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24 Sep 2007

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Society Football

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.

John L. Smith Trophy

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.

BlogPoll Ballot

This season, I'll again be voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment, and rankings may change based on your suggestions.

Rank Team Delta
1 Southern Cal 1
2 LSU 1
3 Oklahoma 1
4 Florida 1
5 California --
6 West Virginia --
7 Ohio State 1
8 Rutgers 1
9 Boston College 1
10 Oregon 1
11 Texas 2
12 Clemson 2
13 Kentucky 4
14 South Florida 4
15 Cincinnati 4
16 Wisconsin --
17 South Carolina 5
18 Georgia 8
19 Alabama 4
20 Michigan State 6
21 Penn State 12
22 Arizona State --
23 Hawaii --
24 Missouri --
25 Purdue 1

Dropped Out: Louisville (#20), Arkansas (#21), Texas Tech (#25).

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.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 24 Sep 2007

23 comments, Last at 27 Sep 2007, 10:34am by witless chum

Comments

1
by Tiresias (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 7:56pm

Michigan State doesn't deserve that bump for beating Notre Dame.

2
by bradluen (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 8:07pm

There should be a little more spread between the second-tier SEC teams. The games were close, but South Carolina's win was *at* Georgia, and Georgia's win was *at* Bama. Apart from maybe Arizona State, none of the teams below Bama have achieved nearly as much as the Tide, so Kentucky, USC East and Georgia should all move up.

Yes, this means I now believe the SEC is easily the best conference.

3
by bradluen (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 8:20pm

Oh, and Eli's big season was 2003.

4
by oljb (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 8:58pm

I will note that fully one-half of the Big East is in the top 15. Best Conference?

5
by nbcrippler (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 9:00pm

Appalachian State was not at home this weekend.

6
by Kevin 11 (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 9:21pm

Isn't that kind of high for Rutgers? BC beat Georgia Tech, Clemson beat Florida State, Texas beat TCU, Kentucky beat Arkansas and Louisville, USF beat Auburn, Oregon beat Michigan, Wisconsin beat Iowa and Washington State...I'm not saying that any of those beaten teams are flawless, but they are all better than any team Rutgers has beaten to date.

Seriously, Rutgers is Kansas with a louder fanbase.

7
by hooper (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 9:33pm

Oh, the werewolf's not going to like your new ballot...

8
by Fourth (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 10:47pm

Your ballot still overrates the big east. They are easily the third best conference, but USF and Cinci are 5+ spots too high. The rest of that ballot looks great. I can live with LSU/UF being 2/4 as long as the winner of that game moves to number 1 or 2 and stays there 'til losing.

9
by Kevin 11 (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 11:31pm

8- I don't agree with the premise that teams there can be too many teams from a particular conference. You rank teams on what they did, not the conferences they're in.

What's funny is that Cincinnati beat a pretty good Pac-10 team, and USF beat a pretty good SEC team.

10
by Tiresias (not verified) :: Mon, 09/24/2007 - 11:59pm

Auburn can't qualify as pretty good this year, unfortunately.

11
by Fourth (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 2:17am

What's funny is I wasn't saying they should be moved down just because they were in a certain conference, I was saying Russell in the last couple polls has overvalued big east teams. A couple weeks ago I was saying he needed to move Louisville down after giving up 42 to mtsu (turns out it wasn't a fluke). Last week I was saying he should move USF down because the Auburn victory had become devalued after the Miss St loss, as Tiresias pointed out. Having watched Oregon St./Cinci, I was not impressed, and having seen the 5 teams below them play, I would take all those teams on a neutral field Saturday. I agree that the best teams should be ranked in order regardless of conference affiliation. I just think he has one conference overvalued, so I say so in the comments thread since that's what it's for. :)

12
by Russell Levine :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 2:17am

Re: 3, 5 - Fixes have been made.

I fully admit Michigan State may not deserve its spot but for now they're 4-0 and there aren't many of those left.

As for Rutgers, I believe very strongly that is a legitimate top-10 team that will beat West Virginia at home. At this point in the season, I'm still basing my rankings on the combination of who teams have beat and how they've looked against whomever happens to be on the schedule.

The difference is that teams that have played somebody earn the benefit of the doubt.

Rutgers hasn't played anyone, but they've looked very dominant and return most of the key elements from an 11-win team. I believe the ranking is justified, but I'll be quick to drop them well down the list if games against USF and WVU prove me wrong.

13
by DMP (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 5:24am

I am going quote myself from the tail end of the SDA thread (evidently since what I said was so awesome):

"Please let’s not rank Michigan State yet. They haven’t beaten anyone yet, as it turns out that the best team in their schedule so far was Bowling Green (Pitt lost to UConn 27-7 and ND is what ND is right now). They looked quite unimpressive on offense in all those games and had enough trouble putting away those teams."

(Kevin11 ranked MSU 24 and issues a challenge to bump them off)

"Since I have Big Ten tunnel vision, I will mention Purdue and Michigan. Not sure MSU has the athletic potential to hold down the Purdue offense enough to be able to score with them. At least not with Hoyer holding the ball forever like he is now. To take from EDSBS guest podcast last week, Michigan is a team with good players playing poorly right now. They are rounding into better shape, and could entirely bounce back with a healthy Chad Henne. They are still ahead of MSU top to bottom talent, Kellen Davis and Jonal Saint-Dic excepted."

14
by Kevin 11 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 9:09am

14- Michigan State has beaten Notre Dame and Pitt- two very weak looking teams that are still stronger than any team Purdue has played. And Michigan still has the loss to App St on their resume.

Of course, September polls are mostly for fun. Pretty soon these teams will start playing one another, and we'll have actual results to base our rankings on :)

15
by Opiwan (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:29am

Please unrank Penn State. We do not deserve the Top 25 until we prove we can win in even slightly adverse circumstances and Anthony Morelli gives some inkling that he may have learned something. Considering he's a complete bonehead (as anyone who hears his interviews on Penn State Football Story can attest to), that pretty much means we have to wait until next year to get ranked again...

16
by navin (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:43am

Why does SC drop 5 spots for losing to the previously #2 team? I know the national polls do it all the time, but I think we should get comfortable with not automatically dropping teams after a loss. It would make the AP and USA Today more reflective of actual quality of the teams.

17
by James G (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:18am

I would have dropped South Carolina after that loss as well. It's not just that they lost, but that they lost in pretty dominating fashion. If LSU keeps dominating everybody like that, then South Carolina should have no problem moving back up.

18
by David S. (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 1:12pm

I see a lot of people, when debating a potential LSU-USC matchup, always go with "I think so and so beats so and so on a nuetral field, so I'll rank them higher." But that's not an accurate depiction of the potential matchup. If USC and LSU are the top 2 teams and are fighting for #1, that basically means you see them in the BCS Title Game, and this year the BCS Title Game is in New Orleans. That'll hardly be a neutral field for a LSU-USC game. Much like the 2004 and 2007 Sugar Bowls or 2006 Rose Bowl.

19
by Rick (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 2:35pm

Where's Syracuse? (just kidding)

Big East is, easily, the most underrated conference. It was last year, and is this year. Due to the lack of any major tradition (save Syracuse, who is in a bad way), there is an overwhelming tendency to say Big East teams "aren't as good" as other conferences.

Huh? People never say it's tradition, but this is what they ARE saying without actually coming out and saying it. Fact is, these teams have been improving over the long haul and are all pretty good. Except maybe SU, who is only better than Notre Dame in all likelyhood. And Louisville.

None of the teams really challenge LSU or USC, but that isn't what makes them "bad". I doubt there are many teams that could challenge those two. But Rutgers and WVU will probably beat, or give good battle to, any other top 25 team. USF and Cincy will give beat or give good battle to any team below 10. Pitt isn't that bad, having given MSU a run for their money...so they're just out of the top 25. Louisville is a sad case, though. They may wind up 7-4. Of course, so could SU, oddly enough (though highly doubtful).

Top to bottom, I'd pit any Big East team against other conferences and I'm willing to bet more Big East teams would prevail.

20
by DB (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 3:33pm

A little off-topic, but anyway : I think I understand that there is a lot of tradition involved, and it's something of an "event"; But doesn't all of the dressing up (sundresses and heels?!? Ties!? Really?) at some of the southern schools just seem to be a lot less fun than "normal" tail-gating? I've been to UVA a couple of times and seen similar things, and it just seems very pretentious and, well, less fun than otherwise. (Of course, the coeds DO look much nicer...)

21
by Flounder (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 4:32pm

So Michigan State and Purdue were tied at 26th? How exact!

22
by James G (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 10:59am

18 - who cares if that's not the definition of what's going to happen? If you're ranking teams against each other, who wins on a neutral field is exactly what you should be thinking.

23
by witless chum (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 10:34am

As a Spartan fan, I don't think they deserve to be ranked unless they beat Wisconsin this weekend, or maybe if they lose a nailbiter at Wisconsin.

I'd rather put a team who's played someone and lost in there than an undefeated team that's played no one.