Chris Davis and Ricardo Louis: The Auburn Miracles

Auburn Cover._12.30Auburn cornerback Chris Davis and wide receiver Ricardo Louis, who both scored on last second, game winning plays to help keep the Tigers’ championship hopes alive this season, are on the national cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s year end issue (12/30/13)—on newsstands NOW. In the cover story senior writer Lars Anderson examines how, in a span of two weeks in November, Auburn pulled off a pair of epic wins and looks at the many fans—from former Tigers to lifelong followers— whose lives were changed as a result. Writes Anderson, “As the Tigers prepare to face Florida State in the BCS championship game on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl, those celebratory moments from November are worth savoring. Because the two miraculous plays against No. 25 Georgia and top-ranked Alabama that led to the TP-ing of Toomer’s weren’t just about winning and losing; they were about the lives they touched.” (Page 38)

After blowing a 20-point lead in the first half against Georgia on Nov. 16, Auburn trailed the Bulldogs 38–36 with 36 seconds left in regulation. That’s when Louis scored on a deflected 73-yard pass from quarterback Nick Marshall on fourth-and-18 to give Auburn a 43­–38 victory. Writes Anderson, “At his home in Rainsville, Ala., Jason McKinney, 34, leaps off his couch and runs around the living room like his socks are on fire. ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’ he screams over and over for five minutes. McKinney’s reaction is so over-the-top that his wife, Sheena, tells him, ‘I’m going to start videoing you after games to show everyone how crazy you get.’ In the front row of the south end zone 15-year-old Hayden Hart, a native of Perry, Ga., who painted his bedroom the Auburn colors of orange and blue, is in ecstasy. He slaps high fives with strangers next to him and jumps up and down. ‘Beautiful women were hugging ugly men.’’’ (Page 39)

 Next up were Alabama and the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30. In the locker room before the game, Auburn alum Charles Barkley gives a pep talk. “Everybody is talking about Alabama playing for the national championship,” he says, his voice rising. “But you can be the greatest team in Auburn history!” After his speech, Barkley watches from a private suite above the student section. With the game tied 28–28 and one second left on the clock, Davis returned kicker Adam Griffith’s missed 57-yard field-goal attempt more than 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play to lift No. 4 Auburn to a 34–28 victory over No. 1 Alabama, upending the two-time defending national champions’ BCS hopes and preserving the Tigers’ own.

“Barkley watches the eruption of joy from his suite,” writes Anderson. “The NBA Hall of Famer and a two-time Olympic gold medalist has never seen such a spontaneous, large-scale explosion of raw emotion. Chills sweep over his body. ‘The elation was something I’ll never experience again,’ he says.” (Page 41) | SI Senior Writer, Lars Anderson 


The Final Run: The BCS Is Going Out With A Bang!

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NEW YORK – (December 11, 2013) Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and Auburn cornerback Ryan White, who appear on the national cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (12/16/13), are on a collision course for the BCS championship. The Seminoles and the Tigers will play in the national title game on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and it is the right matchup in every way says SI senior writer Michael Rosenberg. In the final year of the BCS as college football’s top postseason format, the Seminoles (13–0) finished atop the standings for the first time since 1999 and were the only team to get through the regular season unbeaten. Auburn (12–1) won the vaunted Southeastern Conference by running from last place in 2012 to first place with their shoelaces on fire. Writes Rosenberg, “Florida State has been the sport’s dominant team, but Auburn represents the sport’s dominant conference, which has won seven straight national championships and wants you to know it. SEC fans chant ‘S-E-C!’ after every bowl win, and probably after most church functions—an a cappella version of ‘Seven Nation Army,’ the sports background music that most of America wants to turn off but can’t.”(Page 49)

Senior writer Lars Anderson makes the case for Auburn winning their second national championship in four years, writing, “The key player in Auburn’s transformation from a 3–9 team in 2012 to a 12–1 squad has been quarterback Nick Marshall, a 6’ 1”, 210-pound junior who spent last season in the hinterlands of the Kansas prairie at Garden City Community College. Marshall has led fourth-quarter comebacks against Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, and he’s infused the program with confidence. Auburn, remarkably, is peaking when it matters most, which is why this team of magic and joy and video-game fun will keep the national title in the state of Alabama for the fifth straight year.” (Page 51)

 


Pure Chaos: Can This College Football Season Get Any Crazier?

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(NEW YORK – December 3, 2013) – Auburn cornerback Chris Davis, who scored the winning touchdown for the Tigers in a barnburner against Alabama in the Iron Bowl, is on the national cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (12/2/13)—on newsstands NOW. In the cover story, senior writer Andy Staples analyzes what was a wild, wacky and sometimes chaotic 2013 college football season. Even before Auburn’s takedown of Alabama there was Johnny Manziel’s half-game suspension, Lane Kiffin’s firing by USC at LAX, Ohio State’s beleaguered perfection, Duke’s emergence (with no assists from Coach K), Missouri’s resurgence and Florida State’s QB controversy. Writes Staples, “Back in August we thought we had all the answers. Johnny Football would challenge to be the second two-time Heisman winner. Oregon would rip through the Pac-12 in spite of a coaching change. And, of course, Alabama would tack on yet another national title. Auburn wasn’t even in the conversation. Well, college football has once again reminded us that each year brings new stars, slumbering giant programs that wake and return to glory, and finishes that make us shut our eyes tight, open them again and scream for a replay to prove we hadn’t dreamed what had just happened. Did an Auburn cornerback return a missed field goal 109 yards to win the Iron Bowl and turn the sport upside-down? Again? ”  (Page 40)

Hours before the Iron Bowl’s epic finish, Michigan threatened a shake-up of its own at home before 113, 511 fans at home in Ann Arbor against undefeated Ohio State. The Buckeyes trailed early but got even, trailed and got even again, and so on and so on throughout a game in which, although trailing late, the Wolverines seemed to have all the momentum. Michigan scored a touchdown with 32 seconds left, but missed a two-point conversion, giving the Wolverines a 42-41 victory. Writes Staples, “Ohio State went 12–0 in 2012 but couldn’t play for the national championship because of an NCAA postseason ban. Saturday afternoon, as the buses rolled out of Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes once again stood at 12–0—and once again faced the possibility of being shut out of the BCS title game. Most preseason discussion of the national championship boiled down to one question: Alabama or the field? Not much had changed since August. Because Florida State’s remaining opponents seemed too feeble, the Buckeyes needed someone to take down Bama. Auburn did. As fans poured onto the field 550 miles to the south, the Ohio State players stood in their buses and roared. “It was absolutely nuts for 15 minutes,” coach Urban Meyer says.” (Page 42)

So what’s next? With a host of marquee matchups slated for conference championship weekend, don’t be surprised if college football’s wacky season doesn’t have a few more tricks up its sleeve. |SI Senior Writer, Andy Staples 

 


“King Crimson” AJ McCarron on this week’s SI cover

In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (11/25/13)—on newsstands now— executive editor L. Jon Wertheim writes about Alabama’s big man on campus and he doesn’t mean Nick Saban. No, the Big Mac in Tuscaloosa is quarterback AJ McCarron, Bama’s master of passing efficiency, who is on the brink of leading the Crimson Tide to its third national championship in four years. Writes Wertheim, “McCarron might be almost as well known for his arm candy as his arm strength, his body ink as his body of work. But let’s be clear: He’s not just one of the great Alabama quarterbacks. AJ McCarron is on the short list of the most successful players in the history of college football. Even if not many think of him that way.” (Page 39)

Despite his 35 wins in Tuscaloosa and two BCS titles, McCarron has never been a Heisman finalist or a first-team All-America. Instead of being considered one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, he’s routinely labeled as a “game manager.” He plays on a team with an old-school philosophy and with a stern disciplinarian and perfectionist as its head coach.. “He has as many national championships as he does defeats,” writes Wertheim. “He holds the Bama record for passing yards (8,184) and touchdowns (70). He has yet to lose a road game. In an offense designed to pick up as much on the ground as in the air, he still tosses for 222.8 yards a game.” (Page 41)

Joe Namath, who won a national championship at Alabama in 1964 under legendary coach Paul (Bear) Bryant and who Bryant referred to as “the greatest athlete I ever coached,” has nothing but high praise and high hopes for McCarron. “Everything AJ has shown has been positive,” Namath says. “He’s productive in the right way. He’s excelled under pressure. He plays well in big games. He’s a leader. He’s carried himself beautifully. He’s going to go into those interviews and wow them. He’ll be successful [in the NFL], and anyone who knows football knows why.” (Page 45)


Waiting for the Hate

In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands now—senior writer Austin Murphy writes about how (and why) the nucleus of the Pac-12 is changing, as No. 2 Oregon (8–0) and fifth-ranked Stanford (7–1) prepare to face off in the Pac 12’s game of the year in Palo Alto on Thursday, Nov. 7.

Historically speaking, the Oregon-Stanford college football rivalry never really registered on anyone’s radar west of the Golden Gate Bridge. It never warranted any cool nicknames like The Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn) or The Red River Rivalry (Texas-Oklahoma) or the simple and direct moniker The Game (Michigan-Ohio State). The Ducks and the Cardinal never had the national spotlight on their intense coaching matchups the way Bo Schembechler versus Woody Paige or Bobby Bowden versus Steve Spurrier did.

It was only over the last few years that the Ducks versus the Cardinal took on any type of significance outside the Pacific time zone. The two schools have been forging a rivalry that has shifted the Pac-12’s power nexus had an annual impact on the national title hunt. Writes Murphy, “Besides, acrimony excepted, this game will have everything. It’s Oregon’s second-ranked offense, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, against Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov and the Cardinal’s 25th-ranked D. It’s a play-in to the Pac-12 title game, and the latest dramatization of the conference’s power shift from Los Angeles. It’s a clash of fashions—the Cardinal’s basic red-and-white versus whatever space-age design the Ducks are rocking—and of philosophies reflected by those unis: Stanford’s old-school, smashmouth power game versus Oregon’s no-huddle, hurry-up Blur attack.” (Page 48)

For more than 60 years, Pac-12 football was dominated by heavyweight contenders UCLA and USC, which have won a combined 18 conference titles and 55 national titles between them and which have produced Hall of Fame players such as the Bruins Jackie Robinson (yes, he played football too), Ken Norton Jr. and Troy Aikman, and the Trojans’ Frank Gifford, Marcus Allen and Lynn Swann. Now all eyes in the West are focused on the Ducks’ Mariota and wide receiver Josh Huff and the Cardinal’s Skov and linebacker AJ Tarpley. Nevertheless, the talent surge at both schools can also be attributed to a surge in resources.

Writes Murphy, “The Ducks have won 12 games in each of the past three seasons; the Cardinal, 12, 11 and 12. The Ducks have been to four straight BCS bowls; the Cardinal, three. Both teams’ ascent to the college football aristocracy has come (relatively) recently—spurred largely by a couple of sugar daddies. Call it the Nouveau Riche Bowl. John Arrillaga (net worth: $1.8 billion), who played basketball at Stanford in the 1950s and developed much of the real estate that is now Silicon Valley, has given at least $251 million to his alma mater, where six buildings bear his name. Nike shogun Phil Knight (net worth: $16.3 billion) has kept his name off the architecture in Eugene, but he’s been even more generous, bestowing at least $300 million.” (Page 48)

While Stanford, known more for its academic achievement than its touchdown prowess, has surprised some with its recent success, it’s the Hatfield Dowlin Foot Performance Center, Oregon’s new state-of-the-art, 145,000 square foot football facility that has gone viral across all recruiting and social media platforms. However, Murphy says Knight plays down the importance of his philanthropy and influence on the football program’s success. “The secret is not the money” Knight says. Even with his gifts, Knight believes, Oregon has less to work with “than any of the traditional powers. The secret is management.” (Page 49)


Teddy Bridgewater is Louisville’s Latest Conqueror

BridgewaterAs the completions and the victories pile up, low-key star Teddy Bridgewater brings Louisville closer to New Year’s Day and himself closer to New York City, writes Pete Thamel in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.  Playing in the pros will allow Bridgewater to fulfill a promise he made to his mom, Rose Murphy, when he was in the third grade. “When I make it to the pros,” Teddy Bridgewater said, “I’m going to buy you a pink Escalade with pink rims.” (PAGE 39)

From the age of eight, Bridgewater was tabbed as a can’t-miss quarterback. He excelled in the vaunted Optimist youth leagues in Miami and later at Northwestern High. It was there that he became a top college prospect and did so while his mother was battling breast cancer. Now a junior at Louisville, he’s the nation’s third-most efficient passer on the No. 8 team, a Heisman Trophy candidate and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. “His mother’s situation made him a grown man,” says Northwestern coach Billy Rolle, “and I think that helped him out more than any coach could.” (PAGE 40)

Bridgewater worked hard to avoid the stigma that South Florida produces any athlete but quarterback. He wound up a Cardinal after committing to and decommitting from Miami. “He wanted to be a quarterback,” says Louisville coach Charlie Strong, “not an athlete who’s a quarterback.” (PAGE 40)

After working extremely hard with Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Bridgewater led the Cardinals to an 11-2 season and was named Big East Player of the Year last season. He earned a reputation for not only being very accurate but also tough. He played through injuries, and shook off a nasty hit early in Louisville’s Sugar Bowl win over Florida last year. He has become a more willing leader. “This is his football team,” Strong says. “He knows this, his team will only go as far as he takes them.” (PAGE 42)

While Bridgewater has a season of eligibility remaining, he’ll graduate this year. His descision to enter the draft seems like a foregone conclusion. “The reality is that we’re hoping and believing that he has a great season,” says Rose, “and after that he’ll do what he needs to do to prepare to go to the draft.” (PAGE 42)

Thamel finds that Bridgewater is very humble on and off the field. For instance, he asked Louisville not to run a Heisman campaign for him because he doesn’t want special treatment and he still dates his high school sweetheart. “He’s one of those players who wants no credit,” says Strong. “He’d rather sit back and let his work speak for him.” (PAGE 43)

Bridgewater may not get as many Heisman and Twitter mentions as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, the two are “not in the same universe” as NFL prospects, says former Eagles scout John Middlekauff, who adds, “You build a franchise around high-level people as much as high-level players.” (PAGE 50)


SI Exclusive: Inside Urban Meyer’s Headset

Ohio State Coaches BoxFor this week’s SI, senior writer Pete Thamel had the rare chance to sit in the Ohio State coaches’ box and put on a headset for the Buckeyes’ 40-20 season-opening victory over Buffalo on Aug. 31. “Listening in is like eavesdropping on a program’s family dinner—spoken in mostly undecipherable jargon—complete with cursing, elation and the relentless tension of coach Urban Meyer asking for more,” writes Thamel. “It’s not a fun three hours,” says director of football operations Brian Voltolini, who shadows Meyer on the field. “You can’t take anything personal that happens on game day. If you do, you’re done.” (PAGE 40)

First Quarter

With Buffalo facing a third-and-eight on its second drive, Meyer flips over from the defensive headset  channel to the offensive one and says to offensive coordinator Tom Herman, “Tom, I want to be real aggressive on this drive.” (PAGE 40)  Herman plans to “jet to inferno,” meaning they will run the no-huddle (jet). After four hurry-up passes in five plays, Ohio State scores on a wheel route from Braxton Miller to Chris Fields. “Hey 5,” Herman says to Miller when he returns to the sideline and puts on a headset. “Good drive, bud. Great job being patient.” (PAGE 40)

Second Quarter

After a Miller interception leads to a pick-six for Buffalo (and a third straight unsuccessful drive), Meyer shouts in the headset, “That’s three in a row boys. Let’s go. We need to start blocking these guys.” (PAGE 41) As the quarter progresses and Ohio State continues to struggle, Meyer comes on the headset: “I’ve never got my face kicked in by drop eight like this.” (PAGE 42)

Third Quarter

Thamel discovers that there are two types of conversations on the offensive headsets. When Ohio State has the ball only Herman and Meyer can speak. When they don’t have the ball, all of the coaches can chime in. That’s why Thamel hears Herman say, “Can everyone shut up?!” (PAGE 42) The coach was trying to speak with his quarterback but couldn’t hear through all the coaches on the headset.

Fourth Quarter

With the game too close for comfort, Meyer turns away from the high-tempo attack. “Where’s your best back?” Meyer asks Herman. “Let’s pound ’em. It’s Buffalo.” (PAGE 43)

With the play slowing down, Thamel notices the hardest working part of the play-calling operation—the signalers, who stand on the sideline in purple, orange and green shirts. When Herman calls a play into the headset, it doesn’t go directly to the quarterback’s helmet. Rather, the three signalers relay signs to the huddle, with only one of them being the live signaler.

As OSU winds down the clock of a 40-20 win, Meyer adds one final piece of commentary into the headset. “Well, we got outcoached today.” (PAGE 43)


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