Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas Miracle

I published this post five years ago, and it just feels right to "reprint" it today:

My grandfather passed away two months ago.  

I have wanted to write a post about him ever since, and there are a thousand things I want to say in that post, yet it remains unwritten for one very unmovable reason:  I have no idea where or how to start saying those thousand things.  When a man lives 81 years, has 39 direct descendants, and impacts not only his family but countless other people as well, how can you sum up his life in a handful of paragraphs?  You can’t. 

But I do not have that problem when it comes to writing about Granddaddy and Christmas, after the way they converged three years ago. 

Granddaddy’s love of God, family, and country; his zeal when talking about those things to anybody with whom he came into contact; his faith in the perfectibility of man; his irrepressible Scotch-Irish mischief; his unsurpassed diligence in everything to which he set his mind or his hands – those qualities will all be written about in time, but for the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that in the last few years of his life they were cruelly stolen by Alzheimer’s disease. 

His mental sharpness started to dull about five years ago.  In 2005 his memory faded as well, and the fading was fast.  He carried on conversations with Nana without realizing it was her.  Remembering how she looked in their youth but not in the here and now, he said things like “I wonder when Peggy’s going to come home” while looking into her very eyes. 

When he and Nana arrived at our family’s 2005 Christmas Eve party, nobody expected to be recognized by him.  Because I did not want to confuse him by addressing him in a way that would suggest he was speaking to his grandson, and because I knew his recollections of battling the Nazis remained vivid, that night I simply called him “Corporal.” 

He asked if I was in the Army like he had been, and I told him I was not because of my diabetes. I told him that we nonetheless had some similarities, because just like him, my last name was Stanton and my blood carried Scotch-Irish genes.  He nodded and said it was good to meet me.  He said I should come around again sometime. 

Everyone at the party walked a tightrope, balancing holiday cheer on one hand with the sadness of loss on the other.  The man we loved, who had known each of us by name just a year earlier, had for all intents and purposes ceased to exist. 

But as the night started to grow long, something sparked inside Granddaddy’s mind.  When most of us were assembled in and around the kitchen, he “addressed the room” and said it was great that we were there.  He did not specifically acknowledge that we were all family; however, when he looked at my Aunt Sharon, the third of his five children, a glint appeared in his eyes and he spoke the word “daughter.” 

He and Nana stood on the driveway as the party wound down.  I stood there too, as did several others, hoping to give Nana some sense of normalcy.  But it turned out that our presence was not needed, for while Venus shone brightly like the Star of Bethlehem, Granddaddy came back as if by magic.  Looking up at the Milky Way, he spoke to Nana by name and said:  “Peggy, I’m trying to remember the night we got married.”  Some minutes later, when he said goodbye to each of us, his face bore a look of recognition and for that moment it no longer seemed that there was a stranger trapped in his body. 

As his wife of 59 years drove him back to the house they had called home for 53 years, they talked about their life and their family and it was as if the dementia had never been.  After finishing that 45-mile excursion from rural Hernando County to urban Tampa, they sat up late into the night conversing and reminiscing and sharing life’s small but inimitable joys.  They lay down in bed like they had done so many times through the years, and for that one holy night Granddaddy was Granddaddy again:  John Stanton, Jr., child of the Great Depression, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, pastor, proud but humble, flawed but good.

When the sun rose, the dementia was back and my grandmother's husband, as she knew him, never returned.  But they had gotten that one last night together on Christmas Eve, and had gotten it after everyone assumed it was not possible.  As Nana said:  “That was my Christmas miracle.”

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter Solstice

Here are some thoughts about the year’s coldest season on this, its first day:

I love how it begins with evergreen boughs on mantles, lighted trees in village squares, carols on the radio, and people knowing that life’s greatest joys come from giving rather than receiving.

I love its chilly mornings when fog clings to the surfaces of ponds.

I love sitting outside on those mornings drinking hot black coffee.

I love watching Sarah try to catch snowflakes on her tongue during our winter vacation.

I love driving across California’s High Sierra between snow drifts so deep they soar above cars and turn roadways into tunnels of white.

I love walking through Appalachian forests that are barren of leaves but laden with snow, and therefore have the appearance of black-and-white photos come to life.

And finally, I love that I can spend a whole day outside in Florida without feeling the need to shower every hour.

So for those who curse the cold: Remember that every season brings beauty, so long as we stop to notice it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Carol Born

When it comes to carols, I have always found “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” to be especially poignant (if you're not familiar with it, you can listen to it here.)

It did not begin as a song, but as a poem written on Christmas morning by America’s greatest poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, exactly 150 Christmases ago. At that moment in time America was torn apart and battling itself in the Civil War – a war that still stands as the one in which more Americans died than in any other.

When dawn broke that morning, Longfellow was despondent. During the war his son Charles had been horrifically wounded when a bullet passed through part of his spine, leading to a long and excruciating recovery. And as if that wasn’t dark enough, his wife Frances had died as a result of burns sustained when her clothes were set on fire by dripping sealing wax, which she was melting with the intention of using it to preserve some of their daughter’s trimmed curls.

But despite that sorrowful backdrop, as Longfellow sat in his Massachusetts home on Christmas and heard the ringing of local church bells, his faith in divine promise started to stir and he was moved to put pen to paper. The resulting poem was transformed into a hymn nine years later, when John Baptiste Calkin composed the music to which it was set.

The poem’s words absolutely speak for themselves. Since some of them are excluded from the carol we normally hear this time of year, here they are in their entirety:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Red Badge of Courage Award

Tonight, this year's Heisman Trophy winner will be announced and everyone knows it will be Jameis Winston.

Two nights ago, this year's Coach of the Year was announced and it was Guz Malzahn -- just like everyone knew it would be.

So I think it is time to roll out a new kind of award. One that goes not to the "most outstanding" or "most valuable," but instead goes to the player who most exemplifies the spirit of college football by withstanding the most unanticipated turmoil while fighting on in spite of it. One whose season involves every kind of emotion from the highest highs of big-game wins to the gut-wrenching agony of last-second defeats -- but whose individual performance is always stellar and whose character is unwavering.

Since one could not win such an award without experiencing immense pain, I would call it the Red Badge of Courage Award, and this year’s winner would be Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.

Murray could have turned pro after last season and probably been drafted high, but he chose to return for his senior year because he believed his team had a chance to win the SEC and thereby play for the national championship.

He led his charges to 35 points at Clemson to start the season, but the effort was for naught because Georgia's young and inexperienced defense yielded 38…Then he responded by rallying his troops and orchestrating high-scoring victories over South Carolina and LSU, both of whom were ranked in the top ten.

Then the wheels fell off the cart as Murray’s team suffered an unprecedented slew of injuries to key contributors. At one point they were taking the field without their top two running backs and top three receivers -- begging the question of who he would throw to, plus the question of who could possibly keep opposing defenses honest by running the ball to take their focus off of stopping the passing game.

As the injuries mounted, Georgia's championship hopes disappeared with losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, yet Murray soldiered on and never hung his head…He delivered a victory over Florida that made him 3-1 against his school's most hated rival…Then, against his school's oldest rival (my beloved Auburn) he engineered a remarkable fourth quarter comeback from a 37-17 deficit to take a 38-37 lead with under two minutes remaining -- only to see that lead vanish forever when Auburn's Ricardo Louis scored a 73-yard touchdown on a deflected Hail Mary pass on 4th-and-18.

The sight of Murray lying face-down on the turf after Louis’s score was eye-moistening even for non-Georgia fans like myself.

He still had a chance to end his career on a high note, however, because Georgia's season-ending game was against their only in-state rival, Georgia Tech. But first they had to play Kentucky on the Saturday between the Auburn and Georgia Tech games, and during the second quarter of that contest, the anterior cruciate ligament in Murray's right knee was torn while he was being sacked. Just like that, his college career came thudding to an end.

Aaron Murray finished that career having thrown more touchdowns than anyone in SEC history, which means he surpassed Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Ken Stabler, Danny Wuerffel, and Peyton and Eli and Archie Manning. In a sport that dates to 1869, only five players from any conference have thrown more touchdowns than him. Meanwhile, he threw for more yards than any QB in SEC history, surpassing the mark set a few years ago by Tim Tebow.

But as indicative as those things are, they are just stats. What counts more than anything else in life is character, and this year Aaron Murray proved he has it. His actions showed that he loves his school and his team more than himself. They showed that he is willing to take a risk, and to endure the consequences like a man if they prove to be other than desired. His actions showed he is willing to pursue a higher goal no matter how much bloodying and bruising are involved.

When parents are asked which athlete they would tell their sons to model themselves after, they could do far worse than to answer by saying “Aaron Murray.” So, as a one-man voting crew on my one-man blog, I name him the recipient of the first annual Red Badge of Courage Award.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Real Saint Nick

History provides many examples of actual people who have, over time, become so melded into the popular imagination that we tend to forget they were real. Saint Nicholas is one of them.

Born sometime around 280 A.D. in the town of Patara, in what was then part of Greece but is now part of Turkey, Nicholas was the son of wealthy parents who died when he was young. Having been raised as a devoted Christian, he spent his life using his inheritance to help those in need, and in addition to his charity he became known for harboring great concern for children and sailors.

Down through history, one particular story about his generosity has persisted. In those days, women whose families could not pay a dowry were more likely to die as spinsters than to get married. It is said that when Nicholas learned of a poor man who was worried about his daughters’ fate because he lacked money for their dowries, Nicholas surreptitiously tossed gold into the man’s home through an open window, and the gold landed in stockings that were drying by the fire. Much later, this 1,700-year-old story inspired the modern tradition of hanging stockings by the chimney to receive gifts from Santa on Christmas Eve.

Nicholas became Bishop of Myra and was imprisoned during the anti-Christian persecutions carried out by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Based on the stories of his life, Catholic tradition considers him a patron saint of children, orphans, sailors, travelers, the wrongly imprisoned, and many other categories of people. Churches were constructed in his honor as early as the sixth century A.D. Today, his remains are buried in BariItaly.

For generations now, kids and adults alike have used the names Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Nick interchangeably, without giving it a second thought. But there was an actual Saint Nicholas, a decent man who is obscured by commercial renderings of Christmas. We should not allow that fact to be forgotten, regardless of whether or not we are Catholic (and for the record, I am not).

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Regular Season in the Rearview

And then there was...
...one. I generally don't like to toot my own horn, but two weeks ago, after Baylor's loss to Oklahoma State left America with three major undefeated teams, I wrote this: "There is a strong chance Ohio State will lose to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and in fact, I expect them to...I think there is a much bigger chance that only one of today's three unbeaten teams will still be unbeaten two weeks from today, than there is of all of them remaining unbeaten."

Right now part of me feels like a prophetic swami, but I know I'm not because all I was doing was looking at history and being realistic about the teams in this year's championship mix.

Say what you want about the BCS, but in its final year you have to admit that it almost always got it right. After Auburn vanquished Alabama, all the hypothetical controversy switched from "who should be left out of the title game if Alabama, Florida State, and Ohio State are all undefeated?" to "should one-loss Auburn leapfrog undefeated Ohio State because their schedule was so much tougher?" Then along came Michigan State to knock off the Buckeyes, and as last night turned into this morning all of the hypothetical nightmares disappeared like the mirages they always were.

Because teams with the same number of losses wound up vying for the second spot in the BCS Championship Game, strength of schedule and quality of wins became the tiebreaker -- and therefore Auburn's appearance in the game, which was confirmed a couple hours ago, is entirely uncontroversial. Everyone (even Alabama fans) admit Auburn is the team that belongs there, but I will toss out a few facts for the sole purpose of preserving them for posterity: The Tigers played thirteen opponents and only three of them finished the season without being invited to a bowl. They closed the season by beating two top-five opponents in eight days. One week after gashing Alabama's first-in-the-SEC rush defense for 296 yards on the ground, they gashed Missouri's secod-in-the-SEC rush defense for 545 yards on the ground. And "can't throw" QB Nick Marshall completed excellent clutch passes in both games, just like he has done throughout the year at key times.

Central Florida
I still don't know what to make of them. They finished the season away from home, playing in frigid temperatures with snow banks behind the sidelines, rallying from behind to beat SMU and clinch a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. That is objectively good, and I have several friends who went to UCF so it's not as if I dislike their program, but I just can't bring myself to rank them. Like I said before, they have too many hair-width wins against absolutely horrible opponents. I suspect that Baylor is going to embarrass them on New Year's Day.

Awards and look-backs
I will probably opine about such things sometime before the Heisman ceremony gets here, but right now I am winding up one very exhausting week and I have to get up early in the morning to start another one. So without further ado, here is the final pre-bowl Stanton's Space Top Twenty for the 2013 season:

1.    Florida State
2.    Auburn
3.    Alabama
4.    Michigan State
5.    Missouri
6.    Ohio State
7.    South Carolina
8.    Stanford
9.    Oklahoma State
10.  Baylor
11.  Oklahoma
12.  LSU
13.  Arizona State
14.  Oregon
15.  UCLA
16.  Clemson
17.  Wisconsin
18.  Duke
19.  Texas A&M
20.  USC

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Never Forget

Pearl Harbor Day is upon us, so let us recall what happened 72 years ago today. The day after the bombing, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress on December 8, 1941, to request a formal declaration of war. His speech was simulcast to the country at large via the radio. In it, he said:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack…

Yesterday the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Wake Island.

And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island…

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves…

Always will be remembered the character of this onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.

Pearl Harbor was attacked because it was where the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet was headquartered. The bombing, which killed more than 2,400 people, began shortly before 8:00 on a Sunday morning.

Five of our eight battleships were sunk, the other three were badly damaged, and multiple other naval vessels were destroyed.

The majority of the American war planes based in Hawaii were destroyed as they sat on the ground.

In addition, most of the American air forces based in the Philippines were destroyed during the nighttime attack on that nation, which FDR also mentioned in his speech.

By crippling our Pacific defenses, the December 7th attack left us extremely vulnerable in the face of an aggressive enemy to our West – an enemy that had signaled its intent to rule the entire Pacific basin by subjugating other nations to its will.

This came at a time when we had not responded to the fact that Nazi Germany to our East had already declared war against us, had already brought most of Europe under its thumb, and had signaled its own intention to rule the world by way of an Aryan resurrection of the old Roman Empire.

Such circumstances would have spelled doom for the vast majority of countries throughout the course of history. With their foundations based on the accidents of ethnicity and geography, most countries would have simply surrendered; or, in a distinction without a difference, entered into “peace” negotiations under which they would have to accept the aggressor’s terms and after which the lives of their citizens would most certainly change for the worst.

But the United States is a nation based on ideals. Our foundation springs from the knowledge that there are things greater than us, things which are greater than the transient circumstances which exist on any given day. We have always found strength in the conviction that our nation exists to support and advance those greater things, to the benefit of people all over the world, and this sets the United States apart from all other nations in all other times.

Taking heed from FDR’s appeal to “righteous might,” reflecting what Abraham Lincoln earlier referred to as the “faith that right makes might,” the American people of 1941 summoned the invincible courage to rebuild and fight at the same time they were under fearsome siege. They did this despite the fact they were still suffering through an unprecedented economic depression that had started more than a decade before.

Let us pray that those qualities – that will to power and that unwavering belief in the sanctity of human freedom – have not been lost as new generations of Americans take the baton from the great ones which came before. For as has been said, those who forget the past will be forced to repeat it.

It would be shameful if history were to record that we failed to transfer freedom’s blessings to our descendants.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nostalgia, A Half-Week After

I felt "It" in the days leading up the Iron Bowl, but I dared not say so, for fear of bringing a jinx to life.

"It" is an eerily serene sense of confidence that Auburn is going to triumph. Leading up to last Saturday, the confidence of "It" was confidence that Auburn would prevent Alabama from ascending to a seat at history's feast which everyone assumed was theirs by birthright.

"It" was not based entirely on logic -- after all, I had mentioned the Sunday before, on this very blog, that "Alabama should win their final two" -- but "It" was strong and persuasive and could not be denied.

I have been cheering and championing Auburn football for decades, and along the way have witnessed a multitude of highs that includes a national championship and troika of undefeated seasons, all despite playing in America's toughest conference. Yet even with all that success, the feeling of "It" is something that visits me only on the rarest of occasions. Before big games, my mind and heart are usually burdened by thoughts of all the ways Auburn might lose; but whenever "It" blesses me, all my mind can think of are the ways Auburn might win, and all my heart can think of is how sweet the win will taste.

Interestingly, I experienced "It" earlier this season, in the week prior to the Texas A&M game. I also felt "It" throughout December 2010 and early January 2011, in the lead up to that season's BCS Championship Game. Prior to that, my only other encounter with "It" happened on December 2, 1989, when the 8-2 Tigers upset the 10-0 Tide -- and in that instance, "It" did not make its appearance until James Joseph leaped across the goal line to close the game's opening drive.

Much like that glorious afternoon 24 years ago, this past Saturday was one on which "It" was borne by a certainty that right was on the side of Auburn, that wrong was on the side of Alabama, and that right will always prevail in the end. It seems (in fact is) way over the top to introduce a biblical concept like right versus wrong into a football rivalry, especially one in which the games are played by people mostly between the ages of 18 and 21; however, there were actual, honest-to-God reasons to use the right/wrong analogy when speaking of the game in '89, and if you care to bone up on them you can start by going here and/or here. 

In 2013 the analogy fits for a number of reasons, chief of which is the way Alabama's players and coaches have been portrayed as inherently superior to everyone else involved in the sport of college football.

Some commentators have suggested that the Crimson Tide might be able to defeat an NFL team, and it is not clear that they were kidding when they said so.

On live national TV, Nick Saban leaped into the arms of AJ McCarron and started politicking for him to win the Heisman.

Over the last two months, every single bit of BCS speculation has been about "who Alabama will play for the national championship." Nary a peep was heard about "who will make it to the national championship game," for everyone knew Alabama would beat Auburn to make it to the SEC Championship Game, where they would then be sure to beat any opponent no matter how strong their record (Missouri is 11-1) and ranking (Missouri is #5).  It was just a matter of who Alabama's victim would be when they held the crystal trophy in January.

When Iron Bowl week arrived, both teams were in the thick of the national championship race. Alabama sat at 11-0 and ranked #1, Auburn at 10-1 and ranked #4, and the game was being played on Auburn's home turf, which usually makes a big difference in the college game. In this most storied of rivalries, it was the first time one of its games had both teams ranked this high, yet no one in the media thought Auburn had any real chance of winning. Like my friend Sandee Foster observed in a text last week, the media would "mention the Iron Bowl and that it's a big game but then go on to talk about if Bama will play FSU or OSU for the natty!"

So when game time arrived, there was a palpable sense that Bama was about to get its comeuppance. Especially with Bo Jackson in attendance and the game taking place on his birthday...and with revered former coach Tommy Tuberville on the Auburn sideline, with his freshman son Tucker suited up as a backup QB...and with the crowd never dropping its noise level even after their team surrendered 21 unanswered points in the second quarter.

The Tigers answered the challenge. After giving up those 21 points, they tied the game by scoring TD's on their last possession before halftime and first possession after it.

A deep punt pinned Alabama back at the Auburn one late in the third quarter. Another punt did the same early in the fourth, but then McCarron hooked up with WR Amari Cooper on a 99-yard touchdown pass that broke the tie and put Alabama ahead 28-21.

In most instances, a play like the McCarron-Cooper score would be a backbreaker that swung all the momentum to the team that completed it. In most instances, it would propel that team to victory. But on Saturday, Auburn answered the bell yet again and tied the game back up when QB Nick Marshall took off to scramble, noticed WR Sammie Coates open down the left sideline, and pulled up just in time to toss him the ball for the tying score.

And finally, there was the decisive play on the final snap of regulation, when Alabama's Adam Griffith attempted a long-shot, 57-yard field goal that came up just short and wide. It was caught by lightning-fast but often-injured senior Chris Davis one yard shy of the back of the end zone. Davis started right, turned left, and made it around the corner while picking up key blocks from his teammates. Then he took off down the sideline, passed midfield, and turned slightly to the inside before sprinting to the end zone with two teammates as an escort and not a single opposing player anywhere near him.

Game Over...Epic...Legend.

For a great video of that run and the reaction to it, go here.

Along the road to victory, Auburn's defense stuffed Alabama's seemingly unstoppable RB TJ Yeldon on fourth and inches in the red zone. Some Tide fans will say that if Saban had just opted for the field goal...but then again, some Tiger fans will point out that their team also went for it in field goal range on fourth and short, and  also got stopped, and therefore the two plays merely canceled each other out and did nothing to alter the outcome.

Some Alabama fans will grumble that Auburn was fortunate to have a kick come up shy of the end line so it could be returned. But Auburn fans will point out that Coach Gus Malzahn intentionally put Davis in the end zone specifically to take advantage of a return opportunity, as it is smart to anticipate that a kick might come down short when it is attempted from 57 yards.

Auburn fans can also point out that their team ran the ball right down Bama's throat, to the tune of 296 yards and 5.7 yards per carry, against a defense that is the SEC's best against the run.

And if any Bammers out there still want to play the "if only ___" game, Auburn fans can point to a major "if only" play from the first quarter that was all but forgotten in all of the post-game commentary. It happened when the Tigers called a play action pass and Nick Marshall threw deep to Ricardo Louis, who was wide open a full 10 yards behind the Alabama secondary and would have surely scored a touchdown -- except for the fact that the throw was not on target and came down behind him rather than in front of him. The Tigers wound up punting instead of scoring, but "if only" the throw had not been behind him, they would have been up 14-0 instead of 7-0 later in the quarter; and with the way momentum can run wild in football games, they might never have fallen behind and needed to come back.

In short, the team that won Saturday was the team that was best, and the scene on Toomer's Corner was a well deserved thing of beauty:

As we say in The Loveliest Village on The Plains: War Eagle!

Note: Pictures are courtesy of the afore-mentioned Sandee Foster.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Fourteen Weeks In

And then there were...
...two. And so, again, I say there was never any logic behind everyone hyperventilating about what would/should happen if an "excess" of teams finish undefeated, because it almost never plays out like that when all is said and done.

Was it the greatest game ever played?
Yes it was, and you know what game I am talking about. It was not the greatest in terms of quality of play, because both teams had a number of miscues, but when you consider the excellent clutch plays that were made, and consider how both teams overcame miscues, and consider the stakes and the drama and the chess match of coaching decisions -- it was overall the greatest game played in the history of college football.

I am not going to say anything more about it right now, because 1) this recurring post is about the season's evolution and 2) Auburn still must play in the SEC Championship Game. I have watched several Missouri games this year and I believe Missouri is every bit as good as the team Auburn just vanquished. Mizzou's defensive line is one of the most physical in the country and Michael Sam is better than any of the players on Alabama's D line. Their offense is multidimensional and deep enough to have gotten successfully through the toughest stretch of their season despite losing their starting quarterback for most of that stretch. They are one 10-minute span away from being 12-0 and ranked ahead of both Auburn and Ohio State.

In short, the more focus is placed on the Iron Bowl, the more likely I think Auburn is to lose to Missouri. I will write a post about the Iron Bowl and will probably publish it this week, but it will be strictly for nostalgia and will not be mixed in with a "season is progressing and coming to a head" post. This is a weird superstition when you consider that I am not on Auburn's team or coaching staff and that I have absolutely no impact on what will happen come Saturday, but hey, all superstitions are weird and they have a lot to do with what makes sports so fun.

Domination in the Palmetto State
The Iron Bowl's dramatic finish and dethroning of Alabama very deservedly hogged the national spotlight. Unfortunately, it did so at the expense of many other fine storylines from Rivalry Weekend that would have otherwise gotten more press.

One of those storylines involves the significant and prolonged success of the South Carolina Gamecocks. Saturday night, they slapped down Clemson by a score of 31-17 to mark the fifth straight year they have defeated their hated cross-state rival. By bringing their regular season record to 10-2, the win marked the third straight year they will finish with double digits in the win column. Both are firsts for the program.

It says something positive about the Cocks that they are ranked in the top ten and no one in America seems surprised. It says something even more impressive that they once again made a mockery out of Clemson, in a year during which the latter spent considerable time being thought of as a national title contender. Dabo Swinney is arguably the third best coach in Clemson history after Frank Howard and Danny Ford, yet he is 1-5 against South Carolina and therefore many people consider him incapable of winning the games that matter. When I was a kid the Tigers were a longtime national power and the Cocks were a longtime afterthought. Not anymore.

Central Florida
I don't know what to make of this team. They are 10-1 and on the verge of earning a BCS bowl bid. They knocked Louisville out of the top five and pulverized Teddy Bridgewater's Heisman hopes in the process. They damn near beat South Carolina in a 28-25 battle that ranks as their only loss. Therefore, I want to rank them.

On the other hand, they needed improbable last minute heroics to get past 1-11 Temple and 2-10 South Florida. And while I keep telling myself that having the poise to execute those heroics is deserving of a spot in the national rankings, I also keep telling myself that a team which deserves to be ranked would not let itself get into positions where it needs late heroics to skate by such woeful opponents. To be in that position once can easily be excused, but to be in that position more than once is a not-good trend.

Heisman Watch
LSU and Mizzou have pushed Johnny Football out of the conversation, and an unprepared, 16-point outing against 7-5 Arizona has pushed Marcus Mariota out of it as well. In my mind it is now a two-horse race between Jameis Winston and A.J. McCarron, and I can make an equally strong case for both.

I don't like saying this as an Auburn man, but if I had a vote, right now I think I would cast it for McCarron. His performance in defeat last night did more to convince me he is deserving of the award than any of his performances in victory, and his post-game demeanor proved he is a man of character. Most significantly, I can not ignore that Winston, as phenomenal as he is, simply has not shown how he will react in tough circumstances.

Without further ado...
...below is the Stanton's Space Top Twenty, based on what has happened so far this season. There could be upheaval after the handful of games coming up this weekend, but for now, here you go:

1.    Florida State
2.    Ohio State
3.    Auburn
4.    Alabama
5.    Missouri
6.    Oklahoma State
7.    Michigan State
8.    South Carolina
9.    Stanford
10.  Baylor
11.  Arizona State
12.  LSU
13.  Clemson
14.  Oregon
15.  UCLA
16.  Northern Illinois
17.  Wisconsin
18.  Duke
19.  Texas A&M
20.  USC

Note: The scoreboard photo is courtesy of my fine friend and fellow Auburn grad Sandee Foster -- though it is my understanding that it was taken by the daughter of another fine friend and Auburn grad, the wonderful Adicia Coulter. Yesterday, said daughter could be seen waving her orange and blue pom pom behind the stage on ESPN College Game Day.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thirteen Weeks In

And then there were...
...three. And I will repeat what I said two weeks ago: There was never any logic behind everyone hyperventilating about what if X, Y, and Z all finish undefeated? Because it almost never ends that way after a season plays out.

Baylor's loss to Oklahoma State last night was very predictable, even if the 32-point margin of defeat was not.

There is a strong chance Ohio State will lose to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and in fact, I expect them to.

Alabama should win their final two against Auburn and then against either Missouri or South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game, but it will not be a huge surprise if they don't. After all, much bigger upsets have occurred in the Iron Bowl than would be the case if Auburn prevails on Saturday (see 12/2/89 for an example), and right now Missouri is playing like a team of destiny.

I think there is a much bigger chance that only one of today's three unbeaten teams will still be unbeaten two weeks from today, than there is of all of them remaining unbeaten.

And yes...
...I know there are two other undefeated teams out there, but Northern Illinois and Fresno State don't belong in the conversation about who might get undeservedly locked out of the national championship game.

NIU is very strong and very deserving of their spot in the national rankings, but they would have at least three losses if they played in the SEC or Pac-12. The same would probably be true if they were in the Big 12 or Big Ten, and there are even odds it would be true if they were in the ACC.

I suspect that Fresno State would be hovering around .500 if they played in any of the top four power conferences. They are definitely exciting to watch, and I give them credit for standing out from their competition and improving throughout the season, but I don't think they belong in the Top Twenty-five, much less the Top Two.

Famous Jameis
I have not been wanting to touch the story about Jameis Winston being accused of rape, because 1) based on what we know, it is a he said-she said, and 2) when it first broke, there were enough head-scratching elements to it that it felt like opining would be a disservice to the truth. However, given the way the allegations broadened and the tenor intensified last week, not mentioning it would make anyone talking about college football look like an ostrich.

I mention the story now for two reasons, the first of which is to point out that the whole hullabaloo over the time lapse and the email from the city manager do nothing to change the fact that it is a he said-she said. The other reason is to refer you to this story. It casts Winston as innocent and his accuser in a bad light, and I am aware that linking to it runs counter to my desire to remain neutral. But it raises a possibility that no one in the national press has raised, and my gut tells me it is probably accurate. If it is not, I will be the first to openly apologize for giving it credence.

How the mighty fall
Every college football season features some teams that surprise the nation by far exceeding expectations, plus some that surprise it by falling far short of expectations. This season the Florida Gators are easily the winner (which is to say, loser) in the latter category. Their fall from last year's Sugar Bowl campaign and 11-1 regular season has been so precipitous, their implosion so dreadful, that even avowed "Gator Haters" such as myself stopped experiencing schadenfreude a few weeks ago.

Yesterday's loss to Division I-AA Georgia Southern was not merely a low point, but an unthinkable one. GSU is no run of the mill I-AA program, having won six national championships in the last 28 years, but they entered yesterday's game with four losses and 19 players out with injury. Since Florida had only nine players out with injury (from a roster that had 22 more scholarship players to begin with), the "depleted by injuries" excuse some have used to justify earlier Florida losses will not even begin to fly any more.

The Eagles ran for more yards than anyone has managed against Florida in 18 years. They beat them despite not completing a single pass, and despite missing two extra points in a close game. The Swamp -- once one of the most feared places in America for a visiting team to play -- seemed no more intimidating than a high school stadium. The players sounded lifeless in their post-game comments, and Will Muschamp sounded clueless about how to correct course. That vote of confidence he received from the AD and university president a few days before the game has surely been revoked in its wake.

Outstanding Players Who Lack Publicity
Most years, Auburn RB Tre Mason would be getting some mention as a Heisman contender. He leads the SEC in rushing with 1,153 yards. He has 17 touchdowns and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. His team is  in the Top Five, and could win the nation's toughest conference, and has already pulled off what is arguably the biggest one-year turnaround in the history of the sport, having gone from a pathetic 3-9 campaign last year (when there was only one game in which they scored 20 points) to a 10-win campaign this year during which they have averaged exactly 39 per game.

But of course I am biased, so I will also point out Boston College RB Andre Williams. With a game still left to play, he has already surpassed 2,000 yards rushing. Getting to that number is a rarity and there was a time when it equaled automatic Heisman. It is an absolute shame that Williams never gets mentioned and his highlights never get played on national shows.

Offensive linemen never get publicity, but they should. Football is always won at the point of attack, because if there is no blocking it simply doesn't matter how good the running backs and quarterbacks and receivers are. And Missouri's Max Copeland is everything you should love in a lineman. The Montana native is big (6'3", 300 pounds) and nimble all at once. He sports a lumberjack's beard and radical's long hair. He blows his foes off the line with authority while opening holes for the running game, and he pushes away any opposing defender who dares to try to get to his quarterback. Failing to appreciate him would be un-American.

And without further ado...
...here is the Stanton's Space Top Twenty based on what has happened this season:

1.    Alabama
2.    Florida State
3.    Ohio State
4.    Auburn
5.    Missouri
6.    Oklahoma State
7.    Michigan State
8.    Clemson
9.    Wisconsin
10.  Stanford
11.  South Carolina
12.  Arizona State
13.  Baylor
14.  LSU
15.  Oregon
16.  UCLA
17.  USC
18.  Northern Illinois
19.  Texas A&M
20.  Ole Miss

Monday, November 18, 2013

Twelve Weeks In

My Auburn Indulgence
Obviously, the Auburn-Georgia game had a "helluva ending," one that will be remembered many years from now. But it's time to rain some reality down on the revisionist history that began circulating about the game almost as soon as its final second ticked off the clock.

"The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" is the moniker that has been given to Nick Marshall's 73-yard, 4th-and-18 heave that ended up being taken to the house in the hands of Ricardo Louis -- and it is a very apt one, because there is no denying that it took some good fortune for that play to end the way it did. But to hear the media folk describe things, you would think luck was all it was and Auburn had no business winning that game. And if you'll pardon the grammar, that just ain't true.

Auburn and Georgia did not play only one snap. They played an entire football game, which means they went at it for 60 minutes of playing time, and Auburn completely dominated Georgia for 49 of those 60 minutes. They ran the ball down Georgia's throat seemingly at will. They moved it successfully through the air, giving the lie to a recently arisen outsiders' claim that they are "one dimensional" and "can't throw."

I do not mean to take anything away from the Herculean effort Aaron Murray expended bringing the Bulldogs back from a 37-17 deficit between the twelve- and one-minute marks of the fourth quarter, but it also took some good fortune for them to be down only 37-17, and it annoys me that no one in the national media is acknowledging that.

If Cody Parkey, AU's normally unflappable placekicker, had not blown what would have been an easy field goal in the first half, when he errantly booted the ball right into the line -- then UGA would have still been behind after scoring their three fourth quarter TD's.

If Marshall had not missed on a 3rd-and-goal throw during the third quarter, when he threw low and behind the towering (and open) tight end C.J. Uzomah -- then UGA would have still been behind after scoring their three fourth quarter TD's.

Had both of those plays gone the way it looked like they would, UGA's final scoring drive would have started with them trailing 44-31 instead of 37-31 -- assuming they would have mounted their rally at all after opening the fourth quarter trailing by four touchdowns rather than three.

And about that play called the "Prayer at Jordan-Hare," very few commentators have bothered to mention that it was an excellent catch on the part of Louis. Yes, the ball deflected up off of the defenders, but when it did so it was behind Louis's back and travelling past his outside shoulder. It took tremendous wherewithal and concentration for him to look back against the momentum of his body, detect the ball, extend his left arm, and make the catch in merely a fraction of a second. It may have been a Hail Mary, but it was made to happen by his diligence and force of will, not by luck alone.

When you consider the way the game as a whole was played, the Hail Mary did not represent the outcome being swindled. It represented the outcome being steered back to what was proper.

Gonna be interesting
The eyes of the southeastern chunk of America, if not America as a whole, will be focused on the upcoming Iron Bowl because it is a winner-take-all showdown for the SEC West. However, those eyes should be focused just as sharply on the Missouri Tigers because both of their remaining games are, in a way, winner-take-all for the SEC East.

This will not be an easy pair of wins for the Tigers to pull off, for both opponents are ranked and both have a chip on their shoulder: Ole Miss has gotta be annoyed that the media is discounting the quality of their win over LSU and treating them like a middling team, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the only three teams to beat them have all spent part of the season in the Top Ten...while Texas A&M is frothing at the mouth to score a "signature win" before the season comes to a close, in order to assuage the sting of their only losses having been by slim margins to the apparent top two teams in the nation's number one conference.

Bring on Paul
In my last post, I observed that the Wisconsin-Minnesota battle for the Paul Bunyan Axe is America's longest running major rivalry. But I also threw some salt on "major" being an adjective for it when I pointed out that the two teams are never good at the same time.

Perhaps I should have said "except for this year." Don't look now, but the Golden Gophers are 8-2 and riding a four-game winning streak during which they have improved with each game while dropping double-digit defeats on Nebraska and Penn State.

I believe in my heart that Wisconsin is good enough beat any team in the Top Ten -- including Alabama -- on a given Saturday. I don't think that is true of Minnesota, but for the first time in living memory I believe they are capable of beating a few of those teams on a given Saturday. Their rivalry dates back to 1890, and when they kick off Saturday afternoon it will be the 123rd meeting between the two schools. I expect the Badgers to win -- with difficulty. And I intend to watch.

Remember when...
...all the pundits were saying that the SEC is weak this year? Not only was the claim wrong, it now seems to be hilariously wrong...Five of the top twelve teams in the BCS standings are from the conference, and with two weeks remaining in the regular season, there is a chance that four teams from the conference will finish with ten victories...The middle of the SEC has never been this strong, with Vanderbilt capable of beating anyone; Ole Miss on the verge of being a national power; and Mississippi State just two or three plays from having defeated both Alabama and Auburn, who right now are among the top six BCS squads...Traditional juggernauts Florida and Tennessee are slouching toward possible losing seasons, yet the SEC as a whole has not been this strong in half a decade, perhaps ever.

And without further ado...
...here is the Stanton's Space Top Twenty based on what has happened this season:

1.    Alabama
2.    Florida State
3.    Ohio State
4.    Baylor
5.    Auburn
6.    Missouri
7.    Oregon
8.    Clemson
9.    Stanford
10.  UCLA
11.  South Carolina
12.  Wisconsin
13.  Oklahoma State
14.  LSU
15.  Texas A&M
16.  USC
17.  Michigan State
18.  Northern Illinois
19.  Ole Miss
20.  Louisville

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Greatest Rivalry?

Saturday afternoon, Auburn and Georgia will face off before a crowd of more than 87,000 partisans, each of whom will be loud and proud -- and a few of television's talking heads will make passing reference to this game being "The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry."

I say: Why limit the designation to the Deep South, and why limit it to the category of oldest? I know this sounds like sacrilege coming from an Auburn grad who should probably think that no rivalry on Earth compares to Auburn-Alabama, but a very strong case can be made that Auburn-Georgia is the greatest rivalry, period, in all of college football.

On February 20, 1892, teams from the two schools battled in Atlanta's Piedmont Park, with Auburn prevailing by a score of 10-0. It was the first football game ever played south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and with the exception of the very next year, plus 1897, plus three seasons during which world wars interrupted the series (1917, 1918, and 1943), the schools have not missed a game since.

Auburn has played Georgia 39 more times than it has played Alabama. Georgia has played Auburn 25 more times than it has played Florida, and 9 more times than it has faced in-state rival Georgia Tech. You are starting to get the picture.

If you look at all of the major college rivalries in America, trying to find one that supersedes this one in terms of age and frequency, your search will be in vain. Auburn-Georgia began 5 years before Michigan-Ohio State and has been staged 8 times more. It is 8 years and 8 games longer than Texas-Oklahoma; 4 years and 6 games longer than Clemson-South Carolina; 37 years and 34 games longer than USC-UCLA; 66 years and 59 games longer than Florida-Florida State. Again, you are starting to get the picture.

Technically speaking, Michigan-Notre Dame is older, but the Wolverines and Irish have faced each other 75 fewer times than the Tigers and Dawgs. Admittedly, Texas and Texas A&M have played each other two times more than Auburn and Georgia, but the latter series is eight years older and the only reason the former claims more games is that the 'Horns and Aggies used to play each other twice per season.

Indiana-Purdue is one year older than AU-UGA, yet has one fewer game to show for it. Ditto for Army-Navy, a storied contest that has been played less times than AU-UGA despite getting a head start.

There is only one major-division rivalry that bests this one both in terms of how old it is and how many times it has been staged, and that is the annual clash between Wisconsin and Minnesota for the Paul Bunyan Axe. Those schools began locking horns two years prior to the first showdown between Auburn and Georgia, and they have battled one another six times more than Auburn and Georgia. But without meaning any disrespect to those schools, their rivalry just doesn't have the same impact.

Yes, Minnesota was a powerhouse back when FDR was president, and everyone knows Wisconsin has been racking up Rose Bowl appearances over the past twenty years. But it is unheard-of for those programs to be good at the same time. On the other hand, Auburn and Georgia have been fielding powerful teams for generations on end, and more often than not both of them are nationally ranked. You get the picture.

Then there is this: Despite the longevity of the series and frequency of its games, it is dead freakin' even. Auburn has won 54, Georgia has won 54, and there have been 8 ties. How you like them apples?

But what about passion and intensity? you ask.

Are you kidding me? I respond.

The enmity between Auburn and Alabama can not be understated, nor can the enmity between Georgia and Florida, but there is equally world class intensity (and yes, enmity) on display when these teams face each other. Auburn is a half-hour from the Georgia line and the schools are not much more than two hours apart, and therefore huge numbers of their students and recruits know one another. Say the word "Bulldogs" to every one of the Georgia natives I know from my Auburn days, and the tick they get in their eye and edge they get in their voice are every bit as pronounced as what they get when you say "Tide."

Sandee Foster is a great friend of mine and perhaps the most intense Auburn fan of all time. Her intensity has not lessened one iota in the years since we hung out and guzzled beer as students in the Loveliest Village on the Plains. She graduated from Springwood School in Lanett, Alabama, which is within Auburn's shadow but even closer to the Georgia line than Auburn is. She grew up in Chickamauga, Georgia before her family moved to Lanett, and has relatives who went to Georgia...Last Saturday, as Auburn's impressive win over Tennessee was entering its waning minutes, we got to discussing the coming Auburn-Georgia contest via text. Amongst our rambling, she sent me the following text: "U know that's my game I hate them"...She didn't say she hates Georgia more than she hates Bama, but you get the picture.

I do not know what will happen Saturday afternoon. I do know that my beloved Tigers need to get their mojo back in this series, since the Bulldogs have won six of the last seven and have pulled even in the lifetime count...I also know that I am extremely nervous about the fact that Vegas oddsmakers have defied conventional wisdom by making Auburn a slim favorite and seeming to invite people to bet their mortgage on them...And I know that you absolutely should watch. You will love it even if you have no rooting interest whatsoever.

But most importantly, I know that this very-evenly-matched, extremely-well-played rivalry represents everything that is good about college sports. Other rivalries might equal it, but I dare you to name one that surpasses it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Eleven Weeks In

And then there were...
...three? four? how many undefeated teams are there again? and why was everyone hyperventilating to begin with?

Oregon lost on Thursday night, removing them from the ranks of the unbeaten and presumably from the ranks of national title contenders. That would seem to make the national title picture much clearer, but of course everyone has simply shifted to putting most of their what if focus on Ohio State -- and if/when those Buckeyes lose, or Alabama or Florida State loses, that focus will just get shifted to Baylor (unless they too lose by then, which the odds say they will).

Every single season, large swaths of the media and even larger swaths of America's fandom gets swept up wondering what will happen if X number of teams finish undefeated. The teams in question are always identified and just about everybody getting swept up is sure -- sure! -- that a surplus of teams will end the season without a loss and thus at least one of them will be screwed by those damn computers and goddamn pollsters. But their certainty is not backed up by facts, because it is exceedingly rare for more than two teams to end the season undefeated, especially if you eliminate minor conferences like the MAC and WAC from consideration. And only three of the last ten national champions had undefeated seasons.

All I am saying is this: Everyone stop yapping and stop counting unhatched chickens. Just enjoy the ride because it usually works itself out, and usually works itself out fairly. Which is, after all, the reason they play the games. And remember that I say this as someone whose alma mater (Auburn) can make a legitimate case for having been screwed by "the system" twice since I graduated (1993 and 2004) and once when I was in middle school (1983).

Speaking of Auburn
I gotta praise my team when they deserve it. Sure, this year's Tennessee squad is nowhere near as good as the ones that usually took the field when the Vols were coached by the likes of Neyland, Majors, and Fulmer. But when you throw only 7 passes and still score 55 points, that is freaking awesome even if Reggie White and Carl Pickens aren't lined up on the other side.

Throw in the fact that those 55 points are the most ever scored against the Vols in Knoxville...and that Auburn rolled up 444 yards rushing while its offensive line had zero holding penalties...and that Auburn's special teams accounted for 312 return yards and two touchdowns, one of which came on the school's longest punt return in 43 years...well, you gotta admit Saturday's win was a significant one for my Tigers!

Speaking of Baylor
Count me guilty. I am one of those who had the Bears highly ranked based on how the season was playing out, but who suspected they were not good enough to sustain their success through season's end. Interestingly, the main reason for my suspicion was that they were scoring so many points. When I see a team routinely put 60 to 70 points on the board, I instinctively believe they are one of those high-falutin' zipadee-doo-dah squads that performs well against weak competition but has no clue how to play defense and is sure to wilt as soon as they face an opponent who punches back.

Well, Baylor proved me wrong in their 41-12 pasting of Oklahoma. Their offense was inept for most of the first half and Oklahoma was in position to open a huge lead -- but Baylor's defense slammed the door on Oklahoma in masculine fashion, so that it was all she wrote when their offense finally started scoring.

That got me to looking at statistics, and I learned that Baylor is surrendering less than 16 points per game despite playing with the kind of huge leads that often result in opponents racking up garbage points late in games. Turns out we shouldn't have forgotten that defensive studs like Mike Singletary and Santana Dotson accounted for most of the school's noteworthy football products up until RGIII won the Heisman in 2011.

And without further ado...
...here is the Stanton's Space Top Twenty:

1.    Alabama
2.    Florida State
3.    Ohio State
4.    Baylor
5.    Stanford
6.    Auburn
7.    Missouri
8.    Oregon
9.    UCLA
10.  Clemson
11.  South Carolina
12.  Wisconsin
13.  Oklahoma State
14.  LSU
15.  Texas A&M
16.  Central Florida
17.  Northern Illinois
18.  Ole Miss
19.  Louisville
20.  Georgia

Friday, November 8, 2013

Now we can...

...talk about the so-called Heisman Trophy race and feel like it is actually time to be doing so.

I have been out of town a good chunk of the last few weeks and decided not to spend my home time wiling away on the computer. Which explains why I haven't published anything in a while. Tonight, however, I am in the mood to sort through my two cents about the Heisman candidates at the same time I am watching one of them take some lumps on TV.

Like most everyone else in America, I think there are three evenly matched horses in this year's race, and I think nobody outside of those three has a chance. They are all quarterbacks and here are my thoughts about them:

Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Right now his Ducks are trailing Stanford 20-0 early in the third quarter. But of course, it is not his fault that a receiver fumbled yards from the goal line, nor is it his fault that the Ducks' defense can not stop Stanford from eating the clock with long, time-consuming, run-dominated drives.

The bottom line is that we are two-thirds of the way through the season and Mariota still hasn't thrown an interception while leading his team to an 8-0 record and #2 national ranking. He has completed 64 percent of his passes, is averaging more than 10 yards per attempt, and has accounted for 29 touchdowns (20 passing and 9 rushing). And those stats are in spite of the fact that Mariota often sits in the second half because his team is so far ahead.

The knock on Mariota is that he has played a weaker schedule than the next two players I am about to name. The upside is that he can make up for that because the remainder of Oregon's schedule is tougher than it has been so far.

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
The defending Heisman winner has had a spectacular season, so why shouldn't he repeat? In many ways he has played even better than he did last year despite the fact that everyone is gunning for him with a passion, and in my opinion this says something very positive about his focus and character -- two traits that are supposed to be extremely important to Heisman voters.

Manziel's 72.5 completion percentage and 26 touchdown passes surpass everyone on this list, and his 10.39 yards per attempt is a full quarter-yard better than Mariota's. On top of that Manziel has 8 rushing TD's and averages more than 66 yards per game on the ground. But perhaps most importantly, he led his Aggies to 42 points against Alabama -- a team that has yielded only 36 points to its other seven opponents combined. The Aggies are 7-2 and nationally ranked, but if he was not on their roster they would probably be no better than 3-6

How can he not be the leading contender? I want to scream. But there is no denying this detraction: He threw a pair of picks in each of A&M's two losses; and in both of those games, the picks led to more points that the eventual margins of defeat.

Jameis Winston, Florida State
No freshman QB has stormed the sporting world and captured America's attention this way since -- well, since last year, when Manziel's ad libbing and precision passing and Tarkentonesque scrambles resulted in him being the first-ever frosh to win the Heisman.

Now, in 2013, Jameis Winston's is burning through record books and opposing defenses while making practically no mistakes whatsoever. He has thrown for 24 TD's against only 6 INT's. His yards per attempt is an eye-popping 11.8, which exceeds by more than a full yard either Manziel's or Mariota's. Winston's 51-14 evisceration of then-#3 Clemson a few weeks back was arguably the greatest quarterbacking performance since Ty Detmer single-handedly led BYU over Miami 22 years ago -- a performance which led directly to Detmer winning the 1991 Heisman.

The argument against Winston is that he has not played against the same caliber defenses that Manziel has faced in the SEC, or that Mariota has faced in the Pac-12. But that argument is somewhat thin because your average ACC defense this season is not far behind this season's average SEC or Pac-12 defense, and may be on par. And when you look at his maestro performance against Clemson, and remember that Clemson's defense was highly touted and has played very strong in every other game  -- who cares?

So what do I think? 

I believe Mariota deserves to be considered, but I also believe he is the third best of this trio. Between Manziel and Winston, I believe Manziel should be considered the most valuable player to his team, but I also believe Winston gets the nod for best player in the country. This is largely because of Manziel's interceptions against Alabama and Auburn that I mentioned were the only detractions on his resume.

And perhaps most importantly, I feel compelled to mention that Winston gets my nod only by a hair -- and that a third of the season is left to play, which means that right now my nod is very tentative indeed.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eight Weeks In

So it wasn't last weekend, but this weekend -- i.e., the one that wrapped up yesterday -- that will probably go down as this season's Upset Saturday/Weekend of Chaos.

But none of the upheaval affected the national championship picture. It was already known that the Florida State-Clemson clash would eliminate one of those teams, and all of the much-written-about upsets involved teams that were not serious contenders for the national title.

I could rattle on about all kinds of things. I am tempted to gush about how proud I am of my Auburn Tigers in the wake of their huge win over Texas A&M. Instead I will simply wish a respectful RIP to former Washington coach Don James, and offer up my Top Twenty based on what has happened up to now:

1.    Alabama
2.    Oregon
3.    Florida State
4.    Missouri
5.    Ohio State
6.    Baylor
7.    Stanford
8.    Miami
9.    Texas Tech
10.  UCLA
11.  Clemson
12.  LSU
13.  Auburn
14.  Central Florida
15.  Texas A&M
16.  Wisconsin
17.  Louisville
18.  Virginia Tech
19.  Utah
20.  Georgia

Yes, that's Georgia, still in my "rankings," if you will. They've had a rough couple weeks, but we all know that an unprecedented slew of injuries beyond their control is a major reason for that. If they lose to Florida in their next game I will drop them out, but otherwise I will give them the respect they are due for having played three Top Ten teams (something no one else has done) and beaten two of them (which is something else no one else has done).

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Seven Weeks In

Every college football season has at least one Saturday where several big upsets cause turmoil in the polls. Although the word "turmoil" is hyperbolic when describing the impact of yesterday's upsets, it does appear that yesterday might count as 2013's "Upset Saturday."

No one saw Utah beating Stanford, though in hindsight, perhaps some us should have. The Utes are a solid team that nearly beat 5-0 UCLA, and this game was on their home field one week after Stanford's nationally hyped and tightly contested battle against 16th-ranked Washington. In other words, for Stanford this was a textbook example of a trap game, and the trap ensnared them.

Even more surprising, however, was Oklahoma's inability to prevail in the Red River Shootout. Texas was circling the drain, Mack Brown's coaching acumen was assumed to have long since taken its leave, and the Sooners were starting to look like a don't-mess-with-'em bunch of overachievers who stood out in stark contrast to the underachieving Longhorns. But then they got run off of the Cotton Bowl turf by a team that was imminently beatable. To lose like that when the beatable underachievers are your biggest rival is 100% unacceptable, and the Sooners deserve to be ejected from the rankings for it. With extreme prejudice.

Northwestern losing to Wisconsin -- one week after Northwestern narrowly fell to Ohio State, and when Wisconsin was playing at home with its back to the wall -- certainly does not count as an upset even with Northwestern being the ranked team going in. What is a surprise is that the Badgers made it look easy and blew Northwestern away by 29 points. The Badgers proved that they are clearly one of America's best twenty teams.

We are now at the point in the season where keeping a week-to-week Top 20 or 25 becomes increasingly difficult. The wear and tear of the season takes its toll on every team, so the open question is always how far should you drop a good team after they lose a game; and on the flip side, how do you bring an unranked team into the rankings if none of the ranked teams did something that makes them deserving of dropping out?

You have to place weight on all of the circumstances, which include strength of schedule up to now; the quality of the opponent a team just played versus who they played the week before (see Stanford above); the nature of the injuries they are coping with, and how they are coping with them; whether the game in question was at home or away, etc.

Going back to the "see Stanford above" example, a very big part of me believes Utah deserves to be ranked, especially when you consider that they too were coming off a big game going into yesterday's contest. But who should I remove from my Top 20 after having already done away with Oklahoma and Northwestern?

I thought about making room for Utah (or Texas Tech) by removing my own alma mater, Auburn, because Auburn's win yesterday was against one of the worst teams in the FCS -- but then again, why penalize my Tigers when that was their first gimme opponent of the year, and when they have a better record that Utah, and when they play in the acknowledged toughest conference in America, and when nothing that earned them entree to the Top Twenty a week ago changed yesterday?

Auburn plays #10 Texas A&M this coming Saturday, and if they lose then, that might be a reason to drop them. But then again, it might not. Since logic says the #20 team should lose to the #10 team in the latter's stadium, why drop #20 lower? If #10 defeats #20, doesn't that usually do more to confirm their respective rankings than it does to change them?

Anyway, I am rambling and who wants to read rambling? I will be out of town this coming weekend so I don't know if I will post any predictions this week, nor do I know if I will post any rankings until two weeks from now. But here is the Stanton's Space Top Twenty based on what has happened through this season's first seven weeks:

1.    Alabama
2.    Oregon
3.    Clemson
4.    Ohio State
5.    Louisville
6.    Florida State
7.    Missouri
8.    UCLA
9.    LSU
10.  Texas A&M
11.  Baylor
12.  Miami
13.  Stanford
14.  Georgia
15.  South Carolina
16.  Wisconsin
17.  Washington
18.  Virginia Tech
19.  Florida
20.  Auburn

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More predictions

Week Seven is one of those that features a number of college football's most intense mid-season rivalries. Here are my thoughts on how that troika will play out, along with some history about each:

Oklahoma vs. Texas
This is by far the most storied of the rivalries that will be on display Saturday. Oklahoma and Texas have faced each other in 107 of the last 113 seasons, and ever since 1932 their game has been held midway between the campuses, in Dallas's Cotton Bowl Stadium, while the Texas State Fair takes place outside the stadium walls. The two schools have accounted for 11 national championships and 76 conference championships while producing 128 consensus All-Americans. Where the sport's most prestigious individual honors are concerned, Oklahoma and Texas claim seven Hesiman winners, eight Outland Trophy winners, and five recipients of the Dick Butkus Award.

As it turns out, however, this year's edition of the Red River Shootout is the most likely rivalry game to be a dud this weekend. Texas has lost the last two in the series by a combined score of 118-38, and this year it is fielding a squad even worse than the ones that were on the receiving end of those whippings. On the other hand, Oklahoma enters the game 5-0 and brimming with more talent, character, and confidence than the boys in burnt orange -- a fact that will be reflected in the outcome. Sooners 32-16

Oregon at Washington
In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Washington bestrode the Pac-10 and won a national title. While Oregon did start to improve during that period, its program remained known for mediocrity and it was a mere shell compared to the one north of the state line.

Then came 1994, when Oregon DB Kenny Wheaton intercepted an out pass by Damon Huard and ran 97 yards to the end zone. It was not until player reactions to that play appeared on TV screens that the rest of America realized how much animosity flows between these schools.

Wheaton's pick-six not only defeated the heavily favored Huskies, it propelled the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl in 37 years and foreshadowed a wholesale changing of the guard in the Northwest. Since that play, Oregon has won four outright conference championships and two co-championships and come within four points of being the 2010 national champions. Meanwhile, Washington has not won a single outright conference title, and of the two co-championships it has managed to record, the last was 14 years ago. The Ducks have won 14 of 18 in the series since the pick-six, including the last nine in a row, compared to having lost five straight and 17 of the previous 20 before the pick-six.

This year Washington's pendulum has swung back to a position of strength, which is good for Husky fans, and Orgeon's has not swung away from its position of strength, which is good for Duck fans. Washington is the first real test Oregon has faced, and with this game taking place in Husky Stadium I expect them to drag the Ducks into deep waters they have yet to tread -- which is to say, I expect the outcome to be in doubt when the fourth quarter starts. I also expect this year's Oregon team to be more like 2010's (which eeked out a 15-13 win against California in its first test) than 2012's (which fell to Stanford by a score of 17-14 the first time it was tested). My mind sees a late touchdown being the difference and the final score being Ducks 38-33

Florida at LSU
Though it hasn't featured the same kind of oomph as the annual tilt between Auburn and LSU, this cross-divisional SEC battle is a longstanding bellwether in which the stakes are always high and the crowds are always in a tizzy. In one stretch during the previous decade, there were three consecutive years in which the winner of this game went on to win the national title.

This is how SI's Andy Staples sums up Saturday's meeting: "Now, we finally get to see if the entire SEC has shifted into a high-scoring, pitch-and-catch league. Florida's defense has held 13 consecutive conference opponents to 21 points or fewer. The Tigers have gained more than 400 yards in each of their first six games for the first time in school history."

But it would be shortsighted to look at this game simply as a match-up between the Gator defense and Tiger offense, for on the other side of the ball, a Gator offense with few playmakers will be going up against a Tiger defense that is far from chopped liver and is hungry to prove its worth.

I would give a slight edge to LSU on a neutral field, and since Saturday's game will be on its own turf you can expect them to prevail. Though not by much. I predict this to be the kind of slugfest that will bring smiles to the faces of purists like Staples and myself. Tigers 21-17

There are two other intriguing games this weekend that don't count as rivalries, and as a bonus, here are my thoughts about those:

Missouri at Georgia
Georgia's season has been nothing short of remarkable, with them facing three Top Ten teams and their only loss in those contests coming on the road, by three points, in the season opener, in a game in which eight of their defensive players were making their first career start. Usually I would pencil this in as a sure win for the Bulldogs, but lately they have been bitten not so much by an injury bug as by an injury shark.

By the end of last week's game against Tennessee, Georgia's top three receivers and top two running backs were out with injury. Of those five, only one (RB Todd Gurley) might play on Saturday, and even if he does, he won't be 100 percent. This wholesale loss of offensive talent is particularly troubling when you consider that Georgia's defense has been its weak link and Missouri's offense is one of the most potent in the country. Absent the injuries I would expect Georgia to win, and probably by a fair margin, but with the injuries my prediction is: Tigers 30-23

Northwestern at Wisconsin
Northwestern came within six or seven inches of beating Ohio State and putting themselves in the national championship race. They are undoubtedly one of the top fifteen teams in the country.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is far and away the best two-loss team in America.

Unfortunately for Northwestern, they are facing a wounded predator on its home turf and the old adage is true: A wounded predator is the most dangerous. Badgers 33-30