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College football: It’s almost here

SEC football: Everyone still chasing Alabama

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm speaks during a press conference at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days in Hoover, Ala., Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Curtis Compton /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

By John Zenor

AP Sports Writer

HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — Kirby Smart talks about the Georgia taking “that next step.” Quarterback Jake Fromm wants the Bulldogs “to get over the hump.”

In the Southeastern Conference, that step — or hump — is beating Alabama. Georgia has pushed the Crimson Tide to the brink in a Southeastern Conference championship game and a national championship game the past two seasons, only to lose both times.

It’s close enough to stamp the Bulldogs as national title contenders once again. Despite 24 wins and one SEC title in the past two seasons, the team’s offseason catchphrase says it all: “Do more.”

“We want to do more at the University of Georgia,” Smart said Tuesday at SEC media days. “We’re not complacent in what we’ve done, and we know we need to take that next step.”

While Georgia and Alabama remain the teams to beat in the SEC, there are other teams that showed signs of mounting challenges by the end of last season.

The Bulldogs and Tide both ended with losses, including ‘Bama’s 44-16 national title game humbling by Clemson. LSU and Florida both finished on high notes to secure final top 10 rankings with Kentucky not far behind at No. 12. Jimbo Fisher appears to have Texas A&M on the rise also.

No program in the SEC has come closer to catching up with Alabama than Georgia. The Bulldogs lost the national title game two seasons ago on Tua Tagovailoa’s touchdown pass in overtime and blew a two-touchdown lead over the Tide in the SEC title game last December.

“We’re just trying to get over the hump,” Fromm said. “Trying to do more. That’s what our motto has been this offseason. How can we get better at winter workouts? How can we get better during the summer? How can we condition ourselves better, be bigger, faster and stronger? How can we prepare better? We’ll figure it all out a little more during camp and then get ready for the season.”

The Bulldogs lost their final two games, closing with a 28-21 loss to Texas in the Sugar Bowl. Both coordinators left for other jobs, but Smart brought in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

Other teams that are hoping to take the next step and get over the hump finished stronger.

Florida and Texas A&M ended with four-game winning streaks and lopsided bowl wins under first-year head coaches. LSU won three of its last four, with a 74-72, seven-overtime loss to Texas A&M the only blemish. The Tigers beat UCF in the Fiesta Bowl.

Texas A&M faces a schedule that includes defending national champion Clemson, Alabama and Georgia. Fisher was asked if he would find being called a potential spoiler “encouraging or condescending.”

“Condescending. We don’t want to spoil anything,” Fisher said. “We want to take care of our own, and they are great teams. But we expect to play with them and compete with them and win those games. That’s why we’re here. We are not looking to spoil anything.

“We’re looking to win something and go about our business and do the things we have to do. They are great programs, but Texas A&M can be the same way. We have to go play and prove ourselves and do the things we have to do, but I definitely think we’re on that track.”

Meanwhile, Mullen’s Gators routed Michigan in the Peach Bowl, appearing to close the gap with Georgia and Alabama.

“I really don’t worry about the gap too much,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “I focus more on our team and what we need to accomplish to get to that point and win it. That’s one of our goals right now, is to get there and win it and get to the playoffs.”

•••

BIG 12

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Tom Herman knows that Texas is probably a bit ahead of schedule after 10 wins in his second season that included making the Big 12 championship game and a Sugar Bowl victory.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Longhorns are back just yet.

“We weren’t here to just have a really good season in Year 2,” Herman said Tuesday. “We were here to rebuild a program that’s capable of sustaining success, and we feel like we’re on the way there.”

With junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year, the Longhorns are picked to again finish second in the league behind four-time defending champion Oklahoma.

The Longhorns won the Red River rivalry game at the State Fair of Texas last October. But the Sooners won the conference title game at the home stadium of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, where the two-day Big 12 media days wrapped up Tuesday and where the championship game will be played again in December.

“When you take over a program that hadn’t won 10 or more games in a decade, and had gone through three straight losing seasons, there’s some work to be done, in terms of being able to sustain a level of success that everybody associated with Texas football expects,” Herman said. “I was really proud of our players for their buy-in level last season, and the results on the field showed that. It’s still a work in progress.”

With four new coaches in the Big 12 this season, the biggest turnover in league history, only Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, TCU’s Gary Patterson and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell (going into his fourth season) have been in the league longer than Herman.

After success outside the Power Five, two of the coaches featured on the final day are just getting started — Kansas State’s Chris Klieman and West Virginia’s Neal Brown.

Brown, who took over the Mountaineers after Dana Holgorsen left for Houston, is coming off three consecutive 10-win seasons with bowl victories at Troy. He is returning to the Big 12, where he was Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator from 2010-12.

Klieman was part of seven FCS championships the past eight seasons, including four in his five years as head coach. He replaced the retired Bill Snyder, who won 215 games in his 27 seasons.

“What coach did at Kansas State was nothing short of remarkable and I’m going to feed off that,” Klieman said. “We have a great culture because of what coach did. I know I’m not going to fill his shoes. I’m just trying to continue in his legacy, but doing it our own way.”

Herman said he looks at Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose Tigers have won two of the past three national championships. It was in Swinney’s eighth season when the Tigers finally won a championship, in 2016, before beating Alabama again last season. The last national championship for Texas — the last for a Big 12 team — was the 2005 season, Mack Brown’s eighth in Austin, though the Longhorns did get to another title game in 2009.

“I’m not saying we’re setting the bar for seven years, but what I’m saying is we want win championships, and we want to win them now,” Herman said. “But we were brought here to rebuild a program and that takes time.”

Ehlinger threw for 3,292 yards with 25 touchdowns and only five interceptions last season. He also ran for 16 scores.

Criticism of Ehlinger from former Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield is one thing; it was different when NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw recently told a group at Louisiana Tech, his alma mater, that Ehlinger “ain’t that good.”

Herman and Ehlinger both downplayed the Bradshaw comment, though Herman said his quarterback loves to play with a chip on his shoulder.

“I’m sure he’ll use this to crank it up a notch,” Herman said.

Ehlinger was asked if it was something like out of a dream to be answering questions about Bradshaw.

“I don’t know if this is a dream, to tell you the truth,” he told a crowd of reporters. “Regardless of what happens, to be in this situation at the University of Texas is what I dreamed of. It’s a blessing within itself.”

___

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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