West Virginia at Texas — At some point, in one of these whoever-has-the-ball-with-more-than-a-minute-on-the-clock-wins games, an offense that needs to score, late in the fourth quarter, is going to take a knee in their own end. On, like, second down. Someone's going to be behind on the scoreboard and they're going to sacrifice an early snap, before they're even in scoring position, in order to run the clock. You watch. Someone's going to have the ball at their own 35-yard line, down by five points with four minutes to go, and they're going to delay their own march to the other team's end zone.
Georgia at South Carolina — Georgia's defense looks as magnificent on paper and in pregame as any defense in the country. We keep waiting for them to jell, but they haven't. This weekend against South Carolina would be an excellent time. The Gamecocks, as usual, have bunches of talent on defense, including former no. 1 overall recruit Jadeveon Clowney, who will try to make Georgia QB Aaron Murray's life difficult. South Carolina's Connor Shaw, whom Steve Spurrier seems to be fond of in a way he isn't normally fond of quarterbacks, is a capable passer and a dangerous runner.
As always, the story with Georgia's offense is their running game. Now that the season is in swing, it's apparent that the Bulldogs won the tailback recruiting sweepstakes. They have a thunder-and-lightning duo of true freshmen, Todd Gurley (thunder) and Keith Marshall (lightning), who split the carries and who both run like upperclassmen. To tell you the truth, those two are in immediate danger of being crushed by the fame and adulation that accompanies selection as Hunk of the Week. Georgia coach Mark Richt will try to get his youngsters rolling, and the Ball Coach will hitch his wagon to joy-to-watch runner Marcus Lattimore, who will likely be gone after this season. Lattimore's hitch-and-surge, patient-yet-pounding running style is something special. Always falling forward. Always finding an extra yard. The winner of this game has the inside track to the SEC Championship Game. Williams-Brice Stadium will be at a fever pitch, as the Gamecock faithful are no doubt aware of Georgia's forgiving conference schedule going forward. The Bulldogs will get to avoid the top four teams in the West: LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State.
LSU at Florida — The last time the Tigers came to Gainesville, the Swamp was stung by another incarnation of the famous Les Miles luck. To be precise, his holder threw a no-look bounce pass to his kicker, who stumbled forward for first-down yardage. Florida has had a couple good little tests, but this is the first true test of their, well, manliness. The top priority for Gators coach Will Muschamp since last season has been making his team tougher, and Saturday he'll find out whether or not he succeeded. This will be a line-of-scrimmage game if there ever was one, on LSU's part because that's what they're good at, and on Florida's part because that's what they want to be good at. LSU has countless interchangeable running backs, and what they have in common is that they're bruising. The Tigers use a fullback often. In the old, pre–Bill Walsh way — like, to pound out a path for the tailback. Florida has one good runner, Mike Gillislee, so they must pray he doesn't get banged up.
Les Miles, as usual, hopes not to have to rely on his quarterback. The new signal caller for the Tigers is a fellow named Zach Mettenberger. He used to be a Georgia Bulldog but got busted in South Georgia for fondling a woman in a bar.1 His task now is to get as good a feel for his receivers as he had on that female patron. But the LSU coaching staff hopes the passing game will be an embellishment, a threat, a bit of riskless fancy made possible by the fact that the opposing defense is being bashed senseless and has crept an eighth or even ninth man into the box. Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel will be under heavy duress, and whether he wilts or blooms will be a major story line in this game, because, unlike Mettenberger, Driskel will need to be a star for his team to win.
And Despair Fell Upon the Assembly
- The congregation at First Church of T. Boone Pickens gritted their teeth and spat Saturday evening when they watched Oklahoma State placekicker Quinn Sharp trot onto the field with two and a half long minutes still on the clock. In a game of offensive fireworks, the Cowboys had suddenly gone conservative. With a fresh set of downs on the Texas 13, Gundy & Co. tested the teeth of the Texas run defense on three consecutive plays, yielding two yards a try. Perhaps they knew time was more valuable than points, and they'd decided their only hope was to whittle down the clock with middle-field runs. Well, they were right. Time was more valuable. Texas got the ball back and there was nothing for the packed house in Stillwater to do but watch their fears unfold in front of them. David Ash threw a 29-yard pass and then a 32-yard pass, and you know the rest. This is a league with such dynamite offenses and soft defenses that it's not enough to score at the end of games. You have to score slowly at the end of games.
- Oregon State continued its Despair Tour. Two weeks ago, they forced reality upon the most serene neighborhoods of Los Angeles, slapping UCLA around in the Rose Bowl. This past weekend, they moistened the dry desert eyes of Tucson. The Beavers have a balanced attack, a quarterback who keeps setting personal bests (433 yards passing against Arizona), and a capable defense. Pretty soon we'll have to acknowledge them as a legit team.2 Taking into account whom they've already beaten, the next several games on their schedule are winnable. We've got a surprise team to root for. Hooray! Question: I wonder what Tennessee or Arkansas, at season's end, could put together for Mike Riley in the way of a stunning offer? Then again, maybe Riley's too smart to leave a great place where he'll never get fired.
- A Despair shout-out to Benny Cunningham of Middle Tennessee State, who ran recklessly all over the Ramblin' Wreck to the tune of 217 yards and five touchdowns.
- Kansas State — Collin Klein? Check. Arthur Brown? Check. Thorough whipping of the Miami Hurricanes? Check. Road win at traditional power Oklahoma? Check. If the Wildcats can rain on the Mountaineers' track meet on October 20, the Little Apple can reasonably begin to whisper about big, big things. That game is in Morgantown, and from a distance of a few weeks seems like one of the more interesting games of the season, possibly from a consequence standpoint but certainly from a clash-of-styles standpoint. But I guess West Virginia's style would clash with anyone's, since they make teams that only throw for 300 yards a game look like backward fuddy-duddies.
- Mississippi State — Let's get them on here while we can. The second half of their season includes home games against Tennessee and Texas A&M, along with road trips to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. Not to mention Middle Tennessee State, who beat hell out of Georgia Tech last weekend. Time was, when you paid for a win, you got exactly that.
- Louisville — I think this year's Boise State has stepped forward. The schedule is pillowy. Boise State normally plays at least one big-time team on the road, and what Louisville has to offer in that category is Rutgers, with whom they lock horns at season's end. (Louisiana Tech waits in the wings to take over this spot.)
The Puncher's-Chance Board (where we do our wishing and hoping on this being the year when a team that hasn't won in quite some time walks off with the big tchotchke)
Four squads have fallen off the preseason Puncher's-Chance Board. Clemson has nothing to be ashamed of, but is banished because it's difficult to imagine them clawing their way above FSU in the ACC Atlantic. The Tigers barely qualified for the Board anyway because of their 1981 championship, 30 years being the cutoff. Wisconsin suffered a couple close losses on the road, and they're gone. Virginia Tech looks a fright. Arkansas I almost dare not mention, except to wonder if a program has ever self-imposed the death penalty. Just to, you know, take a break.
The three remaining teams: Oregon's schedule is back-loaded. Their final four opponents are USC, Cal, Stanford, and Oregon State. The Ducks should hang around until late in the season, and at present represent the best shot at the crystal. They seem as good as anybody. Except Alabama.
West Virginia and South Carolina are the other two holdovers. This weekend, things begin to clear up fast for these two squads, who both play teams not in contention for the Board because of too-recent national crowns. West Virginia seems a long shot because the only thing as noteworthy as their potent offense is their impotent defense. They don't need much defense, but against Baylor they appeared to have none. South Carolina seems a long shot because of their schedule (Georgia, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, Clemson), and because the reward for winning the SEC East is attending a seminar in purposeful shoving administered by the Crimson Tide.
So with four spots vacated, here are four new entrants:
Books for dudes (and non-dudes?) who are smart but don't have the time and/or inclination to sift through the offerings of literary fiction and who could use a solid recommendation or two, and who, if they ignore that recommendation, will feel guilty and think a little less of themselves because they know that quality reading improves the quality of the individual (Short Story Collection Edition)
The Book: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
The Author: Wells Tower
The Sport: Hand-fishing/moose-hunting/the Viking Arts
The Dope: You've got that down-on-his-luck, marginally employed, matrimonially challenged modern American male we all love in print, done about as well as he's ever been done. But you've also got a perilously bored, not-quite-pretty teenage girl, who starts the day by noticing that her cat has brought in a baby bird and rested it on her pillow and ends the day realizing her limitations in a pointlessly boundless world. You've got at-odds brothers, one an oft-successful schemer, the other a disgruntled but unmotivated type who disdains those who get along with the world. After a lifetime of fighting, they find themselves together on a mountain in Maine and have to come to terms with exactly where their respective philosophies have gotten them. You've got the fraught dynamic between a man whose father has dementia and the man's would-be actress stepmother, who's much closer in age to the son than to the father. And, of course, you've got your reluctant, jaded Vikings, for whom pillaging journeys are — in one case or another — a trying absence from a lover, a convenient excuse to escape a nagging spouse, a badly timed interruption of farming duties, a welcome bit of camaraderie. The politics and the personal of sacking the peaceful.
Which is all to say that no one is safe, in this collection, from Tower's humanizing, particularizing touch. If you don't normally reach for story collections, this is one to start with. Read a few pages at odd moments — like when you're waiting at your kid's soccer practice or when sitting in traffic or when you're at Bonefish waiting for your Diablo Shrimp Fettuccine to arrive — and you'll be on a story-a-day schedule. If you do normally reach for story collections, then perhaps this volume is already perched on the top shelf of your bookcase. Well, not the very top shelf because that's for the stories of Flannery O'Connor, but the shelf just below that.