Before I move into what is on my mind this week, I wanted to say that no matter what happens the rest of the year in sports through the NCAA Basketball Tournament in March, it is going to be hard for anything to top the World Series, and in particular Game 7 between the Indians and Cubs. Wow, just wow. Game 7 had everything you would want as a sports fan and it was worth staying up until 1:00 a.m. to witness history because if they Cubs take another 108 years to win a title, we won’t be here to see it.
This week the College Football Season moves into its final month. Conference Championship games are just 30 days away on December 3rd. It is clear that we are observing a different world in sports. 20 years ago you would have never seen a College Football coach getting fired in the Regular Season but it’s an annual occurrence and this year already Purdue, LSU and Fresno State have dumped their head coaches in order to get a jump start on finding the next coach.
20 years ago you would have also never saw the curious case of one Jalen Hurd either. The Tennessee running back simply quit on his team earlier this week, cleaned out his locker and announced that he was going to transfer to another school at the end of this school year in order to play wide receiver or tight end. I don’t cover University of Tennessee football so I’m not on campus every day and not at press conferences (In fact, I don’t want to do that anymore). I am nothing but an observer of Tennessee football, but it has been my observation that Jalen Hurd hasn’t exactly been engaged all season. He never appeared to be putting forth his best efforts, not running with the power and passion he ran with last season, and curiously missed the Volunteers game at Texas A&M due to an injury. Was he injured? Probably, but he didn’t even make the trip to College Station and it is common for the best players to travel even if they won’t play. That’s if they are team leaders.
I assumed Hurd had made a business decision that he was going to the NFL after this season and was protecting his body, because no one takes more body blows and has a shorter shelf-life in football than running backs. Now we know that Hurd has been a head case all season. Apparently according to his uncle (and isn’t there always a crazy uncle involved in these situations?) Hurd wanted to transfer after last year, because he wanted to run out of a I-formation. Allegedly he was told that Tennessee was going to employ the I-formation more in its offense and so he stuck around. Tennessee is not now, and under this coaching staff will not be, an I-formation team. And, that’s something Hurd should have known when he signed with Tennessee. One of the rare 5-star talents within the State’s borders, Hurd was the gem of Butch Jones 2014 recruiting class from the suburbs of Nashville. Tennessee – like West Virginia – doesn’t turn out many Division 1 football players the caliber of Hurd because outside of the four Metro areas of Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis it is a rural state and the City of Memphis is all about basketball and always will be. He had to know that Tennessee is a finesse zone-read football team when he was being recruited. I’m certain the coaches blew sunshine up his butt to get him to come to Tennessee, but the last time I checked he still had a set of eyes and a brain allowing him to observe Jones’ style of play. And, where was the crazy uncle three years ago?
As if all that isn’t bizarre enough, word surfaced this week that his mother (who frankly looks as young as him) was arrested at the Florida game for assaulting someone who was in the stands making comments about her son. Hey, I get it, but re-channel your inner redneck into something more productive than a mug shot. And I do not understand why if he’s going to quit with 4 games left in the season, he doesn’t go to the NFL instead of trying to play a different position at another school. Reportedly, he believes his NFL future is at tight end or wide receiver. Okay, guess what? The NFL’s scouting and coaching is so sophisticated that they’ll move you there when you get drafted and if you aren’t wiling to move you wind up like Tim Tebow trying to make a run as a professional baseball player at age 30. Even crazier is that not one of Hurd’s teammates has stood up to defend him. That tells me Jalen Hurd was a cancer in the locker room and they don’t care if he stays or goes. Can you lay all of Tennessee’s problems at the feet of Jalen Hurd? No, they have much deeper issues (more on those below), but it’s obvious his attitude didn’t help.
Juxtapose the case of Jalen Hurd with that of Brenden Motley at Virginia Tech. Motley was the only returning starter at quarterback with any game experience when Justin Fuente arrived on campus to take over for Frank Beamer. Fuente knew immediately that Motley’s skill set wasn’t right for his offense and targeted Junior College transfer Jerrod Evans to come to Va. Tech. Motley is the prototypical running quarterback who struggles with throwing the ball down field beyond about 15 yards. In Fuente’s offense that was going to be an issue. Fuente knew it and Motley had to know it the first time he saw the playbook.
So, he could have done what some would have done when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to be the starter (and don’t tell me that wasn’t decided long before mid-August like Fuente wants you to believe because it was) and transferred seeking playing time elsewhere. He would have found it also. You don’t think Arizona could use a running quarterback with moderate passing skills to run Rich Rodriguez’s offense right now? Instead, Motley did what was best for the team and stuck it out. He’s played sparingly, but last week when Evans was suddenly injured against Pitt, there was Motley doing what back-up quarterbacks and good teammates do, stepping in for Evans and helping Va. Tech to a critical victory. After the game, the first person Evans congratulated was Motley. His teammates love and respect him and I would think a future employer would look much more positive on someone like Motley – whose not going to play in the NFL – than someone like Hurd who decided when adversity hit and the coaches wouldn’t adjust to him, to hit the road.
Hurd notwithstanding Tennessee has larger issues than a head case running back. Yes, one bad apple can spoil the bunch, but if you watched any of Tennessee’s game against South Carolina it was apparent they weren’t interested in being there. Let’s remember, these are kids between 18-22 years of age, so what you get is what you get. But, it is obvious there are internal issues in the Tennessee football program. There is no question that Butch Jones and his assistants are brilliant recruiters and while I’ve tried to give benefit of the doubt to Jones and company for the last couple of years, that’s over now. It’s my opinion that while they can recruit ’em, they can’t coach ’em and over time that won’t work in the SEC where you have to be able to do all three. Jones is a vociferous recruiter. I honestly believe it’s his one passion. One observer in Knoxville has commented that the only hobby Butch Jones actually has is hosting an unofficial visitor on the weekend. From the outside, it appears he’s obsessed with “stars” on recruiting rankings and collecting as many stars as possible. You can get a 5-star receiver whose a 10-star jackass and what you’ve got is a bushel of trouble. He’s surrounded himself with assistant coaches like Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez who is known as one of the country’s best recruiters. Well if you watch Tennessee play defense, you’ll know quickly he isn’t one of the country’s best defensive back coaches. They have been beset with injuries this season. That happens sometimes and its just bad luck, but the number of injuries they have had this season really seems like a deficiency in their off-season strength and conditioning program. They are simply not tough enough, smart enough or conditioned well enough.
The definition of a good coach was once summed up by the late great NFL Coach Bum Phillips who once said of Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula that “he can take hissin and beat youren, and then take youren, and best hissin.” Give Butch Jones Alabama’s roster and the Crimson Tide wouldn’t be number one. Jones comes to each press conference with a number of pre-canned answers most of which say nothing. That’s fine, hey I get it. These guys hate dealing with the press so say a lot while saying nothing, but it doesn’t come across as genuine. He’s sensitive to criticism (wrong business and wrong place for that) and if someone happens to question his future at the school (and that’s a fair question these days) he calls them out when they ask the question and then leave the press conference like he did on Monday. That’s the question she was there to ask coach and the story she was assigned to write so forgive her if she’s not interested if one of your back-up defensive lineman loses at FIFA Soccer on his X-Box. You can get away with being a d-bag sometimes when you are coaching at Central Michigan or Cincinnati, but at Tennessee you’d better remember this: The local press controls the narrative and if they turn on you, you are finished.
What Jones needs to show now is that he can rally a team against adversity. They’ve lost three straight games including what goes down as a terrible loss to an extremely untalented South Carolina team. Let’s see how they respond in this week’s homecoming game against Tennessee Tech, and then three straight SEC games against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. There’s no chance Jones gets fired this season as the school is getting a new A-D, and no one is coming here without knowing who their boss is going to be. But, with a new A-D to arrive in the near future, Jones needs to concentrate less on stars and more on coaching. Otherwise, those recruits are certain to be playing for someone else in 2018.
Is there any doubt that Va. Tech coach Justin Fuente and his staff can coach? Not in the least. The Hokies are in line to play for the ACC Title and if you believed that at the beginning of the season you are a damn liar. Tech is on the road at Duke this weekend and since David Cutcliffe arrived in town to coach Duke, this isn’t a layup any longer. From 2008 to 2012, Tech won 7 straight against Duke. Duke has won two of the last three, both in Blacksburg. There will probably be more Tech fans at Wallace Wade Stadium than Duke fans (after all basketball season starts next week) making it appear to be a de facto Tech home game, but the Hokies need to handle success better than they did last time. They were riding high going to Syracuse and got slapped around. Another performance like that may have Duke helping it’s neighbor down the road 8 miles at North Carolina toward the ACC Title game.
Virginia is also on the road with an interesting game at Wake Forest. After the Cavaliers blew a chance at a monumental upset last week in the final minute against Louisville, they travel to take on a Wake Forest team that needs just one more win to become bowl eligible. These two schools played every year between 1980 and 2003, but in the “new” expanded ACC this is just the fourth meeting in the last 13 seasons. Virginia needs to start getting the best in-state recruits again in order to get back to competitiveness. This would be a good place to start because in all candor Wake Forest Coach Dave Clawson has done a better job at recruiting Virginia than U.Va.
Already this season, West Virginia has had two byes weeks. Does this one count as a third? The Mountaineers host woeful Kansas at Mountaineer Field on Saturday night. It’s 6-1 against 1-7 so naturally Mountaineer fans shouldn’t be overly concerned right? Wrong. First, how much hang over is there from last week at Oklahoma State. If the Mountaineers are truly a contender in the Big-12 there won’t be any. Remember, while WVU manhandled Kansas in the last two meetings including a 49-0 beat down in Lawrence, Kansas last year, they also went to play a pitiful Kansas team in 2013 coached by Charlie Weis and lost.
And there’s no question what is the biggest game this weekend. It comes Saturday night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where Alabama faces LSU in the primetime SEC game on CBS. Alabama is a near consensus number one while LSU has indeed made progress after firing Les Miles. The key here to me is whether Alabama lets LSU running back Leonard Fournette have anything. If they do, then LSU’s interim head coach might just be the permanent coach next week.
For our FCS Game of the Week, we go to the Capital City of the Commonwealth of Virginia where the 6th ranked Richmond Spiders host the 7th ranked James Madison Dukes in a meeting of schools separated by just 125 miles. JMU is the only undefeated team in the Colonial Athletic Assocation, but there are four teams in the league with just one loss including Richmond. JMU has been clobbering people this year. Already this season the Dukes scored 80 on Morehead State, 56 on Central Connecticut State, 43 on Delaware and 84 last week on Rhode Island.
In Division II, one of the best things about it is that there are no secrets about who is in line to make the post-season. The Division is divided into 4 Super Regions and there are rankings put out each week in those 4 Regions. The top 7 teams in each Region make the post-season and if it started today both teams in a our D-II Game of the Week would be in the Super Region I playoffs. So, we go to Shepherdstown, West Virginia for what amounts to the Mountain East Conference Championship game between the 3rd ranked Shepherd College Rams and the 17th ranked Fighting Falcons of Fairmont State. Fairmont is 9-0 and Shepherd is 8-0. In Super Region I, Shepherd is third, and Fairmont is 4th. The winner earns at least a tie for the MEC Title. Fairmont hasn’t won a conference championship since winning the old West Virginia Conference title in 2001. Fairmont, West Virginia (and I had an aunt and grandmother who lived there for years), is known as the home of the Pepperoni Roll, but Shepherd has been rolling Fairmont for the last 20 years having won 17 of the last 20 meetings.
For Division III, we go to Maryville, Tennessee for what amounts to the de facto championship game of the USA South Conference between the Fighting Scots of Maryville College and the Huntingdon College Hawks from Alabama. Maryville is 7-1 overall, but undefeated in the USA South having won 7 in a row after an opening week loss to Berry College. They are 5-0 in the USA South and can clinch at least a tie with a win over Huntingdon with only 1-7 Greensboro College left to play next week. Huntingdon beat Greensboro College last week 71-0 and can move into a tie for the conference lead with a win on Saturday. Maryville College sits at the base of the Smoky Mountains in a City that reminds me so much of Salem, Virginia from the tree lined streets, to the small college located in the City to the dominate High School Football played in both cities.
For the NAIA Game of the Week, we go to Phoenix, Arizona where the 22nd ranked Wayland Baptist Pioneers from Texas travel to face the Firestorm of Arizona Christian University in a game for the Central States Football League Championship. Wayland Baptist revived football in 2012 and in just their 5th season are 7-1 and ranked in the NAIA top 25 for the first time at number 22. Among their alums is former Texas Tech womens’ basketball coach Marsha Sharp who led the Red Raiders to an NCAA Title in the 90s.
Have a great weekend everyone. Don’t forget no matter your political leanings (and I respect your views whatever they may be) make sure you cast a vote. Think about how many people in other countries would love to have the rights we take for granted. Peace.