LITTLE ROCK — Untethered from the laptop for most of a week and then returning home to find that bundling was an all-around bust, Nick Saban’s two-day old comments about spoiled fans were discovered when ESPN put up a quote to promote a roundtable about the responsibility of ticket holders to stay for four quarters.
Thirty-six hours later, the plea is guilty to a lesser charge of turning off the TV.
Thanks to an Arkansas open date, Saturday was a busman’s holiday, watching instead of working college football, and South Carolina at Missouri was the must-see game on a day that included look-ins on contests from Miami, Norman, Tuscaloosa, and Columbus. Believing South Carolina would win, I bailed on the Gamecocks with the Tigers leading 17-0 in the third quarter. On Sunday morning, learning that South Carolina had won in the second overtime, my first thought was that Steve Spurrier had turned to Connor Shaw, overlooked in a league full of high-profile quarterbacks.
Indeed, despite a sprained left knee, Shaw helped South Carolina score on five straight possessions, throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute to play and a fourth-down TD pass in the first overtime. Not only did Shaw keep South Carolina in the hunt for the Eastern Division championship, he muddied the water for Coach of the Year in the Southeastern Conference.
If Missouri had prevailed, Gary Pinkel was a shoo-in. After all, a victory over South Carolina would have completed a sweep of the top three teams in the East — Georgia, Florida, and the Gamecocks. Instead, the race for the coaching award now includes three candidates and, stretching a point, each is tied to Arkansas State University.
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, the ASU coach in 2012, is now on par with Pinkel, whose Tigers played ASU earlier in the season. In third place is Hugh Freeeze, the Ole Miss coach who preceded Malzahn at Jonesboro. He might have done the best one-game coaching job of the season the week after Johnny Manziel led Texas A&M to 10 straight fourth-quarter points for a three-point victory in Oxford. Seven days later, the Rebels beat LSU by three.
Matching preseason picks against current standings, it is difficult to separate overachievers Auburn and Missouri. In July, the published prediction for the SEC had Arkansas and Auburn tied for sixth in the West and Missouri and Tennessee tied for fifth in the East.
Going into November, Auburn is a game behind Alabama and Missouri is a game in front of South Carolina. Both have at least two contests against formidable SEC opponents — Georgia and Alabama for Auburn; Ole Miss and Texas A&M for Missouri.
Mathematically, overachievers must be balanced with disappointments and those dubious designations belong to the loser of Georgia-Florida this week and A&M. Both the Bulldogs, my early-season selection to knock off Alabama in the SEC title game, and the Gators are 3-2.
Picked to finish a shaky third in the West, A&M is also 3-2 with LSU and Missouri in late November.
This week, Malzahn and Pinkel have similar assignments — keeping their players focused on the immediate task and ignoring the whirlwind of hoopla about the prizes available with a 4-0 month.
Malzahn’s return to his roots will help the Tigers disregard Arkansas’ five-game slide, particularly the non-competitive nature of the last two. Missouri must deal with the hangover of losing a 17-point lead at home. A victory over South Carolina and the Tigers would have had what amounted to a three-game lead in the East. As it is, another league loss and South Carolina holds the tie-breaker.
Meanwhile, Alabama and LSU are on the sideline this week, and I’m appreciative that an 11:21 a.m. kickoff in Oxford will enable the fan thing at 7 that night.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.