An Interview with Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples

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SI says, "Kool Aid tastes great!"

The Sports Illustrated College Football Preview issue hit the stands this week and that vaunted publication decided to put Ole Miss on the cover as the team to watch this season. Just like everyone else. Not only is Alabama two slots behind the Rebels on the magazine's Top 20 list, but they pick Ole Miss to win the SEC West and face Florida in the SEC Championship on Dec. 5.

As soon as I got wind of this I said there's somebody got some 'splainin to do. I picked up the phone and started screaming at every mid-level panjandrum in the American Management Association Building in New York I could reach until I found out who the bastard was responsible for this outrage!

Well... not exactly. What actually happened was their PR people sent us an e-mail out of the blue asking if we'd like to talk to the SI SEC writer to promote this issue of the magazine and we said, "sure."

So yesterday morning I gave Andy Staples a call and despite the fact he's on leave due to the recent birth of his son (and for that blessed occasion we extend our warmest congratulations to both he and his wife) he was more than willing to chat a bit and expand on the points he made about Alabama in the current issue of the magazine.

In addition, Andy took the time to throw his SI colleagues under the bus explain why Ole Miss is so popular in the polls, outline what he believes is the real balance of power in the SEC this season and detail how he thinks "The Process" is progressing in Tuscaloosa.

So, why do you hate Alabama so much?

What? I owe Alabama my life! My parents met in a class in Tuscaloosa. It was a math class and my mom had gotten an A on a test and my dad had gotten a D or an F and he looked over her shoulder and said "Can I study with you?" And that was how they met. I would not be here if it were not for the University of Alabama.

That’s pretty awesome.

My mom actually took a "Folk and Square Dancing" class with Kenny Stabler. Of course, from what she said, he wasn't in class very often.

Why is there all this Ole Miss love this pre-season?

Well, it’s got to be somebody. Actually if you are talking about the main rankings in the magazine, that’s a collective thing which is the result of a bunch of people on staff getting together to come up with the list. If you look at my first AP poll you’ll see those schools [in the SEC West] are actually a lot closer together. The fact is Ole Miss has a strong team. They lost Peria Jerry and Michael Oher, and that’s a lot to lose, but they are still bringing a lot of talent back this year.

And their schedule is really favorable particularly when compared to the other SEC schools … other than Florida who got the best draw of any SEC school I’ve seen in a year they are supposed to be good. Ole Miss does have to go to South Carolina and to Vanderbilt early but that’s about as tough as it gets before they get into the real meat of it. Potentially they could be meeting Alabama on Oct. 10 undefeated. 

And part of it is novelty. It’s pretty unusual to have Ole Miss being seriously considered for a National Championship any year. When it’s LSU and Alabama, people are a lot more used to hearing about them.

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Ole Miss has one of the premier QB's in the conference.

OK. What about Alabama? How much of our placement is due to what happened in January in the Sugar Bowl rather than what we are likely to put on the field next month?

I think people are looking at the Utah game and how the [offensive] line played and are thinking that’s how the line will play this year. And that’s just wrong. I was an offensive lineman myself and I can tell you, when you take out a guy that close to game time [Andre Smith's suspension] and you shuffle things around… there is not going to be any chemistry. Things are not going to go very well for you. Utah took advantage of that.

Now, even if you took those very same guys but after they have been through spring and fall practices, they would be a completely different unit.  That line last year was so good. Antoine Caldwell, was such a leader, and Andre Smith was fantastic so with those guys gone, the big question in the minds of people is how will the line gel and work together? From what I’ve read, the line still remains in flux. So, yes, I think a lot of observers want to see that offensive line and how it comes together before bumping Alabama higher in the rankings.

How much of the uncertainty is due to previous years when we had substantially less depth to draw on when we lost such players?

I think there is that expectation that those players are not going to be there to fill in those positions whereas with Texas or USC you just expect there will be someone waiting to step in and perform at the same level. I think you will see that happen with Florida and Alabama in the next few years. This is where you should really start to see the effect of Nick Saban’s recruiting. Obviously you had some guys like Julio Jones and Don'ta Hightower and those guys who blossomed early. But the impact of those strong recruiting classes coming along as they are supposed to will start to be seen with this group this year.

Is there any way that Greg McElroy isn’t an upgrade from JPW?

Nobody knows. I’ve never seen a quarterback no more roundly criticized than Wilson but McElroy is an unknown quantity. From what I'm hearing, people are likely to be surprised by McElroy’s athleticism and ability to scramble when a play breaks down. Which is great for an offensive line that is trying to come together since it’s a little easier to protect a quarterback that can move around like that.

But nobody has seen how McElroy performs on the biggest stage. If this were USC or Texas, he’d be getting that benefit of the doubt. But because Alabama isn’t seen as having hit that stride in terms of depth the general perception is he’s got to prove himself. Obviously, he may answer every single question on Sept. 5 because, for an opening game it doesn’t get any bigger than what Alabama is playing.

So that makes the opening game with Virginia Tech that much more important?

But that could help as well. In Destin in May [at the annual SEC meetings], Nick Saban was discussing why he does certain things and from a recruiting aspect playing the feature game on opening night is big but, more than that even, a game like that  to start the season dictates how your off season is going to go. That's what the team is striving for all of the off-season. All of those players know there is a BCS conference champion waiting to play them and they have to be ready for it. And I wonder… look at Florida, for example. They open against Charleston Southern. How do you get psyched up to face Charleston Southern?

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The Rebels' schedule is remarkably favorable this season.

But Virginia Tech isn’t a conference game. Who is going to be our big test in the SEC?

You guys need to worry about LSU. I think LSU is going to be a lot better… a lot better. I think they have the potential, if they can put all the pieces together, to beat everybody. My post Spring top 25 I had them at No. 13 and now I’ve got them up to No. 9. I keep moving them up every time I talk to someone over there. 

What has impressed you so much?

To start, they’ve got a pretty experienced offensive line. They have got the best returning back in the SEC with Charles Scott. Jordan Jefferson was a much better back at the end of the season than Jarrett Lee who was their downfall in a lot of games last year. Defensively they are going to be better as well. They’ve moved people around. They’ve got their defensive linemen this year that haven’t had a chance to really show what they can do.

Then they’ve got Chad Jones as their starting free safety which probably should have happened a year ago. Everyone keeps talking about Eric Berry as a Heisman Candidate but Jones is up there with him in terms of athletic ability. I love Eric Berry and the way he plays but Chad Jones could be that kind of guy at LSU.

They have got a lot of talent and guys that know how to put it together. Alabama fans should know that [Defensive Coordinator] John Chavis [formerly at Tennessee] can put a good defense together. Last year the book on these guys was they were very predictable and offenses knew exactly what they were going to do. Chavis’ whole MO is disguising where the pressure is going to come from, disguising the kind of coverage you are going to see.

So, how about the East? Is Florida the shoo-in for the SEC Championship that every seems to think they are?

One thing that is clear after last year is that everybody is beatable. There are no unbeatable teams anymore. An upper echelon SEC team can beat Florida, but it depends on the day. Most days, given the team they have right now, Florida will win those games. Sure, Florida probably has more talent than anyone else right now, at least more experienced talent, but that’s only part of the equation. Florida is likely going to face LSU, Alabama or Ole Miss in the SEC Championship and any of those three teams can beat them on a given day.

What about Georgia?

I think people are going to be stunned by Georgia this year. People don’t seem to appreciate the amount of injuries that squad suffered last year. They had an obscene number, something like 19 players, including a number of key players, for the season. Their second day of practice they lost their starting left tackle [Trinton Sturdivant] and their first game they lost a starting defensive tackle [Jeff Owens]. Nobody recovers from that kind of losses, I don’t care how deep you think your roster may be.

They are going to win ten games and [Georgia quarterback Joe] Cox is a lot like McElroy, he’s come from a great high school program then had to wait behind another guy for awhile so nobody knows what he can do yet. This really smacks of 2005 when people said they had lost all these great players and they were going to go into the tank and DJ Shockley comes in and leads them to an SEC Championship.

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A host of starters are returning to Oxford this year.

So, basically, despite the popular perception of the pecking order, the SEC is pretty much a crap shoot this year?

Especially the West. Don’t forget there is a team out in Fayetteville, Arkansas that has the potential to beat anybody as well. So, it’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be a lot of fun but it’s going to be tough for a lot of people. You are going to see some SEC teams that came into the season with National Championship aspirations that lose two games. They might still have a chance at the conference title but they are going to be pretty much out of the conversation in terms of the BCS title.

Then what separates the "haves" and the "have nots" in the SEC?

Talent. I was there for Meyer’s first three seasons covering them for the Tampa Tribune and to look at them now compared to when they won that title in 2006… it’s not really a comparison. They have these true freshmen projected third stringers that could start for several other SEC teams. It’s just disgusting the level of talent they have got now.  And Alabama seems to be doing the same kind of thing. It’s going to be very difficult for everybody else because it’s getting to the point that Florida, Alabama and LSU are the only teams that can pull this off and consistently stockpile talent to this degree.

What has impressed you most about Alabama’s recruiting?

That Alabama has done it quickly, perhaps more quickly than anybody thought they could. The way they came in and locked down the state was simply impressive. It was kind of a perfect situation with the 2008 recruiting class when you had one of the best years for talent that they’ve had in a long time in Alabama and then you had Nick Saban really hitting his stride as a recruiter after laying the groundwork with the year prior. When that happened they really let people know they were a force to be reckoned with and then this year they went and were able to get everyone important they needed to get in the state of Alabama and then went out of state for a couple of key players with elite talent they wanted.

How far away is Alabama being recognized for what they’ve achieved in terms of building depth?

If Alabama wins ten games this year, it will be assumed from now on that everyone that comes up to fill in slots on the roster are the same quality or even better. The perception is just not at that point yet. When you have a team where the third string guys are just as keen on getting playing time… that’s how you build what USC has now, what Texas has now. Florida, I think, is finally getting there.

What‘s the most immediate benefit of this largesse?

People forget that what [the new recruits] do on the practice field is way more important for the team than what they may contribute directly in a game situation. When a player comes on board that could conceivably start in a given position, then even the most established player ahead of them in the roster has to go "Whoo, I better work a little bit harder."

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And there are too many questions concerning Alabama's offense.

Coach Saban has said the key to being a successful program is to "become a nightmare for your opponent." So what monster would you say this year's Alabama team is most like?

I just saw a History Channel documentary on the Twelve Labors of Hercules and so the Hydra is what comes to mind. If you cut one of the heads off, two more will grow back. And that’s a lot like Alabama’s defense. They have a lot of ways to really get at you. With that defense… it’s going to be awful hard to score on them.

How so?

First of all, thanks to Terrence Cody - and Brandon Deaderick, as well - it’s really hard to run up the middle. And that right there is the basic component of most people’s offense. And when someone tries go to the outside they’ve got Don'ta Hightower is sitting there. And so then if they try to go deep, Javier Arenas is out there waiting. That’s tough.

What is the solution?

There really is not a lot you can do so at some point you simply have to try and physically overpower them up front. And Florida did that at the SEC Championship last year, but there just aren’t many teams that can pull it off.  That’s why LSU is going to be a really fun matchup to watch because LSU may have the horses to make it work. But right now we really don’t know. The big advantage of the Utah game is they probably learned their lesson. It’s not likely someone is going to get the chance to jump out in front of them again like that this season.

 

RBR would like to thank Andy for the interview although we must chastise his parents for having the good sense to attend the University of Alabama and then ruin it by letting their son go to the University of Florida.

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