SEC: Mark Richt

South Carolina season review

December, 18, 2014
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Following three straight 11-win seasons, South Carolina’s expectations remained high when the Gamecocks opened the 2014 season as a top-10 club. But it became clear early in the season that Steve Spurrier’s club would not live up to that standard.

An unusually porous defense -- the Gamecocks are 91st nationally in total defense, allowing 433.6 yards per game -- was the biggest culprit as South Carolina slipped to 6-6 and fifth in the SEC East. Quarterback Dylan Thompson (SEC-high 3,280 passing yards) and the offense did good work, but the key for the Gamecocks moving forward will be to move back toward the stifling defense that marked their best seasons under Spurrier.

Here is a recap of South Carolina’s season to this point:

Best win: After dropping the season opener 52-28 to Texas A&M, with Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill looking like a Heisman Trophy contender, South Carolina turned around and upset then-No. 6 Georgia two weeks later. The Gamecocks’ porous defense faced first-and-goal at the South Carolina 4 late in the game, but forced Georgia to attempt a 28-yard field goal -- which Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan missed. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt would later lament not handing the ball to Todd Gurley, who ran for 131 yards and a touchdown. South Carolina held onto the ball for the final 4:24 and escaped with a 38-35 victory.

Worst loss: There are some doozies to choose from -- such as the embarrassing opening loss to Texas A&M and an overtime defeat to Tennessee -- but a 45-38 loss at Kentucky probably stands out as the worst. South Carolina held a two-touchdown lead midway through the fourth quarter before Kentucky’s Jojo Kemp (131 yards, 3 TDs) took over and Alvin Dupree scored the game-winning touchdown with a pick-six off a deflection with 2:29 to play. South Carolina’s other losses were at least to bowl teams. The Kentucky loss was when it became absolutely clear that the Gamecocks weren’t very good this year.

Player of the year: A.J. Cann. This was probably not what Cann expected when he opted to return for his senior season, but the Gamecocks’ starting left guard continued to dominate at his position. South Carolina fell well short of its 11-win standard of the previous several seasons, but Cann still played championship-caliber football and might earn attention on some postseason All-America teams in addition to the All-SEC honors he already won from the league’s coaches and media.

Breakout player: Pharoh Cooper. The 5-foot-11 Cooper is emerging as one of the SEC’s most versatile and explosive offensive performers. He leads the Gamecocks with 60 catches for 966 yards and eight touchdowns, plus he ran for 198 yards and two touchdowns and passed for two more touchdowns after taking direct snaps. Cooper even returns punts for the Gamecocks, averaging 5.6 yards per return. Just a sophomore, Cooper is on the cusp of becoming a superstar thanks to the many ways he can impact the game.

Play of the year: Let’s not narrow it to one. Let’s look at three from South Carolina’s 45-42 loss to Tennessee. The Gamecocks might have lost that game, but it was not for lack of effort from Cooper. The sophomore broke a school record with 233 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches.

Here’s his 85-yard touchdown catch that gave the Gamecocks a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.

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Cooper also took a direct snap and tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds:

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And he ran 11 yards for South Carolina’s first touchdown.

video 2015 outlook: South Carolina’s offense typically carried the team in 2014, and that group loses a ton of veteran talent after the bowl game. If some underclassmen (like running back Mike Davis) choose to join the seniors in the draft pool, it could be a total rebuilding year on offense, much like what the defense went through this season. Defensive improvement might be the key to a better 2015 for South Carolina, however. Lorenzo Ward’s unit was a huge disappointment this fall, and that young group simply has to play better for South Carolina to contend again in the SEC East.

Georgia season review

December, 16, 2014
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Should it cap the season with a win against Louisville in the Belk Bowl, Georgia (9-3, 6-2 SEC) has a chance to finish in the top 10 in the final polls. But this will go down as another season where the Bulldogs are left to consider what might have been.

What could they have done if star running back Todd Gurley hadn’t missed half the season -- first because of an NCAA eligibility case and later because of a season-ending knee injury? What might have happened if they had finished better in winnable games against South Carolina and Georgia Tech?

An SEC East title and a playoff spot were attainable goals for Georgia this season, so the Bulldogs have to feel some disappointment after the regular season because of their missed opportunities.

Let’s recap:

Best win: Only days after Georgia coach Mark Richt first sat down Gurley about the eligibility issue, the Bulldogs traveled to Missouri and blasted the Tigers 34-0. The Bulldogs picked off four Maty Mauk passes and held Mizzou to 147 yards of total offense, and freshman Nick Chubb proved to be a capable replacement for Gurley, rushing 38 times for 143 yards and a score. Honorable mention goes to Georgia’s 34-7 win against Auburn, when Gurley and Chubb led a rushing attack that accumulated 289 yards. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense also limited Auburn’s explosive offense to 292 total yards.

Worst loss: The circumstances behind Georgia’s 38-20 loss to Florida on Nov. 1 made the loss even more painful. The writing was on the wall that Gators coach Will Muschamp was on his way out, and Florida’s offense seemingly couldn’t do anything right leading into its trip to Jacksonville. But the Gators ran all over Georgia that day, posting 418 rushing yards -- the second most ever against a UGA defense -- en route to an enormous upset of then-No. 9 Georgia. Florida’s win stopped Georgia’s three-game series winning streak, and briefly gave Muschamp hope of staying on as head coach.

Player of year: Chubb. Gurley would have cruised to this honor since he was once the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. But you can’t win for half a season of work. Chubb was a force once the opportunity arrived. With Gurley available for the first five games, Chubb ran just 31 times for 224 yards. Over the final seven games, the freshman ran 155 times for 1,057 yards. Chubb ranks second in the SEC in rushing (1,281 yards), was named SEC Freshman of the Year, and made the first-team All-SEC squad for both the coaches and media.

Breakout player: Isaiah McKenzie. Since we have already discussed Chubb, how about a guy who breathed life into Georgia’s awful return game? Georgia hadn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since the 2011 season when McKenzie took one to the house against Troy. He repeated the feat with a 59-yard runback against Kentucky, on a day when he also took the opening kickoff back 90 yards for a score. At the end of the regular season, the freshman nicknamed "The Human Joystick" because of his slippery moves is averaging 12.1 yards per punt return and 28.1 yards per kickoff return.

Play of year: Instead of narrowing it down to one play, let’s recap five of Gurley’s greatest hits from the season. His UGA career ended in disappointment, but he’ll still go down as one of the greatest Bulldogs running backs ever. Here’s a reminder of why:

A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Clemson.

His 51-yard touchdown run against Tennessee.

A 26-yard run against Tennessee where he hurdled a defender.

When he took a direct snap in the Wildcat and floated a 50-yard pass to tight end Jeb Blazevich against Vanderbilt.

His first touch upon his return from suspension, when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Auburn (although it was called back on a penalty).

2015 outlook: Even without Gurley and some important seniors -- namely linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, cornerback Damian Swann, receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, and quarterback Hutson Mason -- Georgia still has reason for optimism next season. For starters, Richt announced over the weekend that outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and left tackle John Theus will all return. If Georgia can find a consistent replacement for Mason under center, Chubb and the returning skill talent should help the offense remain productive. It’s reasonable to expect the defense to keep improving in Year 2 under Pruitt, as well.
Todd Grantham said he has not communicated with his former co-workers at Georgia in the eight days since learning that his new team, Louisville, will face the Bulldogs in the Dec. 30 Belk Bowl.

On a Monday conversation with reporters, the first-year Louisville defensive coordinator downplayed any competitive advantage he might have gleaned from practicing against most of the Bulldogs’ players over the previous four seasons as a Mark Richt assistant.

“It still gets down to getting off blocks, tackling people, winning one-on-one matchups on both sides of the ball, so I don’t think that’ll play as big a factor as you guys will make it out to be,” Grantham said. “I think it gets down to just playing football. Obviously they’re a talented team. They’re one of the best offenses in the country, so we know we’ve got to play well and be ready for a big challenge.”

[+] EnlargeTodd Grantham
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyTodd Grantham's Louisville defense leads the nation in interceptions and is tied for seventh in sacks.
A veteran assistant like Grantham has plenty of experience in situations like this, coaching against friends, former co-workers or ex-players several times each season. While he understands the intrigue surrounding his coaching against a program where he was on staff less than a year ago, Grantham said it doesn’t add extra juice to the bowl game from his perspective.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the people there -- both the coaches and the players,” Grantham said. “This isn’t the first time that a coach has faced a team that he was coaching the year before. It’s part of the business. We’ve had a great season. We went 9-3 and it’s a chance for us to send our seniors out the right way because they really did believe in our system when we came here.”

That they did. Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong left a strong defensive identity behind when he left for Texas after last season, and the Cardinals have thrived in the first season under Grantham’s leadership. Despite losing safety Calvin Pryor and defensive end Marcus Smith to the first round of the NFL draft, Louisville still ranks sixth nationally in total defense, allowing 293.3 yards per game.

Further, the Cardinals lead the nation in interceptions (25), rank fourth in third-down defense (28.2 percent) and are tied for seventh in sacks (3.25 per game). They’re in the top 20 in turnovers gained (T12, 28), scoring defense (18th, 20.5 points per game) and red zone defense (T19, 27 opponent scores in 36 red zone possessions).

Not bad for a first season in a new conference -- and Grantham said it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“Our main focus and vision is to win the ACC and compete for a national title, and after one year here and the recruiting class we’re having, I’m more convinced than ever that we can reach that goal,” Grantham said.

That sounds very much like the sales pitch that Grantham used to make while wearing Georgia’s red and black. Replace ACC with SEC and insert Florida instead of Florida State as the opponent he has circled as the roadblock standing between his team and the championships it wants to win.

Grantham’s tenure at Georgia ended with a bit of a flop -- the young Bulldogs surrendered 29 points and 375.5 yards per game last season -- as fans and media questioned his job security throughout the 2013 season.

“We obviously had a really young team last year and we kind of faced some veteran offenses, some veteran quarterbacks, and because of that, we had to take some shots with those guys, but I think they got better for it,” Grantham recalled. “They were able to mature and I think that’s one of the reasons they’re able to have some success right now.”

Two of those young players, cornerback Shaq Wiggins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, followed Grantham to Louisville and sat out this season as transfers. Grantham credited the former Bulldogs for their work on the scout team and said he expects them to compete for starting jobs in 2015.

As for Georgia, Grantham said he remains proud of what the program accomplished in his four seasons there -- a time where the Bulldogs won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012 and dominated rivals Florida, Georgia Tech, Auburn and Tennessee with an 11-1 record in his final three seasons.

That’s what Grantham said he remembers about his Georgia tenure, not the last season where he came under fire.

“I’ve always known I was a good coach in what I was doing,” Grantham said. “I think if you go back and look at the changes we were able to establish and make at the University of Georgia in my time there, we were able to win games, we were able to put, really, Georgia back on the map from being relevant.”

SEC morning links

December, 11, 2014
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1. The race to replace senior Bo Wallace as Ole Miss’ quarterback just got a bit more interesting. ESPN JC50 prospect Chad Kelly committed to the Rebels on Wednesday, and the former Clemson backup will have two years to play two at Ole Miss. With Wallace, a three-year starter, leaving the team after the 2014 season, the Rebels had a huge question at quarterback for 2015. DeVante Kincade, Ryan Buchanan and Kendrick Doss are all freshmen with limited game experience at best. Kelly adds a veteran presence to the group, having played in five games at Clemson in 2013, and he might become an immediate frontrunner Insider to claim the job once he arrives on campus.

2. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that three of the five FBS assistant coaches who make more than $1 million per year reside in the SEC: Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Cam Cameron and John Chavis. This according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database that it published on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the SEC also had three of the top four highest-paid coaching staffs (LSU, Alabama and Auburn) and six of the top 13 (adding Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia). Take a look. They also have a database for head coaches (eight SEC coaches are in the top 20, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban) and a multiple-byline feature on assistants like Dennis Erickson and Greg Robinson who now make a comfortable living after once serving as head coaches.

3. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- which goes to the player selected by the SEC’s coaches as the league’s top blocker -- is one of the conference's oldest awards. LSU’s La’el Collins won the award on Wednesday, joining a list of dozens of winners who wound up playing in the NFL. Collins could already be doing that if he wanted. It was an option after he earned All-SEC honors as a junior, but unlike many of his teammates in recent seasons, Collins opted to play his senior season at LSU. It seems to have been a wise decision. Several publications have covered this territory already, but with college football’s underclassmen preparing to make their announcements on whether they will make early jumps to the pros, Collins serves as a good reminder of how players who return can sometimes help their cause. Because of an outstanding senior season, Collins will almost certainly be a much wealthier man for having waited than he would have been had he entered the 2014 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider both include Collins among their top 27 overall prospects. That leap doesn’t happen for every draft prospect who stays, but it’s a nice story -- and it’s a valuable lesson for players who are in similar positions this year.

Around the SEC

" More all-conference honors went out on Wednesday, with the SEC’s coaches naming their individual award winners and Athlon Sports posting its All-SEC team.

" With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin preparing to coach Florida’s bowl game, the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley examines how interim coaches have fared in the past with the Gators.

" The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith explores whether Kentucky’s six-game losing streak to end the season will hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.

" Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ new contract extension increases his buyout to $4 million should he choose to leave before March 2016.

Tweet of the day

Mark down Georgia graduate assistant Christian Robinson for making the understatement of the year on Sunday shortly after the Bulldogs' bowl matchup became public knowledge.

"This will be interesting,” Robinson tweeted.

No kidding.



There are subplots galore in the Belk Bowl pairing between Georgia (9-3) and Louisville (9-3), but the biggest one centers around who will be standing across the field from the Bulldogs. Not just volatile defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who joined Bobby Petrino's Louisville staff in January after spending the previous four seasons at Georgia, but also defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons, who followed Grantham from Athens to Louisville.

Both sides will do their best to downplay any hurt feelings that accompanied those exits, where Grantham left after fans and media regularly questioned his job security during a disappointing 2013 season and Harvey-Clemons (dismissal) and Wiggins (transfer) leaving shortly thereafter.

In fact, Georgia coach Mark Richt attempted to do as much on Sunday. But rest assured, the winner will privately take a great deal of satisfaction in the outcome. That's nearly as much of an understatement as former UGA linebacker Robinson's tweet.

It was Grantham, after all, who was Robinson's defensive coordinator in the final three seasons of his career. In 2011 and 2012, Grantham's defense played a big role in the Bulldogs winning the SEC East both seasons and posting a combined 8-0 record against rivals Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech. It was Grantham, also, who helped Robinson land the graduate assistant-ship at his alma mater, bringing Robinson onto the 2013 coaching staff shortly after the St. Louis Rams released him during preseason camp.

But things went south last season, with a rebuilding defense struggling mightily by surrendering 29 points per game and Grantham becoming the target of much of the fans' wrath. When Louisville offered a pay raise and the chance to add his brother, Tony, to Petrino's coaching staff, it felt like the best move for all involved for Grantham to change locales.

By and large, the results have been positive for both parties. Richt hired an entirely new defensive coaching staff, led by new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and Georgia's defense has improved over its 2013 performance. And while Louisville lost two defensive starters to the first round of the NFL draft, Grantham's Cardinals defense still ranks sixth nationally by allowing 293.3 yards per game.

His defense is doing that without the services of Harvey-Clemons or Wiggins, who are both sitting out the season as transfers. But the awkwardness of the situation is not lost on the Bulldogs, current or former. Wiggins' tweet after the bowl announcement showed that he was amused by the pairing, and he and former UGA teammate Ryne Rankin traded messages about it later in the afternoon.


Compounding the potential unpleasantness is the presence of Petrino himself. It has been seven years removed from when he abandoned the Atlanta Falcons in midseason in order to take the head coaching job at Arkansas, but it's safe to say many sports fans in the Peach State will never forgive him for the way he handled his exit.

Former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley experienced the whole thing first-hand as a backup quarterback with the Falcons during Petrino's short tenure. He weighed in on the matchup Sunday, as well.



However, we've long since crossed this bridge with Petrino. He coached against Georgia twice during his time at Arkansas, so the stories about his coaching against a Georgia-based team have already been written.

Shoehorning his departure from the Falcons into some sort of rivalry with Georgia always felt like a stretch, anyway. Not so with Grantham. This is a game that the Bulldogs' former defensive coordinator desperately wants to win, and surely his former co-workers feel the same way.

Robinson was right. It's sure to be interesting when their teams meet up on Dec. 30.

SEC morning links

December, 2, 2014
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1. It's not a huge surprise, but it is noteworthy that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier confirmed that he'll be back in 2015. In classic Spurrier fashion, he gave a quality soundbite, claiming he'll probably be back for at least a couple more years: “Give me two or three more,” he said. “I used to say four or five, now I’m down to two or three. I mean, I could get in a car wreck, but I’m definitely planning on being back.” One interesting side note is that Spurrier said he doesn't plan, at the moment, to fire any of his assistant coaches. He did intimate that a reorganization of the staff could occur, but the fact that nobody will be dismissed is interesting since defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward came under fire after the Gamecocks defense struggled this season.

2. Saturday will be Missouri's fourth conference championship game of the Gary Pinkel era, and the Tigers have yet to win one. Last year's 59-42 loss to Auburn was, in fact, the closest they've come to winning in terms of final margin. Missouri plans to ignore that history when it faces No. 1 Alabama on Saturday. “We prepare for this game like we prepare for any game, and we won’t ever change that,” Pinkel said. “This is the fifth divisional championship we have won in the last eight years and we have not won a conference championship in the Big 12 or the SEC. That’s my responsibility, so hopefully we can play well and have an opportunity to do that.”

3. Two SEC assistant coaches who have had strong seasons found themselves named as finalists Monday for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation's top assistant coach. Those two? Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. Not coincidentally, both are coaching teams that are playing in the SEC championship game. Steckel's defense has been key for the Tigers, who have endured an inconsistent offense this season. And the work Kiffin has done with starter Blake Sims and the Alabama offense is noteworthy, considering the Crimson Tide have even mixed it up at times, going to a faster tempo, something unusual for Nick Saban.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

There was a time not so long ago where Mark Richt was arguably having one of his better coaching seasons as Georgia’s head Bulldog in charge. Today, you won’t find anyone who would make that argument.

Not after Richt’s decision to squib kick with 18 seconds left in regulation against Georgia Tech – a call that he later ranked among his dumbest decisions as Georgia’s coach – gave the Yellow Jackets time to tie the game with a last-second field goal and then win in overtime.

Or after a consistently terrible Florida offense suddenly looked like the mid-90s Nebraska Cornhuskers by running all over Georgia’s defense in an enormous upset, following two road wins where the Bulldogs seemingly could do no wrong.

Such has been the peaks-and-valleys nature of this season for the Bulldogs -- and that’s saying something at UGA, which frequently ranks among the nation’s most schizophrenic programs.

Flash back to Nov. 1, when the Bulldogs rolled into Jacksonville at 6-1. Sure, Georgia had suffered a disappointing loss to South Carolina early in the season, but Richt seemed to have righted the ship even while superstar running back Todd Gurley was suspended.

Richt sat down the Heisman Trophy front-runner only days before the Bulldogs’ key road trip to Missouri, when allegations began to emerge that Gurley accepted payment for signing memorabilia. The junior star eventually received a four-game suspension for breaking NCAA rules, but the daunting two-game road swing to Mizzou and Arkansas at the start of his suspension could not have gone better for Georgia.

The Bulldogs drilled Mizzou 34-0 and then jumped out to a 38-6 halftime lead over Arkansas before winning 45-32, with freshman running back Nick Chubb establishing himself as Georgia’s next backfield superstar.

Things were looking good. Although some Georgia fans were angry that the school didn’t obstruct the NCAA’s investigation as other programs have – thereby keeping their star player eligible to compete despite possible rules violations – Richt looked like a coach who was doing his job the right way and his short-handed team was still succeeding.

But that narrative ended against Florida, when the Gators rushed for 424 yards in a 38-20 victory. Only one Georgia opponent (Auburn with 430 in 1978) had ever rushed for more yards in a game against the Bulldogs.

It was arguably the worst loss in Richt’s 14 seasons at Georgia, and yet somehow the Bulldogs didn’t go into a tailspin. They blew out Kentucky and, more impressively, then-No. 9 Auburn in Gurley’s return to action.

Although Gurley suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the Auburn win, things still seemed to be looking up again for the Bulldogs. Having completed their SEC schedule at 6-2, they stood a good chance of representing the SEC East if Mizzou were to lose another conference game. They had a cupcake opponent left in Charleston Southern, followed by the home finale against Georgia Tech, which had beaten Richt only once in 13 tries.

It looked like Georgia was in good shape to reach Atlanta on a high note and maybe even gain some retribution for its heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game by knocking the Crimson Tide out of the playoff picture.

Maybe it was Georgia’s renewed optimism that made last weekend even more painful. Mizzou spoiled the Bulldogs’ SEC plans by rallying to beat Arkansas on Friday. Playing for an SEC title was out the window, and the Bulldogs played like a deflated bunch the following afternoon against Georgia Tech.

However, despite a sloppy performance, the Bulldogs were still in position to win after Malcolm Mitchell’s go-ahead touchdown catch with 18 seconds to play. That’s when Georgia’s decision to squib kick helped the Yellow Jackets open their final possession at their own 43-yard line. When quarterback Justin Thomas scrambled for 21 yards on the next play, the Yellow Jackets had a chance to attempt a game-tying field goal at the buzzer, and Harrison Butker was good from 53 yards.

The bungled final minute came back to haunt Richt and Georgia once Tech won in overtime, creating an understandable meltdown within the Bulldogs' fan base. In a matter of about 20 hours, the Bulldogs had slipped from SEC championship – and possible College Football Playoff – contender to likely participant in yet another mid-level bowl game. The weekend could hardly have turned out any worse.

Welcome to Georgia fandom over the last couple of seasons. Richt’s 2013 team entered the season with national title hopes only to have the year derailed by injuries to key players. They came into 2014 with more modest expectations, but the Bulldogs were still the best team in the East when it felt like proving it deserved that label.

Instead, the losses to two of its biggest rivals encapsulated what will go down as a disappointing season for the Bulldogs. They’ll enter bowl season with a 9-3 record, and getting to 10 wins would be a fine accomplishment, but this is a team that was capable of much more.

Georgia certainly good enough to win the East and had a decent shot at cracking the playoff field at one point.

Georgia didn’t accomplish any of those goals, though, and the Bulldogs have only themselves to blame for those failures.
In Georgia, they call the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate” because of the mutual dislike between the two schools.

The dislike remains as strong as ever, but the rivalry has lost some of its luster since Mark Richt became Georgia’s coach in 2001. The Bulldogs (9-2) are 12-1 against the Yellow Jackets (9-2) under Richt, and it will be an upset if they lose this week. Richt’s tenure is full of close games, however, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see another hotly contested matchup between the two rivals.

ESPN football writers Matt Fortuna and David Ching break down the classic ACC-SEC rivalry below:

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
Daniel Shirey/Getty ImagesWhile Justin Thomas has shown an ability to throw the ball, Georgia Tech's offensive gameplan still involves pounding its opposition on the ground.
Key to victory for Georgia Tech:There is nothing fancy on the agenda of the Yellow Jackets entering Athens: They must win the turnover battle. Georgia Tech is tied for No. 9 nationally in turnover margin (plus-10); Georgia is No. 2 (plus-16). The difference between the two teams is that the Bulldogs have a pretty good defense, one that is ranked No. 13 nationally. The same cannot exactly be said for the Jackets (61st nationally), who have made up for that by regularly taking the ball away. The triple-option offense, of course, is only painful for the opposition to defend when it's efficient, as Georgia Tech can shorten the game and limit the other offense's scoring opportunities.

Key to victory for Georgia: Sure, Tech is more versatile on offense this season, but the No. 1 task in beating the Jackets is slowing down its option rushing game. Tech ranks third nationally with 327.9 rushing yards per game. Tech is better at passing -- Georgia learned that lesson the hard way last season -- but the Jackets won’t bother putting the ball in the air if their running game is moving the chains and eating clock. Georgia has to keep Justin Thomas, Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey on the sidelines as long as possible.

X-factor for Georgia Tech:Georgia Tech's offense is typically capable of beating you with its arm when you least expect it, but this year's outfit can do some serious damage in the passing game. Thomas has surprised everyone under center, and a big key to that has been his favorite target: DeAndre Smelter, a 6-foot-3, 222-pounder who is second in the ACC in yards per catch (21.0).

X-Factor for Georgia: It’s not only on the defensive front to slow down Tech’s running game and keep the Jackets’ offense on the sidelines. If the Bulldogs’ offensive line gives freshman sensation Nick Chubb (161 carries, 1,152 yards, 11 TDs) room to run and quarterback Hutson Mason can put together some long scoring drives, that would be another way to neutralize what Tech does best.

Fortuna’s favorite moment from the rivalry:It's not every day you lose the passing game battle by a 407-19 margin and still win, but that's exactly what happened to Georgia Tech in its 2008 trip to Sanford Stadium. The Jackets beat Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the following spring's NFL Draft, 45-42 behind 409 yards on the ground. It was coach Paul Johnson's first game in the rivalry, and his team came back from 16 down at the half to pull off the upset and break a seven-game losing streak in the series. It is Georgia Tech's only win in the rivalry in the last 13 years.

Ching’s favorite moment from the rivalry: I covered this game nine times and there were plenty of memorable moments on the field: Tony Taylor, Paul Oliver and Mohamed Massaquoi’s heroics in Georgia’s 2006 comeback win; the “We Run This State” game where Georgia backs Caleb King and Washaun Ealey combined for 349 rushing yards in 2009; a wild 2010 contest that Georgia eventually won 42-34; last year’s double-overtime classic where Tech broke out to a 20-0 lead and the Bulldogs rallied back to win 41-34. But the moment I remember most probably also came in the 2008 game. It was when beloved radio announcer Larry Munson -- who had retired earlier that season -- made his final appearance at Sanford Stadium and Georgia’s fans chanted the 86-year-old legend’s name during an in-game ceremony honoring his four decades as the Bulldogs’ play-by-play man. It was cool to see the fans show their appreciation to a man who had enriched their lives for so many years.
ATHENS, Ga. -- With Auburn's high-powered, electrifying run-first offense approaching, Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt spent just about every night during the week leading up to Saturday's game working on his game plan until 4 a.m.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia's defense held Cameron Artis-Payne to just 86 yards rushing, and the entire Auburn rushing attack to 150 yards total. The Bulldogs won, 34-7.
After watching his team give up 632 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns combined in the last two games, including a mind-blowing 418 yards in a blowout loss to Florida, Pruitt couldn't risk being another victim to the Tigers' vaunted rushing attack. So he cut back sleep to add on hours of preparation.

His plan worked like a charm, as the Bulldogs stuffed Auburn's rushing offense in their 34-7 win on Saturday, allowing the Tigers to leave with just 150 rushing yards. That was the second-lowest output of the season by Auburn, and its lowest in conference play.

"Most of our defenses were designed to try to stop the run, and that was it," coach Mark Richt said after the game.

When facing a Gus Malzahn offensive attack, there's never really a clear answer on what to do. Honestly, you hope for Auburn to make a mistake. But under the bright lights of Sanford Stadium, the Dawgs imposed their will on an Auburn offense that registered Malzahn lows in points (seven) and total yards (292).

Georgia forced seven third downs with 5 or more yards to go, and held Auburn to just 17 total first downs.

Richt said there were some formations implemented to defend the pass, but for the most part, Georgia's defense was set up to take the run away, which in turn took Auburn's offense away. Instead of letting quarterback Nick Marshall, the offensive catalyst, hurt the Dawgs with his legs on the zone-read, they made sure to force the give on the read as much as possible. That meant the Bulldogs could stack the box consistently with someone setting the edge and taking Marshall out of the play.

"We emphasized keying in on them and running up field to set the edge," linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. "That's what Coach Pruitt really put a big emphasis on this week in practice, and we hunkered down and made plays."

Marshall walked away with only 153 total yards and zero touchdowns, while the Bulldogs strutted away with arguably their best defensive showing of the season. Richt described the play of his defense as "up and down" this season, but the constant has been that it's improved in some way just about every week.

For as young as this defense is in spots, it has continued to evolve under Pruitt, who is in his first year as Georgia's defensive coordinator. Of course, this defense would like to have the South Carolina and Florida games back, but the reality is that it takes time with a new coordinator to gel with players in his schemes. When you look at the overall statistics, Georgia's defense has been impressive for most of the season. Putting everything together? Well, the Dawgs finally did that against a top-notch offense Saturday.

"Matchups don't mean anything," cornerback Damian Swann said. "If we go out and do what we do every play, week in and week out, we can be very good, we can be one of the best in the country."
Todd GurleyAP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia running back Todd Gurley's status is unknown following a knee injury against Auburn.

ATHENS, Ga. -- In what was supposed to be a rousing homecoming for Todd Gurley, the Georgia Bulldogs' chilly, late-night celebration felt a little more subdued after their star went down in the fourth quarter.

Gurley's late-game knee injury, which came with Georgia's dominating win over Auburn well in hand, has many wondering if the Bulldogs will yet again have to move on without their best player.

"You never want to see a guy like that go down," cornerback Damian Swann said of Gurley's injury. "We know how much that guy means to our team. … Hopefully, everything will be OK and he'll be back."

For now, Gurley's prognosis is unknown. Coach Mark Richt didn't have an update on the junior after the game, but expects him to take X-rays on the knee soon.

The hope is that Gurley, who rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries in his first game back from his four-game NCAA suspension, will be fine, but if No. 15 Georgia (8-2, 6-2 SEC) has to continue without him for any amount of time, it's clear that this team is more than prepared for such a challenge.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb has rushed for at least 143 yards in his past five games. He had 144 yards and 2 touchdowns against Auburn.
And if the past four weeks didn't prove that, Saturday's 34-7 rout of No. 9 Auburn (7-3, 4-3) should have made you a believer.

Before the game, Gurley stalked the field during warm-ups, as cheers bellowed throughout Sanford Stadium whenever his face appeared on the scoreboard. You got the sense this would be a storybook comeback for the former Heisman Trophy favorite.

And we almost got it when he took a kickoff 100-plus yards for a touchdown, only to have it called back because of a penalty.

That's how Gurley's return went, but it didn't hurt the Bulldogs one bit. Not with true freshman Nick Chubb -- who more than filled in for Gurley during his four-game absence -- playing out of his mind, and Jeremy Pruitt's defense executing a near-flawless game plan.

With Gurley more the appetizer than the main course, Georgia turned Auburn into a cupcake on a frigid night between the hedges. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry was hardly close, as Georgia scored 34 straight points after Auburn's opening drive.

Like the Bulldogs had done in three of their past four games, they found ways to dominate opponents without Gurley leading the way. And that's not taking anything away from Gurley, but it was clear he was rusty after not playing in a game in 42 days.

As Gurley slowly regained his football legs, Chubb chugged away to 192 total yards, including a game-high 144 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. He bounced and bullied his way over the 1,000-yard mark for the season and continues to play at superhuman levels despite his age.

"Once he gets a little bit of a head of steam up, I tell you it's just so difficult to get him down with just one person," Richt said of Chubb, who has now rushed for at least 143 yards in each of the past five games. "You see it all the time, guys are just bouncing off of him. You can go low, and you're going to get punished down there, too. He's about as strong as Todd is. ... Guys don't like to go high or low on those guys because they are like a little locomotive going through there."

When Chubb wasn't rambling through or around Auburn's overmatched defense, Georgia's own defense was slowing down one of the SEC's most explosive units. Entering the night, Auburn ranked second in the SEC with an average of 506.9 total yards of offense per game, including an SEC-high 286.44 rushing yards.

Against the Bulldogs, Auburn totaled just 292 yards of offense and 7 points -- the lowest in either category for Gus Malzahn as Auburn's head coach.

A defense that a couple of weeks ago was gashed for 418 rushing yards by Florida made Auburn look nothing like, well, Auburn.

"Coach [Pruitt] put together a great plan and after we executed it, it was hard for those guys to do anything," Swann said.

This was supposed to be a barn burner, but Georgia pushed Auburn around in every phase of the game, showing it has the talent to hang with any of the top teams. When this team is clicking, watch out.

Georgia is now 2-0 against the SEC West, and a Missouri slip away from heading back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

But that's where frustration sets in for the Dawgs. Their life is in the hands of a Missouri team they waxed on the road by 34. A Missouri team that has been incredibly inconsistent on offense and lost at home to Indiana, yet just walked out of College Station with a shootout win over Texas A&M.

Georgia needs only one Mizzou loss to get to Atlanta, but after losses to South Carolina and Florida, the Dawgs can only hope.

It's a shame with how well this team has played outside of those two blunders, but if the Dawgs find a seam to Atlanta -- and maybe even the playoff -- quarterback Hutson Mason likes his team's odds.

"The one thing about this team that's special about it is we get better every single game," Mason said.

"When you have a team like that, that's pretty dangerous, because you're gaining a lot of momentum and you're improving every week and you're gaining a lot of confidence. We have a lot of that right now."

video 

Four storylines for Auburn-Georgia

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
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No. 9 Auburn (7-2, 4-2 SEC) and No. 15 Georgia (7-2, 5-2) will renew one of the nation’s oldest college football rivalries on Saturday in Athens in a game that could have major implications in the SEC’s divisional races.

With an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group, here are four key storylines to watch on Saturday night.

Gurley’s return: ESPN’s Football Power Index shows Auburn has a 50.3 percent chance to win on Saturday, so this is truly a pick-’em game. The main reason for those even odds is that Georgia running back Todd Gurley will be back in the Bulldogs’ lineup after serving a four-game suspension for accepting money to sign memorabilia.

Freshman Nick Chubb was phenomenal as Gurley’s replacement, ranking 10th in the FBS in rushes per game (25.5), fourth in rushing yards per game (167.8) and tying for fifth with 17 runs of 10-plus yards during his time as the Bulldogs’ starter.

But former Heisman Trophy frontrunner Gurley brings an entirely different level of production to the offense. In case you forgot, here is what the junior star had accomplished before Georgia coach Mark Richt benched him prior to the Missouri game.

Not only is he a home-run threat -- Gurley (8.2 ypc) is on pace to become the third SEC player with at least 100 carries in a season to average at least 8 yards per carry, joining Arkansas' Felix Jones (8.7 in 2007) and Auburn's Brent Fullwood (8.3 in 1986) -- but he also possesses a remarkable ability to make something out of nothing.

That’s where the veteran Gurley truly separates himself from freshman Chubb. On runs where he is hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, Gurley still averages 4.0 yards per carry, where Chubb averages just 1.0. The average against Power Five opponents on such carries is 0.5 ypc.

Efficient Tigers offense: This isn’t just the Todd Gurley Show, however. Auburn’s offense is every bit the machine that Georgia’s is.

According to ESPN’s team efficiency rankings, Auburn has the third-most efficient offense in the FBS, trailing only Oregon and Baylor. Georgia is fifth.

That’s largely because of quarterback Nick Marshall -- a former Georgia cornerback -- Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and the other Tigers’ abilities on outside runs. On runs outside the tackles, Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (149.1) and runs of 10-plus yards (49) and is tied for the lead in touchdowns (13).

That’s an especially interesting matchup on Saturday because of Georgia’s problems against outside runs, particularly in its upset loss to Florida. The Bulldogs are allowing 6 yards per carry on runs outside the tackles (third worst in the SEC) and surrendered 392 rushing yards outside the tackles combined in their losses to Florida and South Carolina. In Georgia’s seven wins, they allowed a total of 364 yards on runs outside the tackles.

Will Georgia pass?: Largely because of its success running the ball, Georgia hasn’t shown much interest in putting the ball in the air. The Bulldogs have run on 62 percent of their offensive plays, and probably won’t alter that philosophy much with Gurley back in the lineup.

It might be a good idea for Hutson Mason to let it fly a bit more often, however. Auburn’s passing defense has been spotty at best in the last four games -- particularly last week, when Texas A&M freshman Kyle Allen tossed four touchdown passes in the first half of his SEC starting debut.

The Tigers have been especially atrocious defending receivers after completions, allowing 150.8 yards after the catch this season, the most of any SEC defense.

Mason (140-203, 1,515 yards, 15 TDs, 3 INTs) has been the definition of a game manager at quarterback, but Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo might need Mason to complete a few more passes this week and see if wideouts Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett can make something happen after the catch.

Tigers’ turnover trouble: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn spoke of attempting to shake things up in practice this week in an effort to get the Tigers off to a better start.

The Tigers turned it over on their first offensive play in both of their losses this season (to Mississippi State, where it actually lost turnovers on its first two plays en route to an early 21-0 deficit, and last week against Texas A&M, when the Aggies led 35-17 at halftime) and lost five fumbles in their games against Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M.

Auburn has allowed an SEC-high 35 points off turnovers in its last four games and has a 2-2 record in that period. During their 5-0 start, the Tigers did not allow any points off turnovers.

Georgia is tied for the SEC lead with a plus-13 turnover margin, which is fourth nationally, and has outscored opponents 62-6 off turnovers. Only Arizona (three points) has allowed fewer points off turnovers than the Bulldogs.
It would have been so easy for Todd Gurley to walk away.

With his suspension taking four games away from him and there not being any guarantee Georgia would be crowned SEC East champs or make the College Football Playoff, ending his Bulldogs career and getting a head start on his NFL training would have been a very viable option. In fact, he probably wouldn't have received a ton of backlash because he's putting millions on the line by stepping back on the college field for the Bulldogs.

But Gurley didn't want to go out like that. After putting himself before his team and taking $3,000 for autographed memorabilia and other items over the course of two years, Gurley is now putting his team ahead of his own eventual personal gain in an honorable move to play out his junior season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley's return to the field for Georgia is not without personal risk.
“It shows what kind of team guy he is," quarterback Hutson Mason said. "A lot of people think of really good players like that as guys who are egotistical and think of themselves. It shows that Todd really has that family-oriented mindset and that he wants to do what’s best for this team.

“No matter what people were telling him, it showed that Todd had something in his heart where he cares about others and cares about these guys and he cares about finishing off right.”

Gurley certainly wasn't the same team guy when he broke NCAA rules and accepted money for his likeness, but he's served his time away from the field and he's coming back. It's a more respectable exit for a player who has meant so much to his university in the last three years.

But is it risky? You bet.

It's obvious this is Gurley's last year on campus. He's arguably the nation's best running back and, despite missing four games, could still rush for more than 1,000 yards after accumulating 773 before his suspension with a ridiculous 8.2 yards per carry.

For his career, Gurley has 3,147 rushing yards, 35 rushing touchdowns, 17 100-yard rushing games and a career average of 6.5 yards per carry. He's too good and too accomplished not to head to the NFL early, but his return this season comes with caution, especially if there's nothing really to play for after this weekend's bout with Auburn.

We've seen players return to college after more than proving their NFL worth and suffering physical or statistical setbacks. The recent news of former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore's sudden and unfortunate retirement from football before even playing an NFL down had to have spooked Gurley, who is risking millions by playing out his Georgia career.

Lattimore was arguably the nation's best running back while he was at South Carolina but suffered two devastating knee injuries that his body never fully recovered from. Freak accidents and injuries happen all the time, but it only takes one.

Still, it sounds like Gurley never considered taking the easy way out.

“It may have crossed his mind, but he didn’t act like it was crossing his mind," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "He wanted to be with his teammates from the very beginning.”

And after previously putting his team second, Gurley should be commended for playing instead of souring his squad's season and his own legacy. Georgia can still win the SEC East, and the Dawgs have an outside shot at the playoff. Having Gurley with them makes them legitimate contenders for both, again.

"I think he’s a guy that is a very good teammate who made a mistake," Richt said. "He cares about his teammates, he cares about his team and he loves playing football for the University of Georgia.

“And he can’t wait to do it again.”

SEC morning links

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
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In case you haven't heard, Todd Gurley is back. The Georgia running back returns to the lineup from a four-game suspension stemming from an autograph investigation. Make no mistake, even with Nick Chubb's success in his absence, Gurley is starting, per Mark Richt. If you're excited about Gurley's return (even if you're not) this hype video should get the juices flowing. Gurley's return creates an interesting situation for the Bulldogs though. There's one football, but several talented running backs: Gurley, Chubb and Sony Michel. It's a good problem to have if you're Richt.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones and his family tried to have some pleasurable non-football time during the Volunteers' off week but couldn't quite pull it off. The family went to a dinner on Saturday night with a no-cell phone policy but before long, Jones discovered them all checking their phones under the table for college football score updates. "I think we're kind of a messed-up family," Jones joked. That story could probably apply to a lot of coaching families across the county. When in a demanding, high-profile position like Jones is, it's hard to unplug, even for those around the coach whose lives are affected by his career.

Mississippi State might be the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, but oddsmakers see them as an underdog. The Bulldogs don't seem to be bothered by the label. This is a big-time "prove-it" game for this program. Two years ago they also went into Tuscaloosa undefeated and left with a convincing defeat that sent their promising season south. Now they are eyeing a different ending, with the stakes much higher this time around.

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There will be subplots aplenty when Auburn visits Georgia on Saturday.

As is often the case, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will impact the SEC divisional races. It’s the rematch of last season’s “Miracle at Jordan-Hare” when Ricardo Louis caught the game-winning touchdown pass off a deflection from two Georgia defenders. It will be former Georgia cornerback and current Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall’s first game back in Sanford Stadium since Mark Richt kicked him off the team after the 2011 season.

And in case you hadn’t heard, Saturday night’s game will mark the return of Georgia tailback and former Heisman Trophy front runner Todd Gurley.

Another eventful Saturday in the SEC. Here’s what we learned:

Bama is still alive but needs work: It wasn’t pretty, but Alabama’s playoff hopes are still intact after the Crimson Tide survived a thriller in Death Valley 20-13 in overtime. Despite a critical T.J. Yeldon fumble in the final minutes of regulation, the Tide were able to hold LSU to a field goal then benefited from a special-teams miscue as Trent Domingue booted the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. Blake Sims came up big by directing a game-tying drive then threw a picturesque pass to DeAndrew White for the game-winning touchdown in overtime. With No. 3 Auburn losing on Saturday, Alabama looks poised to move into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings, and with No. 1 Mississippi State coming to town next week and the Iron Bowl in three weeks, the Crimson Tide control their own destiny. One thing is clear though: They can’t make the mistakes they did Saturday if they’re going to win out. Sims has to be better in the earlier portions of the game (he missed some open receivers), they can’t drop the football (Amari Cooper had one in crunch time) and surviving a late turnover like the one they had Saturday is hard to replicate against elite teams. They were fortunate to win Saturday; now they must turn the page and improve before the Bulldogs come to Tuscaloosa.

[+] EnlargeKyle Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's Kyle Allen helped diminish Auburn's playoff hopes with a four-touchdown effort.
Auburn’s playoff hopes are likely done: There are a lot of quality one-loss teams remaining in the field; a second loss is a killer for Auburn -- especially coming at home to an unranked team that hadn’t played well since September. For a little bit, it looked like the Tigers would pull off some of the late-game magic that has become a signature trait of theirs in the Gus Malzahn era, but two late fourth-quarter fumbles squashed their hopes and left them with a 41-38 loss. “It hurts,” Malzahn said. “It hurts our team. We have goals and dreams, and we did not get it done tonight.” The turnovers on offense late were one factor, but there were others: the first-half defense was poor and the secondary was torched in the first two quarters. On special teams, an Auburn field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown to end the first half. The Tigers were sloppy quite a bit on Saturday and they paid for it in the end. Now the Tigers must turn around and head to Georgia next week and close out at Alabama in three weeks, so the road remains tough down the stretch.

No hangover for Georgia: If you thought the Bulldogs were going to let the upset loss to Florida affect them moving forward, think again. Mark Richt’s crew responded emphatically, jumping out to a quick three-touchdown lead in Lexington and rolling to a 63-31 win over Kentucky. Georgia had success in all three phases, rolling up 559 offensive yards, holding Kentucky to 139 passing yards on 16 of 31 attempts and scored two special-teams touchdowns -- a kickoff return (90 yards) and punt return (59 yards) for scores by Isaiah McKenzie. Nick Chubb had another great performance at running back (13 carries, 170 yards) and Hutson Mason threw for four scores. The Bulldogs still need help from Missouri in the form of a loss, but they’re still very much alive in the SEC East.

Treon Harris can throw it around: Last week, the Florida quarterback attempted only six passes versus Georgia but on Saturday, the Gators trusted their true freshman more and Harris delivered, completing 13 of 21 passes for 215 yards. There were no touchdown passes, but more importantly, no interceptions and Harris was accurate and showed off his deep ball with this 59-yard beauty to Quinton Dunbar. Harris did solid work on the ground, too, rushing for 49 yards and two touchdowns in Florida’s 34-10 win over Vanderbilt. The Gators need to continue to win and need help from others, but they still have a pulse in the SEC East race.

Kevin Sumlin can still pull a rabbit out of his visor: Texas A&M was a 23-point underdog going into Jordan-Hare Stadium, lost its past three SEC games, had a true freshman quarterback, a beat up offensive line and a defense with a lot of youngsters starting. All the Aggies did was jump out to a 35-17 halftime lead and hang on for dear life to upset the No. 3 team in the nation in its own house. Sumlin’s Aggies pulled off a similar stunt almost two years to the day when they went into Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and took down the No. 1 Crimson Tide 29-24 behind freshman quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Is Kyle Allen (four touchdown passes) the next star quarterback in Aggieland? It’s too early to say but he had a memorable performance on Saturday at Auburn and he gives the seemingly left-for-dead Aggies some reason for optimism in the final weeks of the regular season. Sure, Auburn made a lot of mistakes, but Texas A&M played better than it had in more than a month, showing flashes of the team that started 5-0 this season.

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