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VOL. 127 | NO. 167 | Monday, August 27, 2012

Back to the Gridiron

Football season brings new coaches, old challenges and more SEC dominance

By Don Wade

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It was the last day before fall practice would begin. First-year University of Memphis football coach Justin Fuente couldn’t wait to get started.

The Justin Fuente era is beginning at the University of Memphis, and with it comes a renewed sense of optimism from fans. Fuente, who came to the Tigers from a highly successful career as an assistant at Texas Christian University, is looking to instill tradition and discipline into the Memphis football culture. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“This is the longest day of the year,” he said.

If only it were true.

The greater likelihood is that the 2012 football season will bear much resemblance to the previous two under deposed coach Larry Porter, who misguided the Tigers to a 1-11 record in 2010 and a 2-10 mark in 2011. Meaning, there are many long Saturdays ahead.

Not that Fuente, a former co-offensive coordinator at Texas Christian University, won’t bring improvement to the program. Everyone, it seems, believes that he will.

Fuente is no fool, though some of his peers undoubtedly thought otherwise when he accepted the epic challenge that is Memphis football. The 36-year-old coach understands recent success here essentially has boiled down to the years DeAngelo Williams was running the football.

“The history of this program?” Fuente said. “Things have not gone well when things have been tough.”

Whether Fuente can substantially change this fact over time won’t be known this season. But whether he can make some tangible progress and begin to improve the culture, well, that has to be evident this season.

To that end, the coach established what he’s calling the program’s Leadership Council – 10 players he has entrusted with out-front leadership roles. Fuente even went so far as to call them the “founding fathers” of what is meant to be a new era in Tiger football.

Senior offensive tackle Jordan Devey said Fuente and his staff inherited a “wounded” team. Devey likes the idea of the Leadership Council, but he knows what is at stake too.

“It puts pressure on us,” he said. “If we mess up, the whole mission is messed up. I feel honored just to be a part of this.”

Senior defensive back Cannon Smith said he understands fans and media may be skeptical – from the idea of a “new era” to the notion of changing a program that the harshest critics have even suggested doesn’t deserve to continue.

“We’re not blind,” Smith said. “We know there are plenty of doubters out there. Look at our record. We haven’t given a whole lot of reason not to doubt us.”

The best reason for hope might be personified in starting quarterback Jacob Karam, a junior transfer from Texas Tech University. Karam looks down a schedule that starts with Ohio Valley Conference foe University of Tennessee at Martin on Saturday, Sept. 1, at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and contains no opponents that should be unplayable.

“We’re capable of beating every team on our schedule,” Karam said.

“At the same time, every team on our schedule is capable of beating us.”

So there you go, Tiger fans, 12-0 isn’t impossible on paper and two years ago 0-12 was almost an on-field fact. Anyone for 4-8, which would be one more win than in two years under Larry Porter, and actually offer a modicum of hope?

Anyone for talking about the rest of college football?

Football is only a game. Spiritual things are eternal. Nevertheless, beat Texas … .

So read a church sign in Arkansas before the 1969 Hogs and Horns game. Forty-three years later, the Razorbacks might be the SEC’s most intriguing team. They have an interim head coach, John L. Smith, who is only in the job because former coach Bobby Petrino was as imaginative in explanations about a motorcycle accident and his relationship with a woman young enough to be his daughter as he was with his offensive schemes.

“It’s a movie that wasn’t made – ‘Pulp Fiction II,’” said Dennis Dodd, a senior writer for CBSSports.com who covers college football.

Of course, some in Arkansas wanted to forgive and forget for the sake of winning. Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long wasn’t among them. So now, though many preseason polls still have Arkansas in the Top 10, the SEC’s national power base unquestionably begins and ends with defending national champion Alabama, and last year’s SEC champion (but national runner-up), LSU.

Dodd believes South Carolina will have a say.

“They have the best team they’ve ever had,” he said, noting that this is one of his “dark horses” for the national title.

George Schroeder, a national college football writer for USA Today, points out this Steve Spurrier-coached team is different from his best teams at Florida.

“They have a defense and they’re not pass-happy,” Schroeder said of the Gamecocks. “The Florida teams had good defense, but they were pass-happy.”

Georgia’s Bulldogs also make the SEC title contender radar, but just barely.

“They always underachieve,” Dodd said.

I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.

When Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne said that, the Irish not only could count on getting many of the biggest players but also the best. Obviously, the college football landscape has changed. Which is to say the most fertile championship soil is in the SEC, home to six straight Bowl Championship Series national titles.

Among the outsiders hoping to break the streak: USC (coached by Rocky Top deserter Lane Kiffin), Oregon, Oklahoma and West Virginia. USC is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll and No. 3 in the USA Today preseason poll. Schroeder likes USC quarterback Matt Barkley not only for his elite talent but leadership abilities.

“There’s no way to quantify what he’s meant to the program,” Schroeder said.

But there could be because a serious pursuit of the national championship might lock up the Heisman Trophy for Barkley.

“If they win big, the back story is big for the Heisman,” Schroeder said.

If a “dark horse” team comes from somewhere other than the SEC, Dodd believes it will be from the Big Ten Conference – but it will not be Michigan.

“Wisconsin,” said Dodd. “Their front seven’s always good and they’ve got a good offensive line.”

Not to mention a Big Ten – or SEC Light – schedule.

The first thing a football coach needs when he’s starting out is a wife who’s willing to put up with a lot of neglect. The second thing is a five-year contract.

Decades after Bear Bryant uttered those words it is clear the order has changed. The five-year contract is not near the body armor it once was. Now, losing coaches are stacked atop one another like metal folding chairs, their contracts bought out and their replacements ushered in as a matter of mind-numbing routine.

“It’s a three-year game now,” Dodd said.

Not so coincidentally, this is Derek Dooley’s third year at Tennessee. His two-year record: 11-14.

“I think it sets up for him to win because of the roster and the schedule,” Dodd said. “But someone at Tennessee please define winning.”

First, however, maybe we should define successful recruiting.

“They don’t have the recruits in their backyard,” Schroeder said. “So they have to recruit nationally. And to do that, they have to win. And if they don’t win, it’s hard to get those national recruits.”

The orange checkerboard, then, has been replaced by a vicious circle.

“I think they can win eight,” Schroeder said. “And if they can win eight, he might keep his job.”

Meanwhile, Hugh Freeze is in his first year as head coach at Ole Miss and fans are hoping against hope he’s the one to turn that program around. Dan Mullen has notched 21 wins in three years at Mississippi State, but where do you go from here when you share the SEC West with Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and 2010 BCS champion Auburn?

Missouri and Texas A&M are the conference newcomers, flush with expectations that likely are out of reach. As The Kansas City Star’s Blair Kerkhoff wrote: “No amount of effort can fully prepare Missouri for the world it is about to enter, where life and college football are joined till death do them part … .”

It’s kind of hard to rally around a math class.

The man who made the houndstooth hat famous also said this. And while the sentiment is inarguable, the outsized glitz and power of college football now even amazes the people who make a very good living reporting on it.

“It’s clearly become the No. 2 sport in the country behind the NFL,” Dodd said. “Despite every misstep, every scandal, the sport has flourished.”

The list of scandals now starts with the horrific happenings at Penn State and includes just about every conceivable NCAA violation (falsified grades, illegal recruiting, cash from boosters) and just about any unethical behavior by coaches that one can dream up.

Yet, it is as though the sport of college football has perfected a larger kind of pass break-up – always deflecting trouble that could hurt its popularity and ability to generate revenue as the beast grows bigger, bigger, bigger.

“There’s still a mythology to it,” Schroeder said. “Our boys playing for our team and loving our school as much as we do, even though many of us didn’t go to that school. Despite all the scandals, fans will not let go of that.

“We like the games.”

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