Monday, October 29, 2007
For many who are still in the hunt in the East, which is everyone, it's a down week - Georgia has Troy, Kentucky is off, the Vols get the Cajuns, and yes, Florida plays Vanderbilt. But while the most important game in the East is a season-on-the-line duel between South Carolina and Arkansas in Fayetteville, and the eyes of the nation will be on the Oregon/Arizona State top five showdown, all eyes in the conference will be set towards Tuscaloosa for the potential SEC West Championship between the Crimson Tide and the LSU Tigers. If Old Saban wins, LSU can essentially punch their ticket to Atlanta - they'd have to lose both of their final two games (at Ole Miss, vs Arkansas) to go anywhere but. But if New Saban wins, it'll put Auburn back in the race, and Alabama will control its own destiny. Given that the core of LSU's roster are Les Miles born and bred and not old Saban recruits, and given that Saban is given credit for being a genius and Miles is given credit for being lucky, I wouldn't be totally surprised if a superior LSU team went down to T-Town and wrecked the place. But I also wouldn't be surprised by anything this year.
Meanwhile, if you're a bowl representative, you might as well send a scout to every game from this point on: eleven SEC teams have five wins - sorry Coach O, your Rebels are 2-7 and won't be going anywhere - and you can make an argument that all eleven will get to six and become bowl eligible.
Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, LSU and Auburn are already there with six wins (LSU is 7-1). You have to assume that Florida (Florida Atlantic) and Tennessee (LA-Lafayette) will get there with non-conference wins. That's eight in, with Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt all needing just one conference win (or Vandy can beat Wake Forest). Mississippi State can get theirs by winning the Egg Bowl, Arkansas can get theirs by beating Mississippi State, and if Vandy gets an upset or beats Wake, all eleven could get in without any major shakeups.
The SEC has only eight guaranteed bowl slots: the conference champion to the Sugar Bowl if not ranked 1 or 2 in the BCS, and then the Capital One, Cotton, Outback, Chick-Fil-A, Music City, Independence, and Liberty Bowls. If an SEC team earns a BCS at-large bid - which at this point only appears likely if LSU is 11-1 and then gets upset in the SEC Championship Game, but you never know - that makes nine spots. So you'd still have to find two or three at-large bids to potentially fit all eleven teams in. Only the Poinsettia Bowl has a designated at-large bid, and so otherwise you would need a conference to not have enough teams with six wins to fulfill their bowl contracts. The rule about allowing 6-6 teams in may be challenged in the future to change it to 7-5. This also means that a team like Tennessee can't afford to finish 6-6 - or possibly even 7-5 - and then just assume they'll find their way to a bowl game. More than one someone could be left behind.
The current SEC bowl projections from CollegeFootballNews.com:
- Sugar: LSU
- Capital One: Georgia
- Cotton: Alabama
- Outback: Auburn
- Chick-Fil-A: Tennessee
- Music City: South Carolina
- Independence: Mississippi State
- Liberty: Florida
- Armed Forces: Kentucky (no Pac-10 team available)
In the NFL...
When I was in middle and high school, growing up in East Tennessee, you really had two options: you were a Cowboys fan, or you were a 49ers fan. With the Titans still the Houston Oilers and Peyton Manning still thinking about who to take to the prom, you gravitate towards the national powerhouses. And in the early 90s, between Joe Montana and Brett Favre, you had four years of Cowboys/Niners warfare from 1992-1995.
During this span, Dallas won three Super Bowls and the Niners won the other one. The two teams would square off in three straight NFC Championship Games in 92-94, with the Cowboys winning the first two and the Niners the third. But they also annually squared off about this time of year in the annual regular season game of the year. There was no comparison.
I fell on the Cowboys side of the fence, which I'm sure started with my Dad talking about Bill Bates and was helped along when they drafted Alvin Harper. Given the choice between the two, the Cowboys had cooler uniforms and better attitude. Adult Will would've gone for the Niners, but Junior High Will wasn't so mature and informed and didn't see things that way. So the flash of Dallas won over the more recent tradition and determination of the 49ers.
The Cowboys had arguably the greatest offense of all time - Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Daryl Johnston, Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper, Jay Novacek, and a great offensive line. Regularly, I would get into arguments with my friends at school about Emmitt Smith vs. Barry Sanders, and they'd always make the very solid point that if Barry had Emmitt's talent around him, he would've won three Super Bowls too. On defense, the Cowboys lined up names like Russell Maryland, Charles Haley, Ken Norton Jr., and others. Several players, including Deion Sanders, would play for both teams during the rivalry's run.
The 49ers moved past the Joe Montana generation but didn't suffer much, as Steve Young took over the reigns. Ricky Waters was the new Roger Craig. Jerry Rice was the old Jerry Rice. The Niners would add guys like William Floyd and rotated veterans on defense to keep pace from their end. It was always one or the other, and no one else in the NFL was close for those four years. Everything and everyone else was an afterthought.
These days, East Tennessee folks are either Titans fans, or they'll love the Colts until Peyton Manning retires. Folks here in Virginia are tied to the Redskins. But in neutral cities and among the general populace, I wonder if it's not the same thing again today. As the Colts and Patriots get set for what Chris Berman refers to as Super Bowl 41.5, it seems like there's nothing else on the NFL landscape at all.
Like the early 90s, one conference is definitively better than the other, though in this case it's now the AFC that's in charge. And like the early 90s NFC, there are several quality teams in the AFC - Tennessee (the ugliest 5-2 you'll ever hear on the radio), Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, and maybe even San Diego after all - who are simply lost in the shuffle behind the two giants. But just like those old Cowboys/Niners wars, this Sunday's unbeaten showdown between the two best teams and biggest rivals of this decade has become the most anticipated sporting event of 2007 since...the last time they played each other.
Once again, you've got All Pros on both sides. The Patriots, surprisingly, will be playing the role of the flashy favorite, with the sexiest quarterback alive, Randy Moss being Randy Moss, Wes Welker continuing to give hope to white kids everywhere, a star studded defense, and a coach who will definitively run up the score. And now it's the Colts who seem like old news instead of the high powered offense, with Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison feeling like old hat. Nevermind the fact that they're the undefeated defending champs, the Pats are the favorites, the Pats - three titles in their own right this decade - are the new thing.
I'm still a Titans fan 100%, and so if I'm being totally honest, I'll tell you that a Colts loss helps the Titans in the division race. But I'll also tell you that I don't like Belichick and I do like Peyton Manning, of course, so I'll be watching with interest and would rather have the Colts lose somewhere else. Dallas showed that it's not impossible to play with New England, and I'm sure the Colts will be ready and have - gasp! - had their number of late. Should be very entertaining and will be must-see-TV.
In the World Series...
It's over. So much for a competitive series.
In the NBA...
The regular season tips off tomorrow, though you'll have to wait until Friday to see YOUR Boston Celtics - on national TV, thank God, for the first of many this season - in an already interesting game with the Washington Wizards and Gilbert "Halo 3" Arenas, who's on record as saying they're going to run Boston to death. Tangible excitement for Vols and Celtics basketball? I don't know what to do with myself.
In the WWE...
Last night, for the first time since WrestleMania, I threw down the money for a WWE pay per view, because Cyber Sunday looked good on paper coming in and offered the tease of Chris Jericho's return. And the event was okay - though for my $39.95 I'd like more than okay - but we got no Jericho, got a cheap DQ finish in the Randy Orton vs. Shawn Michaels WWE Championship Match (though the slow motion replay of Orton ducking the superkick and hitting Michaels low for the DQ might be the smoothest thing I've seen in wrestling this year), and somehow saw the fans vote for a streetfight instead of a cage or first blood match in the Triple H/Umaga match. I will give credit to Batista and The Undertaker, who - and I never would've thought this - have now put on four great matches this year. They got the main event last night, and Batista got a clean pinfall victory over The Undertaker, which evens the rivalry now at 1-1-2, and was a great decision by the writers. We also got to see Stone Cold Steve Austin as the voted in referee, and another good call by having Batista and Taker be the show, and not have Austin stunner both of them, as I was expecting.
So with no Jericho at Cyber Sunday, the focus now turns to RAW tonight, as all the ad campaigns have been pointing towards tonight. Jericho is in Philadelphia - where RAW is tonight - for a book signing this afternoon. When Jericho first came to WWE, it was one of the biggest live RAW moments ever. Tonight could be another one of those big, must-see TiVo moments.
The setup is also in place for a DX return - Michaels and H haven't been on screen at the same time since HBK's return a few weeks ago - but the announced main event for tonight is a handicap match between Triple H and Randy Orton/Umaga. So we should see DX unfold there - will Jericho also interject himself into that main event, or will he fall somewhere else? With Edge returning at Survivor Series in four weeks, and with the always fun 10th Anniversary of The Montreal Screwjob upon us, this should continue to be a surprisingly exciting time in the WWE, and credit them for rebounding from death, scandal and injury as well as possible. Let's just hope the payoff at Survivor Series is bigger than it was last night.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Ladies and gentlemen, your SEC East Division leaders.
Outscored 145-68 in three losses. Outgained 1535-1042 in those same games. Sporting a 5-3 record with a coach with one foot in the frying pan and one foot in Atlanta. Ranked a pedestrian 24th in the AP poll. And a fanbase that can't wait to talk basketball.
Not only that, but a team that found a way to capitalize on every mistake in the first half last night against South Carolina, and then found a way to blow the largest lead a Tennessee team has blown since Auburn, circa 1990 (which ultimately ended in a tie, which set the table for this to be yet another 2007 historic performance to forget had the Vols lost). A team that gave up over 300 yards in the second half to a South Carolina offense that managed six points against Vanderbilt the week before, while the offense played three and out for most of the same time period. A team whose head coach made what could've been his most idiotic move of all time in wasting a time out in a freeze attempt on Ryan Succop, a time out the Vols could've used to try and win the game in regulation instead of having to spike the ball and kick, after Erik Ainge inexplicably did the one thing he couldn't do by taking a sack and fumbling the football on the final offensive play of regulation. This after Arian Foster was headed back towards counseling for another fumble at the absolute worst time, which was recovered by a hustling Jacques McClendon, which became our best offensive play of the second half. Then decided Daniel Lincoln should kick from 48 yards instead of 43, which is good because he duck hooked that attempt after it was blown dead for a false start. Then decided it wasn't stressful enough, we had to play the most tense situation in college football - a first possession field goal in overtime, meaning the game can end either side on any play with a turnover or a touchdown.
And then suddenly, after all that...South Carolina missed a field goal, and it was over. The roller coaster came to a sudden stop...and inexplicably, you looked around and saw the ride was over, and we were still on top. And not just on the scoreboard...in your newspaper on Sunday morning in the SEC East standings. Again. Blew our chances by losing at Florida, got back in it. Blew our chances by losing at Alabama, got back in it. And appeared to have blown our chances by choking away a 21-0 halftime lead, and once again the Vols found their way back to the top.
Hook and crook, the Vols are in first place.
I had told friends of mine earlier in the week that the word that best described my feelings about Saturday's game was "curious". I was curious to see how we would respond after Alabama. I was curious to see how Carolina would respond after Vanderbilt. I was curious to see our offense against the best defense it had seen all year, and I was curious to see our defense against the worst offense it had seen all year. I was curious to see if this season could be saved, or if we were going in the tank again. Curious.
And "curious" should never be the dominant emotion in regards to Tennessee Football. We should be talking about "excited" or "ready". Or even "nervous" or "angry". The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. And curious leans in that direction.
Curious is the same word I would use to describe my feelings about Florida and Georgia in the Cocktail Party before kickoff, only with the word "mildly" in front of it. I'd already sat here and watched Auburn pull of the improbable major SEC upset of the year last month in Gainesville. We'd already been rewarded with a second Florida loss in Baton Rouge. And when Kentucky couldn't stop them last week, you figured that we weren't good enough to be in the conversation anyway after the Alabama debacle, and if Florida was going to lose again, it would be to South Carolina. Because in the SEC in my lifetime, it's death, taxes, and Florida beats Georgia. On Monday on this blog:
Florida is at the Cocktail Party this week, and if there's anyway for this college football season to get any more insane, it would be Georgia winning this weekend, in a series that's seen Florida win 15 of the last 17. Which is really the best reasoning I can give you for having hope that the Gators will lose this weekend. I'm just saying.
Because we'd seen Georgia. And we'd also seen Florida, along with Cal and Alabama do things to our defense that defy words or past experience. And if you were a betting man, you'd say that if they did that to us, we did that to Georgia, and then Georgia verified it by struggling mightily with Vanderbilt the following week...combined with the history, there was nothing to suggest a Georgia victory. Nothing.
But as it turns out, what started with a quote from Mark Richt - "If we don't get a celebration penalty on our first touchdown, I'll be disappointed." - turned the curiousity from mild to growing. As I was driving in from Virginia and waiting for updates from the Vol Network (bonus points for the woman who called in one of the pregame shows and said "I want to see defense, I want to see some busted knees, I want to see concussions...") and ESPN Radio, you kept thinking "It's Georgia, and it's Florida, and all those shenanigans earlier did was piss them off, and this won't last." And so they held the lead at halftime. And then they kept the lead into the third quarter. And everytime Florida scored (behind a very gutsy, if ineffective effort from Tim Tebow) and you thougt it was over, Georgia scored again. And again. And again. And suddenly, you went from being curious to be something entirely different.
Because all of a sudden, the South Carolina game went from a "meaningless" possible season-salvager but not season-saver, to the in-the-moment SEC East Division Championship Game. And you thought that, and you even read it now, that it can't be right. That Tennessee didn't have any business associating themselves with a championship of any kind. The intensity in Knoxville went from about a six to an eleven just before kickoff. All of a sudden, this became the most important game of the year.
And then, even more improbably and in more ways than one, Tennessee came out and matched that intensity. My friends and I said at halftime that we weren't even playing that well, but UT used two turnovers from Eric "Freshman All-America" Berry and one really good drive, and bang bang bang, the Vols were up 21-0 at halftime. And now your Georgia Dome reservations were becoming less Bruce Pearl and more Phillip Fulmer.
Which brings us back to the whole hook and crook thing. Because when the lead had faded and the Vols had squandered, and South Carolina had every ounce of momentum left in Neyland Stadium on their side - no joke, an observeable number of fans left the game when Erik Ainge threw his 4th quarter interception in a tie game - Tennessee still won the game. When Daniel Lincoln lined up to kick at the end of regulation, I said "We deserve to lose." And I'm the most positive and optimistic Vol fan I know - it wasn't negativity, it was honesty. But sure enough, Lincoln keeps making his case as the best kicker in the conference, and we were off to overtime. And if there's one true fact about Tennessee football, it's that you don't want any part of us in overtime.
5-1 all time in the pressure packed extra sessions, the Vols got more Daniel Lincoln for the lead, then got more good fortune when Blake Mitchell mishandled the snap to open SC's possession. Even so, on 3rd down, with the action unfolding on the opposite end of the stadium, we had a perfect vantage point to see a Carolina receiver break open and the ball leave Mitchell's hands, and as soon as it did I said "touchdown"...
...but Mitchell misfired. And we lived to play another play. And Succop, ice cold from 48 yards just minutes earlier, lined up in Collins Cooper territory. And I wonder if Steve Spurrier was thinking about that just before the kick sailed wide right.
Tennessee won the game. Tennessee is in first place. Tennessee controls its own destiny. When the folks in my churches this morning asked how I managed to stay awake on the drive home, I told them it's because I was trying to make sense of those three facts. And whether you like it or not, whatever your opinion of this season or the coaching staff, be you optimist or pessismist, facts they remain.
The Carolina game itself...I have no idea how to place or qualify it. It'll find its way to the 50 Best Vol Games list, but I don't know where you put it - it's probably the best worst played game I've ever seen. The drama was high, but the quality was low. But at the very least, it's nice to know you can still see something you feel like you've never seen before, between the blown lead, and the way the Vols seemed to have everything going against them...and they still won. Usually, that works the other way around. Usually, the other team blows the lead. And usually, Tennessee is on the losing end of games like that, where you leave thinking "we should've won" and we didn't. But regardless of anything else...Tennessee found a way and got the win, which is more important than anything else.
You can pick apart the performance - which is what they'll do in the film room, no doubt - for as long as you like. I hit the fast forward button on my TiVo for the entire 3rd quarter watching it again today because it's almost irredemable. You'd have to be blind to not have questions about our defense. You'd have to be some sort of robot from the future to not have nerves about facing Darren McFadden and Andre Woodson down the stretch. And I don't know what will happen next. But even if 5-3 is below expectations, the circumstances of the moment mean that 5-3 is good enough for first place. So the Vols continue to be more than relevant. And also in the good news department, it's the Rajun Cajuns next week in Knoxville - which means the Vols can get beat 100-0 and it won't mean a thing.
(Of course, it would mean a thing, but you get the idea.)
In this crazy season, take a look at the SEC East race, in increasing order of difficulty to win the division and make it to Atlanta:
Tennessee - win out (vs ARK, vs VAN, at UK)
Georgia - win out (vs AUB, vs UK) + 1 TN loss
Vanderbilt - win out (at FLA, vs UK, at TN) + 1 UGA loss
Kentucky - win out (at VAN, at UGA, vs TN) + eventual winner of SC/FLA loses this week
South Carolina - win out (at ARK, vs FLA) + 1 UGA loss + 2 TN losses
Florida - win out (vs VAN, at SC) + 1 TN loss + 2 UGA losses
And so as crazy as it sounds as the calendar turns towards November, nobody is realistically out of it yet. Because all of those scenarios - well, okay, except Vanderbilt winning out - could happen.
But only Tennessee controls its own destiny. So no matter where you stand on all the issues we've seen this season, the present moment dictates that the Vols are in first place. And I say any season that ends in Atlanta is a good one. If you complain about the conference being too even or being down, I'll tell you to quit whining and start enjoying things. We're not in first place - and in such dramatic fashion - every day or every year come November. It is, without question, a unique year.
The Vols have to keep getting better. Marsalous Johnson didn't play last night and is probably done for the year. Erik Young is definitely done for the year. Saturday is one of those "don't get anybody hurt" games that the Vols need to win in impressive fashion to make us all feel better and feel more confident coming home. So let's not even talk about Atlanta or even Arkansas just yet. This week, it's the Cajuns. And this week, the Vols are in first place.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Preseason College Basketball Coaches Poll
1. North Carolina
8. Michigan State
10. Washington State
15. Texas A&M
18. Southern Cal
23. Southern Illinois
24. NC State
Thursday, October 25, 2007
I can also tell you that new XBOX360 controllers cost as much as an actual game, which is another subject. But I know this because I've jettisoned two of them into the wall to my immediate right, leaving the battery pack in pieces and the analog control sticks bent at weird angles. And both times, it felt really good right up until I walked into GameStop and threw down $49.99 for a new one (or just $19.99 for a new battery pack when I was lucky on the angle of impact).
And I play a lot of video games that can be frustrating. Little kids cheating at Halo. Getting your party killed just before a save point in Final Fantasy. Unneccesary jumps in Ninja Gaiden. But other than my sister cheating at Mario Party 3 back on the N64 several years ago, which earned her a controller to the face, nothing has forced my hand the way that kids who are of no skill nor football knowledge, but can run around in circles with an athletic quarterback in NCAA or Madden do. I lost a PS2 controller to Vince Young in his Texas days. I've lost two up here to Pat White. It won't be the last time.
See, usually when I run into these kids online, I run an actual football offense and defense, and the guys and gals at EA Sports have finally gotten state-of-the-art enough that the game rewards you for doing so, so when they go for it on 4th and 10 in their own territory in the first quarter, I take advantage and run them. When they line up and kick onside kicks out of the gate, I house them.
(Distracting Sidenote: Hey look, Boyz II Men in the 7th Inning Stretch at Fenway! They're still around?! And they seem to have misplaced that tall guy...)
When kids run hail mary every play, I blow them out. And when I mix pass and run and disguise blitzes and all that stuff, and they keep calling the same play, the game rewards me and I win. So while little kids can still frustratingly win the day by cheating at Halo, you've actually got to be intelligent to be good at NCAA or Madden these days...
Unless you play with an athletic quarterback.
In fairness, it's gotten better than it used to be. It's not Bo Jackson in Tecmo Super Bowl:
And it's not like the early versions of NCAA Football, where you could effecitvely run the triple option with Danny Wuerffel, and every game was 56-49 and whoever had the ball last won. But still, you can take Pat White, Dennis Dixon, Juice Williams or any other fast quarterback on NCAA, or play Madden and take Mike Vick...er...Vince Young, and you can just run around in the pocket for days. And unless you compromise yourself and blitz DBs who might be fast enough to catch him, but probably won't be, little kids can run the same pass plays out of shotgun all game, and it can be maddening. Usually games like this do end 56-49, because the kids are never any good at anything else and that includes defense. And usually you can find a cover 2 scheme that'll work against this anyway, and it's only a minor frustration combined with a thankfulness that it's gotten better than it used to be.
But every so often, you run into kids that execute this "offense" perfectly, and you yourself turn it over multiple times, usually to fumbles that occur with no real rhyme or reason, and you end up losing. Painfully, at the end of the game. When you try and rush Pat White on the final drive, he waits until the last second and then makes an athletic move that your defensive lineman or linebacker can't possibly recreate on the video game, and you're left grasping at air and waiting for the inevitable: that a wide receiver, or more likely a stray back or tight end, will eventually bust your coverage, and you'll give up six and lose. This is when the controller meets the wall.
It never works that way in real life. Not with any consistency, never. Maybe in high school, maybe. But never in college or the NFL, because everyone is too fast and no QB can evade that well all the time. Never happens.
It especially doesn't happen on a rainy Thursday night in Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech hasn't lost on Thursday night since 1995, and that's the only time they've lost. It doesn't happen against the lunchpail defense of Bud Foster and BeamerBall. It doesn't happen when said defense has turned Heisman candidate/northeast regional frontrunner Matt Ryan into a below average quarterback all night, and shut out the #2 team in the country for 58 minutes. And it doesn't happen when Matt Ryan definitely would not fall under the "athletic quarterback" banner. And besides, this is Virginia Tech's year.
(Distracting Sidenote 2: The World Series keeps getting better - it's the Season 7 trailer for 24 during a commercial break! And Tony Almeida is apparently alive...and...evil?...24trailer.com)
So, when Matt Ryan starts dodging VT defenders left and right in leading the Eagles downfield 91 yards for a touchdown on a picture perfect spot ball to make it 10-7, it's almost comical but you're still not worried. Then when Boston College gets the onside kick - take that, BeamerBall - you start watching with interest. And then a tired VT defense remembers its playing in the rain, and loses its legs, because on every subsequent play, Ryan is running circles around the Hokie front seven. Literally. And on several occasions, two defenders will come at him, and Ryan does the definitive athletic QB video game move - a full stop, followed by a quick speed burst and a change of direction that no lineman has an answer for on the video game, and on this final drive, no one on VT's defense does either. Ryan is just freezing them and then running away, only to either safely throw it away or find the inevitable open man. And you can feel the frustration rising from Lane Stadium.
And he saves the best for last: after a holding call when he couldn't get away on his own, on 3rd and 20 Ryan brings out another defender-dodging run forcing VT's secondary to cover far too long, ending with a teardrop to a wide open Eagle in the corner of the end zone: Andre Callender, the inevitable running back left open behind the coverage. And Virginia Tech's defense, which was the aggressor for 58 minutes, finds itself helpless and looking for something else to throw into the wall in the final two. Especially when you watch Ryan and BC head coach Jeff Icantspellyourlastname celebrate in the immediate aftermath like kids after a backyard drawn up touchdown - which, all pardons to my southwest Virginia bretheren, I loved seeing because you usually don't see genuine on-field player/coach interactions like that. Especially when you're driving home right now wondering how that got away, still hoarse from yelling "SACK HIM!!!" every play for the last two minutes to no avail.
Ryan didn't even have a good night until the end - 25 of 52, 285 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs - but he went from the next victim against the VT defense to the second coming of Michael Vick at Lane Stadium in two drives. And so just like those little kids, you leave knowing that you were better and by all rights, you should've won. But they just kept getting away from you, and waited to break your heart and your back at the same time with 0:11 left on 3rd and 20. So I feel your pain, Hokie Nation. I feel your pain. Yours is probably a little more real, but I feel your pain. Next time someone comes over and brings up the game and the inexplicable loss, I'll show them the marks on my wall and the band-aid that failed to hold together my last good 360 controller.
At least Virginia Tech might get another chance in December.
Highlights and Analysis from ESPN:
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Bruce Pearl, Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith will go before the press tomorrow, but the annual media predictions came out today, and the continued attempt by many in the fanbase to temper expectations continues to be fruitless: the Vols are picked to win the SEC, and it's almost unanimous. 28 of 30 voters picked Pearl's squad, with the other two votes going to Mississippi State. The full voting breakdown:
2007 SEC Media Days Predictions
6. South Carolina
2. Mississippi State
6. Ole Miss
First Team All-SEC
Shan Foster, Vanderbilt
Chris Lofton, Tennessee
Jamont Gordon, Mississippi State
Patrick Beverly, Arkansas
Richard Hendrix, Alabama
Second Team All-SEC
Steven Hill, Arkansas
Charles Rhodes, Mississippi State
Tasmin Mitchell, LSU
Dwayne Curtis, Ole Miss
Tyler Smith, Tennessee
Monday, October 22, 2007
The Vols had a rare Sunday practice to try and address what need be addressed about Alabama and hopefully move on to South Carolina. The practice was, as reported by the News-Sentinel's GoVols.com, sans Montario Hardesty, who saw no action in Tuscaloosa despite being fully healthy, and this was reportedly by Hardesty's own choosing. I, like everyone, assumed Hardesty wasn't 100% when Lennon Creer got the carry on 3rd and 1, and what you heard postgame from Fulmer and Kurt Roper was less than encouraging, being that it seemed like they simply lost track of #2 and never made the effort to get him in the game. Not that Hardesty would've made the difference between winning and losing, and not that we don't have other capable backs, but it's an unsettling sort of situation in more ways than one.
Meanwhile in Vegas, the Vols have opened as three point favorites on Saturday night when #15 South Carolina comes calling. The Gamecocks and Florida are the only two teams left who control their own SEC East destiny, with the Vols in relative third place, needing only the Florida loss to control their own fate and having lost only once, to the Gators, against divisional opponents. Florida is at the Cocktail Party this week, and if there's anyway for this college football season to get any more insane, it would be Georgia winning this weekend, in a series that's seen Florida win 15 of the last 17. Which is really the best reasoning I can give you for having hope that the Gators will lose this weekend. I'm just saying.
NFL Football - Dear CBS...
How come, after you make me sit through Baltimore vs. Buffalo on my local southwest Virginia feed, instead of cutting to live action of the eventful 4th quarter of Houston/Tennessee, you make me awkwardly watch the studio crew while they watch the game, and then can only show me each play right after it happens? I'm sure there's a contract issue in here somewhere, either with the Sunday Ticket folks or somewhere else, but it was very unsettling to have to watch everything from the onside kick to Bironas' eighth and final field goal thru the eyes and mouths of James Brown, Dan Marino, Boomer Esaiason, Shannon Sharpe, and Bill Cowher, to hear and see their reactions to the play while it happens, and then getting to actually see it a play late. This is what I have to deal with instead of the live feed? It's not like the game was on Fox, it was on CBS, but we still can't cut over, really?
And I had abandoned Mike Keith because the Titans were up 22-7 at halftime when I left for a hayride with the youth up here, and I didn't see the "vaunted" Titans defense giving up 29 points in the second half, and didn't have time to fire the internet radio feed back up as the events of the last two minutes were unfolding. Lost in the shuffle of a wild and crazy game might be the performance of Kerry Collins - because the sentences "the Titans won without Vince Young" and "the Titans won with Kerry Collins" are equally impressive in their own right - but Collins was 25 of 42 for 280, no TDs but no interceptions. Even if VY can't go again next week, it's the Raiders at home, and at the very least you're not thinking "instant loss" with Collins under center guiding the rest of this no-stars offense now that this one's in the win column. Credit Collins for being especially sharp on the last drive, and Roydell Williams for making a sensational catch to set up Bironas for the NFL record. It's just that no one plays defense in this state, at least this week.
May we also take this time to thank Wes Welker for personally salvaging my fantasy season, and after giving us every chance to win last week, he turns in a huge performance again this week in doing most of the work in ending my five game losing streak. Welker is currently the 13th highest scoring player in my league, and is giving hope to white kids everywhere that yes, you too can play wide receiver. Let's also say that Tom Brady is currently almost 100 points better than the second highest scoring player (Tony Romo) in my league. Insane. We won't talk abou the Colts' chances against them until they get past their usual nemesis tonight in Jacksonville. Don't tell anyone that I won't be that upset if Jacksonville pulls the upset, just to pull the Titans closer in the AFC South race.
The World Series - A Prayer for Competitiveness
Thanks to the Boston Red Sox, we now at least have a nationally relevant World Series, and combined with the Rockies' run of insanity over the last month, you should have a good series here. For Vol fans, don't fall into the national trap of pulling for the Red Sox again, get behind Todd Helton. I know you can name Beckett, Schilling, Dice-K, Wakefield, Papi, Manny and about a dozen other Red Sox, and all you know from Colorado is Helton and maybe Matt Holliday if you follow baseball. But the Rockies are one of those stories that you don't want to see end, and while I have no animosity towards the Red Sox, they had their turn a few years ago.
What I'd really like to see - much like in the NBA - is something interesting. And while the problem isn't as bad as it is over in the association, where you haven't had a real nationally relevant, competitive NBA Finals since the 80s, the last World Series to fall in the same category was in 2001. I realize the Angels/Giants series went seven games the following year, but that's what we call West Coast bias, so I didn't watch it and neither did you. This one will attract people from both sides of the nation, and unless the Rockies keep up the blitz or the Red Sox talent simply overwhelms, this one should be good. I promise, we're not as delusional in saying that as we were when we picked the Cavs in seven. This one gets rolling Wednesday night in Boston.
(Crowd: LET'S GO ROCKIES!)
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Some thoughts...first, credit Alabama. You dream about playing like that against your rivals, and I know the Tide folks will enjoy it, and they earned it. Congratulations.
Now that we've got that out of the way...
Tennessee's loss today, coupled with South Carolina's loss to Vanderbilt, means that only Kentucky has one loss in the SEC East. If the Gators - eight point favorites and currently tied 7-7 with the Cats - win, everyone in the SEC East will have at least two losses. And if Kentucky wins, the Vols will once again be right back in control of their own destiny.
So we say that to make a couple points...that it's a crazy year, and that it's not over.
Now, let's talk about everything else.
If you're going to get beat 59-20 and 41-17, you absolutely do not do so against Florida and Alabama if you're the University of Tennessee. You have three performances on the road that make you question everything about this team, and one performance at home to put some potentially false hope in. If you're even more optimistic than me, you could reason that the next four are in Knoxville. But the reality is, no matter how good the offense has played the majority of the time, this team as a whole has been subpar to this point. And the defense has been so unbelieveably bad, in big games like this one you feel like the offense has to score everytime they touch the ball. Alabama didn't punt today until the game was out of hand, and John Parker Wilson and DJ Hall set several Alabama records. Unacceptable.
So the circumstances of the year leave room for hope - and a tangible hope at that if Kentucky wins - but the reality of the on-field product leaves room for speculation and great disappointment. So even if UK wins today, and before you even deal with questions of if the Vols are good enough to beat them, or Arkansas, or anyone other than South Carolina next week...even if Tennessee is in control of its own destiny, all is not well in Knoxville.
The balance of these two things must be remembered - and that is why I will again say how fruitless and damaging it is to judge the future of a head coach in the present moment of a season, and that everyone should just shut their mouths until 2007 is over - but the Vols have to get better, and at this point, seven games in, you have to seriously consider if they will on defense. Can Tennessee play well enough to win these still-meaningful games down the stretch?
Our defensive line is a non-factor. We haven't been gashed by a major running back, which makes one question them less and put the blame on our young secondary. But the reality is, when Alabama is playing at the last minute without two OL starters, and you can't get a legitimate sack or any real pressure at all, all game, and all year...the defensive line is the biggest problem. Can we really expect them to get better from this point?
The linebackers can hit, but they don't wrap up and finish tackles as much as they should. And as stated, the secondary is brutally young. Seeing the other team's punter is the exception and no longer the expectation. You're asking an offense that has its moments, no doubt, to be perfect. And then you're digging holes that allow a running back like Arian Foster, who's having a sensational day, to finish with only 13 carries because we have to throw. How did they play so well against Georgia? I don't know. How did it get so bad so fast on defense? I don't know.
So as we watch Florida take a 14-7 lead, the fragile balance between having something to play for and hoping the Gators lose rears its head again after a welcome two week absence. There will be questions, and they are warranted. And Phillip Fulmer will be accountable - even he would tell you that - though he is accountable for the entire season, so his fate need not be decided until it's over. And I hope Mike Hamilton would tell you that.
Winning, of course would make everything better. And a championship season is still on the table today, even if Florida wins in Lexington. But what's also on the table - and right now appears more realistic - are more losses and more of this. So in keeping with the week to week thing, Tennessee has to wise up, and better be better at rebounding than South Carolina, who had an equally deflating loss today. Both of those teams will be looking at themselves in the mirror and thinking "we're not as good as we thought we were." And one of them will be thinking that next Saturday night as well. The Vols have to do whatever it takes to make sure that's not them again next week. There is still good here that can be saved. But there is much work to be done, and if there is any way to get better on defense, the Vols better find it, and the offense needs to continue to execute against what will be the best defense they've seen all year next week. This sucks today, no other way to put it, and it's embarassing for all involved with the Vol program. I still believe Tennessee can be good enough to get it fixed. But the hour is extremely nigh, and it's becoming, quite literally, now or never. And we're going to find out which one it's going to be very, very soon.
Friday, October 19, 2007
First, in a belated answer to Amy's question about my favorite Tennessee/Alabama game, the 1996 game still stands at the top of my personal list. There have been others that were more defining, like 41-14 in 1995 to finally break the streak. And there have been some that were more dramatic, like the five overtimes in 2003 we were all there for. But everything about the 96 game - the first time I'd ever seen us beat Alabama in person, the first win in Knoxville in 12 years, and especially the way that Alabama built a 13-0 lead into the third quarter, and then the Vols finally did to them what they'd been doing to us for as long as I'd known the rivalry: make every play, get all the breaks, and somehow find a way. The tape of that game is absolutely brutal to watch until Peyton hits Joey Kent for a score late in the third to make it 13-6, and from that point on it's brilliant. The two interceptions late, Jay Graham getting a TD from the official when he was really down at about the 3 yard line, Jay Graham turning "we're playing for overtime" into a 79 yard touchdown run, and then Alabama inexplicably moving the football when they hadn't all day to get in the red zone with under a minute to play, only to be stopped on 4th down to seal it. It was the first time that beating Alabama seemed real, and when we'd pulled it off - and how we'd pulled it off - broke the curse that I'd known my entire life, and became one of its own for Alabama that would last five more years after that. 20-13 in 1996 - the last nationally relevant Tennessee/Alabama game in Knoxville - is my favorite of them all...so far...but it'll be hard to beat.
What's interesting too, when you look back on the streak from 1995-2001, is that after that 96 game, the attitude changed dramatically. I bought a shirt the very next year, after winning 38-23 in Birmingham, that said "WE OWN ALABAMA", which was a preposterous statement to make in Knoxville, but somehow appropriate since Fernando Bryant had said the same thing about the Vols just three years before. After the 1996 game, the Vols and their fans expected to win. And none of the games were really that close or dramatic from that point on in the streak. Even in 1999 - the last nationally relevant Tennessee/Alabama game period - with "Shaun Alexander for Heisman" everywhere in Tuscaloosa, the site of the game for the first time ever instead of Birmingham, and both teams with only one loss and ranked in the Top 10...Tennessee did what Tennessee did to Alabama at that point in time, and really dominated the game in a 21-7 win that could've been closer if the aforementioned Alexander showed signs of what he'd later do on my fantasy team this year by dropping a sure touchdown, but really at the end wasn't even that narrow. Look at the margin of victory for Tennessee during the streak:
1995: Tennessee 41 - Alabama 14
1996: Tennessee 20 - Alabama 13
1997: Tennessee 38 - Alabama 23
1998: Tennessee 35 - Alabama 18
1999: Tennessee 21 - Alabama 7
2000: Tennessee 20 - Alabama 10
2001: Tennessee 35 - Alabama 24
There's no blowouts after the first one, but there's no sweating after the second one. One of my favorite quarters in Tennessee football history is the 4th quarter of the 2001 game, the last in the streak, when Alabama went in with a 24-21 lead. Tennessee dominated those 15 minutes and that 4th quarter against a solid opponent better than at any point I could ever remember until the Georgia game last year. Alabama went in up 24-21, the Vols scored on a lengthy touchdown drive, Alabama went three and out, the Vols scored on a lengthy touchdown drive, Alabama went three and out. Brutal, efficient, painful if you're wearing crimson. They thought they had us, and then Tennessee did what Tennessee did. And it was over in a heartbeat.
Now, let's look at more recent history. Since Alabama broke our streak in 2002 with a 34-14 win in Knoxville, check out the last four meetings:
2003: Tennessee 51 - Alabama 43 (5 OT)
2004: Tennessee 17 - Alabama 13
2005: Alabama 6 - Tennessee 3
2006: Tennessee 16 - Alabama 13
The games are closer, and the offenses are non-existent (the 03 game was 17-17 going to overtime). In their last five meetings with the Tide, Tennessee has won three of them by averaging 13.4 points per game in regulation. So the times have to be changing, because 13.4 points on Saturday gets us beat. Badly.
This year's contest opened in Vegas as pick'em, and that's about right. Tennessee probably has more talent, no doubt, while Alabama has a terrible habit of playing exactly to the level of their competion in every game this season outside of Western Carolina. So while it's fun to think about blowouts - especially when you have to figure that Nick Saban teams are going to get better, not worse, and this may be our best chance to beat Alabama for the forseeable future - you'd be crazy to look at the history and the circumstances and not forsee a close game.
It's interesting - with no undefeated teams in SEC play, the slate is basically wiped clean for most one loss teams. That means that even if Alabama loses on Saturday, they will still control their own destiny to Atlanta. And it means that even if Tennessee loses, they can be right back in control of their fate if Florida falls in Lexington three hours later. Which, by the way, you'd all be picking Kentucky in that game if they weren't "Kentucky" and playing against "Florida". If you took the names out of the equation, the Cats should clearly be the favorites and not the eight point underdogs.
But while Nick Saban will be forgiven if he loses to Tennessee his first time around, we'll get back on the merry-go-round with Fulmer should the Vols lose here, swinging back over towards "fire him!" instead of the happier place we're in this week. They're all important anyway, but especially this one, and especially this year, the Vols need it.
You can break it down all you want, but at the end of the day, like I said, you're crazy if you don't think this one's going down to the wire. Which is fine, because that's what this rivalry is supposed to do. It just needs to be the Vols who come out on top. I will say that it greatly, greatly benefits the road team to have an early kickoff like this, and I'll also say that if the Vols win Erik Ainge will be 3-0 as a starter against Alabama in his career (Rick Clausen started in 2005). Both teams have weapons, both teams have holes, and all those game maxims about not making mistakes and play for and making breaks and scoring off them will be very true on Saturday. So forget the angles, forget the predictions, forget the rest of the season, forget everything else with this one - can the Vols, for the 11th time in 13 years, be the ones to make it happen on Saturday? Because by God, this one is still at the top of the list.
Will's Pick: Tennessee 28 - Alabama 27
Monday, October 15, 2007
From Decade of Dominance...
For our friends in Tuscaloosa, the highlights from their last two wins:
2002 via ESPN
2005 via Eli Gold
And finally, last year's highlights...
2006 via CBS
Saturday's game will be shown regionally and on ESPN GamePlan via Lincoln Financial Sports. It's the first time since 1988 - when the Vols were 0-5 coming in - that the Third Saturday in October game isn't on national television. It's also the first time I can ever remember thinking "big game" and associating it with JP/LF Sports. So it'll be new. But it'll still be the Third Saturday.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
This year, they're all in question.
Not just in the SEC, where this has been the case since Steve Spurrier left Florida. Every team, every game, every week, everything counts. There are no more circled W's. Looking ahead is pure disaster and foolishness. Trying to make sense of it all is pure insanity. But at least it's never boring...and I would argue that it's never been more interesting.
At the halfway point of the 2007 college football season, everyone ranked in the preseason AP Top 10 has at least one loss, and only six undefeated teams remain (including zero in the SEC, where each of the 12 teams has at least one conference loss). Of these unbeaten teams left standing, only one is a recent traditional powerhouse, and it was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Columbus. And in fact, maybe it still is, and Ohio State just hasn't played anyone of merit yet. Meanwhile, the folks running the BCS are scared to death of a South Florida vs. Boston College national championship game, which is, at this point, as good of an option as anything else out there.
With the first BCS standings slated to be released later today, here's an honest attempt at ranking the Top 25. Ohio State is ranked #1 in the AP and Coaches polls this morning, but that's because they're Ohio State and they were ranked #3 in a week where the top two teams lost. So we're trying taking a fresh look at the entire thing, and see where it shakes out on October 14:
SESB MIDSEASON TOP 25
1. South Florida
Logic offers no other choice. South Florida's quality wins - at Auburn, vs West Virginia - are better than any of the other undefeated teams by far. And they're still undefeated - you'll note that LSU got a first place vote in this week's AP poll, which I'm sure is one of those "LSU is still the best team in the nation" voters - but as long as there are undefeated teams from the major conferences, and especially ones who have won at Jordan-Hare and beat West Virginia, LSU and the voters have lost the ability to make that argument. This team is legitimately good - ask Central Florida - and is the only logical choice for #1 right now.
2. Ohio State
It's a much more difficult argument to figure out who's number two between the Buckeyes and Boston College. Ohio State has looked better against a weaker schedule. The wins at Washington and at Purdue can't be fully understood until we figure out how good both of those teams really are, and really the same can be said for BC's wins over Wake Forest an Georgia Tech. If you lined them up against each other, you'd like Ohio State, and since both OSU and BC are still unbeaten, you can use that argument to help decide. So the Buckeyes get the narrow selection for #2.
3. Boston College
Not as untested as Kansas, Arizona State and Hawaii, but not as impressive as USF or Ohio State, so the Eagles find themselves here at #3. Matt Ryan is a good leader and this team is good on both sides of the ball, and as long as they keep winning, they'll stay in the top 3.
Not only are the Tigers probably still the best team in college football - which few will argue - they lost in triple overtime on the road in the SEC. They have bigger and better quality wins than everyone else, and the SEC schedule will allow them to stay in the National Championship hunt if they don't lose again. Among the one loss teams, LSU not only has the most talent, they have the biggest wins and the most forgiveable loss. "How can you rank one loss LSU ahead of one loss Kentucky?" Good question, since it's the primary argument I'll use elsewhere in the poll. The answer: South Carolina.
Now here, first of all, anyone ranking Oregon ahead of California is an idiot (Ducks three spots ahead in both polls this afternoon) and should have their voting rights removed. There's not a "three way tie" scenario like LSU/Kentucky/South Carolina that can be used to further the argument. Cal beat Oregon at Autzen, Cal hung 45 on the Vols, and Cal lost by three points because, one will argue, Nate Longshore was hurt. And since Longshore's sprained ankle won't keep him off the field all year, a fully healthy Cal team is every bit the second best team in the nation right now as they were last week.
It's a tough call here between Oklahoma and Oregon. OU has wins over Texas and a blowout over Miami, with the big upset loss to Colorado; Oregon has the heartbreaker against Cal combined with the 39-7 thumping of Michigan that keeps looking better, and you can't penalize Oregon just because Michigan quit in that game after the first series. And even if you lined them up and played - and wouldn't that be fun after last year - you'd have a coin flip. Oregon's loss is significantly better, but Oklahoma's wins are slightly more impressive. So I'm going with the Sooners at #6, with a better defense and a relatively even offense.
The Ducks really control their own fate in the polls, since they're ranked higher than Cal in both of them. In terms of talent, there seems to be a significant gap between these seven teams and the teams to follow; I'd bet on any of these seven to win against any of the teams ranked 8-25 here.
8. West Virginia
South Florida proved you can stop these guys, but when your only loss is to the team ranked #1 in this poll and you haven't really been challenged since, you're in good shape. The loss to USF means the Mountaineers may have to hope for a BCS at-large bid, and the health of Pat White may continue to be in question, along with their defense when they play Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati later this year. But right now, this is a top ten team.
9. Arizona State
The second tier of undefeated teams begin here, with the one who's been tested the most of the three. Arizona State did what they had to do last night - put up a good and convincing score in a game most of the nation was asleep for, a 44-20 second half heavy win over Washington. And you don't have to fret long about this ranking: the Sun Devils are off this week, then play Cal, at Oregon, at UCLA and at Southern Cal in succession. So just be patient, and the answers will present themselves.
10. South Carolina
You can tell the SEC has some pull nationally: LSU, South Carolina and Kentucky are all in the Top 8 in the AP poll. The Gamecocks played LSU relatively close and took advantage of every Kentucky mistake in beating them, so even if it's questionable that they've got Top 10 talent, they've got Spurrier and SEC name recognition, so for now they're here in the national eyes. They beat Kentucky, and they've played better over the whole than anyone else you could put here. And like Arizona State, late October and all of November will tell you all you need to know about them: at Tennessee, at Arkansas, Florida and Clemson to close.
You can say it's unfair to rank a team that's beaten Louisville, Arkansas and LSU this low. And maybe you have a point. And here again I'd advise patience: the game with Florida this week can move them into the Top 10 to stay, and if I actually had a vote I wouldn't drop them much further than this for losing it. The UK defense did a nice job of answering questions, and Andre Woodson did a nice job of getting back in the Heisman conversation. If this is truly a championship team, they've gotta beat Florida. And again, even if they lose, they're still a Top 15 team easily.
Once again giving more weight to an undefeated team and ranking them ahead of teams I think would beat them if they lined up and played, but that's the nature of being undefeated. I've seen exactly zero seconds of Kansas football this year, but the schedule tells the story: a quality win over Kansas State, and sound beatings of all the other lesser foes they've faced. They don't play Texas or Oklahoma, and while the competition will get stiffer as they move more into North Division competition, until they lose, you can't rank them much lower than this. We'll see.
Yes, they did give up 41 to Oklahoma. But they've also beat Illinois and embarassed Nebraska, and there's no question they've been more impressive than other one loss teams you could put here. The Tigers should be the prohibitive favorite to win the Big 12 North - and they'll have to go through Kansas to get there - but there's no reason to rank them much lower than this just because they're Missouri and not a household name - on the field, they've been very solid this year.
14. Virginia Tech
Defense and heart continue to carry the Hokies, who are both familiar and content with playing BeamerBall. The big loss to LSU will always loom, and anyone who watches them will question their ability to play offense - Sean Glennon gets points for making a solid comeback this week, and loses points because it was against Duke - but VT will decide their own fate: in two Thursdays, they'll host Boston College.
15. Southern Cal
The last of the upper-tier one loss teams. And it's a shaky hold here on the Top 15, with the loss to Stanford and the poor performance again last week against Arizona. Some voters are clearly still in love with Pete Carroll - the coaches have USC ranked 9th, which is clearly a sign of some man-crushing. The scary part is, the Trojans haven't even remotely played the most difficult part of their schedule, so they'll either be exposed, or they'll get a chance to vault right back into the title hunt.
You can debate this, but I say Auburn must be ranked ahead of Florida. The Tigers haven't done themselves any favors by losing to Mississippi State, but their other loss is to #1 (in this poll) USF, and even though they weren't really sexy about it, they did beat Arkansas at Arkansas last night. And again, patience, and you won't have to wait long - these Tigers are at the other Tigers in Baton Rouge on Saturday night.
If you rank another two loss team ahead of Florida that's not Auburn, once again, you're really not thinking this through. Florida still has St. Tebow and they're still the defending National Champions, with plenty of meaningful games left to be played. The Gators have Top 10 talent, which will probably be where they end up before the season is over. Surely they can't lose three straight, against Kentucky this week...
I would've ranked Hawaii higher, then I watched them play on Friday night. Colt Brennan's 5 TDs aren't anything noteworthy when they're paired with 4 INTs. And they weren't playing someone great, it was San Jose State. They still won and they're still undefeated, but that sort of performance on national television with no other games to watch isn't what's going to help you slide into the BCS.
19. Texas Tech
A dropped ball away from being undefeated, the Red Raiders are rolling once more, and Graham Harrell is the latest TTU QB to be mentioned in the mid-October Heisman conversation. They busted up Texas A&M using both sides of the ball, and it'll be the contests with Texas and Oklahoma down the line that'll fully determine where they finish.
Very very quietly since losing the opener at Wyoming, the Cavs are undefeated, bowl eligible, and rolling. Other than the win over Pittsburgh, none of them have been impressive, but they've all been Ws. They don't play Boston College and they don't play VT until the season finale, so it'll be a winable game every week between now and then. We'll see how long Al Groh can make this last.
21. Kansas State
If you're ranking Texas ahead of Kansas State, please tell me why. The Wildcats took Auburn to the wire, and its only loss is to undefeated Kansas. Meanwhile, K-State just beat Colorado and, remember, BLASTED Texas in Austin. This team is under the radar but very good, and could still easily win the Big 12 North.
I've actually got the Vols two spots lower than the AP poll, but if you could please tell me why Texas is ranked ahead of us (or at all), I'd appreciate it. The losses were big, but so was the win over Georgia - who did the Vols a huge favor by squeaking past Vanderbilt so I can make that very point - and Tennessee simply has to keep winning. Right now they're right about where they should be in the polls, and they're still in control of their own destiny in the SEC. So while being in the 20s in the polls is never good in Knoxville, being in control of their fate always is.
Losing to Louisville ain't what it used to be, but the Bearcats are still very solid, have beaten Rutgers and blown out Oregon State, and still control their own Big East fate. This is not a team just to be written off with one close loss to a team everyone thought was a national title contender; Ben Mauk is really solid, and I think they'll be in the poll for the duration.
Hey, it's Michigan! And yep, they've finally earned it - blasting Purdue and putting the ghosts of September behind them have the Wolverines firmly in control of their own Big 10 fate. If Mike Hart is legitimately hurt, then they're in huge trouble...but if not, you may see the Wolverines continue to roll towards the top.
"What about Penn State?" Illinois beat them, end of conversation. So even though Penn State looked really good while Illinois looked really bad on Saturday, the Illini close loss to Missouri looks better every week, and the Fighting Zookers get to hang on in the poll. But they've got to play better than they did on Saturday at Iowa, though I'm pretty sure it'll be hard to play much worse.
Tennessee fans, among others, have learned that what you think in August will be different than what you think in September will be different than what you think in October. And so it goes from here. So everyone should both calm down and wait for the whole thing to play out, and stop worrying about the whole thing so much, and deal with the present week. And for Tennessee, there's no better week to do that than this one. Stop worrying about Spurrier or Kentucky or if we're good enough or whether it'll still be LSU we face in the SEC Championship. Stop trying to figure out what the final outcome will be and if it'll continue to be enough to save Fulmer. Start focusing on this week - not only because of what it'll mean towards Atlanta, but for what it means right now. Every win is, as Bruce Pearl likes to say, precious. Beating Mississippi State by 12 suddenly feels satisfying. And it's not just to focus week to week so we can survive and then move on to fretting about the next one. When the wins are so precious, they need to all be not just endured, but enjoyed. And like I said, no better time to start enjoying one than the Third Saturday in October.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Last week: 12-10 (ugh)
This season: 85-39
We're off to a good start this week, picking up Wake Forest on Thursday night. In the early games today, you've got some compelling television with survival games in the ACC and Big 10, and another chance for everyone to see if Illinois is for real. Vol fans will want to check out the Lincoln Financial games to get another glimpse of Alabama before next week.
Early game predictions:
- Miami over Georgia Tech
- Illinois keeps rolling on the road at a punchless Iowa team
- South Florida over Central Florida
- Michigan over Purdue (should be fun to watch)
- Alabama wins at Ole Miss
- Nebraska holds serve against Oklahoma State, Texas wins at Iowa State
The Vols kick at 2:30, and since I'm not sure if the correct representation of the 2007 Vols was found at Cal and Florida, or last week at Neyland Stadium. So today, expect something of both. Mississippi State, believe it or not, is 4-2 and has pulled big upsets before. Their defense is better than you think, and they'll want to give the Vols a healthy dose of Anthony Dixon (thus the "nine in the box" comments from Sly Croom early in the week). Survive and advance continues to be the theme...I'll take the Vols in a light sweat in the 4th quarter, 27-20.
3:30 game predictions
- LSU wins at Kentucky. Don't get your hopes up, Lexington
- Boston College rolls Notre Dame in South Bend
- South Carolina wins a dangerous new rivalry game at North Carolina
- Penn State holds serve against Wisconsin (playing without Austin Scott)
- Oregon and Southern Cal both win at home (over Wash. State and Arizona)
- Texas Tech over Texas A&M
- Virginia knocks off undefeated UConn
And later on tonight...
- Georgia wins at Vanderbilt, because they're Vanderbilt
- Cal holds serve at home over Oregon State by continuing to not look ahead
- Cincy stays undefeated by continuing to ruin Louisville's season
- Arkansas saves their season by squeaking by Auburn at home
- Oklahoma shows why Missouri should've saved their best game for this week
- Kansas State knocks off Colorado
- The UDub/Ty Willingham special on the road over undefeated Arizona State
- And finally, the in-state special: MTSU "upsets" Memphis at the Liberty Bowl
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Wake Forest vs. #21 Florida State - 7:30 PM - ESPN
How good is Wake Forest? The Demon Deacons were on point in both of their losses, 38-28 to Boston College and then to overtime against Nebraska. Then they may have saved their season by coming from behind to beat a good Maryland team in overtime. But frustrations remain - the Duke game last week was way too close (41-36) and the defense that carried them at times in 06 has been missing in action in critical spurts. Riley Skinner is back, and led them against Maryland and Duke with efficiency, but he may need something more spectacular than the 440 yards combined he passed for in those two games against the Florida State defense.
Xavier Lee has become the next big thing, for now, in Tallahassee - against Alabama he found a way to make the big plays and threw for 224 yards in the second half, then came back to go for 257 against NC State last week. FSU has won four in a row, and is a terrible first half against Clemson away from being undefeated. With the Tigers having gone down twice, the Noles can control their own path to Jacksonville.
Will the Noles be after revenge? Because they should be - the 30-0 beatdown Wake gave FSU last year in Tallahassee was the lowest point in the Bobby Bowden era, and was the moment everyone knew both that Wake was for real, and Florida State officially wasn't what it used to be. The Noles are a long way away from getting that aura back, and Wake has two losses and a third will make them nationally irrelevant for the rest of the year. So both teams really need this one.
We've discussed earlier Wake's lack of real home field advantage, so you can throw that out. If Florida State is going to make a run for the ACC title this year, they need to prove it by winning this one. The Noles defense is tough and Wake will struggle to score, but there's something about this one that makes me lean towards the Demon Deacons. Even if FSU is firing on all cylinders, they're not so much better than Wake that they can walk in and return the 30-0 favor. Florida State hasn't proven it over the last few years that they can win games like this on a regular basis, so I'm betting that Wake - riding high in confidence after the Maryland win two weeks ago - still has enough to put the Noles away.
Wake Forest 23 - Florida State 20
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
And while ridiculous optimism always lives on this blog, with the basketball team it's not just me: Lindy's preseason college basketball magazine has the Vols picked 3rd. In the nation. So much for trying to temper expectations.
In fact, now we're going to start playing the underrated card - also today, a feature on SI.com has the Vols' backcourt ranked 7th in the nation. And I'm saying, "7th? Only 7th? Chris Lofton and the Smith Boys, 7th?" See, it's starting already...
HBK decked Orton with Sweet Chin Music, and now the Cyber Sunday main event has changed, where you the fan can vote to see if Orton will face Jeff Hardy, Mr. Kennedy, or Shawn Michaels for the title in three weeks. And yet again, glad to see they're taking all the drama out of it, because if HBK doesn't win that vote I'd be stunned. Meanwhile, the Chris Jericho rumors continue to swirl, with Jericho giving a neither confirm nor deny statement to a London newspaper while promoting his book. It's amazing how, even when things are going so poorly for the WWE, you bring back a couple of old faces, and everything looks good again.
Monday, October 08, 2007
Anyway, Travis is a UT fan, and CBS Sportsline has a piece he wrote during the Georgia/UT weekend that's a very good read. As soon as I find civilization and his book, I'm sure it'll go on the mantle next to Dane Bradshaw's.
By the way, all this whining by the Michigan people about how come the Wolverines dropped out of the Top 25 when they lost at home to Appy State, and USC loses at home to Stanford and doesn't drop out of the Top 10? Stanford is FBS. Appy State is FCS. And in the subconscious mind of the voter, that combined with SC's recent run of dominance that Michigan hasn't enjoyed, makes all the difference. Silence, village idiots.
Looking at the SEC East race
With the season not even half over yet, there's obviously a long way to go between here and Atlanta. While everyone is asking themselves if they can beat LSU in the West Division, over in the East, at least four teams have a legitimate shot at winning this thing, and I'd argue that Georgia isn't quite dead yet either, though you may not hear much of that sentiment in Athens this week. So with seven weeks of regular season football left to play, and the Vols and South Carolina in control of their own destiny, here's a breakdown of where everyone stands in the SEC East, in a rough order of standing:
Remaining Schedule: at Mississippi State, at Alabama, vs South Carolina, vs Arkansas, vs Vanderbilt, at Kentucky
The good news is that the Vols beat Georgia and control their own destiny. The bad news is the Florida loss will keep them on the losing end of any tiebreaker with the Gators, and the Vols still have six SEC games left to play. If Florida wins out, Tennessee must do the same to make it to Atlanta. If everyone else in the division continues to lose, one mantra will be true for everyone: it's much better to lose to a team from the Western Division than to a rival from the East. This means that the two most important games left on Tennessee's schedule are, in order, South Carolina and Kentucky. But really, they're all important when one loss puts your destiny back in Urban Meyer's hands. The Vols might be underdogs in Tuscaloosa next week, but should be favored in all the other contests, and shouldn't play anyone even remotely as good as California and Florida. It is worth noting that the Vols are yet to face a really great defense, which is what they'll see from South Carolina (and don't overlook Mississippi State's). So there will be no excuses, and while it will be a test every week, Tennessee is good enough to win out.
SOUTH CAROLINA (3-1)
Wins: Georgia, Mississippi State, Kentucky
Remaining Schedule: vs Vanderbilt, at Tennessee, at Arkansas, vs Florida
Carolina has already scored two huge victories by knocking off East Division foes Georgia and Kentucky, and Spurrier will get a chance to do it himself against Tennessee and Florida. Their pressure situation is the opposite of Tennessee's: while the Vols have their most difficult games behind them and carry a feeling of trying to survive, South Carolina - despite having already played three huge games - still has the trip to Knoxville and the date with the Gators in front of them. And even if Carolina manages to win in Knoxville, that would then put Florida's destiny back in their own hands, and probably then turn the Carolina vs. Florida game into the SEC East Championship. So while everyone has pressure, Carolina will have a different sort of pressure, as their schedule gets progressively more difficult as the season goes on. Gamecock fans have seen their teams hit a late October/early November slide every year since Lou Holtz came to town, and they'll have to get over that hurdle if they want to get to Atlanta. Spurrier has been working to get this program here, and even though they've done so with an assist from Auburn and LSU in beating Florida, they're a Top 10 team in control of their own fate. And just two years ago, they won in Knoxville, then beat Florida in Columbia. Can they do it again, and then take the next step? Can they get to Atlanta for the first time in the history of the program?
Losses: South Carolina
Remaining Schedule: vs LSU, vs Florida, vs Mississippi State, at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, vs Tennessee
Kentucky does not control its own destiny thanks to the loss to South Carolina, and so they'll need the Cocks to lose once in order to step back in front. But that will only be as long as they themselves keep winning, and no one has a more difficult October than the Cats, who'll have to rebound from the Thursday night loss to Carolina just in time to face LSU, then Florida. So one week after making it to the Top 10 for the first time in anyone's memory, the Cats will need back to back massive home upsets just to stay in the poll at all. Is Kentucky just an early feel good story (and how good, really, are Louisville and Arkansas?) or are they legitimate? As stated, Eastern Division wins are more important - if the Cats can forge a split over the next two weeks, the Florida game is much more important in terms of keeping their own fate in their hands. Then they'll have to beat Georgia and Tennessee in November...but at least Kentucky plays all of their biggest games in Lexington. UK is explosive enough on offense to beat anyone, but their defense isn't strong enough to overcome mistakes, which is what cost them on Thursday. Kentucky is either going to be a big story or a non-factor based on what happens over the next two weeks. We'll see.
Wins: Tennessee, Ole Miss
Losses: Auburn, LSU
Remaining Schedule: at Kentucky, vs Georgia (Jacksonville), vs Vanderbilt, at South Carolina
While the 59-20 win over Tennessee may still be fresh in the minds of Vol fans, Gator fans are thinking about the three weeks since: the escape over Ole Miss, the home loss to Auburn, and the loss to LSU. The blowout over the Vols has, at least so far, been proven as the exception and not the rule, and the Gators have gone back to their 2006 ways, playing everything to the final second, and while their defense has played over everyone's expectations, it hasn't been quite good enough to overcome the offense playing just below everyone's expectations (after the Tennessee game, of course). Florida needs only one Tennessee loss to get back in front and in control, and if you're a Gator fan, you look at the Vols' games with Alabama, Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky and like your odds from a Gainesville perspective. But Florida also must play better in their own right, because the trips to Lexington and Columbia will not be easy. Can Florida rebound and improve, or will they drop another along the way?
Wins: Alabama, Ole Miss
Losses: South Carolina, Tennessee
Remaning Schedule: at Vanderbilt, vs Florida (Jacksonville), vs Auburn, vs Kentucky
Bad news for Georgia: you've lost to both South Carolina and Tennessee, you're two in the hole in the East and you haven't played Florida yet, and you've lost six straight against the East going back thru last year. Georgia still has a shot, but not only will they have to win out with a difficult schedule and the Cocktail Party, which is the closest thing to a guaranteed loss in the SEC you can find, they need Carolina AND Tennessee to lose two games apiece. It's not impossible, but it's very improbable. And fans in Athens aren't worried about Atlanta, they're worried about righting the ship. You usually don't read about someone looking for revenge against Vanderbilt, but that's exactly what Georgia's doing this week. The Dawgs need to take them one at a time, get past Vanderbilt, and then focus on trying to knock off Florida - if you do that, even if you don't get the needed losses from Carolina and/or Tennessee, you've got a shot at having a good year and getting things back on the up and up. But right now, the most disgruntled fan base in the SEC resides in Athens.
Wins: Ole Miss
Losses: Alabama, Auburn
Remaining Schedule: vs Georgia, at South Carolina, at Florida, vs Kentucky, at Tennessee
Believe it or not...Vanderbilt also still controls its own destiny, having played only Western Division teams at this point. So, you know, they need to win. And that's about all the space we're going to use entertaining the thought of the Dores in Atlanta. I will say that the Dores have three wins already and will probably get four against Miami (OH), so they'll either need to beat Wake Forest and win one, or they'll need to find two victories against the above SEC East schedule to make it to a bowl game. It's possible, and it's very possible that they catch Georgia with their pants down again, but then again, they're still Vanderbilt.
This thing will change from week to week, and as the aforementioned Stanford and Appy State have shown, every game counts and anyone can beat anyone, especially in the SEC. So it's critical, not just for the Vols but for everyone, to focus on the week and the task at hand, and simply win and move on; survive and advance. If form holds, the October 27 game between Tennessee and South Carolina could end up deciding the East race, but as stated, you can't look ahead even that far. The Vols got the help they needed, now it's up to them to get it done from here. It starts this week in Starkville - not looking ahead to the Third Saturday and Tuscaloosa, not thinking about any Spurrier Showdowns...focus on Mississippi State. One at a time. And the Good Lord willing, things will work out.
Feast or Famine in the NFL
Speaking of famine, let's start with my fantasy team, so I can use this blog to air my personal grievances. In the head-to-head league I run, I've come in 4th place (out of 10) each of the last three years - always just good enough to sneak into the playoffs, and then bad enough to go 0-6 in playoff games in that span. Playing with the same owners and ordering the draft based on the previous season's performance, finishing 4th means I've drafted 6th each of the last three years, which means I don't get a shot at Manning or LT or any supposedly definitive superstars. So my thought process has always been that drafting from there keeps feeding the cycle of being just good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to win it all.
But this year, I was happier with my team post-draft than I've ever been. Coming into Week 1, my starting lineup looked like this:
QB Marc Bulger
RB Shaun Alexander
RB Travis Henry
WR Donald Driver
WR Darrell Jackson
TE Kellen Winslow
K Nate Kaeding
Bulger has been one of the five best fantasy QBs for the last four years. Alexander has been a touchdown machine when healthy. Henry was coming off a career reviving year in Tennessee and was now the feature back in the run-happy Denver offense. Donald Driver is Brett Favre's favorite target. Jackson - who was replaced after one week with Wes Welker - was supposed to be the primary threat the 49ers were waiting on. Kellen Winslow is a soldier. Nate Kaeding is the official kicker of LaDanian Tomlinson. And it's the Ravens defense man. I loved my team.
I won the first week. I lost the second week because I played Kaeding instead of New England's Stephen Ican'tspellyourlastnamebutitstartswithaG. Since then, everything has fallen apart.
Marc Bulger has a rib injury and wasn't getting anything done before that, thanks in part to a devastated offensive line with three starters out with injury. Travis Henry, when he's not getting high or fathering illegitimate children, leads the NFL in rushing yards...and has one touchdown in five games. Shaun Alexander has disappeared with the rest of Seattle's offense (which makes me feel great about trading Winslow for Matt Hasselbeck and Bo Scaife, who VY refuses to throw to). Donald Driver continues to be Favre's favorite target, until they get in the red zone. And the Ravens' defense waited until last week to play a good game. Result: I'm 1-4 and in last place, by far, in my own league. And it's not going to get any better.
Alright, now that that's done...
It's strange, because as college football is getting closer and closer in terms of teams being even and fewer and fewer dominant teams, the NFL - which is designed to work exactly that way - has never been further apart from top to bottom after five weeks.
New England has been more dominant thru five weeks than any team I can ever remember. Along with the Patriots, the Colts and Cowboys (who play Buffalo on MNF tonight) - and I would put the 4-1 Steelers in that group - the top of the league appears to be very, very good. New England and Dallas play each other next week, and the Pats and Colts will hook it up later this year. But the cream of the crop is very, very good.
Then there are a number of teams, and many of them surprising - Green Bay, Tennessee, Washington, Jacksonville - that have kept the pace in the standings thru five weeks, but don't appear to have the same explosiveness and firepower. The only thing that keeps Green Bay from winning as brutally ugly as the Titans, Redskins and Jaguars is Brett Favre. The Titans - who again disappear into the great television void, and I'm left with Mike Keith and StatTracker to base my opinions on - continue to find ways to win, and have a telling game at Tampa (3-2) this Sunday. None of these four teams are going to find their way to the top of anyone's Power Rankings, but they are also all well coached and all good enough to beat anyone they play. These are the teams you don't want to come across in the playoffs.
But at the bottom, it's been just as bad as it's been good at the top. Some of that is unfulfilled expectations: the Saints are 0-4, the Rams are 0-5 and starting the guy who replaced Heath Shuler at quarterback, the Eagles and Bengals are 1-3. And you've got teams like the Dolphins, who are 0-5 and make Nick Saban look smarter every week. The difference in divisions is jarring too: the AFC East is the Patriots and three nobodies - even the Jets are 1-4 - while the AFC South features the 5-0 Colts, the 3-1 Titans and Jaguars, and the 3-2 Texans in last place. The Bucs and Panthers are 3-2 and tied for first in the NFC South.
The NFL, more than any other sport, is overanalyzed, and those who were writing teams like the Chargers and the Bears off last week because they needed to something to say to fill the countless hours of television we devote to America's Game, may turn around and be talking about those teams in January. So even saying that the good teams are great and the bad teams are terrible has to be taken with a grain of salt. But this, so far, is shaping up to be a great year at the top and into the playoffs in the NFL. And the Titans, so far, picked a tough year to try and get in.
Finding a reason to care about the MLB Playoffs...
Braves not playing in October for the second year in a row? Cubs' dreams shattered before I even had a chance to write about them? Tired of the Red Sox and Yankees?
I give you, Vol fans, Todd Helton.
The Rockies alone are a good story, and have now won an absolutely absurd 17 of their last 18 games, which would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated if they didn't play in the NL West. The break the Philly hearts almost as fast as Arizona did to Chicago, only the Cubs are a little more used to it by now. And there's nothing about Arizona that makes you think they'll have a definitive advantage over the Rockies in the NLCS that no one will care about.
But Helton's been plugging away faithfully in Denver for 11 years, getting called up the year after the Rockies last made the playoffs and were wiped out by the Braves in the first round. And so with trade rumors swirling, the grizzly (literally) vet finally got surrounded by other hot bats and just enough pitching to carry them this far. So now - especially if you dislike the Red Sox/Yankees stuff, though NYY may be done as early as tonight - you've got a reason to care, and a reason to care about someone other than the East Coast teams that you pretend to favor in October. The Rockies and Helton are a good story, and I'm excited about seeing if they can continue to get it done in the NLCS.
WWE Championship changes hands 3 times in 1 night
Fans in Memphis who had tickets to the No Mercy PPV, and those who paid for it on PPV, had to be disappointed when John Cena went down with his torn pec. But WWE gave them their money's worth last night: Cena's title was awarded to Randy Orton at the open of the broadcast, who was scheduled to face Cena in a Last Man Standing Match later that night before Cena's injury. Triple H - who if you're a fan and you wanted to see anybody else face Orton for the gold, it's him - challenged Orton to a match, which HHH won to take the title away from Orton, and secure his 11th World Championship (look out, Ric Flair). HHH then had to defend in his regularly scheduled match with Umaga, which he won. Then, they announced that Orton's Last Man Standing match would go on as promised, against Triple H, forcing him to defend the title again. Orton won the title back with an RKO through the announce table with Triple H unable to answer the 10 count.
The more exciting news is that Cyber Sunday, the next PPV, is only three weeks away, which will make the wheels turn faster. Triple H will face Randy Orton again, and you can log on to WWE.com to vote for the match stipulation (Hell in a Cell, No DQ, or Falls Count Anywhere...that's an obvious way for the WWE to say they're ready for another Hell in a Cell match, because given the option no one's going to vote for the other two). You can also log on to vote for the special guest referee in the Fatal Fourway for the World Heavyweight Championship between Batista, Khali, Rey Mysterio and Finaly, with Mick Foley, JBL, and Steve Austin as options. Again, let's try not to make it so obvious next time.
Finally, a new video package appeared at No Mercy in the "saveus_222" stream - already you can tell they're doing a good job of generating excitement. This one featured "rev_22_12" ("Behold, I am coming soon..." in your biblical translation of choice) and the phrase "second coming" spliced in. That's gotta be Chris Jericho...though both Shawn Michaels and Edge have been confirmed to reappear before Survivor Series, with Jim Ross plugging HBK's return as just "weeks away" in his blog last week. Business is picking up.