Saturday, July 26, 2008

Cheese Puff Previews 2008 #3: Miss. St.

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:

Since its inception two-and-a-half years ago, this blog has been chock-ful o' mistakes, errors, gaffes, blunders, inaccuracies, typos, omissions, foul-ups, slip-ups, mess-ups, and good old-fashioned screw-ups. But for me at least, two of them stand out as particularly unfortunate ... missteps.

First, I committed perhaps the single most unforgivable crime in the indie hipster guidebook, referring to Virginia-born Neko Case as a Canadian. She's not; she just plays one on stage. I could have freaking told you her first album was "The Virginian." I must have been drunk.

The second one's actually a little bit worse from the standpoint of this being a blog about, you know, college football. Stealing Borrowing a projection taxonomy from last year's Mgo previews, I labeled last year's game against Mississippi St. an "auto-win" for Auburn. Yep, auto-win.

That didn't work out so well. (After seeing certain events ... uh ... transpire in the execution of Michigan's season, it's my guess that taxonomy is cursed. Consider yourself warned, Black Shoe Diaries.) So it's with considerable trepidation that I venture forth into this year's look at Sly Croom's Bulldogs, who have proven rather definitively over the past two seasons that it might be amusing to think of them as an automatic win, but it won't make you look very smart.

Last year: The dispiriting losses to the likes of Maine that kicked off Croom's tenure seemed a pretty distant memory by the end of the 2007 campaign, which included defense-and-turnover-fueled road wins over Auburn and Kentucky, a second straight upset of the Tide, a near-miraculous (and very much Orgeron-aided) victory in the Egg Bowl, and finally the Bulldogs' first bowl win in seven years. Considering that anything worse than 6-6 would have almost certainly seen Croom get the boot and the rebuilding process started all over again, I don't think anyone begrudged State or its fans a celebration perhaps a little more enthusiastic than an 8-5 record would usually dictate.

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*: Late in Auburn's 42-14 rout of the Bulldogs in 2002, Tommy Tuberville called for a fake field goal which Damon Duval successfully ran in for what the home Bulldog supporters--and more importantly, State head coach Jackie Sherrill--felt was an unnecessary and humiliating touchdown. (Tuberville would later explain he didn't want to risk a potential blocked kick that could bring State back into the ballgame. FWIW.) The proud and wounded Sherrill unsurprisingly held the resulting grudge against Tuberville into the following season, when he not-so-coincidentally announced with less than 48 hours to go before the Bulldogs took the field at Jordan-Hare that he would retire at the end of the campaign.

Less widely known, however, is that Sherrill's desire for revenge drove him to use more than one last-ditch motivational ploy for his 1-5, 21-point underdog Bulldogs--the second carrying echoes of the legendary "castration" episode before Sherrill's 28-10 upset of Texas in 1992. At the final team meeting before the Bulldogs left for Auburn, after revealing that he would be retiring at year's end, Sherrill also produced and unrolled a full-size, authentic tiger pelt. Sherrill told his team that thanks to an arrangement he'd made with an exotic animals dealer from southwest Louisiana, if they could come back from Auburn with a win over Tuberville's bunch, he would give each player on the team a Sharpie and a chance to autograph the pelt. The pelt would then hang in the State weight room, Sherrill promised, as a reminder to future Bulldog squads of what they could accomplish if they worked together, of what happened to other teams who came into Starkville and dared to embarrass the home team.

Given the difficulty of keeping a trophy of that size (and, hypothetically, notoriety) a secret from local authorities while hanging it in such a high-traffic area as the State training facility, it is debatable whether Sherrill actually intended to keep that particular promise in the event of a Bulldog victory, or even if the players would have had the chance to sign the pelt in the first place. It became a moot point in the end, as State showed little fight in response to Sherrill's various motivational tactics and Auburn trounced the Bulldogs 45-13. The pelt was, allegedly, later surreptitiously returned to the dealer, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in May 2006.

Actual series history: Auburn leads the all-time series 56-23-2. State's 2007 victory snapped a six-game Auburn win streak in the series and a five-year run of Tiger dominance that saw the Bulldogs lose by an average of 30.2 points from 2002 to 2006. The Bulldogs did put together a four-game streak of their own from '97 through 2000, so State doesn't have to reach too far into the past for reasons to believe last year's win could be the start of a trend.

Causes for Alarm

1. It took a good long while, but poor Michael Henig finally took the seemingly endless series of "Hey, maybe it's just me, but you probably ought to be more intensely pursuing a career outside of professional football" hints from Fate and will no longer even theoretically be under center for the Bulldogs this year. Taking his place is sophomore Wesley Carroll, who started the final seven games of 2007 but didn't manage to give the world so much as a mild Indian burn, much less set it on fire.

Nonetheless, entering 2008 with a quarterback who didn't drop a mirror into a stack of salt shakers while dashing through the Ladder Room at the black cat sanctuary has to be a plus. Carroll might not bring much to the table, but to judge from last season at least the table won't mysteriously collapse when he sits down.

2. There's no room in which to debate this: State's 2007 season was every bit as blissfully fortunate as Michael Henig's career was bitterly unlucky. They were outgained by a league-worst 73 yards a game in SEC play; their offense was every single bit as toothless as the previous train wrecks of the Croom era; they went 4-0 in one-possession games, a number that doesn't even include a Kentucky game in which the Wildcats turned it over six times; their Pythagorean numbers fell out of the proverbial ugly tree and if they didn't strike every branch on the way down--that honor's reserved for Tennesee's--they struck a goodly number nonetheless. If we might say Henig was snakebitten, every other Bulldog last year was unicornbitten.

And yet: would anyone not a hidebound Rebel fan say Sylvester Croom didn't deserve every single shred of luck that came his way? With any other coach, I'd fully expect the pendulum to swing the other way in 2008; with Croom, I wouldn't put it past karma to give him a second straight year of nonstop four-leaf clovers and purple horseshoes just for the hell of it.

Causes for Confidence

1. In the 2007 meeting between the Tigers and Bulldogs Auburn a) threw interceptions on its first two pass attempts of the game b) allowed one of those interceptions to be returned for a touchdown c) fumbled its third possession away inside the State 25 d) drove 60 yards to open the second half before fumbling the ball away inside the State 20 e) never scored in the second half f) allowed a punt to roll 73 yards to the Auburn 11 in a game in which field position was obviously paramount g) followed the punt with an interception inside Auburn territory two plays later h) allowed a State offense that would finish 5-18 in the air to cover 44 yards by rushing the ball 10 consecutive times i) allowed same State offense to score a touchdown, thereby forcing Auburn to score their own touchdown to win.

My point is this: that was Auburn's shakiest team of the last few years playing their shakiest game of the season. They were facing State's strongest team of the past few years, at least record-wise, playing (if not over their heads) fairly well. Competently, at the minimum. And still Auburn finished the game nine yards away from victory.

From this Auburn Blogger's perspective, you have to be a little confident about the Tigers' chances if every single thing that could go wrong doesn't go wrong this time around.

2. Part of me thinks that it's only natural to start talking about the SEC title and a BCS berth once you've taken that first "make a bowl/have a winning record" step. Particularly internally--of course you want your kids shooting for the moon and winding up amongst the stars, as the Senior Quotes of like 12 different people in my high school yearbook would tell you.

But part of me thinks that as much as I like Croom, blabbing about those goals to the press seems like putting the cart a little bit before the "Why don't we see if we can average more than 297 yards a game on offense and complete more than 50.5 percent of our passes" horse. And with La. Tech and Southeast Louisiana on the Bulldogs' schedule their first two weeks, the first team with the chance to make that little point would be ... Auburn.

Actual alleged analysis: There are reasons to be optimistic about State. Even after the post-spring departure of top OL Mike Brown, with Carroll providing some modicum of stability at quarterback and Dixon still around to stubbornly push the pile forward for three-and-a-half a carry, it seems impossible the Bulldog offense could still be so utterly anemic after five years of Croom's tutelage. Sure, DC Ellis Johnson is gone, but defense has never been the Bulldogs' issue under Croom and they return a whopping nine starters on that side of the ball. One of those is the terrifying Derek Pegues, liable to snap his fingers and put six points on the board at any time, whether he's picking off passes or returning kicks.

And for all of that, I can't ignore the avalanche of stats that say: They were the same old Bulldogs. Just luckier. Without Brown, top DE Titus Brown, and Johnson, I can't help but think that even given the across-the-board talent upgrades they're still going to be, more-or-less, the same old Bulldogs once again.

If they are, that five-year run of obliteration entering 2007 would suggest Auburn beatdowns are the norm for this series for the time being--and that after last year's fluke, we'll be returning to it. A loss like that just can't happen again, can it?

I get the feeling that that's exactly what the overwhelming majority of Tide fans were telling themselves at this time last year. State has too much going for it for them not to upset somebody. If Auburn doesn't take care of the ball, force Carroll to throw, and seize its opportunities against a defense with too much experience and too much pride to regress to Average, it very well could wind up being them.

*For any talk radio types wondering about the "truth" of this "Notable previous meeting" entry is encouraged to look back over the previous examples in this series and the word "actual" that follows. Disclaimers probably aren't necessary, but I'd rather not have anything like this happen, kthx.

1 comment:

Richard said...

In the final analysis, Auburn will win because Auburn want's this game really bad this year. No auto-win's this time around...and for that reason alone, it's gonna be ugly for the Bulldogs. This is one stain that's going to get an awful lot of Clorox this year.