24 Sep 2007
by Russell Levine
To be truly appreciated, the passion and splendor of college football must be observed in person.
The University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as it is more familiarly known, hasn't had much on-field success recently outside of a 10-win, Eli Manning-led season in
2004 2003. But you'd never know it by taking a walk through the central area of campus called "the Grove" on a home football Saturday. At Ole Miss, tailgating has been raised to art form.
As the fans in the Grove like to put it (usually after they've just performed another rendition of the Ole Miss fight or the "Hotty Toddy" chant), "We didn't invent tailgating, we just perfected it."
By early morning, the Grove is transformed into a tent village. SUVs crawl through campus -- at a speed limit of 18 miles per hour, in tribute to Archie Manning's retired jersey number -- dropping off supplies for spreads that would make a high-end Manhattan caterer blush.
Tables are accented by silver candelabras and many of the tents held chandeliers. Many of the gentlemen dress in seersucker and oxford cloth shirts; ties are not uncommon. For the southern belles, sundresses and high heels are standard issue. And unlike a typical Sunday gathering at the Meadowlands, the only makeup you'll see is not applied as face paint.
Football at a place like Ole Miss is a society event, and the enthusiasm varies little with the performance of the team. The Rebels came into Saturday's game against defending national champion Florida at 1-2 and already 0-1 in SEC play, and fans held out little hope for a close game.
One fan who paused climbing the stadium stairs to watch the opening kickoff sighed after Florida returned the ball past midfield and appeared to speak what the entire crowd was thinking when she said simply, "It's going to be a long day."
Yet Ole Miss quickly showed that it came to play, taking Florida, a three-touchdown favorite, to the wire in an eventual 30-24 loss. The closeness of the game would be noteworthy except that in this increasingly bizarre college football season, a near upset by the home team in a conference game no longer raises eyebrows. Certainly not on a day when a 36-point favorite lost at home and Nebraska was a missed field goal away from losing to Ball State, also at home.
No result this year is likely to top Michigan's loss to Appalachian State on the season's opening Saturday for sheer David-vs.-Goliath astonishment, but Louisville's loss Saturday to Syracuse may have been an even bigger upset. Much like Michigan, Louisville began the year with a high ranking and dreams of a national championship. A 58-42 win over Middle Tennessee State early in September raised concerns about some glaring defensive weaknesses, flaws that Kentucky exploited in handing the Cardinals their first loss a week ago.
Louisville didn't get over its disappointment in time for Saturday's game against 0-3 Syracuse. The Cardinals were favored by more than five touchdowns, yet trailed throughout the game after committing four turnovers, 12 penalties and too many defensive mistakes to count. Suddenly Louisville, the Big East co-favorite with West Virginia, is 2-2 and appears to be no better than the conference's fourth- or fifth-best team.
Michigan, on the other hand, is also 2-2, but headed in the opposite direction. The Wolverines followed a shutout of Notre Dame with another strong defensive effort in a 14-9 win over Penn State, showing that they do intend to be a factor in the Big Ten race after all.
And what of Appalachian State? Sports Illustrated cover darlings after the Michigan win, the Mountaineers were stunned
at home Saturday by Wofford College -- which, for those who enjoy the game of daisy-chaining results to compare teams, means that Wofford is approximately 50 points better than Notre Dame, a number that will grow if Notre Dame keeps losing.
Upsets of the Fighting Irish used to make headlines, but no longer. A loss to Michigan State Saturday dropped Notre Dame to 0-4 for the first time in 119 years of football, and prospects don't look much better for a win the next four weeks with games against Purdue, UCLA, Boston College and USC.
Surprises can be found in every conference. In the SEC, Auburn has disappointed, while Kentucky continues to make believers after beating Louisville and Arkansas the last two weeks. UCLA was considered perhaps the Pac-10's second-best team, but the Bruins were hammered at Utah by 38 points a week ago. The ACC's Virginia Tech was supposed to be a national-title contender, but the Hokies weren't even competitive in getting blown out at LSU.
Only at the very top of the sport have things gone according to form. USC, LSU, Oklahoma and Florida are all undefeated and even before the end of September it's looking increasingly likely that the eventual national champion will emerge from that group of four.
Back in the Grove, news of the day's upsets was met with little reaction from the fans, who by and large took their own loss in stride and as they settled in for a long, postgame tailgate.
Who can get too upset about a football game when there are drinks to be mixed, barbecue to be consumed and friends with which to mingle? Certainly not Ole Miss fans, many of whom tailgate on parcels of the Grove that have been passed down through generations of family members that have attended the school.
In two weeks, the Ole Miss fans will be back out in the Grove in force, candelabras, sundresses and all. In this season of surprises, that is one very safe bet.
Again, I typically don't like to give the JLS Trophy to a coach who had an otherwise good day, but Ed Orgeron earns the honor this week for his decision to try a fake punt late in the loss to the Florida.
Ole Miss had the ball, down six, with 3:09 to play. It was fourth-and-11 at the Ole Miss 33. With three timeouts remaining, the Rebels could have punted and hoped to get the ball back. But the way Tim Tebow was gashing their defense made that unlikely. Instead, they opted for a fake punt.
The call surprised no one, certainly not the Florida defense, and the attempt was stopped short of the first down. Here's what I hate about that call. Ole Miss had the momentum for much of the second half. The Rebels had a difficult, but still manageable fourth down play, and their quarterback was hot. There was no reason to try and resort to trickery, especially in a situation when it was obvious. Just leave the offense on the field and go for it! What's the worst that would happen? You'd get stuffed and give up a late touchdown? Who cares?
Congratulations, Coach O. Please don't kill me.
Rankings that may require further explanation: LSU drops to second this week. The Tigers don't need to apologize for a comfortable win over a pretty good South Carolina team, but if I had to pick an LSU-USC winner on a neutral field today, I'd go with the Trojans by the narrowest of margins.
Florida's close call puts the Gators behind Oklahoma, but still ahead of West Virginia. I won't kill Florida too much for an SEC road win, and the relative strengths of the Big East and SEC keep the Gators ahead of the Mountaineers.
Similarly, Rutgers drops a spot without playing because of Louisville dragging the Big East's reputation down.
The bottom half of poll is dicey. We still don't have much information about teams like Purdue and Michigan State, but they're two of the remaining unbeatens, which is enough to merit a vote at this point.
Games I watched at least part of: Texas A&M-Miami, Oklahoma-Tulsa, Florida-Ole Miss, Penn State-Michigan.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
23 comments, Last at 27 Sep 2007, 10:34am by witless chum