With Jacksonville State playing host to Tennessee-Martin on Thursday, plus Saturday yawners for Auburn (against Utah State) and Alabama (against Kent State), it’s time to talk football. Then again, how can we talk football without talking about what transpired this offseason?
The Alabama-Auburn rivalry has seen Harvey Updyke and Tide for Toomer’s. The feuding also paused after the April 27 tornadoes and gave us Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa.
But just when there was hope for the superheating of the rivalry to ease, conversations about perspective waned. It’s back to recriminations about Cam Newton, T-Town Menswear and whatever the most partisan of partisans on either side could conjure in pursuit of mutually assured destruction.
In fairness, bizarre and unexpected developments fueled the return to full-on finger pointing.
Just when there seemed an ebb of chatter over the NCAA’s probe into the recruitment of Newton, Auburn’s lightning-rod former quarterback, the New York Times revealed that Auburn coach Gene Chizik pressed the NCAA’s vice president for enforcement for closure.
Julie Roe Lach bowed back: “You’ll know when we’re finished … and we’re not finished.”
Then USA Today sports “analyst” Danny Sheridan, citing well-placed sources, told Paul Finebaum’s national radio audience the NCAA was closing in on a “bagman” in the Newton case. A month later, Sheridan lawyered up on Finebaum’s air.
The NCAA interviewed Sheridan, then issued Friday’s smackdown statement, calling his claims “vague” and “unsubstantiated” and saying he “did not provide any information to the enforcement staff. … Instead, he unsuccessfully attempted to gather information for his own use.”
So here we are, about to start a new season, and the rage that ramped up around Newton during the 2010 season is renewed. It seems the only thing that could unite Alabama’s and Auburn’s most vocal fans is the desire to pummel anyone who dares stand between them and ask, “Can we all just get along?”
JSU, meanwhile, enters its first season after the school officially announced intentions to explore a move up from Football Championship Subdivision to Football Bowl Subdivision. From now on, whatever the Gamecocks do or fail to do on the field will be judged in part by how it plays into the school’s stated desire to move up.
No pressure or anything.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the top curiosities headed into this week’s openers.
Alabama: Phil & AJ, AJ & Phil
It looks like second-ranked Alabama will start out playing both candidates to replace departed quarterback Greg McElroy, so the Kent State game will be an occasion to match stats and nuances between redshirt freshman Phillip Sims and redshirt sophomore AJ McCarron.
The hunch here is that if Sims is equal despite McCarron’s edges of an extra year in the system and game experience, then it’s not really equal. The Tide coaches just want to see how Sims will react in a game.
The hunch here is that he will react just fine. He seems talented, confident and mature beyond his years.
Elsewhere, one expects Alabama’s defense to shine against Kent State. Truer tests of whether the Tide’s ‘D’ is historic as advertised will come later.
Another spot to watch will be Barrett Jones at left tackle. Alabama lost 2010 starter James Carpenter, and heir apparent Aaron Douglas died after spring practice. How well the quarterback’s blind-side protector plays can have a say on what kind of quarterback is needed.
Like, say, one that’s more mobile in the pocket over one that’s from Mobile.
Auburn: Game programs essential
There’s curiosity all around, and the day’s most dramatic moment will come when Auburn’s starters are announced. The defending national champions, ranked No. 23 by the Associated Press panel and 19 by USA Today’s, will have 18 new ones.
The most ubiquitous position will be quarterback. It’s not just that the Tigers must replace Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, but fall camp saw a long and tight battle between Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley.
A close position battle is a quickly reversible position battle (see Ben Leard and Gabe Gross, circa 1999).
The ongoing Trotter-Moseley battle is also interesting to watch because Moseley made no attempt to hide how much the job meant to him — and how much losing it disappointed him.
Publicity over it has made the emotional Moseley a sympathetic figure, and the backup quarterback is almost always the most popular player in the stadium.
Coaches have said Moseley has embraced his role, though it’s unclear what that means. If he hasn’t already, then Moseley might consider having a Kodi Burns moment.
Burns’ kumbaya after losing out to Chris Todd in 2009 did wonders for that program’s chemistry.
JSU: Instant playmaker
One doesn’t sense that former Georgia running back Washaun Ealey’s transfer to JSU has created quite the same buzz as Ryan Perrilloux’s move there in 2008, but it’s close.
Whereas Perrilloux was seen as the instant lifter of a program mired in the mehs at the time, Ealey is a former SEC starter joining the mix of what was already seen as a strong team. They both sent expectations through the roof, just in different ways.
Ealey’s presence also brings into play a two-back tactic that resonates in these parts because of how Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams made it work for Auburn in 2004. If either Ealey or veteran Calvin Middleton proves to be a good pass receiver out of the backfield, a la Brown, then look out.
Thursday’s game will also be intriguing because of new JSU defensive coordinator Chris Boone. Defense was a sore spot in 2010, and he held the same job at Martin for the past five years.