(Note: Georgia at Clemson will be featured in the ACC version of this article, coming later this week.)
If you live in the southeastern United States, chances are this summer has been quite the departure from what you have come to expect. The sizzling 100-degree temperatures and constant sun have been replaced by Seattle-like rains and cooler-than-expected daytime highs. If you’re like me, the seemingly endless chore of mowing the grass has been made all the worse by the unusual summer climate.
Soon, though, that will all be a distant memory.
Fight songs will ring through the air. Grills will serve up pre-game delicacies. Seating bowls will sway as students and loyal fans voice their support for their universities. As Labor Day and cooler temperatures approach, so too does football. There are few places in the country where anticipation climbs quite like SEC territory. This week, we welcome a number of regional rivalries and several games with national interest. Most importantly, we welcome the return of this weekly feature for the 2013-14 season!
Before we pull back the curtain on a new season, let’s unveil the first trivia question of the year!
SEC Trivia, Week 1 (answer at the end of the column): In which year did North Carolina last defeat South Carolina, and who coached both teams?
Top of the Ratings
North Carolina at #6 South Carolina, 6 p.m. ET, Thursday, ESPN
Last year’s season finales: North Carolina 45, Maryland 38; South Carolina 33, Michigan 28 (Outback Bowl)
Program guide: Though there is no “official” rivalry between these two teams, rest assured that a victory over a Tar Heel State or Palmetto State foe would be just the start to the season both sides desire. The two schools have not faced each other on the gridiron since 2007, a 21-15 Gamecock victory in Chapel Hill. South Carolina gained just over 60 yards in the second half of that contest, while the Tar Heels outgained Steve Spurrier’s club 398-282.
Everything has changed on both sides of the field since then — except for the Head Ball Coach, of course — and while the Gamecocks are riding high with a top-ten ranking and an Outback Bowl victory over Michigan, the Tar Heels find themselves in a much less stable position. Larry Fedora’s club won the ACC’s Coastal Division during the regular season with an 8-4 record (5-3 in the league), but was unable to advance to postseason play due to NCAA sanctions. North Carolina also lost star rusher Giovani Bernard to the Cincinnati Bengals.
This puts a lot of the offensive pressure on quarterback Bryn Renner. The senior completed 65.4 percent of his passes in 2012 (276-for-422), throwing for 28 scores against just seven interceptions. Renner has two outside weapons that create matchup problems in 6-foot-4 Quinshad Davis (61 catches, 776 yards, 5 touchdowns in ’12) and Sean Tapley (26 catches, 361 yards, 5 touchdowns). Much of the rushing burden will fall to A.J. Blue — himself a former quarterback — and sophomore Romar Morris. The tandem combined for 819 rushing yards and 11 scores last year, though each had over 100 fewer carries than Bernard.
South Carolina, for their part, looks to shut down much of that offensive firepower with their stellar defense. The Gamecocks were a top-20 club in scoring, rushing and total defense a season ago, with a pass defense that ranked 21st in the nation. The Gamecocks lose their top four tacklers from last season, but the biggest returning star will hear his name called on Thursday: Jadeveon Clowney. The consensus number one draft pick in the 2014 draft registered 13 sacks last season, along with 54 tackles and an unbelievable 23.5 of those tackles for loss. Kelcy Quarles and the remainder of the defensive line absolutely must win their matchups and cause Renner to hurry his throws, as Clowney will surely get his share of double and triple teams.
Gamecock quarterback Connor Shaw suffered through several injuries during his junior year, but his backup, Dylan Thompson, was certainly up to the task. Shaw and Thompson combined to throw for just shy of 3000 yards, tallying 27 trips to the end zone against just nine picks. Marcus Lattimore has moved on to the NFL after a devastating knee injury suffered against Tennessee, leaving Mike Davis (5.29 yards per carry) to tote the rock for the Gamecocks. Shaw will look to find returning stars Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd early and often. These two weapons combined for just under 1000 receiving yards and ten touchdowns last year. The Tar Heels finished 57th in the NCAA in total defense in 2012, so it will be key for South Carolina to get on the board early and take some pressure off their young defense.
Virginia Tech vs. #1 Alabama (at Atlanta, GA), 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Last year’s season finales: Virginia Tech 13, Rutgers 10 (OT – Russell Athletic Bowl); Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14 (BCS National Championship Game)
Program guide: Remember all the talk last year — especially late last year — that 2012 would be the year to end the SEC’s national title run? The conference’s obituary was being written by many across the country, until the Crimson Tide stopped Georgia just yards from a game-winning touchdown in a 32-28 victory that somehow managed to live up to all the hype. Nick Saban’s club then unloaded on the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish to again hoist the crystal football high atop the Sun Life Stadium turf.
Eddie Lacy has departed the Crimson Tide’s backfield to move on to the Green Bay Packers, but T.J. Yeldon is back to carry the load for Alabama. Yeldon is coming off a spectacular freshman season in which he rushed for 1108 yards and 12 scores. Meanwhile, quarterback AJ McCarron threw for just shy of 3000 yards and 30 touchdowns, against just three interceptions. Receiver Amari Cooper hit Tuscaloosa as a freshman from Miami last year with a vengeance, finishing two catches shy of 60 and one yard shy of 1000 in an 11-touchdown season.
All of these offensive weapons are balanced by the returning players from a defense that led the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense in 2012. This looks to create quite the concern for the Hokies, who needed a win against cross-commonwealth rival Virginia just to get to .500 and reach a bowl last season, before taking down Rutgers in overtime in Orlando to finish off one of the less remarkable seasons of Frank Beamer’s otherwise stellar career in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech has lost a number of players to transfers, dismissals and graduation, and the struggles of last year also produced a number of new coaches. One of those coaches, new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, gets to work with star quarterback Logan Thomas. Thomas experienced his own share of struggles in 2012, throwing 16 interceptions against his 18 touchdowns. Many of those interceptions came on high passes thrown off Thomas’ back foot, with arguably one of the most crippling coming on a 74-yard touchdown return by Clemson’s Jonathan Meeks in a three-touchdown loss at Death Valley last October. Thomas’ accuracy will tell the tale of the Hokies’ success on offense in 2013, as will the strength of the run game. Losing rising sophomore Michael Holmes (70 carries, 280 yards and four scores last year) puts Tech slightly behind the eight ball.
#12 LSU vs. #20 TCU (at Arlington, TX), 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Last year’s season finales: Clemson 25, LSU 24 (Chick-fil-A Bowl); Michigan State 17, TCU 16 (Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)
Program guide: LSU starts 2013 with a new offensive coordinator, long-time NFL coach Cam Cameron. Cameron is tasked with bolstering an LSU offense that finished tenth among conference schools last season in total offense, averaging just 374.2 yards per game. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger will need to right the team’s passing ship in a hurry, as the Tigers threw for the second-fewest touchdowns (12) in the conference. Only Auburn (eight) threw for fewer.
LSU fared slightly better on the ground, finishing with the sixth-highest yards per game rushing average (173.69). Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard will need to anchor the Tigers’ run game to give Mettenberger time to throw and serve as a “change of pace”, opening more space for LSU’s rushers. That will be no slam dunk against a TCU run defense that finished tenth in the nation in 2012.
TCU, for their part, faces a stingy defense that was a top-ten finisher in several categories last season. The one place where the Horned Frogs may be able to do some things is through the air, as LSU finished 28th against the pass in 2012. Quarterback Casey Pachall was outstanding in limited duty (64-for-97, 948 yards, 10 TD, 1 INT), but after he left the team to tend to personal issues, freshman Trevone Boykin was pressed into service. Boykin performed quite admirably himself (167-for-292, 2054 yards, 15 TD, 10 INT), and the two will likely split time against the Tigers.
If Pachall draws the start and can keep up his 66 percent pace from last season, LSU will likely be forced to play on their heels for a lot of this game. Pachall provides nowhere near the running threat Boykin does (127 carries, 417 yards, 3 TD), so the differing skillsets may also serve to be an advantage for the Horned Frogs in what is essentially a home game. Gary Patterson’s club is still establishing itself as a Big 12 powerhouse, and a victory over Les Miles’ Tigers would go a long way toward those efforts.
There are a lot of games this week, so we’ll bring back the Info Button feature! Those of you who are dedicated sports fans and/or TV junkies know that the info button on your remote shows you a quick synopsis of what you need to know about a television show. This week’s press of the button gives you a rapid breakdown of the remaining games.
Ole Miss (7-6 in ’12) at Vanderbilt (9-4 in ’12), 9:15 p.m. ET
Info button: This traditional early-season tilt all of a sudden has a lot more juice. Hugh Freeze led his Rebels to a bowl victory in his first season in Oxford, taking home a 38-17 drubbing of Pittsburgh. Ole Miss’ offense averaged 424 yards per game last season, 44 greater than the Commodores’ average. James Franklin’s Commodores look to build on the momentum of a bowl victory over NC State with former Wyoming quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels under center. If Vanderbilt gets past this game, the schedule looks reasonably favorable (save for a September 14th contest at South Carolina) until their brutal stretch with Georgia at home and games at Texas A&M and Florida. Ole Miss has games at Texas and Alabama in late September, while Texas A&M and LSU travel to Oxford in October.
Toledo (9-4 in ’12) at #10 Florida (11-2 in ’12), 12:21 p.m. ET, SECN/ESPN3
Info button: Coach Matt Campbell’s Rockets opened the 2012 season with an overtime loss at Arizona, but managed to get a somewhat “signature” win by defeating Cincinnati 29-23 in the Glass Bowl later in the year. Toledo did make a bowl appearance, losing to Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. This is no early-season cakewalk for the Gators, as Toledo averaged over 445 yards a game in total offense last season. Florida experienced their share of offensive struggles last year, and without Mike Gillislee and Jordan Reed, a quick correction will be required if the Gators want to avoid a nail-biter in the Swamp.
Rice (7-6 in ’12) at #7 Texas A&M (11-2 in ’12), 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Info button: Rice is yet another bowl team opening against SEC competition (the Owls defeated Air Force 33-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl), and they are greeted with the rather unenviable task of making the somewhat short drive to College Station. There has been quite the circus around A&M this offseason, as all-everything Johnny Manziel continues to await fallout from possible (and unsubstantiated, as of press time) autograph-related profits. For the Owls to hang around with Manziel and the Wrecking Crew defense, they simply must force turnovers (the Owls were +5 in turnover margin against FBS opponents last season) and control the clock. Rice’s passing offense accounted for just 226 yards per game last year, and throwing the ball to stay in the game seems to be a tough mountain to climb.
Mississippi St. (8-5 in ’12) vs. #13 Oklahoma St. (8-5 in ’12)
(at Houston, TX), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Info button: Everything started so well for Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs in 2012. Mississippi State rolled into Tuscaloosa with a 7-0 record and a national ranking, where they were promptly ruined by Alabama, 38-7. That game was the start of five losses in the next six games, punctuated by a 34-20 bowl loss to Northwestern. The Cowboys will roll out some new faces in 2013, but none is more important than new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. Yurcich replaces Todd Monken, who is now the head coach at Southern Miss. Yurcich comes to Oklahoma State from Shippensburg University, and while he will not have Wes Lunt, who transferred to Illinois, he will have an impressive arsenal at his disposal, including senior quarterback Clint Chelf. The Bulldogs turned in a respectable defensive effort through the air last season, averaging just over 221 yards per game. Oklahoma State ranked seventh in passing, though, so the ability to bottle up that passing attack will likely tell the tale.
UL Lafayette (9-4 in ’12) at Arkansas (4-8 in ’12), 4 p.m. ET, FSN/ESPN3
Info button: The Ragin’ Cajuns are one of two Sun Belt schools traveling to SEC opponents this weekend, and both schools have a better-than-average shot at escaping with a victory. UL Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth has accumulated 18 victories in his two years at the school, with two of those coming in New Orleans Bowls. Hudspeth’s team also returns two of its strongest offensive weapons in Houston transfer quarterback Terrance Broadway, who threw for 17 scores and 2842 yards for the Cajuns last year, and running back Alonzo Harris (881 yards, 10 TD). New Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema has some work to do on the defensive side of the ball (Arkansas finished with the twelfth-best unit in total defense in the SEC last year). Quarterback Tyler Wilson has also moved on to the professional ranks, leaving the starting job to largely untested sophomore Brandon Allen (21-for-49, 186 yards, TD, 3 INT).
Austin Peay (2-9 in ’12) at Tennessee (5-7), 6 p.m. ET, PPV/ESPN3
Info button: No matter how you slice it, this is a tough draw for the FCS-level Governors. Austin Peay won just one game at the FCS level last season, a season-ending 38-31 victory over Tennessee Tech. The Govs faced two FBS opponents in 2012 (Western Kentucky and Virginia Tech), losing both games by a combined score of 91-17. Junior quarterback Justin Worley takes over new Vols coach Butch Jones’ offense. Worley was reasonably successful in limited action last season, completing 15-of-23 passes for 134 yards, despite two interceptions against zero touchdowns. Despite losing a number of weapons to the pros, including last year’s quarterback, Tyler Bray, and the explosive Cordarrelle Patterson, the 6-foot-4 Worley will turn to running back Raijon Neal and a crew of developing receivers to try to change Tennessee’s fortunes.
Washington State (3-9 in ’12) at Auburn (3-9 in ’12), 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Info button: This is, quite honestly, a tough game for which to get excited. Both teams suffered pronounced struggles on both offense and defense in 2012. Washington State’s quarterback from last year, Jeff Tuel, has moved on to become the presumptive week one starter for the Buffalo Bills after injuries to EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb. Tuel’s platoon partner, Connor Halliday (152-for-291, 1878 yards, 15 TD, 13 INT), looks to be the successor for the Cougars. Receiver Marquess Wilson has also moved on from the university, leaving behind a large gap in production. Auburn also has a new quarterback, as former starter Kiehl Frazier has moved to the defensive side of the ball. Former Georgia quarterback Nick Marshall is now under center for new coach Gus Malzahn’s Tigers. Marshall threw for 18 scores and ran for 19 last season at Garden City (JUCO), putting up Cam Newton-like numbers. Whether Malzahn can do the same with Marshall that he did with Newton remains to be seen.
W. Kentucky (7-6 in ’12) vs. Kentucky (2-10 in ’12)
(at Nashville, TN), 7 p.m. ET, ESPNews
Info button: Though Kentucky has a new head coach in Mark Stoops, there is one simple word to explain the draw to this game: Petrino. Former Arkansas and Atlanta Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino takes over the program in Bowling Green following the departure of coach Willie Taggart to USF. Starting Hilltopper quarterback Kawaun Jakes has moved on, likely leaving the starting job to 6-foot-7 sophomore James Mauro (12-for-18, 172 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT). Running back Antonio Andrews (1733 yards, 11 TD) anchors Petrino’s ground game. Kentucky defeated just one FBS opponent last season, and quarterbacks Maxwell Smith (103-for-150, 975 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT before an injury) and Jalen Whitlow (87-for-161, 801 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) will split time against the Hilltoppers. The Wildcats were 115th in the FBS in total offense in 2012, so a quick start will be vital.
Murray State (5-6 in ’12) at Missouri (5-7 in ’12), 7 p.m. ET, PP/ESPN3
Info button: Chris Hatcher’s Racers club looks to be somewhat overmatched against the Tigers in Columbia on Saturday night, though former Ohio State running back Jaamal Berry and former Ole Miss quarterback Maikhail Miller will present an interesting one-two punch on offense. Berry rushed for 675 yards for Murray last year, and is a first-team preseason all-OVC selection. The Racers’ only FBS opponent in 2012, Florida State, cruised to a 69-3 victory to begin the season. Missouri last played the Racers in 2006, defeating them 47-7. Quarterback James Franklin (139-for-234, 1562 yards, 10 TD, 7 INT) will look to clear up a 2012 season marred by injury and lead the Tigers back to their expected place in the postseason. The Tiger defense allowed just 58 yards of offense to their lone FCS opponent in 2012, taking home a 62-10 victory over Southeastern Louisiana.
Trivia answer: I asked earlier: In which year did North Carolina last defeat South Carolina, and who coached both teams?
North Carolina’s last victory over South Carolina came on November 16, 1991 in Chapel Hill. Mack Brown led the Tar Heels to a 7-4 record in 1991, while Sparky Woods’ Gamecocks finished the season 3-6-2.