The March To Tampa: Let The Hype Begin

It’s that time of year. On Monday, three major college football publications, Lindy’s, Athlon, and The Sporting News, released their Preseason College Football rankings for the 2016 season. Ever since I was a kid, waiting for Street and Smith’s to publish their preseason magazine, this has been a much-anticipated time for me.

Where is Auburn? Alabama! Again? That refrain rings true once more as Auburn is nowhere to be found in any of the three polls and Alabama resides in the top spot in all of them. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

There are a great many of the usual suspects, from years past, that also find themselves in the hunt. Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, and USC would count among those teams. There are also a few teams that would not have been rated back in my younger days. They would include Baylor, TCU, Louisville, Clemson, Houston, Oklahoma State and Oregon.

And here they are with links:

Lindy’s Athlon The Sporting News
1. Alabama 1. Alabama 1. Alabama
2. Clemson 2. Florida State 2. Clemson
3. Oklahoma 3. Ohio State 3. Oklahoma
4. Ohio State 4. Clemson 4. Ohio State
5. Baylor 5. Michigan 5. Baylor
6. Tennessee 6. Oklahoma 6. Florida State
7. Michigan 7. Tennessee 7. Ole Miss
8. Florida State 8. Notre Dame 8. Michigan
9. LSU 9. LSU 9. Stanford
10. Stanford 10. Ole Miss 10. Notre Dame
11. Notre Dame 11. Washington 11. Michigan State
12. Houston 12. Stanford 12. LSU
13. Ole Miss 13. Michigan State 13. Tennessee
14. Louisville 14. Baylor 14. Houston
15. Iowa 15. UCLA 15. USC
16. Oklahoma State 16. Houston 16. Oklahoma State
17. USC 17. Georgia 17. Iowa
18. Georgia 18. TCU 18. North Carolina
19. San Diego State 19. Louisville 19. Oregon
20. TCU 20. Iowa 20. Georgia
21. Washington 21. Florida 21. Washington
22. Michigan State 22. North Carolina 22. Louisville
23. UCLA 23. USC 23. Arkansas
24. Oregon 24. Oregon 24. Texas
25. North Carolina 25. Oklahoma State 25. TCU
In the SEC, we have Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia, Florida, and Arkansas. That’s half of the league in and half of the league out. Auburn would be the most prominent exception. Now, lets take a look at all of the SEC teams that made their way in and what the average ranking of each, between the three magazines, would be. We will divide the total of each team’s ranking by three, thus, Alabama 3 divided by 3 = 1. I was hell in arithmetic.

Alabama – 1.0

Tennessee – 8.67

Ole Miss – 10

LSU – 10
( A tie. Interesting.)

Georgia – 18.3

Florida was ranked just once, at 21 by Athlon. Arkansas was also ranked only once and that was at 23 by the Sporting News. I suppose they would both fall into the “others receiving votes” in our combined poll.

And so, that leaves only four teams, Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU as being unanimously ranked. That is not what the SEC is accustomed to. Does that mean it will be a down year for the SEC? I don’t know. I could see Auburn making it in when all is said and done. But Missouri, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M? No.

The way I’m looking at it, there would be a maximum of seven SEC teams being ranked when the final poll results are in. A maximum, but there, obviously, could be fewer than that.

I mentioned only four teams that are unanimously ranked in the three publications, and they all fall within the top ten. There is certainly a chance that some of those four teams do not meet expectations.

Will Alabama, truly, be as good as they were last year or in years before? Danny Sheridan, oddsmaker and Bama grad, thinks the Tide could lose a couple of games and finish behind LSU. Alabama also lost Kirby Smart to Georgia. How about them Dawgs? There is an entire new coaching staff, and system, that the Bulldogs have to adjust to.

What about LSU? And Tennessee? There are pundits who are beginning to surmise that these teams are overrated. I disagree. In fact, the more I think about these two, the more I like them.

Tennessee, and Butch Jones, have been steadily building this program and those freshmen that were talented, but green, back in 2013 are bigger, stronger, and experienced. The Vols are also deep. I fully expect them to win the East and play for the SEC Championship.

LSU? Same thing with Brandon Harris, Leonard Fournette and their fellow Tigers. I’m beginning to see Danny Sheridan’s point of view and I understand why he thinks the Bayou Bengals will win the SEC West. It could happen.

Hype! Hype! Hype! That’s all we’ve got until September 1 when South Carolina and Vanderbilt open SEC play. And that, my friends, is only 98 days away!

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To Be Or Not To Be… Consistent

The 2015 regular season is now in the books for the Auburn Tigers. It was a disappointing one, but the problems and inconsistencies did not begin on September 5, 2015, when Auburn played Louisville in the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game. They began, at a minimum, on November 8, 2014, when Auburn played Texas A&M at home. At least that’s when the problems reared their ugly head.

Since that fateful afternoon on The Plains the Tigers’ record stands at 7-10. The SEC record is far, far worse. It stands at 2-9. 2-9!!! Chew on that for a moment. Two and NINE.

Prior to kickoff on January 6, 2014, when Auburn was about to play Florida State for the final BCS National Championship, everything appeared to be bright and “Rose-y”.

Since then, and in the aftermath of The Tigers’ gallant, but sobering, loss in the 2015 Iron Bowl… not so much.

Even the most pessimistic of Auburn fans could not see coming what has, since, transpired.

That would be a 14-11 overall record and 6-10 in the SEC.

I have mentioned before, in this slot, that the 2015 edition of the Auburn Tigers is not ‘2012 Deux’. Obviously. But let’s hope they respond to adversity as the 2012 team did in 2013.

The 2015 group that left EVERYTHING on the field this past Saturday is to be commended for a great effort against what appears to be the best team in the country. The “best team in the country?” did have able assistance from an acutely inept Tom Ritter SEC officiating crew. No holding calls? Seriously? Look at the tape.

That’s not the first time that Ritter and his gang of blind mice have been accused of being less than efficient. The groans and complaints on Mr. Magoo’s gang resonate loudly, from Columbia to Gainesville to Baton Rogue to Knoxville, each and EVERY autumn.

http://www.foxsports.com/college-football/story/alabama-tennessee-sec-officiating-replay-review-102514

But that is not the point. Alabama was the better team and they deserved to win. Good for them.

And Florida, don’t think that you have a snowball’s chance in the bowels of Hades in the SEC Championship Game, you don’t. Not that you haven’t overachieved and had an SEC East best season, you have.

But there is not a remote possibility the the SEC powers-that-be are going to stand by twiddling their thumbs and allow their best shot at a Natty go by the wayside. They won’t.

Alabama has a very, very good football team and has every opportunity to become a great one. They could. They should beat the Gators, handily, under any circumstances.

But you can bet that if, somehow, the SEC Championship Game turned out to be a nail-biter, that the crimson and white could very well get close, and/or, questionable calls.

No, this is not sour grapes. This is the reality in which Auburn and the other twelve SEC participants live. I have watched it with my own eyes for the past fifty-five years. “If you need a yard against Alabama, you’d better get three.” That, according to Pat Dye.

And, let me reiterate, The University of Alabama has an excellent football team and I consider them the premier program in the country. They have the most talent and the best head coach in college football today.

I congratulate them on that and I wish them good luck in the future.

I digress.

Let’s get back to the Auburn Tigers and the reality of the universe in which the Tiger faithful live here on December 1, 2015.

But first we will take a look at the Auburn program since Pat Dye retired in 1992. (And Dye’s record in HIS final two years were 5-5-1 in 1991 and 5-6 in 1992).

Terry Bowden

1993 11-0

1994 9-1-1

1995 8-4

1996 8-4

1997 9-3

1998 1-5

(Bill Oliver went 2-3 after Bowden’s departure in the ’98 season)

Tommy Tuberville

1999 5-6

2000 9-4

2001 7-5

2002 9-4

2003 8-5

2004 13-0

2005 9-3

2006 11-2

2007 9-4

2008 5-7

Gene Chizik

2009 8-5

2010 14-0

2011 8-5

2012 3-9

Gus Malzahn

2013 12-2

2014 8-5

2015 6-6 ( to this point)

So, what’s the take on all that?

There have been some good years, some very good years, some great years, and some phenomenal years (’93, ’04 & 2014). But the one thing that stands out to me is inconsistency. Auburn simply has not been able to put together consistent stretch runs as it did, however briefly, during the Pat Dye Era when they won 4 SEC Championships from 1983-1989. ’87-’89 saw them win three-in-a-row.

Up and down and mediocre has BEEN the consistent theme.

Auburn is going to have to somehow develop that consistency that has eluded them over the past twenty plus seasons. How do they do that?

Well, you start with recruiting. Recruiting has been quite good for the past five or six classes but it does appear that they have whiffed on a few prospects that were hoped to be dynamic and impactful players. And two of those players were quarterbacks, Kiehl Frazier and Jeremy Johnson.

That hurts. It really hurts.

Again, I’ve quoted this before, Pat Dye (yes, quoting him again and with good reason) once said that, “It all starts at quarterback.” It does. And missing, for whatever reason, on that critical position has been, IMHO, one of THE most damning issues Auburn has had in attempting to put together a great program that wins consistently.

Certainly there have been other issues such as developing players, injuries, and just plain bad luck, but much of the problem in 2011, 2012, and 2015 was the play at the quarterback position. And Auburn is, at some point, going to have to recruit AND develop quarterbacks and not keep bringing in JUCO talent. The best they have done, lately, is with Cam Newton and Nick Marshall… JUCO players.

So what about defense?

I think Auburn has their man in Will Muschamp. The defense has begun to really turn it around under his leadership. They are communicating much better. They are tackling much better. And they are playing with that ferocious intensity that you would have expected them to develop under Muschamp.

The defense really got after it in the Alabama game. The overall effort in the Iron Bowl was superb. I think the team really grew up this past Saturday. Now, going into bowl season, they truly have something to build on as they approach the 2016 season.

2016 will be a pivotal year. Make no mistake about it. Gus Malzahn, and his staff, might or might not be coaching for their jobs in the next campaign. I hope they are not. But if the team does not show marked improvement next season there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Of that, you can be sure.

6-6. 2-6 in conference play. Last place in the division. What team would you have attributed those stats to prior to the 2015 season? Vanderbilt? Kentucky? Mississippi State? It sure as hell would not have been the Auburn Tigers.

But, I have faith in Gus Malzahn. I have faith in Will Muschamp (No, I don’t believe he’s going anywhere). And, I have faith in the players that will return in 2016. They became men in the Iron Bowl.

Also, there is some great looking talent coming in the next recruiting class. That group may wind up as another top ten class.

I can see the pieces falling in place for Auburn, much as they did prior to the 1993 and 2004 seasons.

No, I’m not suggesting that the 2016 Auburn Tigers will go undefeated. But next season could go a long way in propelling the program toward consistency that is long, LONG overdue.

Tiger Takes and Fowl Play

On September 27, 1969, Auburn sophomore quarterback, Pat Sullivan, led the Tigers into Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Volunteers. The visitors slipped and slid all over the newly installed, artificial tartan surface of Shields-Watkins field that afternoon. They returned home, battered, with turf burns and bruised egos.

The Vols humbled the Tigers, 45-19, and intercepted young Sullivan FIVE times.

It was one of the future Heisman winner’s worst performances of an otherwise stellar career.

This scenario was one of the first things that crossed my mind, Sunday morning, following Auburn’s 31-24 win over Louisville the day before.

I left the Georgia Dome, Saturday night, far too focused on quarterback Jeremy Johnson’s 3 interceptions, which could have been FIVE, instead of the fact that Auburn had just beaten a very good football team. I was able to view the previous evening’s events with a much clearer perspective following a good night’s sleep and the memory of that debacle in Tennessee which occurred to me, soon after awakening, on Sunday morning.

We all know how things turned out for Pat Sullivan, and I don’t think things will turn out all too differently for Jeremy Johnson. He has the skills, and the surrounding cast of players and coaches, to evolve into one of the best signal callers to ever grace the grassy turf of Pat Dye Field.DSC02280

Auburn and Sullivan regrouped nicely in 1969 to go 8-2. They ended the regular season with a 49-26 shellacking of the Alabama Crimson Tide, and an invitation to play in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, TX.

My guess is that the 2015 edition of the Auburn Tigers will have success to a greater degree than that group who proudly wore the orange and blue 46 years ago. They came out victorious, and they did some impressive things in the process. Let’s take a gander at a few of those who stood out.

Daniel Carlson and Kevin Phillips – Special Teams

Louisville did not return one one kick the entire afternoon! That includes both kickoffs AND punts. Daniel Carlson was 100% on touchbacks, perfect on extra points, and nailed a 56-yard field goal. Kevin Phillips averaged 47 yards on two punts. BOOM, huh?

Peyton Barber and Ricardo Louis – Offense

Barber, the sophomore from Alpharetta, GA, rushed for 115 yards on 24 carries in relief of starter Roc Thomas. He also caught one pass for 15 yards. Barber was the trooper that many of us have been expecting him to be. Louis, he of ” The Miracle at Jordan-Hare” fame, had one of his best games as a Tiger. The senior receiver scored on a pass reception of 33 yards in the third quarter and a run of 8 yards in the fourth quarter. His three total receptions gained 54 yards and his four rushes netted 21 yards.

Tray Matthews and Montravius Adams – Defense

Matthews, a baller, picked off a pass on the initial offensive play from scrimmage for the Cardinals. He returned it for 35 yards. He also had eight tackles and was a man to be reckoned with before leaving the game with an injury.

Adams might have had his best game yet as an Auburn Tiger. He was a disruptive force throughout the entire game and it appears that he has gotten his game to the point where his coaches have been pushing him. This does not bode well for the remaining eleven teams on Auburn’s schedule.IMG_2272

Ok, that’s a brief look at the past, both distant and immediate, now how about the future?

The immediate future holds the 2015 season’s home opener. The opponent is the Jacksonville State Gamecocks. Auburn should be able to get people healthy and utilize the game just played as a great teaching tool. Mistakes were plentiful but correctable. If it’s true that a team’s biggest improvement typically occurs from game one to game two, then this should be a tremendous opportunity to really launch the Tigers forward toward a monstrous showdown with LSU the following week.

Beyond that, the schedule sets up about as well as one can hope for in the SEC West. You gotta play the other six. There is no way to avoid that, but Auburn gets Miss State, Ole Miss, and Alabama in the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. SEC East rival, Georgia, also has to make the trip to the Plains as do San Jose State and Idaho.

Besides the trip to Baton Rouge, Auburn travels to Lexington, Fayetteville and College Station for games with Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Those are some truly tough tests for these young Tigers but, again, it’s the SEC where there are NO easy schedules and there is nowhere to run and hide. Man up! Play ball!SEC logo2

So what does this mean for the remainder of the 2015 campaign and beyond?

Auburn now has a team with a lot of talent, the most in many years, but lacks experience in some areas. If they keep their nose to the grindstone and improve each week they could have a special season.

Also, if they continue to stockpile talent and keep their focus, they could be very, very good for years to come.

And that brings us back to the business at hand.

Auburn vs. Jacksonville State

Jax State is an D1 school and should be a strong contender for the FCS Championship. They made it to the playoffs last season. The Gamecocks defeated UT-Chattanooga on Saturday, by a score of 23-20. They rode a punishing ground attack to a net total of 298 yards rushing. Troymaine Pope, a senior, accounted for 173 of those yards on just 15 carries. The Moccasins only had 196 total yards, so the Gamecocks can play a little D, as well.

That’s all well and good. Jax State is no match for Auburn and will not beat them on Saturday.

I expect the Tigers to make great strides in practice this week and show up ready to play. Look for Jeremy Johnson to perform more like the all-star candidate that he is. I think Auburn will exhibit a balanced attack, on offense, and pile up a lot of yards, while limiting the Gamecocks’ rushing attack to far fewer yards than they ground out in their opener.

Auburn scores early and often before the starters give way to the reserves who will be anxious to show what they’ve got.

Auburn 49, Jacksonville State 10