GAME WEEK: SOUTH CAROLINA

Which is better? College football or the NFL?

It’s the never-ending fan debate. Sure, they’re both football, but they’re different in so many ways. Each of them has their own distinct cultures built around them that tend to appeal to different crowds; if you like football for its social elements, then you’ll lean toward whichever fan experience suits you. For those more interested in the game itself, your preference is most likely decided by asking another question: do you watch football for the players, or for the coaches? For the athletes, or for the Xs and Os?

If you answer with the former, then you probably like the NFL more than the college game. The pros are, well, pros. They’re bigger. They’re faster. They throw farther and they jump higher. They’re the best athletes in the world making the most amazing plays, and they do it with greater precision and fewer mistakes. The quality of play on the field is simply at a higher level.

If your interest in football lies primarily in the coaching– the strategy, the personalities, and the evolution of the game– then you probably lean towards college football. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you have no doubt figured that this is the camp that I fall into.

College football is just more interesting to me. There is very little variation between NFL offensive schemes, which makes sense in a league where players can move between teams. The lack of variety makes every game look more or less the same. The college game, on the other hand, is the laboratory for new football ideas. Just look at South Carolina’s schedule; they opened by facing an “air raid” offense against ECU, moved on to a more pro-style attack against Georgia, and face Navy’s spread option this week. While NFL franchises have a salary cap to level the playing field, no such equalizer exists in college football. Coaches are forced to devise schemes that make the most out of the players they have.

College coaches are just more interesting people, too. That’s just part of leadership: knowing who you’re leading and adjusting your approach accordingly. Grown men aren’t going to respond to the same things that 18-, 19-, and 20-year olds will. NFL coaches tend to be very businesslike. In other words, they’re usually boring. There are exceptions here and there, but the way those exceptions tend to stick out like a sore thumb proves my point. When you listen to Herm Edwards’ “you play to win the game” speech, it doesn’t sound like anything you wouldn’t hear on a random SEC conference call on any given Tuesday night during the season. Yet in the NFL, that press conference is a semi-legendary moment. Jim Mora– my muse— was notorious for saying the kind of things that wouldn’t be nearly as memorable coming from a college coach. College kids respond more to rah-rah and emotion than paid professionals do. That means we get to see more of the coaches’ personalities.

To me, that’s why college football is better. It’s better because of the personalities. It’s better because of the innovation.

It’s better because of people like Steve Spurrier.

Spurrier is undoubtedly a polarizing figure, but even people who hate him have to admit that college football just wasn’t the same without him.

That’s why I’ve been looking to this game since it was announced. I haven’t exactly been the biggest supporter of these “money” games against BCS titans, but I’ve always felt differently about South Carolina. Steve Spurrier has a reputation as a bit of a coaching genius, which he would have to be to win the ACC at Duke. His “fun & gun” offense propelled him to 6 SEC titles and a national championship at Florida, where his teams won 80% of their games. I think that Navy’s coaching staff can stack up to anyone’s, and that’s the appeal of this game to me. Two phenomenal coaching staffs with contrasting styles, going head-to-head. This is an Xs & Os junkie’s dream.

Well, almost. That would be more true if we were looking at an even matchup on paper. A service academy against a top-10 SEC title contender isn’t what most people would call an even matchup. Navy has responded well on the big stage before. The Mids beat Wake Forest when they were ranked in the top 20. They beat Missouri in the Texas Bowl. They’ve won 3 out of 4 against Notre Dame. They went toe-to-toe with Ohio State in 2009. Even so, this South Carolina team is a different animal.

There are only two teams in the country that return a 3000-yard passer, a 1000-yard receiver, and a 1000-yard rusher from last season. Of course, they’re both on Navy’s schedule. One is SMU. The other is South Carolina, with QB Stephen Garcia, running back Marcus Lattimore, and wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey. All three are household names (although perhaps for different reasons). Lattimore was SEC Freshman of the Year in 2010, rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns while being named first-team all-conference. Alshon Jeffrey is a 6-4 bullet train who caught 88 passes for over 1,500 yards on the way to being named a consensus first-team All-American and Biletnikoff Award finalist. Stephen Garcia is suspended a lot. He’s also a capable quarterback, although he did throw 14 interceptions in 2010. If Navy is going to have a shot in this game, he’ll probably have to throw a couple more.

The Mids’ hands will be just as full on offense. South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has seen the spread option several times in stops at Appalachian State, The Citadel, and again facing Wofford at South Carolina. This goes both ways, though; as much as he’s seen it, he’s also left a video trail behind him. The Navy coaches will have a pretty good game plan. The real problem is that this South Carolina defensive line is the fastest, most athletic group that we’ve seen in the last decade. How fast?

That’s a DEFENSIVE TACKLE. And he’s not alone…

And those are the two guys that aren’t Devin Taylor, who himself was first-team all-SEC last year at defensive end. One of the biggest problems about fast, athletic defensive linemen is that the offense can do everything right, but still have a play blown up on them. This happens when a defensive end is able to run down the quarterback from behind on the option.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a defensive line able to do this consistently. Some Notre Dame teams have, as did the better Rutgers teams. This puts the offense’s mental mistakes from the last two weeks squarely into focus. Any slow-developing play, any miscommunication in the backfield, will be blown up in a hurry. The offense will have to be a lot sharper than they’ve shown so far.

Not that we didn’t already know that this would be a challenge. Spurrier has been in Columbia since 2005, but it isn’t until now that Gamecock fans are really seeing what they thought they would when he was hired. South Carolina won the SEC East last year, and with the amount of returning talent they have, this is their best chance to finally break through into college football’s elite and claim an SEC crown. It’ll take everything the Mids have, plus a little luck, to pull this one out.

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7 Responses

  1. “Steve Spurrier has a reputation as a bit of a coaching genius”

    NFL fans may beg to disagree. (But seriously, I don’t see how anyone can claim to be a football fan and not love both Saturdays and Sundays.)

    • That’s like saying Browns fans would say otherwise about Bill Belichick. Spurrier’s reputation for Xs&Os was made long before the Redskins.

  2. Always liked the small hand painted sign in MacDonough Hall near the boxing rings:

    “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

    We shall see this weekend the size of the fight in Navy football 2011.

  3. Lately, Navy tends to play up to big time competition. Let’s hope the trend continues.

    Please?

  4. Love your take on contrast between pro & college football fans. Rings true for sure.

    College football is like a blind date- part anticipation, part trepidation. Sometimes disastrous, sometimes life-changing. But, rarely dull. One doesn’t know what to expect. Pro football, on the other hand, has all the excitement of watching a Toyota production line.

    I have remarked before if I wake up in the hereafter and there’s no college football, no golf courses, and “The View” is the only show on television, I will know I am in hell.

    Your analysis of the match-up makes me wonder if this one is worth the extra bucks.

  5. Spurrier’s “fun-and-gun” offense also lost 62-24 to option heavy Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. 2011 Navy isn’t exactly the 1995 Huskers, but nobody saw that result coming against a Spurrier team. Let’s just hope that Navy can keep the ball & O on the field and stop their big plays.

  6. I’m having cold sweats thinking about Clowney tearing through our backfield.

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