Sizing up the growing gap between SEC divisions; Punt, Pass & Pork
Steve Spurrier had been accidentally rammed by the opposing quarterback earlier in the night, but he looked as if he’d been punched in the stomach. A week ago, South Carolina’s coach breathed fire while discussing the Gamecocks’ ugly 48-34 win at Vanderbilt. On Saturday, Spurrier mourned his own thoughtlessness prior to his team’s fourth-quarter collapse against Missouri that cost the South Carolina pole position in the division race and made the SEC East look like more of a mess than it already did.
“I messed up on the two-point conversion [after the Gamecocks’ last touchdown],” Spurrier said. “Should have gone for it. I wasn’t even thinking about it until I looked up and saw it was 20-7.” The final score was 21-20. Spurrier kicked himself because a successful two-point try after Pharaoh Cooper’s touchdown would have produced a 21-21 tie or forced Missouri to go for a two-point conversion to win. Though Spurrier could have blamed plenty of other plays, he blamed himself for that moment because he knows how much that one point probably cost.
Mizzou now has the inside track for the SEC East title. If the Tigers beat Georgia at home on Oct. 11, they’ll have games in hand against their top division rivals. Plus, South Carolina and Georgia still must play Auburn. In other words, the team that could win the East might also be the same one that lost at home to Indiana.
Meanwhile, in the SEC West, Arkansas -- which crushed Texas Tech 49-28 in Lubbock on Sept. 13 -- still hasn’t won an SEC game since 2012. The Razorbacks gagged away a 14-point second-half lead against Texas A&M, which, by the way, throttled South Carolina 52-28 in Columbia on opening night.
It’s a good thing the College Football Playoff selection committee doesn’t actually start discussing teams until Oct. 28. If the committee had met beginning in Week 1, influenced by preseason polls that are based partially on last season’s reputation and partially on blind guessing, the people charged with choosing who plays for the national title might have the wrong idea. As it stands, we may still have the wrong idea, but five weeks of data have provided a few hints. While things could change again by the time the committee first meets, it appears the two SEC divisions need to be treated as entirely separate conferences.
Poll voters have recently given the SEC a bump because of its overall quality. This faith was usually rewarded during bowl season or out-of-conference rivalry games. For the most part, the SEC was the best league. This year it doesn’t seem the East deserves the benefit of the doubt. Yet the West looks deeper than ever.
We’ll need more interdivision games to be sure. Georgia-Arkansas (Oct. 18), South Carolina-Auburn (Oct. 25) and Missouri-Texas A&M (Nov. 15) should provide more clarity. But at the moment it appears most of the West is better than all of the East.
Tennessee, which was overwhelmed two weeks ago by an accepted national title contender (Oklahoma), nearly defeated Georgia in Athens on Saturday. Had quarterback Justin Worley not injured his elbow and missed some time in the second half, the young Volunteers might have pulled the upset. After that effort, it certainly seems Tennessee -- which had to replace every offensive line starter and every defensive line starter from last year and lost its left tackle for the season in Week 1 -- can beat any of the other East contenders. The Vols are building for 2015 or ‘16, but the future could come now because of a confluence of excellent young players and a weakened division. “This was just a good SEC football game,” Tennessee freshman receiver Josh Malone told Wes Rucker of 247Sports.com, “and we lost it.”
Whether it was good or not remains to be seen, but it was competitive. If the Vols compete that well Saturday when Florida visits Neyland Stadium, the Gators may be in the market for a new coach sooner than later.
Out in the West, it appears a bloodbath is brewing. Undefeated Alabama faces undefeated Ole Miss in Oxford on Saturday. In Starkville, undefeated Mississippi State hosts unbeaten Texas A&M. In the Loveliest Village on the Plains, unbeaten Auburn plays LSU, which beat one of the Big Ten’s top teams (Wisconsin) and got manhandled at home for three-and-a-half quarters by Mississippi State. In the ensuing weeks, the dance partners will change. Victories cannot be celebrated longer than a few moments, because the division seems so deep anyone can beat anyone. “Every week, we’ve got to move on,” Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said on Sunday as he took a break between grading the Arkansas win and getting his first look at quarterback Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs' offense.
If a team can emerge from that mosh pit unscathed, it deserves a shot at the national title. But what about the team that emerges from the East? Does it get the Ess-Eee-See bump? Or does the committee look at it as it would a team from another league?
That probably will depend on how the East teams fare against their West foes. Fortunately, the committee will have barely met before most of that data rolls in. And the result will likely be a drastic shift from the attitude of the era of the polls.
Re-examining the Shane Morris decision
In a video filmed on Saturday, I suggested that Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s decision to leave quarterback Shane Morris in the game after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Minnesota’s Theiren Cockran -- who should have been ejected for targeting -- should be combined with the general sorry state of Michigan’s program as justification to immediately fire Hoke. For the record, I’ll say again that I do not believe Hoke intentionally endangered Morris. Hoke cares about his players. That has never been in doubt. But the situation is worth re-examining in more detail, especially since Hoke released a statement on Sunday night that claimed Morris was properly evaluated and OK to re-enter the game.
MGoBlog.com has posted the two relevant videos, and you should watch both. The first shows the hit and the immediate aftermath. Morris is creamed. He wobbles after rising and has to be supported by offensive lineman Ben Braden. Morris waves off everyone on the sideline, which is something Hoke referenced in his postgame press conference. It all happened fairly quickly. Leaving Morris in for the next play can be explained away by a lack of time to properly evaluate.
The second video shows the more questionable decision. About a minute of football time after the hit, Devin Gardner was forced to leave the game because his helmet came off during a play. Third-stringer Russell Bellomy was called upon, but he could not find his helmet. Morris got sent back in. He was removed again after handing off.
Hoke released a statement on Sunday. Here is what it said: “The safety of our student-athletes is always our top priority. We generally never discuss the specifics of a student-athlete's medical care, but Shane Morris was removed from yesterday's game against Minnesota after further aggravating an injury to his leg that he sustained earlier in the contest. He was evaluated by our experienced athletic trainers and team physicians, and we're confident proper medical decisions were made. The University of Michigan has a distinguished group of Certified Athletic Trainers and team physicians who are responsible for determining whether or not a player is physically able to play. Our coaches have no influence or authority to make determinations if or when an injured player returns to competition. The health and welfare of our student-athletes is and will continue to be a top priority.”
That is Michigan's story, but the video is pretty chilling. If Morris was OK, why were the Wolverines trying to send Bellomy into the game? If Morris had an injured leg, why did they send him back in rather than calling timeout and finding Bellomy's helmet? Obviously, a head injury has longer lasting consequences, but aggravating a leg injury that had Morris limping badly could have been disastrous as well.
And why didn't Hoke say something to this effect at his press conference? If all that information was relayed to him during the game, he could have made his staff look a lot better by explaining that he received all the relevant medical info. Instead, Michigan took more than 24 hours to produce a statement that appears to have been co-written -- or at least vetted -- by someone with a law degree.
Projected College Football Playoff
The same teams remain in the same places as last week, but I’m a lot less sure about everything. This projection could look completely different next week. Depending on how things shake out, all four teams could change.
The Sooners had a bye week to prepare for what looks like TCU’s best team since it joined the Big 12. The Horned Frogs have played the Sooners tight in both meetings since the teams became conference foes. Last season, TCU’s offense could do nothing early, but Oklahoma managed only a 20-17 win in Norman. The sample size is small for this year’s Frogs -- a 30-7 win over Minnesota is the only game against a Power Five opponent -- but the offense has looked much smoother than the past two seasons, when Trevone Boykin was thrust in at quarterback instead of coming in as the starter.
The Crimson Tide will be the visitor for the biggest matchup in Oxford since William Faulkner versus Air Conditioning. Ole Miss hasn’t been able to do much against Alabama for most of its history. The last time the Rebels beat Bama was 2003, when Eli Manning torched a Tide team that finished 4-9. Ole Miss has only gotten within two touchdowns of Alabama once -- a 23-10 loss in ‘10 -- in the past five meetings. Last year in Tuscaloosa, watching Bama defend Ole Miss’ offense was like watching a python strangle a bunny. Much like Mississippi State against LSU, the Rebels have to prove they can hang with Alabama before they are taken seriously as an SEC West contender. Of course, the Bulldogs proved themselves against the Tigers earlier this month. Maybe this is the year the Rebels do the same against the Tide.
3. Texas A&M
I have no idea if the Aggies belong here. I think we’re going to find out Arkansas is vastly improved and no longer the SEC’s doormat. I think the Razorbacks will show that by winning some games in the SEC West. Fortunately, we don’t have to judge the Aggies solely by watching Arkansas. Coach Kevin Sumlin’s team will face Mississippi State this week, Ole Miss the next week and Bama the following one. We’ll probably have a solid idea of how good it is after that stretch.
4. Florida State
This spot came down to one question: Who do I trust more, a Florida State team with defensive linemen dropping like flies or an Oregon team with both original first-string offensive tackles out? (Tyler Johnstone is done for the year; Jake Fisher thinks he can come back.) The Seminoles are more likely to be at full strength again on the defensive line, so they get the nod. But if Notre Dame jumps to a 24-7 first-quarter lead on the ‘Noles on Oct. 18 the way NC State did on Saturday, Florida State probably isn’t coming back.
The poll ballot
My kids have recently been obsessed with a DVD containing six episodes of Chuggington. These episodes feature a particular character that raises so many questions. Here are my top five questions inspired by toddler television.
1. Where are Max and Ruby’s parents? Their grandmother seems to be the only authority figure, but she lives elsewhere. If Ruby weren’t such a busybody, Max probably would have already fallen into a bunny gang. Their parents -- wherever they are -- are doing nothing to dispel the reputation rabbits have for reproductive irresponsibility.
2. On Chuggington, how did Frostini become the world’s foremost ice-cream maker? He is a train engine. If he has taste buds, they don’t crave the same flavors as his human customers. How does he know how to create Chugtastic Chewy Cheesecake?
3. On Sofia the First, what happened to Sofia’s father? Did her parents divorce, leaving her mother single when King Roland happened to come by looking for new shoes? Or did Roland have Sofia's dad knocked off after laying eyes on the comely village cobbler? It’s good to be the king.
4. On Octonauts, how did Captain Barnacles retain his command after wasting so many resources on a foolhardy mission to retrieve Peso’s medical bag from the walruses? How was that worth the man hours involved, the wear and tear on the vehicles and the inherent danger of three Octonauts disguising themselves as one walrus to infiltrate a hostile colony? Couldn’t they just get Peso a new medical bag? After all, the only things he keeps in there are bandages and stickers.
5. How did Minnie Mouse acquire Figaro? What responsible pet shop owner would sell a kitten to a mouse?
Play of the week
A group that took nothing but abuse last year grew up on Saturday. Texas A&M’s defense was the laughingstock of the SEC in 2013, but the Aggies proved in the fourth quarter and overtime against Arkansas that they can make stops when they must. None was bigger than the stuffing of Razorbacks back Alex Collins on fourth-and-two in overtime to win the game.
When coaches talk about “fitting gaps,” they mean what the Aggies did on this play. Arkansas lined up heavy with two tight ends, an H-back behind the left tight end and a fullback and Collins in an offset I-formation behind quarterback Brandon Allen. This was the same formation the Hogs had used earlier for a play-action touchdown pass to wide-open tight end A.J. Derby. Texas A&M put 10 men in the box -- just as it had on the Derby scoring play. But defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was ready if Arkansas went play action this time. He had been saving a call all day to use in this very situation. Safety Howard Matthews would come screaming in and hit Allen if Allen didn’t hand off.
When Arkansas lined up, the Aggies knew what was coming. Just before the snap, freshman defensive end Qualen Cunningham stood up, pointed toward the C gap (between the tackle and tight end) on the left side of the offense and alerted his teammates the play was coming to that spot. After the snap, Cunningham and the rest of the line fit perfectly into their assigned gaps -- holding their positions and keeping their heads inside each gap so they couldn’t be turned away. Sure enough, Collins took the snap and headed for the C gap to his left. Seeing it clogged, he looked right. Every potential hole Collins could run into was occupied. He tried playside B, playside A, backside A, backside B and backside C and found no room. This was by design. The action was supposed to be funneled to corner Deshazor Everett, who was unblocked on the far right side of the offense.
“Everybody else was to make him run the piano and bounce it all the way back to Deshazor,” Snyder said.
But Everett didn’t hit Collins first. That honor went to junior defensive end Julien Obioha, who got full extension on Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkle and crushed him into the interior of the line before shedding him and grabbing Collins a yard behind the line of scrimmage. Everett jumped in to help drag Collins down, and Texas A&M celebrated a victory.
Big Ugly of the week
Missouri right guard Connor McGovern takes the title this week for his block on the most important play of the Tigers’ 21-20 win at South Carolina.
Here’s the set up: Mizzou trails by six and faces fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line with 1:36 remaining. If the Tigers score, they win and take the inside track for the SEC East title. If South Carolina stuffs the play, the Gamecocks win and grab a huge advantage over the Tigers in the division race.
Lined up over McGovern is 323-pound Gamecocks defensive tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. On goal line plays such as this, pad level is almost all that matters. If Dixon gets under McGovern’s pads, he blows up the play. If McGovern gets under Dixon’s pads, he might move Dixon a few feet, which could be enough to allow back Russell Hansbrough to score. The low man will win, and so will his team.
When the ball is snapped, Dixon fires out low. With this kind of pad level, most offensive guards couldn’t manage better than a stalemate and would probably get blasted into the backfield. But McGovern fires out even lower. The goal-line camera shows McGovern sliding under Dixon’s helmet and striking him in the chest. On the other side of the scrum, Dixon’s legs fly horizontal as he is lifted off the ground. The overhead view shows what happened in the meantime. McGovern got under Dixon and flipped him to his back. The space created gives Hansbrough a place to go, and he powers the ball across the plane of the goal line right where Dixon would have been had McGovern not gotten just a little lower.
1. Charlie Weis was fired on Sunday a day after Kansas’ 23-0 loss to Texas. A quote Weis gave to the Jayhawks’ radio network last week offered a clue as to his level of engagement.
Listening to Kansas radio pregame show: Charlie Weis on UT RB's: "They can give it to Bergeron too..." Nope, think he's gone Charlie.— Ricky Doyle (@RickyDoyle) September 27, 2014
Weis would be referring to tailback Joe Bergeron, who currently totes the ball for Texas A&M-Commerce. Bergeron was one of the cast of roughly thousands thrown off the Longhorns by first-year coach Charlie Strong, and a casual observer would be excused for not knowing. Weis, however, was paid $2.5 million a year to coach a Big 12 team. This is the sort of info the coach of a Big 12 team should know.
Weis will now make $7 million to not coach the Jayhawks, proving again that being an unsuccessful coach who used to be a successful one is the greatest job on earth.
Estimated $19 million from Notre Dame, $7 million plus more from KU ... for not working. Charlie Weis remains my hero.— Dan Wetzel (@DanWetzel) September 28, 2014
2. So, who should Kansas hire to replace Weis? Here are a couple of mid-major head coaches who deserve a shot at a Power Five program:
Justin Fuente, Memphis: The Tigers were awful when the former TCU offensive coordinator arrived. If you watched them fight at UCLA and Ole Miss, you know how much they’ve improved. As terrible as Kansas is, the Jayhawks are not as bad as Memphis was when Fuente got there. And he made the Tigers competitive quickly.
Pete Lembo, Ball State: The Cardinals picked an inconvenient year to hit a bit of a down cycle, but Lembo is a program builder who can take brutal situations and turn them around. Ball State went 4-8 in 2010 before Lembo came from Elon. He then went 6-6 in ‘11, 9-4 in ‘12 and 10-3 in ‘13.
3. And here are two young coordinators who could breathe life into the program:
Jake Spavital, Texas A&M: Yes, he’s very young (29). Yes, it’s his first year as Texas A&M’s play-caller. But no moment has ever seemed too big for the levelheaded Spavital. If he can handle the myriad of duties that come with being Johnny Football’s position coach, he can handle his own program. Spavital is the son of a longtime Tulsa-area high school coach and has worked at Oklahoma State and West Virginia. He knows the league, and his experience at Texas A&M means he knows the areas Kansas would need to recruit.
Lincoln Riley, East Carolina: Why not East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill? Because McNeill is an East Carolina alum. Also, if the Pirates keep up this pace, McNeill can find a better opening than Kansas. But Riley, the 31-year-old architect of the offense that gained approximately a million yards against North Carolina on Sept. 20, can handle the pressure of a Big 12 job. He got tossed into the play-caller’s role at 26 when Mike Leach was abruptly fired at Texas Tech, and McNeill gave Riley the keys to his offense a month later. A Texas Tech grad from Muleshoe, Texas, Riley knows Big 12 country very well.
4. And here’s one wild card:
Ed Orgeron, coaching free agent: If he’s the kinder, gentler, fun-loving Coach O who bridged the gap between Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian at USC, he can be a huge success. If he’s the paranoid micromanager (his own description of himself, by the way) who failed at Ole Miss, he won’t be. If Orgeron can really be the 2013 version of himself at the helm of a program, that program would be very lucky.
5. Winning the ACC the past two years and a national title last year has calmed the conspiracy among Florida State fans that ACC officials are out to get the Seminoles. Apparently, that theory has now shifted to the coaches of Florida State’s opponents.
NC State coach Doeren: "there was some unbelievable holding by their (FSU's) offensive line that apparently is invisible."— Scott Hamilton (@ScottH_WSJ) September 27, 2014
That’s NC State coach Dave Doeren, who will soon likely be donating to the charity of commissioner John Swofford’s choice. Complaints aside, Doeren’s team looked vastly improved in a 56-41 loss to the Seminoles. Obviously, the Wolfpack would have preferred that their 24-7 first-quarter lead resulted in a win, but if they can jump on Florida State like that, imagine what they can do against the rest of the ACC. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who originally planned to play the Seminoles every year as Florida’s quarterback, threw for 359 yards with three touchdowns.
6. Speaking of quarterbacks in the ACC Atlantic Division, Clemson freshman Deshaun Watson made his first start on Saturday after taking over QB1 during the Tigers’ 23-17 loss at Florida State a week earlier. Watson threw a school-record six touchdown passes in a 50-35 win over North Carolina. No biggie. “Nothing but a snot-nosed freshman!” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris joked, according to the Charlotte Observer.
7. The proximity between Ole Miss and Memphis and the players’ familiarity with one another can generate some animosity. That spilled over early in the Rebels’ 24-3 win on Saturday, producing a fight that got Ole Miss kicker Gary Wunderlich ejected. Want to see the kind of fight that gets a kicker ejected? Here you go.
8. The genius of Chris Petersen has been well chronicled, but he might have outfoxed himself in his first Pac-12 game as Washington’s coach. With his defense playing well and his punter dazzling, Petersen called for a fake punt on fourth-and-nine from the Washington 47-yard line midway through the fourth quarter of a tie game. That play got stuffed, and Stanford marched down the short field for a touchdown. The Cardinal went offsides and kicked out of bounds during the kickoff following the score. Petersen declined to take the ball at the 35-yard line, instead electing to accept the offsides penalty and make Stanford kick again. The Cardinal bottled up Huskies return man John Ross at the 16-yard line and went on to win 20-13.
9. How many Wake Forest defenders does it take to bring down Louisville tailback Brandon Radcliff? On one play in the fourth quarter of Louisville’s 20-10 win, it took all 11. And it took them a while. Radcliff dragged the entire Demon Deacons’ defense past the first-down marker as the Cardinals clung to a seven-point lead. Click here to watch Radcliff cause the football version of continental drift.
10. In important All-Name Team news, Air Force free safety Weston Steelhammer intercepted three passes in the Falcons’ 28-14 win over Boise State on Saturday. If we’re lucky, we’ll have someone called General Steelhammer protecting the country in 30 years.
What’s eating Andy?
I’m pretty sure I got it all out of my system with the questions raised in the poll ballot.
What’s Andy eating?
I spent a day last week eating chicken-and-waffle sandwiches at The World Famous in Athens, Ga., for television purposes, but you lovely readers already knew about that glorious dish because you read about it here. I didn’t get a chance to try anything new last week, so I figured I’d look back at one of the highlights of the past few months.
Though it seems like I’ve consumed smoked meat in every possible locale, I still have quite a few places on my Barbecue Bucket List. I haven’t made it to Cooper’s in Llano, Texas. I haven’t made it to Interstate Barbecue in Memphis. I haven’t made it to Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, N.C. I could keep going. Earlier this year, I was honored to finally cross Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway, S.C., off that list, and it was every bit as delicious as everyone had promised.
Hemingway is a map dot in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. It’s 50 minutes southeast of Florence and an hour west of Myrtle Beach. Rodney Scott and his family have been smoking whole hogs at a roadside shack there since 1972. The Scotts own land to supply wood for their pit, but as John T. Edge discovered when writing about the place for the New York Times in 2009, they also serve as a tree service for the locals. If someone has a tree that needs to be removed and that tree could provide proper smoke for the pigs, Scott sends his employees to cut it down and bring it back to the restaurant.
When I visited in April, Scott was on a tour of the South trying to raise money to build a new pit to replace the one that had caught fire a few months earlier. His employees were smoking hogs in a shed next to the restaurant. The improvised pit and the boss’ absence didn’t hurt the meat one bit. I ordered a pound of pulled pork, and it lasted only a few minutes. For $557, I could have gotten a whole, cooked hog and a gallon of sauce for a party or family reunion. I’m not sure what anyone else would have eaten.
The juicy, perfect pig didn’t need the thin vinegar-pepper blend that is Scott’s house sauce, but the bite of the vinegar and the heat of the red pepper flakes added new dimensions to the savory meat. As I polished off the pound, I glanced up at the menu board again. I had paid $10 for the meat and another couple of dollars for the bag of fresh pork cracklins that provided snacks for the next 24 hours. A few months later, I ran into a friend from high school who had taken his wife to The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. He had dropped about $1,000. We had both tasted the products of a master’s kitchen, but I hadn’t lost my shirt.