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The Wishbone: Bowls and Polls and the Promised Land

The Wishbone is back after a nice holiday break, and rarin’ to go.  This week we look at a variety of topics that deserve some scrutiny; next week it’s full speed ahead to the BCS National Championship Game!

Auburn Man.

Part One:  Appreciating Mount Kodi

There is a player on the 2010 Auburn football team who has been involved in almost every big play of the season.  He was a highly recruited quarterback coming out of high school—one of the top five in the nation to come from that class, in fact—and his commitment to Auburn was a big deal.  That player, of course, is… Kodi Burns.

Kodi’s unselfishness after Chris Todd was declared the starting quarterback in the fall of 2009 set the tone for the championship-caliber team Auburn has fielded in 2010.  When a leader is unselfish and gives so much of himself, those around him find it much more difficult to be selfish themselves.  Kodi could have transferred… he could have fussed and complained and pouted… he could have become a cancer on the team.  Obviously, he did none of those things.  Instead, he persevered.  He asked to speak to the entire team and proceeded to deliver the speech that was a key building block for this season’s success.

Let’s put this in terms of another sport, so that it will be clearer.  When a great basketball player says, “I don’t need the ball, I’ll just play defense against the other team’s best player,” what are his teammates going to say to that? Are they going to complain about how many shots they are getting? No.  They will look at the class and maturity that player is exhibiting and they will possibly even try to emulate it.  That is what Kodi Burns did in this case, and what he did for his teammates.

Kodi Burns did not grow up dreaming of being a wide receiver or of delivering great downfield blocks on the sweep for someone else.  He dreamed of being a great SEC quarterback.  And he gave that up for the good of the team.  He showed tremendous character and that carried over into 2010.

Beyond the example of character he displayed, however, he also brought it on the field.  If you think he didn’t make much of an impact between the hash marks in 2010, you weren’t paying enough attention.

The official stat line reads thusly: Appeared in all 13 games; 10 catches for 142 yards; 6 rushes for 10 yards and a touchdown; 2 of 5 passing for 42 yards and a touchdown.  Decent enough numbers for perhaps the third or fourth-leading receiver on the team, sure—but, even then, we haven’t seen the whole story of this season.  Let’s go back and look at a few turning point plays:

— McCalebb’s long touchdown run to beat LSU is justly celebrated in our collective memories already, only a dozen weeks or so after it happened.  But—why did it happen?  It happened, in large part, because of the blocking that opened up a pathway for Onnie Mac to blaze through.  And Kodi Burns made the outside block that opened up that pathway.

— When Cam Newton was falling out of bounds against Kentucky and, even as he was tumbling head-over-heels backward, threw the ball down the field and into a crowd, who came down with it? Yep—Kodi Burns.

— Demond Washington threatened all season to spring a kickoff return all the way back for a touchdown, and he finally got one against Ole Miss.  Why was the hole there?  The hole he found had been created by a Kodi Burns block.

— On many of the other big sweep plays and outside runs this year, Kodi has been the primary outside blocker.  If you’re seeing Cam or Onnie Mac moving through empty space, look around, because you’re likely to see a defender on his backside or otherwise all hung up on Kodi’s block.

— During the first quarter-and-a-half against Alabama, Auburn’s offense could get nothing at all going.  What were the very first positive plays the offense made? Two passes down the middle to Kodi Burns. He made plays when no one else was, and gave the offense some much-needed confidence.

Kodi made play after play on the field this season.  He made a huge difference overall, in many different ways, although those ways haven’t always show up on the stat sheet. Honors have been showering down on the team and on several other individual players, and all are well-deserved.  Even so, the impact of Kodi Burns should not be overlooked.

Part Two:  Bowl Season

Auburn’s opponent in the BCS National Championship Game hails from the Pac-10 Conference.  You would not be mistaken in thinking that it seems somewhat unusual for our Tigers to face a Pac-10 team in a bowl.  In fact, only once in history have the Tigers done so:  Following the 1986 season, Auburn traveled to Orlando and defeated Southern Cal, 16-7 (in the final game of embattled head coach Ted Tollner’s tenure).

Overall, the SEC leads the Pac-10 in all head-to-head matchups with a record of 62-39-5 (.608). However, over the past twelve years (1998 – 2009), the Pac-10 actually leads the SEC with a record of 11-9 (.550).  Oregon is 4-4 against SEC teams all-time, but 3-0 since 2002, and with a big win over Tennessee at Knoxville earlier this season.  (The other games were the 1930s and 1970s.)

Before we get to the fabled January 10 “Date in the Desert” with Oregon, however, let’s look at the other bowl games involving SEC teams.

Bowls can represent many different things to different teams.  They can be viewed by the players involved as the “opportunity of a lifetime” (see Auburn and Oregon), or as nice little season-ending treats for teams that struggled to reach 6-6.  They can also be perceived by players as a necessary evil—as an undesirable add-on to a season that they really wish would just end.

Thus, the biggest factor in picking bowl game winners is motivation.  Who wants to be there?  Who feels they need to prove something?  We all remember what Utah did to Alabama a couple of years ago, when the Tide phoned it in, having little interest in playing the Utes.

A few nights ago, Utah again provided an example of this.  They were without their starting quarterback and were unable to get anything going on offense.  Even so, they dragged an awful bowl game out, keeping the outcome in doubt far longer than it ever should have been, mainly because Boise State was not much interested in being there and playing Utah.  After all, they were one field goal away from playing in a BCS bowl and having a legitimate argument for a share of the national championship.

Are there SEC teams who don’t want to be there this bowl season?  Should we go ahead and put them on “upset alert?”  Let’s see:

Dec. 30:  Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn.
North Carolina vs. Tennessee

John: Tennessee’s young quarterback, Tyler Bray, has played well for the Vols during the second half of the season.  And the game is in the state of Tennessee.  But who has Tennessee really beaten?  Vols win a squeaker.

Van:  Two teams that just haven’t looked right all year.  I’ll take the SEC squad.  Tennessee, 30-24.

Dec. 31:  AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn.
Central Florida vs. Georgia

John:  Central Florida won its conference, went 10-3 and lost close games to NC State and K-State.  They are not a pushover.  But Aaron Murray and AJ Green light up Memphis… Georgia, 34-24

Van:  Lose this one, Mark Richt, and you’d better hang on for dear life.  Might not be a bad idea to have an “exit strategy” standing by.  Georgia, 34-17.

Dec. 31:  Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, Ga.
Florida State vs. South Carolina

John:  Two teams that lost conference championship games and probably deserved better bowl games.  And both teams beat the crud out of UF.  A pretty even and entertaining game.  FSU sticks it to the chickens with a close win.

Van:  Your brain screams “FSU” when you see this matchup, and then you remember it’s not one of Bobby Bowden’s old juggernauts facing Spurrier.  I see a tough, hard-fought contest, with the Gamecocks grinding it out behind Lattimore.  South Carolina, 23-20.

Jan. 1:  TicketCity Bowl in Dallas, Texas
Northwestern vs. Texas Tech

John:  This is a New Year’s Day bowl… on ESPNU.  If you get that channel you can enjoy it.   The good news for Tommy Tuberville?  Northwestern’s starting quarterback was injured on November 13 and will miss the bowl game.  Texas Tech, 34-24

Van:  Tubby’s back on New Year’s Day!  I have to admit, I’d love to see Tuberville knock off the Wildcats in a bowl only a year after Chizik and company did so.  Guns up!  (ps: This is a New Year’s Day bowl?!  Urghh…)  Northwestern, 37-27.

Jan. 1:  Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla.
Penn State vs. Florida

John:  I think Urban Meyer started a rumor this week that Joe Paterno was retiring.  They should call this the “Both Offenses Suck” Bowl.  I have no idea if Florida will show up to play or not. But Penn State is not good.  Florida, 20-17

Van:  A very interesting pairing of two very unpredictable teams.  I think the turmoil at Florida will be too much for them to focus properly.  Penn State, 24-17.

Jan. 1: Capital One Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
Michigan State vs. Alabama

John:  We are SPARTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!! (Sorry.)  MSU is pretty predictable on offense and that is bad when you give Alabama a few weeks to prepare. I think it will be a hard fought, close game but Bama has too much firepower on offense.  (Best Bama – MSU story? When Saban left MSU to go to LSU he told the staff, “Anyone who wants to go with me better get on that airplane.” No one got on the airplane and he went to Baton Rouge alone.) Bama wins, unfortunately.

Van:  Ahh—my favorite bowl of all, because it’s in Orlando over the holidays!  I think the Spartans will be able to generate just enough offense to pull this one out.  Alabama showed some weaknesses during the second half of the season that will be tough to fix in only a few weeks of bowl practice, while MSU has been remarkably resilient in finding ways to win.  And, hey—wasn’t this the bowl Saban lost in his final game with LSU?  Heh…  Michigan State, 27-24

Jan. 1: Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla.
Michigan vs. Mississippi State

John:  Michigan’s defense is terrible. Think about the worst 2-3 minutes that Auburn’s defense has played this season and that is Michigan’s whole season, every game.  So MSU will score, but can they stop Denard Robinson? I can’t wait to find out.  (I like Manny Diaz a lot and think he will come up with a few things, but on the other side Rich Rodriguez may be coaching for his job).  Miss State, 28-27

Van:  Is it just me, or is this a very, very peculiar matchup of teams?  My instincts scream “Michigan” but I just don’t see how the Wolverines’ (lack of a) defense stops MSU.  Miss State, 27-24.

Jan. 4: Allstate Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, La.
Arkansas vs. Ohio State

John:  A fun game – I hope Ohio State players win a few individual awards so they can put them on eBay from the team hotel. Ohio State really wants to show it can beat an SEC team.  But Arkansas’ offense is great and the defense has improved this year.  Hawgs, 40-24

Van:  What a fun matchup this should be.  And I cannot see how Ohio State will ever slow down the Arkansas offense.  What the heck: Hawgs, 37-27.

Jan. 7:  AT&T Cotton Bowl, Arlington, Texas
Texas A&M vs. LSU

John:  This will be an ugly, low scoring contest that could come down to one crazy play at the end… and you know what that means.  LSU, 21-20

Van:  My instincts are demanding that I choose A&M.  But I do not dare defy the awesome might of He Who Grazes.  LSU, 20-13.

Jan. 8:  BBVA Compass Bowl, Birmingham, Ala.
Pittsburgh vs. Kentucky

John:  Pitt fired Dave Wansteddt and Kentucky suspended starting QB Mike “Does not miss against Auburn” Hartline.  When you have no idea who will win, ask yourself the following:  Who is the best player on the field? Answer: Randall Cobb. So:  Randall Cobb, 33-24

Van:  Did this bowl get lost or something? What is it doing on Jan. 8?  Does anyone really care?  The Wildcats bring it home, I think.  Kentucky, 27-23

Want to know our thoughts on the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game?  Of course you do!  So tune in next week…!

Part Three: An Early Peek at 2011

Not ready yet to dig out the 2011 football schedule?  After all, we have a tiny little Date in the Desert coming up soon.  Why look ahead when we can just enjoy the wonder and majesty of the now?

Hey, we agree with all of that.  But the truth is that the sport of college football will not come to a sudden and climactic end, for all time, just because our team possibly wins its long-awaited BCS title.  Next season is going to happen whether we like it or not, whether we are ready to move on or not, and whether Cam and Fairley and the others come back or not.  So we have to acknowledge it—and what better time to take our first peek at it than now?

The first prediction is already out at Early Bird Preview, and they have Auburn ranked fifth.  This is pure, blind speculation, of course—we don’t know yet how many of our star underclassmen will be back, including the Blessed Individual himself.  On top of that, one of the biggest factors in ranking next year’s squad is the schedule they will have to navigate.  And it is not a pretty sight.

The 2011 season kicks off in Jordan-Hare on September 3 against the Utah State Aggies in the first-ever meeting of the two programs.  The Aggies have been making the rounds of the big boys in the last few years, and it makes sense that they would finally pop up on Auburn’s schedule.  They should provide a nice opening day challenge, giving the new-look Tigers a little workout before dutifully folding up.

In fact, the Tigers face only one conference foe before the month of September ends—a Sept. 10 date with Mississippi State.  The week after the maroon Dawgs come to town, Auburn travels back out of conference to Clemson to pay our ACC cousins back for their 2010 visit.

The rest of the non-conference slate is pretty dismal.  In addition to Utah State, the Tigers welcome Florida Atlantic on Sept. 24, and then mighty Samford (with new Offensive Coordinator and Gus Malzahn protégé Rhett Lashlee) on November 5.  “Samford?!” you may well ask.  “Since when does Auburn play Samford?!”  Guess what?  This will actually be the twenty-seventh meeting between the two!  Yes, we find that hard to imagine, too.  And perhaps even more staggering: Samford will be seeking their first-ever win in the series.  Ouch.

You look at that slate of games and you think, “Easy sailing!”  But then we move into October…and the path becomes much more difficult, very quickly.  Here we go:

October 1: at South Carolina.  Most of their SEC East-winning team will be back, including that receiver and that running back.  October 8:  at Arkansas.  You may remember their backup quarterback, who will surely be taking over at the helm for the Hawgs—he’s the guy most responsible for ringing our defense up for 43 points in our own house this year.  October 15:  Florida.  Hey, at least this one is actually in Jordan-Hare!  Then we go back on the road—October 22: at LSU.  And then, for the cherry on top of that big ol’ Sundae of Death:  October 29: Ole Miss, in their recurring role as “Auburn’s somewhat easier foe at the end of a horrific run of opponents.”

Good gosh!  Talk about a Murderer’s Row; the month of October looks like a no-frills tour through Stalin’s Gulag!  We’ve known all year it was coming, seeing as how we had so many of our tougher foes at home this year.  But vaguely understanding that is one thing; seeing it lined up on the 2011 schedule is something else entirely.  Plugging in Samford at the end of that parade of horrors makes a lot more sense now.

The season wraps up with our abbreviated Amen Corner of Georgia and Alabama, with the Tigers visiting Athens on November 12, taking a week off, and then “welcoming” the Tide to the Loveliest Village on November 26—which is a Saturday again, so all you “purists” can quit your griping about Friday Iron Bowls.

So: a mostly-winnable slate of contests to start the year, then the Bataan Death March in the middle, followed by a slight break, and then the big two at the end.  By Halloween, we should know just about everything we need to know about the 2011 Tigers.

Part Four:  The Promised Land

Enough about the 2011 squad.  Their fate is a mystery now, their future a blank slate, and rightfully so.  They will write their own story, forge their own destiny, in the months to come.

For now, it’s still all about Cam and Fairley and Darvin and Onnie Mac and Mike D and Kodi and Josh and Lutz and Mario and T-Zac and Blake and Wes B and of course those Big Uglies.  It’s all about that Date in the Desert.

In 1989, David Housel described Auburn getting to play Alabama in Jordan-Hare for the first time as “the Children of Israel entering the Promised Land,” and he noted that one thing that made it so special was that we could enter the Promised Land only once.

In less than two short weeks, David Housel can be proven wrong, at least on that point.  In less than two weeks, the Auburn Family will have another opportunity to enter a Promised Land—one that may not be quite as intensely, personally important as Dec. 2, 1989 was, but which will be much, much bigger on the national radar—and one that will be remembered for decades to come.

The Auburn Family will cross the desert of Arizona and, if all goes well, we will discover an oasis there in Glendale—a little bit of paradise for which we have fruitlessly searched for over five decades.

In less than two short weeks, the Auburn Family may at last enter the Promised Land.  Again.

Photo by Zac Henderson.

Keep Reading:

* AU grad / rumored Mark Sanchez girlfriend making name for herself as sports reporter
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* Gus Malzahn on the Wu-Tang Clan
* Former Auburn cheerleader stars in ‘Best Worst Movie’
Auburn’s Miss Universe contestant, Audrey Moore
* Auburn amputee has tiger-striped prosthetic legs
Auburn grad tries to get Ryan Secrest to hire her with internet campaign

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