Saturday, November 7, 2009

How Good Is The SEC This Year?

As the Gamecocks begin their preparation for the official 2009-2010 season, ranked preseason in the 4th position in the Eastern Division, the question is just how good is the SEC this year?  Last year ended with only one SEC squad ranked nationally in men's basketball, the LSU Tigers (17th).  By season end no other team in the SEC had received votes.  But that was then and this is now, with Kentucky playing with NBA talent and new head coach, John Calipari, Kentucky is already preseason 4th ranked after a NIT appearance last year.  But after that the next preseason national ranking is Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Vols wasn't recognized until the 22nd spot , it appears that the SEC will be competitive, but on the national scene will have to earn it's claim to improved play compared to the Big East, ACC, Big 12 and even the Big 10, which represents the most preseason ranked teams and previous years field of 64.

But, LSU still has some athletes to go with a very good coach, South Carolina has it's own future professional players on roster with a very athletic incoming class, that includes JUCO experience.  Vanderbilt returns all 5 starters to a team that allowed the second lowest points in the SEC last year and that preseason respect as a 31st team in the projected field of 64.  Florida lost some talented youth and seniors last season and will be rebuilding, but Billy Donavan did have a good recruiting year, so expect to see a dog fight in the SEC East with Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida on the same side of the conference split.  Auburn is probably the best team in the West and the most experienced with the Jeff Lebo coached team ready to play the more up tempo style in the West.  This side of the race should be between Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State who also has an improved roster through experience, but no guarantee of substantive newcomer contributions.  Anthony Grant has proven at VCU that you can win with players outside of marquee names.  While Alabama is in a rebuilding year, don't be surprised if they compete immediately for a spot atop the West.  Arkansas and Ole Miss will probably fight to stay out of the cellar of the league, they are the two programs that can probably consider the NIT an accomplishment rather than a concession .

So the answer is, the SEC will not be great, just competitive, but if you look at the SEC East you may find the top 4 teams, the Wildcats, Vols, Gators and Gamecocks , will all be playing for national rankings, 20 plus wins, a conference title and a dance card for the field of 64 in March.  Keep all eyes on the SEC East, it is close to being a challenge to the other top half of the leading major conferences.   I know you would now say what about Georgia, your guess is as good as mine.  Can't wait for the season to start to see if this is the Cinderella Sleeper that has gotten lost in good recruiting and a coaching change with a history of coveting talent and athletes.  The Bulldogs could be the "Best Kept Secret".

Cocks Collide With Hogs and Sustain More Damage Traveling Out Of The Regular Season

While resuming the journey out of the regular season, the USC Gamecocks sustain damage to its football unit 16-33, losing to Arkansas in Fayetteville.  The Ole' Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier came out with a wide open game plan, but miscues and missed opportunities cause the team to slide off course land in a defeated ditch.  From the start of the game you could feel that the team was using every reasonable scheme in its arsenal on the offensive side of the ball.  Early, the Razorbacks seemed vulnerable to the spread offense and the flow of the Ole Ball Coach's play selection.  But along the way early was a communication problem that would eventually eliminate all first half timeouts in the first two possessions.  With early field position advantages, South Carolina could only muster 10 points on five early favorable possessions.  A combination of impatience and learned patience allowed the host team to draw even as they awaited self inflicted damage to the USC squad to draw even at 10-10 at the half.

After an opening play 80 yard vertical touchdown to Alshon Jeffery from Stephen Garcia,[video] USC botched the extra point and took a short lived 16-10 led and brief, very brief momentum.  On the ensuing possession, Arkansas regained control of the game and the Gamecock's vision, steering and direction, guiding them further off course with a stronger effort, precision passing, hard running, firm blocking and patient play calling taking only what was offered and cashing in on ever opening.  First to regain the lead, 17-16, immediately driving down the field on the accuracy and decision making of Ryan Mallett, who had a career day passing, with only 4 incompletions and 329 yards, 11-12 in the second half.  The Gamecocks then swerved and sputtered with having each successful play countered by interceptions, bad snaps, dropped passes, over throws, missed tackles, bad angles and penalties.  Did I forget to mention that Mallett was able to count on good blocking and a near mistake free second half from his teammates.  The two different executions allowed the Razorbacks to score the final 23 points to derail the Gamecocks.

Damage assessment, "severe", as the cost of this major collision may result in a "total loss" season.  The damaging pileup was so severe that under the shattered frame was an official unveiling of Bryce Sherman, the 5'6" wingback who was able to cut, scoot and run his way into a viable roll on this team's game plan every week.  His efforts were often one, blocker one cut away from carrying the distance on a few very impressive gainers for the struggling Cocks.  Garrett Chisolm will not be noticed due to the amount of damage that will be seem to both the offense and the defense, but the first time starter at left guard played with often precise jab to his opponent defensive linemen and was seen getting clearly beat only once during the entire game.  These potential shining stars will be overlooked by the bigger story, a Gamecock Unit in the ditch.  There will be no celebration for Garcia passing Mike Hold, Garry Harper and Ron Bass to become the 11th all-time passer in USC history with 327 yards with little points productivity to accompany the gains.

The Defense and Offense will take on critics, but they entered this trip without Cliff Matthews, Chris Culliver, Jarriel King and Jarrett Burns, as starting regulars who could have possibly helped to steady the unit.  Nonetheless, the game plan was good, defensive calls were good, the player executions were horrible, it is as simple as that.  You don't have to talk about the play calling, just talk about execution.  And please spare me from the coaching criticisms, nobody was out coached, just out played.  Right now, the Gamecocks have a workable road map, but when the players hit the field you can identify their self imposed damage of miscuses, mistakes, lack of effort and energy, to several players driving recklessly.  Well, it's back to driver's ed...ok, the practice field and finding a way to get back on the road to success against a real tropical storm coming out of the gulf in the Florida Gators.  The storm category of the Florida Gators may just be too strong for USC to steady it's unit and get it back on track.  As we discussed two weeks ago, this journey is extremely hazardous for the Gamecocks.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sportsmanship Has Reached An All Time Low

Elizabeth Lambert is a college football defender playing for New Mexico in the Women’s Mountain West Conference college tournament. In the game against Brigham Young University (BYU), things got a little rough with Elizabeth. Things got so rough that she earned the nickname Elizabeth “cheap-shot” Lambert. Seriously, words can’t describe what she has done. So, here’s the video of the event: [Link]

Watch this video and tell me if you have seen any greater violation in college sports this year.  While many players have been suspended from football and basketball in the last year for unsportsmanlike conduct,  this video of the Ladies BYU vs New Mexico takes the lead for most blatant abuse of sportsmanship in college, including LaGarrette Blount of Oregon during his post game cheap shot.

New Mexico has suspended their soccer player for several plays in a Mountain West Conference semifinal that have drawn some unwanted attention to the tournament. Elizabeth Lambert, a junior defender, is shown in video highlights throwing elbows, taking out BYU players at the legs and finally yanking BYU forward Kassidy Shumway to the ground with a tug to Shumway's ponytail.

Talk about "Lack of Institutional Control!"

USC's Young Talent Appears To Be Ready For 2009-2010 Season

While Sam Muldrow stole the scoring show with 17 points, Devan Downey seemed ready to assume his leadership role and become the extension to Head Coach Darrin Horn on the floor.  The exhibition game, between USC and Kentucky Wesleyan (Div II) was just that, it was an opportunity for the coaching staff to place their young talent, and I do mean talent, on the floor in true college competitive exhibition.  The result was a display of raw talent, a glimpse of aggressive defense, a lot of movement without the ball, a few nice moves, a couple of dunks, some aerial highlights and a touch of energy in certain transitions.

On display was the newcomers, 6-5 Fr. Lakeem Jackson, a solid athlete who is capable of playing small forward and big guard, great elevation and appears to really like attacking the glass.  Fr. Ramon Galloway, at 6-1, is a leaper and displays tremendous speed, awkward shot technique, but appears to score the basketball with confidence.  Both Players can defend on the perimeter and will make the Horn pressure schemes very effective with Downey and Dominique Archie lurking in passing lanes.  In the post, junior college transfer, Johndre Jefferson offered extreme promise with his vertical foot speed and half court quickness at 6-9.  Jefferson is quick off the floor around the glass as evident by his 6 rebounds in 15 minutes.  Jefferson's balance and athleticism should also support the defensive rotation and allow Coach Horn to maintain his desired defensive schemes that are often requiring pressure from full and mid-range.

The nights entertainment for this writer was the quarterback style of Downey, reading the defense, watching the progression and offering often pinpoint accurate passes in very attractive scoring positions to players throughout the contest.  I know it was an exhibition, but these were Division II college athletes who were talented as well.  The effort only provided Devan with 7 assists, but the passes were delivered in positions that will produce 11-15 dimes once this group fully recognizes the vision of its team and court leader.  Another point of reference for fans interested in the Gamecock basketball team is that Coach Horn has given a tremendous amount of latitude in shot selection to the players, which appears to let them feel good on the floor in transition.  Once these players learn how to play together, the synergy of veterans, Downey, Archie, Muldrow, Mike Holmes, Brandis Raley Ross, Evaldas Baniulis, Austin Steed and Robert Wilder engaged with the first year sensations Jackson, Galloway, Jefferson and Stephen Spinella a heralded pure shooter at 6-4, the Cocks should be ready to play with a chip on their shoulder for be placed in the SEC Eastern Division 4th spot in the preseason ranking to include a recent sports poll that placed them 66th in the country.  Let's not forget a Division I 6-6 transfer, Malik Cooke, that will sit out this year, but will have the opportunity to assist in practice in making his teammates better and in the game preparations.  Cooke was a starter last year for Nevada, before returning home to South Carolina.

While it appeared that the energy level was down, a few things are clear once the house is packed with the Garnet Army and the real basketball faithfuls, this team has the ability to repeat the early success of the 2008-2009 squad, but they should be able to extend the success with the legs and length offered by the new additions to the unit.  The problem for the coaches, distribution of minutes to a lot of quality players.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Scientifically Opposites Attract, Does This Work For USC Football?

We have been taught and some have witnesses that opposites attract, if this is true then the annual rivalry of South Carolina versus Clemson should prove to be a very attractive ticket.  Going into this weekend, the Cocks were the #21 team in the country, with the 3-4 Tennessee Volunteers hosting their visit to Knoxville, then disrupting the Gamecock visit with a 31-13 win and with the 4-4 Arkansas waiting on them next week after destroying Eastern Michigan 63-27 Saturday and the top ranked Florida Gators coming to Columbia in two weeks, the Cocks are not playing any team with an opportunity to carry an advantage.  While Clemson, following it's strong overtime victory over then # 10 Miami in south Florida, last week, now starts to close it's schedule as the favorite in each of it's contest against Sub-Division Coastal Carolina, which they trounced 49-3 without really playing their key skill players after the first half, with a meeting at home next week with struggling Florida State (4-4), at NC State (3-5) next and returning home to host Virginia (3-5). 

Clemson is poised and positioned to finish first in the Coastal Division of the ACC and play in the ACC championship game, where the Gamecocks just relinquished the SEC Eastern Division crown to Florida with it's loss to Tennessee Saturday.  South Carolina could possibly finish with 3 consecutive losses, while the Tigers could finish with 4 consecutive wins from NCAA week 8  up to week 13 when the two in-state institutions meet in the hostile and festive rivalry.

The tale of two programs, the tale of two halves of a season, the tale of two seasons will be on observation right up to the the Thanksgiving week.  But for now, each program is as opposite of the other as teams can be after this weekend.  Don't expect any sympathy for either program by the supporting faithful, but this season could find formerly 21st ranked South Carolina in an unranked status, struggling for Bowl respectability, playing against a once criticized Clemson Tiger team, now sporting a division title and ranked coming to Columbia on November 28th.  Both seasons taking opposite directions in the same year.  Not to include the young inexperienced first year Coach Dabo Swinney, plotting against the Ole Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, once acclaimed as an offensive genius for his history in developing offensive schemes that resurrected programs and won conference (7) and national titles (1), at Duke and Florida.  We always say through out the records when this game comes around, and it will be no different this year as the records will not truly tell the story of the challenges for both programs during the season and the effort that should be placed on the field for this annual Bragging Rights event in South Carolina.

South Carolina Has Early Wreck In Knoxville

Well history said the journey would be tough, looking back this final stretch for the Gamecocks was an obvious adventure, to say the least.  But with the rock slide on I-40 last week already causing an inconvenient routing adjustment, Steve Spurrier and the Cocks were well aware of the 1-13 USC record in Knoxville, the recent controversial Tennessee loss by 2 points against then #1 Alabama, a Tennessee defense even more stout than the highly ranked USC defense, a Stephen Garcia led offense that is ranked 8th in the conference and 91st nationally and one of the lowest "red zone" efficiencies in the SEC.  Yes you get the idea, the route to victory and keeping a promising season alive was lined with additional obstacles, road blocks, caution signals and hazards.  Well the horror of this night was evident when the Vols returned to the field wearing black jerseys and orange pants, to denote the Halloween theme and the threat of ghost, goblins and nightmares.

The game started with USC winning the coin toss and the election to take the ball first.  With a drive moving and appearing to move the chains, TE Justin Cunningham fumbled his first reception, a first down catch, following a powerful hit which provided Head Coach Lane Kiffin and the Vols their first offensive series from the USC 43, 2 plays later a UT touchdown.  On the ensuing possession, Kenny Miles  fumbled on second down at the USC 27 yard line, after a six yard gain.  It took the Vols 8 plays, but again Vols score a touchdown.   On the fourth possession, Garcia chose to run the ball and stick his head in on a large gain, rather than go down and cover up, another hat on the ball causes the third first half fumble and gives the ball back to the Rocky Top Goblins who score ten plays later on fourth and two.  The Gamecocks could only muster middle of the field movement after that and had to settle for a 47 yard field goal, Spencer Lanning's career long.  With three fumbles in USC territory resulting in 3 touchdowns the Gamecocks were at best driving a bang up jalopy to the locker room, at the half.  Even when Stephon Gilmore caused a fumble on the Vol QB, Jonathan Crompton in the first quarter, the team from South Carolina found the football to be like a ghost, "now you see it, now you don't".  USC DB Shaq Wilson extended to retrieve the ball, in what appeared to be an easy turnover recovery, saw the ball disappear and ended up under the sacked and fumbling Crompton.

The second half started with a Vols three and out possession, and USC mounted a drive that could only get inside the red zone and had to settle for another Lanning field goal.  But, Tennessee quickly regroups and sustains it's longest touchdown drive of the evening with a 56 yard 5 play scoring attack fueled by the running of Montario Hardesty, who had a highlight night with 121 yards on 23 carries.  With score 28-6, the Gamecocks found a big play drive, going 77 yards in 3 plays with a 23 yard run by Miles and a 23 catch by Weslye Saunders.  The drive was capped with a 31 yard scoring strike to Moe Brown.  The drive would be the last thing to cheer about for the Cocks.  Any USC momentum shift and comeback was basically chased from the stadium when Garcia shot a high bullet on a 5 yard dump off to Miles that was intercepted by Vol LB Greg King.  With both defenses offering grit and hits, the Vols basically sealed the contest with 4:23 to go with a 39 yard field goal.  The final score was determined 31-13 Volunteers.

So what happened?  On a rainy Halloween night the Black and Orange Vols released tremendous energy from the defense designed by Monte Kiffin, Defensive Coordinator.  The key goons and goblins were true freshman DB, Janzen Jackson (15), senior NT Dan Williams (55), senior LB Rico McCoy (5), who caused two of the three fumbles, including 10 tackles, junior LB Savion Frazier (43),  and All American Junior SS, Eric Berry (14).   As always another solid rushing performance by a SEC running back against the South Carolina.  Failure to wrap up and secure tackles led to a potential superlative weekend for the senior RB, Hardesty, whose churning running style led to a 5.3 yards per carry night.  While the turnovers will loom as the obvious reason for the loss.  It was the defensive energy early by the elder Kiffin's defense that set the short field advantage for the Vols and made the game the perceived lopsided event.  My assessment of the football contest is that the aforementioned Tennessee stars were just like a "rock slide", rolling down it's terrain, destroying everything in it's path.  In this case, it was the USC offense, that never had a chance to get any momentum to get up the mountain, before the orange and black rocks and boulders began to fall and roll with fierce force and from very unsuspecting angles, a characteristic of a Monte Kiffin defense.

The real nightmare for the Gamecocks may not be the ghost, ghouls and goblins of Rocky Top but the internal injuries, first downs negated by alignment and motion penalties, a 81 yard touchdown return wiped out by a slight block in the back that had nothing to do with the play, as Gilmore's return was lost to what eventually you can call a 90 yard penalty.  The damage to this team is not just the loss, by the loss of Cliff Matthews for at least a week if not more with what appears to be a dislocated shoulder.  While this loss does not end the season nor guarantee anything but a third loss, it exposes the level of challenge and the prospects of another season ending crash of nationally ranked season that has the team projected as the underdog in its final 4 games of the season, where only one of those teams is ranked.  Remember the Vols entered this game displaying a 3-4 record.  Easily making them the best 3-4, now 4-4, team in the country.  With there remaining schedule revealing teams of less stature that South Carolina, Tennessee looks prime for a fantastic finish, while the Cocks look for answers to an accident proned offense and a battered defense.

The good news for USC, the freshman and younger players on this team are confident that the engine is still good, that the vehicle can be repaired in a week and will be ready to make the next leg of this journey to complete the season on a, often allusive and seemingly improbable, winning note against the toughest part of the season's journey.  Saturday's nightmare collision with the Vols presented tremendous damage to the South Carolina unit, but with only one player loss and only one game decided the season still has hope, but there is an obvious apprehension about the successful future of what appears to be talented team heading in the wrong direction.

Final Stats    Video Quotes