Sunday, October 21, 2007

When You Have the Goods, Exploit Them Fully; or, Why Les Miles Travels by Bus

Given the considerable brass in Les Miles' trousers, getting through airport security must be a monumental effort for the LSU coach and, consequently, anyone behind him. If you missed it, here's the final minutes of the LSU-Auburn game:

I don't know what amazes me more, Les going for six when three would've won it, or his straight-faced "on what?" reply to Holly Rowe's question about the last play. While nursing screeching hangovers, several thousand Cajuns are probably collectively asking themselves, "Is our coach the luckiest moron alive or is it just that his brain is composed entirely of testicular matter?"

It's a question for the ages. One certainty is that Les Miles must be a hell of a lot of fun to play for. This is a guy who goes for it on five consecutive fourth downs against the number 3 team in the country. Faced with the choice of with a game-ending play call where two of the three possible outcomes are disastrous (going for the TD) or a call where the odds are at least 50% and probably much greater (kicking a field goal), Les opted for the former, because, in his words, "we had the opportunity to kick their asses."

Contrast that with Miles' mouthy counterpart in Columbia, S.C.

Several weeks ago, Steve Spurrier, ebullient from a rare, 16-12 win at Georgia got his digs in by quipping, "It wasn't like they were some big, powerful team…Vandy beat them last year." Yeah, about that, Steve … suck it.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dink NeSmith Has a Hammer and All He Sees are Red and Black Nails.

It apparently comes as a surprise to Dink NeSmith that the media is a two-way communication device. Which comes as a surprise to the rest of us, since, for nearly two decades, NeSmith has been running a chain of newspapers throughout Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

Although NeSmith claims that 74% of respondents to this piece "barked 'Amen,'" NeSmith still felt compelled to go after the other 26% with this piece, which clarified nothing about his original editorial, except that NeSmith believes it's his First Amendment right to not tolerate dissent, or something to that effect.

Fretting that "Erk is dead … and so is the storied Junkyard Dawg intensity," NeSmith last week proposed a pay-for-performance salary and bonus plan for Georgia coach Mark Richt that works like this:

"Your base salary will be $500,000. Your $800,000 radio/TV and $530,000 Nike deals go to the athletic association. You work for us, not them. You can earn it back and more. Each victory triggers a bonus. The bigger the game, the bigger the bonus. Win the SEC championship, get $1 million. Win the national championship, pocket another $2 million."

Worried, like the rest of us, that Georgia football has fallen off the plateau it reached between 2002 and 2005, NeSmith believes a fire needs to be lit under Richt, who, as a not-so-minor side note, is the winningest coach in Georgia history and one of the most coveted young coaches in college football. Never mind that Richt is only in his sixth season in Athens and perhaps it's a bit premature to draw trendlines.

What's important is that we all buy NeSmith's underlying assumption that business and athletics have the same dynamics and thus that the University of Georgia should take a business-minded approach to its athletics.

That three true freshman on the offensive line aren't pancaking people like Max Jean-Gilles did is just details. Details are for little people. And Dink NeSmith, in case you didn't know, is kind of a big deal. He's the president of Community Newspapers, Inc., which operates such media powerhouses as the Dahlonega (Ga.) Nugget and the Palatka (Fla.) Daily News.

NeSmith views himself as a major Bulldog shareholder trying to drive some upside. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As always, Sen. Blutarsky at Get the Picture and Groo at DawgsOnline more than capably unwind NeSmith's tangled thread of illogic.

Groo boils it down to NeSmith wanting more hustle and being willing to pay for it. Richt, like any other coach, already has an incentive-based contract, although apparently it's not incentive-laden enough for NeSmith's tastes. Again, NeSmith assumes everyone thinks like him, except the other 26%, who hate free speech and want the terrorists to win. Blutarsky pokes a gaping hole in that assumption by asking, "Exactly why do you believe that Mark Richt is so crassly motivated by money?"

Indeed. I reckon $2M/year goes pretty far in Athens, and there are only so many yachts you can ski behind. We're talking about a guy who's adopted two kids from the Ukraine and goes on mission trips to Central America. A guy who, after presiding over the dominant FSU teams of the 1990s and bringing two SEC titles to a Georgia program that had gone through a two-decade drought, never heeded the siren call of a lucrative NFL contract. If Dink is unsure of Richt's desire to win, Dink can have a look at the FSU and Georgia trophy cases.

But since NeSmith insists on framing this in a business context in which Richt is motivated as much by dollars as by wins, Blutarsky asks why Richt would be willing to exchange his current package for one that carries the risk of a significant pay cut and, in the event that Richt politely declines, what coach would accept such a proposal? I'm left to wonder if NeSmith just assumes that Richt, perhaps like any of NeSmith's managers at CNI, will take any contract shoved in his face.

What amazes me about NeSmith is the following quote from his original piece:

"We expect victories. Our fans and the University have opened their checkbooks, within NCAA guidelines, to give you, the staff and the team fabulous resources to compete with the nation's best. Thanks to your leadership, we repeatedly recruit rosters of nationally ranked all-stars. It's past time for the investments to pay off."

Having reeled off his bona fides as a Bulldog supporter for nearly four decades, NeSmith claims an long memory of where Bulldog football has been. Trouble is, NeSmith still seems to be there, rather than in the present. College football's arms race – with its private jets for recruiting trips, $4 million annual coaching salaries, 100,000-seat stadia, indoor practice facilities and millionaires' club locker rooms – appears to have gone unnoticed by NeSmith. Florida and LSU, NeSmith must assume, stepped into a power vacuum created by Richt's not hustling hard enough.

Given all the glad-handing with alums, fans, media and administrators that Richt and other coaches have to do, I'm kind of sympathetic to current and former coaches like Jim Donnan and Nick Saban, who have been pretty surly in response to all duties not related to winning football games. When you add in megalomaniac über-boosters like Bobby Lowder, in whose footsteps NeSmith is dangerously close to treading, it's not much of a mystery why, for example, Steve Spurrier is currently coaching against his alma mater.

Of course Richt's boss, Georgia athletic director Damon Evans, could address NeSmith's issues far more knowledgeably than I or any other average newspaper reader. I suspect NeSmith knows this, which makes me, along with Groo and Blutarsky, wonder why NeSmith decided to air his grievances in newspapers rather than take it up with Evans directly. Aside from being a multi-millionaire donor, NeSmith is a former president of the Georgia Alumni Association and an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of the UGA Athletic Association.

Dink, if you want to get on Damon's calendar to tell him what you would do if you had his job, just call him. When he's not preoccupied with running the country's most financially and athletically successful ADs, I'm sure Damon's got all the time in the world to hear how a newspaper boss would run a Division I athletic department.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 15, 2007

Game 7: Stepping away from the light

Not gonna spend a whole lot of time analyzing the Xs and Os on this one, as this was one of those games where the details, frankly, just weren't important. In the wake of the obliteration in Knoxville, the subsequent fallout, and the potential for the first losing streak against Vandy in half a century, any kind of win is fine with me.

And, yes, this was an ugly win. So ugly that we needed a last second field goal to win it. So ugly that our players needed to be reminded that wins over Vandy are supposed to be perfunctory, not something you celebrate with a classless midfield logo stomp (save it for when you get consecutive wins in Jacksonville – hell, do that, I'll go Auburn 1986 on that logo).

So ugly, that, at halftime, with Georgia down 17-7, I was strangely unperturbed, given the pervasive, funereal vibe that has blanketed the Dawg Nation since the bright orange devastation two Saturdays prior. Along with my preseason hopes and expectations, I had soberly laid to rest the hope of Georgia beating anyone else left on the schedule besides, maybe, Troy. Being blown out in Neyland is one thing – unpleasant, but not unprecedented. Consecutive losses to Vandy would settle any debate about whether the program is in decline. Bulldog Coaches have been fired for less and may it always be so.

As we cross the season's midpoint, the problems with this team are well-documented: youth, shoddy fundamentals and the kind of gunshy gameplanning designed to preserve a struggling team from total self-immolation, but not to snatch wins by the jugular.

In other words, Chapter 16 in Georgia's Melvillian epic, Limping into Jacksonville, is already being written. All the standard plot elements for the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Wake are there: injuries to key skill players, defense riddled with doubts after early season setback(s) and a consequently dyspeptic fan base whose martini of tears is already in the shaker.

Which is why I was simply glad to get the win this Saturday and be done with it, style points be damned. As Doug noted, "coming off a 35-14 annihilation by Tennessee and down 17-7 at halftime against [rhymes with 'shucking'] Vanderbilt, the Dawgs were walking toward the light." What we needed was a reprieve, something to head off a schneid similar to last year's bleak October.

And this could be a particularly auspicious time for a change in momentum, for several reasons.

For one, Florida (4-2, 2-2) isn't exactly rolling. With two back-to-back losses gnawing at them, on tap next week for the Gators is a trip to Lexington to face Kentucky, who is coming off a huge win against a team responsible for one of the Gators' losses. Sure, they're the best two-loss team in the country and their two losses are a hell of a lot more respectable than our two losses. Regardless, the Gators' losses so far are evidence that someone has figured out how to slow the Tebow/Harvin blitzkrieg. And our bye week means Willie Martinez has two whole weeks to figure out how to work a DVD player, watch those Gator losses and gameplan accordingly while Florida splits its attention between us and a sky-high Kentucky team.

For another, two weeks from now, 5-2 is 5-2 and how you got there matters far, far less than the fact that you're not 4-3 and Vandy's homecoming bitch. It's the difference between columns, radio shows and message boards discussing the top 10 candidates to replace Willie Martinez and instead discussing "Well, hell, if Stanford can beat USC …" 5-2 means the burden of being on the bubble for an early December trip to Atlanta is probably off your shoulders, so you can roll into Jacksonville with a what-the-hell attitude, ready to see someone else's cornflakes get pissed in for a change.

For yet another, have I mentioned the bye week? Remember how I said intangibles like bye weeks don't matter? Yeah, about that … turns out they do. At least that was one of my takeaways from the Tennessee thrashing. (Other takeaways include that I should never, ever try to predict a score – the football fates apparently hate it when you try to telegraph their moves and their consequent vengeance is swift, excruciating and replete with flea-flickers.)

Anyway, since many of our problems are of the fundamentals variety – overthrows, drops, poor tackling, missed blocking assignments, off-sides, false starts, lining up in the neutral zone (the litany is never-ending) – we can use the off-week to rest up, heal, re-learn tackle football and fully repress any memories of Knoxville. Actually, two weeks is probably enough time to merely scratch the surface of what ails us. But it's the most time we'll have all season to work on this stuff, so let's value it appropriately. And, for once, blessedly, the bye week comes midway through the season, as opposed to right before the last game of the season when it's too late for any off-week adjustments to have an impact on the season.

The bye week is especially salient given who our next opponent is. In the early 1990s, then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier recognized the importance of the Georgia game to the title-starved Gators' SEC title hopes. Noting that the Georgia game typically came a mere week after what was usually a draining slugfest with Auburn, Spurrier lobbied for and won a bye week before the Cocktail Party.

Of course, it was a lot more than bye weeks that got the Gators to the 15-2 streak they currently enjoy in Jacksonville, but the difference in energy levels between the two teams on game day and the annual late October unveilings of new trick plays in the Gators' arsenal point to Spurrier's bye week productivity.

In 2007, Georgia finds itself where Florida found itself in 1990: If anything great is going to happen for this program, it must retake Jacksonville. In 2001, Mark Richt spoke often of "lifting the lid" off of the Georgia football program. SEC championships in 2002 and 2005 – our first since 1982 – were thought to be signs that the lid had been lifted.

Not so. Until we can win consistently in Jacksonville, there will still be a big orange and blue lid on this program. During Georgia's 2001-2005 renaissance, the Bulldogs' 1-4 record against the Gators screamed "Yeah, but…" The careful wording of Mark Richt's 24-4 record in "true road games" has always rankled me, because it sounds like the commenter is going out of his way not to mention the overall record outside of Athens, which becomes a bit less noteworthy when you add in Richt's 1-5 mark on the banks of the St. John's.

So I'm indifferent about last Saturday's results and I'm neither pessimistic nor optimistic about what lies ahead in Jacksonville. Conventional wisdom says we'll get thrashed. Of course, conventional wisdom said the same about Appalachian State against Michigan, about Colorado against Oklahoma, about Stanford against USC, about us against Auburn last year and on and on and on.

Labels: ,

Sunday, October 07, 2007

How Long, Willie?

"We are gathered here today for celebrating this year of bicentenniality, in the hope of freedom and dignity.

We are celebrating 200 years … of white folks kicking ass. White folks have had the essence of disunderstanding on their side for quite a while.

However, we offer this prayer, and the prayer is – how long will this bullshit go on?

How long! How long? How long will this bullshit go on?

That is the eternal question man have always asked, 'How long?'

When man first got here, he asked, 'How long will these animals kick me in the ass? How long before I discover fire and stop freezing to death?'"

Richard Pryor, "Bicentennial Prayer"
At the end of the third quarter, I'd had enough. Watching a fully prepared Tennessee kick a fully unprepared Georgia's ass all over Neyland Stadium for three quarters had been sucking the life out of me, so I took what little was left and went for a run to shake off the malaise. While on the trail, Richard Pryor's "How long?" refrain was going through my head. This was the second consecutive ass-kicking Georgia had suffered at the hands of Tennessee, which has gone 12-5 against us since Vince Dooley retired in 1988. Tennessee is now 20-15-2 against us overall, so if you do a little math you can see that I've been watching Tennessee kick our ass for most of my life. Between 1975 and 1988, we were 3-0 against them, a tally that mostly occurred on Herschel Walker's watch.

So, indeed, how long?

First off, I'd like to take back most of what I wrote on Friday, particularly the part about Georgia having the coaching staff that "inspires more confidence in a big game setting." This is the second time in three years that Willie Martinez's defense has spotted an opponent a four-touchdown lead in the first half, getting gashed up the middle for over 100 rushing yards in the first 30 minutes of play. Given that Tennessee has struggled to run the ball all year and OC David Cutcliffe's bona fides as a passing game mastermind, it might have been fair to expect more of an aerial attack. But no matter: we didn't get a single soul into Tennessee's backfield all day, leaving QB Erik Ainge to do as he chose. And, seeing our confused LBs and DBs out of position for most of the game, Erik did what you'd expect a three-year starter to do: complete 77% of his passes.

Thing is, we saw this movie last year, when Tennessee torched Georgia in the fourth quarter en route to a 51-33 shelling. At the time, the blame fell on the turnover-prone offense, which gave Tennessee short field to work with for much of the second half. Still, when Fulmer crowed to his charges at halftime last year that "they can't stop our offense," that wasn't some idle boast: The Vols have scored 86 points on Georgia in two games, including 65 in the past five quarters.

So, Willie, how long? How long will this bullshit go on?

This isn't like trying to figure out how to stop the spread offense. This is Tennessee, good old meat-and-potatoes Tennessee. They've been running this offense since 1992. And this wasn't a particularly good version of it. Tennessee's running game was ranked 11th in the conference going into this game. Gallingly, a ground game that averaged 130.2 yards a game raked us for 190 on Saturday.

Really, the first drive was all you needed to see to know what was going to happen: Georgia DLs getting blown off the ball as Tennessee RBs Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and Lamarcus Coker churned through arm tackles to average, respectively, 5.8 and 4.9 yards a carry. That opened up a passing game that left burn marks all over Asher Allen and Bryan Evans.

On the other side of the ball, Georgia's ground game, which ran for over 300 yards last week and featured a returning Kregg Lumpkin, got swallowed whole in Knoxville, to the tune of 68 total yards at 2.8 yards/carry. Hell, the whole offense had less than 60 yards total at halftime.

There were a few high points: Tripp Chandler found his hands and led the team in receptions (4) and caught a touchdown that was almost reminiscent of P-44 Haynes in a rare moment of Tennessee's DBs being utterly being out of position. Demiko Goodman's touchdown catch was spectacular. Kregg Lumpkin played with a lot of fire, coming off injury, and had the team's longest run, for 10 yards.

In hindsight, it seems pretty clear that we ran into a buzzsaw. Tennessee's coaches, fighting for their jobs, had two weeks to watch film and prepare. Georgia's coaches, fat and happy from two straight conference wins, seemed pretty breezy just before boarding the bus to Knoxville.

But too much of what happened on Saturday was not an aberration:

Matthew Stafford's progression has been steady – but slow. The bad mistakes and five-interception games seem to be well behind him, but the timing and quick reads have far from fully arrived.

The inexperience of our OL really came to the fore today, but it's always been there. Against teams like Oklahoma State, Western Carolina and Ole Miss, you can cover up the shortcomings with screens, draws and misdirection, but the South Carolinas and Tennessees of the world will not be fooled. You can't make your OL bigger, faster, stronger and more experienced in a week.

But the defense, sheesh. At one point yesterday, the thought crossed my mind, "We can't stop the run, we can't stop the pass, we don't tackle – exactly what is it that we're good at?" I know we're young along the line, but there seems to be a good bit of experience among the LBs and DBs, which are whom you count on for heady play.

But on Saturday, you saw the full chain reaction that illustrates – for better or worse – the yin and yang of how a defense line and backfield works, or doesn't work, together: As the DL got pancaked, LBs and DBs had to adjust. Instead of stopping plays for no gain, their task was keeping five-yard plays from turning into home runs. And that's the nightmare scenario, because, if you're playing on your heels, eventually the dam will break, as it did on the trick play from Lucas Taylor to Lamarcus Coker.

Dawg fans will turn their lonely eyes to departed DC Brian Van Gorder, even though the last serious asskicking by an SEC team occurred on his watch. But that was in the SEC Championship game against an LSU team that went on to win the BCS Championship. Whereas Tennessee wasn't thought to be an SEC contender before yesterday and nothing would shock me more than to see Georgia re-enter the race anytime soon.

On balance, Martinez' defense usually does its job. But it is also given to moments of wild blunder, glaring lack of preparation, poor tackling and a lack of intensity that has been painfully obvious in opening drives, such as

  • The 2005 and 2006 Florida games,
  • the 2005 West Virginia debacle and
  • Saturday's Tennessee wipeout

And at the end of regulation against

  • Auburn in 2005,
  • Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in 2006 and
  • Alabama this year

Van Gorder's defenses were staffed with players like David Pollack, Thomas Davis, Sean Jones and Odell Thurman – disciplined, mostly blue-collar guys who played like every play was the last play of the Super Bowl. Coach Van went 3-1 against Tennessee. With Martinez (1-2 against Tennessee), we're still waiting for plays like this:

and this:

Again, Willie, how long?

Labels: ,

Friday, October 05, 2007

Anything happen while I was gone?

Well, good Lord. I go on a little business travel, walk away from this thing for a few weeks and this is the world I return to? Kentucky playing South Carolina to decide who's the Beast in the East? A morning after in which half the top ten takes a demotion? In which, via transitive football herpes, USF looks like the best team in the Sunshine State (USF>Auburn>Florida>Miami & FSU)? In which the bloom is suddenly and emphatically off the Urban Meyer rose?

Seriously, I feel like I've returned home to find the kid has turned into Teen Wolf, the wife has run off with a lesbian biker gang and Britney Spears' career is fully restored.

When we last heard from our humble correspondent, he was enjoying music in the park, Georgia was toodling around with a directional Carolina school in advance of a journey into the jaws of Saban and South Carolina/Kentucky were mostly an amusing aside in an SEC story principally concerned LSU and its chainsaw genitalia. "When the going gets weird," Raoul Duke famously observed, "the weird turn pro."

Today, we find ourselves in a world in which tickets to the Red River Shootout are as easy to find in Dallas as BMWs parked in front of mobile homes. Fortunately, there are familiar sights to sustain us in this brave new world.

Still, we find ourselves entering terrain in which nothing is what it seems, even when clad in red and black. In a stark role reversal from most of the Mark Richt era, it's the Georgia defense that seems plenty good on paper and yet still needs the offense to save its ass in critical moments.

And while other offenses pack the pews at the Church of the Spread Option, Georgia's contentedly lines up in the I-formation and runs toss sweeps for 300 yards like it's not a day past 1982. Remember all those concerns about the mostly underclassmen offensive line and its new position coach, Stacy Searels? Granted, they're not the '82 Redskins OL, but they have their moments, like this one:

That brings us to Knoxville, which in recent years has gone from house of horrors to home away from home for the Bulldogs. For Georgia and Tennessee fans alike, there are some tasty matchups to look forward to: Georgia's prolific running game vs. Tennessee's porous rushing defense, Tennessee's equally prolific passing game against Georgia's interception-allergic secondary, the inevitable Georgia punt return for a touchdown that has been a staple of every Georgia-Tennessee game since 2001, the Jekyll-and-Hyde Georgia passing game against Tennessee's flag-football secondary.

When I don't know what the hell's going to happen, I look at which team has the more experienced QB (Tennessee), the team that can run the ball (Georgia), the team with the nastier defense (Georgia, with a stack of "ifs" and "buts") and whose coaching staff inspires more confidence in a big game setting (Georgia – and I think there's no shortage of Tennessee fans who would readily 'fess up to that). South Carolina had the same advantages last night that Georgia brings to Knoxville on Saturday and that worked out all right for the Gamecocks.

When those answers are inconclusive, I start looking at intangibles. Tennessee has the home crowd, albeit one that can be quickly silenced for long periods after a big play (the quintessential example being Sean Jones, 2003). Tennessee has had the all-important immediately preceding bye week (I contend to this day that Ron Zook owes much, if not all, of his 2-1 mark against Richt to preceding bye weeks). Tennessee has also spent the last two weeks hearing about the supposed hot seat under its head coach's considerable can. Of course, that one can go either way: the result could be "Win one for the Pumpkin" or merely self-fulfilling prophecy. Sports psychology is a fascinating, but highly speculative science – or a voodoo designed to enrich bookies.

The intangibles favoring Georgia are Richt's 22-3 road record (some of which I attribute to the fact that our players can't hear our "fans" booing) and the fact that its defense ought to have one hell of a case of red-ass from last year's 51-33 meltdown in Athens. Then again, Florida expected vengeance against Auburn last week and look how well that worked out. Also, Georgia is an underdog, in spite of being ranked higher, so there's a disrespect factor.

With all that said, "intangibles" are mostly something for pundits to fill on-air minutes and column inches with. Repeatedly, I've read comments from coaches and players that intangibles impact the first five running minutes of a game and after that, "you're just playing football." When I've coached teams, my advice has typically been to clear all the voices out of your head and just play. Home crowds, off-weeks, pollsters, Vegas oddsmakers and Internet rumors won't make your QB go through his reads better or help your RBs find their holes quicker.

As Richt noted, the off-week is good for shoring up fundamentals that may have eroded during the season and for having a more thorough dress rehearsal for a game. But it's not enough time, say, to install a new offense or re-wire your defense. Tennessee is tweaking its depth chart on defense and I'm sure they're working on their OL blocking schemes.

But I don't think Phil Fulmer is the kind of tactician to pull of what Urban Meyer did with a week off before Jacksonville in 2005, in which he excised large portions of his playbook to accommodate the fact that QB Chris Leak would never have the mobility and hard-nosed attitude to run the spread option. Plus, they switched jerseys to the retina-searingly ugly single orange sleeve, utterly devastating the delicate sensibilities of Georgia fans who seize over fashion faux pas like jorts. Instead, Tennessee is going to try to do what they've been doing all season (and, really, for much of Fulmer's and David Cutcliffe's shared tenures), but with better execution.

It's important (and aggravating to absolutely no end) to note that Tennessee is 2-0 against us with Erik Ainge as its starting QB. Given time in the backfield, he will perform open-heart surgery on our secondary. With Marcus Howard and Jeff Owens dealing with various ailments, the first thing I'll be watching for is how much pressure we're putting on Ainge up front. I wouldn't be surprised to see Tennessee leverage off-week blocking drills into an impressive opening drive. The question is how well and how quickly can Willie Martinez adjust?

On the other side of the ball, Tennessee will doubtless look better on D than they've looked in weeks past. They've had two weeks to re-learn tackle football and to hear about how soft they are. When they don't look like what we expect them to look like (as they inevitably won't), will it be smarter to start flinging it around or stay hammerhead with the running game until we establish the damned thing?

Special teams are the real X-factor here. Punt returns, blocked punts, squibbed kick-offs and blocked field goals have defined this series since 2001. There is simply no excuse for either team to discount the importance special teams in this game. If it were Tommy Tuberville at UT's helm with two weeks to prepare, you could bet the mortgage on this being a trickeration fiesta in orange. But, like Lloyd Carr, Fulmer has made his bed on burying opponents on talent alone – to hell with fancy plays.

So, having laid out my qualifiers, I expect to win, but by no means comfortably and by no means is that a comfortable expectation. Something along the lines of 30-24 or 34-30 seems reasonable.

Labels: ,

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ready, sweat, rock: Austin City Limits 2007

Returning to Austin has meant a return to the short hiatus from college football I take at the mid-point of September to take in the Austin City Limits music festival. Usually, Georgia is tuning up on a cupcake (like Western Carolina this year) and Florida and Tennessee are tangling in what, to me, amounts, to an annual Blimp Crash Bowl (so dubbed for the best possible outcome of such a retina-searing assembly of orange). So I let the DVR do its thang while I get my rock on.

Also, as next year's ACL likely will find me either changing diapers or attending to a very pregnant wife (not announcing anything here, just stating what's on the '08 agenda), this year's ACL could be my last for a while. Which is fine. In general, as I move farther from my 20s, I'm less and less enchanted with outdoor music festivals, particularly the variety that involve 65,000 people and late-summer central Texas heat, both of which ACL brings with a fury.

But while those factors have always presented a tolerance hurdle, ACL, now in its sixth year, always rewards your effort. ACL is consistently one of the best-run festivals I've ever attended and there's probably not a better bang for your buck anywhere: a three-day pass costs less than $200 (even less than $100 if you get in on it early) and gets you lineups as outstanding as this year's, which featured Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Arctic Monkeys, Steve Earle, The National, Bloc Party, Spoon, the Killers, Bjork, Stephen Marley, Damien Rice, Muse, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Beau Soleil and several dozen others. So impressive was the lineup that cancellations by the White Stripes and Amy Winehouse went practically unnoticed. Past ACLs have featured R.E.M., the Pixies, Al Green, Coldplay, Elvis Costello, Broken Social Scene and much more.

The festival takes place across seven stages in Zilker Park, which has more than enough acreage to handle the crowds and the ingress and egress is a hell of a lot less painful than some of the cattle drives I've been herded through to see music. There's bus service all over town, an adjacent bike park and throngs of rickshaws, all of which serve to diffuse traffic so effectively that ACL bears no resemblance whatsoever to the endless phalanxes of cars that creep with glacial speed into Manchester, Tenn., for Bonnarroo. With its streams of bicycles, mopeds, rickshaws and pedestrians, Barton Springs Road last night resembled a street in Bangkok or Saigon. But unlike Bangkok, Saigon or Bonnaroo, ACL leaves a considerably narrower carbon footprint, from the biodiesel-powered generators to the recycled toilet paper in the porta-potties.

Perhaps due to the demographics of the ACL acts' fanbases (and the fact that they're not being treated like livestock), there's a kind of group consideration and respectfulness among ACL festival-goers that seemed remarkable in comparison to some of the chaotic festivals I've read about and participated in. My wife and I strolled easily in and out of ACL on Friday night with tens of thousands of other attendees who, by and large, evidenced none of the irritability that comes with milling about for several hours in 100-degree temps. We remarked that this cooperative atmosphere sadly wouldn't be possible in my wife's hometown of Memphis, where the Beale Street Music Festival has been marred racial, adolescent and drug/alcohol-fueled shenanigans and the kind of general idiocy that lends steep irony to the book title The Wisdom of Crowds. As ACL showed, enjoying good music with lots of people who also appreciate music is a practical, simple matter: you don't need to be bought in to some hippie utopian communal dogma to know how not to be a dick at a rock show.

And, yeah, in case I under-emphasized this, it's hot. Real hot. The dearth of trees in Zilker Park makes for great site lines, but, between noon and 6:30 p.m., it also makes you feel like you're an ant under some giant kid's magnifying glass. Based on crowd attire, I'm not sure the average Texan is aware that black attracts light, such as the burning variety beaming down from that fiery orb in the sky known as the sun, or that denim isn't what you'd call "breathable." That said, it's hard work looking cool, especially if you can't leave it at just being a state of mind. Wearing an all-white polypro t-shirt, polypro boxers and linen shorts, I probably dropped close to five pounds in water weight, so I can't imagine what these idiots in black jeans, boots and black shirts were going through. Fortunately, there's a gazillion drink stands, some water misters at the festival; plus the WaMu Tent, aside from some great gospel, blues and zydeco, also features shade, blessed shade.

Really, the hardest thing about ACL is the musical tradeoffs. Before the White Stripes cancelled, you were going to have to choose between seeing them and Arcade Fire for the Saturday closer. Tonight's show, which I'm missing due to business travel (yeah, but it's to San Francisco, a merciful change of weather), forces you to choose between My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Like South By Southwest, you're dogged by the feeling that, no matter how rockin' the show is you're attending, people are getting their minds blown a few stages over.

Regardless, you are bound to be treated to some pretty transcendent moments, like last night's Arcade Fire set. Like fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene, the Fire feature roughly a dozen people onstage playing a lot of unconventional instruments for rock 'n' roll, with each band member rocking out so aggressively that it's like watching a band with a dozen frontmen – impossible to fully digest all at once. They can be sublime, but rarely are they subtle.

In a smirking reference to the title of their latest long-player, Neon Bible, Arcade Fire took the stage under a widely viewed YouTube clip of the female televangelist notoriously exhorting her audience to take "an enema of the holy spirit … straight up the rear."

Arcade Fire opened their set with Neon Bible's first track, "Black Mirror," kicking off a stream of swooping, anthemic mini-symphonies arranged with violins, French horn, tuba and church organ along with the traditional guitar, bass, drums, percussion and keyboards. And while the Killers did a compelling job of kicking up vaguely high school drama the night before, it still seemed like adolescent bluster when contrasted with Arcade Fire's soaring hymns to deceased family and friends, existential angst and all the other Big Questions that roil with fear, exaltation, dread, hope, etc. With fraught song titles like "My Body is a Cage" and "Une Année Sans Lumière" ("A Year without Light"), Arcade Fire's music is the kind of big, Gothic sound instantly recognizable as something that demands to be played in arenas but, due to commercial interests, rarely is. Thankfully and as always, ACL delivered the appropriate venue at nightfall Saturday.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Game 2: “Frankly, I don't want to talk about it.”

Years ago, in response to a Georgia loss to Georgia Tech, Lewis Grizzard made syndicated newspaper history, publishing a column that was almost empty, save for declaration above.

When South Carolina intercepted a Matt Stafford pass in the final seconds of Saturday's game, I was tempted to honor Grizzard with a similar post. But doing so would be neither original nor genuine of me, just a cop out. So I'll press on.

Losing to South Carolina is a rarity, but it's also a very ugly catharsis for Georgia fans. The game is played early in the season, when the possibilities are still at their most expansive and expectations are at their highest. Twenty-three years ago, my father greeted a South Carolina win over Georgia by sending a loafer through the drywall in our kitchen. It landed right below the wall phone and his "Goddamnit, Georgia!" was met by Mom's rejoinder of "Goddamnit, Len!"

Bulldog historian Dan Magill once said of Georgia Tech words to the effect that, if you don't think Tech is a rival, try losing to them. I think the same can be said of South Carolina or any other foe that you're used to beating. Witness South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's post-game taunting.

Georgia's record against South Carolina before Saturday night's contest was 44-13-2. That averages to about one Gamecock win every five years. Given that it had been since 2001 since their last win against the Bulldogs, the Chickens were due – overdue by a year, in fact. I take it as an indicator of the series one-sidedness that, following each of the other five Georgia wins, it never occurred to any Georgia coaches to bother taunting South Carolina.

One of the weird things about college football, from the perspective of fandom or gambling, is that a team is rarely as good or as bad as its last game. Last year, Georgia shut out Spurrier for only the second time in his career and then went on to give up game-winning drives to Vanderbilt and Kentucky. In 2004, we shelled the defending national champions, LSU, 45-16 and followed that up with a 19-14 loss to two-time Peach Bowl runner-up Tennessee.

This year, as in 2005, Georgia looked unstoppable against an upstart team widely picked to upset us in our opener. The following week in 2005 and this year, our offense wet the bed against South Carolina.

This time around, South Carolina eeked out a 16-12 win, the result of equal parts stifling defense on SC's part and dropped or poorly thrown passes and questionable play calls by Georgia. Really, the details are not important. Fans can tear themselves up on message boards, call-in shows and sports blogs about whom to blame, but it's best to step away if you feel that's the direction you're being taken.

Losses happen. We spend so much time focusing on champions that we lose sight of the infinitesimally small odds that even an outstanding team has of going undefeated, much less winning a national title. Think about it in terms of probabilities: If you had an 80% chance of winning every game on your schedule (and you couldn't even say that about Georgia's 1980 national championship season), you'd have less than a 7% chance of going undefeated in the regular season: 0.80^12 = 0.068719.

On the subject of fans needing perspective, as Kanu noted, those who booed at Saturday night's game should just stay home from here on out. It's deer season, right? I don't care if they are phoning it in; booing a bunch of 18-22-year-olds is never, ever acceptable. We're already doing a bang-up job scaring off recruits as it is.

Georgia fans love to lecture other rival fans about class. We'll wag our fingers about Florida fans and jean shorts. We'll chide Tennessee fans about their choice of a shade of orange. We'll snort at Auburn fans about their football factory masquerading as a sociology department. Having watched Nebraska fans applaud a rival that just got done beating their team, it occurs to me that we Georgia fans know about as much about class as Paris Hilton does.

So we lost at home to an opponent we perceived to be inferior. So did Auburn. So did Michigan, whom our fans were busy taunting last week (remember the students with "Ha Ha Michigan" painted on their bodies? Yeah, where are those guys right now?).

So let's hug it out, get well against Western Carolina and get ready for what looks to be the beginning stages of a monster being built by Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa.

Labels: ,