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Wishbone: The 14th Warrior?

The witch doctor lady has prophesied that we need a Fourteenth Warrior to round out our merry band of SEC Vikings as we hunt for the Wendol. Umm, I mean, for a sixth straight National Championship.

This week the Wishbone would prefer to simply ignore what transpired on the football field last Saturday—and what may be about to transpire this coming Saturday at the Chicken Coop in Columbia, if the Auburn defense doesn’t straighten itself out pronto—and focus entirely on the topic of conference realignment.

We’d like to do that, sure—but we can’t.  At least, not entirely.

First, we have to spend at least a little bit of time on the Tigers’…performance… against Florida Atlantic, and on what to expect against South Carolina.  Then we’ll take a quick look at the conference merry-go-round.

Last year, it was the South Carolina game where we all sort of woke up and realized just what the 2010 Auburn Tigers were fully capable of.  Cam had his long run down the right sideline, capped off with his quickly stepping into a phone booth (how’d that get there?) and changing into his red Superman cape and soaring over the goal line from what now seems like it must have been the thirty yard line.  At least.

This year, we fear that it may be against that same opponent that we learn all new (and not so encouraging) things about our 2011 Tigers.

The defense has looked shaky all year, and dumbing it down every week hasn’t seemed to help.  The offense started to struggle halfway through the Clemson game and, if anything, seemed to regress against FAU.  (Throw in a number of player injuries suffered during that contest and you can see why we’re not particularly keen to dig around too much in it.)  Where exactly should our expectations be, right now?

War Blog Eagle Said it.

Before the season started, a very wise man wrote on this very Web site:

“In short … look, we know that teams this young don’t win championships. They just don’t. And we ought to know (though I know many Auburn fans do not) that teams this young facing a schedule this mind-bogglingly loaded will be doing very well to win seven games–especially when the coin-flips that came up Tiger’s-heads so many times in 2010 inevitably come up tails in 2011.

“What don’t we know? What is possible.”

–Jerry Hinnen, earlier this year

Jerry was basically cautioning us to temper our expectations (or at least our hopes) for lots of wins this year and reminding us to focus on individual players making good plays here and there—plays that they would more consistently make in the seasons to come.  That column is a good thing for Auburn fans to review as we head into this tough stretch of schedule.

Of course we want the Tigers to win every game, and certainly last year spoiled us.  Not losing in seventeen games, with a National Championship stuck in there, too, will do that to a fan base.  But we haven’t been world-beaters quite long enough during this recent stretch to find ourselves turning into—oh, I don’t know—fans of certain other programs that have a history of winning a lot (though not nearly as much as they seem to think they have).

In short, Auburn fans are generally realistic, especially when compared to some of our conference neighbors.  Thus, even after soaring so high with Cam and Nick and the gang last year, we were able to find our collective footing pretty quickly after the recent loss to Clemson.

Losing to Clemson this year was not disastrous.  Not in the grand scheme of things.  Particularly after that Clemson team turned around and knocked off a seemingly-strong FSU squad on Saturday.*  Not disastrous, no—it was more like an early-morning wake-up call; a little reality slapping us in the face.  We took it for what it was, hoped we’d learned something from it, adjusted our expectations a little bit, and moved on.

Then came the Florida Atlantic game.

Honestly, in many phases of the game, the Tigers struggled even more against the lowly Owls than they did against Clemson.

You don’t need for us to tick off all the areas of disappointment; areas that drastically need immediate improvement.  EVERYTHING needs drastic improvement, and NOW.  Heck—Cody Parkey, the one seemingly invincible component of this year’s team, even missed his first field goal!

And so, as we now go on the road in the conference for the first time this season, to face a team we bested twice in 2010 (and therefore a team that is probably salivating at the thought of getting a shot at us in their own stadium for a change), we find ourselves nursing genuine concerns.

Never overtly pessimistic in even the worst of situations when it comes to our beloved Tigers, your intrepid Wishbone columnists nonetheless find ourselves…shall we say, justifiably worried this week.  We want Auburn to win the game.  We hope for the best.  We try to work out somewhat rational and reasonable scenarios by which such a thing is possible.  And meanwhile… let’s just say again, we find ourselves justifiably worried and nursing genuine concerns.

In the Fall, a Young Man’s Fancy Turns to Chicken

Auburn has played South Carolina six times since the Gamecocks joined the SEC in 1992, and have yet to lose to them during that span.  The Tigers pulled out a tight one at home in 1996, 28-24, largely behind the running and passing of Dameyune Craig, and then went to Columbia the next year and handed it to Carolina, 23-6.  The 2005 contest saw Auburn win in a blowout, 48-7, against the first South Carolina squad fielded against Auburn by Steve Spurrier—and with a score identical to the one Spurrier hung on Pat Dye’s Auburn team in Spurrier’s first year in Gainesville, 1990.  The 2006 battle was an even stranger affair, with Auburn winning, 24-17, after controlling the ball for every single play of the third quarter (long drive, touchdown, onside kick, another long drive).  Oddly enough, Carolina then held the ball for nearly every play of the fourth quarter, but couldn’t score at the end.

A similar scenario played out last year, of course—Auburn came from behind to lead, 35-27, and then held on as the Gamecocks tried (and failed) to rally at the very end.  The rematch in the SEC Championship Game was an all-timer for Auburn faithful, 56-17.

So now we go on the road to Columbia to face the mighty fighting chickens one more time.  What is Auburn’s best chance to come out on top?

1. Michael Dyer.  We all know he’s the one unstoppable element of this offense, and the only people who have been able to slow him down thus far are the Auburn coaches, pulling him from the games for long stretches.  In order for the Tigers to have a chance to win, Dyer will need to carry the ball at least 25-30 times on Saturday.  Unfortunately, at present, Carolina’s defensive line is better than Auburn’s offensive line, especially in pass rush / pass protection, so Barrett Trotter may not have a lot of time to throw the ball…unless the Tigers can get Dyer going early and use a little play-action when he is in the game.  It’s possible.  Isaiah Crowell rushed for 118 yards against this team.  Dyer can do better.

2. A Gamecock QB meltdown.  Remember, Steve Spurrier is legendary both for coaching his quarterbacks up and for tearing them down.  Stephen Garcia has been at Carolina so long now, he’s found himself on both ends of that spectrum many times.  (It was pointed out this week that Garcia asked people at his high school all-star game to call him “Achilles.” In his defense, this was probably only a few years after the Trojan War.)  Currently the Gamecocks are 107th in the nation in passing efficiency, following Garcia’s complete collapse against Vanderbilt (4 interceptions and a benching). South Carolina also fumbled the ball six times in Nashville, but miraculously did not lose any of them.  In the Navy game the weekend before, we saw that Spurrier is willing to ride Lattimore into the ground; the young man rushed for nearly 300 yards against the Midshipmen, in a game the Cocks might otherwise have lost.  That kind of play calling may continue.  Of course, we also know that Spurrier is the least patient coach in America in dealing with bad quarterback play.  While newspapers are reporting Garcia will start on Saturday, could we see him yanked against Auburn for the second season in a row?   Auburn should put eight men in the box to stop Lattimore and make Garcia and/or Shaw beat them.

The Gamecocks have an excellent defense.  Finding some success on early downs is probably the best chance the Tigers have to keep Trotter from getting killed out there in third-and-long situations.  We expect to see more quarterback runs on earlier downs—particularly from Keihl Frazier.  In fact, as this season progresses, we expect to see the “Barrett and Share it” offense rolled back, as more and more of the offense is slowly turned over to Frazier.  If this happens, maybe Frazier will be ready to take the reins next year—and maybe Trotter will survive this year.

So the recipe for good eating in the Family Meal Bucket in Columbia?  The defense steps it up another notch, the special teams stay special, and Frazier takes a bigger role in keeping the down-and-distance situation manageable.  Can the Tigers pull that off?  Stranger things have happened in this series.

Quest for the Thirteenth (and Fourteenth) Warrior

Is the SEC about to make life a bit easier and more fun for John or for Van?

The SEC, we all believe, is contemplating a potential fourteenth team to accompany Texas A&M into the league.  Two of the supposed finalists are Missouri and Virginia Tech.  Van, in southwestern Illinois, lives a pretty long way from the existing SEC outposts—but only two hours away from the Missouri campus.  John, likewise, finds himself far from God’s Country, living in central Virginia—but pretty darned close to Blacksburg!

This is the Wishbone, after all, so it really is all about us.   What do we –Van and John—want in an SEC expansion team?  Glad you asked!  We have listed below some of the candidates and how we feel about the value of each on various scales.  Enjoy!

These scales include:

– Television revenue generation:  Is the institution a big market or a big name that will generate dollars?  1 = North Dakota State;  10 = Southern Cal

– Fan passion:  How much do the fans really care about SEC football?  1 = downtown Minneapolis, MN;  10 = the middle of the state of Alabama

– How good is the football program now?   1 = Florida Atlantic D’OH!!;  10 = a BCS title contender

Other factors include the cultural fit, Auburn’s record against them, driving distance from Auburn (the longest trip currently is Arkansas, at 663 miles), general coolness factor (how much would we enjoy having them on our schedule?), and is it good for Van/good for John?

(And as a quick aside—for all of those who argue that none of these institutions quite matches what we might wish for in terms of “worthiness” to join the SEC, just remember: The last time the SEC expanded, the two new members were not FSU and Texas but Arkansas and South Carolina.  Arkansas and South Carolina.)

Candidate #1:   Texas A&M Aggies

Status:  They’re in.  It’s a done deal.

Home:  College Station, TX

The Story:  Fleeing the Cylon tyranny of Texas and the Longhorn Network (LHN), not to mention the floundering Big 12, Texas A&M decided to join a real football league.

TV revenue:  8   (Houston and Dallas TV markets, lots of alumni)

Fan passion:  9 (Great traditions; the fans really want to be in the SEC)

Football quality now:  8 – a legitimate top 15 team

Cultural fit:  Excellent.  Texas residents are southerners.   A&M is a big state school that will fit in well.

Auburn record vs. them:  0-2.  Uh oh.  Well—nothing like payback!

Driving distance from Auburn:  781 miles

Other notes:  Definitely should be a fun continuing rival.  Of course, if the alleged fourteenth team is also from out west somewhere, Auburn is the logical choice to move to the SEC East.  Which would mean we only played A&M very occasionally.  Oh well…

Good for Van?  Ehh. As far away from me as any other current SEC school, aside from Vandy.

Good for John?  Not planning on making it to any road games in College Station.

Candidate #2:  West Virginia Mountaineers

Status:  Supposedly they applied (who can blame them?) and were rejected.  But it’s all speculation and rumor so far.

Home:  Morgantown, WV

The Story:  The Big East is listing badly as other programs bail out. WVU would love to jump to the ACC or SEC.

TV revenue:  2

Fan passion:  8.5   (They had to outlaw couch-burning in town.)

Football quality now:  8 – They’re a legitimate top 15 team, as well.

Cultural fit:  Eh.  Probably better than we’d like to admit.  But no one has forgotten that West Virginia broke away from Virginia in the Civil War and was on the Union side.  Also, the fans there would all describe themselves as ‘hillbillies’ and not southerners.  Not sure we trust ‘em.

Auburn record vs. them:  1-1

Driving distance from Auburn:  730 looong, mountain(eer)ous miles.

Other notes:  The recent series was a good one.  But, good lord, those uniforms make it look like they’re applying for membership in the WAC.  They’d need a major revamping to fit with the SEC’s buttoned-down, conservative image.

Good for Van?  Not in the least.  Way too northeast.

Good for John?  Closer to me than many other candidate schools, so I could get to more SEC games.  And the fans are crazy.  (But is that good crazy or bad crazy??)

Candidate #3:   Missouri Tigers

Status:  On again, off again. 

Home:  Columbia, MO

The Story:  The Big 12 is disintegrating and ‘Mizzou’ will be a popular poaching target.  But they’ve always not-so-secretly carried a torch for the Big 10.  Does the SEC really want to romance –and extend a coveted invitation to—an institution that will think of the SEC as a sort of second- or third-choice, and always be looking over our shoulders at the “One that Got Away?”

TV Revenue: 7   (St. Louis and Kansas City TV markets, lots of alumni)

Fan passion: 4  (Sports fans in the area are far more concerned with the St. Louis Cardinals getting into the playoffs than with SEC football.)

Football quality now:  6 -Not bad.   But “not bad” gets you crushed in the SEC.  They’ve actually represented their division in the Big 12 Championship Game (back when, y’know, there actually was a Big 12 Championships Game).  In the SEC, however, they’ll probably operate at about the level of “Kentucky in a good year/ Tennessee in a bad year.”

Cultural fit:  Not good.   Does anyone from Missouri really identify as a Southerner? Do they feel anything in common with people in Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi?  And do we Southerners really want to hear the way they pronounce the word “Forty?”  Eeeek!

Auburn record vs. them:  0-1

Driving distance from Auburn: 767 miles

Other notes:  Missouri would mark the third set of Tigers in the SEC.  But Truman the Tiger beats the pants (the heavy, furry pants) off LSU’s Mike.  It would also mark two SEC universities whose home base is in “Columbia.”

Good for Van?   Well, yeah.  Living just outside St Louis on the Illinois side, it’s only about two hours by interstate to Columbia.  (By contrast, the next-nearest campus is Vanderbilt, over four hours away.) The thought of being able to drive that short a distance to see Auburn play every two years is quite exciting.  Of course, that means I also hope the conference doesn’t move Auburn to the East.

Good for John?  Not at all.  It would mean that both new members are way way way away.

Candidate #4:   Virginia Tech Hokies

Status:  Their name always comes up in the conversation.

Home:  Blacksburg, VA

The Story:  Due to various unwritten arrangements within the SEC, there’s not a high likelihood of the fourteenth warrior being a team from a state that currently has an SEC member.  So, as with Missouri, the Hokies avoid this problem and also bring in a new TV market and recruiting base.  The Hokies are probably the most SEC-like of the various candidates, with their passionate fans and success on the gridiron.  BUT—only a few short years ago, it took the threat of legal action by Virginia to basically shoehorn Va Tech into the ACC.  Does the SEC truly want to add a team that the ACC had to be forced at gunpoint to accept?

TV revenue:  5   (Virginia and Washington, DC area)

Fan passion:  7  (For ACC fans, they are great, and they also travel very well)

Football quality now:  8 – A consistent Top 20 team that could be competitive in the SEC.

Cultural fit:  Good – the fans in the area think of themselves as Southerners.  But after what Tech had to go through to get into the ACC, they enjoy winning it and might not want to leave.

Auburn record vs. them: 3-1-1 (We famously beat them in the Sugar Bowl to cap our undefeated 2004 season; the tie came in 1924.)

Driving distance from Auburn:  524 miles

Other notes:  This could make for a fun football series.  We do not fear the Purple Turkey!

Good for Van?  About the same for me as Missouri would be for John.  So, no.

Good for John?  Would be great for us and other Auburn fans in this area.  (DC/Northern Virginia has a sizeable Auburn contingent.)

Candidate #5:  Florida State Seminoles

Status:  They recently called a meeting to discuss their conference affiliation; not much has been said since then.

Home:  Tallahassee, FL

The Story:  They had their chance.  In 1992, they were one of the primary targets for expansion to twelve.  They turned the SEC down and went with the ACC—which they proceeded to dominate for a decade.  They would still be a good fit, but Florida might block their entry.

TV revenue:  5   (Another big name for television viewers, but the SEC already owns northern Florida)

Fan passion: 8  (When the team’s doing well, their crowd can get up with the best of them.  When it’s not…)

Football now: 8  (After many years of Top 10 finishes, they spent a time in the wilderness, but now they seem to be reestablishing their old ways.)

Cultural fit:  Very good.  We still remember Aundray Bruce being shocked to discover, after Auburn’s 1987 loss to the Seminoles, that they were not an SEC member and would not count against the Tigers’ chances of winning the SEC.  His response:  “Why not?”

Auburn record vs. them:  13-4-1

Driving distance from Auburn:  209 miles—closer than Gainesville!

Other notes:  Everyone in the SEC would love to play FSU.

Good for Van?  If I can’t have Missouri, I suppose FSU is the most attractive non-nearby option.  They have a history with us and it would be fun to re-ignite that series.

Good for John?  On the list of schools we dislike, FSU is pretty high—particularly for a (current) non-conference foe. Beating them regularly would be nice.

Other Options:

The two options you have to start with, of course, are Notre Dame and Texas.  But let’s be serious, here.  Notre Dame is never joining the SEC, and if Texas wanted in, we’d have heard about it a long time ago.  Moving on…

Oklahoma would be great, but they seem fixated on the west coast rather than the (south) east.  There was a time when Miami would have been extremely attractive, but now inviting them in seems somewhat like annexing the old Southwestern Conference—you’re buying yourself a great big boatload of trouble (and hookers and drugs and illegal payoffs and…).  Clemson in the SEC is at once both an almost natural fit and an overwhelming redundancy (we won’t say with whom!).  Not a bad choice by any means, but they simply don’t bring much to the table that the conference doesn’t already possess.

Given all of the above factors, we have to assume that the Fourteenth Warrior will be either Virginia Tech or Missouri—and so either Van or John will be very excited and start making travel plans, while the other moans and groans about what could have been.

 The Wishbone Power Poll:

The Elite (and by this we mean the best two teams in America right now)

1. LSU.  Alabama looks great, but LSU has played a tougher schedule.

2. Alabama.  We’ll know a good bit more after Saturday night’s battle in the Swamp with…

 The Very Good

3. Florida.  See above.

4. South Carolina.  We’re not quite sure what to make of this team (and their various struggles) yet.  Sadly, we probably won’t know a whole lot more after their game with the Tigers on Saturday.

 The Good

5. Arkansas.  Was it all Alabama, or was some of it deficiencies with the Hogs?  Or just Petrino and his stubborn play-calling?

The Mediocre

6. Georgia.

7. Auburn.  But beat SC and you move ahead of Georgia, at least!

8. Mississippi State.  Sorry, Dawgs, but you lost to Auburn.  How you must be hating that fact now, after seeing the Tigers’ death-spiral over the last six quarters…!

9. Tennessee.  This is in some ways a very interesting team to watch.  But how much can they really win, this year?

 The Bad

10. Vanderbilt.  The ‘Dores consider this a great triumph to be almost in single digits on this poll!

11. Kentucky.  Ugh.

The Really, Amazingly Putrid

12. Ole Miss.  Beyond Ugh.

*The Auburn defense is not good.   But that doesn’t mean that Clemson’s offense isn’t good, too.  After shredding Auburn two weeks ago, Cousin Cracky’s team turned around and put 35 points, 455 yards, a 3rd down conversion rate of 53%, and 26 total first downs on FSU—an FSU who is supposed to feature one of the better defenses and secondaries in the nation.  Sammy Wadkins alone had 8 catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns against FSU’s allegedly great secondary.  Oklahoma, in their game against FSU, gained a much more modest 310 total yards and converted third down only 4 times out of 12.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.

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