1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

They’re carrying the flag now, charging the hill on the NCAA as a Big Orange agent of change.

It was all about protecting the Tennessee athletic program and its reputation, and putting an end to the vague and often counterproductive NCAA “guidelines” to living in the new NIL world.

It has become a lifeboat for Nico Iamaleava.

Not because of eligibility issues, but because of the inevitable distractions brought about by a potential NCAA investigation into Iamaleava and the former 5-star recruit’s path to Tennessee.

Because if Tennessee — and by Tennessee, I mean the university, federal and state politicians, and finally, an Eastern Tennessee federal judge — didn’t derail the NCAA’s last-gasp effort to regain control of its fiefdom by getting a temporary order preventing it from enforcing NIL “guidelines,” the fallout would’ve rested squarely on Iamaleava.

For months, and maybe years, his Tennessee career on the football field would’ve been distracted by the constant drumbeat of an NCAA investigation and his part in the unfolding process.

It’s difficult enough to deal with the pressure of win-it-all-or-bust (because that’s what it is), and win the Heisman Trophy that Peyton should’ve won or bust (because that’s what it is). But for Tennessee’s legal maneuvering, Iamaleava would’ve also had to have been Cam Newton.

That’s right, Cam freaking Newton.

To this day, Newton’s remarkable 2010 season is the greatest in the sport’s history not just because he played at a ridiculously elite level in his first year as a starter. Or that he carried a team that, outside of the quarterback position, was a few ticks above middle of the road.

It’s how he did it — with the backdrop of an NCAA investigation at every turn.

Newton’s dad allegedly was shopping him around the SEC after he graduated from Blinn Junior College, and the going rate was (allegedly) anywhere between $100,000-$180,000. So the NCAA called Newton’s dad, Cecil, and the next thing you know, Big Brother is asking for bank records.

And the NCAA enforcement staff is trying to connect Newton’s father — and the 5 churches where he was a bishop — to any change at any of the churches that involved high dollar value moves. You know, follow the money.

Now imagine the big, bad NCAA zeroing in on Iamaleava and the Tennessee booster who (allegedly) flew him across the country for visits to Knoxville. What else did he pay for? What other “guidelines” did he cross?

What other benefits did Iamaleava receive, and did it involve a Tennessee athletic department not far removed from its last run-in with the NCAA that merely cost the university $8 million — and probation. Which, by the way, Tennessee is still technically serving.

I don’t need to tell you what happens when a program currently on probation breaks major rules again, do I? It would be one helluva season of distraction for Iamaleava — much less a talented Tennessee team — to navigate.

And let’s just say, Nico is no Cam. If you know what I mean.

2. The road less traveled

Newton was built to deal with his season of distraction in 2010.

He played a season at Florida where he backed up Tim Tebow and learned the nuances (on and off the field) of playing the position and embracing everything that comes with it.

He also had the humbling move to Blinn after being kicked off the Gators for stealing another student’s laptop. From can’t-miss 5-star — former Gators OC Dan Mullen told Saturday Down South that he told then-Gators coach Urban Meyer that Newton was the best quarterback on the roster, including Tebow — to living in a tiny dorm in tiny Brenham, Texas.

Newton had 2 years of motivation churning inside him, desperate to get out. An NCAA investigation? Please, get in line.

Iamaleava has 1 game against an Iowa team that couldn’t score on offense if it began every series at the opponent 25.

That’s right, 1 game — and a meaningless bowl game, at that. Hey, Nico, welcome to life in the SEC with your 45 career attempts.

Now go deal with NCAA investigators digging deep into every facet of you and your family’s life since the first time you showed up in Knoxville on a recruiting visit.

That wouldn’t have been good for anyone — much less a sophomore quarterback who hasn’t started an SEC game, hasn’t played on the road in the SEC, and hasn’t dealt with SEC defensive coordinators breaking down tape of every flaw and trying to expose it on a weekly basis.

Fortunately, the university decided it wasn’t going to be the NCAA’s punching bag. It’s one thing for Florida State to get penalized for NIL “guideline” violations, or Florida to be investigated for the way it snatched recruiting defeat from the jaws of victory with 5-star quarterback Jaden Rashada.

It’s a completely different thing for the NCAA, on the verge of an implosion of its own doing — hello, acquiescing to NIL and free player movement at the same time without any clue of their impact (or guidelines!) — nailing to the wall those repeat rules offenders at Tennessee.

There couldn’t have been a bigger softball for the NCAA to knock out of the park.

Until Tennessee — and by Tennessee, I mean the whole damn state — wasn’t going to take it anymore. And the main, unintended benefactor?

Nico Iamaleava.

3. The Big Orange lifeboat, The Epilogue

A year from now, after Iamaleava completes his first season — or maybe even sooner — Vols coach Josh Heupel may just admit he should’ve played Iamaleava more in 2023.

Especially after it was clear Tennessee couldn’t win the SEC East Division after a Week 7 loss at Alabama.

At that point, the Vols should’ve been playing with an eye toward the future. There were difficult games on the horizon (Kentucky, Missouri, Georgia), and getting Iamaleava significant snaps in those games — not just mop-up snaps — would be of critical value in 2024.

There were 5 regular-season games remaining after the loss to Alabama, and Iamaleava didn’t throw a pass against Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia. He played against UConn, then played more against Vanderbilt — which may as well be UConn.

He probably should’ve started and played the entire UConn and Vanderbilt games, in addition to getting snaps in a win over Kentucky, and a 29-point loss to Missouri and a 28-point loss to Georgia. Instead, his lone start came in a bowl game that meant nothing, and against an Iowa team that had no chance of beating Tennessee.

He’ll begin this season with gimme putts against Chattanooga and Kent State sandwiched around games against a wildly underrated NC State defense at a neutral site, and an SEC opener at Oklahoma — where Heupel played and coached.

He’ll also do it without the backdrop of an NCAA investigation shrouding his every move.

4. Moving up

It took 3 classes, but Brian Kelly is getting an elite foothold on high school recruiting at LSU.

After his first 3 classes ranked No. 12 (2022), No. 6 (2023) and No. 7 (2024) by the 247Sports composite, Kelly is closing in on No. 1 for the 2025 class. LSU is No. 2 in the 247Sports composite — but only because No. 1 Notre Dame has commitments from 7 more players.

LSU already has commitments from 5 of the top 130 players, including No. 1 overall (QB Bryce Underwood), No. 4 (WR Dakorien Moore) and No. 44 (RB Harlem Berry).

Kelly and his staff have secured commitments from the top 3 players in the state of Louisiana (all 3 among the top 130), and 4 of the top 6. LSU is also among the leaders for 2 more 5-star recruits: CB DJ Pickett and WR Kaliq Lockett.

5. The Weekly 5

Five reasons 14 teams is better than 12 for the Playoff.

1. Two more teams in the tournament. A no-brainer, yes. But another opportunity for 2 more hot teams to make a deep run.

2. Only 2 teams get first-round byes: a significant prize that enhances the regular season. In a 12-team model, 4 teams get byes.

3. More SEC and Big Ten. Admit it, you’d rather see the best teams instead of forcing Big 12 or ACC teams, or any other top teams from any other conference.

4. It’s the NFL model. And before you complain, remember that the NFL is king of media. Nothing else comes close. Imitation is the sincerest form of cashing large media rights checks.

5. Watch how big the national championship game becomes — especially with a couple of rare runs from low seeds.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama WR Jermaine Burton.

“Helped himself tremendously during the interview process at the Combine, and more than anything, with a strong season (in 2023). He proved he could get off the jam and separate, and get open and make plays on big 3rd-down throws. He got lost for much of his career with both (Georgia and Alabama). That’s the red flag. Can you get him to produce consistently? He’s a Day 2 pick, no question. Maybe even a high 2nd-round selection for some teams.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll: Ranking the best football-basketball player combination:

1. Alabama: QB Jalen Milroe and G Mark Sears. Sears is 1 of the best 3 players in the SEC, and Milroe was arguably the best player in the SEC by the end of last season.

2. Tennessee: Edge James Pearce and G Dalton Knecht. The ceiling for both is tremendous. Pearce is primed for a big season in 2024, and Knecht could be the first college player selected in the NBA Draft.

3. Missouri: WR Luther Burden III and G Sean East II. The most exciting player in the SEC, and the most underrated player in the SEC. We know all about Burden; watch East play — just an unreal game.

4. Auburn: LB Eugene Asante and F Johni Broome: Asante is the best player in the SEC you’ve never heard of (he’ll be a 1st-round NFL Draft pick in 2025). Meanwhile, everyone knows Broome and his elite game.

5. Texas: QB Quinn Ewers and G Max Abmas. Ewers has yet to play a full season, but is loaded with talent. A volume shooter/scorer at Oral Roberts the previous 4 seasons, Abmas has dropped 4 points to 17.1 — but still is shooting 43% from beyond the arc.

6. Kentucky: DT Deone Walker and G Antonio Reeves. Walker had breakout season in 2023, and could be the SEC’s best interior lineman in 2024. If it weren’t for Knecht, Reeves would be SEC POY.

7. Texas A&M: DL Shemar Turner and G Wade Taylor IV. Taylor is the perfect Buzz Williams player: tough, smart, aggressive — and can shoot. Turner is loaded with potential. Is this the year he puts it all together?

8. Oklahoma: LB Danny Stutsman and G Javian McCollum. The classic, old school OU middle linebacker, who owns the run game. And McCollum, a Siena transfer who has been up and down as a scorer — but does so many other things so well.

9. Ole Miss: DT Walter Nolen and G Matthew Murrell. Nolen hasn’t played a down at Ole Miss, and already in the team’s best player. Murrell has had a terrific 4-year career at Ole Miss and will not return for 2025.

10. Georgia: QB Carson Beck and G Noah Thomasson. Beck should be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Thomasson has played well, but has taken less shots and his scoring average has dipped nearly 7 points since transferring from Niagara.

11. Florida: WR Trey Wilson and G Zyon Pullin. When Florida got the ball into the hands of Wilson in 2023, good things happened. It’s not hyperbole to say Pullin has been a program-saver for Gators coach Todd Golden.

12. LSU: LB Harold Perkins and G Jordan Wright (Vandy transfer). We don’t need to get into why LSU refuses to play Perkins on the edge full-time. Wright has been a productive scorer since transferring from Vanderbilt.

13. South Carolina: LB Debo Williams and G Meechie Johnson. Williams is a classic thumper middle linebacker, a reliable force. Johnson is a fun, fearless force despite his size.

14. Arkansas: DE Landon Jackson and G Tramon Mark (Houston transfer). Hogs got a huge lift for the pass rush when Jackson decided to return for the 2024 season. Mark never found it in 3 years at Houston, but he’s there now — his average improving by 6 points.

15. Mississippi State: WR Kelly Akharaiyi and C Tolu Smith III. Akharaiyi had a 1,000-yard season in 2023 at UTEP — despite catching only 48 passes (21.5 ypc.) Smith may be the most complete post player in the SEC.

16. Vanderbilt: WR Junior Sherrill and G Tyrin Lawrence. Sherrill is last man standing in the wide receiver room after every other returning starter of significance hit the portal. Lawrence has improved all 4 seasons at Vandy, and stayed when he could’ve left — and had his best season.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Why are there so many different start and end dates for spring football? Is it weather-related? — Scott Fisher, Lexington, Ky.


It’s coach-related, and that’s the easiest way to explain it. Each has a different philosophy about spring practice.

Some consider it critical to the development of players. Some just try to avoid major injuries and pull back on veterans.

Some coaches believe the earlier start allows for more recuperation time from any potential injuries. Others believe the later start allows for players to completely heal from the previous season’s injuries.

Missouri played its spring game last weekend. Georgia’s spring game is April 13.

Think about this: With college football — specifically, the SEC and Big Ten — moving toward a professional model, it would make sense to follow the NFL’s marketing genius, too. In other words, everything has a position on the calendar.

The NFL owns the sports calendar because every major move (outside of the season) within the structure of the league finds a standalone spot and captivates the moment. College all-star games (Senior Bowl, East-West Shrine Game), legal tampering/free agency, OTA’s, the Draft, minicamp, training camp.

The major television and cable networks do backflips for the content. College football can do the same thing, and sell it the same way.

Recruiting, the transfer portal, spring practice, fall camp. Set the calendar, and watch it grow to unrecognizable proportions.

9. Numbers

196. Nearly every metric for the Oklahoma defense got better in 2023, a key factor in the Sooners rebounding in coach Brent Venables’ 2nd season. Now, the problem: OU still gave up 195 plays of 10+ yards in 2023.

Why is this important, you ask? Only 1 SEC team (LSU) gave up more than 196 plays of 10+ yards in 2023. Vanderbilt, the SEC’s worst defense, gave up 194. Florida had, statistically, its worst defense in more than 4 decades — and gave up 164.

If the Sooners are going to transition smoothly into the SEC, the defense must get significantly better. And it starts with eliminating chunk plays.

10. Quote to note

Florida coach Billy Napier on QB Graham Mertz: “Him being back is a huge deal – not only for him personally and our team but for DJ (Lagway), as well. I think just in general, his leadership, his voice. I mean, the guy’s – it’s a big deal for the Florida Gators that Graham Mertz is back to play quarterback. A ton of advantages. A ton of confidence there.”