March 14, 2008

Past often more glorious in hindsight

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for
Previous mailbags
Mar. 7: Double standard
Feb. 29: True champions?
Feb. 22: The next step

Springsteen warned that glory days would pass you by in the wink of a young girl's eye, but The Boss didn't tell how to identify the glory days.

Nor did he warn that sometimes those days might not be as glorious as a deceptive memory would have you believe.

Consider Texas A&M, for example. The Aggies usually are thought of as a traditional power, but their only national championship was won in 1939. In the next 40 seasons, the Aggies had more losses than wins. And although there were a few exceptional seasons under Bear Bryant and Emory Bellard in that span, A&M didn't consistently post double-digit victory totals until R.C. Slocum, the winningest coach in school history, notched four consecutive seasons of 10-plus wins from 1991-94 and another in 1998.

Yet the Aggies fired him.

Georgia also is viewed nationwide as a traditional powerhouse. But in the 37 seasons between their national-championship years of 1942 and '80, the Bulldogs averaged a pedestrian 6.4 victories a year and had 14 seasons in which they either finished .500 or worse.

Indeed, Georgia's "glory days" may actually have been just four seasons from 1980-83 when the Bulldogs posted four consecutive seasons with double-digit victory totals. Of course, in three of those seasons, the Bulldogs had Herschel Walker at tailback.

After that run, Georgia averaged 7.4 victories good, but not great and did not win another SEC championship until coach Mark Richt took over in 2001. Since Richt's arrival, Georgia has posted at least 10 victories in five seasons and has two SEC titles.

Therefore, the Bulldogs' glory days arguably are right now, although the average Georgia fan might not realize it.

But they shouldn't be disparaged for that. Fans of other prominent programs those on Rocky Top, for instance also may have trouble identifying their glory days, or think their past is more glorious than it is.

We look at that subject plus a few others in this week's mailbag.

Wish we were still on Rocky Top

Through the late 1990s, Tennessee consistently was a top-five team. What has changed? Even with players such as Erik Ainge, Arian Foster and Eric Berry, they seem to lose three or four games a year, which is unacceptable considering Tennessee's prestige. What's the problem?

Derek in Church Hill, Tenn.

Are you forgetting that Tennessee posted 10 wins and won the SEC East Division in 2007? The Volunteers also were tantalizingly close to upsetting national champion LSU in the SEC Championship Game, so it's not like the ship is sinking.

During the '90s, Tennessee had four seasons with double-digit victory totals (1995, '96, '97 and '98). How many have the Vols had this decade? Four (2001, '03, '04 and '07).

You asked why a prestigious program such as Tennessee isn't a perennial top-five team any longer. Funny, I bet fans of prestigious programs such as Florida State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State are wondering the same thing.

But you're asking about Tennessee and that answer may found by looking elsewhere. For whatever reason, the state of Tennessee doesn't typically produce a large amount of blue-chip high school football prospects, so the Volunteers must recruit nationally, or at least be successful regionally.

Tennessee had 10 All-Americans in the '90s, and four Antone Davis, Dale Carter, Cosey Coleman and Deon Grant were from Georgia. Two more Peyton Manning and Raynoch Thompson were from Louisiana. In fact, of 37 Vols to earn All-SEC mention in the '90s, only 11 were from Tennessee and three of those were kickers.

Meanwhile, Georgia struggled for much of the '90s under Ray Goff and Jim Donnan, but when Richt took over in Athens in 2001, the top players in Georgia weren't as quick to leave their home state.

The same thing was going on in Louisiana with Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo coaching at LSU. But when Nick Saban took over in 2000, the top players in Louisiana started going to Baton Rouge, a trend that has continued under Les Miles.

Add in the Urban Meyer factor at Florida, and you're seeing better coaches throughout the SEC, which makes the competition for top-level players even more intense.

Getting top players from out of state isn't easy. Getting them when there are high-profile coaches and winning programs in their home state is even more difficult.

Show-Me some defense

I think it's time Mizzou started getting mentioned in the national title race a little more often. They're returning 10 starters on a defense that was underrated last season and an offense that returns just as much firepower as last year. I think the Tigers will actually be noticeably better than last year's squad that went 12-2. Do you think they have what it takes?

Seth in Kansas City

Missouri will be dangerous, especially if Jimmy Jackson or Derrick Washington can emerge as a suitable replacement for Tony Temple at tailback and a couple of spots can be adequately filled along the offensive line.

Not many teams have a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, and Mizzou has two in quarterback Chase Daniel and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. Add proven players such as tight end Chase Coffman and receivers Danario Alexander and Tommy Saunders, and Missouri should have one of the top 10 offenses in the country.

But if high-scoring offenses won championships, Texas Tech and Hawaii would have played in last year's BCS Championship Game. As you mentioned, Missouri's defense should be improved. It will need to be. The Tigers allowed more than 30 points four times last season, and not surprisingly lost two of those games. In 2008, they will face good offensive teams from Illinois, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State and perhaps an improved Colorado offense. And Oklahoma could be looming in the Big 12 title game.

With all that offensive power, Missouri's defense probably won't have to be great for the Tigers to seriously contend for a national title. But it will have to be better. If not, the Tigers may look a lot like Notre Dame of 2006, which was powerful offensively but lost three games in which it allowed more than 40 points.

Pryor plans won't affect Buckeyes

I know Ohio State has a good chance of getting (top-ranked recruit) Terrelle Pryor, but if they don't, what are their odds for the season?

Sam in Chicago

The Buckeyes' prospects for 2008 are going to be the same regardless of Pryor's decision. Ohio State will be loaded again this fall.

Ohio State should have one of the nation's best defenses, a Heisman-contending tailback in Chris Wells and a quarterback, Todd Boeckman, who was solid in his first season as a starter.

Perhaps because Ohio State has lost the past two BCS title games, some seem to be dismissing the Buckeyes as championship contenders in 2008. That's a big mistake.

Ohio State again figures to be the favorite to win the Big Ten, although the Buckeyes have to travel to face Wisconsin and Illinois. They also will play at USC in the nation's most anticipated non-conference game.

That's a tough schedule, but a proven team with 18 returning starters and three All-Americans Wells, linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins has to be taken seriously.

Should Pryor choose to go to Columbus, it surely would seem to enhance Ohio State's chances. Perhaps coach Jim Tressel would use him in special situations, just as Florida did with Tim Tebow two years ago, but I wouldn't expect a true freshman to unseat a senior coming off a strong year as the starter. Even Vince Young had a redshirt season, and I'm certain Ohio State fans remember how good he was.

Wildcats feeling blue

You always talk about Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and even South Carolina in the (SEC) East, but never mention Kentucky. I was just wondering what you think about the Wildcats' chances to compete in the East with a veteran defense and playmakers returning in Dicky Lyons Jr., Derrick Locke, Tony Dixon and quarterback Curtis Pulley. UK is coming off back-to-back bowl wins, and I think it deserves a little respect.

Sammy in Louisville

Kentucky does deserve respect, especially defensive coordinator Steve Brown, who took over in 2007 and supervised the Wildcats' rise from 118th in total defense in 2006 to 67th in 2007.

The Wildcats will need to keep improving on defense because the offense endured heavy losses with quarterback Andre' Woodson, tailback Rafael Little, tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receivers Steve Johnson and Keenan Burton completing their eligibility.

Lyons unquestionably is a productive receiver. Locke played well last season, too. And Pulley is obviously a wonderful athlete who will be much more of a running threat than Woodson. But Kentucky lost several all-conference players, and it cannot be taken for granted that their productivity will be replaced.

Having seen Northwestern win the Big Ten in 1995, Wake Forest win the ACC in 2006 and Kansas win the Orange Bowl last season, I've learned not to discount any possibilities. Perhaps Kentucky will continue to improve and be a legit contender in the SEC East. But I think striving to reach another bowl would be a more realistic goal.

Seeing is believing

I know Texas Tech usually is an under-the-radar team, mainly since the Red Raiders usually lose at least one game they should have easily won. But do you see any BCS glory? I believe the offense is as good as any, and if the defense finally steps up, do you see a bright future? Maybe my hopes are high, but the offense will finally have depth at running back, and hopefully there will be a defense to match. Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree don't hurt the chances, either.

Chris in Lubbock, Texas

You're hopes should be high. I'm told this is the season folks in Lubbock have been looking forward to since Rodney Allison left (how's that for a blast from the past?).

Harrell and Crabtree head a list of 10 returning starters from an offense that ranked second nationally a year ago, so the Red Raiders figure to be even more potent in '08. The key is defense.

The Raiders felt they made progress after Ruffin McNeill was promoted to defensive coordinator last season. Furthermore, eight defensive starters return, and Tech already is hyping defensive end Brandon Sesay, a junior college transfer who originally signed with Georgia, as the most heralded defensive recruit of the Mike Leach era.

I'm hearing Tech finally will have a solid defense to complement its high-scoring offense. Of course, I've also heard a lot about UFO sightings.

On both counts, I'll have to see it to believe it.

Miles has recipe for success

Thanks for your rational assessment of LSU coach Les Miles (Some coaches face double standard, March 7). He may not be an eloquent speaker, but we love him and have taught him to love jambalaya and crawfish pie.

Frank in Shreveport, La.

And gumbo, too? That's good eatin', I gua-ron-tee ! OK, that's the best Cajun I can do.

Anyway, if you're an LSU fan, it's easy to like Miles' 34-6 record in Baton Rouge. Like I've said before: "If you want to take the quickest route to the national championship, take the route with less miles."

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Click here to send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag.

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