Saturday, January 29, 2011

Recruiting: SEC to get richer but when's enough, enough?

Wednesday, Feb. 2, is perhaps the most underrated day on the college football calendar. It's Signing Day, when high school kids announce their college choices, sign on the dotted line, and don the hats.

No other college football moment is so drenched in anticipation and promise. No other moment so satiates the reptilian part of our brains.

Within minutes of the last confetti strand hitting the turf in Auburn's national championship win over Oregon, a great wave of energy washed across millions and millions of computer screens as football fans turned their full attention to recruiting. It grows by the year, and the appeal is almost bestial. There are a certain number of great kids. We all know them. We all want them. When we get them, you can't have them. We get to play Alpha Wolf. We eat first. Everybody else waits.

Of course, there are packs within the packs. The SEC will dominate every "expert's" list of top-ranked recruiting classes. And conference teams are still fighting over some of the top kids who will wait until Wednesday -- or beyond -- to announce their college decisions. Georgia and Alabama are waiting on running back Isaiah Crowell; Florida and LSU (along with FSU) are still in the mix for defensive lineman Tim Jernigan; Cyrus Kouandjio, the country's top offensive prep lineman, has Auburn and Alabama is his final three.

And then there's the big one: the country's top-ranked player, Jadeveon Clowney of Rock Hill, is mulling over a final two of Alabama and his home-state USC Gamecocks. As of now, Clowney will wait until Valentine's Day, his 18th birthday, to announce his choice.

Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Auburn are all primed for trophy-fish classes (among ACC schools: FSU, in another sign that it has risen from the grave where Bobby Bowden had buried it, has a monster list of recruits and may get even more.)

Which brings us to this: Colleges can have no more than 85 players on scholarship at any given time. This causes a rub with the SEC, which allows schools to sign 28 kids every year (though there are common practices to sidestep that number and bring in even more.) So when a team signs up a full boat, someone on scholarship has to leave for schools to stay under the NCAA cap.

Football, as we all know, is filled with attrition: grades, discipline problems, homesickness, injuries -- along with the Great Awakening many kids go through when they discover they don't like football nearly as much when they're not the biggest and meanest player on the field any longer.

Still, other kids lose their scholarships simply because their coaches believe they aren't good enough to get in the way of the rush of unproven talent that signs up every February. It's a practice, as Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News puts it, that's more business model than collegiate opportunity.

The SEC teams, on average, sign a ridiculously higher number of players than most of their rivals across the country. It gives schools an unquestioned advantage over teams from the Big 10 or the ACC. Why the NCAA has refused to standardize signing practices is one of the growing number of mysteries surrounding the erstwhile managing body of collegiate sports.

Is oversigning a bit unseemly? Is it in keeping with a university's mission? Is it any different than tenure tracks and competitive scholarships for dance, theater or research? We can debate the practice through Wednesday or beyond.

At the very least, we should keep in mind that when all that promise arrives at our schools' gates, someone who somehow lost that promise has to go home.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Not so 'Little Nicky' enters the draft; in our minds he's going to Carolina

Nick Fairley, the co-MVP of Auburn's national championship team, is going out on a high note.

The nation's top lineman announced this afternoon that he will enter the NFL draft. Fairley is one of a handful of prospects -- most from the SEC -- competing for the No. 1 draft pick of your Carolina Panthers. Read more here

Fairley brutalized quarterbacks and ball carriers -- sometimes beyond the bounds of fair play -- throughout Auburn's unbeaten season. His size, speed and aggressiveness undoubtedly make him an attractive pick to a lot of NFL teams, and he is expected to be the first lineman drafted.

Auburn faces quite the off season. It loses more than 20 seniors along with Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton who, like Fairley, is leaving a year early. The NCAA continues to investigate Newton's recruitment.

In fact, Fairley's aggressiveness and the cloud of scandal hanging over Newton made Auburn the most controversial team in college football, as well as the best.


Cam says buh-bye; Fairley next? SEC opponents break out in sweet, sweet song

The amazing one-year saga of Cam Newton came to end Thursday with the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback of Auburn's national championship run, says he'll play for money next year . . .

(OK, that was cheap, I admit it, but all those compliments from the Auburn guys gave me vertigo. The universe must be righted!)

Newton, whose play overshadowed the ongoing investigation into his SEC recruitment, is one of two juniors who helped turn the Tigers from an SEC mid-level performer to the nation's best team. Nick Fairley, Newton's teammate and possibly the top pick in the NFL draft this summer, is expected to announce his plans today.

Newton wasn't at his best against Oregon in Monday's championship game, but he deserves a toilet paper statue at Toomer's Corner for helping his team overcome a 24-0 deficit in Tuscaloosa, perhaps the greatest comeback in Auburn's long football history.

Fans from Georgia, LSU, South Carolina have all volunteered to help Newton pack. Read here.

Mr. College Football has LSU and Alabama in his 2011 Top 5 but picks Oklahoma to win

Another columnist, another opinion on a college football season that's eight months away. Still, Tony Barnhart of the AJC and CBS is to be respected, so his Top 5 list gets a look here.

Soon, the SEC streak has to end, and Barnhart, an SEC guy, thinks 2011 could be the year. His top 2: Oklahoma and Oregon. Both play bigtime offensive football in leagues that don't play much defense. In the past, when teams like these burn through the regular season and meet an SEC defense, the results have been predictable. (Exhibit I, your honor, the last five championship games.)

The top two SEC teams in Barnhart's list, LSU and Alabama, both will have staunch defenses the coming season. Both have big questions to answer, and given the SEC, neither is guaranteed to get out of conference play alive. But if both get good quarterback play, they could be the best two teams in the country.

Funny to see an ACC team on the list. In fact, we're trying not to laugh so loud to wake up Mrs. EXPATS. Florida State is on the rise, head coach Jimbo Fisher is recruiting harder than an Amway exec, and his team did beat two Florida and South Carolina last year. Still, the Noles are breaking in a new quarterback and most of their offensive line.

And with the merciless gantlet FSU faces every year in the ACC . . .

Read on.

Update: Here's Barnhart's review of the season, which just appeared on the AJC's website.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A pre-2011 reading assignment: Predictions, Tarkenton and oversigning players

In the three weeks we have until National Signing Day and the two months or so before spring practice rolls around, let's catch up with a little reading.

First, AJC Columnist Mark Bradley offers his 2011 SEC predictions. No surprises at the top: The two best teams are in the West and are LSU and Alabama.

Two things to watch here. Both teams are scarily deep with talent. But LSU has its quarterback. Alabama must find one. Possibly mitigating that edge is Alabama's home field advantage when the two teams meet next November.

Other Bradley predictions:

Teams on the rise: Tennessee, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Arkansas. Teams on a decline: Ole Miss, Auburn (not so fast, my friend) Florida. Teams in limbo: Georgia. Teams in a stupor: Vandy, Kentucky and Ole Miss.

Speaking of the Dawgs, this is a few days old now, but if you haven't heard it, take a couple of minutes to hear UGA alum Fran Tarkenton's thoughts on Mark Richt and the state of the Georgia program. It easily would qualify as a rant, if it didn't ring so true. Georgia fans chime in, if you please.

Finally, with National Signing Day three weeks off, a note on recruiting.

In his post-BCS Championship column on the SEC's fifth straight title, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated pointed out that the conference has a clear advantage over other teams because of its practice of oversigning players. NCAA teams are allowed to have 85 kids on scholarship. The SEC caps the number of signings at 28 a year. Do the math: That means teams like Florida, Alabama, LSU and Auburn bring in a lot more players every year than most of their nonconference peers. But to make the numbers work, older players on the roster have to go away. (Staples' SI colleague, Stewart Mandel, has more abut the subject here.)

In the case of the championship game, Auburn had signed 19 more players over the four-year recruiting cycle than Oregon. In fact, in the top-tier bowl games, the SEC had signed dozens of more players than their opponents.

Is that an advantage? Certainly. Interesting to point out that among the SEC's traditional football powers, only Georgia doesn't adhere to the practice, and look where the Dogs have fallen.

Granted, on the academic side, kids lose scholarships if they don't keep their grades, or they don't continue to excel as musicians or dancers or burgeoning scientists. Faculty members disappear if they're denied tenure.

Still, the NCAA should do what it can to instill a standard policy. Until it does, our pride in the SEC's accomplishments can only go so far.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

First the BCS, now Survivor: It's an Auburn world

If you didn't get enough of Cam Newton's smile, Nick Fairley's pile drives or Trooper Taylor's chest bumps and backward hat, you're living in the right times.

"Survivor," Popular Culture's most enduring human test-tube, offers a new lab specimen, and she's all Auburn. Suffice to say, she's all in.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

As The Hat turns: Les Miles returning to LSU

Word is breaking out all over this morning that the grass in Michigan doesn't necessarily taste better for Les Miles after all.

The LSU coach, who spent a roller-coaster year on the bayou, apparently will stay in Baton Rouge. The announcement comes after Miles sent out more hints than a 16-year-old without a prom date that he would return to his alma mater if offered the job.

LSU went 11-2 under Miles this year, then body-slammed Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. The Tigers are one of the favorites for the 2011 SEC crown, automatically putting them in the BCS conversation as the SEC goes after its sixth national championship in a row.

Fear the thumb! Fear the Hat?


Despite claims to the contrary, Daddy Newton apparently pops up at championship game

It wouldn't be news, but Auburn made it so -- as did Brent Musburger and the ESPN crew: Cecil Newton, they all said, would not be at the BCS Championship Game. The reason: Let's just say all parties agreed it would be better if the father stayed away. Musburger said the elder Newton, at the center of a pay-for-play controversy involving his son, would watch the game at a Phoenix bar.

Lo and behold . . .

And this from Thayer Evans' one-man crusade against Auburn and The Newtons.

Season and BCS Wrap-up: A weird and chaotic season comes down to a weird and chaotic play

Pat Forde of ESPN gives his thoughts. Punch here.

Crystal clear

Monday, January 10, 2011

EXPATS going Live on the BCS championship game . . .

You didn't ask for it. You may not even want it. But that's the great thing about the Web, we don't have to care. We'll be streaming live from the BCS Championship game.

Join us. Your humble scribe here is in a wonderful place, a state of grace. He doesn't give a hoot who wins. So I'll let it rip on the ebb and flows while I figure out if I can actually pull for Auburn, an unnatural act I last performed my freshman year in college.

But then an Auburn guy almost pushed me off a third-story balcony when he learned I went to school in Tuscaloosa, and the aftermath of Auburn's miraculous 17-16 win in '72 -- the Year of Rotting Teeth, I like to call it -- sealed it. Gridiron bi-partisanship and I parted ways.

Which brings us back to tonight. I admit openly that I despise Auburn. But I don't despise this team. What they did in Tuscaloosa, though it removed the nails of my thumbs and big toes, was an extraordinary thing to watch. And Auburn, despite all is right and fair, is still part of the SEC.

Do I think they're shady? Yes. Do I think they're crass? By all means. But they are home. And home still tugs at my blackened heart.

This is troubling, these almost human responses my lizard brain are having toward the Tigers. Still, as kickoff approaches, I carry a Swiss flag.

See you in a few minutes.


8:15: Tomlinson just texted me. He says he's pulling for the Oregon cheerleaders.

A moment later my twin brother sends in his two cents: "I hate them" his message said.

I do, too, I wrote back. "But I may pull for them anyway."

His response: ??

I tried to explain: The Ducks can be real punks.

A minute later my phone croaked with his reply. "I'll reserve judgment," he wrote back. "AU scores pretty high on the punk meter."

I couldn't argue. So this may decide it. In the biggest game of the year, can I find a team that doesn't want to make me puke?

8:20It's an SEC world, isn't it? Auburn in the game; four wins in a row and now Saban and Meyer on ESPN breaking it down. They're both very good, but Nick Saban's presence on the ESPN podium must grate the hell out of Auburn. Relax, y'all. The TV gig is temporary. But Nick will be back plotting how to beat you next November.

In the meantime, God Bless America -- and all the victims of the weekend shootings. I wish public discourse in America had as clear set of rules as this football game.

8:23 Nick at Night: Saban wonders aloud if Auburn's big people -- you know who you are, Nick Fairley -- can play at Oregon's pace. Still, he and the other SEC guy pick Auburn. Desmond Howard orders the Duck.

8:25: Bald eagle gets a roar at the stadium. My wife and I saw four of them on a walk along the Catawba River on Sunday. Auburn must think it's a portent. Can Auburn fans spell portent?

8:28: The Ducks appear and their uniforms are, for Oregon, generic. Oh, god, I just saw the shoes. I take it all back. They look like they've been wading in radioactive Oregon duck poop.

Now we turn to The Auburn Family -- and Musburger's first comments about Auburn is a hosanna to Cam Newton's smile. My brother just texted in: "Like I said, I hate them . . . deeply."

It's time.

Lee Corso has presented the coin. He is not wearing a Duck or a Tiger head. Ducks get the ball. Josh Bynes looks like he has a plate of Duck tar-tar in front of him. Chizik looks ready. 5-19 to this. Only in America. Only at Auburn.

8:35 Cam is doing his sissy dance on the sideline. But this looks like it will be a war. Here we go.

And, oh that's a surprise, first play and the pushing and jawing starts immediately. An Auburn player is down, and the Oregon crowd boos, as if Auburn would take a dive on the first play to slow down the Duck offense. Early punk points: Oregon.

That Bud light commercial just came on, you know where the beautiful aliens come down and collect all the guys to mate, and their wives and girlfriends act as if they're happy to see them go. Sorry, the guys are getting the best of that deal.

8:44: Oregon, let's see what you got. QB makes a nice little pass, followed by as stupid a pitch as you'd ever see. First down becomes third down, and now fourth. Quickest three and out we've seen this year. Followed by a shank. Auburn starts the game outside of the 40.

8:45 Boom. We have liftoff. Auburn for 15. And then we have a blast. Cam goes down like a tree. Third and 17, and Cam puts the ball right on Darvin Adams' fingertips. Oregon takes it back, and it feels meaningful.

For the second time, the Duck return guy slips. "Sue Phil Knight," my brother texts.

9:49 Mr. Thomas meet Mr. Fairley. Two yard loss. But chunks of this turf are flying around like the players. Not as fast as LaMichael James, though. Quite the burst on that screen play.

Oregon's plays are being pushed wide, and when they are, Auburn is making the tackles.

First turnover, a dump pass was badly thrown, leading to a tip, leading to an interception, leading to another commercial. Everybody seems to have been making money this college football season. Why stop now?

8:55: Auburn's second possession. Both teams play-calling reminds me of an ice-dancing routine, except the Duck shoes are brighter than sequins. It's all very pretty and stuff, but somebody needs to knock somebody on the ground. And Cam Newton just threw the worst pass I've seen him throw all year -- a bullet that hit the Duck DB like he had a target on his chest. Oregon at midfield.

Third and 5, and I don't know how James picked it up. He did. Big change of momentum there. James takes a short pass for another first. Oregon paring down all the hijinks. Boy they run these plays in a hurry.

Oregon continues to let the Auburn line come in, then drop the ball over them in front of the linebackers. Fairley just put a stop on that. He planted Thomas who threw too quickly: Another pick. Auburn's got it back. Fairley is an animal, and I mean more than half of that as a compliment. Could he be the Panthers' No. 1 pick?

Newton had all day on second down, 12 yard pass to Adams. Too easy.

Seven yards on first, but Newton is leveled. 3 and 5: Quarterback draw and 24 Oregon players are waiting. Fourth down. We have a switch of field position. Oregon takes over at its 28. Auburn has 21 yards of offense. Patience, America, we in the SEC have seen this charade before.

9:07: Like we just said, Auburn has 21 yards. Oregon has 4 first downs and two turnovers. Make that five. James again, then a missed tackle on a Thomas pass and Oregon is back in Auburn land. Oregon picking up rhythm. Auburn looking a little gassed for the first time. An Auburn lineman can't get off the field. Another Duck first down. First and goal, and boom, Michael Goggans gets four of the yards back. Second and 14. The last play of the first half: Auburn's secondary caught napping, perhaps REM sleeping. An uncovered Duck receiver reaches the 4.

That's it. We have one in the book, and the Ugly Yellow Shoes have found their footing first.

Quarter II We have a 3 and 2. First really big play of the game. And there's Fairley again, putting 300 pounds of blue sod on the Oregon QB. Oregon breaks up the no-hitter: It's 3-0 Ducks.

9:18: Kickoff. Oregon is awfully quick. Auburn didn't have a chance to reach the 20. Michael Dyer makes his debut and gets five. Newton's pass gets a first down. And here comes Dyer again. He gets 11. Zachary on the quick out, gets 12 more. Auburn looks like Auburn, at last.

Another Newton thrust into traffic. Adams bails him out with a fine catch. It gains 9. And then Newton makes the play of the game. The turf gives way, Newton twists and turns and contorts and manages to find a receiver for a first down. The receiver also slips. Six weeks between games and you think you can grow some grass.

Newton seems to slip again and his long pass down the sideline is picked off. Or is it. Play under review. I question whether they can overturn the call of an incomplete pass. I question a lot of things. Doesn't mean I'm right. This time I am. Auburn's ball. And now Oregon plays hide-n-seek. Kodi Burns is wide open and makes the most of it. Gotta love that kid. 5-star quarterback who gets benched. He doesn't sulk. He doesn't transfer. He doesn't call a press conference. He becomes a receiver. And he just scored a touchdown in the biggest game of his life. 7-3 Auburn.

9:27: Enough cute. Oregon tries a reverse and gets nailed inside the 10. What does Herbie say: Oregon is too cute. And now their yellow shoes are backed up to Auburn's orange pom-poms.

Perfect time for Auburn's bonehead secondary to make its presence felt. Nico Thorpe, burned again, gives up an 81-yard reception to a kid who looks like he should be playing in The Game, the Harvard-Yale Game.

3rd and 6: An Oregon lineman is on the ground, and now the Auburn crowd is booing. This game has become fun in a big hurry. And just as quickly, a misdirection screen pass to James and he walks in. Touchdown Oregon. Adding a mound of salt to the wound, a trick two-point conversion with the holder pitching to the kicker. 11-7, UO And an indefensible defensive showing by the Tigers.

Auburn ball: Another big throw for Newton on third down, and Auburn is back across midfield. Newton hasn't found any room to run, but he's playing patiently. 3rd and 4, and another Newton rope to Zachary. First down, AU.

Hello Cam: Hit in the backfield on a third and 2, he jammed an Oregon defender four yards down the field. First down, great open-field tackle to keep Cam's scramble at 3. On second down, Dyer slips. I thought it was a DRY heat out there. Auburn inside the 20, but 3rd and 8. And Mario Fanning, wait for it, puts the ball on the ground. He's bailed out: Oregon offside. 3rd and 3.

Tight shot of Newton. He looks perfectly calm.

Cue to Musburger: Cecil Newton makes his debut. Brent mentions the $180K and Cam's one-day suspension, and Cecil's in town but not at the stadium. Meanwhile back to our amateur hour: Cam gets 3. First down. Newton to Zachary: Auburn at the 2. Dyer stacked up. Let the big guy do it. He does and he's stopped outside the 1. Auburn is going.

And Auburn chokes. In fact, Cam does. Forget that earlier post. This is the worst pass Newton has thrown in his life. Wide open receiver and the Heisman guy short-arms the pass. Oregon dodges a sure TD. "They're making plays we haven't seen them make all year," my brother tells me. "But I hate 'em. I try to pull for them. Then I see Trooper Taylor on the sideline and it's all for naught."

In a lovely home off Providence Road, Peter and Courtney St. Onge just gasped.

Oregon ball: Momentarily. James snuffed for a safety. It's 11-9. Washington slips on the return. Auburn -- I almost typed 'we,' that was really creepy -- has the ball at the 34.

Auburn begins driving again. A pass and two runs by Dyer gain 20. Blake for 9 on a swing pass. Dyer to the 30. Auburn has a real flow on the last two drives. 2 minutes to go. And Auburn is back in the end zone. Newton doesn't short-arm it this time. Blake for 30, after Newton shakes off a tackle. 16-11 Auburn. What a second quarter.

1:47 to go. And the turf looks like it was aerated with a Gatling gun. Too bad. Oregon gets to the 22, and then a bunch of yellow flags come out. A stupid hit by Eric Smith. Punk points: Auburn. The replay shows Smith kicking the Oregon player between the legs after he knocked him down. Way to control yourself, son, and then he had the nerve to argue about it when Trooper confronts him on the sideline. Congratulation, Eric, you get the night's first Punk bonus points.

Ducks for 10 on first down. Same play gets them 12 more. 15 seconds used. Oregon at the AU 41. Incompletion. Then a great tackle by an Auburn DB. It's 3rd and 8. And splatt, more dead Ducks. The Auburn line has started to slap people around. The SEC has seen a lot of that.

Weird call of the night. Why in the world would Auburn call timeout there? Oregon kicks them down to the goal line and now Auburn has to run a play from the end zone. They do, without error. Second down. Cool visual aid from ESPN: Both QBs are 15-19, and Thomas has a few more yards. But Newton has started to dominate the game.

An Oregon penalty gives Auburn a first down. Does Malzahn wire one up? Sort of. An end around get to the 32. 19 seconds left.
Twenty yard pass and a spike. 11 seconds from the 46. Newton throws it away. The next one is going to the end zone. It does, and darn, if Adams doesn't get his hands on it.

That's it for the half. Erin Andrews' gets 20 seconds air time. I figured Dancing with the Stars would have been more of a career boost. Bring on Nick and Urban.

Halftime: Weirdest commercial of the night. The Master's preview, and a black man's voice says how eager he is to have the best players in the world comes to play HIS fairways and HIS greens. At Augusta National? Since when?

Third quarter Auburn at its 28. And they've owned the ball, 16 first downs in the second quarter alone. Karma: Eric Smith: he of the perfectly innocent kung fu kick, is on the sideline being attended to. There's an Oregon player still on the field, and Newtown looks a little dinged. Two plays into the second quarter and suddenly we have Shiloh. Third and one: Who do you think will handle the ball here? Like I said. First down, Newton, to the 41.

Dyer for 5. And then the L-word, for 40. Where does that guy come from? 2nd and 10: Newton to the 11. 3rd and 5. Oregon has to go all in here. And Newton throws it away. 4th and 5: Auburn can make it an 8-point lead, and do. It's 19-11, but Duck fans can catch a breath. Meanwhile, I'm channeling my twin brother for the next few minutes: The quick shot of the "Auburn Family: All In" sign, has set back some of the progress I've made tonight toward neutrality. I believe I'm going to need a little more work.

Oregon ball. Fake reverse this time. Ducks at the 19. And then Fairley gets another stupid penalty. His forearm shivver in the pile costs Auburn 15. Auburn has taken control of the game within the game: Punkage. 3rd and 9: and James makes an all-American run. He breaks about four arm tackles, including those of his assailant Fairley for a first down.

Fairley responds. Boy does he. Big sack and a fumble. An Oregon hold on a scramble: a hold so expertly done that the Oregon lineman didn't even need a rope. 2nd and 16, and the dive play gets 3. Josh Bynes acting injured. The Oregon fans boo. James and Fairley jaw away. This one getting more than a little chippy. Thomas scrambling for his life. Pocket collapsing. Fourth down.

Auburn takes over at its 20. Midway through the third quarter, it feels like Auburn has taken over the game, too.

Now we have our explanation for the field. It's brand new, brought in after the Fiesta Bowl. It has a root structure that's 10 days old. What a great idea.

Big play for Oregon: 3rd and 7, and Newton jet streams a wide open Adams. The National Championship was just overthrown by about five yards. J grabs the Maalox. Oregon has a life.

There's 6 minutes left. And James gets almost 20. He gets 4 more. 3rd and 6: After delivering a big blow, Etheridge looks like he's cramped up. The Duck fans boo. Zack Clayton cracks Thomas down for a loss. It's fourth down. And a fake punt. Auburn was waiting, and the Oregon punter drop-puts a perfect pass. Thomas: 43 yards to the tight end. Remarkable catch. It's first and goal from the 3. James injured on the sideline. Three yard loss on first down.

Thomas fakes the dive and runs for his life to the 5. One yard. It's third down. The game is here. James back on the field. Four yards to the 1, with Fairley making the stop. Here we go. No way. Tomlinson sends a text: "Oregon looks out of ideas."

He may be right. The Ducks don't make it. Auburn takes over. Newton on the dive. The L-word for a first down. We're down to the last minute of the third quarter. First down -- wait. A holding flag thrown on Ziemba. Big turn of events there. Auburn is back at its 10, 2nd and 13. Just like that Newton gets it back: a scramble and a first down.

Dyer gets 1 and now the fourth quarter is upon us. Does everybody hold up four fingers? Fifteen more minutes and for one of these teams, four fingers will become one.

Here we go And the entire Auburn team is apparently hit by a mass outbreak of Tim Tebow Syndrome, running up and down the field, exhorting their fans. How cute!

Dyer gets a first down and Newton throws one away. Three points will be killer here. Auburn time out. Oregon needs a play.

14 minutes left: Scramble by Newton. 3rd and 4. And Blake drops one that would still be going if he held on. Oregon gets its play. Sort of. Auburn punts to the Duck 15. Somehow, it's still a one-possession game. Oregon needs an 85-yard call.

13:24 left Brent tells us that Oregon is trailing for the first time in the fourth quarter all year. Incomplete pass, and now a hold on Oregon. 2nd and 18, inside the 10. Fairley smacks down James. Brent says: "I wonder how he likes Carolina blue." That would be Panther blue, bud.

3rd and 18. Thomas heaves one, and the Auburn defense bails him out for 33 yards. How can a team be undefeated with DBs like that? Another throw, another first down. Oregon at the 50. Bad throw by Thomas. Second and 10, the flanker screen for 2.

Third and 8: Bynes plants Thomas deeper into the turf than the grass. Incompletion, it's fourth down. Oregon remains shut out in the second half.

Those web feet are having trouble punting the ball tonight. A floater followed by a bad bounce gives Auburn the ball at the 21. Again, one good drive will do it. Auburn has already stopped itself on its last two possessions.

What will Malzahn call? A one-yard loss sweep to McCaleb. Oregon can gamble. Newton scrambles throws and the pass is tipped away by a diving linebacker. QB draw for 17. Newton slow getting up. IT'S A MIRACLE HE'S ALIVE!!!

Dyer for 6. Nine minutes left. Newton slips on a sweep. The best defense Auburn has faced all year is this turf. Third and 5: a dropoff to Fannin. He doesn't fumble. He actually runs a long time. First down from the Oregon 40. Dyer loses 2. Newton throws it away, it's 3rd down. Zachary down the sideline, but out of bounds. Auburn has to punt. 6:42 left. Oregon at the 13,

Bill Plaske of the L.A. Times wrote one of those awful columns that sports columnists write: about how the Pac 12 was far superior to the SEC, that Oregon would win this game easily, that Stanford and Andrew Luck will pistol whip Auburn too. Even if Oregon somehow wins, I wonder what Plaske is thinking? Not much I'd guess, given the thought that went into his original column.

Oregon ball: Incomplete pass. Tomlinson, for a Dawg, is a smart guy. Oregon does look short on ideas. Third down: Great throw to Maehl. Great throw. First down. What a clutch play.

Second down. Oregon has 75 yards rushing. It averages 300. Third down again, under 6:00 to go. Antoine Carter buries James. It's fourth and six. Oregon punts. Auburn has it back at the 26. Every possession, and another Auburn lineman has made himself known to America.

Newton gets one, Oregon calls a timeout. They just replayed Carter's run down the sideline, chasing Mark Ingram, causing a fumble that saved Auburn's season. To hell with them. And on cue: Newton fumbles. Oregon has it back. Punkage returns: 15 yard penalty sets Orgon back. First down pass for 15.

Bynes had the game on his fingers. Fairley plows into Thomas but his teammate couldn't hold onto the interception. Thomas scrambles. It's third and 5: Incomplete. 4th and 5: Oregon is all in. 4:18 to go. Zack Etheridge gets nailed by the umpire. The Ducks are running free. First down pass to the 4. Fairley jumps. It's second and 1. 3:30 to go. James loses 1. It's third and 1: Confusion in the Duck backfield. Timeout Oregon. Two great Oregon escapes on third and fourth down on this drive. 2:36 left.

Inside shuffle pass: James scores. It's 19-17. What will Oregon call? What will Auburn call? A throwback in the back of the endzone. Maehl has it. Oregon erupts. We are tied. Auburn has dominated the game, but we are tied. 2:33 left.

Oregon clawing at the ball, blasts through the wedge. Auburn to the 25: Newton has not been sharp for much of the fourth quarter. Blake for 15. Dyer gets 6: No, he didn't go down. He's loose down the sideline for 37 yards. The play was never blown dead. Play being reviewed: Zebras have the national championship trophy in their hands. I see nothing to overturn the call.

"Here comes the call of the night," Brent says. Says the ump: "The call on the field stands." 1:50 and running, Auburn at the 25. Dyer to the 19. 1:20 left.

Newton to the middle of the field: 40 seconds left. 3 and 4. 20 second left. And Dyer just gutted the Ducks. Dyer to the endzone. Play under review, he's down at the 1. And Chizik sends Wes Byrum onto the field. 10 seconds and two timeouts. Malzahn lobbying for a touchdown. Newton grabs his helmet. To hell with a field goal. Auburn is all in.

Newton does a modified dive play. We have two seconds. Neal Caudle on the hold. What must his fingers feel like at this moment. Mine have gone cold typing this, just thinking about the pressure. Here we go. It's an extra point. And it's over. Auburn has its second title. The SEC has its fifth in a row.

It's Auburn. 22-19. "I can tell you this," Chizik says on the field, " we are the best football team in America, and War Eagle."

My brother calls one last time: "I can't believe they beat us in Tuscaloosa," he says.

He hates Auburn. So do I. Fat lotta good that does. War Eagle.


Who ya got? Championship Game edition

We've come to the end of another college football season and, well my stars, the SEC is back in the final game.

Mighty Auburn comes in at 13-0, facing No. 2 Oregon, also undefeated. Auburn would be the SEC's fifth consecutive champion, and the fourth SEC team (joining Florida, LSU and Alabama) to capture the title over that run.

If SEC envy were not enough to make the Ducks the people's choice for three-fourths of the country, there's the specter of a continuing NCAA investigation into the dealings that brought Cam Newton to The Plains.

That most of the country thinks they cheat hasn't slowed the Tigers an iota. Many in the Southeast think Auburn actually played its national championship game in Tuscaloosa, overcoming a 24-0 deficit and a raging Alabama team in perhaps the greatest comeback in Auburn's long history.

In Oregon, Auburn faces a small, quicker version of itself -- just with uglier uniforms. The Ducks make Auburn's no-huddle look like its being run by the '66 Packers. They average about 50 points a game, and surgically remove the lungs and legs of their opponents in the second half.

Auburn tries to do the same, and they have the year's transcendent player in Newton and perhaps the country's best defender in Nick Fairley.

Still, this should be pinball played at a speed that even scares the pinball.

So, who ya got?

Tommy Tomlinson
Thanks. Here's my pick.

I said right after the SEC title game that Auburn would steamroll Oregon. Since then there's been a month's worth of hype about how this game will be close, and maybe Oregon is a slight favorite. That's natural -- it wouldn't be much fun talking about how the national championship game is going to be a blowout.

I do think Oregon can win. But Auburn played bigger games, against a tougher schedule. And Auburn has had time to plan for Oregon's style. Oregon has planned for Auburn's style too, of course, but Auburn doesn't do anything all that complicated -- it just has the best player in the country running the show.

"Steamroll" is probably the wrong word. But I think it'll be convincing. Auburn 38, Oregon 26.

Peter St. Onge

J, you got any extra Maalox?

I'm pretty sure Auburn's offense has a force and complexity that Oregon hasn't seen before. By the fourth quarter, the undersized Ducks will be worn out. But Auburn has struggled all season with speed teams that use misdirection. So first team to three stops win. Auburn 45, Oregon 42.

Michael Gordon

Given that I still had hair the last time these either of these two teams played, the championship game could be sloppy, and if both teams are sloppy, Auburn will win. The Tigers have perhaps the country's best offensive line. They run simple plays. And if Cam Newton doesn't throw well, he'll still average 5 yards a carry. If it's mud wrestling, Auburn win big.

Last year's title game swung when Texas' essential player, Colt McCoy, picked the wrong time to run a quarterback keeper and become a human sacrifice to Marcel Dareus. Let's hope a key injury doesn't turn this game, but if it does, who's more likely to get dinged: Newton, whose bigger than just about anybody on the Oregon defense, or Lamichael James, who might fit in Nick Fairley's lunchbox?

Auburn's defense is entirely capable of giving up 35 points, but so is Oregon's. Oregon is fast. But Auburn has more athletes on both sides of the ball, and a defense that seems to play better as the game goes on.

I don't like Auburn. I don't like this team. But who couldn't respect what they've accomplished on the field? I'm not going to pick against them now. AU, 44-35.

R. Trentham Roberts

After a month away from lining up and getting after them, maybe -- maybe -- Oregon's offense takes a series or 2 or 3 to get rolling. That's the difference. That and Cam-I-Am, the biggest X factor in a big game since Vince Young. And we know how that turned out. Auburn 35, Oregon 34.

Instead of the 'Hail Mary,' let's call the Regional Stereotypes play!

Bill Plaske of the L.A. Times, who pulls more chains than a tow truck, takes a death grip on the SEC is this Ode to Pac 12 superiority.

If you pull for Auburn, have a cool compress ready. If you're an SEC fan hoping for Auburn's demise in tonight's BCS Championship Game, Plaske's comments about the SEC may have you reconsidering your pick. Or maybe not.

Decide for yourself.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Big 10 Bowl Wrap-up by a hometown critic

We're making Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp an honorary SEC EXPAT, after reading his critique of the bowl performance of the Big 10, which he says is the most arrogant and overrated conference in the land.

Hey Drew, y'all come back, y'here?


On every parade, a little Nicky must fall

Wouldn't you know it: Auburn's an hour of football away from its first national championship in 54 years, and now this.

And now Nick.

That's right, Alabama coach Nick Saban, the Anti-Christ of all things AU, is offering his take to the ESPN audience on Monday's championship game between Oregon and his biggest rival.

Despite Saban's credentials -- he's won two of the things, including last year's, and this year's Alabama team played Auburn off its feet for a half before losing -- some members of the Auburn family aren't happy about the coach's new role.

In fact, the criticism flowing up from East Alabama has been such that an ESPN spokesman felt it necessary to address it in this chat with Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky.

To borrow a phrase from our intrepid Auburn poster J, Mr. Clinched Butt Cheeks may soon reveal that he has a highly active set of vocal chords. Woll Eagle.


The Miles/Michigan Mating Dance Begins

ESPN says the Wolverines want to talk with Les Miles (Michigan would likely have gotten the LSU coach -- and UM alum -- three years ago, if not for the arrogance and incompetence of its then athletic director).

The eccentric Mad Hatter is again the Darlin' of the Bayous after the Tigers went 11-2 (including wins over Florida and Alabama and a dismantling of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl). LSU promises to do everything it can to keep him (Miles is already one of the best-paid coaches in the country.)

There's some scar tissue here. LSU watched Nick Saban walk away in 2004, then walk back into the SEC in 2007 at hated Alabama.

Miles is the Anti-Nick: jovial, loose and willing to go for broke at anytime during a game. But even with his 2007 National Championship, Miles labored in Saban's shadow, seen by many of his own fans as an eccentric goofball benefiting from what Saban started in Baton Rouge.

When LSU beat the Tide at home this year, with Miles chewing grass on the sideline and again relying on wildly inventive plays at key moments, he may have won over the last holdouts. Until now.

If he walks away . . . ah cher.


Is Fairley dirty? Not so, say his coaches

Oregon's quarterback picked up the mantra that has been chanted across the SEC this year: Auburn's Nick Fairley is cheap-shotting thug.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik defends his star lineman this way: If you can't block 'em, slander 'em.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A simple question for our SEC brethren . . .

Who will you be pulling for in the championship game, and why?

A bit of almost fatherly advice to Texas A&M: Know your place, and stay there

For the second time this bowl season, an SEC West team that had trouble scoring was made to look like a bullet train by a bowl opponent.

First it Mississippi State, which left once-proud Michigan covered in Maroon bruises and went Kevorkian on Rich Rodriguez' ill-fated stay in Ann Arbor.

Friday night in the Cotton Bowl, it was LSU's turn to swig from the juggernaut potion, courtesy of Texas A&M, which flirted with joining the SEC last year.

The beatdown brought this response from the Dallas Morning News.

Now the Les Miles watch resumes, with at least one media report out of Baton Rouge alleging a deal with Michigan is already done.


Friday, January 7, 2011

SEC this and that . . .

While we await our invitation to the Hunter-Edwards wedding . . .

Georgia AD says everything must improve
Interesting Q&A with Georgia AD Greg McGarity on the state of the Dawg program. McGarity, still new to his own job, voices support for embattled coach Mark Richt, but acknowledges that the fan base is 50-50, and that improvements in all areas must be made. Punch here

But the heat on Richt is rising. When Georgia lost two members of its "Dream Team" recruits to Auburn and Alabama this week, Mark Bradley of the AJC wrote this.

Tide losing Dareus
Marcel Dareus, whose junior year was shortened by suspension and slowed by injury, is leaving Alabama for the NFL draft. The MVP from the national championship game started to find his game late in the season. He played well against Auburn, then shredded what was supposed to be one of the Big 10's best offensive lines in Alabama's bowl blowout against Michigan State. After that last performance, his departure was considered a given. He is projected to be a Top 10 pick. Who's next for the Tide? ESPN says Mark Ingram is also leaving. Most Tide insiders now says Julio Jones, Alabama's best all-around player, is leaning that way too.

Out of Luck, but plenty of SEC
Andrew Luck's decision to stick around Palo Alto blasts the Panthers' best-laid draft plans all the way to Cramerton. Who's next on the list? The Observer's picks are SEC-laden to say the least: Nick Fairley of Auburn; A.J. Green of Georgia; Patrick Peterson of LSU and Cam Newton of Auburn. One thinks Ryan Mallett will soon be added. Though he looked shaky at times against Ohio State's pass rush, Mallett made some throws in the Sugar Bowl that would have wowed a Manning. Analyst Phil Sims said the other morning on FNZ that Mallett throws the best ball in college football, better even than Luck.

Come again, Pat Forde?

Not sure what to make about this . . . but in the days before his team takes the field against Oregon, Auburn coach Gene Chizik has been answering numerous questions about his players' eligibility. Chizik said the Tigers, once again, are "all in." But the questions have persisted.

So check out these recent comments of ESPN columnist and reporter Pat Forde to Jim Rome. Forde, who did yeoman work on the Cam Newton scandal, seems to be saying that Auburn successfully appealed the grades of players to keep them eligible for Oregon. He didn't offer proof. He didn't offer details. Yet he referred to a growing belief that Auburn will do everything it takes to put its best team on the field.

Very odd comments by a veteran reporter, particularly when he offers no corroboration whatsoever. See for yourself.

Friday Night Lights
LSU, 35, A&M, 30

Thursday, January 6, 2011

When a big academic drop may be a good thing

The New York Times offers this front-page follow-up this morning on the academic abuses at Auburn from several years back.

The original stories showed how Auburn maintained a staggeringly high academic standng among football programs by allowing independent study programs that required little or no work.

AU's drop under the same academic measure has been among the three highest (Ole Miss and Florida State are the others) in the country. But critics of Auburn's approach say the change may be due to reforms put in place by the school that better reflect the actual standing of its student-athletes.

One area of continuing academic concern on The Plains. According to the survey, all of its white football players graduate; less than half of its black players do.

Read more here.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

No country for old recruits

The interestingly named Xzavier Dickson, a four-star defensive lineman from Griffin, Ga., wants to play at Georgia. Or maybe Alabama. Or possibly Georgia. Or it could be Alabama.

He can't decide.

So today, before tonight's Under Armour All-American game, he plans to flip a coin. Best of five flips wins.

Now you know why college football coaches always look like they need an IV drip of Advil.

And if anybody needs an assistant to handle this sort of situation, may we recommend the also-interestingly-named Anton Chigurh. He already spends a lot of time on the road.

Sugar Bowl wrapup: One quarterback makes some money, another one loses it

Idle thoughts on the best bowl game so far:

1. The Super Dome, though a bit of a dump, is a great place for a big game. Part of what makes the SEC Championship an annual must-see is all that noise and energy trapped in an oversized crock pot. The second half of the Sugar Bowl offered the same ingredients: the Arkansas fans finding their voices; the always great Ohio State crowd hanging in, and amazing mood swings up and down the field. Great fun.

2. The more I watch Ryan Mallett, the more he reminds me of the yellow-toothed bully in "A Christmas Story." He's bigger than everybody else, he's obviously gifted. But hit him in the mouth and he starts to whine. Then he starts to jitterbug -- badly. Against Alabama this year, Mallett made Herculean throws . . . until he got bopped. He went on to throw three ghastly interceptions, similar to one that ended the game Tuesday night. (Oh yeah, his receivers also dropped the ball at key times against the Tide.) If Mallett doesn't like being hit now, do we expect his demeanor to improve in the NFL? Don't think the scouts haven't noticed.

3. Good calls by Todd Blackledge foreshadowing Mallett's killer pick. The former Penn State QB pointed out early on that Mallett was making bad decisions as his pocket closed. With the game on the line, Mallett made another one. And because of Blackledge's good work, it was almost predictable.

4. Terrelle Pryor plays great football in big games. He took apart Oregon in last year's Rose Bowl and was his team's best offensive weapon against Arkansas. Though still not a picture-perfect passer, his throwing motion has clearly improved while at Columbus. Some NFL team will give him a shot -- as well as an excuse to skip out on his promised return to OSU. He and some of his teammates face fve-game suspensions in 2011 for taking illegal benefits.

5. "The clanking sound you hear . . . " We've already talked about the dropped passes (give me two of them back and Arkansas likely wins the game). But how in the world doesn't Arkansas recover Pryor's fumble at the goal line? How doesn't it intercept Pryor's end-over-end pass in the second half? And why in the world do the Hogs fall on the blocked punt instead of scoring a touchdown? Strange game, football.

6. When was the last time you saw a defensive line, without the help of blitzes, put that much pressure on a quarterback? Sure, Mallett has the mobility of a paper weight, but the Buckeye lineman, particularly Cameron Heyward, knocked Arkansas back on its heels all night. (And, yes, Dawg fans, how in the world did Mark Richt let Heyward get out of Atlanta?)

7. Speaking of Heyward . . . He had to leave the game after a Hog lineman dove at his knees after Heyward had leaped to contest a pass and was completely vulnerable. Legal perhaps, but incredibly cheap. The same kind of shot injured Marcel Dareus for several games. Last night's blow would draw an NFL review and a probable fine. The NCAA needs to clean those up.

8. Congrats to Ohio State. You're 1 and 9 against the SEC in bowl games. Another win and you crack the Mendoza Line.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Big 10 bellcow goes for 0-10 aganst the SEC in the Sugar Bowl

This is a tragedy, this tattoo business for The Ohio State.

Here we have the biggest underdog since the Karate Kid, a dogged little school (enrollment 65,000) that doggedly pursues gridiron excellence (TOSU spends $31.7 million a year on football, the most of any bowl team) and yet gets picked on repeatedly by the bullies of the SEC. You know, those Deep South freak show where all the players are fast (they aren't weighed down by school books) and the coaches are sadistic megalomaniacs (Disclaimer: in the case of sinsei Nick Saban, those traits are strongly suspected by have never been clinically diagnosed.)

The Buckeyes, which treat the post-season as an educational opportunity -- in this case, independent studies on the benefits of the free-market system -- are 0-9 against the SEC in bowl games. In a character-building move, the school and the NCAA have guaranteed TOSU will be at full strength, even if the boys in Indianapolis, playing the role of Mr. Miyagi, had to intercede to make this a fair fight.

So far the contrived Big 10-SEC bowl matchups have been a little one-sided. Now TOSU, its top players wearing fresh battle paint, try to salvage some respect for the men of the Midwest, while keeping its SEC losing streak in single digits.

The battle plan for tonight's game is simple: Sweep the leg. If Arkansas can slow down the run and run the ball just a little, the Big 10's best program will slink back to Columbus, 0-10 against the SEC, and facing the slew of penalties waiting at the start of the 2011 season.

Arkansas is so-so defensively. But unlike just about any other Bobby Petrino team, the Hog defenders has improved over the season. Arkansas' offense has done the same, ripping apart LSU with the run and pass in its last game. OSU has a more disciplined defense than LSU, but not its size or speed.

Which brings us to the final factor: the quarterbacks. It's not a stretch to call Ryan Mallette and Terrelle Pryor mirror twins. Both are oversized and physically gifted. Both are on the temperamental side. The difference is Pryor, the MVP of last year's Rose Bowl Game, has replaced Cam Newton as college football biggest lightning rod. Unlike Newton, some of Pryor's biggest critics are among his own fans.

So how does he respond? Well, is the guess here. But not well enough.

Bucks on, Bucks offed.

Arkansas, 31-24

Monday, January 3, 2011

"The winner of the 2011 Oscar for short-form documentary is . . . "

As the state of Alabama prepares to once again play the sun in the college fooball solar system, the University of Alabama family wishes its Auburn relations well, or in words Tiger Nation can truly take to heart: "Keep it down home, cuz!"

We're talking about the BCS trophy, of course, which, if its buses arrive at the stadium by halftime, Auburn should win -- the SEC's fifth straight title.

In the meantime, we'll have this to keep us warm until spring practice.


Roll Tide

UGA Agonistes: Shoveling out the dog pens at Georgia

Following a humbling end to a humbling Georgia season, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columinist Tony Barnhart has this advice on what head coach Mark Richt must say to the Dawg faithful and how he should say it.

Dawg on.

On a related note, Barnhart's colleague Mark Bradley says the identifical records of Georgia and Georgia Tech are misleading. Tech lacks players, he says, Georgia lacks coaching.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Meanwhile, back in the realm of total domination . . .

There's very little left to say in the aftermath of the Coronation Saturday -- a resounding Jan. 1 reminder of the SEC's prowless.

Keep in mind that the three conference teams with the best records (though after Alabama's performance against Michigan State, we will not call them the SEC's three BEST TEAMS) haven't even played. Yet the middle-of-the-pack contingent of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi State outscored the Big 10 co-champ along with traditional powers Penn State and Michigan by almost 4 to 1. The Big 10 went 0-5 on the day, and will need a Sugar Bowl win by THE Tattoo U to even approach the Mendoza line in the bowl games that matter.

Some observations:

Poor Michigan State. Sparty's wonderful season was effectively buried in Orlando by the first Category 6 hurricane in recorded history. To call it Alabama's first complete game of the season is like saying Sitting Bull had a nice game plan at Little Bighorn.

Scary thought for the rest of the college football world: Maybe the SEC is just too good to allow the kind of dominance the Tide unleashed on 11-win MSU. Maybe the gaps in size and speed between Bama and State were that pronounced. Or maybe Alabama was just that good. Dinged-up defenders such as Marcel Dareus and Courtney Upshaw played faster than they have all year. An offensive line broken up again and again by injuries had time to heal and helped produce a running game missing since the first weeks of the season.

This is the Alabama fans expected to see. Instead they got a much more sputtering rendition, a team that was never as good as its individual parts, a team that started to come together in its first half against Auburn, then showed what might have been in a meaningless bowl game. In the end, the record books will say Alabama ended up 10-3. In actuality, Nick Saban's team fell about three plays short of defending its national title against Oregon.

Mississippi State has its coach. Michigan needs a new one. In high school mismatches, you can find a team that runs a mostly vanilla version of its offense and still looks explosive. Put another way: When was the last time you saw a major college football power play defense in the manner that Michigan played it Saturday? Rich Rodriguez has been in Ann Arbor three years -- plenty of time to put the school on probation, plenty of time to divide the fanbase and, given Michigan's stature, more than enough time to put a competitive team on the field. Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops all took over struggling tier-one programs and won national championship in their second or third years. Rodriguez' third team, by contrast, made Mississippi State look like the murderous legions of the Dark Lord. RichRod's departure should be announced in the next day or so, then Jim Harbaugh or whomever begins the task of starting over again at UM. The country's winningest program is looking at several more years in the wilderness, and Alabama fans get on their knees each day in thanks that Rodriguez' wife vetoed his move to Tuscaloosa.

As for State . . . Dan Mullen is building something fast and mean at Starkville. In two years he has supplanted Ole Miss as the top program in a talent-rich state. Each year he adds a little more speed, size and ability to the Maroons. This is quickly becoming a scary, scary team.

Florida won or Penn State lost . . . you can make the case for either. Ironically, the winning coach is stepping away; the losing coach won't leave. Urban Meyer got his last win before he takes his furlough from coaching. His team, with so much misdirected talent, capitalized on enough of its opponent's mistakes to run away at the end. In actuality, Joe Paterno's Lions had their chance in the last minutes. Instead, JoePa's undersized and marginally skilled quarterback threw another killer interception, and that was that.

For a coach that won two national championships in four years, Meyer was ushered out like a department head in a community college. All speculation now turns to his replacement, Will Muschamp, and his reclamation project. With the hiring of Charlie Weiss as offensive coordinator, Muschamp shared the worst kept secret in college football: He will dismantle Meyer's spread, even if it will take him several years to recruit what he needs to run his new offense. First things first: Muschamp must rebuild the Gators' toughness. During Meyer's last years, they became a pretty team of top-ranked recruits who looked good, talked plenty, but didn't like it when someone hit them in the mouth. That's Muschamp's first challenge: finding 22 kids who will hit back.


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Now is the time for the real SEC to stand up . . .

Ugly, uglier, ugliest . . .

Some "yeah, I'm still on vacation but somebody has to write something" observations on the SEC's 0-3 start in the bowls.

-- Easy y'all. Reports of the SEC's demise are greatly overstated. This, after all, is the SEC (L)East, which this year would be competitive only in the Ugliest Dog pageant.

Still . . .

**The officiating in the UNC-Tennessee game was a carnival, particularly when the game got down to the winning and losing. Let's start with the personal foul call against Janzen Jackson that put Carolina in range for its tying field goal. Sorry, y'all, but that was a clean, albeit ferocious, hit. Jackson led with his shoulder and aimed at the back. Savage but perfectly legal. The Big 10 refs also blew the call on the next-to-the-last play of regulation, which needed only a bunch of clowns on scooters to qualify as a bona fide circus. Illegal participation -- running a play with too many men on the field -- is a 15 yard penalty, not 5. Put a second back on the clock, if you will, but the UNC kick should have been 50 yards, not 39.

That said . . . Tennessee didn't distinguish itself with its on-the-field antics. Derek Dooley still looks a tad wild-eyed and overwhelmed on the sidelines, and his players made enough mistakes to keep the game close. In Daniel Lincoln, they have The Scott Norwood Award winner, legendary for the ones that he missed (Alabama fans passed the hat for Lincoln's trophy). The Vols did test drive what should be one of the SEC's best passing attacks in the years ahead. Better still, quarterback Tyler Bray clearly displayed the behavioral qualities that next year will put his name up next to Casey Clausen as the most hated player in the conference. Can't wait to watch his personal development.

**Georgia fans continue to amaze us. They are passionate, mean-spirited (we like that about them) and know few equals in their love for their team and their disdain for their rivals. They are also clinically delusional, which is OK to a point because most of us lack any objectivity when it comes to their own teams.

But every year Georgia people believe they are destined to win the SEC, and they stick to it, even though this Bulldog edition was just woeful. Which hasn't stopped Dawg fans from lighting their torches and storming the castle after Friday's loss to Central Florida, a top 25 team that did all the little things a good football team does to win a game. The Liberty Bowl was a bit of a dogfight, except Central Florida had the better clamp hold. The longer George O'Leary's team held on, the more the fight went out of Georgia. Mark Richt has a lot of little/essential things to fix before Georgia kicks off next September against Boise State -- when Georgia will clearly be a favorite for the BCS Championship Game.

**The Spurrier/Garcia road show sputters on toward the pathological. You would think that after the third straight unsightly bowl performance from the tandem that one of them -- read Garcia -- might go. This is a team with improving talent and still way too many holes in talent, coaching and intangibles. Yet the biggest gap remains between the ears of its veteran quarterback. When does Spurrier say enough?

Which brings us to today's games:

Florida-Penn State: Tony Barnhart over on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Florida has too many athletes for Joe great-grandPA's team. My question to Tony: Have those Florida kids of whom he speaks been studying abroad this fall? Florida has had more athletes than every team it has played and is lucky to be 7-5! The highlight of their season was beating Georgia (which should be playing Oregon for the national championship if not for the minor detail that the Dawgs lost more games than they won). Sure, it's Urban Meyer's last game as Florida's coach. But this team hasn't played hard for Meyer all year. Nittany Lions, 20-16.

Mississippi State-Michigan: The Rich Rodriquez Parting Gift Bowl shows the dark side of tradition. MSU, whose only legacies are losing and cheating, hires an unproven assistant who runs a goofy offense, mouths off to everybody and after two years of exceeding low expectations is now considered one of the hottest names in coaching. Michigan, with all its history and wins, runs off a coach, botches his replacement, and "settles" on an outsider: Rodriguez, fresh off a highly successful stint at West Virginia. Three years later, the team still can't play and Ann Arbor still keens over the absence of a "Michigan Man" at the helm of the program. Note to Big Blue: Your last Michigan Man lost to App State. Word is that Rodriquez is out whether he wins or loses, and since his team stopped playing for him months back, it's hard to imagine one last rousing rendition of "Hail to the Victors" to send the coach on his way. The EXPATS have long thought the praise for Mississippi State a bit premature. But State has so much more to play for. Bullies, 28-24.

Alabama-Michigan State This game is simple and complicated at the same time. Alabama is bigger, faster and deeper. Michigan State has far more incentive. Alabama didn't play a complete game in 2010 (including the BCS winner over Texas) and had their heart and lungs ripped out in the epic collapse at Auburn. So how long does the good Alabama stick around against the Spartans, and when does the we-could-give-a-rip Alabama take over? The guess here is that the shift change won't occur until the game is in hand, but that Michigan State will make it closer at the end. If Alabama can run the ball, we will have the day's only rout. Tide, 31-22.

Arkansas-tOSU: Jim Tressel is doing what he can to save some face for his team and program, but his decision to play Terrelle and THE Free-Marketeers have completely overwritten the original storyline of the Sugar Bowl, which was: Will The Ohio State University finally beat an SEC school in the post season? The correct answer now is Who Cares? Much of the Buckeye fanbase believes
their star quarterback and the other violators should sit on their wallets. And yet, surely for the personal development of the student-athletes involved, the NCAA says they should play. Too bad, what was easily the second most interesting matchup on the bowl lineup now becomes a morality play -- with not enough morals to go around.