The SI cover jinx strikes again!
Ole Miss instantly went from title contender to heavy underdog against Alabama
Some coaches believe last year's Rebels were superior to the 2009 version
Three BCS busters from SI's preview issue have already gone down to defeat
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- I ran into the SI Cover Jinx on Thursday at a little meat-and-three on Broad River Road. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "Shouldn't you be chasing the Detroit Tigers? I'm surprised you weren't in Cleveland [Thursday] placing a banana peel on the pitching rubber, so Justin Verlander would slip and tear his ACL."
Jinx laughed so hard he almost choked on his collard greens. "Hasn't Detroit been through enough?" he said. "Besides, I love it down here. Even the vegetables can give you a heart attack." Then he pointed his fork at me. "You cover college football," he said, "you know exactly why I'm here. I'm completing the set."
Completing the set? "Completing the set," he said. "We put outregional covers for this year's college football preview issue. We profiled three teams that were supposed to shake up the BCS. I already got the first two. I sucker-punched Oregon (losers to Boise State) on opening night. Nine days later, I gave Oklahoma State a nasty case of the Case Keenums. Tonight, I'm here to do a little Hotty Toddy hellraising. I'm going to kill Ole Miss's national-title chances -- as dead as the mom in As I Lay Dying."
Of course, Jinx would reference William Faulkner, whose bones lay in Oxford. Jinx is morbid like that. He's also very literary. He spends most days reading great tragedies while holed up in his home office in the Time-Life building in midtown Manhattan. Occasionally, he ventures across the street to heckle Kathie Lee Gifford on the Today set, but mostly he just researches new and more macabre ways to knock an athlete into the muck from the height of sporting excellence.
"Aren't you being a little hard on the Rebels?" I asked Jinx. "After all, you nailed them the week after they beat Florida last year. They lost to South Carolina at home. Remember?" He fingered a piece of cornbread and sniffed. "I remember," he said, "but can you comprehend the achievement that is knocking out an entire set of regional cover boys in one month? I reminded Jinx that we had a fourth regional cover (Penn State), but he held up a paw at the mention of the Nittany Lions. "I don't go after Joe Paterno," he said. "I respect my elders. Besides, you've seen what the Big Ten has done the past few years? They don't need my help."
Jinx waddled to the register and paid his check. Then he turned to me. "You want a ride to the stadium?" As I considered his offer, scenes from every Final Destination film flashed through my mind. "No thanks," I said. "I'm good."
Five hours later, I stood on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium. The scoreboard read 16-10 (RECAP | BOX). Ole Miss players trudged toward the locker room. South Carolina players dove into the student section. I couldn't find Jinx in the celebration, but South Carolina's win had his fingerprints all over it.
Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead, who started the season on a lot of Heisman lists and in a lot more mock first rounds for the NFL draft, completed seven of 21 passes for 107 yards. The Gamecocks sacked him four times. Linebacker Eric Norwood made 10 tackles and sacked Snead twice. He would have piled up more sacks had the Rebels not assigned a back to help stop him. "They had a lot of hype," Norwood said. "We were the better team."
Jinx has loved kickers since 1993, when he inspired David Gordon to kick the 41-yarder that crushed Notre Dame's national-title hopes the same week the Fighting Irish appeared on the cover. Old Jinx must have given Gamecocks junior Spencer Lanning quite a pep talk Thursday. Lanning made three field goals, and, more importantly, brought down Ole Miss return man Marshay Green after a second-quarter punt. If Lanning hadn't laid a perfect form tackle on Green at the South Carolina 31-yard line, Green was gone.
"The biggest play in the game was the punter making that tackle," South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "We're going to bring him over this week and maybe show some tackling drills to our perimeter people." Five plays after Lanning's tackle, the Gamecocks sniffed out a fake field goal. Ole Miss came away with zero points, and South Carolina hogged the ball the remainder of the half.
Still, Jinx wasn't the only metaphysical force at work Thursday. Though it doesn't get much press outside the Palmetto State, the Chicken Curse is a formidable hex. It has tripped up the Gamecocks on so many occasions that South Carolina faithful -- much like Chicago Cubs fans -- simply assume the worst at all times. It's just easier that way. More than 74,000 puckered as one with 9:47 remaining when two Gamecocks safeties got their signals crossed and allowed Snead to hit Markeith Summers for a 45-yard touchdown that put the Rebels within six.
But South Carolina's defense kept giving Snead happy feet, and the Gamecocks snuffed Dexter McCluster, the Wild Rebel himself, before he could uncork a halfback pass late in the fourth. Rebels coach Houston Nutt, who came to Columbia with his starting tight end and fullback hobbled, couldn't hide his frustration. "When you hold them to 16 points," Nutt said, "you're supposed to win the ball game."
Not when Jinx is pulling the strings. He was in his element Thursday, picking on a team that rode a wave of nine-month-old hype. Johnson, South Carolina's defensive coordinator, said last year's Rebels had top-five talent, but this team is different after losing offensive tackle Michael Oher, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety Jamarca Sanford.
"Those kids last year at Ole Miss, I'm not sure they knew how good they were," Johnson said. "That was one of the best football teams I've ever coached against in the SEC. This year, you lose a first-rounder on both fronts and a few little things like that, and I'm not sure they're hitting on all eight cylinders like they were last year.
"But they're still a really good football team. They'll show back up. It just looked like they were out of sync or something."
Jinx can do that to a team. He feasts on the insecurities of coaches and players who aren't prepared for the spotlight. On Thursday, that spotlight exposed all of the Rebels' flaws. They'll tumble from No. 4 to the bottom of the top 25, and they'll be heavy underdogs when SEC West heavy Alabama visits Oxford in two weeks. The pressure is off. The hype is gone. "I'm glad it's gone so we can go back to work and win some ball games," Ole Miss offensive tackle Bradley Sowell said. "You can't really pay attention to that anyway. I'm glad it's over with, so everyone can just stop talking about it and play ball."
As I walked to the press box elevator, I heard a familiar voice. "I told you I would get them," Jinx bellowed. He wore a South Carolina visor. "Gift from the Head Ball Coach," he said. "I love that guy."
I asked Jinx if he would return home to celebrate his systematic dismantling of the teams SI writers and editors thought would bust up the BCS establishment. Maybe with a thick steak at Peter Luger or with an Old Fashioned at the Waldorf Astoria bar? "Nah," he said with a wicked grin. "Tomorrow morning, I'm on the first thing smokin' to Chicago. The Tigers have a series against the White Sox, and I have a bad feeling about it."
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