No Clown-ing around

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By KOLBY PAXTON

When Vincent Smith’s helmet finally came to rest, and Mike Tirico managed to catch his breath, the legend of Jadeveon Clowney had officially reached its own fever pitch.

Few will ever remember the previous play, a fake punt with a little more than eight minutes to go. The Michigan ball carrier got close to the sticks, close enough for a measurement. Upon chain extension, however, it was clear that the South Carolina defense had stopped the Wolverines several inches short of the first down.

Only, it hadn’t. Inexplicably, Conference USA officials abruptly awarded Big Blue a fresh set of downs.

Clowney, a 6-5, 275-pound freak of nature, merely exacted justice on the following play, coming untouched through the B-gap and demolishing Smith. It was, by all accounts a text book form tackle; crown up, eyes forward, mask to chest. Clowney arrived at the back virtually simultaneously with the football, jarring it free, and plucking it up, himself.

The play remained perched atop ESPN’s Best of the Best before eventually earning an ESPY for Best Play of the Year. It also turned the Outback Bowl on its ear, as South Carolina – trailing 22-21 at the time – rallied to win in the waning seconds.

Now hear this: Were it up to ACC officiating supervisor Doug Rhoads or Pac-12 officiating consultant Mike Pereira, the same play in 2013 would result in a Clowney ejection.

That’s because of insanely moronic legislation from the NCAA that requires the very same oft-inept officials, that just moments earlier missed a call that was sitting completely still, to interpret the intent of a defender at full speed, and to run those players deemed to have malicious intent at the jerk of a knee.

Despite the fact that Clowney planted his face in Smith’s shoulder pads, he would have been tossed because – are you ready for this? – he arrived nanoseconds before the hand-off, and the poor Michigan running back was, at that moment, “defenseless.”

That means, in order for South Carolina to avoid losing its best player – and likely the game – Clowney, upon realizing that he was coming scot-free, and upon recognizing that Devon Gardner was about to hand the ball to Smith on a power play being run directly at him, would have had to slam on the breaks, wait for Smith to take the hand off, and hope to catch him falling backwards.

Nevermind the obvious physical impossibility of that. Pereira and Rhoads never played in college – which also sheds some light on how effectively they even managed to play in high school. They have no idea that you can’t expect Clowney to do anything other than what he did, because they have no idea what it feels like to be Clowney – or  a slow, short, 230-pound version of me, for that matter. And they share that disposition with the vast, overpowering majority of NCAA rule-makers.

Get ready. A player on your favorite team is going to be ejected this fall. Tossed. Gone. All because a middle-aged referee, in way over his head, haphazardly deduces that said player should have – on the other side of the 30 yards that he just covered in three seconds – contorted himself in a different way, recalibrated, while moving the body of bengal tiger at the speed of a gazelle, in order to avoid touching the wrong spot on a moving target.

Better yet, it won’t even take an obvious collision in order for a player to subject himself to such snap judgment. In addition to the no-no that is “lowering the crown of the helmet” and the highly debatable “defenseless player” rule, check out this beauty: “Players may be ejected for leading with helmet, forearm, fist, hand or elbow into the head or neck area.”

In essence, unless a player executes a flying judo kick to the facemask – an act that would constitute an unnecessary roughness penalty, but actually could not result in an ejection – he may not, by the letter of the rule, touch an opponent anywhere above the shoulder pads.

Think about that. How ambiguous is that?

Subjective enough that it has already become quite clear that conferences are going to legislate the rule individually. Clowney is tossed in the ACC. He’s tossed in the Pac-12. But in the SEC? He’s good to go. At least, according to Steve Shaw, SEC head of officials, who says the hit was clean.

So, the Southeastern Conference is going to let the boys play, because of course it is, but what happens when top-ranked Alabama is on the ropes versus two-loss Florida in the SEC Championship? You don’t think the Gators become just a little too malicious all of a sudden? Really?

Better question: The National Championship game will not be officiated by referees from either participant’s league. That means that Alabama or Georgia or Florida or South Carolina may very well run into a group of trigger happy ACC officials in the most important game of the season – a season during which physical play has been rewarded, only suddenly it’s outlawed. Every conference in the country not called the SEC is sick and tired of those three letters, and now they can do something about it – even if they could otherwise do nothing about it.

Didn’t you wonder why the Muschamps and Bielemas and Sabans of the world were a singular opposing voice at SEC Media Days, while no other coaches from any other conferences had anything – anything at all – to say about the new ejection rule?

They know this thing is going to get messy.

The Pride of the South

SEC Championship - Alabama v Georgia

By Kolby Paxton

Fans and alumni of the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University are different in many ways; a profuse, abounding, abundance of ways.

In large part, OU students and alumni see Stillwater as a nothing town, full of sheep and cattle, the highlight of which may be found at the local Buffalo Wild Wings; far removed from the refined comfort zone found along the edge of Oklahoma City’s cup runneth over. The Cowboys, easily entertained as they are, remove the charm thought to be inherent with Wranglers, boots and a sun dress in acutely obnoxious fashion, otherwise thought to be limited to the swamp-infested marsh that harbors those hayseed Cajuns at Louisiana State. Degree seekers in Norman would choose to hook ’em at the University of Texas before they’d suffer through more than a Thursday night in motionless h2o.

Said degree, itself, is precisely the problem with OU, though, if you ask a ‘Poke. As in, most Sooner supporters don’t have one from the very school they claim as their own. Of folks yelling “Boomer” on any given autumn Saturday in Norman, no more than 1-in-3 have actually attended the school – even fewer own a degree from the institution. This drives the orange-adorned masses absolutely bananas. There’s nothing quite like defending your university versus the Evil Empire to a guy from East Central, mind you. As for those with actual ties to OU? Aggies describe them as uppity, assuming, even downright haughty. Their intensity and grossly over-inflated sense of self-worth makes establishing and/or re-establishing camaraderie next to mission impossible.

It seems, however, that there is one point upon which the rival fan bases can agree: Hating the Southeastern Conference.

Unlike the source(s) that may be typically attributed to such outward and unadulterated abhorrence, this particular distaste cannot be chalked up to geographical, cultural, or even philosophical differences – at least, not entirely; not chiefly. Oklahoma State and Arkansas share a generally cordial disposition toward one another. The same can be said for Oklahoma and Alabama. Moreover, universally common ground may be found in everyone’s aversion to LSU fans. This isn’t a surface wound. This isn’t houndstooth versus straw hats.

No, Nas, the urban philosopher of Brooklyn, may have summed this one up best when he surmised that we simply hate that which we cannot conquer.

Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series, the SEC has won nine national titles collectively – including seven straight. And while your cousin’s boyfriend would have you believe that the league’s dominance has been limited to the exploits of Nick Saban and Cam Newton, such is simply not an accurate depiction of the circumstance. Prior to the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, 42 percent of the conference owned a BCS championship trophy; nine crystal footballs are scattered across five of the now 14 member institutions, from Knoxville, Tenn., to Gainesville, Fla.

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Folks remember Cam, but they forget about Auburn’s other unbeaten team of the past decade.

Of course, the tired rebuttal to such grandstanding includes semi-coherent ramblings regarding the SEC bias that is allegedly exalted by the Worldwide Leader, and therefore contaminates the BCS. Child, please.

If anything, the BCS has worked to relieve the country of a far more substantial level of southern fried overload.

Don’t forget, before Oklahoma was dismantled at the hands of Southern Cal and Ashlee Simpson’s vocals in 2004, an undefeated Auburn squad featuring the likes of Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams and Jason Campbell was shut out of the title game. Don’t forget, on three separate occasions since 1998, the SEC has finished the regular season with three teams ranked inside of the Top 10 – the BCS draws the line at two bids per conference. Most recently, a season ago, sixth-ranked Arkansas was exiled to the Cotton Bowl; punishment for the aptitude of Alabama and LSU.

The league placed 42 players on NFL rosters last April. The Pro Bowl will feature 20 former SEC standouts, including 14 starters; ten players topped the AFC depth chart, alone. Five of the 15 winningest programs of the past decade reside down south; nine of the top 50. Admittedly, that is an annoying level of achievement, leaving little wonder as to the root of such outward invidiousness.

Only, all of that winning, all of that production, it doesn’t adequately explain the vitriol aimed in the general cyber-vicinity of those of us so bold as to suggest the notion that Notre Dame was, for the first time this season, exposed to “grown man football” on Monday evening.

I would be amiss to ignore the lonely trigger amid the statistical bravado; that which is but a simple chant, yet explodes as a crescendo of collective pride near the tail end of those all-too-familiar demolitions of the Buckeyes, Seminoles and Sooners of the world.

“S-E-C.”

Nas also suggested that folks fear what they don’t understand, and though fear likely exists to a reasonable degree, egotism suppresses this emotion. Instead, confusion fuels indignation, and I get that. I absolutely get that. No one is bellowing about the Big Ten. “A-C-C” did not echo throughout the Georgia Dome when Clemson upset LSU in the bowl of chicken.

Of course, if it did, it wouldn’t bother you. Listening to the confused medley of Pac 10’s and 12’s would be laughable – not maddening. But the sound of DawgNation, in the wake of destroying previously unbeaten Hawaii, reminding anyone within earshot of the league they call home? Repugnant. Why? Well, for starters, because you’re sick of hearing it. But, also, because you just don’t get it. Why, in the aftermath of a bowl win in Jerry’s World, would the Razorback-faithful opt for a unified conference chest thump versus a hog call? Why, a year later, was Aggieland so eager to remind the Sooners – a team that has historically owned Texas A&M – of the new league in which they reside?

Why was Alabama so proud of the SEC? And why on earth was the rest of the SEC so proud of the Crimson Tide?

In actuality, the concept isn’t really too difficult to grasp, and it has nothing to do with bandwagon jumping or coat tail surfing. Fans of SEC schools are fans of the SEC because the alternative is loathing the league and longing for a retreat to the Big East. Players, coaches, students and supporters of these football-playing institutions understand the arduous grind that is the regular season, and it is an understanding that one can only gain through experience.

A lot was made of a Notre Dame schedule that featured road tilts at Southern Cal, Oklahoma and Michigan State (ranked 1, 4 and 12, respectively, during the pre-season), a group that finished the season with a combined record of 24-15. Yet, outside of the southern region of the U.S., not much was said of a three-game run for the Tide that included trips to then-unbeaten Mississippi State and LSU, followed by a visit from Johnny Manziel and the Aggies.

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Georgia’s final drive fell five yards short of a BCS National Championship berth.

As dominant as Alabama was in Miami, Fla., on Monday, the Crimson Tide were five yards away from the Capital One Bowl. While the rest of the country celebrated the coming playoff system, Southeastern Conference members shrugged with indifference. “Down here, we’ve been playing a national semi-final for years,” they said. “Awfully kind of the rest of y’all to show up.”

‘Bama may have been far superior to the Fighting Irish, but they weren’t far superior to Georgia and Texas A&M, who weren’t far superior to Florida and LSU – who weren’t far superior to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. See where this is headed? Outsiders complain because a two-loss team from the SEC can still navigate its way to the main event. Meanwhile, those within the league scoff at the ignorant dismissal of the hell through which a group must wade just to get there.

There are no bye weeks in the SEC – well, except for Kentucky and a Gus-less Gene Chizik. There is no Kansas. There is no Colorado, no Boston College. In sum, there is no margin for error. A cupboard full of talent cannot overcome John L. Smith, just as Gary Pinkel cannot overcome a barren cupboard. Good enough to compete in the Big 12 isn’t necessarily good enough to compete in the SEC.

We’re looking at you, Mizzou.

In much the same way as the oppressing elements of summer two-a-days unify a team, the unforgiving demands of the conference slate similarly bond southerners from Fayetteville, Ark., to Columbia, S.C. Trial and adversity breeds solidarity among those affected; such is human nature.

In this case, the affected are also the inhabitants of a slew of red states; a relevant variable.

To see the SEC as merely an athletic conference, to assume that the pride that exists therein is simply a byproduct of winning football games, is to view the phenomenon amidst the depth of a lazy river. The SEC is a subculture, an admixture of hospitable southern capitalists, dark liquor and an affinity for tradition. In most cases, it’s an inheritance, a predisposition that follows an individual through adolescence and into adulthood.

You see? The SEC wins more because the SEC, in sum, contains better players playing better football for better coaches, but that isn’t ample explanation for why three letters have turned the 107 miles separating College Station and Austin, Texas, into what suddenly feels like 1,000.

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All fans of an SEC school…. Not all students of an SEC school. In semi-related news, do you think Harvey Updyke, Jr. knows that his prison tat is actually an Atlanta Braves logo? Roll Tide.

Oklahoma is the winningest program in modern day history. Texas is the most valuable, by far. Victories and exposure didn’t turn the Big 12 into some esoteric occult – or even stabilize the league, itself, for that matter. The ACC nabbed Virginia Tech and Miami – and a combined three BCS title game appearances – in 2003. The move didn’t create some regenerative social movement along the Atlantic coast.

The Southeastern Conference means just as much to the plaid-clad business major in his boat shoes and Croakies, just as much to the Zeta in a cocktail dress, as it does to the blue chip wide receiver listening to Kevin Sumlin’s sales pitch. It’s just a different sort of different in the south. At West Virginia they burn sofas, at Cal they hang out on a hill. In Norman, folks reenact the Land Run of 1889, claiming and reclaiming real estate upon which to construct a tent each Friday morning prior to a home game. All of that is cool – torching love seats a little less so – but that isn’t this.

This is slacks, high heels and outdoor chandeliers, fused with Southern Comfort, southern pines and southern drawls – on gamedays, too. The fact that the best damn brand of football on God’s green earth is found in this part of the country is a source of dignity, to be sure, but it’s nothing more than an auxiliary to a grander way of life.

The chant, itself, is a tip of the houndstooth fedora to the lovelies in The Grove, a good ‘ole Rammer Jammer to be shared with the Pride of the Southland. You don’t like it? Fine. But it won’t stop Dixie from heeding the advice of one Anthony Burgess.

“It’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it,” he said. “To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going.”

There aren’t many things that southerners do better than football, but, as it happens, celebrating is one of those things. And with as many as six teams likely to be ranked near the top of the 2014 pre-season Coaches Poll, where the SEC is headed appears sure to aggravate the rest of the country every bit as much as where it’s been.

Top 12 in ’12 – No. 11 South Carolina Gamecocks

By Kolby Paxton

He wasn’t even carrying the ball.

With less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it was freshman wide receiver Bruce Ellington who got the call on second-and-four from the South Carolina 45. Ellington skipped through a tackle en route to a 13-yard gain and a Gamecock first down.

Left in his wake, however, was All-Everything running back Marcus Lattimore.

Lattimore was screening for his teammate when his right knee was viciously tangled under a Mississippi State defender. Though team officials held out hope that the injury was merely a sprain, it was evident within moments of the incident that Steve Spurrier’s favorite player – perhaps, ever – was likely gone for the season.

Minutes later, quarterback Connor Shaw lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey, and the Gamecocks avoided the upset, improving to 6-1 on the season. The once optimistic narrative was gone, however, as South Carolina’s hopes of an SEC Championship were carted off along with its star running back.

With apologies to Brandon Wilds, the Gamecocks’ back-up ball carrier is the Chris Comer to Lattimore’s Boobie Miles. The former is a serviceable back, able and reasonably efficient, if less than spectacular; the latter, a transcendent talent, capable of single-handedly carrying a team well beyond the realm for which it is adequately constructed.

Without “Terminator X,” the fictional Panthers were able to roll through the likes of Tascosa, Andress, Irving Nimitz and Arlington Lamar, but couldn’t even figure out where to play Dallas Carter’s team of 30-year olds – let alone how to beat them. A healthy Miles would have constructed Reliant Stadium with his bare hands, and run all over a defense dressed in equipment that did not yet exist, inside of a stadium that did not yet exist. Without “Crazy Legs,” the real-life Fightin’ Spurriers were able to get by Tennessee, Florida, and even in-state rival Clemson, but lost to Arkansas when its running game fizzled. A healthy Lattimore would have, at the very least, topped quarterback Connor Shaw’s team-leading 24 rushing yards.

On ability alone, Lattimore is the most talented college running back since Adrian Peterson. Like Peterson, South Carolina’s feature presentation combines hair trigger agility, breakneck speed, and indomitable power. Unlike Peterson, he packs said punch in a 236 pound frame, with an ultra-enviable lower body that more closely resembles that of Maurice Jones-Drew – a lower body that, incredibly, Lattimore claims he actually neglected until a blown ACL led him to the light.

Nevermind the wonderment that accompanies the realization that a human teenager was able to churn out 2,609 total yards in 20 games, while playing in the SEC and apparently disregarding his support appendages. Instead, simply consider that said human returns in 2012, joining the suddenly seasoned Connor Shaw, and what should be one of the conference’s best defenses.

The time has come for the highly touted Jadeveon Clowney to make his presence felt in Columbia.

Shaw benefited immensely – albeit under a fire storm – from the absence of Lattimore and Stephen Garcia. The then-sophomore simply wasn’t ready for the task at hand following the dismissal of Garcia – hence the rationale behind his troubled predecessor’s nine lives. But Shaw grew into the role over the course of the campaign, eventually leading the Gamecocks in rushing three times in their final six games, including a 317–total yard, four touchdown effort versus the rival-Tigers in the regular season finale.

If the South Carolina secondary can keep pace with the rest of the unit, the Gamecocks could trend in the direction of dominant defensively, and one of the nation’s best fronts figures to provide considerable handicapping. New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has one of college football’s best defensive end combos in senior Devin Taylor (six sacks in ’11) and sophomore Jadeveon Clowney.

Excluding Navy and the Citadel – who combined for a grand total of 12 pass attempts – South Carolina surrendered only 114 rushing yards per game in 2011, a credit to that aforementioned front, and an outstanding linebacking core. Senior Shaq Wilson led the Gamecocks in tackles in ’09, before injuries derailed the middle portion of his of his collegiate career. Wilson is healthy and the spearhead at middle linebacker. Ex-safety DeVonte Holloman joins Wilson at spur – a position for which he is perfectly suited to wreak havoc on SEC offenses. The group is as deep as it is talented, as well, with three returners who started at least four games a season ago.

Prediction: 9-3 (6-2)

With an able-bodied Marcus Lattimore, anything is possible for the Gamecocks in Spurrier’s eighth season at the helm. South Carolina has improved its win total in each of the past four seasons, but will need a dozen victories in 2012 to keep that streak intact. USC opens the month of October with a home tilt versus Georgia, before going on the road to Baton Rouge and Gainesville – no recipe for success. If that wasn’t enough, the Gamecocks sandwich a scrimmage versus the mighty Terriers of Wofford with the likes of Arkansas and Clemson.