Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Five Preview
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
If you're reading this, that probably means you haven't been arrested by the FBI. It's something crazy every day in the news cycle right now, but I don't think any of us expected that on Tuesday. What's started as a college basketball story threatens to morph into something that affects college football, too, and we've got a whole slate of games to get to, including an important divisional matchup for the Tigers. Let's get to it.
The Deep Dive
So holy crap! The Federal-BI and the US Attorney's office for southern New York dropped a bomb on everybody Tuesday by hauling a handful of college basketball assistant coaches, plus a few people involved in the shoe game, off to the pokey on federal corruption charges. (And yes, both Auburn and Alabama's programs appear to be caught in up in the middle of it.) What concerns me most in The Deep Dive is less the specific arrests and allegations made Tuesday and more the ominous language being used by the US Attorney and a lot of the people who are commenting on this story. We're hearing talk of more schools being involved, this blowing the lid off the shadiness of college basketball in general, and all of major college athletics being sucked into this black hole. Let's take a closer look.
First, let's all understand that this involves at least three highly arrogant institutions, to the point of it being noxious. The FBI and the US Attorney's office definitely know how to play the political game, especially the USAs, which perhaps helps to explain the theatricality of all this. And the NCAA, who were caught just as unaware as everybody else, has its own special brand of arrogance, one mixed with equal parts denial and obliviousness. While I certainly wouldn't want to be any of the guys who just got pinched, and I absolutely shudder to think what this means for the future of Auburn basketball (and I mean the immediate future, as in the rest of this week), somehow I don't think this is going to be the Earth-rattler that it's being made out to be now. If anything, I think the very public way Adidas is being brought into this could affect the way the apparel companies have so much sway in college hoops more than necessarily the whole sham NCAA model being brought down.
Whatever happens in the criminal case, it should at least get people once again thinking about how this whole college athletics thing works. Certainly the NCAA, like the individual schools implicated, is doing its level-best to play the denial card. "We'll get to the bottom of this and punish the wicked," and all that. But this is yet another major black eye for the organization, similar to its protracted legal battles with former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and others over licensing player avatars for video games and that attempt by Northwestern's football players to unionize a couple years ago. The organization has won in some cases and lost in others, but it's clearly under attack on multiple fronts. And this doesn't consider the numerous times someone involved in the major conferences starts talking about how the big leagues may ditch the NCAA if they somehow find it convenient, which has forced the NCAA to give some concessions to those schools and leagues in recent years. Whether this US Attorney/FBI investigation turns out to be the world-killer they're hyping it up as or not, there will be some other challenge to the NCAA's methods and authority coming up right around the corner.
And this is where my point about the organization's arrogance comes into play, and it's not just arrogance. It's also ignorance. If anything, the real problem is that it seems the people who work for the NCAA and especially the people who run it really think that they're some sort of necessary agency, something the world absolutely needs. Like they seriously can't imagine a world where there's no NCAA. You know, they aren't, like, the government or anything. The general population could really give a flying expletive deleted if a kid gets some money to play college football or basketball. Seriously, there's no real public demand for this system. Their authority more or less exists because their member institutions allow it to exist, something you'd think they would've been reminded of when they gave those concessions to the Power Five back in 2014. But no, NCAA president Mark Emmert and his cohorts just carry on acting like they're some sort of light in the darkness that is amateur athletics. In their minds, the NCAA is like a last line of defense between order and chaos. So when the head of their enforcement division decides to ignore the advice of the NCAA's own attorneys and possibly gum up a legal case (you know, one that takes place in a court of law, i.e. a real court) by trying to gain access to information that will help her in her stupid little investigation over sports BS, she doesn't seem to understand that maybe she shouldn't do that. (Fortunately, the NCAA did remove her from her job as a result of this, since it opened them up to some serious scrutiny.)
This is an organization that needs to be more proactive than reactive when it comes to safeguarding the future of college athletics. Working out a way to compensate the players who participate in these big money sports won't keep cheating and $100 handshakes from happening, but it could, if done thoughtfully, work to lessen the extent to which it goes on. Right now, you've got kids who are coming from nothing being used by shady con men for money. Since so many of the athletes in big time college sports seem to come from middle or lower-class backgrounds, there's a need there. I know some of these people are just greedy and trying to make a quick buck, but there are many others who just need money to get by and instead know they have to wait a set amount of time before they can get anything. This creates the kind of desperation that the smooth operators can take advantage of. It's like how outlawing liquor during Prohibition kept booze out of the hands of the law-abiding and created a huge illicit market for organized crime to thrive in.
With the NCAA, we're talking about an organization that sees no problem with everyone else associated with college sports making big stacks of cash (coaches, administrators, advertisers, bowl game committees, TV networks, etc.), but has rules in place to keep the players from ever earning a cent of the money their efforts generate. I'm not saying the money is 100% created by the players, as the schools and leagues and everyone else has a huge hand in it, but they all get compensated while the players get nothing. (The value of the athletic scholarship they get is a pittance by comparison, and college educations aren't exactly surefire golden tickets these days. I know not having student debt to worry about is a golden ticket of its own, but it's still a system that's akin to your boss telling you that you have to work for him or some other guy like him for at least three years out of high school with no pay, while he and the others like him keep all the money. Only after the three years could you be able to get any money, of which there is a preposterous amount. That kind of system is crazy.) If the NCAA managed to keep the sport from getting monetized, then I could understand their desire to not compensate the players. But they haven't. In fact, they've done quite the opposite, facilitating a system that seems designed to wring every last penny out of the games as it can, from ticket prices to merchandising to TV contracts to advertising to naming bowl games after businesses no one's ever heard of (The Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl anyone?). No, everyone gets their cut, as long as they're not actually out there on the field playing.
I mean, this is an organization that somehow couldn't see this years-in-the-making FBI sting coming, one which had to create who knows how big a paper trail to secure all the necessary warrants and go-aheads to gather this intel (not to mention what had to be years of systemic, organized cheating at several programs across the country), but yet they had ample time to crap all over Central Florida's kicker for trying to make money off a YouTube channel. For those of you who can't imagine what it'd be like not to have college football or basketball as we know it, just know that the previous sentence describes the organization specifically tasked with making sure those sports continue to exist in something akin to their current form. Just a little food for thought.
Tigers This Week
Adam Sparks/The Auburn Plainsman
The Tigers jump into SEC West play this week with a visit from Dan Mullen's Mississippi State Bulldogs (5 CT on ESPN). This game looked a hell of a lot more daunting just five days ago, when State was 3-0 and coming off an impressive shellacking of LSU in Starkvegas. But one trip to Athens later, and the Bullies roll into Jordan-Hare with their tails tucked between their legs a little bit. For Auburn's part, the Tigers rolled to 1-0 in league play last week with a thrashing of Missouri that at least looked like the work of a potentially great team. I know there were some areas that could still be improved on from last week, but it was nice to feel some real momentum for the first time this year.
The State game in recent years has been a bit of a bellwether for AU. Since Mullen arrived in Starkville in 2009 (also the same year that Gene Chizik began his nutso tenure on the Plains, with Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator), the rivalry between the two schools has intensified (into where it can now actually be called a rivalry, which was never really the case before). Auburn's loss at Davis Wade Stadium in 2012 was a harbinger of a terrible year to come for the Tigers, while the last-minute comeback win over the Bulldogs in 2013 ended up being just as important for Auburn as the more celebrated wins they'd pick up at the end of that season. State used their win over the Tigers in 2014 to jump into the top spot in the AP Poll for the first time ever. They beat AU again in 2015 in a low-scoring affair that reaffirmed how punchless Auburn's offense was going to be that year. And the Tigers, fresh off an exceedingly narrow win over LSU, pasted the Bullies in Starkville last year, which keyed a strong run through October.
Can this year be another harbinger of things to come? After last week, State has to win to have any chance of competing in the West, while Auburn can ill afford any slip-ups if they still have designs on playing for the big money at the end of the season. I was really sold on MSU going into last week and was surprised that they played so poorly at Georgia. Catching them at the end of a three-game stretch which saw them play LSU and Georgia in the two weeks prior was always going to be an advantage for Auburn, and getting a full-strength backfield this week for the first time this season will be another boon. I expect State to put up more of a fight than they did last week, but the Tigers finally have momentum and have always had more talent than MSU. Nick Fitzgerald won't make it easy, but the Tiger defense and the improved passing game behind Jarrett Stidham help push Auburn to an important win.
Auburn 31, Mississippi State 23
College Football Game of the Millennium of the Week
Hey, it's Clemson again! The Fightin' Dabos take their show back on the road, this time to Blacksburg to battle a pretty game-looking Virginia Tech squad in what could very well be the first of two meetings between the schools this year. (A Miami team we haven't seen much of seems to be the main competition for VT in the...whichever division they're in...I can never keep this straight...(looks it up)...the Coastal, yeah, it's the Coastal...there, that's settled.) I made the grave mistake of picking against Cousin Clem when they visited Louisville earlier in the season (hey, remember when Rick Pitino was the guest picker on College GameDay ahead of that game?), and Dabo and the boys made me regret it when they slow-roasted the Cardinals in their own stadium. I do think Va Tech has a better team than Louisville, and they've been more impressive in their games so far than UL had been. but I ain't picking against the Tigers again. Of course, whichever team does lose has a realistic shot at getting some revenge in the conference title game in December, so maybe don't get too crazy either way about this game. But still, I think Clemson at this point has more than earned the benefit of the doubt.
Clemson 34, Virginia Tech 20
Rest of the Menu
Just one Thursday game this week, and it sees Tom Herman's Texas Longhorns (who've had a bye week to stew about losing that close game at USC) travel up to Ames to take on Iowa State (7 CT on ESPN). If you'd rather watch the professionals (or see who does or doesn't take a knee during the national anthem), the oldest rivalry in the NFL resumes as Chicago travels to Green Bay (7:25 CT on CBS and NFL Network). Somehow, even though these two have played approximately eight billion times, the all-time is series is tied (94-94-6, so they've actually played 194 times).
Friday's schedule is much busier, and it's also actually pretty good. The Miami team I referenced earlier gets its toughest test so far this season at undefeated Duke (6 CT on ESPN). Hey, remember this? Nebraska, who's thisclose to canning head coach Mike Riley, travels to Illinois (7 CT on FS1) in what I keep having to remind myself is a conference game. BYU and Utah State renew their Mormon-y rivalry at 7 CT on the CBS Sports Network (in Romney Stadium, though it's not named for Mitt.) And the night wraps up with a potentially excellent game out west, with #5 USC heading up to the Palouse to battle Mike Leach's Washington State Huskies (9:30 CT on ESPN). Yarrrr!
The mutilated corpse of Vanderbilt rises from the slab and slowly ambles down to the Swamp to do battle with Florida (11 CT on ESPN) in what may be the only even kinda notable game in the early window. (I guess Northwestern at Wisconsin maybe could be, it's at 11 CT on ABC).
The afternoon window features #7 Georgia's visit to Rocky Top (2:30 CT on CBS). Could this game seal Butch Jones' fate? I don't know, as much as everything seems pointed to a Bulldog romp, something about this game just doesn't feel right to me. Maybe it's because the last few games between these two have been nucking futs.
State visits Auburn at 5 CT on ESPN, a somewhat awkward start time that ESPN only occasionally features, which places the game halfway between the two principal viewing windows (and will almost certainly run long into the following game on the network). 90 minutes later, a truly intriguing game kicks off in College Station between South Carolina and Texas A&M (6:30 CT on SEC Network). That one could go in any direction.
Clemson and Va Tech is the ABC Game of the Universe (7 CT on ABC, which means it'll kick off sometime around 9:30). Also at night, Flow-klahoma State has to lick their frog-inflicted (and self-inflicted) wounds in a hurry before heading down to Lubbock to get into an inevitable shootout with Texas Tech (7 CT on FOX). (And perhaps a literal shootout, what with TT's cannon and OSU's mascot's history.)
The game after Auburn's on ESPN is Ole Miss at Alabama (8 CT on ESPN), which will probably be through most of the first quarter by the time the AU game ends. Unless you get the Ocho, you'll probably miss Bammer's first three TDs.
The late window features a San Diego State team we have to pretend to care about hosting a Northern Illinois team that was good enough to win at Nebraska (9:30 CT on CBS Sports Network). This is a light Saturday, as several big dogs are playing middle-of-the-road conference opponents (Penn State plays Indiana, Wisconsin plays Northwestern, Bama plays Ole Miss, Ohio State plays Rutgers, Washington plays Oregon State, and so on). Some of those games might be interesting, but I kinda doubt it.
Massacre Island Weekend Forecast
Mentioned above, most of the big dogs are playing crappy conference opponents this week, which opens up some possibilities. Louisville is one of the few who gets to get fat against a true weakling, hosting Murray State. I'll be shocked if that game doesn't get comically ugly. (There's a lot of frustration to take out around the 'Ville these days.) Can any of the league beatdowns match Bama's smooshing of Vandy last week? I know Ohio State hasn't been quite as advertised this year, but their trip to Rutgers has potential. The Scarlet Knights, of course, were the victims of last year's prize pig massacre at the hands of Michigan. They seem to be a touch better this year, but they were still bad enough to lose at home to Eastern Michigan, so I still think the ol' Buckeyes have a pretty good shot at this one.
Also, the participants in last week's whooping can't be forgotten about. Florida's been ugly for the most part this year, but they've won two big games the last two weeks and I don't know how Vandy bounces back after that stompin'. If Florida can execute at all on offense, they could run out on the 'Dores early. (Of course, if Florida plays offense like they've played it most of the year, they could lose this game.) And Ole Miss' trip to Bama could get downright ugly, too. I don't think much of the Rebels this year. Speaking of...
Nick Saban Quote Bingo
After Vandy graciously provided some bulletin board material last week, ol' Nicky had to reach deep into Felix the Cat's bag of tricks to come up with a way that Ole Miss' strict radio silence this week is itself also disrespectful to Bammer. Nick, I watched the Ole Miss-Cal game. That silence coming from the Ole Miss locker room isn't quiet confidence. Panic, maybe. Confusion, definitely. But not confidence. Of course, after how things went for Vandy, I can forgive Ole Miss' coaches if the only part of this they want to focus on is the "quiet" part.
The Shield (Like Fantasy Football, but for Real)
Thomas J. Russo/USA Today/Reuters
Oh, yeah, the other 800-pound gorilla in the sports world right now. I don't want to get on a whole spiel about this, but I'll just say that we're in uncharted waters here. The NFL lives to protect its brand above all else, and even in this case, the statements from the league and the teams have read like PR for the league (they always focus on the good the players do in the community or how sports brings communities together, but they never either support or condemn the players kneeling or the backlash against the players kneeling.) The President's comments in Huntsville and his follow-up tweets and remarks have galvanized what was a fairly small movement before into a bigger one, but have also galvanized the backlash to that movement. While Donald Trump himself will likely move on to some other topic du jour pretty soon (he's got a lot on his plate right now), this situation in the NFL won't just quietly go away. Certainly, a large portion of the NFL's fanbase is riled up about these protests and many seem willing to abandon the league entirely over it (and the league is having ratings and attendance concerns for maybe the first time since the AFL-NFL merger). But the league also can't totally risk a full-scale order for the protests to cease, because that will probably only galvanize the protesting players further (and may draw more into their ranks). Obviously, race is all over this issue, and this is a league that features a majority African-American workforce. There's no way in hell the league actually wants to take a side here, but I'm not sure how much longer they're going to be able to afford not to. (Also, their "Salute to Service" thing they do, which seems to mostly exist to justify taking payments from the Department of Defense and creating different-colored merchandise to sell, could be really awkward when and if the league goes ahead with it in early November.)
Well, it's true. Most of the craziest stuff going down right now is off the field, and Grodd knows how that's going to work, or even if it's going to work out. On the field, it's a light-ish week nationally, but this is an important game for Auburn. Again, expect State to play much better than they did last week at Georgia. With some momentum going from last week, it's imperative that Auburn continue to build on its success at Mizzou. I'd like to see better, more consistent line play on offense, and would love to see the full-strength AU backfield for the first time. As long as Auburn executes, they should be able to win. Either way, somebody's likely getting essentially eliminated from the SEC West race before September is over. Let's hope it's not us.