By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. – I have to admit I missed it.
After a weeklong vacation to the Mexican beach city of Mazatlan, I was actually excited to get back. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself, as my family and I laid on the beach for seven days, watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean each night.
The place itself was majestic, an island town with a hint of its historic past. The experiences (pickup truck taxis), the unplugged feeling (shoddy internet) and being able to take a breather were all fantastic. But the truth is that even while I was supposed to be “away”, I kept thinking about SEC football. As the days continued, and crazier outcomes happened in the college world (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Oregon losses), it made me all the more enthused about my return.
Well, the “Three and Out” is officially back.
Looking back at it now, I picked a pretty good week to return. The current slate coincided with “Rivalry Week”, as teams hit the field against their geographic counterparts. These contests mean so much more, since the fans invest extra levels of emotion than the normal trip to the stadium.
I know I’ve spent most of the existence of this column explaining the SEC games are huge every week, and they are, but somehow fans manage to turn it up another notch this week of the year. These games are about history, kinship and year-long bragging rights. Bragging rights are by far the most important, as these games hold the right too trash talk your neighbor, rubbing a loss in their face for the next 365 days. It is the ultimate feeling as a fan.
Since “Rivalry Week” is so much bigger, this week’s column will also grow in stature. Instead of our customary “three” breakdowns, we will go for it on fourth down this week.
Call it the Les Miles coming out in me.
I even have a hat on while typing this.
First Down: Time For A Rematch
Who are the two best teams in the country?
Don’t think about conference affiliation, what part of the country they are from or what their tradition is. That really doesn’t matter. The essence of what the BCS is about, whether you like the system or not, is to pit the nation’s two best squads together for the Championship Game.
With one SEC game left, I think that decision is rather easy. Who are the country’s two top teams?
LSU and Alabama.
I know what you are saying. “Of course he’d say that, he works for the SEC!”
While that is true, my connection doesn’t cloud my judgment for a second. Having watched an inordinate amount of college football games this year, both to have the knowledge to write this column and also to have an understanding of the greater landscape of college football, I feel qualified to answer.
Not only do I feel that LSU and Alabama are the top two teams, but the separation between them and team number three is so great that it isn’t even worth arguing. The amount of talent, the coaching acumen and the quality of play the Tigers and Crimson Tide have displayed remove all doubt. Come January 9th in New Orleans, the stage should be set for an epic “rematch” in the National Championship Game.
If you need me to make the case, I will.
I won’t waste much ink on LSU, seeing as how the average person realizes the talent level in Baton Rouge is astronomical. They have played one of the toughest gauntlets, and left a wake behind them that is historic in terms of domination. Even if LSU were to lose to Georgia next week in the SEC Championship Game, I still think they should play for the title. That’s how great LSU has been this year.
Now to the second half of the equation, the Alabama Crimson Tide. Nick Saban’s team started near the top of the heap to begin the year, and have done very little to discourage their mention as one of the nation’s best.
While their out of conference schedule wasn’t quite as demanding at LSU, they did take a road trip to Penn State, soundly defeating a Big 10 team that played for one of that league’s top spots this weekend. The rest of the out of league slate is rather pedestrian, but when you play in the Southeastern Conference, it probably should be.
Considering the staggering amount of talented teams in the SEC, anyone that runs the table against that competition has usually done more than enough to compete nationally. Why set up landmines out of conference?
But, you might say, they didn’t run the table
, Eric. They lost to LSU. I know… I was there
The one blemish the Crimson Tide has is to the country’s unanimous choice as the best team, and even that took overtime and missed field goal kicks to happen. If you watched that game (according to CBS ratings nearly a quarter of the country did) you know that Alabama played well enough to win. You can make the argument that the Crimson Tide should have won, seeing as how they outgained LSU by over 60 yards.
Considering the final score (9-6), every point in that game was critical. In Alabama’s first two drives of the game, they picked up 105 yards against the LSU defense. They penetrated Tiger territory twice, yet came away empty when two field goals kicks went awry.
Considering they only scored six points the whole game, not capitalizing on those first two drives may have cost Saban’s bunch the game. On top of that, an outstanding interception on the goal line cost Alabama as well, as LSU’s Eric Reid made one of the best defensive plays I’ve ever seen, stopping what could have been an Alabama touchdown.
If any of those plays or drives turn out different for the Crimson Tide, I’d be making the case for LSU deserving a rematch for the title. That’s how close the game was. While some fans might not have enjoyed a 9-6 defensive battle, you can’t tell me that there was a clear distinction as to who was better in Tuscaloosa that day. Both of these teams are that great. Yes, great.
I know you can play “what-if” for every college football game this season, but in this instance it makes sense. I’m trying to remind you that despite some public misgivings for an All-SEC final, you have to remember how unique this situation is.
The cries of “they aren’t going to win their conference title” and “Alabama had their shot” are unfounded, because there is no one else in their class. This isn’t 2003, when a top ranked USC team in the AP poll got left out. This isn’t an undefeated Auburn team in 2004 not getting an opportunity to play for the title.
Key losses by Oklahoma State (to 6-5 Iowa State), Oregon (who lost to USC and was beat rather handily by LSU) and Boise State (loss to TCU) made this happen. Don’t blame Alabama for the spot they are in. The BCS standings have agreed so far, putting Saban’s bunch ahead of everyone other than their SEC Western Division rival LSU.
While that can change in the coming week, it shouldn’t. To me that National Championship Game is already set. I’m ready for “Armageddon” part two, with the scene for the second movie moving to Bourbon Street.
If the famed “Godfather” movie series taught us anything, we know the sequel can sometimes be better than the award winning original.
Time to find out. Time for the “rematch”.
Second Down: Franklin’s First Season
When Vanderbilt hired James Franklin to be their head football coach, I had no idea who he was. I mean, I knew he had been Maryland’s offensive coordinator, serving as a “coach in waiting” for the Terrapins. I had no idea about his style, his demeanor or what he’d bring to the Commodore football program in his first season in Nashville.
Four months later, now I know. Not only do I know about James Franklin, but I now endorse him. If it wasn’t for Miles, I’d be driving the band wagon for Franklin to be named the league’s top coach for 2011.
What Franklin has done at Vanderbilt in his first season is truly outstanding, as he has given a complete makeover to the attitude and pride of Commodore program. For a man that wasn’t well known coming to the conference, he sure made a big first impression in his first trip around the league.
That all culminated on Saturday, as Franklin and his team captured their sixth win in a 41-7 thrashing over ACC foe Wake Forest
. Zac Stacy, quietly turning into one of the leagues up and coming backs, had another solid day for the Vandy offense. But, in what has been the theme the entire year, Franklin’s defense led the way. They held a Wake Forest squad averaging over three touchdown a game to just one, another in a long line of solid defensive performances this year for the Commodores.
This win got Vanderbilt something more important than a .500 record, which they should be proud of. This victory brought them bowl-eligibility, the chance to represent the SEC in the postseason and practice for another month. While this is Vandy’s second bowl trip in the past four years, it caps off an amazing turnaround from where the program was a year ago.
The 2010 Commodore squad went 2-10, falling in disarray as longtime head coach Bobby Johnson retired just months before the start of the season. Franklin inherited that challenge, having to beef up not only Vanderbilt’s roster but the Commodores psyche. He had to make them believe Vanderbilt football could succeed, and prove that in the face of a team that had lost their last seven games to end the year.
If you watch Franklin’s speeches and monitor his actions on YouTube, you get why his players are drawn to him
. He is frank yet uplifting, a man of strong conviction who brings the energy of a teenager. He is engaging to watch. Even in the midst of trying to get to bowl eligibility platform in the past two weeks, Franklin refused to discuss it. His premise was simple. Being bowl eligible wasn’t the goal. The goal was to win every week.
While he didn’t accomplish that, his impressive turnaround deserves mention. The SEC is so loaded, and so much focus is placed at the top that it is possible we will forget Franklin’s opening year performance. That shouldn’t be the case.
Franklin’s key moment came early, as he battled defending Big East champion UCONN in Vanderbilt’s second game of the season. After a turnover, it appeared as if the Commodores were going to let an opportunity to win slip away. A fan yelled out, “same old Vandy”, catching Franklin’s ear. He responded, saying, “This isn’t the same old Vandy anymore”.
Third Down: Kentucky Makes History
I am 30 years old, even if some mornings I feel twice that age. I mention my age because it helps to add some perspective to Kentucky’s historic win over Tennessee on Saturday.
That is how long it has been since Kentucky has beaten Tennessee.
The last time that particular outcome happened I hadn’t even started preschool yet. I was a year away from taking my first T-Ball swing (what got me to college), I was just learning to read (what I do for a living now) and was still roaming the streets of the Bronx, New York (now I live in Birmingham).
Many readers of this blog and the current players on Kentucky’s team weren’t even alive when the Wildcats last beat the Big Orange. So kudos to Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips, as he defied tradition, taking his group of Wildcats into Commonwealth Stadium and picking up a hard-fought 10-7 win over Tennessee
The win doesn’t mean much in terms of the SEC standings, or even in determining whether Kentucky will compete past this weekend. For those who don’t know the history, and perhaps saw the final score scroll on the bottom of their televisions screens, the gravity of the victory can’t possibly register.
Watching the emotions of Kentucky fans on Twitter after the Wildcats won explained it all. They let you know how important it was to them, a moment that they will likely use to mark this period of their life. That is what you hope to see as a fan, the ability to see a special moment that will survive the test of time. Football fans in Lexington now have that moment, even if many of them were sure that it would slip away in the final moments of the game.
One of my main partners in crime at the SEC Digital Network is Tim Letcher, who helps in coverage of the league’s sports. While Letcher is a Morehead State graduate, his heart now lies with the Big Blue. His family lives in Lexington and his wife teaches for UK. He’s had to suffer through some tough stretches as a Wildcat football fan, and it has left him snake bitten in his fandom.
As Kentucky’s offense struggled in the second half, I can only imagine how Tim felt. I didn’t bother to email or call him, since I’m sure the last thing he wanted to do was talk to someone that didn’t understand.
On cue, Tennessee took to the field for the final drive. As Volunteer quarterback Tyler Bray jogged into the huddle, my phone vibrated. When this happens, especially on a Saturday, I don’t always immediately check. On any given football Saturday, I will get over 800 emails, a variety of updates, stories and reminders of everything we are doing at the Digital Network.
But, for some odd reason, I glanced down this particular instance. Perhaps some intuition told me to look at it, knowing that it could be Tim, reaching out in this especially nerve wracking time. Sure enough, it was Letcher, sending one sentence that summed up the 26 years he’s seen the outcome end in the other direction.
“Watch this,” his email started. “Watch Kentucky lose this game……it always happens this way.”
But, for Tim and the legions of “Big Blue Nation”, it didn’t end that way on this day. The Wildcats held on, beating the Volunteers for the first time since 1984. As the clock showed zeros, fans stormed the field. For a program that hasn’t had many reasons to celebrate over the years, it was an amazing sight. Chants of “finally” and “We Are UK” began to appear on social media, a collection of celebrations that spanned every crevice of the Wildcat family.
I think it took Phillips 30 minutes to get off the field. I’m sure it wasn’t that long, but if there was one day he deserved his own victory lap around Commonwealth Stadium, this was it. In a year filled with moments that many didn’t want to cheer about, ending an over two decade drought will be etched into Phillips legacy at Kentucky. No matter what happened before or what will happen after, he will be known as the man that ended the streak.
The four-year old me smiles for Big Blue Nation, while the 30-year old me is glad I got a chance to witness the history.
Fourth Down: The Hash Tag Heard Around The World
When you think about the areas of the country that are on the forefront of technology and innovative thinking, a few cities likely come to mind. You may think about Silicon Valley in California (home of Facebook and Google), or perhaps Seattle, Washington (home of Microsoft). You might even think of Beaverton, Oregon, which houses the headquarters for athletic apparel giant Nike.
It might be time to add Starkville, Mississippi to the list.
With a few strokes of spray paint, the Mississippi Bulldogs made history, using the end zone of Davis-Wade stadium as a social media rallying cry for its fans. A “stroke” of brilliance if you ask me
For those who don’t use Twitter, you might not have understood what all the uproar was all about. In the Twitter world, the pound sign (#), known as a “hash tag”, allows people to connect over a singular thought or idea.
For instance, if you were to type in “#SEC” in the Twitter search engine, you can read news and find people who are talking about the Southeastern Conference. The great part is that discovery, meeting new friends and sharing thoughts across the world.
So the fact that the Bulldogs painted one of their end zones with a “#HailState” banner was revolutionary. “Hail State” is the way Bulldogs fans announce their allegiance on the social media platform, a way to show pride for their university.
Now the whole world knew about it, making the Bulldogs national conversation just days before the “Egg Bowl” against Ole Miss. In a game that featured two teams both under .500, the media across the country began to pay attention. Opinions were formed about both the game and the nine
characters featured in the grass at Davis Wade.
That in itself made the decision perfect. Plus, it was groundbreaking, opening up the door for other teams or leagues (maybe us?) to do this in the future. Can you imagine the day where you go to a football game, only to “#SEC” and “#ACC” in the end zones when South Carolina and Clemson play?
Maybe that is still far off, but the fact that Mississippi State took the first step deserves a great deal of applause. Kudos to Athletics Director Scott Stricklin, head coach Dan Mullen and everyone in the MSU marketing and media relations department for seeing this through.
In the end, this is just another chance for fans to show their allegiance. Much like wearing bringing their cowbell to the stadium, the fact that they can all end their Twitter statements with “#HailState” brings what is already a tight knit fan base that much closer.
Isn’t that what this is all about?
For their decision to try something new and groundbreaking, we should all #HailState indeed.