One True Champion and No True Winners: The Big 12 and a Return to Realignment

Ahem... there seems to be an incongruity with your little cardboard signs sirs...

Ahem… there seems to be an incongruity with your little cardboard signs sirs…

Its bowl season again. Time to watch Whatstatearetheyin University square off against Ididn’tknowtheyhadafootballteam State. But this year there’s a little twist added to the shenanigans. This is the first year of the College Football Playoff, which, in its current composition, only contains 4 teams: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State. Now, if you’ve been following college football all year you already knew that, but what you also knew is that this list was conspicuously missing two major, yearlong contenders for playoff spots: TCU and Baylor.

Even though TCU had leapt up to #3 in the Playoff Committee’s rankings before the final week of the season, and even though Baylor had a win over TCU, and the same 11-1 record as them, both Big 12 Schools were left wanting. This appears to have been a result of the Playoff Committee’s decision to place a major emphasis on “Conference Champions” when picking their Chosen Four. Moreover, even though the Big 12 attempted to declare TCU and Baylor “Co-Champions” the Committee wasn’t buying it.

[One True Champion! Unless of course we think we can sneak 2 teams into the Playoff… wait, we’re getting 0 in?!]

The Committee want their playoff teams to play in, and win, a Conference Title Game. And with only 10 teams in the Big 12 (a result of the 2012 Great Conference Reshuffle) the Big 12 is not allowed to have a Conference Title Game (per ridiculous NCAA rule #92183475).

So its too late for either of the Big 12’s power teams this year, but if the conference doesn’t want to be competing at a disadvantage into perpetuity (or at least until someone gets their act together and realizes that a 16 team (or at LEAST 8) playoff is the ideal anyway, the Big 12 is going to have to seriously consider expanding back to 12 teams (hurray for sensible names!).

So because I love conference realignment (because it gives me hope that NDSU will have an opportunity to hop up into an FBS conference) let’s take a look where the fake Big 12 could turn to become that actual Big 12.

The first and most logical place for the Big 12 to look in its poaching is the Mountain West Conference. The Mountain West is far and away the best “Non-Power Five” Conference for football. Their members consistently out perform members of Power Five Conferences, and have been known to win many big games against even the best of the Power Five.

You’ll also notice that two of those former MWC champions in the above videos (TCU and Utah) are no longer in the MWC, but have been poached by bigger conferences (The Big 12 and PAC 12 respectively). So it seems to make the most sense that the Big 12 would first look to the Mountain West (it is both a geographic match and competitive match) to expand its conference.

As far as I see it there are 4 Mountain West teams that may be competitive enough to succeed in the Big 12 (Air Force is very competitive, but with their unique recruiting restrictions [anyone who wants to go to Air Force to play football also has to want to… y’know… join the Air Force for 7 years] I don’t think they’d be a fit for the Big 12).

The first is Boise State. Competitively speaking they are obviously the first choice. They have made a habit of beating Big 12 schools in recent years (including the infamous Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma) and have been relevant on a national stage for a decade now. However, they never seem to be a target by any large conferences, which I have to imagine stems in large part from their isolated geography. Now, I won’t put any kind of geographic inanity past the Big 12 after they moronically allowed West Virginia into their conference, but I can’t imagine they want to make that mistake twice.

The next best Flavor of the Day would be Colorado State. They’re a better geographic fit than Boise. They have the student population and endowments to fit in with the Big 12. They are consistently competitive in both the big money college sports (Men’s Basketball and College Football). And this year they made a good deal of noise on the national scene… however, that noise was primarily because they were losing their head coach to Florida. So if the Big 12 pulled the trigger on Colorado State, they’d likely be buying high and may regret it as CSU is perhaps set to regress slightly for the next couple seasons.

csu

Utah State would also be a great option. They fit geographically. Have the endowments and students to match Big 12 programs. They’re consistently competitive in both Football and Basketball. The same could be said about Nevada (although they’re a far inferior geographic fit). Neither of these schools has major clout in the public consciousness though which could scare off the Big 12 if they don’t want to be perceived as diluting their conference.

However, its entirely possible that the MWC teams hold together. The MWC commissioner made impassioned pleas to strip the collapsing Big East of their automatic qualifier status and grant it to the Mountain West when the big conference shakeups were going on. And even though the BCS is now gone, and that battle was therefore removed from the equation, it could rear up again. If Conference Titles matter as much as they seem to to the Committee, we could eventually move toward an 8 team playoff where the Power 5 each get an Automatic Qualification for their Champion, and there is no reason to believe the MWC won’t fight for (and perhaps receiver) the same status. So anyway, let’s take a look at a couple other options if noone from the MWC wants to make the leap.

I think BYU is very serious about remaining independent (Notre Dame of the West I guess…), but I can’t imagine they wouldn’t at least consider a move to the Big 12 if asked. Moreover, this move would allow the Big 12 and their potential target to skip a lot of red tape, as they don’t need to remove a team from its current conference, but rather simply need to add an independent. Add in the fact that BYU has major football pedigree, and they’d seem like a great match.

BYU wouldn't get bowled over in the Big 12 because they don't let anyone stand in their way... not even the refs... image via http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865590303/BYUs-Hoffman-scores-2-touchdowns-breaks-another-record.html?pg=all

BYU wouldn’t get bowled over in the Big 12 because they don’t let anyone stand in their way… not even the refs… image via http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865590303/BYUs-Hoffman-scores-2-touchdowns-breaks-another-record.html?pg=all

After that the contenders start to look a lot worse. SMU has football history (not all of it good), and they’re located in the Big 12’s backyard, but they’ve been atrocious of late. Tulsa could possibly grow to compete in the Big 12 but I imagine if they joined tomorrow they’d spend the better part of a decade getting beaten down (perhaps a bottom dwellers rivalry with Kansas is in the works!).

At the end of the day, all these schools have arguments for and against their joining the Big 12. Moreover, the Big 12 may not even decide to expand at all. But if they want to erase the risk of having two playoff caliber teams left out of competition like this year, they may be better safe than sorry, and may get to play kingmaker for one of these well deserving schools.

(Photo Credit North Dakota State Athletics)

(Photo Credit North Dakota State Athletics)

But now, because I am an enormous homer, I have a quick aside which of course involves NDSU. Conference shakeups always get me excited that maybe the guys running NDSU will decide to be proactive and push to join an FBS conference. Now I’m not saying NDSU will be targeted by the Big 12 (they wont… even though it may be a pipe dream of mine…) or even that they’ll be able to join the Mountain West to replace a hypothetically poached team (another dream of mine), but when one conference makes a move (in this case the Big 12) the repercussions always flow downhill, which means that eventually, at the end of the road there could be an FBS conference looking for a new team, and NDSU could fit the bill perfectly.

I’ve talked about this time and again so I’ll keep this short but heres the issue. The conferences lower down in FBS (and therefore closer to NDSU’s current status) aren’t good geographic fits for the Bison at all (Sun Belt, Conference USA) OR if they are a good geographic fit, they are not likely to lose teams in this Big 12 shakeup (MAC) which means NDSU likely won’t benefit from this change.

The larger shame is that the two conferences which form the bulk of this discussion (The Big 12 and the Mountain West) both would form excellent geographic homes for NDSU. While competing in the Big 12 would be difficult it would be nowhere near impossible as NDSU has beaten both Kansas State and Iowa State in back to back years, and Kansas a couple years before that. Moreover, NDSU could come in and compete immediately in the Mountain West. They would absolutely feast on the bottom tier of the Mountain West (Wyoming, Hawaii, San Jose State, UNLV, New Mexico) and at least compete with the best (although it would take several years of growth before NDSU could consistently beat the Boise’s or the Utah State’s of the world. And other than Hawaii the geographic concerns wouldn’t be the end of the world (NDSU already travels to southern California on multiple occasions for small sports such as track etc).

In any event both these conferences would make great homes for the Bison. But that will likely not be coming any time in the near future (MWC) or any time at all (Big 12). These conferences would need new teams that could begin playing right now, and if NDSU moved to the FBS there would be an initial ban on postseason play (just as there was when the Bison went from DII to DI FCS in the first place). These two conferences are not “starter” conferences. These are finished products. They’re not in the business of doing a favor for a school which is just now moving out of the FCS ranks, regardless of how successful that school may be.

I don’t know what needs to happen to pull NDSU up to the FBS ranks, but I’m getting pretty sick of waiting, and I hope this new shakeup happens, and opens some doors for the Bison.

Klieman Mountains Isn’t Easy

So we’ve come to the end of Chris Klieman’s first regular season as head coach of the North Dakota State Bison. And if I do say so myself, things don’t look too shabby. The Bison finished 11-1 (with yet another win over an FBS school, this time Iowa State). Moreover, this isn’t exactly a case of a championship roster remaining intact while only the Head Coach changes. In truth while the players can all be accredited to Bohl in large part, this team is largely devoid of myriad key starters from the 3-peat teams Bohl put together. The star, starting quarterback, Brock Jensen, is gone along with Marcus Williams and Billy Turner (now with the Jets and Dolphins respectively) starting running back Sam Ojuri, star linebacker Grant Olson, go to receiver Ryan Smith, and a veritable cornucopia of other guys. So while Bohl certainly didn’t leave the cupboards bare, it was up to Klieman to build a new title contender out of these parts. The “team” of Bohl was certainly not left intact.

(Photo Credit - Tony Guitierrez, AP)

(Photo Credit – Tony Guitierrez, AP)

So all in all I’m quite pleased with Klieman’s 11-1 record. The one loss came against UNI which, although not excusable, is at least understandable considering the circumstances. UNI plays NDSU tough every single year. Although they aren’t always sitting at the top of the division they always play NDSU tough. Indeed, they might have, historically, the best football program in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (the best FCS conference by far). Since 1985 (the year the MVFC began playing football again) UNI has won 16!!! conference titles. The next highest total by any school? 5. And while NDSU has won 4 titles running, they’re still newcomers to the league by UNIs standards, and UNI just wants to remind us of that on occasion.

Photo Credit MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor

Photo Credit MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor

So anyway, its incredibly hard to play AT UNI and this year we couldn’t pull off the win unfortunately. O’well. As much as I wanted Klieman to get an undefeated season during his first year as coach, he’s still 11-1 and split the conference title with Illinois State (also a 1 loss team with, guess who… UNI as their only loss). Now, while this kindof freaks me out as an aside (Klieman’s alma mater is UNI, and if we’re gonna lost to them it makes me worry that, if the job ever came open, Klieman would leave the Bison to return to his hometown of Waterloo Iowa) even though it probably shouldn’t (Mark Farley is only 51, and also a UNI guy so unless an FBS job comes calling he’ll probably be there another 10 years) none of this changes the fact that Klieman appears to have been the right choice for this job.

UNI has an elite program and not only are they Klieman's alma mater, they're his hometown team. He was born and raised in Waterloo Iowa going to Panthers games. (Photo Credit MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor)

UNI has an elite program and not only are they Klieman’s alma mater, they’re his hometown team. He was born and raised in Waterloo Iowa going to Panthers games. So there must have been some mixed emotions walking off the field in the UNI Dome with the first L of his NDSU Career. (Photo Credit MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor)

However, all isn’t quite perfect in paradise. First and foremost, regular season wins and conference titles are fantastic, but what I think all Bison Football fans want is that fourth straight title. No school in FCS history has every won 4 straight, and as a protest to our backwards thinking boosters at NDSU who wouldn’t allow the school to go to the FBS when we had the chance in 2004, I’d love to be the first school to achieve this. So while I don’t mean to downplay what Klieman has done so far, really he hasn’t done anything yet. I realize thats an incredibly unfair way to judge a new headcoach (win a national title in your first year or you suck) its just kindof the way I think about it.

klieman and boh

More importantly, however, is the fact that the team hasn’t always looked right this season. Under Bohl the team was the absolute picture of discipline and execution. NDSU never made stupid mistakes. Rarely committed penalties and helped the other team, and simply put their nose to the ground, ran the ball, and ground their opponents into flour (yay! Farm Jokes!!).

This is what discipline and hard work get you. (Image via Bison Illustrated)

This is what discipline and hard work get you. (Image via Bison Illustrated)

This year, however, the Bison just look off. On offense they can still grind opponents down with 6 yard rush followed by 5 yard rush, followed by 15 yard rush. Its the same formula. However, it feels like every third play they O line will hold, or false start, or something that erases the play and sets the team back. This was the formula that got us the L at Northern Iowa. Now, it didn’t result in repeated losses this year (obviously) and it didn’t even seem to slow the team down (of their 11 wins, 7 of them were by 20 points or more, INCLUDING the Iowa State win). NDSU still seems to dominate people, much the way Mississippi State was playing earlier this season. They were both just so much more talented and better than their opponents that they were constantly able to make stupid plays and mistakes and not just get the win in spite of this, but DOMINATE their opponents in spite of this.

NDSU has absolutely dominated in almost every game they played this year, even with mountains of mistakes. However, UNI proved we're not perfect, and wins against FBS schools don't matter come playoff time. (Photo Credit: Steven Branscombe, USA TODAY Sports)

NDSU has absolutely dominated in almost every game they played this year, even with mountains of mistakes. However, UNI proved we’re not perfect, and wins against FBS schools don’t matter come playoff time. (Photo Credit: Steven Branscombe, USA TODAY Sports)

However, when you run into a disciplined team, as was the case when NDSU squared off against UNI, things don’t look so peachy. As far as talent is concerned the Bison are clearly still the best team in FCS, and honestly a veeeery good team by FBS standards (Sagarin has them ranked #37 right now ahead of neighboring powers like Minnesota and Iowa) but the execution terrifies me.

ndsu sagarin

If you can screw it up during the regular season against a UNI team that finished 8-4, what happens when you start playing the best teams in the FCS during the playoffs. Like I already said, we all want this 4th title, but stupid mistakes me keep it out of our hands, and may rob us of an opportunity that I doubt will ever come again (a chance to win 4 straight).

Moreover, this whole issue of discipline really confuses me because I don’t see Klieman as an undisciplined coach. He knows how to run a program and has been a part of a winning one for a long time now. He learned under Bohl and is somewhat of a hand picked successor to him (although Bohl wanted Klieman to head to Wyoming with him rather than become head coach at NDSU, which only speaks to how important and skilled Klieman really is).Maybe its just youth. Like we already discussed NDSU lost more seniors off last years team than the number of pairs of glasses Velma lost on Scooby Doo’s 50 year run on television.

velma

 

Young teams make mistakes and that’s fine. If this is what a young Klieman team looks like, where they make tons of mistakes but are physically dominant most of the time, then I can’t wait for us to figure it out and get back to our disciplined ways. It scares me that this team didn’t seem to learn its lesson after the Northern Iowa loss though. You would think losing their 33 game win streak would have been enough to snap some sense into them, but even last Saturday in the Youngstown State game, a game they dominated and their last chance at a tune up before the playoffs start, they were STILL making all kinds of mental mistakes and stupid decisions throughout the game. This really terrifies me heading into the playoffs where all the teams are good.

(Photo Credit North Dakota State Athletics)

(Photo Credit North Dakota State Athletics)

With all that said, however, I just worry that this year’s playoff run represents a once in a lifetime opportunity. If we aren’t going to be allowed to compete in the FBS, then this is really what I have going for me. I hope the players all understand that this is the kind of opportunity that never comes again and they get their act together for the playoff run. They already cost themselves homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with that one loss, dropping themselves from the #1 overall seed to #2. They’ve given themselves an uphill battle in every game this year, and now its carried over to their path to a title. It didn’t have to be this hard, but they made it this way. I just hope with the added pressure of playoff season and the chance to make history, they don’t crack under the weight. I hope we prove that NDSU football is a program, not just a coach. I think it IS a program of dominance and Klieman and this crop of guys ARE every bit as good as their predecessors. Now I just hope they prove that to the rest of the world and go make history.

Photo Credit Bison Illustrated

Photo Credit Bison Illustrated

The State of the Bluegrass: Tigres y Gatos, Part Deux

helmets

Well folks, it appears as if my beloved Kentucky Wildcats will have their most recent must win / statement game / game of the year this weekend when they travel to Columbia, Missouri to take on the Tigers of Mizzou. This comes after a couple heartbreaking losses for the Cats. After a magical, and nearly perfect [damn you Florida] start to the season UK will look to erase the last 2 weeks and get back to their [new] winning ways.

(Photo Credit, Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

(Photo Credit, Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

 

The first of those losses [Tigers v. Cats Part One], was somewhat of a brutal mauling in the box score, but the game itself wasn’t nearly as bad as the score indicated. The Defense played LSU tough, but the brutality with which LSU traditionally wears teams down, and the absolutely overpowering aura of Death Valley proved too much for this particular Cats team to handle. Thats ok. They’re young. They’re learning. They’re improving. And even the best teams have trouble going down to Death Valley and winning. Better times are on the horizon.

Speaking of which, last weekend’s game against #1 ranked Mississippi State presented just such a reason for optimism and sign of growth. Kentucky lost at home to the Bulldogs 45 – 31 this past Saturday, but showed us just about every positive the Bluegrass State could ask for. The 45 points is veeeery misleading. MSU scored their last 14 points on a 73 yard run by Josh Robinson, and that fluke of all flukes kickoff return for 61 yards. Take those points away and Kentucky only gave up 31 points to Mississippi State, a more than reasonable score considering they’re the #1 team in the country with the (former) Heisman favorite Quarterbacking them (a guy people had been comparing to the lofty likes of Tim Tebow and Cam Newton all season long). Hold a team like that to 31 points and with a little luck (turnovers, big plays, special teams) you have the brewings of an upset.

Now, we all knew getting a win against #1 (even at home where we have been incredibly effective this season) would require a lot of help in the way of luck. We needed mistakes by MSU players and coaches, turnovers, and big plays to turn our way while limiting our mistakes to zero and keeping the thing close all day. We got some, but not all, of the necessary ingredients for an upset on Saturday. Dan Mullen made one of his patented bone headed moves, going for it on 4th and 10 to start the 4th quarter instead of punting and pining the Cats deep, giving Kentucky a chance to tie the game immediately after the Kentucky offense had thrown together an absolutely stellar TD pass from Patrick Towles to Javess Blue cut the lead to 7 late in the 3rd.

The Cats, however, didn’t capitalize on that drive. Instead they went 3 and out and punted the ball right back to MSU with the score still 31-24 Bulldogs. So we weren’t able to capitalize on the big MSU mental mistake we were hoping for.

Moreover, we didn’t quite get the MSU mistakes on the field we needed either. Generally to pull an upset you need a couple turnovers. Well, in addition to forcing tons of 3 and outs, and being absolute beasts on 3rd down, our defense forced 4 fumbles out of Mississippi State. Yet somehow we couldn’t recover a single one of them. That’s not bad coaching or bad playing, just bad luck. Fumble recoveries are exactly the kind of luck we needed that day and just couldn’t get. Also, the 1 pick we managed came too late in the first half to really swing the game.

Furthermore, we did not play mistake free like we needed to. We had 4 fumbles of our own and lost 1 of them deep in our own territory, setting up an early MSU score that put the Cats on their heels for the rest of the game. If it weren’t for that play the whole game could have been a whole lot tighter all the way through.

While we may not have gotten the luck we needed, and may not have played as mistake free as we needed to, however, we certainly did manage to do a ton of damage to Dak Prescott’s Heisman campaign in my opinion. The only problem was that we made his teammate, Running Back Josh Robinson, look like a Heisman candidate in his own right. Note exhibit A, B, C, and Z:

That was 6 broken tackles if you’re keeping score at home, at it wasn’t until the 7th AND 8th guys hit him together that he was brought down. Also, there was this.

And that, my friends, is perhaps Kentucky’s biggest, [and in my opinion their only major] flaw. Run defense. All three of Kentucky’s losses this year have come in large part at the hands of dominant rushing attacks. Matt Jones rushed for 156 yards and a TD in the Florida game, and as a team Florida had 237 yards on the ground. LSU rushed for a combined 303 yards and 3 rushing TDs against us. And Robinson just burned us for 198 and 2 TDs, while as a team MSU poured on 326 yards and 4 rushing TDs. Hell, even their premier win of the year vs. South Carolina featured a stellar rushing performance by Mike Davis who ran for 183 yards and 3 TDs. Plain and simple this particular Kentucky team stops the run about as well as Wonder Bread stops an atomic bomb…

If you’re wondering, no… the Wonder Bread did not survive the test…

crying bread

The problem is tackling. Kentucky football was blessed with 3 consecutive iterations of spectacular interior linebackers. It started with Wesley Woodyard (2x First Team All SEC). Moved on to Danny Trevathon (1 First Team All SEC and 1 Second Team All SEC). And ended last year with Avery Williamson (1 Second Team All SEC). All three of these guys are now starting in the NFL, and Woodyard was the Defensive captain of the Super Bowl runner up Denver Broncos last year. Soooo its fair to say we have been slightly spoiled at the position.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, all three of their Holy Trinity of Inside Linebackers have moved on to the NFL, and while I'm certainly happy for them, I would certainly love to see any of them in the Kentucky Blue again.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, all three of their Holy Trinity of Inside Linebackers have moved on to the NFL, and while I’m certainly happy for them, I would certainly love to see any of them in the Kentucky Blue again.

I mentioned in my preseason article how much this team would miss Williamson, the most recent of these three All-SEC linebackers to graduate. He covered up innumerable mistakes and mismatches for Kentucky during his time in Blue, and while I certainly had hoped that the defense could make up for his departure with growth elsewhere, I was skeptical.

(Photo Credit, David Stephenson, Lexington Herald-Leader)

(Photo Credit, David Stephenson, Lexington Herald-Leader)

Now, part of my hopes came true. This Kentucky defense is definitely better than any defense Williamson was ever a part of. However, the linebacking corps is undoubtedly worse with his departure. There appears to be a plauge of ‘arm tacklers’ on this team. Guys try to tackle opposing running backs with a single arm, or simply by hitting them without wrapping them up and dragging them to the ground. They don’t finish the play and bring the guy to the ground. This kind of thing might work for the best of the best, but that is not what we have at Kentucky. What we have are GOOD players. Not great but good. And coaches who put those players in positions to make plays and stop running backs. Unfortunately, their weak tackling and poor technique are hopelessly easy for opposing running backs to break, as Robinson demonstrated by breaking 6 tackles on a single run this weekend. Let’s just show you once more to illustrate the point.

Yeeeeesh.

Now, thats not to say that our defenders can’t stop the run. Our secondary is much improved, and can make tackles when called upon, but if an opposing running back has broken into your secondary, the battle is already lost. You need to stop them at the 2nd level, aka the linebackers, as a worst case scenario, and never want to be stopping them at the 3rd level (your secondary). So lets ignore that for a second. Ideally you’d LIKE to stop them right at the line of scrimmage, at the defensive line. Our D Line does an excellent job at this. That is where the elite players of this unit are located. Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith and beasts, and while their primary roles are to be pass rushers, they know how to wrap up their man and bring him down if the opposing team decides to rush to the edge. They’re quick enough to get to their man and strong enough to bring him down. Where Kentucky struggles, however, is when opponents run up the middle and overpower us.

Matt Elam is a truly elite run stopper at Nose Tackle. The man is an absolute wooly mammoth out there.

I can’t even figure out how guys ever get around him. Unfortunately for UK, however, the coaching staff hasn’t made him an every down player yet. Perhaps because he hasn’t developed the requisite stamina to be an every down, or near every down player. Perhaps because they fear his youth will make him prone to mistakes. Or perhaps they simlply like keeping him fresh for crucial 3rd downs etc. The fact of the matter he isn’t and every down guy. Our other DTs are very very good, but not elite, so of course occasionally a RB breaks through them. This is just going to happen more often than not in the game of football when you have 5 offensive linemen and a Tight End blocking against 4 defensive linemen. The battle is inherently out of the defense’s favor.

Josh Forrest. A Kentucky native and next man up in UK's line of Inside Linebackers. (Photo Credit @UKFootball Twitter account)

Josh Forrest. A Kentucky native and next man up in UK’s line of Inside Linebackers. (Photo Credit @UKFootball Twitter account)

That’s where your Middle linebacker needs to step up and make the play. Thats what we had with Woodyard, Trevathan, and Williamson. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to muster these stops consistently with this year’s team. Now don’t get me wrong. Josh Forrest  is undoubtedly a good player. And his interceptions are certainly a sight for sore eyes (2 this year when we, as a team, only had 2 all last year). Moreover, he certainly has a ton of tackles so far this year (65), but unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story. His technique needs work, and he could probably stand to get a little stronger so he wouldn’t struggle so much bringing down the Aurochs and Buffalo most SEC teams utilize as running backs. He already has most of the physical tools for him to be the next elite UK Middle Linebacker. He just needs to work on his technique and put everything together yet. That’s when the 300 yard rushing games stop. A day that can’t come soon enough.

Hopefully Forrest improves over the next few games (as a crucial stretch of win-able road games is now in front of Kentucky with Mizzou, Tennessee, and Louisville… Georgia… mmm… maybe not so much… but 3/4 ain’t bad!) and hopefully he and current freshmen inside linebackers Nico Firios and Dorian Hendrix can stabilize the position for years to come. For the time being, however, lets look at the positives! This Kentucky team, flaws and all, just took the #1 team in the country to the wire. With what little luck Kentucky had it is amazing how close they managed to make this game. Pat Towles had by far the best game of his career. Senior receivers Javess Blue (still the best name of any Kentucky player ever) and Demarco Robinson were all over the field making spectacular plays. The defense was stout and solid. And we didn’t even have our best offensive weapon, freshman running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, on the field!

A little reminder for those who forgot.

And while Blue’s TD was indeed impressive, and MSU’s Josh Robinson was incredibly good all day, let’s not forget Kentucky’s own Robinson. Mr. Demarco Robinson had a nifty touchdown of his own.

Those feet!! Those magical feet!!! How did they stay inbounds!!??

Anyway, we gave MSU all they could handle. And as an aside, yes the onside kick was the right call. That touchdown was a freak occurrence. With the penalty on the previous PAT an onside kick risks giving the ball to MSU on the 35 yard line, but a kick out of the endzone would have put them at the 25 yard line anyway. 10 yards is more than worth the risk of getting the ball. Yes, angry Kentucky fans EVEN WITH TWO TIMEOUTS left. With the way Josh Robinson was running the ball you probably only have a 15% chance of getting the ball back with enough time left on the clock to score, and only a 5% chance of actually scoring. So yes, the risk of the onside kick was the correct call. And this game should only have been a 7 point loss… 10 points worst case scenario. Again, that was a freak play. Ok, glad we put that one to rest… hope you got all your anger out.

Here, have some Wonder Bread. Freshly toasted.

BUT ANYWAY to push things in a more positive direction, I say all this to talk about why Kentucky’s next game is their biggest big game of the year of the century yet! Kentucky plays Mizzou this weekend as they take their 3rd shot at clinching bowl eligibility. Now, while Kentucky has gone winless on the road thus far this season, Columbia is not exactly the same kind of road environment as The Swamp and Death Valley. In fact, Mizzou has been garbage in their last 3 home appearances this year. Consider the evidence:

Last week Mizzou played Vanderbilt (far and away the worst team in the SEC this year) at home and barely snuck out a 24-14 win. [That snapped a 2 game home losing streak by the way.] Now, they did win this game so you have to give them credit there, but if Vandy can play Missouri that tight at home, Why Not Kentucky? (see what I did there Mark Stoops?)

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Three weeks ago, October 11th, they played a Georgia team reeling from recently losing Heisman candidate Running Back Todd Gurley to suspension and were SHUT OUT! AT HOME! BY A TEAM MISSING THEIR BEST PLAYER! Now, Georgia can do that to a lot of folks. They’re that good. But shutout? C’mon. UK may have gotten bloodied in Baton Rouge, but we didn’t get shut out… and that was a road game… not at home… egads Mizzou…

Now here is the real beauty. Saturday, September 20th. Mizzou welcomed the Indiana Hoosiers Football Team to town. The same Hoosiers team that is 10-26 combined the last three seasons. The same Indiana that has finished last or second to last in the Big 10 the last 6 years running. The same Indiana team which, even with their big road upset of Mizzou has only been able to muster a 3-4 record this season. Their other 2 wins on the season? Those came against Indiana State (an FCS school…) and North Texas (2-6 on the year and the worst team in Conference USA…) Not exactly the same kind of competition as Kentucky. Now sure, Indiana plays some fun, high tempo offense this year. They try to make every game a shootout and hope they can outscore their opponent, defenses be damned. But still, how the hell did you lose to Indiana, Mizzou?? If the hapless Hoosiers can do it, Kentucky surely can too.

This Kentucky team isn’t perfect. They’re also not as good as some of the crazies would have had you believe after that 5-1 start (win the SEC East? Next year? Maybe. This year? Let’s just get to a bowl game please). The run defense is a flaw, and the offense doesn’t always click on all cylinders. Next week, however, there’s no reason to think this UK team can’t grab its first road win of the year. The offense looks the best it has all year, and can only get better once Boom gets back in the lineup. Matt Elam and our young Secondary get better with every game we play. And Missouri has proven that they are anything but intimidating at home. These are not the Bayou Bengals of LSU,  but perhaps something more akin to Hello Kitty in Yellow and Black. So bring on your super scarey “Stripe Out” Mizzou, cuz I’m about ready for the Wildcats to avenge those stupid T-Shirts you made… Right about meow motherfuckers… Go Cats.

mizzout

The Magnolia State Saga Continues

Yes that is their real state flag.

Yes that is their real state flag. A mashup of France and the Confederacy?

The State of Mississippi has yet to let me down with this exciting, magical pair of football seasons they’re throwing together. I mentioned last week how they had a pair of tough games coming up this weekend. I wanted to savor they unbelievable things they had been able to do thus far because it was easy to believe that if anyone could go into the Cowbell Den that is Starkville and win it would be #2 Auburn, and there was no reason to think Texas A&M couldn’t upset Ole Miss at home, especially when they were pissed off and coming off a loss. And then the games happened.

Over 110,000 people showed up to watch the Rebels crush the Aggies (Image Via http://olehottytoddy.com/2014/10/12/ole-miss-rebels-texas-recap-new-normal/)

Over 110,000 people showed up to watch the Rebels crush the Aggies (Image Via http://olehottytoddy.com/2014/10/12/ole-miss-rebels-texas-recap-new-normal/)

Ole Miss went down to A&M and buried them. The Game ended up being 35-20 but it wasn’t even close. The Aggies were never better than 2 TDs down. And scored 13 of their 20 points in the 4th quarter and all 20 of their points in the second half.

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Mississippi State, however, felt a little different. On the surface they absolutely beat down Auburn. That first quarter was an absolute spectacle. The rest of the game was too although for multiple ever-changing reasons ranging from a freak monsoon, to Heisman hopeful Dak Prescott’s turnovers etc. And yet somehow throughout the entire thing, State seemed to be completely in control. Mullen made some absolutely atrocious coaching calls all game long, the biggest example being the inexplicable Fake Punt play. I get it. Its one thing to just step on someone’s throat when you’re really feeling it, but that play had about as much chance for success as Custer following Crazy Horse into the Little Bighorn.

custer miss state

And it didn’t stop there. With 7:26 to go in the game Dak Prescott ran the ball out of bounds when he should have slid to keep the clock running and ensure the victory. Mullen went for it on 4th and 8 instead of kicking a field goal in the 4th quarter that would have almost certainly have guaranteed the win. And lets not forget all the turnovers from our alleged Heisman leader Prescott. In a lot of ways this team played and looked terrible. And yet? THEY COMPLETELY FUCKING DOMINATED AUBURN! THE NUMBER 2 TEAM IN THE COUNTRY AND DEFENDING SEC CHAMPS!!! Even through poor coaching, mental missteps, turnovers and everything else, Mississippi State looked dominant against Auburn. And they shut down one of the best offensive minds in football today, Gus Malzahn.

Somehow this doofus (right) knocked off Malzahn (Photo Credit: Kevin Cox, Getty Images)

Somehow this doofus (right) knocked off Malzahn (Photo Credit: Kevin Cox, Getty Images)

Now, when the new polls came out this week that picture perfect “shared third place” thing that the two Mississippi schools had was over. Ole Miss held down the #3 spot, but Mississippi State leapt over Florida State to claim the #1 spot. However, with all those mental missteps it just doesn’t feel like like Mississippi State is the #1 team in the country. I mean… I think they deserve to be ranked there after that spectacle they went through being #8 in the country on the road, #6, and then #2 all in a row. And they certainly look dominant enough, both offensively and defensively, to be there. However, they are perhaps the most beatable #1 overall team I have ever seen.

Win or lose against LSU this Saturday Kentucky will get the first road crack at our newly minted #1, and I’m chomping at the bit for a chance at these guys. For all we know Mullen is already half way through contract talks to replace Will Muschamp at Florida, and doesn’t bother to gameplan. Now, I still love the story of these two Mississippi schools dominating the gauntlet that is the SEC West. I’m still rooting for the Egg Bowl to be between two undefeateds and I would LOVE it if both schools someone made the 4 team playoff. All I’m saying is that I’m just glad Kentucky gets the first crack at them as a number one, and I hope Mullen calls fake punts all day long. Why not?

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

Born Again in the Bluegrass: The Year of Perpetual Statement Games

Kentucky Football is on the rise. Or so UK fans tell themselves every week as they walk out of Commonwealth Stadium. But somehow, by the time next week’s game starts, they’re back to their old ways. Cursing the refs and wailing “Oooooonly Kentucky football.” Its as if everyone believes Billy Gillispie is sitting in some hut down in the Bayou somewhere casting some voodoo shit on us. Making us think we lose even when we win.

Dontchu use dat voodoo magic on me Billy G... Keep dat shit to yo'self

Dontchu use dat voodoo magic on me Billy G… Keep dat shit to yo’self

Mark Stoops’ “Why Not” campaign is every bit as much for the UK fanbase as it is for recruits and players. This coaching staff is built top to bottom with winners. They win recruiting battles, the win football games, hell, the Defensive Line Mark Stoops and D.J. Elliot built won a national title down at Florida State. The players are winners too. Maybe not all the juniors and seniors. They’ve lived through 2 years of Joker Phillips losses and Stoops’ first 2-10 season, but everyone that has been brought in from JUCO guys to transfers to recruits, redshirts to freshman starters, they’re all winners. They were all the best players at their high schools, some of the best players in their states, and some of them were among the best players in the United States as recruits.

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

As Kentucky Football fans we loooove to talk about how Bear Bryant started here. How he won the SEC and his first national title with us, before Alabama so cruelly stole him away from us. We’ll tell you that the spread offense that took off in the Big 12 during the late 90s and 2000s started with Hal Mumme and Tim Couch at UK, and even Tom Leach’s golden years of the Air Raid Offense at Texas Tech with stars like Michael Crabtree (which Neil Brown still coaches today for his Alma Mater) originated at UK. And somehow, none of this helps us shake the stink of years of consistent struggles. We may show blips of success (1950 National Title, 1976 Co-SEC Champs, ’97 Tim Couch and Hal Mumme knock off Alabama in Commonwealth Stadium, ’98 they beat LSU in Baton Rouge, and in ’99 Tim Couch became the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The 2007 miracle victory over #1 LSU and the 2008 near upset of #2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa in front of 90,000 pissed off Bama fans.) but  I can count those moments on my hands, and one of them didn’t even involve UK, it involved a kid leaving for the NFL draft. And if you wanna take it further, it just takes one look at the list to see its few and far between when we even get to a bowl game.

But that right there is the Kentucky fan mentality. Every kid and coach on this team is a winner. They know how to win. Winning is all they’ve done. But the fans? Except for those rare blips of glory, all they’ve done is lose, lose, lose no matter what. The people involved with the team may not need to learn how to win, but the fans sure do. And this whole year will be one big learning lesson by the looks of things, which I’m more than ready to embrace.

Its become a little bit comical to me how every single game every single week is the “game of the year” for us. UT Martin and Ohio were important because of last year’s loss to Western Kentucky in Nashville. We had to make sure there weren’t going to be any more stupid slip ups. Florida was important because it was Stoops first big chance for a signature win of the year (and if theres such a thing as a signature loss he certainly got one, but oh well). Vanderbilt was huge because it was our best chance to end the streak of 0 wins in conference against SEC teams since November 26, 2011… almost 3 full years (but what a win that was).

South Carolina was big because it was another chance for that elusive signature win for Stoops. Hell, even Louisiana-Monroe was important because it represented a potential 5th win for the year (meaning we now have 6 tries to get our 6th win and qualify for a bowl) and because we needed to avoid a trap game and a let down before the big LSU game next week. And obviously the LSU game is our latest “Game of the Year… of the week…”

And even though we’re already setting ourselves up for another dose of this next week with Mississippi State, it won’t be any less true then either. If we beat LSU, thats SPECTACULAR. A road in in the SEC (our first of the year) in perhaps the most hostile environment in the conference (and maybe all of college football) against a traditional SEC power. This would be huge. But LSU is unranked. We’ve yet to beat a ranked opponent in the Stoops era. Moreover, not only is MSU ranked, they’re the #1 team in the country (deserving or otherwise). So there’s no doubt that would be the game of the year for us whether we win or lose against LSU this week. A win there would mean Kentucky was on the map nationally and would start getting major buzz to fight Georgia for the SEC East title this year.

As far as the game itself, it won’t be easy. Kentucky has only played ONE road game all year so far (@ Florida) so they’re relatively untested and they lost that game so they’re definitely unproven. (Moreover, LSU just went on the road to Florida and beat them by a field goal last week, so in that regard they’ve got us topped.) But even if we’re untested and unproven, that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen them come up big this season. We’ve seen a spectacular touchdown run by Boom Williams in overtime. We’ve seen a perfectly scripted, and executed Neil Brown trick play to Ryan Timmons to tie up the South Carolina game. Hell, we saw a win against Steve Spurrier who has owned Kentucky for his entire college football coaching career. Not to mention we’ve seen an ESPN top play quality grab from our resident athletic freak Javess Blue (holder of the “Best Last Name on the Team” award 2 years running. Sorry Gruenschlaeger. Better luck next year).

(Photo Credit: David Stephenson, AP)

(Photo Credit: David Stephenson, AP)

Kentucky has only played one road game all year, and that was a loss to Florida, but they played them close and easily could have won that game if it weren’t for 2 defensive backs colliding with each other on what could have been the last play of the game. Furthermore, they had some great showings and near misses on the road last season. A near miracle comeback against South Carolina in Columbia and a chance to beat Mississippi State in Starkville with 25 seconds to go and UK on the 30 yard line. So by no means to we simply wilt on the road. Now, we were never tested the same way those drunk Tiger fans will test us at 7:30PM this Saturday, but hell I’ll take my chances. Mark Stoops has done what I never though was possible at Kentucky. He’s built a power running team with a dominant Defensive Line that can compete with anyone in the SEC. I always thought Kentucky could win in the SEC, but I thought it would be with a Big 12 style (Hal Mumme) spread offense that aired it out, over the heads of those rhinoceroses other SEC teams call defensemen. In fact I thought Neil Brown was the much more important part of the Stoops coaching staff as he was not only a Kentucky native, but would bring in this style of offense.

Instead, we have our own rhinoceros in the form of Matt Elam, and a couple stud defensive ends in the form of Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith to anchor the line. Perhaps more importantly, however, UK’s D Line is DEEP. Besides the 3 bluechippers mentioned we’ve got Mike Douglas (whose tipped pass ended up winning us the South Carolina game) Melvin Lewis, Reggie Meant, Jason Hatcher, Cory Johnson, Jabari Johnson, and Farrington Huguenin to ensure that we can always keep a fresh unit on the field, which will be incredibly important against LSU. Because even though LSU is having a down year (one of the main reasons for all this Kentucky optimism going into Death Valley) their running game is still their strength offensively. I can’t remember the last time an LSU wasn’t able to run the ball down Kentucky’s throats. Their quarter back play is definitely questionable this season which is a good thing, because even though UK is #2 in the nation in interceptions, a lot of that is simply broken down plays caused by our D Line wreaking havoc on opposing O Lines and QBs, rather than by stellar secondary play. Moreover, even though a lot was made of Josh Forrest’s 15 tackles in the South Carolina game, our Linebackers struggle mightily to wrap up guys and make tackles. We’ve seen enough broken arm tackles and stiff armed UK players this season to make Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathon, and Avery Williamson cry. The Linebacking play NEEDS to get better, but until they do we’ll be relying on the D Line to come up big and shut down Leonard Fournette and Kenny Hilliard at the line of scrimmage if we want to have any chance of getting our Defense off the field, but I for one am hopeful that they can do it.

More of this. (Photo Credit: Travis Spradling)

More of this. (Photo Credit: Travis Spradling)

Less of this (Photo Credit USA Today Sports)

Less of this (Photo Credit USA Today Sports)

Offensively, Stoops has built us an SEC style power running team. We have a stable of running backs so deep it really makes me feel for a guy like Josh Clemons who (because of his injury history) just can’t break into the lineup. Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp, Braylon Heard, Mikel Horton, Ryan Timmons at times, and even the aforementioned Clemens make the RBs by far Kentucky’s deepest skill position, and perhaps the deepest position on the team period. Hell, even QB Patrick Towles rolls out with his enormous 6’5″ frame to run a la Ben Roethlisberger. If it weren’t for the fact that LSU’s Defensive line weren’t composed solely of Grizzly Bears and their Linebacking corps of Silverback Gorillas I’d say we could trust the running game to carry us through the crowd noise and sneak out a tough defensive victory. As it is I’m still happy to take our chances.

This game means a lot to Kentucky. Beating an LSU is an achievement we rarely get to see in the comforts of the Bluegrass state let alone in Death Valley. Doesn’t matter if LSU is ranked or not.  Right now Kentucky is ranked the #30 in the AP Poll compared to LSU’s #27 so a win for either program will jettison them into the top 25, somewhere Kentucky hasn’t been since 2007, the year of our last win against LSU. After that win against #1 LSU UK hosted college game day the next week against #8 Florida, and there’s a 90% chance UK would host it again this time against #1 MSU if they pulled off this upset. So there’s a lot at stake here for fan pride, even without considering the fact that UK is tied for 1st in the SEC East and could put themselves in the driver seat to play in the SEC title game. Now that might not come to be, but it sure is nice to be able to dream with this team after so much losing. Win or lose, everything will be fine. We’ve got a team worth watching and a team that wins. Now we just need to hope the fans can pick up on that, and start believing themselves. Unless of course Les Miles is hanging out in that VooDoo hut with Billy G. Then we’ve probably got some serious, scary shit comin’ our way.

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Ask Not For Whom the Cowbell Jing-a-Lings; It Jing-a-Lings for Thee

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Wow. What a weekend for College Football. 3 of the top 4 and 4 of the top 6 teams got knocked off, and the entire state of Mississippi hasn’t been able to reclaim this kind of happiness since before the Battle of Vicksburg. Let’s dwell on that for a second.  Ole Miss beat #1 ranked Alabama… Holy Shit.

(Image Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports)

(Image Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports)

This is an event of cataclysmic proportions here in SEC country (as it always is when Bama loses), but I couldn’t be happier about it. Before this game the general world consensus was that this game would follow the same course as Georgia vs. Alabama circa 2008. This was right near the beginning of Alabama’s rise to dominance in College Football. However, coming into that game the big story was the Georgia Bulldogs. #3 in the country. The game was a blackout. The crowd was amped up, Matt Stafford was still the QB in Georgia, and Bulldogs fans were ready to take the next big step on their route to a national championship… about that…

(Photo Credit: Doug Benc/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit: Doug Benc/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit: Mark Almond, Birmingham News)

(Photo Credit: Mark Almond, Birmingham News)

(Photo Credit: Kelly Lambert, Online Athens)

(Photo Credit: Kelly Lambert, Online Athens)

playdead

 

Yes Ugga… thats about as well as it went… but hey, didn’t those black jerseys look awesome??

The game ended 41-31 but it wasn’t even close. It was 31-0 at the half, at which point Alabama completely took their foot off the gas and went into cruise control to secure the victory. Now, before the weekend’s slate of crazy games this is the fate people were predicting for Ole Miss (I heard it from Ryen Russillo on the SVP and Russillo Show, and I totally agreed, which shows how much I know about college football I guess). That was clearly incorrect.

Not only did Ole Miss win, but they won in spite of controversial calls going in Alabama’s favor. The number one team in the country, and perennial SEC bully just got knocked off by a school which has been perceived as a perpetual bottom feeder in the conference since Eli Manning left. This game was such a big even for the school, the state, and the conference, that not only did they tear down the goalposts, but the fans then started a fund to help the school pay for new posts, as well as the SEC fines for storming the field. And they raised more than the necessary amount in just a couple days time.

Now, all that is INCREDIBLY impressive and I was thoroughly stunned to see it happen (we watched it on the giant TV monitors in Commonwealth Stadium before the UK South Carolina game kicked off) but the more interesting story to me was the case of the cowbell-shaking fans of Mississippi State and their bulldogs this weekend.

(Image via Mississippi State Alumni Association)

(Image via Mississippi State Alumni Association)

Ole Miss may be an SEC bottom feeder of sorts, and they may be a little brother to the likes of Alabama and LSU, but Mississippi State is the little brother to Ole Miss… meaning they could not possible get any further down the foodchain, right? Well apparently not because one week after crushing SEC powerhouse and #8 ranked team LSU [IN BATON ROUGE!!!] they proceeded to beat down #6 Texas A&M like Chong Li murdering Ray Jackson in Bloodsport.

THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN!!!!!!! So its one thing for Ole Miss to pull off an upset now and then, and Ole Miss has even been hailed as a program on the rise the last couple years because of stellar recruiting, but MISSISSIPPI STATE?!?! Now, I won’t dwell on Kentucky’s big win this weekend here, but its amazing to me that these 3 schools who have all circled the drain together the past half decade or so  and all pulled off massive wins in the same weekend (Mississippi State is so seemingly poorly thought of that their semi-permanent cross conference rival [SEC East vs. West] has been Kentucky. Thats the esteem with which the SEC holds State. They think they’re equivalent to Kentucky football which, as a UK fan, I can tell you has been no great shakes until these last 2 seasons). Ok… anyway… a short aside for a little backstory on why the State win is so shocking even if the Ole Miss win is fairly believable…

The two Mississippi Schools, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt have been, in large part, bottom feeders for the majority of the SECs reign of dominance in college football. For Vanderbilt this is generally because they’re a “smart kid school” of sorts with a relatively underdeveloped fanbase, respective to other SEC programs, and more importantly its because any and all good recruits in the state of Tennessee go to UT. For Kentucky its generally been because well the top 3 or 4 recruits in the state of Kentucky have always been really solid players, they often haven’t chosen to go to Kentucky, and even when they have, 3 players does not a team make. And in the state of Mississippi the problem has generally been that there are enough solid recruits in the state to fuel ONE big college football team, but never two, and the two schools have traditionally fought each other to death, only to split the total number of recruits between one another anyway.

Now, around 5 years ago, State got the upper hand in this recruiting relationship, which became a major factor in 2 Ole Miss coaches (Ed Orgeron and Houston Nutt) getting fired before the school finally found Hugh Freeze. In the last couple years, however, Ole Miss has dramatically and radically turned this around, as mentioned above. Not least of which included a top 10 class in 2013 and a top 20 class in 2014 as well as the #1 player in the country in 2013. Outside observers were starting make make comments to the tune of “if Will Muschamp gets fired at Florida, Dan Mullen (Mississippi State Coach and former Florida Assistant) better hop on that job while the getting is good” and “Ole Miss has grabbed every player worth playing in the state, so Mullen better get his resume ready.”

So you can see why it would be extremely surprising to see Ole Miss at number 3 in the country right now, but not totally unbelievable. They’ve finally found the right couch. They’re locking down all the top talent in their state, including some of the best talent in the nation, they have a solid and historic tradition and passionate football fans. They have plenty of building blocks for this to happen. Even last year they had already shown signs of this growth, hopping into the top 25 poll multiple times through the season (#21 once, and #24 a couple times) on the backs of their rebuilt defense. So although it still seems insane for them to knock off #1 Alabama and rocket to #3 in the country, we could see this kind of growth was coming.

State on the other hand?  They’ve made a bit of a habit of starting off hot, before collapsing in hilariously cataclysmic fasion. I’m thinking specifically of the 2012 season where they came roaring out of the gates, winning their first 7 games and screaming to #13 in the country before losing 4 of their last 5 games (including the season finale against rival Ole Miss), losing their bowl game to NORTHWESTERN of all schools, and ending the season unranked. THATS the Mississippi State that we’ve been expecting. Thats the Mississippi State we got last year when they went a completely bland 6-6. And that is NOT the Mississippi State we have this year. This year we have a school with Dak Prescott, THE FRONT RUNNER FOR THE HEISMAN TROPHY!!! FROM MISSISSIPPI STATE!!! I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW DAK WAS A NAME!!!

This year we have another #3 ranked school in the state of Mississippi.

And how picture perfect is that? The AP just decided “screw it” and ranked both Mississippi schools #3. “We don’t know… lets just call’m both 3 and wait till one, both, [or neither] of them starts losing.”

That could very will be this week, as Ole Miss now has to play a pissed off, embarrassed, and motivated Texas A&M team IN College Station. State has to play Auburn who… y’know… no big deal, but they’re #2 in the country and look like the best team in football. They could both lose this weekend. Or maybe they could keep shocking us all, win their games, and go into the season finale both undefeated, playing for the SEC West Title, a chance to win the SEC overall title, and a chance to play in the first ever College Football Playoff. Wouldn’t that just be perfect for two teams with great fanbases, great traditions, and far too little reward. Ole Miss has tailgating in The Grove and Mississippi State has those incessant cowbells.

Together they form this spectacular rivalry and old southern aristocracy and class blended into new south traditions of college football for Ole Miss versus the rough, uncut, farm folk and redneck feel of Mississippi state. A class of sub-cultures within the greater culture of the South, all trapped within a Mississippi microcosm. Thats why it would be so damn lovely if these two schools kept this up and ran the table. Probably won’t happen… in fact it almost definitely won’t happen… but hey… this sure is fun while it lasts. Here’s to hoping they give us a show for the rest of the season, and make that final game as big as it has ever been. Meanwhile, I’ll just be over here takin’ mah crazy pills and living life.

asdf

A Short Aside to a Long-winded Topic

(Photo Credit - Tony Guitierrez, AP)

(Photo Credit – Tony Guitierrez, AP)

So the SEC Meetings went down in Destin, Florida last week. This is one of those non-stories that has become a story in recent times because of how obsessed Americans are with football. However, in spite of that pithy remark, I do believe that nowadays these meetings of the major conferences have become incredibly important. With the slow but steady push over the last 4 years of the power conferences to become super conferences, these meetings have become exceedingly crucial to the fate and future of college sports. The reason of course being the ever present rumors that the power conferences are slowly building themselves up to the point where they can become independent entities from the NCAA or form some sort of federation where they compete with one another and leave the old NCAA schools behind. SO with that in mind these meetings are always something to pay attention to.

sec

Moreover, this years meetings did not disappoint in this regard as rumors are flying that the SEC will consider a mid range plan to demote themselves to Division 4 competition which would essentially give them jurisdiction over their own scholarship situation and remove the cornucopia of fetters which the NCAA lashes on them. Furthermore, with the conference already sitting at 14 teams (and all big schools capable of competing in the conference) and the possibility always open for further expansion in the future, the competition within conference would still be enough to keep the SEC as the premier football conference in the country. It also makes perfect sense that these conversations are happening at this particular moment in time because the SEC Network is launching this season.

SEC Network logo

Plausibly, the SEC will want to jump through the NCAA hoops for maybe a couple more as they cement the financial stability of the Network. However, with an ESPN – SEC alliance and American football mania at an all time high and growing, I see absolutely no scenario wherein the SEC Network fails. This thing is going to be a colossal financial success. Once this truth becomes evident, the SEC would be completely free to break with the NCAA and move to Division 4 as rumored. There are enough teams in conference to maintain a high level of competition. Recruits would still come to the conference (and even be more likely to do so because the SEC could offer more scholarships and scholarship money in D4 than the NCAA allows them to offer in D1. Moreover, its important to note that the best recruits in the country largely choose their colleges based on a desire to get to the NFL. And the NFL, for their part, could not care less where an athlete played college ball as long as they think he can play. There would be absolutely no stigma in this regard when it came to NFL scouting. This move which seems farcical at first, would allow the SEC to keep all their prestige intact while leaving them open to move more freely than they are currently. In short then… this could totally happen. Plus it would be a near mortal blow to the NCAA which would make countless sports fans happy.

The NFL couldn't care less which conference or division a kid plays in when it comes to draft day as Eric Fisher (#1 overall last year)  and Khalil Mach (#4 overall this year) both from the Mid-American Conference, taught us. (Photo Credit - Al Bello, Getty Images)

The NFL couldn’t care less which conference or division a kid plays in when it comes to draft day as Eric Fisher (#1 overall last year) and Khalil Mach (#4 overall this year) both from the Mid-American Conference, taught us. (Photo Credit – Al Bello, Getty Images)

(Photo Credit - Elsa, Getty Images)

(Photo Credit – Elsa, Getty Images)

However, not everyone would be happy. These kind of power moves are fantastic for the large schools, but they would crush mid major sports. Obviously this is a larger issue in basketball than football, but the fact remains the same, that the smaller schools (such as NDSU) would be badly hurt in the long run if they could no longer get those big pay days from playing an SEC or a Big 10 or PAC 12 school at the beginning of the year. Those paydays often keep a lot of athletic departments afloat, and without them I can’t even imagine the damage that would be done.

(Photo Credit - Reese Strickland, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit – Reese Strickland, USA Today Sports)

However, this kind of damage may happen anyway even if the SEC doesn’t break with the NCAA, and it may happen sooner than we think. Another topic on the agenda for the SEC was a desire from the power football schools in the conference (Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, etc) to force SEC school to cut FCS opponents (and potential upsets) from their schedules entirely and focus on shifting their schedules to play only power conference schools. Now, as a Kentucky fan this somewhat of a scary prospect as those gimme wins against FCS schools are often much needed wins which can push the team to bowl eligibility. However, this problem becomes neutralized when you remember that schools like Kansas, Wake Forest, and Indiana are in power conferences. Meaning that even though all three of them have historically atrocious football programs, we would be allowed to play (and beat) all of them, perhaps by even wider margins than we could beat an FCS team (I would much rather play Indiana every year than play NDSU. NDSU could have beaten Indiana by 20 this past season).

(Photo Credit - David Stephenson, Lexington Herald Leader)

(Photo Credit – David Stephenson, Lexington Herald Leader)

Now, this isn’t collusion by the SEC teams to hurt the little guys and undercut the NCAA. It actually has a lot more to do with the 4 team playoff system. SEC powers wont to ensure the entire conference has no chinks in the armor so all of Alabama, Florida, and LSU’s in conference wins continue to count for more than a PAC 12 win does. Beating up on FCS teams hurts SEC Strength of Schedule arguments, because opposing teams can say the mid and lower teams of the SEC on beat terrible teams and that its just a top heavy conference. This new system would change that and make the SEC Schedules much more unassailable.

(Photo Credit - Gerald Herbert, AP)

(Photo Credit – Gerald Herbert, AP)

For the smaller schools like NDSU, however, the fact remains that this would still be a devastating outcome. Think back to last season for a second. What was the most exciting game of the regular season? The win at Kansas State, right? Hell, I think that was the most exciting game of the season PERIOD, even including the playoffs and the national championship game.

Obviously I’m glad we won the title and completed the three-peat, but that game wasn’t in question the entire time. We dismantled Towson. K State was a battle. We had a great core of fans travel down to the game. Hell, it even felt regional and local in a way the National Title game never does. I had a lot more fun watching our little David slay the Goliath in our own back yard (Kansas, also in the upper Midwest like us) than watch us as Goliath destroy a team from the East Coast in Texas. That just feels like an artificial construct, and there was no excitement anyway because everyone knew we were going to blow them out.

My point in bringing all this up is just to reiterate the fact that for quite a while now that early season BCS opponent game has been the most exciting part of NDSU’s season. We have so far and away outgrown our surroundings in FCS that I’m not even entertained by watching the Bison crack the skulls of wildly inferior FCS foes. Now, however, the Power Schools are all going to begin shifting away from FCS opponents. Once the SEC completes this transition to all Power Conference opponents the other Power Conferences will follow suit to make sure the SEC doesn’t retain another competitive advantage. That means no more Iowa State game for NDSU. No more Kansas State. No more Minnesota (even though they’re afraid to play NDSU anymore because they can’t beat the Bison). Frankly put, no more fun for me in the regular season.

(Photo Credit - Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit – Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

I understand that NDSU is about to enter a maaaaaaajor rebuild with Coach Bohl leaving for Wyoming, but imagine how much harder the rebuild will or would be without the influx of cash from those big opponent games, and the influx of fan excitement and energy that comes with playing those games (win OR lose). NDSU in its current for cannot remain a major power playing only FCS opponents. It is going to stymie growth and likely prevent us from ever reaching the enormous potential that I know this athletic department has.

But there’s nothing we can do about what the SEC or the Big 10 or the PAC 12 and Big 12 want to do. Their schedules are their business (literally… there’s tons of money at stake here) and I have no qualms with them doing whats right by themselves. However, that doesn’t mean that I want NDSU to roll over and throw in the towel. This problem can be quickly remedied (and yes… I can hear your groaning through the computer screen as I bring up my pet project yet again BUT IT IS VALID AND IMPORTANT AND I CAN SHOUT REAL LOUD AND HAVE A BLOG SO LISTEN UP!!!!) if NDSU would make the jump up to D1-A. The only way to ensure this quality of opponent (and frankly quality of game and product) are maintained is to move into a conference where this level of competition is the norm, rather than a once a year treat like it is now for Bison fans.

The winds of college sports are shifting. Nobody likes the NCAA. They’re corrupt and incompetent and the major schools are fed up with it. The preliminary moves are already in place for the Power Schools to jump ship and send the NCAA sinking to the bottom of the ocean. The only problem is that there are no life rafts left over for the Mid-Majors. They’re gonna be left hanging out like the orchestra on the freaking titanic. Its going to be hard enough for the D1-A schools in minor conferences like the MAAC and the AAC to survive. Its going to be nearly impossible for the FCS schools to do so. NDSU has begun to build some amazing sports momentum. They’ve created a beautiful sports community in the last 7 or 8 years and College Gameday felt like a beautiful crowning achievement this year. But if we want this fun to continue in any capacity we need to move fast before it all goes away… otherwise… well… play me off boys…