Sunday, August 05, 2007

Cheese Puff Previews #5: Florida

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This post is the fifth 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.

To assume that Auburn's season only gets serious in Week 5, when the Tigers travel to Gainesville to take on the defending national champion Florida Gators, would be quite the dangerous thing to do. (Or it would be, if I was a player, or coach, or water boy, or someone who had even the slightest influence on the team's results.) Kansas St. is a Big 12 up-and-comer with a talented (if portly) quarterback. South Florida is a Big East up-and-comer with several scalps already under their belt and an even more talented (if terrifying-looking) sophomore quarterback. These are both loasable games for Auburn, especially if their alarm clocks are already set for that fifth week and the trip to the Swamp.

But ... Week 5 is when Auburn's SEC race really starts. Week 5 is the first time Auburn will not be able to rely on a talent advantage. Week 5 is when anything less than Auburn's best performance will produce defeat, no questions asked. Week 5 is the first of a four-game stretch in which Auburn will play three bitter rivals-slash-top-20 teams on the road and come home only face death-trap Vandy, when every shred of momentum will be precious. Week 5 might not be when the season gets serious ... but it is the week Auburn can get serious about making a run towards Atlanta, a BCS game, and the national consciousness.

That's Week 5. It's the Florida game. In the Swamp. In the blankety-blank Southeastern bleeping Conference, man. And man, like the day they roll out an affordable flying car, it's just too damn far away.

Last year: Florida rode Reggie Nelson's Reign of Terror on defense, the ingenious puppeteering of Infallible Pope Urban (the IPU) on offense, and a Cheesecake Factory-sized portion of luck vs. their old ball coach to the SEC East crown. Then they got past Arkansas. Then in the national championship game, the IPU so badly crushed Jim Tressel in the alleged coaching battle that children were moved to weep for Tressel in sympathy. (Or possibly merely because their team had just been beaten six ways from Sunday.)

Of course, the Gators did experience one notable, beautiful hiccup.

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: Everyone is well aware that Auburn and Florida have very similar school colors. Auburn officially wears burnt orange and navy blue, while Florida officially wears "orange and blue." Everyone is also well aware that having generic, unnamed shades of orange and blue is lame and that Auburn's specific shades are both cooler and way, way better-looking.

But it's a lesser-known fact that in the past, the blue used in each of the two schools' football jerseys was a nearly identical shade of navy. That changed at the 1940 meeting, held at the McLung Stadium in Columbus, GA. In the week leading up to the game, Florida's star running back Darren "Flamingo Legs" Fletcher predicted that the Gators would prove who was the conference's "true blues" on the football field. Upon receiving word of Fletcher's boast, an anonymous Auburn captain sent a telegram to Fletcher proposing a wager: although Auburn was the designated home team for the game, Florida could wear their blues against the Tigers on the condition that if the Gators lost, they would never again be allowed to wear their navy uniforms against Auburn. Fletcher sent word back not only agreeing to the bet, but bragging that the Gators would wear their uniforms "from the moment we set foot in Columbus to the moment we leave." Word of that declaration got out amongst Auburn fans, including the Columbus fire chief, a native of the Loveliest Village. So the appearance of a fire truck commandeered by Auburn students at the far end of the train station parking area was later proved to not be, as one local paper put it, "a curious mystery." There is little debate about what happened next: as the Gators waited for their bus to McLung, the Auburn students opneed up the fire hose and launched a wide, high-arcing spray of water from approximately 100 feet that caught the Gators unaware and soaked the Gators--wearing their blue jerseys as promised--clean through. After arriving at McLung, the Gators set their wet uniforms on the bleachers to dry in the afternoon sun and left for them for their manager to collect. The Gators received a bit of a shock when they got them back at gametime: the sun had done an excellent job of drying the jerseys, but in the process had faded the navy to a much lighter, even bright, shade of blue. With no spares, the Gators had no choice but to wear the discolored jerseys, and would go on to suffer a convincing 20-7 loss and walk off the field to the chants of "Our blue is true blue! Our blue is true blue!" from the Auburn supporters. As punishment for their boasting and lackluster effort, then-Florida coach Tom Lieb forced his players to wear the same jerseys the following week against Mississippi St. The Gators responded with a surprising 16-10 win, and afterwards stunned the coaching staff by asking if they could wear the jerseys another week, as a continued reminder of the pain of losing and the importance of focus. Florida has worn the same faded, lighter shade of blue since that day, though the Gators kept their word and wore white against Auburn whether home or away for the next 19 years, until a gentleman's agreement between Shug Jordan and new Gator coach Ray Graves ended the practice in 1960.

Now it can be told: Auburn is indirectly responsible for these. Oh, the shame.

Actual history: Auburn holds a narrow edge in what has been a tightly contested all-time series, 41 to 38 with two ties. Georgia and Georgia Tech are the only schools Auburn has played more often than the Gators. (Incidentally, Mississippi St. is fourth on the list.) After starting 0-3 against the Gators (including an SEC title game loss), Tubby has won two of his last three vs. Florida, despite Florida being ranked #1 (in 2001) and #2 (in 2006) at the time of those wins. Also, the lone loss came in the Swamp in overtime after Duval's gag job on a de facto extra point.

Bitter? Why yes, yes I am. Will be for several years more, I suspect.

Causes for Alarm:

1. This is Charlie Strong. In addition to being named "Charlie Strong," for God's sake, the kind of name you'd find one of the scary Dick Tracy villains, Strong has been passed over time and time again for head coaching positions both in the SEC and elsewhere over the past few years. This despite the fact that virtually every defense he's coordinated in his seven seasons at Carolina and Gainesville has been rock solid or even better, a track record that culminated in his masterminding the rape-and-pillaging of the Buckeyes last January. The JCCW's theory is that each time Strong has seen a plum job go to another, less-qualified applicant (insert obligatory "YAW YAW YAW YAW ... PUNCHLINE" crack here), he takes his rage and calmly places it in his rage storage device, for use at the appropriate time. Like, say, national title games or vengeance games against the only team that kept your team from a perfect season the year before. Charlie Strong did not get hired as a head coach this last off-season, and was not even seriously considered for several open jobs, even though that was his defense tearing the Heisman winner to pieces for all to see in Glendale. I believe he has a lot of rage still stored up.

2. You would think I'd be done blithering about Florida's color scheme, but since I see it as a kind of evil doppelganger of Auburn's, the Mr. Hyde of college football uniforms to AU's friendly Dr. Jekyll, I'm not. Seriously, check out the picture further up the post. Now look at the Gators' official athletics site. Now imagine a stadium packed with 89,000 people, each decked out in the same blue-Jolly-Ranchers-washed-down-with-a-bucket-of-Tang swirl, and you can guess where Florida gets its home-field advantage. It's not the crowd, it's not the heat; it's the retinal damage.
One of the many sources of inspiration for Florida's choice of colors.

Causes for Confidence:

1. This could possibly fall under "actual analysis," but Auburn's big rivalries all seem to follow a vague pattern over the years. vs. Georgia, the road team wins. vs. LSU, the home team wins. vs. Bama, Auburn wins. (ZING!)

The Florida series, however, has been the series of upsets. In the mid-'80s it was the Gators enjoying the honors, as they took three straight from Auburn capped by Galen Hall's 3-4 team nipping 7-0 Auburn 18-17 in 1986. (I still remember that game. It wasn't on TV and I got bored listening to the radio, and Auburn was winning, so I went outside to go play some imaginary football. Then my Dad came outside and told me Auburn had lost. I cried. It didn't make any sense. It still doesn't.) It was Florida that sent the Dye era into its final tailspin with that still-painful 48-7 obliteration in 1990 of what had been a 6-0-1 Auburn team to that point.

But since then it's been Auburn that's been pulling the upsets, becoming what I would call (completely without bias, of course) the biggest SEC thorn in the Spurrier-Zook-Meyer era Gators' side. Four times since 1993 Auburn has taken down a top-five Gator team, including Bowden's bunch handing Spurrier his first-ever loss in the Swamp in 1994.

Florida's already ranked third. If (a decent-sized "if," mind you) they can survive Tennessee in Week 3, those same wheels would be in motion.

2. Brandon Cox may not read the FanHouse. It's probably for the best for Florida if he doesn't, since Gator supporter Ryan Ferguson apparently believes Cox was that waiter who gave him such bad service and probably spit in his food (he could just tell, man) at this Ruby Tuesdays he hit up back in '03, or something. Because Ferguson first wrote that Cox was the ninth-best QB in the SEC, then followed that up this week by calling Cox one of the conference's five most overrated players.

What's funny about the "overrated" post is that Ferguson "doesn't understand the hype" about Cox, but doesn't actually pinpoint where said hype might be emanating from, since neither the coaches nor media picked him All-SEC and the preview consensus has been that Cox is more the leader-caretaker-"unspectacular" (quote Street & Smith's) type than a star. So what Ferguson's doing is spinning hype out of straw for the sole purpose of having a crack at Cox. It's a bold move, especially considering that last year Cox badly outplayed (66% completion percentage to 53%, zero TO's to three, 315 total yards for his offense to 279, and oh yeah 1 win to none) the same Chris Leak I doubt Ferguson has the first harsh word to say about. We'll see, but my guess is that even if Cox doesn't read the Fanhouse, and even if no one gets the word to him, the All-SEC snub + the karma of disrespect is still going to have Cox primed for this game. And that's not good for Florida.

Random vaguely-related Internet enjoyment: You've seen this before, probably. But if you didn't, or if you've forgotten, read Orson Swindle's post from just before the BCS title game. I've had so many people--girlfriends, relatives, grad school buddies, etc.--ask me "Why on earth do you care so much about sports, these games that have nothing at all to do with you?" For the longest, I didn't have a real answer. Now I do; I am cheating these long, long days.

Actual alleged analysis: Despite the "they won without scoring an offensive touchdown" chirping, Auburn's 2006 offense moved the ball on the Gators. Auburn's 2007 offense (regardless of what you may have heard about the o-line) should be better. The Gators defense (starting two 11-year-olds at linebacker and a 12-year old at DT) should be worse. Ergo: Auburn should score touchdowns this year rather than settling for field goals.

Florida's offense taking on Auburn's defense figures to be strength-on-strength. Assuming Auburn can even sort of half-contain the Harvin-based trickeration, this looks like a draw: Groves vs. Trautwein, Tebow SMASH vs. Blackmon CRUNCH, Savage and Brock vs. Caldwell, etc. Draw on one side + AU advantage on the other = win?

It would seem so when you look at Tubby's record. According to the lines listed by Phil Steele, in the three seasons since Borges came on board, Auburn has played eight games in which the Tigers have either been an underdog or the spread has been less than three points. In those eight, Auburn is 7-1. The lone loss was that game.

In other words: Tubby does not lose BIG games anymore. (Games that don't look so big and Auburn's a heavy favorite ... um, check back later.) And this one is Auburn-Florida. When things can get serious. Regardless of the outcome of the UF-Tennessee game, it's going to be very, very big. Tubby and the Tigers will be ready.

p.s. Kyle's responded! Re-response coming tomorrow a.m. most likely.

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