Maybe MS State needs to schedule Jackson St and Troy more often. Well, maybe not Troy, Troy should have beaten them.
Just a few thoughts that ran through this writer’s head while watching the SEC’s first five bowl games this week:
* Vanderbilt won its ninth game of the season on Monday. As you know by now, the Commodores’ win in the Music City Bowl secured the program its best season since way back in 1915. But the win over NC State did something else, too — it produced James Franklin’s first win over a solid FBS opponent.
Going into Monday’s game, Vandy under Franklin had gone 0-10 against FBS teams with winning records, 11-1 against FBS teams with losing records, and 2-0 against FCS foes. (If 6-6 Ole Miss wins its bowl game against Pittsburgh, VU will have won two contests against FBS teams with winning records.)
Now, heading into Monday’s game, North Carolina State was a 7-5 team that had just gotten its coach fired. So this was not akin to Vandy knocking off Alabama or Florida. But just as Dan Mullen had to finally beat a West Division team not named Ole Miss to keep people from repeatedly bringing that criticism up, Franklin has now silenced one of the barbs lobbed at him by rival fans.
* Not only did Vanderbilt finish 9-4 this season, but the Dores won seven games in a row to end the year. That’s currently the longest winning streak in the SEC. Just let that one roll around in your head for a bit.
Matter of fact, after an 0-2 start to the season, Vandy finished 9-2 the rest of the way. The Commodores also scored 38 or more points in five of their last six games.
Regardless of schedule strength, those are some solid accomplishments. Fantastic accomplishments for a traditional cellar-dweller like Vanderbilt.
* With every step forward, there’s always a new challenge. After a 6-7 first year, many wondered if Franklin could build on his surprising start. He did. Now he’ll have to start winning with the guys he’s been recruiting.
Bobby Johnson — as we’ve noted several times before — deserves credit for leaving Franklin a roster stacked with redshirt juniors and seniors. Now those players have had their run and the recruits Franklin and his staff have brought in will have to take their place. Franklin has been able to get more out of Johnson’s leftovers than expected, so he should do well with some of the higher-profile recruits he’s wooed to Nashville. But his team will be a bit younger moving forward. Winning with a less experienced roster will be his next challenge.
* Say, did you see our prediction for the Chick-fil-A Bowl? We had Clemson edging past LSU 24-23. Turns out they edged past them 25-24. Currently we’re 5-0 picking SEC bowl games and 3-2 against the spread. Hey, we’ll take 60% against the spread. The rest of our SEC bowl picks (minus the BCS title game) can be found right here.
And in case you’re wondering, we’ve got Florida to cover even though we think tonight’s Sugar Bowl will look a lot like last night’s Orange Bowl… with the deeper team pulling away late.
* Speaking of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, we feel bad for Les Miles. Miles has gone 22-5 the last two years, but for the second year in a row he’s going to experience an offseason filled with second guesses. Last January, Miles’ decision not to lift ineffective quarterback Jordan Jefferson from the BCS Championship Game drew complaints. On Monday night, it was his team’s decision to throw three-consecutive passes with under three minutes to play that left people shaking their heads.
Miles said that his team was outnumbered in the box and had to throw against Clemson’s defense, but most people just aren’t buying that. The Tigers had a 24-22 lead and the clock was an enemy to CU. Even if LSU had simply run twice into the line and then thrown the ball they would have still put Clemson in a tougher time-wise.
Instead, three passes and a punt later, Clemson had the ball with 1:39 remaining and all three of its timeouts in Dabo Swinney’s hip pocket. You know the rest — a game-winning field goal as time expired. A 25-24 Clemson win. More questions for the Mad Hatter.
* This past offseason, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger became the over-hyped “sure thing” of the SEC. Every season there’s at least one. And the juco transfer failed to live up to the preseason chatter. After another so-so outing in Atlanta on Monday, Mettenberger currently stands at #11 on the SEC’s passer rating chart. He finished his season with just 12 touchdown passes against seven interceptions.
Granted, every quarterback needs help from those around him, but Mettenberger wasn’t the NFL-caliber gunslinger Tiger fans had hoped he was. And that’s a good lesson for other fanbases. Transfer quarterbacks usually don’t thrive in the SEC. For every Cam Newton, there are 10 signal-callers who transfer in only to leave with humdrum stats.
Mettenberger will get a chance to show improvement next season, but Year One was a disappointment.
* One quarterback who did live up to the hype this season was Georgia’s Aaron Murray. The Bulldogs’ junior is currently the SEC’s 2011 leader in passer rating, touchdowns thrown, and yards-per-pass-attempt. He capped off his season with an 18-of-33 performance for 427 yards against Nebraska in yesterday’s Capital One Bowl. While he threw two picks in the first half, he made up for them by tossing five touchdown passes overall, including a pair of beautifully thrown deep strikes.
Murray hasn’t announced his intentions regarding a possible early entry into the NFL draft, but if he does go, you can bet he’ll be picked early. We at MrSEC.com would like to see Murray return — we like it when good players who are free of controversy decide to hang around — but speaking with an agent, we were recently reminded of just how weak this year’s quarterback crop appears to be. Whether he could use more seasoning at the collegiate level or not, the smart business decision might be for Murray to leave now. There could be more competition at the top of next year’s draft… even if Murray returns to Athens and improves his own game.
* How ’bout a hand for Georgia’s Mark Richt? Heading into the 2011 season he was sitting on a hot seat and many Dawg fans were sure his program was in decline. Since then he’s gone 22-6 overall, 14-2 in the SEC, won two East Division crowns, and he just beat one of America’s “name” football programs by two touchdowns in a New Year’s Day bowl.
So much for Georgia being in decline.
* We’ve already shown you today the incredible hit administered by South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to Michigan running back Vincent Smith. Brutal.
But more astounding was the official’s decision made just prior to Clowney’s big stick.
In case you weren’t watching the Outback Bowl at the time, Michigan coach Brady Hoke decided to fake a punt in his own territory with about nine minutes left to play in the game. The Wolverines were up by a point at the time. Michigan’s ballcarrier came within an inch of two of the first down, but when the marker was stretched, the ball was clearly short of the stick. Still, the official signaled a first down for Michigan.
Steve Spurrier leapt into action pointing at the marker and arguing with the officials. He even challenged the spot of the ball, but the horrendous call was upheld. After the game, Spurrier said: ”I asked one of those other refs there, I said, ‘You know the ball did not touch the first-down marker.’ He said, ‘I know it didn’t.’ I said, ‘Well, why’d (the other official) give it to him?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s what he said.”
Thankfully for Carolina, some good karma allowed Clowney to hammer Smith, force a fumble, and recover it so the bad call didn’t hurt the Gamecocks in the end. Matter of fact, Carolina tossed a touchdown pass on the very next play. But the call was still one of the worst you will ever see. (And if you haven’t seen it, here’s a tight photo of the measurement.)
We often defend officials on this site because those guys have a tough job making decisions at breakneck speed without the benefit of slow-mo replays, multiple views and multiple angles. But the first-down call in yesterday’s Outback Bowl had nothing to do with the speed of the game or the angle of the official’s view. The sticks were stretched, the nose of the ball was at least an inch shy of the marker, and a first down was still awarded to Michigan. The Big East crew involved should be investigated. That call was ridiculous.
* Those three back-to-back-to-back plays might have provided the weirdest, wildest, quickest momentum swing these eyes have ever seen. First, the fake punt and bad spot give Michigan a first down. Then Clowney explodes through Michigan’s line, forces a fumble and recovers it. And then Connor Shaw hit Ace Sanders on with a 31-yard touchdown pass. Bang, bang, bang.
* Just how good is Spurrier?
Through his first five seasons in Columbia, the Cocks had managed a 35-26 overall record with an 18-22 mark in the SEC. But over the last three seasons Carolina has gone 31-9 overall and 17-7 in the conference. The school just recorded its second 11-win season in a row… which means its now got two 11-win seasons in its entire football-playin’ history.
One developed a reputation for being a slow-talking, Southern gentleman. The other is viewed as more of a fast-talking brat. But make no mistake, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Spurrier will forever be linked as the two greatest SEC football coaches of the modern era. What Spurrier has done at USC is truly remarkable.
* On Monday we predicted a Northwestern win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. If the Dogs were going to win, we wrote that the key would be their protection of quarterback Tyler Russell. Unfortunately for State, there was very little protection of Russell. MSU’s signal-caller was sacked three times and hurried and harassed into a downright woeful showing: 12-of-28 for 106 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions on the day. That’s a ghastly yards-per-pass average of 3.78. You’re just not going to win many football games with those kinds of numbers.
* After a hot 7-0 start to his 2012 campaign, Dan Mullen was riding high with a team ranked in the top 12 of the national polls. Then reality came a’ calling. In losing five of their last six games, the Bulldogs fell by 31 to Alabama, by 25 to Texas A&M, by 20 to LSU, by 17 to Ole Miss, and by 14 to Northwestern. At least they kept getting closer.
Mullen will have to deal with higher expectations in 2013. After a 5-7 first season in Starkville, Mullen has recorded nine wins, seven wins and eight wins in leading State to three consecutive bowl berths. But now he’ll need to start beating some big boys if he wants to keep Bulldog fans happy. Boosters will support the scheduling of patsies if it means their team will get on a roll and beat some good opponents toward the end of its schedule. But beating patsies only to be crushed by all the good teams on the schedule won’t please the biggest donors.
State opens next season against Oklahoma State in Houston. Unless Mullen likes to hear grumbling, he’d better focus on winning that game (rather than on mixing and matching MSU’s mind-numbing array of uniforms). Mullen has improved Mississippi State football. He’ll have to keep improving it if he wants to remain the most popular guy on campus.