Even for a sporting event that sucks more oxygen out of the room than any other, never has so much pre-Super Bowl air time been devoted to … air.
The deflated balls controversy from the AFC Championship Game has dogged Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for most of their idle week – becoming the storm in the calm before this week’s storm. No one is denying their athletic superiority in a 45-7 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts. Their moral superiority, however, is very much in doubt.
If you pay any attention to sports, you know the gist of it already. Here’s a brief recap just in case.
Postgame inspections revealed that 11 of the 12 footballs used in that game were deflated significantly (2 PSI) below the league-mandated threshold.
Belichick – one of the most meticulously detail-oriented coaches in all of sports – claims no knowledge of how it happened. Brady – one of the most gifted and aware quarterbacks in NFL history – claims he never noticed a difference in the footballs.
It’s all a little hard to swallow from two guys who demand precision. Let’s not think for a minute this was some rogue ballboy or equipment manager who did this. This kind of thing had authority behind it.
The NFL is once again saddled with another controversy that calls into question the league’s integrity. There’s no way that commissioner Roger Goodell is going to conclude his investigation into the incident before Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. Frankly, the deflated balls should have no bearing on that game. It’s not like anyone really thinks the Patriots should forfeit and step aside to let the team they beat by 38 points take their place in Arizona.
But this isn’t as frivolous as it might seem on the surface. Two pounds per square inch of pressure certainly wasn’t the difference in last week’s outcome. That, however, is not the point.
The point is – somebody thought it MIGHT be the difference. And that’s what matters here and that’s why the NFL needs to make an example of Belichick and the Patriots by punishing them where it hurts – draft picks.
Belichick, aside from being one of the NFL’s greatest coaches, is notorious for seeking the thinnest of competitive edges. It’s hard to overlook “Spygate” in 2007 when the Pats were caught taping an opponents defensive signals during Week 1 of what proved to be an undefeated season up until a narrow Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Turns out Belichick had been doing that since 2000.
The NFL fined Belichick the maximum $500,000 and took the Patriots’ first-round draft pick (31st overall) for the taping scandal.
That’s the kind of thing that gains a reputation. In golf, “cheating” is a stain that never washes away. In football, the definition isn’t as sharp.
Two weeks ago in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens complained about the Patriots’ “deceptive” manipulation of eligible receivers, a ploy that helped confuse the defense and rally New England to victory. As unorthodox as it was, those formations were well within the confines of the rules if not within the spirit of them.
This is part of what makes Belichick so successful and also so universally loathed outside of the Patriots fan base. He finagles the mandatory weekly injury reports to keep opponents from knowing everything needed to prepare. He’s gruff and looks like a slob in his ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt that would make Tom Landry cringe.
His results, however, can’t be argued with. Even though the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in 10 years, Belichick is the most successful postseason coach in history with 21 wins (passing Landry’s 20). Factor in those postseason victories and he also passed Curly Lambeau (231) for fourth on the all-time victory list with 232 – trailing only Don Shula (347), George Halas (324) and Landry (270).
His 15-year run with the Patriots is arguably the greatest coaching performance of all time with a 175-65 regular season record (.729). With Brady at the helm, he’s led his Patriots to the playoffs 12 times in his 15 years, advanced to the AFC Championship Game nine times and the Super Bowl six times. They’ve won three rings (2001, 03, 04) to go with the two rings Belichick got as Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator in New York.
The Pats have finished first in the AFC East 12 of the past 14 seasons – akin to the Braves’ run of NL division dominance. New England was second in 2008 after losing Brady to injury in the season opener, barely missing the playoffs despite going 11-5.
So Belichick’s success is unquestioned. His motives, however, are not.
The ball issue speaks to the lengths the Patriots will go to get an edge. This is tampering – however slightly – with the equipment essential to the game. Tampering with equipment in other sports – golf, NASCAR, tennis, baseball – gets you disqualified and/or suspended. It’s a very serious matter. It’s cheating every bit as much as a golfer who replaces his marked ball a dimple or two closer to the hole.
Yes, both teams had to play with the same deflated balls. But if only one team knew it (and more than likely prepared for it), that’s an advantage. Imagine a basketball team raising the rim a quarter of an inch – barely perceptible to the naked eye. You don’t think that would throw off an unsuspecting shooter?
A victory over the Seahawks and Belichick will tie Chuck Noll with the most Super Bowl victories by a head coach. He’s not going to care if he’s fined $1 million.
The only way to send a message to Belichick and anyone else thinking about intentionally bending the rules is to go after something competitively essential. Taking away one first-round pick over Spygate in 2008 didn’t teach Belichick a lesson. So, at the very least, take away their first two picks in the next draft.
The only way to keep cheaters from cheating is to make it harder for them to prosper.
Ever since Watergate, we’ve evolved into one big Gate-ed community of cynics,
From Nixon not being a crook to Clinton not having sexual relations to Bush II not finding the WMDs that sold a war, we’ve turned The X-Files slogan “Trust No One” into a mantra from the top down.
Sports certainly parallel politicians and society in this way.
What did the NFL commissioner know (or want to know) about the Ray Rice video before meting out shallow justice? #TapeGate
Did the Giants water down the infield to slow the Royals in the World Series? #IriGate
Did Bill Belichick and the Patriots intentionally let air out of the footballs for the AFC Championship game? #DeflateGate
At least in all this swampy skeptical stew we could count on one sport as an oasis of virtue. As the canard goes, golfers call penalties on themselves. So you can trust them.
Golf, it seems, has become as rampant with cynicism as everything else. We’ve reached the point of no return when the first instinct in the “gentleman’s game” is to assume we’re being lied to or mislead. It doesn’t help that the PGA Tour’s lack of transparency is the very definition of hiding something.
Consider three headlines from this very week.
Robert Allenby shows up beaten and bruised with a tale of kidnapping and robbery worthy of a Hawaii Five-0 episode. Next thing you know a homeless woman who helped rescue him is weaving a slightly different tale and everyone is wondering “what really happened?”
Tiger Woods goes to Italy to see his girlfriend set a career skiing record and is photographed with a missing tooth that his manager said in a statement was caused by a video photographer smashing into him. Witnesses question the story and suddenly pictures of Woods’ face and clothes are being studied like the Zapruder film.
Dustin Johnson finally breaks his silence near the end of a curious six-month hiatus that everyone denies was a suspension. But doing a talking-points interview in the presence of his agent and new public relations advisor only fueled more speculation about the truth behind his absence.
Social media is awash in golf conspiracy theories. When did being a golfer get so complicated and dangerous? The days of back pain and bunions being the worst occupational hazards are long gone.
Moreover, when did we stop taking golfers at their word? Would it be so hard to believe that Allenby just got mugged, Woods simply got bumped into and Johnson voluntarily got his life together?
We’re wired too differently from an accumulation of mistrust to accept anything at face value.
Allenby – an Australian honored by the golf writers last year with the Charlie Barlett Award for “unselfish contributions to the betterment of society” – said he got separated from his friends at a Waikiki wine bar and was thrown in the trunk of a car, dumped at a park and robbed of his wallet and cell phone. He has the scars (and police have footage of someone using his credit card at an ATM) to prove it. It’s a horrifying tale but perfectly plausible.
Then a homeless woman who Allenby said helped him tells local media some details that are slightly inconsistent with Allenby’s post-traumatic account and Allenby is left to defend himself against even more sinister speculation.
“It’s such a shame that people are focusing on whether the story is true. I say you only have to look at me to see the truth,” Allenby texted to the Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte.
On the heels of that came another Woods drama. The world’s most recognizable golfer is no stranger to scrutiny by critics who have called his credibility into question since his marriage famously fell apart in 2009. He was unfairly called “cavalier” with the rules by Brandel Chamblee in 2013 and the validity of every wince on the course is questioned despite the litany of injuries Woods has suffered in recent years.
So even an otherwise sweet narrative of Woods hiding in the background to surprise his girlfriend, skier Lindsey Vonn, on the day of her most celebrated accomplishment with her record 63rd World Cup victory escalated into tabloid fodder.
Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, released a statement that one of Woods’ front teeth was knocked out “during a crush of photographers at the awards podium.” Considering his long-standing animosity toward photo journalists, it is an ironic outcome.
But Italian reporters and race officials claim no such incident was reported or even occurred, providing more grist for the rumor mill.
Johnson, of course, has never been a stranger to excessive intrigue as well. Blessed with uncommonly athletic gifts for a golfer, he’s never been blessed with the best life management skills. In various levels of trouble since he was a teenager, Johnson abruptly announced he was taking a leave of absence from the tour to address his “mental health, physical well-being and emotional foundation.”
Reports quickly surfaced that Johnson was suspended six months by the PGA Tour for failing a drug test. Johnson’s handlers and the PGA Tour issued emphatic denials about the suspension, but his pending return precisely six months after he started his leave hasn’t squelched the notion that the leave was involuntary.
“I have issues,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated’s Peter Thamel about reports about alleged cocaine use, “but that’s not the issue.”
Johnson won’t divulge what the issues are, but he says he’s returning a new man (as well as a new husband and father).
“Over these past four or five months I’ve really grown up,” he said, “and I am starting to become the person I want my kids to look up to.”
The cynical response, naturally, is that people will believe it when they see it.
That just seems to be the way of the world now. But in times like these, a common Tiger Woods phrase might be a more appropriate reflex response.
Sometimes, it only is what it is – and nothing more.
Josh Gordy knows how lucky he is.
A fifth year NFL player associated with four different teams, Gordy is involved in his fourth postseason. An Indianapolis Colts win over the New England Patriots tonight would send him to his second career Super Bowl.
Gordy had barely been in the NFL for five minutes when his Green Bay Packers team won Super Bowl XLV. He didn’t have to look past his Washington County mentor, Takeo Spikes, to understand what a blessing that was even as an inactive rookie.
Spikes played in a record 219 regular season games with five different franchises and never once reached the postseason – an NFL record.
“Takeo played for 15 years and never touched the playoffs, so you can’t take it for granted,” Gordy said. “I’m blessed to play for a Super Bowl twice in five years.”
This opportunity in the AFC Championship Game is a little more meaningful to Gordy. His rookie year he was only elevated from the Packers practice squad to the 53-man roster a month before the playoffs, seeing limited action in two games.
Gordy’s been with the Colts for three years, playing in 43 games plus four more in the playoffs as a backup cornerback and special teams player. He’ll be on the field against the Patriots in dime defensive packages as well as three of the four special teams units – barring injury that might press him into every down action.
“Pretty much everybody’s backup,” he said of his role. “Just have to be ready for it at all times.”
If it doesn’t sound like the marquee role Spikes played as a former Pro Bowler, Gordy isn’t complaining. He understands how difficult it is to find a place on an NFL roster, having largely given up hope of ever reaching one when he was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars after his first training camp. He returned to Warthen, Ga., and stopped working out for three weeks before his phone rang offering him a another shot.
That he’s still in the NFL five years later – on a one-year, $1.431 million contract – is a privilege he doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” he said. “It gives you more respect for the game in the league to come up the way I did – just pretty much from the bottom. You’ve got to respect the game and never take it for granted. A lot of other guys would want to be in my position. I’m extremely blessed.”
That it’s once again the Patriots standing in the Colts playoff path is less of a blessing. Three times in four previous postseason meetings during the Tom Brady era, New England has ousted Indianapolis.
A year ago in the AFC Divisional playoff round, the Patriots picked on Gordy a little bit in a 43-22 victory over the Colts. Brady didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but on several occasions het set up touchdowns with shots at the left cornerback.
Gordy committed a third-down pass interference at the 5-yard line to set up a TD for a 29-15 Patriots third-quarter lead. New England’s last score in the fourth quarter came after Gordy tackled Austin Collie at the 3 after a 15-yard third-down completion.
A series later with the Patriots milking the clock, Gordy tackled Julien Edelman after a 7-yard gain but dislocated his collarbone in the process, requiring offseason surgery.
“It was just a routine tackle,” Gordy said. “Landed on my shoulder and the way I landed shifted everything over and the collarbone popped out. I would say it took about four months to get back to fully functional. It wasn’t a really tricky surgery but it was an uncommon one.”
In April, the Colts resigned Gordy as an unguaranteed restricted free agent to bring him back for a third season in Indianapolis after he won a roster spot in training camp.
“The organization is a great one and being around the same guys in the same system and we’ve got a great quarterback (Andrew Luck) as well,” he said. “So I was thrilled to come back.”
It’s the third straight postseason for the Colts, and the team gets a little deeper every year. Eliminated in the wildcard round in 2012 and divisional round last season, they’ve reached the conference title game this time.
Gordy appreciates how tough it is at this stage at any level. He kept tabs on Washington County’s second straight run to the Class AAA state championship game in the Georgia Dome and suffered along with the Golden Hawks when some controversial officiating decisions ultimately cost them in a 27-20 loss to Calhoun. He was as perplexed as many others when A.J. Gray’s apparent interception was overruled and let Calhoun continue driving for the decisive touchdown.
“I think it should have been their year,” Gordy said of the Golden Hawks. “I looked at the game and there were a couple of controversial calls. I don’t get what they saw but there’s nothing you can do about it now.”
Gordy understands their pain. In 2003-04, his own WACO teams reached the semifinals at the Georgia Dome but never won a state title. Gordy’s prep highlight was a 101-yard interception return touchdown at the Georgia Dome in a 21-7 victory over Cartersville in 2004, but the Hawks lost the championship game the next week at LaGrange.
Those postseason defeats never get easier.
“It’s the same feeling when you get that far and don’t get the goals you want – it’s heartbreaking,” Gordy said. “But you learn from those situations and move on and learn how to deal with it better next time.”
What Gordy and the Colts are trying to do now is just an order of magnitude different from those quests in Sandersville.
“It was a little smaller, but it carries about the same weight, relatively, pound for pound,” he said. “It’s obviously on a bigger scale. At that time it was as big as it gets but now it’s just a lot bigger. Having a chance to play to go to the Super Bowl is a big thing.”
If Gordy ever loses sight of that, all he has to do is see his friend and mentor Spikes, who closed a state title pregame speech to WACO’s players last month by saying “All we ever wanted was an opportunity – seize the moment.”
Gordy has more than 1,300 fewer NFL tackles than Spikes accumulated, but he’s seized postseason moments the WACO legend only dreamed about.
“When he sees the (Super Bowl) ring sometimes, I guess he can get a little sick in the stomach,” Gordy said.
Gordy would never rub it in, but if fortune smiles on him again he’d like to add a second ring.
“It’s a great feeling obviously,” he said. “We’ve got a great challenge this week and it’s just one more step closer to the big goal. Just go out there and get it done.”
A self-reflective case study in why a playoff is the best thing that’s ever happened to college football.
Before getting started on this unsightly trip down the paper trail, let’s begin by stating emphatically and without reservation that Ohio State is undeniably a worthy national champion. The first legitimate national champion in history (though precincts around Fort Worth, Texas, abstain and Michigan will surely object). Not saying past “champions” weren’t the best teams, they just never got vetted or tested as thoroughly.
The Buckeyes delivered a great service to the college football world with their convincing underdog triumphs over Alabama and ultimately Oregon in the inaugural playoffs. It proved that presumptions are foolish and were a silly way to go about crowning champions. Under the old beauty-pageant system, the Buckeyes would have been denied a chance to even be runner-up. Urban Meyer would have made a poor Miss Congeniality.
As someone who was “invested” in this playoff process from beginning to end this season, it’s constructive to look at the missteps and misstatements along the evolutionary process of Ohio State becoming national champions. All “quotes” are my own – via social media, blogs and columns – but they parallel much of the majority dialogue along the way.
JULY 31, 2014: “... if I had to make a complete guess based on nothing but historical evidence and perception, I think the final four teams will end up being Alabama, Florida State, Oregon and Ohio State. But that, of course, is just a ridiculous guess.”
Should have gone to Vegas and let my first instincts stay there.
AUG. 20: “UPDATED: Braxton Miller injury at Ohio State already made me alter my inaugural playoff prediction and go with Oklahoma instead.”
While I was at it, I switched Alabama to Louisiana State as well. Doh!
SEPT. 6: Via Twitter: “Without Braxton Miller, Ohio State is not a very good football team.”
If you were watching the Buckeyes’ slapstick routine against Virginia Tech that afternoon, you probably thought the same thing.
SEPT. 8: “In college football there is poor Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany leading a feckless football ‘power’ conference that virtually eliminated itself from the new playoff consideration just five days after Labor Day.”
The was pretty much a national theme as the Big Ten was delivered its last rites prematurely.
OCT. 8: My first personal poll ranked Florida State (5-0) second, Alabama (4-1) 10th, Oregon (4-1) 16th and Ohio State (4-1) 18th. That same week the AP poll had them 1, 7, 12 and 15 respectively.
OCT. 28: Inaugural CFP rankings placed Buckeyes 16th behind every one-loss power conference team except Duke. My take: “Beating nobody good and losing to 4-4 Virginia Tech ain’t going to cut it.”
Well ... it wasn’t.
NOV. 6: “Ohio State @ Michigan State: If Buckeyes want to regain respect, it has to start here. SPARTANS 31, Buckeyes 20.”
Meanwhile on ESPN’s College Gameday, shock rocker Alice Cooper said “I don’t see how Michigan State can lose this game. Emphatically. Embarrassingly.” Then Lee Corso put on a Spartans outfit.
NOV. 10: “Ohio State evicted Michigan State from the conversation and likely doomed the Big Ten to playoff spectators because no amount of lobbying can erase the stain of the Buckeyes’ lone loss at home to a bad Virginia Tech team.”
Digging in isn’t proving to be the best course of action at this point.
NOV. 16: With Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Mississippi State comprising CFP’s top 4: “There’s no question that if everybody that matters wins out the rest of the way, the SEC West should (and probably will) supply half the field.”
Uhhhh ... let’s move on.
NOV. 30: After Mississippi State got thumped in Egg Bowl: “That leaves Ohio State, still smarting from its lone Virginia Tech black eye. The Buckeyes have been impressive since, but in Saturday’s hard-fought victory over Michigan they lost their second quarterback of the season when J.T. Barrett went down with a broken ankle. If the Buckeyes can still somehow survive Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game with a former third-string quarterback, they would be my choice for the fourth playoff spot.”
Clearly things were getting dire in Columbus, Ohio, but unlike the preseason there was a shrewd hedge at the end of this one.
DEC. 4: “Wisconsin vs. Ohio State: If Urban Meyer can win this with his preseason third-string QB, he deserves some reward. BADGERS 38, Buckeyes 27.”
Actual score, Ohio State 59-0. Ahem.
Dec. 6: Via Facebook: “Playoff should be Alabama, Oregon, FSU and Ohio State.”
See, I was catching on. The selection committee later agreed.
DEC. 31: “Ohio State is 0-10 vs. the SEC in bowl games, so Alabama winning that matchup is a given.”
Before you send snarky retorts, the Buckeyes’ 2011 Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas was vacated. The official stats were accurate, though my predicted 38-28 Crimson Tide victory was not.
JAN. 1, 2015: Via Facebook: “Ohio State reminds me of Georgia in 2002. You did not want to play that Bulldogs team at the end of that season. Could’ve beaten anybody. These Buckeyes are dangerous.”
This is the playoff argument in a nutshell. Despite some rather universal preconceived notions, when a team is given a chance to PROVE itself against peers it earns respect and validation.
JAN. 3: “CFP CHAMPIONSHIP: Ohio State vs. Oregon: Repeat matchup of inaugural NCAA basketball finale. What are the odds? WEBFOOTS 46, Buckeyes 33.”
So I wasn’t totally ready to believe in the Buckeyes yet. But that’s why they play the game.
So in a course of two months laying waste to the Nos. 5, 13, 4 and 2 teams in the final postseason AP poll, the Urban renewal from that unfathomable Virginia Tech defeat after Labor Day was complete.
JAN. 12: Via Twitter: “Congratulations Ohio State. Legitimate national champs.”
It wasn’t a straight line, but we all eventually got to the same destination. This is why playoffs are the preferred method to majority opinion – the more inclusive and less subjective the better. Next time let’s see what Texas Christian has to offer as well.
It’s easy to dismiss the results of an all-star game as meaningless, but it didn’t look that way on the faces of Team South Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
Considered heavy underdogs to a loaded Team Georgia in Border Bowl II, the kids from South Carolina came up a collective clutch. The offense marched 70 yards for the go-ahead score when it had to and the defense made the goal-line stand to end a 12-8 victory for the Palmettos over the Peaches.
“It was a great collective team effort on both sides of the ball,” said Midland Valley receiver Kameron Brown, the offensive MVP with 10 catches for 125 yards. “We executed on the drive and came up with the score and defense came up with the stop when we needed it.”
On a cold and clear afternoon in Lucy C. Laney Memorial Stadium, the spirit of what the Border Bowl is about was embodied in the South Carolina effort.
Head coach Jeremy West is two months removed from his resignation after five losing seasons at South Aiken, but he spent a week bringing out the best in his rival players. In return, they sent West out with a satisfying triumph.
“It’s big to win, but Border Bowl II isn’t about Jeremy West, it’s about these guys,” West said of his team. “Our goal was to win and we came
out and got this done.”
West’s biggest goal was to get his players to bond in short order. From the first meeting last Saturday, he forced the players to break apart from their normal schoolmates and get to know the rest of their teammates.
“We all knew coming in this week we needed to disperse into each other,” said North Augusta quarterback Trib Reece. “First meeting we had coach West had us sit down next to each other and mix around. So we got familiar with a bunch of people.”
“I told them all week, all that outside garbage was left outside and
they were Team South Carolina all week,” West said. “They just wanted to win and do what they could do to get a win.”
The result was evident in the decisive offensive drive. Trailing for the first time all day in the fourth quarter, Team South Carolina went 70 yards in 10 plays and 4:07.
But it was how they did it that mattered.
With Strom Thurmond coach Antwaun Hillary calling the plays that had Reece throwing to receivers from Midland Valley (Brown and Dre Carr) and Strom Thurmond (Jaquez Harris), it was a collection of rivals coming together for the common good.
Reece (17 for 26 for 179 yards) got very comfortable leaning on Brown and Harris throughout the game, but when they were covered up in the end zone he tucked himself and reached for the pylon on the go-ahead touchdown with 2:45 remaining.
“Kameron is a very good target,” Reece conceded of his regular-season rival. “Definitely the one-on-ones, either him or Quez (Harris) on the other side from Thurmond, either one of them one-on-one was definitely going to be open.”
In the end, however, it was up to the defensive
collective to stop Georgia’s
best from stealing the glory.
Evans quarterback Matlin Marshall converted a fourth-down pass and scrambled for 34 yards to set up the red-zone opportunity for the winning score in the closing minute.
But after Aquinas star tailback Reuben Garnett failed to break through the defensive line, Marshall tried to tuck it up the middle on the final play of the game.
Team South Carolina, however, bowed up and stood him up at the goal-line. After the officials unraveled the pileup to determine Marshall was short, the final 5.8 seconds rolled off the clock and the Palmetto side celebrated
an unlikely triumph.
“It means a lot being the first South Carolina team to do it,” Brown said. “There’s nothing wrong with being the underdog. We had a lot to play for an nothing to lose. Defense came up with a big stop to win us the game and we’re going to enjoy it.”
Defensive MVP Rasool Clemons send the final
play “happened in slow
motion” but when it was finally over he was happy to send his coach out with a victory – something West only had happen nine times in five seasons at South Aiken.
“It feels good and it was a good way for coach West to go out on,” said Clemons, who decommitted to Virginia and is fielding late interest from Mississippi State, Michigan and Missouri. “We all wanted to be the first team to do it.”
In a way, it was important for South Carolina to even the series with Georgia. Even though Lakeside coach Steve Hibbitts didn’t have some of his most electric stars like Rashad Roundtree or Washington County’s A.J. Gray, he had the perceived talent edge
as is typical in this interstate series.
“You want the kids to come out and showcase what they have,” Hibbitts said. “The kids played great on both sides. I’m proud of the guys.”
The Border Bowl succeeded in its mission to provide a showcase for the players and the fans.
“It’s easily the funnest game I’ve had in high school by far,” Reece said. “I’m just glad we’re basically a team from South Carolina even though we play for different schools.”
West believes Saturday’s game bodes well for the future of the Border Bowl.
“It’s getting better every year and it’s going to be a great thing,” West said. “It keeps growing, it’s going to be a big-time event.”
In his Windsor, S.C., home, Tyrone Lawrence had the instinctive reaction his son, DeMarcus. should have had 900 miles away in a Texas stadium.
“I’ll be honest, I just fell on both knees just hollering, ‘No you didn’t!’” Tyrone Lawrence said.
That’s pretty much the same thing Dallas Cowboys fans, players, coaches and owner had when DeMarcus Lawrence briefly held the game-clinching turnover in his hands only to fumble it right back to the Detroit Lions with two minutes remaining in Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game. Scoop-and-score is the Cowboys’ defensive motto for January, but in this instance with a 24-20 lead Dallas didn’t need any more points from its rookie defensive end from Silver Bluff.
“The main thing that went through my head was, ‘Dang, I let the whole team down; I can’t go down like this,’” Lawrence said.
He didn’t. In one of the quickest comeback stories you’ll ever see – just one minute and eight plays later – Lawrence shed his blocker to make his first career sack on fourth down, stripping the ball from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and this time falling on it to clinch the Cowboys’ first playoff victory since 2009.
The play set off a celebratory eruption inside AT&T Stadium, exemplified in an awkward bouncing three-way hug between Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, his son, Stephen, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“It was awesome man,” Lawrence said of the spontaneous noise explosion. “It was shaking. It was turned up now. I couldn’t even hear myself think.”
Back home in South Carolina, his play elicited relief in a series of text messages between Lawrence’s father and his agent.
“We just thanked the Lord that he was able to redeem himself,” Tyrone Lawrence said.
Considering his father has been a lifelong Cowboys fan since growing up rooting for Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Randy White, Lawrence knew what was awaiting him had he not atoned for his mistake and the Lions had rallied to win.
“He said he was going to chew me out if I didn’t make up for it – ‘You ain’t going to mess with my Cowboys getting to the Super Bowl this year,’” DeMarcus said of his father.
It would have been worse in Dallas, where fans still haven’t forgotten past defining gaffes by guys like Leon Lett, Jackie Smith or current quarterback Tony Romo.
So Lawrence’s quick recovery wasn’t just luck, but determination to make good. He got an earful from teammates after trying to run with the football instead of simply falling on the fumble, but the supportive message was to let it go and move on.
That his coaches left the rookie in the game motivated him even more.
“They put a lot of trust and belief in me and gave me an opportunity to go out and show the world what I can do,” he said. “My coaches told me basically it’s all about will and want. Only thing on my mind on the sack/fumble was I really wanted to get the ball back and not let the team down. Basically that how I need to play every play with that mentality.”
It could have been a disastrous day for two of the three Aiken-area players on the Cowboys roster. Early in the game, South Aiken’s Dekoda Watson had a running-into-the-punter penalty that the Lions eventually converted into a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Safety Jakar Hamilton of Strom Thurmond was inactive.
Instead, however, Sunday was potentially a breakthrough moment for Lawrence at the end of a trying rookie season. A lot was expected of him as the 34th pick in the NFL Draft in May after the Cowboys traded two picks (No. 47 and 78) to rival Washington to move up 13 spots to get a pass rusher to replace departed all-pro DeMarcus Ware.
After signing a four-year, $5.5 million contract, Lawrence ended up breaking his right foot during a one-on-one drill in training camp and missed the first eight weeks of the season.
All he had to show for it in the second half of the regular season was nine tackles and zero sacks, which isn’t what the Cowboys expected after Lawrence piled up 20.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks his senior season at Boise State.
“It’s just a grind,” Lawrence said of his recovery and return from surgery. “It just how the game goes sometimes – you have to deal with things. It’s all about overcoming adversity. Just trying to get back healthy and then just trying to go out and help the team as best I could.”
The Cowboys advance to Sunday’s NFC Division game at Lambeau Field against Green Bay. Lawrence will be counted upon to help stop Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers if the Cowboys hope to advance to the NFC Championship game for the first time since winning the Super Bowl in 1995.
“This is such a dream for me – playoff time with the Dallas Cowboys,” Lawrence said. “I grew up as a Dallas Cowboys fan and now I’m living out a dream. Just want to help the team any way I can. I’m proud to be a Cowboy and glad Jerry (Jones) put so much faith and trust in me. I’m just coming to show up each and every day and get better.”
If the opportunity arises again, the former Silver Bluff star won’t make another silver-and-blue blunder.
“In those type of situations, it’s just all about knowing the game and just growing as a professional,” he said.
Back when we used to cover the Atlanta Braves on a semi-regular basis, there were two things you could count on reading in every column.
The first was always a quote from John Smoltz, the most approachable star in a clubhouse full of decent guys. His locker had a gravitational pull that was impossible to fight.
The second was the qualifying identifier “future Hall of Famer” regarding Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones.
Three down, one to go.
The three Braves aces of the glory years pitched a combined perfect game in Cooperstown. Six months after Maddux and Glavine were officially inducted, Smoltz was selected to join his longtime rotation mates and golf partners as a fellow first-ballot selection.
Smoltz was picked on 455 ballots (82.9 percent) to sail through on his first attempt along with dominant starting pitchers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. Houston Astros infielder Craig Biggio finally got through on his third attempt to round out the four-man class of 2015.
“This was a little bit unexpected because I never assume anything,” Smoltz said in a video interview with MLB Network. “I’m honored, I’m humbled and when the phone call came I was for the first time ever speechless.”
The great thing about Smoltz was that he always had something to say. The highest honor a reporter can say about an athlete is that he’s a go-to quote regardless of the subject. Whether it was a feature on Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox or analysis of Atlanta’s postseason woes, Smoltz would have something insightful to say.
If you didn’t have anything pressing to discuss, he was happy to talk about golf. He’ll bring two unique credentials to the Hall of Fame – lowest handicap and perhaps the only one ever inducted who can play the accordion.
But they don’t enshrine you in the Hall of Fame for being a good guy (see Dale Murphy), great quotes, golf skills or accordion-teaching parents. Smoltz earned his place on the merits of his arm and his competitiveness.
The 1996 NL Cy Young winner went 213-155 with 154 saves, the only pitcher in history to exceed 200 wins and 150 saves. It’s that unique combination that ultimately got him the nod over comparable pitching candidates Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina.
Known as the Dennis Eckersley formula – for the Oakland pitcher who transitioned from starter to dominant closer en route to Hall of Fame induction in 2004 – Smoltz proved his versatility in three bullpen seasons brought about for health reasons. He made a seamless transition, leading the league in saves his first year as a reliever with a then NL-record 55.
But what made Smoltz more unique than Eckersley is that, despite his age, he didn’t want to remain in that part-time role but returned to the starting rotation in 2005 and won 14, 16 and 14 games his last three full seasons with the Braves.
“Physically to go from starter to closer was a much bigger thing than most people realize,” Smoltz told MLB Network. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
Couple that versatility with his gaudy 15-4 postseason record and you have the recipe for Cooperstown that neither Schilling nor Mussina could compete with on the ballots.
“Smoltz was a much better starter than Eckersley, but he wasn’t as good a closer,” wrote Joe Posnanski, who along with another former Augusta Chronicle columnist, Mike Berardino, voted for Smoltz, Schilling and Mussina among their maximum 10 votes cast. “More to the point, I don’t think he was as good a starter as Mussina or Schilling, so you have to ask how much do those three years as a closer add to his overall case? I think the voters in general will give Smoltz too much credit for those seasons.”
Smoltz joining Maddux and Glavine as a first-ballot Hall of Famer is another remarkable element. He didn’t have to suffer the annual process like Bert Blyleven or get passed over like Jack Morris, the man who beat him in the epic Game 7 1991 World Series pitching duel.
There have only been 50 first-ballot selections in history, 45 of them since it became a “thing” in 1962 when Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson turned “first-ballot” into an adjective.
Fourteen of those 45 were pitchers and four of those 14 were Braves, including Warren Spahn (1973). That three of them were in the same rotation and will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame with their manager (and soon Jones) is something Bob Costas said “if it isn’t unprecedented, it’s pretty darn close.”
“It was storybook and will probably never happen again for a lot of reasons,” Smoltz said of that core staying together so long in Atlanta. “My teammates, we never talked about staying there forever, but we didn’t take any day for granted and we enjoyed each other.”
Despite 14 consecutive division titles and five World Series appearances, the Braves only won one world championship with that stacked roster.
“I think the one thing we all regret a little bit is that we didn’t execute enough to deliver enough championship rings, especially for our manager,” Smoltz admitted.
It’s a common regret for Braves fans. But that doesn’t diminish how great it was for nine seasons from 1993-2002 to watch the greatest pitching rotation in history (with the arguable exception of Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn in the early 1950s).
After years of referring to Smoltz as a future Hall of Famer, the voters agreed to make it a reality. For Braves fans missing those glory days, Smoltz’s induction gives everyone another reason to celebrate in 2015.
Once upon a time, the powers that be in collegiate sports decided they needed a national championship tournament and something great evolved from it.
History is repeating itself in eerily similar fashion.
The president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, Harold Olsen, decided in 1939 that his NCAA brethren needed to create a tournament to keep up with the successes of the James Naismith-founded NAIA and New York-based NIT events that had sprung up in 1937 and ’38 respectively.
The original single-elimination NCAA Tournament started off small and actually lost $2,500 when it was over. It consisted of only eight teams split into East and West regions. On March 27, 1939 – in front of a nearly sold-out crowd of 5,500, including Naismith himself – the two regional winners met in the inaugural championship game at Northwestern University’s Patten Gymnasium in Evanston, Ill.
The final score: Oregon Webfoots 46, Ohio State Buckeyes 33.
Slow-forward 76 years and a new collegiate playoff institution emerged on New Year’s Day. In a remarkable coincidence, the inaugural football championship game on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, will pit Oregon against Ohio State.
You can’t make this stuff up any better.
Like it’s basketball counterpart, the maiden College Football Playoff started off small with only four teams. Unlike hoops, however, it’s already ridiculously profitable, delivering the highest television ratings in cable history. The sold-out semifinal games – the Rose and Sugar Bowls – drew 28.2 and 28.3 million viewers respectively. That’s hardly Super Bowl eyeballs territory or the network saturation levels of the M*A*S*H finale or Who Shot J.R.? episode of Dallas, but those are astonishing figures for cable nonetheless in an era of limited appointment television.
Provided you were not a fan of Florida State or Alabama, the first semifinals were immensely satisfying as two largely disliked dynasties were humbled if not downright humiliated.
The Seminoles and their infamous quarterback Jameis Winston fell to earth with a karmic thud.
The decisive turnover-touchdown came when Winston spun and stumbled and fell backwards while losing the football with a Garo Yepremian-esque grace that could only have been improved with the Benny Hill soundtrack. A rattled Winston then started shouting at his enabling coach, prompting Jimbo Fisher to finally tell him to calm down or he was going to the bench. By the end of the 39-point drubbing, Winston sat and later proved less than gracious in defeat.
The Ohio State-Alabama nightcap was even more riveting. Two coaches and programs who don’t inspire much love outside of their own fans bases trading haymakers in the Superdome. Alabama’s defense wasn’t up to the task in the end, yielding too many big plays. While both Urban Meyer and Nick Saban looked like amateurs at clock management in the final two minutes, the Buckeyes prevailed to the cheers of the Big Ten and jeers of the SEC haters from Miami to Spokane.
What have we learned so far from this collegiate postseason?
BCS BAD: Had the old system remained in place, it’s likely neither of the finalists would have been playing for a title. Alabama was slotted No. 1 across all polls and there’s no way an undefeated reigning BCS champion would have been denied entry. This is how playoffs are supposed to work, discounting collective assumptions and letting players decide it on the field. The days of conference dynasties are over and will become less prevalent to more open it gets.
FOUR ISN’T ENOUGH: Texas Christian bludgeoned Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, making the only statement it could after being snubbed by the playoff selection committee. Based on the ratings, the public’s thirst for more playoff games (and the math of five power conferences) will warrant an expansion to six or eight teams in the near future.
SEC BACKLASH: A nation weary of SEC supremacy was giddy with the struggles of the presumptive greats in the SEC West. Turns out, it wasn’t so invincible with the top five teams all losing, prompting cries of “overrated.” But reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Other than Ole Miss, every SEC team was competitive against the strongest competition. Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Auburn each played the winner or runner-up from other major conferences.
SEC WHIPLASH: The much-maligned SEC East went 5-0 in bowls. Granted the competition wasn’t quite as stiff as the West faced, but along with wins by West doormats Arkansas and Texas A&M the results illustrate once again that the SEC depth is greater than any other conference.
FORMAL JACKETS: Georgia Tech was perhaps the most pleasant surprise with a running display that highly regarded Mississippi State proved incapable of stopping. If Paul Johnson could find the right coordinator to attract the talent and build a great defensive system to compliment his triple-option offense, the Jackets could be national contenders.
STRUNG OUT: Nick Chubb should have taught us something. Georgia’s fourth-string tailback on opening day rushed for 1,547 yards, including a freshman bowl record 266, against Louisville’s No. 3 rushing defense. So it shouldn’t surprise us that Ohio State’s preseason third-string quarterback Cardale Jones turned out to be pretty good himself.
PREMATURE CALLS: Everyone (present company included) piled onto the Big Ten in September after some disastrous results, such as Ohio State losing at home to a bad Virginia Tech team. Turns out, seasons don’t end in September. The Buckeyes keep improving, very much reminiscent of a 2002 Georgia team that finished 13-1 and could have beaten anyone in January.
NOT-SO-BIG 12: TCU might have a legitimate beef, but the rest of the Big 12 didn’t distinguish itself in the bowls with a Power 5-worst 2-5 record, including humiliating blowout losses by flagship programs Oklahoma and Texas.
NOBODY DOMINATES: The Pac-12 boasts the gaudiest winning percentage at 6-2 (.750), joining the 7-5 (.583) SEC as the only Power 5 conferences with winning bowl records thus far. Those Pac-12 wins included only two ranked Power 5 opponents (Florida State and Kansas State) who ranked higher than fourth best in their respective leagues. The ACC went 4-7 and the Big Ten 5-5, but each had a few quality wins against ranked foes to be proud of this postseason.
It wasn’t all bad in 2014 sports, with plenty of highlights offsetting a host of regional disappointments.
Todd Gurley’s suspension and injury were downers for Georgia fans, but Thomson’s Ray Guy finally went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Braves floundered and fractured, but former legends Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox dominated the Hall of Fame inductions.
The Gamecocks stumbled into old mediocre football habits, but head coach Steve Spurrier claims he’ll be around another four to five years.
The flagship basketball programs were at best NIT-worthy, but Mercer beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament, Westside’s Ricky Moore got another championship ring with UConn and South Carolina’s women earned a No. 1 seed.
So as we usher in a new year, what might comprise the good, bad and ugly in 2015?
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF: It’s not perfect, but the fact that there is a final four bracket that starts on New Year’s Day has already made this collegiate postseason a huge winner. The semifinal games have tremendous subplots with rival coaches (Nick Saban and Urban Meyer) facing off in the Sugar Bowl and the past two Heisman winners squaring off in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State is 0-10 vs. the SEC in bowl games, so Alabama winning that matchup is a given. And karma has to prevail with a class act like Marcus Mariota beating the classless Jameis Winston in Pasadena. So with Oregon and Alabama deciding the first true national champion in college football history, the Ducks will strike a major blow for the Pac-12 in winning an entertaining shootout. Commemorative Nike jerseys will be available immediately after the game.
SUPER BOWL: With the exception of the sub-.500 representative from the NFC South, these might be the most balanced NFL playoffs ever. Nine of the 12 teams are either 12-4 or 11-5 and none has separated itself from the field. As tough as it will be to swallow, Dallas will beat New England to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
FALCONS: This franchise needs to think defensively. As inspiring as it would be to hire Rex Reed to replace Mike Smith, Arthur Blank will probably bring in Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as the next head coach. But the birds are more than a year away from being playoff caliber again. As for Gurley, he’ll be drafted by his home-state Carolina Panthers and haunt the Falcons for years.
FINAL FOUR: As stoked as I will be to see my alma mater Virginia finally reach a championship game, nobody is beating Kentucky this year.
WOMEN’S HOOPS: This can happen. Dawn Staley’s loaded roster at South Carolina will avenge a lone regular-season loss at perennial power UConn to beat the Huskies and win the NCAA title.
MASTERS TOURNAMENT: If court proceedings don’t bring Rory McIlroy down, he’ll have a good chance to complete his career slam ensemble with a green jacket. But I think Adam Scott will edge out Gary Woodland and Jordan Spieth at Augusta National.
GOLF MAJORS: The biggest lock of the year will be McIlroy retaining the claret jug at St. Andrews. At the faux links venues of Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits, Spieth (U.S. Open) and Jason Day (PGA) will join the ranks of major winners.
NBA: Sorry Cleveland, but the down-and-out sports city with the best chance of getting a championship will be Atlanta with the Hawks.
BRAVES: Pardon me, but I don’t see any hope for another playoff series at Turner Field before the movers get stuck in traffic on the way to Cobb County. But we can close our eyes and remember the good ol’ days once again when John Smoltz joins his golfing buddies in the Hall of Fame.
WORLD SERIES: In a matchup that will establish new ratings records, the Chicago Cubs will beat the Boston Red Sox to win its first championship since 1908.
2015 SEC FOOTBALL: Georgia fans will miss the productivity of Mike Bobo’s offenses in another 9-3 campaign. South Carolina will have to stomach another unsatisfying 7-5 season. Florida will rise again to win the SEC East.
2015 ACC FOOTBALL: Georgia Tech will always be a factor in the weak Coastal Division, but 8-4 is a likely outcome. Clemson will be the class of the Atlantic with home dates against Florida State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech en route to a conference championship and playoff berth.
Whatever your rooting interest, here’s to a happy and healthy new year.
Forget the relatively meaningless bowl games named after duck calls, sports apparel lines, department stores or credit cards – we’re sitting at a crucial coaching crossroads in our little corner of the football world.
Here’s a Cliff Notes synopsis:
Two coordinators can’t replace one at Clemson.
Georgia faces its most critical assistant coaching hires in the Mark Richt era.
South Carolina can’t afford the vague “two-to-five-year” retirement plan of its transformational head ball coach.
As 2015 approaches, only Georgia Tech has a future plan that fans can count on – whether they like it or not.
The departures of record-setting offensive coordinators Mike Bobo at Georgia and Chad Morris at Clemson should send shudders through both fan bases. Bobo taking offensive line coach Will Friend with him to Colorado State was a double-whammy for the Bulldogs.
How each school deals with enhancing its staffs in the coming month will be critical to whether we can expect the sustained quality that we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years.
To call the latest handful of football seasons around here a “golden age” would be excessive. The stretch from 1980-90 – when Georgia, Clemson and Georgia Tech each claimed national titles and even South Carolina threatened one season and grabbed a Heisman Trophy in another – would justifiably object or at least demand platinum status.
But the recent relative regional successes have certainly been gold-plated.
South Carolina has enjoyed an all-time level of competitive relevance with three consecutive 11-win seasons and a satisfying five-year reign over its arch rival.
Clemson broke a conference title drought and treated its fans to a parade of exceptional skill players in a largely entertaining system.
Georgia has produced a series of the greatest offensive seasons in the program’s storied history and been a regular part of the conference and national conversation from signing day through the regular season.
Georgia Tech continues to defy skeptics by exceeding expectations annually in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a running attack that annually ranks among the nation’s best.
The only continuity we can be sure of moving forward is from the Orange Bowl-bound Yellow Jackets, which committed this month to an extra four seasons of the triple option by extending Paul Johnson’s contract through 2020 and making him one of the four highest paid head coaches in the ACC.
All other programs are up in the air and what they do next will be key.
The easiest fix should be Clemson. Morris created a sound offensive blueprint before leaving to take the reins at SMU and leaves behind a plethora of young talent including quarterback Deshaun Watson. Dabo Swinney elevated both Jeff Scott (receivers) and Tony Elliott (running backs) to serve as co-coordinators when the Tigers play Oklahoma in Monday’s Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. When it comes to the long run, however, Swinney should settle on one of them, and Scott (who also serves as recruiting coordinator) would be the obvious choice.
Georgia is more critical. Despite the laughable at-home game of blaming Bobo every time a play didn’t work, the Bulldogs’ offense thrived like never before under the former Georgia quarterback. He was versatile enough to pile up points with the passing game under Aaron Murray or even more points with the legs of Todd Gurley/Nick Chubb. The Bulldogs have been one of the most exciting balanced offenses in the country to watch.
Tight ends coach John Lilly will call the plays against Louisville in Tuesday’s Belk Bowl in Charlotte, but the Bulldogs have the clout and purse to bring in the best available offensive mind in the nation. With a transition quarterback next year and No. 1 recruit Jacob Eason tenuously committed for 2016, Richt needs to make a splashy hire in January.
The real crisis situation, however, is in Columbia. The cupboard quickly looked bare for Steve Spurrier in a disturbing 6-6 regular season. A 24-21 win Saturday over an equally mediocre Miami in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl in Shreveport. La., avoided Spurrier’s first losing season since his first year at Duke in 1987.
The situation was made worse in December when the 69-year-old Spurrier told the local paper he’d stick around for “two or three more years.” The repercussions were immediate, as four blue-chip recruits de-committed after the comment, forcing Spurrier to expand his coaching future to the “4-5” window to control the damage.
That, however, isn’t fooling anyone. Spurrier is likely to leave sooner rather than later, and he doesn’t have a single assistant worthy of “coach-in-waiting” status. Efforts to bring in deposed Florida coach Will Muschamp to shore up the defense failed, so Spurrier needs a marquee staff overhaul to avoid the perception of lame-duck status that could set the program back to is dismal historical stature. The Gamecocks can’t afford a relapse in the talent pool as the rest of the SEC East is starting to improve.
Spurrier built a foundation, but without any bedrock it could crumble before he reaches the first tee in retirement. His legacy will be what he leaves behind, and it needs to start immediately with a staff capable of carrying on without him.
As the new year approaches, old acquaintances should not be forgotten. The new ones, however, need to be just right to avoid future wistful refrains of Auld Lang Syne.
This is supposed to be the crescendo year – his senior season – that Rod Hall will remember for the rest of his life.
Only one goal will satisfy the Clemson point guard.
“I want to get to the NCAA Tournament,” said Hall, the former Laney star. “I’ve been here through three seasons and this is my last year. We’ve had a good team, had an OK team and had a bad year, too. So I want to make my last year my best year.”
Everything was certainly pointing that direction when Hall and the Tigers finished 23-12 and reached the semifinals of the NIT last spring. It was considered a foundational season for Tigers head coach Brad Brownell and his full cast of underclassmen who had grown through 16-15 and 13-18 seasons before stepping up.
That foundation, however, was weakened when Hall’s closest friend and roommate K.J. McDaniels opted to leave Clemson a year early and enter the NBA Draft. McDaniels was drafted 32nd overall by the Philadelphia 76ers and is a promising rookie on the league’s worst team.
Whatever sting McDaniels’ departure caused was compounded further in September when assistant coach Earl Grant left to take the late head coaching vacancy at College of Charleston. Grant was the recruiter who lured Hall to Clemson and the two forged a close bond.
Hall admits Grant’s departure had “a big effect” on him and the team emotionally.
“He was a big energy guy, frankly, and good at getting everybody going,” Hall said of Grant. “It was real tough knowing that he was not going to be there anymore, somebody that you talked to about anything other than sports. So it was a big loss for us.”
Hall won’t, however, blame Clemson’s inconsistencies in a 6-3 start on the absence of McDaniels.
“K.J. was a good player and a big loss for our team, but we play as a team and he wasn’t the only player out there doing good things,” Hall said. “We’ve got other guys who came in and everybody got better over the summer. So we kind of just filled in as a team.”
It’s not that easy, of course, to make up for the loss of an NBA-caliber player.
“As coaches we are figuring out more and more how much (McDaniels) meant to our team,” Brownell said. “I think that his energy level and outgoing personality were two things that affect your team day-to-day. We just are lacking a little bit of confidence, a little bit of swagger, a little bit of toughness – all the things that K.J. brought, we don’t really have that.”
To fill some of those needs, Brownell had a “heart-to-heart” with Hall after the Tigers blew a late lead against Rutgers and told his senior floor leader he needed to play better.
“I think it’s a lot harder on (Hall) than everybody realizes,” Brownell said. “K.J. and he were really tight. He’s close with other guys on the team, but it’s not the same. Obviously he’s here by himself now that some of his classmates have left. I think Coach Grant leaving has had a bigger impact on Rod than some, because Coach Grant was a guy that really believed in Rod and gave him the opportunity. I think there’s a lot of little things that can take away from your focus. And he’s played OK, he’s played fine, but he hasn’t played with a big heart and a big spirit. He’s not an outgoing guy, so it’s not natural for him to be out there. He’s a humble guy. He doesn’t get too high about playing great.”
When Hall is on, the Tigers are formidable as he proved in consecutive wins against No. 18 Arkansas and Auburn. Despite slow starts, like the first half against Auburn when he turned the ball over five times, Hall had brilliant efforts in the clutch. He finished with a career-high 20 points against Auburn and scored 11 of his 19 points in the final minute of regulation and overtime to rally the Tigers past Arkansas.
“(Hall) came to me at halftime and told me, ‘Coach, that’s my fault, I’m just a little out of it right now, I’m going to get my mind right and play better for you in the second half,’” Brownell said after the Auburn win last Sunday. “And I said, ‘Hey man, you got plenty in your bank account to have a couple of bad halves. You’re fine, go make some more plays.’ And he did.”
Hall has another chance to step up in the most important nonconference game of the season Friday – South Carolina. The rivalry “fan game” also marks Clemson’s first true road game in a hostile arena. The Tigers were 4-7 in road games last year as opposed to 13-3 at home.
“It’s big for us,” Hall said. “We need to show we can play the same on the road as we do at home without our own fans. When we have our own fans it’s an advantage because they’re into the game and everything and everybody is jacked up. But as a team we have to rally together and play our best while we’re on the road.”
A win in Columbia would make Clemson a satisfying 4-0 against the Southeastern Conference. That would be an encouraging accomplishment as the Atlantic Coast Conference season looms with even tougher competition. A year ago the ACC added Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, and now the slate includes powerful Louisville as well.
That daunting prospect doesn’t diminish Hall’s primary goal – to get Clemson back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. Without McDaniels or Grant, Hall still believes the Tigers have “all the pieces we need.”
“I think we’re capable of competing against anybody and I think we’re going to do pretty good,” Hall said. “If we go out every night and play like we played against Arkansas and don’t take any possessions off, we can play with anybody.
“We’ve got a lot of tough teams in our conference so each game we’ve got to bring it and play like our last game.”
If Hall can help establish some consistency and swagger, perhaps he can get the crescendo he’s been building up to since he left Laney.
There is a certain amount of pride that must be suspended these days to root for Georgia’s flagship football franchises.
Georgia Bulldogs fans know the drill, having been forced to beg for Southeastern Conference mates with losing SEC records to step up and beat a Missouri team that lost to lowly Indiana. All that useless pleading just for the chance to be crowned “champion” of the devalued SEC East.
Georgia fans, however, can hold their heads high around Falcons faithful. If Atlanta can win the correct 67 percent of its remaining three games to finish two games below .500, the Georgia Dome rafters will be the “proud” roost of another NFC South championship banner.
That’s a little like being honored for serving the best haggis in Scotland. Nobody really respects that title.
The NFC South makes the SEC East look like an all-star collection. It is the dysfunctional step-cousin of the mighty NFL with 5-8 co-leaders Atlanta and New Orleans – or the 4-8-1 Panthers – set to earn a place at the playoff table ahead of 10 non-NFC South teams that currently own winning records.
“That’s not the way you would write it up,” Falcons offensive guard Justin Blalock told reporters this week.
You probably also wouldn’t write that a potentially sub-.500 division winner gets to play host to a first-round playoff game. That, however, is the standard honor for “winning” a division. If the regular season ended before today, the 5-8 Falcons would get home-field advantage over the wildcard 9-4 Detroit Lions. Something is not right with that picture.
“Just go out there and play and win these last three games and then we’ll have a home playoff game and we’ll go from there,” said Falcons veteran receiver Roddy White.
Of course, the Falcons don’t even HAVE to win all three games. They don’t even HAVE to win two of them. Today’s home date with the Pittsburgh Steelers is purely optional. The Falcons could lose for the third time in four weeks and not relinquish its tiebreaker edge in the division.
At the very least, the Falcons will be able to say they came by the division title honestly. Because the most likely way they’ll get it is by sweeping the NFC South schedule. Atlanta is 4-0 in the division, with New Orleans and Carolina still looming. Win those last two games and nothing else matters.
That’s not really a position the Falcons want to be in considering their history trying to win in the Superdome. So beating the Steelers, who are fighting for their own postseason place in the rugged AFC North, would be a huge lift to Atlanta’s hopes.
“You just can’t go and say if we lose this game we’ll be all right,” White said. “It’s going to be a lot of pressure to win the last two.”
When you’ve only won five times, it certainly is. Even other lowly NFL teams not fortunate enough to reside in the NFC South are throwing shade at the situation, The 5-8 Chicago Bears – eliminated from any playoff hope but looking to go 3-1 against the NFC South – are amused by the significance of today’s matchup with their fellow 5-8 Saints.
“Aren’t they on top of their division right now? And what’s their record?” asked Bears defensive end Willie Young. “Holy cow. That’s love right there, man. They got it made.”
The Falcons, of course, have only themselves to blame for being in this situation. Atlanta has won only once outside the division – ironically against the first 11-win team in the league, the Arizona Cardinals. It blew a 21-point lead in London to the Lions and botched the clock management in yielding a winning field goal to the Cleveland Browns. Of course the Saints have blown their own share of wins within their grasp, but teams can only control what’s in front of you.
“It’s been crazy because we feel like we put ourselves in such a bad position this year, just doing crazy stuff and not going out there and playing up to expectations and stuff like that,” White said. “Just kind of giving away games and just feeling bad because we put ourselves in those positions.”
But hey, the Falcons still control their own destiny – even if that destiny might be to share the record with the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only losing teams to reach the playoffs. It’s actually possible the Falcons could win the division with a 6-10 record if it only beats the Saints but New Orleans and Carolina each lose twice more.
Oh the championship indignity that would bring. The official mood of the NFC South should be chagrin. Guess there’s a good reason they don’t put won-loss records on those title banners hanging from the ceiling. Otherwise, Falcons fans might have to co-opt those paper bags from the ’Aints to hide their guilty conscious of such undeserved reward.
SANDERSVILLE, Ga. — They’ve grown up hearing the stories and seeing the pictures and jerseys of the local legends lining the walls of places from Washington County High School to Dairy Lane burger joint.
If they were born at all, A.J. Gray and his fellow seniors were still in diapers the last time the Golden Hawks won a state football championship 17 years ago. Today’s players work out of the same dilapidated fieldhouse where stars like Takeo Spikes and the Edwards clan (Robert, Terrence and Chris) established WACO as a football force to be reckoned with producing Class AA titles in 1994, ’96 and ’97.
“We respect those guys and everyone who wrote the story and created the tradition,” senior offensive lineman Quinton Morris said. “But it seems like it’s our time to write our names down in history and be remembered for something.”
With a newly renovated stadium and a new fieldhouse under construction, this generation hopes to add something else new to the conversation about Washington County football lore. A year after falling short to powerhouse Buford in the Class AAA title game, the Golden Hawks have a second chance to seal their legacy at the Georgia Dome against Calhoun.
They’ve already staked claim as the highest scoring team in Georgia history (717 points) but it’s only the trophy that matters.
“The sad thing is in the playoffs there’s only one way it can end happily – ever,” Hawks coach Joel Ingram said. “We want to go out on top because we’ve been on the bad end of it so many times we want to know what it’s like to be on the winning end of it.”
History goes back a long way in a county that was named after General George Washington back in 1784, five years before he even became the nation’s first president. But in small towns like Sandersville, the modern history that resonates most in the community takes place on Friday nights in the fall.
You can see its meaning literally written all over town in yard placards, business signs and storefront windows with messages like “Earn It!” Kaolin mining might be the lifeblood industry of the county, but WACO football is what generates the pulse.
“This town thrives on it,” said Ben Walters, owner of the landmark restaurant Dairy Lane who played for the Hawks from 1974-76. “Friday nights everything around here stops for football. Even here we’re busy until 15 minutes before the game and after it, but during the game it’s almost lights out.”
You can’t miss the enthusiasm this team has generated just driving through town on Highway 15. The campaign-style signs dot the front yards of homes and business from Warthen to Tennille. If this were an election, “Go Hawks” would win in an uncontested landslide.
“We love those boys and support them,” said Elanor “Mimi” Walters, Ben’s mother.
The legacy of the Hawks dynasty in the 1990s is both a blessing and a curse. WACO has threatened four times since but come away empty. It lost twice in semifinals at the Georgia Dome in 2003 and ’06. It lost 17-6 at LaGrange in the 2004 championship game and 35-19 to Buford in the Dome final last season.
This year’s senior class has been honing in, advancing to the first, third and final stages in previous years. They’ve carried the No. 1 ranking all season, averaging more than 51 points per game as they’ve dominated almost every opponent.
“They’ve had so much pressure on them this year with preseason expectations and they’ve handled it like champions,” Ingram said. “It’s part of the expectation of playing in a program like this, which is fine. Sometimes it seems like it’s unreasonable, but you want to be in a place where the expectations are high. This is a football-crazy town.”
So crazy that a good chunk of it will be abandoning the county seat by the busload Friday to be at the Georgia Dome for the 4:30 p.m. kickoff. Walters has given many employees the day off and plans a skeleton crew at Dairy Lane.
“It will be like the town of Chernobyl, Russia – it will be a ghost town,” Ingram said of Friday afternoon.
Optimism is high that Gray and the Hawks have what it takes to beat an equally undefeated and championship-driven Calhoun and bring a fourth trophy back from Atlanta.
“Those boys have worked really hard for it and they’re hungry and I think they’re going to get what they want,” said Makayla Kitchens, a Washington County junior. “I think it’s going to be a huge celebration. I think that if we win it this year and we bring it back home, it’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for since ’97.”
Ben Walters thinks it could be bigger than the glory days. Back then, winning was new to WACO and they didn’t know how good they had it. The intervening seasons have taught them to “appreciate it more” and he’s already working to acquire Gray’s No. 5 jersey for a place of honor at Dairy Lane. His mother says, “It would be a miracle and blessing for this town.”
Ingram also believes it “would mean everything” to the community.
“I just want it for these kids and this program and all the old veteran players who have played here over the years,” Ingram said. “We want to cement our legacy and put our picture on the wall in there.”
Other than multi-talented quarterback/safety Gray, who will play defense next year for Georgia Tech, this Golden Hawks team isn’t as star-laden as the ones in the 1990s that sent a handful of players to major colleges and the NFL. That hard-working roster that keeps setting records would make another title even more special.
“The community is really good about supporting us, but a state championship would get us back,” said linebacker Will Coneway, who will move on to Mercer next season. “They always talk about the good ol’ days of 1996-97. I think it would really bring back the strength and put Washington County back on the map.”
“It would bring everybody closer together,” said senior lineman Dylan Steadman. “We already have a wonderful fan base, but it would bring everybody right where we need to be for years to come.”
It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been the BCS.
The inaugural four-team college football playoff is set, and it has all the teams from Big conferences that don’t know how to count arguing about the fuzzy math that brought us to this point.
Turns out Ohio State of the 14-team Big Ten crashed its way into the No. 4 hole with a 59-0 bludgeoning of Wisconsin in the league’s championship game. B10 commissioner Jim Delany couldn’t have engineered it any better if he’d asked the Badgers to tank it for the good of the conference.
Left out in the cold by the Buckeyes’ ascent were the “co-champions” of the 10-team Big 12 – TCU and Baylor. The Horned Frogs dropped three spots in the final College Football Playoff poll after beating a bad Iowa State team by only 52 points. The Bears leaped the Frogs to first runner-up status with a narrow quality victory over Kansas State.
There are legitimate arguments to be made for all of the blessed and aggrieved parties in this scenario. My gut instinct is agreeable with that of the 11-person selection committee, but that doesn’t make it any more right or less wrong depending on your football world view. Had it come down to a choice between Baylor and TCU instead, I would have picked the Bears based on their head-to-head result because that’s the way sports arguments are best decided. The less subjective beauty judgments in the pageant, the better. The Big 12 did itself no favors by not having a championship game that declares one outright winner. There’s no doubt the winner of a Baylor-TCU rematch would have made the playoff field.
Of course, neither Baylor nor TCU would have even been considered in the old system. Folks in Oregon and Ohio would be howling as well if they were relegated to a relatively meaningless traditional Rose Bowl instead of separate semifinal showdowns. Because based on all the human polls and computer models, the old BCS would have delivered an Alabama-Florida State championship game that would have left nobody outside of those two constituencies satisfied.
So as imperfect as it is, thank goodness there is a playoff bracket to look forward to in the New Year. The New Year’s Day matchups – uber-coaches Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer in the Sugar Bowl semi and presumed Heisman holders Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl semi – are as compelling as anybody could want. Whichever two teams advance to the championship game on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, will have the sheen of true Goliaths having climbed their way through regular season divisions, conference championship games and worthy semifinal tests.
Somebody will walk away from all this as the most legitimate national champion that college football has ever crowned.
But that final fact should not be mistaken for ultimate success. Because the new four-team playoff failed to eliminate the exclusionary specters of favoritism and elitism. Ohio State is a blue-blooded power program that inevitably got the benefit of the doubt in the selection suite over nouveau riche wannabes TCU and Baylor even though the Buckeyes inarguably suffered the most undignified loss (at home to a bad Virginia Tech team) of any of the candidates.
So here are two things that need to get fast-tracked into an improved system:
1) No more weekly rankings from the selection committee.
As fascinating as it was to get a peek inside the committee’s thinking for the last seven weeks of the season, it was a misleading roller-coaster ride from start to finish. Clearly intended to spark ratings and build up hype for the playoffs, it ultimately proved to be a confusing series of disingenuous outcomes. It illustrated conflicting methodology (like Florida State getting no credit for its ambitious nonconference scheduling), hidden traps (basing everything on past results instead of future potential created an array of false positives) and nonsensical logic (head-to-head mattered less than the so-called “eye test” until it didn’t).
What’s wrong with a little suspense? Let the traditional polls (sportswriters and coaches) and cable pundits tease the nation until the committee offers the final “reveal” at the very end. It’s better not to know how the playoff sausage is made.
2) Expand the field to avoid flagrant exclusions.
Everybody except the people who created this abbreviated mess seem to agree that four teams isn’t enough when there are five power conferences. You’d think college people would be smarter at math.
But just how big should it be? Six? Eight? Sixteen?
A six-team model would have worked nicely this season, as things turned out. Alabama and Oregon could have enjoyed byes while Florida State, Ohio State, Baylor and TCU settled the various arguments amongst themselves on the field as the football gods intended.
Six teams, however, won’t always be enough. It was conceivable that a few others could have cluttered up the conversation. What if Mississippi State hadn’t lost the Egg Bowl and stayed in the top four? What if Marshall hadn’t lost its overtime shootout with Western Kentucky and finished 13-0? What if Notre Dame hadn’t folded after its heart-breaking Florida State loss and been an independent factor? What if Alabama had lost to Missouri in the title game?
There needs to be room to account for these scenarios that will periodically come up – probably more often then not. Eight would seem like the perfect compromise. It would account for five automatic champions from the major conferences while making room for three at-large teams to account for whatever curveballs are thrown the selection committee’s way.
Sixteen teams would just be excessive and create the same old elitist tendencies when choosing from a fat field of comparable two- and three-loss programs that should have lost fewer games in the first place. Arguing about the 9-16 teams is so insignificant compared to the current cases of Baylor and TCU that it’s laughable.
While many people will inevitably argue the validity of the occasional unbeaten Marshall, Northern Illinois, UCF or Boise State from a non-power conference, what harm would it do to throw one of them in when it merits as the No. 7 or 8 seed? If they really are unworthy, the top power seeds should weed them out as a de facto “bye” opponent.
Fixes can’t come soon enough to help TCU or Baylor. It’s too bad for them. Even so, the first playoff is way more than twice as good as anything we’ve ever been treated to before.
WINDERMERE, Fla. — Patrick Reed is never shy with his thoughts.
If he thinks he’s a top-five player, he says so.
If he thinks a hostile crowd needs quieting, he shushes them.
If he’s angry at himself, he barks offensively and apologizes later.
So the former Augusta State golfer’s emphatic assessment of his eventful 2014 should come as no surprise.
“Best year I’ve had in my life so far,” Reed said after shooting 63 in his first competitive round playing with Tiger Woods. “We had our first baby girl; had two wins, one of them a World Golf Championship; skyrocketed up the world rankings; played in my first major; made two cuts in four majors; Ryder Cup. So I’ve done a lot of great things and everything has kind of fallen into place.”
In a season when a lot of players did a lot of great things to fill the void left by a largely vacant Tiger Woods, there might be no player in the world who established more of a name for himself than Reed did.
If the golf world didn’t notice Reed shooting three consecutive 63s to open a wire-to-wire win at the lightly regarded Humana Challenge, then it certainly noticed the way he repeated the front-running feat against the world’s elite at Doral wearing Tiger’s traditional red shirt in the Sunday group behind Woods on Sunday. In case they missed the point, Reed declared himself “a top-five player” in the aftermath that got a thumbs-up for chutzpah from Donald Trump but a thumbs-down from some peers and social media etiquette enforcers.
Reed, however, never backed down from any critics as he struggled through the summer around the birth of his daughter, Windsor-Wells. And if anyone doubted his mettle, he shut them up with the standout performance on the losing American side in the Ryder Cup.
“It’s one of those events that I never thought you could feel that way about golf in my life and it definitely exceeded it,” he said of the team experience.
His intensity doesn’t always translate as well as the Ryder Cup stage. When Reed shouted a gay slur at himself after a bad shot in China, the audio reached around the world and the backlash was swift. He publicly apologized for being “young and growing up” and promised to learn from his mistakes.
But he will never apologize for his passion.
“The passion I have for the game is never going to change,” he said.
If anyone thought Reed would back down, he proved otherwise this week at Isleworth after getting a last-minute invite into the select 18-player field at the Hero World Challenge. Despite not touching a club after a trying trip home from Asia that included an optic emergency for his wife, Justine, Reed once again made a major statement on the course.
While all eyes were on tournament host Woods making his return to golf after a four-month injury sabbatical, Reed stole the spotlight.
Paired with Woods for the first time in the opening group Friday, Reed stormed out in 8-under par through the first 10 holes. He dared to think about hitting one of golf’s magic numbers on the course wear Woods once shot 59 before his iconic 1997 Masters victory.
“I was thinking in the 50s after 10 for sure,” he admitted.
Reed settled for 63 instead, moving from next to last to in contention. He sits in fourth place heading into today, nine shots behind his celebrated Ryder Cup partner Jordan Spieth.
That 63, however, was indicative of the fearless mentality of this generation of rising stars who grew up mimicking Woods instead of being intimidated by him.
There was a time when playing partners averaged more than 2.5 strokes more than Tiger (3.9 in the final pairing of majors), but Reed is one of three players to shoot a record-low 63 alongside Woods this year.
“At one point when guys played with Tiger their stroke average went up like five strokes just in that round,” Reed said. “You could see it in his eyes back when he was dominating. If looks could kill, he would literally kill you.
“I realized he was the most mentally, physically strong guy out there on tour and he was the best anyone’s ever seen. He was so much better than everybody else at the time. Growing up watching that, I tried to copy his mental strength and go from there.”
How do you copy mental strength?
“Be stubborn,” he said with a smile. “And focus on what you’re doing and not what everyone else is doing all around you.”
Those are traits Reed already has in abundance at age 24 after the best year of his life …
Stuffing 10 pounds of footballs into a four-pound duffle bag was never going to be a good idea.
The College Football Playoff selection committee was doomed before it ever started when the unwilling parties decided to only dip their toes instead of diving head first into the playoff era, limiting the field to only four teams.
With five power conferences, somebody was inevitably going to cry when the music stops Sunday and they’re left standing without a chair. All they did was replace one BCS headache for another playoff and seeding squabble.
And the arguments taking shape as the final weekend of the collegiate season looms are doozies.
Could the only undefeated Power 5 team and reigning BCS champion slip out of the fourth seed with another lukewarm victory?
Will head-to-head matter in deciding between Big 12 conference co-champions?
Might a two-loss championship loser get the nod over a one-loss champion from a perceived weaker conference?
Is it possible for the mighty Southeastern Conference to get shut out altogether?
Needless to say, a lot can happen in the six games Friday and Saturday with championship/playoff implications. So the easiest thing to do is focus on the most logical possibility – that every single one of the top six teams in the latest playoff ranking wins its finale and solidifies its resume.
To almost any sentient being familiar with sports protocol, there is only one possible field that can illicit the fewest possible screams: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Baylor.
Unfortunately, the selection committee hasn’t been leaning this way in the weekly offered glimpses of its rationale.
This latest edition of the playoff ranking that set the table for this week’s action was the most cringe-inducing of the ongoing series since mid-October. Undefeated Florida State did what it always does and scored more points than Florida only to drop further down to the cut line at No. 4.
TCU, despite its own pitiful escape two weeks before against a woeful Kansas team, not only leapt over Florida State to No. 6 but widened its gap on the equally one-loss Baylor team that rallied from three touchdowns down in the fourth quarter to beat the Horned Frogs in October.
Conceivably, Florida State could win unimpressively against No. 11 Georgia Tech on Saturday and fall out of the playoffs if Ohio State were to somehow throttle No. 13 Wisconsin.
That would be nonsense. But the biggest reason wouldn’t be the obvious one – that the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Seminoles would be UNDEFEATED while the Buckeyes LOST to a weak ACC team (Virginia Tech) at home. It would be in the absurd mixed message the selection committee has sent in the way it has devalued Florida State while elevating TCU.
What’s that message, you ask? It’s that strength of schedule sort of matters. From the moment the first poll was released and TCU was installed six places ahead of the Baylor team that beat it, the folks in charge have been clear that scheduling is a factor. The Horned Frogs were rewarded for playing Big Ten foe Minnesota while the Bears were punished for a corresponding Mid-American cupcake Buffalo.
It’s a noble concept and one that should inspire schools to enhance their future schedules in order to avoid.
But if that’s the standard the committee is going to apply, it needs to implement it universally. Mississippi State wasn’t getting docked for its putrid nonconference slate when its toughest test came from an Alabama-Birmingham program that was disbanded at season’s end.
Yet Florida State, which without question tried the hardest of any team in the nation to play a representative elite nonconference schedule, is getting no credit. The Seminoles were the only Power 5 team to schedule three high-end out-of-conference foes – Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Florida. It’s not their fault that when the contracts were signed years ago that each of them would suffer relative down seasons in 2014. Let’s just say they were all consistently better when the ink dried than a Minnesota team that posted one winning season (barely) in the previous seven years.
Safe to say the committee has painted itself into some tight corners this weekend. Ideally it could use a Baylor loss to Kansas State to validate its reasoning and then have everything else fall in line.
Imagine, however, if the worst-case breaks out – Missouri unseating Alabama, Arizona reprising its earlier upset of Oregon, Georgia Tech dealing Florida State its first loss since 2012. It could devolve into a complete shambles of subjectivity.
The solution is simple – get a bigger playoff sack in which to stuff the most qualified teams. Expand the field to eight teams, ensuring participation of the five power conference champions with three at-large entries to accommodate any worthy independent, eye-test extras or potential outlier.
If you’re the non-champion arguing about being left out at No. 9, your case is already lost.
As flawed as Sunday’s final selections will be, it’s still a step in the right direction. But that’s contingent upon it only being a step, and not a destination.
WINDERMERE, Fla. — If everything old is new again, perhaps Tiger Woods 4.0 will be the comeback story of the new year.
After nearly four months away from the game, Woods is starting over again from as close to scratch as he could go. He returns to competitive golf this week in the Hero World Challenge with a new coach and an old swing.
Turns out the most significant tool in Woods’ rebuilding project isn’t a modern TrakMan but his mom’s old VCR. During two months of sitting on the couch between rehab sessions, Woods pored over video footage of every swing incarnation in his career seeking the best blueprint to follow.
The answers he found weren’t in the Butch Harmon or Hank Haney swings that helped him win 14 majors and more than 70 PGA Tour events. They were revealed in the Rudy Duran-built swing from his youth that carried Woods through his junior and amateur successes right up through his iconic 1997 Masters Tournament triumph.
“We went back to some of those old videos and really looked at it,” Woods said of the archival tapes from his junior days. “And it was quite interesting to see where my swing was then and how much force I could generate with a very skinny frame. How did I do that? How do I generate that much power?”
So Woods revealed the answer of which came first: the swing or the swing coach? With a vision for what he wanted to return to already in mind, he just needed someone who could help him implement it. On the advice of his collegiate teammate Notah Begay, Woods met with instructor Chris Como.
“I had this plan in my head of where I wanted to go and what I want my swing to look like and what I want to get out of my body and out of my game,” he said. “I just needed to align myself with a person that felt the same way. Chris fits that for sure.”
The two of them are more than a month into the fourth swing iteration of Tiger’s professional career, but Woods claims this move isn’t nearly as dramatic.
“It is new, but it’s old,” Woods said. “The reason why I said it that way is I just haven’t done it in a long time but my body is remembering it. The motor patterns, you develop all these different motor patterns in one’s career. It’s familiar, so it has not taken me that long to implement it.
“I just need to hit more balls and get more reps, especially under competition. I want to see where it’s at. I’m very pleased with my speed and the freedom I have and what I’ve been doing with the golf ball.”
The remixed 1990’s version of Woods will debut this week on his former home course at Isleworth in the 18-man event that benefits his foundation. He promises this latest comeback won’t repeat the mistakes of the previous restart in late June when he came back too soon from back surgery in March. He struggled through the British Open and missed the cut at the PGA Championship before shutting it down again.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready,” he said of his summer folly. “I didn’t play very well, and it showed. My scores were awful. ... Nothing was very good.”
This time he said his back is fully healed, his tedious rehab completed and his strength is being restored on a frame that’s 5 pounds leaner. Now he hopes his old body will take to his young swing and bring back his former confidence.
“I know my body feels excited about it, because it’s an old motor pattern that I know,” he said of the swing. “And I’m able to generate speed and I have the range of motion and it’s interesting to see how I don’t feel like I’m hitting it very hard, but it’s coming off the face faster. That part was exciting, to start feeling that again.”
Woods, however, concedes that he won’t be driving it past Bubba Watson or Keegan Bradley this week, or anytime in the future.
“Father Time is undefeated,” he said. “We all eventually are losing some of the things we are able to do when we were younger. ... I can’t blow it out there with some of the longer guys anymore. But there’s other ways to go around a golf course. ... You don’t have to physically beat anybody. You just have to beat the golf course.”
While he believes his 20-year-old muscle memory will make the transition “so much easier,” he has no clue whether that means he’ll be ready to beat No. 1 Rory McIlroy and the rest in time for the Masters Tournament in April or at some point further down the road.
“I don’t know,” he said of his growing pains timetable. “I’m curious to find that out myself, too.”
ATHENS, Ga. — This was certainly one for the history anthologies – whether it was worthy of Encyclopaedia Brittanica or Ripley’s Believe It or Not is debatable.
“What a game. It was a really crazy game,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.
Seriously, how do you sum up a contest in which quarterback Hutson Mason is 18 seconds away from capping his Bulldogs career with what should have been the game-winning, eruption-inducing fourth-down touchdown pass to later leaving the field with his head down after throwing the game-ending interception?
Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe the drama that unfolded in front of a capacity home crowd that went from disinterested to deflated to delirious to despondent over the course of 3½ hours Saturday afternoon.
“I think it was meant for us,” said Georgia Tech senior B.J. Bostic, a former Jefferson County star, of only the second Yellow Jackets victory in 14 tries against Mark Richt’s Georgia teams.
Georgia’s players, coaches and fans will be reliving the many ways they had Saturday’s edition of clean, old-fashioned hate won and somehow lost. Twice the Bulldogs fumbled inside the 1-yard line when they seemed poised to blow the game open early. Then a third time they were set up inside the 2 after a well-executed fake field goal run by kicker Marshall Morgan. Then there was what should have been the game-defining 12-play, 69-yard touchdown drive capped by Mason’s 3-yard strike on fourth down to Malcolm Mitchell with 18 seconds left.
“It looked like it was over, but obviously it wasn’t,” Richt said.
By that point it should have been Georgia Tech that went home wondering about the what-ifs. Like the 99-yard Georgia fumble rip and return after Justin Thomas was curiously not called down by forward progress at the Bulldogs’ goal-line. Or Thomas’ pump-fake fumble in the open field when the clock-vacuuming Jackets were seemingly salting it away in the closing minutes of regulation.
A funny thing happened on the way to Georgia’s rivalry celebration. Trying to preserve a 24-21 lead, the Bulldogs elected to dribble a squib kick that Georgia Tech picked up at the 27 and returned to the 43. With time enough for one play, Thomas scrambled for 21 yards to the Georgia 36 – the very extreme limit of kicker Harrison Butker’s range.
“I knew we didn’t have any timeouts left so I just tried to get as far as I could to get out of bounds to at least give us one more shot for the end zone or a field goal,” Thomas said.
Field goal it was, and Butker drilled his career-long kick that cleared the crossbar by inches.
“I’m disappointed in my decision to squib kick,” Richt confessed. “That gave them the field position to get it in range and kick it. That was a poor decision on my part.”
Georgia Tech somehow didn’t lose faith when it looked bleak.
“There’s something different about this team this year,” Bostic said. “We knew we still had time to get down and get a field goal and get to overtime. So we had hope the whole time. To make a clutch kick like that was amazing.”
After blowing the lead and losing a heartbreaker in overtime last year at historic Grant Field, Georgia Tech was determined to get payback in the first overtime ever staged between the hedges. Five bruising rushes into the extra session, the Jackets were in the end zone celebrating Zach Laskey’s touchdown. Then the same kicker who was moments before the hero missed the point-after to set up an ominous opportunity for the Bulldogs.
But it was Mason who would trade the hero’s crown for the goat’s horns instead, throwing a “trust pass” on a slant to Mitchell that Georgia Tech’s D.J. White jumped for the clinching interception that brought the stadium to relative silence.
It was the second crushing body blow to the Bulldogs in 24 hours, after Southeastern Conference championship hopes were lost by Arkansas’ second-half collapse at Missouri. Now they had a rivalry loss to the Yellow Jackets to choke down and diminished bowl prospects.
“Losing hurts no matter what,” senior defensive end Ray Drew said. “But when it’s your last college home game and against a big rival, it just adds gasoline to the fire. It’s hard to compare this to anything else. This is on a whole other level.”
For 10-win Georgia Tech, it was blissful redemption and a lift into next week’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game against undefeated Florida State. Whatever historical relevance Saturday’s rivalry triumph had is not yet finished.
“I think this is going to go down in history,” Bostic said. “This is just the start of our story.”
Johnson agrees that all the craziness of one incomprehensible Saturday is prelude to something bigger.
“One game does not define a season,” Johnson said. “Ten and two defines a season. Playing for an ACC Championship next weekend defines a season.”
Like most 22-year-old kids fast approaching the rest of their lives, B.J. Bostic is trying to squeeze every last ounce from his collegiate experience.
“I’m dreading the end of it but at the same time so anxious to see what’s ahead of me as far as life, too,” Bostic said. “Interested to see what life throws at me. I’m ready for it.”
Before he reaches the end of one era and the start of another, the former Jefferson County star is furiously checking off the remaining items on his to-do list at Georgia Tech.
Finish degree in history, technology and society last summer – check.
Finally beat Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson – check.
Score first collegiate touchdown – check.
Only a few outstanding items remain – secure 10-win season, beat Georgia, beat Florida State and win Atlantic Coast Conference title. Bostic and the Yellow Jackets have a chance to complete it all in the next two weeks.
“The way it’s going, I’m getting a lot of things to go my way in my senior season,” Bostic said. “We’re doing a lot of great things this year. It’s a good way to go out, I’ll tell you that.”
Georgia Tech (9-2) has already accomplished more this season than anyone expected of them. Picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal division, the Jackets instead won it for the fourth time since 2006 and third time under coach Paul Johnson. Written off after consecutive midseason losses to Duke and North Carolina, the Jackets won four conference games in a row to keep themselves in contention.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Bostic said. “Those two losses helped us because we were at a high point, 5-0, and it kind of brought us down to know we were not unbeatable. It happened twice in a row so we had to basically regroup and get our heads screwed on and start a new streak.”
Bostic celebrated with fellow seniors and chicken wings last Thursday as North Carolina trounced Duke to hand Georgia Tech the division title. They’ll get a chance on Dec. 8 in Charlotte, N.C., to upset the playoff apple cart and avenge their 2012 ACC title loss to Florida State.
“The Florida State loss in the 2012 ACC Championship – that was the most disappointing moment,” Bostic said of his five years on The Flats. “Everybody wants a winning ring.”
Before that, however, Bostic and his classmates get one last crack at beating the rival Bulldogs in Athens, Ga., at noon on Saturday. Georgia has a 12-1 record against Georgia Tech under coach Mark Richt, including a 41-34 double-overtime victory last year in Atlanta when the Jackets blew a 10-point lead in the final 6:37.
“Obviously we were disappointed in the way it ended last year, but right after the game we had to flush it,” Bostic said. “I’m really looking forward to the opportunity (this week). My senior class knows that we haven’t defeated those guys down there in Athens. The way the season is going now it would be a great win for us.”
Bostic’s perspective on his career is refreshingly upbeat for a skill player who averages fewer than two touches per game. A former kickoff returner as a speedy freshman, Bostic embraced a more supporting role after recovering from a season-ending injury in 2011 as one of the Jackets’ A-backs in the triple option.
“I’m not disappointed,” he said of his diminished offensive output. “Everybody has their role and I see myself as a good perimeter blocker. So my role this year has kind of been leading the way on the perimeter.”
Despite only getting the ball in his hands a career-low 19 times this season, Bostic made one of them count. Tied 14-14 at halftime against Miami, the Jackets mounted a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up the first seven minutes of the third quarter. Bostic capped it with a 2-yard touchdown run for a 21-14 lead en route to a 28-17 win.
After a career at Jefferson County spent getting in the end zone on a weekly basis, Bostic calls his lone collegiate touchdown his personal high point.
“It was a long, long time,” he said of the five years between scores. “I do it in practice but to do it in a game is so much different – it sends chills down your body, the fans screaming. It’s a real exciting moment.”
Bostic forgot to keep the ball he scored with. “I was too excited and threw it down after I got in,” he said with a laugh.
His friends and family flooded him with congratulations after his peak offensive moment.
“They were more happy for me than I think I was for myself,” he said. “My teammates were excited as well.”
That peer support speaks to the kind of unselfish teammate Bostic has been assisting in an offense that ranks fourth in the nation in rushing with 328 yards per game. Bostic is more about the team goals than his own.
“It does not matter to (the A-backs) as a group because we’re unselfish guys – as long as we’re winning, moving the ball, getting first downs, we’re happy,” he said.
The focus now is getting Georgia Tech’s seventh 10-win season, the first since 2009.
“Any 10-win season coming out of here is rare, so I can leave on that note,” he said of his final football goal.
It’s all wrapping up nicely for the former Warrior. He was the first player introduced before the Clemson game on Senior Day, shaking coach Johnson’s hand before carrying a flower to his parents and sister on Grant Field. He’s got two huge games against top-10 teams on deck with a bowl game later. On Dec. 13, he’ll don a cap and gown and walk with his fellow Georgia Tech graduates. He’s already interviewing for jobs trying to put his degree to use in marketing.
“It’s a little surreal that everything is winding down,” he admitted. “Most important thing is that I got my degree and I walk in December.”
After finally tasting victory over the Hurricanes, Hokies and Tigers (Bostic was red-shirted in 2011 the last time the Jackets beat Clemson), the only thing that could make his career more fulfilling is finishing the checklist. It would be particularly sweet to pull off the upset between the hedges Saturday so he can hold his head high in his native “Dog country” whenever he comes home to Louisville, Ga.
“I want to check it off and get that burden off my back,” he said.
Perhaps no sport invites the cliché more than football.
It’s a team game. Defense wins championships. You have to establish the run and take care of the football. Above all, just go out and execute the game plan.
The most sacred of all clichés, however, pertain to the here and now. The most important game is the next game. Never look past an opponent. Never get ahead of yourself. Take it one game at a time.
Which is why the countdown clock that hangs by the door of every team meeting room in the Clemson football facility has been so striking. At other schools such as Georgia, the countdown clocks always point to the next opponent whether it’s Florida or Charleston Southern. Always the next game.
At Clemson, the electronic clocks have been ticking away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until one specific game – South Carolina. And taking up 60 percent of the display space is one constant reminder ...
Every day since the clocks went up in the spring, each Clemson player and coach has been welcomed to work with the constant reminder that the Tigers haven’t beaten their archrivals since 2008. The pressure has been building for months as the digits get closer to all zeroes before they walk past those clocks one last time before noon Saturday into Death Valley to face their demons.
“It really is a season of its own,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney explained. “You kind of have the season and you have South Carolina. We don’t say anything about it; we never have. But we want everybody to be reminded every day that that game is coming and it only comes once a year. It’s something that we thought to make sure we kept it in front of our guys every day.”
Most sports psychologists work very hard to get players to focus on the positive. Forget the failures and retain the successes. Ask Jack Nicklaus about his career and he can pretty much recite every shot of every round, yet he can’t ever seem to describe a bad one. He blocked them all out on the way to 18 major victories.
Clemson has had some great successes in the past six years – winning an Atlantic Coast Conference title, winning an Orange Bowl, beating several ranked Southeastern Conference opponents – but it’s the unprecedented “0-5” against the Gamecocks that is stuck in their heads like a bad pop chorus.
It goes against every coaching instinct, yet Swinney went down the shame road for motivation.
“There’s no way to deflect pressure. It’s not like they live in a cave,” Swinney said. “In this day an age you can’t insulate your players from negativity. You have to create a culture in your program that hopefully teaches guys what’s important and what’s not important, what to listen to and what not to listen to.”
What they’ve taught them is that being 0-5 to the Gamecocks is unacceptable to the point you’ll have to wear it year-round like a scarlet letter. Imagine the pressure Saturday not to let the streak hit 0-6.
“I don’t sit around and just focus on the negative,” Swinney said in a comical contradiction to the clocks throughout the building. “That’s the society we live in, that’s the world we live in, where a lot of people out there are miserable people for that reason. All they want to focus on is the negative. That’s it. When you live your life that way, you’re never going to be happy. I don’t sit around and wake up every day miserable with life because we’ve got one major disappointment over the last few years. We’ve done too many great things.
“The reality is we’ve lost five in a row and nobody’s happy about it. We know why and we know we’ve got to turn that around. But we have to go do it. But to sit here and say this one game completely discounts everything that’s been accomplished at Clemson the last six years is crazy. That’s really a lack of respect to our players to what they’ve been able to do.”
Who exactly is showing that disrespect? Who put the clocks up? Who makes sure “0-5” is the first and last thing they see when they walk through the door?
“We get one shot, once a year,” Swinney said as if the pressure theme hasn’t quite sunk in enough. “We certainly understand the disappointment when it doesn’t go our way.”
Truth is, the pressure is mostly on Swinney and his staff. All of the great strides the Tigers have made over the last five years get tarnished every time they fail against the Gamecocks. It’s the nature of in-state rivalries on a scale of the Palmetto State’s.
Clemson has largely owned the rivalry dating back to the start. South Carolina won the initial meeting in 1896 before Clemson won the next four straight to build a series lead it’s never relinquished (currently 65-42-4). The Tigers won a record seven in a row from 1934-40 and have had runs of four or more consecutive wins eight times.
Prior to the current run of success, the Gamecocks won four in a row only once – capping a decade from 1945-54 when South Carolina went a heady 7-1-2 against its nemesis.
Then came Steve Spurrier, who changed the culture and deftly twists the knife with little jabs that inevitably draw retaliatory rants from Swinney.
Swinney beat the Gamecocks once in 2008 – a result that let him shed the “interim” label and become the permanent head coach. How much longer can he keep that title without winning what fans from the upstate to the lowcountry consider the most important of the year? Even victims of circumstance are still victims in the end.
“God never said it’d be easy, and I always say God never says ‘Oops’” Swinney said. “For whatever reason, God chose me to be the head coach at Clemson in the greatest era in the history of South Carolina football.”
Saturday is ripe for a turnaround. The oddsmakers favor the Tigers by 4.5 points. The Gamecocks have been a mess this season, sitting at 6-5 with a defense that is unrecognizable from recent vintages. But the Tigers have their own issues of late with an offense mired in a rut without its playmaker Deshaun Watson. Swinney said Watson’s status for Saturday might not be determined until kickoff, and if he can’t play the Tigers will be forced to use Cole Stoudt again.
Regardless, Clemson needs to find a way to end the streak.
“It’s not something that’s ruined our six years here, but it’s something we’ve got to get changed,” Swinney said. “That clocks been ticking for a year. Just a few more hours it needs to tick. Let’s go play.”
The last thing the Tigers need to see when they walk back into the locker room after it’s over is the clock reset at 364 days with one of those stickers the DOT uses when it increases the speed limit showing “0-6.”