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Washington County star A.J. Gray lives up to family name

Thu, 11/20/2014 - 10:31pm

SANDERSVILLE, Ga. — For the first family of Washington County High School, this was a fairly typical Friday night.

Allen Gray, the school’s principal, and his wife Anne sit in the brand new school’s computer cafe with the North Carolina women’s basketball season opener against Howard live-streaming on two projection screens.

Their youngest daughter, 11-year-old Ashley, runs around playing tic-tac-toe with their 8-year-old grandson, M.J. East.

Their oldest son, Marlo East, wanders in from his adjacent computer science classroom to join them while eating his pregame meal before heading out for his game-night defensive coordinator duties.

Their oldest daughter, Allisha – whose retired jersey hangs in the massive trophy case behind them – is scoring a game-high 19 points to lead the 13th-ranked Tar Heels to a victory over Howard.

In a few hours, their youngest son, A.J., will pile up 443 all-purpose yards as the No. 1 Golden Hawks open the Class AAA football playoffs with a 73-28 rout of visiting Jackson.

“This is all they know,” Dr. Gray said of his athletically-inclined family. “I coached on the staff here when Marlo was playing. Allisha and A.J. were always on the sidelines, playing basketball from the age of 5. Our vacations were going to basketball tournaments and football games. The payoff from that is that we all bonded. It works for all of us. Sitting in the gym all day is our normal. It evolved to them loving the game and enjoying the game and it’s paid off for them.”

There is a combination of nature and nurture at play in making A.J. Gray the projected Player of the Year in the state for football. His father played basketball and track at West Virginia State and his mother was a high school basketball star. After graduating as a standout running back and corner from WACO in 2002, East got a scholarship to play receiver at Troy.

Then his sister Allisha, after leading the Golden Hawks girls basketball team to an undefeated state title in 2011, was one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits before landing at North Carolina.

His family’s successes only motivated A.J.

“I wanted to be just like them because basically they were my role models growing up,” he said of his elder siblings.

As a junior, Gray led Washington County’s basketball team to the state quarterfinals and the football team to runner-up in the state championship at the Georgia Dome. He plays both quarterback and free safety, though defense is what he plans to stick with at Georgia Tech.

“I just like having the ball in my hand and getting to do what I want to do with it,” he said.

WHATEVER HE WANTS he tends to do. The Golden Hawks set school scoring records a year ago wonly for Gray and the spread offense to shatter them with an even better senior season.

Washington County averages more than 50 points per game even though Gray rarely plays a snap on offense or defense in the second half. During the 10-0 regular season, he rushed 104 times for 1,161 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed 64 of 110 passes for 1,278 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions.

As safety on defense, he’s intercepted six passes and returned four for touchdowns.

Despite his gaudy stats and impressive pedigree, Gray didn’t garner many the recruiting accolades. Gray is listed as a three-star, which rankles his head coach Joel Ingram largely because of the summer-camp politics involved in the recruiting rating system.

“Pick up a phone and call anybody we’ve played the last two years and they’ll tell you how good A.J. Gray is,” said Ingram, noting former WACO players like Josh Gordy and Brandon Watts who made it to the NFL with little recruiting fanfare. “Sometimes they get it right, but sometimes five-stars don’t add up and sometimes three-stars are great players. ... I’m not bitter but I do think sometimes kids out here go through the cracks.”

Gray doesn’t care about the publicity. He’s firm in his early commitment to Georgia Tech even as other schools are starting to realize what they missed in not recruiting him sooner.

“I try not to let stuff like that bother me. I just go out and play,” Gray said. “It’s all predictions.”

Said his father: “If the experts don’t think he a five-star, well I certainly think he’s a six-star. And so does Georgia Tech.”

THE HUMILITY and work ethic come natural in the Gray family. He thrives in the classroom as well as on the field, which is to be expected when your father is the principal and brother is a teacher.

“The thing about the grades, it was never a question because we always know what was expected,” East said. “It’s already laid out, you know not to do this and not to do that. That’s how we were taught. You just do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it. Hopefully in the end the desired result is the actual result that you get.”

The Gray family reputation is a lot to live up to in a small town like Sandersville that reveres its athletic heritage. It’s never been a burden on A.J. being the center of attention, even if it is not something he
ever sought.

“Kids come up to him like he’s Herschel Walker walking around,” Ingram said.

“I enjoy the little kids and talking to them,” said Gray, whose most vivid memory from his grade-school days was his own brother – wearing the same No. 5 jersey he wears now – hoisting him on his shoulders after games. “A lot of people look up to me and their expectations are high. I like having them on me.”

GRAY’S OWN EXPECTATIONS are even higher. His sister – whom he still talks to almost every day – won a state championship. Falling short of winning his own last season left him “hungry” for it this year.

In the first postseason step, Gray rushed for 238 yards and three touchdowns, passed for 144 and two TDs and returned an interception 61 yards to set up another touchdown.

“He’s among the greats that’s played here,” Ingram said. “When a play needs to be made he’s there to make it.”

That’s a family tradition that never gets old.

“I almost come to tears when I see (my siblings) out there competing,” East said. “Tears of joy because it’s such an enjoyment.”

“We’re just blessed and thankful,” said his father. “It’s opened up so many doors for them.”

It’s quite a legacy still growing. Little sister Ashley – already tall and lean and tearing up the rec league basketball courts in fifth grade – doesn’t seem particularly daunted by the family shoes many expect her to follow in.

Is she motivated by her older siblings?

“Little bit,” she said.

Will she exceed their success?

“I don’t think so,” she said with a smile. “I’ll try to be in the middle.”

Parel still holding on to his dream of playing on the PGA Tour

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 7:36pm

In the 19th year of his original five-year plan to become a touring pro, Augusta’s Scott Parel is finally competing with guys his own age.

One round into the 72-hole final stage of Q-school for the Champions Tour, Parel is sitting tied for 17th in the 78-player field after 1-over-par 73 on Tuesday. The top five finishers get fully exempt status on the lucrative senior circuit.

“Strictly from a being-able-to-support-my-family standpoint, it would be really nice to get out there and play for bigger purses and not have cuts,” Parel said of the Champions Tour. “To win a golf tournament on any of these tours you still have to play well, but I feel like I’ve got enough game to compete on this tour for sure. But it’s so hard to get out there.”

Parel turns 50 on May 15, about a quarter of the way through the 2015 season. That makes him one of the youngest guys competing for a spot on the tour – a welcome relief from facing off against kids less than half his age on the developmental Web.com Tour.

Of course, when Parel gets through with this week, he’ll head off to the final stage of Web.com Tour Q-school to try to improve on his past champions status against studs fresh out of college.

“At least I have a chance to win both of those Q-schools, which I don’t think has been done before,” he said.

Parel – who graduated from Aquinas and Georgia – was 31 years old when he left his computer programming job and set out to compete with the best golfers in the world. He’s been tantalizingly close to his ultimate goal of earning a PGA Tour card on several occasions – in 2011-13 missing out by a stroke or two of becoming the oldest rookie on the planet’s more prominent tour.

His Plan A remains in place when he’ll embark on another Web.com Tour season in February. But Plan B with his fellow seniors would be a welcome option.

“It would be a little bittersweet for me because in the back of my mind I still would like to somehow have a year out on that big tour just to see what it was like and get to play those golf courses,” he said of his lingering PGA Tour dream. “But it would be great to have a place to play with the legends of the game who I’ve watched play and admire a lot.”

Parel won the Champions Tour regional qualifier in Florida a few weeks ago by five strokes at 17-under par. Only the top five finishers this week at Panther Lake Golf Club in Winter Garden, Fla., get exempt status for 2015, while the next seven finishers earn conditional status. The 30 finishers are eligible to compete for spots in Champions Tour open qualifiers.

Regardless of how this week pans out, Parel isn’t counting himself out of reaching the PGA Tour. Even if he’s lucky enough to earn his senior card that guarantees entry into no-cut, 54-hole events with purses three to four times that on the Web.com Tour, Parel wouldn’t let go of his dream. Ideally, he could get off to a good enough start to be able to comfortably make the top 75 that gets into the Web.com Finals next fall while also playing the Champions Tour through the summer.

“I’ll be playing on the Web no matter what until (May) and if I somehow happen to have a really good start to the year then I may have some decisions to make,” he said. “Do I want to keep competing to try to get a spot on the PGA Tour or would I want to go ahead and keep my spot on the Champions Tour? It would be a nice problem to have.”

Parel’s perseverance is impressive. He has made 200 starts on the world’s highest developmental tour since 1998 – spanning four umbrella sponsor name changes (Nike, buy.com, Nationwide and Web.com). He missed the cut in 32 of his first 38 starts from 1998-2005 before settling in and finishing as high as 31st on the money list in 2013 – winning his first tour event that season in Wichita.

But at age 49 and dealing with plantar fasciitis in his left foot last season, the Champions Tour is inviting with its shorter courses, more forgiving setups and golf carts.

“It’s very nice, I won’t lie to you,” he said of not having to walk 7,500-yard courses. “Especially with the physical things I’ve had in the past, it was nice to hit my shot and get in the cart.”

Parel has seen how some of his peers and friends have fared at the senior level, such as Scott Dunlap earning $1.1 million last season finishing 14th in the Champions Tour standings.

“My goal has always been to still get on the PGA Tour, but obviously when I got in my late 40s and started seeing guys that were playing on the Web in the 48-49 category and they would get out there and I saw how well that they did, it obviously kind of sparked my interest,” he said. “I feel like I can play as well as a lot of those guys and they’re doing well.

“It may be a function that they’re in their early 50s so they’re the youngest guys out there. There’s not too many guys who do like Tom Watson and Hale Irwin and go around shooting their age still in their early 60s. Your window of opportunity to have success on that Champions Tour is small.”

Of course, the window for making it to the PGA Tour grows ever smaller with each new generational wave to compete against. But Parel has made it this far and isn’t planning to slow down yet.

“The good thing is even if I don’t play well enough (this week) to have one of these exempt cards or even a conditional card, I’ve still got a place to play on the Web.com,” he said. “At least I’m not fighting for a job like I don’t have one.”

Michaux: The feeling was lost despite Georgia's win

Sat, 11/15/2014 - 11:39pm

ATHENS, Ga. – It was as if the Phil Collins song had come to life – something in the air.

Long before the 7:15 p.m. kickoff – before Auburn took it and drove 65 yards for the game’s first blood – you could feel it. The crowd had more energy than usual, was more antsy – either because of or in spite of a full day of pre-gaming outside Sanford Stadium. Whether it was the inspiring string of motivational videos or the crisp November chill, everyone was more “into it” than your average fall Saturday between the hedges.

“I had a different feeling that tonight was going to be a special night,” said Bulldog quarterback Hutson Mason.

The moment everybody had been waiting 42 days to see came 4:08 into the game. It was literally hanging in the air and descending to the man wearing the No. 3 jersey waiting for the ball to fall out of the darkness into his hands five yards deep in the end zone.

This was Todd Gurley’s moment – with all of the frustration of a four-game suspension ready to explode like a shaken bottle of Coca-Cola. All eyes were on him as he took off without hesitation right up the middle seam of the field. All eyes watched as the Auburn coverage seemed to part amidst the sea of red blockers as Gurley burst clear of traffic into the open field at full speed.

All eyes following a blur as all the throats tried to catch up as vainly as the Tigers.

All eyes ... except the official standing right in the middle of the field. An official with no sense of theater (or looming deadlines) who for some reason had his eyes on a formerly anonymous agribusiness major from Orlando named Ryne Rankin who apparently plays as an up blocker on special teams for Georgia.

For some equally unknown reason, Rankin chose to grab a collar on an Auburn player who had about as much chance of tackling this possessed Gurley as you did from your couch. But he held him nonetheless, and the official saw and small swath of yellow smack dab in the middle of the madness ruined the moment.

Gurley’s profound comeback statement was recorded on the official stat sheet as a routine 32-yard return. He had sat out thinking of that moment for more than month and delivered it with precise clarity. NCAA rules might have deprived Gurley of his chance to win the Heisman Trophy, but in one 20-second burst he declared “I’m still the best player in college football.”

That perfect moment was forever lost. And Gurley may have been lost as well, suffering a knee injury in the fourth quarter that looked ominous and took the steam out of the celebratory mood after a 34-7 victory.

“Yeah, it did for me – just not knowing,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who had no official report on the extent of his star back’s injury. “But it was a great win.”

For possibly one last night, Gurley brought something special out in the Bulldogs. He’s been the heart of Georgia’s team even when he was sidelined, and that heart emerged even after the initial spark was extinguished by a penalty.

The crowd’s energy ebbed and flowed the rest of the night – hitting its ultimate low when Gurley lay curled up on the turf clutching his left knee.

The Georgia Bulldogs, however, had sustain.

After a breathless – yet fruitless – opening possession that included a dropped pass of a perfectly thrown deep strike by Hutson Mason and another nullified (this time less justifiably) statement play on a beautifully executed fake punt pass by Adam Erickson – it would have been easy to see Georgia’s spark fizzle against Nick Marshall and an Auburn offense that has been largely unstoppable.

“I thought it was going to be a super long night if it kept going that way,” Mason said.

The Georgia defense, however, held Auburn scoreless for the last 56 minutes while the Bulldogs offense rattled off 34 unanswered points to ice the Tigers and state their case in the SEC East. It’s up to Tennessee or Arkansas to beat Missouri for Georgia to advance to the Georgia Dome championship for the third time in four seasons.

“We’ve done all we could do today,” Richt said.

Don’t try to figure the Bulldogs out. It might hurt. The Georgia defense that yielded more than six football fields rushing to Florida and Kentucky the last two weeks, held the SEC’s most prolific rushing offense to relative peanuts Saturday night. Auburn finished with a season-low 292 total yards.

As Georgia’s fortunes got better as the game progressed, the crowd got strangely quieter, as if tip-toeing trying not to wake the Tigers.

It was not the Tigers, however, they needed to worry about. It was Gurley, who stayed in the game perhaps one series too long for his and Georgia’s own good. His 29th carry of the night might have been his last as a Bulldog.

Perhaps it was a passing of the torch. Gurley’s “homecoming” was often upstaged by his similarly brilliant understudy, Nick Chubb. Gurley had his usual moments in a 138-yard night, including a de rigour 3-yard touchdown in the third quarter for a 24-7 lead and a long 31-yarder in the fourth.

But Chubb was a companion highlight reel of determined rushing. He was like a human pinball out there – albeit it bowling-ball sized – with a team-leading 144 yards and two touchdowns of his own. Chubb’s 9-yard power surge on fourth-and-1 for a go-ahead score in the second quarter was perhaps the game’s most pivotal moment.

But in the end, the peals of brief euphoria that greeted that Gurley’s first moment of brilliance were buried under the anguish of seeing the best player in college football limp out of the spotlight – perhaps for the last time in silver britches.

Even in the aftermath of season-sustaining victory, the air that started out so light ended up so heavy.

Deshaun Watson's return bodes well for Clemson

Thu, 11/13/2014 - 6:13pm

You’ve heard all about the big comeback story taking place Saturday in Georgia and how it could be the huge lift a program needs in a critical battle of two-loss ranked opponents.

No, this is not another Todd Gurley story. This one will have an even larger impact.

Deshaun Watson returns from his own mostly four-game hiatus to quarterback a Clemson team desperately needing a late-season offensive spark against a surging Georgia Tech.

Watson, a remarkably gifted true freshman from nearby Gainesville, Ga., was lost early in the first quarter of the Louisville game on Oct. 11 with a broken bone in his throwing hand that he fell on getting tackled out of bounds. While he worked to strengthen his grip after four screws were surgically inserted to repair his finger, the Tigers managed to win four consecutive games without him.

But the Cole Stoudt version of Clemson’s offense – while ultimately successful – didn’t exactly impress anyone with the way it eked out victories over Louisville, Boston College, Syracuse and Wake Forest.

“Yes, we have won, but we haven’t played up to where we set a standard around here offensively,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “We’ve had to simplify a whole lot.”

It was an illuminating peek into what the 2014 season would have been like if Watson had taken his five-star skills somewhere else and Stoudt had remained the Clemson starter. Granted, the senior Stoudt has been dealing with his own sore shoulder and been surrounded by enough other injuries to provide more than enough mitigating circumstances to be hailed for holding things together, but the Tigers without Watson haven’t been pretty to watch.

This is where Watson’s absence differed greatly from Gurley’s at Georgia. While the Bulldogs’ Heisman candidate running back was suspended for four games for receiving payment for autographs, Georgia’s rushing offense didn’t miss much of a step with Nick Chubb carrying the bulk of the load.

The Tigers, however, were not the same without their playmaker. Clemson had averaged more than 40 points in the first five games with Watson as at least part of the offense, including 50 and 41 in his only two starts before the injury. The Tigers averaged only 22.5 points since.

Watson’s arm and legs accounted for 15 touchdowns in five games, while Clemson only mustered seven offensive TDs in the four games without him – four of them against lowly Wake Forest.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking (to watch) but a win is a win,” Watson said of the offense without him. “I knew my teammates were going to get down and gritty and pull out the ‘Ws’ and that’s what they did.”

Facing an 8-2 Georgia Tech team averaging nearly 40 points and 500 yards per game, those recent offensive numbers aren’t likely to be enough. The Yellow Jackets are playing their best football of the season trying to conclude their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule with a bang and hope Coastal Division leader Duke slips up twice in its last three weeks to open the door for a division title.

Clemson, meanwhile, needs Watson to pick up where he left off to win its seventh in a row and continue toward a major-bowl invitation.

“We’ll definitely open some things up,” Morris said of the offense with Watson back at the helm.

Watson has already proven to be a special leader. He showed his potential on his first two plays as a sub against Georgia, launching a pair of perfect deep strikes for a second-quarter touchdown. Again off the bench, he had the Tigers repeatedly in position to upset No. 1 Florida State on the road – a performance that proved he was the best starting option for Clemson.

Morris says there will be no holding Watson back, and Watson says he’s pain-free.

“If I go into the game worried about re-injuring it or messing it up, then I won’t play the best that I can,” he said.

Watson’s best is pretty electric. He looked so good in the first five games that ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, called Watson “the future face of the sport” while former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard stated that Watson has “a bigger upside” than the two redshirt freshman quarterbacks who won the previous two Heismans – Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston.

Watson seems unaffected by the praise and attention and says that his injury hiatus will not be a setback.

“My mentality is still to dominate, and the standard is still best,” he said this week.

“If I have to run, I’m going to run. I’ll probably slide next time and try to protect myself to extend my career. What I’ve got to do to win, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Clemson survived without him, but they hope to thrive with him. His return is well-timed with a pair of games against teams from his home state (Georgia State visits Death Valley on Nov. 22) and the regular-season ending rivalry game at home against South Carolina. The Tigers have lost five in a row to the Gamecocks and have made winning that encounter the focal point of their season.

Watson says he’s ready for the challenge.

“We want to have a fabulous November and go undefeated in November and end the season off right,” he said. “That’s our mindset to dominate each week.”

With their biggest gun back, the chances to dominate instead of merely survive are greatly enhanced.

Michaux: Return of Gurley just part of big week for UGA

Tue, 11/11/2014 - 5:10pm

ATHENS, Ga. — Welcome to Todd Gurley Week at the University of Georgia.

After 42 days away from home, the Bulldogs return between the hedges on Saturday night to renew a 122-year-old rivalry with Auburn. The last time fans convened in Sanford Stadium on Oct. 4, Gurley rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns and threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to thump Vanderbilt and establish himself as the Heisman Trophy favorite.

Since then, however, Georgia went on a traveling road show to four different states while Gurley went on an NCAA-induced four-game hiatus for receiving money for autographs. The Heisman hopes are gone, the playoff quest is over and the division title is up grabs, but Gurley’s return is still the story of the week in a game already filled with more than the usual subplots.

The Bulldogs’ leadership, however, wanted to make sure everybody was reminded that the familiar “G” on the side of their helmets stands for “Georgia” and not “Gurley.”

“I didn’t want it to become only about Todd’s return,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of his rare decision to limit player access to the media in advance of the game.

Instead of the usual eight to 10 players representing practically every facet of the team, the pool of interview subjects was limited to four specific senior players – quarterback Hutson Mason, center David Andrews, defensive lineman Mike Thornton and cornerback Damian Swann.

“Reducing the number of guys to speak to the media today was mostly to get some mature guys in there that would be able to handle those types of questions,” Richt said.

At a school notable for its openness and accessibility with the media, a “spin room” was an unexpected plot twist. You half expected the four chosen spokesmen to pull out note cards with pre-approved talking points, or at least be well-coached and rehearsed in the proper things to say.

And when it came to Gurley, they all pretty much said the same thing – not that it was any surprise.

“We’re excited to have Todd back,” was the universal statement of the obvious in one way or another.

The spokesmen stressed there’s no animosity toward Gurley’s mistake and no worries that he won’t step seamlessly back into the starting role and pick up where he left off.

“It’s not like Todd hasn’t been around,” Andrews said. “He’s been practicing every week. He’s been around. It’s not like he’s coming off an injury or something like that. Todd’s a gamer. He’s going to be ready to go. We’re just going to go out and do our thing, and when we do that, we can be pretty good.”

Richt’s excessive concern wasn’t really necessary. There were certainly plenty of Gurley questions, but it hardly dominated the proceedings. Gurley’s return from self-inflicted exile is just one element of a game that has a lot at stake for Georgia and Auburn.

“There’s a lot of different headlines with this game,” Swann said.

There’s the fact that former Bulldog defensive back Nick Marshall is returning to Sanford Stadium for the first time as Auburn’s electric dual-threat quarterback producing the No. 1 offense in the Southeastern Conference.

“He’s very difficult to play against,” said Swann of his first UGA roommate. “He’s got the arm talent. He’s got the legs. He’s found a system where everything he does fits him.”

There’s the so-called “revenge” motive after last year’s shocking “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” finish when Marshall’s desperation fourth-and-18 heave was deflected by two now-departed Bulldogs DBs into the waiting hands of a receiver for the winning touchdown that helped propel the Tigers to the SEC and BCS championship games.

“It’s not really a revenge factor because the two guys who were involved in the play are not really here anymore,” Swann said. “We have a new team from last year, new guys, a whole new coaching staff on defense. Things have changed to the point where we can forget about that and worry about this week.”

There’s the unusually long 42-day home layoff in which the Bulldogs went 3-1 on the road. At least season-ticket holders didn’t miss out on any Gurley dosages.

“It really seemed like the whole team came together after we lost a pretty spectacular player,” Mason said.

There’s the rivalry – the Deep South’s oldest – that dates back to the second football game Georgia ever played on Feb. 20, 1892.

“This is the 118th time we’ve played and they’ve got us by one game, and even the point differential is less than one point per game after 118 years,” Richt said. “It’s been that close.”

And there is the sustained goal of winning the SEC East, which is largely contingent upon the Bulldogs pulling off the upset Saturday night while hoping Missouri loses at least one of its last three SEC games.

“This week, this game is our championship,” Thornton said in a refreshing lack of spin.

“It all won’t matter unless we take care what we’ve got to take care of on Saturday,” Swann said.

Turns out, Todd Gurley Week is about a whole lot more than one player. That’s pretty much the definition of football.

“Let’s focus on the game. Let’s focus on Georgia,” said Richt. “Then when the game is over, we’ll go back to normal.”

The funny thing is, other than a few extra institutional controls, this is actually as normal as it gets.

Michaux: Richt is one of best coaches in nation

Sat, 11/08/2014 - 8:45pm

ATHENS, Ga. — It’s as regular as a high-fiber diet – the anti-Mark Richt sentiment that pours in after any Georgia football loss.

The emails from the same parties fill my inbox. The vitriol heats up the message boards.

The general themes are always the same – Richt can’t win the big one ... outcoached again ... too nice ... bad kids ... inane play calling ... poor clock management.

Funny how these emails never seem to show up after any of his average of almost 10 wins per season – a school-record .737 winning percentage.

The frustration is certainly understandable after the Florida debacle. Georgia got run over 38-20 by a Gator team with a head coach seemingly destined to be fired at season’s end. For the record, Will Muschamp was one of the most common names many of the Richt-bashers wanted to helm Georgia (his alma mater) a few years back.

It was certainly a bad loss – as bad as they get. It cost Georgia control in the weak East division of the Southeastern Conference. It ended any legitimate hope of qualifying for the new college football playoff. Even ignoring the fact that Florida’s defense is arguably better than Georgia’s to begin with, there’s no denying that the Bulldogs’ failure to stop the Gators’ one-dimensional rush offense was galling. Makes you realize how other teams must feel when they can’t stop Georgia’s one-dimensional rush offense this season.

But the Pavlovian response by the anti-Richt campaigners is both sad and laughable.

“Those aren’t real fans,” said Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason of the naysayers.

It was the same in September, when a grossly unfair critique of Richt appeared in Rolling Stone magazine after the shootout loss at South Carolina. The story dubbed Richt the Charlie Brown of college coaches who keeps teasing but never kicks the football, citing his “stunning ability to lose crucial games by the narrowest of margins and at the worst possible times.”

This apparently is a skill exclusive to the Bulldogs coach. It’s obvious that no other coach has ever had his team suffer such tough losses. When Nick Saban endured November defeats in both 2011 (LSU) and ’12 (Texas A&M), the Tide was still lucky enough to get invited to the BCS title game. So those obviously don’t count. Same applies to Florida losses in 2006 and ’08 or LSU’s in 2003 and 2’07.

No one is suggesting Richt is Saban (who is?), but he’s one of the best coaches in the nation and the best to ever don the whistle between the hedges.

Yeah, that’s right – better even than Vince Dooley and his 201 wins and 1980 national title. Take away the Herschel Walker years and it’s not even close. In the 16 seasons before Walker arrived and delivered Dooley’s only national title (let’s not get into the dubious Litkenhous title for the 8-1-2 campaign in 1968 that ended with a 16-2 Sugar Bowl loss to Arkansas), the Bulldogs averaged 7.56 wins per season (.672). Dooley’s Dogs (.715 all-time) only had to play six SEC games a year and once even ventured as far away as Houston for a rare non-conference road trip.

In 13 previous seasons at Georgia, Richt has taken the Bulldogs to five SEC championship games (winning two) and remains in contention for a sixth. Only LSU (4-1) has been to the championship in the Georgia Dome since 2001 as often as Georgia, and only Auburn (3-0) has won more SEC titles in that span. But since Richt never took Georgia to a BCS title game, the Rolling Stone writer contended “no one respects (him) as a competitor.”

Wow. Guess how many active coaches have won “national titles?” The answer is eight – Saban, Les Miles, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops, Jimbo Fisher, Larry Coker, Dennis Erickson and Steve Spurrier. Miles may be the best comparison, since his 13-1 title team in 2003 lost to 8-5 Florida – identical to UGA the year before without a BCS invite.

So by that absurd standard, Richt is tied with all the other Division I coaches as a miserable failure? Richt’s Georgia teams are consistently loaded with talent, but no more than Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida. They came within a few yards/seconds against heavily favored Alabama of getting a title shot at Notre Dame in 2012. They got bumped (without losing) from the No. 2 spot in 2007 after getting out-lobbied by a comparably two-loss LSU. They got aced out by undefeateds Miami and Ohio State in 2002.

If the current four-team playoff had existed all along, the Bulldogs would arguably have been invited to three (maybe four) of them and been in the conversation until the very end in two or three more. Georgia has finished the season ranked in 10 of 13 years – pretty good considering below-average Joes (Cox and Tereshinski) started two of them at quarterback. Nearly 50 percent of those 13 seasons resulted in top-10 finishes, including a second and third.

Is that really a record worth considering a coaching change? Did I mention Richt is 3-2 vs. Alabama, 8-5 vs. Auburn and 4-4 vs. LSU – the West’s elite?

No, he hasn’t won the big one – yet. It took Dooley 17 years. It took Bobby Bowden 19 at Florida State. It took Tom Osborne 22 at Nebraska. In college basketball, Hall of Famers Dean Smith (21 seasons), Jim Boeheim (23) and Roy Williams (17) needed a little seasoning at storied programs to get the ultimate ring.

Perhaps what bugs Richt critics the most is his personality. Some folks were apoplectic that he was pictured smiling with his arm around his son walking off the field after last week’s loss. They would have preferred tears or bulging veins. But as important as championships are, Richt has always seen coaching as more than just the sum of the wins.

That he has taken a disciplinary stand that exceeds other coaches might have cost the Bulldogs wins and title shots. Richt suspends and dismisses players for transgressions that would get overlooked at other schools. How much better might this Bulldogs defense be with Josh Harvey-Clemons (never arrested) and Tray Matthews in it instead of awaiting eligibility at Louisville and Auburn? What impact might Nick Marshall have had in Athens instead of the Plains?

Critics who blister Richt for player misconduct really wish he was better at sweeping it all under the rug instead and keeping those athletes in silver britches every week.

Those eager to throw Richt out should be careful what they wish for. Ask Tennessee how happy they’ve been the last six seasons since they jettisoned Phil Fulmer. How awesome was that decade at Alabama between Gene Stallings and Saban? Last week notwithstanding, how’s it working out at Florida these days? Or Texas? Michigan? Penn State?

Maybe Kirby Smart really is the next great thing. Or Chad Morris. Or maybe they’re the next Ray Goff and Jim Donnan.

Richt erased 20 years or relative irrelevance when he took the reins in 2001. Are his critics really willing to roll the dice that the next guy won’t set them back?

Just make sure he’s a great clock manager.

Michaux: Lattimore helped change culture at South Carolina

Thu, 11/06/2014 - 3:19pm

The first words I ever wrote about Marcus Lattimore – after seeing him play Georgia on Sept. 11, 2010 - were technically plagiarized (with attribution) from Larry Munson.

“My God, a freshman.”

It’s not often you see a football player for the first time and start drawing comparisons to two of college football’s all-time greats – Herschel Walker and George Rogers. But at one glance you knew Lattimore was something special and that breakout game was only the beginning.

The Georgia coach whose team was gouged by 37 carries for 182 yards and the game’s only pair of touchdowns that night agreed.

“I think history will prove that he is one of the best,” Mark Richt said.

Lattimore’s history, unfortunately, proved to be all too short on the field – even by running back standards. He set the prep ranks on fire at Byrnes High School with 6,375 yards and 104 touchdowns. Then he played only 29 games at South Carolina, rushing for 2,677 yards and a school-record 38 touchdowns. Torn ligaments in both knees ended his sophomore and junior seasons prematurely.

Despite all of the effort over the last three years that Lattimore poured into rehabilitating those knees, the damage proved “insurmountable.” At the age of 23, Lattimore officially retired from the NFL on Wednesday without ever taking a pro snap.

“I have given my heart and soul to the game that I love, and it’s time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life and help others,” Lattimore said in a statement released by the San Francisco 49ers.

From a purely football perspective, it’s a sad ending in that we never really got to see what Lattimore was capable of on the field. That freshman year in Columbia was the peak of his career, when he literally carried the Gamecocks on his broad shoulders and led them to the school’s only Southeastern Conference championship game. Lattimore was the defining piece in Steve Spurrier’s elevating the South Carolina football program out of second-tier status in the mighty SEC.

“Obviously, the big success we had here between 2010 and ’13 started when we signed Marcus Lattimore and then all the really top players that followed after he came with us,” Spurrier said Wednesday.

“To the man who lifted a program to its feet & made everyone around him better as a player & person,” said former Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw on Twitter. “I salute you!”

There is no arguing that Rogers was the greatest running back South Carolina ever had. His school record rushing yards in 1979 and ’80 and the Heisman Trophy he earned as a senior end that discussion pretty quickly. That’s how you get a main thoroughfare outside the football stadium named after you.

But you could argue that Lattimore might be the most significant running back the school has ever had. With his leadership as well as his skill, he helped Spurrier change the culture of a program that for far too long was mired in mediocrity. The Gamecocks won the SEC East his freshman year, making championship contention an expectation instead of an aspiration.

And Lattimore’s influence on the South Carolina program may grow even larger.

“As for what’s next, I will be returning to the University of South Carolina to complete my degree,” Lattimore said in his retirement statement. “I cannot say enough about the support from the Gamecock family since the first day I stepped on campus until now. I am so proud to be a part of the USC family, and I promise to always represent the garnet and black with honor and integrity.”

Spurrier would like to put Lattimore back to good use – not in the backfield but perhaps as a graduate assistant coach.

“I told him he’s got a home back here in Columbia and the University of South Carolina. He knows that,” Spurrier said. “Maybe he can add a lot of inspiration to the University of South Carolina like he did when he was a player here. I don’t know if the president wants to hire him or the athletics director or us coaches, but certainly he can help out as he’s coming back to graduate.”

When Spurrier gets to the task of overhauling his coaching staff after a season that has started a disappointing 4-5, Lattimore could prove helpful even if he can’t take over as defensive coordinator. As a player, Lattimore had a presence that lifted those around him. On rosters that had a number of impressive players from Shaw to Jadeveon Clowney to Alshon Jeffery to Melvin Ingram to Shaq Roland, it was Lattimore who could leave the most indelible impression on both teammates and outside observers with his unselfish work ethic.

Imagine him as a recruiter and teacher for future generations of Gamecocks.

“(Lattimore) leads by example,” Spurrier said. “He does all the coaches ask and then a little bit more. He’d be out here before practice getting the running backs going through drills on their own. He’d just say, ‘Follow me, let’s go get better today.’ That’s the kind of young man he is. He’s a tremendous team player – a team player all the way.”

It’s too bad Lattimore never got to display those qualities at the NFL level. Had he never torn those knees against Mississippi State and Tennessee in 2011 and ’12, he might have indeed been one of the rushing greats.

But the NFL’s loss may prove to be South Carolina’s gain in the long run.

“We’re all disappointed that pro thing didn’t work out, Spurrier said, “but there are other things in life besides playing pro football. He’ll be successful in whatever he does.”

History may yet prove Lattimore to be one of the best, even if it’s not the history we all expected him to make.

Michaux: Is reward worth the risk for UGA's Gurley?

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 5:38pm

ATHENS, Ga. – Todd Gurley is preparing every day with the intent to return to his starting role in the Georgia backfield on Nov. 15 against Auburn.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt bristled at the suggestion he might not.

“I don’t know why we keep bringing that up,” Richt said Tuesday. “He’s there. He’s practicing. He can’t wait to play.”

There’s no reason to doubt Richt’s word or Gurley’s desire to return to the field with his teammates after completing a four-game suspension for receiving benefits for signing autographs. He’s a fierce competitor who thrives on the intensity of the game environment.

But should Gurley play again for Georgia? Is the reward worth the risk? Would it be in his best interests to take another snap in college football?

The short answer is no.

For our own selfish reasons, it would be nice to watch Gurley play college football again. Talent like his doesn’t come around often enough.

For his own selfish reasons, the smartest thing Gurley could do is “retire” immediately from college football. He has nothing left to gain and everything to lose.

Too much has happened since last Thursday when the NCAA denied Georgia’s and Gurley’s appeal for reinstatement and mandated two more weeks off before returning to the Bulldogs’ backfield. The overt warning signs for why Gurley should shut it down are everywhere – most notably Florida, Laquon Treadwell and Marcus Lattimore.

What happened on Saturday in the Georgia-Florida game changed everything. Despite being 13-point favorites, the Bulldogs laid an egg against the previously floundering Gators in a 38-20 defeat to ruin any chance that Georgia might compete for a spot in the first college football playoffs. The performance (particularly on defense) signaled the folly of even believing a Southeastern Conference title is attainable. How is Georgia – which no longer controls its own destiny in the SEC East – going to beat the best the SEC West has to offer when it can’t stop Florida?

With the Heisman Trophy quest already derailed by his four-game absence, there’s nothing compelling left for Gurley to achieve.

But it was two other non-Georgia events that provided even more compelling evidence for why Gurley would be foolish to accept another unpaid handoff.

The first message was delivered Saturday night in Oxford, Miss, in the moment Ole Miss’ title dreams were shattered with the fractured fibula of its star receiver, Treadwell. The sophomore was chugging for the go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes when an Auburn defender pulled him back by the jersey as he was about to cross the goal-line. Treadwell’s left foot got pinned awkwardly underneath the defender, causing not only the gruesome injury but a fumble at the half-yard line that ultimately lost the Rebels the game. Treadwell will require at least four months to recover and who knows how the injury will affect his future.

The last lesson came cross country from San Francisco, where former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore is mulling retirement from the NFL at age 23. Lattimore has never played a down as a pro after suffering two torn knees as a Gamecock. Instead of getting an expected multi-million dollar rookie contract as a consensus top-20 pick before shredding his knee against Tennessee on Oct. 27, 2012, Lattimore got a $300,000 signing bonus as a fourth-round pick by the 49ers. He’s spent two seasons on the non-football injury reserve list, meaning the 49ers haven’t had to pay his salary.

If he retires without ever playing, Lattimore will be able to collect $1.7 million tax free on an insurance policy he bought as a junior while with the Gamecocks.

Gurley, only three years younger than Lattimore, stands to earn a lot more as an expected first-round draft pick – including a guaranteed signing bonus worth at least double what an insurance policy comparable to Lattimore’s will pay.

For a kid who grew up in a North Carolina trailer park, that’s a lot of life-changing stuff to consider.

As Treadwell and Lattimore both brutally illustrated, that can all change in an instant with one bad hit or unlucky break in the SEC. Considering the career longevity of NFL running backs is a league-low 2.56 years on average, the risks top tailbacks like Gurley take every time they carry the ball is greater than any other position on the field in a sport that shows little mercy.

Unfortunately, and arguably unfairly, the NFL and NCAA rules mandate collegiate indentured service for a minimum of three years before being allowed to reap the riches offered for the best in their chosen professional field. For guys like Lattimore, that was obviously a year too long and he paid a dear price for it.

Gurley is as healthy now as he’ll ever be. The draft value for his fresh legs is immense. His proven skill is undeniable.

Is it worth the risk to play four or five more games for free on the off chance Georgia might reach another SEC title game and compete in a Peach or Citrus Bowl?

Gurley probably feels he owes it to his teammates, coaches and fans to get back out there and fulfill the conditions of his scholarship. The Georgia mantra is “Finish the Drill,” and Gurley has long exemplified that. As parents, we try to instill that value of commitment in our kids.

But from a purely business standpoint looking ahead to his future, the most prudent course of action for Gurley would be to nurse a phantom hamstring injury until 2015 rolls around.

Yellow Jackets rely on unlikely source to key victory

Sat, 11/01/2014 - 11:12pm

ATLANTA — For Georgia Tech fans, Saturday was a pretty fair afternoon.

The Ramblin’ Wreck steamrolled Virginia 35-10 at historic Grant Field, but judging from the number of empty seats in half-filled Bobby Dodd Stadium that wasn’t the result most Yellow Jackets fans were keen on.

In simultaneous action down in Jacksonville, Fla., rival Georgia suffered an ignominious 38-20 defeat at the hands of a previously hapless Florida team to ruin any chance the Bulldogs might crash the first college football playoff.

That’s reason enough to folks in old gold and white to celebrate. They still own the most recent “national championship” in the Peach State – all those Division I-AA trophies in Statesboro notwithstanding.

The only thing that went wrong Saturday for the Yellow Jackets happened before kickoff 500 miles away up in Pittsburgh. That’s where the Pitt Panthers yanked a game-winning 26-yard field goal that would have helped Georgia Tech’s Coastal Division chances immensely. Instead Duke went on to win in double overtime and mess up the complicated math in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“It would have been great if they won the game,” said Jackets coach Paul Johnson of Pitt, “but you can only control what you can do. Duke’s got to play four more games and we’ve got to play two more. We’ve got to figure a way to beat N.C. State on the road.”

In the controlling what you can do department, Georgia Tech had that covered from beginning to end on a chilly Saturday on The Flats. And that control came from one of the unlikeliest elements of the Georgia Tech system – defense.

More specifically, run defense which had previously ranked 93rd in the nation.

From the outset when the defense stuffed Virginia on a pair of three-and-outs and opened up a quick 14-0 lead, it was apparent that Georgia Tech was committed to erasing the memory of yielding 579 and 526 total yards in its previous two outings against North Carolina and Pitt.

Cavaliers running back Kevin Parks ranks No. 5 in the nation among active running backs with more than 3,000 career rushing yards. By the end of the game, Parks added only 13 yards to his total as Virginia finished with a season-low 22 yards on 16 carries – well off its 170.1 yards per game average.

It was the first time Virginia was held under 100 yards rushing since netting only 68 against Georgia Tech last year.

“We had the mindset that we were going to go out there and shut down the run,” said Georgia Tech defensive tackle Adam Gotsis. “It was a win-at-all-costs mentality in the trenches.”

That’s a mindset that Georgia could have used against the Gators. It certainly worked for Georgia Tech – especially combined with the Yellow Jackets getting the offensive jump on Virginia’s generally stout defense. Georgia Tech scored touchdowns on its first three possessions to lead 21-7 and put Virginia on its heels.

With the Cavaliers forced to pass to play catch up, Georgia Tech picked off two passes and held Virginia to a season-low 284 total yards – roughly half of what North Carolina and Pitt combined for on average the previous two outings.

“It’s the best we’ve done all season,” said safety Jamal Golden, who had one of the picks in the end zone and believes he had another that was ruled a trap. “We stopped the run and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback to put the ball in the air.”

“The effort and the will to play was much better,” defensive end Keshun Freeman said. “We showed ourselves that we have some more left in our tank.”

For all of his offensive-minded acumen, Johnson was more thrilled with his defense’s performance Saturday.

“That’s the way I expect them to play every week,” Johnson said. “I was proud of the way they bounced back. I know they weren’t happy about the last two performances themselves.”

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the defensive stinginess was the Jackets scoring three our their five touchdowns on passes.

However it happened, the effort keeps Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2) mathematically alive in the jumbled Coastal Division race. Miami also has two losses but one of them to Georgia Tech. Duke has only one conference loss to Miami and beat the Jackets.

So that missed game-winner by Pitt might loom large in the end. When Georgia Tech players and coaches watch the highlights and see the Panthers setting up the hard-angle kick on the right hash mark – prompting the hard hook from the unfortunately named kicker Chris Blewitt – they’ll certainly be cursing how close it was to a four-way tie atop the division (with Georgia Tech holding the slight tiebreaker edge in that scenario).

But as Johnson said, they can only control what they can control. And on a Saturday like this when defense wins at home and Georgia loses in Florida, the hardest thing to control for Yellow Jackets was their glee.

Michaux: Gurley's punishment doesn't add up

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 1:49pm

The arbitrary hand of NCAA injustice strikes again.

The farcical enforcement arm of the diminishingly relevant ruling body in collegiate athletics dropped the hammer on a player who had the audacity to admit accepting roughly $3,000 over two seasons for signing his name.

The operative phrase there should be “HIS NAME,” but oddly it's the word "ADMIT."

This indignation isn’t about Todd Gurley breaking a rule (not a law), however. The real problem is Gurley apparently made the grave mistake of acknowledging what he did. The NCAA couldn’t investigate its way out of a wet paper bag without a tip from a disgruntled memorabilia peddler and the complete cooperation of Gurley when asked about it. Had Georgia and Gurley just claimed innocence even in the face of substantial circumstantial evidence (see Florida State/Jameis Winston), the NCAA would have no disciplinary leg to stand on.

Let’s just consider the last three Heisman Trophy winners – Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Winston – who all were “investigated” for everything from massive recruiting violations to autograph peddling to sexual misconduct (some accrued more than one). All the resources for those three cases led to a cumulative suspension of precisely one half of a football game, and only because Texas A&M must have felt a wee bit chagrined at Manziel largely getting away with it all. Heck, Auburn’s Newton got suspended and reinstated on appeal in the same day, which beats the six days it took the NCAA to respond to Gurley’s reinstatement application (appeal still pending).

Gurley and Georgia, however, cooperated and told the truth, which according to the good-hearted NCAA bought them some “lenience.” Gurley is being “withheld” ONLY 30 percent of the season, which means he must sit out two additional games against Florida and Kentucky before being reinstated Nov. 14 in time for Auburn.

“Additional withholding was strongly considered because the violations occurred over multiple years with multiple individuals and the student received extensive rules education about the prohibition of receiving payment for autographs,” the NCAA wrote in its statement. “However, the university’s due diligence in its investigation and the student’s full disclosure of his involvement in the violations were factors in not imposing a more severe withholding condition.”

Well, isn’t that awfully generous of the kind folks in Indianapolis? All Gurley needs to do with his extended time off is repay a portion of that $3,000 to a charity of his choice and serve 40 hours of community service as conditions for his reinstatement.

That shouldn’t be too hard for a kid who grew up in a trailer park. I’m sure Gurley invested that $3,000 over the last two years into a nice mutual fund or passbook savings account. He can even keep whatever interest he made and even get a nice tax write-off for the charitable contribution. Win-win! (I’m sure as a good-faith gesture, the NCAA will kick in a little charitable contribution of its own for all the profits it receives off the blood, sweat and talent of student-athletes like Gurley.)

Of course, a savings plan would be the only way Gurley would still have the money since the NCAA doesn’t allow him to get a job to earn a little spending cash. Hey, it would be hard to fit the work in anyway with the 40 hours of community service and maximum of “20 hours” he’s allowed to practice per week along with the “student” portion of “student-athlete” the NCAA is always boasting about.

And perhaps now would also be a good time to point out that the NCAA and NFL have also conspired to deny Gurley – and anyone not at least three years out of high school – the right to pursue a career in the chosen field he is most suited to succeed in. Without that rule, Gurley could have already been making millions in the NFL this season instead of picking up scraps of cash for his signature while ensuring that his career longevity – already for running backs the lowest on average (2.56 years) in the NFL – will be at least a year shorter if not risking his health and employability altogether for no charge against the likes of Troy and Tennessee.

The hypocrisy of all this is laughable. Jameis Winston has way more curiously sequential authenticated autographs on the memorabilia market, but he and Florida State chose the deny, deny, deny route knowing full well the NCAA doesn’t have the power to prove the circumstantial evidence means anything. Winston and the Seminoles will keep right on playing into the playoffs. Sexual assault accusations and police probes into armed robbery drug deals can’t stop a Seminole from taking the field – especially if you have a baseball season where you can dole out suspensions for crimes like shoplifting so the most important player on your football team can have a clean slate before the season opener.

When asked about it, Gurley was honest and for that he’ll pay. What a strange moral to this story. He didn’t beat up or sexually assault anybody. He didn’t steal anything. He didn’t violate any laws. But for signing autographs and receiving some cash for it from dealers intent to profit from his stardom, it will cost Gurley four games and what was shaping up as a shoo-in campaign for the Heisman Trophy. It might cost Georgia a playoff berth.

Gurley did it. There’s no denying that. But the punishment doesn’t remotely fit the “crime.”

He broke a rule imposed by an organization that has been making money off of the talents of players like him for decades. College football and basketball rake in billions of dollars annually for the NCAA and member schools while the players literally had to plead to get full meal rations and sue for the rights of their own names and likenesses.

The system is untenable and crumbling before our eyes as the NCAA both legally and morally slips closer and close to irrelevance. The biggest schools might soon get rid of the governance altogether – just as soon as the NCAA figures out how many postseason games current North Carolina players should be suspended from because many of their predecessors didn’t actually have to be “students” for the last 18 years.

Thank goodness the NCAA can throw the rule book and make an example of one last “bad guy” like Gurley “caught” in its net. Because if Gurley didn’t sit out at least two more games, what kind of lesson would have been taught to all the other kids who now know better than to tell the truth or accept meager benefits without an untraceable drop box?

Case closed. Now please tune in Thursday night to see Winston and the Seminoles take on Louisville and support those broadcast sponsors.

Georgia seniors can complete rare sweep of Florida

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 10:06pm

ATHENS, Ga. — After 14 years of covering football in these parts, something new happened Tuesday.

The Georgia Bulldogs held their usual Florida-weeknews conference, and everywhere you turned there was not a single player who had lost to the Gators – including seniors.

With three consecutive victories in the heated rivalry, Georgia has turned the page on what had become about as welcome a ritual as an annual prostate exam. Prior to this class, Georgia had won only three times in the previous 21 seasons – covering most of these guys’ entire lives before reaching Athens.

In what has been dubbed the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, Bulldogs fans were typically drowning their sorrows every time they crossed the state line for the “neutral” site showdown in Jacksonville, Fla. Succeeding generations of Bulldogs players had to endure annual questions about the failures of their predecessors.

Now the Class of 2015 heads to the old Gator Bowl stadium as nearly two-touchdown favorites – and this is before they even know whether star tailback Todd Gurley will be eligible to play. The last Georgia class to sweep Florida included Herschel Walker (even though he left his classmates to fend for themselves in a 10-9 squeaker in 1983).

“It would mean a lot,” said senior receiver Michael Bennett when asked about leaving Georgia with a spotless record against not only Florida but Tennessee as well. “Not a lot of Bulldogs can say that they’ve done that. That doesn’t happen a lot as a player. That’s something that could be said about our recruiting class.”

The one person not getting too worked up about the reversal of the series trend is coach Mark Richt, who endured his share of barbs winning only twice in the preceding decade.

“I haven’t even mentioned a word to anybody other than ... focus on your job, take care of your business,” Richt said.

“I try not to make too big of a deal of it because, again, I think if the players are focusing on, ‘I hope we win’ and all that kind of stuff, that’s just not a healthy way to be. Or we ought to win. Whatever it is.”

As for how meaningful it might be to his senior class?

“Might be for them,” he said. “I haven’t asked them. I haven’t brought it up.”

That is the safest way to go into an emotional rivalry game that holds a lot more meaning for Georgia than beating a 3-3 Gator team with an embattled head coach. The Bulldogs are in the running for a spot in the first four-team college football playoff, and any loss the rest of the way diminishes that chance.

So Florida is a means to an end more than it is a singular achievement. In terms of rivalry games, it feels more like a Georgia Tech game when the only thing the Bulldogs are really eyeing is the Southeastern Conference championship game a week later.

“It’s fun, but we have bigger goals than that,” senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. “That’s just one of them. To accomplish our goal, we’ve got to beat them this week. Then we will have four, hopefully.”

The thing that makes this game especially dangerous is the desperation factor on the other side. If you watched South Carolina take on Auburn as a three-touchdown underdog last week, you have an idea of what Georgia is facing. Steve Spurrier, with three SEC losses already mucking up the Gamecocks’ hopes, went for broke against the reigning SEC champs and threw the kitchen sink playbook at the Tigers – fourth-down gambles, early onside kicks, some play-calling trickery. It almost worked as South Carolina pushed Auburn right to the last play in a 45-38 loss. Spurrier even promised he would have gone for two points instead of the tie if the final Hail Mary pass had succeeded.

Spurrier didn’t have his job on the line. Imagine what Florida coach Will Muschamp might be willing to try to avoid going 0-4 against Georgia. Born in Georgia, raised in Gainesville, schooled atGeorgia (where he went 0-4 against the Gators), Muschamp is only one nail away from a pink slip and the Bulldogs are holding the hammer.

“I won’t say save my job, but it would certainly help our situation,” Muschamp told The Orlando Sentinel. “I’m not going to put everything on one game, but it’s obviously a huge game for us.”

With true freshman Treon Harris – who led a Gator rally to beat Tennessee – getting his first start, Muschamp is already rolling the dice. He’s had two weeks to fashion a gameplan to play spoiler in the SEC East and not own a fate worse than Ron Zook – to never beat the Bulldogs.

“We go into every game expecting a fake punt, a surprise onside kick, trick plays, whatever you might want to say,” Richt said. “I mean, we can’t control whether a coach decides to go for it on fourth down or not. ... We look at our film and try to say, ‘If we were playing us, what would we try to do to catch us off guard?’ We try to do that every week.”

That’s the kind of thing – meshed with a little overconfidence – that draws Georgia into the perfect trap game.

“When you get complacent is when you get beat,” senior quarterback Hutson Mason said. “We have to eliminate that mindset.”

For the first time in 25 years, avoiding complacency and overconfidence are things Georgia actually needs to worry about when in comes to Florida. Who says you can’t teach old Dogs new tricks?

College football's new format has an endless amount of possibilities

Sat, 10/25/2014 - 9:28pm

Considering football players are the modern-day gladiators, risking extended life and limb for our amusement, the famous Russell Crowe line from Gladiator seems appropriate at this stage of the playoff era.

Are you not entertained?

There are still six Saturdays to go before the first-ever four team playoff teams are unveiled, and there’s is no way you can possibly predict where this is heading. The possibilities are so vast and varied you could reasonably make an argument for about 15 candidates – and that’s not including non-Power 5 hopeless causes East Carolina and Marshall.

Seriously, as insufficient as the limited four-team field is, it’s already way better than the old system. The possibilities are so delicious, there’s no explanation for why they waited so long to punt the bowls and the BCS as ways of determining “champions.”

If we took the current landscape on a trip in the way-back machine all the way to late October 2013, most of the drama of this football season would be over. The BCS would already be largely locked up. We’d be waiting to see which Southeastern Conference team would prevail to take on Florida State – with its relatively weak remaining schedule – in the “title” game.

As it stands now with the first four-team playoff looming, there is no telling how this thing shakes out. The safest bet is on the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Seminoles landing one of the four spots. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

Will Oregon make it back up the rankings ladder or yield to the Pac-12 depth? Will Michigan State, Ohio State or Nebraska give the once left-for-dead Big Ten a berth? Does a one-loss Notre Dame crash the party? Can Texas Christian, Kansas State or Baylor win out and elevate the Big 12 into the argument? Could there be two SEC reps – and if so, which two?

There’s even this intriguing possibility that seems almost ludicrous at the moment to even mention – could the mighty SEC be shut out of the four-team show?

That’s right, the conference that came within seconds of winning the past eight consecutive BCS titles isn’t the sure thing we all assume. Despite entering Week 9 with four of the top five and five of the top nine teams in the rankings all hailing from the SEC, the very real possibility looms that the sheer strength of the SEC teams could cannibalize each other to the point that NONE of them gets invited by the selection committee.

Before you laugh off that scenario, hear me out. Because it’s way more possible than you’d think.

No. 1 Mississippi State still has to play No. 3 Ole Miss and No. 4 Alabama.

Ole Miss, if it survived Louisiana State in Death Valley on Saturday night, has the Egg Bowl and No. 5 Auburn on the remaining schedule.

Alabama and Auburn – already with one loss each to Mississippi teams – have their Iron Bowl plus the alternate Mississippi team left to face. Auburn also has a road date at No. 9 Georgia while Alabama has to go through LSU.

It’s not out of the question that any SEC team to reach the championship game will already have at least two losses. If Georgia should lose to Auburn but beat the SEC West representative in Atlanta, the Armageddon scenario kicks in.

Would the selection committee with an unbeaten Florida State already in its pocket bypass a potential block of one-loss Power 5 teams like Oregon, Michigan State, Notre Dame and TCU to take a two- or three-loss SEC champion or a two-loss team that didn’t even win its division?

You have to admit the possibilities are intriguing. And it makes the season that much more compelling. The only people who might not be enjoying it are the folks charged with narrowing down the final field to four.

There was so much teeth gnashing from the pro-BCS crowd that creating a playoff would “kill” the bowls and “diminish” the regular season. As expected, those fears were utterly unfounded.

Most programs like South Carolina, Clemson and Georgia Tech are still playing for various levels of bowl prestige just as they would have been with multiple losses in any other season. That carrot exists as it always has – perhaps even more so with more respected bowls available as consolation prizes for playoff outsiders.

But a few programs like Georgia – despite a loss to the Gamecocks and the suspension of Todd Gurley – are very much alive. The old system would have excluded many of the teams still in the conversation over single losses.

In a sport such as football – which with any luck will grow more balanced and competitive as the playoff era grows – “undefeated” is a standard that is unreasonable, especially when trying to compare teams and conferences with such varying schedules. Only once in NFL history has a Super Bowl champion finished a season undefeated. Why is that expected of “worthy” collegiate champions?

Turns out college football is more exciting than ever with the simple concept of inclusion.

Are we not entertained? Is that not why we came to watch college football?

Like Russell Crowe, now would be the moment BCS haters would drop the football and walk out to chants of “Playoff! Playoff!”

Ex-Clemson golfer Ben Martin trending in right direction

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 8:50pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — The best moment of Ben Martin’s career started in the worst kind of way – but “Worst to First” is a slogan any PGA Tour pro can live with.

“It’s only two weeks into the season, so I don’t really know if I’m playing well or not because I finished last the first week and won the second week,” said Martin, a Greenwood, S.C., native and former Clemson star. “So we’ll see what happens the third week. Obviously I’m trending in the right direction.”

Martin wasn’t really dead last in the wraparound season-opening event in California. He did beat David Carr by two shots to finish 142nd of the 143 players to complete two rounds. But with scores of 78-79, it’s hard to see anything positive.

But whatever residue of that performance didn’t linger when he teed it up in Las Vegas last week. Martin shot rounds of 68-66-62-68 to finish 20-under par and win his first PGA Tour event by two strokes over Kevin Streelman.

Even better, he finished with an eagle and two birdies on the last four holes to close it out.

“I tell myself, I’m a finisher,” Martin said. “You’ve got to be a finisher if you want to win golf tournaments, and that’s what happened. ... I finished the way that I always think that I can.”

The victory means Martin knows where he’ll be playing until the end of 2017, with the two-year exemption tacked onto the balance of the 2014-15 season. It has also changed the class dynamic of his Thursdays and Fridays, putting him in a grouping with tournament host Davis Love III and defending champion Chris Kirk at this week’s McGladrey Classic at Sea Island.

But one week in particular stands out on Martin’s calendar – the second week in April. Growing up less than 60 miles from Augusta National in Greenwood, the Masters Tournament has been the carrot Martin has chased since he started playing golf. He attended every Masters on his grandfather’s badges from when he was 8 in 1995 through his graduation from Greenwood High School. He reached the 2010 Masters as a U.S. Amateur runner-up in 2009, but now he gets to go back as a professional.

“Playing the 2010 Masters was ... I mean, that’s about as good as it gets for somebody that grew up that close to Augusta and going to the tournament,” Martin said. “Staying in the Crow’s Nest, all the perks of being an amateur that you really don’t get to experience as a pro. I’m excited to see the differences.”

The biggest difference will be Martin’s confidence level, which has never been lacking.

After an All-America career at Clemson, he earned his PGA Tour card in his first shot with a runner-up at Q-School in 2010. But he missed more cuts than he made as a rookie and fell back to the Web.com Tour in 2012 and ’13. He set very specific goals to make it back to the top level and hit the marks.

“My (2013) season on the Web.com, I had a goal to win twice and get my PGA Tour card, and I won twice and did that,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Hey, that was a good goal. I’ll do that on the PGA Tour.’”

He quickly found out that’s easier said than done. Midway through last season, he readjusted his expectations and turned his trajectory around. He had third-place finishes in Puerto Rico, Harbour Town and Congressional and reached the second leg of the PGA Tour’s playoffs.

“Even though I had a good season, I still came up short of what I wanted to do, so I was kind of having a bad taste in my mouth at the end of last year and certainly motivation going into this year,” Martin said.

Martin certainly was refreshed. He played only the British Open, PGA Championship and the first two playoff events from mid-July to early October. The light schedule, including a five-week break, might explain his less than auspicious start at the Frys.com Open.

“I want to be relaxed,” he said. “I was playing at home with my buddies, and I think I took that same kind of energy level to the PGA Tour. And it didn’t really translate well for me. ... I’m going to turn up the energy level and really focus on this week.”

It worked and now Martin will get to come “home” to Augusta with a winner’s mindset.

“I’ll know the guys better that I’m competing against,” he said of improving on his 75-80 the first time at the Masters. “Any time you get to play at Augusta, you’re looking forward to the next time you get to go. I’d love to win that one one day and get to go every year.”

PGA Tour's McGladrey Classic has gained in stature in short time

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 6:02pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Temperatures every day in the low- to mid-70s. Abundant sunshine. Spanish moss draped in the trees barely rustling in the gentle breezes coming from the mouth of Saint Simons Sound.

In short, late October is proving to be an idyllic setting for the PGA Tour’s McGladrey Classic.

“Fall works well for us,” said Scott Steilen, president of Sea Island where the fall event is played on the resort’s Seaside Course. “Sea Island shows itself well in the fall.”

What started out as a stepchild “Fall Series” event five years ago has grown into a welcome fixture on the front end of the PGA Tour’s new wrap-around schedule. Last year’s winner, Chris Kirk, went on to finish runner-up in the season-long FedEx Cup standings. Most importantly, he earned an invitation to the Masters Tournament, which only recognizes winners of tour events in full standing.

Whatever “regular-season” envy tournament host Davis Love III and his associates might have had when they started this thing has dissipated as the benefits of a date on the fall schedule start to grow.

“I think we have kind of embraced it,” said Mark Love, Davis’ brother and the executive director of the McGladrey Classic. “We’ve kind of bounced around a bit. We look forward to a little more consistency.”

The McGladrey has never been played on the same dates twice. The first one ended on Oct. 10, 2010. Then it moved a week later in 2011. Then a week later in 2012, the weekend before the Georgia-Florida game brings flocks of Bulldogs to St. Simons Island. Last year, they tried the week after the “World’s Greatest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” finishing on Nov. 10.

There was once talk of Sea Island pushing to become the decompression event after the nearby Players Championship in May, filling the same family getaway role that Hilton Head Island offers the week after the Masters. But tournament officials seem less inclined to push for that kind of move that requires a greater financial commitment, preferring the boutique atmosphere that seems suited to the Golden Isles in the fall.

The exposure from being on the Golf Channel essentially provides 10 days (including the replay) of commercial for the resort and community, where Davis Love III grew up, lives and bases his foundation that benefits from the tournament profits.

“I like being in the fall,” Davis Love III said. “I don’t know if we can get that much better by spending that much more money to be in the spring.”

The fledgling “wrap-around” season, however, is not without growing pains. Most of the game’s headliners play in the high-dollar events coming up the next two weeks in Asia, leaving the McGladrey to live with the rank-and-file tour pros mixed with a few high-end local talents like Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar.

Its strength of field, while improving each year, only ranked better than eight other PGA Tour events in the 2013-14 season.

“The first year was too new and guys were scrambling to figure it out and we really didn’t see an impact,” said Scott Reid, the tournament director, on how being part of the wrap-around season affected attendance. “But I think that we will (get stronger) over the next two or three years.”

The volatility of the fall schedule isn’t likely to change soon, as the PGA Tour goes through some trial and error to get it aligned. Rumor has it that the McGladrey will see its most significant change yet next year, with a date finishing the weekend before Thanksgiving. There’s talk of expanding the field from 132 to 156 players and using the adjacent Plantation as a second course to accommodate the larger split field the first two rounds with the shorter daylight hours available.

“We don’t want to compete with or be up against those Asia events,” Davis Love III said. “We gained the stature that we can control and boss our way into the dates we want a little bit better.”

How that will effect the quality of the field is another unknown factor. What it will present in weather, however, is better known – the average temperature is almost 10 degrees cooler and the risk of inclement weather greater.

Who knows how it will shake out? With an engaged sponsor, respected course and host Love’s commitment to keeping the tournament in his home that has grown as a refuge for a growing number of PGA Tour pros, the McGladrey has a strong chance of surviving where in-state predecessors at Callaway Gardens and TPC Sugarloaf fell off the calendar.

“I think it only gets better,” said Bill Gorman, the regional managing partner for McGladrey,

Michaux: Here's a few Ryder Cup suggestions

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 6:37pm

The PGA of America put together an 11-man task force this week, tasked with fixing what ails the Americans in the Ryder Cup.

Despite not being asked to join the conversation, here’s a few suggestions for what could help the U.S. side bring a little more balance to the biennial proceedings.

Some of these ideas may be a little more ambitious than they want to consider, but after losing threein a row, eight of the past 10, and 11 of the most recent 15 Ryder Cups to the European Tour, perhaps radical is the way to go to turn this battleship around.

Ideally, the task force will cover a five-pronged approach, addressing captain arrangements, player selection and development, schedule and cooperation with the PGA Tour. While that last bit might sound far-fetched for two entities that split apart almost half a century ago, a little cooperative spirit could be paramount to the success of whatever improvements are presented.

The PGA Tour is the entity that develops and produces the players who make up the United States team (and half the European team, for that matter). And the Ryder Cup currently falls right after a very busy time on the tour calendar.

The PGA Tour also runs that other Ryder Cup-style event every other year – the Presidents Cup, when the U.S. takes on the rest of the world (oddly with much better success). A little cooperation could be a great benefit to both events while developing players and captains more proficient in team match-play formats.

So the first thing the PGA Tour and PGA of America need to do is talk about the schedule. From the British Open in July to through the Tour Championship, the calendar for the elite golfers is very congested. If players don’t skip any of the FedEx Cup playoff events and participate in two majors and a WGC event during that stretch, that means playing at least seven tournaments in roughly nine to 10 weeks before heading off to the Ryder Cup.

Switching the order up could alleviate two problems. If the Ryder Cup were moved before the FedEx Cup series, it would give the PGA Tour more breathing room to complete its playoffs without having to condense it into such a short span. Staging the Ryder Cup (and in other seasons the Presidents Cup) around Labor Day weekend, it would make the PGA Championship the perfect deadline for determining the entire U.S. team. End the points qualifying at the conclusion of the PGA and announce the captain’s picks the next day.

Then have a two-week cushion of regular PGA Tour events before the Ryder Cup, which would be played during more ideal weather seasons on either side of the Atlantic. Play the regular season finale the week after the Ryder Cup and commence the playoffs after that. A mid- to late-October finish wouldn’t conflict with football season any more than the current schedule already does in September. It could also allow a couple of the current fall starter events such as this week’s McGladrey Classic at Sea Island to move into more prominent slots in late August or September.

If they decide not to jigger the schedule, the qualifying deadlines for players must be adjusted. As much as the PGA of America wants its major championship to be the finishing line, setting the lineup six or seven weeks before the Ryder Cup makes it impossible to get the hottest players. This year’s U.S. team could have desperately used FedEx Cup series stars Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk. An extension of the captain’s picks through the Tour Championship is essential to ensure getting the best representative roster. Bring a tailor to East Lake for any last-minute uniform fittings.

That brings us to the captaincy, which has become a thorny issue after some public infighting regarding Tom Watson’s leadership in Scotland in September.

The U.S. model of generally rotating former major winners into the largely honorary role has proven ineffective. The Europeans have established a more cohesive line of ascension that has maintained a relative consistency from team to team (with the large exception of “useless” Nick Faldo in 2008).

It’s time the Americans stole a page from USA Basketball and established a long-range coaching plan. That doesn’t mean Team USA should bring in Georgia coach Chris Haack to try to be the next Mike Krzyzewski. It means establishing a system that doesn’t change wholesale every two years.

My suggestion would be the creating a four-year plan that would establish co-captains who would handle both the Ryder and Presidents Cups. One captain can take the “lead” role at each event, splitting them over four seasons. But they would continually work together and build a base of assistant captains poised to take the reins at the end of the four-year run.

They could do worse for the initial co-captains than Paul Azinger and Fred Couples, starting in 2016. Each has led winning teams before and bring different strengths to the table – Azinger’s intense organizational skills with Couples’ laid-back rapport with the players.

For assistants, a crew that includes guys like Steve Stricker, Scott Verplank, Jim Furyk and even recent past captains like Davis Love III, Tom Lehman and 2015 Presidents Cup captain Jay Haas could create a lineage that would bring consistency for the foreseeable future. There’s no need to let past captains disappear after their reign ends.

The last piece is development – something that will help hone the partnership skills desperately needed to ensure better success in rarely used formats like alternate shot. Create a new offseason event – preferably rotating through upcoming U.S. venues like Hazeltine, Liberty National, Whistling Straits and Harding Park – where both captains would lead teams of aspiring American players against each other to get them used to the formats and potential partners.

The Ryder Cup isn’t broken by any means. It remains one of golf’s most riveting events. All this “task force” needs to do is inject a little more procedural professionalism into it to enhance the bottom line of being more consistently prepared and competitive.

Michaux: Douglas can fly too

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 9:09pm

ATHENS, Ga. — Among the many nicknames teammates have tagged Brendan Douglas with over the past two seasons is “Buzz Lightyear.”

Anyone who knows the sturdy Toy Story hero realizes Buzz Lightyear can’t really fly.

Until last Saturday.

Douglas – the sophomore Georgia tailback from Aquinas – got airborne in a somersaulting touchdown dive that was impressive enough to earn the top play of the week in several college football highlight packages and numerous Internet GIFs.

“I didn’t think it was that crazy until I saw the video,” Douglas said of his heels-over-head 15-yard touchdown sweep in Georgia’s 34-0 win at Missouri. “I got back to the lockerroom and looked at my phone and somebody had a picture of me and I was upside down.”

His teammates kept talking about it for days, especially with offensive coordinator Mike Bobo repeatedly cueing it up in game-film reviews.

“That one where he swept and jumped over the pile, that was really cool,” offensive guard Greg Pyke said. “I saw that out of the corner of my eye. … He got pretty far up there.”

“I saw him flip and after he landed I thought, ‘Did he hold onto the ball?’” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “That’s all I really wanted to know. Saw some pretty cool pictures after that. ... It would have been really sweet if he would have landed it.”

Ball control was the thing that most impressed coach Mark Richt.

“As he was running towards the end zone I was kind of hoping he’d get airborne, but when you go airborne a lot of times that ball comes out away from your body,” Richt said. “If you notice he kept that thing tucked the whole time which I was most proud of – his ball security through it all.”

Douglas – who had costly fumbles against Missouri and Vanderbilt the year before – was keenly aware of maintaining control as well.

“That’s another thing I was thinking in the air: ‘This might turn out bad but I’m gonna hold onto the ball,’” he said.

It’s fitting that Douglas’ nicknames (“Thor” is another) tend to be superhero oriented, because for the second consecutive season he’s been summoned to help rescue the Bulldogs. And once again he’ll be joined by his trusty sophomore sidekick, J.J. Green, who got recalled out of the secondary to supply Georgia with desperately needed tailback depth.

For a player who fell to fifth on a loaded rushing depth chart, Douglas has the faith of his teammates.

“It was good that he was able to come back and play for us,” offensive lineman Kolton Houston said. “We counted on him a lot last year, so we’re counting on him right now, too.”

For Douglas, this is nothing new. He played in 12 games as a true freshman, but carried the bulk of the load during a midseason stretch when injuries sidelined Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. He led the team in rushes or rushing yards three times against Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Now with Gurley suspended indefinitely and Marshall ailing again along with freshman Sony Michel, Douglas is thrust into the rescue role again behind freshman Nick Chubb. Against Missouri, Douglas rushed 13 times for 65 yards with that 15-yard touchdown flip the highlight.

“It definitely helps to have that confidence from last year getting over that adversity to this year’s adversity,” Douglas said. “We had a lot of adversity last week and a lot of leaders stepped up. Coaches do a great job of making sure you practice every day as if you’re the starter and keep working. Running back is a position where you can lose depth really fast and that’s kind of what happened and my opportunity came.”

What teammates like most about Douglas is his unfailing thirst for contact. Built like a fire hydrant, he can take a pounding and unlike some of his teammates remain relatively unscathed. That toughness will come in handy against an Arkansas team that will be more physical than Missouri.

“I think Douglas just loves to hit people,” Pyke said. “He puts down his shoulder and gets those extra yards.”

Douglas doesn’t dispute that: “I definitely like contact. Being an SEC running back, you’ve kind of got to enjoy because there’s a lot.”

But his “Buzz Lightyear” moment last Saturday proved there’s more to Douglas than meets the eye.

“Brendan’s a good athlete,” Richt said. “If you just get him in shorts and a T-shirt and just say let’s run a 40, or do agility drills, or other athletic things, or just get him in the weight room where he’s very strong, you’ll see he’s a very good athlete who knows what he’s doing. He’s tough and he’s probably a better athlete than people want to give him credit for.”

That athlete’s instinct took over when he swept outside a wall of blockers and was left with one Missouri defender to beat at the goal line.

“Brendan usually would just run that guy over,” Houston said. “So we try to give him (grief) about trying to get some publicity.”

Douglas said going airborne was just a spontaneous response.

“It was just kind of instinct – I thought he was going to go a lot lower than he did and thought I was going to clear him,” he said.

The defender tried to lift back up, catching Douglas in-air and sending him flipping into the end zone.

“I think that guy kind of helped me out a little bit – gave me a little push up so it looked like I got a lot higher than I did,” Douglas said. “It was fun for sure. ... That was like slow motion, too. It was like I was in the air for 10 seconds.”

The Wright Brothers’ first flight only lasted 12 seconds at Kitty Hawk but proved enduring. Thankfully for Douglas, “Buzz” is a much cooler nickname to have stick than Wilbur or Orville.

Todd Gurley case puts NCAA in tough position

Tue, 10/14/2014 - 9:09pm

ATHENS, Ga. — Mark Richt addressed the media for 25 minutes Tuesday – discussing everything from the size of Arkansas’ offensive linemen to his preferred location for an indoor practice facility – but there was only one question that anyone wanted to hear answered.

Does he expect Todd Gurley to play again for Georgia this season?

“I’ll answer that like I’ve been answering any Gurley questions and that’s to say I really don’t know,” Richt said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

That’s not a very satisfying or encouraging response.

Gurley is practicing and taking reps with his team even as the Gurley-gate autograph fiasco enters its second game week with the status of the best player on college football still in limbo. How soon the NCAA will wrap up its investigation is unknown, but it has the familiar sheen of the A.J. Green saga in 2010 – where the NCAA managed to drag out that appeal process regarding a sold Independence Bowl jersey for four weeks. That just happened to coincide with the length of Green’s suspension.

“If there’s something worthy of reporting we’ll report it, but other than that, we’re just focusing on things that we can control right now,” Richt said.

Richt and Georgia are being cautious to the point that you figure that whatever smoking guns necessary to punish Gurley must be available. It’s a stark contrast to the aggressive stance Florida State is taking in backing up Jameis Winston despite its own investigation into a compromising dearth of authenticated bulk autographs of his own. The Seminoles are going with the don’t admit anything plan that usually works if some vindictive memorabilia snitch doesn’t turn over evidence on a laminated platter.

So we can expect that Gurley will be suspended at some point by the NCAA. The only question is – for how long?

This is not an issue the NCAA really wants to get too deep into. The footing is murky.

In the wake of the lost Ed O’Bannon case that declared the NCAA violated antitrust laws by preventing athletes from being paid for the use of their names, images and likenesses, the future of pure “amateurism” in collegiate athletics is dead.

That ruling, however, does not prevent the NCAA from creating rules that prohibit athletes from going rogue and selling their names on their own. So the rules and outline of penalties concerning players who profit off the sale of autographs remain in place.

But for how long? Gurley could be like the unfortunate soldiers who get killed in the waning hours before the terms of the armistice become official. Trust funds and stipends are all items on the pending agenda for revised legislation, but none of that helps Georgia and Gurley right now.

“It’s a completely dumb rule,” said Jay Rome, Georgia’s junior tight end. “Completely dumb. And there hasn’t been a single ounce of negative thoughts towards Todd at all. Everybody’s behind him 120 percent.”

Richt has thoughts on the subject of athletes receiving benefits, but in light of the current situation he chose not to share them Tuesday.

“I’m not going to get into all of that right now,” he said. “It would obviously be tied into what we’re living through right now. If you had have asked me two weeks ago I’d have probably answered that one, but I’m just trying to focus on trying to beat Arkansas. That’s really the only thing I can control right now.”

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has been an advocate of players receiving some kind of stipend for their efforts, but Gurley bypassing the NCAA rulebook isn’t part of the plan.

“We all know the rules,” Spurrier said Tuesday. “I guess what happened with Johnny Manziel, these guys think the worst I’m going to get is half a game (suspension). Whatever happens we’ll have to wait and see.”

Georgia’s best hope of ever seeing Gurley suit up on Saturday again may rest in the insecurity of the NCAA on this touchy subject. A U.S. District Court and the court of public opinion have already proven that the governors of collegiate sports are standing on some hypocritical legs, so some kind of audible for more lenient terms against Gurley could be in order. The last thing college football wants is for investigations against all of its highest profile players who have autographs on eBay to take away from the second half of the season.

Meanwhile, Georgia has to move on with Nick Chubb and Brendan Douglas as its featured tailbacks. The pair fared well against Missouri, combining for 208 yards and two touchdowns on 51 carries between them in a 34-0 romp.

With Keith Marshall and Sony Michel injured, Gurley is currently nothing more than an able body in practice.

“We don’t have a lot of healthy backs, quite frankly, so he got some reps,” Richt said of practicing his indefinitely suspended headliner. “As we get closer to the game I’m not sure how that’ll go but it’s kind of more day to day. We’re just figuring it out as we go.”

The Bulldogs felt they had something to prove last week without Gurley, and did so admirably. They will need to rally around the cause again on the road Saturday at Arkansas, which figures to be even tougher than Missouri despite having lost 15 consecutive conference games living in the rugged SEC West.

“We are not a one-man team, so we had a chip on our shoulder,” Rome said of the Mizzou game. “We’re going to play for Georgia and we’re going to play for Todd.”

Whether or not they ever play again WITH Todd is the one question without a good answer.

Michaux: Clemson did just enough to win

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 10:36pm

CLEMSON, S.C. — A packed house came to see the “future face of the sport” take on the nation’s No. 1 defense in Death Valley. What they saw instead was an mutual offensive horror show 20 days before Halloween.

Clemson lost its brilliant freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson to a broken finger 11 snaps into the first quarter Saturday. So the Tigers had to resort to Plan B, which was to out-defense the Cardinals in a 23-17 win that is sure to give Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris hives.

Clemson defensive tackle DeShawn Williams swatted down Louisville’s fourth-down pass at the goal-line in the waning seconds to salvage what could have been a miserable afternoon for the Tigers. Fitting that it ended with a last moment of offensive futility for two teams that combined to reach the 1-yard line three times without anyone scoring a touchdown.

The Tigers and Cardinals couldn’t muster a combined 500 yards between them and went a collective 3-for-33 converting third downs and 0-for-3 on fourth downs.

But credit should go to Clemson backup Cole Stoudt, who lost his starting job to Watson and didn’t take a practice snap all week due to a sprained shoulder. Yet he stepped in to muster just enough offense to set up three second-half field goals that proved just enough.

“Instead of pouting, crying and going home after losing his starting job, he chose to have a good attitude and go back to work,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “It seemed like the air went out on us when we lost Deshaun, but Cole went in and picked us up.”

Frankly, the game was so much worse than the final score and closing drama. Clemson led 14-10 late in the first half despite eight total yards and one first down thanks to touchdowns on a punt and fumble return. The Tigers failed to score an offensive touchdown despite twice reaching the 1-yard line on their last drive of each half.

Ahead 17-10 with 6:40 left in the third quarter, the Tigers also faced fourth down-and-an-inch at its own 40-yard line. To that point, neither team had gained 100 yards and were a combined 0-for-21 in converting third downs.

But instead of punting deep and challenging Louisville to essentially double its offensive output to tie the game, Swinney opted to go for it on fourth down. And as Clemson did twice with inches at stake against Florida State, the Tigers set up in shotgun formation. So instead of the 6-foot-5 Stoudt seeing if he could make an inch from under center, he was stuffed a good yard short after covering the 5-yard gap after the snap.

Louisville capitalized on the short field to tie the game five plays later, but Stoudt and Clemson mustered up two field goals to regain the lead. The second came with 1:24 remaining after failing to punch it in after a long march that got to second-and-goal inside the 1.

With the way Louisville’s offense was working against Clemson’s defense, it didn’t seem like a huge problem. Louisville needed to cover 81 yards in the final 1:20, a task that was made much easier after the Cardinals went 73 yards after a mistackled sideline pass on the first play to the Clemson 8.

One play later they were at the Tigers’ 1 with just under a minute left. Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino elected to run some clock and then his running back got stuffed for a yard loss. At that point the Cardinals kind of panicked, spiking the ball on third down to stop the clock with 27 seconds left and leaving only once chance to win or lose.

Of course the defense won the winner-take-all play. And by a guy named DeShawn, after all.

“They’ve got the ball on the 1-yard-line and three cracks at it, so you find out man-on-man who’s who,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who considered a game-winning goal-line stand more satisfying than last week’s shutout. “I guess we found out.”

Said Swinney: “We won the game with defense and special teams and juuuuust enough offense to get it done.”

Of course, this was not at all how this game was expected to unfold. This was supposed to be an opportunity to see how the other Deshaun – Watson – could handle a defense tougher than any he’s seen in his life. On Saturday morning, the experts on ESPN’s College Gameday were singing the praises of the true freshman phenom from Gainesville, Ga.

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit – a former quarterback at Ohio State – called Watson the “future face of the sport. He’s going to be the ambassador for the next two years, maybe three years, for college football.”

Desmond Howard, a former Heisman Trophy winning receiver at Michigan, stated that Watson has “a bigger upside” than the two redshirt freshman quarterbacks who won the last two Heismans – Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston.

High praise for a 19-year-old with only two starts under his belt. But even though he only took over the reins late in the first quarter against Florida State, Watson came into Saturday with more than 1,200 passing yards and the nation’s second-best passer efficiency rating.

So the top-ranked defense of the Cardinals promised to be a perfect measuring stick for Watson. He never really had a chance, however, finishing 2-for-6 passing with an interception and negative-5 yards.

On Clemson’s second possession, Watson hurled a perfect strike 50 yards in the air to a wide-open Germone Hopper in stride for what should have been an 82-yard touchdown connection. Hopper, however, dropped the ball that hit him in both hands.

On his third possession, Watson stepped away from a sack but lobbed a soft pass that was picked off at the 25 by Louisville, to set up a Cardinals field goal.

Then on his fourth possession, Watson started with a 9-yard quarterback draw that looked harmless. But as he ran out of bounds, Watson stiff-armed a Louisville defender with his right hand before falling down on the same hand. Two plays later he left the field pointing at a finger on his right throwing hand and went the to locker room. X-rays revealed a broken index finger and Watson’s day and the next three or four Saturdays were done.

“At his position he’ll be out a few weeks,” Swinney said of the future face of his team.

Now Clemson’s present is back in the hands of Stoudt.

“I honestly believed there would be a time when my opportunity would come back up again,” Stoudt said. “It did and I was ready for it. ... It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win.”

Michaux: No winners, only losers, in Gurley's suspension

Fri, 10/10/2014 - 7:44pm

ATHENS, Ga. — The whole thing stinks – and nobody wins.

Todd Gurley’s brilliant collegiate career may have come to a premature end because a memorabilia dealer with an alternate agenda profited off the running back’s signature with one hand and tore him down with the other.

Gurley was suspended indefinitely by Georgia on Thursday and didn’t travel with the team Friday to Missouri. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution cited a source saying the star tailback is likely to miss the remainder of the season.

It’s all very disappointing and unnecessary.

It must be noted right up front that this is entirely Gurley’s fault: not Georgia’s; not Mark Richt’s; not the NCAA’s; and not Bryan Allen’s – the memorabilia rat who offered up the story to any media outlet that would listen (and possibly pay) for his incriminating info. Allen turned out to be the first person in the nation who could stop the Gurley Heisman Trophy express.

The blame for this unfortunate situation rests on Gurley. He knew better (or should have) than to knowingly violate a pretty high-profile NCAA rule no matter how irrational the rule is. And he should have known better than to trust the kind of people who ply the bowels of memorabilia trade.

That said, the real victims in all of this mess are Gurley’s teammates and coaches, along with Bulldogs and college football fans. If reports of his season being finished are accurate, Gurley gets to rest up his intact body for the next seven months before an NFL team will open the vault to make him a lot more than the $400 his tattle-teller allegedly paid him for 80 autographs. His value without the added wear-and-tear might be even greater once the NFL Draft arrives.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have a promising season to finish, starting in Missouri at noon. The odds of achieving anything special just got longer, which is a shame for both the
players and fans. And college football enthusiasts across the nation are deprived of watching a rare talent in action.

Sadly, the list of losers in this saga is a long one. Nobody is getting painted with glory here.

Let’s start with Gurley, who was the leading Heisman Trophy candidate averaging 8.2 yards per carry through five games. He loses the opportunity to win one of sports’ most cherished honors, and his Bulldog legacy is forever tarnished. His name could have resided next to Herschel Walker among the Georgia immortals. Now he’ll likely be just another talented ex-Bulldog who left a legion of fans hungry for more.

Second is coach Richt, whose critics have another stone in the arsenal that he and his program don’t have control of players who keep resorting to various levels of wrong-doing. It’s an unfair assessment, but it resonates nonetheless as one of the few coaches in college sports who actually punishes his players bears the brunt of the blame for meting it out.

Third are the fans, who haven’t exactly brought honor on themselves with gross overreactions. Their disappointment – and even anger – is reasonable, but it is diminished with ill-conceived “Free Gurley” candlelight vigils and petitions for a White House pardon. That makes everyone look foolish.

Fourth is the low-life who basically entrapped Gurley. You don’t hear many stories of drug dealers calling the police on their customers, so a memorabilia dealer who turns in the guy who provides the value in his merchandise doesn’t seem like the sharpest businessman. My guess is Gurley-signed eBay items weren’t on the top of Allen’s agenda. And why exactly did he need to hire a high-dollar criminal defense attorney?

Fifth – and most notably – is the NCAA, which once again shoots itself in the foot with an untenable standard of compliance in its hypocritical house of cards. The organization that recently lost in court over profiting on the labor and likeness of athletes who are forbidden to profit themselves gets another black eye.

What Gurley – and before him Johnny Manziel, A.J. Green and thousands of other guys – did should (and will soon) be legal. It’s his name and likeness. His sweat equity. He should be able to reap whatever it’s worth.

It’s no coincidence that all of the No. 11 jerseys (the number of former Georgia star quarterback Aaron Murray) were replaced by No. 3 jerseys in the on-campus bookstore this year.

On Thursday, Georgia’s official athletics Web site was still selling No. 3 jerseys for up to $134.95. By Friday, all those “3” jerseys were replaced by other notable numbers not currently under investigation. In the campus bookstore, there were fewer “3” options Friday than the bulk volume available just three weeks ago after the Troy game.

College football is big business, and the only guys not allowed to profit from it are the ones who do all the work and generate all the highlights that attract all that juicy, juicy TV money.

Gurley, like many of his peers, was impatient to get his hands on some of it. He’ll cash in soon enough.

The rest of us who just enjoyed watching a special once-in-a-generation talent play for one of our local teams are just out of luck, along with his teammates who counted on him.

Campus life went on as usual Friday afternoon. The courtyard between the Tate Student Center and the university bookstore was filled with undergrads promoting various causes – shaving heads for cancer or passing out pamphlets for Amnesty International.

And on the sidewalk behind the scoreboard of Sanford Stadium were the spent candles, tattered notes and pom-poms from a sad little vigil the night before to “Free Gurley.” Students walking by paused to take pictures of the remnants and move on.

“You’re the best we ever had,” read one message. “I’d give my 1st born to see Todd play,” said another.

It will all soon be swept away and forgotten along with Gurley’s truncated legacy. In this sports story, everyone is a loser.

Michaux: Evaluating the 'Big Four'at halfway point

Thu, 10/09/2014 - 9:36pm

Saturday marks the halfway point of the college football regular season, and the landscape already doesn’t resemble most preseason assumptions – even if you just think locally and exclude the Mississippi teams co-squatting on the national No. 3 ranking.

Be honest, raise your hand if you thought Georgia Tech would be one of the last 10 undefeated teams entering Week 7. Or that South Carolina would reside with Vanderbilt and Tennessee as the only Southeastern Conference programs not above .500.

And then there was this news flash Thursday: Georgia’s Heisman Trophy candiate tailback Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely during an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules.

Heading into the heart of the 2014 season, both “Power 5” Georgia programs remain division contenders while both South Carolina schools are playing for bowl eligibility. Granted, Clemson has its eyes on the Orange Bowl while South Carolina would settle for the Birmingham Bowl at this point, but the fact is they’re both pretty much out of their respective conference races barring unforeseen developments above them (such as Florida State’s quarterback having a Gurley bombshell of his own).

While the Gamecocks take a week off to regroup as the other three face division tests, it seems like a good time to take a look at how we got to this point and where everybody can go from here.

GEORGIA TECH (5-0, 2-0 ACC)

PROGNOSIS: Very good

Sure, the No. 22 Yellow Jackets are the lowest ranked undefeated Power 5 conference team, having just gotten the voters’ attention after last week’s 28-17 win over Miami. But that doesn’t diminish the little team that could.

Diminutive quarterback Justin Thomas – “Tall enough,” the 5-foot-10 sophomore told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – has started to take over in consecutive wins against Coastal favorites Virginia Tech and Miami. The Jackets should be judged on the everything that’s happened since the late rally to escape Georgia Southern and not the weak start before that.

The unglamorous triple option is averaging just shy of 300 rushing yards per game and ranks No. 1 nationally in third-down conversions (58.1 percent) and fourth in lost turnovers (four). Against Miami, the offense held possession for more than 40 minutes, which is the best way to assist any defensive weaknesses.

Coach Paul Johnson likes his team’s developing character.

“I’d say they’re resilient. Nothing much seems to affect them,” Johnson said. “We get behind and nothing changes. They don’t panic. They just kind of keep playing, and that’s a good trait to have. We’d like to get to a point where we don’t get behind.”

With games against Duke, North Carolina and Pitt on tap, the Jackets should be favored to perhaps get to 8-0. Then things get real with Virginia, N.C. State and Clemson to decide their division fate.

GEORGIA (4-1, 2-1 SEC)

PROGNOSIS: Not as good as it was Wednesday

Despite getting almost nothing out of its passing game, Georgia is averaging a record 45 points per game thanks to a running back stable formerly led by Gurley.

With prime backups Keith Marshall (ankle) and Sony Michel (shoulder) also sidelined, the Bulldogs aren’t taking chances with their remaining eligible tailbacks as they wear non-contact green jerseys in practice.

“They don’t need to take any shots of any kind,” Richt said. “Saturday is enough.”

This Saturday is everything – and likely being without Gurley makes it a lot harder. At noon in Missouri, the Bulldogs are treating the reigning SEC East champs as a must-beat foe to remain viable in the division race. With Auburn, Arkansas and Florida still looming and Gurley out indefinitely, the margins are slim.

“If we lose, we’re, in essence, three games behind Missouri,” Richt said earlier this week. “That’s pretty tough to overcome. They’d have to lose three times to give us a chance. ... We want to try to get this thing and not have to worry about somebody getting beat.”

But the biggest issue is still a weak secondary getting weaker by the day. Shaquille Jones (shoplifting), Sheldon Dawson (attitude) and Rico Johnson (medical) were added this week to a defensive backfield exodus that leaves only 10 scholarship players. Yikes.

CLEMSON (3-2, 2-1 ACC)

PROGNOSIS: Pretty good

Unless Florida State’s Jameis Winston gets himself in more trouble, the Tigers are playing for a 10-win season and a marquee bowl bid. That’s not nothing.

But the stakes could (maybe should) have been a lot bigger if Dabo Swinney had trusted his first instincts about freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson.

“I knew immediately that he was special and then meeting him and seeing the type of individual he was – how he handled himself – clarified that,” Swinney said.

He was talking about Watson when he came to Clemson’s football camp as a ninth grader. In 10th grade he committed to the Tigers.

Unfortunately, Swinney didn’t commit to Watson as his starter until late in the first quarter of the Florida State game. What the rest of the world could clearly see after two plays in a touchdown drive against Georgia (perfect deep strikes), Swinney still hesitated to pull loyal senior Cole Stoudt. We’ll never know if the Tigers might be unbeaten playoff contenders if Watson had been handed the reins sooner. As it is, he ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency.

With a Vic Beasley-led defense also getting better – shutting out an N.C. State team that threw up 41 on Florida State the week before – there’s little in the way of running the table.

SOUTH CAROLINA (3-3, 2-3 SEC)

PROGNOSIS: Dreary

Head ball coach Steve Spurrier has said it enough times this season that it’s time we all start believing him.

“You all watched. We’re not a great team,” Spurrier said after the Gamecocks fell to Kentucky on Saturday.

Following a meltdown loss at home against Missouri the week before, a brutal victory at Vanderbilt a week before that and an embarrassing beatdown in the home opener to Texas A&M, a downcast Spurrier seems almost resigned to his once-favored team’s mediocre fate.

“I’m not going to yell and scream,” he said. “Everybody saw what happened. ... Hopefully we can play better the rest of the season. I told the guys we’re going to have a winning season somehow. We’ve got some work to do that.”

That’s an understatement with an offense lacking in big plays and a defense (and special teams) that tends to them up.

A fourth consecutive 11-win season is almost mathematically out of reach, but a winning record is a reasonable goal with road dates at Auburn, Florida and Clemson still looming.

The way this season has gone so far, there’s no telling how it might end.

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