5 at 10: NASCAR, LSU vs Bama and Monday morning quarterback

5 at 10: NASCAR, LSU vs Bama and Monday morning quarterback

October 31st, 2011 by Jay Greeson in Sports

South Carolina running back Brandon Wilds is tackled by Tennessee's Prentiss Waggner and Rod Wilks. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Happy Halloween everyone. We had a lot of stuff brewing (in a cauldron) so we skipped a formal question today. But feel free to reply to any number of the questions posed throughout. And remember, it's better to treat than trick, at least that's what Kojak always said. Who loves you baby?

From the "Al Davis Studios," here we go...

Monday morning college football quarterback - Knoxville edition

We normally start Monday's show off with the five things we learned from college football Saturday. Well, after the Tennessee Vols closed an ugly, Ugly, UGLY O-for-October in SEC games, well, we need to go to our satellite office and see what we can see.

Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley reacts during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011, in Knoxville, Tenn. South Carolina won 14-3. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

1) Inept is too euphemistic a term for this UT offense. The Vols managed a field goal in a 14-3 loss to visiting South Carolina on Saturday, and that was early in the first quarter after the Vols were given a short field after South Carolina fumbled a punt. In its four-game losing streak UT has scored 28 points. Total. The Vols can't run. They have a hard time throwing the ball to open receivers and when they do, the receivers are having a hard time catching it. It's difficult to watch (Not unlike the two tipsy dorky folks dancing at about 1 a.m. at the Halloween party - you don't want to watch but you can't take your eyes off them either). Yes, UT's starting quarterback Tyler Bray is injured, but if the entire football program is pegged to one player (especially when that player is a 6-foot-6, 195-pound quarterback who is going to take shots in a man-sized SEC because the Vols' line is below average), well, that's not a recipe for success. Short- or long-term

2) Young is not an excuse, it's a current state of affairs in Knoxville and around the league. Roster turnover and other forces have left this UT team with its thinnest roster in recent memory. Is there a first-round pick on the team that was in uniform Saturday night? A.J. Johnson in three years, maybe? Brian Randolph possibly? Da'Rick Rogers looks the part but first-round picks do not drop as many balls as he does. That said, the Vols are far from the only SEC team experiencing a youth movement. Florida is in one, Auburn is in one, and even Georgia is in one.

3) The defense has some players - Johnson and Randolph are each going to be very good and could be great - and it has played respectably in tough situations. That said, the South Carolina team that left Saturday with a win is never going to be confused with the 1984 Nebraska Cornhuskers or the 1990s Florida Gators. And yes, the defense is playing better than the offense, but know this relatively unknown Brandon Wilds went for more than 125 yards rushing for the Gamecocks, who were also without their best offensive player.

4) There is much hand-wringing this morning about Dooley and the direction of the program. Off the field, Johnny Vols Fans everywhere have every reason to be proud of Dooley's leadership. On the field, however, the jury is most definitely still out whether Dooley is the guy to turn this thing around or whether Dooley is the guy to clean this thing up so that the next guy can turn this thing around. We will ask this: What is the hallmark of this team under Dooley? When Saban revived Alabama, everyone could see the Tide was going to be built on defense even in that first year that was filled with struggles that included a home loss to La-Monroe. At Auburn, it's obvious that Chizik and Co. are putting their eggs in the recruiting basket (and Gus Malzahn's offense). James Franklin is building Vandy on a baseline of energy that has the 'Dores doing fun things. What's Dooley's foundation?

5) There are more questions than answers this morning for the Vols in general and Dooley in particular. He's 9-12 hitting the homestretch of Year 2 in Knoxville. He's yet to record a hang-your-hat win, and his signature moment was in a loss at LSU almost 13 months ago. Of course he needs time to shape the program as he sees best, but 21 games in, there does not appear to be much of a shape formed so far. Plus, the biggest question for the Vols this Saturday against MTSU is how many fans show up for a 7 p.m. kick for a money-game that's opposite LSU-Alabama? And regardless which side of the Dooley fence you fall, know that there is no more damaging sentiment for a college football fan base than apathy. If there's anger or outrage, that at least means the fans are invested. But let there be 25,000 empty seats Saturday night and the numbers not in the stadium will be more telling than the numbers on the scoreboard in what should be a blowout.

Monday morning college football quarterback - everywhere else

(AP Photo by Rick Wilson and Gerald Herbert)

1) Let it begin, the battle for college football supremacy has officially entered game week for LSU vs. Alabama. Bama is a 4.5-point favorite this morning. The matchups are flat out scary across the board, and since this is a special Halloween 5-at-10, let's focus on the scary. Playing against Alabama's linebackers is scary. Wondering how Nick Saban may react is scary. Picturing LSU coach Les Miles going into the lab, grabbing a handful of grass to chew on and coming up with a gameplan is scary exciting. But most of all, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo is scary. (If you name your son Barkevious and he does not become and NFL pass rusher, what's his other line of work? Not many other professions out there. "This is our accountant Barkevious." "This is our pedetrician Barkevious." Nope, with a name like Barkevious, you have to try to kill quarterbacks, and more than likely you're going to be good at it.)

2) If there's a team in college football that can beat either LSU or Alabama when they are playing good-to-very-good, it's Stanford. Let's face it, other than a handful of good NFL teams, if LSU or Alabama plays up to their standards, no one touches them (other than LSU and Alabama, of course). They are that advanced. But, the Cardinal has Andrew Luck, and what he did Saturday night against USC was impressive. Luck threw what could have been a disastrous interception that was returned for the go-ahead TD late in the fourth quarterback. Luck calmly lead Stanford back to tie the game and kept making play-after-play until USC blinked in the third OT in a 56-48 win. Luck took a Stanford team that was not playing well on the road against a ranked foe and won. That's chops right there.

3) Huge Halloween ups for a couple of area SEC teams: Monster win for the Georgia Bulldogs - beating Florida is always enjoyable, even when the Gators are down (Florida's current four-game losing streak is its first since 1988), but to come back and show a lot of Rock Candy guts was strong. Looks like James Franklin is turning Vandy into a scary proposition every week. The first-year coach had the 'Dores in position to beat No. 10 Arkansas on Saturday. While the meltdown may be classified as Vandy being Vandy (getting close, scaring a more-talented foe only to grab defeat from the jaws of victory late) for a lot of longtime SEC followers, here's saying that Franklin is well on his way to changing that culture. (Quick side question: Right now, what's the line on Vandy-UT? Is it even?)

4) The BCS dreams continue to fall by the way side for a lot of folks. Clemson was punched in the face in a 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech (that we're sure made Spy dance the night away) and Kansas State tumbled from the ranks of the unbeatens after Oklahoma pounded them. There are now six major college teams that are unbeaten, and the field will continue to be trimmed down. LSU and Alabama play Saturday. No. 3 Oklahoma State faces No. 7-ranked Oklahoma next month and No. 4 Stanford has a tough test against No. 6 Oregon in a few weeks. Boise State is No. 5 and will likely finish the season unbeaten (Houston is the sixth unbeaten team), but if Boise State is going to get a title shot, they need the Georgia Bulldogs to be very special down the stretch. If Georgia could win the SEC East and scare LSU/Alabama in the SEC championship game in the Georgia Dome (the same venue that Boise punched Georgia in the face in the season opener), then maybe they can sneak into the BCS game. Maybe.

5) After some late changes and reconfigurations, the Fab 4 (plus 1) went an insanely respectable 4-1 this week (and we even added that we loved the under the 43 in the UTC-South Carolina game, but we can't count that). The key this week was making wise choices and riding streaks. Virginia Tech is now 1-7 against the spread this fall. The Hokies are good at winning and bad at covering. With the overtime miracle that was was Stanford's cover against USC, the Cardinal are now 13-0-1 against the Spread in their last 14 games. So we hit November at an impressive (and Halloween-appropriate) 66.6-percent clip at 28-14-1. Not too shabby. And that's even with falling into the classic trap game that was Clemson going to Georgia Tech and getting spanked. Although we avoided a couple of other trap games like Michigan State at Nebraska (Sparty was giving only 4 in a 24-3 loss) and the highest over/under on record in the Oklahoma State-Baylor game (it was 82 and still went over).

Mocs right tackle Adam Miller sits on the sidelines as time runs out in UTC's game with Furman.

Photo by Robin Rudd/Times Free Press.

UTC takes gut punch

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga opened this football season with high hopes of returning to the playoffs for the first time since the first Reagan Administration. Those hopes were dashed Saturday when Furman downed UTC 14-7 at Finley Stadium.

Not unlike the Vols, these Mocs were dealt a couple of unforeseen blows to depth and the loss of some serious playmakers - UT lost top-receiver/playmaker Justin Hunter, top defensive player Janzen Jackson and quarterback Tyler Bray for parts or all of the season; UTC lost quarterback B.J. Coleman, running back Keon Williams, defensive end Chris Donald and playmaker Brian Sutherland for parts or all of the season. That said, UTC has been able to find ways to win and has found budding stars in freshman QB Terrell Robinson and a slew of defensive guys.

The offense was bad against Furman on Saturday, accounting for single-digit passing yards and failing to mount anything that looked like a consistent attack. For the first time in his three-plus games in relief of Coleman, Robinson looked like a freshman. Part of that was improved competition against a team that was prepared for a running quarterback. Part of that was the continued struggles of the UTC offensive line. (That said, the talks of quarterback controversy when/if B.J. returns from his shoulder injury now seem somewhat less than pressing. Should be interesting to see how the Mocs handle the QB rotation in the days ahead, and we know our UTC ace John "Ned Ryerson" Frierson will be there every step of the way.)

How these Mocs handle this frustration will be interesting to watch. When goals are set and eventually denied, there can at the least be a loss of focus and occasionally be a tendency to abandon the overall mission. Will these Mocs fall into that trap? This will be an interesting challenge for coach Russ Huesman and Co., to make sure the program focuses on the process as much as the product and does not get distracted by the background noise.

Is it disappointing this morning that the playoff dreams are dashed? Sure it is. But that any UTC football fan is truly and understandably disappointed about being eliminated from the playoffs on Halloween is a testament to the direction of the program. It was not that long ago, that any self-aware Mocs' fan knew the program's football playoff hopes were dashed on the third day of practice.

Tony Stewart crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway in Martinsville, Va., Sunday Oct. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Jarred C. Tilton, Pool)

NASCAR

OK, all the short tracks are in the rearview, and now there are three races left to determine the NASCAR points champ.

Tony Stewart won Sunday at Martinsville, surviving the demolition-derby feel from a race that had a season-high 18 caution flags. Stewart jumped from fourth to second in the points standings, and the former champion is just eight points back of current leader Carl Edwards. And if Edwards didn't already know that Stewart's tracking him, the 2005 NASCAR champ spelled it out for Edwards.

"He better be worried. That's all I've got to say," Stewart told the AP after winning for the third time in the Chase. "He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks."

Here are the points standings:

1. Carl Edwards

2. Tony Stewart (-8)

3. Kevin Harvick (-21)

4. Brad Keselowski (-27)

5. Matt Kenseth (-36)

6. Jimmie Johnson (-43)

7. Kyle Busch (-57)

8. Kurt Busch (-58)

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-73)

10. Jeff Gordon (-76)

11. Denny Hamlin (-80)

12. Ryan Newman (-89)

Two things of note here: It's going to take a miracle for Jimmie Johnson to make up 43 points - and climb five drivers - to continue his championship streak. After winning the last five titles, Johnson's streak appears to be cooked. Secondly, as the tweaks continue on the NASCAR points scale (and until we can figure out a way to get Junior extra points for starting the car, it's going to be tough to get him much higher), there needs to be some consideration made for eliminating a driver's worst score in the chase. If for no other reason than there are a lot of knuckleheads and drivers who carry grudges and what not that cause big wrecks that can take out unknown numbers of innocent by-standers. Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski fell victim to that Sunday and both are now staring at huge deficits with three races left. It's just a thought since it's hardly fair for the term collateral damage to be a deciding factor in who wins the season championship.

Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin, right, gives instructions to wide receiver Kyle Prater during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Los Angeles. USC won 38-17. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

This and that

- Apparently there was some late miscommunication between Lane Kiffin and an official in the final seconds of regulation in USC's loss to Stanford. "I was basically lied to," Kiffin said Sunday. There are a lot of UT fans who have a pretty good idea what that feels like Lane. (That said, Kiffin has taken a lemon-filled situation at USC and made some serious lemonade. And yes, Johnny Vols Fans everywhere just punched their computer screen.)

- A monster win for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who toppled New England 25-17 Sunday. We'll discuss this more in Tuesday's NFL Power Poll, but the Steelers' impressive win over New England means there will be an awesome bad-blood, primetime two-fer this weekend with super huge stakes. LSU and Alabama play Saturday night and the Steelers and Ravens play Sunday night. And gang, neither of those games are for those with delicate sensibilities.

- Sweet buckets of Luck, the Colts and the Dolphins continued their pursuit of imperfection and the chance to draft Andrew Luck. Well played indeed gang.

- Who could have know that this was going to be the best World Series in at least a decade? Friday night's game seven was watched by more than 25 million viewers, making it the most watched Friday night Fox show ever (but that's like being the most sane girl Charlie Sheen has dated, not exactly high cotton there) and more than doubling the number of viewers for last year's series. As for the Not-So-World-Serious contest, only one entry had the Cards winning in seven, so congrats to... the 5-at-10.

- The AP college basketball poll was released this weekend, and North Carolina is on top. This could be the best college basketball season in recent memory, and we'll cover this in extra detail as we get closer to the season, but there are some serious big-boy college hoops teams this year. Could be a lot of fun.