Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has the most interesting preseason camp
The NFL’s seventh season of Hard Knocks began yesterday with a second go-round inside training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The series brings all the drama of the NFL preseason with rookies making their way onto rosters, the tough decisions on who to keep and who to cut and players dealing with off-field issues.
The HBO program brings us closer to an NFL team each year, but we think the series would be a little more interesting if there were a college football version — the coaches have bigger personalities, the players are more raw on the field and less familiar with the business angle and professionalism off of it.
Behind-the-scenes access isn’t unheard of during the college football preseason. ESPN gets access from time to time; most major programs share videos through official web sites. But we want an unfiltered, warts-and-all look. Here are the teams we’d like to see:
1. Texas A&M
The Aggies would have been No. 1 before Johnny Manziel’s eligibility was thrown into question Sunday night. What a week ago looked like would be simply the Johnny Football Show now brings added NCAA drama. For better or worse, Hard Knocks: Texas A&M would present a look at the NCAA investigation process and the school’s response as they try to keep Manziel eligible for the Sept. 14 game against Alabama. Kevin Sumlin says he’s in the fact-finding stage, but it would be intriguing to see how he prepares Manziel’s backups for the opener. And for a dose of reality away from all-Manziel, all the time, let’s not forget that A&M players are grieving for the loss of teammate Polo Manukainiu after a car accident claimed his life last week.
What kinds of decisions does a coach make just before a critical season in his career? Lane Kiffin hass already closed regular season practices to the media, though that’s not a decision the average fan will find too intriguing. More than that, Kiffin is overseeing a rare quarterback competition at USC. The last one was four seasons ago when Matt Barkley quickly dispatched Aaron Corp early in the 2009 season. Perhaps more interesting than Kiffin picking between Max Wittek and Cody Kessler would be the reactions of one of the nation’s best receiving duos in Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor to each QB candidate. If the offensive side of the ball isn’t interesting enough, new coordinator Clancy Pendergast is installing a new 5-2 scheme. And finally, two words: Ed Orgeron.
Les Miles is a character, and that would be enough to carry any Hard Knocks season. But this preseason would be intriguing even if Miles were cut in the mold of deadpan coaches like Mark Dantonio or Kirk Ferentz. LSU’s trademark defense is full of new names and faces. The assumption is that the Tigers will pick up where they left off, but it’s going to be a young group. On offense, Miles recently reinstated his top running back (Jeremy Hill) following to legal issues and has a quarterback (Zach Mettenberger) who has a new coordinator and a spotty history on and off the field.
We’re not sure if “The Process” would be compelling television or a football version of “The Joy of Painting.” The most entertaining part may be watching players interact with a state and fan base basking in Roll Tide euphoria and then returning to a disapproving Nick Saban. And after that, Hard Knocks: Alabama would be a chance to get to know the Alabama coaching staff, which is shut down from media interviews once the season begins. Fans somewhere should have a reason to be excited to hire defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
5. Notre Dame
Hard Knocks: Notre Dame might lose a ratings battle with The Bachelor: Manti Te’o, but we’re still watching the Irish try to navigate their return to national prominence and how Notre Dame deals with the BCS Championship Game embarrassment. Brian Kelly has a quarterback battle on his hands between the veteran Tommy Rees (who the fans aren’t totally excited to see) and Malik Zaire (who the fans didn’t expect to see taking snaps until 2014 or 2015).
6. Ole Miss
Ole Miss is kind of Hardcore SEC Fan Central this season. The Rebels need their top-10 signing class to contribute immediately, both as starters and for depth. We know Robert Nkdemdiche through the recruiting process, but Hard Knocks: Ole Miss will give us the first look at the top freshman in the SEC, playing on the defense as his brother, Denzel, who is a star in his own right. Hugh Freeze has only be a college head coach for two seasons, but his homespun qualities have been a perfect fit in the SEC. He’s a positive guy, but he may have to prepare his team for a rough start to the season thanks to the Rebels’ brutal schedule. Moreover, Ole Miss is one of the rare college teams that still does two-a-day practices in preseason camp, though the Rebels don’t exactly go full speed for those sessions.
7. South Carolina
There’s Steve Spurrier wisecracking and Jadeveon Clowney flipping sleds with teammate Gerald Dixon. And Manziel isn’t the only big-time player dealing with fame and everyone wanting a piece of him: Spurrier closed practices and declared a moratorium on talking about “The Hit.” And beyond the Spurrier/Clowney dynamic, Carolina is trying to win an SEC championship and national championship with a quarterback who missed all of spring practice and portions of last season.
8. Washington State
Mike Leach hasn’t changed in his second season at Washington State — he says he’s working on a book on Geronimo — so that will bring ample entertainment. On the field Washington State went 3-9 last season and may have the same record in 2013. Leach won seven games in each of his first two seasons at Texas Tech and nine in his third, so he’s in uncharted territory in Pullman.
Few teams are under more pressure than Texas. The Big 12 is wide open, but there’s little consensus Texas, one of the most talented teams in the league, can win it. Four seasons removed from their last Big 12 title, the Longhorns have also lost ground to Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas A&M, never mind being firmly under the thumb of Oklahoma. How Brown coaches for his job and how Manny Diaz tries to repair one of the nation’s worst run defenses would be intriguing storylines.
James Franklin is cliff diving, and Herb Hand is Tweeting and angling for a spot on Chopped. But meanwhile the Commodores are in the midst of one of the best runs in school history. Although Vanderbilt swiftly dismissed the four players at the center of a campus sex crimes investigation, the program is growing accustomed to people paying attention to what’s going on in Nashville for a change.