The elephant in the room: Alabama's success casts long shadow over Auburn, Gus Malzahn; Punt, Pass & Pork
Let's play a blind resume game:
School A has won multiple conference titles in the past six years.
School B has won multiple conference titles in the past six years.
School A has won a national title in the past six years.
School B has won a national title in the past six years.
According to Scout.com, School A has had a top-10 recruiting class each of the past three years.
According to Scout.com, School B has had a top-10 recruiting class each of the past three years.
School A is in the midst of a three-man quarterback competition.
School B is in the midst of a three-man quarterback competition.
School A has the kind of defensive line depth for which most coaches would trade a limb.
School B has the kind of defensive line depth for which most coaches would trade a limb.
These are all factual statements*, but they don't provide a true picture. One of those teams is Alabama. The other is Auburn. Anyone who has watched knows those two programs aren't even close to being as identical as the completely accurate statements above suggest. But that presentation does help explain what Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs meant when he said this to myself and Chris Carlin last week in an interview for a SiriusXM show: "There are 12 other programs [in the SEC] that would love to be in our position."
*The D-line depth thing is obviously subjective, but ask your favorite coach if he'd trade defensive line rooms with Alabama or Auburn. The answer is probably yes on both counts.
It's what Jacobs said next that explains why we wonder whether the coach of a program with recent accomplishments that would make it the envy of 99% of the college football world would start the season on the hot seat. "But," Jacobs said, "our fans are very competitive."
In Jacobs's mind, Gus Malzahn isn't on the hot seat. The athletic director can't imagine a better coach for his program. But the Auburn family is indeed competitive, and it measures success relative to its rival in Tuscaloosa. Only three programs in the country have reached the national title game more than once since 2009. Auburn is one. Oregon is another. The third is the elephant in every room at Auburn's football complex. "It just happens to be," Jacobs says, "that the other one is in this state." And it just happens to be that the other SEC team from the Yellowhammer State has won four national titles and beaten Auburn five times during that span.
Two days after Jacobs explained the unique dilemma at Auburn, Alabama football communications director Josh Maxson faced a dilemma of his own. The Associated Press national title trophy from 2015 sat in the conference room that adjoins Maxson's office, and Maxson needed to find a more appropriate place to store such valuable hardware. Maxson walked the trophy around the Mal Moore Athletics Center for a few minutes looking for a better spot. He came back still carrying it. Why couldn't he find a place of honor? Because when Alabama built the trophy display in the Moore building a few years ago, athletics officials wanted each national title to have its own slot. So they built what they considered a reasonable number of slots to accommodate the national titles Alabama had won and might win in the near future. The near future is here, and under Nick Saban, Alabama has won an unreasonable number of national championships.
David J. Phillip/AP
This delights Alabama fans and vexes Auburn fans. Of course, Auburn fans can strike back by recalling the past two times the Tigers have beaten the Crimson Tide. Both wins have names. The Camback came in 2010 en route to a national title. The Kick Six came in 2013 en route to an SEC title and a berth in the BCS championship game. Auburn radio play-by-play man Rod Bramblett has met multiple fans who use his Kick Six call as their phone's ringtone. They've told Bramblett that when they're standing next to an Alabama fan, they'll let the phone keep ringing so the Bama fan can hear Chris Davis score one more time.
But this is part of the problem for Auburn. The only Auburn wins against Alabama since Saban started winning national titles came in legendary, miraculous games. Alabama hasn't had to give names to any of its recent wins against Auburn; the Tide just plain won and the Tigers didn't make it very exciting.
Alabama fans felt this way in the previous decade when Auburn fans slapped
"Honk If You Sacked Brodie" bumper stickers on their cars and bragged about Alabama "Fearing The Thumb" in advance of the fifth of Auburn's six consecutive victories between 2002 and '07. What did Alabama do to eliminate that indignity? It fired Mike Shula—whose final game was the one for Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's thumb in '06—and hired Nick Saban. Three Auburn head coaches later, here we are.
Since Gene Chizik was hired to replace Tuberville prior to the 2009 season, the Tigers have had one abysmal season ('12, when they went 0–8 in the SEC and Chizik got fired) and one that fell far below expectations (last year, when they went 7–6 and 2–6 in SEC play). During that span, Auburn ranks No. 26 in winning percentage (.652), but consider this. Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State are the only other teams to win national titles. Alabama, Florida State, Clemson, Michigan State, Ohio State, Baylor, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin are the only others with multiple Power 5 conference titles. That's pretty select company, but at Auburn, it's not good enough. In that span, Alabama is No. 1 in winning percentage (.896) and has four SEC titles and four national titles.
That's why Jacobs shook his head when I asked if money created the pressure on the coaches of the SEC West. They all make more than $4 million a year, and those of us who remember when $1 million a year was a king's ransom have a difficult time believing how a guy making $4 million or $5 million doesn't win every single game. "I think the majority just want to win," Jacobs said. "I don't think it matters if you pay them $50,000 or $5 million. They just want to win, and they look around the league and say 'Why aren't we winning?'" Jacobs said he heard that question in his own home last year. "People want answers," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're blood or not."
Having spent some time around that rivalry, I believe Jacobs. It doesn't matter how much the coaches make. It matters who can point to the scoreboard and sing after the Iron Bowl.
But there is no denying that Saban has been the rising tide that floats all the salary boats in the SEC West. He makes $7.5 million, and other schools pay their coaches a commensurate amount so they can appear to care as much as Alabama. Saban also is the one who ratchets up the pressure on his colleagues. It may be that he's the best to ever do this, but that doesn't matter to the fanbases whose teams need to get through Alabama to reach the titles they crave. This is why Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and LSU's Les Miles—two otherwise excellent coaches—face pressure this year.
But no one faces more Saban-generated pressure than Malzahn. And Jacobs knows this. "The expectations are high, but it's difficult in this day and time," Jacobs said. "People just want to flip people out of here like pancakes, and I've had a history of doing that."
Jacobs refers to his quick hook of Chizik. Two years after a national title, Chizik was fired. The problem for Jacobs now is that Chizik's firing worked. Jacobs hired Malzahn, and Malzahn immediately led the Tigers from 0–8 in the SEC to a conference championship and a berth in the last BCS title game.
Jacobs knows firing the coach probably won't generate the same result next time. "With Gus, everything I've seen from him and their recruiting and the kind of man he is, he's the right man for Auburn right now and for a long time," Jacobs said. "I know he's going to get it done. And let me tell you this: We're giving him everything he needs to get it done. There are no barriers here. Whatever he thinks he needs to recruit the best, train the best, hire the best coaches, facilities, nutrition, sports psychology, weight room, academics—whatever it is. We'll provide what he needs to have a successful program."
Jacobs means every word of that, and an objective look at Auburn's recent history suggests there should be little pressure on Jacobs and Malzahn. But college football in Alabama is an unusual beast, and if Auburn can't find a way to pull closer to the elephant in the room, some other AD may be providing all that stuff for some other coach.
A random ranking
Malzahn, who celebrates victories at Waffle House, was kind enough to review his Waffle House hash brown order. He's a Scattered (broken up on the grill), Covered (cheese), Smothered (onions) and Chunked (ham) guy. The only difference between our orders is that I replace Smothered with Topped (chili). Here are the Waffle House hash brown order options, ranked.
1. Scattered (You can't just leave them in a brick.)
5. Country (sausage gravy)
6. Capped (button mushrooms)
8. Peppered (jalapenos)
9. Diced (tomatoes)
1. Florida State quarterback Sean Maguire was scheduled for surgery Monday to place a screw into a broken bone in his right foot. Maguire will need three to four weeks to recover, meaning redshirt freshman Deondre Francois likely will start the Seminoles' season opener against Ole Miss in Orlando on Sept. 5. Maguire, who also broke his ankle in the Peach Bowl loss to Houston, had been competing with Francois for the job. "The past few days have been pretty devastating for me and my family," Maguire told reporters Sunday at Florida State's media day.
Francois brings a different dynamic to Florida State's offense. The 6' 2", 205-pounder from Orlando was the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback recruit in the class of 2015, and his ability to run will add a different dimension for the Seminoles. While Fisher isn't going to change his offense to feature the quarterback run game, Francois should be able to use his legs to keep plays alive even if protection breaks down.
There will be inevitable comparisons to the last Florida State redshirt freshman to start the season opener at quarterback, and Fisher would like to nip those in the bud now. Jameis Winston won a Heisman Trophy and a national title as a redshirt freshman, but Fisher doesn't want that kind of pressure placed on Francois. "I don't ever compare players," Fisher told reporters. "It's unfair to compare Jameis. It's unfair to compare to Deondre."
The way Fisher was handling this competition felt a little like the one between Winston and Jake Coker in 2013. Fisher said both were close, but it was clear once the Seminoles started playing that Winston was the best choice. Coker later started for a national champion (Alabama last year), which helped explain why that competition lasted as long as it did.
This one is over for now. The Seminoles, who toggled between Everett Golson and Maguire last season, need consistency from the position. An average quarterback combined with Florida State's loaded roster will win plenty of games. If Francois turns out to be excellent, the Seminoles could start the season in Orlando and end it in Tampa.
2. ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported Friday that Big 12 officials will meet with representatives from as many as 18 schools via video conference as the league continues to evaluate its expansion options. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby's Skype party line probably won't do much to influence the decision, but it certainly keeps the Big 12's comedy quotient high.
It would be even funnier if the Big 12 just had everyone call in at once. And knowing the league's desire for revenue streams, it could charge by the minute like the party lines of yore.
3. Alabama coach Nick Saban hid behind an SEC rule and the SEC hid behind Saban as the Maurice Smith transfer drama played out over the past month. Once Saban placed the onus on the SEC by giving Smith a full release last week, the league office quickly caved. The SEC wanted to defend its dumb graduate transfer rule as long as Saban took all the heat. Once the league was in position to be the bad guy, it wanted no part of that defense.
4. On the field, Alabama held its first scrimmage Saturday. The buzz afterward involved true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who is competing with junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett for the starting job.
Last week, we asked Saban if he could envision a scenario in which a true freshman would play. "I'm going to play the best guy," Saban said. "Where they came from, what their mailing address is or how old they are really doesn't determine who the best player is at that position."
Don't take that as an indicator of which quarterback will start. Saban has been adamant that if none of the three clearly distances himself during camp, then Alabama could play more than one once the season starts until someone wins the team. Last year, that moment came when Coker replaced Bateman during the loss to Ole Miss and nearly led the Tide back. When will it come this year? That's anyone's guess.
5. Eastern Michigan upped the ante in the walk-ons-learning-they've-been-put-on-scholarship department with this reveal to tailback Blake Banham.
6. Then rival Western Michigan took it to another level with this Sly scholarship reveal for linebacker Kasey Carson.
7. Meanwhile, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich heard Larry David's comments about being an offensive coordinator and invited the Seinfeld co-creator and Curb Your Enthusiasm star to shadow Ducks coordinator Matt Lubick.
8. Not to be outdone, West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen went live with The Weather Channel's biggest star.
9. You can stop making alternate helmets, college football programs. Air Force already won the season with this tribute to The Flying Tigers squadron.
10. Yes, that was Sylvester Stallone rowing the freaking boat in No. 6. Here's another look.
What's eating Andy?
Sometimes, you get a great quote but can't find room for it in your story. I looked for a way to shoehorn this Jacobs quote into the column above, but it just didn't fit. (Probably because it's about basketball.)
Needless to say, Jacobs is quite confident Auburn men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl can turn around the Tigers. The recruiting rankings for the class of 2017 seem to agree. At any rate, this is how confident Jacobs is in Bruce Pearl.
"If he can't get it done here in men's basketball, then I'm for tearing up the arena and plowing up the ground and planting peas."
What's Andy eating?
If I ask an employee which dish they'd recommend, the worst answer is "Everything's good." This is the culinary equivalent of this old football saw: "If you've got two quarterbacks, you've got no quarterback." Like Nick Saban or Gus Malzahn or Jim Harbaugh or any other coach selecting a quarterback this month, I like to see some separation. I want the one who wins the hearts and minds (or stomachs) of his teammates. I want to know that what I choose is clearly better. So I appreciate an employee willing to help me make the tough decisions instead of further muddying the issue by claiming everything at the restaurant is equal.
So thank you, delightful lady behind the counter at City Pork Deli and Charcuterie in Baton Rouge, for answering honestly. Last week, I was determined to try two sandwiches. I had already decided on the Ultimate Grilled Cheese (Swiss, cheddar and brie with house-cured bacon on Texas Toast) because I am a sucker for grilled cheese. (I have the taste buds of a five-year-old; I also feel the same way about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.)
I couldn't decide on the second, so I asked which I should order between the Cubano (smoked pork shoulder, brown sugar ham, Swiss, dijon and pickles on pressed Cuban bread) and the Pork Belly Bahn Mi (Korean braised pork belly, pate, pickled carrots, cucumber and cilantro on french bread). "We sell more Cubanos," she said, "but the Bahn Mi is my favorite." I immediately asked her to add a Bahn Mi to my order. Any sandwich that inspires enough passion to go against public sentiment is worth a try.
Upon first bite, I understood why she had pushed me in that direction. My year of pork belly continues to delight, and I hope more places decide to pass along the joy of proto-bacon. The belly chunks in City Pork's Bahn Mi were lightly charred and covered in a Korean-inspired sauce that vacillated between spicy and sweet throughout the chewing process. The toasted french bread provided an excellent pillow for the belly, and the sandwich would have been fantastic with even a reasonable amount of belly. But as I kept moving toward the center of the sandwich, the belly-to-bread ratio kept rising. This particular pig must have been named Buddha. His belly was a seemingly endless bounty.
I'm probably the wrong person to opine on the grilled cheese. I'd give a rave review to processed American cheese slices on Wonder bread, so of course I'm going to love three excellent cheeses (and bacon) on Texas Toast. But upon further review, every grilled cheese* needs to come on Texas Toast.
*Yes, I realize that many people believe the inclusion of meat makes this a melt and not a grilled cheese. I don't care. I only get weird about what people deem to be barbecue.
If you're not careful, you might not have room for either of these sandwiches. City Pork has a pair of appetizers that are designed for sharing but tasty enough to hoard. The pork rinds come with house-made pimento cheese and andouille pate for dipping. The "nachos" are house-made potato chips covered in mornay cheese sauce with jalapeños and chunks of smoked pork. If one of your tablemates heads outside to take a phone call, he's likely to return to an empty plate.
But don't fill up on the appetizers, no matter how difficult it may be to resist. That Pork Belly Bahn Mi is waiting to win your stomach and prove that it was the only choice all along.