Rocky times for Rocky Top, mid-majors' assault on polls and more
Banks are crumbling. Wall Street's collapsing. Homes are being foreclosed. It costs $15 to check a piece of luggage. And Dan and Serena appear to be sort of, maybe, broken up for good.
It's so depressing to read a newspaper these days I find myself wanting to lock myself in bunker and not come out until the bad stuff goes away. So I know what it feels like to be a Tennessee fan right now.
WOW, Stewart. There seems to be total meltdown at the University of Tennessee. The Vols did not look good on Saturday -- the players, the coaches, and more horribly, the fans, who were booing the home team and leaving in the third quarter. Does this signify the end of the Phillip Fulmer era even with the extension? Will the team quit on him or do you think he can get them to rally around this and pull off a decent season?
This is hardly the first time Fulmer has looked down for the count -- and every time before, he's lifted himself off the mat. Just when you thought a 5-6 debacle in 2005 would do him in, Fulmer goes and rehires David Cutcliffe and improves by four wins. After Tennessee started 1-2 last year, with lopsided losses to Cal and Florida, the Vols proceeded to win eight of their next nine and reach the SEC title game. So I wouldn't go writing his obit just yet.
But it's not looking so good, either.
First off all, Tennessee lost to a really, really bad UCLA team. There's no sugar coating that one. Then against Florida, the Vols looked completely unprepared. How many times did CBS cut to the sideline after another Tennessee miscue to show Fulmer's disgusted reaction? But I was downright floored to hear sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson say Fulmer told their broadcast crew his team has "no leaders." When have you ever heard of a coach admitting that three games into the season? (On Tuesday Fulmer said: "Contrary to what some people might have said on television, we haven't had a leadership problem at all.")
But as bad as the Vols have looked, it would be very Fulmer-esque of them to go and beat Auburn this week. And as long as Tennessee finishes at least 7-5, Fulmer's job is safe. Why? Because that's pretty much what the school is paying him to do. By raising Fulmer's salary to $2.4 million last summer, Tennessee basically sent a message that it's OK with being about the sixth-best program in the SEC. How can the Vols expect to contend for SEC titles when their coach can't beat half the adversaries in his league? Take a look at the records: 0-4 against Urban Meyer, 1-4 against Nick Saban, 1-3 against Tommy Tuberville (while at Auburn), 3-4 against Mark Richt and, most infamously, 4-8 against Steve Spurrier.
But the most telling clause in that contract was the provision that automatically adds another year every time Fulmer wins eight games. What does that say about how far the standards have fallen in Knoxville? If Tennessee does in fact implode this season and finish below .500, AD Mike Hamilton may have no choice but to pull the plug (if he can scrounge up the reported $5 million buyout). But if Fulmer rallies the troops even a little bit, expect things to remain status quo.
I think the latest AP poll is the craziest I have ever seen. Do you realize that only one Pac-10 team is ranked and only one other team is receiving votes? The Big East has only one ranked team and two other teams receiving votes. The Mountain West has more teams ranked than the Pac-10 and the Big East combined. In fact, the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten and ACC combined only have TWO more ranked team than the non-BCS conferences. What is happening to the BCS conferences (aside from the dominant SEC and Big 12)?
Parity, parity, parity. I know a lot of people don't want to hear it, but you'd have to be blind at this point to ignore what's happening. While there is obviously a group of elite programs -- USC, LSU, et. al., -- that still stand head and shoulders above the mid-majors, the line has never been blurrier between the top teams from the non-BCS leagues and the next-rung teams from the major conferences.
What's been particularly interesting this year is the depth of quality mid-majors. While it's hardly unprecedented for the Mountain West or WAC to place a team in the top 25, for one such conference (the MWC) to have three teams in the poll is remarkable. And that does not even include UNLV (which has beaten Arizona State and Iowa State) and New Mexico (which beat Arizona). Meanwhile, Tulsa, which has not yet cracked the poll, beat those same Lobos 56-14. And then there's Boise State, Fresno State, East Carolina, Ball State ...
We discussed this ad nauseam during last year's rash of upsets, but simply put, the number of BCS-caliber athletes coming out of high school has never been greater, and there's only so many scholarships those schools can offer. While that doesn't stop a USC or Florida from hording five-star recruits, as you go further down the line, there's not that big a disparity between the type pf players Oregon and Boise State are recruiting. And as we know well by now, talent alone does not win football games. If so, Florida State would not have three straight losses to Wake Forest.
Speaking of which ...