Tigers Tangle Before a Rebel Tide
The SEC Riviera Roundup
By Chris Warner
September 16, 2015
LSU narrowly escaped the cowbell clanging confines of Stark Vegas late Saturday night in its first game of the season. The Tigers rode the powerful legs and torso of Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette and the heady decision making of a poised sophomore Brandon Harris to overcome a strong comeback effort by the Bulldogs, led by senior quarterback Dak Prescott, arguably the SEC’s best pro prospect at the position. Any road win in the SEC is a significant feat, and the Bayou Bengals will return to Baton Rouge this weekend where the struggling Auburn Tigers will be challenged to get their first victory away from Jordan-Hare Stadium. Undefeated Alabama hosts the impressive Ole Miss Rebels in Bryant-Denny in what is sure to be the conference game of the week. The Rebels bettered Alabama in Oxford last season and the Crimson Tide certainly has payback on its championship mind.
In this exclusive weekly column of all things SEC West Football, we’ll take our regular armchair quarterback tour through the nation’s toughest sub conference, chronicling the winners and apparent losers in this third week of fall football competition while previewing the two biggest games of the week: Alabama versus Ole Miss and LSU versus Auburn.
Alabama Vs. Ole Miss
This game is the SEC Game of the Week for a number of reasons. While the Bayou Bengals hosting the Auburn Tigers at 2:30 in Tiger Stadium Saturday is another matchup worth watching, it will serve as a warm-up for armchair enthusiasts across the SEC, as the Tide-Rebel tilt is an awaited revenge game for the Crimson Tide, and a rare, double signature win opportunity for the Rebels and their upstart Coach, Hugh Freeze—the only SEC head coach to never play college football.
The Rebels have not defeated the Crimson Tide in back-to-back seasons since they last won the SEC in 1963 (52 years ago). If they win on Saturday it will usher in a new, golden era for Ole Miss Football—and will unequivocally signal that order has been faithfully restored in Oxford. Alabama has another solid defense, a vaunted running game and a team loaded with four and five star players. The Rebels, on the other hand, boast a star-studded roster of their own. Some analysts contend that Ole Miss has purchased more NFL potential than any other SEC team. This, however, remains to be proven, certainly in this season, where the Rebels’ two earlier wins have been against dreadful competition. Of course, the SEC Western Division gauntlet awaits the Rebels, as it does every other Western Division team.
Tennessee-Martin, the Rebels’ opponent in its home opener, went 6-6 a year ago, losing to Kentucky 59-14, Jacksonville State38-14 and Mississippi State 45-16. The Rebels’ next adversary, Fresno State, lost its first three games a year ago by the combine score of 166-59, dropping contests to USC (52-13), Utah (59-27) and Nebraska (55-19) before finishing the season 6-7. Junior College quarterback transfer Chad Kelly has been impressive in the two classless, lopsided, 70-plus point victories. However, the SEC rookie will be baptized by fire in Bryant-Denny late Saturday night; especially without blind side protector Laremy Tunsil, the Rebels’ former outstanding left offensive tackle and sure-fire future NFL star.
In July, the NCAA opened an investigation into Tunsil and the Ole Miss program after his stepfather, Lindsey Miller, accused the two parties of multiple NCAA violations. Miller told Chris Howard, the NCAA’s director of enforcement for football, that the lineman has been provided with cash, clothes and help with car insurance payments, among other illegal freebies. Even more alarming is that Miller also accused Ole Miss of falsifying academic records for the maintenance of Tunsil’s eligibility. These are serious accusations that cannot be summarily dismissed without inquiry. The NCAA, at the direction of its president, is deliberately working on the case.
Miller’s assertions certainly explain the Rebels’ recent wholesale improvement on the football field, and particularly, Coach Freeze’s ability to recruit top-notch talent. Miller is what is referred to in legal sources as a “primary source witness” in that he saw first-hand the alleged violations occur, being the stepfather and living with Tunsil in the same household. It will be interesting to see how the NCAA treats these allegations, and whether or not Tunsil will play on Saturday—and in any other game for the Rebels. If Ole Miss chooses to risk playing him without clearance from the NCAA Infractions Committee, they stand to forfeit any game they win with Tunsil in the lineup. One would think Tunsil will not play Saturday, meaning Chad Kelly’s back will be exposed to a fierce Crimson Tide pass rush—and the usual avalanche of noise and misery that is Bryant-Denny on a fall Saturday night. It of course does not help the Rebel cause that Nick Saban’s former boss and fishing buddy, Mark Emmert, is the NCAA President.
Why Alabama Will Win
The curious case of Laremy Tunsil notwithstanding, Alabama will use a powerful running game and a sturdy defense to control the clock and keep the Ole Miss offense off the field. Look for Saban to dial up blitz packages that will confuse the Ole Miss offensive line and harass the Rebels’ green signal caller, Chad Kelly, into making mistakes. Kelly has never seen anything like Bryant-Denny at night, and while he has two years of junior college ball under his belt, nothing he has done will have prepared him for the mental and physical challenge he faces when the sun sets on Saturday. And finally, the head of SEC refs, Steve Shaw, is an Alabama graduate. Look for Alabama, in traditional fashion, to get several key calls that will ensure a Crimson Tide victory. After all, order must be maintained—and the jaded powers that be in the SEC offices are not about to allow Ole Miss to claim dominance over their beloved Crimson Tide. Have no fear Bama fans, the legends of Bear Bryant and Harvey Updyke will be preserved. Can I get a Roll Tide on that? Alabama is a 6.5 point favorite heading into Saturday.
LSU versus Auburn
Auburn defied the old football adage that foretells a team’s biggest improvement from week one to week two by needing overtime to defeat lowly Jacksonville State on Saturday. Senior quarterback Jeremy Johnson has performed far below his Heisman hype, making the Gus Malzahn offense sputter uncharacteristically early on. Further, the Auburn defense, led by former Florida head coach Will Muschamp, has also struggled, leaving AU fans perplexed about the preseason noise that had them tabbed as the SEC Western Division favorite. Auburn fans now realize that they will be lucky to go .500 in league play if they do not drastically improve on both sides of the ball. The pressure is mounting heading into Death Valley on Saturday. Nevertheless, the War Eagle faithful can find solace in the fact that the game will be played under the sun, and not the moon, as LSU has historically won over 80 percent of its night games in Tiger Stadium. During the day, the Bayou Bengals are traditionally much easier to defeat, if there is such a notion regarding a Les Miles team.
LSU has played only one game. If the trite, old adage proves true for them, then this could be the Tigers’ breakout contest. The second half offensive plays LSU ran against State resembled a 1970’s Big Ten contest. The Tigers almost exclusively fed the ball to Fournette—who was more than hungry for carries. His 159-yard performance on the ground earned him and road grader center Ethan Pocic, SEC Player of the Week honors. However, the ultra-conservative philosophy allowed the Mississippi State defense to key on LSU’s running game and mount a late comeback. In the end, time ran out on the Bulldogs, but the episode should serve as a lesson to Miles and Cameron that they need to be more balanced and unpredictable on offense in order to reach their full point-scoring potential. They will not beat the cream of the conference lining up and telegraphing their favorite running plays.
Why LSU Will Win
In the first half against Mississippi State LSU dominated on both sides of the ball. Had it not been for some untimely penalties—some of which were questionable (SEC Refs are corrupt), the Tigers would have put the game out of reach. To his credit, Brandon Harris did not throw an interception and demonstrated tremendous poise and talent—particularly an ability to scramble for a first down when the coverage allowed. LSU’s defense was equally impressive, putting great pressure on Prescott and repeatedly stuffing the run. While the 21-19 win appeared ugly in score, the tape reveals a team that can do so much more. The sky is the limit for this LSU team. There is much room for improvement.
Auburn, on the other hand, regressed in week two. Were the Tigers looking ahead to LSU? Perhaps, but this year’s team appears to lack the cohesion that the two previous Malzahn units displayed. Jeremy Johnson either needs glasses or a new offense to run, because he is on track to throw 25 interceptions if he continues to misfire at his current rate. Moreover, Auburn’s running game has not been as effective with a pure drop-back passer. It certainly appears that Gus may this year lack the pieces necessary to make Auburn a conference winner. We will find out Saturday if they can wake up in time to win what is sure to be an exciting cat fight. These two teams have a long history of exciting contests. Saturday’s revenge game for Brandon Harris should be no different.
Around the SEC West
Alabama – The Red Elephant Club has already met with the conference brass. The night game in Bryant-Denny is a must-win for the Tide, as they have the nation’s toughest schedule. Murderer’s row awaits the Tide with Georgia, Tennessee and the rest of the Western Division on the schedule. Don’t be surprised to see the infamous “Catfish” in black and white come Saturday evening. He is proven.
Arkansas – Brett Bielema ran his mouth like a sixth grader at recess about Ohio State not playing a tough enough schedule. Bear Bryant always said that if you don’t have anything nice to say—then don’t say it. Brett undoubtedly wishes he never called Urban Meyer out. The Hogs take on Texas Tech this weekend in Fayetteville. Oddly, it was an Alabama transfer at quarterback for Toledo who pulled off the upset.
Auburn – Gus Malzahn is likely wondering if he is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Known for his ability to craft an offense based on the abilities of his players, Malzahn has been called a genius and a guru for his skill at producing high-powered offenses. While he is still tinkering with his team’s approach at moving the football, he is hoping his new defensive coordinator will pick up the slack in the interim.
LSU – Les Miles was once again derided for his conservative play calling. Cam Cameron, according to fans, is being held back, forcing an ultra-vanilla approach that almost lost the opener. Almost only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades, and while you cannot argue with the results, Miles remains one of the more enigmatic and unpredictable coaches in the game. Auburn will learn this Saturday.
Mississippi State – Dak Prescott was impressive in the loss to LSU. He played a near-perfect game and led his team toward a valiant comeback that fell short late. Dan Mullen has to be happy with his team’s performance, as they likely will be able to win a game or two they aren’t supposed to before the season’s end. The Bulldogs host Northwestern in Stark Patch this Saturday at 3:00 p.m.
Ole Miss – Just as Hugh Freeze never played college football, he has never had a running game at Ole Miss. The SEC has always been a conference that prides itself on physical play and the ability to churn out the tough yards on the ground. Freeze’s offenses, much like their outsider coach, are not traditionally built. The Rebs will try and be one dimensional in T-Town. Good luck with that.
Texas A&M – In 2014, the Aggies began 5-0 before dropping five of their next seven games. This year they are 2-0 and already their fans are talking more smack than Bama fans. Their fan base is really a peculiar bunch. They have already forgotten last season’s fall, as well as the 59-0 embarrassment at the hands of Alabama. Their memory is obviously selective. They host Nevada Saturday at 11:00 a.m.
Until next time…
*Chris Warner is double graduate of LSU and holds a doctorate from the University of New Orleans. He has blogged about SEC Football for 17 years running and is the author of over 20 books, including the popular “Tailgater’s Guide to SEC Football Volume IV” and “SEC Sports Quotes Compendium,” along with “The Wagon to Disaster,” “Bushwhacked at the Flora-Bama, Volume II” and “Saved at the Alabama-Florida Line,” a novel set at the iconic watering hole in 2010. He is currently writing, “Captured by the Brit Who Fooled Baton Rouge,” the life and times and hideous crimes of one Richard Scott Rogers, an insidious pedophile who masqueraded as a TV talk Show host for 12 years in Baton Rouge before his deserved demise at the hands of his gay lover and son-in-law in August 2014.