Late into Sunday evening, Nashville’s football graybeards, Media Geniuses, and readers of tea leaves all must have been scratching their befuddled heads, trying to make some sense of what they had witnessed over the weekend.
The facts, at least, are not in dispute. On Saturday, Vanderbilt staged a rally of Wall Street proportionsfrom 25 points downto defeat Northern Illinois 34-31.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Titans opened their season with a contest that featured more dramatic reversals than a WWF match: They almost knocked out Cincinnati in the first half, then went reeling into the ropes as the Bengals dope-slapped them with 28 straight points, then furiously counterpunched their way to a rousing 36-35 win.
To find meaning amid such madness, howeverwell, that’s a whole nuther question.
For the home teams, both games offered thrilling victories, to be sure. But did we neglect to mention that Northern Ill and the Cincinnati Bungles more closely resemble chopped liver than, say, Florida State and the Minnesota Vikings?
Based on what we’ve seen so far, the crystal ball for two of Nashville’s three football teams remains as murky as the Cumberland. Only Tennessee Statewhich may well be the most exciting team in town to watchhas demonstrated any consistency so far.
It’s impossible to say who’ll show up at Vanderbilt’s games, except that the students will drink early and arrive late and the Commodore fans will be hard pressed to outnumber their guests. On the field, we don’t know whether to expect the team that fought Alabama to a standstill and roared past Northern Ill, or the moribund bunch that somnambulated through the first half last week.
Yet Vandy has been a paragon of consistency compared to the Titans.
Sybil had fewer personalities than these guys. Maybe we should redub them the “Frightens.” For about a quarter and a half, the boys in blue and powder blue left the Bengals looking like their feckless, cross-state neighbors in Cleveland. Then, for the next 30 minutes, they disappeared into a stone-cold funk that would have left James Brown wheezing for breath. The turnaround was so improbable and dramatic that fans might have begun scanning the luxury suites to see if Don King was in the house.
Suddenly, the Titans’ usually reliable defense began to give way like a Tennessee sinkhole. The offense, which in the first half had batted the Bungles around at will, suddenly resembled a cat that had lost interest in a captured mouse. Steve McNair, who statistically recorded his most impressive outing as a promore than 340 yards passingsuddenly found himself the focal point of boos when he gamely returned to the huddle after an injury (though perhaps the fans were responding more to the team’s sputtery performance than McNair’s).
Finally, when it looked as if the Titans were about to christen the sparkling new stadium with a befouled air, someone found the cans of spinach just in time. The team’s offensive starsMcNair, Yancey Thigpen, Eddie Georgesuddenly resumed their normal orbits and took charge. The game was over as soon as the Titans moved within field goal range of Al del Greco, who, at least when he remembers to enter the game, is only slightly less reliable than Old Faithful.
The Titans at least could offer the excuse that their stumble-bumming occurred against a fellow NFL team, and as everyone well knows, on any given Sunday....
The Commodores, by contrast, took a few torpedoes at the hands of an outfit that ordinarily might have been hard pressed to be a National Forensics League team. The Huskies of Northern Illinois came to town with a record of 3-31 over the past three seasons. The week before, they had lost to a Division I-AA team.
Yet against Vanderbilt, for the longest time they more resembled a pack of stout Viking invaders, who looked as if they might not be content simply to plunder Vanderbilt Stadium but could at any moment rampage up the block and begin dragging captives out of the Tri-Delt house.
Only a concerted second-half effort and some late, punt-return heroics by Jimmy Williams saved the Commodores from perhaps the most ignominious defeat on a long resumé of gridiron ignominy.
Do such hair-of-their-chinny-chin-chin escapes from a couple of powder puffs suggest that the Titans and Commodores will regularly have their houses blown in? Maybe.
More likely, though, they mean that we’re in for a consistent diet of inconsistency.
About all we can say with certainty is that football can be a game whose squirreliness is complemented by capricious cruelty. Just ask last weekend’s victims.
Ask Notre “Timex” Dame, which sank to 0-2 after the clock expired for the second week in row when one more play could have brought the winning score. Ask bumfuzzled Baylor, which watched in horror as a defender scooped up a fumble on the game’s final play and returned it 99 yards for the winning score. Ask the New York Jets, whose QB (and Super Bowl aspirations) crumbled amid a freak injury.
On the one hand, Vandy and the Titans were plucky enough to stave off crippling defeats that, frankly, they probably would not have avoided a year ago.
On the other hand, they were flat-out lucky. As the hapless visitors from Cincinnati and Northern Illinois would doubtless testify, that beats the pook out of the alternative.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Normal:Tennessee 26, Florida 24
For those among you who still stubbornly submit that auto racing is the cruelest, most unforgiving sport (leaving aside for a moment our definition of sport), we submit for your consideration the pitiless scheduling that pits Florida against Tennessee in mid-September.
For Lord remembers how long now, this game for all practical purposes has anointed the SEC champion. In most recent years, the winner has either won or strongly contended for the Mythical National Championship.
The loserwhich, until last season, meant Tennesseewould invariably find itself outside, looking in, unable to play officially for the SEC title despite being one of the two best teams.
This year’s game down in The Swampwhere the Vols haven’t won in 28 yearsagain looms as a winner-take-all affair. And this year, Tennessee will exit smiling, thanks to defense and longer experience.
All week, Vol coaches have been burning out their VCR motors watching film of Florida’s first two games, against poodly Western Michigan and Central Florida, when the Gators’ 11 new starters (that’s everybody) on defense were lit up bigger than Christmas at Opryland.
Floridalike Tennessee, which has had two full weeks to preparedoubtless has squirrelled away a few tricks for this game. But our guess is that Tennessee’s offense will be more poised than Florida’s, and its defense just strong enough.
Ole Miss 23, Vanderbilt 20
Mississippi State 16, Oklahoma State 14
Arkansas 38, NE Louisiana 9
Alabama 35, Louisiana Tech 14
LSU 34, Auburn 17
Indiana 31, Kentucky 28
South Carolina 17, East Carolina 14
Florida State 38, N.C. State 16
Penn State 24, Miami 21
Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17