SEC Championship: Auburn, Missouri are even but took different roads to Atlanta

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If there is one song that seems to sum up the recent wild ride the Auburn Tigers have taken the past few weeks, it may be Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer. At least, the title of the song seems to be most appropriate to describe Auburn’s journey to the SEC Championship Game this weekend in Atlanta. Missouri hasn’t exactly had to rely on a power from above as much as Auburn, but they will be lining up on the other side of the field of Auburn this weekend after a similar one-year turnaround in SEC play.

For as similar as these two teams appear to be when you start to look at the numbers, Auburn and Missouri could not have had much different paths to Atlanta. Auburn’s season started with a breath of fresh air with the hiring of head coach Gus Malzahn, who took over for his former boss Gene Chizik. Malzahn was previously one of the hottest assistants in the game while helping to lead Auburn to a BCS championship a few years ago. He picked up some head coaching experience last year at Arkansas State before rejoining the Tigers. The optimism was high for Malzahn at Auburn, but even the most loyal of Auburn supporters would probably admit they didn’t quite see this coming. Auburn was ranked 118th in total offense a year ago, but Malzahn quickly helped improve that. The Tigers enter this weekend with the nation’s 15th best offense in total offense. Much of that is a credit to the incredible running game the Tigers have relied on.

The SEC’s top rushing offense is grinding up 318.25 yards per game on the ground, which should make for a great battle with Missouri. Missouri ranks second in the SEC in rushing defense, but Auburn ran for 218 yards and a touchdown against the SEC’s top rushing defense (Alabama) last weekend. As if stopping Tre Mason is not a tough enough task for Missouri, focus must also be given to quarterback Nick Marshall, who is a threat to throw and run any time. He may not have impressive passing numbers, but Marshall proved last weekend he has a good eye and an ability to wait for a play to develop. Doing that against Missouri will be a key for Auburn.

All this talk about Auburn though and you might be thinking Missouri is a complete afterthought. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Missouri’s turnaround this season has been just as surprising as Auburn’s to most. In their first year in the SEC, while Texas A&M was enjoying the national spotlight, Missouri was slugging through their initiation in the new conference with a 5-7 record. Gary Pinkell‘s team missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2004, which helped to validate the criticisms some seemed to have about Missouri’s place in the SEC. The tables were turned this season though, as Auburn ripped through the SEC East except for an overtime setback at home against South Carolina. These Tigers managed to do it with two different quarterbacks leading the offense without losing much of a step along the way.

James Franklin got things rolling with a 6-0 start under center, throwing 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions as Missouri set the bar high for the rest of the season. A shoulder injury to the starting quarterback in a big win at Georgia, which made it clear Missouri was a serious contender in the division as opposed to a pretender, put the fortune of the season in limbo, but Maty Mauk stepped in to keep the Missouri Tigers roaring.Mauk calmed the nerves of Missouri fans for the most part by avoiding mistakes, throwing 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions in Franklin’s absence. That was highlighted by a five-touchdown performance against Kentucky. Mauk was in command for Missouri’s only loss of the season, but if Franklin should happen to be taken out the Tigers know they have a competent replacement ready to jump right in. Whoever ends up playing quarterback at any given time for Missouri, they will have one of the top targets in the SEC in Dorial Green-Beckham, the receiver who shocked the college football world by committing to Missouri a few years ago. Green-Beckham commands plenty of attention, which opens up the field for the complimentary L’Damian Washington. The two receivers combined for 20 touchdowns this season, so Auburn will have their work cut out for them in the secondary.

It is often turnovers that become the difference of a game. If that is going to be the case for the SEC Championship Game, the Missouri Tigers figure to have the advantage. Missouri has a turnover margin of +15 entering the championship game, which looms large over +1 owned by Auburn. Will Auburn have to rely on some improbable sequence to pick up one more win and an SEC championship?

War Eagle, Auburn’s half way there.

Oregon LB arrested for removing parking boot dismissed by Ducks

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In April, Fotu Leiato was arrested on a couple of charges related to the illegal removal of a parking boot from his vehicle.  A month later, we’ve learned Leiato was given the boot from his current football program for good measure.

247Sports.com was the first to report that Leiato has been dismissed by first-year Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal.  Further to the point, the linebacker’s dismissal came a day after his April arrest but the news didn’t surface until Thursday.

In the April incident, Leiato was arrested on charges of second-degree criminal mischief, second-degree theft and criminal trespassing.  That was actually his second arrest this year as he was charged with misdemeanor trespassing in January.

The combination of the two arrests led Cristobal to pull the trigger on a dismissal.

Coming to Eugene as a three-star safety, Leiato played in 37 of 38 games the past three seasons.  The Washington native earned the first start of his collegiate playing career during the 2017 season.

The senior had been in line to earn a starting job exiting spring and heading into the summer phase of the offseason.

LB Darrin Kirkland announces transfer from Tennessee

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Darren Kirkland‘s injury-plagued time on Rocky Top has come to an end.

On his personal Twitter account Thursday evening, Kirkland announced that he has decided to transfer out of first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt‘s Tennessee football program.  The linebacker gave no specific reason for his decision to move on from the Volunteers.

“Tennessee will always hold a special place in my heart,” Kirkland wrote. “These moments have been priceless and I’m a better player and man from this experience.”

As a graduate transfer, Kirkland would be eligible to play for another FBS program in 2018.  Not only that, but he will have two seasons of eligibility remaining counting this year.

A four-star 2015 signee, Kirkland started 10 games as a true freshman and then another six in a sophomore campaign marred by a high-ankle sprain that forced him to miss four games.  In summer camp last year, he suffered a knee injury severe enough to sideline him for the entire 2017 season.

The rehab from that injury kept Kirkland from being a full participant in Pruitt’s first spring practice this year.

North Texas dropping $625,000 to install new turf that naturally includes new design

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Seth Littrell has done a great job turning around the program at North Texas but fans getting a look at the 2018 edition of his team will notice something right away that’s different when they take the field for the home opener: new turf. The Denton Record Chronicle reports that UNT is ponying up $625,245 for the latest “FieldTurf CoolPlay” turf at Apogee Stadium.

“We are excited about the turf,” Littrell said recently, according to the paper. “It was much needed. That turf has been used a lot and has gotten worn down. The new field will improve safety and will be a great resource for our kids.”

The old turf had a good run at the stadium after being installed back in 2011 but obviously the summer heat and 300+ pound bodies playing football will cause a little wear and tear. The Record Chronicle says that “North Texas” and “Mean Green” will be the end zones text while the midfield school logo will include a “dark green outline of the state of Texas.”

Completion of the project is expected to be done well in time for the first game against SMU in September. The school has released some shots of Apogee Stadium without the old turf and it certainly looks kind of wild to see a stadium sans a playing field:

Kansas State AD open to scheduling Nebraska in the future

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Conference realignment ended a bunch of big rivalries, from the major (Texas-Texas A&M) to the mundane. Former Big 8 and Big 12 rivals Kansas State and Nebraska were somewhere on the middle of that scale after playing each other in football for decades. While nobody is clamoring for the two to get together quite like they are the Longhorns and Aggies, there’s plenty who would still love to see them schedule a non-conference series given how close Lincoln and the Little Apple are to each other (135 miles across the border).

Wildcats athletic director Gene Taylor has been in the job just over a year and it seems like he’s very aware of the scheduling situation between the two schools and is open to getting something done eventually. He was asked about adding the Cornhuskers to the slate in a Q&A on the school’s website and had this to say:

“That is a school that makes a lot of sense,” said Taylor. “We are pretty well-scheduled out in football with our one Power Five opponent, but we do play them in baseball and have had conversations in men’s basketball. If the opportunity were to arise, they are someone we would certainly entertain if it made sense for us.”

KSU is fully booked on the scheduling front through 2022 but have been open to adding home-and-homes with former Big 12 opponents with Missouri on tap for 2022/23 and Colorado on 2027/28. They’ve got a Power Five opponent on the docket until 2031 so it seems like the team wouldn’t be able to get something done with Nebraska until after then. That is, to say the least, a long ways away.

Who knows, maybe they’ll be able to meet in a bowl game at some point over the next few years. The Cornhuskers and Wildcats last met in 2010 in a series that is heavily weighted to Big Red. At least Taylor is leaving the door open and leaving a chance of the two programs hooking back up on the gridiron.