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... 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... 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... 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... 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.