Watershed moment for Dooley
Vols-Gators could be make-or-break for third-year coach
I remember watching The Blind Side on Thanksgiving of 2009. (Yes, I went to the theater to watch it with my parents. It was a holiday; that makes it OK.) What stuck out to me most from that movie -- other than the fictional version of Michael Oher single-handedly taking out an entire well-armed Memphis gang using only good footwork, proper hand placement and leverage -- was a scene when assistants from across the SEC showed up to a high school practice to get their first look at the big offensive lineman.
When Tennessee’s head man, Phillip Fulmer, arrived, an assistant from one of the other schools said something along the lines of, "Well, Fulmer’s here, pack it up boys." (i.e., "We don’t stand a chance of landing this kid now because the big guy in orange just showed up.")
Yes, the film was a highly-fictionalized account of Oher’s rise, but fictional or not, it was jarring to see other schools stand in deference to Fulmer and Tennessee. Those days had long passed; that scene was set in 2004 and the movie was released in '09.
In college football, a lot can change in five years. After a 5-7 season in 2008, the once-mighty Fulmer -- who brought Tennessee a national championship in 1998 -- was let go. And in the two seasons afterwards, Derek Dooley, son of the man who long coached one of Tennessee’s rivals and who was never fully embraced by the Knoxville faithful, has tried to bring the Volunteers back to a "Fulmer’s here" level of respect in the SEC.
He went 11-14 in his first two seasons.
But look closely at your television this weekend and you’ll see a small number to the left of "Tennessee" on the scoreboard. When you see it, don’t be startled. Do not attempt to adjust your set. (Can you even do that anymore?) There’s no need to call an optometrist. ESPN has not been overthrown by a small army of hound dogs and men in orange sweater-vests.
The number will be real. Tennessee is ranked -- No. 23 in the AP poll, to be precise. It will the first time you’ve seen a little number next to "Tennessee" on your television since 2008. Think about it. A different president was in office. Twitter was used only to communicate that the dog was entranced by a squirrel outside the window.
But that’s changed after a 2-0 start this season that has seen the Vols have outscore opponents 86-34 and outgain them 1,082 yards to 685. But that was against NC State and Georgia State. On Saturday, the Vols play host to Florida, which just overcame a deficit and a tough crowd in College Station for a win. This is arguably the biggest game played in Knoxville in half-a-decade. It’s a referendum on Dooley. Win, and the Vols will creep up the rankings and will be able to compete for an SEC East crown. Lose, and those first two blowout wins -- and that little No. 23 on your TV screen -- turn to dust.
I picked Florida to win this week, but I’m nervous. Those nerves, that doubt, are good signs for Tennessee. The Vols may never reach a level of, "Dooley’s here, boys, pack it up." Not in today’s SEC. But a convincing win this weekend means that those same nerves, that same doubt I have, will start to resurface in Gainesville, Columbia and Athens. Those long-forgotten fears will start to creep back onto visiting sidelines among those staring down a sea of orange and white.
Here are the five things that intrigue me most this weekend:
The last time Michigan State and Notre Dame squared off in East Lansing, the Spartans pulled out a heart-stopping victory in overtime.
"That was a boring, very middle-aged-sportswritery sentence, Brian," you say. "Why did you write something that might as well have been penned by a newspaper columnist who has been mailing it in for a decade?"
Fair question, reader.
I wrote it not because I’ve decided to start cruising three weeks in to a new job (I see you, Rick Reilly), but because the game was almost, very-literally, stopped a heart. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio suffered a minor heart attack after calling a fake field goal in overtime to beat the Irish in 2010. (An astute feature writer chronicled the aftermath here.) Dantonio recovered and his Spartans have grown far stronger since. They’ve catapulted to No. 10 in the nation on the back of a defense that has yet to allow a touchdown (the only two TDs scored against Michigan State this season have come off of interception returns). With that defense, and Le’Veon "50 touches" Bell toting the rock, Dantonio’s blood pressure should be just fine come the fourth quarter.
I held it in for two weeks, but I can’t restrain myself anymore. My name is Brian. I’m a fan of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. (Now you all say, "Hi, Brian.") My dad is an alumnus (I went to a laughably expensive, fancy school without a football team a few minutes away); I’ve passed a few fall Saturdays in the three-quarters-full Bobby Dodd Stadium while soaking in the lovely view of the Atlanta skyline; I’ve spent hours trying to master the triple-option on my Xbox. What a load off -- thanks for letting me share.
But that bias has nothing to do with why I’m looking forward to this one (well, maybe a little). This game could have major implications in deciding the ACC Coastal division. Yes, Tech already dropped a nail-biter on the road against Virginia Tech, but it was just that -- a nail-biter on the road that shouldn’t have been close. Given their past history and what I saw in that game, the Hokies may not be as good as advertised and likely will stumble later in the season. Virginia is solid, if unspectacular, and could be in the hunt come November. Whoever loses this one, though, likely has no shot at catching the turkeys for the division title and a berth in the ACC Championship. The winner, barring a slip up, will fight Virginia Tech to the end.
Just in case you’ve zonked out by 9 o’clock the past two Saturdays (I’m looking at you, everyone who owns boat shoes and a hat with a frayed brim), I’ll tell you a little about the surprise Heisman candidate out west. UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin has rushed for more than 200 yards in each of his first two games. He’s averaging 10.5 yards-per-carry. Ten-point-five! And Franklin has done none of his work against an FCS team. (Indeed, Rice is in the FBS.)
UCLA is playing host to Houston this weekend. No, I’m not interested in the game itself, given the blowout potential. I just want to see if Franklin can post 200 yards for a third consecutive game. The all-time record is five in a row, held by Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen and North Texas’s Jamario Thomas (one of these does not belong with the others). No Bruin has gone for more than 200 three consecutive games since Karim Abdul-Jabbar -- no, the much shorter one who played football and hasn’t appeared on Jeopardy -- did it in 1996. I’m eager to watch Franklin chase history. Hopefully, he’ll hit the mark by halftime so everyone can find a comfortable laundry room floor to curl up on by midnight.
Rich Rodriguez is not a Michigan Man. (I’m still unclear what that means. He doesn’t own snow tires? He doesn’t call going to a big lake, "going to the beach?" He doesn’t know any autoworkers?) That fact became obvious as he struggled through three seasons in Ann Arbor. However, after two games at the helm, Rodriguez certainly doesn’t seem to mind being an Arizona Bro. It’s warm. The ball doesn’t get weighed down by heavy expectations (or any expectations, really). And, apparently, he’s free to upset big-name teams whenever he pleases.
After rolling against Oklahoma State last weekend, Arizona earned itself a No. 24 ranking in the AP poll. Through two weeks, the Wildcats are ninth in the nation in passing and 20th in scoring. There’s no big test this week -- Arizona welcomes South Carolina State -- but if Rich Rod is back in his West Virginia form, he won’t allow his team to suffer a letdown in a forgettable game that comes sandwiched between a significant win and next week’s trip to Oregon. If Arizona is going to make any noise, it’ll need to prove the ability to remain focused in what could be a trap(ish) game. Getting a big lead early will tell me Rich Rod has got everyone’s head on straight.
Stanford has beaten USC three years running and four out of the past five years. USC badly needs to exercise the demons of getting stomped on by the smart kids up north; the bad blood built up between former coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll adds to the intrigue. The Trojans will have tougher conference tests against Oregon and UCLA later this year -- but beating Stanford, and winning soundly -- could do wonders for USC’s confidence after a shaky win against Syracuse last week.
I don’t expect anything crazy here ... wait, Gus Johnson is calling this game? All bets are off. If Andrew Luck parachutes in from Jim Irsay’s private plane in the middle of the second quarter and takes a few snaps, I would not be surprised. Everything is in play when Gus is in the building.
All kidding aside, the Trojans need to make a statement in this one if they want the juggernauts down south to take them seriously.
Two weeks in and coaches are already losing their jobs? No wonder unemployment is still hovering above 8 percent. After the 10-7 loss to Oregon State last weekend, Wisconsin head man Bret Bielema rid himself of offensive line coach Mike Markuson. Through the first two weeks, the Badgers stand 106th in rushing, 105th in points and preseason Heisman hopeful Montee Ball has mustered a Ron Dayneian (pro, not college) 3.85 yards-per-carry. If you can’t run the ball in Wisconsin, where seemingly seven of its five starting offensive linemen get drafted every year, then you’ve got problems.
"I really thought we were making good progress," Markuson said in a SiriusXM interview after being let go. Bielema did not award him a gold star for good progress. A graduate assistant is stepping in to fill the void. When I was a graduate assistant, I just graded papers and stapled stuff; good for him.
Also, Houston offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt resigned after one week.
The injury bug saw its shadow this year and has arrived much earlier than expected (Groundhog Day is asinine, by the way. I shouldn’t have even referenced it in a roundabout way; your day just got 10 percent worse because of it. I’m so sorry.)
I’m sad to say that Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn’s career is over after a fourth severe shoulder injury. That doesn’t bode well for Utah, which is still acclimating to an increasingly-tough Pac 12 in only its second season in the conference. Adding insult to injury, the Utes will square off with rival BYU this weekend after backup Jon Hays gets only one week’s worth of starter’s reps in practice.
Alabama will be without junior running back Jalston Fowler for the remainder of the season after he injured his knee. He had 85 yards through the first two games and will be replaced by another five-star robot that Nick Saban just finished building. Florida has lost linebacker Jelani Jenkins for a month or more to a hand injury. He’ll be missed in this weekend’s showdown with Tennessee; the Gators will have to lean on their defense, once again, if they hope to emerge with a win.
Missouri and Texas A&M were welcomed to the SEC last weekend with pomp, circumstance, defeats and Lee Corso (in A&M’s case, at least). None of the above will be in Lawrence to greet TCU as the Horned Frogs embark on their inaugural trip through the Big 12. They’re taking on a 1-1 Kansas team that has underwhelmed early this year. I have no doubt that TCU will feel quite comfortable, at least for a week, in their big, shiny new conference.
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer. Follow Brian on Twitter -- @brianburnsed