SB Nation

Bill Connelly | December 12, 2013

This train

When two unlikely teams met in the SEC Championship, we saw a glimpse into the future of the conference

"This train is bound for _____." The MARTA train splits Atlanta into four quadrants and greets you with this introduction every time you board. It is both a statement of fact and a nod to Atlanta's - and Georgia's - strange, wonderful, contradictory history.

"This Train" is a song that, like Atlanta itself, encompasses the entire South in origin and influence. It was recorded by artists from Mississippi and Tennessee, among others, and it was first made popular by Rosetta Tharpe, an Arkansan by birth. Around the time Sister Rosetta was making headway with the song, Gone With the Wind was debuting in Atlanta, a city of about 275,000 at the time.

This train don't carry no gamblers, no whiskey drinkers, and no high flyers

This train don't carry no gamblers, this train

This train is bound for glory, don't carry nothing but the righteous and the holy

This train is bound for glory, this train

This train don't carry no liars, no hypocrites and no high flyers

This train don't carry no liars, this train

This train is solid black; when you go there, you don't come back

This train is bound for glory, this train

This train don't fit no transportation, no Jim Crow and no discrimination

This train is bound for glory, this train

This train don't care if you're white or black; everybody's treated just like a man

This train is bound for glory, this train

Atlanta in its current state is a heavy city,
lifted up by its accomplishments and weighed down by its flaws.

It is, like the 1930s themselves, a song at once optimistic and tragic, hopeful and pointed. It tells us what is right and almost acknowledges that we're all wrong. It is a heavy, heavy song. And Atlanta in its current state is a heavy city, lifted up by its accomplishments and weighed down by its flaws. Its history as one of America's great cities is short, relatively speaking, but it is loaded with canonical events, history and sports.

Atlanta has tried, and still tries, to get everything wrong. The MARTA takes you through so much of this contradiction. Oakland Cemetary, the crowded, disturbingly pretty home of everyone from Bobby Jones to Margaret Mitchell, is about a mile from downtown, or too far removed from a couple of the stadiums that have to be vacated the moment they are erected. When it gets something wrong, it tries again. When it gets something right, it tries again.

All of our best and worst tendencies are magnified in Atlanta, from our love (and occasional forgetfulness) of history to our dependence on sweet, sweet, empty calories. Atlanta residents seem to resent all there is to resent about this place, then defiantly love it anyway. They want to flee right up until they decide they'll never leave. "I can talk bad about this place, but you better not." That sort of thing.

If you are a fan of an SEC school, Atlanta is exactly where you want to find yourself on the first weekend of December. The Georgia Dome has hosted the last 20 conference championship games after Birmingham's Legion Field held the first two. It is where Florida won its second, third, and fourth SEC titles of the Steve Spurrier era. It is where Kevin Prentiss tiptoed down the sidelines in 1998 and Peerless Price responded in kind. It is where LSU eliminated Tennessee from the national title game in 2001 and where Georgia head coach Mark Richt broke through in 2002. It is where Georgia stunned No. 3 LSU in 2005, where No. 2 Florida took down No. 1 Alabama in 2008, and where No. 2 Alabama whipped No. 1 Florida in 2009. It is where the Honey Badger solidified his legend in 2011 and where Georgia came up six yards short in 2012.

As the SEC positioned itself as the dominant force in college football - and while it may not be the best conference every season (one could certainly make a case for the Pac-12 this season), it is easily the best on average - Atlanta became the capital of the sport. (This is doubly true now that downtown Atlanta has booted baseball, even if only in a, "You can't quit; you're fired!" kind of way.) In the Georgia Dome on the first Saturday in December, a makeshift national semifinal tends to take place; the winner of the SEC Championship Game has made the national title game for eight straight seasons.

When I arrived in Atlanta for my initial SEC Championship experience, it was a full 60 degrees warmer than it was in my home town. The locals were worried about a cold front moving through; it might get into the 40s! But for the weekend as a whole, the weather was neither pretty nor unpleasant. The city is both at all times.

★ ★ ★
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THIS TRAIN IS BOUND FOR GWCC

The SEC Championship is basically the conference's annual banquet. The Georgia Dome next door is the main ballroom, but the Georgia World Congress Center contains the breakout rooms - the SEC Fanfare event, the school alumni association "tailgates," the pep rallies, etc. - and the refreshments.

People are wearing company colors, wearing placards, and walking by posters and sponsorship signs. (The number of corporate sponsors for this event is, as Gary Pinkel might say, mammoth. Acknowledging each sponsor during the game takes up almost an entire, CBS-sized timeout.) As it will be in the stadium, those in black and gold are drastically outnumbered by those in orange and blue, but that was to be expected. Auburn is about six times closer to Atlanta than Columbia, its ticket base is larger, and its fans didn't have to cross a swath of ice and snow and hell to get to the game.

Members of both sides mingle politely, talking about how concerned they are about the opponent's given strength (Auburn's pass rush and option game, Missouri's defensive front and big receivers) and getting along swimmingly.

This has been a big year for Missouri. In the Tigers' second season in the SEC, they took their first East division title; they have now been to as many conference title games as Mississippi State and South Carolina and more than four other schools (Ole Miss, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M), three of which have been in the SEC much, much longer.

Pinkel and Missouri can compete in the league that was supposed to chew up newcomers and spit them out.

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After the struggles of 2012, in which Missouri suffered a wealth of injuries at quarterback and on the offensive line and limped to a 5-7 finish, its first without a bowl game since 2004, the Tigers didn't only bounce back in Year 2: They surged. And while there were changes in scheme and structure - more blocking from the tight end, tighter splits on the offensive line, etc. - this is a Gary Pinkel team, stocked with two- and three-star athletes and chips on shoulders. The Pinkel process of unearthing diamonds in the recruiting rough, winning a small handful of bigger recruiting battles, developing, developing, developing, and plugging his players into a tactically sound system is not likely to produce a Spurrier-at-Florida-esque run of conference titles. But if 2013 proved anything, it's that Pinkel and Missouri can compete in the league that was supposed to chew up newcomers and spit them out.

(This last point, by the way, has been a source of insecurity for some. CBS color commentator Gary Danielson, who will spend part of the upcoming game chuckling about how Mizzou might regret coming to the league and calling a long, strong touchdown by MU receiver Dorial Green-Beckham a "cute little play," told a radio audience that the early success of Missouri and Texas A&M have weakened the conference. For some in the league, the appearance of strength is more important than strength itself. That Missouri and Texas A&M were able to improve the SEC actually hurt it, because they proved it could be improved.)

Missouri fans, exhilarated, along for the ride, and for now humble and pleasant, have made a lot of new friends. They kept Steve Spurrier out of the conference title game, which made Georgia fans and others rather happy. And they sure seemed to have a lot of new friends in Tuscaloosa the week before the game began.

Mind you, the admiration will wear off. Opposing fans simply haven't gotten to know Mizzou well enough to hate it; if the Tigers continue to win some big games and threaten for division titles, the pleasantries will fade. But for now, there's a freshness and an eagerness to please.

Auburn fans, meanwhile, are wearing shirts that say "Powered by Gusoline" and riding an incredible wave of good fortune perhaps not seen since, well, Auburn's national title run in 2010. That year's Tigers were powered by one of the SEC's greatest players (quarterback Cam Newton) and seven wins by a touchdown or less, improved steadily, and peaked at the right time. They stunned Alabama with a huge comeback and took both the SEC and national titles.

It's not supposed to work this way, by the way. In the years after Auburn's national championship, head coach Gene Chizik changed up the offense - he let offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn leave for a head coaching job at Arkansas State and moved to a "pro-style" offense that wins recruits and has no idea what it wants to accomplish - and generally wasted a couple of years of good recruiting. AU fell to 8-5 in 2011, then 3-9 in 2012, and Chizik was fired fewer than 24 months after lifting college football's crystal ball. Malzahn took over, and while he was familiar enough with the surroundings and a lot of the players, it still seemed presumptuous to assume much improvement in his first season. I was confident enough in marginal first-year progress that I agreed to a bet with an Auburn fan. Now that they have drastically overachieved my own predictions, I will be sporting an Auburn Twitter avatar (limited time only) pretty soon.

I still stand by my thought process, though. Immediate turnarounds are a lot rarer than we want them to be, and let's just say that if you picked a season like this from Auburn, you were using criteria that will make you wrong about 99.9 percent of the time. But you would have been right this time.

Auburn was mediocre to above average in September, good in October, and both very good and blessed in November, winning two games with absurd finishes; the Tigers beat Georgia with a tipped, 73-yard, fourth-and-long touchdown with 25 seconds left, then tied Alabama with 32 seconds left and won with the first walk-off return of a missed field goal in the sport's history. Even with spectacular tactical acumen - something Malzahn clearly possesses - a turnaround like this would both take a bit of luck and prove that the last head coach was mismanaging his talent to a pretty serious degree.

But apparently Gene Chizik might have been doing just that.

★ ★ ★
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THIS TRAIN IS BOUND FOR THE END ZONE

Everything good goes corporate eventually. On Saturday, we witnessed the absorption of MACtion by college football's strongest collection of businesses. We have grown to love those mid-week MAC games on one of the ESPN channels because of the bunches of yards and points, the trick plays, the big turnovers, and the general wackiness. The first half of Saturday's SEC Championship featured all of those things.

Missouri set up a field goal with one fumble recovery and returned another for a touchdown. Auburn ran for yards and yards and yards and seemed to take complete control of the game. Missouri struck back with a key stop and the "cute" bomb from quarterback James Franklin to Green-Beckham, and despite Auburn's running game playing the hot knife in the Missouri defense's metaphorical butter, the score was 28-27, Auburn, at halftime.

You know a game is great when all of the known entities, all of the known stars, come up big.

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Halftime was the damnedest thing. The bands played, and some fans clapped. But in all it was just about the most sedate halftime I've ever seen. After a two-hour first half that featured 55 points and nearly 700 yards, everybody needed to regroup. The action would start again soon enough.

You know a game is great when all of the known entities, all of the known stars, come up big and, in some cases, exceed expectations.

Auburn's Nick Marshall, the magician in charge of Gus Malzahn's offense completed six of six passes (all to star receiver Sammie Coates) for 94 yards and a touchdown while running option keepers for 51 yards and a score in the first half. He would rush for another 50 yards and pass for 38 more in the second half.

Missouri's Green-Beckham, the No. 1 overall recruit in the recruiting class of 2012 by numerous recruiting services, caught a one-on-one touchdown in the first quarter (one that might have been overturned as incomplete had it been reviewed), blazed by the Auburn secondary late in the first half, took a screen pass from west to east and south to north in a 37-yard gain in the third quarter, and finished with 144 yards on six catches.

Auburn's star corner (and Iron Bowl hero) Chris Davis, meanwhile, got the best of DGB on a couple of key fourth downs late in the game and navigated a couple of nice punt returns.

Missouri's Henry Josey, subject of a College GameDay profile earlier on Saturday thanks to his complete recovery from a one-in-a-million knee injury, ripped off a 65-yard run to set up a much-needed Missouri score late in the third quarter.

Missouri's star defensive end Kony Ealy, partner to SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam, racked up three tackles for loss and stripped Marshall twice. Auburn's four defensive ends, so good against Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (and others), combined for two sacks and four hurries.

But through all the star power, the afternoon (and early evening) belonged to Auburn running back Tre Mason. The junior from Palm Beach who chose Auburn in January 2011, fresh off of the 2010 national title, was both the beneficiary of perfect play-calling and blocking and a superb breaker of tackles. He rushed for a title game record 304 yards on 46 carries.

Mason's work between the tackles, always good, was superb. His ability to hit the corner before a sealed-off running lane could close was impeccable. He was powerful and fast. If we still made posters like we did in the early-'90s, we could say he posterized each and every Missouri safety, sometimes running through their tackles and often simply leaving them grasping at air. If he wasn't a Heisman finalist at the beginning of the day, he had left no doubt that he would become one by nightfall.

That Missouri was able to keep up as long as it did was confirmation of the resilience and maturity of Pinkel's Tigers. They took a 34-31 lead 10 minutes into the third quarter, but just as it looked like the Mizzou defense was figuring out ways to slow down the Auburn attack, Malzahn's offense responded with perhaps its most brutal stretch of the game. Within minutes, the score was 45-34, and though Missouri responded with Josey's long run and a Franklin touchdown to make it 45-42, Auburn had no plans of stopping. The Tigers from the Plains scored quickly to make it 52-42, and Mizzou finally began to crack. A long, first-down pass to a well-covered L'Damian Washington keyed a key three-and-out, and Missouri's final two possessions ended in fourth-down failures. Mizzou averaged 7.5 yards per play for the game and gained 534 yards, but they forever needed more.

At halftime, it felt like Auburn should be winning by more than one point. In those instances, the second half follows one of two narratives. Either the team that should be winning begins to get frustrated and fray a bit, making uncharacteristic mistakes and allowing the opponent to take control, or it simply keeps grinding and eventually pulls away. Auburn did the latter and claimed the SEC title with a thrilling, exhausting, sea-change of a 59-42 win.

★ ★ ★
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THIS TRAIN IS BOUND FOR THE FUTURE

Points scored in the SEC Championship game: 101. Points scored in Friday night's MAC title game: 74. Points scored in the Big 12's makeshift, winner-take-all title game (Baylor-Texas): 40.

watching Auburn's offense click at this super-human level was startling.

One game does not typically change the world; it does not signal a new way of life. It's just one game. But watching Auburn's offense click at this super-human level was startling. It raised some existential questions in this football fan.

I have 12 games of visual and statistical evidence that I can use to confidently tell you Missouri's defense is pretty good. Ole Miss gained a school-record 751 yards on Troy the week before the Rebels played the Tigers. Texas A&M gained 628 yards on Alabama. In 120 minutes against these two offenses, Missouri allowed 757 yards and 31 points. In 60 minutes against Auburn, Missouri allowed 677 and 59.

It wasn't the fact that Tre Mason went crazy, or that the play-calling was sound that was so startling; it was the ease with which Auburn created numbers advantages. On the first possession of the game, Missouri proved ready for power running. Auburn blocking back Jay Prosch was lined up in the backfield at an H-back position, as Missouri assumed he would be, and the Tigers first stuffed Marshall for a loss, then sacked and stripped him. But by the second possession, Malzahn was already adapting.

First, he lined up Prosch wide, motioning him into, and sometimes back out of, the backfield. Sensing his team was struggling to block Kony Ealy, he made Ealy the read defender in Auburn's nearly flawless zone read, leaving him unblocked and reacting to his reactions. The result, first, was some big gains by Marshall on option keepers. And as Missouri moved to a frequent 3-3-5 look to counter Auburn's counter, Auburn simply used motion to create four-on-two and five-on-three blocker-to-defender advantages. AU still needed its young offensive line to gel at a higher level than what it showed in September, and the line did just that. And the Tigers needed a back as fast as Mason to get to the edge and take advantage, and he did just that. Talent matters, but the way the talent was deployed was stunning.

For the rest of the game, Missouri moved from 3-3-5 to 4-2-5 to 4-3. It didn't matter. By the second or third possession of the game, Malzahn was two or three steps ahead of Mizzou defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, and when Auburn was able to break a (frequent) big gain, the Tigers used tempo to prevent substitution, to keep the same mismatches on the field, and to break Missouri again and again. Knowing it didn't have time to experiment or change defenses much, Missouri stuck to its base zone defense. And it kept getting burned.

After the game, Gary Pinkel was asked how one should go about stopping this offense when Malzahn has it going at this level. His response: "You know what, I'm the wrong person to ask, because I'd have stopped it if I could have. [...] Gus (Malzahn) does a great job with it and [has] a great quarterback. He has a lot of good people that can damage you. They have a lot of talent. You put that with a good scheme, and you've got problems. So obviously, I'm not the coach to ask that."

"I'm the wrong person to ask, because I'd have stopped it if I could have."

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When you pull off a game like this on such a big, national stage, people tend to notice. And when you do this a week after you rushed for 296 yards against Nick Saban's Alabama defense, people perhaps start to copy you as well. As Smart Football's Chris Brown is fond of saying, football is about numbers. If you can create scenarios in which you have more blockers than the defense has defenders, you're in business. But it's not supposed to be this easy, especially against a defense that, for so much of the season, took away opponents' strengths and prevented big plays. Sometimes Missouri's gameplans simply fail; Mizzou fans still haven't moved on from when Navy trounced the Tigers with a completely different style of option football in the 2009 Texas Bowl. But Auburn's precision and execution in this game were so strong that it didn't seem to matter what Missouri wanted to do. This was Steve Stone's curveball, Michael Jordan's shrugged shoulders. From a schematic standpoint, this was one of the most impressive arrangements (and counter-arrangements) of chess pieces I've seen in person.

Football is as cyclical as any sport. It might be the most cyclical of all. Offensive coaches figure out some new ways to move the ball; copycats move in, and after a while, a majority of teams have taken on the look of what was once rare and deadly. It happened with the Split T, it happened with the Wishbone, it happened with the pro-style offense of the late-1980s and 1990s, and it has happened with the spread over the last half-decade or so. (Some were doing it before then, yes.) Defenses always adapt. The 5-2 defense was a pretty logical counter to the Split-T. Wishbones lost a bit of their effectiveness when defenses shifted to faster, more flexible 4-3 defenses. And in recent years, we've seen defenses try to get even smaller and faster to counter the effects of the spread. To some degree, it has worked.

But after a couple of decades of tinkering at virtually every level of high school and college football, Malzahn has settled on a set of components that can keep his offense a step ahead of most defenses. It took a while for his offense to reach this point - after all, Auburn barely beat Washington State and needed a huge passing day from Marshall to beat Mississippi State because the Bulldogs kept the Tigers ground game grounded. Those teams' combined records: 12-12. But in recent weeks, Malzahn, Marshall, Mason and company have reached a new level of understanding.

We'll see if they can keep it up in the BCS title game. When you are in this sort of rhythm, the last thing you want to do is wait four or weeks for the next game; just ask 2008 Oklahoma. We'll see if the Tigers can find the same man-on-man advantages against a Florida State defense that might be the best in the country. And we'll see if they can keep it up next year, once opponents have had time to collectively react and adjust (and catch their breath).

Last year, Nick Saban famously asked, "Is this what we want football to be?" in reaction to the high-paced attacks that had even begun to permeate the vaunted SEC. The reaction from many corners of the college football universe (especially those based online) was a resounding "YES."

After watching this Auburn offense reach its most potent (I think) possible level, I can without hesitation say that I want Malzahn and Marshall and company to reach an even higher place next year, and for two main reasons. First, it's hypnotic and beautiful to watch. This is old-school power and new-school spread and everything in between. But second, I want to see how the great defensive staffs of teams like Alabama and LSU react and adjust. LSU caught an Auburn offense in only third gear or so and built a big lead before having to hold on for dear life in a 35-21 win, Auburn's only loss of the season; Alabama, meanwhile, was victimized in a way that Alabama is rarely victimized. Let's see how they counter.

★ ★ ★
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THIS TRAIN IS BOUND FOR DALLAS

Missouri's seniors look old. And they should. They've been through a lot in their four or five years in Columbia. James Franklin, once a baby-faced freshman who manned the Wildcat formation for a 10-3 Missouri team, has been beaten up through the years. His eyes have sunk back into his face a bit. He has suffered an impressive number of ailments in his career, from a torn labrum to a sprained MCL to a concussion to a severely sprained shoulder. He suffered the slings and arrows of his own fanbase. And then he went a full year without losing a start.

Missouri's seniors look old. And they should. They've been through a lot in their four or five years in Columbia.

Offensive lineman Max Copeland graduated high school in Billings, Montana, and just showed up in Columbia one fall. He started for most of the last two years, first because of necessity (Missouri barely had five healthy linemen in 2012), then because of experience. His beard is wild even by offensive lineman standards, and he has a wound on his nose that reopens each game.

Cornerback Randy Ponder was a walk-on from Edmond, Oklahoma, who was first told he would probably never get a scholarship, then went out and earned it. He kneeled and prayed so long in the end zone before the SEC Championship that a teammate came over and played Coach Norman Dale to his Strap: "God wants you on the field."

Receiver L'Damian Washington became a guardian to his two younger brothers when their parents died with them at a young age. He had ample opportunity to go down the wrong path; he did not. He caught what ended up being the deciding touchdown against Georgia (Mizzou beat Georgia 41-26. Not really a deciding touchdown if you win by two scores, right?) and reeled in a 96-yard touchdown against South Carolina, and with one game remaining in his senior season, he has 853 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Like Washington, Michael Sam was a recruiting afterthought. He fielded spare offers from mid-majors before Missouri swooped in after missing on bigger-name targets and landed him just before Signing Day. Almost 60 months later, he was named the best defensive player in what is generally regarded as the best defensive conference.

This group of seniors helped Missouri to a 10-3 finish and a win over BCS No. 1 Oklahoma in 2010 (Franklin had a key fourth-quarter touchdown in that game), held steady at 8-5 in 2011, collapsed to 5-7 in 2012, and rebounded to win the SEC East. They fit the hell-and-back cliché.

This team was told it didn't belong in its new league by anybody who could get its collective ear.

The "FIRE EVERYONE" portion of the Missouri fan base was out in full force by the second half (probably earlier) on Saturday, and while that's as predictable as the wind blowing in Oklahoma or the weather changing hourly in Missouri, it was still frustrating. This team was told it didn't belong in its new league by anybody who could get its collective ear: national talking heads, regional media, opponents, opposing fans. Given long odds of finishing better than about 6-6 or 7-5, Missouri came within one quarter of finishing the regular season undefeated. After a gut-wrenching loss to South Carolina, the Tigers were forced to win their final four games to take the East division, and they did it, only once winning by fewer than 14 points. With nearly every moment of expected comeuppance, the Tigers responded with victory. That they were only the second-best turnaround story in the Georgia Dome says everything in the world about Auburn but takes nothing away from Pinkel's squad.

Still, from Randy Ponder to Internet fans, everybody knew the gravity of this moment. You don't get many chances at a breakthrough in this conference; you get even fewer chances at an SEC title. Mississippi State has waited 15 years for a second chance. Three schools have waited more than 20 years for a first chance. Arkansas got three chances in 12 years, failed in all three, and have waited seven years and counting for a fourth opportunity.

Missouri will get another chance at some point. Hell, the Tigers might get another chance next year. With a division still in flux and the division's top three teams all losing their starting quarterbacks - Franklin, South Carolina's Connor Shaw, Georgia's Aaron Murray - perhaps the experience Maty Mauk got in replacing Franklin and, at times, thriving will give the Tigers a strong chance at a second straight title. But after 2014, a lot of this year's key pieces leave. Pinkel will be relying on a new cycle of recruits, his first from a new recruiting region, to keep the machine moving forward. There's no guarantee that he will. There's no telling what the future holds, and there's no promising that whatever happens will result in a return trip to the Georgia Dome.

The only guarantee: Missouri will get a shot at old conference-mate Oklahoma State next month in the Cotton Bowl. A win would give the Tigers their 12th and a shot at their second top 6-7 finish in seven seasons. A loss wouldn't take away the 11 games this resilient group has already banked.

★ ★ ★
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THIS TRAIN IS BOUND FOR PASADENA

The breaks went right, of course. With the way Auburn's luck has been over the last month or so, one simply had to assume that the Tigers, likely in need of a Michigan State win over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game to reach the BCS Championship, would get just that. The Spartans rolled in Indianapolis, and Auburn will roll on to Pasadena.

This was unthinkable even three weeks ago. But just when we think we have everything figured out, leave it to Auburn to throw us all for a loop. Gusoline powered Auburn through the SEC's December banquet, and Atlanta was once again the home base for stories of failure and redemption. Auburn will fail again one day, then return to Atlanta some day after that. It is the story of life in the SEC, and on the Plains, both the good and bad parts of the story tend to move along at a pretty rapid rate, just like Auburn's offense did in the Georgia Dome on Saturday afternoon.

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Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Jason Kirk | Title Photo: Getty Images; design by Ramla Mahmood

About the Author

Bill-sbn

Bill Connelly grew up a fan of the Miami Dolphins (post-1970s glory), Pittsburgh Pirates (ditto), Portland Trailblazers (ditto again) and Missouri Tigers. That he still enjoys sports at all shows both severe loyalty and a potential personality disorder. He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic. See more of his work at Rock M Nation, Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.

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