Grove, Big House ready to rock

Originally Published: November 20, 2003
By Chris Fowler | Special to ESPN.com

Saturday afternoon, John Vaught, age 94 and a half, will leave his farm in Lafayette County, Mississippi and head for the stadium named for him. He will sit in a box and quietly root for the team he coached for a quarter century against that bunch from Baton Rouge, hoping this Rebels team can achieve something no other has since Vaught retired.

That same day, the stomach of Bo Schembechler will be churning. His heart will be thumping a bit faster than usual as he arrives at Michigan's Big House. Memories will come flooding back of the annual clashes with his mentor and friend Woody Hayes. These games, known as the Ten Year War, raged the time Bo's first Wolverine team stunned 17-point favorite Ohio State in 1969, spoiling Woody's Rose Bowl and national title hopes, and ended only with Hayes' sudden retirement.

Vaught and Schembechler are both living legends, whose continued presence around their old programs links the present to rich pasts. It's that link between today and yesteryear that gives games on rivalry weekend a special feel.

Vaught will deliver a special taped pregame message on the stadium screen. Among the 100,000 folks gathered in Oxford (only 60,000 of which are fortunate enough to have tickets), Vaught is the one who best understands how enormous the moment is for Ole Miss. The school's last SEC title was in 1963. The last time the Rebels even had a winning conference season was '92!

Eli Manning
Eli Manning and Ole Miss can win their first SEC West title with a win over LSU.
Not to mention this is the last home game of the last Manning. Ole Miss doesn't get a player like Eli very often. Let's be honest: it may never again. Archie and Olivia have no more sons. Eli has 45 school records, and counting. Not to mention, he is a finalist for the prestigious Draddy Award, the Heisman for Scholar Athletes, to be given out next month in New York. There is another award given out there, too. He may yet be in the hunt for that one, too. At Ole Miss, they also don't often get a veteran offensive line that makes it a personal quest to improve ... to reverse the embarrassments of last year, when the Rebels were a distant last in SEC rushing offense.

Most of us are too young to remember the distant past, when Ole Miss was a national power second only to the mighty Sooners of Bud Wilkinson. Johnny Vaught's teams won six SEC titles, once had a 21-game unbeaten streak, and went 57-6-2 in a six-year span. His 1959 Rebels surrendered three touchdowns ALL YEAR. One was to Heisman winner Billy Cannon on the epic punt return that gave LSU a Halloween night 7-3 victory in Baton Rouge, perhaps the most famous play in Southern football history.

Vaught watched as Cannon ran right past him, up the Ole Miss sideline, crushing the Rebels' dreams. Vaught is quick to remind folks that his team got revenge in the Sugar Bowl, smothering Cannon and the Tigers.

Vaught is a pretty spry 94, still hitting more than 100 golf balls most days, and getting around for 18 holes. He has survived and thrived long after leaving the rigors of the sidelines, something most lifelong coaches cannot. He has outlived his contemporaries by decades.

In the meantime, decades of mediocrity have burdened the faithful in Oxford. It has always been a great place to gather for a football game, the fabled Grove. But the football game often failed to live up to the pregame festivities. Not this season, even though the Rebels were expected to finish near the bottom of the division, down behind Auburn, LSU, and Arkansas.

Wouldn't it be something for Vaught to witness Saturday, the return of Ole Miss' glory days?

The Rebels are embracing the enormity of the occasion, not running from it. Does that bring out the best in a team? For them, it might. I have to believe that David Cutcliffe knows his team. He certainly has big game experience from his days at Tennessee.

Nick Saban has spent the week downplaying the stakes, believing his team plays better when the hype and pressure are shrugged off. He became incredulous when asked at his press conference to buy in to the bigness of it all. Athletic performance is not helped by pressure, he insisted in an interesting, lengthy monologue. That's his tactic. His team is 4-0 in road games this year, but Ole Miss is by far the best team they've faced away from Death Valley.

We'll see which side embraces the challenge when the ball is kicked off. I suspect LSU's receivers will be able to work on Ole Miss' secondary and Matt Mauck will make enough to plays to earn the victory, with help from the fast and nasty Tigers' defense. That's the logical call. But, who knows? When Auburn's Ben Obomanu dropped a sure touchdown pass in the endzone on the final series, I got the feeling that maybe it's just destiny for Ole Miss to end its drought.

I can't wait to watch it. On TV. I wish I could be there. Don't tell Bo I said that. I guess having to take another Ohio State-Michigan game as a consolation prize is nothing to whine about!

Bo knows that Michigan has not lost three straight to Ohio State since before he arrived in Ann Arbor (1960-64). That makes this year's collision a little spicier. I like the description of the atmosphere from UM's linebacker Carl Diggs, who likens an Ohio State- Michigan game to possession. "It's hard to explain, like something taking over your body."

John Navarre
Michigan's John Navarre is 19-2 in games in the Big House.
So, let Saturday be the time for possession. As we learned last season, time OF possession means very little in modern Michigan-Ohio State games. The Wolves dinked and dunked and marched all afternoon, but could generate only three field goals and a few turnovers. They'll have to be a little better in the red zone this time.

Or maybe they should consider just scoring TDs before they even reach the red zone, when the field shrinks and the Bucks just become too tough. Michigan's trio of dangerous receivers have an edge over the OSU corners. Dustin Fox did a good job vs. John Standeford of Purdue. He'll have to be even better against UM's Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant, and Steve Breaston. It might be a good day for Chris Gamble to make a couple plays, too. He has been short on heroics this year and dropped an easy pick in overtime that would have clinched the win last week even before Purdue's field goal miss.

The obvious man on the spot is John Navarre. You can read about a hundred articles this week about how this is the defining game in the senior's career, after coughing up seven turnovers in Michigan losses the last two years. I won't add to the rhetoric, except to point out that Navarre has been a much more effective quarterback in the Big House (19-2 career record). Buckeyes fans should not count on Navarre melting down this time.

I'm also curious to see how Senator Tressel administers his offense. His philosophy in a big game is as successful as it is aggravating to more adventurous Buckeye types: he will take exactly the number of offensive risks he needs to, depending on how dominant his defense is. Typically, that's a very small number.

(By the way, since Kirk made me explain on the radio why I've labeled Tressel "The Senator" the last couple years, I'll give you the quick version. If you've ever seen fifteen seconds of Tressel's weekly press conference, you understand. He stands there in a perfectly pressed suit, usually grey with a scarlet tie, behind a beautiful wood podium, flanked by a large American flag on his right and a large red Ohio State flag on his left, and answers questions in a polished, earnest, measured way. He's the Senator.)

Back to the ballgame: Special teams is another interesting angle. Michigan has been an awful punting team for most of the season. Miscues contributed hugely to its two losses. It's improving (no more running rugby punts), but the Wolves are still 114th in net punting, 110 spots below Ohio State. It's been an average difference of nine yards per punt. That's big. Michigan must tighten it up.

Breaston has been a dangerous punt returner, though. On the flipside, Ohio State is a dismal 105th in team punt returns and 113th in kickoff returns. Surprising. So, as long as Michigan does not allow a blocked punt, the Wolves won't be giving away much in the special teams department.

We'll see you Saturday from the seventh fairway on the golf course turned parking lot across from the Big House. It's not Ole Miss' Grove, but it will do.

BCS Credibility Hits
It's very hard for the public to take the integrity of the BCS standings seriously when these three things happen in one week:

  • Ohio State slides on a missed field goal in overtime (win No. 3 without scoring an offensive TD) and jumps over a USC team voted No. 2 in both polls which has just won its sixth straight game by at least 20 points.

  • TCU finally plays a dominant football game, clubbing Cincinnati, and drops two spots. Five wins by three points were somehow good enough to warrant 6th place, but a big win over a decent Bearcats team drops the Frogs to 8th.

  • Michigan clobbers Northwestern, doing something many teams cannot do the week before a mega-showdown by focusing and executing well. The result: a drop to 9th in the BCS. Texas is very fortunate to rally, march the field, and beat underdog Texas Tech as home, yet moves up.

    These results make no sense because the formula makes no sense. It's less sensible than last year's. Blame the coaches who lobbied for margin of victory to be removed from the seven computer rankings. BCS brass gave the computer guys an offer they couldn't refuse: drop margin of victory from the equation or you will be dropped. Most accepted the mandate. But almost to a man, they know that to deprive a computer of data like margin of victory compromises the quality of the rating it spits out.

    Just check some of the individual computer ratings. In the esteemed New York Times' ratings, three-loss Florida is ahead of USC. Are you kidding me? This computer rating is being used to determine the BCS title game competitors?

    In the end, you can't blame the computers. They are just following orders. So are the guys programming them. Blame the guys who told the guys how they must program them.

    Quick Hitters

  • Larry Fitzgerald has scored more touchdowns than the entire offenses of eight teams! His 19 TDs is two more than Notre Dame's offense, defense and special teams have totaled. SMU's grand total of 121 points (including all kicks) is seven more than Larry has by himself.

  • Boston College has allowed a whopping eight non-offensive touchdowns, entering the game at Virginia Tech, the kings of creative scoring. Congratulations to the Eagles for being 6-5, despite surrendering so many cheap points.

  • The importance of good run defense is obvious. Teams ranking 1-2-3 in rush defense are the three chasing Oklahoma in the BCS (Ohio State, LSU, and USC). But playing great pass defense is an equally good predictor of team success. Of the top 32 teams in pass efficiency defense, only two have losing records (Penn State and San Diego State).

  • In the landscape of 6-6 teams heading off to face other seventh place teams in bowl games sprinkled throughout every city in America with at least 250,000 inhabitants, only eight teams from the six BCS-affiliated conferences have failed to make the bowl cut since 1997. Two of the not-so-great eight can achieve eligibility Saturday: Cal and Kansas. The Bears should beat Stanford and get to 7-6. The only team Kansas has beaten in the last couple months is Baylor. Conquering 2-8 Iowa State to get snap a four-game skid would get Mangino's bunch to 6-6, perhaps good enough to snag one of the eight Big 12 bowl tie-ins (perhaps Tangerine). The other six big conference teams that will keep their bowl-free status in tact for at least another year: Baylor, Duke, Rutgers, Temple, Vanderbilt, and Indiana. Sounds like the makings of a balanced, competitive conference!

    The Groza Race
    Forget the stiff armed bronze runner for a second. The race for the Golden Toe's trophy is far more competitive. Lou Groza (the late, great "Golden Toe") would have been proud of this gang of dead-eye kickers. The 2003 crop is so good that last season's runner-up and a first team All-American, Mike ("Cat Scratch Fever") Nugent missed the cut for three finalists. His crime: he has missed three of his 19 attempts! Nugent is 30-for-30 in PATs.

    A Heisman contender can throw a pick or drop a pass and not be kicked to the curb. But Mister, in the dog-eat-dog competition for the Groza, a single field goal that fades wide can equal doom. The standards are that high, the contenders that good.

    Nate Kaeding
    Nate Kaeding has been good, but is he "Golden Toe" material?
    Reliable Billy Bennett slipped from the Groza race early, missing three FGs that led to Georgia's loss at LSU. Purdue's Ben Jones had enjoyed a superb sophomore season, until hooking a pair of crucial attempts at Ohio State, including the one in overtime that sealed a loss. Goodbye, Groza.

    Quality kickers like Drew Dunning (Washington State), and Nick Browne (TCU) are both 23-of-26. Very good. But not quite "Golden Toe" material, now is it?

    A quick look at the finalists:

    Jonathan Nichols of Ole Miss is an amazing 23-for-24 on field goals, with the miss coming from 52 yards. He's kicked three others from 50-plus. His streak of 88-straight PAT's goes back to last season.

    Oklahoma keeps Trey DiCarlo busy, at least booting 63 PATs this season alone! Perhaps out of sheer exhaustion, he's missed a couple. On field goals, DiCarlo is 19-of-20.

    Iowa's Nate Kaeding captured the Groza last year and has been nearly perfect again, making 15-of-16 field goals and 33-of-34 extra points.

    Kaeding enjoys strong support and name recognition in the many straw polls and Internet chat sites for Groza voters. However, there is the feeling that Iowa's three losses may hurt him. Groza voters' historical bias against sophomores may damage DiCarlo's candidacy. Plus, voters will take a hard look at the fact that Oklahoma's dominance means that he has not faced a "pressure" kick. Demanding folks, these kicker-scrutinizers. Need I explain what an enormous Saturday it is for the Groza hopes of Nichols, with the SEC West on the line against LSU. It's the kind of pressure stage that can make of break a "Golden Toe" campaign and shape a kicker's legacy.

    OK, I made up that part about straw polls and chat rooms. If you're a bit slow on the uptake, I still don't want you wasting valuable time that you could be spending on this site, Google-searching for Groza items.

    Let the Groza stretch run begin! See you on Home Depot Awards night from Disney.

    Chris Fowler is host of ESPN College GameDay

    Chris Fowler

    College Football
    Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.
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