Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Space: Week Two Preview
Dakota Sumter/Auburn Athletics
Round Two...Fight! A fairly fun week of football is behind us, and perhaps an even better week of football (especially if you also dig pro football) lay ahead. It's exciting. (And also terrifying, what with an apocalyptic-sounding hurricane bearing down on...Florida? The Carolinas? Everywhere? Stay safe and be smart, wherever you are, and note that the weather having a major impact on Auburn's host this weekend is a distinct possibility.) While the encroaching storm from a billion nightmares will serve as a backdrop to everything that goes on this weekend in a huge swath of America and the Caribbean, (most of) the games will carry on. And I'm here to ramble on about them. Let's begin.
The Deep Dive
Ah, conference politics. It's long been a part of college football, pretty much since conferences came into existence, but the noxious, ever-present nature of it has ramped up sharply since the advent of the old Bowl Alliance, then the BCS, and now the playoff. The various leagues puffing out their chests and loudly going on about their obvious superiority is part of the fabric of the sport, drawing on regional pride and biases and using football teams as a way to duke out age-old cultural arguments. (This article lays it on pretty thick, but gets at some of the heart of the sport's hold on the South, and how Southern pride has long been reinforced by strong football teams.) Within reason, this is good for the game, as it helps draw the attention of fans to games that don't necessarily feature their favorite team. (How many people watched the Tennessee/Georgia Tech game on Monday? How many readers of this column are Tennessee or Georgia Tech fans?)
All that said, recent spates of conference realignment have fueled the conference superiority arguments from off the field, while the very nature of a playoff system where, essentially, five conferences can only be represented by four teams have sent the politicking between the leagues into maximum overdrive. (Hopefully, no one gets assaulted by a vending machine.) Realignment in search of the almighty dollar (sorry, I mean TV footprint) has made it difficult to easily remember who's in which league at times. (Quick, who's in the ACC's Coastal Division? And why the hell is Rutgers in the Big Ten?) But it's also made it even more important for the leagues that are swallowing up these schools (and all the promised revenue they'd generate) to start pushing their league further into the national discussion. Increased cache nationally for the whole conference is always a major selling point to a league's current members when it comes to expansion. If you're gonna split the pie up into more slices, you need to make sure you're bringing a bigger pie to the table.
For those who firmly believe that a playoff is, was, and has always been the way college football should go to determine a true(-er) national champion, this shuffling around of programs has helped lead to our current postseason format. The conferences were able to leverage even more power than they already had and come to an agreement. (Nobody wanting to see another all-SEC rematch title game was definitely a boon for the playoff cause.) But until the Power Five somehow cannibalize themselves down to the Power Four (something I do predict will happen at some point), the yapping about which conference inevitably gets left out of the playoff will start early and just get louder and louder all season. (And let's not even get started on two teams from one conference getting in, or what happens if major independents Notre Dame and BYU are ever good enough to warrant inclusion.)
From the SEC side of things (still the league that everybody's trying to come at, even after a down year last season), the conference went 12-2 last week, but only 3-2 against other Power Five teams. (Thanks, ACC! No thanks, A&M!) The ACC went 10-4 and 2-4. The Big Ten (14) went 11-3, with one league game being played, so 10-2 out of conference and 2-2 against the other Power Five leagues. The Big 12 (10) went 7-3 and 0-2. They also had the only Power Five loss to a non-Power Five team last week, with Baylor losing to Liberty, who isn't even a full-fledged FBS program yet. The Pac-12 is 12-1 so far (Oregon State has played two games already, losing their first to non-P5 Colorado State), and they're also 3-0 against the rest of the P5, so bully for them. What does all this prove? I have no idea.
If you pick through these games, you'll find some that seem meaningful (Bama thumping FSU, South Carolina knocking off NC State, Cal beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill), and you'll find some that don't seem to prove all that much (Washington ugly-ing their way past Rutgers, Louisville barely holding off a mediocre Purdue team). Does Tennessee rallying past a pretty strong-looking Georgia Tech team mean less or more than Texas A&M epically choking at UCLA? Who knows? We don't have enough information to truly answer that question yet, but that's not gonna stop media honks from coast to coast from loudly crapping out their opinions. And those opinions will start to form a narrative, which can often become unassailable if they get repeated enough. (Unassailable even by facts? Unassailable especially by facts.)
Auburn fans remember the torment of having to answer for the mild downturns at Florida and Tennessee in 2004 (back when we were all getting Zooked). But the real turds that year were having to explain playing The Citadel instead of Bowling Green, and why it didn't matter that Auburn beat three top ten SEC teams in the regular season, and how much the debate was decided by the preseason rankings. The debates about whose league was stronger weren't as loud, and even before the SEC ripped off seven straight national titles a few years later, no one was really touting the Big 12 and Pac-10 as stronger overall leagues back then. They just wanted to justify how USC and Oklahoma were better teams. That reality is altered now. The Big 12's lack of a championship game (now rectified) was the overarching factor that doomed Baylor and TCU in 2014 (though Baylor playing a bunch of homeless vagrants in their non-conference schedule didn't help). In 2015, the Pac-12 had a lot of depth, but couldn't manage to produce a team with fewer than two losses. The Big 12 had a similar problem last year, but with less depth. Whatever goes on now seems to be examined from a conference standpoint (especially in that first year of the playoff, as the picking of the final four has been easier the last two years). Several more high-profile non-conference games are scheduled for this weekend (along with a few fairly tasty conference matchups), so expect the conference hollering to only grow in frequency and volume. And be aware that any loss by any team from your league (now matter big of bums they are) can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.
Tigers This Week
Logos are trademarks of Clemson University and Auburn University
Let's get on to the games! And what games we do have on the slate for week two. In recent years, it seems the trend has been toward more big-time tilts on opening weekend, followed by a relatively sedate week two. (This followed a prolonged stretch where week one often featured the worst crop of games of any week of the season.) Fortunately, this season seems set to buck that trend, with Auburn's trip to Death Valley East being just one of a handful of heavy matchups set for this weekend. As you may recall, the Tigers in blue came within a hair of knocking off the eventual national champion Tigers in white at Jordan-Hare last year, and that was in spite of Auburn using the most asinine quarterback rotation in recent football history for much of the game. (I like Gus, but what the hell was that?) All in all, it was a fun game (QB nonsense aside), with Clemson's Mike Williams being the real difference-maker. He was just too big and rangy to truly be covered, even by Carlton Davis, and Deshaun Watson didn't look that gift horse in the mouth.
Well, Williams is gone to the Chargers (the Los Angeles Chargers, which is a new dumb thing that should be hated), and Watson is gone to the Texans. Several other big names from Clemson's offense joined them in the NFL, and there's definitely a different look to this 2017 edition. Kelly Bryant will start at QB with at least a few question marks still lingering. He (and the vast majority of his teammates) played well in a 56-3 romp over the mighty Golden Flashes of Kent State last week, but obviously the Auburn defense will pose a more significant challenge. Along with Williams, Jordan Leggett, a big-time receiving threat at tight end, is also gone to the shield, as is last year's workhorse running back Wayne Gallman. (Recall that Gallman's mental error of running out of bounds in the waning minutes basically allowed Auburn a free possession at the end of the game. He had a pretty strong year otherwise.) But if we're to be afraid of Clemson's offense, it would be because we know how well they've stocked the skill position pantry under Dabo Swinney, and this team's got some quality experience up front. I would trust that they could reload at back or receiver with the best of 'em, but almost nothing maintains offensive continuity from one year to the next better than returning starters on the line. (Getting Watson back for another year would be one of the few things that would be better, but thankfully, he gone.) Definitely keep an eye on the battle in the trenches when Cousin Clem has the ball, as that will not only be a key to how this game turns out, but should also be where several NFL prospects are lining up on both sides.
When the visiting Tigers have the ball, however, remains somewhat of a mystery, at least on the Auburn side of things. Clemson returns some big pieces (literally and figuratively) on defense, with at least three true studs on the D-line (Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, and Clelin Ferrell). The two defensive fronts in this game may well be among the five best lines in the nation. (They may well be among the five or ten best position groups of any type in the nation.) Again, Clemson tends to be able to reload in the back seven, though Auburn may be able to win some matchups back there. For the SEC Tigers to succeed, the offensive line has to play much, much better than it did last week against Georgia Southern. The line play wasn't exactly horrible, but there were some notable issues, enough to warrant concern when facing a front four this strong. I firmly believe that, on the whole, quarterback play is the most essential factor to a team's success at the college and pro levels (out on a limb, I know), but I actually think, for this game, the play of Auburn's O-line is the biggest factor.
Stronger line play will surely help Jarrett Stidham in his first road start at Auburn. The return of Bubba Pettway and Kyle Davis will as well. A strong running game is a QB's best friend on the road, and with Kerryon Johnson a question mark, Pettway's all the more essential. How Davis fits into a receiving corps that was a bit underwhelming against Georgia Southern is another key. Can he provide something Auburn didn't have last week? Did Auburn sandbag it a little against a lesser opponent, especially in the passing game? Well, we don't have to wait long for answers. I'm going to go with Auburn here, because I do believe that this team has all the pieces it needs to go get tough wins like these, and maybe I do wonder just a little bit if Auburn was playing possum some last week. But I gotta say, Clemson's lines scare the hell out of me. If we go down, I expect those big dudes wearing orange or (for the love of Grodd, no) purple will be the reason. (Also notable, this game isn't entirely a make-or-break for either team. The loser still has a lot of say in their ultimate fate, playoff-wise.)
Auburn 26, Clemson 17
College Football Game of the Millennium of the Week
Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports
Auburn/Clemson is almost the fattest matchup of the week, but I have to admit, Oklahoma/Ohio State is just a little fatter. The teams met in a weather-delayed game last year in Norman that the Buckeyes eventually won going away, fooling everyone into believing that Ohio State was some sort of unstoppable juggernaut in the process. (Not that they were bad, mind you, they just weren't that good.) This year's edition shifts the stage to the Ol' Horseshoe, and also loses a key player in now-retired OU coach Bob Stoops. 17-year-old Lincoln Riley now coaches the Sooners, and I don't think UTEP pushed his head ball coachin' skills to the max last week. The stakes are much higher for him and his squad in week two. His QB, Baker Mayfield (a player that just irritates the holy crap out of me), will hopefully be more elusive than he was on this particular night, though last I checked, Ohio Stadium doesn't have any concrete dividers out on the playing field for defenders to dribble him off of. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, look to start faster than they did last Thursday, when they got all of our hopes up with a sluggish first half at Indiana. Mayfield will test them, as he does every defense, police force, or random person on the street he encounters, but I'm not picking a rookie head coach to slip one past Urban Meyer in the 'shoe. Not no way, not no how.
Ohio State 38, Oklahoma 26
Rest of the Menu
The rest of the menu is pretty tasty. In addition to the aforementioned tilts, there are two other matchups featuring two ranked teams this week. Unfortunately, all four games are Saturday night, though there should be some overlap between them. As for Thursday and Friday appetizers, the pickings are a bit slimmer than usual. The start of the NFL season on Thursday often shoos away any pesky college game (especially after those 4-5 years where the college game was significantly more enjoyable than the NFL game, something the Shield won't tolerate), so if Chiefs/Patriots isn't your thing on the day of Thor, you'll have to settle for Idaho State at Utah State, which might be broadcast on a supermarket security camera somewhere, but definitely isn't on national TV.
Friday yields a handful of games, with the most notable featuring 11th-ranked Oklahoma State pokin' their way down to Mobile for an odd road game at South Alabama (7 CT on ESPN2). The Jags didn't do much at Ole Miss last weekend, and after Shea Patterson torched them for over 400 yards and 4 scores, Mike Gundy and the Poke offense are probably licking their chops (and then licking their fingers and running them through Gundy's hella impressive Kentucky waterfall. More like Flow-klahoma State, am I right? I'll be here all week.)
The early TV window on Saturday features the usual fattening up of the Big Ten teams, plus the rescheduled Florida and Florida State games, as they attempt to wrap things up before Hurricane Irma shows up and brings the literal pain. 17th-ranked Louisville follows an uninspiring win over Purdue with a trip to equally uninspiring North Carolina (11 CT on ESPN), while the always wonky Iowa/Iowa State rivalry game also takes place (11 CT on ESPN2).
Alabama holds a rat-killin' of Fresno State at 2:30 CT on ESPN2. Hey, remember when Fresno State was good? Pittsburgh goes to Penn State at 2:30 CT on ABC, where the Nittany Lions hope to avenge the loss that kept them out of the playoff last year. Also at 2:30 CT, the CBS broadcast season kicks off with Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson in the booth for TCU's visit to Fayetteville to play Arkansas. Last year's game between these two was rather excellent, and this one may well be, too. Both unranked, Nebraska travels to Oregon for a 3:30 CT kickoff on FOX.
The way overloaded primetime schedule features Auburn/Clemson at 6 CT on ESPN, with an intriguing and likely very high-scoring pinball match between South Carolina and Missouri starting at the same time on the Deuce. OU and THE Ohio State University (grrr) tee it up at 6:30 CT on ABC, though the actual kickoff may happen anytime between 6:30 and 9pm. 15th-ranked Georgia will try to keep the echoes asleep at 24th-ranked Notre Dame (6:30 CT on NBC), while a potentially very fun Pac-12 matchup sees Stanford take on USC in the Coliseum at 7:30 CT on FOX. The Holy War, the truly underrated rivalry between Utah and BYU (they really, really hate each other), starts at 9:15 CT on ESPN2, while Boise State and Washington State will push the scoreboard on the Palouse to the brink at 9:30 CT on ESPN (right after the Auburn game). Should be a fun day of sportsball action.
Massacre Island Weekly Forecast
Well, we had a Massacre Island candidate actually come through and win outright last week (hahahaha, Baylor), so I'd better fine tune my slaughter radar. The SEC may send half a dozen teams to the Bay of Beatdowns this week, as a putrid Fresno State team goes to Tuscaloosa. Bama does have a tendency to play like lazy crap in at least one non-conference game, and after the FSU game last week, I think this might be it. They'll still win by a bazillion, it's just that Saban will glare and holler at everybody who comes within a one-mile radius of him throughout the game.
Seven FCS teams get to come take their medicine this week, with several massacres-in-waiting on the slate. I'm tempted to pick UT-Martin, who's heading to Ole Miss this week, as my most likely Island invitee, but I'm not sure if new coach Some Guy will be as eager to beat on a weakling as the dearly departed Hugh Freeze was. You know, I'm starting to think that Freeze guy may not have been such a nice dude. Just a feeling I got.
No, I'll go with LSU. They host Chattanooga on Saturday night, and after suffocating BYU last week in New Orleans with running and defense, maybe Coach O lets new offensive mastermind Matt Canada throw it a little more this week. Plus, Derrius Guice should run as wild as he and Orgeron want in this game, so there's potential here. LSU hasn't always been the king of comical beatdowns (not that that's a title you really want or need), but I'm feeling the Bayou Bengals this week.
Nationally, we're monitoring FAU's trip to Wisconsin (would so love to see Lane Kiffin get sent to Massacre Island on a weekly basis. He was given a full Naval escort on his trip last week. The Island has a generous membership points program, and he can hang by the pool and scam on chicks while he's there. Everybody wins, except for the chicks. Of course, FAU has more serious things on their mind than their douchebag coach). Montana's trip to Washington, and Texas State's venture to Colorado are also on the radar.
Mike Leach Quote Bingo
I don't know who to credit for this photo, but it's wonderful
We had Nick Saban quote bingo last week, which will return later in the season I assure you. But ye olde pirate himself, Wazzu coach Mike Leach, was asked about both Bigfoot and aliens at his weekly presser on Monday, and may fate smile upon the people who both asked those questions and allowed those questions to be asked. Cap'n Mike didn't disappoint with his answers, as he managed to work his thoughts on evolution into his response. With Les Miles and Steve Spurrier both out of coaching at the moment, Leach is left carrying the water when it comes to fun presser quotes. And if this past Monday is any indication, the Pirate Captain of the Palouse is in mid-season form.
As for a quote generator, Leach may literally say anything at any point, but the main key to remember is that, unlike other coaches, there's a non-0% chance that he'll yell out "YARRRR!!!" as part of his response, then steal all the gold from the assembled media personnel at bayonet-point. As long as no one in Pullman breaks down and buys him a cannon, the rest of the mainland should be spared.
The Shield (Like Fantasy Football, but for Real)
Well, the NFL returns tonight to grace us with a playoff-worthy matchup between the Kansas City Checkdowns and the New Evil Patriots. Listen, no amount of clowning on the Falcons for last season's ludicrous choke-job in the Super Bowl will have been worth the season-long slurping of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick that we're about to get. It's not that they aren't very good, they most definitely are. It's just that the N in NFL often seems to stand for 'narrative', and the league's phalanx of media hangers-on are gonna lay on the 5 Super Bowls thing mega-thick this year. Even the normally excellent NBC crew of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth (best football broadcast, college or pro) won't be immune tonight, and just you wait, 'enry 'iggins, for CBS' lead schmooze Jim Nantz to get a hold of a Pats game. (Mercifully, there will be no Phil Simms to join him this year, as the freshly-retired Tony Romo takes over the gig.) We'll hear about how Brady is demonstrably the best QB of all time from stem to stern this year, and Zod forbid they win the title again, which is, like, even money looking at the rest of the AFC. (Meanwhile, another year of Aaron Rodgers' prime will be wasted by a Dom Capers defense, not that I'm bitter.)
It's a solid second weekend, weather-permitting, with as stacked a primetime schedule as we'll see this year. Work that remote control like a veteran Saturday night, and let's all find out together how for real this Auburn team is. Remember, a loss can be overcome by strong play in the league (not that that'll do much to calm the fanbase after the game), but a win here could springboard Auburn into the Top 5, and would be as good a win as anyone has in college football at this early juncture of the season. There'll be NFL talent all over the field. It's just a matter of which team can get their QB settled sooner and who can control the line of scrimmage. (Hard-hitting football analysis right there.) Auburn has the horses for this game, but we're all still waiting to see what, if anything, we can expect to see from this offense that we haven't seen many times before. I betcha Clemson's wondering the same thing. Enjoy the games, everyone, and remember to set your fantasy teams before tonight. I'll be back on Monday.