Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mission Not Implausible

From Ivan Maisel:
If Georgia loses to Auburn and to Kentucky;
If Tennessee beats Arkansas and loses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky;
If South Carolina loses to Arkansas and beats Florida;
If Florida beats Vanderbilt and loses to South Carolina;
If Kentucky loses to Vanderbilt and beats Tennessee and Georgia;
And if Vanderbilt loses to Florida and beats Kentucky and Tennessee;
The SEC East will have a six-way tie for the championship at 4-4.

Spencer Tillman and My Sister's Dog

I was all ready to hand over a second-consecutive My Sister's Dog award to a Can't Broadcast Sports employee, in this case talking (empty) head Spencer Tillman for a really spectacular bit of mediocy, but Phillip Marshall beat me to the punch.

So go read Marshall's take. As usual, he's dead on.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wild Boys Falling, Far From Glory

Despite the absolutely gorgeous early fall weather on Saturday, I walked away from Jordan-Hare with the beginnings of a nasty head cold that really came into its own by Sunday, so this one is going to be short and sweet.

Tommy Tuberville was clearly looking to show nothing new to either Georgia or Alabama against Ole Miss, and I have to guess that he succeeded. The offense was back to unflavored yogurt, the defense rarely broke out of a standard cover-two with a four-man rush. And for the most part, it worked. Ole Miss was stymied for all but two drives, earning only a field goal on the night, and AU rolled up over 400 yards of offense--but still couldn't get many points on the board. I can't recall ever seeing Auburn dominate a game so thoroughly while still managing to struggle in scoring, and as a side-effect, keeping an outmanned opponent in the game into the final period.

The defense played well all around; the stars this week were Antonio Coleman and Tray Blackmon. Coleman is having something of a "David Pollack Year" in 2007. His success reminds me a lot of Pollack's sophomore season of 2002, when Pollack was able to wreak havoc thanks in no small part to the constant double-teaming of his Georgia teammate and eventual first-rounder Johnathan Sullivan. This time around, Coleman is reaping the benefits of the miasma of fear and accompanying double-teams generated by senior end Quentin Groves, and he's making the most of it. Coleman's blowing up (real good) of that attempted reverse in the second half was a signature play in a season full of highlights for the big sophomore. Blackmon's speed and instincts continue to be dazzling, and he put on a defensive how-to against Ole Miss. Will Muschamp has to be licking his chops at the thought of having these guys and most of their teammates around for another season or two.

I did think UM's quarterback Seth Adams played well, considering how close he was being to losing life and limb for most of the night. Auburn gave him the short pass for most of the game, and he made some nice quick throws to take advantage. As the end of Ole Miss's late attempt at a scoring drive proved, Adams was clearly the best option Ed Orgeron has at QB right now. "Yaw-Yaw" jokes aside, I knew the game was over as soon as Brent Schaeffer hopped onto the field. Schaeffer is the Nuke LaLoosh of SEC football: million-dollar talent and a fifty-cent head. When he tossed up that last interception into the end zone, it was hard to resist jumping up and yelling, "AFLAC!" (Honesty compels me to admit that I did not in fact resist doing so.)

Offensively, beyond yet another textbook Brandon Cox drive for a late touchdown, it was a pretty boring night for Auburn. The chains moved up and down the field, but just about every time the Tigers threatened, a mistake or a penalty would kill the drive (this game did feature the first no-contact pass interference call I've ever seen--is there a rule against using The Force to break up a pass now?). All in all it was a pretty lackadaisical display, and that goes for the crowd as well as the team. That had to be the quietest home conference game at night that I've attended. After Auburn methodically punched in the first score and held UM to several three-and-outs, the home fans mentally checked out and so did most of the team's intensity (and brother, if you think this was bad, just wait until next week). There were some nice plays. Pass protection was good, Brad Lester had another fine night, Rod Smith continues to shine, and Montez Billings had a nothing-short-of-heroic catch on third down late in the game, but Ole Miss '07 isn't going to go down as anything more than a timecard punch when the history of Auburn offense is rewritten.

So, that was it, a workaday win against probably the worst team in the SEC. The only real question coming out of it is whether Orgeron will survive to Yaw-Yaw for another season on the Ole Miss sideline. Next week's game promises to make A-Day look exciting, but after that...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Long Road

It's no fun being on the losing side of a classic. Don't believe me? Ask an LSU fan what he thinks about last year's game. In many ways it feels worse to lose by a hair's-breadth than it does to get blown out before halftime--and to be perfectly frank, I would have been a lot less surprised by that outcome than I was by Saturday night's result.

That doesn't do anything to diminish the stature of yet another amazing game and finish in this remarkable rivalry. What a series this has been over the last four seasons! After a stretch of flip-flopping blowouts from 1998 to 2003, the Auburn-LSU rivalry has produced four straight knock-down-drag-out games that were all in question until the last snap. That's an astonishing run, one made more remarkable by the high level of play on both sides.

What did I like? Montez Billings stepping up to join Rod Smith as a viable option at receiver. The tremendous improvement on third-down conversions. Brandon Cox, mocked mercilessly by LSU fans last week, playing from start to finish, passing for one short of 200 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, and once again leading his team down the field to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. Given another 90 seconds, there's little reason to think he couldn't have done it yet again. Defensively, taking away two turnovers and stuffing the Bengals for most of the first half was huge.

But, of course, it wasn't enough.

Once again, Auburn was able to take control of a road game and dominate the first half, but also once again, AU was not able to maintain that control after halftime. Whether it was due to the fan-decried "Tubershell" of conservative play-calling with a lead or simply LSU stepping up its game in the third quarter (I think it was the latter), Auburn stopped moving the ball until after the Bengals had taken the lead midway though the final period.

What I didn't like is fairly obvious: Auburn's running game lost steam and the pass defense all but fell apart in the third quarter. I didn't like the pooch kickoffs, and I really didn't understand pooch-kicking after Auburn's last score. Yes, AU's kick coverage has been awful this year and LSU has a great return game, but I don't think that validates giving them the ball on the 40 for that last drive.

Auburn has a lot to be proud of from Saturday night, but let's have no talk about "moral victories." The program is well beyond that level by now. Yes, it was heartening to see all those AU freshmen and sophomores on the road going toe-to-toe with LSU's juniors and seniors. Certainly there's optimism to be taken for the future, but also lessons for players and coaches alike about maintaining intensity and playing for a full four quarters--something Auburn still hasn't done yet against a quality opponent.

Lessons to learn, games still to be played. Auburn is now all but eliminated from SEC title contention (I'm willing to entertain the possibility that LSU could lose another game, but not two more), but the Tigers earned a fair amount of respect from Saturday's showing, and should be favored for the rest of the season. Now it'll be up to this very young team and its very few seniors to pick up the pieces and make the most of the opportunities remaining.

They've come a long way already, and I'm guessing they're done with falling short from here on out. We'll see.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


To everybody who's tried to email me through the address here at FTB over the last few months, I have not been ignoring you. I switched my email program back in August and have just realized that I neglected to set the thing up to receive mail sent to the FTB address. I am in the process of digging through the backlog, and I apologize profusely to everybody who probably (and reasonably) thinks I'm a stuck-up jerk for not getting back to them.

My bad all around. Thanks for writing, I will get back to you, and soon.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Colonel Reb Is Cryin'...

... but it's hard to imagine that he won't be laughing after he watches this. Great stuff, hat tip to The Dead Guy's SEC Site:

Lies and the Lying Corn Dogs Who Tell Them

There's an amusing little post making the rounds in message board land today, originating on the Tiger's Lair LSU board and written by a dude going by the name "lsub," who's apparently been boasting about 'firing up the masses' going into this week's Tiger Bowl grudge match.

(As an aside, this pre-game "firing up" business appears to be an oddity of LSU fandom. Why anybody would need to try and "fire up" any SEC fanbase for a huge conference game that's also an SECCG elimination match between two teams who've been at each others' throats for well over a decade is way beyond me, but you see this very often when LSU has a big game coming up. There's always some largely-imagined slight that gets tossed around in the Corn Dog echo chamber before the game, presumably to encourage the LSU fans to get even more drunk, obnoxious and abusive at the stadium. There's a weird obsession with being "disrespected" down in Red Stick. Pretty silly when viewed from the outside, but there you are.)

At any rate, here's the post:
"Now, this picture was sent to me by an Auburn graduate. The comment was made to me that this was taken by a sports photographer for a newspaper in Alabama. The player for Auburn in this picture is Zach Gilbert #38. Zach is a cornerback who made the non-called pass interference on Doucet. Zach is a Senior this year and has changed his number to 22.

Old Zach was on the sideline during the last play and when the game was over, ran across the field to do this. He was not standing there at the end of the play.

I was told Muschamp knew about the cigar situation at LSU and to fire up his players, he informed them that LSU planned to do the same at Auburn to return the favor. According to the Auburn people, Gilbert ran across the field when the game was over took off his helment and told Davis, "Close but not Cigar." He laughed at him and as he walked off said, "Smoke em if you got em." Now the picture was snapped when he was laughing at him. This I know is true. The quotes, came from an Auburn fan , true or not true, don't really matter.

Don't ever run across the field after a game, take your helmet off, stand over a player, and laugh at him. The picture says it all. Players will see this today and I assure you no matter how hurt or tired you are, you better come out swinging. This fired Miles up and the coaching staff. They don't win with class, that's evident. They don't have class. And just for Gilbert doing this, they need to be put on their ass.

Different strokes for Different folks but to me, this picture is a hell of a lot worse than smoking a cigar on my field. Don't stand over me and taunt me after a game. POS. LSUB is out."
Here's the picture our pal "lsub" is talking about:It's a nice story "lsub" tells here, and it is surely doing its job in "firing up" a fan base that needs very little encouragement to act like goons towards opponents. Just one problem: it isn't true.

Here's a clip from CBS's broadcast of the 2006 Auburn-LSU game. It's a replay of the final play shot from behind the end zone, and you can see #38 Zach Gilbert playing nickleback in the middle of the field (he's just to the left of the right-side goalpost), and running towards the football after JaMarcus Russell releases it. The camera cuts away before Gilbert arrives at the now-over play, but you can see by the path he's taking before he goes out of frame that he was heading towards Craig Davis while the ball was in the air, and obviously arrived shortly after Davis was tackled and the clock expired. The picture here is a little fuzzy thanks to YouTube's compression, but you can see Gilbert's number at the bottom of the screen before the camera pans (it's crystal clear in the original HD video):

Now, was it the greatest thing in the world for Gilbert to give Davis some chin music after that play? Probably not. I'd like to think I wouldn't have done it, but then again, those guys had been on the field swapping abuse both physical and verbal for over three hours, and the game had just ended seconds before the photo above was shot. It's not hard to understand players on either team (or any team, for that matter) getting in a little what-for in the heat of that moment.

I'm not under any illusions that pointing out the facts of the matter will make any difference to the Corn Dog Nation. They've made up their minds to be mad, and good for them. But just so you know, guys, you're getting mad over a made-up story.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pulled Pork

Arkansas '07 was arguably Will Muschamp's finest moment to date as Auburn's defensive coordinator, and certainly ranks among his best two games (shutting out Florida in the first half was pretty darn impressive in its own right). Holding both Darren McFadden and Felix Jones under 50 yards, and Arkansas under 70 net rushing yards for the game on the road is a little like going into Japan and cornering the market on rice. It just isn't done--but Muschamp and his troops did it.

One thing we know for sure: Auburn has a dominant, championship-quality defensive line. Once again, the Tigers front four absolutely demolished a quality opponent up front, and they did it without the defense's superstar and leader, Quentin Groves. It's way past time to acknowledge Groves' teammates up front: Josh Thompson, Pat Sims, Sen'derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman are just killing people out there. They might be the best defensive front Auburn has fielded since the legendary 1988 defense, and their ability to blow up the middle of the line has cleared the path for the defensive backfield to wreak havoc on quarterbacks and running backs--that is, when the D-line doesn't smash those guys down first. I doubt anybody was happy with giving up the late touchdown drive, but after 58 minutes of gut-busting football, both defenses had to be running on fumes.

Offensively, Tommy Tuberville said afterwards that Auburn intentionally stuck to a minimal, conservative gameplan, counting on the defense to control Arkansas and the game. That worked out in the end, but it drove fans (and I would hazard a guess Al Borges as well) mildly nuts as the game went on. Arkansas DC Reggie Herring, a veteran of Pat Dye's Auburn staffs, noted after last year's debacle that Auburn's offense had become predictable.* Herring, who also did a nice job of defending against AU this year, probably thought the same thing Saturday night; I doubt the Tigers ran as many as 15 different plays the entire ball game, but again, it was good enough.

Auburn's trio of running backs, Mario Fannin, Brad Lester, and whoa-Nellie Ben Tate, vastly out-rushed Arkansas (bet you thought you wouldn't read that this year), and the offense took what it could get in the passing game. It helped a lot that AU spent most of its time on the Razorbacks' side of the field, especially in the second half. Then again, this was the second SEC road game when the Tigers fumbled away an opportunity to put the game away, the punting game went south, hurting field position (which the defense, to its credit, was able to overcome) and the two uncharacteristic missed kicks from Wes Byrum didn't help any. Some more fireworks in the offense might have saved a lot of heartburn up until the point when Byrum knocked in the game-winner, but again: what Auburn actually did was enough.

Receiver Robert Dunn drives me completely crazy. The guy won't just catch the ball and run up the field on punt returns. He's dropped more touchdown passes than, er, the Auburn secondary. But damn if he doesn't come up with at least one amazing clutch play a week. Against Vanderbilt he broke at least six tackles to gain extra yardage after a catch, and against Arkansas he reeled in Brandon Cox's biggest and most crucial pass of the night, netting thirty yards and putting the Tigers well within Byrum's range. So credit where it's due: great catch, great run. Now let's work on doing that more often, eh?

Speaking of Cox, this was just another ho-hum evening for a guy to get the stuffing beaten out of himself and still lead his team to another big win on the road. Cox is making a lot of people who were mocking him during the early-season slump look pretty foolish these days. It's high time for folks out there to notice that he's the winningest active quarterback in the SEC, and he's now passed for over a thousand yards in 2007 with five to seven games still to go. Major kudos are also due to center Jason Bosley, who was carried off the field with a knee injury last week but still played every snap against Arkansas.

I would be remiss if I didn't wish Arkansas head coach and male cheerleader Houston Nutt a less-than-fond farewell. Nutt was never a good fit in the SEC; among many other faults, he'd obviously rather be in the Big-12 where he could play Texas every year. Even if he weren't an egotistical clown with delusions of grandeur and an enlarged whining gland (he is all of the above, and more), Nutt is an undisciplined goon who inspires and very likely encourages undisciplined goonishness from his players. Arkansas is the only college team I've ever heard of where the coaches are known to taunt opposing players from the sidelines, and as we saw Saturday, under Nutt the Razorbacks have a well-deserved reputation for cheap shots, late hits, and all-around dirty football. After ten years of smoke and mirrors, Nutt's career is finally on the chopping block, and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Buh-bye, Houston. You won't be missed.

* UPDATE: I've been credibly assured that Reggie Herring did not publicly accuse Auburn of being predictable on offense in 2006. That said, I'll bet you he thought it... and probably still does.

What He Said

Great piece from Yahoo Sports national columnist Dan Weitzel today (H/T: Best of the SEC Blogs):
Consider Ohio State, which considered this a rebuilding year. Its nonconference schedule consisted of Youngstown State, Akron, last-place Washington and Kent State. Not surprisingly, the Buckeyes won them all.

It's not Ohio State's fault that everyone else lost and the Buckeyes now are the likely No. 1. But it doesn't change the fact that perhaps no team ever has reached the top of the polls this late in the season with a less impressive body of work.


But that's just the kind of schedule the BCS rewards. Play no one but win, and you've got a heck of a shot of making the title game as the rest of the country beats one another's brains in. The best route to the title game is to play in a mediocre to moderate league with no more than one or two other good teams.

That's the Big Ten, ACC and, to maybe a slightly lesser extent, the Big East.

None of which means that an unbeaten champion of those leagues are better than a one- or even two-loss team from the SEC, Pac-10 or perhaps even Big 12.


But LSU now is playing catchup thanks to a wild loss in Lexington. This was surprising in the specific but not the general – the chance of the Tigers surviving the SEC meat grinder was unlikely.

For the second consecutive week, the SEC should have seven ranked teams. Seven! The Pac-10, meanwhile, had four of the top 14 teams last week.

This is your BCS, though. It punishes good leagues and rewards bad ones.

Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer might have designed the original BCS, but in its current form, in this current landscape, it is killing his old conference. In a sport with such a disparity in schedule strength, a playoff is most needed, not least. Let 16 teams play it out, and you might wind up with all-SEC title games or three of the final four.

Every week isn't a playoff, as the apologists like to claim, when not everyone is playing playoff competition.

But until the SEC's current commissioner Mike Slive decides to stand up and fight for his teams, rather than following the Big Ten's lead in protecting a system perfect for the Big Ten, nothing is going to change.

One loss, to a ranked team, on the road, in triple overtime will send you reeling behind someone with no losses, but no challenges either. It's quite a system. It needs to go.
Hear, hear. Read the whole thing.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Hoovergate Released

Here's a quick take on the contents of the just-released internal report on Hoovergate:

1. It confirms that Alabama assistant coach Kevin Steele called Terrie Borie directly regarding STUDENT #1's (based on press reports, most probably Alabama freshman Josh Chapman) grades. An excuse was given (I assume by Borie) that Steele "couldn't reach" the normal people in the Hoover administration regarding transcripts. I scoff at this. Borie got the call because she's an Alabama alum and well-known as a booster.

2. It puts off the Chapman incident as innocent human error. I think that's a stretch, but the Chapman thing was (minus the direct influence from the UAT coaching staff) a sideshow all along.

3. I'll quote from the conclusion, regarding STUDENT #2 (based on press reports, most probably Alabama signee Kerry Murphy):
Most of the other incidents relate to the grades of STUDENT #2, a star football player classified as a Special Education student needing special support outlined in an approved Individualized Education Program. During his years at HHS, Assistant Principal Carol Martin and Counselor Terrie Borie became so engrossed in trying to shepherd STUDENT #2 through the academic challenges that, by his senior year, they had in essence lost their objectivity and self-restraint. Though well-intentioned, their constant and unrelenting requests to teachers to allow make-ups, extended deadlines, retake exams, etc. -- frequently beyond any accommodations justified by his IEP -- became a signal that the teachers had a responsibility to see that STUDENT #2 got the grades he needed. This implicit pressure was particularly significant for a non-tenured teacher wanting to return the following year.

I don't know anything about Carol Martin, but it's a fact that Terrie Borie is an Alabama booster. Kerry Murphy had been considered a "lock" for Alabama for years if my memory is correct (actual recruitniks, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong), which brings into question just why Borie in particular was so adamant about getting him through high school.

This report is not, as some expected, a "whitewash," nor is it as others expected, a "smoking gun." The investigators were remarkably incurious regarding the connections between Borie and the Alabama football program. That said, the report is a pretty damning indictment of Murphy as a student, and of Martin and Borie's efforts to get him graduated and eligible for college football. There's more than enough evidence here to merit an NCAA investigation into booster and assistant coach misconduct, but as anybody who's seen this stuff in the past will tell you, there's no way of knowing whether one will actually take place.

For those interested, there's quite a bit more in the report regarding the personal, professional and financial antics of Hoover coach Rush Propst. Speaking for myself, I wasn't all that interested, but your mileage may vary.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting tidbit regarding Murphy, from a footnote on page 37 of the report:
It is also worth noting that STUDENT #2's satisfactory HHS GPA is largely attributable to the fact that each semester he received an A in Borie's academic support class and an A in weight lifting.
Worth noting, indeed.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hoovergate Strikes Back

From the Birmingham News "breaking news" blog at
Hoover's school board voted tonight to make public in full at 9 a.m. Saturday a report on a special investigation into possible academic improprieties involving Hoover High School's athletics program.

The board voted 4-1 to release the report. Only board member Bill Veitch voted against the decision.

The 68-page report will be posted on-line and at the Hoover Public Library, board Vice President Suzy Baker said. Copies also will be available at the school system's central office.
Good for the Hoover board. Should make very interesting reading. Here's an updated story from Thursday's News.

Oh, and that lone vote against releasing the report? That was the same guy who arranged to have felony charges against Alabama linebacker Juwan "Ice Cream Cone" Simpson reduced to misdemeanors last year, conveniently in time for football season.

For more background on Hoovergate, click here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

What He Said

From Yost at M-Zone:
Does ESPN really think that "naming" the weekend's slate of college football games makes them bigger or more important?

I don't think it would have been humanly possible for any ESPN on-air host, announcer, commentator, sideline reporter and anchor to have mentioned more times that last weekend's football games had been dubbed "Gut-Check Saturday!" by the network. Put it this way, if my friends and I had been playing one of those college drinking games, in which a person has to drink each time the phrase in question is uttered on the TV show being watched, we'd all be dead today.

Seriously. Can't we just enjoy the games?
Can't add a thing to that, other than noting that the idiotic "naming" carried over to ESPN Radio, where it was, if possible, even more annoying than on TV, since "Gut-Check Saturday" was repeated more often.

Yost is dead-on. Give it a rest, ESPN.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Letdown, Shmetdown

There's not a whole lot to say about Auburn's 35-7 beatdown of Vanderbilt, or at least there wouldn't have been much to say about it if not for AU's early-season woes. Auburn handled Vandy the way to SEC's top teams are supposed to handle Vandy. The thing is, Auburn of 2007 wasn't supposed to be one of the SEC's top teams, at least not after dropping two home games to lightly-regarded opponents. ESPN shouting head Woody Paige actually equated AU to VU less than three weeks ago, and to be perfectly frank, it didn't look at the time like there was a lot in Paige's dismissal to argue about. Plenty has changed since then.

To state the exceptionally obvious, Auburn has a phenomenally better football team in early October than it did in mid-September. The Tigers' first-quarter performance against Vanderbilt demonstrated arguably the team's most flawless execution since the game against Arkansas in 2004. Missing four starters on defense? No problem--led in no small part by linebacker Chris Evans, Auburn swamped the Commodores' well-regarded passing attack and limited Vandy to 66 first half yards.

On offense, Brandon Cox showed no signs of reverting to early-season form, going 11 for 13 with a touchdown in the first half. His only blemish was a moderately-dumb interception after the game was in the bag (and long after Cox should have been pulled anyway). Brad Lester's return to the field certainly didn't hurt any, as Cox and Al Borges finally have something like a full backfield available, but for me the real story of this offense's resurrection is up front. You just can't say enough about an offensive line composed mostly of true freshman that's playing this well. I've taken a lot of shots at line coach Hugh Nall over the years, but I have to take my hat off to him right now. He's got those kids playing like they have no business playing at this stage in their careers (although if I were being mean, I'd ask why a bunch of guys he's coached for three months are so far ahead of the guys he's coached for three or four years). It's an amazing thing to see those eighteen-year-olds pushing around SEC defenses.

There's only so much you can get out of bludgeoning an outmanned opponent, but in my mind the very best thing about the Vandy game was that Auburn showed no signs of the dreaded "big win letdown" or "early kickoff flu." The entire team was sharp from the kickoff, and didn't let up until the game was long-since decided and the sides were riddled with second- and third-teamers. That's a big deal for a team as young as Auburn. A whole lot of people were speculating before the game that the Tigers would take a step backwards amidst all the adulation of the Florida win. It's a huge credit to the coaching staff that they could keep this team's heads on straight for a game against the SEC's synonym for "losers."

Where we go from here--especially in a season as insane as this one--is of course above my pay grade (and yours, too). Arkansas has been a trouble game for Auburn for about as long as the Razorbacks have been in the SEC, and the game after that one, also on the road, will be a bit challenging in its own right. I can't help thinking that all the injuries are going to catch up with Auburn eventually. Most notably, we don't know yet how badly center Jason Bosley's knee was hurt on Saturday. Losing any offensive lineman right now is bad, losing the line's center and upperclassman leader is really bad. In addition, Auburn's kick coverage is still terrible, especially on kickoffs.

But. Even for all of that, this team is, beyond all expectations (mine emphatically included) good and getting better every week. If they can keep that up, if they can continue to improve week after week, there's a whole lot Auburn can accomplish in 2007.

Who'd'a thunk it?

Requiem For Vanderbilt, Again

I think Vanderbilt football is a lost cause.

I've thought that for a long time. Seven seasons ago, I wrote the following:
The year 2000 was supposed to be Next Year for the endlessly-suffering Vanderbilt Commodores. After a long rebuilding process engineered by head coach Woody Widenhofer, Vandy was considered a better-than-even bet to have a winning season and finally make it back to a bowl game (as every Vanderbilt fan is sick of hearing, the Commodores haven't managed either of those feats since 1982).

Just about everybody who looked at Vanderbilt before the season saw an experienced team, deep by Vanderbilt standards, that had come within an eyeblink of going 6-5 and earning a berth in the hometown Music City Bowl. Widenhofer was justifiably confident, and in August promised that his team would finally make it to the post-season this time around.

Flash forward one month. Vanderbilt is now 1-4, 0-3 in the SEC. On Saturday, they were utterly dominated by Auburn, losing 33-0. The Commodores didn't cross the fifty yard line in the first half, and never threatened to score. Still waiting on the schedule: Georgia (3-1), South Carolina (4-1), Florida (4-2) and Tennessee (2-2).

Vanderbilt will not have a winning season in 2000.

Vanderbilt will not go to a bowl game in 2000.

Vanderbilt probably will not have a winning season or go to a bowl in 2001, or 2002, or 2003.
And they didn't. Nor did they do so in 2004, 2005, or 2006, and odds are, they won't in 2007, either. Continuing:
I say this with no malice, no spite, and no hard feelings towards Vanderbilt University, its alumni, its fans, its players, or its coaches--but it's time somebody said it: Vanderbilt cannot compete with the rest of the Southeastern Conference in football, and it is time for VU to consider other options.

Yes, Vanderbilt does play a lot of people very tough. Certainly, Vanderbilt pulls off one or two huge upsets almost every year, and I will be the least surprised person watching when they pull off one of those upsets sometime this very season.

But an occasional upset does not make a program, and eighteen [now twenty-four] consecutive losing seasons is as close to scientific proof of futility as you're liable to find.

The freshmen of this season's Vanderbilt team [and the entire squad in 2007] weren't even alive the last time their team finished above .500. Vanderbilt football should exist for some better purpose than to provide Alabama and Tennessee with an annual guaranteed win. It's not fair to those kids to continually put them in positions where they can't reasonably be expected to win, year after year.

God bless them for hanging in there, every week, every miserable year, but enough is finally enough.

It's time for Vanderbilt to take their pride and their traditions and their undying spirit to someplace where those kids can compete. The Commodores would be middle-of-the-pack in the Atlantic Coast Conference, or a top-three team in Conference USA, or one of the two best teams in the Mid-Atlantic Conference. No, those are not places where any self-respecting SEC fan wants to see their team--but aren't they better than last or next-to-last, one season after another?
Sadly, I see no reason to change any of that thinking today. Bobby Johnson is the best head coach Vanderbilt has had in decades. He's done an entirely admirable job of building Vandy up from a punch line to at least a respectable weak sister or better--and the Commodores still can't win six games.

Vandy is a lost cause. It's time enough for them to move on, and long past time for the rest of the conference to stop subsidizing a sister so weak she hasn't contributed a dime of football revenue in a quarter century. Yes, Vandy is strong in basketball and baseball and many other sports, and there's no reason why they shouldn't stay in the conference as a non-football member. But in football, Vanderbilt no longer has a place in the SEC.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Ray Melick: Nick Sucker

It's my pride and pleasure to announce the creation of a new award here at FTB, the Nick Sucker Award, to be presented as needed to the state of Alabama media figure who makes the most egregious show of fealty to Alabama coach Nick "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach" Saban.

There have been many notable candidates for the Nick Sucker Award over the past ten months, as the horde of delusional UAT fans and in-state media employees (please pardon the redundancy) sought to outdo each other in praise of the latest Savior. Paul Finebaum was practically Saban's unofficial press agent, at least until Alabama dropped two straight last month (although it should be noted that even after those Shula-esque collapses, Paul was back on the party line by Tuesday of the following week).

But even Finebaum falls short in the Nick Sucker sweepstakes compared to Birmingham News employee Ray Melick, who in a typically-turgid column on Tuesday managed to set off a media fracas between Saban and South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt. The only part you need to read is the following quote, elicited by a question from Melick (although Melick himself didn't identify it as such in the column):
"The distribution of players is not the same for everybody," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. "There's a significant amount of players who don't qualify (at some schools) and they end up being pretty good players at some other schools. I think there are six guys starting on South Florida's defense who probably could have gone to Florida or Florida State but Florida and Florida State couldn't take them. And if you do a good job of recruiting that way..."
As you might imagine, that didn't sit well with Leavitt, a coach who turned down the job Saban currently holds not once but twice. In the Tampa Tribune, Leavitt said,
'That's amazing, a guy can make a quote like that when he doesn't have any idea,' Leavitt said. 'The truth is we have two non-qualifiers out of 110 on our team or I'll resign tomorrow. And those two will both get their degree.

'Why that bothers me is it takes a hit at the credibility of our program that we can't do it with just hard work. There always has to be some reason. That is the heart and soul of our program. So he's attacking the heart and soul.'

Saban's comments were not about schools admitting non-qualifiers, but about schools having different admission policies, said The Birmingham News' Ray Melick, whose story contained Saban's quotes.

'Six starters on our defense? He Saban doesn't know what he's talking about,' Leavitt said. 'Why's he making a statement like that? Florida, Florida State didn't recruit those guys anyway.

'I think he blew it, they Saban and Melick blew it. ... They'll hide behind the shroud of this and that. Nobody takes responsibility. If they made the comment, they need to come out and say I'm wrong.

'What bothers me is that story goes all over Alabama and they'll accept that as truth. That's why I get upset about media. There's no way I'm going to go out there and share this with 3 million people. It's not the truth. That's too bad, that's sad.'
Leavitt was certainly right about the last part; the Alabama media barely reported on the USF coach's response (other than nothing Leavitt was upset and had denied Saban's charges), didn't report on the factual details of Leavitt's rebuttal, and certainly didn't report on his calling out Saban and Melick for getting their facts wrong. But the story didn't end there.

In a post to his blog, Alabama graduate and Huntsville News UAT beat writer Paul Gattis reported on Leavitt's reaction and took a few shots of his own at the south Florida media.

(As an aside, the mind simply boggles at the chutzpah of Gattis, a former sports editor of the UAT student newspaper and leading Nick Sucker in his own right, referring to Saban "Giving his ol' media buddies in Miami something to shill about." Gattis is the about the last newspaper employee on the planet with any business referring to others as "shills." But I digress.)*

The interesting portion of Gattis's post was when he more accurately quoted Saban's original statement:
I think that the distribution of players is not the same for everyone. We can't take Props (partial qualifiers) in the SEC. They can't take them in the ACC. And there's a significant amount of players who don't qualify. And they end up being pretty good players at some of these schools. I think there are six guys starting on South Florida's defense who probably could have gone to Florida or Florida State but Florida and Florida State couldn't take them. And if you do a good job of recruiting that way--now the Big East has passed a rule that they aren't going to take Props at some time in the future. I don't know if it's next year or the year after or whenever.

"Now, will that affect their league? It shrinks the pool of players that they can recruit from. I'm not saying it's not a good rule by the NCAA that we have NCAA eligibility requirements. I think that's a good rule. I'm not saying that. But it's not the same for everyone and it does create a lot of parity when you're playing those schools, you're playing against guys you couldn't recruit."
On Wednesday, Melick was asked about the differences in the quotes on a WJOX Birmingham radio show he regularly co-hosts, in particular Saban's use of the term "Props," which was often used to describe NCAA Proposition 48, a now-obsolete term for incoming recruits who don't qualify academically. Melick, who changed Saban's actual quote from "Props" to "players who don't qualify" was asked why he didn't quote what the coach had actually said. Melick's response: "I was trying to protect Nick."

Now, I don't think it's all that big of a deal to clarify "Props" or even "Prop 48's" (we're not sure which version Saban actually used) to "players who didn't qualify." "Prop 48" isn't just obsolete, it's also fairly esoteric to the casual fan. If Melick had made the change for the sake of clarity, that's no big deal, even if he did turn out a disingenuous column in the aftermath.

But "to protect Nick?" Since when is it in the job description of a newspaper employee, much less an alleged "journalist" to be 'protecting' a $4 million-a-year football coach? That's so far outside the bounds of media ethics, one has to wonder what else Melick is 'protecting' Saban and Alabama from. He certainly hasn't had much to say about the Alabama boosters on staff at Hoover High School who've been allegedly involved in grade fixing for UAT signees, for instance.

I took it upon myself to ask Melick just what business he had "protecting Nick" in an email, and received a non-response worthy of Saban himself. Apparently Melick is among the many media employees who believe that asking and expecting to have answered pointed questions is for me, but not for thee.

So, Ray, congratulations. You're the Nick Sucker of the week. It's an award I've no doubt you'll wear with pride.

*Incidentally, Gattis was quite right about the south Florida media taking its shots at the man known as "Flipper." This particularly delicious column by Ray McNulty is my favorite to date. Best line: "I mean, we're talking about Alabama, which is little more than Ole Miss with indoor plumbing."

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Mandel, Right And Wrong

From Stewart Mandel's mailbag column at today:
For me, the main reason Tuberville has never cracked my "Top 10 coaches" list in three years of doing them is that for all those big wins, his teams (with the exception of that one, perfect season) always seem to lose at least a couple games they shouldn't. Just look at this season: The Tigers beat No. 4 Florida in The Swamp but lost at home to Mississippi State. Last year, they beat two of the top three teams (Florida and LSU) in the season's final AP poll but lost at home to Arkansas and Georgia teams that were unranked at the time.

I was trying to figure out this phenomenon when I remembered something ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe said during the first half of Saturday night's game. She said she'd seen Tuberville in the tunnel prior to kickoff and that he looked "as intense as I've ever seen him." Well, of course she hadn't seen him like that before -- prior to her much-deserved promotion this season, Rowe had been stuck doing the Noon ESPN2 games (or something like that). She's probably used to seeing Tuberville before some of those not-so-big games. If you've never been around Tuberville, he is without question the most laid-back head coach of any major program. While most of his colleagues are Type A, tightly wound balls of stress, Tuberville's every-day demeanor is that of a guy who's out fishing.

Don't get me wrong, I love the guy's personality. But it may also explain the disparity. Because Tuberville is so laid back most of the time, I bet when he gets really fired up for a big game (as Rowe saw him), his players truly take notice. (Whereas if they played for a guy like Ed Orgeron, they probably wouldn't know whether they were about to face Florida or Florida International). Players feed off that kind of energy. But then when Auburn plays Mississippi State, he's probably more like his every day self, and the players feed off that energy -- or lack thereof -- as well.

Can you tell I put a little bit too much thought into this?
Nope. I think that is a dead-on piece of analysis. The only thing I'd add would be to expound on your thesis a bit by observing that Tuberville's 'laid-back' attitude has tended to lead to complacency, which in my mind is his real weakness as a coach. He's at his best when his back is against the wall--just look at the 15-game winning streak that started days after the fabled private jet flight--but he does have a hard time sustaining that high level of success. Prime example, that streak ended one game into the 2005 season, after a summer of unending accolades and a year when the program was surrounded by an aura of invincibility. I can't bring myself to get too down on Tuberville over that; every coach gets complacent after successes--which, of course, doesn't make the apparently-inevitable letdown afterwards any easier to take.

There's no questioning Tuberville's abilities when he's on his game. He just isn't on his game all the time. That's who he is, and that's what you get. What you get is some damn effective coaching... except when it isn't.

Then Mandel goes and blows it answering the very next question, which echoes my own take on the "Urban Myth" offense:
We've seen the spread work at enough different places in different conferences -- from Oregon to Louisville to Northwestern to Cincinnati -- that I simply don't buy the "SEC-is-too-fast-for-it-to work" argument. Shoot, it just worked to the tune of 59 points against Tennessee two weeks ago! The Vols may not have one of the conference's better defenses this year, but do you really think if we lined up Tennessee's defenders and Auburn's defenders at the goal-line, pressed our stop watches and let them to the run to the 40 that the Tigers would all be waiting at the finish line by the time the Vols got there? I highly doubt it.
Uh, Stewart, nobody ever said Tennessee's defense was slow, but they did say it was bad. The Vols are at or near the bottom of the SEC in nearly every defensive category, and they're a dismal 111th nationally in points allowed. The signature of Meyer's offense isn't that it only works against slow defenses (although it certainly does)--it's that it only works against bad defenses. Tennessee has a bad defense. Auburn doesn't.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Weekend Wrap-Up

Before moving on, as we must, to this week's game with Vanderbilt (anger not the god of football lest he take away your mojo), here are a few disparate items on the weekend past.

The wife and I made the trip from Atlanta to Gainesville for the game. I lived in Baja Alabama for most of the 1990's, and even if I hadn't been expecting Auburn to get blown out (which I did), the less time I spend in the state's central Tacky Belt--where redneck north Florida and Yankee south Florida meet, with catastrophic aesthetic results--the happier I generally am.

But hey, it was a fun trip. Our local friends not only had a great parking spot a block from the stadium, they also knew the lunatics who've converted an old Baptist church bus into one of the most impressive tailgate shelters you're ever likely to run across (Florida folks familiar with the University Avenue tailgate scene know exactly which bus I'm talking about). We had a fine time all around.

Also on the Florida front, fans susceptible to superstition on gamedays (I readily confess to be among their number) can but sympathize with the plight of Saurian Sagacity's Mergz, who says of the game, "It Was My Fault." Seriously, read it. One of the funniest non-exaggerated real-life posts I've seen in a very long time.

The morning after the game, I went out in seach of the Sunday paper. When I finally located a copy of the Gainesville Sun (no sarcasm, I'm a big Pat Dooley fan), I was greeted with the following photo on the front page:

That shot triggered a wave of emotion, and I'm not just talking about schadenfreude at the agony of a young man whom every male announcer on ESPN would apparently love to cart off to Massachusetts for a few minutes with a Justice of the Peace, followed by two torrid weeks on Fire Island. No, what I was feeling was... deja vu. Now, where had I seen this before?

And then I remembered:

Finally, no Auburn-Florida recap would be complete without recognizing the foul results of ESPN's "Hire The Senile" outreach program. Ladies and Germs, I give you Cheatin' Lou Holtz's pregame spluttering:

I'd like to be the firtht to congrathulate Thenator Holth on hith electhion. Hail thoo the thief!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Got That Mojo Workin'

Mojo is a magical, fragile thing. It's when you've pleased the god of football, and he decides to shine his glorious bounty upon your team. If you anger him, he takes it away.
--Hank Hill

Well. Quite a night, wasn't it?

In the stands at Florida Field, I think it's safe to say that the most heard phrase of the first half (well, at least the most-heard printable phrase) on both sides was, "Where did that come from?"

Here's what I thought last week, but couldn't really bring myself to write because I wasn't sure I believed it myself: Auburn got its mojo back. It didn't happen against Florida. It happened in the second quarter against New Mexico State, and it was like a switch had suddenly been flipped from "sucky" to "competent." All at once, the Tiger offense came to life, and the entire team started playing like a contender instead of a flop.

I thought that, but I didn't want to say it. I mean, what the hell, the Tigers had just lost to the West's bottom-feeder and "hey, aren't they a club team?" on consecutive weeks. Beating New Mexico State didn't prove anything.

Except that it did, to the Auburn players themselves. Not unlike when the offensive dam finally broke against Vanderbilt in 2003, or when Auburn came off a bad game against Texas to demolish Tennessee on the road in 1983, when the lights finally came on, the AU machine revved up in a big hurry, and didn't even slow down when it ran into a puffed-up pack of Gators on a steamy night in Gainesville.

You can't say enough about Brandon Cox, who has shaken off the horrors of the early '07 season to reclaim the kind of play he has always been capable of (see the numbers from his healthy 2005 campaign if you don't believe me). The only player in recent history I can think of whose fortunes have turned around so much would be Ben Leard. Cox is back in his game, managing the offense, moving the chains, making the plays he can make instead of trying to force the issue.

He's helped immensely by the young offensive linemen who've taken up the challenge the upperclassmen couldn't fulfill, and maybe even moreso by the emergence of Rod Smith as a desperately-needed go-to receiver. Finally, finally, Auburn has found a receiver who can make those clutch catches on third down. Great work, Rod, now go pass it on. The re-emergence of Auburn's passing game gave the running backs much more room to work with in the Florida game, and the combination of the two has already given Al Borges the opportunity to diversify his schemes. Getting Brad Lester back next week will only help, but hats off to Ben Tate and Mario Fannin for carrying the load in Lester's absence.

Most importantly of all, especially in a big game on the road, Auburn only had one turnover, and the Tigers were far enough ahead to outlive that mistake (although I agree with several Florida fans I heard after the game remarking that Auburn was about to put the game away when that fumble occurred). Interceptions or breakdowns in the kicking game would have been flat deadly, as they were in the two losses, but an Auburn that can control the football is a team that can win a whole lot of games, because the Auburn defense is really, really good. For the second straight year, they're way too good for Florida to handle, and that hasn't been a matter of luck.

Here's the thing about Urban Meyer's offense: it really only works against bad defenses. Florida didn't kick and scratch its way to the SEC title last year by blowing people out, they did it with a hellacious defense and a good-enough offense. The only time during '06 when UF did anything remarkable offensively against SEC competition was in the championship game, and that was in a wild, turnover-filled track meet against an Arkansas program in the middle of a full-on implosion. Against Auburn Saturday night, the new UF defense wasn't good enough, and the offense couldn't pick up the slack.

Meyer's scheme works great against slow, under-talented, hesitant defenses; that's why he was so successful in the Mountain West and the MAC. The defenses there are absolutely talent-starved, and he ate them alive. As everybody saw back in January, a slow and tentative Ohio State didn't have a prayer against Florida's speed, but unfortunately for the Sleestak Nation, Florida doesn't get to play Ohio States during the conference season. The exception this year is obviously Tennessee, but the evidence to date is that the Vols' defense is about as tough as a layer of cotton candy.

Since that (entirely enjoyable) shellacking of the overrated Buckeyes, we've heard incessantly about how Meyer would be able to run "his real offense" now that drop-back passer Chris Leak has been replaced by Tim Tebow, or "Superman" as some of the dumber mediots had been calling him prior to Saturday. Every time I heard that, I said, "Yeah, and they're going to get worse as a result." As I wrote a couple of weeks back, there's a reason why the successful SEC teams quit playing the option a generation ago. You can fancy it up by calling it "the spread," and I wouldn't try to deny that Tebow is a terrific talent and a great runner, but when you push aside the ornamentation, Meyer is selling option football, and the option has very definite limitations.

Warning bells should have been ringing after Ole Miss forced Florida into a very limited attack the previous week, and it's clear now that Auburn's Will Muschamp heard them loud and clear. On Saturday night, it was very obvious that Meyer still doesn’t have an answer for quality SEC defenses. The Gator attack was limited to Tebow running and Percy Harvin catching, and that was it. With no credible running backs to draw away pressure from Tebow, Auburn was able to completely stifle the vaunted "Urban Warfare" in the first half.

Quite frankly, Meyer's game plan was stupid. If you're going to attack this Auburn team, you do it through the air, not on the ground. Harvin is an outstanding receiver, and if I had a closet full of that tacky Florida neon blue, I'd be up in arms at how Meyer kept running Tebow over and over again, especially in the first half. Stubbornly sticking to an option attack--especially when it was obvious that Tebow himself was the only real option--took Florida out of the game offensively for the first half-hour, and gave Auburn all the time and breathing room the awakening Tigers needed. By the time a thin AU defense started to wear down in the second half, it was too little, too late.

I think everything that needs to be said about Meyer's bush-league tactics at the end of the game has already been out there. The whispered time out call was silly and stupid, but it was all the Urban Myth had left. After watching Wes Byrum play over the first three games, there was no doubt in my mind that he would hit the second attempt, and as it happened, the actual game winner was a better kick than the one that didn't count.

Speaking of head coaches, is there any serious argument now as to the identity of the best big-game coach in college football today? Tommy Tuberville is now 15-10 against teams in the AP top ten, including winning nine of the last 10, and an astonishing 5-0 against teams in the top five. Gripe if you want about his tendency to be an average coach in average games (I'm sure I will myself--and let's not forget the all-important second half of Hank Hill's football wisdom, above), but there's nobody you'd rather have on the sidelines for the monster games than Tuberville. There just isn't anybody out there who's better at getting the most from his team when the spotlight is brightest.

Around the middle of Saturday afternoon, I was watching various games with friends from Gainesville. We'd seen most of USF's win over West Virginia the night before, and when Mississippi State took a (brief, as it happened) second-half lead over South Carolina and Kansas State was whipping Texas in Austin, I remarked to a friend who teaches at UF that people were going to have to re-evaluate Auburn after all these games.

"People will re-evaluate Auburn if they beat Florida," he said flatly, and although he didn't expect it to happen (heck, neither did I), he was right. It's a new season now.