The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry

 

 

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The schools stand about 170 miles apart.  Men have played at one school and coached at the other.  The first meeting between the two schools took place in 1892 and spawned a legend.  The schools have played every year since 1898 except for the war years of 1917, 1918, and 1943.  The series stands at 57-55-8.  The oldest rivalry in the Deep South belongs to the Auburn University Tigers and the University of Georgia Bulldogs.  Pat Dye played at Georgia and coached at Auburn.  He says this about the rivalry, “It’s a unique thing.  It’s like playing against your brother.  I don’t think anybody who plays in that game can ever forget it.  It just doesn’t matter much where it’s played or what somebody’s record is.  It’s so intense and tough, but at the same time, it’s family.”  Will Muschamp also played at and graduated from Georgia.  He became a graduate assistant at Auburn and earned his master’s degree in education from there.  He had two stints as Auburn’s defensive coordinator before becoming the head coach at the University of South Carolina last year.  Muschamp has great respect for both Georgia and Auburn, “Both programs, in my opinion, have cut their teeth on the same values.  The leadership in this program (Auburn) and at Georgia has been very similar.”

Dye used the term family to describe the series.  Certainly, several famous people can claim ties to both schools.  Georgia’s College Football Hall of Fame coach Vince Dooley played and graduated from Auburn before his illustrious career on the sidelines at Georgia.  Hall of Fame Auburn coach and graduate Ralph “Shug” Jordan was an assistant coach at Georgia and head coach of the men’s basketball team before returning to Auburn.  Current Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner coached at Georgia for 15 years while former Georgia defensive line coach Tracy Rocker was a two-time All-American at Auburn.  So maybe the rivalry can be compared to two very competitive brothers trying to one up the other.

Make no mistake though this rivalry is intense and as closely contested as the series record indicates.  Currently, Georgia leads the series and the margin of victory is as close as the series record.

The Bulldogs have scored an average of 16.6 points to Auburn’s 15.4.  The battles have been fought in Atlanta, Macon, Savannah, Columbus (from 1920 to 1928 and again from 1930 to 1958), and Montgomery.  The series began its campus to campus rotation between Athens and Auburn starting in 1959.  Auburn has a winning record in Athens, 18-13, while Georgia is 16-11-2 in Auburn.  Georgia has won 11 out of the last 15 games.  As one might imagine the rivalry has witnessed its share of magical moments.

The first game in the rivalry took place at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park where Auburn won 10-0.  It was that game that spawned the legend of the War Eagle.  As the legend goes, a former Confederate soldier and Auburn faculty member at the time, attended the game with his pet eagle that he found on a Civil War battlefield.  As the Auburn team was driving for the clinching score, the eagle escaped the hold of its owner and began to fly around the field.  The excited Auburn fans began yelling “War Eagle” as the team secured the victory.  As the game ended the exhausted eagle crashed to his death.  If nothing else, it makes for a great story!

Georgia won the national championship in 1942 behind its two legendary Hall of Fame running backs, Frank Sinkwich and Charlie Trippi.  The Bulldogs incurred one blemish on its record, a 27-13 loss to Auburn.  The Tigers came to Columbus with a 4-4-1 record and as heavy underdogs to the powerful Georgia team, but Auburn coach Jack Meagher developed an offensive and defensive plan that befuddled the Bulldogs.  For the first time all season, Auburn ran from the T-formation and amassed large chunks of yardage.  On defense, Auburn dropped its tackles while its ends rushed, thereby keeping Sinkwich and Trippi bottled up most of the day.

Georgia gained a measure of revenge in the 1959 game in Athens.  Bulldog quarterback Fran Tarkenton scored the winning touchdown after an Auburn fumble recovered by Pat Dye.  The 14-13 Georgia victory denied Auburn the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship. Instead, the Bulldogs claimed the title at season’s end.

Georgia entered the 1986 game in Auburn as 10 and 1/2 point underdogs and was forced to use its backup quarterback, Wayne Johnson.  Two more victories and Auburn would win the SEC championship.  Behind Johnson, Georgia forged a 20-16 upset and again denied the Tigers a chance at a conference title.  If the game itself wasn’t memorable enough, certainly the aftermath on the field will never be forgotten.  Georgia fans stormed the field after the contest and some began to rip apart the turf.  After refusing to leave the field at the request of Auburn officials, fans were drenched with water from the field sprinkler system and fire hoses.

The first SEC game to go into overtime occurred in 1996 in Auburn.  Down 28-7 at the half, Georgia quarterback Mike Bobo rallied the Bulldogs to a 28-28 tie at the end of regulation.  Georgia won the game in four overtimes, 56-49.  Georgia fans refer to the game as the “Miracle on the Plains” and also remember the game for UGA V’s lunge at Auburn wide receiver Robert Baker as he was going out of bounds after a reception.

Finally, Jordan-Hare Stadium became the venue for another miracle in 2013.  After 50 minutes in the game, the Tigers had amassed 29 first downs and led 31-17, but Georgia rallied behind quarterback Aaron Murray to take a 38-37 lead with 1:49 left.  With 36 seconds remaining, Auburn faced fourth and 18 from its 26-yard line.  Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall threw the ball as far as he could downfield.  Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was in perfect position to intercept the pass but it bounced off his hands into the hands of Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis, who took the ball all the way to the end zone for a 43-38 lead.   With the seconds ticking away Murray led Georgia on a furious drive down the field, but to no avail, as the clock struck 00:00 for the Auburn win known to Auburn fans as the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare.”

Brotherly love takes on a whole different meaning when Auburn and Georgia wage war in Athens or Auburn every year in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Legends and miracles have been part of a series that offers further evidence as to why college football is unparalleled in the world of sports.

The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party

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The moniker for the University of Florida Gators-University of Georgia Bulldogs football series came from Florida Times-Union sportswriter Bill Kastelz in the 1950s.  He remembers walking in Jacksonville near the Gator Bowl, now EverBank Field, before one of the games and seeing an inebriated fan offering a policeman a drink. Kastelz also noticed fans using binocular cases to carry a flask and that many fans were openly drinking adult beverages while being ignored by police and other authorities.  In front of his typewriter after the game, Kastelz thought the appropriate name for the annual affair was, “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”  While the party roars outside the stadium and in the stands, the teams wage a war on the field reminiscent of the days of the Roman Empire—fierce, tactical, and merciless.

One of the great Deep South rivalries finds Georgia leading 49-43-2, but Florida currently holds the victor’s trophy, the Okefenokee Oar.  The longest winning streak in the series for both schools is seven:  Florida from 1990-1996 and Georgia from 1941-1948.

Georgia dominated the series before the 1950s.  Led by Bulldog greats such as Bob McWhorter, David Paddock, Tom Nash, and Chick Shiver, UGA outscored the Gators in six games from 1915 to 1927, 190 to 9.

The Gators recorded their first two victories over Georgia in 1928, 26-6, and 1929, 18-6, but the 1930s witnessed total Bulldog domination.  Led by Coach Harry Mehre and College Football Hall of Fame players Vernon “Catfish” Smith, Frank Sinkwich, and Bill Hartman, the Bulldogs won eight of nine contests.  Also during this decade, Jacksonville became the permanent home of the series (1933).   College Football Hall of Fame coach Wally Butts continued the Bulldog supremacy through the 1940s with victories in seven of the nine games.

Under Mehre and Butts in the 1930s and 1940s, UGA enjoyed some of its greatest success on the gridiron.  Georgia dominated Florida and the rest of their opponents, compiling a .640 winning percentage.  UGA also won three conference titles, one national championship, and had twelve All-Americans on these teams.  Florida, on the other hand, was in disarray during this same time period.  None of UF’s five coaches stayed more than five years.  The school won no titles and had no All-Americans.  However, Florida changed its gridiron fortunes beginning in the 1950s.

Florida governor and grad Fuller Warren spearheaded a campaign to improve the plight of the UF football program in 1950.  The school hired away Bob Woodruff from Baylor to become head coach for $17,000 a year, the highest salary of any state employee at that time.  Woodruff convinced the administration to increase Florida Field capacity to 40,000, increase the salaries of assistant coaches, and allow the athletic department to be fully autonomous.

As Woodruff recruited better football players—Charlie LaPradd, Joe D’Agostino, John Barrow, Vel Heckman, for example–the Gators began to turn the tide in the Georgia rivalry.  Florida won the series against the Bulldogs in the 1950s with a 6-4 mark.  The rivalry was now on.

Neither school enjoyed much success on the gridiron from 1960-1965, but the 1966 game marked the first time both schools had title aspirations.  Under Hall of Fame coach Ray Graves and a young quarterback by the name of Steve Spurrier, the Gators came into the Georgia game undefeated and ranked number seven in the country.  The Bulldogs, under third-year Hall of Fame coach Vince Dooley, had lost only to the University of Miami by a single point.  Georgia boasted a ferocious defense led by Jake Scott, Bill Stanfill and George Patton.  UGA harassed Spurrier and the favored Gators the entire first half but trailed 10-3 at halftime.  The second half belonged to the Bulldogs.  Georgia’s defenders began to sack Spurrier and the offense mounted a lethal ground game.  Georgia waltzed off the Gator Bowl field with a 27-10 victory.  As Spurrier walked off the field, a Bulldog fan barked to the future Heisman trophy winner, “There he goes, Mr. Quarterback. Some quarterback.”

With both programs sporting perennial winners, the series saw the Gators take the 1960s with a 7-3 record while Georgia won the 1970s with the same record.  Georgia continued to beat the Gators in the 1980s under Vince Dooley and such superstars as Herschel Walker, Terry Hoage, Jimmy Payne, Kevin Butler, and Tim Worley, as the Bulldogs won eight out of the ten meetings.  Arguably, the most exciting game in the decade and the entire series took place in 1980.

With about one minute and twenty seconds left in the game, Florida led Georgia 21-20 and had the Bulldogs backed up to their own 7-yard line.  Georgia quarterback Buck Belue rolled out, dodged a couple of defenders, and hit receiver Lindsay Scott with a pass.  Scott reversed his field and eluded the Gator defense for a 93-yard touchdown that gave Georgia the lead and eventual victory, 26-21.  Legendary Bulldog broadcaster Larry Munson became famous for his “Run, Lindsay, run…” call of the play.  The victory over the Gators maintained Georgia’s undefeated record on the way to the national championship.

The series began to turn the Gators’ way when future Hall of Fame coach Steve Spurrier took the helm in 1990.  The Gators dominated the decade with nine wins out of ten against the Bulldogs.   The Gators were led by such greats as Errict Rhett, Ike Hilliard, Danny Wuerffel, Jacquez Green and Jevon Kearse.  Before leaving to coach the Washington Redskins after the 2001 season, Spurrier compiled an 11-1 record against Georgia coaches Ray Goff, Jim Donnan, and Mark Richt.  Many of these games were Florida blow outs. However, the 1993 game proved to be one of the more dramatic ones in the Spurrier era.

Georgia entered the game against the nationally-ranked Gators with a mediocre team led by quarterback Eric Zeier and future All-Pro running back Terrell Davis.  UF freshman quarterback and future Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel struggled with the football in the rain.  Backup Terry Dean led Florida to 10 unanswered points for a 23-20 halftime lead.  The Gators maintained the lead throughout the second half and with the score 33-26 Zeier led UGA to the Gator 12-yard line with five seconds left.  The Bulldogs thought they had scored a touchdown on the next play but the referees ruled Florida defensive back Anthone Lott had called timeout.  During the next play Lott was called for pass interference, but on the last play of the game Zeier threw incomplete to cement the Gator victory.

As the century changed, the Bulldog fortunes in the series remained the same—defeats to Florida.  The Gators amassed a record of 9-1 against Georgia from 2001-2010.  Florida struggled under Coach Ron Zook to win games, but Richt could only beat him once in three tries.  UF terminated the embattled Zook after three seasons and hired another future Hall of Fame coach, Urban Meyer.  Meyer lost to Richt once in six contests.  One memorable Florida victory under Meyer took place in 2008.

Georgia entered that season as the number one ranked team in the country led by such superstars as quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Knowshon Moreno, and receiver A.J. Green.  The teams entered the game with one loss apiece.  Stafford threw three interceptions after halftime and Florida scored five unanswered touchdowns in the second half to cruise to a 49-10 win.  Meyer called two timeouts with less than a minute remaining to allow his players more time to celebrate.  According to Martin Gitlin, author of The Greatest College Football Rivalries of All Time, Meyer called the timeouts in response to Richt ordering his players in the 2007 game to take an excessive celebration penalty after the Bulldogs’ first touchdown.  Meyer, according to Gitlin, had not forgotten that Bulldog celebration and wanted the team to avenge the loss in the way that they did.

Florida leads the series in the current decade four games to three, and this year’s battle will be the second meeting between Georgia coach Kirby Smart and Florida coach Jim McElwain.  The coaches and players change but the rivalry continues to rage on.

As the teams embark on another chapter of the game by the St. John’s River, let’s raise our cocktail glasses to salute one of the Deep South’s classic gridiron rivalries.  Here’s to the players, coaches, and fans who make college football the greatest game in the world—Salute!, Sante!, Prost!, Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

Is Atlanta a Bad Sports Town?

              Courtesy of Daniel Mayer

For years, members of the national media have accused Atlanta of being a bad sports town.  Their definition seems strictly based on professional sports (the four major sports: football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) and the lack of sell outs or near sell outs for Falcons, Braves and Hawks games.  These media naysayers also love to point out that Atlanta has lost two National Hockey League franchises.  Their definition of a sports town does not include college sports, sports participation per capita, or hosting sports events.  However, my definition does.  This article will attempt to define Atlanta as a sports town.  I will use facts as much as possible to support my statements but sometimes my points will be based on observations developed as a 45+ year Atlanta resident and sports fan.  Let’s examine Atlanta as a sports town using the variables of sports participation, hosting sports events, college sports, and professional sports.

City sports participation per capita must be one variable to consider.  Actual numbers are unavailable, but in Atlanta, people play and watch sports from the earliest days they can walk until well into their twilight years.  Soccer, baseball, softball, karate, football, basketball, wrestling, swimming, running, tennis, golf, lacrosse, ice hockey and horseback riding are all examples of sports offered in the Atlanta metro area at six years of age or younger. This is by no means an exhaustive list. The point is Atlantans become involved in sports at an early age, especially outdoor sports because of the temperate weather.  Atlanta boys and girls continue to participate in sports well into adulthood.  For example, the Atlanta area, according to golfadviser.com, lists well over 100 golf courses that offer year-round golf to players of all skill levels.  For tennis lovers, the United States Tennis Association Atlanta Chapter has the largest number of adult and junior team tennis programs in the country.  The Atlanta Track Club has a membership of over 27,000 and hosts more than 30 events a year.

You can drive or walk anywhere in the metro area and see people of all ages participating in a sport they love. While sports per capita participation must be one variable of a sports town’s measure, others must be considered.

Hosting sporting events has long been a point of pride for Atlantans.  The city hosted the 1996 summer Olympic Games.  Only Los Angeles and St. Louis can make that distinction among American cities.  Atlanta has also hosted two Super Bowls (one more in 2019), four National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Final Fours (another in 2020), 23 Southeastern Conference football championship games (current contract runs through 2026), 49 Peach Bowls (next year’s Peach Bowl will host the College Football Playoff title game), 47 Peachtree Road Races (considered the largest 10-kilometer race in the world), and 16 Tour Championships (the Professional Golf Association’s end of season tournament).  Additionally, the city has hosted two Major League Baseball All-Star games, one National Hockey League All-Star game, and two National Basketball Association All-Star games.  Furthermore, the city has hosted numerous other professional and amateur golf events, professional car races, international soccer matches, professional tennis tournaments, and national/international amateur Olympic sports tournaments.  Few cities in the world can match Atlanta’s resume when it comes to hosting sports events.

As for college sports, this has always been a passion for Atlantans, especially college football.  Until the mid-1960s, the city had no professional sports, only college sports.  Atlanta residents flock to games all over the Southeast on autumn Saturdays:  to Athens for University of Georgia games, Auburn for Auburn University games, Knoxville for University of Tennessee games, Columbia for University of South Carolina games, Clemson for Clemson University games, Tuscaloosa for University of Alabama games and so on. Sell outs are the norm.

Fans often pay thousands of dollars just for the right to buy season tickets, and weddings are rarely scheduled in the fall for fear that no one would attend.  College football is a religion in the South and Atlanta is in the thick of it all.  Chick-fil-A sponsors at least one game per year in Atlanta to kick off the season, the city hosts the aforementioned SEC Championship games, and the Peach Bowl is part of the College Football Playoff rotation.  Furthermore, the College Football Hall of Fame resides in Atlanta.  Arguably, no city in the United States has the passion for college football that Atlanta does.

While college football reigns supreme over other college sports, Atlantans support basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, golf, lacrosse, track and field, gymnastics and just about any sport associated with their alma mater.  Going back to their college for a sports event has been a staple of Atlantans since the early 20th century, which leads to the final variable associated with the definition of a sports town—professional sports.

Professional sports came to Atlanta with the Falcons and the Braves in 1966, the Hawks in 1968, the Flames in 1972 and the Thrashers in 1999.  The combined seasons for the five teams amount to around 170.  At this point (the Falcons may bring home a title with a win in Super LI), the teams have won one championship—the 1995 Braves.  A lack of championships will not endear fans to a team, in my humble opinion.  Professional sports in cities in the Northeast and Midwest have fans that live and die with their teams.  These teams have been around much longer than Atlanta teams and have won championships.  Again, championships produce diehard fans.  The major exception to that would be the Chicago Cubs.  Their fans supported them even though the Cubs had not won a title in over a hundred years.  Of course, the Cubs finally won a title this past season.  However, the general rule is that championships create a loyal fan base.

The national media chastises Atlanta fans for not supporting the local teams.  They point to a lack of sell outs for the Falcons, Hawks and Braves, even when the teams are having winning seasons.  Atlanta fans are fickle when it comes to the pro teams.  I argue that when the teams are winning the fans turn out to support them.  The 2016 Falcons averaged about 70,000 per game, around 98% capacity.  Yet, when the Falcons are having losing seasons, attendance drops off.  That is the same for the Hawks and the Braves.  When the teams are having winning seasons and they look like they will make the playoffs, fans will come to the games.  If not, the fans will choose to spend their entertainment money elsewhere.

Braves fans, in particular, have been skewered in the media.  The Braves won 14 division titles but only one World Series, the last World Series appearance came in 1999.  Fans came out to the ballpark in droves during the 1990s but would not sell out playoff games in the Wild Card or Division rounds as the seasons progressed.  The fans were waiting to see if the Braves reached the league championship series.  Frankly, Braves fans were spoiled.  They reached the playoffs every year baseball was played from 1991 to 2005.  This same phenomenon happened in New York with Yankees fans in the 1950s.  Even though the playoffs consisted of just the World Series back then, Yankee Stadium did not sellout for every game.  The Yankees participated in seven World Series in the 1950s.  So boredom with winning does exist.

The Braves have not won a playoff series since 2001, and the fans have not bought every ticket to every playoff game since then.  My guess though is that with the new stadium, SunTrust Park, opening in a few months and a team that will compete for a playoff spot, the fans will return.

To be honest, Atlanta sports fans do not support the pro teams as in other cities.  Part of that may be the transient nature of the city.  People move to Atlanta from all over the country and bring their allegiances to other teams with them.  Many will move on from Atlanta and the process will start over again.  It also cannot be overstated that winning titles enhances the loyalty of the fan base and Atlanta has but one.

As for the Flames and Thrashers, the Flames probably came to Atlanta a bit early.  The 1970s did not witness the great influx of people from other areas of the country that the 1990s did.  Ice hockey was not a sport southerners understood or participated in with significant numbers as they did with sports such as football and baseball. With the economic woes of the time, Flames owner Tom Cousins had little choice but to sell the team.

However, the Thrashers came to Atlanta when the city had residents originally from hockey towns and youth hockey was thriving.  The problem was the ownership group.  The Atlanta Spirit group bought the Hawks and Thrashers as a package deal from Ted Turner.  The group had very little interest in hockey and refused to put a competitive team on the ice.  Atlanta hockey fans became disinterested with a perpetually losing team and would not support it.  The Spirit group finally sold it to a consortium from Winnipeg.  I firmly believe that if the Thrashers had owners who cared about hockey, the team would still be here today.

When you take into consideration the aforementioned variables, Atlanta is a great sports town.  Atlanta excels in sports participation, hosting sports events and college sports.  The city does not score as high on the professional sports variable, but a few championships would enhance the marks.

Frankly, who cares what the national media think?  Cheers Atlanta!

Bloody Monday to Walter Camp: The Standardization of American Football

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Imagine your school is traveling to Athens to play the University of Georgia in football. Here’s the catch: you have to play by Georgia’s rules. In the early days of college football each school developed its own rules–in intercollegiate contests the home team’s rules prevailed. The early days of college football were a time of trial and error. Different schools played different versions of the game. Some versions looked more like soccer, others like rugby, and others were a combination of many influences.

During the 1820s, several colleges in the northeast played their own version of college football. Each had its own set of rules and played only intramural games. For example, Princeton played a game called “ballown” as early as 1820. Harvard began its own version in 1827 with a game between the freshmen and sophomore classes affectionately known as “Bloody Monday,” while Dartmouth played something called “Old Division Football.” These disparate games had some basic features in common: large numbers of players trying to advance a ball into a goal by any means necessary, violence, and frequent injury. Because of the injury issue, these schools abolished their brand of football by the beginning of the Civil War, although the game continued in some form at various east coast prep schools.

By the late 1860s, football had returned to colleges in the northeast. On November 6, 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate football game. The schools played with a round ball under Rutgers’ rules.  One score equaled one point. The game appeared more similar to rugby and soccer than to the American football of the twentieth century. Each side played with 25 players with the objective of kicking a ball into the opposing team’s goal. Players were not allowed to throw or carry the ball, and physical contact was part of the game. Rutgers defeated the visitors from Princeton 6-4. A week later the two schools played at Princeton under Princeton’s rules. The rules of the two schools were similar with the notable exception that a player who caught a ball on the fly was awarded a free kick. Princeton scored a measure of revenge with an 8-0 victory.

As more colleges began playing football, school officials quickly saw the need for standardized rules. On October 20, 1873, representatives from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met in New York to develop a set of regulations based more on soccer than rugby. Harvard boycotted the meeting because it insisted on playing by its own regulations known as the “Boston game” – a version predicated more on carrying the ball than on kicking it. Harvard found itself without competition until Tufts College, located outside of Boston, agreed to play Harvard June, 4, 1875.  Tufts won a passionate game 1-0.  As more colleges began playing football, school officials quickly saw the need for standardized rules.

In 1876, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia met in New York to try once more to standardize the rules. This time the schools agreed on a new code of regulations based largely on the Rugby Football Union’s code from England. Under the new rules a two-point touchdown replaced the kicked goal as the primary means of scoring.

It wasn’t until 1880 that college football began to resemble the game as it is played today. Walter Camp was a college football player (Yale), coach (Yale and Stanford), and sportswriter. As Yale coach, his 1888, 1891, and 1892 teams won recognition as national champions. Camp also took part in the various intercollegiate rules committees beginning as a player in 1880 until his death in 1925. Because of his role on the rules committees, Camp became known as the “Father of American football.” Camp spearheaded the change to today’s game. At yet another New York meeting, Camp convinced representatives of Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia to approve a reduction from 15 to 11 players per side, the establishment of a line of scrimmage, and the snap of the ball between the center and the quarterback. Football became more of an open game emphasizing speed.

At later meetings, Camp helped persuade the schools that a team had to gain five yards within three downs or lose possession; that the field should be reduced in size to its modern dimensions of 120 yards by 53.3 yards; and that four points should be awarded for a touchdown, two points for kicks made after touchdowns, two points for safeties, and five for field goals. (The scoring structure has since been changed to six points for touchdowns, one for the kick after a touchdown, and three for a successful field goal.) Camp was also responsible for having two paid officials referee every game and legalizing tackling below the waist.

College football owes much to pioneers of the game like Walter Camp. Without standardization of the rules, the mixed bag of a game that evolved into what we now call football would likely not have survived.

Paul Johnson Has Work to Do

 

Photo by Michael Schneider

Photo by Michael Schneider

The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Coastal Division has some new and powerful blood among the coaching ranks, which just made Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson’s job much more difficult.  Unless Johnson recruits better players and/or hires better coaches, his time at Tech may come to an end sooner than later.  Johnson has coached the Yellow Jackets since 2008, has compiled a 61-44 overall record, and a 38-26 mark in the Coastal Division, finishing first or second six out of his eight seasons on the Flats.

The new coaches in the division are Mark Richt at the University of Miami, Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, and Bronco Mendenhall at the University of Virginia. Before examining some statistics from Johnson’s eight years at Tech, a brief examination of how Johnson has fared against the current coaches in the Coastal Division requires an examination.

Johnson has a record of 6-2 against David Cutcliffe at Duke University, but Cutcliffe has won the last two meetings against Johnson’s Yellow Jackets.  Larry Fedora of the University of North Carolina, fresh off the 2015 Coastal Division title, is 2-2 versus Johnson, with wins the last two years.  Pat Narduzzi came to the University of Pittsburgh before the 2015 season after a long and successful run as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State University.  From 2011-2014, Narduzzi’ s Michigan State defenses were the only ones ranked every year in the Football Bowl Subdivision Top 10 in total defense and rushing defense.  In Narduzzi’s first season, he led Pitt to the school’s most wins, 8, since 2010.  In Johnson’s only game against Narduzzi, Pitt won 31-28.

While at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt’s Bulldogs defeated Johnson’s Yellow Jackets six out of eight times, including this year’s 13-7 victory.  Tech is 2-6 against the University of Miami in the Johnson era, and if one combines that with Richt’s dominance while at Georgia, it would seem that Johnson will have a very difficult time beating Miami.  Bronco Mendenhall’s Brigham Young University teams easily defeated Johnson’s Tech teams in 2012 and 2013, with the closest deficit being 18 points.  Johnson sports a 5-3 record against Virginia, which has not had a winning season since 2011.  Johnson will have to do a better of job scheming against Mendenhall than the two games against Mendenhall while he was at BYU.  Johnson’s teams have struggled mightily against the Virginia Tech defenses of Bud Foster.  Georgia Tech is 2-6 against Virginia Tech in the Johnson era.  Virginia Tech now has one of the most sought after coaches in college football, Justin Fuente.  Fuente, considered an offensive wizard, took over a University of Memphis program that had won only five games in the prior three seasons.  Within three years Fuente brought Memphis a winning season and a bowl victory.  Under Fuente, Memphis finished 19-6 the last two years.  One of Fuente’s first moves as the Virginia Tech coach was to retain Bud Foster as the defensive coordinator.  With Fuente’s offensive genius and Foster’s defensive wizardry, Johnson will find victories over the Hokies to be a challenge.

Paul Johnson has no peers with his knowledge of the triple option. According to cfbstats.com, Tech’s offenses have generally been very prolific.  In the Johnson era, his teams have finished in the Top 5 in the country in rushing offense every year (except 2015).  This is out of 128 or 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, depending on the year.  In scoring offense, Tech has finished 21st or better in four of Johnson’s seasons, while in total offense Tech has finished 44th or better in six of eight seasons, including two Top 20 finishes.  However, Tech’s defenses and special teams have struggled most years under Johnson.

Three defensive coordinators have served Tech under Johnson.  Tech’s best defense came in 2008, Johnson’s first year.  With players recruited by former coach Chan Gailey, the unit finished 25th in the country in total defense and 28th in scoring defense.  Since then, Tech has finished no better than 53rd in scoring defense and 43rd in total defense (except for the 2013 season, 29th and 28th, respectively).  Again, this is according to cfbstats.com and the rankings are based on 128 or 120 teams, depending on the year.

Special teams play can influence the outcome of a game, and generally, Tech’s units have recorded poor results, according to cfbstats.com.  Punt and kickoff returns help to establish field position, while punt and kickoff coverage can effect field position as well, thereby making it more difficult for opposing offenses to score because of the length of the field they must navigate. From a punt unit standpoint, Tech has had one very good season, 2012, finishing 17th in the country in punt returns and 14th in opponents’ punt returns (OPR).  The 2009 punt return unit finished 10th and scored two touchdowns but the OPR finish was only 43rd.  In Johnson’s other six seasons, the punt return units have finished no better than 53rd and the OPR units have finished no better than 39th, with three of the units finishing 64th or worse.  The kickoff units have been dreadful for almost every season during the Johnson era.  The Kickoff Return units have finished 47th or worse—four units finished 96th or worse—every year except 2012, when the unit finished 27th.  The Opponents’ Kickoff Return units have finished 41st or worse—three units finished 101st or worse—every year except 2010, when the unit finished 18th.

The above statistics are not meant to give an exhaustive statistical indication of Tech’s strengths and weaknesses under Johnson but do offer a fair account of some of the units’ strengths and weaknesses over the years.  While Johnson’s offenses amass large amounts of yardage and points, the defensive and special teams play have generally been detrimental to Johnson’s overall record.  Maybe Johnson can improve his defenses and special teams with better athletes on those units and/or better coaching.

His strategy to this point seems to be to score as many points as he can and hope that is enough to win.  With the stable of capable coaches in the Coastal Division, Johnson’s chances of using this strategy to win games will more than likely lead to more losses.  Of course, he still has to find a way to beat Clemson and Georgia.  The bottom line:  Johnson must continue to maintain highly productive offenses and consistently develop strong defenses and special teams or he will force Athletics Director Mike Bobinski to make an unpleasant decision.

 

Spurrier Rankles UGA

 

 

Courtesy Zeng8r

Courtesy Zeng8r

In Tales from College Football’s Sidelines, Herschel Nissenson tells a story about Steve Spurrier’s only trip to Athens to play the University of Georgia while head coach of the University of Florida. The Gator Bowl, now EverBank Field, was being renovated in 1994-1995, and the two schools agreed to play a home-and-home series on their respective campuses. Florida won the 1994 contest in Gainesville, 52-14, and the 1995 game came to Athens.

Florida had the ball at the Georgia 8-yard line in the waning minutes with a 45-17 lead. Spurrier sent in the field goal unit. Before the kick, Spurrier received a phone call from someone in the press box. The caller informed Spurrier that no team had ever scored 50 points on Georgia in Sanford Stadium.

Spurrier called time out, decided on a play, and sent the offense back on the field. Quarterback Eric Kresser tossed a touchdown pass to receiver Travis McGriff to give Florida the points needed to exceed the 50 mark.

After the play, Spurrier called back to the person in the press box and declared, “Have now.”