Great expectations. As the Bear Bryant of 19th Century English novelists, Charles Dickens surely understood that when it comes to college football — after all, he didn’t die until seven months after the first-ever college game between Rutgers and Princeton on Nov. 6, 1869 — expectations are like opinions: Every fan has them.
And rarely within our Tennessee Valley have there been more great expectations for a coming season than this one. Nor is that merely because the school that presumably forced Bryant to read at least one or two Dickens gems, the University of Alabama, is expected to make a run at its fourth national title in the last six years under the perfectionist eyes of Bear’s unattached coaching cub, Nick Saban.
No, these great expectations also are surfacing next door to Bama in Georgia, largely because Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley is the 21st Century version of all-time Alpha Dawg Herschel Walker, who remains the Bear Bryant of SEC running backs.
Never mind that the Bulldog Nation’s chief concern may be the same as it too often has been this time of year: Will we have enough “Get Out of Jail Free” cards to field a team? A healthy Gurley and his rebuilt running mate Keith Marshall could make Jaw-ja the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference’s East Division.
Speaking of Marshall, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall may have spent the summer explaining why he decided the, um, grass was greener in more ways than one on the Plains rather than UGA, where he began his career before being asked to leave, but as long as the Gus (Malzahn) Bus is driving the Tigers’ Marshall Plan, Auburn always will have a chance to be the SEC West’s best.
Take away comatose Kentucky (2-10 overall and 0-8 in league play in 2013) and there is plausible reasoning for great expectations of some degree at all of the other SEC institutions of higher learning. That includes the highest of those institutions academically, Vanderbilt, whose five-game winning streak is second in the league to South Carolina’s current six-game run.
Yet the SEC and its new 24/7/365 television network aren’t the only things stirring up great expectations in our town this summer. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs may not have made the NCAA FCS division playoffs since 1984, but they should not only get there this time but make some noise when they do.
UTC coach and alum Russ Huesman not only has two-time Southern Conference defensive player of the year Davis Tull to anchor the coach’s beloved “D,” but also has his son, Jacob Huesman, the reigning SoCon offensive player of the year, to lead the offense at quarterback.
The Mocs will need both players to stay healthy, but as long as they do, UTC may do what no Mocs football team has done before — win a playoff game.
However, the biggest reason for great expectations on this 24th day of August has far less to do with individual teams than the one word they’ve all longed to hear at the major college level for decades: playoff. Specifically, the College Football Playoff, its inaugural four-team format all that was needed to retire the three most hated letters in the sport: B, C, and S.
This isn’t to say the BCS was all bad, or that the Playoff is all good. For starters, whatever you thought of the BCS, it had a formula, however flawed, and it stuck to that formula. So you could hate the formula, hate the results of the formula, but at least the formula theoretically treated every team the same. Theoretically.
Now that’s vanished, replaced by 13 individuals with an alarmingly high number of connections to Stanford — Condoleezza Rice teaches there, Tyrone Willingham coached there and West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck’s son Andrew starred there — which could prompt a new definition for B-C-S: Biased Committee Stinks.
Merely consider the potentially conflicting emotional pulls for Rice, who grew up in Alabama, went to grad school at Notre Dame and may come to consider her time negotiating with the Middle East as Secretary of State for Bush 43 as something of a vacation compared to the cyberspace vitriol that could come her way if she leaves the wrong fan base out of the playoffs.
For proof, when was the last time you heard of a tree being poisoned to death in the Middle East over a soccer match?
Then there’s committee member Archie Manning, arguably the most revered player in SEC history. Given his Ole Miss stardom, New Orleans residence and hereditary impact on the Tennessee Vols, it probably will ruffle a few feathers nationally if good, ol’ Archie Who is perceived to have been a central figure in delivering two of the four playoff spots to SEC schools, given their historical strength in these matters.
But what if the opposite occurs? What if there’s only one SEC school tapped for the semis, and, heaven help us, that team is seeded fourth, which means there might not be an SEC team in the national title game for the first time since Sherman torched the Big Peach?
If Archie thinks Ole Miss fans were rough when Peyton turned his back on the Rebels to double occasionally as director of the Pride of the Southland Band, wait until the entire SEC accuses of Papa Manning of being fair and impartial. Yikes.
And just in case Bama Nation doesn’t have enough to worry about by the committee failing to make a hologram of a virtual Bear its final member — and trying to dethrone Florida State with a quarterback (Jacob Coker) who couldn’t beat out Alabama native Jameis Winston for the Seminoles’ QB slot before Coker transferred to the Tide — one of the most respected members of the committee is Pat Haden, the Southern Cal athletic director who fired Lane Kiffin, who now runs the offense for Bama.
Haden couldn’t possibly hold that against the Tide in a decisive vote, could he? Could he?
So both the great expectations and great reservations for this season go far beyond whether FSU’s Famous Jameis can remember to pay for crab claws the next time he visits Publix rather than getting cited for shoplifting them. And if he can’t, should the Heisman Trust cast a few claws in the straight-arming hand of its little, bronze statue if Winston becomes only the second player (after Ohio State’s Archie Griffin) to receive the award twice?
And given all that, there’s obviously much to concern ourselves with beyond which four teams those 13 playoff committee members will decide worthy of staging the first major college playoff since that Rutgers-Princeton game 145 years ago.
But other than possibly seeing Alabama among those four teams, at least Tennessee football fans should have no gripe with the committee. The Volunteers are at least three or four years away from those concerns, and Haden — who didn’t hire Kiffin away from UT (former AD Mike Garrett did) — did later fire Lame Lane.
So what would be a fair, if not necessarily a great expectation for the Vols? In a perfect world — no nonconference losses other than a road game at Oklahoma, a 4-4 league finish thanks to wins over Florida, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Missouri — UT finishes 7-5 and orange-and-white checkerboard foam bricks start dangling from the car trunks of every citizen in the Big Orange Nation.
In a favorable world — no crippling injuries to key starters — UT could go 6-6 on its way to its first bowl game since 2010. In a realistic world, that figure falls to 5-7.
In the Curse of the Fulmer world in which the Vols have seemed to live since firing their former coach in 2008, UT even could suffer its first eight-loss season ever.
For entertainment purposes only, as my boss likes to say, go with 6-6, then try to get a patent on those orange checkerboard foam bricks as soon as possible.
Finally, for all those whose great expectations to be a part of the first College Football Playoff ever are done in by the new BCS (Biased Committee Stinks), there are these words from Dickens in chapter 8 of “Great Expectations”:
“In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice.”
Be it orchestrated by man or machine.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...