Saturdays in Athens
GEORGE SOMERVILLE – THE TOUCHDOWN SEC CORRESPONDENT
Saturday, 18th november 2023
You can tell we are at the business end of the SEC football season when jobs are on the line!
This week jobs started to fall with Jimbo Fisher and Zach Arnett leaving their positions to spend more times with their families. And there may still be more casualties to come.
But it hasn’t been all gloom and doom this week as teams chase glory and for one team which is chasing a place in history.
In this week’s Saturdays in Athens I had the privilege of speaking with Georgia head coach, Kirby Smart, Alabama’s Nick Saban and the Ole Miss head coach, Lane Kiffin. So this is indeed a very special SIA this week!
So before we get to this weekend’s games or the fallout from them lets take a look at what has been happening across the South Eastern Conference.
Here are this weeks headlines….let’s get started y’all!
welcome to Dollywood!
Before we get to the black clouds of College Station or Starkville, lets find a little light humour in this weeks big match up between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Tennessee Vols.
This is a huge match up for many reasons. Its one of the last opportunities this season for a conference rival to remove the undefeated crown from Georgia. Its a game inside Neyland with over 100,000 fans screaming at the tops of their voices, which is sure to be spectacular. It’s also a huge rivalry game for both teams.
Given all of these factors you would be forgiven for thinking that the game needed no more hype. And yes, my friends you would be wrong. Why? Because the biggest name in Tennessee, the Queen of Country announced this week that she would be attending the game. Yes folks, Dolly Parton will be in Neyland Stadium on Saturday to support her beloved Vols.
I know that Ms Parton has a huge following around the world but she is born and raised in Tennessee, so it is there that she is treated like a goddess.
So, it was no great surprise when Dolly’s name came up during the head coaches press conferences. Yes, it really did.
“I know my mom is excited about Dolly Parton being there. We need a big crowd and a big atmosphere” said Tennessee head coach, Josh Heupel during his opening remarks.
Heupel was then asked if the presence of one of Country music’s biggest stars would bring any added pressure?
“Any time Dolly’s around it certainly adds pressure, absolutely to our performance. But for Tennesseans, this is someone everyone will enjoy seeing”
Bizarrely Georgia head coach, Kirby Smart was asked if he was familiar with Dolly Parton’s work…which seemed impossible given that Nashville’s finest is know from Alaska to Timbuktu.
Smart chose to make reference to his parent’s generation, much like Coach Heupel had done previously. Presumably, so that he can stay cool with the kids and also Georgia mega fan, Quavo.
“I do know who Dolly Parton is – I have parents who watch the Grand Ole Opry. I was not aware that she was going to attend the game”.
So that was that.
One person who could not contain his excitement was ESPN and co-host of the TV show Marty and McGee, Marty Smith. Marty did what any huge fan does and reached out to Ms Parton on social media to ask her on to the show on Saturday – which is coming live from Knoxville.
“Dearest, Ms @DollyParton”
wrote Smith on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“You are wonderful, an icon among icons.
This is an invitation to chat on my television program, Marty & McGee on@SECNetwork Saturday morning on Rocky Top. We can discuss anything and everything you wish, for as long as you wish. In fact, stay the whole show. It’s yours. Dollywood Live. Locust Ridge Live.
GameDay? No ma’am. DollyDay. We will supply security, transportation, coffee, and couches constructed of 1965 Chevys.
Now that is an ask. Will he be successful? We will find out on Saturday on the SEC Network from 2pm UK time. Not 9 to 5.
Dearest, Ms. @DollyParton,— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) November 14, 2023
You are wonderful, an icon among icons.
This is an invitation to chat on my television program, Marty & McGee on @SECNetwork, Saturday morning on Rocky Top.
We can discuss anything and everything you wish, for as long as you wish. In fact, stay the…
Who replaces Jimbo?
College Station, TX
As I wrote earlier in the week, the Jimbo Fisher era is over in College Station.
Let’s not dwell on the $76m spent to send Jimbo on his way but rather who is going to get the next mega contract to lead the Aggies into next season.
As you might expect there have been some huge names linked with the job already. And let’s be honest this is a big job, not just in the SEC but in all of college football. The facilities in College Station are amazing and as has been proven, recruitment can be stellar. It is Texas after all.
If rumours are to be believed the Aggies have come out of the traps flying.
Per CBS Sports one of the first names that A&M reached out to was Aggies alumni and Detroit Lions head coach, Dan Campbell. Dennis Dodd subsequently reported that Campbell who has been a sensation in his first role as a head coach immediately turned down the offer.
Next up was Dan Lanning who has also been a huge hit in his first year as head coach at Oregon following his move from Georgia where he was the Bulldogs defensive co-ordinator.
Lanning too did not take long to confirm that he would be staying at Oregon where he has taken the Ducks to the brink of a PAC12 Championship and with that a chance of a College Football Play off appearance. Lanning is a hit in Eugene.
“I’m not going anywhere – there’s zero chance I will be coaching somewhere else. I’ve got unfinished business here” Danning told the media midweek.
As you might expect a long list of coaches have been linked with this job.
Given Duke’s stellar season, it is no surprise that Mike Elko appears on everybody’s lists. So too does Florida State’s Mike Norvell who has also taken his team to the brink of a college football playoff appearance. Something that the Noles haven’t come close to since Fisher left for Texas. How would that be for coincidence!
Kalen DeBoer at Washington and Chris Klieman at Kansas State are also in the running. Another hot contender is Kliff Kingsbury, currently at USC but relatively fresh from his time in the NFL. Kingsbury made his name at Texas Tech before catching the eye of the Arizona Cardinals.
Perhaps the most intriguing name being linked to the job is Jeff Traylor who has transformed the Roadrunners at the University of San Antonio, Texas. Truth is Traylor will be high on many schools lists when looking for a new coach, such is the great job he has done at UTSA. However, where Traylor gets the edge is that he is already recruiting in the state of Texas and he has been fantastic in that role. Core relationships with high school football coaches in Texas is of paramount importance for a head coach at a school like A&M. Traylor has this background and would hit the ground running if he joined the Aggies.
Finally it wouldn’t be a head coach hunt without mentioning the name of Lane Kiffin. Kiffin always seems to be top of lists when vacancies come up suggesting he isn’t happy in Mississippi. This is probably far from the truth and more to do with Kiffin’s nomadic journey across college football and the NFL.
I had the opportunity to ask Coach Kiffin about this constant speculation whenever jobs come up.
“Well, I’ve had a lot of practice at that” Kiffin told me.
“It’s that time of year and it is what it is. We’ve got to stay focused on what we’re doing and what we’re doing here and not pay attention to outside noise”.
So the search goes on for the Aggies. Athletic Director, Ross Bjork said that they wanted to move quickly. Could the Aggies have a new head coach by next week? Well don’t rule it out. Elijah Robinson has been promoted from co-defensive co-ordinator to interim head coach so there is someone to steer the ship to the end of the season if needs be. I doubt that will happen but it won’t be Robinson who gets the role permanently.
A quick post note to this section. As of the time of writing On3 has reported that UTSA’s Jeff Traylor has interviewed for the HC job.
Watch this space….
written off but bounced back
A one loss Alabama team sits at #8 in the CFB Play Off rankings and likely to be so until they play Georgia in the SEC Championship game (unless disaster strikes between now and then). The one loss game to Texas still rankles with Crimson Tide fans but at times this season you would have been forgiven for thinking that Alabama was 4-5 on the season.
As a case study for how a team grows during a season, Alabama is as fascinating an example as you are likely to find. Early season stumbles as a new quarterback and offensive coordinator struggled with the right scheme were evident. This led to calls that the “dynasty was over”, “Saban will retire” and “Alabama is finished”.
Well as a wise man says every Saturday, “not so fast my friends”.
Talk of the demise of Alabama football seems a little exaggerated and while games against Chatanooga and the Iron Bowl are still to be played, many have eyes on the mouthwatering clash in the SEC Championship game against Georgia.
I was lucky enough to ask the Crimson Tide head coach this week what his thoughts were on the evolution of the team this season.
“I like the resiliency that this team has and their ability to overcome adversity but that also comes in each individual’s play of how they want to improve and create value for themselves”. Nick Saban told me.
“I think that’s one of the things which has helped us improve as a team”.
Nick Saban has talked on prior occasions about how much he has enjoyed coaching this 2023 Alabama team. He told me about the pride that he has taken from seeing this team grow.
“I’m very proud of the team of the way that they have been able to remain focused.
You know a lot of people wrote them off and there were a lot of negatives going on and they just stayed focused on what they needed to do to improve and to get better and that’s something I think we need to continue to do”.
Make no mistake, Saban will pull no punches in telling his Alabama team that the game against Chattanooga is first and foremost and is not to be underestimated. Then a trip into Jordan Hare for the Iron Bowl is sure to bring fireworks. But Saban has confidence in his team.
Write off the Tide at your peril.
Frosty in Fayetteville
Arkansas has had a very disappointing football season. This is an understatement.
An Arkansas team under head coach Sam Pittman which currently holds a 3-7 record and 1-6 in conference play. If you saw that coming then I suggest you buy a lottery ticket pretty quick.
Which gets us to the unthinkable territory that Sam Pittman finds himself not just under pressure but trying to save his job.
Meaning things are getting pretty frosty in Fayetteville.
This week the situation was not helped by reports of even frostier behaviour in the locker room at half time during the teams heavy defeat to Auburn. Auburn eventually won the game 48-10.
While it is unusual and generally the rule that video footage doesn’t make its way out of the locker room, Pittman had to defend a video of some of the team watching the movie, the Polar Express at halftime.
While I enjoy the irony, you couldn’t make this up.
Pittman went on to say that the locker room in the video wasn’t the main locker room and was reserved for walk-ons and redshirts who weren’t eligible to play. In fact, Pittman wasn’t aware that there was a TV in the locker room. You can bet there isn’t now now.
“Somehow the TV got turned on. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think that him being in the redshirt locker room watching a movie at halftime had anything to do with us getting our butt kicked.”
Probably the most disappointing element for Pittman was that the video made its way out of the locker room and he ended up having to address the matter publicly.
“It’s also a team rule you don’t post anything after Friday night after we leave on Friday,” Pittman said. “So the young man made a mistake, sent it to a friend, friend sent it to his brother, brother put it out on what have you. I’ve already addressed it and I think we’re fine there.”
Next up for the Razorbacks is FIU this week followed by a season finale against a red-hot Mizzou. Both of these games are at home in Fayetteville.
While the Razorbacks can’t rescue their season they can rescue some pride especially against a top 10 Missouri team. Currently the chances of this look forlorn, but perhaps some Hollywood magic might bring a Christmas miracle?
Sam hopes so. We all hope so.
A bit like buses, you wait all season for a head coaching vacancy and then two come along at the same time.
Very quickly after Texas A&M broke their news of the termination of Jimbo’s contract, Mississippi State held a press conference to say that head coach Zach Arnett was out also.
Before we get into the why’s and wherefores this was a very difficult job to take on. Arnett stepped in to steady the ship when sadly Coach Leach passed away. Arnett treated that period with grace and dignity and everyone recognised the job well done. In fact so good a job that he became Hail State’s 35th head coach during their 128 year history.
Now whether Arnett should have been the next head coach or not is now largely consigned to the history books. Truth is, the Bulldogs’ 4-6 record so far and only one win in SEC play is not a record you want as a first-year coach. While some thought he may be given a second year to sort things out, State Athletic Director Zac Selmon did not want to go down that route and pulled the plug on Arnett less than one year into the job.
“I have determined that a change in leadership is necessary to move our football program forward and position it for the highest level of success,” Selmon said in a press release.
I have the utmost respect for Zach Arnett and am incredibly appreciative of the effort he put forth in leading our football program”.
In a press conference with the media, Selmon expanded on why he decided Arnett should not be at the helm going forward.
“the progress and on-field results have not been of the standard required for Mississippi State to achieve the level of success we need and expect”.
So the Bulldogs enter the job market again. What type of coach are they looking for this time around?
“Starkville is a special place with incredible people. Our football program is an NFL factory in a recruiting footprint that is second to none and has previously shown it can compete at the highest level in the SEC. With Mississippi State’s history, tradition, devoted fan base and facilities, while competing in the nation’s best conference, I firmly believe we will attract someone who will bring a winning culture on-and-off the field and lead our program to new heights in today’s era of college football.” said Arnett as he opens the search.
“What you look for is someone who has winning traits and knows what winning looks like at the highest level, both schematically and programmatically,” Selmon said. “You know when you’ve got winning DNA, so we don’t want to pigeonhole where we’re at, but you clearly also want someone who builds culture. You’re competing in this league and you’re competing at the tip of the spear, which excites everybody.”
Finding a proven winner who can compete in the SEC – an expanded league next year as well is easier said than done.
However some interesting names have appeared as folks speculate as to who is to be Mississippi State’s 36th head coach.
Like Dan Mullen who’s name has been hotly tipped as Arnett’s replacement. Mullen had a very successful 8 years in Starkville before moving on to Gainesville to coach the Gators. Offensively Mullen could really move the dial for the Bulldogs.
Also linked with the job is Jamie Chadwell who is now at Liberty after his very successful time at Coastal Carolina. Chadwell would be a big name hire in this respect.
South Carolina’s Shane Beamer was also a name being touted around on Wednesday. Beamer seemed quick to distance himself from the opening this week.
“I love Columbia, and I want to be here for a long time,” Beamer said. “When I got hired, I said this is my dream job and I still feel that way, and we’re just getting started here.”
But this is where the ties to Mississippi State get interesting. Beamer’s wife is from Starkville with family still living in the area. But the biggest tie is the relationship between Beamer and Selmon who are very good friends. Their families spend Thanksgivings together and they have a close relationship.
Beamer finds himself under some pressure in Columbia. That saying Beamer will be the Gamecocks head coach next season although it is clear that the criticism has stung Beamer. Enough for him to move to Mississippi? Well that remains to be seen.
Watch this space pt2.
history beckons for The dawgs
The Dawgs are 10-0 for the season so far going into Saturday’s game against the Tennessee Vols at Neyland Stadium.
Without being disparaging to Georgia Tech who Georgia play in their last regular season game of the season, it is likely that Tennessee will be the final realistic hurdle to Georgia again going undefeated during the regular season. The Dawgs already know that they will face Alabama in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta on December 5th.
So, the pressure is mounting on the Dawgs to keep this perfect season, another perfect season going. Well if the Dawgs are feeling the pressure then nobody is showing it. There is a grace under pressure exuding from Smart and his players. There never seems any panic from Georgia – both on and off the field.
So I was intrigued as to how the coaching staff continues to maintain an air of serenity and calmness when the pressure to win increases with every minute of football played. So I asked Kirby Smart.
“We are just trying to win the now” Smart replied.
“We are literally just trying to win the now, today, be where our feet are. Just try to dominate the moment. Not get caught up in all the noise”.
Which is easier said than done when all of college football is chasing you down. So how does Georgia affect this culture?
“the best way to do that is to have good leadership which focuses on humility and those things”.
A GLASWEGIAN LIVING IN LONDON, GEORGE IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL FAN WHO FOLLOWS THE ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE. HE PROVIDES CFB CONTENT FOR THE TOUCHDOWN AND IS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.