Mailbag: Knoxville attracts focus of nation

Mailbag: Knoxville attracts focus of nation

Published Sep. 14, 2012 5:51 p.m. ET

Jessica Chastain just killed someone, but that's not the story here.

Actually her name is Rachel Singer at the moment, star of The Debt, and she shot the man (he's evil, don't worry) from about 100 yards away with a post-World War II handgun. Roger Moore would be proud. It's quite riveting for a beginning. There's a flashback, a suicide by bus, the Scooby-Doo mobile and the type of upbeat, drum-driven music that makes writing a mailbag during a thriller difficult.

But it serves a purpose outside of mere distraction.

It transports its viewers to another place — a film's greatest power — and I'm along for the ride. It's symbolic, really, the type of weak metaphor fit for a mailbag's musings, for new environments are on the weekend menu for Fox on the Fifty. Knoxville, Tenn., and the confines of Neyland Stadium await for the first time, a College Gameday atmosphere no less. 

No. 18 Florida will make the road trip, too, visiting the freshly-ranked Volunteers in what is perhaps the nation's most intriguing conference game along with the Southern Cal-Stanford contest. It's pivotal for both teams — 2-0 starts have that effect.

But the game itself is for Saturday. For now, a new place looms large.

For a football fan (and writer, I suppose), taking in a game at a new stadium is exhilarating, at least in the build-up. The trip to Vanderbilt Stadium earlier this season was a first, with its horseshoe shape outlined by hotels and a under-the-stands elevator that transported cameramen and journalists up to a wood-laminated press box. Jaded folks might say, "If you've seen one stadium, you've seen them all." But I've never seen a sea of hideous orange belting out "Rocky Top" on a Saturday night in Knoxville. Hence, the enthusiasm.

My mission, of course, is less enthralling that Chastain's/Singer's in The Debt, but I suppose watching Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley jump around on the sidelines brings far less personal risks than chasing a Nazi war criminal. I’m a writer unfit for espionage; that's a risk I'm willing to take. Sorry, Sean Connery.

Now onto your questions…

Tyler Donaldson (via Facebook): Will Alabama underestimate Arkansas this week after their laugher of a game against ULM? I can just hear nick saban now "it isn't fair for our players" etc.

Any reporter will take sides against Saban's pre-Western Kentucky rant, that's for sure. The notion that the media is in any way responsible for alleviating a coaches' duties is ridiculous, especially considering the media essentially proclaimed, "GOOD JOB, YOU GUYS,” following the Michigan blowout. If players buy into writers' praise, then that is simply the product of young men being young men. You think Saban hasn't dealt with something like that before? Of course he has. He's had plenty of great teams. Great teams receive compliments.

So one bad practice, he sounds off to the media, the players get the picture and everybody goes home.

Something tells me that will not be a problem this week — the start of the SEC schedule will provide all the motivation Saban and his players need. The fact that it is an embarrassed Arkansas team, I believe, will only help matters. We're talking one of college football's Masters of Motivation here. You think the story, "This team has nothing else to care about except beating your butts," has not been told (in more explicit language) time after time this week? It has.

If you have kept up with this mailbag this season, you'll know that I was not sold on Arkansas from the very beginning. With its personnel losses and questionable defense, I said that five losses were not out of the realm of possibility. A loss to Louisiana-Monroe was obviously not factored into that equation. Neither was Tyler Wilson's questionable status.

No, I think the Crimson Tide will be ready and this will be a one-sided affair — and not the 100-3 Arkansas win some fans might be hoping for.

(Debt update: I failed to mention Sam Worthington is in this movie. He's his usual gloomy, brooding, upset-with-the-thoughts-in-his-own-head self. Anyways, he just passed up his opportunity to consummate his unmistakable love with Chastain because, well, he's Sam Worthington. He wouldn't be Sam Worthington without being conflicted in such shallow tones. So instead — I believe out of necessity for their mission — Chastain turns to the third Israeli agent, Marton Csokos, who plays the jerk in every part he lands in Hollywood, I think. Sam Worthington may be one-dimensional, but Csokos gets to piss people off while he does it. And he gets to sleep with a Oscar nominee in the process.)

Ted Van Dall (via Facebook): Here You Go " Does anybody expect a different showdown in the BCS other than USC & the SEC Champion?

"Me! Pick me! Oh please, pick me!"

It's early in the season, a time when preseason prognostications are abandoned too soon, so I'll stick with mine for now. I selected Oregon to come out on top in the Pac-12, referencing another dynamic offense, Chip Kelly's ability to win games and Lane Kiffin's underwhelming resume to date. If I had to win one game, I'd choose Kelly over Kiffin right now. USC’s head man might very well be able to guide a national title contender, but he has yet to prove it.

I will say recent injuries along the offensive line (starter Carson York) and secondary (John Boyett) warrant concern. If there's one thing Oregon could not afford to lose, it was defensive help. It is the one question mark that has surrounded the program in recent years. Can the Ducks prevent their opponents from keeping pace on the scoreboard?

That being said, has anyone seen that offense? Running backs De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner are among the top-15 backs in the country, and I'm already a believer in redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, who former Oregon Heisman finalist LaMichael James said could be the best quarterback in school history. Watch out, Joey Harrington.

It's not looking good in the early going, but I'll stick to my guns. Southern Cal and its high-octane offense will not play for the BCS title. (Cringes.)

(Debt-date: PLOT TWIST. Jesper Christensen plays an excellent villain. That is all.)

Tommy Sumner Jr (via Facebook): Did the Gamecocks Dylan Thompson impress you in his 1st career start at QB last week vs. East Carolina?

Well, that's a softball question. Of course he did. For a backup quarterback to step in — regardless of the opponent — and pass for 330 yards and three touchdowns, that offers a huge sigh of relief for Steve Spurrier. Experience is an elixir for quarterbacks, so this bodes well for the Gamecocks.

I was in Nashville for Thompson's first significant collegiate action, and he looked awful. He was so bad (0-for-3, five rushes for a loss of four yards) that the Gamecocks put their season on the line by bringing in injured starter Connor Shaw to lead the comeback over Vanderbilt. It all paid off, I suppose, as Shaw helped win the game and then was given rest against East Carolina.

Would I want Thompson leading my team the rest of the season, presumably to chase an SEC East title in an uphill struggle? It's too early to tell, but I'd be more comfortable with Shaw right now. At the very least, another in-game injury to Shaw won't cause near as much alarm from here on out.

(Debt-date: Mental hospitals are always cream-colored, off-white hells in movies. Is this really the state of these institutions across the country? Is there always an absence of color? An all-grown-up Rachel Singer — played by Helen Mirren — is scrambling around this place that might as well be the set of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Instead of finding the old man she is searching for, I half-expect her to come across Jack Nicholson riding around a basketball court on Chief's shoulders.)

Daniel Mackey (‏@dmack11): I know this is a week early but, can you make a prediction about next week's Clemson vs. Florida State game?

Talk about jumping the gun.

National analysts have jumped all over Florida State due to their defensive strength and relatively lackadaisical schedule, but this will be a test for the Seminoles. A huge test. Clemson sprinted out of the gate to take down Auburn on a neutral field before crushing Ball State last weekend, and its offense ranks in the top-30 nationally in passing and rushing — all without explosive wideout Sammy Watkins. It seems the Tigers' offensive triumvirate is now a four-legged monster, with Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins all getting off to strong starts in 2012.

In contrast, we have absolutely no idea how good Florida State is. They've beaten up on two FCS opponents, but the thought of its defensive losses (notably Brandon Jenkins and Greg Reid) still weighs on the mind. The Seminoles have depth at those positions, but can it slow down a Tigers' offense? Can Clemson, which looked solid defensively against a young and erratic Kiehl Frazier, slow down what appears to be a more balanced Florida State attack?

The honest answer: Nobody knows.

Gut instinct leads me to lean toward the proven team — Clemson — in this meeting. We know what last season's ACC champions are capable of against quality competition, and can only assume they will improve with the addition of Watkins. The only thing we know about Florida State is that they couldn't cover the spread (in a gambling sense) against one of the biggest underdogs in history. So I’ll say 34-28, Clemson.

However, if the Seminoles go out and eviscerate Wake Forest this weekend, I absolutely reserve the right to come back to this discussion. I'm (understandably) uncomfortable making a blind prediction a week in advance. Patience, Daniel.
And don't look past the Demon Deacons, either, they've been the primary speed bump on the Seminoles' road back to national prominence.

(Final Debt-date: Old people are crazy. See you in Knoxville.)