The Nick Saban 100: Any coaching tree is about a lot more than coaches

Nick Saban-Alabama-Alabama football-Nick Saban coaching tree

When he landed his first coaching job at Louisiana in December, Billy Napier was obviously thrilled, but there wasn’t much time for celebrating.

With the early signing period in recruiting less than a week away, he had to start putting together a coaching staff immediately. The first person he hired was someone from Alabama, dating to his first go-around with the Crimson Tide as an analyst in 2011, Rob Sale.

“He’s a loyal dude, and a guy who will take the shirt off his back for you,” the former Crimson Tide wide receivers coach (2013-16) said about his offensive coordinator.

While Napier is someone Alabama fans are more familiar with, and one of 100 assistant coaches Nick Saban has had over the years, there are actually more people — many more — associated with his coaching tree, such as Sale, who they know very little about.

Saban gave his former player his first taste of college coaching as a strength and conditioning assistant and offensive analyst in 2007, and Sale stayed with the Crimson Tide through the 2011 national championship season. He was subsequently the offensive line coach at McNeese State, Georgia and Louisiana-Monroe before being reunited with Napier at Arizona State last season.

“The household names are Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney,” Napier said about his biggest coaching mentors. “What I think gets overlooked is all the people you came in contact with while you were working for those guys.

“There was a group at Alabama in 2011, my first year there, we had all these young cats. We were all [about] the same age; we were all in second-tier roles in the organization and we just had a great group of guys. Those guys have spread all over the place.”

Among them was Derrick Ansley, a graduate assistant in 2011, who came back to be Alabama’s defensive backs coach for two seasons and is now with the Oakland Raiders. So was Jordy Wright, who has been the Crimson Tide’s director of player personnel since 2015.

Some are in the NFL, such as Joe Judge, special-teams coordinator of the New England Patriots, while others have followed coaches to other schools. Even though they may be on opposing sidelines every weekend, they still talk and bounce ideas off one another, much like their predecessors.

“What you learn pretty quick is have good structure but go hire some smart, talented people who can be productive for you,” Napier said about his first staff. “I think we’ve done that.”

In some ways, the coaching world hasn’t changed that much since Saban made his first hires at Toledo (1990) and Michigan State (1995-99). Strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie likes to tell the story about how he had been with the Rockets for nine years until he got a late-night phone call from his old boss asking him “You coming or what?” He’s been at Michigan State since.

“I think they’re important,” Greg Meyer, Saban’s offensive coordinator at Toledo, said about coaching trees in general. “You take lessons from every head coach, and Nick had an extreme influence on a lot of the things that I did later on.”

Meyer ended up coaching for more than two decades, and he was the offensive coordinator at Northwestern when the Wildcats under Gary Barnett made one of the most notable turnarounds in college football history, going from 3-7-1 in 1994 to their first Rose Bowl since 1948.

Yet he was actually Saban’s second hire for offensive coordinator at Toledo. Dana Bible initially got the job, but then had the opportunity to become the quarterbacks coach of the Cincinnati Bengals — a job Saban helped him land even though it wasn’t in his team’s best interest.

“I was kind of an afterthought,” said Meyer, who was at nearly Ball State. “I ended up having to interview with the entire staff, it was with everyone including Dana Bible. It was pretty intense.

“But they were great.”

One person who Meyer believes recommended him for the job was Kevin Steele, whom Saban was already familiar with and eventually hired at Alabama. When Meyer resigned from his last coaching position, offensive coordinator at Baylor in 2001, Steele was the coach.

But for every high-profile story associated with the Saban coaching tree, such as Jeremy Pruitt going from defensive coordinator at Hoover (Ala.) High School to Alabama’s director of player development and working his way up to his current position of Tennessee’s coach, there are numerous other corresponding moves that go largely under the radar.

Everyone takes people with them.

For example, Alabama’s offensive coordinator last season, Brian Daboll, was a graduate assistant for Saban at Michigan State in 1998-99. It served as a springboard for a job with the New England Patriots and the start of his NFL career.

“He’s a pretty consistent individual,” Daboll said about Saban then and now. “He looks the same as 20-some years ago. I can’t say the same. I’ve got to get on his diet plan.”

When Daboll recently left to be the offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, he took Alabama analyst Shea Tierney and former Crimson Tide player and offensive analyst William Vlachos along as assistants.

Pruitt tabbed Alabama director of player development Kevin Sherrer for defensive coordinator, analyst Chris Weinke as his running backs coach and named assistant director of recruiting operations Brian Niedermeyer his tight ends coach. Former player Brandon Deaderick is the Vols’ quality control analyst.

Former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s staff at Florida Atlantic looks like a Crimson Tide roster with former players Wilson Love, Wes Neighbors and Mike Nysewander. His offensive coordinator is former Alabama analyst Charlie Weis Jr.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who worked for Saban longer than anyone not named Bobby Williams, tried to take strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran with him (so did Pruitt). His first hire was Alabama director of player development Glenn Schumann, and secondary coach Mel Tucker signed on to be defensive coordinator. Former Crimson Tide tight end Brian Vogler is a football operations assistant.

“I think Nick has changed a lot as it’s gone along,” said Smart, who also worked for Saban at LSU and on the Miami Dolphins. “If you ask his original LSU staff, they’ll tell you that he’s gone soft because at LSU, there are stories that were much tougher as far as work experiences than what we went through. I always enjoyed it. I think the media portrayed it to be more than it was.

“He’s very competitive. He’s very passionate. He’s very driven. But he doesn’t ask you to do anything that he doesn’t do himself.”

All those things have remained the same, from Meyer through Napier, and even with the new coaching staff for the 2018 season. Alabama may be known for reloading in player talent every year, but the same holds true in just about every other aspect of the organization.

“In my opinion, that place is not slowing down any down soon, either,” said Napier, who initially left Alabama to follow Jim McElwain to Colorado State. “It’s going to be fun to see how long he can sustain it, but they’re going to be in contention as long as he’s running the show I promise you that.”

This is the final story in a five-part series about Nick Saban’s coaching tree. 

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country


Alabama owns NFL draft night again, adding four more first-rounders under Nick Saban

Alabama football-NFL Draft-Nick Saban-first round-Minkah Fitzpatrick-Calvin Ridley

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was a big night for Alabama football as four Crimson Tide stars were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday.

The four players taken matched the four selected in the 2017 draft and Alabama has had at least one player picked in the first round since 2009.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da’Ron Payne, Rashaan Evans and Calvin Ridley were all selected in the first round.

Things started for Alabama when Fitzpatrick was taken at No. 11 overall by the Miami Dolphins. Two picks later, Payne came off the board at No. 13 overall to the Washington Redskins. Evans was taken at No. 22 overall by the Tennessee Titans. Ridley went No.  26 overall to the Atlanta Falcons where he joins another former great Tide receiver in Julio Jones.

RELATED: All first-round picks in 2018 NFL Draft

Fitzpatrick won the Jim Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik awards in 2017. The Old Bridge, N.J., native ends his career as the Alabama career leader in interception returns for touchdowns with 4, including a school-record 2 in one game against Texas A&M in 2015. This season he finished as the Tide’s fourth-leading tackler with 60 stops and added 8.0 tackles for loss (minus-31 yards), 1.5 sacks (minus-15 yards), 8 pass breakups, 3 quarterback hurries, 1 interception, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.

Payne earned Defensive MVP honors at the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship Game to help lead the Tide to their 17th national championship this season. He recorded an interception and a touchdown reception against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl to help seal UA’s 24-6 win over the No. 1-ranked Tigers. The Birmingham, Ala., native finished 2017 with 53 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss (minus-7 yards), 1 sack (minus-7 yards), 3 pass breakups, a team-high 8 quarterback hurries, 1 fumble recovery and 1 interception.

Evans collected a team-high tying 74 tackles, and led the Tide with 13 tackles for loss (minus-54 yards) despite missing a pair of games due to injury. Evans contributed 7 quarterback hurries to tie for second on the team. He totaled 6 sacks (minus-41 yards) to rank second on the team in that category. He added 3 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Ridley ended his career as one of the top receivers in Alabama history. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native ranks No. 2 all-time at UA in receptions (224) and touchdown receptions (19) and third in receiving yards (2,749) and 100-yard receiving games (8). Ridley also caught at least one pass in all 43 games of his career at Alabama, which was the third-longest active streak in the NCAA at the end of the 2017 season.

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Marq Burnett – SEC Country


With lot on the line, Nick Saban looking for more toughness, leadership from Alabama defense

Alabama football-crimson tide football-Craig Kuligowski

In a way, spring football began for the University of Alabama football team on Tuesday, as the Crimson Tide began the scrimmage part of the schedule that will conclude with A-Day on April 21.

At minimum, things ramped up.

It began with the players in full pads after having Easter weekend off, and even during the media observation period the coaches were all over them.

It ended with Saban calling out the defense.

“We’ve got to get some people that have some conviction to what we’re trying to accomplish around here,” he said.

With the first scrimmage set for Saturday, it’s anything but a surprise that the offense is ahead at this point, and it’s probably not close. Most of the starters and the leadership is in place, and the few spots where the starting job may be up for grabs Alabama has experience.

Of course, one of those competitions was expected to be at quarterback, but with sophomore Tua Tungovailoa suffering a hand fracture that’s been on hold.

In contrast, the defense has to come together.

There’s only three players who started more than two games last season: linebacker Anfernee Jennings and defensive ends Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis. Jennings is out this spring while coming off a knee injury, Buggs has only been in the program for a year as a junior college transfer and Davis made 6 starts.

That’s it.

There’s very little experience and almost no established leadership.

The key word there is almost.

“We have to be high intensity on and off the field,” Buggs said. “We got a lot of young guys who are going to have to play a lot this year. We can’t get frustrated if they don’t know what to do.”

It’s almost like Saban has a new canvas to work with, especially when you consider the coaching turnover as well. Tosh Lupoi, the only returning assistant on that side of the ball, has been promoted to defensive coordinator and is expected to call the plays, but he’s never done that before. Pete Golding and Karl Scott are Saban newcomers and that alone has to be an adjustment.

“We might be a bit of a work in progress as we learn how to work together and know exactly how things fit together,” Saban said.

However, there is one new assistant who did know coming in what a Saban-led program is like, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. He was on his first team as a coach, Toledo in 1990, which won the MAC title.

Back then, he was an offensive tackle wearing No. 63, and known for one thing in particular.

“He was a very tough, physical guy,” Saban said. “We ran the ball a lot back in those days and when we needed to we’d run right behind him.”

The Rockets tallied 135 rushing first downs, 2,474 rushing yards and 4,335 total yards in 11 games. Kuligowski was named all-conference.

Kuligowski ended up beginning his coaching career at his alma mater under the direction of Gary Pinkel, Saban’s former teammate at Kent State. He followed him to Missouri and spent the next 15 years making the Tigers known for their defensive linemen, and became the second-longest tenured assistant coach in the Southeastern Conference.

“[Kuligowski] was a good leader and he has a great reputation as a coach, and he’s done a good job so far,” Saban said.

But in addition to developing players, creating a pass rush and loyalty, the toughness is something Saban wanted to add to the program and specifically this team. He knows that it always begins up front.

“Those guys are big guys and when they’re physical and aggressive I think it sets the tone for everybody on defense,” Saban said. “I think we need to make progress in that area.”

Consequently, as the spring ramps up, so should the defense as its leadership develops. With the linebackers expected to be its strength and secondary set to have new starters across the board, the line will go a long way in determining how good the reigning national champions will be this fall.

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country


Kentucky basketball: Jarred Vanderbilt undecided on NBA, has ‘much more to his game,’ father says

Kentucky-Jarred Vanderbilt-NBA draft-decision-return-coming back-father

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt will fly home to Houston next week to meet with his family about whether to roll the dice on the 2018 NBA Draft or return to school and prove he can stay healthy for an entire season and do more than rebound.

“We haven’t decided yet,” Vanderbilt’s father Robert told SEC Country on Thursday night. “We haven’t really even sat down and discussed it yet. We want to discuss it and make sure we think things out and make the right decision.”

RELATED: Stay updated with our NBA draft decision tracker

Vanderbilt, a 6-foot-9 former McDonald’s All-American, missed the Wildcats’ first 17 games with a left foot injury — he injured the same foot twice previously in high school — and sat out all six of UK’s postseason games with a left ankle injury. In between, he played 14 games and averaged 5.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 17 minutes off the bench.

He averaged 18.5 rebounds per 40 minutes and his rebound percentage (he grabbed an estimated 25.7 percent of available rebounds) would’ve led the nation had he played enough to qualify. But because of his injury history and a rough showing offensively at Kentucky (42.6 percent shooting), the guy who was once considered a potential lottery pick is now widely regarded as a fringe second-rounder.

“He needs to go back, work on his shot and have a monster year,” one NBA scout told SEC Country this week. “Hasn’t been on our radar this year because of the injury.”

Vanderbilt’s father has maintained that the most recent injury is a sprained ankle and not related to the thrice-injured foot. But on Thursday, he deflected questions about whether any offseason surgery is needed.

“It’s day to day with the sprained ankle and we’re trying to discuss how serious that is,” Robert Vanderbilt said. “It’s getting a little better. It’s still day to day. We’re going to discuss all that when he comes in — talk about that part and the other decision we’re going to make. We’re going to discuss the whole 9 yards of this thing.”

As for questions about Vanderbilt’s offensive ability, his father scoffed at the idea his son is merely a good rebounder. (For the record, most people also believe he’s an excellent defender, ball handler and passer, especially for his size. It’s just the shooting.)

“He has a good repertoire. His game is good all around,” Robert Vanderbilt said. “People got the idea that he can’t shoot, he can’t score. That’s not true. He was one of the top scorers in the state [of Texas] when he was here. By him coming in a little behind everybody else, he was kind of playing catch-up.”

Still, the fact remains that at Kentucky he shot 22.6 percent on 2-point jump shots and struggled mightily at times to score from point-blank range in the paint. He attempted just 1 3-pointer and missed. He shot an unimpressive 63.2 percent at the free-throw line. On the bright side, he’s still 18 years old and has already demonstrated one elite skill.

Informed that multiple NBA scouts believe his son could significantly boost his draft stock with a strong (and injury free) sophomore season at Kentucky, Robert Vanderbilt said, “I’m glad you let me know about that. I feel there’s much more to his game than what we saw. The qualities and skills are there. He just needs an opportunity to show them.”

With a nagging injury, it seems unlikely that opportunity would come at the NBA combine next month. So will it come instead during a second season in Lexington?

Earlier in the week, UK freshman PJ Washington’s father told SEC Country that he wouldn’t advise his son to leave for the NBA unless he was confident he’d be picked in the first round. Both Washington and Vanderbilt are widely considered second-round picks — and ESPN has Vanderbilt ranked 64th among draft-eligible prospects. (There are only 60 picks in the draft.)

Robert Vanderbilt said “most kids feel that same way” as Washington’s father. “The first round would be a little bit more secure, I would think. Like I said, at this point, we haven’t decided one way or the other, but for the most that’s what everybody wants, to go in the first round.”

No Kentucky players have declared so far, but each of the top four recruits in the Class of 2017 have already announced plans to enter the NBA draft and hire agents: Marvin Bagley III (Duke), Michael Porter Jr. (Missouri), Mohamed Bamba (Texas) and Deandre Ayton (Arizona).

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Kyle Tucker – SEC Country


‘This house represents, to me, a lot more than that gold trophy does’

Alabama football-Crimson Tide football-Nick Saban

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — She almost missed seeing it, and had no idea what the play would mean to her in the very near future.

When the University of Alabama football team went to overtime in the National Championship Game, Donna Smith was helping her son get into bed as the hour had indeed gotten late. She got back to the TV just in time to see the sack, and like so many other people thought “Well, that’s that,” only to be proven wrong on the subsequent play.

The Crimson Tide scored the game-winning touchdown in dramatic fashion, Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith, but her family may have ended up winning more than anyone.

Per tradition since 2011, when Alabama wins a national championship, the Nick’s Kids Foundation and the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity team up to build a house for a family in need. Every time they do so, they have to rename the project, now dubbed “17 for 17.”

The program has been so successful that it’s gone well beyond the original goal of rebuilding a neighborhood in Holt, Ala., following the devastating tornado, with the last couple of title-themed houses built in the suburban area of Tuscaloosa known as Alberta City, closer to campus.

It’s where the Smiths will now call home. Nick Saban announced during the national championship celebration in January that another house would be coming, and 17 for 17 had a presence in the parade. The recipients were subsequently selected and work began last month.

“It’s surreal,” said Smith, a longtime Crimson Tide fan. “I keep pinching myself that it’s real. It just doesn’t seem real yet.

“I don’t know if there are words to say what’s in my heart.”

On Saturday, Saban and a bunch of his players — name players such as linebacker Anfernee Jennings, defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, guard Ross Pierschbacher and tight end Hale Hentges — showed up to help out the project financed by the foundation named in honor of his father. Specifically, Nick’s Kids raises $ 100,000 toward construction of the home built by Habitat of Humanity, with the family getting a very favorable mortgage.

The group did stop to pose for a picture, but this was a working visit. While the coach helped with the foundation and frame for part of a deck, out front some offensive linemen were making cuts on a table saw. On the northern side, a group of defensive players were using a nail gun to add some supports to the roof frame.

No one was talking football.

“I just think that’s really what it’s all about, using the platform that you have to help bless others and bring a smile to others’ faces,” said quarterback Jalen Hurts, who had already met some of the Smith family at the Tim Tebow Foundation’s annual Night To Shine event, a special-needs prom that was held locally last month.

Of course, no one was smiling more than Smith.

The single parent of two is a survivor of open-heart surgery. She and her 20-year-old daughter Megan are both going to nursing school and have nighttime jobs. Her 19-year-old son, Andrew, has spina bifida, when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly, or fully close an area of the spinal column. It happens approximately one month after conception, and the exposed nerves can cause paralysis.

Consequently, this championship house is a little different, and completely wheelchair accessible. There are wider doors, a special bathroom and an extra door added to his room to give Andrew and his service dog Kendra easy access to the backyard.

“I kept showing him pictures and he would see steps, and he would see steps and say ‘Mom, I’m not going to be able to get up there.’ ‘Yeah, you will be, there’s not going to be any steps in our house.’ So he’s finally convinced of that,” Smith said.

“It’s taken several, several weeks for him to see the process.”

While using the word most associated with Saban, the coach was just a few feet away helping put the foundation and frame in for a backyard deck. He and defensive end Isaiah Buggs, who had done some similar-type work while growing up in Ruston, La., sort of guided their group that included Hurts and linebacker Christian Miller.

“It’ll totally change their life and that’s what we like to do,” Terry Saban said while her husband went by with a large bucket of water to help set the concrete for the posts. Later he grabbed a hammer and nails and helped with the deck planks.

“This house represents, to me, a lot more than that gold trophy does,” she added.

Besides, what better way to remember the team that overcome so much last season.

“Let’s do one more …” Terry Saban said of what has sort of become the project motto. “I [always] hope we get to do one more.”

Alabama football-Crimson Tide football-Nick Saban
Alabama football players helped build a house with Habitat for Humanity on Saturday. (Christopher Walsh/SEC Country)

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country


Team mom Cassandra Johnson a lot more than casual observer of Alabama basketball

Cassandra Johnson-Alabama basketball-Crimson Tide athletics-Avery Johnson

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — At times it’s almost impossible to pick her out of the crowd at Coleman Coliseum. Even if you know where she’s sitting, two rows behind the University of Alabama bench, it can be anything but obvious that her husband is the coach and her son is on the team.

Other times it’s as apparent at the shiny silver jacket she sometimes wears.

A good example was when Alabama hosted LSU on the night before Valentine’s Day, Cassandra Johnson was decked out from her neck down to her knee-high boots in pink, which also happens to be her favorite color.

For a good while she sat not just composed, but poised while watching things play out in front of her. There was a mix of intense focus, clapping and cheering, but almost like someone observing a fashion show in Paris rather than a basketball game.

That is until a few minutes into the second half, when after seeing Alabama’s lead all but vanish, the team answered with a flourish. Following sophomore forward Braxton Key driving the lane for a left-handed layup off a nice pass from sophomore Dazon Ingram, she was jumping up and down as if to lead the entire arena in celebration.

It was also as if her own child had made the basket.

It’s one of the different things about being at a university, which took a little to get used to. Yet she’s embraced the idea of being the team mom in addition to a sort of assistant to her husband, Avery Johnson. They’ve essentially adopted a dozen-plus young men, and every night when the coach gets home she wants to know about each one of them.

“Mom is the biggest cheerleader,” junior guard Avery Johnson Jr. said.

Only she does sometimes get caught in the middle.

After EPSN announcer Dick Vitale suggested during the win at Florida in early February that Avery Jr. needed to talk to his dad over dinner about getting some more playing time, the reserve player responded by saying “Nah, I’m not going to have that conversation … I like my life.”

But he does talk to his mom and older sister Christianne, who during his collegiate career has gone from the Wharton School, the prestigious business school at Pennsylvania, to a regular-hour job in New York.

“Oh yes, my brother calls me all night,” Christianne Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘I’m sleeping.’”

“We go back and forth,” the mother said. “You can only imagine.”

A life not quite expected

Although her sister played basketball at Xavier University of Louisiana, Cassandra wasn’t that big of a fan of the sport growing up. She played some, but gymnastics was more her thing, and sports took a back seat when working on a nursing degree at Southern University.

She never went to a men’s basketball game as a student and saw her husband play at that level. They met through friends, one of her summer roommates was dating a teammate. He saw her going into the nursing building one day and subsequently made sure that they’d meet.

“Do you know who I am?” she described from their first conversation. “He’s like, ‘I’m a basketball player.’ I guess he was trying to say I’m famous. I’m like, ‘Nope. Never heard of you.’

“He was like I’m the famous basketball player and I was ‘Well I’m the famous nursing student.’”

Avery’s retort was that he was going to play in the NBA. She wasn’t too sure about that, or him either, even if he had led the NCAA in assists in each of his two years at Southern and was the Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year.

Lo and behold, he ended up having a 16-year playing career in the league and this July will be their 27th wedding anniversary. Cassandra estimates that over the years she’s been to more than 2,000 games at the pro and now college level.

He played with the Seattle SuperSonics (1988-90), Denver Nuggets (1990, 2001-02), San Antonio Spurs (1991, 1992-93 and 1994-2001), Houston Rockets (1992), Golden State Warriors (1993-94, 2003-04) and Dallas Mavericks (2002-03), and coached the Mavericks (2005-08) and New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets (2010-12) — being fired by the latter on his wife’s birthday. In between, Johnson did stints as an analyst for ESPN.

Consequently, as he closes in on the end of his third season at Alabama, this is already one of the longer stints of his basketball career. But he and his wife didn’t arrive in Tuscaloosa looking for another short-term stay.

Alabama basketball-Crimson Tide basketball-Avery Johnson
The Johnson family poses for a picture. (UA Athletics/courtesy)

“We had turned down probably six DI jobs,” Cassandra Johnson said about the decision to take over the Crimson Tide in 2015. “My kids were much younger and my husband’s job in the NBA had taken him away from the family. We were a commuter family.

“When we accepted this job my daughter was already in college and my son had already signed with Texas A&M. So I was ready to go full-swing with it.”

Yet being involved with a college program was not what she expected. On the plus side were the parents and families of the players, who were much more down to earth than what she was used to in the NBA. Most were involved in their kids’ lives and simply wanted the best for them.

On the flip side were all the NCAA regulations and what they can and can’t do in recruiting and for the players. Like so many others, understanding all the little nuances is still something that she grapples with on occasion, and Cassanda Johnson is someone who is used to speaking her mind and doing things as she sees fit.

“That was the biggest surprise,” she said.

Food for thought  

The Sunday before that LSU game, the Johnsons had one of their many team meals at their house. Being that it was Madi Gras, the Louisiana native made sure that there was plenty of Cajun food to go around, from jambalaya to, as he put it, “a little bit of everything.”

“They like seafood gumbo,” Cassandra said. “They like red beans and rice. They love the shrimp and grits. You just can’t be too exotic with it.”

But her real touch that night was the advice she gave her husband. At the time the Crimson Tide kept following big wins against ranked teams with disappointing and frustrating losses. The coach, who had been a psychology major, had been pushing every button he could think of, and was going through motivational manuals looking for ideas. She pointed out that the answer was right in front of him.

The majority of the team is made up of players who are 18 or 19 years old and away from home for the first time. They were still learning how to deal with the grind of a Southeastern Conference season, but college life as well.

“She said, ‘Rather than going to a psychology book, when they come over to our house on Sunday why don’t you spend time individually with all of them and let them just see Avery? They’re tired of seeing Coach,’” Avery Johnson said.

“So, that’s the psychology part of it, just building relationships. She cooked them boys a wonderful meal and I had a chance to spend time with each one of them and just tried to get inside their minds. And it was good that they had a chance to see Avery. So, rather than read a book, I just spent some intimate time with my players on Sunday at my house.”

Alabama beat LSU 80-65. The folks back in New Orleans may not have liked it, but the win was a big one the Crimson Tide needed.

Of course not all team meals at the Johnson house have been like that, not even the crawfish boil that went over well, but Cassandra made sure to learn everyone’s favorites. Sophomore forward Daniel Giddens is big fan of the shrimp and grits, freshman guard John Petty especially likes fried chicken, and when they do pasta freshman guard Collin Sexton opts for marinara sauce over Alfredo.

She tries to avoid doing too much catering since the players already get so much of it, preferring home-cooked dishes. Each place setting has a name tag to make it personal and photos are sent to their families.

“When they come over and then say they’re going to study hall but are coming back, I’m thinking ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to be here all night,’” Cassandra said. “They tend to do that a lot.”

It means a lot to her, though, along with things like sophomore forward Braxton Key almost always sending a text reading: “Thank you team mom.”

Life coach personified

Ask another in the family what defines Avery Johnson, and they’ll almost certainly say “resiliency.” The man was ninth in a family of 10 kids and raised in the New Orleans’ Lafitte Housing project, located in the 6th Ward of the Treme neighborhood (which was torn down following the extensive flooding from Hurricane Katrina).

After attending St. Augustine High School, where he led his team to an undefeated season and the 1983 Class 4A state title, Johnson went to New Mexico Junior College and Cameron University in Oklahoma before attending Southern. His first pro team was the USBL’s Palm Beach Stingrays and he had to earn a tryout with the Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder).

The son of a woman who went back and graduated from high school at the age of 55, Johnson doesn’t give up on anything he believes in easily, and is as driven as anyone.

That mentality may be how he won over his wife, and is certainly how he made it as a player. Sure, Johnson played in 1,054 NBA games with 637 starts after not being drafted, but what no one else saw were the countless hours he put in to prove his detractors wrong over and over again. Things like when he and now-announcer Kenny Smith would often head to the Compaq Center in Houston late at night and work for hours on jump shots, free throws, everything.

Thus, everyone in the Johnson family knows what it takes to be successful at the highest level. They all went through it together.

Alabama basketball-Crimson Tide basketball-Avery Johnson-Avery Johnson Jr.
Coaching his son Avery Johnson Jr. (5) has been a little different this season. (UA Athletics/courtesy)

“Our ambition is to get these kids to whatever level they want to get to, but they have to work really hard and the millennial kids don’t always present that level of energy,” Cassandra Johnson said. “They don’t understand. They don’t think the NBA [is hard]. The NBA is an enormous amount of work and dedication.

“You gotta have that [drive] or you don’t have it.”

So she injects little things here and there, giving her two cents on if she thinks he’s being too hard on the team or the exact opposite.

To the players, though, it’s all about encouragement. Especially the one who transferred in from Texas A&M and hopes to someday get into coaching like his father.

That’s what moms do, in general and team moms as well, although when asked who’s the tougher coach in his life, his mother or his father, Avery Jr. wisely gave a diplomatic answer considering that one of them directly decides his playing time.

“Ahhhhhhhh … I’m going to go with big Avery.”

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country


Alabama’s decade of dominance was even more jaw-dropping after 2017 national title

Alabama-Nick Saban-Alabama football

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Some of you may remember SEC Country embarking on a big project called the “Decade of Dominance” last summer, which examined if the University of Alabama football team’s success over the 10-year span from 2007-2016 was the most impressive in college football history.

It was, and the numbers backed it up. Links to the 10 stories are at the end, including a look at what might had happened if Nick Saban not taken over the Crimson Tide.

However, there was one obvious caveat. Considering that a decade can be any 10-year span and not necessarily beginning with a “0” and ending with a “9” there was an opportunity to still improve on some of its numbers by including 2017 in place of Nick Saban’s first season of 2007.

That season ended with an appearance in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.

So here’s a quick look back with some updated numbers:

• National championships: 5

Alabama stands alone for most national titles over a 10-years span during the poll era. Moreover, none of the Crimson Tide’s titles were considered split during BCS and College Football Playoff years.

Most national championships in a decade

Team Titles Seasons
Alabama 5 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017
Miami (Fla.) 4 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991 (AP)
Notre Dame 4 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949
Nebraska 3 1994, 1995, 1997 (Coaches)
Notre Dame 3 1973 (AP), 1977, 1988
Alabama 3 1973 (Coaches), 1978 (AP), 1979
USC 3 1972, 1974 (Coaches), 1978 (Coaches)
Texas 3 1963, 1969, 1970 (Coaches)
Alabama 3 1961, 1964, 1965 (AP)
Oklahoma 3 1950, 1955, 1956
Minnesota 3 1936, 1940, 1941

• Most consecutive seasons ranked No. 1 in AP Top 25: 10.

It had never been done before. Frank Leahy’s Notre Dame teams did it five straight seasons (1946-50), and Miami reached seven (1986-92) under two different coaches, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson.

• All-Americans: Since 2008, the Crimson Tide have fielded 30 consensus All-American selections earned by 25 players. Saban finished the decade with eight more consensus All-Americans than anyone else over a 10-year span during the last century. To find anything that compares, one has to go back to the Ivy League powers well before The Great War, otherwise known as World War I.

Most consensus All-Americans in a 10-year period

Yale (1900-09) 40
Yale (1889-98) 33
Harvard (1892-1901) 32
Alabama (2008-2017) 30
Princeton (1889-98) 30
Florida State (1991-2000) 22
Oklahoma (2000-09) 20
Penn (1895-1904) 20
Notre Dame (1964-73) 19
Ohio State (1969-78) 19
Oklahoma (1971-80) 19

Add in his previous teams, and Saban has coached more consensus All-Americans than anyone in college football history (36). The previous leaders were Joe Paterno (33), Bobby Bowden (31) and Tom Osborne (30).

• Awards: With Minkah Fitzpatrick winning both the Thorpe Award (best defensive back) and the Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player), Alabama players have won 27 major national awards over the past decade. Throw in the most recognized coaching awards and it’s an even 30.

• Overall record: 125-14 (.899).

For those wondering, Saban’s winning percentage since 2010 is .891

• Big wins: Saban improved to 6-1 in national championship games.

From 2008-17, Alabama was 53-14 against ranked opponents, a winning percentage of .791. When facing tougher foes the Crimson Tide were 27-8 vs. top-10 teams (.771), 15-6 against top-5 teams (.714), and 6-1 when playing the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 (.857).

Those six wins against top-ranked teams are more than any coach in history as no one else has more than four. Saban has seven overall, including his initial signature win with Michigan State against No. 1 Ohio State in 1998.

At 55-7, Saban has won more games coaching a No. 1 team at one school than any coach in college football history. Woody Hayes and Bobby Bowden are tied for second at 40, over 28 and 34 seasons, respectively.

The Crimson Tide have been ranked No. 1 in 40.8 percent of the 152 games under Saban. Hayes’ percentage was 16.7 and Bowden’s 10.8.

• NFL draft: Alabama has had 65 players selected since the 2009 draft, including 22 in the first round and another 15 in the second round. Considering the Crimson Tide didn’t have any players picked in the 2008 draft, their decade numbers are still incomplete.

Alabama has 14 players invited to the upcoming NFL combine and appears to have a shot of at least matching its 2017 modern program record of 10 selections.

Of course, Alabama actually could improve its decade numbers once again in 2018, as the 2008 team went 12-2.

Should it do so, we’ll be back for another update in a year.

A 10-part series examining Nick Saban’s impact over the 2007-16 decade at Alabama, which posted on SEC Country from July 2-Aug. 27, 2017.

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country


Report: 2 more names emerge for vacancy on Alabama coaching staff

Alabama football-Nick Saban-Alabama coaching staff

Even though the college football season ended over a month ago, Nick Saban is still looking to fill out his Alabama coaching staff. And on Sunday, 2 names emerged as possible candidates for the opening on the defensive line. The position became open after Karl Dunbar left to become the defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to a report from Matt Zenitz of, former FAU head coach Charlie Partridge has interviewed for the job. Zenitz also added that Lance Thompson, who is currently the defensive line coach at South Carolina, could fill the role.

Thompson has experience with Saban, as he’s worked with the Alabama coach on three seperate occasions, twice at Alabama and once while Saban was at LSU. Thompson has spent the last two seasons at South Carolina with Will Muschamp.

Partridge spent the past season at Pittsburgh. He does have SEC experience as he was the defensive line coach at Arkansas in 2013. He was also the defensive line coach at Wisconsin from 2008-12, where he groomed the likes of JJ Watt.

The Alabama coaching staff has seen plenty of turnover this offseason, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left to become the head coach at Tennessee. Defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley left to join the Oakland Raiders. And on the offensive side of the ball, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll left to become the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator. Mike Locksley will be the new offensive coordinator and while Tosh Lupoi will be the defensive coordinator. Both coaches were on Alabama’s staff last season.

Alabama went 13-1 last season and won the national championship, as the Crimson Tide defeated Georgia in the national title game, 26-23. Alabama opens the 2018 season on Sept. 1 when it takes on Louisville in Orlando, Fla.

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Connor Riley – SEC Country


Alabama RB Ronnie Clark’s touchdown was about more than an injury comeback

Ronnie Clark-Alabama football-crimson tide football

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Sometimes in football, a touchdown is worth a lot more than six points.

That was the case with the University of Alabama’s final score against Ole Miss last Saturday, which prompted an emotional celebration on the Crimson Tide sideline that even Nick Saban had to admit that they probably should have gotten a penalty.

It would have been worth it, because everyone who was exuberant about junior Ronnie Clark’s first career touchdown knew the full story. It’s more than an athlete coming back from major injuries. It’s about seeing someone overcome so much that you can’t help but root for him.

So, yes, the touchdown was special, as was the reaction of his teammates. Nearly a week later, Clark wasn’t sure which meant more to him.

“They’re both about the same because I hadn’t scored a touchdown since high school because of all the stuff that I’ve been through,” he said. “It was just kind of shocking to me. I was amazed at the same time, but I was happy that I had got it done.”

Yet the reaction on the field was just the beginning. Friends and teammates spoke proudly and took to social media. One of his former high school assistant coaches, Jamie Scruggs, posted, “This young man has been scoring touchdowns on and off the field his whole life! I’m so happy for you.”

“We all love Ronnie Clark to death,” junior tight end Hale Hentges said.

“Ronnie’s one of those dudes that he cares about everyone, like everybody,” sophomore running back Josh Jacobs said.

Saban referred to him as the “consummate, ultimate great story about any program and what college football should be all about.”

All that about Alabama’s ninth touchdown against the visiting Rebels.

What most Crimson Tide fans know about Clark are his prolific high school years before signing with Alabama, and the injuries he’s endured since.

In 2013-14, Clark was considered one of the top-5 recruits in the state after a stellar career at Calera High School that resulted in invitations to play in both the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game and the Under Armour All-America Game.

His high school career had gotten off to an early start in eighth grade. Coach Wiley McKeller made Clark a slot receiver because he was already better at the position than anyone else on the roster. Three years later, the coach moved him to quarterback because he was already the leader of the offense, while also playing him on defense.

Clark never complained about the different roles. As a senior, he completed about 70 percent of his passes, accounted for more than 2,500 yards and 35 touchdowns while leading the Eagles into the state playoffs.

“He is an ace of a guy,” said McKeller, now the coach at Vincent High School. “I’ve had the luck to coach some really good athletes, but the way he carries himself and his demeanor and work ethic is what really sets him apart. He’s the standard by which I judge all other kids with above-average ability now. I can’t help it, it just pops in my head, like ‘Ronnie Clark was never late to a practice’ or ‘Ronnie Clark was never tardy to a class.’

“You see so many guys that do have a sense of entitlement because they might be a little bit bigger or a little bit faster in high school, and here’s a guy who’s just completely selfless. Tremendous leader, tremendous guy.”

Alabama’s coaches were initially thinking defensive back with Clark, but they ended up placing him with the running backs. He redshirted in 2014 and played three games during the subsequent season when during the individual drills of a practice he gave a burst, felt a pop and went down in a heap. His left Achilles had torn, the first major injury Clark experienced.

Naturally, he was heartbroken.

“Definitely,” he said. “The Achilles is how you walk, you know what I’m saying? It’s a thing that you need because you walk every day. It was kind of a struggle at first.”

An Achilles tear is more common in basketball and gymnastics, but there are certainties about the recovery process. It takes a long time, often a full year until an athlete can compete again, and they’re often unable to do so at the same level.

“You pretty much have to learn how to run again, learn how to walk again,” Clark said. “Once you tear it you’re not walking for a couple of months and then once you start back walking it’s a process. It’s a long, nagging process and it’s a tough one to come back from, too.”

Clark did come back only to have the same thing happen on the right side, this time while working with the punt team. It was near the end of the Crimson Tide’s final spring practice, and he didn’t even need the trainers to tell him what had happened.

“I tore it the same way, just taking off to run,” he said. “It felt the exact same as the left one felt.”

Some people would have said that’s it, enough is enough. No one would have blamed Clark if he had bowed out gracefully.

He says he never considered quitting.

“I’ve always been a competitor, and I’ve always wanted to compete and play football, that’s what I love to do,” Clark said. “The love I have for the game, the passion I have for it, I never thought about it through the injuries and everything.”

The “everything” he alluded to serves as his inspiration, motivation and sounding board — his mother.

Kimberly Clark has muscular dystrophy, which is a group of disorders that leads to progressive loss of muscle mass and loss of strength. When she watches her son play for the Crimson Tide it’s from a wheelchair.

“I think about her,” Clark said about putting his injuries into perspective. “There’s nothing that compares to what she’s going through.”

Not only did she need assistance with day-to-day things that most people take for granted, like walking, washing and dressing, so did Clark’s grandmother, who moved in with the family while dealing with a brain tumor.

With his father’s job for a railroad company frequently taking him out of town, Clark had to do a lot of things that most of his high school peers couldn’t begin to fathom.

“I started at about 13, 14,” he said about helping his mother and grandmother. “It kind of matured me into the young man I am today. It made me see a lot more than what the average teenager sees.

“It taught me a lot.”

Like patience, perseverance and not being afraid to step up or speak out when necessary. Yet the experiences didn’t alter who he was at the core, and intensified his ability to lead. For example, when first asked about last week’s touchdown, Clark’s initial response was: “I’m not an individual type of guy, I’m a team guy. I scored this for my team.”

With his latest comeback, Clark spent time working at tight end but he’s a full-time running back now with 15 carries for 70 rushing yards this season. He nearly scored during the final minutes at Vanderbilt, but understood why the coaches opted to take a knee at 59-0.

He didn’t have to wait long for opportunity to come around again, a 9-yard run with 6 minutes, 51 seconds to go to cap Alabama’s 66-3 dismantling of division rival Ole Miss.

For those who have stood by Clark all these years, the score was irrelevant. You bet they were celebrating.

“It felt good,” Clark said. “It was unbelievable.”

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country


College football Week 1 TV viewing guide: Alabama vs. Florida State and so much more

lsu-nick saban-jimbo fisher

Rejoice, college football fans, because the 2017 season has finally begun.

You probably missed it last weekend, but Stanford, South Florida, Oregon State and a handful of other schools played their first games of the season. Many more are scheduled for the next five days, giving us a jam-packed slate that’s sure to keep everyone entertained over Labor Day weekend.

But you only have two eyes, and presumably one or two TVs, and the human attention span can only carry us so far when we’re 10 beers deep on Saturday night. So, with efficiency in mind, SEC Country has created a comprehensive viewing guide that highlights all the games you should be focused on throughout Week 1.

Let’s get to it. All times listed are ET.

Thursday: The appetizers

  • Marquee matchup: No. 2 Ohio State at Indiana (8 p.m., ESPN)
  • For SEC diehards: Florida A&M at Arkansas (8 p.m., SEC Network)
  • Other games of note: Tulsa at Oklahoma State (7:30 p.m., FS1)

The first SEC game of the year kicks off in Fayetteville, where the Hogs will square off against presumed Rattlers quarterback and mullet-haired wonder Ryan Stanley. In four years with the Razorbacks, Bret Bielema is 10-8 in games played before October, including an 0-4 record against Texas A&M and losses to Rutgers, Toledo and Texas Tech. Disaster seems unlikely, however, against a Florida A&M program that’s been outscored, 162-13, in its last three FBS matchups.

If watching Arkansas pummeling a cupcake isn’t your thing, there’s ex-Indiana coach Kevin Wilson — now Ohio State’s offensive coordinator — squaring off against off against his old team in Bloomington. The Buckeyes are a College Football Playoff contender with a dynamic offense, and Indiana played several of its Big Ten foes close last season.

arkansas-football-bret Bielema
Bret Bielema is 25-26 in four seasons at Arkansas. (SEC Country/file photo)

Elsewhere, another man defined by his mullet (Mike Gundy) will lead Oklahoma State into battle against a Tulsa program that scores points at an obscene rate. The Golden Hurricane 42.5 points per game in 2016, good for No. 7 in the country.

Bonus: Navy at FAU (Friday, 8 p.m., ESPNU)

If you still aren’t tired of Lane Kiffin, and if the idea of college football being played on Friday night doesn’t appall you, the perpetual Nick Saban antagonist will host Navy. The Midshipmen are favored by double digits and should throttle the fightin’ Kiffins.

Saturday, early: The snoozers

  • Marquee matchup: Maryland at No. 23 Texas (Noon, FS1)
  • Also pretty good: Cal at North Carolina (12:20 p.m., ACC Network)
  • For SEC diehards: Missouri State at Missouri (Noon, SECN)

The Tom Herman era begins in Austin against a Maryland team most don’t expect to be any good. But these days, there’s always a chance Texas shoots itself in the foot and makes this a game, as it did last season in a 50-47 double-overtime win against Notre Dame. Likewise, the Cal-North Carolina matchup has the potential to produce a wacky result, with first-year coach Justin Wilcox assuming command of a Bears program that was all-offense, no-defense under Sonny Dykes.

For Missouri fans and those absolutely itching to watch an SEC game, there’s Missouri hosting its in-state counterpart in a likely beatdown. Josh Heupel’s offense is entertaining, if nothing else, and Drew Lock has a chance to put up some big numbers in 2017. Missouri State should allow him to begin padding his stats right away.

Saturday, mid-afternoon: Now we’re talking

  • Marquee matchup: No. 11 Florida vs. No. 17 Michigan (3:30 p.m., ABC)
  • Also pretty good: N.C. State vs. South Carolina (3 p.m., ESPN)
  • For SEC diehards: Kentucky at Southern Miss (4 p.m., CBS Sports Network), App State at No. 15 Georgia (6:15 p.m., ESPN)

This is more like it. Florida and Michigan meet less than two years removed from the 2016 Citrus Bowl, where the Gators were manhandled in embarrassing fashion. The Wolverines have to replace a ton of talent from last year’s 10-win squad, including 10 of 11 starters on defense, but they have an absolute beast up front in Rashan Gary. Florida still has question marks at quarterback amid a three-way competition for the starting job, but Malik Zaire seems to have a leg up on Feleipe Franks and Luke Del Rio.

In Charlotte, N.C., South Carolina and N.C. State square off in a battle of two underrated teams. The Will Muschamp-led Gamecocks could author a couple of SEC upsets this year with Jake Bentley, Deebo Samuel and Hayden Hurst leading a potentially high-powered passing attack. Dave Doeren, meanwhile, has guided the Wolfpack to three consecutive winning seasons. At least one prominent analyst thinks this team has playoff potential.

Kentucky lost to Southern Miss in its 2016 opener, but the Wildcats went on to win seven of their last 11 games. Benny Snell, a standout offensive line and a young, hungry defense give them the tools to be even better in 2017. App State gave Tennessee a major scare in Week 1 last season, and very well could do the same to Georgia.

Saturday, late: Sweet football Jesus

  • Marquee matchup: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State (8 p.m., ABC)
  • Also pretty good: BYU vs. No. 13 LSU (9:30 p.m., ESPN)
  • For SEC diehards: Georgia Southern at No. 12 Auburn (7:30 p.m., SEC Network), South Alabama at Ole Miss (7:30 p.m., ESPNU), Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee (8 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
  • Other games of note: No. 16 Louisville vs. Purdue (7:30 p.m., FOX)

There’s three relatively sleepy SEC nonconference matchups, Lamar Jackson facing Purdue and Ed Orgeron leading LSU against the Cougars in Houston. But none of that really matters, because Alabama and Florida State will be playing the most-hyped Week 1 game in recent memory.

And for good reason, we should add.

Elite coaches? Check. Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher have won a combined 164 games since 2010.

Quarterbacks? Check. Sophomores Jalen Hurts and Deondre Francois are two of the most dynamic signal callers in the country. They combined for 61 touchdowns last season and could be even better with another offseason under their belts.

Elite playmakers? Check. Alabama has Bo Scarbrough, Calvin Ridley and Minkah Fitzpatrick spearheading its blue chip-filled roster. FSU has the freakish Derwin James, shutdown corner Tarvarus McFadden and emerging wideout Nyqwan Murray.

You have two clear playoff contenders, one a living dynasty that came within one play of another national championship, squaring off in a brand-new stadium in prime time. This is the kind of college football matchup that can get any fan excited, and every other game pales in comparison.

RELATED: Bobby Bowden favors Florida State over Alabama, says Jimbo Fisher could replace Nick Saban as ‘sheriff’

Sunday: But wait, there’s more!

  • Marquee matchup: Texas A&M at UCLA (7:30 p.m., FOX)
  • Other games of note: No. 21 Virginia Tech vs. No. 22 West Virginia (7:30 p.m., ABC)

The first half of A&M’s home-and-home against the Bruins ended in thrilling fashion, and there’s premier talent on both sides in Round 2. For UCLA, there’s Josh Rosen at quarterback and two tantalizing 5-stars on the front seven — outside linebacker Mique Juarez and defensive end Jaelan Phillips, the country’s No. 1 recruit.

There’s no replacing Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall on the edge, try as the Aggies might, but their interior defensive line is one of the SEC’s best and deepest. Christian Kirk might be the conference’s most exciting player to watch, too. But Kevin Sumlin has a steep mountain to climb to keep his job; a win in the Rose Bowl would do him plenty of good on that front.

Monday: Labor Day dessert

  • Marquee matchup: No. 25 Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech (8 p.m., ESPN)

After spending the entire offseason trying to portray the Vols’ 9-4 campaign in 2016 as successful, Butch Jones will have the unpleasant task of facing Georgia Tech in Atlanta to open 2017. The Yellow Jackets are gunning for a fourth straight win over the SEC East following victories against Vandy, Georgia and Kentucky, and their triple option is no joke. The Vols, meanwhile, have to replace Josh Dobbs, Derek Barnett, Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Their defensive line contains serious question marks, as well.

This one could be fun for Tennessee haters.

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country