics more of a priority, looked to adjust Ole Miss’ lenient drug policy, and created accountability groups.

Everything has helped, but the accountability groups really took off.

They were created to show players how much their actions affected everyone. Miss class? Your group runs at 5 a.m. Miss tutoring? Group run; 5 a.m. Late for anything? Welcome the sun with some running.

Rising junior linebacker Mike Marry said his group never ran – he made sure of it – but he saw other groups running as much as five times during a two-week span. The running cut down as the spring went on and there was hardly any toward the end.

“That’s what I like about him,” Marry said of Freeze, “he doesn’t let little things slide.

“The last coaches, they let certain things slide. Certain things were small, but eventually they start building up and turn into big things and people started feeling like they could get away with more and more things. Since he’s not letting little things slide, you’re seeing the team come together closer and closer and there are fewer problems.”

Freeze said eliminating off-field trouble is top priority. That’s why he’s so nervous about leaving his players in their own hands during the true offseason. Progress was made, but he worries guys will fall back on old habits when less supervised.

To ease his mind, Freeze turns to recruiting. With Ole Miss so thin at defensive tackle, offensive line, running back and safety, and needing walk-ons to fill three full teams in practice (on both sides), Freeze is stacking recruiting on recruiting.

He had some early success in his first class, grabbing three Under Armour All-Americans – DT Issac Gross, DE Channing Ware and DB Trae Elston -- and two junior college All-Americans – QB Bo Wallace and OT Pierce Burton – and his roll has continued with nine commitments in hand for 2013.

Recruiting at Ole Miss has hardly ever been easy with schools like Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia in such close proximity, but Freeze believes he’ll make it work. And he’ll do it by going after the top prospects, not by getting lax and offering whomever to fill space.

“We can make it easy in recruiting, now, and I think that’s what’s happened,” he said.

“I know you can recruit here. I’ve been here before when we did it and when we had 20 kids drafted in the NFL in those three classes that we brought in.

“Is it easy? No, but it is doable.”

Fixing Ole Miss is also doable, he said. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time, but it requires patience. Freeze’s mantra is “Winning the day,” not winning the week.

“The one thing that we have that’s constant and equal [to opponents] is time,” Freeze said. “So, what are we doing to prepare for that end goal -- whatever that is -- today?

“We’re a fragile state of mind right now and when you start talking about things that are so far out there, I don’t think that will be beneficial to us. Let’s just talk about today.”

Freeze might be preaching about today, but you can sense the confidence growing inside players, especially wide receiver Donte Moncrief, who took things a step further.

“Everybody keeps putting us under the radar, but once we learn this offense and the defense keeps playing like it’s playing, we’re going to shock a lot of teams,” he said.

What a journey that’d be.
Ole Miss quarterback Barry Brunetti has seen a lot of change during his two years as a college quarterback.

He's seen two different campuses -- after starting his career at West Virginia -- and attempted to learn his third different offense under his third different offensive coordinator this spring.

[+] EnlargeBarry Brunetti
Spruce Derden/US PresswireOle Miss quarterback Barry Brunetti finds himself in another competition for a starting job.
As much as things have changed for the rising junior, one thing has stayed constant: Brunetti has had a fight on his hands each step of the way.

"I've been competing since ninth grade for a spot, so it kind of comes natural to me," Brunetti said. "It's nothing new to me. It's something I do every day. It comes natural."

Brunetti lost out to favorite Geno Smith at WVU back in 2010, and after carrying the starting torch at the beginning of last season at his new school, he quickly lost it before the season opener even ended and watched as Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt took over for most of the year.

Sitting behind Smith wasn't a surprise, but Brunetti was blindsided by his sudden fall in 2011. Former coach Houston Nutt even said during the season that he wished he had redshirted Brunetti, who played in just four games and threw for 144 yards on 19 of 35 passing.

The benching crushed Brunetti, but he still doesn't know the reasoning behind the move by Nutt and then offensive coordinator David Lee.

"I wish I could tell you, but I can't," Brunetti said.

"I try not to dread on last year. I try not to think about it."

So as Brunetti's second spring at Ole Miss ends, he's yet again in a fight, but this time he's more comfortable with where he stands because Ole Miss’ offense has now morphed into the spread. Once he got the terminology down, Brunetti said he grasped the offense quickly, because it was very similar to what he ran at West Virginia and high school.

"I'm very comfortable now," he said. "This is back to what I do."

Brunetti led the competition last spring, but heads into the summer tied with junior college transfer Bo Wallace. Wallace had the edge early in the competition, because he knew the offense after being with new coach Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State. That lead quickly shrank as Brunetti took more reps.

Brunetti said he operates best in the spread because he prefers the quick routes and throws, and loves to use his feet. He passed for just 62 yards, while running for 109 in Ole Miss’ spring game, but offensive coordinator Dan Werner said Brunetti made tremendous progress this spring.

"This is suited for him," Werner said. "He has a quick release, he has quick feet, and that's what we try to do is get rid if the ball quick. Also, he runs the ball well, and we want to be able to use his abilities there, too."

Werner made sure the battle between Brunetti and Wallace, who threw for 240 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the spring game, was intense. Once it became clear that they were the front-runners the reps evened out -- each one just as important as the other.

Every snap taken and every question Werner asked contributed to Werner's thoughts on which was the right quarterback.

He left spring without a clear answer.

Brunetti wants to be the answer. As he looks to reinvent himself and his career, Brunetti also wants to help reinvent Ole Miss. The program has been on a free fall for two years, resulting in six wins and 14 straight conference losses.

Brunetti hopes to turn that around.

"I've been in college for two years, man, and I'm itching to be a starter for a season," he said. "I really want people to see what I can do, and what I can do with this team, because we have great young talent.

"I really want to win this job. I think about it every day before I go to sleep."
There's no question that there are more than a few issues surrounding Ole Miss' football team.

Hugh Freeze inherited a team that is lacking depth in key areas, is still searching for playmakers, and hasn't won an SEC game in its pst 14 tries.

But if Ole Miss is going to make any immediate progress on the football field, things need to get cleaned up off the field.

Suspensions and dismissals rocked Ole Miss' team last fall, showing an obvious lack of discipline while former coach Houston Nutt was in charge.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
AP Photo/Saundra SovickNew coach Hugh Freeze has made it clear he won't tolerate the off-field problems that troubled Ole Miss before his arrival.
When Freeze was introduced to his new team back in December, he made it crystal clear to players that certain things from the past wouldn't be tolerated, and that the attitude around Ole Miss' program was going to change.

Fast-forward to April, and quarterback Barry Brunetti says he's seen a dramatic difference in the way players conduct themselves with Freeze's no-nonsense persona front and center.

"I can just see it in the guys' eyes every day," Brunetti said. "They're ready to come to practice every day, and they're ready to work every day."

Brunetti said Freeze has made improving discipline throughout the entire team priority No. 1 this spring. Sure, learning new schemes and finding the right pieces here and there are important, but Brunetti said this team won't go anywhere without getting away from its troubled past.

"We need to be more disciplined than we were last year, because we have the talent. We have talent just as good as anybody in the SEC," Brunetti said. "I see it every day. I work out with these guys every day, and I know we can go get it.

"I know we can turn it around. We just have to learn to be more disciplined."

That means not getting carried away around the bar scene. That means not getting dismissed for continuing to violate team rules. That means not having starters suspended, especially before the season finale against your rival.

Brunetti said players who have made past mistakes have been forgiven, and the team is trying to forget, but he also said that it's time to make sure silly gaffes from the past don't creep back up.

"At the same time, we have to stop that, and that comes with discipline," Brunetti said. "I really believe that when Coach Freeze came in, a lot of it stopped, and a lot of it has decreased dramatically. Guys are doing very well who were struggling last year.

"To change, you have to change yourself, and that's what Coach Freeze is saying every time he sees us."

Sawyer, Rebels to fight for each other

March, 23, 2012
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There’s not a lot to remember fondly about Ole Miss’ football season a year ago.

Really, make that the past two seasons.

Junior cornerback Charles Sawyer chooses to look at it differently. That’s because he has no interest, period, in looking into his rear-view mirror.

The Rebels open spring practice on Friday afternoon, and just about everything is new -- from the head coach, to the coordinators, to a more demanding approach that Sawyer says was a long time coming.

“It’s a new start, a clean slate,” Sawyer said. “You can already tell that everything’s going to be more demanding around here. There’s just more focus, more protecting the team.

“The coaches send us text messages throughout the day reminding us to always protect the team and do the right things. It’s just a different atmosphere, and we needed that. When you go into that locker room, everybody’s focused and everybody’s ready to work.”

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews, Charles Sawyer
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDefensive back Charles Sawyer was Ole Miss' second-leading tackler last season.
Sawyer is quick to point out that he’s not bashing Houston Nutt and the Rebels’ previous regime.

Rather, he’s embracing first-year coach Hugh Freeze and the imprint that Freeze is trying to place on a program that has lost 14 consecutive SEC games and experienced a rash of player suspensions and dismissals over the past two years, not to mention some crippling injuries.

“It starts at the top and transfers down to the players,” Sawyer said. “There are a lot of rules, and if you don’t go by them, you’re not going to be a part of this program. Players see that and want to be a part of it. If they don’t, they leave and we keep on moving forward.”

Sawyer was diplomatic when asked if that same mentality existed under the previous coaching staff.

“It started fading away through all the adversities that we had,” Sawyer said. “That’s not an excuse. It’s just that I think we had it and then sort of lost it.”

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Sawyer has already demonstrated that he’s a team-first player and a player that performs regardless of what’s going on around him.

He came to Ole Miss from Miami, Fla., as a cornerback, but shifted over to safety last season because there was a pressing need there. Then when Marcus Temple was injured, Sawyer went back to cornerback and generally played wherever the Rebels needed him.

He played well, too, and enters the 2012 season as one of the more underrated defenders in the SEC. Because of Ole Miss’ struggles, Sawyer simply didn’t get the recognition that he deserved.

His 70 total tackles ranked him second on the team behind linebacker Mike Marry. Sawyer also intercepted four passes and returned one 96 yards for a touchdown in the opener against BYU.

Go back and look at how many defensive backs in the SEC last season racked up 70 or more tackles and intercepted at least four passes.

Morris Claiborne didn’t do it. Neither did Mark Barron, Tyrann Mathieu, Stephon Gilmore, Bacarri Rambo or Casey Hayward.

“My role on this team hasn’t changed,” Sawyer said. “I’m going to lead by example and make the plays I can make. I want to be a team player, and wherever they need me to play, I’ll play.

“Whatever I did last year, I have to multiply that by 10.”

And while others may dwell on the Rebels’ drought in the SEC, Sawyer is confident that better days are ahead. The last time he or any of his Ole Miss teammates tasted victory in an SEC contest was Oct. 2, 2010. The Rebels beat Kentucky 42-35 that day.

Since then it’s been a string of 14 straight losses, and 11 of those by 13 points or more.

“It hasn’t been easy, but what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” Sawyer said. “For me, it’s been motivation to get back out there, because none of us want to go through that again.”

Sawyer said Freeze’s message to the team has been one of unity and belief in one another.

“He tells us to play and not worry about making mistakes,” Sawyer said. “He wants us to compete and give it our all, and at the end of the day, whatever happens happens.

“We’re going to fight for each other this season. That’s something I can promise you.”
Texas A&M added a familiar face to its staff Tuesday by hiring former Aggie defensive lineman Terry Price (1986-89) to coach Texas A&M's defensive line.

Price isn't just familiar with Texas A&M but he's very familiar with the SEC. Price returns to College Station, Texas, after spending 16 years as an assistant coach in the SEC.

After brief stints with Texas A&M and Western Kentucky in the early 90s, Price joined Tommy Tuberville's staff at Ole Miss, where he coached the Rebels' defensive line from 1995-98. He then left with Tuberville to Auburn, where he coached from 1999-2008. In 2009, Price returned to Oxford, Miss., and joined former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt's staff until Nutt was fired in 2011.

He then temporarily reunited with Tuberville at Texas Tech in December of 2011, before accepting an offer from new Aggie coach Kevin Sumlin.

"I am extremely pleased to name Terry Price as our defensive line coach," Sumlin said. "He is an Aggie, an SEC coaching veteran, a terrific recruiter and an even better person."

Price's defensive lines are known for having a very aggressive style with a point of putting continuous pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The 2005 Auburn defensive line was tied for first in the SEC in sacks (38) and also recorded an 11-sack performance in the 28-18 win over Alabama.

With Price's history inside the SEC, he'll be a very welcomed addition to Sumlin's coaching staff. Sumlin has said he wants to get bigger, stronger and mentally tougher on the defense line, and what better way than to hire someone with vast experience coaching SEC defensive linemen?

To improve in an area that is so important in the SEC, Sumlin went out and got someone who knows exactly what it takes to be successful up front in this league.

SEC Valentine's Day cards

February, 14, 2012
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Even in the fiercely competitive SEC, it’s good to spread a little love.

OK, maybe just once a year. And that one day is today … Valentine’s Day.

So just as we did a year ago, we’re going to set aside all the bitter rivalries, feuds and finger-pointing for a day and hand out some very deserving Valentine’s Day cards.

Sit back and enjoy.

Dear …

Alabama coach Nick Saban,

Your football program is without peer right now, and I mean anywhere in college football. A lot of people were shocked when they heard that Alabama was paying you $32 million over eight years – a financial package that has since been sweetened. I’d say it’s been money well spent when you look at the Crimson Tide’s trophy case over the last few years. Everybody wonders what your secret is. Here’s one: Great football players who are also high-character kids in the mold of Trent Richardson, Barrett Jones, William Vlachos, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.

Former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt,

Hated to see you go out like that. But regardless of what anybody says, average coaches don’t make it 14 years in this league at two different places. The same goes for your defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. Both of you are better coaches than the last two seasons would suggest. There’s an entire body of work out there that says so.

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore,

Can’t wait to see you back on the field, and here’s hoping you’re as good as new. Your sense of team, combined with your incredible work ethic and awesome athletic ability, make you the kind of player coaches and fans dream about.

Arkansas running back Knile Davis,

Probably should have sent you and Marcus the same card. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that you’re healthy again. Your unbreakable will to keep coming back from so many injuries is an inspiration to all of us, and we're eager to see the version of you run the ball again that we saw in 2010 when you led all SEC running backs in rushing.

LSU coach Les Miles,

I’m not one of those who writes off what you and your team did for the first 13 games this past season simply because of that one forgettable night in New Orleans. It was a remarkable run against a killer schedule. But do everybody on the Bayou a favor and trash that offensive game plan from the BCS national championship game.

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray,

Your arm strength and ability to make all of the throws is unquestioned. You’re equally fearless in the pocket. But now it’s time to become a true quarterback and raise the level of play of all the guys around you. The great quarterbacks take it upon themselves to lead their entire team, and they do so as much off the field as they do on the field.

Arkansas receiver/punt returner Joe Adams,

Do you really have eyes in the back of your head? We’re still dying to know how you broke all of those tackles (somewhere around eight) on that 60-yard punt return for a touchdown against Tennessee? It’s as good a punt return as I’ve ever seen.

Vanderbilt defensive end Tim Fugger,

There are a lot of underrated players in this league, but you were right there at or near the top this season. You were invaluable to that Vanderbilt defense with your 13.5 tackles for loss, including eight sacks, and three forced fumbles. It wasn’t just your numbers that set you apart, but the way you played the game with precision, passion and grit on every snap.

Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan,

We’re not supposed to have favorites in our business. But how can you not pull for a guy like Trevathan? Kentucky coach Joker Phillips used to joke that he found Trevathan up under a rock down in Florida during the recruiting process. Well, Trevathan turned out to be a rock, racking up nearly 300 total tackles during his last two seasons and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played no matter what the scoreboard said. We'll miss you, Danny.

Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham,

The entire Bulldog Nation thanks you for bringing a mental toughness to that defense (and to the program) that was lacking at times in past seasons. Your defense was the backbone in Georgia’s turnaround and 10-game winning streak this season, and even though your fire might have burned a little too brightly a couple of times, it’s exactly what the Bulldogs needed.

Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer,

Not even the great Bo Jackson rushed for 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons on the Plains. It was a joy to watch you play. Just wished it didn’t end on such a sour note.

Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain,

Congrats on the new gig at Colorado State. You were destined to be a head coach, and I’ll make sure everybody remembers that they did play a little offense at Alabama this past season, too. In fact, your Tide offense was the only one in the SEC to average more than 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game. That’s saying something when you consider the level of defense played in the SEC.

Florida coach Will Muschamp,

You made some tough decisions in Year 1, notably sending star cornerback Janoris Jenkins packing following his second drug arrest. You’ve also got your coaching staff more to your liking, and your players understand unequivocally now what you expect from them. The 2012 version of the Gators will more closely reflect you as a football coach, and I’d be surprised if the results weren’t markedly better.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen,

I really like the way you’ve helped yourself with junior college talent. I also like the way your 2012 schedule looks through the middle of October. With five home games and two very winnable road dates, a 6-1 or even 7-0 start is very possible. I’m not trying to jinx you, Dan, but maybe Year No. 4 in Starkville is going to be that magical season everyone was predicting this past year. The bottom line is that you’ve led the Bulldogs to back-to-back winning seasons, and the last time that happened was 10 years ago.

Updating records against winning teams

February, 10, 2012
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We’ve updated our career records for SEC head coaches from this past season against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record, which is always one of the best gauges for coaching success.

Obviously, there are exceptions. In some cases, a coach may just be starting out, and there are also situations where he’s come from a smaller school and taken his lumps.

Generally, though, it’s a pretty good measurement of how a coach has fared over the course of his career.

LSU’s Les Miles made a big jump this season by finishing 9-1 against teams with winning records in 2011.

Houston Nutt, who was fired as Ole Miss’ coach, won 36 games during his career against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record, but he lost 69 to leave his winning percentage at .343.

Hugh FreezeAP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisHugh Freeze is all smiles now, but he takes over a program that has lost 14 straight SEC games.
This week marked a special time in Hugh Freeze’s life.

And it had nothing to do with player evaluations, recruiting or clocking 40 times.

This was the first time Ole Miss’ new head coach actually got to see what organization looked like in his office. Gone were the boxes that littered his floors and the loose papers that cluttered his desk.

There is some sort of balance in his workspace, but there are still voice mails and emails that haven’t been returned. It’s not that he’s dismissed them; he just hasn’t had time to respond.

“I really don’t have everything in order yet,” Freeze said.

Yet, he’s happy to see some sort of sanity return. Since Freeze was announced as Ole Miss’ 37th head coach on Dec. 5, he’s had one team meeting and a whole lot of recruiting on his mind.

Freeze, who returns to Ole Miss after spending three years on Ed Orgeron’s staff, has barely moved into Danny Nutt’s (Houston Nutt’s brother) old house because he had to build relationships with committed and uncommitted prospects with less than two months until national signing day. And he had to do so at a program that had endured two straight seasons in the SEC’s cellar, winning just six games and dropping 14 straight league games, including three straight to archrival Mississippi State.

Ole Miss’ longer winter break also meant that he only had one official visit weekend in which students would be on campus -- the final one.

“As you know, Oxford is a different place when the kids are here,” Freeze said.

It is, and Freeze worried that prospects wouldn’t be able to really digest the Ole Miss experience without them.

But on national signing day, Freeze finished off his class of 18 with a pretty successful turnout. Freeze signed a solid defensive foundation in four-star defensive linemen Issac Gross, Channing Ward and safety Trae Elston.

Though Freeze suffered tough losses, including local star Jeremy Liggins, who signed with LSU, he saved six initial scholarships that can be counted back next year and he thinks he signed “quality kids who really want to be at Ole Miss.”

Now, he has to make sure he has those players on his current roster. Freeze isn’t pointing fingers, but he knows that discipline is an issue at Ole Miss. The mindset isn’t toxic, but it isn’t great.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
AP Photo/Saundra SovickHugh Freeze is familiar with rebuilding programs. He turned Arkansas State into a winner in 2011.
Freeze is well aware of the off-field incidents and the questionable heart this team showed on the field last season. Therefore, he’s calling for an overhaul. Things will change mentally and physically for these players.

“It is requiring them to get out of their comfort zone and change what they’re used to,” Freeze said.

Freeze’s situation at Ole Miss is similar to the one he had at Arkansas State. During his one season as ASU’s head coach last year, he had players who had never had a winning season. Expunging the losing attitudes was step 1.

Step 2 was developing the talent at a faster, more efficient rate. Freeze created a well-disciplined team that won the Sun Belt after getting 10 wins for the first time since 1986. Freeze earned Sun Belt Coach of the Year, while 13 of his players earned all-league honors.

Can that overnight success be duplicated in Oxford? Freeze isn’t expecting such a dramatic turnaround, but he does anticipate immediate improvement. He won’t settle for mediocrity. He didn’t return just for Ajax Diner’s veggies smothered in bacon and grease or the flawlessly battered catfish at Taylor Grocery.

He came home to win ball games and change the culture of Ole Miss football. He knows the offensive line wasn’t recruited for a more “power-type offense” and that youth ran the 2011 team.

But he also knows that he has the pieces in place to run his high-octane, spread offense. There are dual-threat quarterbacks galore, including Bo Wallace, who at one time was an ASU signee, and the Rebels have quality speed at the skill positions.

Freeze doesn’t view Ole Miss’ program as bleak, and while the Rebels spent 2011 at the bottom of the SEC pile, with time, Freeze believes he can get this program to rebound.

“I do believe with all my heart that we’ll get back to being competitive and hopefully we’ll do it sooner rather than later, but I’ve got to preach to myself patience,” he said. “I’m not a very patient guy, but I’ve got to be patient with these guys. Hopefully, there’s a large percentage of the team that wants to change the way things are and we can get them to buy in. Hopefully, the ones who are on the fence can buy in with us.”

Still, inconsistency has thrived at Ole Miss. There’s the idea that Freeze isn’t experienced enough. There’s the fact that the Rebels haven’t been to the SEC championship game and have won 10 games just once since 1971.

The Rebels have ways to go before they'll really compete in the SEC, but Freeze hopes he can shake the stigma that it's preposterous to win at Ole Miss.

“I embrace that. I don’t run from it and we acknowledge it,” he said. “I obviously think it can be done or I would have taken one of those other jobs that I had. I do think it’s going to take all of our efforts and us being of one mind, one accord on the same page with our fan base and our staff, and us changing the way we think of ourselves.

“It’ll take time.”
Now that national signing day is behind us, we'll continue our look back at each position in the SEC. Today, we're ranking the league's running back units:

1. Alabama: Not only did Alabama lead the SEC in rushing (214.5 yards per game) but Alabama's running game led the league with an average of 5.1 yards per carry against SEC teams. Alabama also had the Doak Walker Award winner in Trent Richardson. Projected as a top-10 pick in April's NFL draft, Richardson finished the season with 1,679 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. Backups Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler combined for 1,059 yards and 11 touchdowns.

2. LSU: The Tigers used a stable of running backs throughout the year and led the SEC with 200.9 rushing yards per conference game. Michael Ford and Spencer Ware each eclipsed the 700-yard mark, while Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue combined for 875 yards. LSU's four regular running backs combined for 30 touchdowns. For 13 games, LSU made its mark on offense by wearing teams out with its running game.

[+] EnlargeMichael Dyer
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAuburn's Michael Dyer was one of two SEC running backs to average over 100 rushing yards in league games. The other? Heisman finalist Trent Richardson.
3. Auburn: This group of Tigers might not have gotten a ton of offensive praise this season, but Auburn probably had the best running back duo behind Alabama in Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. Dyer was the only back other than Richardson to average more than 100 yards rushing against SEC opponents (101.1) and he was second in the league with 1,242 yards. McCalebb put up 641 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

4. South Carolina: The Gamecocks would have been higher on this list if not for the unfortunate season-ending injury Marcus Lattimore suffered in the middle of the year. Lattimore led the SEC in rushing after six games, but was injured a week later, ending the year with 818 yards and 10 touchdowns. Former redshirt candidate Brandon Wilds was a pleasant surprise as he rushed for 486 yards, including gaining 100-plus yards in three of his last five games.

5. Georgia: Like LSU, the Bulldogs used a stable of running backs to get through the season. Freshman Isaiah Crowell led the group and started the season off well, but his play dipped during the second part of the season, as injuries took hold. He was named the SEC's freshman of the year by the Associated Press and gained 850 yards with five touchdowns. Injuries affected Georgia's entire backfield, but the Bulldogs still ranked fifth in the league averaging 169.8 yards in SEC games.

6. Vanderbilt: The Commodores didn't have great depth at running back, but did have an absolute stud in the starting lineup. Zac Stacy came out of nowhere in 2011 to rank third in the SEC with 1,193 yards and second with 14 touchdowns. Freshman Jerron Seymour added 268 yards and five touchdowns.

7. Florida: The Gators had two of the fastest running backs in the country in their backfield in Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Both excelled in space and both ranked in the top 10 in rushing during conference play, as they each averaged more than 59 yards a game and combined for 872 yards. They combined for 1,430 yards, but didn't create a power running game as Florida ranked eighth in the league in rushing.

8. Mississippi State: Vick Ballard had a tremendous season for Bulldogs, rushing for 1,189 and 10 touchdowns in 2011. But the Bulldogs scored just seven rushing touchdowns in SEC play and averaged 131.1 yards per SEC game, ranking ninth in the league. LaDarius Perkins was second on the team with 422 yards and Mississippi State averaged just 3.4 yards per carry against conference teams.

9. Arkansas: The Razorbacks took a major hit when Knile Davis missed the season with an ankle injury. There was depth, but it took a while before Dennis Johnson finally emerged as Arkansas' top back. He finished the season with just 670 yards and three touchdowns. Ronnie Wingo Jr. was second with 458 yards and three scores, as Arkansas ranked ninth overall in rushing in the SEC and seventh in conference play. As a whole, inconsistency plagued Arkansas' backfield.

10. Ole Miss: Houston Nutt prided himself on running the ball, but Ole Miss failed to do it well in 2011. Brandon Bolden's ankle injury at the beginning of the season didn't help. Speedster Jeff Scott received the bulk of the carries, but never really provided a consistent spark and bruiser Enrique Davis was a no-show for most of the year. The Rebels were 10th in the SEC in rushing and their running backs scored just three rushing touchdowns against SEC opponents.

11. Tennessee: If not for Tauren Poole, the Vols would have been dead last on our list. Tennessee was awful running the ball, but Poole gained 693 rushing yards and five touchdowns. However, Tennessee ranked 116th nationally in rushing and last in the SEC, averaging 90.1 yards per game and averaged just 63.5 against conference opponents. Tennessee running backs scored just 11 rushing touchdowns.

12. Kentucky: As a whole, the Wildcats' numbers were better than Tennessee's. They were 11th in the league in rushing and averaged nearly 40 more rushing yards in conference games, but injuries ravaged this group. Freshmen Josh Clemons looked like he might have a solid season before a knee injury cost him the second half of the season. Raymond Sanders was supposed to be the guy, but played just six games. CoShik Williams ended up being Kentucky's leading rusher, with 486 yards.

The SEC's top 10 moments in 2011

January, 12, 2012
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As we take another look at the 2011 season, we'll check out the top 10 moments from the SEC's year.

It's not as easy as it looks, but someone has to do it.

I'm sure we'll think of a couple more as the days go by, but here are our top 10 moments from 2011 in reverse order:

10. Houston Nutt's dismissal:
Ole Miss said goodbye to its head coach after Nutt was fired toward the end of the season. After back-to-back nine-win seasons that ended with Cotton Bowl victories, Nutt was fired after two dismal seasons in Oxford. He coached the entire season, but ended his tenure with 14 straight losses to SEC opponents.

9. Kentucky's last stand: There wasn't much for the Wildcats to be proud of in 2011, but Kentucky's 10-7 win over Tennessee was truly memorable. It snapped a 26-game losing streak to the Vols (dating back to when Joker Phillips played at Kentucky) and eliminated Tennessee from postseason play.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Richt and the Bulldogs overcame an 0-2 start to the season to win the SEC's Eastern Division.
8. Georgia clinching the East: After starting the season 0-2, Georgia won 10 straight, but its ninth win meant the most. Georgia's 19-10 win over Kentucky on Nov. 19 clinched the SEC Eastern Division and sent the Bulldogs back to the SEC championship for the first time since 2005.

7. Vandy's bowl bid: Coach James Franklin promised change at Vanderbilt and he got it in his first year. The Commodores reeled off six wins and their 41-7 win over Wake Forest on the last weekend of the regular season sent Vandy bowling for the first time since 2008.

6. Richardson's run: Trent Richardson's Heisman moment came on a run and a move for the ages. Before he could finish off his eventual 76-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against Ole Miss, he had to embarrass defender Senquez Golson by cutting back and then immediately forward, leaving the rookie stumbling to the turf just before the end zone.

5. Adams' return: No plays were as exciting to watch in the SEC -- and probably nationally -- than Joe Adams' amazing punt return against Tennessee. Adams was scintillating, as he reversed field 10 yards and shook off five tackles before darting down the right sideline for what stood as a 60-yard touchdown return.

4. South Carolina's 11th win: Last year, the Gamecocks made history when they made it to their first SEC championship game. In 2011, South Carolina won 11 games in a season for the first time when the Gamecocks routed Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It also ended a streak of three straight bowl losses.

3. Reid's interception: When you think back at the 2011 season, Eric Reid's interception against Alabama at LSU's own 1-yard line has to be one of the first images you see. With the Tide running a trick play involving a pass from receiver Marquis Maze to tight end Michael Williams, Reid out-muscled Williams for the ball in midair. The play propelled LSU on its magical run and sent Alabama home with what seemed like a season-changing loss.

2. LSU's magical run ends: LSU was a win away from entering the "best ever" conversation, with eight wins over ranked teams, but LSU ran into a freight train named Alabama in the hated rematch in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. LSU's offense fell flat as the Tide ran over the Tigers 21-0 in their own backyard of New Orleans.

1. Alabama hoists the crystal football ... again:
The state of Alabama clearly owns college football at the moment. Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU in the national championship gave the state three straight crystal footballs and was the second for the Crimson Tide in three years. Nick Saban admitted that this championship (his third) was the sweetest and you could tell because he actually smiled afterward and took his Gatorade bath like a true champ.

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