Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week One Preview
Dakota Sumter / Auburn Athletics
Greetings, SportsCall website visitors. I'm Will Moon, and I used to host SportsCall not that long ago. I return now from my secret mission abroad to write for the SportsCall website. (Don't tell nobody, though. The government thinks I'm still in Prague, spreading the good word about football to the rest of the world.) But here, and hopefully on successive Thursdays, is a column musing about the upcoming weekend of college football (mostly). Also hopefully, there will be a companion column on each Monday that breaks down the weekend that was. Also don't forget to actually listen to SportsCall each weekday from 4-6 central time on The Tiger 93.9 and/or this here website. All right, enough pleasantries, let's dive in.
The Deep Dive
Let's assess the SEC (Greatest Conference in All the Land*) shall we? Well, there's Alabama. You know, big bad scary Alabama. They open the season number one in the country, as per their apparent birthright, but they look down just a little bit further than usual at the rest of the league. No other SEC squad opens in the top ten of either major human poll (obligatory reminder that the playoff selection committee doesn't release their rankings until sometime around Halloween). One could be forgiven for not fully appreciating that Auburn appeared in the Sugar Bowl last season, seeing as how the Tigers finished the year 8-5. The conference had the unmistakable whiff of mediocrity last season once the Crimson Tide were factored out of the equation. I'm talking ACC Coastal Division-type mediocrity (that's the division that doesn't have Florida State or Clemson). The kind where everybody's sort of good, but also kind of bad, and there's very little separation in the group. 12 of the league's 14 teams finished with between 4 and 7 losses last season. 12?! (Alabama had 1 and Missouri had 8.) And with the relatively high turnover rate in the conference at the head coaching positions, we embark upon this season with a grand total of two coaches in the league who have a conference title. Dark Overlord Nick Saban has won seven league titles (and three in a row), and Gus Malzahn has the 2013 trophy on his mantle. That's a big fat goose-egg for the rest of the league's 12 coaches.
How did we get here? Well, we know how Saban got where he is. We've all had front row seats to it for the last decade or so, with ESPN and CBS providing extremely thorough press coverage throughout. As for other programs? There's not really one answer that covers it across the board. Without doing exhaustive research, the only SEC school that has beaten Bama more than once from 2011 on is Ole Miss, and they just got drop-kicked into the sun by the NCAA and Hugh Freeze's wandering expletive deleted. In 2011, Auburn was coming off a national title-winning season under Gene Chizik, but the program slid so far so fast that we all collectively got whiplash (and then nausea while watching the 2012 team). Florida had just seen Urban Meyer retire for "health reasons", and has struggled to field a competent offense ever since. (This from the only major SEC power to have historically built its success on offense, not defense.) Georgia had finished in the top two nationally as recently as 2007, and was the preseason number one going into the '08 season, only to see years of stagnation under Mark Richt, who then turned over the keys to the stagnation wagon to Kirby Smart. (Note - Georgia should not be hiring head coaches with no head coaching experience. Just an opinion.) LSU was a superpower under Les Miles, with a national title under his belt (albeit a bizarre one), and a national title caliber team that season. South Carolina was more or less at its apex as a program, as Steve Spurrier was defending their first ever division title and starting a run of three straight double digit win seasons. Bobby Petrino was keeping his motorcycle rides and wandering expletive deleted down home at Arkansas. Dan Mullen was entering year three at State, coming off an impressive second season, and even Vandy was showing signs of life under James Franklin.
Since then, Missouri has entered the league and won two division titles, only to see racial unrest and a cancer diagnosis (two extremely heavy subjects) play major roles in their quick downfall. Texas A&M joined the SEC West and inflicted first Johnny Manziel, then a series of November flameouts on the league. Arkansas had this happen...
Then unleashed the John L Smith experience on the world, before hiring Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin. He's certainly talked a good game, but, um, hasn't done expletive deleted since being hired. James Franklin took off for Penn State, where he's taken the Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl. (Vandy seems to have turned the corner under Derek Mason, though.) Les Miles' unstoppable "run the ball forward" offense was finally figured out by the rest of the league, and yes, that is Ed Orgeron's music. Steve Spurrier vanished into thin, shirtless air, and South Carolina's program promptly died. Dan Mullen's actually done solid work at State, but it's State, so there have still been plenty of bumps in the road. Tennessee's dominated the "Champions of Life" bracket, but has struggled (sometimes mightily) with actual football under Butch Jones. (And he's still a clear improvement over the last two pure geniuses who've coached on Rocky Top.)
Has the league's overwhelming desire to want what Saban and Alabama have led to some misguided coaching changes? Hmmm, maybe, but I don't think that works as any kind of blanket statement. Obviously, Arkansas had to can Petrino (look at that picture up there and chuckle once more, it never gets old). South Carolina couldn't control when Spurrier was going to give them the Irish goodbye, nor could Florida have controlled Urban Meyer's "chest pains". No one could've seen what happened at Mizzou coming. And there was no keeping Chizik at Auburn after the void the program slipped into in 2012, even with a national title in the bag from two years prior. And we're too soon in the post-Richt and Miles eras in Athens and Baton Rouge to truly judge. Honestly, coaching changes are going to happen, whether you're firing a guy or he's leaving you for somewhere else (or his "family"). The schools need to hire better, not necessarily feel like they're firing too soon. Alabama canned a guy somewhat controversially (remember Mike Shula? What, no?), and then went all in to get Saban. Remember how embarrassing that coaching search was? It was a clown show. (Also, I want Michigan fans to read that article and not break into an Incredible Hulk-style rage.) But it yielded Saban at the end, and that's obviously worked out. It's also had the side effect of making several other programs believe that they're one hire away from having what Bama has, which has led to several dour Saban clones getting jobs in the league. Again, Smart gets at least two more years to prove himself, but Derek Dooley? Will Muschamp? Yikes.
Is all this a result of too much patience with middling coaches, or too little? Is there any one reason? Who's the second best coach in the league right now? Gus, on account of his SEC title? Mullen or the perpetually hot-seated Kevin Sumlin, since they're the only other coaches in the league besides Saban to have been at their current jobs for more than four years? Dear Grodd, four years? (That's not counting this coming season.) Bielema, because of what he did at another school in another conference? Does it matter? Somebody has to do something this year to halt the increasing entropy in the league. Auburn's in as good a position as anybody, with the relatively stable coaching situation and the roster the Tigers have accumulated. (I know most Auburn fans feel that the coaching situation at Auburn is anything but stable, but compared to what's going on at Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and the multiple schools with either a first or second-year coach, Gus may be more secure than over half the other coaches in the league.) Auburn shouldn't need excuses this year, and several other schools are already setting their excuses up (Florida with its suspensions and Ole Miss with its being totally screwed). Let's hope the Tigers break through the 4-loss glass ceiling. Auburn or not, I don't want to see some second rate SEC team get run out of a Big Six Bowl again this year.
Tigers This Week
The Jarrett Stidham era gets underway this week with a visit from Georgia Southern (6:30 CT on SEC Network). The Eagles bring their triple option offense (Paul Johnson had great success there before moving on to Navy, then Georgia Tech, with his offense still being used at Southern) to Jordan-Hare Stadium, along with their history of being a bit of thorn in the side of some major programs. Of course, while still an FCS team, they beat Florida in the Swamp during Will Muschamp's tenure. But more famously, they were the subject of the greatest of all grumpy Nick Saban quotes, "They ran through our a**** like s*** through a tin horn, man." (More on this later.) They didn't have a great season last year, however, finishing 5-7. A recommitment to the option is coming this season, but they're still a team that's attempting to re-establish an identity. Overconfidence should always be avoided, but Auburn should be able to handle this opponent without too much drama. For most Auburn fans, the main attraction should be seeing the newish-look Chip Lindsey offense, with Stidham and the receivers showing us a little something we haven't seen from the passing game. With Clemson looming, Auburn likely won't show too much, but should demonstrate just enough to make the fans salivate a little bit. At least, that's the ideal situation.
With the offense getting most of the attention in the offseason, the defense is flying just a bit under the radar, which is perfectly fine. The brief analysis is the D should be excellent, maybe the best in the SEC. If the Tigers can stay healthy (especially in the secondary), this group should be able to compete well with anyone in the country. GaSo's option offense will test their discipline and speed a bit, which can be tricky in an opener with a huge game coming up in week two, but I don't think Southern has the players for this, and I definitely think Auburn does. Also of mild note, this game breaks in the new SEC Network night game crew of Tom Hart (OK) and Jordan Rodgers (not as OK). As off-putting as he could be, I have to admit that I'll kind of miss late era Brent Musberger's "SEC Network? Are you kidding me?" broadcasts, with moderate drunkenness and thinly veiled discussions of betting lines in Vegas all while Jesse Palmer tries to keep things in between the lines by incessantly talking about "catch radius". Now we've got Aaron Rodgers' chump brother from the family he hates. Hard to believe, but this may be a downgrade.
Auburn 38 Georgia Southern 14
College Football Game of the Millennium of the Week
Did you hear that Florida State and Bama are playing this week (7 CT on ABC)? Atlanta's new football mecca (known by a less charitable name amongst the snarky) hosts its first game that counts this Saturday, and it's a doozy. While I definitely believe pollsters artificially inflate the rankings of teams that they know have big early season showdowns (knowing that one of them will lose and get dropped anyway), it's still a supremely tasty matchup for week one. Florida State is one of a handful of teams that can stand in there toe-to-toe against Bama's talent and depth, and with Deondre Francois at QB, they have the kind of true dual threat playmaker that's often given Bama trouble in the past (see also Newton, Cam; Manziel, Johnny; Marshall, Nick; and Watson, DeShaun). The Tide, for their part, break in new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll (we're gonna miss all those Lane Kiffin jokes), a guy who I'm not entirely sold on, but who has plenty to work with. Francois is obviously a huge key here, but Florida State's line play will likely be where the game is won or lost. The 'Noles had trouble keeping defenders off Francois last season (and the kid took a pounding as a result), and they have new starters on the his blind side to start this year. Bama's replacing a bunch this year, as usual, but I expect them to be able to get to Francois enough to keep him from taking off completely.
Alabama 31, Florida State 20
Rest of the Menu
#2 Ohio State goes to Indiana tonight (7 CT on ESPN). This would barely be a blip on the schedule in a normal week, but stands out because we're seeing a major national contender opening with a road league game on a Thursday night. The Buckeyes have won 22 straight against the Hoosiers (I could've put any number in that stat, and most people would believe it). Indiana qualified for a bowl game last year (they lost close to Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl), but Ohio State should have no trouble here.
#8 Washington goes to Rutgers tomorrow night (7 CT on FS1), where the defending PAC-12 champs will take on one of college football's saddest teams. #9 Wisconsin also hosts Utah State (a team Auburn fans remember being a difficult opening opponent) at 8 CT on ESPN, but maybe check out the Colorado/Colorado State game tomorrow night if you're looking for some college action (it's at 7 CT on the PAC-12 Network, so seeing it may prove difficult).
The Tom Herman era kicks off at Texas with a game against Maryland on Saturday (11 CT on FS1). I have no idea what to make of the Longhorns this year, but their ranking is a mere courtesy. South Carolina and North Carolina State are the first of the three SEC/ACC neutral site matchups this week. They play at the Panthers' stadium in Charlotte (2 CT on ESPN). NC State's all right, but give me Cocky in a mild upset. I'll buy in on Jake Bentley. Will Muschamp did yeoman's work getting that program to a bowl game last year considering how things were left at the end of Steve Spurrier's tenure.
The first big game of the day sees a suspension-riddled Florida team take on the Fightin' Jim Harbaughs in Jerry World (2:30 CT on ABC). I actually kind of like the Gators this year, but the suspensions and whatever is happening with their quarterbacks make me worry about what the hell is going on down there. Gotta take Michigan here.
Don't sleep on Appalachian State traveling to Georgia (5:15 CT on ESPN). I'm not feeling the Dawgs this year, and App State has a history, obviously. FOX's big national broadcast sees Louisville taking on Purdue in Indianapolis (6:30 CT), which would be better if Purdue weren't completely terrible. South Alabama knocked off Mississippi State to begin last season, and has a legit shot at taking down Ole Miss to start this year (6:30 CT on ESPNU).
Aside from Bama/FSU in Atlanta and UF/Michigan in Arlington, the other big neutral site game set for Saturday was to be LSU and BYU in Houston (8:30 CT on ESPN). Obviously, Mother Nature had other plans, so the two teams will be playing in New Orleans instead. What's happening in Houston and along the Texas and Louisiana coasts is horrific. The Red Cross is always a good, reliable bet if you're looking to donate to the victims. There are many others that are worthwhile, too, and the people definitely need it, and will continue to need it.
As for the game itself, give me LSU. Not sure what to think of Ed Orgeron's return to head coaching in the SEC, but I'm not feeling BYU this year. They were one of the few teams to kick off last week, beating FCS foe Portland State, but they looked pretty blah. I expect LSU's talent to shine through, along with Matt Canada's offense.
Sunday brings two solid matchups. West Virginia and Virginia Tech are both ranked, and the two former Big East rivals are playing at the Redskins stadium in suburban DC at 6:30 CT on ABC. Even with a whole day to work with, for some reason, the Texas A&M/UCLA game kicks off on FOX at the exact same time (grrrrr), with the two perpetual disappointments clashing in the Rose Bowl. No matter who wins, we should know how things will go for these teams when the weather starts to cool.
The second Atlanta neutral site game is Labor Day evening (7 CT on ESPN), as Tennessee takes on Georgia Tech. Tech's taken a few injuries and suspensions in the offseason, enough to sway me towards picking the Vols. Plus, this is the perfect kind of Butch Jones win, just important enough to get people's hopes up, but not important enough to really matter. Maybe they'll have a championship belt made, and then surrender that belt to Florida in two weeks.
Massacre Island Weekend Forecast
Fun fact, Dauphin Island near Mobile was originally named Massacre Island by the French (or more accurately, Isle Du Massacre) because they initially found a bunch of skeletons there when they first came across it. For some reason, all this talk of massacres and piles of human remains didn't do much for the tourism industry, so they changed it. With the name now free, we adopt it as the name of our island of misfit toys AKA schools that take savage, savage beatdowns for money.
Rice got the Massacre Island season off to a crushing start last week, looking like a disorganized high school team against Stanford in Australia. Truly, a group of random Australians could've played just as well, and they may or may not even know how to play American football. So the Massacre Island bar has been set high (low?), and we're not even in actual week one yet.
This weekend's forecast calls for a strong chance of Florida A&M, a not great FCS team (4-7 last year), who travel to Little Rock to play Arkansas (7 CT on SEC Network on Thursday). Charlie Strong's likely very strong South Florida team takes on Stony Brook on Saturday, which has major rout potential. Mississippi State hosts Charleston Southern on Saturday, as well, but I think the Buccaneers will play respectably in that one. Out of the conference, two regular weakling-beater-onners, Kansas State and Baylor, take on mighty Central Arkansas and Liberty, respectively. We'll check in on Monday to see who booked their vacation to Massacre Island.
Nick Saban Quote Bingo
The real Nick Saban quote of the week is and always shall be the aforementioned "They ran through our a**** like a s*** through a tin horn, man." With competition like that, other, regular Saban quotes don't stand a chance. So we need a quote generator to see if we can come up with something as good.
It is what it is. (can be used to start any rant)
You guys...(followed by attack on media as a whole)
Look...(followed by Saban truth)
Who says...(followed by angry rhetorical question
Aight?! (can be used to start any sentence)
Aight?! (can be used to end any sentence)
The schedule (perhaps his favorite subject)
Professed ignorance of non-football news
Avoidance of bulletin board material (boring!)
It is what it is. (can be used to end any rant)
Have fun mixing and matching, and yes, it is completely acceptable for the quote to simply be "Aight?! Aight?!" Repeats are allowed. (We'll add to the bingo as the season drags on.)
The Shield (Like Fantasy Football, but for Real)
This space will be for stray thoughts on pro football, but we must suffer through another week of the NFL crapping out preseason turds before the games begin next week. For something actually worthwhile, here's a link to Texans superstar JJ Watt's Houston relief charity, which has been one of the most prominent of the Houston fundraisers thus far. For something less worthwhile, Matt Stafford is now the highest-paid NFL player of all time. As outlined in Deadspin's generally excellent "Why Your Team Sucks" series, Stafford in 5-46 as a starter against teams with winning records. Mother of Zod! I can't even begin to imagine the inner numbness that being a Lions fan must cause.
This opening weekend slate is solid, if somewhat unspectacular after the Bama/FSU game. (It doesn't compare to the depth of last year's opening weekend.) But do remember, next week has several huge matchups (Auburn/Clemson, Oklahoma/Ohio State, Georgia/Notre Dame, USC/Stanford), along with some solid down the line matchups (TCU/Arkansas, Pitt/Penn State, Nebraska/Oregon, Boise St/Wazzu). So prepare yourselves for a possibly even more exciting week next week. But more than all, bask in the glow of football season. The season holds potential for Auburn, and will almost assuredly provide with plenty to chew over (and mock) from across the country during the year. I'll be back Monday with a post-mortem column for week one, and we hope to have one of these for each week going forward. I look forward to checking in with you again next week. War Eagle, everyone.