This column on the football weekend will run regularly on Tuesdays, and will also include reactions to the NFL once things have cleared up a little from Small Sample Size Theater. It also bears mentioning that I’m a Saints fan, and that right now, life is pain.
Last week, when I first tried my hand at writing a college football recap for Weld, my mind was drawn to 2007.
You may remember that as the year when Appalachian State upset Michigan, pre-Andrew Luck Stanford upset USC in the Coliseum, Pitt upset West Virginia (leading to that most poisonous of pills, a Dave Wannstedt contract extension), and eventual champion LSU got upset twice in triple-overtime games. Speaking in my capacity as an LSU enthusiast, merely quoting Darren McFadden’s postgame interview—“We got that wood right here”—is guaranteed to set off Da Nang-style flashbacks for Tiger fans.
2007 is also the year that Alabama, in its first year under Nick Saban’s icy stewardship, lost to the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. Like any beta test, this embryonic version of the program that would eventually dominate college football still had bugs: namely, malcontents like DJ Hall and Jimmy Johns.
2007 was a boom year for chaos, and therefore a boom year for college football. It was the exact sort of year where Les Miles, earning his Mad Hatter moniker several times over, and Ryan Perrilloux, an actual riverboat gambler who proved too colorful even by Louisiana standards, could win a championship. With the possible exception of Auburn’s meteoric rise in 2010, it was the last year in which college football was truly shocking. (No, I don’t count the circle of death between Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma in 2008.) The Saban Era hasn’t been especially loveable or hateable; it’s merely a force, like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, asking you what’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss.
That spirit of insanity could be on its way back to the sport, though. Like 2007, Louisana-Monroe has shocked a traditional SEC power. Like 2007, Stanford has upset mighty USC. Like 2007, this isn’t a year for chalk picks.
That year, there were two clear favorites who appeared to be head-and-shoulders above the fray of pretenders: LSU and Ohio State. This year it’s Alabama and LSU. And like 2007, both of them are vulnerable to shocking upsets, even though the SEC field is a far cry from the league-wide parity of that year.
Alabama and LSU have oddly similar weaknesses. Both have relatively green secondaries in light of the galaxy of stars that have departed their programs. Like the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi—or Florida’s Baby Gators secondary in 2007, or Bama’s own anaconda of coverage molting in 2010—these are works in progress toward a terrifying endpoint. In the meantime, they’re open to perhaps only one off game. Could it be Zach Mettenberger isolating Vinny Sunseri on a speedy slot receiver, or AJ McCarron lighting up one of LSU’s freshman corners off a double-move? The killing blow could just as easily come from Aaron Murray, Tyler Wilson, Connor Shaw, or even Tyler Bray.
The other salient concern is pass protection. Bama and LSU have probably the two best offensive lines in football, particularly when it comes to running the ball. But LSU is still recovering from losing its best player on offense, left tackle Chris Faulk, for the season. His replacement, sixth-year senior and former All-SEC guard Josh Dworacyk, appears to be a game but exploitable substitute. Practicing against future Top 10 pick Sam Montgomery every day will hone his technique in a hurry, but Dworacyk could still prove to be a liability in a big game situation, such as November 3rd.
For Bama, mammoth right tackle DJ Fluker is something of an evolutionary version of his predecessor Drew Davis; a road grader in the run game, but just a little stiff in pass protection, which is forgivable when you think about just how astonishing it is for a man that large to be so fast in the first place. Against Lovecraftian monstrosities at strongside rusher like Barkevious Mingo or Jarvis Jones (assuming Bama made the SEC Championship and played Georgia), that slight stiffness could prove fatal.
But if you think these Goliaths have flaws, wait’ll you see the rest of them.
In the PAC-12, Matt Barkley just went 0-for-Peyton at Stanford; a crusty, peg-legged old Barkley may be hurling harpoons at his bête noire in Palo Alto in a few decades. (Or he might find that a wildly successful NFL career is the best revenge, like Peyton Manning did with Danny Wuerffel.) Regardless, that night almost certainly sunk USC’s title hopes. It bore out one concern analysts had from the beginning with the former no. 1 team—that USC’s defensive front was untenably inexperienced—and one they didn’t, which was that the best receiving tandem in the nation couldn’t beat press coverage fast enough to mask a really poor offensive line performance.
Elsewhere in the conference, Oregon is hard to peg. When you look at their defense, you have to account for the pace at which they play, kind of like the Phoenix Suns under Mike D’Antoni; they’re always better than the flat numbers would suggest. But they’ve played no one of substance, and that defense still doesn’t look like it’ll hold water against Rich Rodriguez’s revitalized Arizona offense this Saturday, which has already knocked off a favorite in Oklahoma State.
Florida State is unfortunately required by ACC bylaws to drop two games they shouldn’t in-conference (just ask Virginia Tech). The real concern here is that a team who can roll with the punches from State’s methodical offensive attack and blistering pass rush will exploit an iffy secondary and lack of offensive explosiveness. Clemson may have the best offensive weapon in the country in Sammy Watkins, but that defense is in rebuilding mode and Dabo Swinney is still their coach—a Bowden by any other name would smell as sweet.
The Big 12 is a mess. Texas and Oklahoma, both coming off seasons to forget, are unknown commodities; have we learned anything from the former smoking Ole Miss or the latter’s uninspiring debut against UTEP? West Virginia is getting Heisman-caliber performances out of Geno Smith, but is their transition from longtime DC Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 going to take more than a year to take root? Is Kansas State’s unbelievable injury, fumble, and fourth-down luck from last year really not going to regress back to the mean?
The Big 10 isn’t any clearer. Ohio State is a natural pick for a big year, but just when we start to pencil them in for a major bowl, they nearly choke against a mediocre Cal team. Michigan won’t recover from the double whammy of the hurtin’ Alabama put on them and regression to the mean on their good fortune last year. Presumptive conference title favorites Michigan State and Nebraska have already both dropped games, the former in East Lansing.
Finally, the SEC isn’t doing prognosticators any favors, either. The East, as it’s been since Florida’s bizarre underachieving season in 2009, is an enigma. After a promising win over a feisty Mizzou team, Georgia came out flat against the Florida Atlantic Fightin’ Schnellenbergers. Florida seemed to finally have its first major offensive breakthrough in years, but has Driskell really put it together? Is the real South Carolina the one that pulled away against Vandy, or the one that struggled in the first quarter against UAB? And is there a multiple-year coach we know really know less about than Derek Dooley?
And the most fundamental question for a conference with two bona fide titans: who’s the David in the SEC? Will this be the year Mississippi State finally breaks through? Will an Arkansas team with nothing to lose take its shots against LSU, as it did in 2007? Will Evil Richt (vintage 2007) return in time to watch his team celebrate in someone else’s end zone?
We just don’t know the answers to these questions, and we probably won’t find out until November who’s really legitimate.
To some, that’s a terrifying proposition. But for someone who remembers 2007 with great fondness, it means that everything is finally in its right place. And even if this is all illusory, if this is actually 2009 or 2011 all over again, we can at least relish in the madness of these early weeks. The thrill of the unknown, the pageantry of chaos, is what sets college football apart from every other sport.
Right now we’re all just Utah fans blindly storming the field. Enjoy it while you can, y’all.