Thursday, August 16, 2007

THE SEASON AHEAD: WEEK 8 HATES SOMEBODY


Rivalries are what make college football truly great. They're more developed, more passionate than in the professional version, and great moments and blown calls are remembered far longer.

The most bitter intrastate rivalries are often saved up for the end of the year. But some of the midseason grudge matches are also keepers. And this season, The Third Saturday in October -- made famous by an SEC border battle -- is also home to a few other heated games. The Third Saturday in October this year is Week 8.

Of course, the matchup that makes the week well-known is the tilt between Tennessee and Alabama, held this year in Tuscaloosa. It will mark the first time Nick Saban matches wits as Alabama coach with Phil Fulmer, though some of the drama will be gone since we know Fulmer will not be dodging subpoenas.


Keep your eyes open, boys. They won't take me down without a fight.

Nationally, the game likely to get the most attention is Southern Cal's trip to Notre Dame, a game that could severely test Charie Weis' gameplanning ability. Count on the Irish to be heavy underdogs in this showdown, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on NBC.


Though the Trojans have lost one of their favorite plays for South Bend.

Other rivalries will go toward shaping a conference or division race. Auburn visits LSU for the renewal of one of the most bizarre rivalries in all of college football. Fires, weird calls, the sudden inability of a place kicker to place the ball anywhere close to between the uprights -- anything can and often does happen in a game that just as often decides the SEC West. It's currently scheduled for 8 p.m., though with two big SEC games on, negotiations between CBS and ESPN could change that. The Eye could also try a doubleheader with the Alabama-Tennessee game.

Miami at FSU has only been spiced up since conference implications were added, and that has helped to push the game back from the first week of the year, where the ACC and ABC placed it the last couple of seasons. Both of these programs will also be looking to prove they have reclaimed their greatness. Time and network TBA, though it's a strong candidate for ABC Saturday Night Football if the two teams are having good seasons.

Not quite as big a deal emotionally will be Cal's visit to UCLA, but it could determine who has the best chance to knock off Southern Cal, aka who will be the second-place team in the Pac-10. South Florida at Rutgers, an potentially important battle in the Big East, airs Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.

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GAMECOCKS 2007: at NORTH CAROLINA


When C&F first heard that Butch Davis had taken the head coaching job ath North Carolina, he wondered whether the former Miami leader had lost his mind. If you wanted to find a bad team -- just bad -- you'd be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than the Tar Heels.

North Carolina went 3-9 last year, with the wins coming against I-AA Furman, N.C. State and Duke. To add insult to injury, they beat Furman by a field goal and Duke by a point. Losses included a 52-7 torching at Clemson and a 23-0 defeat at Virginia.


Excuse me, coach, when was your last mental exam?

But then C&F realized that Butch Davis was doing on a much larger scale what Spurrier did in 2005 -- if he couldn't get his old job back (and Miami was at least going to wait to offer Davis, and might not have done so at all), then the competitive side of him wanted a challenge. For his part, Spurrier at least found a program with a pulse. Davis faces the football equivalent of Weekend at Bernie's.

Not that there isn't any promise at North Carolina. N.C. State and Duke haven't exactly been powerhouses in recent years, despite infrequent good seasons from N.C. State, so the state is wide-open in terms of recruiting if Davis can show tangible signs of progress. In 2007, he has to worry about minimizing the embarrassment.

OFFENSE

O-line. The center and right side of the line return. The unit allowed 22 sacks last season, while the Tar Heels averaged about 113 yards a game on the ground. This isn't a lost cause, but it also isn't likely to wow anyone's front seven. Still, trust South Carolina's offensive line only when it shows it can perform. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Quarterback. Your candidates here are redshirt freshman T.J. Yates, who went 10-15 for 163 yards and 3 TDs in the spring game, and CAm Sexton, who completed 42 percent of his passes last year (57-136) for 840 yards, 4 TDs and 8 INTs. Either one is likely to have a rocky year, even in the ACC. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Wide receivers. Hakeem Nicks is the most valuable of the group, catching 39 passes for 660 yards and four scores last year. (Which is an accomplishment when you consider the Tar Heels' success through the air.) Brandon Tate is favored by some to win the other starting position, despite catching just five passes for 72 yards in 2006. Brooks Foster caught 38 balls for 486 yards and 2 TDs. Joe Dailey? North Carolina fans might recognize him from last year. When he played quarterback. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Running backs. No one currently on team ran the ball 100 times last year. Justin Warren carried it seven times for 77 yards and a TD. Richie Rich, called a "co-starter" in his player bio (no one else is thusly identified) has carried the ball once for -1 yards. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA


He could also start at tailback.

DEFENSE

Defensive line. The members of this season's line got 14 TFLs and 9 sacks last year. The totaled 90 tackles all year and return two starters from a unit that surrendered almost 173 rushing yards a game last year. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Linebackers. Durell Mapp, the sole returning starter, got 87 tackles last year, including four TFL. The other options are less attractive; only one other potential starter (Chase Rice) has more than 30 tackles. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Secondary. The linebackers who come back actually have more interceptions (2) than the returning members of the secondary, who have none. The only returning starter is Jermaine Strong, who was unimpressive. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

COACHING

Davis has never actually won a national championship, but laid the groundwork for the Hurricanes' 2001 crown. His experience at the NFL's Cleveland Brown was ... less than ideal, but that makes him no different than Spurrier on that count. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

RESULT

North Carolina will be a difficult opponent for anyone who faces them down the road; Davis should have success turning the Heels into a tough team. But this year is part of the rebuilding effort. It's not impossible for North Carolina to win, but it's hard to see any scenario where it actually happens. WIN

THE REST OF THEIR SEASON

A long, long four months awaits Davis and his team. Games against Virginia, at South Florida, at Virginia Tech, against Miami, at Wake Forest, against Maryland, and at Georgia Tech are probably also lost causes. The opener against James Madison is winnable, as is the last game against Duke. The contests at East Carolina and N.C. State are tough. Another 3-9 season should be welcomed by Heels fans; 2-10 is likely and 1-11 is not out of the question.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

GAMECOCKS 2007: vs. KENTUCKY


C&F will admit that Rich Brooks might have proved him wrong. Brooks always looks confsued, bewildered, lost on the sideline. Maybe it's his age, perhaps it's his general demeanor, possibly it's that he really is confused. Or maybe it's just C&F.


Why are these people carrying me?

But Brooks could just turn out to be the right man for the job at Kentucky. The Wildcats finished an almost-historic 8-5, with a 4-4 SEC mark good enough to tie for third in the division. They also beat Florida Georgia 24-20 and gave Tennessee heart palpitations (no small matter for Phil Fulmer) before falling 17-12 in Knoxville. (Now, if Kentucky had actually beat the national champs, that would have been something. That's what C&F gets for writing previews at 12:30 a.m. Thanks to gatorhippy for pointing out the mistake.)

This could be a breakout year for the boys from the Bluegrass State; many of the key pieces of last year's Cinderella team return. And C&F puts no stock in this "they can't sneak up on anybody this year" tripe; if you don't prepare for every game against an SEC team, you're an idiot.

OFFENSE

O-line. The Wildcats lose the right side of their line and center, but they keep the left side intact. Whether any of that is a good or a bad thing depends on what you think about last year's unit, which allowed 39 sacks. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Quarterbacks. Perhaps you've heard of Andre Woodson. You should have. The 6' 5", 230-pound gunslinger scorched secondaries across the league last year, including South Carolina's. He was 264-419 (that's 63 percent) for 3,515 yards, with 31 TDs against only 7 INTs -- a performance that would have gotten him at least mentioned for a truckload of awards were he at any school expect Kentucky. He might get at least a mention for some honors -- the Heisman? -- if his team catches fire this year. ADVANTAGE: KENTUCKY

Wide receivers. Of course, Woodson had help. Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons might be the best returning tandem of WRs in the SEC. Burton pulled down 77 receptions for 1,036 yards and 12 TDs. Lyons caught 50 balls for 822 yards and nine scores. There's no reason to believe they won't be part of another impressive air attack. ADVANTAGE: KENTUCKY

Running backs. Like Cory Boyd, Rafael Little is a dual-threat running back. He rushed 140 times last year for 673 yards -- respectable if not spectacular -- and caught 31 passes for 392 yards. He scored a total of five times. Boyd is more of a threat to score. South Carolina backup Mike Davis has a step up on Kentucky's Tony Dixon. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

DEFENSE

Defensive line. Kentucky recently lost Nii Adjei Oninku, who besides tying Verne Lundquist's tongue in knots was expected to start at end for the Wildcats. But Oninku wasn't a huge factor as a backup last year, so it's hard to tell how big a hit this will ultimately be. The two returning starters on the line were responsible for 13 TFL and 9 sacks. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Linebackers. All three members of the starting unit last season return, though Johnny Williams was listed below Sam Maxwell on the preseason depth chart. Weakside linebacker Wesley Woodyard was a machine, with 122 tackles, 9.5 for loss, a pair of sacks and a pick. Middle linebacker Braxton Kelley was second on last year's squad with 82 tackles, 4.5 of those for loss. Neither Williams nor Maxwell were game-changers. This is the slimmest of edges for the Gamecocks. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Secondary. Returning starters Marcus McClinton and Trevard Lindley combined for six interceptions last season. But opponents averaged almost 269 yards in the air last season. Unless that improves in 2007, South Carolina's pass coverage should be better than that by this point of the season. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lones Seiber returns to place-kicking duties despite hitting just 57.9 percent of his FG attempts last year. Tim Masthay averaged 39.2 yards a punt and had three kicks blocked. Keenan Burton gained 765 yards on 31 kickoff returns last year, with Little picking up 317 yards on 14 punt returns. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

COACHING

Brooks has enjoyed success at Kentucky, at least last year, and elsewhere, but ultimately he's still a sub-.500 coach overall (108-139-4) and in Lexington (17-30). You have to wonder if he'll be able to sustain the success of 2006. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

RESULT

This is maybe the most frightening game on the schedule when it comes to "should" wins. Kentucky is a solid team, and last year's 24-17 result happened largely because, as Brooks pointed out afterward, South Carolina's trick play scored a touchdown while Kentucky's fell flat. The Wildcats should be better this year; then again, so should the Gamecocks. C&F would call this game a toss-up, but he's trying to avoid that in these previews. The game is in Columbia; that should be enough to tip the balance in the Gamecocks' favor. PROBABLE WIN

THE REST OF THEIR SEASON

The Wildcats start out with five games they should win -- Eastern Kentucky, Kent State, Florida Atlantic, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt -- and five teams they have at least a reasonable chance at, in C&F's estimation -- Louisville, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Games against LSU and Florida are probably losses. Bowl eligibility and a 6-6 campaign are likely, though 5-7 isn't out of the question. Going 7-5 will be difficult, given that the most winnable swing games (Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia) are all on the road. A second-straight .500 season should be cause for celebration in Kentucky; anything more will be a solid accomplishment and will likely mean the 'Cats ruined someone's season.

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THE SEASON AHEAD: WEEK 7 WON'T GIVE YOU CAVITIES


Every once in a while, even the most fast-food loving, cholesterol-packing, transfat-scarfing American wants nothing more than a healthy meal. It can taste good and, heck, it might be the only thing you eat all month that won't significantly increase your chance of cardiac arrest.


Good. And good for you.

So it is with Week 7. There aren't necessarily any games that are going to make you lean back and go, "I can't eat anymore." But the games are good enough to keep you entertained. And let's face it: It's a Saturday in fall. You're going to be watching college football. What else are you going to do? Something productive?


Sure, you could do this. But why?

Plus, Clemson has a bye, so there's no danger of flipping the channel and unwittingly seeing a combination of purple and orange that will make blood pour from your eyes.

The action begins Thursday with another revenge match-up, this one in the form of Florida State at Wake Forest, set for 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. FSU's 30-0 humbling at home at the hands of surprising Wake last year was arguably the low point of a sour season for the Seminoles. If FSU is on the way back up (and everyone, C&F included, seems to think that's the case), a convincing win at Wake's place would be one way to prove it.

Other revenge opportunities also leap out from the schedule. Auburn visits Arkansas at 7 p.m., looking for a chance to get back at the team who knocked them out of the SEC championship game last year. Georgia goes to Vanderbilt, time and network TBA, looking to exorcise last year's 24-22 defeat at Sanford Stadium.

One of the only, if not the only, intriguing nonconference games is the border battle between South Carolina and North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Otherwise, it's conference, conference, conference. Wisconsin visits Penn State in a 3:30 p.m. game on ABC, both teams battling to be a legitimate runner-up to Michigan in the Big Ten or -- with a break -- conference champs themselves.

LSU goes to Kentucky, where the Wildcats will try to prove they belong among the big boys by knocking out a conference favorite. The Wildcats from Arizona will face Southern California in Los Angeles in what could be a trap game for the Trojans. Missouri travels to Oklahoma in a cross-division battle that could be a contest between runners-up or could be a preview of the conference championship game.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

THE SEASON AHEAD: WEEK 6 COME WITH BOXING GLOVES


Conference dominance. Sometimes, who is or isn't in the big game for a conference title at the end of the year (at least in the ACC, SEC and Big XII) can come down to one game. Or a game can preview what many believe will be the title game once it rolls around in December. Will the winner of that game have to triumph again?


Are you ready to rumble?

And as October sets in for Week 6, those big-time games begin in earnest.

But the weekend starts with the battle to be a potential Cinderella story in the SEC East, as Kentucky comes to South Carolina for an ESPN Thursday night bout at 7:30 p.m. For South Carolina, though, losses at Georgia and LSU would make this a season saver. For Kentucky, the pressure isn't likely be high, since they'll have had only one conference game, at Arkansas two weeks earlier.

Scheduled games are a bit rare, but those that will find their way to television at some point in the day are plentiful.

The headliner in the SEC is Florida at LSU, an 8 p.m. tilt that could very well be a sneak peak at the championship game. Florida is a heavy favorite to hold on to its East division crown, while all that stands between LSU and Atlanta is Brandon Cox suddenly discovering the magic of error-free football.

The undercard is Georgia at Tennessee, which could be the difference between second and fourth, depending on how South Carolina and Kentucky do.

In the Big XII, the big battle is the same game every year: Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas. The time is yet to be determined by the conference and TV bigwigs, though it's traditionally an afternoon game. It will likely determine the Big XII South champion, which is sort of like winning the Republican primary in Utah.

Undercard action is Nebraska at Missouri, one of which will win the chance at the ritual humiliation that is the lot of the Big XII North champion.

And let's call it the Revenge Conference for a week: Rutgers' defeat at the hands of Cincinnati in 2006 ended its NC hopes and ultimately sealed its fate in the conference race. This year, the Bearcats visit the Scarlet Knights. The undercard here comes when Virginia Tech goes to Clemson after humbling the Tigers at the height of their ACC contender buzz last season.

By now, the fun has really gotten started.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

THE THREAD: C&F ISN'T GOING PRO YET


Well, it doesn't look there's going to be much suspense when it comes to whether Darren McFadden will go pro after this season.

Over the weekend, his mother said flat-out that the Arkansas RB/QB/WR/last hope will be headed for the NFL and the higher salaries it offers.


"He told me [Friday], 'Mom, I'll be through in December,'" Mini Muhammed said. "I said, 'What you mean?' He said, 'I'll be through.' That's what he told me."
Asked if that meant her son would be entering the draft and joining the NFL, Muhammed said, "Yeah. He'll be making big money." ...
In Fayetteville on Wednesday, McFadden told ESPN.com that he did not anticipate making a decision on his future until after the season was over.
"A lot will have to do with how I perform this season, McFadden said.
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said much the same thing Wednesday when asked about McFadden's pro future.
"We'll make the right decision," Nutt said, noting that the Razorbacks have been through this several times in recent years with underclassmen leaving early for the draft.
Arkansas football spokesman Kevin Trainor said Friday night that the school had no response to Muhammed's statements. Trainor did reiterate that McFadden and Nutt stand by their Wednesday comments that there will be no decision on McFadden's future until after this season.


After his comments, Nutt quietly wept for five minutes.

First of all, C&F trusts what McFadden told mama over what he told ESPN.com. And McFadden's mother is right -- the man with no seeming limit on what he can do (save perhaps place-kicking) will make "big money." (Btw, December? Is he already putting Arkansas in the Peach Bowl? Music City Bowl? No bowl at all?)

The problem C&F has with early leavers is that they often don't know what they're getting into. Did Sidney Rice talk to anybody about the difference in guaranteed money -- most NFL contracts are written in promises, dreams and mirages -- between being a Top 10 pick and a Top 50 pick? Maybe he did, but C&F bets that a lot of these young men -- and let's not forget they are young men -- don't.

They talk to agents and experts and listen to the Mel Kipers of the world and think they can make money NOW. Why waste another year in school? Why risk injury?

What they don't understand -- or tend to forget as agents mentioned number these guys have never dreamed of -- is that the extra year can make the difference between huge money and playing time and spending four years on several pro teams' practice squads before quitting in frustration.

On the other hand, C&F also loves what Houston Nutt said: "We'll make the right decision." C&F imagines McFadden's first reaction was, "Who is this 'we' of which you speak?"

McFadden has apparently already made a decision, and it looks to be the right one. The question is how many players will make the wrong one when January rolls around.

Elsewhere this weekend:
--For those who don't read over the weekend, the previews that have posted since Friday afternoon include: South Carolina vs. Georgia, South Carolina vs. S.C. State, Week 4, South Carolina vs. LSU, Week 5, South Carolina vs. Mississippi State.
--Sorensen supports Spurrier. After the board of trustees supports Spurrier. And Spurrier had these problems all along. The question is, who exactly is making decisions up in Columbia and why are we still wrestling with issues that everybody says should have been taken care of. "Clearly, the lateness in the summer in making that final decision is undesirable." You might think that's a mealy-mouthed quote, but that's about as strong as things get coming from the Midwesterner. But the university brass still seems to be convinced that the solution to APR is getting rid of students who need help to graduate instead of giving them the support needed to graduate. It's easy to leave people behind when you've already gotten the benefits of a degree, right?
--A good piece in The State summarizes the issues surrounding redshirting and what it might mean for Garcia and Smelley. Some people have already made up their minds on Garcia. (Shocker, I know.) Spurrier says Garcia needs more time (shocker, I know), and the two phenoms are still knotted for No. 2.
--Got milk? And Gatorade? Hey, it it works, you can call it Husky-ade and get Keith Jackson to narrate your commercials. No, really, you don't have to thank me.
--Georgia Tech's quarterback can beat up your quarterback. And maybe even your defensive end. AJC scribe Matt Winkeljohn -- who already has one of the best names in newspapers -- really deserves a raise for essentially getting out of the way of an amusing story.

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GAMECOCKS 2007: vs. MISSISSIPPI STATE


Pity the Bulldog faithful. Their program has won nine games in the last three seasons, even after the school administration tried to do the right thing by hiring the first black head coach in SEC history.

Pity Sylvester Croom? Maybe. No one can deny that for all the good Jackie Sherrill might have done in the past, his last few years left the program in shambles. Indeed, Sherril won one fewer game in his last three years, and lost two more, than Croom has in his first three seasons. But, at some point, Croom has to prove that he can be the coach to take Mississippi State to at least respectability.


What did I get myself into?

The schedule won't do him any favors this year. Two of the three SEC East teams the Bulldogs face in 2007 are fast risers Kentucky and South Carolina. The other is Tennessee. And they have to travel to Morgantown for a nonconference game with West Virginia. So even without having to go through the SEC West, four tough games present themselves.

So is the program optimistic? Judge for yourself.


From MSU's Web site. In reference to a scrimmage.

OFFENSE

O-line. The Mississippi State front returns all three starters from last season, at least according to the depth chart, and the only underclassman listed is sophomore Johnny Carpenter. Some changes could unsettle things a bit, but Croom also could be using the depth chart as a motivator. (See below.) One hopes that the South Carolina line will have come together at least a bit at this point. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Quarterbacks. The Gamecocks made their own luck, to some extent, in this category last year when they knocked Michael Henig out of the game. Whether the Bulldogs could have beaten them in any event is doubtful; without their starting QB, it was almost impossible. Henig also didn't have much luck when he finally worked his way back after sitting out September. He went 74-for-169 with 7 TDs and 9 INTs on the season. Whether Croom, who has to know the clock is ticking, will stay with Henig through another rough stretch is an open question. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Wide receivers. Last year's top wideout, Tony Burks, ended up third on the depth chart after a disappointing spring, though that might be a motivational tool on Croom's part. In 2006, Burks caught 35 passes for 850 yards and 5 TDs. No one else had more than 30 grabs. Transfer Brandon McRae, who led I-AA Morehead State with 28 catches for 361 yards in 2005, can pitch in this year. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Running backs. Anthony Dixon averaged 55.7 yards over 12 games last season, though he started only five. No one else on the squad ran for more than 250 yards in 2006. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

DEFENSE

Defensive line. Only Titus Brown returns to a unit that issued 22 sacks and 78 TFL last year. But Brown was responsible for 7.5 and 14.5 of those numbers, respectively. Avery Hannibal has limited playing time. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Linebackers. Gabe O'Neal (40 tackles, 3 TFL) and Jamar Chaney (66 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) return. Overall, a solid corps of linebackers, but not at the same level as the Gamecocks' squad. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Secondary. Derek Pegues led the team with four interceptions last year, returning two for TDs. De'Mon Glanton also had a couple of picks. Anthony Johnson and Marcus Washington saw the field only briefly in 2006. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

SPECIAL TEAMS

Adam Carlson returns as placekicker despite getting just two touchbacks in 31 attempts -- a number that will almost certainly not get better with the rule change. Blake McAdams averaged 38.2 yards a punt last year. Pegues averaged 86.4 yards in returns last year, including 14 yards a punt and 23.7 a kickoff. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

COACHING

When Sylvester Croom makes the Bulldogs a factor in the conference, this will be worth more than a few words. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

RESULT

This may be the surest chance for an SEC win for South Carolina on the conference schedule. The Gamecocks struggled to a 15-0 win in Starkville last year in the first game of the season, but this time the game is in Columbia and is later in the season. WIN

THE REST OF THEIR SEASON

It looks like another long season for the Bulldogs. LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Arkansas also look like losses this year. Tulane, Gardner-Webb, UAB and Ole Miss could be wins, but even with all of those in the W column, it will be a 4-8 campaign. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, 3-9 or 2-10 seems more likely.

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