The preliminary rounds of rivalry games in the SEC are over. Tennessee has dispatched Vanderbilt and Ole Miss managed to survive a clinic on coaching malpractice with LSU. Now it’s time for the main events.
Oh, sure. There are other “traditional rivalry games” played at this time of year. Army vs. Navy comes to mind, so does Texas vs. Texas A&M. But for pure, unadulterated, bone-deep, kick-the-in-laws-out-of-the-house football rivalries, nothing in the land comes close to the games played on the final weekend of the SEC regular season.
These are the games that determine how easy or hard it will be to live the next twelve months with your across the street neighbor, or that idiot your wife’s sister married.
Ask any Ole Miss, or Alabama fan about the meaning of the final game of their respective teams’ regular schedule. They will tell you with absolute moral certainty that these are not football games. They are contests between good and evil, between learning and ignorance, between culture and agriculture.
Pose the same question to Mississippi State and Auburn fans and you will learn that these gridiron contests are an annual chance to bring much needed humility to the arrogant, to prove that deep faith is superior to deep pockets, and to reclaim some of the family honor stolen when the bank foreclosed on the farm.
Georgia Tech was a charter member of the SEC. It has been several decades since the Flying Bugs left the conference, but their departure from the league did nothing to diminish the bitterness of the passion Tech fans have for beating Georgia. And these passionate rivalries are not confined to those between two schools that share the same state. Can you imagine the spouse of a Kentucky fan saying, “Why don’t we invite that couple from down the street who have the big UT flag on their front porch to come over and watch the game?”
These games are not for sharing with the opposition. They are for the pure-in-heart. Here’s how I think they will play out, starting with the biggest of them all, to be played the day after Thanksgiving:
Alabama vs. Auburn
When it comes to football rivalries, the Iron Bowl, from its infancy, takes the prize for being the most passionate.
Auburn and Alabama first played football against each other on Feb. 22, 1893. Auburn won 32-22. According to the official recap of the game, when an Auburn running back named Daniels scored on a 65 yard end-run, a brawl erupted and “it took several minutes to clear the field.” The Tide and Tigers played to a tie in 1907. The game was marred by fistfights between fans and a dispute between the schools about how to split the gate. Officials from both institutions decided the game wasn’t worth the trouble it brought. Two world wars and four decades would pass before these teams would meet again in football.
The Iron Bowl has produced more than its share of classic games, like Kenny Stabler’s “Run In The Mud” in 1967, and Steadman Shealy’s “Guts” touchdown in 1979. Perhaps the most famous of these is the “Punt-Bama-Punt” game in 1972 when unranked Auburn blocked two consecutive fourth quarter punts, returned both for touchdowns and beat a nationally ranked Alabama 17-16. The 1972 Iron Bowl is so prominent in Auburn football lore that an Alabama writer once quipped that “the Auburn football tradition consists of one national championship and two blocked punts.”
Notwithstanding the 1972 game, as well as 1984’s infamous “Wrong Way Bo” game, where Alabama, with a losing record, managed to beat a nationally-ranked Auburn with future Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson in the Tiger backfield, the better team usually wins the Iron Bowl. This year, like last season, Alabama is clearly the better team.
Alabama’s strengths are ideally matched with Auburn’s weaknesses. Alabama averages nearly 226 yards per game rushing; Auburn’s rushing defense is ranked 10th in the league. Through 10 games, Auburn is dead last in the SEC in scoring defense, while Alabama is averaging 31 points per game.
The Tide ranks second in scoring defense and first in total defense. ‘Bama’s defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 28 times and has intercepted 18 passes. Alabama’s first-team offense has allowed only nine sacks, and Tide quarterbacks have only thrown 4 interceptions. Auburn’s offensive line has permitted 15 sacks, Tiger quarterbacks have thrown six interceptions and Auburn has fumbled 11 times.
This is not to say that Alabama will find winning to be easy. The Auburn players have been telling reporters for two weeks how they want nothing more in this life than to spoil Alabama’s undefeated season and championship aspirations. In this regard, however, the Tigers are no different than every other SEC team that Alabama has faced this fall. Most games between Auburn and Alabama are decided in the fourth quarter. The 2009 edition of the Iron Bowl will probably be as well. The pick: Alabama.
Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State
Last week, I predicted an Ole Miss win over LSU, but there is no way on Earth that I foresaw the bizarre way the game played out. Ole Miss had dominated the game and had LSU on the ropes, but penalties, blown assignments and fundamental errors allowed LSU to not only get back in the game, the Tigers were handed a gift-wrapped victory that only coaching malpractice could manage to squander.
I also predicted Mississippi State would beat Arkansas. Well, that should teach me a lesson! Through three quarters, State managed to hang within one score of the Hogs, and entered the fourth quarter trailing by only seven points. In the fourth quarter, the floodgates opened and Arkansas scored two touchdowns while holding State scoreless.
Ole Miss won a game it could and perhaps should have lost. State lost badly a game that should have been more competitive. A season record of 6-6 is now out of the question for MSU. A record of 9-3 is now possible for Ole Miss. This sets up an interesting dynamic for the showdown between these two rivals.
A record of 9-3, a four-game winning streak and a second place finish in the SEC West would be a decent recovery for the Rebs, following their disastrous loss to Auburn on Halloween. It would look like a storybook ending for a season that failed to live up to pre-season hype.
The Rebels only road win in the league has been against Vandy, the one team demonstrably worse than State, so winning in Starkville will not be easy. The deciding factor for me in this game is that Ole Miss has balance on offense and State does not. The Rebs can run the ball with Dexter McCluster and can throw the ball to Shay Hodge. The Bulldogs, by comparison, can run the ball, but Tyson Lee could stand on the beach in Pascagoula and not be able to throw the ball in the Gulf of Mexico. The pick: Ole Miss.
Tennessee vs. Kentucky
Kentucky staged one of the greatest comeback wins in school history last Saturday night in Athens. This season, for the first time in its football history, Kentucky has defeated both Auburn and Georgia; and it did so on the road. I don’t care that the win came as the result of four Georgia turnovers. Kentucky was teetering on the brink of being blown out at the half. Somehow, in the second half, the Cats managed to play perhaps their best 30 minutes of football so far this season.
Can they repeat that performance again this weekend? To beat Tennessee, they will have to play the entire game the way they played the second half in Athens, and UT will have to reprise some of its defensive ineptitude from the Ole Miss game two weeks ago.
Kentucky had to come from behind to beat Georgia. Tennessee dominated the Dawgs from wire to wire. But UT is not the same team it was on October 10 when it crushed Georgia. Ole Miss exposed Tennessee’s lack of depth, which has only gotten worse due to injuries.
Something tells me, however, that the Vols who will show up this weekend are not the one who stood flat-footed as Dexter McCluster ran wild through Monte Kiffin’s vaunted defense. Instead, I think that it will be the Vols who beat South Carolina; at least, it better be if Tennessee hopes to finish 7-5. The pick: Tennessee
LSU vs. Arkansas
Could there have been a worse display of coaching ineptitude than the exhibition put on last Saturday by Houston Nutt? Well, as a matter of fact, there could; and it was unfolding on the opposite sideline.
I could devote my entire column to a post-mortem examination of Les Miles’ coaching mistakes. If Miles was a surgeon, his play-calling, clock-management, control and supervision over his team would not be the equivalent to amputating the wrong leg, or leaving an instrument inside the patient. It would be like doing both of those things while operating on the wrong person.
This is what the national sports media is saying about Miles following the complete brain-cramp he exhibited in the waning 90 seconds of the ball game:
“LSU botched the late game moments” – Associated Press. “… huge coaching gaffe …” –sportsillustrated.com. “a comedy of errors” – Yahoo Sports. And those are the ones that are suitable for a family newspaper. You have to be over 18 to read the stuff that the papers in New Orleans are printing.
The arch of LSU’s 2009 season is proving to be the same one the Tigers experienced in 2008. Last season, after losing an emotional game to Alabama, LSU played poorly in a close win over an inferior opponent (Troy), then lost to Ole Miss and Arkansas.
Fast-forward 12 months. The Tigers lost another emotional game to Alabama, but this time in a more decisive way than the overtime loss in ’08. La. Tech was this year’s substitute for Troy, and, like last year, Ole Miss won the “Magnolia Bowl.” That only leaves a loss to the Hogs this weekend to complete the Post-Tide-Trifecta.
For the 15 years before Nick Saban arrived in Baton Rouge, LSU was a graveyard for coaches. Remember Mike Archer? How about Curley Hallman? OK, you remember Gerry DiNardo, but not because of his barely .500 record at LSU. Fans of other teams in the SEC West are crossing their fingers, lighting candles, and making anonymous contributions to the LSU athletic scholarship fund in hopes that LSU keeps Miles as its head coach. But the Big Mules who run the LSU program are not going to stick forever with a coach who is a walking embarrassment. And that is what Miles is becoming to the LSU faithful — an embarrassment. And that really takes some doing. After all, people in San Francisco think that LSU fans are weird. The pick: Arkansas.
Georgia vs. Georgia Tech
By all accounts, Mark Richt is a fine human being. He’s a devoted father and loving husband. He’s as honest as the day is long and he is a sterling role model for his players. But is there a coach in the SEC who is a greater underachiever?
OK, Les Miles comes to mind, but two years ago Miles managed to win a national championship, albeit with Nick Saban’s recruits, while Richt has presided over the slow descent of the Georgia program into a mediocre, undisciplined muddle.
There is no way that Georgia will defeat Tech this weekend, and the minuet of a coaching change will begin in Athens. Richt will make coordinator-level changes to his staff that will earn him one-year reprieve. And I predict that by this time next year, Richt will have received the dreaded “vote of confidence” from the AD.
The step after that, for an SEC coach, is to join the ranks of television analysts. The pick: Georgia Tech.