Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Rivalry Week Special Edition
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Seeing as how last weekend was so lame and this coming weekend is so packed, I've made an executive decision to combine the recap for week 12 and the preview for week 13 into a super rivalry week special. There's lots to discuss, so let's get discussin'.
The Deep Dive
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Well, I suppose we can go ahead and order Gus Malzahn a moving van. He's going to be coaching at Arkansas before you finish reading this sentence, apparently. Except, no. No, I highly doubt the veracity of this flurry of rumors about ol' Gustav's glorious return to Hogville. Let's review a few things. First and foremost, Jimmy Sexton, ladies and germs. You'd think that after we went through this about 367 times with Tommy Tuberville that people would catch on to Jimmy's modus operandi. He's floating Gus' name out there for Arkansas so he can work a contract extension out of Auburn. Even with the Great Extender soon to be out of a job on the Plains, Sexton's ploy will likely work, and many a grumbly Auburn fan will have something else to grumble about. I'd like to live in a world where a contract means something, but I don't, at least not when it comes to major college athletics. Anyone who's angry about Sexton extorting another raise out of Auburn (or any of the many, many schools that he'll hit up for more money over the next six weeks or so) should also remember that contract length doesn't seem to matter a whole hell of a lot when the same coach is headed for the firing line. This is, for better or worse, the standard business model in college football, and Sexton is the ultimate wheeler-dealer when it comes to coaches' contracts.
Second, and this is just me speculatin' about a hypothesis here, but I don't buy Malzahn leaving for Arkansas for a whole bunch of reasons. I know he's a Hog from way back and there's a lot of movement in Pigland to bring him home, but I don't see Gus as the pull-up-the-stakes type. I know all coaches do it, and Gus himself has done it, but that's almost always for a clear promotion. Sure, Gus'll jump from high school to be an OC at Arkansas. Sure, he'll leave Tulsa for Auburn, then take a shot at being a head coach at Arkansas State, then upgrade to head coach at Auburn. All those were clearly better opportunities. This isn't. This is a lateral move at best (from the Arkansas side of things), and that's overlooking the many pretty clear advantages Auburn has (recruiting base being a major one). Notably, the only time Gus made a move that wasn't an obvious step up was when he left Arkansas for Tulsa after the 2006 season. Which brings me to...
Third, just how united a front is Arkansas right now on the Malzahn hire? Coaching carousel rumors are a dime a dozen this time of year, and aside from good ol' media sensationalism and Jimmy Sexton doing Jimmy Sexton things, the big reason is boosters shooting their mouths off to the press. Most major programs have several dudes hanging around who are used to people doing whatever they say. When it comes time to change coaches (and Arkansas almost certainly will), a lot of these money men will start flapping their gums to beat writers or friends of beat writers about who they want to see hired. But since they're so used to getting their way all the time, they'll be saying stuff like, "We're gonna hire insert coach's name here," instead of "I'd like for us to hire insert coach's name here." Remember all the credible reports from Auburn beat writers and other insiders (particularly one recruiting site that shall remain nameless) that Bobby Petrino was a major candidate for the head coaching job in 2012? Well, he wasn't, but certain people around the program (who must've been out of the country for this) wanted him to be and couldn't fathom a world where their every whim wasn't immediately writ into law. (You can probably file this rumor in the same category, along with most other coaching rumors and "Grumors" that site's published.)
I say all that to remind everyone of the circumstances surrounding Gus' departure from Fayetteville in '06. They weren't pretty. Not that coaches haven't ever overcome a sour ending to an earlier tenure somewhere for the right price. (Will Muschamp returning to Auburn after the way his first stint as DC ended is a good example. Remind me, though, how did that work out?) I could see Gus getting over it, but what about the Piggy power structure? They were pretty split over Gus before, and I can't imagine they aren't still split now. Even if the pro-Gustav side has the reins right now (and it appears they do), wouldn't Malzahn be walking back into a spider's web? Shocking I know, but Auburn isn't the only school that has power struggles and warring factions in the immediate orbit of its athletic department. Whatever drama Gus has had to manage down here would continue up there, just in shades of red instead of blue and orange. (And that's not to mention the ultimate Arky power player, Jerry Jones, who may be in the process of burning the whole NFL down just so he can be king of the ashes.)
So we have a school that's not an improvement over his current one, with a power structure that's no more sane or manageable either. (In fact, Auburn's flux in the athletic department could help keep Gus to an extent, since he apparently isn't BFFs with the outgoing Jay Jacobs.) Now look at the assets on hand. We've seen Gus-coached teams be highly successful with big-time quarterbacks, and highly maddening without one. After two years in the Jeremy Johnson/Sean White wilderness, why look for the door now when you have at least one year, possibly two, of Jarrett Stidham left? A QB in the hand is worth more than two in the bush. That's not to mention the myriad other on-field ways the Tigers are superior to the Razorbacks right now. (The game a few weeks back pretty thoroughly told that story.) Basically, the only thing that seems to really draw Gus back home is the whole "back home" part. Fanbases are often suckered into thinking they're going to easily be able to lure someone back home. That normally only works when the job you're offering is better than the one your quarry already has. (Also, I'm constantly amazed at how freely message board posters and media types toss around coaches' wives' names in the coaching carousel. I don't believe that Booger McFarland knows any more about what Kristi Malzahn wants than Texas message board posters knew about Terri Saban's Austin real estate designs a few years ago.)
Basically, I'm in the believe-it-when-I-see-it category when it comes to this rumor. Gus really does have bigger fish to fry right now, and why scratch and claw your way to this point (likely two wins away from the playoff) just so you can go start all over again at a program that's down in the dumps? Gus seems like a pretty logical guy. This wouldn't be a logical move, only a sentimental one. (And, yes, I'm well aware of the timing of these rumors, and, yes, it is awfully convenient.)
Also, Tennessee's not hiring Jon Gruden. (How sad is this?) And the longer Florida goes without hiring Chip Kelly, the less likely it is that they hire him. (I still think it would be a terrible fit culturally, but it'd be fun to watch.) And whatever may or may not happen with Chip at UCLA, I don't think noted blowhard Bill Plaschke is anyone worth listening to (about anything). There's a lot of BS floating out there right now, so don't go believin' everything you read. The coaching carousel is a reliable content and click generator, so keep that in mind going forward.
The Iron Bowl
Dave Martin/Associated Press (Chris Davis pulls off the greatest play in history against Bammer in 2013)
Aw, hell yeah, it's Iron Bowl week. This time of the year sure is fun when your team is good and has a shot at winning the big game. And the Tigers most definitely have a shot. Now, let's be honest. Auburn didn't play particularly well last week against Louisiana-Monroe. Being able to avoid coming out flat for this game after the Georgia win was probably never going to happen, but the Tigers did scuffle for too long before finally pulling away in the 4th quarter. Does that matter? I don't think it necessarily does, but I'll be curious to see how loose the team is early on Saturday.
Much has (and should) be made about Alabama's mounting injuries, as their seemingly endless well of quality linebackers appeared to finally run dry against Mississippi State. I'm still not going to take their front seven lightly, and I'm sure the Auburn coaches aren't going to either. Kerryon Johnson has been a revelation this year, and here's hoping that Auburn's offensive line can create the kind of space for him that they were able to create against Georgia two weeks ago. Despite the injuries that Auburn's had to overcome up front, Herb Hand's group is the healthier unit going into the weekend. There's as much reason to expect the Tigers to be able to run the ball as we've seen during the Saban era in T-Town.
But perhaps most importantly, Auburn can push the ball upfield in the passing game. We've talked for several years about how mobile quarterbacks can hurt Bama's defense, but I think the single most important thing is to be able to make them respect the deep ball. That's the one thing that unifies pretty much every QB who's given them problems since 2008. Tim Tebow, Stephen Garcia, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Nick Marshall, Trevor Knight, Bo Wallace, Cardale Jones, Chad Kelly, and Deshaun Watson have all been able to hit da bomb from time to time, and being able to essentially steal points by popping a long one is crucial to Auburn's success. It keeps Bammer from being able to stack the box quite as much, and it can keep their DBs from gambling as often (where they tend to create big plays of their own). Jarrett Stidham's been hitting deep balls all year, with Darius "the Vampire" Slayton being the man on the other end most often recently. Of course, this again circles back to line play, as someone has to give Stidham time to throw, but I feel confident that Golson, Smith, and company can pull it off.
On the other side of the ball, Bama's running game is usually the show, but Jalen Hurts and the passing game may be the bigger concern. Hurts really had to step up and win a game throwing the ball for the first time in Starkvegas two weeks ago, and star receiver Calvin Ridley is, in my opinion, Bammer's best player. Carlton Davis will be a big key to what Auburn does Saturday, as he has to be able to hold up against Ridley in one-on-one coverage when Kevin Steele needs him to. But let's also hope that Steele doesn't randomly decide to abandon Davis on an island all game, as I still have nightmares about Ellis Johnson deciding to "cover Amari Cooper like any other person" in the 2014 game. Ridley can turn this game all by himself if Auburn lets him, so the gameplan for him is of paramount importance.
Health-wise, Auburn saw a few players on defense get nicked up against ULM, with Tre Williams' injury probably looking the most serious. Gus gave some typically vague info on Tuesday, but I'm not just gonna take that statement at face value. Hopefully, everyone's good to go for Saturday, as the Tigers will need them. Williams, in particular, could be key, as his presence pretty clearly seems to elevate the Tiger defense. With Hurts' scrambling ability, keeping him in the pocket on pass plays will be essential. Less mobile Bama QBs than him have hurt Auburn by extending plays in recent years (Jake Coker, especially, pulled off a backbreaking escape act in the 2015 game). While I do expect Auburn's stellar defensive front to get theirs, the ends and linebackers have to be disciplined, and a veteran like Williams could loom large against both the run and Hurts as a scrambler.
Daniel Carlson could be key, as always, but the Tigers need to play better in the kicking game. Bama has the kind of athletes to hurt us in the return game, and most everyone has hurt us in that phase over the last six weeks or so. Just as it's important for Auburn to create big plays of their own, it's just as crucial to limit Bammer's, and big plays in the return game have been a bugaboo for the Tigers lately. (Often forgotten about, the Tigers did manage to overcome a 99-yard touchdown pass in the epic 2013 game, but that's no recipe for success.)
The most encouraging thing about the Tigers' win over Georgia was how loose and cool Auburn was during the game. It was the Bulldogs who shrank from the stage that day, while Auburn played with about as much swagger as I can ever remember. That'll be key again this week, as there's no reason for the Tigers to approach this game as underdogs. Given how the teams have played this month and that it's a home game, Auburn should go into this expecting to win. Alabama commands respect, sure, but this team can be beaten, and it wouldn't feel like a big upset like 2013 did. Auburn's the more complete team at this juncture, and they should be able to take care of a big bit of business on Saturday.
Auburn 34, Alabama 24
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Great rivalries don't need odd trophies, but for many of the second or third-tier matchups, players busting their butts to win some weird bullcrap trophy after the game is something near and dear to college football's heart. The bestest, weirdest, bullcrappiest trophies include Floyd of Rosedale up there, which Iowa and Minnesota play for. (Iowa won it this year in a 17-10 game that sounds like it was a real banger.) There's an exceedingly long story to it, but the short version is that the governors of the two states bet a prize pig on a game back in the '30s. That's why the Hawkeyes and the Golden Gophers are so competitive over a pig trophy.
Minnesota actually plays for several great wonky trophies, since as a Big Ten team, they're legally required to play for at least five useless trophies a year. Along with Floyd, the Gophers also battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe with Wisconsin (that game is this week). The teams used to go collect the axe immediately after the game concluded, which often led to the axe being swung around rather unwisely, but the man put a stop to it. (Here's a good breakdown of the rivalry's history and why the axe has disappeared from the sideline. This axe is also superior to Stanford and Cal's axe, which does have a pretty cool history involving campus crimes.) The Gophers also play for, and usually lose, the Little Brown Jug to Michigan. The coolest thing about it is that it's the actual jug that Michigan brought to a game back in 1903. (It'd be a lot cooler if it was full of whiskey, but we'll settle for it being really old.)
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Ohio State and Illinois play for a large turtle, which was originally an actual live turtle. There are several others, most notably Indiana and Purdue's Old Oaken Bucket, but we'd be here all day if we ran through all the oddball Big Ten trophies that exist. Let's stay in the Midwest, though, and find one of the all-time randomest things, Louisville and Cincinnati's Keg of Nails. This is apparently a thing the teams are supposed to want, although UL's commitment to it seems to have waned since they both lost the original trophy at one point and have now absconded off to the ACC with it in hand, leaving the Bearcats behind in the American Athletic Conference and with no kegs of sharp objects to play for anymore.
While several schools have tried to find their own cool, random trophies, no one can rise to level of the aforementioned trophies, nor to that of TCU and SMU's Iron Skillet. This one gets bonus points for being fairly old (it was introduced back in 1946) and for coming about during an era where the two schools were national powerhouses. They've drifted away from each other over the last 20 years or so, but they still play every year, with the Horned Frogs keeping the skillet on lock for the last several seasons. At least SMU can look at it and reminisce about better, more nationally relevant days.
The Thanksgiving Weekend Menu
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It's a veritable smorgasbord of pigskin action this long weekend, as per usual. Thursday features the usual trio of NFL games, with the best matchup being the one in Detroit (in a departure from seemingly every other year). The division-leading Vikings visit Motown (11:30 CT on FOX) with both teams firmly rooted in the crowded NFC playoff picture. The entertaining-if-mediocre Chargers head to suddenly reeling Dallas (who've looked like complete dogcrap the last two weeks) at 3:30 CT on CBS. That game could be fun, but doesn't appear to hold much meaning for either conference. The night game is even less essential, as the horrid Giants host the middling Redskins at 7:30 CT on NBC and the NFL Network. (Three NFC East teams playing, but the only good team in the division isn't one of them.) The only college game on Turkey Day is the Egg Bowl (6:30 CT on ESPN), which has set up a kind of residency on Thanksgiving evening. It's almost always more enjoyable than the NFL game it's up against.
When Black Friday comes, it brings with it several largely forgettable matchups. #12 TCU hosts 1-10 Baylor at 11 CT on FS1, with the Bears ready to have this season mercy killed. #2 Miami tries to complete a perfect regular season at 4-7 Pitt (11 CT on ABC), which gives the Panthers another chance to pull a mind-boggling late season upset. (Remember this game?) Missouri and Arkansas renew what the SEC office seems to think is a big rivalry at 1:30 CT on CBS in what will be probably end up being Bret Bielema's last game in charge of the Sausage.
The biggest Black Friday game, somehow, is USF and UCF (2:30 CT on ABC). The winner has a real good shot at being the Group of Five team that gets a Big Six Bowl invite (which everyone seems to think will be in the Peach Bowl), though they'll have to get past Memphis next week to get there. Also notable is that both coaches are prized commodities on the coaching carousel, so the losing coach may be coaching his last game at his school. You'll definitely be hearing a lot about Charlie Strong and Scott Frost in the coming weeks.
Other Friday games of "note" include Iowa at Nebraska (3 CT on FS1), Texas Tech at Texas (7 CT on FOX), Virginia Tech at Virginia (7 CT on ESPN), and Cal at now coachless UCLA (9:30 CT on FS1). It's also worth noting that Neal Brown's Troy Trojans look to move to 9-2 on the season against 2-9 Texas State (3 CT on ESPN3). Brown's another name to watch out for on the coaching carousel.
Saturday kicks off with the once-proud Florida State/Florida game at 11 CT on ESPN. I expect the Seminoles to score more points on Saturday, but this Miami fan from a few weeks back has already won the game. The early window also features Georgia visiting Georgia Tech for another edition of the Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate (11 CT on ABC), Louisville at Kentucky for the Governor's Cup (11 CT on SEC Network), Indiana at Purdue for the Old Oaken Bucket (11 CT on ESPN2), and a little rivalry you may have heard about that'll be played in Ann Arbor (11 CT on FOX). Ohio State will likely cream Michigan yet again, as the Wolverines continue to be allergic to even remotely decent quarterback play.
Duke and Wake Forest play one of the least terrible games in their rivalry's history (11:30 CT on ACC Network's regional broadcast). The Demon Deacons are already bowl eligible, and the Blue Devils can qualify with a win. Bill Clark's magnificent UAB Blazers can finish off an 8-4 regular season with a win over hapless UTEP (high noon, no TV). That's pretty unbelievable. The aforementioned battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe takes place between Wisconsin and Minnesota at 2:30 CT on ABC. The Badgers can complete a perfect regular season with a W.
What was once slated to be a star QB-laden shootout between West Virginia and Oklahoma (2:45 CT on ESPN) now features no Will Grier (injured and likely done for the rest of the season) and no start for Baker Mayfield after his raging douchebaggery at Kansas last week. Remember Kyler Murray? The former Texas A&M signal caller gets the start for the Sooners this week, but Mayfield will play and will probably play for most of the game. He's got a Heisman Trophy to win after all. Maybe this year, they'll have the dude on the trophy be grabbing his crotch instead of doing the pose.
Elsewhere in the mid-afternoon, Vandy travels to Tennessee for a matchup of 4-7 teams at 3 CT on SEC Network, Northwestern looks to finish the year at 9-3 with a game at putrid Illinois (3 CT on FS1), and Arizona visits Arizona State to play for the Territorial Cup at 3:30 CT (no TV apparently?). Of course, you'll likely be pre-disposed with another game during that portion of the day.
The Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State kicks off at 6 CT on the Deuce (the Beavers are 1-10 this year, ouch). Kevin Sumlin's Texas A&M swan song begins in Death Valley at 6:30 CT on SEC Network. A possibly tasty duel between Clemson and South Carolina gets going at 6:30 CT on ESPN. I'm not sure Cocky has the horses to hang with Clemson for 60 minutes, but they should be good enough to throw a fright into the Tigers. Clemson may have peaked a little too early this year.
Notre Dame at Stanford (7 CT on ABC) was going to be a big deal at one point, but mostly just matters for bowl positioning now. The biggest game for Cardinal fans during that timeslot may actually be the Apple Cup. Wazzu visits Washington (7 CT on FOX) with the Pac-12 North title on the line, except that the Huskies can't win it. Due to tiebreakers, the Cougars can win the division with a win over their hated rival, while the Cardinal can claim the crown if Mike Leach's pirates lose. The division champ faces USC in the conference title game next Friday. The Trojans are already in the clubhouse, having insanely played 12 games in 12 weeks. They got away with it, but that's definitely not recommended.
The Shield (like Fantasy Football, but for Real)
I alluded to it above in The Deep Dive, but the NFL is descending into an all-out civil war (kind of like Marvel's Civil War, except that everyone involved is a villain instead of a hero and the super-rich main character was always a total A-hole). But man, it's going down behind the scenes. Jerry Jones is lobbing bombs left and right, and we're getting a whole litany of fascinating articles trickling out of NFL headquarters that paint an amusing portrait of how the sausage is incompetently made. This may end with every major player losing big, so while I referenced Littlefinger from Game of Thrones in regards to Jones earlier, the real Littlefinger here is probably going to end up being some out of the way owner or executive who's keeping out of the fray, at least publicly. Of course, the way Jerry's playing this, I don't think he needed any sly schemer whispering in his ear to set him on this kamikaze mission. If only the palace intrigue on GoT was still this juicy.
Tom Self/Birmingham News
Whelp, let's do it. Some of you have probably already seen this clip this week or remember it from 2013, but this hype video from before the Kick Six game is pretty awesome (and it doesn't even include the actual Kick Six play). The Man of Steel theme is a strong choice, as it's one of the best things the largely disappointing DC movie universe has produced. The clips from through the years should be enough to get any Auburn fan in full-on go mode, so be sure to watch it at least five times between now and Saturday afternoon. I'm sure the university will release another one before the game, and I hope it's as good, but dig on this one until then. Or just go to YouTube and watch some of the classic clips. Here are a few...
I've become cynical in my old age about many things relating to college athletics, but the Iron Bowl isn't one of them. The fire that burns at the heart of the rivalry can burn too hot sometimes, but I'll never get tired of it. Every one of these games is special in its own way for reasons my logical brain can't describe. Every win is even more so. There's a lot on the line this year, with both teams having great shots at a national title, but this is special even separate from that. The Iron Bowl is college football for me, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that sentiment. The above list features every Auburn win in the series since 1960 (except 1970, which I couldn't find a video from). Let's go get another one.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving, everybody. Check back next week for the recap and hopefully an SEC Championship Game preview.