Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Eight Preview
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Now that we've all licked our wounds from last week, let's press on, shall we?
The Deep Dive
Well, the hot seat talk is raging, isn't it? Just in the SEC, we're in range of seeing five coaching changes, maybe more depending on how things play out over the next month and a half. Let's take a look at the coaches around the league and see who's seat is warmest.
The coldest seat in the league obviously belongs to Nick Saban at Alabama. It's pretty hard to imagine firing a guy when half the children under the age of ten in the fanbase are named after him. Plus, despite the hopes and dreams of many outside Bammer circles, the Tahd haven't slipped from their lofty perch as of yet under Nicky, and he doesn't seem to be interested in retirement or coaching somewhere else any time soon.
In the igloo next door is Georgia's Kirby Smart. I wasn't super impressed with the Smart hire when Georgia made it, and the early returns last year were pretty inconclusive. But year two under Kirby has been excellent thus far. The Dawgs can already start clearing out space on their mantel for the East division title, and have done enough to warrant a good bit of two SEC teams in the playoff talk. And if anything, Smart has improved upon Mark Richt's already prodigious recruiting success in Athens. These first two paragraphs are a serious bummer for Auburn fans.
A Crisp Autumn Evening
Dan Mullen leads the way in this second category. State rebounded after the beatdowns at Georgia and Auburn by thumping a poor BYU squad Saturday. Mullen has routinely given Ole Miss fits in Starkville, led the Bullies to their first-ever #1 ranking in the AP Poll in 2014, and has made State a near annual player for at least a decent bowl game ever since he arrived in Starkvegas. He'll be safe in this job for as long as he wants, though you'd figure someone will overlook his apparent poor job interview skills and hire him out of there sometime soon.
Joining Mullen right now is his coaching counterpart this Saturday, Mark Stoops. It maybe took a bit longer than Wildcat fans would've liked, but Stoops eventually cashed in some promising recruiting with a bowl berth last year. (And don't sleep on that road win over Louisville either.) While Georgia's ascent under Smart likely puts the kibosh on any dreams of Big Blue winning the division any time soon, Stoops seems to have built a pretty decent program on the bluegrass. Like Mullen, the aim now for UK would be to keep him around.
Another coach having success off the beaten path right now is Will Muschamp at South Carolina. Consecutive wins over Arkansas and Tennessee (see way below on this list, down at the bottom) have the Gamecocks pointed directly at a second straight bowl berth under Boom. When Steve Spurrier went out for smokes and never came back a couple years ago, it looked like the salad days were well and truly over for Cocky, and the Muschamp hire seemed pretty underwhelming at the time. But Will seems to have learned from at least some of his mistakes at Florida, and his fiery temperament and ability to get his kids to compete has translated well on the sidelines at Williams-Brice.
A Refreshing Summer Breeze
I'm hedging on whether to place Derek Mason at Vandy in this category or the one above, but the lackluster effort at Ole Miss Saturday is enough for me to bump him into a hotter category, if only for a short time. I have no expectations of Mason getting the heave-ho from Vanderbilt after this season, but the Commodores' chances of qualifying for a bowl game took a big hit with last week's loss. I'd still think that last year's bowl berth and win over Tennessee would be enough to keep Mason's future secure, but who knows if the team bottoms out from here. They're hitting their bye this week at the right time.
Up next are two coaches who've thrown a little water on their hotseats over the past few weeks. LSU's Ed Orgeron was already hearing it in his first full season on the bayou after losing at home to Troy, but consecutive wins over Florida and Auburn ought to have convinced the Tigah faithful to put away their torches and pitchforks for a little while at least. (Also, Ed Orgeron as a Cajun version of Frankenstein's monster is a fun mental image.)
Kevin Sumlin's seat was white hot after his Aggies blew a huge lead to UCLA in the Rose Bowl to start the year, but A&M has seemed to right the ship since. After a couple of ugly non-conference wins, true freshman QB Kellen Mond's play has improved dramatically, and the Aggies have picked up league victories over Arkansas, South Carolina, and Florida, all sandwiched around a competitive loss to Alabama. Sumlin can't rest on his laurels quite yet, though, as important dates with Mississippi State, Auburn, and LSU remain on the schedule. Win them all and A&M has a shot at a huge bowl game, but lose all three and Sumlin may still be needing to contact a realtor come season's end.
Ominous Smoke on the Horizon
This level only features one coach, Florida's Jim McElwain. It's hard to get a good handle on Coach Mac's tenure in Gainesville. On one hand, he's two-for-two so far when it comes to winning the East (though that streak is all but certain to end this year). He's 22-11 overall at UF, and 16-5 in SEC play. But still, even watching from afar it seems like he's just not doing all that great a job. Definitely not this year, with the Gators looking as bad as they've looked in his years there. But even those two prior seasons weren't really all that inspiring, division titles notwithstanding. Like another coach down the list (you know who I mean), his inability to establish any kind of consistent offense in Gainesville could be his undoing. Would finishing under .500 this year be enough to do it? I don't know, especially since Will Muschamp kept his job after a 4-8 season in 2013 that included a home loss to Georgia Southern. (He was let go after the following year, though.) I think the Florida situation is one to keep an eye on. (Of course, all this goes away if his Gators pull one of their patented upsets over Georgia in two weeks.)
The Sahara Desert
The Sahara's a crowded place these days. We'll start with Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke. He's been pretty much marked for death like those kids in the Final Destination movies all year. Now his players are aiming to change that, but I still think he's out when the season ends. LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M all visit the Grove before the year's out, though, along with games at Kentucky and State. If the Rebels go on a run, then maybe the pressure to keep him becomes too great. But I don't think they have it in them. 6-6 or worse probably means a new face on the Landshark sidelines come 2018, and I can't see the Rebs squeezing seven wins out of this season.
Missouri's Barry Odom is here in year two, which says a lot about how far Mizzou has fallen in such a short amount of time. For his part, Odom's still talking up his team, trying to lay the groundwork for a big finish, but they've slid off into the ditch up there. I'm not sure making a coaching change this quickly is a good recipe for a turnaround, but abject hopelessness will make you do some extreme things.
Oh, hi, Gus. Had Auburn held on for the win at Death Valley Saturday, Gus Malzahn would probably be in the Crisp Autumn Evening category, but it's funny how things can change when your team falls apart. Both Luke and Odom seem to think they have a real shot at a big finish, but Gus probably has the best chance at one. He clearly has the best team to work with, and even one win over Georgia or Bama could be all it takes. (Not that that's a tall order or anything.) Really, like McElwain, Gus gets a lot of grief because he's supposed to be an offensive genius, but his offenses since Nick Marshall graduated have been maddening in the extreme. The general unrest around the Auburn athletic department isn't helping his cause either. I'm not sure we'll have the clarity we want around Gus' actual prospects of keeping his job until after the Iron Bowl. Would 8-4 be enough to get him canned? What about 9-3? I'm not sure, but I do think losing to anyone not named Georgia or Alabama in the regular season would be extremely detrimental to his cause. (Cough, Texas A&M, cough). Auburn needs to get this win over Arkansas and get to its bye just to help right the ship a little.
Speaking of the Piggies, Bret Bielema's hanging out in the desert, too. In fact, he may have the wandered the furthest into the Sahara by this point. It's real puzzling how little that program has developed under him. He seemed like a pretty solid hire when they made it, and his personality and philosophy felt like perfect fits for what Arkansas is and wants to be. But you gotta win at some point, and the Hogs appear to be heading in the wrong direction fast. Auburn, who beat them 56-3 last year, visits this week. After that, there are wins out there to get against Ole Miss, Coastal Carolina, and Missouri, but the games with Ole Miss, LSU, and State will be what determines the Beluga's future. Seeing how they've played the last few weeks, that future doesn't look too bright at the moment.
Already Burned to a Crisp
I know that maybe beating Alabama would be like a golden ticket for Butch Jones, but can we please mercy kill his Tennessee tenure? (Live footage of Butch coming into the complex today.) It's over, and we all know it. The players sure as hell knew it when they took a dump on the field against Georgia, and things haven't gotten any better since. A smackdown from Bama is coming, and even UT's usual post-Bammer cakewalk is looking a little hairy this year. A trip to Kentucky follows the trip to Tuscaloosa, and then homecoming against Southern Miss. (A game some quarters are predicting Tennessee loses.) After a road trip to Mizzou, LSU and Vandy visit Rocky Top. 6-6 is doable out of that schedule, but I can't see that being enough to keep Jones around. It's a testament to the crappiness of the non-Georgia East that we're even talking about 6-6 with this team.
So there you have it, all 14 SEC coaches on some sort of hotseat scale. And of course, dominos are already falling around the country. UTEP and Oregon State have already seen coaching changes, and many more are sure to follow, plus whatever happens in the NFL. Combined between coaches getting canned and maybe some guys like Mullen or Stoops getting hired away, it wouldn't be unreasonable to see half the schools in the conference make some kind of change. And then we'll all just have to wait a few more years to see if any of this makes a difference or if we're all locked into a vicious cycle. Hey, at least the agents make money, right?
Tigers This Week
Michael Woods/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
As mentioned above, Auburn travels to Arkansas this weekend (6:30 CT on SEC Network). Also as mentioned above, Auburn beat the Hogs 56-3 last year in one of the most lopsided games I've ever seen the Tigers play against a supposedly quality opponent. Will this year be any different? Well, AU's coming off a brutal loss at LSU, so confidence could be an issue on the visiting sideline. Plus, the distraction of questions about Gus Malzahn's job could negatively affect the team, too. And the various minor injuries and other off-field issues (sayonara, Kyle Davis) that the Tigers have dealt with really seemed to come into play at LSU. So, yeah, there are major concerns for Auburn this week. But...
Arkansas has all those problems, too, and maybe more. They've been walloped by South Carolina and Alabama the last two weeks, a bowl berth is becoming more of a longshot, and Bret Bielema's tenure may be soon coming to an end. (I know people around these parts are pretty miffed at Gus right now, but his tenure in Auburn is an unqualified success compared to Bielema's run in Hogville.) I know Fayetteville's a tough place to play historically, but there is no excuse whatsoever for Auburn not to go up there and restore order Saturday night. Anything less is completely unacceptable and would effectively be the nail in Malzahn's coffin.
Auburn 42, Arkansas 17
College Football Game of the Millennium of the Week
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I know ESPN's hyping up Michigan/Penn State like it matters (oh my Zod, please stop with the 30 Seconds to Mars BS), but Michigan isn't really any good. The better game takes place two states over in South Bend, Indiana when #11 USC visits #13 Notre Dame (6:30 CT on NBC). As mentioned a few times over the past couple of weeks, the Irish are succeeding about as quietly as the Irish can. Usually, a 5-1 Notre Dame squad would be getting crammed down our throats ad nauseum, but not so much this year. In fact, you could make a better case that USC, with its highly-touted but average-performing QB Sam Darnold, is the more over-exposed team. This should be a pretty fun game between the old intersectional rivals, but gimme the luck of the Irish at home. If they win this game, I can't imagine anyone keeping quiet about ND anymore.
Notre Dame 31, USC 26
Rest of the Menu
Memphis is ranked now. I just thought everyone should know. They play at Houston tonight on ESPN (7 CT). That could actually be a fun AAC matchup. The NFL game is between Kansas City and Oakland (7:25 CT on CBS and NFL Network), which sounds great except that the Raiders have been really crappy this year.
Friday this week is mostly just flotsam and jetsam, nothing like the big, upset-filled Friday of last week, so we'll skip on ahead to Saturday. Wisconsin, who plays one of the lousiest schedules I've ever seen this year, gets to fatten up on turtle when Maryland visits Camp Randall (11 CT on FOX). Texas tries to bounce back from their close loss to Oklahoma last week when Oklahoma State visits Austin at 11 CT on ABC. That could be a fun game. You could be forgiven for thinking Louisville and Florida State is a big deal (11 CT on ESPN), but it isn't. It should be, but nope, not this year. (A lot of SEC fanbases are half-joking about hiring Bobby Petrino, and he's just out here losing to Boston College at home.)
Tennessee's death march to Alabama "headlines" the afternoon window (2:30 on CBS). At the same time and probably more fun to watch are rejuvenated Syracuse's trip to Miami (2:30 on ESPN) and what could be a high-flying matchup between #20 Central Florida and Navy (2:30 CT on CBS Sports Network). Expect points in Annapolis this weekend.
Kansas State hosts their second consecutive Big 12 big dog when Oklahoma comes sweeping down the plain (or up the plain, geographically speaking) for a 3 CT tilt on FOX. The Wildcats did little to inspire confidence against TCU last week, but OU's a very hard team to read/trust. Also at 3 CT, Kentucky visits Mississippi State on the SEC Network. This game's about as meaningful as a football game between these schools gets, and the winner has a solid case to be ranked afterward.
The ESPN primetime game is LSU's visit to Ole Miss at 6:15 CT. If Shea Patterson and the Rebels upset Coach O's boys (not out of the question), that'll be extra depressing for Auburn fans. The aforementioned Michigan/Penn State and USC/Notre Dame games kick off at 6:30 CT on ABC and NBC respectively, as does Auburn's visit to Arkansas (televised on the SEC Network). For whatever reason, FOX has decided to air Kansas' road game at TCU in primetime (7 CT) even though snuff films are illegal.
Late night doesn't feature Washington for a change, as the Huskies are off, so instead Washington State gets the late slot on ESPN when Colorado visits the Palouse (9:45 CT). Chris Petersen's little war of words with the worldwide leader reminded me of Tommy Tuberville's quixotic crusade against the network back in 2006, right down to both teams taking unexpected losses during the battle.
Massacre Island Weekend Forecast
If anyone at Tennessee cared, I'd feel bad about their impending murder at the hands of Alabama. But they don't, so why should I? Also, as mentioned above, Kansas' visit to Texas Christian could result in some very un-Christian things happening (unless we're talking about the Spanish Inquisition). And as also also mentioned above, Wisconsin's run of playing horrid Big Ten teams continues when Maryland visits. Man, a lot of these top teams' schedules sure are godawful.
Gus Malzahn Quote Bingo
Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
One of the most repeated quotes from Gus' post-game presser Saturday was that Auburn still controls its own destiny. Fun fact, Auburn does not control its own destiny. (And I don't mean in the dictionary sense, where no one is capable of controlling their own destiny.) If LSU wins out, they win the division regardless of what Auburn does. I think both Gus and the general public fixated on what it would take to finish ahead of Alabama, which Auburn can do if it wins out. Everyone seems to generally assume that LSU loses in Tuscaloosa in a couple of weeks, which is very likely to happen, but such is the state of the SEC right now that no one seems to be considering any division end-game scenarios that don't directly involve Bammer.
The Shield (Like Fantasy Football, but for Real)
From the Bowels of Hell (AKA Reddit)
I saw the meme above floating around Sunday mere hours after Anthony Barr drove Aaron Rodgers into the turf at whatever-the-new-stadium-is-called in Minneapolis. Good times. This isn't something I'm especially excited to rehash, but I figured I kinda had to after extolling Rodgers' virtues last week in this space. Fortunately, the Lions, Vikings, and Bears (oh my!) are still the Lions, Vikings, and Bears (oh my!). That means, just like in 2013, the Pack may still have a shot at the playoffs if Rodgers can return before the end of the season (which is still up in the air). Hell, in that division, Brett Hundley may be able to QB the team into the postseason if he can settle into the starting role with more preparation in practice (something he didn't have going into last Sunday). But who am I fooling? The Packers are hoping for a title pretty much every year #12 is around, and with him on the shelf, those chances are pretty much shot. This opens things up in the NFC more for teams like the Eagles and the...um...sombody else, I'm sure. The rest of the NFC's looking like a head-scratcher right now, but it's still early by NFL standards. I'll continue hoping Rodgers can come back at all this year and that Green Bay's even anywhere near contention if/when he does.
We've had some chaos the last few weeks (last week especially, even with what looked like a dog schedule), but the teams near the top seem pretty entrenched there. There's still far too many teams who can more reasonably than usual be accused of "Ain't played nobody, Pawwwl!" (Wisconsin, Penn State, maybe even Bammer themselves). We'll see how some of that shakes out over the coming weeks, and we'll see if anybody wants to win the Heisman Trophy (Penn State's Saquon Barkley is seemingly the only candidate right now, and he's just been OK so far against a mediocre schedule). But mostly we'll see if Auburn can do what it takes to make this a good season (and keep the current coaching staff around a little while longer). That should start this week with a nice rebound effort at Arkansas. Check back on Monday for the recap.