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Michaux: Clemson's Hall wants to go out with NCAA appearance

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:50pm

This is supposed to be the crescendo year – his senior season – that Rod Hall will remember for the rest of his life.

Only one goal will satisfy the Clemson point guard.

“I want to get to the NCAA Tournament,” said Hall, the former Laney star. “I’ve been here through three seasons and this is my last year. We’ve had a good team, had an OK team and had a bad year, too. So I want to make my last year my best year.”

Everything was certainly pointing that direction when Hall and the Tigers finished 23-12 and reached the semifinals of the NIT last spring. It was considered a foundational season for Tigers head coach Brad Brownell and his full cast of underclassmen who had grown through 16-15 and 13-18 seasons before stepping up.

That foundation, however, was weakened when Hall’s closest friend and roommate K.J. McDaniels opted to leave Clemson a year early and enter the NBA Draft. McDaniels was drafted 32nd overall by the Philadelphia 76ers and is a promising rookie on the league’s worst team.

Whatever sting McDaniels’ departure caused was compounded further in September when assistant coach Earl Grant left to take the late head coaching vacancy at College of Charleston. Grant was the recruiter who lured Hall to Clemson and the two forged a close bond.

Hall admits Grant’s departure had “a big effect” on him and the team emotionally.

“He was a big energy guy, frankly, and good at getting everybody going,” Hall said of Grant. “It was real tough knowing that he was not going to be there anymore, somebody that you talked to about anything other than sports. So it was a big loss for us.”

Hall won’t, however, blame Clemson’s inconsistencies in a 6-3 start on the absence of McDaniels.

“K.J. was a good player and a big loss for our team, but we play as a team and he wasn’t the only player out there doing good things,” Hall said. “We’ve got other guys who came in and everybody got better over the summer. So we kind of just filled in as a team.”

It’s not that easy, of course, to make up for the loss of an NBA-caliber player.

“As coaches we are figuring out more and more how much (McDaniels) meant to our team,” Brownell said. “I think that his energy level and outgoing personality were two things that affect your team day-to-day. We just are lacking a little bit of confidence, a little bit of swagger, a little bit of toughness – all the things that K.J. brought, we don’t really have that.”

To fill some of those needs, Brownell had a “heart-to-heart” with Hall after the Tigers blew a late lead against Rutgers and told his senior floor leader he needed to play better.

“I think it’s a lot harder on (Hall) than everybody realizes,” Brownell said. “K.J. and he were really tight. He’s close with other guys on the team, but it’s not the same. Obviously he’s here by himself now that some of his classmates have left. I think Coach Grant leaving has had a bigger impact on Rod than some, because Coach Grant was a guy that really believed in Rod and gave him the opportunity. I think there’s a lot of little things that can take away from your focus. And he’s played OK, he’s played fine, but he hasn’t played with a big heart and a big spirit. He’s not an outgoing guy, so it’s not natural for him to be out there. He’s a humble guy. He doesn’t get too high about playing great.”

When Hall is on, the Tigers are formidable as he proved in consecutive wins against No. 18 Arkansas and Auburn. Despite slow starts, like the first half against Auburn when he turned the ball over five times, Hall had brilliant efforts in the clutch. He finished with a career-high 20 points against Auburn and scored 11 of his 19 points in the final minute of regulation and overtime to rally the Tigers past Arkansas.

“(Hall) came to me at halftime and told me, ‘Coach, that’s my fault, I’m just a little out of it right now, I’m going to get my mind right and play better for you in the second half,’” Brownell said after the Auburn win last Sunday. “And I said, ‘Hey man, you got plenty in your bank account to have a couple of bad halves. You’re fine, go make some more plays.’ And he did.”

Hall has another chance to step up in the most important nonconference game of the season Friday – South Carolina. The rivalry “fan game” also marks Clemson’s first true road game in a hostile arena. The Tigers were 4-7 in road games last year as opposed to 13-3 at home.

“It’s big for us,” Hall said. “We need to show we can play the same on the road as we do at home without our own fans. When we have our own fans it’s an advantage because they’re into the game and everything and everybody is jacked up. But as a team we have to rally together and play our best while we’re on the road.”

A win in Columbia would make Clemson a satisfying 4-0 against the Southeastern Conference. That would be an encouraging accomplishment as the Atlantic Coast Conference season looms with even tougher competition. A year ago the ACC added Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, and now the slate includes powerful Louisville as well.

That daunting prospect doesn’t diminish Hall’s primary goal – to get Clemson back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. Without McDaniels or Grant, Hall still believes the Tigers have “all the pieces we need.”

“I think we’re capable of competing against anybody and I think we’re going to do pretty good,” Hall said. “If we go out every night and play like we played against Arkansas and don’t take any possessions off, we can play with anybody.

“We’ve got a lot of tough teams in our conference so each game we’ve got to bring it and play like our last game.”

If Hall can help establish some consistency and swagger, perhaps he can get the crescendo he’s been building up to since he left Laney.

Michaux: NFC South is NFL's stepchild

Sat, 12/13/2014 - 6:04pm

There is a certain amount of pride that must be suspended these days to root for Georgia’s flagship football franchises.

Georgia Bulldogs fans know the drill, having been forced to beg for Southeastern Conference mates with losing SEC records to step up and beat a Missouri team that lost to lowly Indiana. All that useless pleading just for the chance to be crowned “champion” of the devalued SEC East.

Georgia fans, however, can hold their heads high around Falcons faithful. If Atlanta can win the correct 67 percent of its remaining three games to finish two games below .500, the Georgia Dome rafters will be the “proud” roost of another NFC South championship banner.

That’s a little like being honored for serving the best haggis in Scotland. Nobody really respects that title.

The NFC South makes the SEC East look like an all-star collection. It is the dysfunctional step-cousin of the mighty NFL with 5-8 co-leaders Atlanta and New Orleans – or the 4-8-1 Panthers – set to earn a place at the playoff table ahead of 10 non-NFC South teams that currently own winning records.

“That’s not the way you would write it up,” Falcons offensive guard Justin Blalock told reporters this week.

You probably also wouldn’t write that a potentially sub-.500 division winner gets to play host to a first-round playoff game. That, however, is the standard honor for “winning” a division. If the regular season ended before today, the 5-8 Falcons would get home-field advantage over the wildcard 9-4 Detroit Lions. Something is not right with that picture.

“Just go out there and play and win these last three games and then we’ll have a home playoff game and we’ll go from there,” said Falcons veteran receiver Roddy White.

Of course, the Falcons don’t even HAVE to win all three games. They don’t even HAVE to win two of them. Today’s home date with the Pittsburgh Steelers is purely optional. The Falcons could lose for the third time in four weeks and not relinquish its tiebreaker edge in the division.

At the very least, the Falcons will be able to say they came by the division title honestly. Because the most likely way they’ll get it is by sweeping the NFC South schedule. Atlanta is 4-0 in the division, with New Orleans and Carolina still looming. Win those last two games and nothing else matters.

That’s not really a position the Falcons want to be in considering their history trying to win in the Superdome. So beating the Steelers, who are fighting for their own postseason place in the rugged AFC North, would be a huge lift to Atlanta’s hopes.

“You just can’t go and say if we lose this game we’ll be all right,” White said. “It’s going to be a lot of pressure to win the last two.”

When you’ve only won five times, it certainly is. Even other lowly NFL teams not fortunate enough to reside in the NFC South are throwing shade at the situation, The 5-8 Chicago Bears – eliminated from any playoff hope but looking to go 3-1 against the NFC South – are amused by the significance of today’s matchup with their fellow 5-8 Saints.

“Aren’t they on top of their division right now? And what’s their record?” asked Bears defensive end Willie Young. “Holy cow. That’s love right there, man. They got it made.”

The Falcons, of course, have only themselves to blame for being in this situation. Atlanta has won only once outside the division – ironically against the first 11-win team in the league, the Arizona Cardinals. It blew a 21-point lead in London to the Lions and botched the clock management in yielding a winning field goal to the Cleveland Browns. Of course the Saints have blown their own share of wins within their grasp, but teams can only control what’s in front of you.

“It’s been crazy because we feel like we put ourselves in such a bad position this year, just doing crazy stuff and not going out there and playing up to expectations and stuff like that,” White said. “Just kind of giving away games and just feeling bad because we put ourselves in those positions.”

But hey, the Falcons still control their own destiny – even if that destiny might be to share the record with the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only losing teams to reach the playoffs. It’s actually possible the Falcons could win the division with a 6-10 record if it only beats the Saints but New Orleans and Carolina each lose twice more.

Oh the championship indignity that would bring. The official mood of the NFC South should be chagrin. Guess there’s a good reason they don’t put won-loss records on those title banners hanging from the ceiling. Otherwise, Falcons fans might have to co-opt those paper bags from the ’Aints to hide their guilty conscious of such undeserved reward.

Washington County ready to cement its legacy

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 3:39pm

SANDERSVILLE, Ga. — They’ve grown up hearing the stories and seeing the pictures and jerseys of the local legends lining the walls of places from Washington County High School to Dairy Lane burger joint.

If they were born at all, A.J. Gray and his fellow seniors were still in diapers the last time the Golden Hawks won a state football championship 17 years ago. Today’s players work out of the same dilapidated fieldhouse where stars like Takeo Spikes and the Edwards clan (Robert, Terrence and Chris) established WACO as a football force to be reckoned with producing Class AA titles in 1994, ’96 and ’97.

“We respect those guys and everyone who wrote the story and created the tradition,” senior offensive lineman Quinton Morris said. “But it seems like it’s our time to write our names down in history and be remembered for something.”

With a newly renovated stadium and a new fieldhouse under construction, this generation hopes to add something else new to the conversation about Washington County football lore. A year after falling short to powerhouse Buford in the Class AAA title game, the Golden Hawks have a second chance to seal their legacy at the Georgia Dome against Calhoun.

They’ve already staked claim as the highest scoring team in Georgia history (717 points) but it’s only the trophy that matters.

“The sad thing is in the playoffs there’s only one way it can end happily – ever,” Hawks coach Joel Ingram said. “We want to go out on top because we’ve been on the bad end of it so many times we want to know what it’s like to be on the winning end of it.”

History goes back a long way in a county that was named after General George Washington back in 1784, five years before he even became the nation’s first president. But in small towns like Sandersville, the modern history that resonates most in the community takes place on Friday nights in the fall.

You can see its meaning literally written all over town in yard placards, business signs and storefront windows with messages like “Earn It!” Kaolin mining might be the lifeblood industry of the county, but WACO football is what generates the pulse.

“This town thrives on it,” said Ben Walters, owner of the landmark restaurant Dairy Lane who played for the Hawks from 1974-76. “Friday nights everything around here stops for football. Even here we’re busy until 15 minutes before the game and after it, but during the game it’s almost lights out.”

You can’t miss the enthusiasm this team has generated just driving through town on Highway 15. The campaign-style signs dot the front yards of homes and business from Warthen to Tennille. If this were an election, “Go Hawks” would win in an uncontested landslide.

“We love those boys and support them,” said Elanor “Mimi” Walters, Ben’s mother.

The legacy of the Hawks dynasty in the 1990s is both a blessing and a curse. WACO has threatened four times since but come away empty. It lost twice in semifinals at the Georgia Dome in 2003 and ’06. It lost 17-6 at LaGrange in the 2004 championship game and 35-19 to Buford in the Dome final last season.

This year’s senior class has been honing in, advancing to the first, third and final stages in previous years. They’ve carried the No. 1 ranking all season, averaging more than 51 points per game as they’ve dominated almost every opponent.

“They’ve had so much pressure on them this year with preseason expectations and they’ve handled it like champions,” Ingram said. “It’s part of the expectation of playing in a program like this, which is fine. Sometimes it seems like it’s unreasonable, but you want to be in a place where the expectations are high. This is a football-crazy town.”

So crazy that a good chunk of it will be abandoning the county seat by the busload Friday to be at the Georgia Dome for the 4:30 p.m. kickoff. Walters has given many employees the day off and plans a skeleton crew at Dairy Lane.

“It will be like the town of Chernobyl, Russia – it will be a ghost town,” Ingram said of Friday afternoon.

Optimism is high that Gray and the Hawks have what it takes to beat an equally undefeated and championship-driven Calhoun and bring a fourth trophy back from Atlanta.

“Those boys have worked really hard for it and they’re hungry and I think they’re going to get what they want,” said Makayla Kitchens, a Washington County junior. “I think it’s going to be a huge celebration. I think that if we win it this year and we bring it back home, it’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for since ’97.”

Ben Walters thinks it could be bigger than the glory days. Back then, winning was new to WACO and they didn’t know how good they had it. The intervening seasons have taught them to “appreciate it more” and he’s already working to acquire Gray’s No. 5 jersey for a place of honor at Dairy Lane. His mother says, “It would be a miracle and blessing for this town.”

Ingram also believes it “would mean everything” to the community.

“I just want it for these kids and this program and all the old veteran players who have played here over the years,” Ingram said. “We want to cement our legacy and put our picture on the wall in there.”

Other than multi-talented quarterback/safety Gray, who will play defense next year for Georgia Tech, this Golden Hawks team isn’t as star-laden as the ones in the 1990s that sent a handful of players to major colleges and the NFL. That hard-working roster that keeps setting records would make another title even more special.

“The community is really good about supporting us, but a state championship would get us back,” said linebacker Will Coneway, who will move on to Mercer next season. “They always talk about the good ol’ days of 1996-97. I think it would really bring back the strength and put Washington County back on the map.”

“It would bring everybody closer together,” said senior lineman Dylan Steadman. “We already have a wonderful fan base, but it would bring everybody right where we need to be for years to come.”

Michaux: Playoff system isn't perfect, but a good start

Tue, 12/09/2014 - 1:57pm

It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been the BCS.

The inaugural four-team college football playoff is set, and it has all the teams from Big conferences that don’t know how to count arguing about the fuzzy math that brought us to this point.

Turns out Ohio State of the 14-team Big Ten crashed its way into the No. 4 hole with a 59-0 bludgeoning of Wisconsin in the league’s championship game. B10 commissioner Jim Delany couldn’t have engineered it any better if he’d asked the Badgers to tank it for the good of the conference.

Left out in the cold by the Buckeyes’ ascent were the “co-champions” of the 10-team Big 12 – TCU and Baylor. The Horned Frogs dropped three spots in the final College Football Playoff poll after beating a bad Iowa State team by only 52 points. The Bears leaped the Frogs to first runner-up status with a narrow quality victory over Kansas State.

There are legitimate arguments to be made for all of the blessed and aggrieved parties in this scenario. My gut instinct is agreeable with that of the 11-person selection committee, but that doesn’t make it any more right or less wrong depending on your football world view. Had it come down to a choice between Baylor and TCU instead, I would have picked the Bears based on their head-to-head result because that’s the way sports arguments are best decided. The less subjective beauty judgments in the pageant, the better. The Big 12 did itself no favors by not having a championship game that declares one outright winner. There’s no doubt the winner of a Baylor-TCU rematch would have made the playoff field.

Of course, neither Baylor nor TCU would have even been considered in the old system. Folks in Oregon and Ohio would be howling as well if they were relegated to a relatively meaningless traditional Rose Bowl instead of separate semifinal showdowns. Because based on all the human polls and computer models, the old BCS would have delivered an Alabama-Florida State championship game that would have left nobody outside of those two constituencies satisfied.

So as imperfect as it is, thank goodness there is a playoff bracket to look forward to in the New Year. The New Year’s Day matchups – uber-coaches Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer in the Sugar Bowl semi and presumed Heisman holders Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl semi – are as compelling as anybody could want. Whichever two teams advance to the championship game on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, will have the sheen of true Goliaths having climbed their way through regular season divisions, conference championship games and worthy semifinal tests.

Somebody will walk away from all this as the most legitimate national champion that college football has ever crowned.

But that final fact should not be mistaken for ultimate success. Because the new four-team playoff failed to eliminate the exclusionary specters of favoritism and elitism. Ohio State is a blue-blooded power program that inevitably got the benefit of the doubt in the selection suite over nouveau riche wannabes TCU and Baylor even though the Buckeyes inarguably suffered the most undignified loss (at home to a bad Virginia Tech team) of any of the candidates.

So here are two things that need to get fast-tracked into an improved system:

1) No more weekly rankings from the selection committee.

As fascinating as it was to get a peek inside the committee’s thinking for the last seven weeks of the season, it was a misleading roller-coaster ride from start to finish. Clearly intended to spark ratings and build up hype for the playoffs, it ultimately proved to be a confusing series of disingenuous outcomes. It illustrated conflicting methodology (like Florida State getting no credit for its ambitious nonconference scheduling), hidden traps (basing everything on past results instead of future potential created an array of false positives) and nonsensical logic (head-to-head mattered less than the so-called “eye test” until it didn’t).

What’s wrong with a little suspense? Let the traditional polls (sportswriters and coaches) and cable pundits tease the nation until the committee offers the final “reveal” at the very end. It’s better not to know how the playoff sausage is made.

2) Expand the field to avoid flagrant exclusions.

Everybody except the people who created this abbreviated mess seem to agree that four teams isn’t enough when there are five power conferences. You’d think college people would be smarter at math.

But just how big should it be? Six? Eight? Sixteen?

A six-team model would have worked nicely this season, as things turned out. Alabama and Oregon could have enjoyed byes while Florida State, Ohio State, Baylor and TCU settled the various arguments amongst themselves on the field as the football gods intended.

Six teams, however, won’t always be enough. It was conceivable that a few others could have cluttered up the conversation. What if Mississippi State hadn’t lost the Egg Bowl and stayed in the top four? What if Marshall hadn’t lost its overtime shootout with Western Kentucky and finished 13-0? What if Notre Dame hadn’t folded after its heart-breaking Florida State loss and been an independent factor? What if Alabama had lost to Missouri in the title game?

There needs to be room to account for these scenarios that will periodically come up – probably more often then not. Eight would seem like the perfect compromise. It would account for five automatic champions from the major conferences while making room for three at-large teams to account for whatever curveballs are thrown the selection committee’s way.

Sixteen teams would just be excessive and create the same old elitist tendencies when choosing from a fat field of comparable two- and three-loss programs that should have lost fewer games in the first place. Arguing about the 9-16 teams is so insignificant compared to the current cases of Baylor and TCU that it’s laughable.

While many people will inevitably argue the validity of the occasional unbeaten Marshall, Northern Illinois, UCF or Boise State from a non-power conference, what harm would it do to throw one of them in when it merits as the No. 7 or 8 seed? If they really are unworthy, the top power seeds should weed them out as a de facto “bye” opponent.

Fixes can’t come soon enough to help TCU or Baylor. It’s too bad for them. Even so, the first playoff is way more than twice as good as anything we’ve ever been treated to before.

Michaux: Passion fuels Patrick Reed's best year

Sat, 12/06/2014 - 7:39pm

WINDERMERE, Fla. — Patrick Reed is never shy with his thoughts.

If he thinks he’s a top-five player, he says so.

If he thinks a hostile crowd needs quieting, he shushes them.

If he’s angry at himself, he barks offensively and apologizes later.

So the former Augusta State golfer’s emphatic assessment of his eventful 2014 should come as no surprise.

“Best year I’ve had in my life so far,” Reed said after shooting 63 in his first competitive round playing with Tiger Woods. “We had our first baby girl; had two wins, one of them a World Golf Championship; skyrocketed up the world rankings; played in my first major; made two cuts in four majors; Ryder Cup. So I’ve done a lot of great things and everything has kind of fallen into place.”

In a season when a lot of players did a lot of great things to fill the void left by a largely vacant Tiger Woods, there might be no player in the world who established more of a name for himself than Reed did.

If the golf world didn’t notice Reed shooting three consecutive 63s to open a wire-to-wire win at the lightly regarded Humana Challenge, then it certainly noticed the way he repeated the front-running feat against the world’s elite at Doral wearing Tiger’s traditional red shirt in the Sunday group behind Woods on Sunday. In case they missed the point, Reed declared himself “a top-five player” in the aftermath that got a thumbs-up for chutzpah from Donald Trump but a thumbs-down from some peers and social media etiquette enforcers.

Reed, however, never backed down from any critics as he struggled through the summer around the birth of his daughter, Windsor-Wells. And if anyone doubted his mettle, he shut them up with the standout performance on the losing American side in the Ryder Cup.

“It’s one of those events that I never thought you could feel that way about golf in my life and it definitely exceeded it,” he said of the team experience.

His intensity doesn’t always translate as well as the Ryder Cup stage. When Reed shouted a gay slur at himself after a bad shot in China, the audio reached around the world and the backlash was swift. He publicly apologized for being “young and growing up” and promised to learn from his mistakes.

But he will never apologize for his passion.

“The passion I have for the game is never going to change,” he said.

If anyone thought Reed would back down, he proved otherwise this week at Isleworth after getting a last-minute invite into the select 18-player field at the Hero World Challenge. Despite not touching a club after a trying trip home from Asia that included an optic emergency for his wife, Justine, Reed once again made a major statement on the course.

While all eyes were on tournament host Woods making his return to golf after a four-month injury sabbatical, Reed stole the spotlight.

Paired with Woods for the first time in the opening group Friday, Reed stormed out in 8-under par through the first 10 holes. He dared to think about hitting one of golf’s magic numbers on the course wear Woods once shot 59 before his iconic 1997 Masters victory.

“I was thinking in the 50s after 10 for sure,” he admitted.

Reed settled for 63 instead, moving from next to last to in contention. He sits in fourth place heading into today, nine shots behind his celebrated Ryder Cup partner Jordan Spieth.

That 63, however, was indicative of the fearless mentality of this generation of rising stars who grew up mimicking Woods instead of being intimidated by him.

There was a time when playing partners averaged more than 2.5 strokes more than Tiger (3.9 in the final pairing of majors), but Reed is one of three players to shoot a record-low 63 alongside Woods this year.

“At one point when guys played with Tiger their stroke average went up like five strokes just in that round,” Reed said. “You could see it in his eyes back when he was dominating. If looks could kill, he would literally kill you.

“I realized he was the most mentally, physically strong guy out there on tour and he was the best anyone’s ever seen. He was so much better than everybody else at the time. Growing up watching that, I tried to copy his mental strength and go from there.”

How do you copy mental strength?

“Be stubborn,” he said with a smile. “And focus on what you’re doing and not what everyone else is doing all around you.”

Those are traits Reed already has in abundance at age 24 after the best year of his life …

“So far.”

Michaux: Selection committee short on playoff spots

Thu, 12/04/2014 - 9:20pm

Stuffing 10 pounds of footballs into a four-pound duffle bag was never going to be a good idea.

The College Football Playoff selection committee was doomed before it ever started when the unwilling parties decided to only dip their toes instead of diving head first into the playoff era, limiting the field to only four teams.

With five power conferences, somebody was inevitably going to cry when the music stops Sunday and they’re left standing without a chair. All they did was replace one BCS headache for another playoff and seeding squabble.

And the arguments taking shape as the final weekend of the collegiate season looms are doozies.

Could the only undefeated Power 5 team and reigning BCS champion slip out of the fourth seed with another lukewarm victory?

Will head-to-head matter in deciding between Big 12 conference co-champions?

Might a two-loss championship loser get the nod over a one-loss champion from a perceived weaker conference?

Is it possible for the mighty Southeastern Conference to get shut out altogether?

Needless to say, a lot can happen in the six games Friday and Saturday with championship/playoff implications. So the easiest thing to do is focus on the most logical possibility – that every single one of the top six teams in the latest playoff ranking wins its finale and solidifies its resume.

To almost any sentient being familiar with sports protocol, there is only one possible field that can illicit the fewest possible screams: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Baylor.

Unfortunately, the selection committee hasn’t been leaning this way in the weekly offered glimpses of its rationale.

This latest edition of the playoff ranking that set the table for this week’s action was the most cringe-inducing of the ongoing series since mid-October. Undefeated Florida State did what it always does and scored more points than Florida only to drop further down to the cut line at No. 4.

TCU, despite its own pitiful escape two weeks before against a woeful Kansas team, not only leapt over Florida State to No. 6 but widened its gap on the equally one-loss Baylor team that rallied from three touchdowns down in the fourth quarter to beat the Horned Frogs in October.

Conceivably, Florida State could win unimpressively against No. 11 Georgia Tech on Saturday and fall out of the playoffs if Ohio State were to somehow throttle No. 13 Wisconsin.

That would be nonsense. But the biggest reason wouldn’t be the obvious one – that the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Seminoles would be UNDEFEATED while the Buckeyes LOST to a weak ACC team (Virginia Tech) at home. It would be in the absurd mixed message the selection committee has sent in the way it has devalued Florida State while elevating TCU.

What’s that message, you ask? It’s that strength of schedule sort of matters. From the moment the first poll was released and TCU was installed six places ahead of the Baylor team that beat it, the folks in charge have been clear that scheduling is a factor. The Horned Frogs were rewarded for playing Big Ten foe Minnesota while the Bears were punished for a corresponding Mid-American cupcake Buffalo.

It’s a noble concept and one that should inspire schools to enhance their future schedules in order to avoid.

But if that’s the standard the committee is going to apply, it needs to implement it universally. Mississippi State wasn’t getting docked for its putrid nonconference slate when its toughest test came from an Alabama-Birmingham program that was disbanded at season’s end.

Yet Florida State, which without question tried the hardest of any team in the nation to play a representative elite nonconference schedule, is getting no credit. The Seminoles were the only Power 5 team to schedule three high-end out-of-conference foes – Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Florida. It’s not their fault that when the contracts were signed years ago that each of them would suffer relative down seasons in 2014. Let’s just say they were all consistently better when the ink dried than a Minnesota team that posted one winning season (barely) in the previous seven years.

Safe to say the committee has painted itself into some tight corners this weekend. Ideally it could use a Baylor loss to Kansas State to validate its reasoning and then have everything else fall in line.

Imagine, however, if the worst-case breaks out – Missouri unseating Alabama, Arizona reprising its earlier upset of Oregon, Georgia Tech dealing Florida State its first loss since 2012. It could devolve into a complete shambles of subjectivity.

The solution is simple – get a bigger playoff sack in which to stuff the most qualified teams. Expand the field to eight teams, ensuring participation of the five power conference champions with three at-large entries to accommodate any worthy independent, eye-test extras or potential outlier.

If you’re the non-champion arguing about being left out at No. 9, your case is already lost.

As flawed as Sunday’s final selections will be, it’s still a step in the right direction. But that’s contingent upon it only being a step, and not a destination.

Michaux:Tiger Woods turns to old swing, new coach

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 6:20pm

WINDERMERE, Fla. — If everything old is new again, perhaps Tiger Woods 4.0 will be the comeback story of the new year.

After nearly four months away from the game, Woods is starting over again from as close to scratch as he could go. He returns to competitive golf this week in the Hero World Challenge with a new coach and an old swing.

Turns out the most significant tool in Woods’ rebuilding project isn’t a modern TrakMan but his mom’s old VCR. During two months of sitting on the couch between rehab sessions, Woods pored over video footage of every swing incarnation in his career seeking the best blueprint to follow.

The answers he found weren’t in the Butch Harmon or Hank Haney swings that helped him win 14 majors and more than 70 PGA Tour events. They were revealed in the Rudy Duran-built swing from his youth that carried Woods through his junior and amateur successes right up through his iconic 1997 Masters Tournament triumph.

“We went back to some of those old videos and really looked at it,” Woods said of the archival tapes from his junior days. “And it was quite interesting to see where my swing was then and how much force I could generate with a very skinny frame. How did I do that? How do I generate that much power?”

So Woods revealed the answer of which came first: the swing or the swing coach? With a vision for what he wanted to return to already in mind, he just needed someone who could help him implement it. On the advice of his collegiate teammate Notah Begay, Woods met with instructor Chris Como.

“I had this plan in my head of where I wanted to go and what I want my swing to look like and what I want to get out of my body and out of my game,” he said. “I just needed to align myself with a person that felt the same way. Chris fits that for sure.”

The two of them are more than a month into the fourth swing iteration of Tiger’s professional career, but Woods claims this move isn’t nearly as dramatic.

“It is new, but it’s old,” Woods said. “The reason why I said it that way is I just haven’t done it in a long time but my body is remembering it. The motor patterns, you develop all these different motor patterns in one’s career. It’s familiar, so it has not taken me that long to implement it.

“I just need to hit more balls and get more reps, especially under competition. I want to see where it’s at. I’m very pleased with my speed and the freedom I have and what I’ve been doing with the golf ball.”

The remixed 1990’s version of Woods will debut this week on his former home course at Isleworth in the 18-man event that benefits his foundation. He promises this latest comeback won’t repeat the mistakes of the previous restart in late June when he came back too soon from back surgery in March. He struggled through the British Open and missed the cut at the PGA Championship before shutting it down again.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready,” he said of his summer folly. “I didn’t play very well, and it showed. My scores were awful. ... Nothing was very good.”

This time he said his back is fully healed, his tedious rehab completed and his strength is being restored on a frame that’s 5 pounds leaner. Now he hopes his old body will take to his young swing and bring back his former confidence.

“I know my body feels excited about it, because it’s an old motor pattern that I know,” he said of the swing. “And I’m able to generate speed and I have the range of motion and it’s interesting to see how I don’t feel like I’m hitting it very hard, but it’s coming off the face faster. That part was exciting, to start feeling that again.”

Woods, however, concedes that he won’t be driving it past Bubba Watson or Keegan Bradley this week, or anytime in the future.

“Father Time is undefeated,” he said. “We all eventually are losing some of the things we are able to do when we were younger. ... I can’t blow it out there with some of the longer guys anymore. But there’s other ways to go around a golf course. ... You don’t have to physically beat anybody. You just have to beat the golf course.”

While he believes his 20-year-old muscle memory will make the transition “so much easier,” he has no clue whether that means he’ll be ready to beat No. 1 Rory McIlroy and the rest in time for the Masters Tournament in April or at some point further down the road.

“I don’t know,” he said of his growing pains timetable. “I’m curious to find that out myself, too.”

Michaux: Jackets had faith all along

Sat, 11/29/2014 - 8:36pm

ATHENS, Ga. — This was certainly one for the history anthologies – whether it was worthy of Encyclopaedia Brittanica or Ripley’s Believe It or Not is debatable.

“What a game. It was a really crazy game,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.

Seriously, how do you sum up a contest in which quarterback Hutson Mason is 18 seconds away from capping his Bulldogs career with what should have been the game-winning, eruption-inducing fourth-down touchdown pass to later leaving the field with his head down after throwing the game-ending interception?

Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe the drama that unfolded in front of a capacity home crowd that went from disinterested to deflated to delirious to despondent over the course of 3½ hours Saturday afternoon.

“I think it was meant for us,” said Georgia Tech senior B.J. Bostic, a former Jefferson County star, of only the second Yellow Jackets victory in 14 tries against Mark Richt’s Georgia teams.

Georgia’s players, coaches and fans will be reliving the many ways they had Saturday’s edition of clean, old-fashioned hate won and somehow lost. Twice the Bulldogs fumbled inside the 1-yard line when they seemed poised to blow the game open early. Then a third time they were set up inside the 2 after a well-executed fake field goal run by kicker Marshall Morgan. Then there was what should have been the game-defining 12-play, 69-yard touchdown drive capped by Mason’s 3-yard strike on fourth down to Malcolm Mitchell with 18 seconds left.

“It looked like it was over, but obviously it wasn’t,” Richt said.

By that point it should have been Georgia Tech that went home wondering about the what-ifs. Like the 99-yard Georgia fumble rip and return after Justin Thomas was curiously not called down by forward progress at the Bulldogs’ goal-line. Or Thomas’ pump-fake fumble in the open field when the clock-vacuuming Jackets were seemingly salting it away in the closing minutes of regulation.

A funny thing happened on the way to Georgia’s rivalry celebration. Trying to preserve a 24-21 lead, the Bulldogs elected to dribble a squib kick that Georgia Tech picked up at the 27 and returned to the 43. With time enough for one play, Thomas scrambled for 21 yards to the Georgia 36 – the very extreme limit of kicker Harrison Butker’s range.

“I knew we didn’t have any timeouts left so I just tried to get as far as I could to get out of bounds to at least give us one more shot for the end zone or a field goal,” Thomas said.

Field goal it was, and Butker drilled his career-long kick that cleared the crossbar by inches.

“I’m disappointed in my decision to squib kick,” Richt confessed. “That gave them the field position to get it in range and kick it. That was a poor decision on my part.”

Georgia Tech somehow didn’t lose faith when it looked bleak.

“There’s something different about this team this year,” Bostic said. “We knew we still had time to get down and get a field goal and get to overtime. So we had hope the whole time. To make a clutch kick like that was amazing.”

After blowing the lead and losing a heartbreaker in overtime last year at historic Grant Field, Georgia Tech was determined to get payback in the first overtime ever staged between the hedges. Five bruising rushes into the extra session, the Jackets were in the end zone celebrating Zach Laskey’s touchdown. Then the same kicker who was moments before the hero missed the point-after to set up an ominous opportunity for the Bulldogs.

But it was Mason who would trade the hero’s crown for the goat’s horns instead, throwing a “trust pass” on a slant to Mitchell that Georgia Tech’s D.J. White jumped for the clinching interception that brought the stadium to relative silence.

It was the second crushing body blow to the Bulldogs in 24 hours, after Southeastern Conference championship hopes were lost by Arkansas’ second-half collapse at Missouri. Now they had a rivalry loss to the Yellow Jackets to choke down and diminished bowl prospects.

“Losing hurts no matter what,” senior defensive end Ray Drew said. “But when it’s your last college home game and against a big rival, it just adds gasoline to the fire. It’s hard to compare this to anything else. This is on a whole other level.”

For 10-win Georgia Tech, it was blissful redemption and a lift into next week’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game against undefeated Florida State. Whatever historical relevance Saturday’s rivalry triumph had is not yet finished.

“I think this is going to go down in history,” Bostic said. “This is just the start of our story.”

Johnson agrees that all the craziness of one incomprehensible Saturday is prelude to something bigger.

“One game does not define a season,” Johnson said. “Ten and two defines a season. Playing for an ACC Championship next weekend defines a season.”

Michaux: B.J. Bostic needs to check Georgia off list

Thu, 11/27/2014 - 8:22pm

Like most 22-year-old kids fast approaching the rest of their lives, B.J. Bostic is trying to squeeze every last ounce from his collegiate experience.

“I’m dreading the end of it but at the same time so anxious to see what’s ahead of me as far as life, too,” Bostic said. “Interested to see what life throws at me. I’m ready for it.”

Before he reaches the end of one era and the start of another, the former Jefferson County star is furiously checking off the remaining items on his to-do list at Georgia Tech.

Finish degree in history, technology and society last summer – check.

Finally beat Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson – check.

Score first collegiate touchdown – check.

Only a few outstanding items remain – secure 10-win season, beat Georgia, beat Florida State and win Atlantic Coast Conference title. Bostic and the Yellow Jackets have a chance to complete it all in the next two weeks.

“The way it’s going, I’m getting a lot of things to go my way in my senior season,” Bostic said. “We’re doing a lot of great things this year. It’s a good way to go out, I’ll tell you that.”

Georgia Tech (9-2) has already accomplished more this season than anyone expected of them. Picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal division, the Jackets instead won it for the fourth time since 2006 and third time under coach Paul Johnson. Written off after consecutive midseason losses to Duke and North Carolina, the Jackets won four conference games in a row to keep themselves in contention.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Bostic said. “Those two losses helped us because we were at a high point, 5-0, and it kind of brought us down to know we were not unbeatable. It happened twice in a row so we had to basically regroup and get our heads screwed on and start a new streak.”

Bostic celebrated with fellow seniors and chicken wings last Thursday as North Carolina trounced Duke to hand Georgia Tech the division title. They’ll get a chance on Dec. 8 in Charlotte, N.C., to upset the playoff apple cart and avenge their 2012 ACC title loss to Florida State.

“The Florida State loss in the 2012 ACC Championship – that was the most disappointing moment,” Bostic said of his five years on The Flats. “Everybody wants a winning ring.”

Before that, however, Bostic and his classmates get one last crack at beating the rival Bulldogs in Athens, Ga., at noon on Saturday. Georgia has a 12-1 record against Georgia Tech under coach Mark Richt, including a 41-34 double-overtime victory last year in Atlanta when the Jackets blew a 10-point lead in the final 6:37.

“Obviously we were disappointed in the way it ended last year, but right after the game we had to flush it,” Bostic said. “I’m really looking forward to the opportunity (this week). My senior class knows that we haven’t defeated those guys down there in Athens. The way the season is going now it would be a great win for us.”

Bostic’s perspective on his career is refreshingly upbeat for a skill player who averages fewer than two touches per game. A former kickoff returner as a speedy freshman, Bostic embraced a more supporting role after recovering from a season-ending injury in 2011 as one of the Jackets’ A-backs in the triple option.

“I’m not disappointed,” he said of his diminished offensive output. “Everybody has their role and I see myself as a good perimeter blocker. So my role this year has kind of been leading the way on the perimeter.”
Despite only getting the ball in his hands a career-low 19 times this season, Bostic made one of them count. Tied 14-14 at halftime against Miami, the Jackets mounted a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up the first seven minutes of the third quarter. Bostic capped it with a 2-yard touchdown run for a 21-14 lead en route to a 28-17 win.

After a career at Jefferson County spent getting in the end zone on a weekly basis, Bostic calls his lone collegiate touchdown his personal high point.

“It was a long, long time,” he said of the five years between scores. “I do it in practice but to do it in a game is so much different – it sends chills down your body, the fans screaming. It’s a real exciting moment.”

Bostic forgot to keep the ball he scored with. “I was too excited and threw it down after I got in,” he said with a laugh.

His friends and family flooded him with congratulations after his peak offensive moment.

“They were more happy for me than I think I was for myself,” he said. “My teammates were excited as well.”

That peer support speaks to the kind of unselfish teammate Bostic has been assisting in an offense that ranks fourth in the nation in rushing with 328 yards per game. Bostic is more about the team goals than his own.

“It does not matter to (the A-backs) as a group because we’re unselfish guys – as long as we’re winning, moving the ball, getting first downs, we’re happy,” he said.

The focus now is getting Georgia Tech’s seventh 10-win season, the first since 2009.

“Any 10-win season coming out of here is rare, so I can leave on that note,” he said of his final football goal.

It’s all wrapping up nicely for the former Warrior. He was the first player introduced before the Clemson game on Senior Day, shaking coach Johnson’s hand before carrying a flower to his parents and sister on Grant Field. He’s got two huge games against top-10 teams on deck with a bowl game later. On Dec. 13, he’ll don a cap and gown and walk with his fellow Georgia Tech graduates. He’s already interviewing for jobs trying to put his degree to use in marketing.

“It’s a little surreal that everything is winding down,” he admitted. “Most important thing is that I got my degree and I walk in December.”

After finally tasting victory over the Hurricanes, Hokies and Tigers (Bostic was red-shirted in 2011 the last time the Jackets beat Clemson), the only thing that could make his career more fulfilling is finishing the checklist. It would be particularly sweet to pull off the upset between the hedges Saturday so he can hold his head high in his native “Dog country” whenever he comes home to Louisville, Ga.

“I want to check it off and get that burden off my back,” he said.

Countdown clocks remind Clemson players of failure against South Carolina

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 7:45pm

Perhaps no sport invites the cliché more than football.

It’s a team game. Defense wins championships. You have to establish the run and take care of the football. Above all, just go out and execute the game plan.

The most sacred of all clichés, however, pertain to the here and now. The most important game is the next game. Never look past an opponent. Never get ahead of yourself. Take it one game at a time.

Which is why the countdown clock that hangs by the door of every team meeting room in the Clemson football facility has been so striking. At other schools such as Georgia, the countdown clocks always point to the next opponent whether it’s Florida or Charleston Southern. Always the next game.

At Clemson, the electronic clocks have been ticking away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until one specific game – South Carolina. And taking up 60 percent of the display space is one constant reminder ...

0-5

Every day since the clocks went up in the spring, each Clemson player and coach has been welcomed to work with the constant reminder that the Tigers haven’t beaten their archrivals since 2008. The pressure has been building for months as the digits get closer to all zeroes before they walk past those clocks one last time before noon Saturday into Death Valley to face their demons.

“It really is a season of its own,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney explained. “You kind of have the season and you have South Carolina. We don’t say anything about it; we never have. But we want everybody to be reminded every day that that game is coming and it only comes once a year. It’s something that we thought to make sure we kept it in front of our guys every day.”

Most sports psychologists work very hard to get players to focus on the positive. Forget the failures and retain the successes. Ask Jack Nicklaus about his career and he can pretty much recite every shot of every round, yet he can’t ever seem to describe a bad one. He blocked them all out on the way to 18 major victories.

Clemson has had some great successes in the past six years – winning an Atlantic Coast Conference title, winning an Orange Bowl, beating several ranked Southeastern Conference opponents – but it’s the unprecedented “0-5” against the Gamecocks that is stuck in their heads like a bad pop chorus.

It goes against every coaching instinct, yet Swinney went down the shame road for motivation.

“There’s no way to deflect pressure. It’s not like they live in a cave,” Swinney said. “In this day an age you can’t insulate your players from negativity. You have to create a culture in your program that hopefully teaches guys what’s important and what’s not important, what to listen to and what not to listen to.”

What they’ve taught them is that being 0-5 to the Gamecocks is unacceptable to the point you’ll have to wear it year-round like a scarlet letter. Imagine the pressure Saturday not to let the streak hit 0-6.

“I don’t sit around and just focus on the negative,” Swinney said in a comical contradiction to the clocks throughout the building. “That’s the society we live in, that’s the world we live in, where a lot of people out there are miserable people for that reason. All they want to focus on is the negative. That’s it. When you live your life that way, you’re never going to be happy. I don’t sit around and wake up every day miserable with life because we’ve got one major disappointment over the last few years. We’ve done too many great things.

“The reality is we’ve lost five in a row and nobody’s happy about it. We know why and we know we’ve got to turn that around. But we have to go do it. But to sit here and say this one game completely discounts everything that’s been accomplished at Clemson the last six years is crazy. That’s really a lack of respect to our players to what they’ve been able to do.”

Who exactly is showing that disrespect? Who put the clocks up? Who makes sure “0-5” is the first and last thing they see when they walk through the door?

“We get one shot, once a year,” Swinney said as if the pressure theme hasn’t quite sunk in enough. “We certainly understand the disappointment when it doesn’t go our way.”

Truth is, the pressure is mostly on Swinney and his staff. All of the great strides the Tigers have made over the last five years get tarnished every time they fail against the Gamecocks. It’s the nature of in-state rivalries on a scale of the Palmetto State’s.

Clemson has largely owned the rivalry dating back to the start. South Carolina won the initial meeting in 1896 before Clemson won the next four straight to build a series lead it’s never relinquished (currently 65-42-4). The Tigers won a record seven in a row from 1934-40 and have had runs of four or more consecutive wins eight times.

Prior to the current run of success, the Gamecocks won four in a row only once – capping a decade from 1945-54 when South Carolina went a heady 7-1-2 against its nemesis.

Then came Steve Spurrier, who changed the culture and deftly twists the knife with little jabs that inevitably draw retaliatory rants from Swinney.

Swinney beat the Gamecocks once in 2008 – a result that let him shed the “interim” label and become the permanent head coach. How much longer can he keep that title without winning what fans from the upstate to the lowcountry consider the most important of the year? Even victims of circumstance are still victims in the end.

“God never said it’d be easy, and I always say God never says ‘Oops’” Swinney said. “For whatever reason, God chose me to be the head coach at Clemson in the greatest era in the history of South Carolina football.”

Saturday is ripe for a turnaround. The oddsmakers favor the Tigers by 4.5 points. The Gamecocks have been a mess this season, sitting at 6-5 with a defense that is unrecognizable from recent vintages. But the Tigers have their own issues of late with an offense mired in a rut without its playmaker Deshaun Watson. Swinney said Watson’s status for Saturday might not be determined until kickoff, and if he can’t play the Tigers will be forced to use Cole Stoudt again.

Regardless, Clemson needs to find a way to end the streak.

“It’s not something that’s ruined our six years here, but it’s something we’ve got to get changed,” Swinney said. “That clocks been ticking for a year. Just a few more hours it needs to tick. Let’s go play.”

The last thing the Tigers need to see when they walk back into the locker room after it’s over is the clock reset at 364 days with one of those stickers the DOT uses when it increases the speed limit showing “0-6.”

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.

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