Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Can this become permanent?

This just in: Tennessee football is down.  Lane Kiffin's 14 month experiment left the cupboards quite bare in Knoxville.  Derek Dooley is a good coach (war analogies aside) who has very little to work with - for now.  That will change soon enough.

Like all SEC schools, Tennessee is obligated to play its entire football schedule regardless of the shape the roster is in.  With the exception of an ugly game in Baton Rouge that was far closer than anyone expected, the 2010 version of the Volunteers have been beaten convincingly in their other conference games and the season opener against now number one Oregon.

However, while winning is usually the most important thing for any team to do, I would argue it's second on UT's current list.  At the top? Recruiting.

Sure, plenty of fans would argue that winning is 1a to recruiting's 1b at all schools every year.  That may be true most seasons, but in Knoxville - right now - it's not.  The Vols need players.  Good ones, and lots of them.  They'll get them too, much to the chagrin of their Eastern division rivals and Alabama.  That said, are we at a point in SEC history where there's a real changing of the guard, or will the normalcy of the "Big Six" and the "Next Six" return in a year or two?

This Saturday's game in Columbia between the Gamecocks and Vols can begin to answer that question.

Since his arrival at Carolina, Steve Spurrier is just 2-3 against Tennessee.  Last year saw the Gamecocks take a talented team to Neyland Stadium.  The Vols thumped USC, like they'd done to Georgia a few weeks earlier.  In a year when movement was supposed to start in the East, Kiffin and UT served notice that they wouldn't be moving down anytime soon.

Kiffin's departure, however, erased a lot of good feelings in Vol country, and most notably soured an entire recruiting class on playing for UT.  Some recruits stayed on board, but many looked elsewhere, unsure of who or what was next.  That left the Vols in worse shape than before AD Mike Hamilton decided Phil Fulmer was no longer capable of running the program.

Enter South Carolina.  At SEC Media Days the Gamecocks were picked ahead of Tennessee for the second consecutive year.  I know, it's just a July prediction, but it is an indicator of how schools are seen across the conference.  As we speak, there are very few who feel Tennessee football is in better shape than South Carolina football.  Winning Saturday will further validate Carolina's current status for sure, but it will not be the final say as these two programs struggle for the right to back in the Top 3 in the East.

Tennessee has a long, proud and very successful football tradition.  Now that the head coach is once again a principled man with deep ties to the South, order in Knoxville is slowly being restored.  The intangibles - money, facilities and history - are all solidly in place at UT.

South Carolina's football history is long too, but not nearly as successful as the Vols'.  The Gamecocks recent recruiting fortunes have turned the team into a legitimate contender in the SEC East.  The reason is simple: seizing the moment.

Leadership at Carolina is solid.  The plan has been laid out and the feeling of positive expectations is very high.  Bottom line - the future here is bright, those involved want to be champions and the resources and opportunities to accomplish those things in Columbia are as good as most other schools across the SEC.  That has not always been the case at USC.  New recruits can be shown that the Gamecocks are ready for the next level right now.

So this weekend Tennessee brings their road show to Columbia.  They were beaten badly last week and know there are few chances left to redeem the season.  What are they playing for?  Their coach?  Themselves?  The future?  Any reason is a good one, and I suspect the Volunteers will want to prove they still belong in the conversation of best teams in the Southeastern Conference.  The Gamecocks need to be prepared for a good team, even one that comes in as 17 point underdog.

That said, it all boils down to one very simple concept.  Winning.  There is indeed some uncertainty at a few of the schools the Gamecocks compete against every year.  Those doors will close soon enough.  The single best thing to do to impress upon recruits how serious you are is to show them how good you are in head-to-head match-ups.  That's easy enough.  Players, get on the field and give it your all.  Fans, get in the stands and give it your all.

One more note: a win Saturday and the Gamecocks know they'll be playing for the division title.  That's big motivation if you ask me.

Yes Tennessee is down.  Yes Carolina is up.  Will it stay that exact way?  I doubt it, but that doesn't mean Carolina has to go to the back of the line again.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pac 12 should follow SEC model

I was reading this story on Pac 10/12 expansion and thought "they're trying too hard."  The original league idea of a North-South split is perfect and everyone can still get what they want.  Here's how: follow the lead of the SEC.

Heresy to to the cultural side of some out west I'm sure, but the model now in place here in the South works very well.  A few tweaks for a nine game football schedule only enhance what the new Pac 12 wants to do.

First, here are the divisions as initially proposed:

North - Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Colorado, Utah

South - Arizona, Arizona State, USC, UCLA, California, Stanford

The original Pac 8 schools in the north worry that the proposed split will mean less time to recruit in California.  The solution lies in assigning each school a permanent opponent from the other division.  It makes further regional, not to mention economic and emotional, sense to place the Oregon and Washington schools with the California schools while matching the Arizona schools with Colorado and Utah.

Longstanding conference and border rivalries will be maintained on one hand and created on another.  An example of what the individual rivalries could be:

Arizona - Colorado
Arizona St - Utah
USC - Oregon
UCLA - Washington
Cal - Oregon St
Stanford - Wash St

Like the SEC, the inter-divisional rival would be played each year.  Since the Pac 12 is likely to keep playing nine league games, the rotation amongst the other schools would occur every four years.  Enough people earn a living at scheduling to ensure that the eight schools outside of California are there virtually every season.

The ACC, in my opinion, got it wrong by splitting the way it did.  Geography is better for marketing.  It's easy to tell the split in the SEC and Big 12.  The ACC's "Atlantic" and "Coastal" divisions are still confusing.  While attempting to prove a correlation between no BCS titles and misguided divisions would be very difficult, how many of you think it's just a coincidence? (OK, I kid, but only a little.)

As for basketball and the other sports, again, follow the current SEC setups.  They work well too.  Football will be the driving engine, so just make sure you get that one right from the start.

So, Pac 12, take a southern football fan's advice and follow the lead of the SEC.  The model works very well.  I know you've got some great schools with smart people, but trust me: keep it simple.  North and South, not Pacific and Coastal.  That said, Sashimi and Medium Rare could work as divisions.  Talk about marketing out west.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Now the hard part begins

It was only a few seasons ago that South Carolina's football program found itself in the Top 10 rankings.  After a fun win in Chapel Hill over the Tar Heels, USC was elevated to number 6.  They had a 6-1 record, Vanderbilt at home the following week and appeared to be in great shape in the SEC East race.

They didn't win again and missed out on a bowl game.

That was 2007.  This is 2010.

The '07 squad still had several players who believed in their own hype.  The '10 squad doesn't seem to have that problem.  That said, the proof of how hard it is to "get up" for every game was on display Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.  Alabama was playing its third straight Top 20 opponent and second on the road in that span.  They didn't seem to be clicking on all cylinders and Carolina took advantage in its impressive 35-21 win over the National Champs.

I'm not writing this to diminish Carolina's accomplishment.  It was hard earned.  It was thorough.  It was special for Gamecock Nation.  It was though, however monumental, just one win.

Carolina now finds itself in rarified air: first place all by themselves in the SEC East.  4-1 overall, 2-1 in conference play.  They will likely be favored in each of their next four games, and, depending on what they and their opponents do in the next few weeks, favored in all of their remaining contests, though I don't see Florida being a home dog to USC - at least not yet.

How will these 2010 Gamecocks handle their current status?  Based on what I've seen of their effort and attitude thus far, much better than the '07 team.  From January of this year on, Steve Spurrier's been reminding all of us - a lot - of just how bad the bowl loss to UConn was.  His team seems to have not only listened but truly done something about it.  That's a huge step forward for the program.

They've played sixty minutes of football in each SEC game.  The non-con games were never in doubt.  The caliber of player now putting on a Gamecock uniform has changed.  They aren't surprised when they play well.  They expect it.  They don't need to be reminded to work hard.  They expect it.  That should fill fans with hope and the team with confidence.

I think I know the answer to the question I posed earlier, but that's why we play the games.  Let's see what these new-look Gamecocks think Saturday in Lexington.  That's when the hard part begins.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Was that an acorn or the sky?

You'll have to pardon the unintended yet apropos pun, but many Gamecock fans channelled their inner Chicken Little over the weekend following Carolina's 35-27 loss at Auburn.

Based on reaction on Twitter, Facebook and the call-in show after the game you'd have thought the Carolina program suffered its most embarrassing loss ever, that Stephen Garcia would make a better quarter horse than quarterback and that Steve Spurrier finally proved he belongs on the golf course everyday.  None are true, but a lot of fans want to believe they are.

Let's start with some of the real reasons a large faction of Gamecock Nation is angry - and has reason to be.

1- Giving up a big lead...First, after giving up a touchdown on Auburn's first drive the Gamecocks scored three straight TD's of their own, though a missed PAT on the third made the score 20-7 at that point. Auburn then took a 21-20 lead, Carolina scored again to make it 27-21 before the Tigers scored the final 14 points of the game.  Get a big lead and hold it.  Fair reason to be upset.

2- Four second half turnovers...Two fumbles by Stephen Garcia and two interceptions by Connor Shaw doomed the Gamecocks late in the game, no doubt about it.  For each player though, I truly only blame them for one apiece.  Garcia's second fumble and Shaw's first INT were bad mistakes by players whose first responsibility is to protect the ball.  The other Garcia fumble was made on a solid defensive play, while Shaw's second pick came in desperation time.  The ball was near Alshon Jeffrey, but he was covered by three defenders, one of whom made the play.

3- Defensive letdowns all night...It was great to have Shaq Wilson back in the lineup, but he alone won't make things better against a team with a weapon like Cam Newton.  Carolina's vaunted D gave up 492 total yards, 334 of them on the ground.  Half of those rushing yards were gained by Auburn's big QB.  The Gamecocks - and Ellis Johnson - knew EXACTLY what Auburn's plan was and simply couldn't stop it.  Missed tackles, bad angles and a superior Auburn offensive line all contributed to a brutal night for the defense.  They're better than they showed at Jordan-Hare, but that's a moot point.

I could keep going but there's no reason to.  The Tigers were more physical "in the trenches" all night.  In the SEC, if you keep getting pushed around on the line you're likely to lose after four quarters.  No one singular play (or player, or coach) cost Carolina the win.  It was a collective failure on many fronts.  Simply put, Auburn was better than Carolina all night and won the game.

Now for some good news.  Despite all the aforementioned failures, Carolina had a chance to tie the game on its final possession.  They were in the game all night.  Garcia, as predicted, had a good night through the air, going 15-21 for 235 yards and three TDs.  Shaw was 4-8 for another 70, giving the offense 305 total passing yards.  To that end, Jeffrey had 192 receiving yards in the game, fourth best night ever by a Carolina receiver.  The confidence gained through the air should serve the team well moving forward.

As for larger goals, they're all still attainable.  Carolina is likely to be tied with Florida when the Gamecocks host Alabama next week (the Gators visit Tuscaloosa Saturday).  Believe it or not, losing to Auburn only counts as one loss, though to hear some tell it the loss doomed Carolina to another season of mediocrity.  While beating Bama will be a tall order, it's doable.  Pull off the upset and you're right back in the hunt.  Even losing to the Tide won't be a killer - if there's no more losing before the trip to Gainesville in November.

Bottom line: Carolina is 3-1.  They're still in the Top 20.  They have a week off to heal and extra time to prep for America's best team.  They have some exciting young talent.  They have a terrific coaching staff.  Yes they had a bad game.  At times it was very bad.  They've been worse though.

If you called in Saturday blaming Garcia's fumble or Spurrier's decision making, stop.  That wasn't the difference.  It wasn't the end of the season either.  Relax.  Enjoy the off week.  Quit looking for a scapegoat.  The Gamecocks are good, and they have a lot of football left in them.

Saturday night in Auburn an acorn hit the Gamecocks on the head.  It wasn't the sky at all.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It's Hard to Say Goodbye, Part 2

Unconditional love is an awesome thing.  I have it for my wife and children.  My mother has it for me.  Any of you reading this knows who you have that feeling towards and who in turn has it for you.  No matter what someone may do to hurt you or another person, you still love and support them.  It's powerful in its scope sometimes.  When it comes to sports, however, there is a bit of a disconnect when it comes to the word "unconditional."  The Weslye Saunders case at South Carolina is a prime example of that fact.

Saunders, as you by now know, was dismissed from the USC football program Wednesday by Athletics Director Eric Hyman.  A short and to the point statement was the only official notification we got from the university.  The reaction to the news, however, has been very mixed in the last 24 hours or so.

Most fans and observers are in no way surprised to learn of the dismissal.  This author actually called for Saunders to be kicked off the team before the season ever began, and the support I got was heavy.  Some fans took issue with that stance though, and now that the news is official, they still seem to believe that Saunders got a raw deal.  He didn't, and let me explain why.

Rabid fans of any team will always look at who they support differently than outside observers or even more objective supporters.  No matter what, they'll put the team - and its individual members - ahead of everything else.  In theory I have no problem with this, but in practice there are times when the garnet colored glasses need to come off.

Those who continue to blindly support Weslye say things like "He's just a college kid who made a mistake" or "the things he did weren't criminal acts, so let's not treat him that way."  Naive feelings at best. As has been discussed before, Saunders history of putting himself first go back far longer than summer, or for that matter, winter of 2010, two times when he was suspended from the team for what can kindly be described as selfish acts.

In January, Coach Steve Spurrier put Saunders' reinstatement to a team vote, and his fellow players decided to let him come back.  There was no such show of democracy this summer.  Saunders had a good spring and came to training camp in what Spurrier called the best shape he'd seen him in at Carolina.  Then the lying began.  Saunders told his coaches he'd done nothing wrong in reference to his trip to South Florida and the subsequent NCAA investigation into the trip.  Because of their trust in him (unconditional love perhaps) they believed him.

After arriving very late to a Saturday morning scrimmage at Williams-Brice Stadium, Saunders told the staff he was again being questioned by the NCAA.  Because of their trust in him (unconditional love perhaps) they believed him.  Then, when caught in a lie, Saunders LIED AGAIN.  That sealed the deal with Spurrier.

Saunders was suspended and had not been a part of the team in any way since, and now of course he's done.  He got what he deserved, but to hear a faction of Gamecock fans tell it, the punishment still doesn't fit the crime.  I rarely read message boards, but I did yesterday.  One string in particular struck me.  It was apparently meant only for those who wanted to show support for, not condemnation of, Weslye.  A few detractors posted on it anyway and were themselves condemned for not being "real fans."

Talk about a case of some fans not seeing the forest for the trees.  Imagine that.  One player repeatedly put himself ahead of his team during his career and ultimately got kicked off, and through the process may have gotten his ENTIRE PROGRAM in trouble with the NCAA, yet some feel he is the victim.  That stuns me.

The real victims are the other members of the team who've done things the right way the whole time.  The victims are the coaches who've doubled their collective efforts to bring in better citizens to play football for Carolina.  The victims are the fans - all of them - who pour heart, soul and money into their support of Gamecock football.  Weslye Saunders showed no regard for everyone else, yet some fans believe he still deserves the benefit of what little doubt may be left out there.  Wow.

I have admittedly been very harsh in my criticism of Weslye.  (For more of what I've said on this, just check the column on the right of this page)  I have also made it clear that I wish him nothing but success in the future.  He has immense football talent.  He is a good student who comes from a good family.  That said, he and he alone is responsible for the mess he is in.

The 2010 Gamecocks are a good team, and have started strongly without Weslye on the squad.  As I've said before, a case of addition by subtraction is at work here and I don't believe this case has been a distraction, despite what some would have you believe.  Fans want to see their team play hard and win.  That's the bottom line.

If you're a fan who believes Weslye has done the wrong things and gotten what was deserved but wants to support him beyond his time in Columbia, have at it.  You won't be alone.  That is unconditional love.

However, if you're a fan who thinks Weslye got a raw deal, made some "mistakes" or is the victim of a broken system, wake up.  Your unconditional love of your team has officially gotten in your way of seeing the truth, and that's not good for anybody, no matter how much love you have.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pete and Reggie's Hard Luck Club

As reaction poured in on the show today on Reggie Bush's "decision" to give up his Heisman Trophy, it got me thinking about the points people made when saying he'd accomplished so much "on the field."  They're right of course.  Bush's career at Southern Cal was brilliant.  At a school loaded with great players he stood out above them all.  Remember, he played with fellow Heisman winner Matt Leinart.  His margin of victory over Vince Young of Texas in the Heisman balloting was huge.

In short, based on his performance, he deserved to win what most believe is the greatest and most recognized individual award in American sports.

In reading about the process that led Bush to give the award up, it was noted that there are actually very few overall criteria players must meet to be Heisman winners.  One, however, is that players must be in compliance with NCAA rules to be eligible.  Based on what we all now know, Bush wasn't an eligible candidate.  Enough said.

Furthermore, the Heisman Trophy Trust has decided that no one will now hold the 2005 honor, citing the time that's elapsed from then to now and that a revote wouldn't be fair.  (I didn't know until today that they don't have a Miss America-type deal to automatically have the runner-up take the spot in the event the winner can no longer serve, but I digress.)  Leaving the title vacant will, in the long run, actually make Bush's year more memorable and keep his accomplishments - on AND off the field - more relevant than most past Heisman winners.

Basically, Bush will now be remembered as one of college football's best players ever and have no official recognition to show for it.  Kind of sucks for him.  It also gives him something in common with baseball legend Pete Rose.  Both men are now fantastic athletes who threw away recognition due to equally fantastic screw ups.

The biggest difference in the two is simple: Bush won an award and had to give it back.  Rose, if we can equate the Heisman to induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, never actually got his.  Ask almost anyone who follows baseball though and they'll say that based on what he did "on the field," Rose should absolutely be in the HOF.  He's not because of foolish decisions made off the field after he played.

Bush's transgressions were also away from the field, and for that matter away from school entirely.  Neither man was forced to do what got them in trouble, and both could have likely salvaged their situations if they'd fessed up sooner and been swifter in ending what they'd started.

Instead, Rose kept gambling on baseball and then spent years lying about the extent of what he'd done.  By the time he admitted to it a few years ago it was too late.  He was toxic and voters, because of Major League Baseball's lifetime ban of Rose from the game, would be able to have nothing to do with him.

Bush was equally filled with a false sense of bravado.  Not only did he take hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal benefits from an agent, he actually decided NOT to sign with that agent when the time was upon him.  As one caller said, Bush had "no honor amongst thieves."  The agent ratted him out and look where we are today.

You will never hear me say that either of these men weren't great at what they did.  Neither of them cheated to get better at their craft.  Whether it was harnessing physical gifts like Bush did or working to overcome the lack of them like Rose did, both are deserving of being joined with their respective sports elite names because of what they accomplished "on the field."  They'll certainly be remembered for that part of their careers.

Sadly for them, they'll be equally remembered for what they did away from the field too, and those transgressions will keep them from official recognition alongside their peers.  Like it or not, what they did on the field only goes so far, and for them it's just not far enough.

Pete and Reggie, kindred souls in their own club.  There are many lessons to be learned here.  We, and they, need to hope the example they unwittingly set keeps that club's membership at two from here on out.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lee Corso still a Gamecocks hater?

The show was on location at Hooter's today.  If you don't already know, Lee Corso is now a national spokesman for that fine chain of restaurants, which is smart during football season.  Corso is well known and can be funny from time to time.  As coincidence would have it, the South Carolina football team is a legitimate contender for the SEC East this season, and I was asked over the weekend, after the Gamecocks' 17-6 win over Georgia, what Corso might say about the teams' chances now.

It reminded me that a couple of years ago I wrote a piece detailing what I thought of Coach Corso's outlook on the South Carolina program.  I'm reposting it today.  Let me know what you think...

Lee Corso is a professional.  He sells pencils.  The good kind, too.  He is also a broadcaster, and has been since the late 1970's.  He's called college games, Arena League, even the USFL.  He coached nearly a decade in the Big 10.  Oh, by the way, he's been on ESPN's College Gameday since the show's inception.  Here is some of what Corso's own website says about him:

"As College GameDay's national appeal has grown, Corso's opinions, analysis and daring predictions have become one of the most anticipated in sports television. In 2001, Sporting News magazine selected Corso as the 17th most influential person in college football. The magazine in January 2004 ranked Corso and fellow GameDay hosts - Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit - as 2003's 'Most Powerful Media Personalities in Sports.'
Corso, whose college roommate was actor Burt Reynolds, received four varsity letters in both football and baseball at Florida State. He is a member of the Hall of Fame at Florida State and University of Louisville. In June 2003, Corso was inducted into the state of Florida Sports Hall of Fame in St. Petersburg.
A graduate of Florida State University, Corso earned a bachelor of arts degree in physical education and a master's degree in administration and supervision."
So you can see, this is a man who is a decorated athlete, well educated student, respected coach, successful businessman and close friend of a Hollywood legend who has been cited by respected national publications as a major force in one of America's great sporting traditions.  And I'm told to treat him like a clown.

If I, or any of the tens of thousands of fans around the nation Corso riles each week with his opinion and prognostication, don't agree with his views, someone will say "Ignore it, he's Lee Corso."  After all, the guy puts mascot heads on every week.  For every team he picks for, he automatically must pick against another.  When it comes to the games he discusses each week on what is the best pregame show of ANY sport in the country, I agree - it's just his job.  A job everyone knows he's good at.  A job he, if no one else, takes very seriously.

But something different occured during a Gameday broadcast in Columbia a few years ago that to this day has many supporters of the University of South Carolina upset, including this author.  Corso, on day one of the Spurrier Era, proclaimed before the college football world that the Gamecocks could never win an SEC championship.  Ever.  

USC is using Corso's words against him in a marketing effort designed to boost revenues near the top of the conference, where Florida leads the way with an athletic budget of more than $75 million per school year.  USC is not the first and will not be the last to use Corso as a kind of "negative" motivation.  Corso doesn't like the fact that he's been singled out by USC in this particular case and can't seem to grasp what all the fuss is about.  It's just his opinion after all, he says, and it's based on fact.  He's right - to a point.

No one can argue that South Carolina football is anything more than it is.  Some highlight moments and big wins.  A good, but not great, NFL pipeline.  George Rogers and Sterling Sharpe.  1984.  Back-to-back at the Outback.  That's pretty much it, and because of that Corso told anyone willing to listen that Carolina would never win a title, even if Steve Spurrier "coached there 400 years."  That wasn't a prediction on a game, it was a prediction on a life, the football life of a big, proud southern school.

I wonder what "the experts" told Corso when he became the football coach at Louisville and Indiana, two basketball schools.  Probably something to the effect of you can't win there.  He did though, relatively speaking, because he believed he could.  He's glad, I'm sure, not to have followed the negative advice.

Say it will be incredibly difficult for USC to win a title when you factor in history and present competition, that Florida and Georgia will always have a recruiting edge based on numbers, and that young men want to play where years of winning are what they add to, not start.  All of that is true and no reasonable person could argue the point.  

Again, Corso said "can't."

Corso can say what he wants to anytime he wants to.  This is America.  Those who listen can choose to interpret his words how they want to for the same reason.  Corso, however, shouldn't act so shocked that the anger of Gamecock fans is focused at him on this issue.  He didn't say it will be hard, or take some time.  He said it cannot, under any circumstance, be done.  How should reasonable people respond when told they, and seemingly they alone, can't accomplish something never done solely because of who and where they are?

It's also worth noting that Corso earns part of his income through IMG as a motivational speaker.  I wonder how many times a company or civic group has had him come in and say "You can't, so don't try."  Considering he's still available to speak, I'd say never.  I realize he wasn't paid by USC that late summer day in 2005, but I would hope a man like that always had a positive, realistic outlook on life no matter the setting.  He may as well have said don't try to the Gamecock nation back in 2005, but he may not be that bold.

After all, making a prediction about a Saturday is one thing, making a prediction on a lifetime is something else.

Now in 2010, let's see if anything in Corso's outlook changes.  I don't believe it will.  There's still nothing in it for him.

Now the hard part begins

With South Carolina's dominating, if not spectacular, 17-6 win over Georgia last week, the Gamecocks football team did a couple of things for its fans and its impartial observers.  How the two mesh will be the telling feature for the team moving forward this season.

First for the fans: excitement.  Marcus Lattimore emerged as a legitimate SEC running back, but he will never again be looked at as an afterthought, not to say that's how Georgia viewed him.  However, to hear a few Bulldogs tell it, they said it wasn't Lattimore's ability to run as much as their own inability to tackle that made the difference.  Whatever.  Regardless of what you believe, Lattimore is now the go to guy for the Gamecocks AND their opponents.

Another huge reason for excitement is actually an old and familiar one: the Gamecocks defense.  Ellis Johnson and company employed another successful scheme on Georgia's offense, limiting the Dogs' running attack to 61 net yards while holding Aaron Murray (who's very good, BTW) in check throughout the day.  Murray hit some big plays and surely missed AJ Green, but in the end the Bulldogs could only muster two field goals on Carolina.  Each team had a key turnover that killed big drives, so that stat evens out.

Stephen Garcia had a solid game, the fumble in the second half being his biggest mistake.  However, he threw no interceptions, kept the offense focused and made some big plays here and there that kept the Gamecocks on the field.  When you have a guy like Lattimore tearing it up, asking your QB to "manage the game" is OK.  Garcia did his job and further solidified his role as the number one QB on the team.

Now for the rest of the country: expectations.  With the emergence of Lattimore and the win over UGa, Carolina rocketed up the national polls, claiming the 13th spot in the AP and 16th spot in the USA Today Coaches Poll.  Too high? Maybe, but to borrow from Steve Spurrier "it is what it is."

A game with Furman this week provides no real chance to impress voters in a positive sense, but the game at Auburn next week certainly does.  That said, the Gamecocks' program has had a penchant for playing down to its competition in recent years.  I get the feeling that the intensity levels have been ratcheted up this year, so we'll see on Saturday how that turns out.

Since Carolina is expected to win over a SoCon foe, this week won't tell us much, provided things go accordingly.  However, after the Paladins visit Columbia, the Gamecocks play seven straight in the SEC.  What happens in the first two of those seven will tell us a lot.  Wins over Auburn and Alabama will likely put Carolina in the Top 5.  A split will still legitimize the team this season, while two losses may have some saying the club can't handle it's lofty status.  There will still be plenty of football after the Bama game, but no one is measured by games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt - unless you lose or win by blowout.

As I've said often this year, Carolina's ability to stay focused game by game is the single most important factor in its success.  Through the first two games they've done that very well.  Serve notice against Furman, then be ready to prove to the nation what you're really capable of.

This South Carolina team is good and can get a lot better.  It's how they carry their new burden that I'll be most interested in watching.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Maybe so, maybe not

A few things to put out there ahead of today's show, all within the same theme...

First, Coach Steve Spurrier said just a few minutes ago that the NCAA may rule on the status of OL Jarriel King and CB Chris Culliver sometime today.  That of course leaves open the possibility that there won't be a ruling today.

I know fans, players, coaches and even us media types want everything now, and that the NCAA needs to be methodical in its investigation, but what's the hold up?  Same question for AJ Green at Georgia.  These players have been under the microscope for weeks.  The fact that NO information comes out leads to rampant speculation in the public, no matter what any of us do to quell it.  These players, and their respective teams, need closure so they can move on, one way or another.

The NCAA knows enough to rule in my opinion.  Either they did something wrong or they didn't.  What's the delay being caused by?  Someone needs to say...quickly.

-- Was it a bad dream?

I woke up this morning and saw that the Phillies had retaken first place from the Braves last night.  Yeesh.  The Pirates are the worst team in baseball and the Braves have made them look like...the Phillies.  The addition of D Lee and the return of Nate McClouth have done NOTHING for an already struggling Braves offense.  It's uncanny to think that a team like Atlanta's can be so bad with RISP, but they are.

As I've often admitted I'm a huge Bobby Cox supporter, and it's clear he's tried to shuffle the lineup to get more runs across.  At some point though, no matter his salary, Bobby has to put McClouth on the shelf.  He's terrible.  That's a sad but true fact.  To that end, the players must take it upon themselves to do more.  There is WAY too much baseball left and the Braves are still very much in danger of missing the playoffs.  They're also very capable of having the best record in the NL.  It's up to them.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Not a bad way to start

With South Carolina's big 41-13 win over Southern Mississippi at Williams-Brice Stadium last night it's pretty safe to say that the Gamecocks have exorcised most of the demons that haunted them since a lackluster loss to UConn in the Bowl last January.  I say most because the guy who reminded us of how bad the loss was nearly every day is still the team's head coach, and he doesn't forget anything, so when a reminder is needed, he'll deliver it.

On the day training camp started, and again yesterday, I went over the five biggest keys to the Gamecocks season as I saw it.  With a game under their belt, let's take a look at how they did.

1 - Offensive line must improve... There were a few too many penalties, but with no sacks allowed and more than 200 yards gained on the ground and the unit still looking for unity, I'd say they did well against an experienced group of USM linemen and linebackers.  Georgia will bring an entirely new set of talent to WBS next week, but OL confidence should be rising at Carolina.

2 - Will a Number One Tailback emerge? ... Again, we're only one game in, but is ANYONE out there wondering whether Marcus Lattimore will get the bulk of the work next week in practice and against UGa?  The freshman didn't disappoint in the least, scoring twice, catching a few passes and running with the confidence of a college veteran.  For now, the answer is yes, a number one tailback emerged.

3 - Garcia is a good QB, but can he be great? ... Stephen missed on a few open chances, but that happens to the very best.  In all, his game against USM was well above average.  He made several nice throws, spread the ball amongst his WR corps and ran with the confidence and attitude of a tailback.  His leadership was definitely on display, which only increases the confidence his teammates have in him.  The two running TD's were both things of football beauty.  Connor Shaw showed some good moments, but this is Garcia's team, and he'll keep getting better if he limits the mistakes.

4 - Special Teams must improve... I had no concerns about Spencer Lanning's abilities to punt and kick, and like Ryan Succop before him, it's clear Carolina has a premier specialist.  Kick returns looked good, although with Chris Culliver out we only got to see Bryce Sherman as the go to guy.  I thought he did well against USM, but I'd love to see him have a little more room to find holes and burst through.  Kick coverage was also good last night.  It seems like the work Coach Beamer and the players have put in is working, but again, SEC teams will bring a different set of challenges.  A good start is clearly better than a poor one though.

5 - The Gamecocks must "bring it" every night... By scoring 41 points and limiting USM to 13, it seems as if the guys got the message that they can't just walk on the field and win.  The effort was good in spite of a light crowd, especially in the first half.  Coach Spurrier noted that as the game grew late his team may have eased off just a bit, but that's got a lot to do with personnel and the situation.  I still say that this issue is one that could plague the squad if they're not careful, but a positive step forward was taken last night.

... A few other notes ... I was disappointed in the attendance.  I know it was a Thursday and the opponent was one USC had never faced, but I would have thought more fans would've bought last minute tickets.  Guess they're waiting on more wins.  They missed some big debuts though....Speaking of debuts, holy crap is Ace Sanders fast!  I was stunned on that reverse call.  I, and many, many more, want to see that on as regular a basis as possible.  That young man can be a true difference maker in the right circumstance....Finally, a few weeks ago my producer Michael Haney and I had fun with the QB situation.  I asked him, after Garcia, who would take a snap first, Shaw or Gilmore.  He said Shaw.  Kinda fun to see that he was "wrong" on that one!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The response on (and from) Weslye Saunders

If you're reading this chances are excellent that you've already read my post yesterday in which I urged Steve Spurrier to dismiss Weslye Saunders from the Gamecocks football program.  If you haven't, read it and come right back.

Let me say that the response on air, via email and on Twitter yesterday was big, and for the most part it seems people agree with me.  I knew going in that Weslye wouldn't actually be dismissed, but I wanted a way to gauge where Carolina fans were on this topic.  Those who didn't agree with me did feel he should be punished rather harshly for lying - twice - to his coaches about why he was so late for last Saturday's scrimmage, but they didn't want him removed for one main reason: he's a great player that can help win games.

As I've said repeatedly, that's true.  He is a great player.  Which is precisely why I continue to believe he should be dismissed.  He has a "me first" attitude and seems convinced that he should be allowed to operate under different rules solely because of his abilities.  I respectfully disagree.  That type of attitude, or the acceptance of it, is bad for business in my opinion.

Weslye has a Twitter account that he keeps private, but I'm told he put up two posts yesterday.  One thanked "real fans" who "know and support" him, while the other questioned the methods of journalists who call him a "bad guy."  I'd like to address both issues.

First, "real fans" of the University of South Carolina have paid for Weslye's college education.  They've cheered him and his teammates through good times and bad.  They deserve to know that players appreciate the opportunity they're given and that they show that appreciation through consistent effort.  

Basically I'm saying this: Gamecock fans have their players' backs.  They want to know that players have the fans' backs too.  With Weslye, they're not so sure.  That's on him, not the fans.

Secondly, Weslye, as the son of a journalist and a journalism major himself, ought to easily be able to distinguish between a made up, hatchet job "news" story and the real reporting of fact and the subsequent opinions those facts may spawn.  However, when it comes to his own case he is clearly having a difficult time of it.

Travis Haney of the Charleston Post and Courier first uncovered the facts of Weslye's latest incident.  I know who his sources are and they are impeccable.  My opinion, and those who share it, is based solely on those facts and the facts from Weslye's previous, non-NCAA related troubles with his team.  I guarantee that kind of journalism is taught somewhere at Carolina.

In the end this will die down.  I have no idea how long Coach Spurrier will keep Weslye away from the team and if he'll miss any games because of what he did.  Bear in mind that the NCAA may still have plenty to say about Weslye's playing time too.  Regardless, this is a young man who has shown a propensity to put himself ahead of his team.  At some point he needs to realize that.

Not having a team to put himself in front of may be the only way he'll actually learn.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

It's hard to leave if they won't throw you out

By now, anyone who even remotely follows the South Carolina football program knows about the continuing - and quite often maddening - saga that is the career of tight end Weslye Saunders.  A highly touted talent from the Raleigh-Durham area, Saunders came to Columbia to make headlines on the field, get an education and prepare himself for an opportunity in the National Football League.

Saunders has made headlines, but most of them are due to incidents away from the field;  trips to exotic locales that may have been paid for by an agent that led to the NCAA investigating Saunders, living arrangements at a Columbia hotel that also raised NCAA eyebrows and now, lying to his coaching staff about why he was late for a scrimmage (although it's officially being described as the stock "violation of team rules," the reason will likely hack you off).

I understand as well as anyone that just making headlines doesn't in any way mean that someone is guilty of all the incidents that are talked about in the subsequent articles, but after a while, those headlines become a distraction that permeates the entire program.  Perception becomes reality.  Daily questions asked of coaches and players.  Daily conversation on talk shows.  Daily discussion on the web.  It gets old and causes everyone involved to be more tense.  When one guy is the source of the distraction it's even worse.

With Weslye Saunders, the line has finally been crossed.  It is, in my opinion, time for him to go.  Now.

I can hear tens of thousands of Gamecock fans screaming "Whoa, Philips, back up a bit."  They know as I do that Saunders IS a bona fide NFL prospect.  He has size, speed, hands, smarts and he plays in the SEC.  Those things make NFL scouts drool and help teams win games.  If only that were enough in life.

Sadly, during most of his time in Columbia, Weslye Saunders has put his focus too squarely on one thing above all others: Weslye Saunders.  I've spoken to a number of people in and around the program about this and the consensus on Saunders is that he's a great talent and makes sure everyone around him knows it.  From all I've gathered he truly feels that his team and his university need him far more than he needs them. That's not true, and it's not good.

At the beginning of training camp in August, head coach Steve Spurrier seemed genuinely enthused about Saunders' prospects for his senior year.  He was in the best shape of his career Spurrier told us, slimmed down and bulked up at the same time.  Even back in the spring Saunders himself said on his Twitter account that 2010 was going to be a big season and that people would be very happy with the results.  It's now a week from kickoff and we're not even sure Saunders will be eligible to step on the field.  Anybody that's a Gamecock fan happy about that?

Of the four tight ends on the Carolina squad there is no doubt that Saunders is the best.  Not all that long ago in Columbia talent would trump attitude simply because the football team didn't have enough good players on it.  Based on Spurrier's attitude this offseason that's no longer the case.  Carolina may not be Florida, Alabama or LSU, but the days of good starters and little else are gone.  Quality depth abounds at many positions, and while tight end may not be as deep as say, the receiving corps, it's deep enough that losing the top guy and replacing him with players who have better character, effort and attitude will be an addition by subtraction.

I'd love to see the Gamecocks finally get to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game.  I've often said that feat alone is the next true step for the program to take to prove it can play in this league.  That said, I'm tired of seeing players come through the program that use it for their own needs, play hard when they feel like it and move on with a wake of apathy trailing behind them.

Weslye  Saunders is the latest to fit that description.  His most recent transgression only reinforces that. Regardless of his ability or potential impact on the field, it's time for Steve Spurrier to send a message: we don't want those guys anymore.  Pull that bandage off now.  It won't hurt very long, and Carolina Football will be better off in the end.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Could the Gamecocks have more than 1 title? Maybe...

I caught some of the Steve Spurrier "In My Own Words" special that aired on SportSouth recently.  It was good.  Like my friend Travis Haney, I too wondered how they got Spurrier to sit still for that long, but whatever they did, well done.  That's not the point of today's post, however.

During the show Spurrier, as he discussed wanting to win the SEC at USC, brought up the fact that South Carolina has only one conference football championship.  That's true of course, but it dawned on me that it is also a bit misleading.

South Carolina, as is well documented, left the ACC after the 1970 - '71 school year.  Until it began play in the SEC in 1992, the Gamecocks football program was a 1A independent.  With Paul Dietzel's 1966 arrival, South Carolina finally began to take football more seriously.  They won the 1969 ACC title and began, in a relative sense, a good run of success.  Jim Carlen and Joe Morrison both had three bowl trips, and Carlen is responsible for both his teams' successes AND leaving behind a great group of talent for Morrison to build on.  (Richard Bell's one year doesn't factor in the discussion!)

During the 21 seasons the Gamecocks went without being in a conference, they played 93 games against ACC members, going 49-42-2.  For the sake of the discussion, and to get an even larger sampling, I'll throw Florida State in the mix and include the eight games Carolina and Georgia Tech played before the Jackets joined the ACC, which brings what I call a "potential ACC" record of 57-55-2.  (Note - SC and GT played from '71-'78, then stopped when GT joined the ACC.  The series resumed for four years from '88 - '91.)

In those 21 seasons, the Gamecocks posted eight winning records versus either actual or potential ACC opponents.  There was one season at .500, and the other twelve were obviously losing records.  The lists below include Carolina's record versus each school during that span, as well as the records of the eight winning seasons, plus the record of that year's actual ACC champion.  Here you go:

Records vs ACC teams from 1971 - 1991

Duke 10-5-1
Maryland 1-0
NC State 9-12 (only ACC school besides CU to play vs SC each year)
North Carolina 5-5
Virginia 5-2
Wake Forest 12-1
Clemson 5-15-1
Georgia Tech 2-2

"Potential" ACC teams (both were 1A independents)
Georgia Tech 5-3
Florida State 3-10

USC winning record seasons (w/ actual (A) record vs ACC, "potential" (P) w GT, FSU incl, plus ACC Champ)

1971 4-2 A, 5-3 P ... UNC 6-0
1973 2-1 A, 4-1 P ... NCSU 6-0
1975 4-1 A, 5-1 P ... Maryland 5-0
1976 3-2 A, 4-2 P ... UNC 5-0-1
1979 4-1 A, 4-2 P ... NCSU 5-1
1981 5-1 A ... Clemson 6-0
1984 3-0 A, 4-0 P ... Maryland 5-0
1987 4-0 A ... Clemson 6-1
(No games vs "potential" teams in '81 or '87)

While I'm certainly not here to tell you that South Carolina would definitely have captured the conference title in any of those years, (after all, they never actually played a full schedule) it is certainly realistic to think that in many of those eight seasons the Gamecocks would have been a real challenger, especially in 1973, '75, '79, '81, '84 and ''87.

Please understand this too: I am in NO WAY making this point to say South Carolina should be a member of the ACC.  In fact, there have been several times when I've had heated discussions with folks who believe that should be the case.  The SEC membership Carolina now enjoys is still the best thing that's ever happened to the school from an athletic perspective, and I'll do all I can to keep it that way.  That said, given the positive differences Dietzel made and the methods of Carlen and Morrison after him, my gut tells me that had Carolina remained an ACC member, they'd have won another title or two...or more.

Of course, if USC hadn't left the ACC in the first place, they wouldn't be in the SEC now, so it all worked out.  However, it's always fun to play "What If?".  So next time you hear someone say they only have one title, remember that for 21 years of relatively good football, the Gamecocks never had a chance to win one.  Something to think about, but it's not worth regretting.  If they can ever pull off an SEC title, a lot of people will forget Carolina was in the ACC at all.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Like sands through the hourglass...

Before I really get in to what I want to discuss, let me admit something: I used to be hooked on 'Days of Our Lives.'  My grandmother watched it when I was a kid, and by the time I was in high school I kept up as often as I could, especially during the summer.

Hope, Jennifer, Roman and Bo - not to mention the evil Stefano - were all part of the fun.  The show's still going strong even though I no longer pay attention, but that's OK because I've become enthralled with a newer and more intriguing soap opera right here in Columbia.  I'm calling it 'As the Offense Spins.'

The lead player in my drama is, of course, Steve Spurrier.  Part hero, part villain, Spurrier is the central figure around which everything else on his team revolves.  Stephen Garcia plays the role of the long suffering, always misunderstood bad boy.  He wants to be loved, but on his own terms.  Societal conventions don't fit him, even though he secretly wishes they did.

Connor Shaw is the new kid in town.  He's confident without being cocky, he's polished but unproven and does everything he should to be in his coach's good graces.  There's a storm brewing though, and the townsfolk (OK, the fans) aren't yet sold on his ability to weather it.

There are other storylines coursing through 'ATOS' too, like whether or not big time tight end prospect Weslye Saunders will actually be allowed to remain with his team.  He may surround himself with the wrong element from time to time.  The ladies may like that, but how will Spurrier react if the news isn't good.

Speaking of guys who catch passes, Spurrier has several wide receivers in the fold, but there are only so many guys who can legitimately play.  One of them almost transferred last week.  What happens when the depth chart is finally decided on?  Will we see harmony, or will bad blood and jealousy disrupt this team's run toward a conference title?

Running back also provides high drama stories.  From bruising senior Brian Maddox to heralded freshman Marcus Lattimore, the corps has more weapons than it's had in years.  Kenny Miles is a solid player and Jarvis Giles has the potential to be the SEC's next Dexter McCluster.  Only one can hold the ball at any given time though.  Who emerges as the real go to threat?

Lastly, the offensive line is in a tough spot in their development.  For years they've been put upon, struggling to break out of a funk that's made them the punching bag of the entire Gamecock nation.  Yet another coach is leading them this season, and early indications are that their struggles could continue for a while.  Only time will tell if they are ready to move out of the cellar of the SEC's OL units.

In the end, however, what people from Columbia to Fayetteville and Lexington to Gainesville will tune in to watch is the drama produced at quarterback.  In his day Spurrier was the nation's best QB, a hot shot Heisman winner who dated then married a cheerleader, spent a decade in the NFL and has become a coach credited with changing how football is played in the SEC and beyond.  High standards to be sure.

Will he finally have someone at South Carolina capable of living up to those standards?  Will he drive the veteran so hard that he throws his hands up in submission or will Garcia light up the scoreboard?  Will the rookie say and do everything right in practice sessions AND produce when he finally gets on the field, or will Shaw let the pressure rattle him and throw the team in a downward spiral?

Stay tuned, because based on how Spurrier currently feels, the writers of this show are going to be very busy the next few weeks.  No matter what though, millions will be watching.  We're hooked, and none of us wants to miss the next exciting episode of 'As the Offense Spins.'

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What if we all played for Bobby Cox?

I've been reading a lot this morning on yesterday's Braves/Cubs trade that sent Derrek Lee to Atlanta, and, while it's not surprising, I'm struck by how much Bobby Cox directly figures into the deal.

Much has been made of the fact that the Braves' skipper is in his final season of a Hall of Fame career, especially when he visits cities for the last time and gets cool gifts (the cowboy hat from the Astros being my personal favorite).  We've also heard how much players enjoy having him as their manager.  A lot of guys are considered "players managers," but often it's a cliche to reference a guy who lets his charges pretty much do what they want.  Not so with Cox.  He runs a tight ship.  It's his way or you're out - just ask Kenny Lofton and Yunel Escobar.

In my eight-plus years as a talk show host, and in the years prior when I was just a really big Braves fan, I've been perhaps the biggest Cox supporter I know.  Callers routinely blame Cox for the Braves' World Series failures.  In more recent seasons many fans have blamed him directly for the team's failure to make the playoffs, completely ignoring the massive failures of Time-Warner's ownership and the subsequent indifference Liberty Media has shown since they acquired the team.  Yet Terry McGuirk, Frank Wren and Cox have plugged along, corporate shackles and all.  The minor league system continues to produce fantastic talent, and free agent acqusitions like Tim Hudson and Billy Wagner have solidified key spots on the club.

As I read Ken Rosenthal's piece today on the Lee trade, I was so happy to learn just how much Cox's reputation and influence factored into not only Lee's choice to waive his no trade clause, but in the desire of Troy Glaus to VOLUNTEER to go on the DL, head to AAA Gwinnet and get some time in at third base, bad knees and all.

Guys on other clubs want to be in Atlanta, while the guys already in Atlanta look at Bobby like their dad and want to do all they can for him.  They feel that way because they know he'll always have their back, no matter what.  That's very special, and very rare, especially in today's world.

A lot of us are fortunate to work for good people.  A lot of us aren't.  We don't always achieve the goals we strive for or are capable of, but just imagine how much better off we would be if we all went to work for someone like Bobby Cox every day.

Here's hoping the Braves close out his career with the ultimate prize, but if they don't, they can rest easy knowing they went to work for a guy who genuinely strives to make everyone around him a little better every day.  That's pretty cool.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

First Day of School Eve

So my first post actually has very little sports in it, but that's because at the Philips house, my wife and I are celebrating.  Tomorrow is, for three of our four girls, the First Day of School.  The capitalization is no mistake - we treat it as a full-fledged holiday.  While we love our children deeply, they've been home for a while now, and, since they love school anyway (which they did NOT get from me), the time to send them back is at long last here.  A sixth grader, a third grader and yes, a kindergartener, all get going tomorrow.  It's not Christmas, but you get it.

The fun of First Day of School Eve actually began just after dinner during a really big thunderstorm that rolled over Columbia.  Lightning struck in our yard, close enough to the house that it blew a couple of circuits, but thankfully we didn't lose power.  The strike produced a huge white spark inside the house that pretty much freaked us all out.  With the girls already keyed up about the First Day of School, and with the storm already producing some fireworks, the level hit a big high.  Lots of parental reassurances that the worst had passed soon followed, and luckily the parents were right!

Like Christmas Eve, there is huge anticipation in our house.  The girls went to bed very excited about new grades and old friends.  Hopefully they'll sleep, especially now that the storm has passed and order's been restored.  I just finished watching the Braves beat Washington on Jason Heyward's game-winning single.  My wife is mixing some late night work with a hand of solitaire on her computer.  She's losing by the way.

Our "celebration" isn't going to leave us hungover, but that's OK.  For one thing, the alarm is on for the first time in months.  Most importantly, you realize how far you've come in life when you hit this point in the calendar each year.  The kids don't.  So Happy First  Day of School to everybody.  You've made it through another year of growing up.  That's worth celebrating.