By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Cara Capuano is in her fifth year as the sideline reporter for SEC TV, the Southeastern Conference’s syndicated football television package, working alongside Dave Neal and Andre Ware each week. She also calls play-by-play for SEC women’s basketball and softball on SEC TV and the ESPN family of networks.
Capuano sat down with the SEC Digital Network on Wednesday to discuss her observations through two weeks of the 2013 SEC Football season in the following Q&A.
SEC Digital Network: Alabama vs. Texas A&M is obviously the game that many people are talking about this week. Knowing what you know about both teams, what do you expect from that game?
Cara Capuano: “So far this season, every SEC vs. SEC match-up that I really wanted to be thrilling and fun to watch hasn’t disappointed me, and I expect this game to be more of the same. First, the late-game fireworks from Ole Miss at Vanderbilt and week one and then the star-studded showdown between South Carolina and Georgia to determine which team would take early control in the SEC East in week two. I can’t imagine anything less from the upcoming game in College Station. It has all the makings: the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, trying to prove what has on the field, to counterbalance the significant drama off of it. Meantime, two-time reigning BCS Champion Alabama looks to remind the nation how it has won two straight and three of the last four national titles, and why it is still the team to beat. From our ESPN Stats & Info group, under Nick Saban, Alabama is 4-3 when coming off a regular-season bye week – the three losses all came to LSU (which also had bye weeks each time in 2007, 2010 and 2011) and in the four wins, the Crimson Tide outscored their opponents 126-45.”
SEC Digital Network: Discussing Alabama vs. Texas A&M, what do you believe each team will need to do in order to win that game?
Cara Capuano: “Both teams have improvements to make, as demonstrated in their early-season games. Texas A&M was outgained offensively by Rice (509-486) and allowed 240 rushing yards to FCS-member Sam Houston State last week. The Aggies defense needs to find another gear against the elite playmakers they’ll face from Alabama. On the other hand, Alabama’s offense has some work to do, after amassing only 206 total yards against Virginia Tech in week one. What really impressed me about the Crimson Tide’s season opener was the balance between the three facets of the game: though the offense wasn’t necessarily dazzling – 2.5 yards per play rushing is pedestrian by Alabama standards – the defense and special-teams units both made impactful, momentum-changing plays. What better antidote for early-season offensive wrinkles than a kickoff return, a punt return and an interception return for scores? I’ve learned from our weekly meetings with the coaching staffs that the deciding factor in a game of this magnitude is often a basic tenet for success – take care of the football. The team that wins the turnover battle is primed to prevail. The proof is in last year’s box score. Alabama committed three turnovers, Texas A&M zero.”
SEC Digital Network: Taking all of the rivalry and hype aside, what is the significance of Saturday’s game?
Cara Capuano: “The reality of this game on Saturday is the same as what we saw play out last Saturday between the hedges. The team that wins controls its fate in its division. In the last seven years, the SEC Champion has played for the biggest prize on the national stage. Assuming that will be on the line again this year, this is a golden chance for one team to take command in the stalwart SEC West before mid-September.”
SEC Digital Network: The game that may be flying under the radar this week is South Carolina vs. Vanderbilt. How important is that game to the SEC East picture and what do you expect to see from those two teams?
Cara Capuano: “It’s hard to believe that in week three of the season, we’ll see a match-up that is the second SEC game for both of its participants. Because of its tremendous importance, I expect to see the highest levels of preparation from the coaching staffs and incredible effort from the players. Both squads are 0-1 in the SEC, coming off of games they could have won. Getting that first win in conference play is paramount, elevating the urgency to win this game to an almost desperate level. Which group of players will manage the energy of those high expectations, to avoid nerves and perform under pressure? I’d say the advantage goes to South Carolina, because of the outrageous environment its frenzied fan base will create at Williams-Brice Stadium. It’s impossible to put a value on ‘being able to hear yourself think’ and the Gamecock fans have an uncanny knack for taking that away from opponents.”
SEC Digital Network: Florida is a team that you saw play Toledo in the season opener before its loss to Miami last week. What did you see from Florida and what will the Gators need to do to rebound from their loss to the Hurricanes?
Cara Capuano: “Perhaps the most glaring stat in the turnaround for Florida from year one to year two under head coach Will Muschamp was turnover margin. In 2011, the Gators were minus-12 in turnover margin. In 2012, en route to an 11-2 record with a 7-1 showing in SEC play, the Gators were plus-15 in turnover margin. Last year, Florida committed 15 total turnovers, the fourth-fewest in school history and tied for the 15th-fewest in the NCAA. Last week in the loss to Miami, Florida committed five. The Gators’ defense, despite losing stars like Jon Bostic, Matt Elam and Sharrif Floyd to the NFL, still seems to be clicking at a high level, holding Miami to 212 total yards of offense and Toledo to only 205 total yards the week before. However, the unit prides itself on takeaways and has amassed only two through the first two games. Ball security will be an onus for the offense during its bye week to prepare for Tennessee. As well, offensive coordinator Brent Pease told us before the season opener that he’s looking for playmakers to emerge around quarterback Jeff Driskel, particularly at the wide receiver position. Several players have shown the potential through the first two games. Who will step up consistently?”
SEC Digital Network: Tennessee is a team you saw play last week vs. Western Kentucky. What is different about this team in its first year under head coach Butch Jones and on what will the Vols’ success depend this season?
Cara Capuano: “It’s one thing to hear a new head coach talk about ‘teaching his players how to win,’ but it’s another to see it in action, up close. Butch Jones has a multitude of mottos and his players are clearly buying in. One is ‘Team 117.’ He has tried to impart to his players that they are simply the 117th edition of Volunteers’ football history. It’s not about what teams have done before or what will come – it’s about the legacy that this team leaves on the program. The players have taken ownership, evidenced by the hashtag #Team117 included in most of their tweets. Jones wants 117 to lay a foundation for success ‘brick by brick,’ a message he reinforced by handing out actual bricks to every person associated with the football family, starting with the players and coaches and extending into administrative and operations staff, even groundskeepers and custodians. ‘63’ is another calling card: six seconds (the average length of a play) and three great efforts. Starting this past week vs. WKU, Jones will award helmet stickers to recognize players who demonstrated ‘63’ after grading out the game tapes. He also installed a new motivation for scout-team players: they need to earn the right to run through the ‘T’ at home games with their effort in practice.
“His methods are working. The players are believing in themselves and listening to what their coaches are teaching. It is one of the most energetic coaching staffs I’ve ever seen on the sidelines. There is a synergy that was missing before on Rocky Top. There is clearly a new culture in Knoxville. With an incredibly tough 2013 schedule – a gauntlet which revs up the next two weeks at Oregon and Florida – that culture may not translate into wins now, but combined with improved recruits, the future is bright.”
SEC Digital Network: Through two games in the 2013 season, which SEC team has impressed you the most and why?
Cara Capuano: “That’s a tough one. Frankly, as someone who covers a conference that has produced some of the most sensational and memorable football games in the past five years, not to mention seven straight national champions, it’s hard to be impressed by anything in the first two weeks of September. That said, there is a team that has caught my attention – Auburn. I’m not surprised. Of the four coaching staff changes in the offseason, I knew Gus Malzahn would be an immediately comfortable fit on the Plains, because of his history there and his short absence. It’s a rare luxury for a new head coach to inherit a program that he helped build through recruiting. What I’ve found impressive in the Tigers 2-0 start: the veteran players have a renewed energy in their leadership roles, the defense seems to be playing with an edge that was missing last year and Malzahn’s staff has a keen feel for what the players will respond to. It’s hard to reintroduce fun to a program that went 3-9 and 0-8 in SEC play last year, but Auburn appears to be riding some pretty positive momentum into its conference opener vs. Mississippi State this Saturday.”