February 25, 2011

Mailbag: How far is too far?

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It was late November in 1997 and hordes of frustrated Ohio State fans were heading home from Ann Arbor after yet another loss to archrival Michigan.

As they approached the state line, there was banner hanging from an overpass. On it were three numerals: "1-8-1." That was Ohio State's record against the Wolverines under then-coach John Cooper. No doubt, the banner made any Ohioan who saw it seethe.

That was the goal, of course.

That's part of the fun of rivalries. Banners and bumper stickers are made to trumpet one team's superiority over the other. Lyrics are written to mock rivals' school songs. Bands are formed (the Dead Schembechlers, for instance), seemingly just to ridicule an opponent. Team names and/or mascots are purposely mispronounced as something risqué or just downright rude. Jokes are told: So why hasn't Texas slid into the Gulf of Mexico? Because Oklahoma ... well, you can figure it out.

But the intensity sometimes grows into hatred, and someone may cross the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable. That happened recently when Alabama fan Harvey Updyke was accused of using herbicide to poison oak trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Ala., trees that Auburn fans roll in tissue to celebrate big victories.

Was that an isolated incident? Do fans often cross the line to torment their rivals? That's a discussion for this week's mailbag.

Going too far

The Alabama-Auburn rivalry is obviously at a boiling point right now following the poisoning of the Toomer's oaks. The rivalry is fiercely intense, with the past two national champions, the past two Heisman winners and recruiting wars galore. But are there any other crazy/stupid stories like this involved with other college rivalries?
Decatur, Ala

The poisoning of the Toomer's Corner oak trees is unquestionably a heinous act, but it's by no means the most heinous ever purported in the name of college football rivalries.

Joseph Logan was charged with attempted murder for reportedly holding a gun to his son's head and pulling the trigger in the midst of a tantrum after Alabama's 34-31 loss to Arkansas in 2003. The bullet missed his son, who had angered his father by asking for a car.

Then there's Allen Michael Beckett, a deacon in an Oklahoma church who was accused of nearly castrating a man who wore a Texas Longhorns T-shirt into an Oklahoma City bar. Charges against Beckett eventually were dropped.

Though heated rivalries often spark emotions that can turn ugly, thankfully incidents like those are rare.

In 2006, outside of the old Orange Bowl, I saw a Miami fan spray what appeared to be a soft drink on a Florida State fan as she walked down the sidewalk toward the stadium. She wasn't even talking trash to them. In fact, she wasn't talking to them at all.

But in the vast majority of cases of even the most heated rivalries, the extracurricular activities usually are harmless, with creative signs, taunts or quotes.

Legend has it that Woody Hayes once opted for a two-point conversion after a late touchdown in a blowout win over Michigan. Asked why he went for two, Hayes supposedly barked, "Because they wouldn't let me go for three."

There is some debate about whether Hayes really said that, but it certainly adds to the legend and intensity of that rivalry. Generally, when fans get involved, it usually involves mascots.

In the summer of 1993, the Dallas Morning News printed a story about how all the live mascots in the old Southwest Conference had once been stolen at least once - all, that is, except Texas A&M's revered collie, Reveille.

So, a group of Texas students, who called themselves "The Rustlers" stole Reveille VI from the backyard of her handler. Their ransom demand was for then-A&M quarterback Corey Pullig to show the "Hook 'em Horns" sign before the Aggies' '94 Cotton Bowl game against Notre Dame. He didn't, and the dog eventually was found unharmed, tied to a "No Trespassing" sign near a lake north of Austin.

Fortunately, most fans can keep their senses about them and don't let their passion and derision for a rival deteriorate into violence or destroying property.

Looking ahead

A lot of people are basing Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson's performance against Auburn as to how well he will play this season. I'm a little more concerned, considering people said the same thing about Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert after only a one-game showing, against Alabama in the 2009 national championship game. Do you see a massive overhype on the Hogs like Texas had last season?

That's an astute comparison.

Gilbert came on when Colt McCoy was injured in the '09 championship game and, after some early jitters, threw a couple of touchdown passes. He had the Longhorns within three points and with the football in the final three minutes until a sack and fumble enabled the Crimson Tide to pull away.

Gilbert's showing in that game gave Texas fans a feeling of optimism. Lat season, though, he threw 17 interceptions and struggled in the red zone as Texas stumbled to a 5-7 finish.

Last season, when Arkansas starter Ryan Mallett was injured in the second quarter against eventual national champion Auburn, Wilson came on to throw for 332 yards and four touchdowns in a 65-43 loss.

Coach Bobby Petrino has said Wilson still has to win the starting job this spring and again in August. But I'd expect him to prevail and start at quarterback when the Razorbacks open against Missouri State on Sept. 3.

And I doubt Wilson will struggle as much as Gilbert. First of all, he has Knile Davis, a Heisman-contending running back, behind him. Gilbert basically had no running game to help him out. Second, Arkansas has better receivers than Texas, which last season dearly missed Jordan Shipley.

That's not a prediction that Wilson will be an All-SEC quarterback. But I think he'll be effective enough to ensure that Arkansas doesn't collapse like Texas did in 2010.

Planning ahead

If Ohio State is able to win the first five games next season in spite of the suspensions, would the Buckeyes vault in the polls to the top two or three? How much would one loss hurt their ranking?
Winston-Salem, N.C

Rivals.com put Ohio State at No. 5 in our early preseason rankings. The bet here is the Buckeyes will be close to that position when preseason polls are released in August.

Of course, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas are suspended for the first five games. There is some speculation that their suspensions could be reduced by a game.

Ohio State doesn't recruit inept players. Whoever starts in those vacated positions will have talent, so it would come as no surprise if the Buckeyes won their first five games, which are against Akron, Toledo, Miami, Colorado and Michigan State.

If they are indeed unbeaten going into the sixth game, the Buckeyes very likely will be ranked in the top five and very much in the national championship picture.

One loss probably would be forgiven, but if there are two unbeaten teams at the end of the season, that defeat - even if it occurred when the Buckeyes were shorthanded - would be enough to keep Ohio State out of the national championship game. But in the event there were several one-loss teams hoping to get in the national championship game, the Buckeyes would have a great chance. They could argue their loss came without five of their best players and thus shouldn't be as damaging as some other team's loss.

No doubt, a lot of voters would agree.

Of course, it would matter who beat Ohio State. If the Buckeyes lost a close game to Miami or Michigan State, they still would be in the national championship race. But if that loss came in a blowout or in an upset to Akron or Toledo, the Buckeyes wouldn't figure to get much sympathy from voters.

Say it with a straight face

I'd like to take on the myth of SEC dominance. Some points: 1. Last I checked, the SEC went .500 in bowls last season. That's hardly a dominating performance. 2. The SEC has won the past several national championships, true. But undefeated TCU in 2010, Utah in '08 and '04 and Boise State in '06 and '09 didn't get the opportunity to play for the championship. And those gaudy non-conference records the SEC has - more than 20 percent of their non-conference games come against I-AA opponents. That's hardly dominance. There is more parity than you're making it seem.
Princeton, N.J

I think TCU deserved a shot at the national title (Utah and Boise State, too). But the BCS system will not allow a team from a non-Big Six conference to play for the national championship. Still, that's a separate issue about which I frequently have written.

As far as the SEC as the dominant conference - you can put your head in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the obvious if you choose, but that doesn't change the facts.

The SEC is frequently criticized for its non-conference scheduling, but most "Big Six" conferences play FCS opponents with nearly the same frequency that the SEC does.

Of the SEC's 48 non-conference games last season 11 were against FCS opponents. That's 22.9 percent.

The ACC had the highest percentage, at 27 percent (13 of 48). The Big 12 had the lowest among the Big Six leagues, at 16.6 percent (8 of 48), but the other Big Six conference's percentages were similar to the SEC's. The Big Ten was at 22.7 percent (10 of 44) and the Pac-10 (7 of 31) and the Big East (9 of 40) both at 22.5 percent.

Yes, the SEC went 5-5 in bowl games last season. But four of the SEC bowl victories were by double-digit margins. Two of those were over teams that tied for their conference championships (Alabama over Michigan State) or divisional championships (LSU over Texas A&M). Auburn beat Oregon in the national championship game, so that's three SEC bowl victories over conference or division champions.

Four of the five losses were Arkansas in a close game against Big Ten co-champ Ohio State; Georgia against Conference USA champion UCF ; South Carolina against Florida State, which won its division in the ACC; and Kentucky against Pittsburgh, which tied for the Big East championship.

So, in a lot of instances you saw lower-tier SEC teams losing competitive games to teams that won other leagues. And the SEC had 10 teams in bowl games, more than any other conference.

In fact, only one Big Six conference had a winning record in bowl games: The Big East was 4-2. The Big Ten and Big 12 were 3-5. The ACC was 4-5 and the Pac-10 was 2-2.

By the way, UConn and West Virginia, which shared the Big East championship with Pitt, were blowout losers in their bowl games. UConn lost by 18 points to Oklahoma and West Virginia lost by 16 to North Carolina State.

Pitt beat Kentucky badly, but - again - that's a conference co-champion against a team that finished fifth in its division.

The Big East's other wins were Syracuse by two over Kansas State, which finished 7-6; USF by five over Clemson, which finished 6-7; and Louisville by three over Southern Miss, which tied for second in its division in Conference USA.

If folks want to believe the Big East is the dominant conference because of its bowl record, go right ahead.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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