Intelligent Simplicity Versus Dumb Complexity

The nice part about the upcoming weekend in the SEC is the fact that the two showcase games in the conference have the spotlight to themselves. While CBS picks up Alabama-Florida on Saturday, Auburn and South Carolina will meet in a Thursday night fight under the lights.

With a(nother) light conference schedule this weekend–October can’t come a moment too soon–it’s this Tiger-Gamecock matchup that represents the big SEC event outside of Gainesville.

The lowdown on Auburn and South Carolina is that it pits the Tigers’ intelligent simplicity against the Roosters’ stupid complexity. In other words, Auburn–knowing it has a head-cracking defense and a bone-busting running back–doesn’t try to get fancy when it doesn’t need to. South Carolina, on the other hand, has a supremely creative coach trying to direct players who don’t seem to be fast learners, with chaos predictably emerging as a result in Columbia.

Auburn was incredibly minimalist in its 7-3 win over LSU a week and a half ago, but of course, when you win, you don’t need to get fancy-schmancy. South Carolina, on the other hand, has players–especially quarterbacks–who seem lost in their attempt to display the tempo, quick thinking, and technical excellence that Steve Spurrier insists on in an offense. It’s as though the game of football–which always unfolds slowly for the wisest and most prepared players–is flying by the Gamecocks at warp speed, and their brains can’t catch up.

The most telling moment of the whole South Carolina season, in fact, came off the field, when former starting quarterback Blake Mitchell got arrested for decking a man in a bar fight. While embarrassing for the Carolina program, the event revealed–on a powerful symbolic level, at least–that Mitchell is not a terribly sophisticated human being.

And he was supposed to be running a Stephen Orr Spurrier offense? No wonder the iconic SEC coach was tearing his hair out when one of his teams didn’t put up a good fight against Georgia. The rarity of that occasion had to sting Spurrier just as much as the realization that Blake Mitchell is much more of a bare-knuckle fighter than the Sun-Tzu jujitsu warrior Spurrier is on the football field. The Gamecocks’ coach is a master of using other teams’ primitive mindsets and excessive emotions against them, but he found out that his own quarterback is the very kind of emotional simpleton he can’t abide. Mess, thy name is South Carolina football.

And now Auburn comes to Columbia. Yes, the same Auburn team that destroyed the Gamecocks last year with such ease, quickness and ferocity that a stunned Spurrier had to go back to the drawing board. But oh, back to the drawing board he went, and with profound success. It’s not as though Spurrier re-invented the wheel, but he got Mitchell to throw two passes–the slant-in and the jump ball to Sidney Rice–with consistency, and that return to an “intelligent simplicity” had a big role in turning Carolina’s season around. Auburn, one could say, knocked the snot out of Spurrier’s dreams of uncorking his nuanced offense on SEC opponents; after all, Spurrier lacked the horses–and the football IQs–to implement his offense to full effect.

So with the second-ranked Tigers coming to Williams-Brice Stadium this Thursday, the supreme tension point of the proceedings concerns this tug of war between intelligent simplicity and dumb complexity. Auburn’s defense is playing so well that Spurrier must be torn as he contemplates two fundamentally different choices: attack Auburn with loads of creative exotics and wrinkles, or try the extremely simple–but equally risky–approach? It’s hard to imagine Carolina rearing back and knocking the Tigers’ front seven off the ball, so trick plays and gadgets might need to be called upon frequently. But on the other hand, with Syvelle Newton at quarterback–another work that is very much in progress (Spurrier can only hope he’ll soon have a polished quarterback in his USC career; that’s a necessity if a division title is to be attained in the near future)–Spurrier might have to do what he did with Mitchell in the midpoint of last season: drum home the need to throw jump balls to t he receiver who often seems to Rice to the occasion. If South Carolina’s previous game is any indication, it’s clear that Spurrier is favoring the latter option. But against Auburn’s athletic corners–who are just a touch more physical than Florida Atlantic’s undersized DBs–jump balls might be too much to ask… at least on a repeated basis.

This Tiger-Gamecock tussle can be framed in a very simple way: for USC to even have a chance, it must contain Kenny Irons out of the gate. If the Roosters’ front seven can war with Auburn on even terms and keep this game close for the first 20-25 minutes, Carolina will have a chance. If not, game over.

If, then, the home team can stay competitive early on, the game will then acquire a notably different texture from both ends, particularly Auburn’s. At home, Tommy Tuberville’s team could lean on its defense–and a roaring crowd (and JaMarcus Russell’s reputation as a ten-gallon-hat-ten-cent-head quarterback)–to stave off LSU. But interestingly enough, a road game could prove to be more troublesome if Carolina’s defense can perform with particular gridiron heroism. An even-Stephen (Spurrier) slugfest, if carried into the third or fourth quarter, might require Tuberville and offensive coordinator Al Borges to take the wraps off Auburn’s current Pat Dye identity and demand more playmaking from quarterback Brandon Cox. What will surely start out as “intelligent simplicity” for Auburn could turn into complexity for the Tigers’ offense if the game stays close for a longer period of time than most expect. If the game is competitive in the second half, this point of tension will be something to watch for.

The other tension point to monitor–if this game manages to remain close into the 40th or 50th minute of play–is how Spurrier will respond to the reshaped calculus of the contest. While being likely to simplify the passing playbook for Newton early on, Spurrier might begin to see some second-half openings in which he notices Auburn’s defense pressing and conceding advantages that didn’t appear in the first half. How Spurrier juggles the competing needs for simplicity and cleverness on offense will be a fascinating component of this game’s latter stages… if Carolina’s defense can keep this game close in the early stages.

Auburn’s intelligent simplicity is likely to remain the same. South Carolina’s dumb complexity will probably give way to a more basic playbook that demands Sidney Rice to put a big “S” on his chest and a cape on his back. But if this game stays close in the second half, both teams’ approaches could radically change. It makes for an interesting contest in which the opening quarter will be more important than it usually is in a big game. Don’t tune in late if you want to find out how much hair Steve Spurrier will lose… or how much sweat might cascade down Tommy Tuberville’s face.