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July 17, 2013No one saw last season coming for Texas A&M.
At this time last year, Johnny Manziel hadn't even won the starting quarterback job. New coach Kevin Sumlin appeared star-struck at the Southeastern Conference's Football Media Days.
But, the 2012 campaign was one of the best in Aggies history. Texas A&M won 11 games, including victories against national champion Alabama and Big XII power Oklahoma. Manziel broke Tim Tebow's SEC records en route to the Heisman Trophy.
The excitement and the expectations are sky-high in College Station. The rival Longhorns from Austin could only hope for such hype surrounding their program.
"The fans are excited and the community is excited," said Sumlin on Wednesday morning at SEC's Football Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham in Hoover, Ala. "But, there is a reason for us to be excited about this football season."
The enthusiasm starts with Manziel, who accounted for more than 5,100 yards and 47 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. However, Manziel has had his off-the field problems. Just last weekend, he was sent home from the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux for missing events.
Not surprisingly, Sumlin had to deal with more questions about Manziel's behavior than any about a Texas A&M football team, which will be ranked in the top ten in the country.
"Off the field, Johnny has made mistakes," Sumlin said. "We have had discussions with him about that. Our discipline policy is in-house. It's like a parent having kids.
"We aren't perfect with how we do things. Is Johnny perfect? No. Johnny's bad decisions are the ones that are publicized. Can he be better in that area? Certainly, he can."
Sumlin admitted that Manziel can also be a better quarterback this season. Without a doubt, the league's defensive coordinators have been working at controlling the Manziel-led Aggies offense. Only LSU and Florida had success slowing down Manziel in 2012.
"I've been around guys coming off great years, like a Jason White and an Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma," Sumlin said. "Johnny has to be consistent. You talk not about his strengths, but his weaknesses.
"Johnny has to work on his feelings and find a feeling for the game. He has to have a better feeling for our overall package. He must think like a coach on the field. The quicker Johnny does that the faster we'll involve the young players in our scheme."
Manziel only has five starters returning from Texas A&M's offense, which averaged 559 yards and 45 points a game. Young players, particularly at wide receiver, will have to play a role in the Aggies offense.
"We'll have a bunch of new guys on our football team this year," Sumlin said. "We have holes to fill, but that's how it is in college football. Teams change every year. Your best players leave early. We have to plan for that. We have to see how many of these new guys will fit into our offense."
Sumlin is ready to make sure his team doesn't get defeated by these sky-high expectations.
"I don't tell our team anything different than I did before the Cotton Bowl," Sumlin said. "I don't see it being about one player. It is important for the coach to be consistent. I cannot ride the wave and be up and down."
Gus Malzahn was the offensive coordinator when Auburn won the national championship with quarterback Cam Newton in 2010. But, that Auburn squad had a veteran offensive line and a defensive front led by Nick Fairley.
Since winning the national title, the Tigers have lost 12 of 16 SEC games. Last year, Auburn dropped all eight conference contests. After rushing for 285 yards a game in 2010, the Tigers averaged 165 yards on the ground the last two years. The defense allowed 194 rushing yards per game in 2011-12.
"The No. 1 thing our players have to do is get the edge back," Malzahn said. "Auburn has to have that blue-collar, hit-them-in-the-mouth attitude. We have to lose that entitlement issue. When Auburn has that edge, it can win football games."
Obviously, the edge has to start with the defensive players. Auburn returns eight starters on defense, including four seniors - end Dee Ford, linebacker Jake Holland, cornerback Chris Davis and safety Demetruce McNeal. Malzahn is expecting a lot from those four players.
"We have a lot of seniors on defense," Malzahn said. "I told them that they need to have their best seasons. (New defensive coordinator) Ellis Johnson has a lot of respect from our players. He is going to line them up and let them play."
Malzahn will employ a fast-tempo offense. He is undecided upon the starting quarterback. Malzahn did recruit Kiehl Frazier, who struggled in the pro-style offense used by former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik in 2012.
Frazier completed just 53 percent of his passes while throwing for 753 yards with two touchdowns and eight interceptions. Jonathan Wallace, who was also recruited by Malzahn, completed 58 percent of his passes for 720 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
"The biggest challenge on offense is at quarterback," Malzahn said. "Four guys have an equal shot. I don't know who it will be. Hopefully, we find a starter sooner than later. The one positive is that we recruited guys for this offense. We just need them to step up."
Bret Bielema certainly has the best body of work of the four new head coaches in the SEC. He averaged nearly ten wins a year during his seven seasons at Wisconsin. He guided the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls. Now, he gets his chance at Arkansas.
The Razorbacks had a nightmarish 4-8 last season after being a preseason top-ten pick. Bielema will be the third coach in three seasons in Fayetteville.
"These guys have gone through a lot," Bielema said. "I told the guys at the first meeting that I was not going to preach about what happened before. Everybody here went through 4-8. Scars aren't bad. They are a reminder for these guys to persevere."
Bielema had a run-first offense at Wisconsin. He believes in that style. The Hogs had success in recent years under coach Bobby Petrino with a wide-open passing attack. Bielema will implement the offensive philosophy utilized by Les Miles at LSU and Nick Saban at Alabama.
"The players did a lot of research before I got here," Bielema said. "They realized my teams are built from the bottom up. It starts with offensive line play and defensive line play. We want to play normal American style football on offense with a tight end, a tailback and a fullback."
The Razorbacks return just four starters on offense - two linemen, including outstanding center Travis Swanson. There are eight returning starters on defense, including three linemen. Bielema is happy with the linemen on the roster.
"How we play up front is going to determine how we play," Bielema said. "I think we'll be all right up there. We want to be balanced on offense - run for about 200 yards and pass for about 200 yards per game. That has been the formula for our success in the past."
Another part of Bielema's book for success involves turnovers. In each of the last four seasons, Wisconsin had a plus turnover margin - including plus 16 in 2011 and plus 14 in 2010. Arkansas was last in the SEC with a minus 19 turnover margin last season.
Different vibe surrounding LSU
For two straight years, Mississippi State closed the season with a victory against Ole Miss and a bowl victory (Michigan and Wake Forest). But, that streak came to an abrupt halt. The Bulldogs lost to the Rebels and then dropped their bowl game to Northwestern.
That finish left Mississippi State with an 8-5 record. Few people recall that the Bulldogs were 7-0 heading into their game at Alabama. Mississippi State's five losses all came by a margin of at least 14 points.
"We have guys who had been around for a while and they were used to winning," Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. "They were disappointed in the way the season ended. We were 7-0 and for the first time we played in some important games last season.
"It was a great learning point for our team on how to handle adversity. The guys were disappointed in their performance in the Gator Bowl. There is more of a sense of urgency going into this season because of how last year ended."
The Bulldogs may be hard-pressed to win their first seven games in 2013. Two of the first three games are away from Starkville - Oklahoma State in Houston and at Auburn. Moreover, there are just 13 returning starters. The receiving corps will be new. The offensive line will be veteran.
"We have a challenging schedule," Mullen said. "The Oklahoma State game brings a sense of urgency to training camp. It helps having a fifth-year senior quarterback (Tyler Russell) to play in a big game like the opener (against Oklahoma State)."
It is no secret to Mullen that Ole Miss has generated a lot of excitement with its finish of a year ago - a victory against Mississippi State and a bowl victory against Pittsburgh. Mullen welcomes that challenge.
"(Ole Miss') success will spark the rivalry more," Mullen said. "It will make Thanksgiving night (Ole Miss game) even bigger. When we got here, they had won the Cotton Bowl and we were not doing well. Then, we went to New Year's Day bowls and they weren't doing well. Now, they are coming up."
Alabama coach Nick Saban doesn't appear at SEC Media Days until Thursday, but new Tennessee coach Butch Jones repeated his message one day earlier.
"We have to focus on the process and not the end result," Jones said. "We just have to focus through a long season. If we do that, we'll like the body of work at the end of the year."
Everyone knows about the lack of continuity in the Volunteers program in recent years. Jones will be Tennessee's fourth coach in six seasons - after Phil Fulmer, Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. The Vols have had one winning record in that time. Tennessee's last winning SEC season was 2007.
Jones will be taking over a program for the third time. He replaced Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and then Cincinnati. Jones' teams won 50 games in six seasons.
"The process in how you develop a football team doesn't change," Jones said. "This is the third time taking over a program. That's why the transition has been seamless. I didn't have to coach a coaching staff. We have relied upon the experience we gained at the other two places we have been."
Mike Bajakian has been Jones' offensive coordinator at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati. John Jancek was Jones' defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. Jancek will benefit from eight returning starters. The same case will not be true for Bajakian.
Jones likes to use an up-tempo offense. However, he must break in a new starting quarterback and a new wide receiving group. At least, the Vols do bring back four starters in the offensive line.
"The mark of a good football coach is being able to mold his personnel into what he wants to do," Jones said. "We'll mix the tempo. To play good defense, sometimes you have to protect your defense. We'll slow down sometimes. We're not going to be a finesse football team. We'll be a physical team first."
There is no doubt that confidence among the Kentucky football players is lacking. A year ago, the Wildcats won just two games, none against SEC teams. Kentucky was beaten by both its in-state opponents - Louisville and Western Kentucky.
But, new coach Mark Stoops said that he took over a group of players who had little confidence just three years ago. Stoops was hired by Jimbo Fisher to rebuild a Florida State defense which had been ranked No. 108 in the country.
"When I took over the Florida State defense, the first time I met with them I saw how little confidence it had," Stoops said. "It's the same thing at Kentucky now. They are beaten down. They are lacking confidence."
In his three years at Florida State, Stoops guided the defense to national finishes of No. 42, No. 3 and No. 2. Certainly, there will not be such an improvement with the Kentucky program, which hasn't enjoyed a winning record since 2009. But, there is excitement in Lexington.
"I am very encouraged with the way things have gone so far," Stoops said. "We need to upgrade our recruiting to be competitive in this league. I like the momentum we have in recruiting right now. From what I saw in the 15 days of spring practice, we have to get better in all areas."
The Wildcats have just 12 returning starters. Stoops, a defensive coach, hired Troy coordinator Neal Brown, who will employ an up-tempo offense. That's not the best recipe for success in a rebuilding situation.
"It's a fine balancing act," Stoops said. "I'm a defensive guy. It will be hard for me to watch certain things that will happen. I know there will be growing pains.
"But, (passing game) has roots at Kentucky when (coach) Hal Mumme was there. This just gives us the best opportunity to move the football. We'll discuss how to handle the tempo."
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