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.
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.
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.”
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
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
When Auburn barely fell 34-31 to Florida State on Monday night in a showdown for the national title, it didn’t just lose a game. It lost a shot at securing status as the greatest one-season turnaround in major American team sports history. Auburn was within three points of completing a U-turn which, in terms of winning percentage and postseason results, had never before been seen on this scale.
That said, these Tigers still went from 3-9 to 12-2 and a No. 2 ranking. That in itself is still historic and ranks at the top of all-time turnarounds in major college football. But, when it comes to all-time bounce backs, a few examples in pro basketball and football still take the cake. The St. Louis Rams, for instance, overcame 300-1 odds heading into the 1999 season to win the 2000 Super Bowl. In fact, looking at the official odds at the start of the season has provided fodder for some of the best “comebacks” and “turnarounds” recorded in recent time. One may click here for more on NFL betting this postseason and ask themselves if anything indicates a franchise turnaround.
Unquestionably, those ’99 Rams and these ’13 Tigers are all-timers. Here are eight more:
10. Hawaii (college football)
1998: 0-12 (12.4 points per game / 35.2 points against per game)
1999: 9-4 (28.5 points per game / 26.8 points against per game)
Like at Auburn, an offensive guru turned the Rainbow Warrior program around.
When June Jones arrived as Hawaii’s head coach, he faced a team which was suffering through an 18-game losing streak and could not pass the ball to the Pacific Ocean. Within a fall, he had the offense humming and led Hawaii to the Oahu Bowl, where it beat Oregon State 23-17.
“He actually came in and gave us a system,” former Hawaii quarterback Dan Robinson told the Montgomery Advisor. “We started the exact same players as the season before when we went 0-12. He gave us a system and taught us how to believe in that system. The season before, every week, we’d run a different offense.”
9. Kansas City Wizards (pro soccer)
1999: 8-24 (24 goals scored total / 53 goals scored against total)
2000: 16-9*-7 (47 goals scored total / 29 goals scored against total)
In 1999, the team had a talented roster – including two-time World Cup starters Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas – but could not put it together. Of course, it’s never a good sign when a defender (Lalas) is your third-leading scorer for a season. Putting points on the board was not a problem for KC the following season, thanks to the vastly improved play of midfielder Chris Henderson and his Danish friend and MLS newcomer Miklos Molnar. What’s now Sporting Kansas City won its first MLS Supporters’ Shield, beating the Chicago Fire 1-0.
*Eight draws, along with 16 wins and seven losses. This was the first season MLS games were allowed to finish in ties.
8. New England Patriots (pro football)
2000: 5-11 (17.2 points per game / 21.1 points against per game)
2001: 11-5 (23.2 points per game / 17.0 points against per game)
It’s hard to imagine the Patriots slogging through a losing season under Bill Belichick. That’s because it hasn’t happened since 2000, when he start reorganizing everything in his first season as head coach in Foxboro. He certainly laid a good foundation, which was unexpectedly helped in the second game of the following season when the Patriots were blessed by the “fortune” of having their 29-year-old franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, go down with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, stepped in to replace him and proceeded to lead New England to an 11-3 record as starter. With the help of three clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
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
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
Conference Titles Won: 12
(All in Big Eight: (1973–1980, 1984–1987)
National Titles Won: 3
3. Ken Hatfield
Conference Titles Won: 4
(3 SWC: 1988–1989, 1994; 1 ACC: 1991)
4. Fred Akers
Conference Titles Won: 2
(SWC: 1977, 1983)
5. Tommy Tuberville
Conference Titles Won: 1
6. Charlie Strong
Conference Titles Won: 1
(Big East: 2012)
7. Charlie McClendon
Conference Titles Won: 1
8. Clarence Spears
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.
Of all the stories coming out of Bret Bielema’s hiring as Arkansas’ head football coach last week, perhaps the most endearing is how he wooed his wife Jen.
One evening in April, 2008, Bielema was enjoying a game of blackjack at the Wynn Las Vegas when he spotted “a smiling blonde, brown-eyed woman wearing a teal tank top, blue jeans and black flip-flops,” as recalled in a 2011 Fox Sports article. Interest sufficiently piqued, Wisconsin’s head coach approached the beautiful stranger to start what became a five-hour conversation.
While the attraction was initially physical, it soon became so much more. After that night, Bret and Jen didn’t see each other for five months. They relied on phone talks, the postal service and, later, flying halfway across the country. Love flourished; they married last March.
Many Americans believe this is the stuff of true romance. The couple took its time getting to know each other. They turned a chance encounter into a long-term relationship, choosing trust before intimacy.
This progression matters not only to Bret and Jen, but to Razorback fans and recruits. It tells the public: Here is a good man who refrains from acting on impulse for the sake of others.
But if Bret and Jen had gotten hammered that fateful night in Las Vegas, hooked up in the backseat of a cab and exchanged oaths at a drive-thru wedding chapel, would their story still charm? Would it even be shared?
I think not.
A football coach isn’t trained to look too far down the road.
He earns most of his pay to make decisions in the now, to successfully adjust schemes in the span of minutes and get his players locked into the present moment with laser-like intensity. The best coaches develop the ability to think one step ahead of the game on the field. All the recruiting, fish fry glad-handing and long film sessions serve only one purpose – 60 minutes, played 12 or 13 Saturdays a year.
So, it’s not surprising that Malzahn was operating very much in the present tense as the guest speaker at the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday. In his case, that means toeing the party line as head coach of the nascent Arkansas State Red Wolves program. In his first season, Malzahn has continued to stoke statewide interest in the program that’s now vying for its second consecutive conference title.
He stoked fires of a different sort at the Monday luncheon.
Without prompting, Malzahn launched into the state’s most enduring hot-button sports issues – the ASU vs. UA debate. UA’s unofficial policy has prevented the program from scheduling in-state competition since 1946. But that hasn’t stopped what many Hog fans perceive as other such programs from showing up at the UA’s doorstep, hat in hand, beseeching the master of the home for a few gold coins in the form of a guarantee game.
Malzahn reminded us ASU is the latest program to make such a request.
“We’ve reached out to the University of Arkansas. We’d like to play them in Little Rock in the future, and we think that would be good for the state.”
He later added: “I think it’s the day and time that Arkansas State and Arkansas needs [sic] to play to play in Little Rock… It’s not 1970 anymore. It really isn’t. I think it’s healthy for everybody concerned.”
As a freshman all those years ago, Mitch Mustain went 8-0 at Arkansas and was one of the key figures in some of the controversy that enveloped first-year college coach Gus Malzahn and head coach Houston Nutt as the 2006 season wore on.
We know the aftermath: Malzahn to Tulsa, Nutt out, Petrino in and Mustain gone to USC. Mustain had thrived in high school, then in college, under Malzahn but he never really worked out in SoCal. Aside from a start against Notre Dame, Mitch had pretty much faded into shades-wearin’ obscurity by last December.
Well, Mustain’s back. Not in the flesh, but in bullet form. His UA success – however fleeting – forms the base of a national recruiting pitch new ASU coach Gus Malzahn unleashed on ESPNU on signing day:
In this next video, you’ll notice in the following analysis that Mustain’s inclusion trips up ESPNU analyst David Pollack some, but it’s interesting to note that while Mustain’s playing days in the state of Arkansas are long over, he could still play a role in Malzahn’s ability to recruit future recruits.
Of course, ASU hopes to end up with QBs who pan out more in line with Malzahn’s latest star college quarterback, Cam Newton, rather than his first.
Little Rock Central hasn’t had an All-America caliber football player in decades, but that sure doesn’t mean the neighborhood cupboard’s bare. Two speedsters who have recently grown up in an area a few blocks southwest of the downtown high school both merited Parade All-America honors as seniors: Darren McFadden (who attended what is now Maumelle High School) and Fredi Knighten of Pulaski Academy. No, they didn’t know each other – not like McFadden befriended another high profile private school star soon to be Knighten’s teammate.
But Fredi was certainly aware of the McFaddens, who lived three blocks away from the home into which his mother moved when he started middle school. On many evenings, he recalls hearing stereos booming from McFadden’s car as it rumbled down his street. Of course, McFadden was also making all kinds of noise in Fayetteville, where he solidified his place as the best Razorback running back of all time with consecutive Heisman runner-up finishes.
It’s yet to be seen whether Knighten, a quarterback, can translate his own outstanding prep success to the college level. But if he does, it will likely be to the Razorbacks’ recruiting detriment in central Arkansas. Arkansas State now has three new inroads into central Arkansas it didn’t have during its record-setting 2010 season – Gus Malzahn, a longtime Arkansas high school coach, along with Michael Dyer and Knighten, the area’s last two Parade All-Americans. If ASU continues to build on its recent success, Jonesboro can’t help but become a hotter destination for central Arkansas high school players. A Little Rock native like Knighten, or Dyer, throwing up All-American-type numbers while at ASU would likely lavish unprecedented amounts of media attention on the Red Wolves program.
At the same time, it’s important to note as a Top 5 team the Razorbacks are also becoming a hotter name, not just at home but everywhere around the nation. Arkansas no longer needs to rely on nabbing every 5-star recruit that comes out of central Arkansas (or Springfield, Mo., for that matter). Sure, Altee Tenpenny, North Little Rock’s star running back, recently said “aye” to Alabama. But with the wide net Petrino and his coaches are casting over the nation – especially Western states – that loss doesn’t hurt the program like it would have in the Houston Nutt years.