Tag Archives: Tigers

Settle in and Enjoy; the MLB Postseason is Here

People who aren’t really baseball fans will tell you the season is too long. In reality, all sports seasons are too long and while the length of time of the baseball season is no longer than hockey or basketball, the sheer number of games baseball teams play gives the impression the season is longer than other sports.

This year, it’s a good job the season did last 162 games, because the Cardinals and Pirates needed that 162nd game to decide which team would win the NL Central and which would be the top Wild Card seed. Similarly, the Tigers and the Royals needed their 162nd games to decide which team would win the AL Central and which would be the top Wild Card seed. Even though they had the best record at the All-Star break, the Athletics needed their 162nd game to hold off the Mariners for the second AL Wild Card berth. Only a week ago, there were eleven different possibilities of ties between one or more teams for all post-season spots except the AL East, the AL West and the NL East. That means that seven of the ten post-season spots were still up for grabs, at least mathematically with a week to go in the regular season.

Now we can get into some serious baseball, where every team starts afresh in terms of losses and has to win eleven games (or twelve games for the four Wild Card teams) to hoist the World Series Trophy. There is no room for slumps, errors become more costly, there are no soft spots in the other teams’ rotations and strategy becomes even more important. Managers will have to decide when to take out a pitcher, when to use that “situational lefty” to get one hitter or maybe insert a pinch hitter or a pinch runner. There are “tomorrows”, but nowhere as many of them as there are throughout the regular season. A four game losing streak can’t be offset next week by a five game winning streak, no matter how good the team.

Predicting post-season baseball is always somewhat of a crap-shoot. A team can suddenly get four/five great starts from its pitchers and look like world beaters, regardless of the opposition. Conversely, a poor performance by the rotation can make the weakest of hitting teams look like the 1927 Yankees.

Looking at the Wild Card games first, the classic would appear to be the AL game between the visiting Athletics and the Royals in Kansas City on Tuesday. If you like pitching, this is your game to watch. Jon Lester is scheduled for the A’s and this is just the type of game he was picked up for when the A’s got him from the Red Sox at the August 31 deadline. The only downer for the A’s is that they have been playing sub .500 ball for over a month now and have to kick it into high gear and by starting Lester tomorrow, they take him out of the equation in terms of starting an ALDS game (providing they beat Kansas City) until game three in Oakland next Sunday. That could be costly. Lester’s opponent on Tuesday will be James Shields and they don’t call him “Big Game James” without reason. Look for a solidly pitched game which could turn on the smallest of great plays by either team or on a mistake by either team. I’ll go with the Royals simply because they are at home and have been playing with confidence the last month or so, showing that the Tigers are not as invincible as we have thought over the last few years.

Over in the NL, on Wednesday in Pittsburgh the Pirates host the Giants. Not quite as marquee a matchup as the AL game the night before as Madison Bumgarner goes for the Giants against Edinson Volquez. Two good pitchers, but not exactly Lester and Shields. Home field plus their recent steady play should allow the Pirates to advance.

By having to play the 162nd game to decide their division status probably hurt the Tigers more than any team as it meant they had to use David Price, forcing the Tigers to hold him back until the second game of the ALDS on Friday, rather than have him ready to start game one the day before. Fortunately for the Tigers, starting pitching is their strength, at least on paper. That starting pitching is what should carry them past Baltimore, who despite winning the AL East by a huge margin still don’t seem as settled rotation wise as the Tigers do. The off days between the end of the regular season and the start of the ALDS on Thursday gives the Tigers and Orioles time to re-set their rotations, removing only Sunday’s starters from consideration as candidates to start game one.

Looking at the other AL series a rested Angels team will face either Kansas City or Oakland. While the Angels have cruised home since the All-Star break, their pitching isn’t as solid as one would expect from a division winner and they were greatly aided by the A’s collapse. The bats of Albert Pujols and Mike Trout et al should be enough to carry the Angels who will also have had a chance to re-set their starting rotation, but both Kansas City and Oakland have enough rotation depth to push the Angels in a long series.

In the NL, the Wild Card winner takes on the Washington Nationals, who don’t appear to have too many weaknesses and enter the post-season on a high after Jordan Zimmerman threw a no-hitter in the final regular season game on Sunday. Pittsburgh would seem to give the Nationals a better challenge, but the Giants pitching has been very good the last month or so, so that could get interesting. The Giants also have the bats and the post-season experience, so look for that one to go six or even seven games.

In recent years, the Cardinals and the Dodgers always seem to meet somewhere in the post-season. The Cardinals originally announced that Adam Wainwright would start Sunday in their attempt to clinch their division but a last minute change to Nick Greenwood means that Wainwright will be a lock to start game one on Friday and the obvious choice for the Dodgers is ace Clayton Kershaw. The four full off-days between the regular season and the post-season gives both teams the opportunity to set-up their starting rotations exactly the way they would like. Another one we don’t want to miss and a game that will also likely be decided by the narrowest of margins. That looks like a six-seven game series to me as well.

No matter what, there are no teams in the post season that are far above the rest and there are no teams that just squeaked in. Obviously some teams are more favoured than others, but in reality there are 10 good teams in this post-season. Down the road, we still have the potential for a World Series between two keen rivals, as Angels-Dodgers, Giants-A’s, Nationals-Orioles, Royals-Cardinals are all possibilities, plus we still have the chance of a Los Angeles-Bay Area World Series.

A lot of baseball still to be played and a lot of GOOD baseball still to be played. I can’t wait. Let’s Play Ball!

Pre-Season Top 25: 11-15

(Editor’s note: Jason Lindekugel will offer his personal Top 25 every Monday morning during the season.  We’ve decided to slow-roll the poll a little bit during the off-season and fall camp with five teams a week, starting with #21-#25, taking your right through to the Top 5 in the days before the 2014 season kicks off.  This week, we’re on the outside, looking in at the Top Ten, with #11-#15 -JR)
#16-#20 | #21-#25

15. Texas

Texas feels like a boom or bust team this year. As would be expected of a Texas team, there is a ton of talent. But can that talent produce on the field consistently? Health will be a key factor. Texas will have a good rushing attack with the combination of Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. The passing game will only have to be mediocre to complement the strong run game and that shouldn’t be an issue if David Ash can stay healthy after missing most of last season with a concussion. Texas will have to rely on that run game as well as a strong defense. With the talent on hand the Longhorns have no business being as bad on D as last year, and new coach Charlie Strong should help in that area. The defense has a strong foundation with a pass rush led by DE Cedric Reed and a secondary led by All-Conference corner Quandre Diggs. If Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks are healthy, the run D will improve from a disastrous 83rd ranked finish from a year ago. The Longhorns overcame some adversity last year after a rough 1-2 start to win their next six games and 17 starters return from that squad. With all that happened at Texas last year, they still went 8-4 in the regular season. A tough schedule may hide some of the team’s improvement, but their first 10 win season since 2009 is a strong possibility. If they can win two out of three against UCLA, Baylor, and Oklahoma (none of which are true road games) they will have plenty of momentum as a potential playoff team.
 

14. Auburn

Auburn’s offense was dynamite last year, and the pieces are in place to be even better this season. You can’t begin anywhere else but Heisman candidate Nick Marshall at QB. Marshall rushed for 1,000 yards and accounted for 26 touchdowns in his first season in Gus Malzahn’s offense. You can expect improvement this year while he leads an offense that could score over 40 ppg. Cameron Artis-Payne should fill in adequately for departed B Tre Mason after averaging 6.7 ypc as his backup last year. Losing OT Greg Robinson to the NFL will hurt but the other four starters along the offensive line return. The Tigers may not average 330 ypg on the ground again but that could be made up for by an improved passing attack with wideouts Sammie Coates and D’haquille Williams. Ultimately Auburn’s success will be determined by if the defense can improve. Six defensive starters return but they will have to have much more success after giving up over 400 ypg last year (86th nationally). The last time Auburn made a title game appearance it saw its win total decrease by six the following year. This year’s team is too talented to experience that kind of drop off again, but 10 wins will be tough to reach with six of their final eight games consisting of LSU, @Mississippi State, South Carolina, @Ole Miss, @Georgia, and @Alabama.
 

13. Clemson

Clemson fans have to be thrilled that they’ve finally become a program that simply reloads after losing players like Tahj Boyd and Sammy Watkins. The offense though, will not fall as far as most expect. The Tigers have had five pass catchers drafted since 2010 and have NFL talent at WR currently with Charone Peake and Mike Williams. Throwing to them will likely be senior Cole Stoudt. While Stoudt certainly isn’t Boyd, he was efficient in limited playing time last year and will keep the offense humming. If not, Clemson can trot out Deshaun Watson, prized recruit who has the size and athleticism to be the next young dual-threat signal caller to take the college football world by storm. Fortunately for Clemson, they have a defense this year that can lead them while the new offensive players find their footing. The front seven will be nasty led by All-American DE Vic Beasley. Overall the D returns 32 sacks from last year and 17 of its top 21 tacklers. It is often said that some teams may improve but it won’t show up in their record because of a tough schedule. Well Clemson may be the opposite. You can’t expect to lose the talent they did and get better, but if they can upset Georgia in Week 1, you’re looking at a team ready for another 10 win season with the only losses coming to Florida State and South Carolina.
 

12. LSU

LSU continues to crank out 10 win seasons, last year their 4th in a row. There is some uncertainty with the Tigers this year after losing their starters at QB, RB, and WR. But LSU has tons of talent to fill in at those positions, and how quickly those players, particularly incoming freshmen Brandon Harris, Leonard Fournette, and Malachi Dupre step up will determine how far this team will go. Whether Harris or Anthony Jennings opens the year as starting QB, they won’t have to do much because of a run game that will be dominant as usual. The offensive line returns four starters from a group that paved the way for Jeremy Hill’s 1,400 yard season. The aforementioned Fournette is getting comparisons to Adrian Peterson and even if he doesn’t quite meet those standards, the Tigers also have Terrence Magee who averaged over 7 ypc last year. LSU will have its usual stingy defense as well. With seven starters returning to a unit that was 15th best in yards allowed, they are primed to be one of the better defenses in the country. 8 of the top 11 tacklers return and like every other year, there will be an infusion of four and five star freshman to bolster it. Behind an excellent running game and defense it would be a shock if LSU doesn’t make it five straight 10 win seasons. If they even get average QB play, a dark horse playoff run is not far-fetched.
 

11. Georgia

The Georgia Bulldogs are somewhat of a wild card this year. The talent level says they should be a contender for the playoff. That talent starts with arguably the best set of running backs in the nation with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. However, it remains to be seen if they can stay healthy for a whole year. Similarly, the WR position has talent but was extremely injury-riddled last year and it is fair to question if they will be the same post-injury. Those skill position injuries last year make it hard to gauge how new QB Hutson Mason will do, but as a redshirt senior he does know the system. Heading to the defense, the talent and stats say that the Bulldogs should’ve been better in this area. They return 9 of the top 11 tacklers and 4 of the top 5 sack artists but overall the D must be more consistent and limit mistakes. Ramik Wilson and Jordan Jenkins lead the best group of linebackers in the country. Georgia could end up in the college football playoff or finish 8-4. I think they end closer to the former, which will be aided by a schedule which after the opening two weeks is light by SEC standards.
 
Today covered some teams with championship level talent, but who have inexperience at enough key spots to keep them from being favorites to finish in the top four. Next week will introduce teams with talent and experience, but who fell just short of being my favorites for the first college football playoff.

50 Years Ago: The 1964 Auburn Tigers

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It was September and the excitement was building to a fever pitch in the state of Alabama. Auburn was coming off a 9-1 regular season record with a heartbreaking 13-7 loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl (AU’s last appearance in the game). Alabama finished 8-2 with a victory over Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. To make things even more exciting, the Tigers were picked by Sports Illustrated to be the number one team in the country.
Boys and girls, this was before any hint of a BCS, a College Football Playoff or anything resembling a way to come up with a “true” national champion.
Jimmy Sidle, Auburn’s All American quarterback, who set their single season rushing record with 1,006 yards in 1963, was back as was Tucker Frederickson and a host of other talented teammates. The stage was set for a monster season on the Plains.
The first game in 1964 was played on a muggy Saturday afternoon in Auburn. The University of Houston was the opening day opponent and the Cougars were a decided underdog. Auburn had traveled to Texas to defeat this team, 21-14, in it’s 1963 opener and fans were more than ready to “tee it up.”
The Tigers prevailed over the Cougars by a score of 30-0. It truly did appear that this team was capable of accomplishing very big things. An SEC Championship ? Maybe. A national championship ? Possibly. BUT Jimmy Sidle hurt his right shoulder and did not pass the ball well in the next game versus Tennessee, although he did run for 94 yards, and Auburn eked out a 3-0 conference win.
Next on the schedule was a night game at Stoll Field in Lexington, KY. Auburn lost three fumbles and, without Sidle being able to pass effectively, the Wildcats came away with a 20-0 victory over the Tigers. A once promising season was now beginning to take on a more somber tone and just when it didn’t seem that things could get much worse… they did. Sidle suffered a double shoulder separation in the next game against Chattanooga and the visions of grandeur, less than one month ago, were now becoming only shattered images of what might have been.
Auburn went on to stumble to a 6-4 record in 1964.
I attended my first Iron Bowl in ’64. It is now a bittersweet memory. The game was played on Thanksgiving Day and it was televised nationally. To say I was excited would be a gross understatement. The undefeated Crimson Tide were solid favorites but that did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. We were on the way to visit my father’s family In Isabella, AL on Wednesday of that week en route to Birmingham. As we passed through Selma a short sports segment played on the AM radio of our 1963 Plymouth Fury. Frank Gifford was doing predictions and he informed us listeners that the undefeated Tide should have “no trouble” with “Ah-burn.” I was livid !
Alabama had a great deal of trouble with “Ah-burn” on that brilliant Saturday afternoon in the “Football Capital of the South.” My Tigers led the Tide 7-6 at halftime and our hopes were very high. Tom Bryan, the sophomore AU quarterback, was having a solid day and Tucker Frederickson was simply playing his heart out. But Ray Ogden ran the second half opening kickoff back 107 yards for a touchdown. Bama made the two-point conversion and we trailed 14-7. Later, in the fourth quarter, Joe Namath hit Ray Perkins on a 23-yard pass and Auburn lost a tough one 21-14.
It is hard to believe the 1964 college football season is now that far back in the rear view mirror. It does seem like just yesterday when a 12 year old kid from LA (Lower Alabama), who had earlier in the year contracted a permanent case of Beatlemania, experienced the heady highs and lasting lows of this great, great game we know as college football.
But hey ! Let’s do it once more with feeling !!!
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The Tribe is Creepin' On Ah Come Up

Some call it comeuppance and some call it getting a pound of flesh. In baseball, more so than most other things in the world, things have a way of evening themselves out; of course, the timing isn’t always the way we’d like to think it should be. Now think about the Cleveland Indians since Terry Francona has assumed the helm, and remember that they needed every one of those 92 wins in 2013. Technically, two more wins would have given them a Central Division title, though we know Detroit collected their $200 and stopped on “Go” last September. In that same breath, two fewer victories, whether you subtract a game or two from that four-game sweep over Oakland last May or any of those games with Chicago in September they had no business winning, would have put the Tribe in a mad dash for tee times as the Major League Baseball post-season commenced last October.

Glancing at the calendar, I see it’s June and we can hardly call this season new at this point, but what goes around, comes around for the Cleveland Indians. After enjoying a 17-2 season series against the White Sox, a comedy of righteous moments that literally took words out of White Sox play-by-play personality Ken “Hawk” Harrelson’s mouth on several occasions. Now, taking 17 of 19 from anyone other than Houston involves a good share of favorable bounces, like the divine intervention that gave them the double-header sweep at “New Comiskey” on June 28th last year. In Game 1, we were all disappointed to see Trevor Bauer fail to get three outs in the first inning of a start, putting the Tribe in a 5-0 hole before batting in the top of the second inning; response runs were there for the taking, however, and after evening things up in the next frame, the Tribe would cruise to 19-8 victory. The night-cap was all White Sox and this twinbill was destined for a split until the away team put up 4 runs on 4 hits in the top of the ninth off Chicago closer Addison Reed for a 9-8 win. Downing the south-siders was just how it went in 2013; Jason Giambi had two walk-off bombs against Chicago in a year that he did little else on the stat sheet.

Thus far, it’s been a different story when it comes to Robin Ventura’s squad and the Braves of the Cuyahoga. While I personally don’t care for those that dismiss teams that are strong in the 1-run games as teams that should regress back to the mean, you have to admit four walk-off wins in nine home games opens the door for the credit to go to Lady Luck, but you can counter that by pointing out the back end bullpen is a big part of the game. The Indians know it all too well, having dropped two in walk-off fashion on the South Side already this season, and a third at home, where John Axford yielded three runs in the ninth, instead of locking down a 3-1 victory. Through 10 games, the upstart White Sox have taken 7 of 10 from the Indians, and sit in second place in the division, one half game above the Tribe, who trail division-leading Detroit by just 3 games. Better the standings look like this in early June, rather than early October.

Speaking of October, the Oakland Athletics have found themselves on the dance-floor in each of the last two seasons, and appear to be on their way back this season. I know it’s simple, but success comes in winning more games than you lose, and the A’s did that, turning out Win-Loss records of .500 or better against all but three of their opponents a year ago; they dropped 11 of 19 against Seattle, despite outscoring them by 5 runs on the season, and went 2-5 against the Orioles and the Indians. They were swept in Cleveland last May, on the strength of some solid starting pitching (the Cleveland starter got the win in each game), but also with the benefit of the doubt; an Adam Rosales ninth inning double that obviously cleared the threshold for home run somehow could not be upgraded with the aid of replay and Rosales was eventually stranded on third base when Chris Perez saved a 4-3 win for the Tribe. Oakland did bounce back in August, taking 2 of 3 from the slumping Indians at the Coliseum on the East Bay, but could only salvage 2 wins in 7 tries.

You might say Bob Melvin’s squad went out and got their pound of flesh, when it came avenging their dismal showing against the Tribe in 2013, being in the clubhouse with a 4-2 season-series win over the Tribe. It looked like it might be more of the same after the Indians took 2 of 3 in the season-opening series, with former Indians southpaw Scott Kazmir salvaging the only victory the A’s could manage to get on the west coast, but they responded to last season’s 4-game sweep at Progressive Field by taking all three games at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. In the six games, Oakland outscored the Indians 40 to 15. Through 60 games in 2014, the A’s have outscored their opponents by 120 runs and sit 14 games over .500. The Indians, on the other hand, are in the red on run differential to-date, despite breaking even in the win column.

On the bright side, there is a flip side to this coin. Some might say this exposed the Indians for what they really were a season ago, a team that could beat up on the bums and didn’t belong in the same ballpark with the real contenders, but they stunk against the other playoff qualifiers in 2013. In seven games with the eventual World Champs, Francona’s former team took six. They were 2-4 against Tampa Bay and 4-15 against Detroit, who ended up just one game better than the Indians in the Central Division standings, a fact that needs to be qualified (again), since Jim Leyland shut the team down for a meaningless series in Miami to end the regular season. Being taken behind the woodshed by the contenders, thus exposing the Tribe as “pretenders”, provided some balance in the grand scheme, essentially canceling out their mastery of the American League bottom-feeders.

We probably didn’t think about it too much, as it was happening with the Red Sox, given the Red Sox were so emotionally charged when they came to Cleveland in April, on literally the day of the Boston Marathon tragedy. The one they call Tito would only get one win in seven tries against the organization he once to led to their first title in 86 years, when his lineup torched Ryan Dempster, Clayton Mortensen, and Alex Wilson for 12 runs in a 12-3 win at Fenway. As far as bouncing back is concerned, the sample size is a little small and we really have no idea what to make of the 2014 Red Sox, but they just completed a 3-game series sweep of Big Papi and company, which has to be a huge weight off the shoulders of Francona, whether he admits it or not.  Let’s also consider how many good things happened, as it pertained to confidence going forward in the series that ended with Asdrubal Cabrera’s walk-off home run to secure the sweep on Wednesday night (Thursday morning, to be technical).

asdrubalwalkoff

Then, you have Detroit, the team that knocks the Indians off their pedestal anytime they’ve gotten a little momentum in recent years. I’m sure most of us have not forgotten how quickly the 2011 came out of the gates, starting 30-15, an amazing run that included 3-game sweep of the Tigers, two of those wins coming in the form of walk-offs. Well, the next time the two teams met in June, the Tigers took two of three, knocking the Indians down to 36-31 and into second place in the division. In August of that year, the Tribe took a series at home, putting them within 3 games of Detroit’s divsion lead, but the Tigers won the last 10 matchups that year, and thoughts of the post-season were laughable by season’s end.

A year later, in 2012, it was a lot more of the same. Hell, the stat sheet shows the Tribe took the season series 10-8, but it comes down to the team from the Motor City killing their spirits. They were still outscored by 15 runs over the course of 18 games. They won 7 of the first 9, including a 5-3 win on July 26th that had some fools believing there was still life in this club. Of course, you can’t solely blame the Tigers for the 11 game losing streak that followed that inspiring win, though they were responsible for losses 7, 8, and 9. They’d pull out a couple more, and even scored one last walk-off win against Jose Valverde (aka Papa Grande) in September, you know, for old time’s sake. But much like [SPOILER ALERT] Tessio in Part I, the Indians and Manny Acta were already dead.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d30Y0n1nDH4

Well, that wasn’t a depressing walk down memory lane or anything! Let’s bring it back to the present-day, and though we have learned to taper our emotions after early-season success, the clubhouse had to have been buzzing at the comeuppance that came with sweeping the Tigers at home last month, and the balk-off could really be seen as the exclamation point. Again, we look at our calendar and we know that it’s early, that this 4-to-1 advantage the Tribe currently holds over the Tigers could easily be 5-14 by season’s end, a la last year, but things feel different this year for some reason. Perhaps we’ve already seen the woes this team inevitably experiences every year since Dick Jacobs family name was taken off the ballpark’s marquee.

They didn’t get to 30-30 by starting 30-15, but from 24-30 (their low-water mark). They’ve shown they can beat Detroit and they can beat Boston, and it’s too early to think about whether or not they can beat San Francisco; they’re 0-3 this season and 0-6 in their last six tries, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Of course, if they don’t cross that bridge, they are only 2-4 against the team that shares the bay, so there are multiple pounds of flesh to be had in Northern California, come October, I suppose.

That’s a concern for another time, of course, but the Indians were left for dead just a few weeks back and now, to quote everyone second favorite Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony album, they are creepin’ on a come up. So, to all you busters out there, beware!

2014 Missouri Position Preview: The Linebackers

Let’s get to know the Missouri linebackers for the 2014 football season. The projected two-deep with games played and starts are as follows:
 

Starts Games Played
Darvin Ruise 0 14
KentrellBrothers 14 14
MichaelScherer 0 14
DonavinNewsom 0 10
Eric Beisel 0 0
Clarence Green 0 10

The starters are Ruise, Brothers and Scherer.
brothers
 
 
 
This is an experienced unit that is returning one starter.  Unlike the secondary, however, I believe this group has a lot to prove this season.  The 2013 team defense was strong, but the linebackers were the glaring weakness.
 
The defense came up with 20 interceptions last season which ranked fifth nationally. Missouri’s linebackers accounted for 4 of those 20 interceptions.  The total defense also forced 14 fumbles with the linebackers having created 1 of those.  There were also 107 tackles for loss with 19.5 of those coming from the linebackers.
 
There simply was not enough disruption from this group of players last season.  So much of what a linebacker does is dependent on what goes on in front of them with the defensive lineman and, considering the production of the defensive line, the Mizzou linebackers under performed last year.
 
Other than the kicking woes of Andrew Baggett, the inability to defend the screen pass was the loudest complaint from last year.  This inability to defend the screen made things interesting against Toledo, Arkansas St and South Carolina. Mizzou escaped those games with a 2-1 record.  And if Baggett hits one more kick, the linebackers would have been bailed out a third time.  Missouri’s linebackers consistently lost depth last year and allowed receivers to get behind them.  Part of Dave Steckel’s defensive philosophy is keeping the action in front of you.  This is not something the linebackers showed success in.
 
Magnifying this issue of discipline was an overall lack of speed.  A lack of speed contributed to Missouri’s inability to defend Auburn’s run game in the SEC Championship game.  Tre Mason routinely made it outside of the tackle box and the Mizzou linebackers could not make up ground.
 
Will the 2014 linebacking unit play with more discipline and show added speed? To be honest, I have my doubts.  Kentrell Brothers will be solid at the middle linebacker position.  After that, all bets are off.  Michael Scherer will be a first year starter at SAM who, while having played in 14 games last season, did not stand out in those games.  Darvin Ruise starts at the WILL position.  At 6-1 240, I fear that Ruise is too bulked up to play sideline to sideline.  Every player is different, but this was Shawn Weatherspoon’s issue during his senior year. William Moore was victim to the same criticism. Each bulked up and lost a step.  It was pronounced enough that NFL scouts commented about Missouri players bulking up and losing a step.
 
There is reason for hope and his name is Donavin Newsom.  Newsom is currently the backup to Ruise. He stands 6-2 230 and played primarily on special teams as a true freshman.  I have been eagerly anticipating the speed he brings to the field as a linebacker and I believe he will be a welcomed addition to Steckel’s 4-3 defense.
 
As is the case with the secondary, the linebackers had an incoming freshmen enroll in January.  Brandon Lee, 6-2 215, hails from Indianapolis, Indiana and was a coveted 3-star recruit.  Based on the players in front of him at the SAM, Lee has an opportunity to move into the 2-deep by the start of the season.  Michael Scherer is currently the starter, but appeared lost and out of position in his limited 2013 playing time. If Lee took full advantage of Spring ball and is a quick learner, his speed could also prove to be an asset this season.
 
If the defense is exposed again in 2014 it will be at the hands of the linebacking core.  Will they have bulked up to much? Will they play disciplined, assignment oriented football? Will they be able to play sideline-to-sideline? These are all questions that will need to be answered and could prove to be the difference between a return trip to the SEC Championship game and sitting at home December 6.
 

Mason Leaves Lasting Impression at Auburn

Tre Mason

Tre Mason solidified himself into the discussion of great running backs at Auburn University during his time there, and catapulted himself into the 2013 Heisman Trophy competition with a single performance. His two years as starting running back made him one of few constants on a team that was as different as night and day from 2012 to 2013.
 
2011 was the first year Mason saw action, but only in a limitied capacity behind Michael Dyer and a corps of backups. He carried only 28 times for 161 yards and one score but in the short time he was on the field, it was becoming obvious he was capable of carrying the running game one day. No one really knew what would come next, but Mason was ready to shine.
 
2012 was Mason’s breakout year. Auburn hit a brick wall just two years removed from their second National Title, and finished a miserable 3-9 with not a single conference win. An anemic offense and dismal blocking did little to deter Mason from accumulating 1002 rushing yards on 171 carries with 8 scores in his first year as starting running back.
 
2013 brought change to the Plains as head coach Gene Chizik was fired and replaced with Gus Malzahn, the mastermind behind Auburn’s up tempo offense during their Championship run in 2010. Mason became a focal point of Malzahn’s infamous blur offense. The question on everyone’s minds was whether Mason could hold up to such a frenetic change in pace. He answered with 1816 yards rushing on 317 carries and 23 touchdowns, helping the Tigers return to relevance with an SEC Title enroute to a second BCS Title game appearance in four seasons. 
 
The Tigers came up short against Florida State in the National Championship game, but Mason managed to end his career at Auburn on a high note, running for 195 yards and a score, setting a BCS Championship game record for most yards by a running back and second most yards by any player behind Vince Young. His 34 carries in the game was also a record.
 
Mason had become accustomed to breaking records and earning spots in the record books during his time at Auburn. He became one of only six players in school history to have at least two consecutive seasons with 1000 yards rushing, and his 2979 career rushing yards placed him sixth among all rushers in school history; his 35 total touchdowns were good for third in Tigers history and his 23 scores in 2013 tied a conference record. He finished his career with a 5.8 ypc average.
 
Mason was also a skilled kick returner. His career average of 26.3 yards per return placed him at second among returners in school history and his 2374 all purpose yards shattered the old school record of 1859, held by Bo Jackson. Not bad company to be among, by any means.
 
Tre Mason’s most memorable performance actually took place in the 2013 SEC Championship game against Missouri when he rushed for 304 yards on 46 carries, both records in the conference title game and second best yardage total in school history. The performance propelled him into the 2013 Heisman discussion.
 
Mason’s ability to carry a huge load in college earned him a spot with the St. Louis Rams when he was selected in the third round of the this year’s NFL Draft. If he
remains healthy and works his way up Jeff Fisher’s depth chart, he could become a valuable asset to the team. His flexibility as a featured back and kick returner should translate into great success and a long fruitful career in the NFL.


Tre Mason may not have won a Heisman Trophy in his days at Auburn, but his contributions as a dependable player and his ability to carry the weight of a struggling offense in its darker days will cement his name in Auburn lore among many outstanding players like Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton, just to name a few. 
 
It remains to be seen what contributions Mason will make as a professional athlete, but it can be said with absolute certainty that he gave all he could give for his teammates during his time in college. His name won’t soon be forgotten among the Auburn faithful; and it’s safe to say his fans look forward to seeing him explode through the hole for many Sundays to come.
 
 
Comments? Find me on Twitter @KevinHicks77

The Pride of Memphis

Who is the team of the town in Memphis, Tennessee?

In the birthplace of BBQ and the Blues, the passion for sports is as powerful as the river that runs through it. Ask any Memphian where their allegiance lies in the realm of professional sports and a majority of them will tell you The Memphis Grizzlies, The St. Louis Cardinals, and the Tennessee Titans. But when you ask what college colors they display every autumn Saturday, the responses will be as varied as the secret ingredients in their grand-mama’s gravy.

tigers-helmet

A University town, Memphis is home to around 650, 000 people. It is centrally located in an area surrounded by small towns and farm communities, with the occasional “city” sprinkled in here and there. The vast diversity of backgrounds and cultures alike is largely due to the fact that a hefty portion of the population is transplants. It’s also smack dab in the middle of SEC Country, which means the competition is stiff for support of the locals among Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and of course The University of Memphis itself. So the question is: who is Memphis’s team?

Memphis is a basketball city in football country, and when it concerns basketball, the Memphis Tigers reign supreme. Priding itself on the recruitment of homegrown talent, the Tigers have had 26 NCAA Tournament bids and 3 Final Fours. Last year’s record of 24 wins and 9 losses was good enough to earn them an 8 seed before being ousted by a top-seeded Virginia team. Failure to get past the Second Round the past four years has left most fans unhappy with both the results and the Coach. Tiger basketball, however, is still the biggest deal on campus. That’s not hard to fathom considering its football team, coming off a 3-9 year, hasn’t had a winning season since 2009. Even that season has to be largely credited to Deangelo Williams, who owns a majority of the University of Memphis’s offensive statistical records.

Still, only a moderate percentage of the local collegiate fan base is represented by Tiger football fans. Who is everyone else supporting? Even when you go in search of an answer, you may not get a clear one.

In the south, the college you eventually attend is most likely decided by what family you’re born into. If you’re born into a family with enough money to send you to school, regardless of what scholarship offers you may or may not have received, you most likely attend the college your parents, grandparents and possibly even your great grandparents attended. If you aren’t born into a wealthy bloodline, you support and hope to attend the school that your parents, grandparents and great grandparents supported because of its location.

The melting pot of the south that is Memphis is just that: a melting pot. It’s filled with many backgrounds, social statuses and cultures. When it all comes down to it, however, an Arkansas supporter who’s team did not make it to the National Championship Game will root for the Tennessee team that did, because they are in the SEC and a part of the south. It’s a part of the lifestyle, a part of our history.

We root for the teams we grew up listening to on the radio or watching on TV. We root for the teams we traveled hundreds of miles once a year to see in the only game of the season that wasn’t sold out. We root for who we are told to root for by the people who brought us up and taught us the love of sport. Period.

So the question remains, what college teams do the citizens of the great city of Memphis root for? Who is Memphis’s team? Well, it all depends on who you ask.

Royals Division Title Hopes Are Iffy

Okay, so first off, the Royals haven’t been to the playoffs since 1985. So, it’s been pretty much over 20 years, and soon to be 30, since Kansas City has ever experienced October baseball. I have bad news and good news, if the Royals are going to end that horrific streak anytime soon. The bad news is that the Detroit Tigers are in our division, and well, if you didn’t watch our latest series against them, then you didn’t see how they are a hitting team. The Royals? Not so much. Good news; they have a strong enough defense and pitching to win a wild card spot.

As of May 7th, the Royals are 15-2 when they score four runs or more in a game. They also have a similar record when Nori Aioki scores in a game. So as the season continues, the lucky number is four and we want the lead off hitter to score.

I think, or at least I hope, that the people of Kansas City have finally come around to see that Billy Butler is not a franchise player. We should have traded him after the 2011 season, when teams wouldn’t have minded trading for him. I started to notice the lack of power from Butler last year. The guy is hired to just hit the ball hard. He doesn’t have to play first base anymore, because you can’t have a guy who can barely make it down the first base line playing any defensive position. Billy has only hit one home run this year, 13 RBI’s and 28 hits in 113 at bats. He’s on pace to being one of the worst designated hitters in baseball this year.

The Royals might not have a true hitter this year, aside from Omar Infante, but I’ll tell you what they do have. Defense; the Royals sure as hell can play defense. The Royals are the 12th best defensive team in the American League and the 22nd best fielding team in the Majors. If you ask me, I personally think we have the best shortstop in the league, a top 10 outfielder with the gold glove in Alex Gordon, and then three top infielders with Omar Infante, and two emerging stars in Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez.

Also I like what we have at third, with the duo of Mike Moustakas and Danny Valencia. It gives Mike that watch out, because we will play this guy more than you feeling. Moose needs that wake up call. He’s batting an unacceptable .152 right now, and that’s not going to cut it. So he better watch out because the target is on his back and he needs to produce soon.

Over the past two years, we’ve watched the Royals do something they haven’t done since Zach Greinke left. Yeah, does anybody else remember Greinke winning a CY Young award with the Royals? The Royals last year finally decided to improve the starting rotation. Finally! No more Brian Bannisters, Luke Hochhevars, or the other disasters that are from the past. I’m more than happy with our pitchers. Your first two pitchers are stars, your third one is a incoming high prospect rookie who throws a crazy fast ball, and then your last two are the scrappers; they’re gonna go out and do their very best to go out and pitch solid innings.

Kansas City, remember the season is still young. As of May 7th, the Royals are 33 games into the season and stand at a 16-17 record. The Royals are third in the American League Central Division, four games back from first, one game back out of the top wild card spot, and they’re on a two-game winning streak. I don’t see any reason why this team will not be in the playoff race come September. But, what most Kansas Citians (or is it Kansas City-ans?) have been doing for the past 20 years is keeping the faith. All I know is that it’s tough being a fan of KC sports, come playoff time.

Potholes in My Rose Bowl

Verne Lundquist had to admit that he didn’t have anything on is iPod from DJ Maseo or the group De La Soul, when pointing out that Maseo’s son Tre Mason was Auburn’s star running back.  Actually, I have that backwards, the CBS play-by-play announcer was pointing out that the Tigers featured back was the son of a hip-hop artist, and my best guess is that the southern gentleman is no fan of the rap music.  However, I am, and my iPad is full of De La Soul music, but enough about Me, Myself, and I, we have a Championship to talk about.

Maseo and Tre

Mason wasn’t just a player in the game with famous bloodlines, Florida State has a player that is a descendant of Jack Nicklaus, who Lundquist could probably tell you a few things about.  Hell, try to not let this make you feel old, but Jeff Blake had a son on Auburn’s championship team a few years ago.  However, on this night in Pasadena, the Tigers would come up short of their second BCS Championship, as the era came to a close and we all wished the chaotic system a good riddance.  That fact alone, the fact that Florida State scored more points than Auburn, cost Mason an MVP.

They say it’s good to be the king, so only the kings of college football could be labeled most valuable, so despite being bailed out by his special teams and defense, Jameis Winston took the honor.  If you aren’t new to the program, you are probably well aware that Winston was honored as the game’s most outstanding player in early December, and that was well deserved.  Awarding the freshman on Monday night, only fed the argument that the quarterback of the winning team gets the award by default.

You might say he stole the award, but we’ve get bigger fish, or thieves, to fry.  The logistics of getting an Auburn player on stage while Nole Nation celebrated may have been difficult, and his pops laid down the beats for Itzsoweezee (read: It’s So Easy).  Of course, De La Soul collaborated with Chaka Khan for All Good, but Tre would tell you it wasn’t.  Then, there was Potholes in my Lawn, a track about stealing style and lyrics.  Theft, or just straight-up mimicking was to be found in abundance between these two teams.

De La Soul

ESPN, who shares a bed with the SEC (Southeast Conference), was quick to point out that Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher designed his team after the SEC’s style, just to hush the crowd that was happy to see the run of teams from the conference winning the title stop at seven in a row.  You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, so the moral of the story states you pull for the SEC teams and their style or forever be ridiculed.

Marshall and Mason

Gus Malzahn is the innovator that runs the Auburn offense, just a few years removed from being a high school coach himself.  The option is nothing new, especially to the world of college football, but it’s a little inside-out from the style that we’re used to.  Sure, we have called it the triple option; fake to the fullback up the middle, then run off-tackle and let the quarterback decide whether to pitch to the halfback on the perimeter or keep it himself.  The first part of it is not supposed to be a fake, but an option to give to the fullback, though that’s not what we’re used to seeing.  With Auburn, quarterback Nick Marshall reads the play before-hand and decides whether his bruiser, Mason, is going to take the ball or he’s going to run off-tackle himself, sans a pitch man flanking him.

It’s genius, and damn near impossible to defend, given the right personnel.  Florida State has some of the nation’s best athletes at the collegiate level in the box, and they struggled to defend it in the first half.  They struggled to be within 18 points moments before halftime of the BCS’s swan song, but they caught a break from their teammates, and I’m not talking about the usually high-powered offense, led by Winston.

One last drive had apparently stalled towards the end of the half, but Malzahn wasn’t the only innovator playing the role of head coach in Pasadena.  Fisher never had much need to be that riverboat gambler, beating every opponent on their regular season slate by double digits, but a fake punt, with the up man taking the snap and setting up the reverse to the gunner Karlos Williams yielded a crucial first down.  That extended a possession that eventually became a scoring drive.  It was the former Auburn assistant in garnet and gold that was Mr. Mischief with tricks up his sleeve that rolled up on us like Christopher Reeve.

21-10 at the half, and if that score didn’t happen, I wasn’t going to spend another two hours subjecting myself to Alabama-Notre Dame Part II (fictional significant other, not included).  Hey, Guy vs. Rachel Celebrity Cook-off was on the Food Network; it even featured a Heisman winner and arguably the greatest college football player of all-time.  Speaking of College Football greats, I took the bait that ESPN threw on the bottom line about Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow joining Jemele Hill and Michael Smith for commentary on ESPN2 at the half.  It was the train wreck I’d expected it to be, especially knowing that the 4-letter had hired Saint Timmy full-time for the next season.

Jimbo Fisher

The theory was, and we heard from Jimbo himself, if Florida State could take the 2nd-half kickoff in for a score.  First drive, 3 and out.  Fortunately for the choppers of the Tomahawk sort, nothing doing the other way for Auburn after a punt, and Florida State made it a one-possession game with a field goal.

So, beginning of the 4th quarter, Tigers up 21-13, and it’s virtually a mistake-free game, even though some dropped passes and missed tackles have made it less than pretty.  Auburn wasn’t looking for vanity, muffing punts and putting the oblong-shaped ball on the ground, but net gains were still at a break-even point, since they all bounced back to the hands of men in white jerseys, Auburn’s designated color for the evening.

You got the feeling that Florida State was on to them after the intermission though, putting them behind the chains on 2nd and 3rd downs, thus forcing Nick Marshall to pass.  One of the things that bothers me about quarterbacks with the ability to run is the assumption that they can’t throw.  The Georgia-transfer debunks the myth, but you still wanted him to put the ball in the air, and PJ Williams of Florida State showed us why.  On a 2nd and 16 play, Marshall targeted Trovon Reed on the right sideline, but Williams said, ‘no soup for you’, which gave the Noles a chance to tie the game…in theory, anway.

It didn’t take long after the athletic interception from Williams and subsequent fumble recovery by one of his teammates that Winston took the field and did what we’ve all seen him to so well, move efficiently and score.  It’s just unfortunate when the authorities intervene, and intervene they did after the fact, but it still mattered.

Winston let the unheralded running game take over briefly, Davonta Freeman for 8 yards, then 16, then nothing at all.  With just 32 yards between Winston and the potential game-tying score, he took over with his arm, 21 yards to Kelvin Benjamin and then 11 to Chad Abram for the six…but, there was a flag on the field.  Freeman, who had done a lot to set up this latest kill-shot was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, which meant an 18-yard conversion try for the tie, instead of 3 yards.  Fisher, wise in his years, opted not to chase that game-tying point with the odds stacked against him, and we’re at 21-20.  Our elderly play-by-play man, unsure if he’s Kirk Herbstreit, Brick Tamlan, or himself, questions the move.  After all, points have come at a premium to this point, but crazy hadn’t quite arrived…yet.

Meanwhile, on the Celebrity Cook-off, Florence Henderson aka Mrs. Carol Brady was making a Lentil Stew at Medieval Times, but at the Rose Bowl, all you saw from Auburn was Marshall, Marshall, Marshall or Mason, Mason, Mason.  Sans a 26-yard pass to Ricardo Louis on the drive’s second play, Auburn kept the ball on the ground with their quarterback and running back for their entire 12-play, 69-yard drive to the Florida State 6-yard line, before a failed pass on 3rd and 4 forced the field goal unit on to the field.  Because of Freeman’s penalty on the touchdown, this 3-pointer gave Auburn a 4-point lead.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihlAvKHZYYk

11 seconds later, that lead was gone, courtesy of Levonte Whitfield, commonly known as “Kermit” went endzone to endzone to give the team from Tallahasse their first lead since a short-lived 3-0 advantage early.  They’d come all the way back from being down 18, but there was time on the clock, and we know that even 1 measly second is enough for Auburn.  4 minutes 31 seconds and a 3-point deficit had the nation preparing for overtime in the championship for the first time since 2003.

They took yards in little chunks and swallowed their losses as Florida State’s defense clamped down, though they were obviously winded.  The people of cyberspace were quick to point out that Florida State’s starters hadn’t played more than 2 and ½  quarters all season long, and it showed.  Playing behind the chains on third down, Marshall showed his throwing ability in the middle of the field, something he was able to do all night, hitting Sammie Coates for 15 yards and a first down.  Later in the drive, he’d find Coates for another 17 yards to cross mid-field.

Marshall was sacked on the next play, and once again forced to play behind the chains, but Mason knew the magic number was six, and took it 37 yards to get that six.  He spiked the ball and assumed the Heisman pose, but drew no flag, so his kicker easily hit the extra point, and the Tigers led 31-27.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRCG939VMmM

For the Tigers, this game lasted exactly 79 seconds longer than they would have cared for.  Lightning would not strike twice for the Seminoles on the kickoff return, and Kermit got capered at his own 20.  Winston got to work, hitting Rashad Greene twice, the second being a dagger to the souls of everyone chanting “S-E-C”, as Greene went for 49 yards on the catch and run to the Auburn 23 yard-line.

Now is as good a time as any to remind everyone about Chris Davis, the Iron Bowl hero.  Davis fielded an Alabama field goal attempt eight yards deep in his own end zone, then ran it back 108 yards for six points, a win over Alabama, and a berth in the SEC Championship.  But, that was in November; championships are won at this level in January.

Chris Davis, from hero to goat in a matter of weeks.

Back in the present tense in Pasadena, Florida State was backed up to the Auburn 10 yard-line, faced with 3rd and 8 with the clock inside of 20 ticks.  Winston threw for the end zone, and the pass fell incomplete.  You never want the officials to take the fate of a game in their own hands, but Davis was guilty as hell of pass interference on the play, so the flag was thrown, giving a first down at the 2.  Next play, Winston to Benjamin for six points and the SEC, I mean Auburn was toast.  Winston was 6 of 7 passing on the final drive, to finish with 237 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game-winner.

jameis-crystal-ball

Mason ran for 195 yards on 34 carries, but his defense gave up the big play.  Ditto for his kickoff team.  Mason set things up for Marshall, on the ground and in the air, so he’s my Most Valuable Player, but he got handed the “L” and that doesn’t fit the Disney script.  It would have been nice to see him recognized accordingly, even if he’s not applying for work at Feel Good Inc. anytime soon.

LINK TEST

A Tale of Two Miami

It was the best of games, it was the worst of games a game that could have been better.  It was once an introduction to the wisdom of small-time Jim Tressel in the desert, and it was Urban Meyer losing his first BCS Bowl as a head coach in the proximity of South Beach, thus completing the epilogue to the foolishness of the man who wore a sweater vest in Columbus.  Everything in between was a chapter in that book, everything that happens from here on out is a new book.

That January 3rd was a Friday, too.  It was 11 years ago, but I remember it quite well.  This time around, Ohio State was just a part of my night.  Back then, it was my entire night, my entire January, and my entire 2003; in fact, it came close to being the defining moment of the “aughts” decade for me.

The moments from that year remain fresh on my mind.  The expectations are never rock-bottom for Ohio State, but they were coming off another Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, despite Jim Tressel making good on his plan to make the student body proud of what they’d do in Ann Arbor 310 days after taking the job.  Only, this time around, the what-Miami or “The U” became the where-the location in South Florida.  I honestly don’t remember what was anticipated of them, but a date with Miami in Tempe on a Friday night in January was far from everyone’s mind, I’m sure.  This season, the sky was the limit, and also the only acceptable destination. They were looking at a schedule that lacked a significant challenge; no eventual Pac-12 Champion, no Big XII opponent, and no in-state road game.

Photo credit: simononsports.blogspot.com

What both seasons offered was a running back, one surrounded by controversy at one point or another, that put the team on his back and just refused to lose.  In 2002, you remember where you were when for the moments; at The Vine on Apache and Rural when Will Allen saved the day with a game-ending pick in Cincinnati, at the local bar watching the corner TV when Chris Gamble scored the only Ohio State touchdown of the day on a pick-six against Penn State at The Shoe, taking in “Holy Buckeye” from my couch after a late Friday night showing of 8 Mile, and the nervousness of overtime in Champaign with the Phoenix chapter of the Ohio State Alumni Club with Dave and my Pops.  A week later, Dave and I were back at that same dive on Camelback and 7th Street, but my father had returned to Ohio, so I’m not sure if I’ve ever witnessed an Ohio State win over Michigan in his company.

When I first moved to the Valley of the Sun, I didn’t have much going on, but I always had Dave.  He was from Ohio, I was from Ohio, and we both liked Ohio State football, so that was enough.  Every Monday, we spoke of the weekend’s game, and he’d pass along his Buckeye Sports Bulletin whenever possible.  This wasn’t the most joyous practice in 2001, conversations about Booker Stanley and a quarterback controversy that involved the names Krenzel and McMullen come to mind.  Flash forward to the following year, as one second was all that stood between that Ohio State team and a 13-0 season that would earn them a trip to the desert, and only John “The Statue” Navarre could tempt fate.  It might have been a few too many Bud Lights, but I couldn’t figure out the math, was Dave old enough to remember 1968?  He was 38, and he’d be able to enjoy a title this time around, much more than when he was 3.

I still watch the games, but they aren’t appointment viewing for me, by any means, these days.  Dave and I still chat and exchange emails about the game ahead and what we took away from the previous Saturday’s game, but there’s no mystery to it; in most weeks, they’re going to win, everyone expects it, and no one respects it.  After the 2002 win, Craig Krenzel had beaten rival Michigan in consecutive seasons.  No Ohio State quarterback had ever done that in my lifetime, but Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor have both done it since, provided you aren’t going to be a jerk about the vacated 2010 season.  Winning that game at the end of the year just doesn’t mean that much, either because Ohio State has graduated on to bigger goals or because Michigan isn’t up to the task anymore.  In 2002, beating Michigan was almost enough for the fans, but by 2013, it was barely enough and perhaps inadequate, standing on its own.

There was no obstacle between Michigan and the bowl game, just Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.  Michigan State proved to be a difficult road block for Urban Meyer this time around.  Jim Tressel didn’t even have to see Michigan State in a 14 game season, or Iowa, who finished undefeated in Big Ten play that year.  The Pac-10 was too much for the other Big 10 rep in a BCS Bowl that year, as Ohio State fans felt conflicted watching the Trojans handle the Hawkeyes in Miami on January 2nd, the night before their Friday night date with juggernaut.  Clemson didn’t quite earn themselves a juggernaut label this year, but Ohio State fans have resorted to openly rooting for their Big Ten rivals, as if they’re obligated to do so in the present tense.  The conference allegiance held strong on New Years Day in Pasadena, where Michigan State handled Stanford in the 100th Granddaddy of Them All.  Michigan State’s Head Coach was calling the game of his life, as Tressel’s defensive coordinator, in Tempe, 11 years ago this day.

There was orange to be seen on January 3rd, then and now, and I’m not just talking about the trophy, the color of the seats, or the Discover Card sponsored logo.  Miami wore green jerseys, but orange was arguably still their primary color.  Clemson wore white on Friday night, and there’s little debate that they’re the orange team.  The Buckeyes were a well-documented 13-point underdog, in the days and weeks leading up to that game designated as a championship.  In this crazy new world we live in, a few weeks without a game sent Ohio State from the favorites column to the underdog one, an 8-point swing from what I saw.  A few fans were willing to admit that beating Miami that night would be a tall order, but there was no consensus going into this one.  In the interest of full disclosure, my predictions were a loss for the Scarlet and Gray both times.  I remember discussing it with the designated driver on the eve of the game in 2003, while everyone else was liquored up enough to prognosticate with their hearts instead of their heads, and good for them for enjoying life.

Despite what I believed to be a morose inevitability for that night to be all about The U, you couldn’t accuse me of not enjoying life in my first 72 hours of 2003.  We rode down Mill Avenue in an RV, singing “Hang On Sloopy” at the top of our lungs, and when we crossed Rio Salado, we took the bridge over Tempe Town Lake, went around the block to University and Mill, started the track over, and did the same thing over and over.  We found older adults to assume the role of parents to our underage friends, so they could enter a 21 & over bar, exploiting the loophole that allowed minors to enter with “guardian”.  There were stories of paid entertainers doing inappropriate things with Buckeye necklaces in lieu of beads, but to elaborate would put this network’s PG-13 status in jeopardy.

brax

In contrast, on this eve of the Orange Bowl, my wife and I rented a movie, then watched the 4th quarter of the Sugar Bowl.  On gameday, I worked a full day, like a normal human being, then met my parents for dinner.  We couldn’t even get a table in the bar/lounge area, and were stuck on the family side of the joint, which fortunately had TVs.

On the day of the Championship, and granted, it was in town that year, I attempted to work.  Around lunch time, my boss granted me parole, and the tailgating began just a short walk from Sun Devil Stadium.  By the way, I didn’t get a ticket for the game, because I was waiting for a connection that fell through.  I even turned down a friend of a friend, who was seeking $300 for a single.  In comparison, $2000 wasn’t enough for two tickets to a BCS Championship game across town 4 years later.

Then and now, there were concerns about the defense being able to stop their opponent’s explosive offense, but that turned out not to be a legitimate fear in 2003.  In 2014, it was a very real combination of inept defense meeting explosive offense, but that great Miami team didn’t have anyone dominate quite the way Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins did on Friday night.  Willis McGahee might have, but his night was cut short by injury.  Injury to a star offensive player may have influenced the outcome again, on the same day, 11 years later.

“Whoa Nelly” had been replaced with “Buckaroo”, and it was Braxton Miller being too beat up to carry Ohio State across the finish line in a 40-35 loss.  Back then, it was Miami’s Ken Dorsey, who had been knocked silly and unable to extend the game.  We witnessed that again on Friday, on Braxton Miller’s final interception of the night, a pass that might have given the Buckeyes a 41-40 lead with the appropriate amount of touch.

A lot of people felt the Big XII officials gave them a reprieve in 2003, when Miami’s Glen Sharpe was called for pass interference on what would have been the game’s final play on a would-be failed 4th down play, but the truth is that Ohio State should have never been in that situation.  While I don’t expect an overwhelming amount of talk to linger about it, a case could be made against full possession of that final interception, but it should have never come to overtime for Ohio State and Miami and Clemson should not have needed another stop.

Miami sent the 2003 game to OT on a Todd Sievers field goal that was set up by a long punt return, on the third down play that was allegedly not converted and preceded the punt, a case could be made for a bad no-call or a bad ruling of an incomplete pass.  A victory in either case meant Miami never saw the ball and never forced the extension of the game.  An inexplixable throw from Clemson’s Tajh Boyd to Ohio State’s CJ Barnett could have drawn comparisons to Brian Sipe’s wounded duck in the 1980 playoffs, commonly known by Cleveland Browns fans as Red Right 88.  His defensive teammates bailed him out on Miller’s errant throw.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gylc-sBL48k

I thought back to Ohio State’s last BCS bowl, whether it was vacated or not, where the Buckeyes caught a major break in the end.  Solomon Thomas, one of the lesser known names in the Tattoo scandal, intercepted Ryan Mallett to ice the game for Jim Tressel in his last game as a head coach, to temporarily get in the win column against the Southeastern Conference with a win over Arkansas.  On Friday, they played a team that they hadn’t seen since Woody Hayes last game as Ohio State’s head coach in 1978.  There were quite a few parallels to be drawn between the 2003 Fiesta Bowl and 2014 Orange Bowl, even if the former was much more crisp.  I’d compare the biggest play of that game, Maurice Clarett’s strip of Sean Taylor after an interception to the biggest Ohio State defensive play against Clemson, which was Vonn Bell’s miraculous effort to keep Clemson from going up 21-9 in the second quarter with an interception of Boyd’s attempt to get six with the flick of a wrist.  Actually, it didn’t matter; the Bucks stalled on offense, and the Tigers scored on their next possesion, making it 20-9.  In defeat, I got in the car and conversed with my wife on the way home.  In victory, I showed up at a neighbors house, with no voice, whispering at the top of my lungs, that they did it, and also that I hadn’t been to bed yet; it was 1:00 on Saturday afternoon.

On the surface, it was a disappointing loss for Ohio State and a signature win for Clemson.  This is the high point for Dabo Swinney’s team, but another disappointment for Urban Meyer and a major disappointment for his fans, who want to celebrate more often than once a decade.  Things worked out well when Miami had to come to them, but when forced to visit Miami in a “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad then Muhammad must go to the mountain” situation, a team from a Valley called Death made things less well in the end.

What a difference 11 years can make.