Saturday, July 07, 2007

Cheese Puff Previews #2: South Florida

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This post is the second in a series previewing Auburn football’s 2007 opponents. They are, like their namesake, utterly devoid of genuine substance, of no value nutritional or otherwise, pure air-injected fluff—but hey, who doesn’t feel like a big bag of cheese puffs every now and again? Previous entries in this series can be found here.

Week 2 brings the South Florida Bulls to Jordan-Hare. Perhaps the Bulls’ most impressive accomplishment in six years of playing DI ball is their continued ability to fly relatively under the radar, despite walloping Louisville 45-14 in 2005 and defeating alleged national title contender West Virginia 24-19 in Morgantown last year. Most teams with those kinds of wins on their résumé get a photo shoot for ESPN the Mag’s “Next” issue, chat up Katie Couric Meredith Vieira on the Today Show, have Mark May admitting they give him that “climbing the rope in gym class” feeling … so give credit to head coach Jim Leavitt and his program’s ninja-like ability to sneak into the Legitimate BCS Contenders Club sight unseen. Many Auburn fans probably couldn’t pick USF out of a lineup that included fellow Floridian D-I pups Central Florida, Florida International, and Florida Atlantic, but with talents like Wonder-Soph QB Matt Grothe around, one of the things in that list is very much not like the others. On a scale of 1 to 10, the JCCW’s worry level about this game most definitely goes to 11.*

Last year: After 20-point favorite USF survived Florida International at home 21-20 in Week 2 and fell 13-7 at Kansas in Week 4, a coalition of Tampa-area snails issued a press release condemning the Bulls for “a start even we think is unforgivably slow.” But Grothe came within a dropped two-point conversion of sending their game with Rutgers into OT in Week 5, took his team to wins over UNC and Pitt, and would spearhead the season-culminating victories over WVU and then East Carolina, 24-7, in the Bowl. (You know what? I really wish “ Bowl” was a joke I made up. It wouldn’t be funny, but at least the world wouldn’t be suffering the indignity of having to play host to a “ Bowl.”)

Auburn, meanwhile, suffered a pair of embarrassing blowout losses at home to Arkansas and Georgia but defeated both eventual national champion Florida and Sugar Bowl champion LSU, and finished an impressive 11-2 after a Cotton Bowl win over Nebraska.

Notable previous meeting: Although Auburn and South Florida have never met on the gridiron under the two universities’ current identities, it would be incorrect to say the institutions have no shared history. In 1907, the team from Alabama Polytechnic Institute traveled to Tampa to take on the “Fighting Starfish” of the Bayside Institute of Motorized Carriage Repair and Aquatic Science, the school that would eventually become today’s USF. Although heavily favored, API led only 7-6 at halftime. When Tiger coach W.S. Kienholz pressed for an explanation for his team’s lackadaisical play, the players admitted that they had been distracted and put on edge by the bizarre, unsettling chanting from the BIMCRAS fans and cheerleaders. Their most popular cheer went:

Starfish, Starfish!
Scream and shout!
We’re going to eat you
From the inside-out!

Although disappointed his team had been so frazzled by a simple cheer, coach Kienholz sent a team manager to ask if the BIMCRAS supporters would be gentlemanly enough to suspend the chanting for the second half. Just before the third quarter kickoff, the manager returned, explaining that although the home side’s cheerleaders had politely refused to cease using the chant, they had also divulged its rather pedestrian origin: it was simply a reference to the starfish’s standard method of ingestion—in which it pries open a mollusk’s shell, opens its thoracic cavity, and extends its stomach outside its body into the shell for digestion—and not intended as a threat. Thus relieved, the Tigers dominated the second half and won 117-12.

Actual history: Auburn and USF have never met. USF is 0-4 all-time against the SEC, but the Bulls’ haven’t faced an SEC team since a 34-3 loss to South Carolina in Week 2 of the 2004 season.

Causes for Alarm:

1. USF has an Auburn transfer on the roster, ex-QB and current defensive back Courtney Denson. Denson signed with Auburn out of Dade County’s memorably-named Central High and was moved to DB during his redshirt year at AU in 2003. He transferred to USF that off-season, bringing with him a treasure trove of valuable inside information on the Auburn offensive and defensive schemes that could give USF that slim edge they need to pull off the upset.

(Wait, he was at AU in 2003. Meaning his information comes from the Chizik and Nallsminger regimes. Hmm. Maybe this should be filed under “Causes for Confidence” instead.)

2. Auburn will be a very unpopular team with headline-writers across the South that week, as they will throw their full support behind USF in the hopes of drawing from the neverending well of Bull-based puns: Bull Run, Running of the Bulls, Bull Market, Golden Calves Bulls, etc. Somewhere, Stuart Scott is already in front of a mirror perfecting his “Bull-Ya!” call in the event of the upset.

Causes for Confidence:

1. USF head coach Jim Leavitt (at right, pointing out how many jobs he's been offered in the past two days) has been rumored to be hired away by literally dozens of other teams, administrative bodies, Fortune 500 companies, etc. during his tenure with the Bulls. Jobs Leavitt has reportedly been a candidate for include (but are not limited to) the Alabama head coaching position, FEMA Director, T.G.I. Fridays Regional Coordinator—Cheese-based Appetizers Division, King of Poland, partner for Laila Ali on “Dancing With the Stars,” Oakland Raiders quarterback, CEO of the Woodmen of the World insurance agency, maintenance guy at your apartment complex, and the Miami (FL) head coaching position.

Because of the high number of positions Leavitt has been connected to, speculation on his future now has little effect on the week-to-week preparation of his teams. But should something major come open the week of the Auburn tilt—if Schwarzenegger is forced to resign over his “black blood” comments, Leavitt is rumored to be in the running to replace him—the off-field media attention could still become a distraction to the Bulls.

(The JCCW's take on Leavitt's popularity with the rumor-mongering crowd? It's his last name. When your very moniker answers the question "So, what are you going to do about your job?" with a paraphrase of "Go somewhere else," it's tough to assume you're staying put.)

2. By the JCCW’s calculations, Auburn hasn’t lost to a team using green as one its school colors since the 20-18 loss to Miami in the 1984 Kickoff Classic, a span of 23 years.

Of course, Auburn has also only played two such games in that span, vs. UAB in 1996 and against Tulane last year. Still, though: 23 years without a loss to a green team! Take that, Ireland! Oregon, you're next!

Random vaguely-related Internet enjoyment: When the robots finally getting around to taking over the planet and making us their bio-organic slaves, you may be able to blame USF, home of the world's first gastrobot.

Actual alleged analysis: So let's see, as an Auburn fan, what's the most frightening:

a) Being locked in a box filled with crimson tarantulas
b) Jumping out of a plane at 50,000 feet into a raging forest fire with one crimson parachute
c) the USF game

It's "a," of course, but "c" is running a close second. This is a team with more Game than Name, always Tubby's Achilles heel. If Auburn rolls in their opener as they did vs. Wazzu last year, they'll be ripe for a let-down. And worst of all, USF is genuinely, bona fidedly good. They have the best college QB in Florida (Tebow possibly excepted), a corps of veteran receivers, four starters returning on the O-line, their leading tackler and three of their D-linemen back, and a secondary the pre-season mags unanimously name one of the Big East's best. Their running backs were awful last year (Grothe led the team in rushing seven times), but they've managed to bring in Mike Ford, a former Alabama recruit. On paper, this is a better team than the one that won in Morgantown, and still, because their name is"South Florida," there's a good chance Tigers could take them lightly. "Yikes" doesn't begin to cover it.

The good news? It's at home, and the 8 p.m. start and ESPN2 coverage means the game will have that big-game feel, whatever the Tigers actually think of the Bulls. As long as the K-St. game doesn't result in a false sense of confidence-inducing blowout (or a confidence-destroying loss, also a possibility), Auburn will have the advantage in having already played a quality opponent while the Bulls are in their de facto opener (they play Elon Week 1, and yes that's a school, not a recurring character from "Sanford and Son"). It's at home. And even with Ford around, with Grothe and their caliber of receivers (6-5 senior Amarri Jackson is their #1 big-play threat) USF will look to throw before they run, which appears to the JCCW to play into Auburn's GROVESGROVESGROVES defensive strength. Did I mention it's at home?

So Auburn will unquestionably have some advantages. But the seasons Tubby's Tigers have suffered a deflating home upset somewhere along the way far outnumber the seasons they haven't, and it's hard to find a more likely candidate on the 2007 slate. Consider the JCCW's fingers already crossed.

*I know you've seen this and heard this reference a bajillion times before. I don't care. It'll be funny the next bajillion times, too.

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