SEC Predictions: Auburn vs. Georgia in 2014 Championship Game

celebrate arkansas predictions

 

 

As if there weren’t already enough info about SEC football out there already, this fall ushers in the debut of the SEC Network and its torrential flow of news, game coverage, opinion and analysis. Yet, despite a constant rush of Tim Tebows, Greg McElroys and bald men named Finebaum, so much unknown will remains so long as the ball is pointy and the players so young.

For who could have predicted Johnny Manziel’s surge to the top of the athletic world two years ago, or the extent of Auburn’s historic turnaround last fall? Hardly anyone – except, oh, I don’t know – someone named the Sports Seer. And I’m at it again, dusting off the ol’ crystal ball for Celebrate Arkansas magazine. I see good things for almost everyone except fans of Missouri and Vanderbilt. In 2014, parity will be the name of the game in the Southeastern Conference.

N.B. Below are my picks, as chosen before Week 1.  So far, so good – with one exception. 

 

SEC West

 

Auburn: Arkansas native Gus Malzahn returns for his second season at the helm of a squad that will be fearsome in its up-tempo attack. Yes, the Tigers lost a superstar running backin Tre Mason, who left for the NFL.

Yes, Gus, we know.

Yes, Gus, we know.

But they gained a full year of experience under Malzahn’s tactical genius. Senior Nick Marshall was a dual-threat pain for opposing defenses last year but will be a full-fledged nightmare this year. He the first starting college quarterback Malzahn has had for two straight seasons.

Final Regular Season Record: 11-1

 

Alabama:  Heading into a season with a chip on the shoulder isn’t something the Crimson Tide do much of. After two straight losses to end last season, though, Nick Saban’s troops are hungry to prove themselves. There is concern about youth and inexperience early in the season, but don’t be fooled – quarterback Jacob Coker is a future star, running backs T.J. Yeldon is an established star and Derrick Henry and wide receiver Amari Cooper will be emerging superstars. The defense will have major trouble only with Ole Miss and Auburn.

Final Record: 10-2

 

Ole Miss: For the last couple years, head coach Hugh Freeze has been stockpiling young talent from stellar recruiting classes. This season, the youngins’ finally break through. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace will regain health after two injury-hampered years, and he’ll hook up with wide receiver Laquon Treadwell to form the SEC’s most productive tandem. They will finally get past Alabama, but losses to Auburn and Tennessee mar a dream season.

Final Record: 10-2

 

LSU: The Tigers have a lot going for them, including a freshman All-SEC lock in running back Leonard Fournette, but they don’t have a passing game. Indeed, they have the worst passing attack in the SEC. That’s a killer in a conference in which the ability to churn out points has become more vital than ever. These Tigers will lose nail-biters against Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss.

Final Record: 8-4

 

Mississippi State: Relative to the program’s past, head coach Dan Mullen is really good. In his first five seasons, he accrued a winning percentage (56.3%) higher than any MSU coach since the late Darrell Royal, who won 60% of his games in 1954-55 before heading to Texas in 1957.  But Mullen hasn’t yet finished better than 4-4 in conference. “I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency,” Mullen said this spring. “At some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.”

Nope.

Final Record: 7-5

 

Texas A&M: It’s not as if head coach Kevin Sumlin can’t find another elite quarterback. Before Johnny Manziel, he’d worked with the likes of Drew Bledsoe, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum. He’ll develop another top-notch quarterback in true freshman Kyle Allen. But the problem for now is that the Aggies don’t have another game changer while waiting for Allen to mature. [Hmmm. Now that I think about it, the crystal ball was smudged in one part...]

Last year, that role was shared by both Manziel and Mike Evans, who both left early for the NFL. Even more problematic: the Aggies defense, which gave up a league-worst 476 yards a game last year, will this fall still get torched for 450ish yards per game.

Final record: 5-7

 

Arkansas: Good news: There will be a lot of measurable improvement, at each position, in Year 2 of the Bielema Era. The days of 52-0 drubbings are over. Bad news: It won’t yet translate to significantly more wins.

The offense will be more potent, we know this. But that’s not the problem. The issue is how much the secondary and linebacking corps can improve from last year, under new defensive coaches, without an injection of elite talent and size/speed.

They will improve, but not enough for the Hogs to score major upsets early on. Still, Arkansas will be in the game late in many of their contests, and will finally break through late at Missouri with Bielema’s first SEC win.

Final record: 4-8

 

SEC East

 

Georgia – Last season, SIXTEEN Bulldogs – including a few of major stars – got injured. That won’t happen again. That, and a relatively soft schedule, makes all the difference in the Bulldogs’ reclaiming the SEC East perch.

Final Record: 10-2

 

South Carolina: Poor Steve Spurrier. At this program, the man is the master of the 10-win season without winning the division. His Gamecocks have won 42 games over the last four years but don’t have an SEC Championship Game appearance to show for it.

Senior quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back/human battering ram Mike Davis will lead the offense to another nice bowl game, but an early season loss to Georgia [ahem-Aggies, too] will show the rest of the nation they are still pretenders to the crown.

Final Record: 9-3

 

Florida: The 2013 Gators notched only four wins – the program’s first losing season since 1979. There is way too much talent, size and speed on this squad for that to happen again. Throw in a motivated new offensive coordinator and a very strong defense, and you have a recipe for the league’s top turnaround team.

Final Record: 8-4

 

Tennessee: Listen to second-year head coach Butch Jones talk long enough about his vision for the Vols, and you’ll hear an almost Bielemic focus on process and foundation building. With great recent recruiting classes, these Vols are indeed building toward something. But they aren’t there yet.

Final Record: 5-7

 

Missouri: What is down, then goes up, probably must go down again. After an astonishing SEC East title run last year, the Tigers are set for a rapid plunge after losing an elite receiver in Dorial Green-Beckham and a raft of quality running backs and defensive disrupters.

Final Record: 5-7

 

Kentucky: The Wildcats have played a lot of youth in their last two seasons, which resulted in back-to-back 0-8 SEC finishes. The light at the end of the tunnel is finally here. This particular light is a black and gold one.

Final Record: 4-8

 

Vanderbilt: Well, it was fun while it lasted, Commodore fan. James Franklin showed you the promised land. Expectations were sky-high with Vanderbilt’s first back-to-back nine-win seasons since the Woodrow Wilson administration. And then Penn State came calling. New head coach Derek Mason, fresh off Stanford’s staff, is in for a rude awakening.

Final Record: 3-9

2014 SEC Championship Game: Auburn 42, Georgia 28

 

So, come December, will I deserve to be filleted and seared for my choice? Who do you have winning the entire conference this year?

 

 The above is based on an article in the September, 2014 issue of 

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LeBron James Teaches Arkansan Malik Monk to Excel

Via HoopMixTape on YouTube

Via HoopMixTape on YouTube

In terms of basketball talent, Arkansas is in a golden era, producing elite players at a clip not seen in decades. But when it comes to national team recognition, the state is in a bit of a drought. Since 1996, only one native Arkansan has made a U.S. senior national team. In recent years, two of the state’s best young players – Anton Beard and Malik Monk – were in the running to make junior national teams at the U16 and U17 levels but were both cut multiple times. Monk’s most recent exclusion, which occurred last weekend, is the most surprising.

Monk, a consensus Top 15 player in the class of 2016, had a memorable summer torching foes as a headliner with the Arkansas Wings in Nike’s prestigious EYBL circuit (essentially, the Champions League of prep basketball). The 6’3″ shooting guard broke scoring records and put up 40 and 59 points while making a strong case that Arkansas, for likely the first time ever, is home to the nation’s most electrifying high school player*.  The Arkansas Wings founder Ron Crawford, who has coached in the U.S. youth developmental system, said last week he believed there was “no doubt” Monk would make the U17 national team.

But after a three-day audition in Colorado involving 33 players, Monk was among the first cut. If the experience becomes a valuable lesson, this isn’t necessarily bad thing for Malik. He strives, after all, to become a world-class point guard, and none other than John Stockton – one of the top point guards of all time – was cut from the 1984 Olympic team. Monk already is one of the most athletic prospects we’ve ever seen at the guard position. Two of the most freakishly athletic forwards in the history of the game, Charles Barkley and Blake Griffin, were also cut from national teams.

Stockton, Barkley and Griffin all bounced back from their disappointments to become NBA All-Star caliber players. For Monk to one day do the same, he’ll have to keep improving. He must become a more consistent shooter and better decision maker, his older brother Marcus Monk said. “He’s really been working on his distribution as far as his passing skills and making better decisions with the ball. He’s improved in that area some.”

But Malik isn’t yet the well-rounded player his coaches and (potential) national team coaches want him to be. In the five games he played in the EYBL Finals, the only standard statistical category he led the Wings in was points (18.8 ppg). He finished second in blocks (0.4) and assists (2.6), third in steals (1.6) and fifth in rebounds (3.5).

Honing shot selection, though, is the biggest task right now. Squaring off against fellow Arkansan KeVaughn Allen, Monk scored 40 points on 14-for-20 shooting against Memphis-based Team Penny. But in the other four games, he shot 11% from 3-point range and 21% overall from the field.

Marcus Monk has been working on helping his brother cut down on bad shots. They break down film of his game to sharpen Malik’s court awareness and make him a better teammate, Marcus said. “It’s more discussion as far as how to read screens and looking at that second and third level of defense. Like a quarterback, you know.”

In early July, Monk had a chance to learn firsthand from one of the world’s most efficient basketball players when he attended the LeBron James Skills Academy.  James is “really active with his camp. He takes time with all the players,” recalled Marcus Monk, who attended the event as an observer.

Read the rest of this entry »


ESPN tabs 450-pound Comedian as Celebrity Face of the Razorbacks

Part raptor, part Arkansan ... all Hog fan?

Part raptor, part Arkansan … all Hog fan?

Every major program has a legitimate celebrity fan. While that doesn’t mean everybody is blessed with an Ashley Judd, big-time schools can always produce, at minimum, a Marco Rubio by sheer dint of a humongous alumni base. For many Arkansans, President Bill Clinton has become the torchbearer of SuperFan Number One-dom. And, in my mind, if it’s not Clinton it’s John Daly decked in cardinal red and strutting into mass cultural consciousness, snout held high.

Turns out I’ve been hopelessly out of the loop.

An upcoming ESPN documentary has tabbed Razorbacks’ signature celeb fan as a Los Angeles-based comedian who, according to Pandora, is characterized by the following attributes: “anectodes,” “surprising misdirections” and “jokes about handicaps.”

Yes, it’s 450 pound Ralphie May of Comedy Central fame. He is clearly famous, and will become even more so on August 14 when the SEC Nework airs a documentary that profiles 14 famous figures — each representing a different SEC college — who “spill their emotions and explain why they’ll never forget where they came from.”

My first question after reading the press release: “Vanderbilt has a celebrity fan?”

Apparently, yes. The statement goes on to list some of the potential candidates: Charlie Daniels, Amy Robach, Jonathan Papelbon, Melissa Joan Hart, Emmitt Smith, Shepard Smith, Darius Rucker, James Carville and Governor Rick Perry. You tell me who wins the lucky prize, though, because my Googling finger is tired right now.

Second question: “What are Big Boy’s Hog bonafides?”

May was born in Tennessee, but he was reared in Clarksville and spent some time in high school in Winslow and Fayetteville. Both his sisters are UA grads, as are his mom and dad. Wait, it gets more impressive: Mommy May was a UA homecoming queen and at one time dated the former All-SWC Billy Ray Smith, Sr. And dad is fraternity bros with Jimmie Johnson and Don Tyson, May said on this Ugly Uncle Show interview,

Some time around 1990, the comedian Sam Kinison encouraged the teenage May to move to Houston for more exposure. But before he left, he did things like “kill” an air conditioner with a crossbow. Listen to the interview for more stuff like that. Definitely check out the 20:35 mark, where May unleashes a nugget that has an approximately 0.00% chance of being repeated on the upcoming SEC Network special.

It happened in the early 1980s, at a Razorback home game, and features a young May spying a young state governor in the stands: “Bill Clinton has got two hot, hot girls from Fayetteville with him, drunk and pawin’ em,” May recalled. “It’s weird because later his inclination was toward fat girls … We were like ‘That’s the governor of the state of Arkansas right there, making out with two chicks. Oh my God!’ It was hilarious. Everybody got up to call the Hogs and Bill Clinton was making out with these girls… I never wanted to vote for a man more in my life.”

That day, May took delight in more than Clinton’s deft political touch and the game, which the Hogs won. He also recalled  post-game visits to Mr. Burger, where he was able to use ticket stubs to buy a cheeseburger, coke and fries for a mere $1. “Man, we’d go and knock them out. Oh God. That Mr. Burger was so good gettin’ into my mouth, ohhh.”

Let’s say, hypothetically, you wish ESPN Films didn’t broadcast this man unto the rest of the world as the Face of the Razorbacks. Who would you prefer? Any other non-politician/non-former UA athletes* out there who are legit national celebrities and have publicly shown love for the Razorbacks?

You'd be throwing up, too, if your mom dated a Billy Ray Smith.

You’d be throwin’ ‘em up, too, if your mom dated a Billy Ray Smith.

*Here’s an at-times preposterous, but lengthy, list of candidates via Hogville.


New Financial Disclosures for Arkansas’ Division I Athletic Programs

USA Today just released the most up to date financial reports for all 230 Division I athletic programs in the nation. In terms of total revenue, the University of Arkansas sits 14 spots from the top. Ten spots from the bottom you’ll find the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (the nation’s largest intra-university system disparity). In between sit three other Arkansas schools.

I’ll break down these numbers later, but for now, let’s simply celebrate in the splattering of them on the wall.

Take what you will:

No. 14 nationally ($99.77 million revenue)

arkansas

No. 131 ($16.28 million revenue)

A State

 

No. 194 ($10.77 million revenue)

UCA

No. 206 ($9.4 million revenue)
UALR

 

No. 220 ($7.1 million)

UAPB

(PS – Notice how the total revenue plummeted from 2010 to 2011. That’s what an NCAA Tournament appearance and win will do for you.)

 

How about you, cherished reader? Any numbers jump out as significant or worth extra scrutiny?


Buy Out Clauses in State of Arkansas’ Division I Coaching Contracts

When it comes to big-time college sports, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas rarely operate on a level playing field. The Hogs attract more fans, play in a bigger conference, get more national exposure and make more money.  The UA’s athletic department pulls in nearly seven times more total revenue than Arkansas States’.

But there’s one place the state of Arkansas’ largest sports programs stand on equal ground. Each school’s head football coach has a contract demanding the same amount of money for cutting out early. If the Hogs’ Bret Bielema had decided to break his six-year contract last year – his first on the job – then he would have owed the UA $3 million. Three million is also the price the Red Wolves’ Blake Anderson would have to pay if he left ASU during his first year. This equality is all the more striking because Bielema and Anderson’s salaries aren’t even close to being in the same neighborhood: Bielema makes $3.2 million a year to Anderson’s $700,000.

How these schools got to this particular $3 million figure is part coincidence, part strategy, and all a matter of context. In the biggest conferences, a $3 million “buyout” provision isn’t all that high. Not with the likes of Louisville’s Bobby Petrino walking around with a $10 million buyout. In a conference as relatively small as the Sun Belt, though, a number like this is unprecedented – much like the situation in which ASU football finds itself on the whole. “When you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through the last few years,” ASU athletic director Terry Mohajir says,  “you learn a little bit.”

 

Since 2010, ASU has hired four separate head coaches. The first of those – Hugh Freeze – had a first-year buyout of $225, 000. For succeeding coaches, that figure jumped to $700,000 , then to $1.75 million, and now to $3 million. Where it ends, nobody knows.

Still, fans can be certain of one thing for sure: in the world of coaches’ contracts, terms for parting ways matter every bit as much as the salary figures themselves.

++++

 

Decades ago, things were simpler. Major college football coaches signed one-year contracts for amounts that didn’t always make them their state’s highest paid public employee. If they did a good job, the contract rolled over to the next year. But things started changing in the 1980s with the advent of bigger broadcast deals and the proliferation of cable sports programming. The best coaches started going to the richest schools which were also offering higher-paying, multi-year deals. But as multi-year contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said. At first, “it was really a one-way street and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”

Look at it in business terms: The institution is looking for security after investing in a risky asset – the head coach – that can add or lose a great amount of revenue. Too much of one of the other – for all programs but the very top ones – make the coach more likely to leave. That departure not only means a loss in investments until that point, but likely a substantial cut future returns, too.

 

For more, read the rest of my article as it originally published in Arkansas Money & Politics Magazine.

It’s on Page 27 of this digital version


Gus Malzahn & Arkansan head coaches who have won major conference titles

As head coach, Gus Malzahn doesn't have a single major conference title to his credit .... yet.

Gus Malzahn doesn’t have to be so angry anymore.

This afternoon Fort Smith native Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers will play the Missouri Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. If Malzahn pulls out a win that looks much less improbable than the one seared across the nation’s memory last Saturday, he will become the fifth Arkansan to have won an SEC title and at least the ninth to have won a major conference title as head coach. [UPDATE: Auburn won 59-42] Below is a list of native Arkansans (i.e. spent a majority of childhood in the state) who have already pulled this off. Not surprisingly, some are part of college football’s pantheon of coaches:

1. Bear Bryant

Hometown: Fordyce

School: Kentucky/Texas A&M/Alabama

Conference Titles Won: 15

(14 in SEC: 1950, 1961, 1964–1966, 1971–1975, 1977–1979, 1981; 1 in SWC: 1956)

National Titles Won: 6

(1961, 1964–1965, 1973, 1978–1979)

2. Barry Switzer

Hometown: Crossett

School: Oklahoma

Conference Titles Won: 12

(All in Big Eight: (1973–1980, 1984–1987)

National Titles Won: 3

(1974–1975, 1985)

3. Ken Hatfield

Hometown: Helena

School: Arkansas/Clemson/Rice

Conference Titles Won: 4

(3 SWC: 1988–1989, 1994; 1 ACC: 1991)

4. Fred Akers

Hometown: Blytheville

School: Texas

Conference Titles Won: 2

(SWC: 1977, 1983)

5. Tommy Tuberville

Hometown: Camden

School: Auburn

Conference Titles Won: 1

(SEC: 2004)

6. Charlie Strong

Hometown: Batesville

School: Louisville

Conference Titles Won: 1

(Big East: 2012)

7. Charlie McClendon

Hometown: Lewisville

School: LSU

Conference Titles Won: 1

(SEC: 1970)

This fancy Dartmouth-educated fella was Arkansan? I had no idea either...

This fancy Dartmouth-educated fella was Arkansan? I had no idea either…

8. Clarence Spears

Hometown: DeWitt*

School: Minnesota

Conference Titles Won: 1

(Big Ten: 1927)

*I admit it: I simply don’t know how long Spears lived in Arkansas before his family moved to Illinois, where he graduated high school. But I sure like to think he stuck around for longer than a Douglas MacArthur-minute.

N.B. For this list, I only focused on coaches who had spent the majority of their childhood in Arkansas. That’s why you don’t like Frank Broyles or Butch Davis, guys who came to Arkansas after high school. Malzahn, for instance, was born in Texas but grew up in Fort Smith. If I missed someone, please let me know.

Also, I’m defining “major conference” as a current automatic qualifying conferences as well as the now-defunct Big East, Big Eight and Southwest conferences. Akers won a WAC title with Wyoming, but I didn’t include that in the list above because the notion of Wyoming being a major conference school is just plain wack.


Ken Hatfield on Stanford, Recruiting Texas and Bill Parcells’ Secret Sauce

ken hatfield

Hatfield coached the Hogs 1984-1989. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

I just got off the phone with Ken Hatfield, the most winning Razorback football coach by percentage, for a High Profile feature I’m writing on David Bazzel for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I couldn’t help but also ask Hatfield some side questions about college football’s biggest game last week and the current state of the Hogs. Specifically, I was curious as to what he thought of grind-it-out Stanford’s recent domination over Oregon and how that could play into the Razorbacks’ future.

“To be a champion, you’ve got to do one of two things to be successful,” Hatfield said. “You got to do things better than anyone else or you got to do things different than anyone else … like in the days that Texas ran the wishbone. The teams trying to stop it had a hard time trying to stop it on their own practice field, so one year every team in the Southwest conference ran their own version of the wishbone. They had to do it so they could figure out how to stop [the wishbone] and then they still couldn’t stop it because Texas had better players and executed it better.”

So, the other SWC teams went another direction. “That’s when you had Hayden Fry and some other people come in with a single wide receiver and do different other things.” Stanford has been able to capitalize on its enduring reputation for ball-control offenses, Hatfield said. “They have been able to recruit people that style of offense from around the nation because Stanford has such a national draw, and a lot of the things that they were doing, nobody else was recruiting those players for.”

Bill Parcells once told Hatfield the winning formula was similar in the NFL: “You’ve got to take the ball over when there’s four minutes left in the game. You’ve got to run the clock out when the other team knows you’re going to run every play … that other team is paying $30 million for that quarterback for that two-minute offense and the only way you’re going to defeat him is by keeping him on the bench. So to win you’ve got to be able to run the football when the other team is ganging up on the line of scrimmage and knows you’re going to do it. If it works for the NFL, it ought to work good college teams too.”

OK, bear with me: I’m now putting on my referring-to-myself-in-third-person socks:

Demirel: Do you think to a certain extent Stanford’s success against a powerful hurry up offense provides a blueprint for Arkansas success going forward in the SEC?

Hatfield: “The only difference you have is that you got a couple teams in the SEC that are already doing the Stanford thing … then you get back to trying to do something better than them.” For Bielema and his staff, the biggest priority is signing the right players – especially on the lines, he added.

Demirel: Do you think that Arkansas will be able to do better at recruiting when LSU, Alabama and now Texas A&M are closer to the hot spots where so many of these recruits live?

Hatfield: “Certainly, it’s a real big challenge … I would think one of the great assets we have right now is to really to go back in and recruit Texas extremely hard, the way we did. Because, for about 18 years there, nobody in Texas cared about the SEC because it wasn’t in the paper, they never covered it. But now, with A&M coming into the league and the great success they’ve had in two years, every paper in Texas everyday mentions the SEC. Every newspaper. So I think you get a chance of knowing the SEC is important in Texas and and we’re so close to it, where you could get a lot of players where their families could come and see it.”

Demirel: But A&M’s success makes that tougher, as does Baylor’s recent success as well.

Hatfield: “Oh, there’s no doubt about it … while Baylor’s good there, there’s no doubt about it, there’s still some mystique about playing in the SEC. And if you’re a Texas player who’s going to play in the SEC against the great competition you’re going to have, you’ve either got to go to A&M or go to Arkansas. LSU’s going to get all their players from Louisiana – a few from Alabama, a few from Texas – but they’re gonna get them from there. But for a great Texas player who wants to play in the SEC and still wants to be close to home, you’ve got A&M and Arkansas.”

Demirel: It’ll be interesting to see if Arkansas ramps it up there. Also, although Arkansas has tried to develop recruiting in Florida before, it seems like Bielema and some of his assistants are hitting it extremely hard. It’ll be interesting to see if they can make Florida more of a recruiting base than ever have before.

Hatfield: “… You’ve always got to figure out in recruiting what’s your advantage. The one thing I believed we had for a long time which was great in Arkansas was the ability to bring kids in here in redshirt them – let them grow up, and enjoy the beauty of the state and the beauty of the fans, maybe get to be a year or two older than other people too. Almost all of the players we had were redshirted.”

“I mean, you had Steve Atwater and number one [round] draft pick, you had Wayne Martin, a [round] one draft pick, you had Quinn Grovey, one of the greatest quarterbacks we ever had. All of them were redshirted. None of them played as [true] freshmen and they were all great talents. Those extra years here really made a difference both in helping them get a degree and also in their physical development. So I wouldn’t give up on that formula either. Do something different Arkansas, maybe that other people aren’t doing. You just got to do whatever you believe in and I think that Beliema will do whatever he believes in.”


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