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!