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.