Monday, September 22, 2014

Memphis Stands Between Ole Miss and Destiny

According to CoachingSearch.com's Pete Roussel, ESPN's College GameDay has already booked its rooms in Oxford for the weekend of October 4th, when the No. 10 Rebels will face No. 3 Alabama. CBS just selected the game for its nationally featured 2:30 p.m. spot with Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson. The stage is set for the biggest game that Ole Miss has played in more than 50 years. National exposure aside, if the Rebels were to win they would become an instant contender for the first ever College Football Playoff.

The only team that stands in the way of all that is Memphis.

Memphis. You know the one. Think Liberty Bowl, Joe Lee Dunn, Tommy West. Memphis.

In some ways the Tigers are a good historical fit for the Rebels to face as a play-in to a chance at Football Glory. Ole Miss has a long history against the Tigers. The Rebels own the series with a 42-10 record and won the last five meetings, the most recent being a 45-14 win under Houston Nutt in 2009. Ross Bjork renewed the series in 2012. It was probably a good move. The Tigers are nearby and they give the Rebels a game in the Memphis area, Hugh Freeze's home turf, and in most years Ole Miss will be a heavy favorite. The Ole Miss record books are filled with blowouts of Memphis, but there have also been close calls, a tie (17-17 under Billy Brewer in 1985) and a few very unpleasant losses.

Those losses are the games Hugh Freeze should recount to his team this week.

Remember 2003? All eyes were one Ole Miss that year, too. The Rebels were a trendy SEC pick and senior quarterback Eli Manning was an early Heisman contender. Ole Miss took the short bus ride up to Memphis, and got its butt handed to it by the Tigers.

Click here to travel back in time to that horrible day.

It happened again in 2004, and probably led to David Cutcliffe's ouster.

Losing to Memphis in 2014 would be a worse face plant than either of those. Not only would it cost the Rebels a Top 10 ranking and a visit from College GameDay, but 14th ranked Mississippi State is directly over Ole Miss' shoulder, and the embarrassment would be so real I predict most of you would call in sick at work on Monday.

Memphis has always taken the Ole Miss game quite personal. Aside from that chip on its shoulder that comes with being from an inferior conference, many of the kids who have played for the Tigers over the years feel like they were overlooked by Ole Miss, and they play the game with something to prove.

On paper Ole Miss is the far more talented team, but emotions like those Memphis will bring can be very dangerous to the Rebels.

The Tigers will visit Oxford sporting a 2-1 record that includes a near upset of then #11 UCLA (the game was tied at 35-35 in the 4th quarter before the Bruins scored the winning TD), and easy wins over Austin Peay (63-0) and Middle Tennessee (36-17).

Given what happened at UCLA on September 6th, it would be a mistake for anyone to consider Memphis a pushover, even if Ole Miss is currently a 20-point favorite. Given what the Rebels have to play for, it would be tragic for Ole Miss to give anything less than 100 percent of their attention to the Tigers this weekend. Us fans have every right to look forward to October 4th, but Hugh Freeze would do well to give his team the riot act about keeping their eyes locked on the Tigers.

The bye week is over. It's time to play.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The State of the SEC: Week 4


After Week 4 of college football one thing remains clear, when it comes to college football conference power, it's still the SEC West and then everybody else. On Sunday 6 of the 7 SEC West teams will be in the Top 25 when Mississippi State joins the ranks after its monster upset of LSU. Arkansas will likely be a vote or two short, but the Hogs will be close after whipping Northern Illinois. With four teams already in the Top 10, and the remainder of the division in the Top 25, it's time to kiss the western ring.

It's an SEC West World and we're fortunate enough to live in it.

But who among these significant seven is the best? 

That's to be determined in what's shaping up to be glorious October and November. For now, ranking the West remains difficult by virtue of the fact that most of these teams still haven't played one another, but we know a few things for sure:

1) Mississippi State is better than LSU. The Bulldogs whipped the Tigers on Saturday night in Death Valley. The 34-29 final score was closer than the game actually was thanks to a couple late Tiger touchdowns, but the Bulldogs were obviously the far superior team. Mississippi State is a darned good football team. I had been waiting to see what the Bulldogs did against a quality opponent before I bought in. I'm buying in now. Sure, LSU has some serious offensive inadequacies (its quarterback play is desperately wanting), but that shouldn't take away from what the Bulldogs did to the Tigers on their home turf under the famous Tiger Stadium lights. Dak Prescott may not be as precise a passer as Bo Wallace, but Prescott is so good running the football that he is every bit as dangerous. Prescott passed for 268 yards and ran for 111 more. That's hard to defend. Add to that an offensive line that may be better than advertised. State running back Josh Robinson ripped through the vaunted LSU defense for 197 yards. State's 570 total yards is more than any Les Miles-coached LSU team has ever allowed.  The Bulldog offense is obviously very good, but the jaw-dropping thing is that Dan Mullen may have a defense to match it. Against LSU the Bulldog defense was positively stifling. LSU rushed for just 89 yards. The Tigers could do virtually nothing against the Bulldog defensive front. It was the most impressive win of the Dan Mullen era. My conclusion: State's the real deal and worthy of the Top 25 ranking it will receive later today. With an open date before hosting Texas A&M (Oct 4) and Auburn (Oct 11), I'd give the Bulldogs as good a chance as any team in the West to knock one or even both of those two Top 10 teams off. There's a lot of football to play between now and the end of November, but I'll go ahead and say that the Egg Bowl is going to be the most momentous ever. Ole Miss and State will likely be playing for more than a shiny egg-shaped trophy. 

2) Alabama is worthy of its No. 3 national ranking. The Tide rolled up 645 yards of offense on what is usually a stingy Florida defense as Nick Saban's team beat the Gators 42-21. Blake Sims threw for 445 yards and 4 touchdowns. Ball-hawking wide receiver Amari Cooper snagged three touchdowns and had 201 yards receiving, and running back Derrick Henry rushed for 111 yards. The lesson here is that Alabama can do anything it wants offensively. Lane Kiffin's is a balanced attack, and it looked scary good against the Florida Gators. Meanwhile, Bama's defense made Florida quarterback Jeff Driskell look inadequate, holding him to just 93 yards passing and two interceptions. Ole Miss will have to be perfect and lucky to win on October 4th, which makes this year's game against Alabama just like every other time Ole Miss has ever played Alabama.

3. Auburn is beatable. Nick Marshall looked like a mere mortal in Auburn's 20-14 win over Kansas State. The Wildcats were able to hold the Auburn quarterback under 300 yards of total offense by keeping Marshall in the pocket and batting down his passes, and Auburn wasn't able to get its running game going. The Tigers ran for just 128 yards, a far different result than the 300-yard games the Tigers routinely posted on their opponents in 2013. Kansas State exposed chinks in Auburn's armor. Load the box, keep Marshall in the pocket and force him to pass and good things can happen. But nothing can help a team overcome Gus Malzahn's amazingly good fortune. Against Kansas State it wasn't a deflected pass off a defender's shoulder pad or a returned field goal for a touchdown, but the Wildcats did miss three field goals, and it cost them the game. Auburn won by six. 

4. We've still got questions about Arkansas and Texas A&M, but some of them will be answered on Saturday when the Razorbacks and Aggies tee it up at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The Razorbacks destroyed Northern Illinois 52-14, which may not sound like a big deal, but the Huskies entered the game 3-0 with wins against UNLV and Northwestern. They were a decent team that Arkansas absolutely flattened. The more I see of Arkansas the more I like. Brett Bielema's team didn't rush for 1,000 yards against the Huskies, opting for a more balanced attach (200 yards passing, 200 yards rushing). Bielema likely wanted to give his quarterback some more reps and rest his running backs in preparation for Texas A&M. The Aggies were 58-6 winners over SMU on Saturday. Next week you can count on seeing heavy doses of Arkansas running backs off tackle. Will A&M be able to stop them? If not I could see Arkansas pulling the upset. Ball control may be the only antidote to Kevin Sumlin's poisonous aerial assault. 

5. And in non-SEC West news, the SEC East is garbage. Seriously. Florida didn't belong in the stadium with Alabama. South Carolina made what we know to be an atrociously bad Vanderbilt team look pretty good, and Georgia lost to South Carolina just last week. Mizzou lost to one of the worst teams in the Big Ten (Indiana) on its home turf. How do you pick a winner from that group? In the SEC East, there are no winners. Only losers. 



Saturday, September 20, 2014

Twitter Exposes Cowardice: How Sports Writers Rule the World

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A few observations regarding the events we're all sick of hearing about:

1. Social media has empowered the public to sway massive organizations where once it could not. A few years ago, the NFL wouldn't have heard the angry voices in reaction to the two game suspension it originally handed Ray Rice for punching his now wife in the face. Rice would be suiting up to play this weekend and the story would have disappeared within another week or two, or after Rice posted a 100-yard rushing performance. There have been many, many incidents of domestic violence in the NFL before Rice jacked a woman in the jaw. Where was the outcry then? It was stifled because there was no Twitter. Social media allowed millions of appalled voices to be heard. Punching a woman in the face is not okay or acceptable. The NFL and its sponsors could not ignore those voices. Now Rice, Peterson and Hardy are essentially suspended indefinitely and the NFL is re-writing its conduct policy. Social media is a powerful thing.

2. Money talks. The NFL was backpedaling a little in response to public outcry, but when the Minnesota hotel pulled its sponsorship of the Vikings after Adrian Peterson was indicted for felonious child abuse, that got the Vikings' attention real quick. Peterson was deactivated immediately. When Anheuser-Busch expressed its concern for the NFL's handling of Rice and Peterson the NFL's back-pedaling got a lot more vigorous. 

3. Sports writers on Twitter, with their masses of followers, have a lot of sway. Probably too much. See No. 1 above. If the public at large has a voice, sports writers fan the flames of public opinion. The problem with that is that sports writers aren't always right. Sports writers are guys with 4-year degrees in English who watch a lot of sports and write about it. They don't necessarily share our religious beliefs or our morals, and they have no credentials in counseling or how the legal system works for that matter. What makes a sports writer qualified to be leaders of millions of people on controversial topics regarding morals and virtue? I would argue nothing, but if you look back on Michael Sam, the NFL controversies of late or the latest Jameis Winston debacle, sports writers led the charge. And more interesting than that, the institutions all caved in to the sports writers' demands. It's an interesting world that puts the sports writers in charge. Because sports is so ingrained into the fabric of our society, what happens in sports impacts all of society. Therefore, in a weird way, sports writers now run our society. I know that sounds funny, but there's an element of truth to it that is scary. I don't want to be governed by sports writers (even though I would like to be a sports writer). 

4. The most offensive thing about the NFL's recent controversies and FSU's last-minute full-game suspension of Jameis Winston is that these institutions think that by caving to public pressure they can save face. They can't. Roger Goodell will always be the guy who thought that knocking out a woman with the punch of a fist isn't worth more than a 2-game suspension. The FSU administration will forever be known by everyone for believing that winning football games is more important than a rape accusation, stealing or yelling extremely offensive things at women. By kicking Rice out of the league or suspending Winston for a full game at the last minute all the NFL and FSU have shown is that they're scared of public opinion. Being scared of public opinion makes you a coward - not a leader. Fear of public opinion tells us nothing about what you really stand for. It just tells us that you're scared of losing your job. That's why many people have less faith in Roger Goodell than ever before. 

Okay, I'm going to try to entertain my kids and watch college football at the same time now. Wish me luck.