The Villains

Been to a movie this week? Is so, you probably got a healthy dose of villains along with your popcorn. Bad guys (and girls) are run amok on the big screen right now.

Gone Girl, Dracula, Annabelle, The Maze Runner, Left Behind … these movies feature more villains than the last time Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin sat down to lunch together.

Nick Saban probably ranks as the foremost villain in college football these days. He’s won four national titles overall (three at Alabama and one at LSU), yet seems perpetually perturbed and sports a fuse shorter than a fifteen cent firecracker (he blew up last week when complaining about the expectations put on his Crimson Tide). His Bama teams, winners of three out of the past five national championships, are the closest program to a national nemesis since the old glory days of Notre Dame when everybody either loved or hated the Irish.

Former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin might be seen simply as overmatched and petulant by many college football fans, but to the elephant-memory faithful in Knoxville this weekend, he will be about as popular as the Ebola virus. Keep in mind Kiffin is still loathed among Vols for bailing on Big Orange country several years ago. This Saturday he makes his first trip back to Neyland Stadium since jilting the Volunteers. It will not be a pretty homecoming.

Other villains anger other fan bases. Down in Florida, if head coach Will Muschamp still has a job by the time you read this, Gator fans may drain the Swamp. Florida got mashed 42-13 at home by Missouri just one week after the Tigers got shut out 34-0 (at home) by Georgia. Things are ugly in Gainesville and Muschamp is public enemy number 1. It is difficult to see him survive.

Up in the panhandle of the Sunshine State, Florida State continues on a path to a perfect season after escaping with a thrilling 31-27 victory over Notre Dame, but the Seminoles do so with a questionable character at quarterback and a head coach and administration employing enough denials to make Bill Clinton proud. From the outside, it seems head coach Jimbo Fisher and FSU higher ups are doing whatever it takes to keep Jameis Winston eligible until January. Winston would be suspended at many schools (see Georgia and Todd Gurley for example).

Of course if you think these guys are villains, just wait until the college football playoff selection committee announces the four teams and the major bowl lineup in early December. The first rankings from the committee come out October 28, and the gnashing of teeth shall commence.

Enjoy your villains this week on the big screen or the gridiron … I’ll take my popcorn buttered, salted, and served with an icy cold coke.

Around the Nation

It is a relatively tame week. The ACC offers a nice Thursday night game between Miami and Virginia Tech. The SEC has several solid pairings, including the two Mississippi schools attempting to keep their unbeaten seasons intact. Ole Miss travels to LSU in a huge test, while State plays at Kentucky.

In Big Ten country, Michigan State is very much in the playoff picture and the Spartans welcome in-state rival Michigan to East Lansing. Ohio State plays at Penn State in a prime time game.

Heading west, BYU and Boise on the blue field is good Friday night viewing.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 9; Oct 21-25 2014)

Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

“Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Casey Stengel, “The Old Perfessor” himself, supposedly asked that question of his anemic 1962 New York Mets. Stengel managed that team to 120 losses, a mark of futility unmatched in major league baseball annals dating back to the 1890s. With the baseball playoffs in full swing, that comparison seems apt with the 2014 college football season.

Simply put, it seems there are no clear championship caliber college football teams in 2014.

In last week’s issue we gave out midterm grades and listed Auburn and Baylor as the nation’s best at the halfway point of the season. Then Auburn goes to Starkville, falls behind 21-0 to a fired up Mississippi State team, and never seriously threatens the Bullies before losing 38-23. In Waco, Baylor trailed nearly the entire game against TCU, but the Bears staged a terrific comeback from down 58-37 by scoring 24 unanswered points to win 61-58 (in regulation!). But, allowing 58 points at home? That is not championship material.

So, if our top two teams from last week showed blemishes, who now leads the championship chase?

The state of Mississippi does.

With the big victory over Auburn, Mississippi State moves to the top of the heap. The Bulldogs have tough road games with Kentucky, Alabama, and Ole Miss, but offensively and defensively they are impressive. Are they a championship squad? Time will tell, but QB Dak Prescott certainly is a force.

Ole Miss makes it a Magnolia State sweep of the top spots this week. The Rebels whipped Alabama, then went on the road and handled Texas A&M. However, with trips yet to come at LSU and Arkansas, and home games with Tennessee, Auburn, and State still on the docket, it is unlikely the Rebs can run the table.

Even with the success of the Mississippi schools, Florida State still holds the top spot in most college football playoff projections. Some of that loftiness is a remnant of the 2013 title, some is hype associated with the reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston, and some is based on the soft schedule of the ACC . Still, the Noles must be considered a favorite to reach the football four, but they have not played like a champion (yet).

Nor has Notre Dame. The Irish escaped a home trap game with North Carolina by outscoring the Tar Heels 50-43. That win pushes ND to 6-0 on the season and sets up a big game with FSU in Tallahassee this weekend. The winning team controls its destiny in the playoff pursuit.

At this point, no team seems to be an overwhelming choice as champion.

Around the Nation

The marquee game of the week is Florida State hosting Notre Dame. The game evokes echoes of the old bloodbaths of the early 1990s, and should play a huge role in determining whether either squad makes it to the playoff. The Irish are the top-ranked team left on FSU’s schedule and possibly the last major hurdle to a Seminoles’ unbeaten regular season. Tennessee at Ole Miss, Texas A&M at Alabama, Georgia at Arkansas, and Missouri at Florida lead the SEC slate. The Pac-12 offers up Washington at Oregon and Stanford at Arizona State. OK State plays at TCU, and the loser is likely eliminated from the Big 12 race.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 8; Oct 16-18 2014)

Midterm Grades

The month of October brings to mind special memories on the college campus. Chilly mornings snap students awake for early morning classes. Leaves change colors, tumble from the trees, and rustle across the quad. Homecoming festivities welcome alums back to the alma mater for the big game.

Oh yeah, students get midterm grades.

Well, not all memories read like a Hallmark card.

What a memorable college football week we just experienced. Top-ranked teams fell like those autumn leaves following a storm. Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Stanford, LSU, BYU … those are among the top teams that lost last week. Luckily for those teams, the new college football playoff allows for makeup work. So, a squad that lost for the first time is not out of the championship chase.

In the spirit of midterms, let’s assign a few marks for the season. Does your team make the grade?

Summa Cum Laude – Auburn and Baylor are the teams with highest honors at mid-semester. The Tigers probably should have won the national championship last season, and they have arguably been at the top of the class in 2014.

Dean’s List – Florida State, Notre Dame, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, TCU, and UCLA. Those teams are listed alphabetically, but whether any of them are playoff worthy will not be determined until after fall break.

Solid Bs – Alabama, Arizona, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Oregon. Do not be surprised if one, or even a couple, of teams from this group buckles down and makes the playoff at season’s end.

Gentlemen’s Cs – Georgia, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and USC. These teams can go either way during the second half; they either push through some setbacks and earn good grades and a New Year’s Day bowl, or do just enough to get by and coast till Christmas.

Failing – Michigan and Texas … although different vibes surround each program. Brady Hoke seems to have lost the program in Ann Arbor, while Charlie Strong is grabbing control of the Longhorns in Austin.

Playoff Projections – Since we are midway through the 2014 campaign, we can start projecting the teams most likely to make the four-team college football playoff. Those teams are Auburn, Florida State, the winner of Baylor-Oklahoma, and the winner of the Pac-12 (or a second SEC team). Keep in mind this projection is just one man’s opinion on the most likely scenarios to play out over the last half of the season and the conference championship games. They are not based solely on current records or rankings.

Around the Nation

While it will be difficult to duplicate last week’s zaniness, several outstanding matchups are on the docket. The SEC schedule is simply brutal for the West Division teams as virtually every game is a must win at this point. Starkville hosts a second straight huge game between unbeaten teams when Mississippi State welcomes Auburn. Alabama tries to recover at Arkansas. The Rebels of Ole Miss travel to Texas A&M hoping to return to earth after the terrific win over Alabama. Georgia goes to Missouri in a key SEC East game, while Florida hosts reeling LSU.

The Red River rivalry lost a little luster when Oklahoma fell to TCU, but anytime OU and Texas meet it is always fun. The Big 12 also offers up TCU at Baylor. Out West, the Pac-12 features Oregon at UCLA in what is now a playoff elimination game for the Ducks. USC travels to unbeaten Arizona.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 7; Oct 9-11 2014)

Go West Young Man

When the phrase “go west young man” was popularized in the 1850s it symbolized the American quest to conquer the continent. This belief in a manifest destiny – that the young nation was destined to settle lands from sea to shining sea – became a rallying cry of sorts for pioneers plodding through prairies, across plains, and over mountains. Within three decades, the wild, wild, west was all but tamed.

This college football season is a long way from being settled, but fans looking toward the first college football playoff in just a few months might do well to follow the same directive as those pioneers of yore. Go west, whether within a conference or on an actual map, to find the main contenders for the four playoff spots.

Let’s take a look at the college football playoff landscape. The Eastern Seaboard, particularly the northeast where the sport originated, is not even in the national conversation. From Maine to Miami, no contenders appear likely to emerge from the first coast.

In the ACC, the Florida State Seminoles (from the panhandle in western Florida by the way) appear a legitimate threat to reach the playoffs and earn a chance to defend their national title. But, the Noles have not played well. FSU might be able to sustain one loss and slip into the playoffs, but with a relatively weak schedule, that scenario is risky.

Moving to the SEC, the westward theme stays intact. The West Division plays each other this week, and the biggest threat to the conference landing a team in the playoffs is the very real possibility that these teams simply devour each other. It is difficult to envision a team getting through this division unscathed. In the SEC East no teams look of championship caliber. Georgia is limited at quarterback and in the secondary, South Carolina is flighty, Florida’s offense is too pedestrian. So, no SEC East team makes the grade.

The Big Ten is much maligned, but should Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, or Wisconsin somehow win out, any might generate some playoff support. The Cornhuskers or the Badgers would have to be the team to keep the westward theme going – so no dice.

As we move toward the left coast, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 have the most direct routes to the championship foursome. Baylor plays at Oklahoma on November 8. Barring an upset along the way, the winner should be playoff bound. The Big 12 has no championship game making its champion’s road to the playoff very direct. On the Pacific coast, UCLA travels to Oregon on October 11th, and the winner has a leg up in the playoff race.

Around the Nation

The best weekend of the first half of the season is upon us. Out west, Arizona plays at Oregon in a great Thursday night pairing, while Arizona State heads to LA to face USC. The bloodletting begins in the SEC West with three terrific games. Alabama visits Ole Miss to see if the Rebels are real contenders. Texas A&M travels to Starkville to play surging Mississippi State. LSU tries to get back into the race on the plains of Auburn. Oklahoma at TCU might be interesting in the Big 12, and Baylor at Texas always packs emotion. In the Big Ten, Nebraska visits Michigan State in a huge conference tilt. Finally, Stanford travels to Notre Dame in a nice intersectional rivalry.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 6; Oct 2-4 2014)

Common Sense

We are a little more than a month away from the initial meeting of the Selection Committee for the first College Football Playoff. The playoff website provides quite a list of criteria to be considered by the committee in its deliberations. That list of criteria should be narrowed to one: use common sense.

Finding examples of common sense in college football right now is a challenge.

Jameis Winston, quarterback of the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles and reigning Heisman Trophy winner, earned himself a suspension last week against division rival Clemson. Winston jumped on a table at the FSU student union and shouted a vulgar phrase currently making the rounds as a popular internet meme. His silly act probably would not have resulted in quite so significant a punishment had Winston not already compiled a pretty long list of transgressions that range from college pranks to petty crime to an alleged potential felony.

The stupidity and knuckle-headedness is certainly not limited to players.

A big-time athletic director and member of the selection committee (Pat Haden of USC) charged down on the field to confront officials during a recent game. Another athletic director from a power conference (Julie Hermann of Rutgers and the Big Ten) committed her latest embarrassing gaffe by making a tasteless joke about the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.

With common sense in such short supply, here are three quick tips for the selection committee.

Early season games count as much as those near the end of the year. Should a loss in a conference championship game hurt a team more than a September loss? No. However, historically teams are better off by failing to reach a conference championship game than reaching it and losing.

Discipline issues should hurt teams. So a star player gets suspended for one game, and his team loses that game but wins out. That loss should count just as much as any other.

Choose the four best teams – period. We might see two squads from the same conference in the playoff this season because no schools from the Big Ten and AAC seem likely to land a spot. So, expect the champs of the Big 12, PAC-12, and SEC to be there, leaving one opening. Notre Dame could potentially slide into the last slot, but it’s more likely a second team from one of the power conferences will be there this year.

Around the Nation

While summer ends, the college football season really heats up this week.

Thursday night provides fans two nice games as Texas Tech plays at Oklahoma State, and UCLA travels to Tempe to take on Arizona State. That Bruin-Sun Devil matchup will go a long way in determining the PAC-12 South champ.

The top weekend games include what could be an offensive shootout when Arkansas plays Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. That game commences the SEC West race, where so many national contenders will try to avoid killing each other’s playoff chances. The SEC East offers up Tennessee tangling with Georgia between the hedges in Athens, and Missouri traveling to South Carolina.

Out in the PAC-12, Stanford plays at Washington in the first big test for new Husky head coach Chris Petersen. Mike Riley takes his always tough Oregon State squad to LA for a game with USC. Ohio State hosts in-state rival Cincinnati in what might be an interesting game. Unbeaten Notre Dame meets Syracuse at Met Life Stadium in a primetime ABC game.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 5; Sept 25-27 2014)

Don’t Miss It – Be There!

Have you attended a college football game lately?

Notice the question is not whether you have “watched” a college football game lately, but whether you have been to one. If you get the chance to go to a game, don’t miss it … be there!

On Atlanta television stations back in the 1960s and 1970s, that “don’t miss it” line was the signature phrase of an announcer and sportscaster named Freddie Miller. He used it to promote live sporting events, primarily wrestling house shows, but his call for attendance certainly holds true for football games today.

The attractions of watching a game from home are many. You eliminate the hassles of travel, parking, and crowds for the convenience of time, leisure, and comfort. You avoid ballpark prices for concessions and lines for easy and free access to your fridge and your restroom facilities. You trade the confines of small seats, loud noise, and limited Wi-Fi coverage at one game for a remote with fresh batteries, a lineup of games from daylight to dark, and the ability to text, tweet, and talk on the phone as you watch your big screen, high definition television.

Still, you miss something by not going to games.

The smell of burgers grilling wafts across campus as you meander past tailgate parties on the way to the stadium. The sights and sounds of pretty co-eds and flask-toting frat boys provide entertainment that the camera never catches at home. The roar of a riled up crowd when the good guys rally, or the muffled tension as the home team falters, provide emotion that is not duplicated from your living room. The communal revelry at a local tavern after a big victory trumps the solitude of sitting home and celebrating alone.

So, if you get a chance to attend a college football game … don’t miss it. Be there!

Around the Nation

The season is at the end of the first quarter as we drive toward the first college football playoff. Here is a quick analysis of the leading contenders for the four playoff spots.

Florida State … the Seminoles have looked only decent so far, but it is tough to see them losing more than once (which should get them in unless you believe four teams will go unbeaten).

Oklahoma-Baylor Winner … these two teams can light up the scoreboard and in today’s offense driven game that might be enough to get the winner to the playoff. The teams meet on November 8th.

Oregon … the Ducks look unstoppable on offense right now, but must solve their Stanford dilemma.
Alabama-Auburn Winner … the SEC West is brutal, but it is not unreasonable to see these two squads come into the Iron Bowl with no more than one loss each. If that is the case, a playoff spot might be on the line (pending a win in the SEC title game obviously).

This week’s big games include Auburn at Kansas State (Thursday). Virginia Tech hosts Georgia Tech in a game that often determines the ACC Coastal. Florida visits Alabama in a huge SEC game. Finally, Miami travels to Nebraska. The two had storied post-season games in the 1980s and 1990s, but this is the first regular season meeting of the two schools since 1976.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 4; Sept 18-20 2014)

Conference Cakewalk

Remember the old “cakewalk” contests played at carnivals and fairs and school festivals?

You pay a dollar or two to enter. Music starts playing, everybody walks around these numbered placards placed on the ground, and when the music stops one lucky number wins a cake or some other prize. Win or lose it is a fun game.

The conference realignments of the past couple of years remind me a bit of those old cakewalks, only with winners landing in lucrative conferences that pay out millions to members, and losers feeling left out when the music stops. The conference cakewalks have not been fun for everyone.

We are still a week away from full conference play in college football, but one matchup caught my eye this week and brought to mind the winners and losers of the conference cakewalk: West Virginia at Maryland at 12:00 ET on the Big Ten Network. In my mind, those two schools epitomize some of the silliness and surprise of conference realignment these past few years.

West Virginia was a solid member of the Big East, a decent football league and an excellent basketball conference. On the gridiron, the Mountaineers annually played traditional geographical foes like Pitt and Cincinnati, they faced opponents with historical significance such as Syracuse, and had developed a recently formed league rivalry with Louisville. The program perhaps did not rate top five or even top ten status, but the Mountaineers played solid big-time football and boasted a strong fan following.

So, when the conference cakewalk music stopped, West Virginia ended up in … the Big 12? Uh oh.

This season Mountaineer faithful might traverse the Lone Star state with trips to play Texas Tech in Lubbock and Texas in Austin. They can sojourn to Stillwater, Oklahoma the week of Halloween to watch the OK State Cowboys, and then finish up the season out in Ames, Iowa, for the Iowa State game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Bundle up for that one. Oh, and have your 401K ready to cash in just to pay for the privilege.

The Big 12 is a fine football conference, and landing there was a pretty nice consolation for West Virginia; but there are no natural rivals to play and the travel is daunting from Morgantown to all those schools in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. It is just not a good fit. Maryland in the Midwest-based Big Ten does not make much more sense.

But, Maryland was still luckier than the Mountaineers.

The Terps were a founding member of the ACC way back in 1953, but bolted for the big money of the Big Ten in 2014. Goodbye tradition, so long rivalries, see you later school heritage. Hello BTN (that’s Big Ten Network … and that is what the move was all about). The Big Ten schools will pull in around $31 million each this year, but Maryland will have to wait six years to get its full membership share. By that time, the league expects to be paying out more than $45 million annually to members.

Maryland gets a lot of money and stability from joining the Big Ten … but what does the Big Ten get from accepting the Terps into the fold? Not much other than the television sets along the Eastern seaboard and in the Washington, DC, market (that’s why Rutgers – and the NYC market – got the Big Ten call too). These conference television deals are all about getting the subscription fees from the conference footprint. The bigger and more populous the geographical footprint, the bigger the financial windfall (even if no right-thinking football fan in New York City or Washington, DC, watches Maryland play Rutgers on the same day of the Iron Bowl).

The Big Ten may not beat the other power conferences much on the football field these days, but the league is still the conference cakewalk champ.

Around the Nation

There are several intriguing intersectional games this week. Jim Mora has UCLA back in national contention as he takes the Bruins to the hill country of Austin to play Texas. First-year Longhorns coach Charlie Strong has been suspending people faster than you can keep count in establishing a tone of toughness and discipline. Another Big 12 teams hosts an out-of-conference opponent when Oklahoma welcomes Tennessee to Norman. The Volunteers are speedy but very young, while the Sooners are a popular pick to make the college football playoff. Arkansas plays at Texas Tech in another SEC-Big 12 pairing that might be worth a peek. The biggest conference game on the docket takes place in the SEC East, where South Carolina hopes to jump back into the division race against Georgia. The Bulldogs are coming off a bye week.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 3; Sept 11-13 2014)

In A Hurry

In a Hurry

“I’m in a hurry to get things done; I rush and rush until life’s no fun”
I’m in a Hurry – Alabama 1992

Nick Saban coaches Alabama – the Crimson Tide not the old country music boys from Fort Payne – but you know he probably hums that tune on his way to the practice field.

A whole bunch of college football teams are hurrying to get things done on offense, and the no-huddle, up-tempo, NASCAR-fast attack is making life no fun for defensive wizards like Saban.  While casual fans might envision hurry up offenses as throwing the ball all over the field, the most successful such teams do like the song says.  They rush and rush (run the football!) until life is no fun for the defense.

The Ducks and the Tigers are poster teams for hurry up offenses.  After each play, they hustle to the line, read the defense, and snap.  Part of the strategy of the up-tempo attack is certainly to snap the ball quickly and often.  Doing so limits to an extent the amount of substitutions a defense can make (Saban, for instance, loves to substitute by situation), and it tires them out because it is difficult to simulate such pace in practice.

However, at its core the hurry up is based on perhaps the most old-fashioned principle in football – run the ball up the gut.  It is simply a numbers game.  The offense spreads the field by sending backs and receivers wide, forcing the defense to commit a certain number of players to “the box” (area near the line of scrimmage) and to the secondary.  If the number of defenders in the box is equal to or less than the number of offensive linemen (guards, tackles, and tight ends), expect a dive option up the middle.  If the box defenders flow toward the running back, the quarterback simply pulls the ball and runs wide.  Using that simple strategy last year, Auburn RB Tre Mason gashed opponents for more than 1800 yards and scored 23 touchdowns, while his QB Nick Marshall sprinted for over 1000 yards and ran for 12 TDs.

By the way, the Tigers beat the team coached by a fellow named Saban.
This week’s top game (see Game of the Week column) features a terrific matchup of hurry-up flash (Oregon) hosting slow-down smash (Michigan State).  Regardless of who wins that game, a lot of college football teams are in a hurry to get things done, and they are making life no fun for defenses.

Around the Nation

Friday night features a Big East … oh, wait a minute … an ACC pairing of Pitt at BC.

In Big Ten country, the Ohio State Buckeyes welcome Beamer’s Boys from Virginia Tech to the Horseshoe along the banks of the Olentangy.

That is worth a look, as is the last Michigan-Notre Dame game for a while.  The Wolverines travel to the Irish.

Out West, Saturday offers up PAC-12 contenders battling in Palo Alto when USC takes on Stanford in the first big test for new Trojan head coach Steve Sarkisian.

The premier tilt in the Southwest features BYU traveling to the Lone Star state to tangle with Texas.

Around the SEC

Conference pickings are mighty slim this week, but how about the debut of Kenny Hill for Texas A&M!  The Aggies shredded highly regarded South Carolina to open the season in the biggest conference game of Week 1.  The only other SEC school to lose on opening weekend was Vanderbilt, and the Commodores looked terrible against Temple in a 37-7 loss.


Florida Atlantic (0-1) at Alabama (1-0, 0-0 SEC)
Series: UA leads, 1-0
11 a.m. CT • SEC Network
Tuscaloosa, Ala. • Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821) Sirius: 93 • XM: 190

Arkansas State (1-0) at Tennessee (1-0, 0-0 SEC)
Series: UT leads, 1-0
Noon ET • SEC Network (Alternate Channel)
Knoxville, Tenn. • Neyland Stadium (102,455) Sirius: 112 • XM: 192

Missouri (1-0, 0-0 SEC) at Toledo (1-0)
Series: MIZ leads, 1-0
11 a.m. CT • ESPN
Toledo, Ohio • Glass Bowl (26,248) Sirius: 138 • XM: 191

UAB (1-0) at Mississippi State (1-0, 0-0 SEC)
Series: MSU leads, 1-0
1 p.m. CT • FSN
Starkville, Miss. • Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field (61,337) Sirius: 146 • XM: 200

Ohio (1-0) at Kentucky (1-0, 0-0 SEC)
Series: UK leads, 3-2
3:30 p.m. ET • ESPNU
Lexington, Ky. • Commonwealth Stadium (62,093) Sirius: 138 • XM: 191

Eastern Michigan (1-0) at Florida (0-0, 0-0 SEC)
Series: UF leads, 1-0
4 p.m. ET • SEC Network
Gainesville, Fla. • Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field (88,548) Sirius: 93 • XM: 190

Nicholls (0-1) at Arkansas (0-1, 0-1 SEC)
Series: First Meeting
3 p.m. CT • SEC Network (Alternate Channel)
Fayetteville, Ark. • Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium (72,000) Sirius: 137 • XM: 192

Ole Miss (1-0, 0-0 SEC) vs. Vanderbilt (0-1, 0-0 SEC)
Series: UM leads, 48-38-2
3:30 p.m. CT • ESPN Last Meeting: UM, 39-35 (2013 at Nashville)
Nashville, Tenn. • LP Field (69,143) Sirius: 134 • XM: 201

San Jose State (1-0) at Auburn
(1-0, 1-0 SEC) Series: First Meeting
6 p.m. CT • ESPN2
Auburn, Ala. • Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) Sirius: 138 • XM: 191

East Carolina (1-0) at South Carolina (0-1, 0-1 SEC)
Series: SC leads, 12-5
7 p.m. ET • ESPNU
Columbia, S.C. • Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250) Sirius: 119 • XM: 203

Sam Houston State (1-0) at LSU (1-0, 0-0 SEC)
Series: First Meeting
6:30 p.m. CT • SEC Network
Baton Rouge, La. • Tiger Stadium (102,321) Sirius: 93 • XM: 190

Lamar (1-0) at Texas A&M (1-0, 1-0 SEC)
Series: First Meeting
6:30 p.m. CT • SEC Network (Alternate Channel)
College Station, Texas • Kyle Field (106,000) Sirius: 137 • XM: 192

OPEN: Georgia (1-0, 0-0 SEC

See the full conference release at …

NOTE: Portions of this column were first published in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 2; September 4-6 2014), a subscriber college football publication for which I will be writing a weekly feature this season.  If you are interested in The Blitz please contact

Everybody’s Leaving Town

There’s not a soul I know around
Everybody’s leaving town …
Good Time Charley’s Got the Blues
Danny O’Keefe 1971

Last Sunday was the most enjoyable day for this Atlanta Braves fan in quite a while.

Today gave me the blues.

Last Sunday, righty Greg Maddux, lefty Tom Glavine, and the skipper Bobby Cox headlined the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2014.  In the idyllic (if mythical) birthplace of baseball at Cooperstown, the trio made witty speeches, basked in the tributes of former teammates and coaches, and became the first Braves from the glory days squads of the 1990s to earn plaques at the Hall.

Today, Pete Van Wieren died.  “The Professor” formed one-third of an equally famous Braves triumvirate during his more than 30 years as an announcer with the franchise.  Joining colleagues Skip Caray and Ernie Johnson in 1976, those voices of the Braves … the avuncular, easy-going Ernie, the acerbic, funny, and sarcastic Skip, and the studious Van Wieren played a huge role in making the Braves “America’s Team” with their broadcasts of games on Ted Turner’s satellite superstation (known first as WTCG … now as TBS).

Both events – the passing of the professor and the Hall induction ceremony – evoke memories of vastly different eras in Braves baseball history.

Pete Van Wieren joined the Braves announcing team before the 1976 season.  For the decade prior (since the team arrived in Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966), the Braves had hovered as a decent franchise.  They were not great certainly, but not terrible either.

Between 1966 and 1975 the team was a mere 20 games under .500 (795-815), averaging out to a seasonal record of 80-82.  The Braves won a West division title in 1969.  That was the first year the majors split the leagues into two divisions … and yes Atlanta was in the West.  The ’69 team lost the league championship to the Miracle Mets, eventual World Series winners.

Pete joined Skip and Ernie (all true Braves fans felt we were on a first-name basis with them) in 1976.  For the next 15 seasons we all got to watch a whole lot of bad baseball.  From 1976 to 1990, the Braves won 1043 games and lost 1322, a whopping 279 games below .500.  A typical season record was around 70-92.  Yikes.  The Braves did slip in a division championship in 1982, but fell to another team of soon-to-be World Series champions – the St. Louis Cardinals.

Baseball fans of a certain age probably knew the three Braves announcers better than most players from those 1976-1990 teams.  In 1977, Turner began beaming Braves games across the nation (and really the globe I suppose) and fans from that pre-ESPN era got their baseball fix by watching the Braves.  The only real competitor to their national popularity would have been the Cubs on WGN, but all those day games at Wrigley did not allow the working masses to tune in.  So, the Braves were the team everybody got to see … no matter how bad they were.

Finally in the 1990s, things turned for the franchise and the new Hall of Fame gang helped lead the change.

Bobby Cox was the first of the newly enshrined trio to make a mark with the Braves.

Having managed the team from 1978-1981 (at his firing, Ted Turner famously remarked something to the effect that if he hadn’t just fired Cox, he’d be the kind of guy Turner would be looking to hire), Cox returned as General Manager in 1985 and helped build a farm system (along with the estimable Paul Snyder) that would supply the talent for a record-breaking run of success from 1991-2004.

Cox fired Russ Nixon and moved back to the dugout in June of 1990, just in time to see the maturation of a young left-handed pitcher named Tom Glavine.  In the big leagues since 1987, but sporting a career record of only 33-41 at that time, Glavine won 20 games and the Cy Young Award in 1991.  He was the ace of a staff that helped the Braves jump from the worst team in the league in 1990 to National League champions in 1991.  The team lost a heart-breaking World Series in seven games to the Minnesota Twins, but the group started a streak of fourteen consecutive division championships (the 1994 season was never completed due to labor strife).  Glavine would go on to win 303 games in his career.

In 1993 the game’s best pitcher joined the franchise.  Greg Maddux cemented the Braves as a legitimate and perennial championship contender.  His signing also solidified Atlanta as a potential destination of choice for big-name free agents.  Maddux would go on to win 355 games in his career, four consecutive Cy Young Awards from 1992-1995, 18 Gold Glove awards, and become the premier control pitcher of his generation.  He, Glavine, and John Smoltz formed the “Big Three” of the Braves pitching rotation, one of the finest starting staffs in the game’s history.  Smoltz and third-baseman Chipper Jones will land in Cooperstown soon enough, giving the Braves of the 1990s and early 2000s five Hall of Famers.

When Glavine won the most important baseball game in Atlanta Braves history, pitching eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 Game Six victory over the fearsome lineup of the Cleveland Indians to clinch the 1995 World Series, the championship marked the seminal event for the Atlanta Braves and fans of the team.

Maddux, Glavine, Cox are gone to the Hall … Skip, Ernie, and Pete are gone but not forgotten.

They provided great memories, but now I feel like everybody’s leaving town.

Life Ain’t Easy

“Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.”
A Boy Named Sue – Johnny Cash 1969

The first thing I noticed was a cluster of women from Susan’s Sunday School class hovering around her on the steps of the church. From the truck where I sat waiting on her, she looked emotional and I could tell she had been crying, but then she had been that way earlier in the morning as we sat in the 9:15 service, and truth be told since her cancer diagnosis last fall … well, for either of us to be emotional or even teary-eyed at church was not so unusual. So, I was uneasy but not alarmed initially. Susan saw me and started to walk over, accompanied by a lady from class. By the time she opened the passenger door, I could tell something more was wrong.

“Stephen’s dead.”


“Stephen’s dead.”

Life sure ain’t easy today.

John Stephen Sams was my wife Susan’s youngest brother, and he died in his sleep overnight on June 29, 2014. He was 36 years old. He leaves behind his wife Corinna, his mother and father Paulette and Melvin, his older siblings Mary, Susan, and Russell, his in-laws, and nine nieces and nephews.

He also leaves a hole in our lives and in our hearts.

Stephen was 10 or 11 years old when Susan and I started dating, and from the get-go he was the little brother I never had growing up (even though I was just old enough to have been his dad too). Driveway basketball games, shooting pool in the basement, getting crushed and humiliated in video games by the little Techmo Bowl wizard that he was, laughing over lines from The Simpsons, or lyrics from a song we found funny (one night when Susan and I lived in Carrollton, Stephen and I doubled over on the floor guffawing trying to recite the words to Johnny Cash’s classic A Boy Named Sue) … there might have been a time I was around Stephen and we didn’t laugh and have fun, but none come to mind easily.

Stephen was the baby of his family, seven years younger than his brother Russell, and the pet of sisters Mary, Susan, and everybody else in the family. Stephen was 20 or so when my son Luke Jackson was born (the first grandchild on Susan’s side of the family), and Stephen once playfully chided me, asking what took us so long because he was glad to get some of the attention off him. He meant it too.

Susan and I were working on academic degrees during most of Stephen’s teenage years. I was a graduate assistant teaching physical activity classes at Georgia and then at Tennessee, and the timing and setting could not have been better for a teenage boy. Stephen spent spring breaks with us on occasion, and visited other times too. He would tag along to my racquetball and bowling classes, and so enjoyed playing and competing with those college kids. After a couple of years, he never seemed to mind when I put him on a court with the prettiest girls in class either. At UT, we lived in a small married housing apartment near campus with an extra bedroom that Stephen bunked in on his visits. Susan worked from 9 to 5 at the university, but my schedule was really wide open because I was writing a dissertation on my own schedule and only teaching a couple of hours a day. Stephen and I would walk to my classes; when we finished he would be so sweaty he looked like he’d just come of out a steam room (from playing racquetball non-stop the whole time), we would go grab lunch with Susan or just the two of us, then he and I would spend the afternoon playing video games back at the apartment. Nearly every time he visited, we rented some game called Metal Marine; it was one of those military affairs where you had to build up your weaponry over time (literally hours and hours). We would spend all our efforts building an ICBM nuclear device … and then immediately detonate it to blow up all our enemies and start over.

As Stephen got older he developed into an elite level golfer. Susan and I graduated and started our professional and home life, so we didnt get to see Stephen as often.

Still, his parents rented a beach house in the panhandle of Florida nearly every summer, and Stephen, Russell, Mr. Sams, and I would often make a golf foursome. Stephen and I would team up against Russell (also an outstanding golfer) and his dad (a very good golfer) in scrambles matches. The matches were fun and they were close and competitive. Stephen could hit the ball farther than anybody I ever played with (by far), so I was getting to hit into Par-4 greens from 50 or 60 yards instead of 160 (and from the fairway instead of the woods). Man, he could hit a golf ball. In high school, he won the Georgia state championship in the state’s largest classification. We had a lot of fun on those golf outings over those precious summers.

Life goes on (too fast) and all our families settled into the routine of seeing each other mostly on holidays, birthdays, and at special occasions – whether happy (weddings) or sad (funerals). No matter the setting, for me time spent with Stephen was always time spent laughing, discussing life, and enjoying his kind-hearted nature.

Now, he is gone and he will be so sorely missed by so many.

Life ain’t easy.


L-R ... Russell, Mary, Susan, Stephen
L-R … Russell, Mary, Susan, Stephen