Sunday, July 15, 2007

Cheese Puff Previews #3: Mississippi St.

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This post is the third 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.

In Week 3 of their 2007 slate, Auburn will play host to the Mississippi St. Bulldogs and beleaguered coach Sylvester Croom. For the JCCW, Croom's situation is reminiscent of

Caution, readers: You're about to read the geekiest, most dweebcore analogy featured on the JCCW to-date, a telling glimpse (perhaps more will be told than I'd like) into the hopelessly nerdly inner soul of the JCCW.

playing the hardest maps, at the highest difficulty setting, in the computer strategy game Heroes of Might and Magic. I was a Heroes addict during various stages of my high school and college years, and it was possible to win those scenarios, if you played perfectly in the first few turns of the game. One wrong move at the beginning (say, upgrading your griffins or building a magic fountain before ... you know, nevermind the examples) and it didn't matter how good a player you were, how many small victories you claimed, how many turns you kept yourself alive--in the end, you were toast. Your enemies' advantages were simply too great to overcome in the endgame if you weren't faultless from the get-go.

And so it is with Croom. He walked into the hardest job imgainable in college football--a rebuilding team in the SEC at a school that is both football-first (unlike Kentucky) and retains a modicum of expectations (unlike Vandy). It's not an impossible task. Holtz succeeded, more-or-less, in a similar situation at Carolina. But Croom has not been perfect. As EDSBS pointed out just this week, he installed NFL systems that were too much for his personnel. His team went scoreless for three quarters (!) and lost to Maine. The closest his teams have come in three years to beating Auburn or LSU is 28 points. And in doing so, the confidence and excitement he could draw on at his hiring have been lost. State will be improved this year, by the consensus of virtually everybody. They may even sneak into a bowl game (though the JCCW's tea leaves read more like 5-7). But they will not compete for an SEC title, this year or next or the one after. And eventually the Bulldogs spinning their tires in the mud of fifth-place mediocrity will not be enough, and Croom will be fired.

Like fans everywhere, save at Ole Miss and many at 'Bama (who understandably like the reassurance that Mal Moore at least got that decision right), I wish it were otherwise. Croom seems like a decent guy, and every positive story about race coming out of the South (particularly in an area as important to it as college football) is still a blessing. If he had to do it over again, he might pull it off. But from the JCCW's viewpoint, right now? It's inevitable. It's over. It's cruel. It is, in short, SEC football.

Last year: State finished 3-9 (and as this is an Auburn blog, after all, I am obliged to point out that Alabama lost to this three-win team at home), but were closer to respectablility than you might think. The Tulane, Kentucky, Georgia, and Ole Miss losses were all by three points and the Bulldogs outgained Arkansas 355-256 only to lose to touchdowns on both an INT and kick return.

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: Before he became famous for writing the Newbery Medal-winning Holes and its successful big-screen adaptation, children's author Louis Sachar wrote the Wayside School books, three collections of humorous stories set in a school built 30 stories high. The second book, Wayside School is Falling Down, closes with a story in which teacher Mrs. Jewls rings a cowbell from the top of the school in a wind-storm. As a result, the school is "cowed," as hundreds of cows from the surrounding area flood into the school after being drawn by the noise of the cowbell. (The school is subsequently closed for the summer.) Scholars of children's literature now believe this story to be based on a little-known incident the week of the 1990 game between Auburn and Mississippi St. Tiger coaches looking to simulate the din caused by State's cowbell-clanging fans had arranged for loudspeakers to be set up at the Tigers' practice fields, and that week a looped recording of the cowbells was played at high volume during practice. Late Wednesday night, a power surge reactivated the speakers and the recording, which played either unnoticed or unreported until team managers arrived at the fields the next day. By that time, the fields were covered in cows that had escaped their holdings and flocked to the sound of the cowbell--some from the AU agriculture department, some from the AU's veterinary school, some from farms just outside Auburn, and some whose proper home was never determined. The process of identifying and returning the cows to their owners and the clean-up of their manure meant took hours and rendered the fields unplayable, meaning that Auburn had to relocate practice and re-organize the day's practice schedule at a moment's notice. That Saturday, the Tigers would narrowly avoid the upset in Starkville, winning 17-16. But coach Pat Dye blamed the incident for his team's subpar play, calling the "cowing" of his team's facilities "the damnedest thing you ever saw" and the jumbled day of preparation "probably the most topsy-turvy, just messed-up day I've ever had in coaching."

Actual history: Auburn is 56-22-2 against State all-time and has won six in a row vs. the Bulldogs after dropping four straight in the series from 1997-2000. State hasn't scored a point on Auburn since 2004, losing 28-0 in 2005 and 34-0 last year.

Causes for Alarm:

1. Surely, surely, State QB Michael Henig can stay healthy at least three games into this year despite having been cursed with the most fragile collarbone this side of Charles Rogers. (Henig's may, amazingly, be even more fragile--Rogers broke his twice in two years, but Henig managed the feat twice in just one 12-game season.) Henig also grew up an Auburn fan in Montgomery, so he could have the whole "Rah vengeance rah show you what you missed out on rah rah like Rambo III, this time it's personal rah" deal going on. But he'll also have to live down that Scout is still using the picture of him at right--in which Henig makes Scotty Pohlman look like Otis Nixon--which should be a challenge. Unless that picture is from any point after, say, 2004, in which case puberty will be a substantially greater challenge.

2. The Bulldogs should get a boost from transfer recievers Brandon McCrae (from Morehead St.) and Co-Eric Riley (from Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College). No word yet on whether Co-Eric is considering changing his name to JUCO-Eric Riley, which would be both appropriate and might get him a few more votes in next year's Name of the Year balloting. (Co-Eric finished a strong 19th in this year's, uh, "contest.")

Causes for Confidence:

1. Well, there's the whole "Auburn won this game by a combined score of 62-0 the past two years" thing. It's a start, at least.

2. There aren't too many locations teams could visit from where you'd say "Maybe they'll be distracted the evening before by the glitz and glamour of Auburn." (Please note: I say that as someone who loves Auburn. It's everything a college town should be. But the boys from, say, Georgia Tech or USC, to name two recent examples of teams who had success in Jordan-Hare, wouldn't see much in the Loveliest Village they hadn't seen already.) But by all accounts, Starkville--for crying out loud, they put the word "stark" right there in its name--might be one of them.

Random vaguely-related Internet enjoyment: Let it not be said that some at Miss. St. don't recognize the opportunity for cutting-edge fan tradition-slash-trendy comedy cliche synergism. (Let it also not be said that the two "stars" of the vid don't embrace this concept with admirable gusto.)

Actual alleged analysis: Look, Mississippi St.'s not winning this game. If Henig plays all the way up to his potential and beyond, if the defense (which loses seven starters) plays over its head, if the new receivers really are all that, and State finds a running back out of the Anthony Dixon-Robert Elliott duo (the latter allegedly a dangerous true frosh burner) and Auburn overlooks them after two tough out-of-conference games and a wayward splatter of excrement from Spirit's pre-game circumnavigation of Jordan-Hare blinds Cox ... it's still close entering the fourth at best. State's greatest on-paper strength is its offensive line (where four starters return and many more guys have experience), but even that should be nullified by Groves, Marks, Thompson, and company. Crooms has beaten only two kinds of SEC teams in his brief tenure: 1. Just-plain-bad teams (2004 Kentucky, 2005 Ole Miss) 2. Teams with highly questionable and on-their-way-out coaching staffs (Florida 2004, Alabama 2006). Neither of those descriptions applies to Auburn. And Croom will move one small step closer to Game Over.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

oops.....missed this one big