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.