Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Four Preview
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Welcome back. After a week of offensive frustration and roster attrition, the Tigers of Auburn play their second of three games this season against another batch of Tigers (and thus making me work a little harder to be clear which squad I'm referring to), with this assignment at Missouri likely being the most forgiving of Auburn's three road trips to other Tigers' dens. The rest of the weekend slate is fairly reasonable, though there's no one big, huge game that'll suck up most of the weekend's oxygen. Let's dive in.
The Deep Dive
The coaching carousel hasn't quite begun yet, as even in the increasingly cutthroat world of college football, no head coaches have been the shown the door yet this season (though we have seen a few assistants get canned already, including Missouri's firing of their defensive coordinator a couple of weeks ago.) But my oh my is the heat already turned up to eleven at several schools across the country. This weekend features an Arkansas/Texas A&M matchup in Arlington that could potentially be the final nail in Aggie coach Kevin Sumlin's coffin or one of the final nails in head Hog Bret Bielema's. You'd have to figure that Ole Miss interim head coach Matt Luke isn't long for his position, though I can't imagine the Rebels would dismiss him during what is already pretty much a lost season. Mizzou' terrible start has them already considering moving on from Barry Odom in year two. Florida's successful Hail Mary poured gasoline on the fire under Butch Jones' rear at Tennessee (and eased some of the growing pressure on UF's Jim McElwain), and we all know about the simmering frustration that Auburn's start to the season has caused down in these parts. And that's just the SEC we're talking about. Jim Mora, Jr continues to be awful at UCLA, and Mike Riley's dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight at Nebraska. (Late update - the AD that just gave Riley a contract extension has now himself been fired.)
Basically, the chickens are restless everywhere, and as usual, it'll be a seller's market when the coaching carousel gets to spinning here in a few weeks (maybe this week in some cases). Of course, the big winners will be the agents (as always), as the fired men will receive hefty buyout fees not to coach somewhere, while the hired men will all see huge bumps in their pay as they take new jobs. Plus, your Jimmy Sextons of the world will be out there floating multiple clients' names for jobs they probably have no real interest in, just to see if any media speculation or inquiries from other schools can start a bidding war. 'Thar's gold in them thar fahrings', and when the carousel spins, Jimmy Sexton grins.
But what of the actual meat in this meat parade? Of course, any fired coach can very quickly become a hired coach somewhere else, but who are the names out there that all these schools are already coveting, the names who can be used as negotiating tools with agents and as boogeymen for coaches on the hot seat. As has been the case for a few years now, Chip Kelly tops the wish list for many fanbases. Kelly's out of coaching at the moment, after his second try at being an NFL head honcho crashed and burned on account of him having to coach the crap-tastic 49ers. Kelly never managed to win a national title at Oregon, but he turned a power program in Eugene under Mike Bellotti into a superpower program during his tenure up there. (He also coached the Eagles to the playoffs in the NFL, something that's worthy of credit). And for any program that fancies itself as having the tools in place to run a spread offense, he's a dream candidate, someone disgruntled fans can imagine coming in and immediately being able to take what he's given and produce national title-caliber results. For the many SEC programs who may be at their wit's end with their current coach, he's the most likely man to be able to counter (or replicate) what Nick Saban's done at Alabama, while any school in the Big 12 or Pac-12 should also feel like his style of offense would translate to immediate success in those leagues.
The problem with Chip, at least as far as SEC and some Big 12 programs go, is his personality. Or lack of one. Kelly's a football nut, someone who seemingly lives only to coach offense. The stories about him coming out of Philly paint him as an obsessive, failed mad scientist-type, the kind of guy who wanted to control every aspect of his players' lives, down to what they ate for every meal and how much or little they slept. (Those links are all from Deadspin, and simply typing Kelly's name in the search bar there leads you down a rabbit hole of great, weird Chip Kelly stories.) Some of this stuff may not be even a bump in the road for some wishful fans, as Kelly's tireless, borderline-psychotic commitment to the game could (too easily) be spun into a good thing. "The man's doing what it takes to win!" Sure. But let's step beyond that, shall we? The man used to be married, something nobody knew until a reporter tracked his ex-wife down and confirmed it after Kelly had already been coaching in the NFL for a couple of years (and after his entire run at Oregon). I implore you to read that Washington Post article I linked in the previous sentence. It's utterly fascinating. This is a man who's cagey about including his middle name in official documents. (It's Edward.) An author who's written two biographies of him (does Chip Kelly need two biographies?) still can't account for a six-year period of Kelly's life. (I hope when the biographies got to that part, the writer just included about 25 blank pages in the books for emphasis.)
Now think about what it takes for a man to be head coach at an SEC school, or anywhere in the South. You're a public figure. You give speeches at touchdown clubs and alumni associations and glad-hand boosters and trustees. At many schools in the SEC, Auburn included, it's not unlike being the governor. You coach on Saturdays, go to church on Sundays, make your public appearances with your family, and shill for Golden Flake or Ford or whoever. Chip Kelly would be a disaster at all of that, every last bit of it, and if he didn't immediately start churning out SEC champions, it would get him into trouble. At Oregon, he had the confidence of Nike overlord Phil Knight, the only Oregon booster that matters. That, plus the laid-back West Coast culture, played heavily in Kelly's favor. In the SEC (or much of the Big 12), not schmoozing boosters or thanking God after wins (things he won't do) will go over like a lead balloon. Expect him to be coaching again, but only in the right cultural situation (my money's on UCLA). Him coaching at Auburn or Texas A&M or Tennessee would be even more of a gloriously entertaining trainwreck than his time in the NFL, but I can't imagine it happening.
Beyond Kelly, there's who? Normally speaking, guys like Mike "The Mullet" Gundy or Gary Patterson would be in play, as schools like Flow-klahoma State and Texas Christian would seem like smaller fish. Well, oil gazillionaire T. Boone Pickens basically floats all of Okie State's athletic department (his name's on the stadium there), and he'll do whatever it takes to keep Gundy around. (Plus, Gundy's a Cowboy from way back. He played QB there when they had Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas on the team in late '80s.) Patterson has interviewed for other jobs several times over the years, with his personality again often being cited as the reason he's never been hired away from the Frogs. (He interviewed for Auburn's job after Tommy Tuberville resigned in 2008.) At this point, TCU's joined a major conference and is paying him huge money, so I'm not sure what he gains by leaving. Things were different back when the Frogs were a mid-major. Those days have passed.
So now who? Despite having a national title in his back pocket, no one seems super interested in Les Miles due to his age and general Les Miles-ness. I could see Nebraska being a good fit for the Hat, since his son plays there and his extreme commitment to the power rushing offense jibes with Husker history. But it's doubtful he's a major candidate at many other places. After him, you're looking at a lot of dart throws. Paul Finebaum recently put the SEC as a whole (save Bammer) on blast for hiring too many inexperienced coaches, blaming that for the non-Crimson Tide programs' recent downturns. In my first Deep Dive of the season, I discussed the SEC's murky coaching situation at length as well. Firing coaches is easy. Hiring the right guys to replace them is hard. Bama made a rock star hire with Saban, but guys like him are rarely available, even if a guy like him is now what every program in the league wants. All ADs supposedly have lists in their desks, just in case. I'm really curious to see who's on those lists. Are we thinking that the recently retired Bob Stoops could be lured back into the game for the right price at the right location? Would Big Game Bob still be considered a home run hire? People's standards are so high these days. What about a guy who's coaching in the NFL? Hell, just as coaching around these parts seems to be Nick Saban and everybody else, the Shield seems to be Bill Belichick and everybody else, too. Michigan, like Bama, was able to snare a true big fish in Jim Harbaugh, but those guys are so few and far between that accepting no less than a Harbaugh or Saban or Urban Meyer-caliber hire just sets 99% of programs up for disappointment. Guys like Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney were given their first head coaching gigs at schools they've since piloted to national titles and year-after-year national relevance. While an interested school would be remiss not to at least inquire into their availability if the need presents itself, the reality is you'll probably end up giving another young coach a chance to succeed like them or bust out like the jamoke you just canned. There's no secret sauce to it. It's just a confluence of many factors, several of which are out of human control.
We can speculate as much as we want, but there really is no way to completely explain why a guy like Dabo (first hired as an interim coach when Tommy Bowden was canned) has turned Clemson into a mega-power, while equally random and promising hires like Brady Hoke at Michigan or Randy Shannon at Miami were such failures. Sure, we can look back and see what Dabo did better than those guys, but there was no predicting it when Clemson gave him the job. The hiring and firing of coaches is almost always at least partially a dart throw, and that's the thing that drives the coaching carousel and lines agents' pockets with commissions. And several programs are about to walk right into the teeth of it yet again.
Tigers This Week
Dak Dillon/US Presswire
Back-to-back weeks of lousy offense and a week of high-profile roster losses leads Auburn up to Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri (6:30 CT on ESPNU) for the first time ever. The two schools have met twice before, with Missouri defeating Auburn 34-17 in the Sun Bowl following the 1973 season, and Auburn winning the 2013 SEC Championship Game against Mizzou 59-42. The chances of this game being an SEC title game preview are pretty much nil, as the Tigers in black and gold look very much like the worst team in the SEC. Aside from an offensive explosion against FCS foe Missouri State in week one, the Tigers of Missouri have done nothing well, especially last week in a humbling 35-3 home loss against Purdue. QB Drew Lock has plenty of talent, and RB Damarea Crockett is a solid player when he's out there (though he didn't start last week against the Boilermakers over apparent health concerns, and ended up only gaining 19 yards on 10 carries in the game). I don't know how much healthier he'll be for this game, but another loss for Mizzou leaves them at 1-3, so I expect them to pull out all the stops here.
For Auburn, the recipe is rather simple. Continue to play sterling defense, as the orange-and-blue Tigers have done in all three games so far. That alone may be enough to get this win, but things would be a lot easier if Auburn was able to retain the passing game productivity of last week but lose the constant turnovers that plagued them against Mercer. The return of RB Kerryon Johnson from the injury he suffered in the season opener should help the running game be more explosive, too, and Gus Malzahn swears up and down that more RBs than Kam Pettway will get carries this week. In truth, Auburn shouldn't even be threatened in this game, but with Mississippi State looming, I'm looking for the visiting Tigers to put forth their best effort of the season and try and build some momentum before entering the meat of conference play.
Auburn 34, Missouri 10
College Football Game of the Millennium of the Week
From MSU Football Twitter account
There's not one specific Game of the Universe this week, though there are several decent candidates. For purposes of this column, I'll choose one of the candidates from closer to home and go with #17 Mississippi State's trip to #11 Georgia on Saturday night (6 CT on ESPN). State looked mighty impressive in a 37-7 pantsing of LSU in Starkvegas last week, and hasn't really been threatened by anyone yet in any game. QB Nick Fitzgerald looks like yet another Dan Mullen success story, and the MSU defense seems ready to compete with just about anyone. The second game in a tough three-game stretch sees them take on the other SEC Bulldogs, who are also 3-0 on the season. UGa narrowly escaped South Bend with a win in week two and has more or less handled the two lesser opponents they've faced. True freshman Jake Fromm looks to get his third-straight start this weekend, but will face a tougher challenge than he or his teammates have faced thus far. State is explosive on offense and solid at most spots across the field. It'll be incumbent upon the Georgia super-duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to really take over the game if the home-standing Dawgs want to win, but I'm not expecting it. Give me Fitzgerald and the Bullies in this one, adding more credence to the notions that Dan Mullen is the SEC's second-best coach and that State is the league's second-best team (at least right now).
Mississippi State 31, Georgia 20
Rest of the Menu
The weekend starts on Thursday night with one college matchup, Temple traveling to take on unbeaten and ranked South Florida (6:30 CT on ESPN). Charlie Strong's Bulls have looked pretty underwhelming in their three wins so far, but will stay ranked as long as they keep a goose egg in the loss column. Temple is OK, I guess, but that didn't save them from being stomped by Notre Dame in week one. Your other football option on Thursday night is a truly godawful NFL game, with the Rams and 49ers doing "battle" in Santa Clara (7:30 CT on NFL Network).
Friday night sees a mediocre Virginia team travel west to take on Boise State on the smurf turf (7 CT on ESPN2), and the beginning of Pac-12 play for Utah and Arizona in Tucson (9:30 CT on FS1).
The early window Saturday actually features a couple of potentially intriguing games. The North Carolina State team that people keep saying is a sleeper in the ACC (even after losing to South Carolina in week one) travels to Tallahassee to take on Florida State (11 CT on ABC or ESPN2, probably ABC in your area). Remember, the 'Noles haven't played since losing to Bama in week one due to Hurricane Irma. And a busy day in SEC play kicks off with Texas A&M and Arkansas potentially playing for their coaches' jobs in Arlington (11 CT on ESPN).
The afternoon window also features a handful of solid matchups. A talkative Vanderbilt team hosts top-ranked Alabama at 2:30 CT on CBS. The Eye loves them some Bammer, but they should've picked the UGa/State game instead. I don't expect this to be super close. After getting big wins over Auburn and Louisville, Clemson returns to Death Valley to likely squish a bad Boston College team (2:30 CT on ESPN2). USC ventures out of the LA Coliseum for the first time this year, as they head north to take on Cal in Berkeley (2:30 CT on ABC). The Bears are decent enough, and we'll see which Trojan team shows up. A kinda, sorta interesting Duke/North Carolina game will also be played in Chapel Hill (2:30 CT on ESPNU).
But the biggest game in the 2:30 timeslot is from the Big 12. Another Game of the Millennium candidate sees #16 Texas Christian head to Stillwater to take on #6 Flow-klahoma State. The Pokes have looked supremely impressive in their three wins thus far, but TCU is easily the best team that they will have played. This could be a coming out party for both Mike Gundy's Kentucky waterfall, but more importantly, Cowboy QB Mason Rudolph, who's in the early Heisman mix. The Horned Frogs, of course, went to Fayetteville and beat Arkansas to establish their bona fides. A win in Stillwater makes them national players, but I don't think they have quite the horses for it. OSU is really good, and we seem destined for a wild and wooly Bedlam game between the Pokes and Oklahoma in early November.
Elsewhere, Meeee-chigan visits a suddenly feisty Purdue team at 3 CT on FOX. #3 Oklahoma travels to Waco to play an extremely sad Baylor squad (5:30 CT on FS1), a game interesting mainly for morbid reasons. As previously mentioned, State travels to Georgia (6 CT on ESPN), while LSU rebounds from their thumping at the hands of State with a visit from a terrible Syracuse team (6 CT on ESPN2). (Is Syracuse ever going to be good again? They've been terrible for well over a decade now.)
6:30 CT brings us ABC's night game, Penn State traveling to Iowa. This is a decent game, but I'm not sure I buy it as the big national TV night game. Of course, Auburn visits Missouri (6:30 CT on ESPNU) at that time as well, and a highly interesting game in the SEC East will kick off then, too. Fresh off their Hail Mary-aided win over Tennessee, Florida travels to the bluegrass to take on Kentucky (6:30 CT on SEC Network). Again, Florida hasn't lost to Kentucky in football since the '80s, with plenty of blowouts and a few excruciatingly close calls mixed in that streak. (The 2003 game was especially bedeviling.) If UK's ever gonna beat Florida, they should do it here.
Notre Dame takes on Michigan State in East Lansing at 7 CT on FOX, and the Pac-12 gives us a few possibly interesting matchups late. #7 Washington visits Colorado in a rematch of last year's Pac-12 title game at 9 CT on FS1, freshly-ranked Oregon visits Arizona State at 9 CT on the Pac-12 Network, and wounded UCLA and Stanford teams duke it out on the Farm at 9:30 CT on ESPN.
Massacre Island Weekly Forecast
With conference play beginning, the volume of Massacre Island potentials will decrease over the rest of the season (at least until Massacre Weekend, the SEC's yearly dispensing of beatdowns right before Thanksgiving). Conference-wise, a highly perturbed Tennessee team gets to work out their rage over how last week's game ended with a well-timed visit from an abysmal UMass squad (11 CT on SEC Network). The Minutemen are 0-4, with losses already to Hawaii, Coastal Carolina, Old Dominion, and Temple. Ye gods! The Vols ought to have this one in the bag about midway through the 1st quarter. South Carolina hosts Louisiana Tech (2:30 CT on SEC Network), and LSU's previously-mentioned visit from Syracuse could also result in some big numbers.
Nationally, a high-scoring Virginia Tech squad hosts Old Dominion in a ready-made massacre, the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV run smack into Ohio State in the Horseshoe, and an angry Louisville team gets to embarrass Kent State. But the most likely curb stompings to me could be conference games this week. As discussed above, Oklahoma's trip to Baylor has all the makings, while West Virginia travels to perpetually-stanky Kansas in the Big 12. I could also very easily see Clemson gruesomely violate Boston College, and Vandy's big mouths may earn them Alabama's full attention on Saturday, something the Commodores may think they want, but...um...no.
Jerry Jones Quote Bingo
Jerry intersects with college football more than usual this week, as his beloved alma mater will travel to his stadium to play Texas A&M. Jones' love for his Razorbacks is no less legit than his love for his Cowboys, even if that love only manifests itself in very self-aggrandizing, Jerry Jones-ways. To honor a man who was famously a member of their 1964 national championship team (along with former friend and employee Jimmy Johnson), the Hogs are wearing Dallas Cowboys-style uniforms this week. (They're not wearing white jerseys, but whatever.) The threads look nice, and upon seeing the silver helmets the Bacon will be wearing this week, JJ got a little emotional, reminiscing about his days playing for the late Frank Broyles at the university. It's legitimately a cool gesture from the school, and I don't think Jerry was faking his feelings for a second. But while I never pegged him for an avid comic book reader, Jones did badly fumble one of the easiest comic book metaphors there is. While I know I like these things more than most, I really thought the whole "kryptonite is Superman's weakness" thing was pretty well-established in popular culture. I guess I shouldn't expect to see Jerry in line to see Justice League in a couple of months.
The Shield (Like Fantasy Football, but for Real)
The NFL returns to jolly ol' England again this week, as America punishes the UK for the War of 1812 by inflicting the Jacksonville Jaguars upon them. The Ravens are the other squad heading across the pond, and I suspect having Baltimore's defense on your fantasy team would be a smart move. At my current day job, I cover a lot of British sports (which can be hella weird), and they don't seem as interested in American football as the NFL wants to think, but nor do they seem as snooty and resistant to the game as maybe a cynic might think. Sure, they love their Premier League soccer (or football), but there's some American football fans over there. I think the real problem is they don't have a home team to root for. Why should they care about teams from Baltimore or Jacksonville (or any American city)? If they had their own team, it'd be different. The problem with that, of course, is travel and logistics. London is five hours ahead of the Eastern time zone in America, which would make scheduling the games weird. The teams who go to London now are already granted some concessions as part of the collective bargaining agreement. And I could imagine it being rather difficult to convince an American player to move all the way across the ocean to play for a team that cut could him at any time with no repercussions whatsoever. So yeah, there are problems. But with the game's image being tarnished in this country due to concussion data, or anger over the NCAA's student-athlete model, or the NFL's inimitable way of tripping over its own expletive deleted at all times, growing the game out of the country is one of the best ways to safeguard its future. They'll also have a game in Mexico City this year (a good one, Patriots vs Raiders), and that's a country that already has an affinity for our brand of football. The problem there is mainly safety and security, as well as poor air quality in and around Mexico City. (Plus, they've just been hit with some horrific earthquakes over the last few weeks. It's been a rough for our neighbors to the south lately.) The sport may never be the dominant force it's been in this country, but football can't maintain the status quo. There's too much noise around it. It needs to always be finding new markets and new ways to keep the game fresh and vital. Trying to get people in other countries to care about it is a necessary part of that.
The meat of conference play is beginning, and we're going to find out a lot about a lot over the next few weeks. For Auburn, go to Mizzou and kick expletive deleted. That's what needs to happen. Of course, we'll take a win, but this should be a convincing, dominant effort. Missouri is that bad. Get a big W, then build momentum for what should be an "everything and the kitchen sink" game against Mississippi State. Check back on Monday for the recap.