By Keith Olbermann
Tonight, a Special Comment on Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's decision to fire offensive coordinator Al Borges and bring in Troy coordinator Tony Franklin to install -- you guessed it -- a spread-style offense on the Plains.
It was all well and good when Urban Meyer brought the spread to the Southeastern Conference in 2005. Certainly, Meyer's Florida Gators garnered a huge amount of attention the following year when they stunned Ohio State and won the national title. However, it's worth pointing out that the Gators were still struggling to adapt to the spread that year, and won the title not with a high-powered offense but with their defense.
Now Tuberville is leaping aboard the bandwagon and attempting to implement a spread-style system for his own team, the Auburn Tigers. It's a curious choice, given that Tuberville's supposedly archaic run-first, strong-on-defense strategy beat that revolutionary Gator team in both of the last two seasons.
But the danger that this poses goes far beyond bandwagons and overused quarterbacks. Tuberville's decision strikes at the very heart and soul of a proud conference and the sacred philosophies that have guided it for decades.
Think back on the great running backs in Auburn history. Bo Jackson. Brent Fullwood. Tucker Frederickson. Rudi Johnson. Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, whom Tommy Tuberville somehow managed to get into the Tiger backfield at the same time. Coach Tuberville, is this how you honor that tradition -- by forfeiting "three yards and a cloud of dust" for "three-step drop and an incomplete pass"?
Coach Tuberville, you famously remarked after your victory over Georgia in 2001 that maybe Mark Richt should run the ball more. Your path to a 13-0 record and an SEC title in 2004 was paved by a ground attack that averaged nearly 200 yards per game. Have you now decided that that wasn't good for you, that polls and TV ratings have dictated that you must now try and force Kodi Burns to become the next Tim Tebow?
In no way is this intended as a slight against Coach Franklin. He did indeed engineer an impressive transformation at Troy, which improved from 111th in the nation in total offense to 17th under his tutelage. But for Tommy Tuberville and his minions on the Plains to now assume that he will effect an equally dramatic and immediate transformation at Auburn is to ignore the gaping chasm in defensive firepower between the Sun Belt Conference and the SEC. Sir, do you seriously not believe that there is any difference between, say, Georgia's defense and Louisiana-Lafayette's? Do you honestly think the Bulldogs are going to be so in awe of Kodi Burns's passing prowess that their pass rushers will simply stop and stare into the heavens as Burns sails deep balls over their heads?
History, of course, will be the final judge of what Tommy Tuberville seeks to accomplish in the loveliest village on the Plains. But if history is a judge, it can also be our guide. Again, we must look back to 2006, when Urban Meyer's Gators won the national championship not because Meyer's spread offense was working to perfection -- it wasn't -- but because they played lights-out defense and didn't let close leads slip away.
One year later, Meyer finally had the spread personnel he was looking for, but he didn't have an every-down tailback, nor did he have nine of the previous year's defensive starters. Behind Tim Tebow, that spread offense worked, but because of an overworked quarterback and a pass defense that finished the season ranked 98th in Division I-A, the Gators dropped three regular-season games, finished third in their own division, and ended the season giving up 41 points and 524 yards in a bowl loss to Michigan. Yes, that Michigan, the one that lost to Appalachian State and ran an offense apparently devised sometime just after the invention of the forward pass.
With this in mind, Coach Tuberville, every SEC fan from Columbia to Fayetteville has every right to ask: Is this what you seek, sir? Is this your vision of what you want the Southeastern Conference to become -- a conference that becomes obsessed with finesse passing offenses to the detriment of the power running game and defenses that have served it so well over the past three quarters of a century?
For if this is your vision -- a re-creation of the late-'90s Pac-10, in which defense is a lost cause and every game is a 41-38 shootout -- then I and other like-minded college-football fans across the Southeast can merely shake our heads and say: May God have mercy on you, sir. Indeed, may God have mercy on us all.
And that's your Special Comment and your guest column for this, the one thousand two hundred ninety-ninth day since Tommy Tuberville declared the 2004 Auburn Tigers the "People's National Champion." I'm Keith Olbermann; good night, and good luck.
-- Keith Olbermann first made waves in TV sports with a five-year stint on ESPN's "SportsCenter" during which he and co-anchor Dan Patrick became the most popular pairing in the show's history. Since then, Olbermann has entered the world of politics, with his nightly news/commentary show "Countdown" having become MSNBC's most-watched program. His awards include a 1995 Cable ACE award for Best Sportscaster and a 2007 Emmy for Best Newscaster in a Dramatic Role. In his spare time he enjoys attending major-league baseball games and serving as President-For-Life of the Edward R. Murrow Fan Club's Manhattan Borough Chapter.
Our celebrity-preview series concludes later this week with a look at Georgia Tech by someone who is nearest and dearest to me out of all our guest columnists. Don't miss it.