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The Mizzou Exchange: SI's Andrew Lawrence

Greetings from lovely (and chilly) Plano, TX, where I'm getting ready to drive up to Oklahoma City with a buddy of mine for what is sure to be the greatest concert either of us have ever seen: a Flaming Lips hometown and New Year's Eve show!!  We should get back into the Dallas metro by around 3am or so...just early enough to knock out about 4 hours of sleep and head down to the state fairgrounds.  Greatest 15-18 hours ever (if we win, anyway).

Anyway, back on the old website, we would occasionally do an e-mail exchange with somebody noteworthy and post it in its entirety.  I decided to take advantage of the fact that my old roommate works for Sports Illustrated by, well, doing a Mizzou Exchange with him.  Everybody say hi to Andrew Lawrence!

The Boy: So...what do you do at SI?

Andrew Lawrence: I'm a staff reporter at the magazine, a job title that combines a couple of different roles. The first is fact-checking. Usually during the course of an average week, I'll be handed a story (or three) and tasked with making certain all the elements and assertions are true and the opinions grounded in fact. This is the perfunctory part of the job.

The second role is reporting. A couple times a year, I'll get teamed with an SI writer -- most regularly with the inimitable Scott Price during the US Open -- and serve as an extra pair of eyes and ears. A lot of what I end up gathering either ends up as background or a colorful detail that gets woven into any one of the minimum two stories do over the course of the fortnight. Then there are other times when, during the NCAA tournament for instance, I play regional correspondent and feed information to Grant Wahl, our college basketball writer. Most times, he and I are at sites a time zone or more away. But with if I (along with a half dozen other SI staffers) do the job right, Grant stuff ends up reading like he's omnipresent -- which, truth be told, he kinda already is. Dude is in-tense about the beat. This is the exciting part of my job.

Click 'Full Story' for more.

The third role is writing, when I get to play Grant or Scott and chose my own storyline. Though I do a fair amount of pitching, most things I write are assigned. And most of my assignments come from SI Presents, the special-issues division of the magazine that produces those commemoratives you see us pushing on ESPN family of networks exhorting you to subscribe -- now! ("Red Sox fans, your team just won the World Series! What better way to celebrate than with a free subscription to SI!) If you're from Florida or Tennessee, than you're likely pretty familiar with my work. If you're from Missouri and didn't go to school with me, then you probably have no idea who I am. For most at this level, cameos in the main magazine are few and the space better left to the glut of high-paid professionals who trim our masthead. Still, I broke through with a nice run in September: I got a cover story out of Randy Moss and my main man Devin Hester in the NFL preview. (Go Bears -- and get him a quarterback!) Next week, I set out for Baton Rouge to profile Jacob Hester in hopes of becoming the first man to complete the Hester-Hester double in the same football calendar year.

This is the rewarding part of my job.

TB: I should have known Mizzou didn't have a chance against Oklahoma...not only was Chase Daniel on the cover of SI, but you told me that week that you had begun putting together the beginnings of a "Congratulations, Missouri fans!" commemorative as well, just in case.  Double jinx!  Was a nice thought, anyway.  My dream is to someday own a commemorative.

As for getting the Bears a QB...Chase Daniel will be available in the 2009 draft.  Bide your time.

You had a unique perspective on this year's Mizzou season, watching from 1,000 miles away, surrounded (figuratively, if not literally) by journalists who are not exactly programmed to pay any attention whatsoever to Mizzou football.  What were your general thoughts on how the season unfolded?

AL: What stinks even more about that Chase cover was it wasn't even supposed to happen. Damon Hack, our latest NFL hire and one-third of our three-writer raid on The New York Times, heroically cut short his Thanksgiving vacation on the West coast to write what he was lead to believe would be a cover story on the Browns, a team that has been well-starved for publicity despite an improbably great season.  Hack, whose surname belies his tremendous talent, wrote an unbelievable story with little in the way of time or access (the latter because of the former). But I guess the Browns' impressive 10-point win in which they showed rare defensive grit couldn't hold a candle to MU's Churchillian triumph in the Border War. Another reason why I'll never be an editor.

What I didn't expect to be swept up by the bandwagon.  Between the J-school diploma and the in-bred cynicism, I tend to have a hard time believing what I'm seeing when it comes to this school. That's largely because the heartbreaks far outnumbered the happy moments when I was coming up. The kickball against Nebraska happened on my high school junior year prom night (perhaps a sign that I should've gone to Wisconsin or Texas). As a college junior, I saw Eric Crouch take off in front of the shadow of his own goalline, weave through three levels of defense and turn Faurot Field into his own personal Heisman platform. I've seen Brock Olivo inducted in the Ring of Honor...ok, that one was a joke, but you get the idea. (Hell, we were together for most all of it!) Then of course there's basketball, where we got the end of Norm, the beginning of Quin Snyder and Ricky Clemons, who spells the end of Quin, school president, Elson Floyd, and his colorful wife, Carmento. As I type this, I am wondering two things: if Jessica Bunge became the first once-you-go-black-you-never-go-back exception; and if Ricky, upon his release from jail, ever found a real "woman" as Carmento had so desperately hoped in all those person-to-prison phone calls. ("And I ain't talkin' about no Delta Delta Delta, either!") Ah, memories. I think I might pop "Roots" into the DVD before I hit the hay tonight...

Everything about Missouri, a team that I'm pretty sure never won more than eight games while I was a student, tells me the other shoe is going to drop. But I keep soaking up the victories from afar. Even though New York might seem like a long way from the Quad, the J-school has flooded this city with droves of displaced Mizzou fans, many of whom crammed into a small East Village bar on Saturdays to revel in the team's gridiron glories with me. Between that bar, ABC and Yahoo!'s Gamechannel, I caught just about all the games. It wasn't until they thrashed Nebraska that I'd become convinced for the first time ever that a Missouri team would eventually crack the AP's top 5. Number One, however, was and remains completely unfathomable.

The loyalties to my alma mater and my profession didn't come into conflict until after the win against Kansas. Looking back, I should've been more skeptical, more sportswriter-ish in my assessment of things: the biggest win in the history of the program comes against the arch rival in front of one of the biggest crowds in history, with a win next week granting certain entry into the BCS game. (I got a knot in my stomach just typing that.) Compare that to OU who, while not playing for a computer championship, had the chance to kick in the teeth of QB who's all but giving them the finger on the cover of the nation's most widely read sports weekly (again, I'm sorry) and an opponent who's been carping all week about how they allowed themselves to be beaten.

Now add to that the fact that OU was playing in its 207th league championship game of the Bob Stoops era, and what I would have had is a writ for a 7-over-1 upset. But instead I chose to ignore the overwhelming evidence. Mizzou was on a roll I thought. Here was their chance to avenge the one blemish on their schedule; who couldn't get up for that? How about the head coach who, in my mind, lost the game on two drives: the first was the blood-boiling goal-to-go possession that began at the 9 and resulted in a second field goal. Daniel takes off on first down and gets dropped at the 1 (fine) -- but then they run three times out of the effing spread, laughably dialing up a QB draw on fourth-and-goal from the 1 that is predictably snuffed out. The second bad omen was the first touchdown drive moments later that was capped on the memorable end-around option. When OU needed tough yards, they lined up in the I and blew people off the line of scrimmage. When MU needed tough yards, we backed our quarterback as far away from the LOS as humanly possible. In combat, this is known as "retreating."

And I'm fully expecting to see more of this "retreating" against one of the finest rusher's in the country. What do you think Chase and Darren talked about in the downtime between all those interviews, dinners and photoshoots when they were in New York? How big the city is? How big Tim Tebow is? Is it just me, or did he dwarf just about everyone he took a photo with last week? Well, maybe everyone except his girlfriend. Have you seen her pictures? Yowzah!

TB: Yeah, Superman Tebow is certainly winning at life right now.  I dislike him purely out of jealousy.  And the whole "Mom was told to have an abortion because I was guaranteed to be super-deformed" story is just...yeah...

Bob Stoops did a superb job of firing his troops up for the Big 12 Title Game, that's for damn sure.  He took some extremely mundane comments ("Turnovers lost us the game last time...I hope we get another shot at OU.") and convinced his team and the media that OU was being completely and totally disrespected, that his team would never play the "spoiler", and that, basically, OU would always be OU, and screw you for thinking otherwise.  While I don't think Mizzou came out flat, OU came out pissed off and fired up on defense, and it showed.  We weathered the storm infinitely better than previous Mizzou teams (or some previous North champions) would have, but we really really really missed Chase Coffman.  It was quickly obvious that our redzone offense relies totally on his endzone presence--he's basically our zone-buster, roaming the back of the endzone ready for a jumpball.  Without that presence, we had no idea what plays to call, and it seemed like nobody really had any confidence executing close to the goalline.  We score TDs instead of kicking FGs, and we're in the game till the end (though they likely still win...few beat OU when they're on their game).  Watching the game, I was pissed that OU had lost to Colorado (Tech was at least a little excuseable being that Bradford got hurt).  Without that loss, it's a #1 vs #2 game, and Stoops isn't nearly as able to conjure up "we're being disrespected" energy.

Unfortunately, as we probably should have been able to guess had we not been caught up in the positive energy, the season certainly took a decidedly Mizzou-ish turn from pretty much the moment we went to #1.  SI Cover, Coffman injury, Danario Alexander injury...and worldclass screwjob by the lovely Orange Bowl committee, who didn't decide to start watching football this year until the Saturday night of the Big 12 title game.  I'm going to enjoy the hell out of Dallas (especially since I'll now also be going to the Flaming Lips' New Years Eve show in Oklahoma City the night before...couldn't pass that up), and we'll get lots of good "Chase comes home" pub in our second-most recruited state (behind MO, of course), but...the Orange Bowl is still the Orange Bowl, and I'll continue to be at least a smidge bitter about the screwjob up until Virginia Tech crushes Kansas in front of about 10,000 empty seats and a record low number of TV viewers.  That should cheer me up nicely.

(Though I think KU will compete pretty well against VT...in a totally boring, unwatchable game not unlike the VT-BC ACC title game.)

Moving on to a more national theme...every network and website has its own "Simulated National Playoffs" going at the moment...I guess I should ask you the same questions everybody else has been asked at this point: Should there be a playoff?  If so, 16-team, 8-team, or Plus One?  Depending on your choice, how would those teams be determined?  (I guess you can save some time on that one by answer "No" to #1 and skipping the last two, huh?)

Oh, and I just read Stewart Mandel's book (Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls), and I really enjoyed the fact that he's not totally full of himself like 90% of the other college football writers I've read...you can feel free to pass that along...I have this nice mental picture of all SI writers having cubes in a big office floor...I'm sure that's exactly how it is...

AL: You're spot-on about Stewart. In addition to being very good at what he does, both he and his dot-com suitemate Luke Winn are also very realistic about what they do: cover college sports. It ain't exactly covering the Bush Administration. Or the Putin Administration which, I understand, is quite similar.

As to your question about college football, I'm all for a 16-team, knockdown, drag out playoff that pits the conference winners against the best of the rest. The big bowls could be moved up and made into hosts for the early round games, and the BCS kept as the year-end championship game. And I don't think I'd be wrong in assuming that much of the country would like to see the same -- albeit with some tweaks in the execution (8-team, Plus One, etc.) Unfortunately this will never happen because the BCS many flaws are exactly what make it so perfect: because it's so effed up, people can't get over the fact that it's so effed up which keeps the BCS, as a result, in the national sports conversation for the entire holiday season and beyond.  March Madness, for all of its excitement and intrigue, cannot hold a candle to that. Nor can Division I-AA football, the division that everyone says has the best playoff system -- and games that almost no one outside their campuses talk about. Granted, school size, caliber of athletes and quality of play have a hand in this. Kansas-Va. Tech by right should be more compelling than, say, Hampton-Appy State. All things being football, people should be just as devoted to watching this stuff as they are high school football. But for whatever reason, it doesn't translate.

So, again, to paraphrase the great Chris Rock in reiterating my point:  I'm not saying no playoffs, but I understand.

TB: The great thing about sports is, people love it even though somebody is always getting (or at least feeling screwed).  Right now, 2 or 3 teams think they shoulda/coulda gotten into the BCS title game.  If we have a 16-team playoff, the teams who finished #17-19 will feel totally screwed.  Just like the #66 team feels screwed in NCAA hoops.  The more "who got screwed?" debate, the more coverage.  That said, obviously there wouldn't be as much of a leg for #17 to stand on as compared to #3.  And while you're correct that the debate keeps the conversation going (and the spotlight on), I do think there's room for a playoff in the discussion, albeit an 8-team playoff at most.  

Like Cheap Trick, the bowls (specifically the four BCS bowls) just want to be wanted.  And watched.  After a few years of certain BCS bowls (Boise State-OU and Louisville-Wake Forest last year...likely KU-VT this year) getting horrific ratings, I think they'll be willing to listen to a "Listen, everybody will watch your bowl game if it's a National Quarterfinal (or Semifinal) matchup" pitch.  I used to think that a Plus One game (which would be fine by me) was the only thing that the bowls might agree to, but now I'm almost thinking it has to be an 8-teamer for that reason--the bowl committees want their games to matter, and while a Plus One would make 1-2 BCS games matter, an 8-team playoff would make all the BCS bowls matter.  As for non-BCS bowls...well...not sure.  

The way I see it, the most realistic setup is to have the 4 quarterfinals in the Fiesta, Orange, Rose, and Sugar Bowls on or around New Years Day, with semifinals (at two of the BCS sites maybe?) the next week, and the finals (at another?) the week after.  The whole thing would still end before the winter semester gets up and rolling, and really the only lingering problem left on the table is the fact that the Rose Bowl will still demand to have Big Ten vs Pac-10.  And you know what?  If they bitch too loud, let them have Big Ten #3 vs Pac-10 #3 and move the Cotton Bowl (with its $1 billion stadium coming online in a year or two) into its tourney slot.  Problem solved.

Congrats on the first ever Putin reference in Rock M Nation history, by the way.  Pretty sure I'd quoted Chris Rock at some point (I can't go a week of my life without doing so in some regard, so surely I'd done it on RMN), but I hadn't covered the Putin-Rock daily double.

AL: What can I say. I read the editorials and the funny pages. That's my game.

Sorry about the lag in response. Just got back to NY after spending the weekend in Austin, Texas, where I was dispatched to put some shine on Longhorns point guard DJ Augustin. And while I won't say he's made fans forget the departed Kevin Durant, he's certainly eased their lament.

My lone regret about the trip was that I didn't get any time to check out their NBDL team, Mr. Snyder's newest coaching home. (Word is he's pretty hands-off.) As for his replacement, Mike Anderson, I'm impressed with what I've seen so far (keeping in mind the view from here is pretty limited). On the games that I do catch, I see a team that plays with a sense of urgency that was often lacking when I got to see them up close. And that's even with a few guys -- like my surnamesake (I need a jersey!) -- going through the doldrums. Even the three losses -- against Michigan State (always a toughie), at Arkansas (a close one), and at Cal (a close one on a rare West Coast trip) -- are encouraging. If they can stay reasonably close apace with conference leaders Kansas and Texas, they should crack the bracket easily.

Ed. note: this was obviously written before Braggin' Rights and the debacle that was yesterday's game in Starkville.

TB: That's cool...I'm getting hit hard by work too, only my reasons ("annual report due soon!") don't sound nearly as cool as yours...

Quin...ahh, Quin.  I wonder how former Big 12'ers like KU's Keith Langford or UT's Kenton Paulino feel about playing for him down in Austin.  "I always loved playing Mizzou when he was there...his teams were never very strong mentally!  Oh wait...now he's my coach...hmm...maybe I need to reevaluate this whole 'making it in the NBA' thing..."

And yes, "hands-off" is one way to put it.

Really, I think the only discouraging loss on the Tigers' resume right now is the Cal game, simply because of the final score (they ended up fading at the end and losing by double digits).  The Arkansas loss hurt simply because Keon Lawrence missed like 13 layups/putbacks in the final minute, but a tight road loss to Arkansas won't hurt us that much in the end.  This team has plenty of deficiencies, but the path to the NCAAs is relatively visible at the moment.  

I just have no idea what to think about Big 12 play right now.  If we get to 10-6, we're definitely in the Field of 64(+1), but there are so many schizophrenic teams in the conference that I don't know how easy that will be.  OU has a lot of talent, but most of it resides in their freshmen, Kansas State plays stupid, OSU is downright crazy...it'll be interesting to watch.  Now we just need to get fans in the stands, and everything will be golden.  And a Braggin' Rights win this weekend would help.  My favorite recent memory of that series--since we haven't beaten UI in this millenium--has to be last year's game, when Bruce Weber was arguing with a ref, and Senator Elect Claire McCaskill (seriously, Missouri only has like 5 politicians, and they all just rotate offices until their offspring take over...there are 2 new Carnahans in the mix now to go with the Baby Blunt in the Governor's mansion...can't wait for Ashcrofts to start popping up again) jumped out of her seat in the background and yelled "Give him a T!!!!!!"  If Braggin' Rights had been a week before the election, she'd have won in a landslide...

AL: My favorite memory of that series is covering the women in '03. I remember the arena being so empty and that the stat sheets would literally blow right off press row. (And the HVAC wasn't even turned up that high!) That wasn't long after I voted Mel Carnahan's corps into the Senate. Nice to know not much has changed in state politics since.

I'm down in Baton Rouge, La., this week embedded with LSU, and I've gotta tell you they are very serious about their Tigers. A couple nights ago, Jacob Hester and his wife took me by the $3 million habitat that their live mascot lives in, repleat with a moat and other rainforest fare. When I told him that the only thing we've got at Ole Mizzou that comes close is a bronze statue of a Tiger on the pounce, he was like, "yeah, we've got a couple of those too." I tell you, the SEC is a different country...

TB: Dang...thought I had responded before I left for Christmas...I rule...

As we continue on, Mizzou has now lost the Braggin' Rights game, and their NCAA tourney prospects are a bit damaged, not necessarily because of where they stand now (8-4 with 4 losses to major programs isn't awful) but because of the flaws they've showed no signs of fixing.  But hey...who cares about that?  It's bowl week!  You headed down to Dallas?

You know, the more I think about the LSU-Ohio State title game, the more I start to realize just how well everything is setting up for the Buckeyes.  For weeks now, everybody has just assumed that LSU's superior athleticism would easily carry them by OSU, but...well...that's exactly what everybody thought in 2002.  'Senator' Jim Tressel's Buckeyes have been in two title games--they were heavy underdogs in 2002 and won, they were heavy favorites in 2006 and lost big.  The more people write them off, the more of an advantage it becomes for them, especially considering that LSU isn't quite as good as everybody's making them out to be.  Their QB situation is shaky, their best RB is their least athletic one (Brock Olivo with a bit more speed), and the coordinator of their already-underachieving defense has one part of his brain in Lincoln, NE.  I'm not brave enough to actually pick the Buckeyes, but I'm starting to waver.  Since you spent time in Baton Rouge, tell me why I'm wrong...

AL: You're wrong. And your timing couldn't be more perfect. I'm presently in Fort Lauderdale, camped inside my cousin's empty house working on my Hester piece and, I gotta tell you, your characterization of him as a rich man's Olivo could not be more off-base. Hester is not only ridiculously strong, but deceptively quick. As in 4.5, good luck catching him in the open field quick. He's also incredibly versatile. If they bottle him up on the ground, he'll be just as effective through the air. And if they stop that, then LSU will just trot one of their three other stud backs onto the field and let the chips fall.

The biggest lesson I took away from the Buckeyes last year is that in terms of speed, the Big Ten is no match for the SEC. Todd Boekman closed out a solid post-Smith campaign with the two worst quarterbacking performances in Christendom and now goes onto face one of the most lethal pass rushes in the game. If the Tigers get one turnover, they'll get five.

Conversely, I'll agree that Matt Flynn is no JaMarcus Russell. (Hell, JaMarcus Russell is no JaMarcus Russell.) But I'd say Flynn has the edge in adversity weathered. His team started out on top, fell precipitiously, then rallied back into the BCS by winning vastly more signficant games. Ohio State was flew under the radar, and then when every other team slipped from the summit, backed into the No. 1 spot. I don't think it'll be a slaughter, but brace yourself for bloodshed.

Lastly, to your point on Pelini, he's head may be in Lincoln, but his foot is squarely in the asses of his kids at LSU. He's working dem boys hard.

AL: Correction. When LSU needs a yard, Jacob Hester gets 'em five. I spent all day crunching his numbers, and they are damn impressive.

I'm really happy to see the Trail Blazers do well. How could you not? The good guys they have there now are, thankfully, a far cry from the Jail Blazers of yesteryear. Every time I see LaMarcus Aldridge on the court, I feel a pang of regret for my Bulls, who traded him to Portland for Tyrus Thomas on the logic that Thomas would develop into the better frontcourt player. I'm still waiting.

TB: The one time I saw LaMarcus Aldridge play in college (at Mizzou Arena), he looked stiff and couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.  I was very unimpressed when the Blazers traded for him, but I couldn't be happier with the results.  That's the last time I ever question Kevin Pritchard's judgement (though he did go to KU, so I know his judgment isn't 100% perfect).

Alright...guess we should wrap this up...let's see...rapid fire time!

1 - Who's going to play in the Super Bowl?
2 - Who's going to win the Super Bowl?
3 - Better CD: Kanye's new one, or Jay-Z's?
4 - Cotton Bowl prediction?
5 - New York or Chicago?
6 - Who's the coolest long-time SI columnist?  King?  Verducci?  Zimmerman?

My answers:

1 - I hope we get Packers-Pats, simply because of the 1,342,577 storylines that would emerge (The quest for an undefeated season vs Favre's last stand.  And would 100% of the non-New England population be rooting for Green Bay, or only 99%?).  I have the sneaking suspicion, though, that the NFC champ will be somebody other than Dallas or GB.  The most uninspiring NFC champ would be Seattle, so I'll go with that.  And even though the Colts have quietly put together a solid, 'built-for-playoffs' type of team when healthy (great run defense, etc.), it's hard to pick against the team that hasn't lost in 11 months.  So I'll say Pats-Seahawks.

2 - Well, if I'm picking the Pats to beat the Colts, I'm damn sure picking them to beat the Seahawks as well.

3 - Kanye's by far the more creative of the two, but when Jay is lyrically inspired (which happens about once every four albums), he's the best...and he was inspired for this one.  Go with American Gangster.

4 - I'm leaning toward 38-24 Mizzou.  We just don't really play in close games (Illinois and I guess Kansas aside).  Win or lose, it's probably in double-digits...

5 - I'm waiting for your answer on this one.

6 - Granted, I've never associated any of them with being "cool" persay, but...

AL: 1 - The New England Patriots will face the Dallas Cowboys...

2 - ...and defeat them.

3 - If we can agree that both offerings are the weakest of their respective oeuvres, I'd have to give the slight edge to Kanye. I'm a sucker for a good interlude bits, and Graduation and Late Registration more than delivered in that department ("You ain't doin nuh-chin
wit-cho life!" -- Bernie Mac), while still sparing plenty of classic "leftover" tracks from the radio mill. Ironically, in this instance Kanye's radio hit is what earned him an edge with me, and "Can't Tell Me Nothing" may well go down as one of the ultimate swagger tracks of all time. It's quintessential Kanye, only safe enough for use in the comfort of your own home. Eff, iTunes, he could've sold that joint on QVC.

4 - 50-49, MU. Double-OT. After last year's Sun Bowl, I'm not ruling anything out.

5 - Tough, tough call. The more I live here, the more I love New York (and, no, not the VH1 tranny). But then on the flight back home, while the jet is making its approach, I'll spy that awesome skyline from my window seat, or give Sinatra's classic rendering of "My Kind of Town" and be positively overcome with emotion. And that's when I reminded of this truth: when my fling with New York comes to its eventual end, Chicago will always be there to welcome me home. If you can stand the winters, it's the best city in America. (Go Bears!)

6 - All three are great. Dr. Z embraced the web at a time when his generation of SI writers recoiled from it and, as a result, has outlasted them all. Peter, in addition to being one of the more underrated storytellers on our roster, has been a great resource to me ever since I was a senior at the Missourian writing stories about the Houston Texans expansion draft. But everybody at our shop marvel at Verducci the way baseball purists marvel at A-Rod: dude is just a freak. He's an incredible reporter, a brilliant writer and, when he needs to raise his voice, puts the ne'er-do-wells in their proper place. I'm not the biggest baseball fan (yeah, the ChiSox and I date, but we're not serious), but when Tom writes, I read. If there's a place where the A-Rod analogy falls apart, it's here: he's clutch. The stories of him on deadline are legendary...

TB: Thank you much, Drew!