Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cheese Puff Previews 2008 #1: UL-Monroe

This series of near-substanceless, air-injected preview puffery should in no way be mistaken for actual preseason football nutrition. Nonetheless, the hope is that you will find the series unaccountably tasty and even habit-forming, and as such it is unofficially sponsored by:

Auburn opens their season August 30 at home against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, your basic run-of-the-mill Sun Belt cuppity-cake, casually indistinguishable from their equally nondescript, anonymous conference brethren. Sister Louisiana-[Location goes here] school UL-Lafayette at least has the "Ragin' Cajun" thing going for them, but with ULM forced to bear an Arena League-esque nickname so generic they likely bought it in a black-and-white box reading "Nickname," I don't know how Auburn fans are supposed to keep them straight from the Arkansas St.'s, North Texas's, Tennessee Southwest's, or Northeastern Mississippi St. Tech--Pascagoula's of the world.

If only they'd been able to pull off some memorable upset, some recent surprising victory that humiliated some other SEC team, maybe then they'd would stick out in the mind a bit. Oh well. Hopefully, Auburn will be able to focus on the, the things ... the, um ... Hawks. Warhawks.

Man, I sure wouldn't want the Tigers to lose to a team so unmemorable. Can't imagine how embarrassing that might be.

Last year: ULM continued a prolonged-but-steady ascension from a 1-10 record in 2000 by finishing 6-6 and, yes, recording a rather-memorable upset of a certain SEC West team late in the year. They even posted a winning record in Sun Belt play at 4-3, tying Middle Tennessee for third despite a general uptick in the league's semi-respectability. The downside? Games against certain SEC West teams aside, ULM was thumped by an average of 27 points in their nonconference outings and somehow contrived to lose 31-21 to North Texas in what would be the Mean Green's only DI win.

Meanwhile, behind a frightfully green-but-improving offensive line, Auburn rebounded from early upset losses to South Florida and Mississippi St. to upset top-five Florida on the road, take eventual national champion LSU to the wire, and stretch their school-record Iron Bowl winning streak to six on their way to a satisfying 9-4 final record.

Notable previous meeting: Many longtime college football fans will remember that ULM was formerly known as Northeastern Louisiana University, and that their athletics teams were known as the Indians. NLU came to Jordan-Hare Stadium for Auburn's second game of 1994, and though Terry Bowden's Tigers rolled to a 44-12 victory to give the baby-faced coach his 13th straight win in as many tries at the Auburn helm, the contest is still remembered in Monroe for the antics of the Indians' then-mascot "Chief Goldfeather."

The game was held in boiling afternoon conditions, and as the second half dragged on, the intense sun and heat began to melt Chief Goldfeather's elaborate maroon-and-gold facepaint. Egged on by the NLU cheerleading squad--who'd informed him of his face's disfigured and borderline-frightening appearance caused by the running makeup--Chief Goldfeather decided to "cheer up" a four-year old Auburn fan in the front row who had grown audibly unhappy as the temperature continued to rise. The Chief snuck along the wall surrounding the Jordan-Hare field, waited until a particularly silent moment in the stadium, and then unleashed a blood-curdling war cry as he leapt into the air in front of the boy and his family, rubber tomahawk drawn.

Not only did the boy immediately fall into uncontrollable hysterics, but the boys' parents also confessed to receiving what they called the "shock of their lifetimes." It might still have been no more than a laughing matter had the boy's father not also been recovering from a recent heart procedure, a fact that drove the family to file a lawsuit claiming "mental and physical duress" against both the student playing Chief Goldfeather and NLU itself. Though the case was settled out of court for what is believed to be a minor financial sum and the incident was never officially cited by the then-ULM administration as a reason for the removal of the "Indians" nickname, "Chief Goldfeather" was retired less than a year later and some believe the suit to have sparked the first preliminary discussions amongst the school's trustees about a possible rebranding.

Actual series history: Auburn is 6-0 against NLU/ULM with all six meetings coming since 1994, including a 31-0 drubbing to kick off Auburn's mildly successful 2004 campaign. The only one of the six decided by fewer than 24 points was the 1996 match-up, won by Auburn 28-24 for reasons I confess I have no recollection of whatsoever.

Causes for Alarm

1. As any devoted reader of the Auburn blogosphere could tell you, ULM head man Charlie Weatherbie was Division 1's lowest-paid head coach last season. He got a raise (I think; his salary at time of the big late-season win was listed as $130,000, and is now apparently up to $205,000) and is out of the coaching-salary basement. But still--once you're being paid less than any other coach in D-I to coach at freaking UL-Monroe (where, in a just world, you're being paid more than any other coach in D-I, given the 9.9 level of coaching difficulty) and you've suffered through a season (2003) where your team finished -19 in turnovers and lost six games by a touchdown or less*, do the football gods ever really stop smiling on you? I wouldn't think so. Auburn should make sure to bring their horseshoes, rabbit's feet, and Les Miles's in response.

2. Weatherbie told Athlon that "[t]here's no doubt we have some good swagger heading into this season." Which is important--when a football team has bad swagger, it risks hyperextended elbows, tweaked hamstrings, and other injuries of overexertion that can occur when its swagger gets out of control. What you want is to have a good, confident swagger, but a swagger that's under control. You want to swagger within the system. That's what wins football games, not to mention, dude, totally getting that one girl at the bar to check you out as you walk over to play "Kryptonite" on the jukebox. Yeeeeeeah, swagger. That's what she likes.

Causes for Confidence

1. ULM has a starting linebacker named Cardia Jackson. Cardia is one simple, easy letter away from having his name be "Cardiac Jackson," making him sound like a '70s cartoon superhero or--at the very least--a role player for the old Bad Boys Pistons with a reputation for big fourth quarters. Instead, his name sounds like ... well, like just another football player with an unusual name. What a wasted opportunity. This is the kind of failure that can poison a whole roster.

2. Auburn beat ULM 73-7 in 2003. 73-7. 73-7. A 66-point victory. The widest margin of victory in the Tubby era, and it's not even close. It's my professional opinion that once Team A has beaten Team B by that kind of margin, Team A has effectively claimed permanent ownership of Team B. Auburn has already signed the deed to ULM, filled out all the paperwork, built four houses on the Warhawks already, and it's only a matter of time 'til they add the hotel. (If you doubt me, don't you think Kentucky should have logically gotten their revenge on Florida by now for Spurrier's unholy beatdown of Mumme all those years ago? And yet they haven't. Ownership.)

Actual alleged analysis: The rational side of the JCCW isn't quite as confident as that last item might suggest, but it's awfully, awfully hard regardless to see ULM's best-case scenario as anything more than "close after three quarters." Late-season upset over a certain SEC West team be damned, it's still the same program that lost 54-14 to Texas A&M last September (in a good year) vs. an Auburn program that hasn't lost to a non-BCS school since 1991. If you're looking for any kind of historical precedent for a Warhawk victory, you've pretty much got a statistically fluky upset in T-town last November and precisely nothin' else.

It's even more difficult to think of ULM as a legitimate threat when considering the unspeakable crimes Auburn is going to perpetrate upon their offense. ULM was far from explosive last year even by Sun Belt standards, finishing in the bottom half of the league in both points-per-game and passing offense in conference play. Sure, they ranked second in the league in rushing and averaged 209 yards a game on the ground, but three starting linemen and the only running back of note are gone. Sure, they have a three-year starter at QB in Kinsmon Lancaster and the consensus best group of wideouts in the 'Belt, but how much better is a passing attack that went for 148 yards vs. Clemson and 133 vs. Texas A&M going to get? Unless Auburn gift-wraps a couple of scores, the Warhawks will be fortunate to get any more than, say, 13 points on the board.

It is possible, it has to be said, that Auburn will in fact gift-wrap a couple of scores. In my dream schedule, Kodi Burns' and the Spread Eagle's full debut comes against Hapless I-AA Snacky-Cake of the Year rather than a defense that returns eight starters from the unit that turned a certain SEC West team over four times and held them to 14 points at home. If Franklin and Co. still have any kinks to work out, on paper, at least, ULM might have just enough seasoning to turn those kinks into outright issues.

ULM's problem is that as experienced as it might be, as Acid Reign pointed out it matches up with Auburn's offense about well as Alan Dershowitz matches up with Heidi Klum. They have great safeties; Auburn could probably care less about throwing downfield. They have a great back seven, but are questionable up front; Auburn's offensive line might be its strongest unit on either side of the ball. Auburn won't have it easy early on, particularly if they still have that new offense smell, but by the late stages of the game ULM is going to need a hell of a chin to stand up to the heavyweight blows Ziemba, Green, etc. are going to deliver.

The bottom line: if Auburn takes this game seriously at all, it wins without breaking a sweat. This is why ULM's upset of that certain other SEC West team is the gift that just keeps on giving: that result alone will do more for Auburn's focus on the Warhawks than all the fancy speeches Tubby can give them between now and then. It's one thing to talk about a team being dangerous, it's another to see them prove that danger on the field. Thanks in large part to the Tide, Auburn will now be ready for ULM. Too bad for them I don't think it's possible for ULM to really be ready for Auburn.

*You get one guess where I got this information from.

Sorry, the answer was "Bird Talk."


James said...

I do remember that 96 ULM game. That was back in their NE-LA days though. I remember Kevin McLoud busting a run (or reception, can't remember) late in the ballgame to ice it, but we had to worry till the end.

Actually, Dameyune's superhuman ability aside, that was the beginning of the end for Bowden in my opinion.

That, or giving up 51 points to floriduh that year...

thewareaglereader said...

never heard that '94 child trauma story. wonder if we could track that kid down... i imagine he just graduated high school.

Acid Reign said...

    That 1996 game was a stinker. We took an easy 7-0 lead, then just went in the toilet, on offense. A field goal just before half. A field goal in the 3rd to pull within one point. The Indians had a veteran senior quarterback named Philyaw (can't remember his first name), and we were getting torched, with itty-bitty corners. That, and Jimmy Brumbaugh and Charles Dorsey were having to play every snap on the D-line. True freshman end Leonardo Carson would OCCASIONALLY get relief, from true freshman Ezell Powell. That was all the scholarship linemen we had, two sophomores, and two true freshmen.

    NE Louisiana scored in the 4th, to make it 21-13. We answered, with a TD and a two-point conversion. The Indians got it inside the Auburn ten yard line with something like two minutes left, but a miracle tackle by Jimmy Brumbaugh on the one, pulling Philyaw down before he could score, kept Monroe out of the endzone. They kicked a field goal, to lead 24-21.

    Dameyune Craig and the shotgun offense roared down the field, and Craig hit Kevin McCloud on a 6 yard screen pass for the win.

    I remember that 1994 game, too. I had just re-arranged the furniture in the living room, and had discovered that my coffee table blocked the bottom third of the TV. That game was a 6:00 kick-off on pay-per-view.

    In the old analog cable days, I had somehow (ahem) come into possession of a kit of inline filters and V-traps. It was a race to figure out which trap to screw in to get the Auburn game, before the kickoff...

    In the 1994 game, I remember Fred Beasley getting his first playing time, and touchdown. The Indians got one touchdown on a really cool roll-out, then throw it 50 yards back across the field to a back on a screen pass. Auburn was totally bamboozled...

PuraBerry88 said...

.. it's funny how people take about others' names.. but CARDIA JACKSON is a outstanding player.. SO what his name is different.. it STICKS out from the REST.. n nothing is wrong with that..