Saturdays in Athens
GEORGE SOMERVILLE – THE TOUCHDOWN SEC CORRESPONDENT
Saturday, 2nd December 2023
Where on earth has the season gone!?
Here we are at SEC Championship weekend with the end of the SEC football season merely hours away.
Of course, we have the small (aka Massive) matter of the SEC football Championship game between Georgia and Alabama in the Mercedes Benz Stadium to look forward to. A Georgia win will cement the Bulldogs third straight CFB playoff place. A win for Alabama will send college football into meltdown, giving the CFB Playoff committee the hardest decision to make since their inception.
But, before we get to that we have new head coaches at A&M and Mississippi State. And words we didn’t think likely to be uttered, well ever in fact – Bobby Petrino is back at Arkansas. Well I never.
SEC football never disappoints and never leaves us short of talking points. So welcome y’all to our weekly round up of life in the Southeastern Conference.
Here are this weeks headlines….let’s get started y’all!
Stoops? No, elko returns to aggies
College Station, Tx
As reported last week, the Aggies chose to go in a different direction from head coach Jimbo Fisher and relieved him of his duties. Jimbo’s unemployment check was an eye watering $76m, which I am sure helped soften any blow to Jimbo’s ego.
A&M Athletic Director, Ross Bjork said that the Aggies would look to replace Fisher quickly kicking off one of the more dramatic head coaching searches we have seen in recent years.
While Oregon’s Dan Lanning and Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell were quick to distance themselves from the vacancy, by Saturday Kentucky’s Mark Stoops was the name on everybody’s lips.
Per TexAgs Billy Liucci, the head coach search team had landed on Stoops who ticked the boxes per the remit they were given. Amongst such conditionality it appears Stoops was taking a lower paid job to leave the Wildcats. As A&M played out their final game of the season against LSU on Saturday it seemed a done deal that Stoops would be the Aggies next head coach.
Which was when the fun and games really began. The circumstances as to why and when remain unclear, but Stoops name was leaked ahead of any official announcement. Suggestions are that Stoops name was leaked to gain a temperature check from the Aggies fanbase. Other theories include that the choice of Stoops wasn’t universally agreed upon within the University decision makers and this was a way to kibosh the deal. Whatever theory you land on, the result was the same.
not so fast A&M
Stoops has made a school dominated by its basketball program relevant in the SEC as a football school. That takes some doing and is a real feather in Stoops’ cap. The downside? Stoops does not have a great record against ranked football teams. In fact with the defeat a few weeks ago to Alabama, Stoops record as a coach is 1-18 vs teams ranked in the top 10. The win over Louisville last weekend has helped that record, but it still remains poor.
Which, given the Aggies aspirations of college football dominance, is not what the boosters and fans wanted. And, in what became a bizarre few hours, Mark Stoops had issued a statement that he was happy at Kentucky and the Aggies had turned tail to lure Mike Elko away from Duke to return to College Station as head coach. Elko is familiar to A&M having been defensive co-ordinator at A&M from 2018 until he was hired by Duke as their head coach in 2021.
Duke under Elko has prospered and he leaves the program with a 16-9 winning record, including a 9 win season in his first year. Had it not been for injuries this time around, following a blistering start, many believed Duke to be a contender for the ACC Championship.
So have A&M got the right man? Firstly, he is familiar with the program. Elko was defensive co-ordinator during arguably Fisher’s most successful years at A&M. He is clearly defensively-minded and with the talent that A&M has on the roster, Elko should be able to implement a fairly quick turnaround. Finally, he recruited well at Duke, which is not the easiest given the geographic competition and the fact that the Blue Devils are another team better known for Basketball. The comparison therefore to Stoops is somewhat ironic.
The expectation at A&M is a National Championship. Bjork said that the Aggies are not a “8-4” team, so the pressure is on. While Elko is not being paid the monster salary that Jimbo did, he is still getting paid a healthy base salary of $7m per year, which is not loose change.
The Aggies expect. And they expect big and soon.
Lebby is a Bulldog
While the circus was in full swing over in College Station, the Mississippi State Bulldogs were quietly going about their business finding a new head coach.
This search was also swift, without any of the shenanigans of A&M. Culminating in State naming Jeff Lebby as their head coach this week.
Lebby joined from Oklahoma where he had been offensive co-ordinator for two years. Lebby returns to the SEC having been the offensive co-ordinator at Ole Miss from 2021 to 2022.
Lebby has gained a reputation of having great success with quarterbacks including Gabriel Dillon, Matt Corral and McKenzie Milton. The Bulldogs are hoping that Lebby can reintroduce the passing game which almost entirely disappeared under previous head coach, Zach Arnett.
Mississippi State Athletic Director, Zak Selmon said Lebby was the “perfect leader” for the Bulldogs. Speaking during the press conference introducing Lebby, Selmon said,
“I am confident that Jeff is the perfect leader for the next exciting chapter of Mississippi State football. He will bring an exciting brand of football, elite student-athlete development, and a winning culture to Starkville, all while doing so with high integrity.
He is a dynamic recruiter who will attract an elite coaching staff and the nation’s top talent. There is no doubt in my mind that Jeff’s leadership, vision, and resilient work ethic will take this program to incredible heights. We could not be more excited to welcome Jeff, his wife Staley, and their children Kora and Kane to the Mississippi State family. It is a great time to be a Bulldog and only going to get better.”
All change at Arkansas
To be fair we expected change at Arkansas after we learned last week that head coach Sam Pittman had kept his job after a very disappointing season.
But there’s change and then there’s CHANGE!
First up is a rumoured change at quarterback. I say rumoured because as I write this, there are conflicting statements about what is happening to KJ Jefferson. With the news that Bobby Petrino is to return as Razorbacks offensive co-ordinator (more on this sensation later), there is widespread speculation that quarterback KJ Jefferson will enter the transfer portal. Now, there has been some confusion over the likelihood of this with a counter claim that Jefferson will not. It is likely that Jefferson is waiting to understand exactly who will hold the keys to the offense before deciding on his next move.
But back to the Petrino news. Who can forget (spoiler alert, no-one!) the image of Bobby Petrino in front of the Arkansas media shortly after his motor bike crash back in 2012. This was the start of a bizarre chapter in Arkansas football history that would end with the highly successful Petrino being fired having been found to have lied about his relationship with an Arkansas staffer.
Fair to say that Arkansas football has never returned to the heights they achieved under Petrino.
And quite bizarrely, the Petrino era in Arkansas opened a new chapter this week as he was named the Razorbacks latest offensive co-ordinator.
Petrino talked ruefully about his departure from Fayetteville and seemed genuinely thrilled to have the opportunity to return to coach the Razorbacks. Petrino told ESPN shortly after his appointment was announced,
“It’s something I hoped would happen. Wasn’t sure if it ever would, but it is a dream come true to be able to go back to the University of Arkansas and do anything I possibly can to make it right this time,”
“I’m grateful to coach [Sam] Pittman and [athletic director] Hunter Yurachek for making it happen.”
“I’m more excited than anything, just to be able to go back and give back to all the great people of Arkansas,” Petrino said. “I can’t do anything about the past, but I know how hard Coach Pittman and his coaches have worked”.
“I’ve always been a Razorback fan and rooted for them and know how hard this last season has been for all of them, so when Coach Pittman had the idea of me coming back, I was immediately interested. Like I said, it was almost a dream.”
SEC Championship preview: Georgia
Ahead of both teams travelling into Atlanta on Friday, there was media availability to both head coaches on Thursday with eachhaving one last practice on home campus.
Of paramount importance to both teams is the fitness and availability of key personnel. This game comes at the end of a punishing SEC schedule with no respite post the rivalry games played at the end of the regular season last week.
For Georgia there is concern over the fitness of Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey, Rara Thomas and Tate Ratledge – all vital components for this Georgia football machine. Kirby Smart appeared equally in the dark over the health of his star players when asked.
“Yeah, great question” said Smart, “because I’m trying to figure that out myself. I don’t have a lot more answers now than I had on Monday. They have not been able to do a lot. Each one has worked kind of independently. Tate has done some drill work, some 11-on-11 stuff, Brock has sprinkled in some of that. The other guys have been able to run and do some things.
But we’re going to find out today what their availability is, to be honest. It’s tough because it bothers me that people have said out there that we sat these guys for the last game. That wasn’t the case at all. They couldn’t go.
I don’t know if they’re going to be able to go in this game. It’s just unfortunate to have those kind of injuries, especially four starters on offense”.
Maybe Smart is being deliberately coy but truth be told having Bowers, McConkey and Thomas doubtful is a key concern for Georgia. Not having any of these three will heap even more pressure on quarterback Carson Beck.
Talking of the Georgia quarterback, Smart was asked about the development that he had seen from Beck this season. Smart pinpointed going to Auburn on the road and Beck handling that type of big game atmosphere:
“Certainly the Auburn experience was big for him in terms of confidence. It was his first true road test to be in that environment, have a tough environment to play in, and he did a really nice job in that game.
Smart then talked abut Beck sitting in behind first JT Daniels and then Stetson Bennett before getting his chance as the Bulldogs starting quarterback. While it might not have felt like it to Beck, the waiting and learning was clearly beneficial to his development.
He was really the entire time a sponge, and he was growing through all that. Like we knew sitting in meetings that he was a very bright quarterback. He was right there with J.T. and Stetson in terms of competition.
It’s clear that he was growing as he was experiencing all those reps and moments, and certainly glad that all those spring practices and fall camps he just got so many twos reps to help him get to where he is now”.
The other big news out of Athens this week is that defensive backs coach, Fran Brown has been lured away to become the new head coach of Syracuse.
Brown will replace Dino Babers who was sacked almost two weeks ago.
Brown has been in Athens for two seasons and during this time, built up a reputation as an excellent recruiter – one of the main reasons that Syracuse chose him as their new head coach. Brown will coach in the SEC Championship game but his future beyond that hasn’t been foremost on Kirby’s mind.
Smart’s response was unsurprising.
“We’ve been really focused on Alabama. That’s all we’re really thinking about. Those decisions that you’re talking about, they’re not important. They have no relevance whatsoever to this game. Our focus and energy is on this game.
I really don’t have to decide that right now and don’t even look to.
I don’t even know why it’s newsworthy because what’s newsworthy is he got a hell of an opportunity and he’s done a tremendous job for us, and we’re super happy for his family and for Syracuse to be getting someone of his character.
But we’re not worried about anything past Alabama”
SEC Championship Preview: Alabama
An injury update was foremost on the minds over in Tuscaloosa with running back Jase McClellan struggling to make gameday.
Alabama head coach, Nick Saban admitted it would be a struggle for his star back to be healthy.
“He’s not been able to do a lot. We’ll see how he does today, where he is. I would have to say he’s probably questionable for the game at this point.
I think it’s probably too early to tell”.
Sadly, since then Austin Hannon for Bama Central has reported that McLellan has been ruled out. This is a blow for the Crimson Tide with McLellan closing in on an 1,000 yard season having secured the RB1 slot in Tuscaloosa. Next man up for Alabama is Roydell Williams who is about to be handed an incredible opportunity to step up into the void.
Of course an Alabama win over Georgia throws college football into complete chaos. Analysts are having a field day with the multitude of permutations that exist should Georgia fall in the SEC Championship.
One such permutation would be that Georgia falls outside the final four and Alabama is already holding a one loss to Texas, a team that continues to be ranked ahead of the Crimson Tide. In some such scenarios, the unthinkable happens and no SEC team makes the CFB Playoff.
So Thursday, Kirby Smart, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and Nick Saban made their high-powered case for making sure a SEC team makes it into the final four.
“Look, we’re not really worried about the committee. I’m not concerned about any of those things” said Saban when asked how he thought the Playoff committee would look on an Alabama win,
“I mean, we’ve got a big challenge here in terms of trying to play the best football that we can play and prepare our team to play the best that they can play.
I want our team to focus on the game because that’s what we can control. We really can’t control anything externally, but we can try to control how we play. I think that’s the most important thing for us to be focused on right now”.
But as I said, Saban, Smart and Sankey were out to put no doubt in the minds of the Committee members that a CFB Playoff without an SEC team in it would be poorer for the omission. Saban continued to make his point.
“I think that the SEC is one of the best conferences in the country…..Georgia is one of the best teams in the country, I think they’re one of the best four teams in the country.,,if we beat them, we’d be one of the best four teams in the country.
With teams, there’s a transformation that goes through the season. How are you playing now. Where is your team now. How good are you now. I think all those things come into play.
I think it would be a disrespect to the SEC if there isn’t an SEC representation in the final four. I do believe that”.
There is no question that a CFB Playoff without the SEC participating would be the biggest shock since the Playoff began, especially when Georgia and Alabama have been so dominant in conference play. You have been warned!
It Just Means More
“Our championship game itself is the fourth time that Alabama and Georgia meet in this game. A lot of speculation, a lot of conversation happens with the CFP Selection Committee. No conference in the CFP era comes close to matching the success and achievement of the Southeastern Conference, each year and over time” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey during his opening remarks.
Sankey was laying down a warning to the Playoff Committee to not dare leave the SEC out of the Play-off.
“In fact, we have an enormous winning record. We have proven ourselves in this postseason format, and we’re confident that we will continue to be for the 10th straight time, the only conference to be represented in each of the college football playoffs by at least one of our teams”.
During the Commissioner’s Q&A, Sankey took the opportunity to hammer home the message by highlighting the SEC’s record during the Play-off’s,
“I’ll also point candidly to the realities when the SEC teams have entered the College Football Playoff format, our success is unparalleled. It’s envied by everyone else.
We’ve lost in the semifinal once to a non-conference team, to a non-conference team twice in the championship game. The only other losses we’ve experienced are to ourselves in the National Championship game.
The entire of our record is a basis for the assurance that we will have a team in the CFP for the 10th consecutive year”.
Just to move away from the SEC Championship game for a moment Sankey was asked by a Mexican journalist about the tricky subject of international college football TV rights. This is a topic we discussed previously with the Commissioner on the College Chaps podcast a few weeks ago. Sankey referenced his conversations with us during his response,
“I have not had that opportunity in Latin America. I do know that our broadcast opportunities, to answer your first question, they are important, and one of the interesting aspects of my fall is this is the second international broadcast question I’ve been asked, the first out of the UK, on the College Chaps podcast, and you’ve seen access increase in recent weeks in the UK. So that’s very important to us”.
You can listen to the Chaps conversation with Commissioner Sankey here.
Finally, have you ever wondered where the SEC got it’s slogan “It Just Means More” from? Well, Sankey let us into the story behind the now famous Conference motto.
“it began in a creative experience with TRG, our ad firm, as we were trying to create just some spots and a tag line that fit the Southeastern Conference”, Sankey told the media.
“We’d never hit it right. I walked in, and I said what we have doesn’t work, and I was asked, well, what do you think sets the Southeastern Conference apart, and I said, what we do just means more.
They asked me to explain that. I actually started with our universities and their leadership role in our states over time, remembering the Southeastern Conference was created in the midst of the great depression, the economic, the educational impact, the social, the cultural impact, the sport’s impact, the rallying point that our universities represent in our region.
It just struck me as having so much more depth and meaning where there might not have been major league baseball teams or NFL teams, it was a college athletics program, a college football team, a college basketball team, history you hear about college baseball and how our baseball has improved.
People could touch, they could feel, they could be a part of. When you’re in those moments, the pregame last Saturday, it’s probably my fifth time to be at that game at Auburn, is unlike any other. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up”.
So there you go, it really does “Just mean More”.
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.