Thrill of Victory

With early-season football, it's all about context

This time of year around the South, there’s a particular meteorological phenomenon know as caelum cadens that happens in various parts of our region. Depending on who you are, you may not notice it; it’s said that young children and older adults are mostly unaffected by it, but it has been known to cause significant distress to males aged 18 and older at a higher rate than the rest of the population at large.

It doesn’t happen in the same parts every year – last year, we saw it about this time in Athens, Georgia and the year before, Oxford, Mississippi and Knoxville, Tennessee. This year, it’s been spotted near Nashville and around Auburn, Alabama. Late Saturday, news broke of a similar occurrence in Fayetteville, Arkansas. This was particularly interesting because while meteorologists can sometimes forecast these things a week or two in advance, the one in Fayetteville caught the weather services by complete surprise.

Advanced students of Latin are on to me now – especially those who have an affinity for Southeastern Conference football. Caelum cadens simply means “the sky is falling,” and while it’s fun to poke a little fun at SEC fans here, losing football games is no laughing matter in SEC country.

Auburn, Fayetteville and Nashville are, of course, home to Auburn, Arkansas and Vanderbilt universities. Each institution has suffered crushing losses recently; Auburn opened its season by losing to Clemson and Mississippi State, while Vandy lost to South Carolina and Northwestern. (For that matter, the same could be said for Nashville after the Titans lost, too). The Razorbacks, meanwhile, stunned everyone by blowing a lead to unheralded Louisiana-Monroe this past weekend after beating Jacksonville State in the opener.

And speaking of Oxford as I was earlier, the outlook is certainly a lot brighter again after Ole Miss’s 2-0 start.

Okay, so you can’t really blame the fans in a way. They waited all through the summer for these days and have just a 120-minute sample size to go on for 2012. For all we know, Auburn, Arkansas and Vandy may all be headed for losing seasons. Arkansas’ loss to Louisiana Monroe, a Sun Belt Conference team that went 4-8 a year ago, should certainly raise an eyebrow or two. And hey, maybe the Rebels, everyone’s pick to occupy the cellar in the SEC West, are for real.

But before we go jumping to conclusions, how about a little context?As Vanderbilt coach James Franklin noted on Monday, most teams don’t play two early-season games as tough as VU just played (South Carolina and Northwestern). He said he’d be surprised if any other SEC team had actually played two BCS opponents that went to bowl games the previous year.

Turns out, Franklin was wrong: there was one more SEC team that did just that. Wanna guess who?

Yep, Auburn. The Tigers lost to Clemson and Mississippi State in their first two weeks.

Even Arkansas has a bit of an excuse, as start quarterback Tyler Wilson was knocked out in the second quarter of the Razorbacks’ loss.

As for Ole Miss, the Rebels have already matched their win total of a season ago. There’s reason to be excited because Hugh Freeze has finally pumped some life into the offense again. But the Rebels beat FCS foe Central Arkansas and a non-BCS team in UTEP. Okay, the Miners did give Oklahoma a scare in the opener, but Ole Miss caught them without star running back Nathan Jeffery last Saturday.

Let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a moment: what would Ole Miss’s record be against Clemson, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Northwestern be right now? And do you think that the Commodores and Tigers might be able to manage a pair of wins against Ole Miss’s opponents? My guess is that the Tigers and Commodores would both be 2-0 (and perhaps with a false sense of security), while the Rebels would likely be winless.

As Franklin pointed out on Monday, the sky was falling in Athens a year ago when Georgia lost to Boise State and South Carolina to open the season. All the Bulldogs did was win their next 10 games (and the SEC East) as the schedule got considerably easier.

More of the picture will start to come together this weekend.. Auburn should feel a bit better about itself if it can beat its next opponent, which ironically is Louisiana-Monroe. Vanderbilt should get a dose of confidence by waxing a Presbyterian team that doesn’t have the horses to compete. I don’t know how much we’ll learn, but winning has a way of encouraging fans even if the opponent isn’t much – just ask Ole Miss.

As for the Rebels, Ole Miss faces Texas this week. The Longhorns are 10-point favorites, so an Ole Miss win would be cause for genuine celebration this week.

Meanwhile, the sky will be falling somewhere else. It could be in Knoxville if the Vols lose to Florida, or likewise, in Gainesville should the reverse happen. The forecast is already gloomy in Fayetteville, since Arkansas takes on mighty Alabama this week.

But that’s just the nature of these things. Where the sky falls one week, there will be sunshine the next.

Just ask Georgia.