Consider if you will, the comparison between two first-year head coaches at high-profile SEC programs. Both were hired to replace long-tenured predecessors who had taken their respective schools to extraordinary levels of achievement; undefeated seasons, a national championship, and dominance over traditional rivals.
Both new coaches came with some serious baggage. One had a career losing record [5-19] as a Division I head coach. The other had been fired from a head coaching position in the NFL by an owner whose picture appears next to the definition of “weirdo” in the unabridged dictionary.
They both inherited teams with serious talent problems, especially at quarterback as well as an irrational fan base, desperate for success.
So how did these two coaches handle their similar predicaments?
One of them made headlines in the off-season by not missing any opportunity to say something stupid in public, falsely accusing rival coaches of cheating, and generally going out of his way to insult his betters in the coaching profession.
The other simply went about his business; assembling a staff, installing a new offense, and coaching up the players bequeathed by his predecessor. The contrast in style and manner could not be more pronounced.
The same holds true for the contrast in achievement on the field. All of Lane Kiffin’s hot air has produced a lopsided win over the worst team in the division, an embarrassing home-loss to UCLA, a 10-point loss to Florida that some Vol fans hailed as a moral victory, and an 11-point win over 23-point underdog Ohio.
Is that a moral defeat?
Gene Chizik, on the other hand, has done nothing but coach winning football as his Auburn Tigers have dispatched La. Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Ball State scoring 181 points and averaging 526 yards of offense per game.
Chizik and his offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, have transformed the Tiger’s quarterback, Chris Todd, who has completed 62 of his 106 pass attempts for 1012 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception.
What has Lane Kiffin done with his quarterback over in Volville? Here are Jonathan Crompton’s numbers: 62 completions in 107 attempts, 641 yards, 7 TDs and 8 interceptions.
These two coaches with similar circumstances, contrasting styles and opposite results meet this weekend in Neyland Stadium. The Tigers are playing with confidence. The Vols would have a hard time spelling “confidence.” On Saturday, Auburn will beat Tennessee.
Afterwards, Chizik will get to work preparing for Arkansas. Kiffin will probably say something uncomplimentary about Urban Meyer.
Here’s how the rest of the SEC landscape and make picks for other games.
Alabama v. Kentucky: Last weekend, Alabama demolished Arkansas. The Hogs’ high-octane offense was smothered by the Tide defense while the Bama offense proved it could both drive the length of the field [13 plays, 99 yards, 6:28 off the clock] and score explosively [1 play, 80 yards, :20 seconds].
The Cats were being pummeled by Florida until Tim Tebow was injured in the third quarter. Tebow’s concussion put a stop to the Gators’ offense, but by then the damage to Kentucky was done. The Cats will have no answer for what Alabama will bring on both sides of the football. The pick: Alabama
LSU v. Georgia: No teams have lived more on the edge so far this season than these two. Last Saturday, LSU was fortunate to escape Starkville with a narrow win over Mississippi State. The Dawgs needed a field goal on the game’s final play to defeat Arizona State.
Both teams’ defenses are suspect. The Dawgs have surrendered 119 points in four games and have been shredded by opponents who have averaged 355.8 yards of total offense per game. LSU’s defense has allowed an average of 333.5 yards of total offense and has been particularly vulnerable to the pass, which is Georgia’s strong suit on offense.
LSU runs the ball marginally better than Georgia, but Georgia’s A. J. Green is a more potent receiving threat than LSU’s Brandon Lafell.
This promises to be a down-to-the-wire contest with both teams accumulating double-digit penalties and trading turnovers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the game goes into multiple overtimes. But in the end, I think the home team has enough of an advantage to win yet another close one. The pick: Georgia
Vanderbilt v. Ole Miss: The Commissioner saw it coming. This column predicted a South Carolina win over Ole Miss last week. Even so, there was a time in the fourth quarter when I was convinced that Ole Miss had finally figured out how to sustain some offense to compliment the good job their defense was doing on the Yard Birds.
When was the last time that a team went three and out in its last five offensive possessions and still managed to win? Well, that’s what South Carolina managed to do, thanks to the comedy of errors committed by Ole Miss in its last opportunity to score.
After discovering that its speedy water bug, Dexter McCluster, could beat an exhausted South Carolina defense to the corner, the Ole Miss brain trust decided to have him fake a run and drop back to throw the ball. It’s possible this was not the intended play; maybe Houston Nutt, in the heat of his frenzied wig-wag signal calling, picked his nose when he meant to scratch his ear.
In any event, the resulting sack rang McCluster’s bell, and put the Rebs in a down and distance hole from which it could not recover. This coaching blunder was compounded with another when the Rebs came out of a timeout with 12 players on the field. Maybe some official with the Ole Miss athletic department ought to check Houston Nutt’s cell phone to see if he’s been spending more time texting than game-planning.
The South Carolina game exposed the Rebs as not worthy of being ranked 4th in the nation-it’s highest poll ranking in 40 years. They proved not to be good enough to beat South Carolina on the road at night. But are they good enough to beat Vanderbilt?
The ‘Dores managed to beat Rice and looked fairly good in the bargain. Vandy gained 484 yards of total offense [216 rushing] and gave up only one turnover while taking the ball away from Rice four times.
I think Vanderbilt is better coached than Ole Miss, but is not blessed with as much talent. Having both good coaching and great talent is a formula for success in more than just football. But I imagine that Bobby Johnson would sure like to have a little deeper talent pool to benefit from his good coaching. The pick: Ole Miss
Arkansas v. Texas A&M: Can the Hogs recover from the beat-down in T-Town and pull themselves together enough to win in College Station?
The Aggies are 3-0 having beaten UAB, Utah State and New Mexico. Their offense has averaged 574 yards per game, and while the passing game has accounted for most of the offensive production, the running game has not exactly been neglected. They have a pair of starting running backs, Cyrus Gray and Jerrod Johnson, who are averaging more than 65 yards rushing per game.
Apart from a couple of big plays, the Hogs defense did a reasonably good job containing the Alabama running attack. Arkansas will be the toughest opponent Texas A&M has faced so far this season, while the Porkers have played better quality opposition.
A by-product of playing better teams, however, is the physical toll that comes with tougher opponents. And Arkansas was physically beaten by Alabama. After a scoreless first quarter that saw Arkansas gain twice as many yards of offense than Alabama, the Tide put its game into a higher gear and the contest was over for all practical purposes with 13 minutes still left to play in the game.
Texas A&M is a middling Big 12 team that nobody expects to compete with the bigger dogs in their conference. Arkansas is on a two game losing streak. But if the Swine can put the last two weeks behind them, and use this week to get their offense working, they might be able to bring the bacon home from College Station.
Barbeque aficionados in the Lone Star State take pride in what they can do with a beef brisket. Saturday, however, the Aggies are going to cook the whole hog. The pick: Texas A&M
The Commissioner is Joseph A. “Woody” Woodruff, a partner at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, LLP.