Jeremy Johnson was well aware of the lofty expectations he faced entering this season. The Auburn junior quarterback had been mentioned in the same breath as former Tigers star quarterback Cam Newton. And there was talk that Johnson could even do this season what Newton did five years ago—win the Heisman Trophy and a national championship.
But after Johnson and Auburn narrowly escaped an upset by FCS Jacksonville State 27-20 at home in overtime on Saturday, Johnson was just thankful for avoiding what would have arguably been college football's greatest upset. He also critiqued his disappointing play that has resulted in five interceptions in his first two games this season, the most by an SEC quarterback over that span since 2009.
"I'd give myself a C," Johnson told The Inside Read after Saturday's win. "I've just been average."
Johnson might be grading on a curve, but with 18th-ranked Auburn traveling to No. 13 LSU on Saturday in a pivotal SEC West showdown, he knows he'll have to be much better if his team is to remain in the College Football Playoff chase. His Tigers haven't won in Baton Rouge since 1999.
"It's a good test for us," Johnson says.
Saturday is also a litmus test for third-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, the Tigers' offensive coordinator in 2010. During the last week, Malzahn has reiterated that Johnson is still his starting quarterback and also repeatedly expressed that he must do a better job helping Johnson succeed.
For the latter to happen, Johnson admits he must be smarter when his initial reads are covered, a major factor in the three interceptions he tossed in Auburn's season-opening 31-24 win over Louisville in Atlanta. Instead of forcing throws, he says he needs to run the ball or throw it to his checkdown options.
"Sometimes, I've just got to use my feet and take what the defense gives me," Johnson says.
So far this season Johnson hasn't been much of a threat on the ground or through the air. He's rushed nine times for just 18 yards and completed 32 of his 53 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns to go along with five interceptions.
That's hardly what Auburn fans expected from Johnson, who teased them with his potential in last year's season-opening 45-21 rout of Arkansas. He had 243 passing yards and two touchdowns in the first half filling in for then-suspended starting quarterback Nick Marshall, who took over after halftime.
"All I can do is get better and lead this team," Johnson says.
Johnson insists that he hasn't lost his teammates. He says they encouraged him even after he threw an interception early in the fourth quarter Saturday that Jacksonville State turned into a touchdown and a 20-13 lead. That helped Johnson orchestrate Auburn's game-tying drive in which he threw a 10-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime.
"I've faced adversity knowing this team is behind me," Johnson says. "Those guys have a lot of confidence in me no matter what. They always tell me they believe in me."
That means more to Johnson than any expectations, comparisons or hype. "I'm just here to play," Johnson says. "I'm not thinking about no Heisman or anything. My goal is to lead this team each and every game and get back to the SEC championship."
That treacherous journey starts Saturday. And Johnson knows if he is to make it back to Atlanta this season, he'll need to earn himself a better grade.
AD change will have little affect on Texas coach Charlie Strong
So what does the resignation of Texas athletic director Steve Patterson mean for Longhorns coach Charlie Strong? Not much.
Because while Patterson's disastrous 22-month tenure was rife with controversy and embarrassment, Strong's got problems of his own trying to rebuild the downtrodden program left by his predecessor Mack Brown.
Patterson hired Strong in early 2014, but otherwise the two men weren't tied to each other. Like many Texas head coaches, Strong's dealings with Patterson were limited. Strong was left to do his job and that wasn't expected to change anytime soon. For all of Patterson's bullheadedness, he understood the stark realities of what Strong had inherited from Brown and knew it would take at least three seasons to change.
That timeline won't change with Patterson's exit. And while the defensive-minded Strong has had issues finding an identity for his offense, his biggest problem remains his lack of upperclassmen talent.
Last season, Texas didn't have a single player selected in the NFL Draft, the first time that's happened since 1937. Two NFL scouts told SI.com on Tuesday that it's unlikely that any Longhorns senior will be taken in April's NFL Draft either.
That blame falls squarely on Brown, who was allowed to stay too long by Patterson's predecessor, DeLoss Dodds. It's also why Brown isn't likely to replace Patterson as Texas' athletic director despite all the speculation.
Because if Brown couldn't keep from running a juggernaut like Texas football aground, how could he oversee the Longhorns' $161 million athletic department? Whoever does succeed Patterson will need to tread carefully though. Because while Strong and his talented young players are enduring growing pains, Strong remains highly respected in athletic director circles.
And with all the shakeup in Austin, he'll continue to be coveted for other high-profile head coaching jobs.
USC's Justin Wilcox learning what it takes to be successful
Justin Wilcox doesn't like to reveal much about himself. The second-year USC defensive coordinator is vague about his coaching confidants, whether he someday wants to be a head coach and even about his hobbies. "I'm not that interesting," Wilcox told The Inside Read.
That's until the secretive Wilcox admits that he's an avid reader of books about success. He is fascinated by Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," which he believes has many recruiting correlations.
"We're all trying to find an edge," Wilcox says. "In the people business, which we're in, it's never going to be black and white, but you do want to find the traits that set people up for success."
Wilcox is currently reading a book called "Fierce Conversations" that centers on how to talk to and communicate with others. "It's important because that's the world we're in working with the players," Wilcox says. "You've got to stay with it."
It's a daily challenge for the 38-year-old Wilcox. He's admittedly not a social media fiend and refuses to read books electronically because he prefers to make notes and underline in hard copies.
Yet, Wilcox is constantly trying to adapt to his players. "You better be evolving," Wilcox says. "It's a different day and age in terms of what players are exposed to at a younger age."
In Wilcox's quest to learn how to communicate better with his players and best motivate them for success, he turned to a USC professor about communication in a social media age. Not surprisingly he declined to name the professor, but did say the discussion included how to best run position meetings to maximize his players' engagement.
"Whether it's 15 minutes of film or we're doing 20 minutes of on the board work, we're trying to keep them fresh," Wilcox says. "That's opposed to the old days when you had a 50-minute position meeting with one guy talking in the back of the room and the projector going. I just don't think you do that anymore."
That's why Wilcox has taken the time to carefully study the seven ways of learning. He'd rather discuss those methods than talk about his previous stints as defensive coordinator at Boise State (2006-09), Tennessee (2010-11) and Washington (2012-13).
"I don't want publicity," Wilcox says. "I just want to win. That's really all I want."
Maybe that's revealing enough.
For a daily dose of college football insight, check out The Inside Read every weekday on Campus Rush.