The Cult Leader

Auburn at Mississippi State
SEC Game of the Week
Sept. 13, 2008
ESPN2 7:00 ET

(Article originally appeared 9.7.08 Gameday Weekly)

“We call him the ‘cult leader’ … we’re going to get him a crown and a robe.” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville on new offensive coordinator and seminar superstar Tony Franklin


He’s kind of like Jack Lalanne except he’s peddling passing schemes instead of physical fitness.

Think of him as the Tony Robbins of high school football coaches, his “system” of self-help seminars promoting record-breaking performances from Hoover to Houston to Hazard, Kentucky.

Now, Tony Franklin has his biggest marketing stage yet as Auburn offensive coordinator.

Can the Guru come through or are Auburn fans swallowing a bunch of snake oil?

There are few stories over the past decade in college football as interesting as that of Tony Franklin.

A long-time high school coach in Kentucky, Franklin was hired by former Wildcat head coach Hal Mumme in 1997 to coach running backs. He served on Mumme’s staff for four years, the final one as offensive coordinator before being swept out as part of a housecleaning over NCAA violations during Mumme’s tenure.

The Wildcats were a wide-open offense during the Mumme years, using a no-huddle spread attack that would later form a foundation for “The Tony Franklin System.”

There is nothing particularly unusual about a staff being fired for cheating, but Franklin did not go quietly.

Seemingly out of anger, he wrote a tell-all book, Fourth Down and Life to Go, chronicling the travails of the Mumme years. Rather than money or fame, the book earned Franklin a blackball. He would not coach again in college for five years.

In the interim, struggling financially, Franklin began pitching the no-huddle spread option attack.

His method?

Seminars and clinics during which he would equip coaching staffs (for a healthy fee) with all the basics to successfully implement a wide-open offense. Like an old-time gospel revivalist, Franklin’s camp meetings grew in popularity, especially among high school coaches in Kentucky, Texas, and Alabama.

The most famous proponent of the “Franklin System” was another pretty fair self-promoter named Rush Propst – the former Hoover (AL) head coach who took the Bucs program to national prominence through offense – the kind Franklin preaches and the kind gained by overexposure on MTV through a series called Two-A-Days.

The high-profile success of those high school programs led Larry Blakeney to hire Franklin as offensive coordinator at Troy in 2006, and the Trojans immediately began to pile up points and yards.

Last season Troy averaged 30 points per game against Arkansas, Florida, and Georgia, while Auburn managed only 16 versus the same three squads.

Hello Guru and welcome to the Plains.

After installing “the system” in nine days (hey it only takes three for high school teams to get it in a seminar), Auburn reeled off 93 offensive snaps in a Chick-fil-A bowl win over Clemson, and the cult of Tony Franklin grew wider and louder.

Results this season have been solid but not overwhelming.

The Tigers struggled with the passing game in a 34-0 opening game win over Louisiana-Monroe, then passed well but could not hold onto the ball in the running game (three fumbles) while beating Southern Miss 27-13.

Keep in mind that if Franklin had given the Auburn offense a flavor these first two games it would have been vanilla.

Expect a bit more taste when the Tigers travel to Starkville this week.

Mississippi State played at Louisiana Tech in week one and got humbled 22-14 thanks primarily to an offense that could have used some self-help. QB Wesley Carroll threw three interceptions in the game, and the State defense wilted under the pressure late.

Last weekend, the Bullies racked up five sacks on defense in a 34-10 win over Southeastern Louisiana, and the offense looked better with Carroll tossing two TDs and the running game grinding out 216 yards.

State beat Auburn on the Plains last season, but it is difficult seeing the Bulldog offense having enough success against a stout (and underappreciated) Tiger defense to win this one.

Maybe they can sign up for a seminar with the Guru if they lose.

Game Ball: Auburn

Around the Nation Week 3

Does ESPN have too much influence?

That question has come up before, and expect it to continue as a hot topic among college football fans … especially those who believe the “worldwide leader in sports” and its analysts hold excess power to shape national rankings (thus bowl matchups worth millions of dollars).

Another potential issue is whether the analysts at ESPN and ABC push an agenda.

Welcome to The Campus Game, a college football site with no agenda other than to provide information on America’s most exciting sport. Please visit each week as articles from the print version of Game Day Weekly (the South’s premier weekly football newspaper) are posted here exclusively.

Back to our topic.

ESPN debuted in 1979, and grew from showing small-time events (roller derby, wrestling, etc) to providing coverage of national juggernauts like the NFL, MLB, and of course, college football.

Controversy has come with the growth.

ESPN, sister network ABC, and the highly successful Saturday morning College Gameday show have catapulted college football analysts and announcers like Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Fowler, and others to near rock-star status, and made glib former coaches like Lee Corso and Dick Vitale (in basketball) wealthy media stars.

That lofty status brings clout, but apparently not always impartiality.

Two years ago, Herbstreit spent much of the latter part of the season promoting Ohio State and Michigan as the nation’s two best football teams. When State beat the Wolverines, the former Buckeye QB consistently called for a rematch between the two for the national title. It took Florida blowing out the Bucks to show the folly of his judgment.

Last year, Herby and veteran ABC announcer Brent Musburger petitioned on the air for USC (instead of LSU or Georgia) to meet Ohio State in the title game immediately following the Trojans win over UCLA. LSU’s trouncing of Ohio State shows the duo had at least one of the teams wrong again.

This season might bring more of the same.

In the season’s first week, ABC analyst Craig James commented disparagingly about the offense of then #1-ranked Georgia, a team he obviously had not seen play that Saturday.

Going strictly by a score, James declared that the Bulldogs offense struggled against Georgia Southern in the season opener.

In that game, the starters led 38-0 before being pulled just after halftime. The Dogs rolled up over 500 yards of offense, and star tailback Knowshon Moreno ran the ball only 8 times scoring three touchdowns. Georgia could easily have put up more than 50 points (as they did yesterday against Central Michigan), but head coach Mark Richt chose not to run up the score.

Had James done even a minimal amount of research into the game, he would have known the Dog offense did not struggle at all.

When polls came out a couple days later, Georgia fell from the preseason #1 ranking to the second spot … behind media darling USC.

At least do your homework guys.

You have influence and are either misusing it or not realizing how significant your statements can be.

This week USC and Ohio State play. The loser will not be out of the title race and calls for a rematch may echo through the halls of the “campus” in Bristol.

Think you will hear anybody at ESPN or ABC calling for a rematch of the Florida-Georgia or Auburn-LSU games? Didn’t think so.

Below is a quick mention of some of the week’s best contests … check back for Professor’s Picks and the SEC Game of the Week on Tuesday and Thursday.

Enjoy the games.

Around the Nation

After two lackluster weekends, the college football season really gets rolling.

Out West, USC welcomes the Buckeyes in a September Rose Bowl. The health of Ohio State tailback Chris Wells will be significant. The winner of the game holds the inside track to the BCS championship game, and the loser (see above) is certainly still in the running.

There are other big games beyond the Rockies. Unheralded and unbeaten Wisconsin plays a tough and undefeated Fresno State team on the road, and UCLA tries to stop the nation’s longest winning streak in a game at BYU.

Elsewhere, the Big East hosts a nice Friday intersectional game when Kansas travels to South Florida. Arkansas goes to play at Texas in a battle of old Southwest Conference foes.

Michigan travels to South Bend for a matchup with Notre Dame, a game pairing the nation’s two winningest programs. Both are off to uneasy starts in 2008.

Around the South

2nd-ranked Georgia typically struggles with South Carolina, so a road game with the Gamecocks is big. The Bulldogs looked awfully strong in crushing Central Michigan … think the Dogs will jump back over idle USC this week? Fat chance.

Mississippi State tries to keep its winning streak against Alabama schools going when the Bulldogs welcome Auburn to the Junction.

In the ACC, Georgia Tech suddenly looks like a contender (if not the favorite), and the Yellow Jackets can keep it going at Virginia Tech.

The Campus Game Team of the Week:
East Carolina Pirates

See you at kickoff!

Around the Nation Week 2

When is it time to throw away a word and stop using it?

Here are two examples … “change” and “upset.”

You have heard the word “change” time and again from the big political conventions these past two weeks. Both parties talk about change so much that I wish they’d change the subject.

In college football, the buzz word is upset … as in Utah “upset” Michigan. But does the term really apply anymore?

Welcome to The Campus Game.

Three features appear here each week. First, my SEC Game of the Week will typically be posted on Tuesdays. The print version of the article appears in Game Day Weekly, the south’s premier weekly college football newspaper (contact info is linked to the right).

On Thursdays, Around the Nation and Professor’s Picks/SEC Report are posted.

Around the Nation is a brief overview of the weekend’s most prominent games, along with other college football national news.

The SEC Report includes information on the conference, plus Professor’s Picks … a quick overview of the week’s games plus a game prediction.

Enjoy!

“Upsets” have become so common in college football the past several seasons that nothing shocks us anymore.

Utah goes into the Big House and outplays Michigan in Rich Rodriquez’s first game as Wolverine coach. Nothing earth-shaking; Appalachian State handled them last year.

East Carolina plays a little Beamer ball of its own and whips Virginia Tech with a blocked punt. No need to get excited, the Pirates are probably a better team than Stanford or Bowling Green, squads that “upset” Oregon State and Pitt over the weekend.

All told, four of the AP’s Top 25 lost … expect more change and upsets in weeks to come (oops there are those words again).

Clemson was the biggest loser of the opening weekend.

Alabama humiliated the ACC preseason favorite in a 34-10 victory at the Georgia Dome that announced the Tide is back in the big time a year ahead of schedule and that Tiger coach Tommy Bowden is firmly on the hot seat.

Who was the biggest winner of week one?

Try Joe Paterno. Penn State’s legendary leader opened his record 43rd season on the Nittany Lions sideline with an easy 66-10 blowout of Coastal Carolina. The win tied him with Tommy’s dad Bobby Bowden of Florida State for most career victories at 373.

Defending champ LSU was also impressive, easily dispatching 3-time defending FCS champion Appy State 41-13 in a game that was moved to the morning due to concerns about Hurricane Gustav.

Around the Nation

Ohio State got a scare when tailback Beanie Wells hurt his foot in the opener against Youngstown. The Buckeyes feast on another cupcake this weekend with Ohio, but they will need Wells the next week against Southern Cal.

Those Trojans looked mighty tough in downing Virginia. USC takes the week off to get ready for Ohio State and a game that could determine one of the BCS title game participants because neither team faces many other strong challenges after that one.

Cincinnati could scare #4 Oklahoma in Norman, and Oregon State could do the same on the road with Penn State. West Virginia travels to play East Carolina and we’ve already seen the Pirates knock off one national contender.

Finally, Jim Harbaugh is quietly building a pretty good program at Stanford. His team travels to the desert to play Arizona State.

See you at kickoff!

Professor’s Picks and Around the SEC Week 2

The West will be wild and there are beasts in the East.

The SEC season kicked off in style from the Grove to the Swamp this past weekend and the conference looks stronger than ever. Scary strong.

In the East, Florida and Georgia (the two highest rated teams in the SEC) started their seasons by dominating lesser opponents. South Carolina struggled offensively, but the Gamecock defense completely stifled NC State in a 34-0 victory. Vanderbilt also won on the road against a viable Miami of Ohio team, and Kentucky continued the traveling theme by dominating Louisville in Derby town.

Tennessee was the only division team to lose, dropping a Labor Day night game to UCLA in overtime at the Rose Bowl.

Out West, the defending national champion LSU Bengal Tigers ignored the distraction of moving their game to the morning hours in response to Hurricane Gustav and overwhelmed Appalachian State.

The Tigers will have plenty of competition this year however.

Ole Miss made Houston Nutt’s debut a success by downing Memphis, and Auburn shut down Louisiana-Monroe. Arkansas snuck by Western Illinois late.

The biggest statement came from Alabama.

The Crimson Tide crushed Clemson 34-10 in the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta. This was a bowl atmosphere contest against a preseason Top Ten opponent, and the Tide came ready to roll. LSU, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Alabama … should be quite a race.

The most disappointing league team was Mississippi State. The Bulldogs were sloppy and inconsistent on offense, and the defense finally wilted in a tough road loss to Louisiana Tech and up-and-coming young coach Derek Dooley.

Finally, the thoughts and prayers of all of us here at Game Day Weekly and The Campus Game go out to all our friends along the Gulf Coast. Be safe.

Here are our weekly conference power rankings … remember these change a lot week-to week so don’t despair if your team is not where it needs to be just yet.

Enjoy!

The Campus Game Weekly Conference Ratings

1. LSU … this was the best SEC team I saw over the weekend.

2. Florida … Gators were sluggish for a couple of possessions, but look mighty fast.

3. Alabama … Saban’s Tide rolled over Clemson and have a nice mix of youth and experience. Watch out.

4. Georgia … Mark Richt’s Dogs cruised over GA Southern, but the loss of DT Jeff Owens hurts.

5. Auburn … For all the talk of a new offense, the key for the Tigers is always a great D.

6. South Carolina … Defense is superior … offense still needs work.

7. Ole Miss … Rebels should probably be higher, but Nutt must still work out some kinks.

8. Tennessee … Vols missed several chances to beat Bruins in Rose Bowl.

9. Kentucky … Boys from the Bluegrass suprised in Derby town.

10. Vanderbilt … Commodores sank decent Miami (Ohio) team on road. SC will be tougher.

11. Mississippi State … Turnovers turn into tough loss at LA Tech.

12. Arkansas … Petrino’s porkers barely escaped with win over W. Illinois. Not pretty.

Professor’s Picks
(Last Week’s Record 8-4)
(2008 Record 8-4)

Ouch – a mediocre start for the old professor as Alabama and Kentucky surprised (in a positive way!), while Big Orange and the Bullies of State faltered.

South Carolina at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET ESPN 9/4)
See SEC Game of the Week column.
Game Ball: South Carolina

Tulane at Alabama (6:30 CT 9/6)
Alabama looked awfully good as the Tide mixed in talented youngsters with experienced veterans. Both lines of scrimmage dominated Clemson. Tulane did not play in week one, and the minds of the Green Wave might understandably be on the hurricane headed toward Louisiana.
Game Ball: Alabama

LA-Monroe at Arkansas (Little Rock) (6:00 CT 9/6)
New head Hog Bobby Petrino got off to a rough start, suspending top returning rusher Michael Smith for the opening game, seeing his team fumble away the opening kickoff, and then trailing Western Illinois deep into the game. LA-Monroe could do little against the stout Auburn D (gaining only 220 total yards), but the Warhawks just might make a game of this one.
Game Ball: Arkansas

Southern Miss at Auburn (11:30 CT Raycom 9/6)
The Golden Eagles ran and passed for 633 yards in a 51-21 win over LA-LAF to kick off the Larry Fedora era. Tailback Damion Fletcher ran for 222 of those yards and two TDs. Auburn played close to the vest, rarely throwing the ball in new OC Tony Franklin’s spread attack, but easily beat LA-Monroe 34-0.
Game Ball: Auburn

Miami at Florida (8:00 ET ESPN 9/6)
The Gators played without two of their best players (LB Brandon Spikes and WR Percy Harvin) but still scored on offense, defense, and special teams to wallop Hawaii 56-10. Florida is the speediest team I saw opening weekend. Miami whipped Charleston Southern 52-7 behind QB Jacory Harris’ two TD passes. Florida should be at full-strength and ready to make a statement in this game.
Game Ball: Florida

Central Michigan at Georgia (3:30 CT FSNS 9/6)
Georgia called off the Dogs early in a season-opening 45-21 win over Georgia Southern. TB Knowshon Moreno carried only 8 times, but made them count with three touchdowns. Central Michigan is the two-time defending MAC champ with a top QB in Dan LeFevour.
Game Ball: Georgia

Norfolk State at Kentucky (6:00 ET 9/6)
Wildcats from the Bluegrass looked surprisingly strong in lambasting Louisville on the road. The Spartans of Norfolk State held Virginia State to 109 total yards in a 47-7 rout for whatever that’s worth. Probably not much.
Game Ball: Kentucky

Troy at LSU (Game postponed until November 15)

Ole Miss at Wake Forest (2:30 CT ABC/ESPN2 9/6)
The Rebels were not perfect in the opener for Houston Nutt but found enough offense to beat rival Memphis. Wake continued to look very sound as QB Riley Skinner passed for 3 TDs in a road win at Baylor. This will be a big test for both squads and could influence bowl destinations down the road. Let’s go with Rebs in mild upset.
Game Ball: Ole Miss

SE Louisiana at Mississippi State (6:00 CT 9/6)
State was the first SEC team to visit Ruston, LA, in a hundred years and it may be another century before a league team goes back. The Bulldogs were ragged with five turnovers in a 22-14 loss to LA Tech as QB Wesley Carroll threw 3 INTs and gave way for much of the game to backup Tyson Lee. Dogs should recover against SE-LA, a 34-28 winner over Alcorn.
Game Ball: Miss State

OPEN: Tennessee

Up for Debate

South Carolina at Vanderbilt
SEC Game of the Week
August 31, 2008

ESPN 7:30 ET

Barack and Biden or Johnny Mac and Pretty Palin?

Obambi and Bulldog or Maverick and Sarah Barracuda?

Well, that choice will have to wait a couple months, but South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has a political decision with his quarterbacks that must be made this week … Banged-Up Beecher or Sweet Smelley?

Spurrier declared the quarterback question “up for debate” following a 34-0 Thursday night victory over North Carolina State.

Normally a five-touchdown win would be cause for celebration rather than concern, but not in this instance and not with this coach. For more than half the game, the play of the SC offense and Spurrier’s hand-picked top QB – red-shirt junior Tommy Beecher – was as ugly as Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. Beecher started for the Gamecocks, took more hits than a bag of nails at a carpenters’ convention, tossed four interceptions, and did not play after the third period because a smack to the head left him woozy.

While Beecher struggled, plenty of blame lies with the poor play of the offensive line. Beecher was sacked five times and “he was a quarterback throwing out of the basement cellar window,” Spurrier said Friday after the game referring to the constant pressure NC State applied.

Enter Chris Smelley, the sophomore reserve.

A sometime starter in 2007 (he went 4-2 in six starts), Smelley came off the bench to lead three 4th-quarter touchdown drives that included TD passes to Dion LeCorn and Jared Cook. He was five for five passing for 92 yards, all coming in the final stanza. That type performance makes a strong opening impression in any debate for future playing time. Smelley gets the start at Vanderbilt.

Although the SC offense struggled much of the game, the outcome of the contest never seemed in serious jeopardy because the Gamecock defense looked ready to handle anybody this side of the Russian army.

Forget about the Georgia Bulldogs in two weeks, send them to Tblisi to deal with a more serious red menace.

New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s crew smothered the Wolfpack, allowing State only 138 total yards, forcing four turnovers, and never letting the Pack get past midfield in the second half. Altogether it was a dominating performance from a lineup that includes all-star candidates like LBs Eric Norwood and Jasper Brinkley, and CB Captain Munnerlyn.

For Vanderbilt, the defense was not nearly so fearsome but at least the Commodores definitely know who their quarterback will be.

Senior QB Chris Nickson ran for 166 yards and two touchdowns, propelling Vandy to a solid 34-13 road victory over Miami of Ohio. The Commodores rang up 269 yards rushing as a team and were never in any trouble after jumping to a 17-3 first quarter lead. The win is more impressive than it might seem at first glance because the Red Hawks played in the championship game of the tough Mid-America Conference (MAC) last season.

While the ground attack was able to put up good numbers, the tailbacks were missing in action. Three Vandy runners (Jared Hawkins, Gaston Miller, and Jeff Jennings) sputtered for only 77 yards on 25 attempts. That trio will have to produce better numbers against SC if the Commodores are to compete.

Vandy was also less than impressive through the air. Nickson passed for just 91 yards on a 9 of 16 night, with one TD throw and no interceptions. He was sacked twice.

Nickson and the Commodores will be fortunate to put up those total offense numbers against the Carolina defense.

With a large and athletic front, super-size linebackers, and an outstanding secondary, the Gamecocks look every bit one of the better defenses in a league full of them. The offense may not be up to the same level, but SC should score enough to beat Vanderbilt before getting ten days to prepare for top-ranked Georgia.

They will need to close the QB debate before that one.

Game Ball: South Carolina