Georgia, Alabama coping with high expectations at top of SEC

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ATLANTA — It’s no easy task to live with expectations at the top of the Southeastern Conference.

Alabama’s 2021 season has been described as a disappointment even though the Crimson Tide won the SEC title and played in the national championship game.

Georgia won its first national championship since 1980 by beating Alabama. After having 15 players selected in the NFL draft, including three defensive linemen, Georgia now faces criticisms that its time at the top will be only a one-year stay.

The Bulldogs are viewed as underdogs to the Tide in this year’s SEC race. Alabama, Ohio State and possibly others are more popular picks in early national championship projections.

Coach Kirby Smart said Wednesday he doesn’t worry about his Bulldogs getting complacent.

“I don’t think any of our guys would rest on the laurels because we don’t really have a lot of guys that have laurels to rest on,” Smart said at the SEC Media Days. “I think that’s the biggest thing because everybody keeps bringing up you won a national championship, so do you worry about complacency. Well the guys who won it, they’re mostly in NFL camps, so there’s a lot of hungry guys on our team.”

Alabama standout linebacker Will Anderson says just winning the SEC title last season wasn’t enough.

“The biggest goal of our team is always to win a national championship and we didn’t meet that goal last year,” Anderson said Tuesday. “So that season was not the successful season that we wanted, because all the blood, sweat and tears we put in, all the hard work, all the long meetings – is to get to the national championship and win it. And we got there and didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish.”

If Smart’s read on his new starters’ motivation is correct, the Bulldogs’ hunger is most prominent on defense. There were five Georgia defensive players selected in the first round of the NFL draft, including defensive end Travon Walker as the No. 1 overall pick by Jacksonville. Three more defensive players were picked later in the draft.

Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith said he attended Walker’s draft party and wasn’t worried about the impact of the draft on this season’s defense.

“It made me really happy, seeing all my friends realize their dreams,” Smith said. “There’s nothing more that a friend should ask for than to see your other friends be successful.”

Including LSU in 2019, Alabama in 2020 and Georgia, the SEC has had three different teams win the last three national championships. That can provide encouragement for coaches trying to build championship programs, including first-year Florida coach Billy Napier.

“I think we’re all aware if you can win your division, the championship here, you can be a national championship contender,” Napier said. “The path, it’s been proven. … We’re consumed with Florida right now. We’ve got a lot of grass to mow, right? It’s our grass, not anybody else’s. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Georgia has won the SEC East four of the last five years and is 27-2 in the division since 2017.

“I think we’re all aware there’s a large gap between Georgia and No. 2, and we’re working on closing that,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said.

Florida finished 6-7 overall, including 2-6 in the SEC, in 2021, leading to Dan Mullen‘s firing. Even so, Florida finished first in the East in 2020 and linebacker Ventrell Miller insists the Gators can return to the top.

“How big is the gap?” Miller asked Wednesday. “I don’t feel like there’s no gap.

“We’re the University of Florida. I feel like we had a bad season last year but we’re moving on, and I feel like this season is going to be a great season.”

The 33-18 loss to Georgia provides ample motivation for Alabama, including its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young.

“Coming up short obviously is really tough,” Young said. “It stings a lot. Obviously it hurt a lot losing. It’s something that we carry as fuel to the fire this offseason. It’s something that’s been fueling us, something that’s been pushing us. No one wants to feel like we felt last year, so we’re doing everything in our power to give ourselves the best chance to have the circumstances that we want to have.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.