- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Remember the South, the magnolias and mockingbirds and muddy roads, and the cane poles and odor of wood smoke and somewhere, far off, the baying of hound dogs, and those big iron-eyed Southeastern Conference football players who kicked the hawg out of a ball on third down and just dared someone to try and score? Ah, those great ante-bedlam days of the 7-3 scores, when any barefooted kid out of Opelousas or Pontotoc or Tuscumbia knew you could score five ways on defense. And that a six-point lead was better than a pond full of hungry catfish. But no more. Take, for instance, last week. Alabama and Ole Miss threw a combined 81 passes—and completed 55 of them, breaking an NCAA record—as Alabama won 33-32, which was just a little bitty score. LSU scored 63 points, all by itself. Tennessee scored 55. Mississippi State lost by 74. Just like that, snap! the stubborn old SEC is swinging, and the music isn't Grand Ole Opry.
Yes, indeed, there's a wild new game in town, something called pitch and catch, and they are piling up the points so quickly it hardly pays to wave a Confederate flag at the enemy anymore. Just when you get your arm moving real good, the other guys have scored and are waving their flags right back. Last week, for instance, in eight games involving SEC teams, 472 points were scored. There hasn't been that much offense generated in the South since Sherman. When the late General R. R. Neyland was coaching, for example, Tennessee only gave up 485 points—in 14 years. "Football is nothing more than a series of actions, mistakes and miscalculations," Neyland preached. "Punt and let your opposition make the mistakes. Most of them will feel that possession of the ball is to be desired above everything else. I disagree."
But today, with the wide-open offenses and the speed and wondrous throwing arms that make them work, possession of the ball, even in the SEC, is a necessity. Perhaps even Neyland would change his style if he could see some of the area's high-powered teams in action. The conference always has its share of winners, maybe more, but this season there are a whole bunch, with not a solid favorite for the championship in sight. There's Georgia (see cover), undefeated, sleek and polished, and still not at all convinced that defense is dead. There also is Tennessee and Alabama and they're undefeated, too, even if the Bear says his defenders are too small and too slow and it's damn inconsiderate for anyone to think that they can stop anybody from scoring at will. And there's LSU, a great tiger stalking in its mossy old coliseum, a team that has run up 140 points while giving up only 14. What's more, there's even Florida, which has never won the SEC title but which, like the others, is undefeated, too. Maybe, just maybe, this is a Gator year.
Some of the SEC's defeated teams look mighty tough, too. Mississippi, whom many people picked to win the title, is 1-2, but those two losses were by one point apiece. And Auburn, 2-1, has averaged 40 points a game, fourth best in the conference.
If anything so bold could be ventured at this early date, Georgia and LSU might be said to be running neck and neck ahead of the rest, because they have the best defenses. Or maybe the only defenses. Certainly they can both score. LSU has its 140 points, Georgia 106. But, then, 106 is only sixth best in the conference. What impresses most people is that Georgia blanked its first two opponents before being touched for 16 points by South Carolina last week, while LSU went in against Baylor leading the SEC by a wide margin in total defense (166.5 yards per game), a record the Bears did not disturb. Neither Georgia nor LSU has played an SEC rival, however, and that really is what it's all about.
Georgia opens its conference campaign Saturday against Ole Miss, and then, in order, must play Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn. It's as rugged a schedule as any of the unbeaten five must face, and if Georgia comes out of that unscathed, certainly there won't be any cries of cheese champion. As good as the defense is, it will need all the scoring punch it can get from the likes of Quarterback Mike Cavan, who would rather run than throw, making him unique in this age, and from Vince Dooley's large squad of talented running backs—Bruce Kemp, Dennis Hughes, Craig Elrod and Julian Smiley. "Let me say this about Georgia," said South Carolina's Paul Dietzel last week. "It has a small but quick defensive line, but there's nothing small about that offensive line. It simply intimidates you by knocking you over and making room for Kemp and all those other big running backs."
LSU has one more nonconference foe left, Miami, before swinging into five straight SEC games, starting with Kentucky. The Tigers then have Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama before tapering off against Mississippi State. Of the five, only Kentucky and Ole Miss will escape the Baton Rouge snake pit, and if LSU needs any kind of an edge, it needn't ask for more than that.
LSU used all of its 58 players against Baylor, including Andy Hamilton, a 6'3" 175-pound sophomore split back who scored four touchdowns, tying a school record set in 1939 by Ken Kavanaugh and later matched by Johnny Robinson 11 years ago. "They sure have a lot more blue-chip athletes than us," moaned Baylor Coach Bill Beall when the slaughter was over.
Just a shade, but no more than a shade, behind those two—and you can get a lot of argument here—are Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. In last week's victory over Florida State, the Gators came up with something that has eluded them thus far, a defense. And in the doing they uncovered yet another supersoph, Bob Harrell, a 6'2" 221-pound defensive end, who helped stifle Florida State with a minus-18 yards rushing. That's a school record for Florida.
The Gators got to FSU Quarterback Bill Cappleman 11 times for a minus-91 yards, recovered five Florida State fumbles, intercepted three passes and blocked a field-goal attempt early in the game. Other than that they didn't do much. The offense, of course, was all John Reaves, who threw for two touchdowns, raising his three-game total of touchdown passes to 10. If the defense has indeed found itself after a two-game struggle—Florida gave up 69 points—and Reaves continues his assaults on other people's secondaries, the schedule could swing it all Florida's way. Certainly it's the easiest facing any of the top teams. The Gators already have beaten Mississippi State and now must play only Vanderbilt, Auburn, Georgia and Kentucky. Some easy schedule.