There Are No Unicorns in Fairhope

IMG_3053No, there are no unicorns in Fairhope, but there is a pelican that hangs out at the Fairhope Pier and tries to steal fish from everyone fishing there. While other pelicans are diving face-first in to waters of Mobile Bay to catch fish – a sight to see in its own right – Henry, the name the guy fishing with a net called the pelican, waits for other people to catch fish and just give them to him.

Fairhope is a small town situated on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The skyline of the City of Mobile can be seen across the bay, but this little town has, mostly, been spared from commercialism – or at least city leaders have been able to keep the historic district historic, and the business district out on Highway 98, away from the history.

We went to Fairhope for a long weekend earlier this month. It was our second trip there, our first was about 15 years ago. As with our previous trip, we stayed at the Grand Hotel at Point Clear. The Grand dates back to 1847 and, like most buildings that old, has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times. The Grand served as a hospital during the Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression if that’s the way you learned it.

You know, if we could set aside our need to be right about everything, hearing how people who grew up in different parts of the country were taught American history is fascinating. There is truth in all of our history lessons, but we’ve turned in to a society that can’t have a civil debate without applying labels. But I digress.

The live oaks at The Grand, and along the Eastern Shore, are a must see.
The live oaks at The Grand, and all along the Eastern Shore, are a must see.

When the Union Army blockaded strategic ports in the south to stop the flow of goods to the Confederate troops, they blockaded Mobile Bay – and The Grand was there to see it. You can stand on the point of the resort (the point at Point Clear) and imagine ships patrolling the bay, with volleys of cannon fire from ship to shore and back again – or at least I tried to. The Grand also served as an Air Force training facility during War World II, and the firing of the cannon is a daily ceremony at The Grand that pays tribute to the property’s military history and serves as a salute to veterans and active military. (The cannon is LOUD, by the way.)

A walking/bike trail stretches from The Grand all the way to the Fairhope Pier.
A walking/bike trail stretches from The Grand all the way to the Fairhope Pier.

Situated on the bay, the beach area isn’t the white, sugary sand that you get with gulf coast beaches. Those beaches begin about 30 miles further south and to the east. The beach at The Grand is made of a pebbly, tan sand that reminded me of the beaches in Delaware. The bay doesn’t have the surf of the ocean, however, so The Grand is able to offer paddle boats, kayaks and sailboats for use, which is pretty cool. We didn’t spend much time on the sand this trip because someone was having one of her “I don’t like sand” moments, so we retreated to the pool.

Having an excellent pool has become a staple of the Marriott resorts that string through Alabama as part of the Robert Trent Jones Trail, and the pool at The Grand is no exception. Complete with a slide, waterfall, zero-entry area, hot tub, splash pad and sprinklers, the pool was the favorite location for our kids.

When we were able to get the kids out of the pool, it was a short drive to Downtown Fairhope where we shopped at Running Wild, an awesome running store, and visited Page & Palette, a great little bookstore, and generally tried to avoid the hottest part of the day.

In what was a disappointing food trip, Panini Pete’s, as seen on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, was the unanimous choice for best meal of the trip. This is a funky little joint situated in the French Quarter area of downtown Fairhope. We ate breakfast paninis and beignets to start our day, and loved it so much we decided to go back for lunch the next day. Unfortunately, a summer storm blew-up when we went back for lunch and the kitchen wasn’t able to activate the ventilation system. I didn’t pry, but I assume that rain would have come in to the vents, so they were unable to create any menu item that had to be grilled or fried. That was kind of a bummer because Jack, always on the search for the world’s best cheeseburger, and Layne weren’t really interested in the lunch panini offerings. But, we’ll be back.

IMG_3035The other dining highlight was the Original Oyster House, located on the causeway that connects the towns of the eastern shore to Mobile. The food was just okay, but lining the walls are photos and newspaper clippings showing the restaurant under water after each hurricane. Ivan, Charlie, Dennis, Katrina, and others took their shot at the Original Oyster House, and each time the owners rebuilt and reopened. Such is life along the gulf coast. The best thing that we ate was the fried alligator, followed closely by the gumbo. Actually, the best thing that we ate was the Gator Sauce, which was good on the gator, chicken, shrimp, gumbo and the plain saltine crackers. I may have accidentally got some on a spoon and ate it straight.

On the western end of the causeway sits the USS Alabama, the attraction that started our planning of a trip to Mobile Bay. In an odd turn of events, we actually didn’t make it to the battleship on this trip, but we had a great time in a great city and we will definitely be back soon. I would be remiss to not thank our unofficial tour guide, my cousin Donna who lives on the eastern shore and who I don’t see often enough. She made sure that we vacationed like locals, and for that I am truly grateful.

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The sun sets on Mobile Bay.

If you’re looking for a less beachy beach vacation, give Fairhope a look. You won’t be disappointed, unless it’s raining and Panini Pete’s can’t make you a burger.

It’s Almost Time: Alabama Football Outlook

This is part two of a two-part series. Part one can be found here.

So, yesterday’s post went largely ignored. Alabama fans didn’t like it because it was about Auburn. Auburn fans didn’t like it – or didn’t acknowledge it – because, I really don’t know. Half of Auburn fans are running around screaming #WeComin and the other half miss the days of going unranked to start the season. I really don’t understand the inner workings of mind of an Auburn fan though, so I’ll just move along to today’s post; my Alabama football outlook.

This post will be considerably longer than yesterday’s for a variety of reasons.

  1. For the first time in a year, I overslept on Friday morning. I’m usually up at 4:45 and writing by 5:00, but I didn’t start writing until about 5:15 yesterday. It worked out because….
  2. Alabama has a lot more issues than Auburn. I mean, A LOT. I could write about Auburn’s problems in less than 500 words. This post will be three times as long.
  3. I know a little bit more about Alabama than I know about Auburn, but just a little.
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How do I not have a picture of Bryant-Denny Stadium?

I’m not sure what it says about your program when an 11-2 season is considered a disappointment. It may not say anything about your program but, rather, the disparity between the programs in your conference. Like Auburn, I think Alabama plays a three game schedule this year (LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn). That’s not to say that Ole Miss or Florida couldn’t beat Alabama, but 9 out of 10 Saturdays, Alabama should beat the other nine teams on its schedule.

The kick six was hard to watch – and it will be hard to watch each of the 14,000,000 times that it’s shown this season (and for the rest of my life) – but maybe it’s the way that Alabama looked in the Oklahoma game that really soured the season for many Alabama fans. Here’s some reality for Alabama fans – the Crimson Tide didn’t look good in a lot of games last season. AJ McCarron and the receivers never looked in-sync, the offensive line was unable to get a push in order to execute the punishing running game that Nick Saban likes, and the defense was just not as strong as past defenses.

The Offense

Mr. and Mrs. Kiffin
Mr. and Mrs. Kiffin

It was an interesting off-season for Alabama. The hiring of Lane Kiffin brought cheers, laughs, and looks of disbelief across college football. It brought back memories of the Saban hire when fans of other schools said, “He’s a SOB!” to which Alabama fans responded, “Yeah well, he’s our SOB now.”

Kiffin has a lot of talent at his disposal on the field, but does he have any talent in his head? No one’s going to call him an offensive guru, but Saban’s opinion on the new age offense is well-known. Kiffin’s task is to get the ball in to the hands of his playmakers. For his offense to be successful, however, Kiffin is going to have to solve the chemistry problem on offense. He’ll have to do all of that with a first year starter at quarterback.

The Quarterbacks
If Jacob Coker does not start at quarterback, his transfer will go down as the most overhyped event since Geraldo opened Capone’s vault. I haven’t seen him practice and I haven’t seen him in any scrimmages, but my guess is that Coker will not start. I believe that he will see significant playing time against West Virginia. I would not be surprised if the quarterbacks were rotated for extended periods, like a quarter at a time.

Blake Sims is a senior, he has certainly put in his time with the program, and he has the respect of his teammates. I have seen him play in a few games, mostly in games that were well in hand, and he is the opposite of Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron. He doesn’t stand in the pocket and loft pass deep down field. He likes to roll out and throw on the run, putting pressure on the cornerbacks. I don’t know if his roll outs are by design, or if he just isn’t comfortable in the pocket. Either way, I expect to see him behind center to start the West Virginia game. Whether of not he’s in that spot to start the Auburn game, I just don’t know.

The Offensive Line
Alabama lost two starters (Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen) from a 2013 lineup that didn’t give fans much to get excited about. The 2014 group of no-names (well, they are) will have to be better at run-blocking for Alabama to win the SEC West Division and even have a shot at the playoffs. Looking at the list of linemen, I recognize Arie Kouandjio, Ryan Kelly, Chad Lindsay, and a few others that I kind-of-sort-of remember playing some last season. No one stands out as “that guy” that Alabama will run behind on a must have 4th and 1.

The only big running plays that I remember last season went wide and relied on the speed of Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry. T.J. Yeldon ended up over 1,200 yards rushing last season, but all I remember is him getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage a lot. Did he have 800 yards against Chattanooga?

The Running Backs
Kenyan Drake has got to stay out of the doghouse and hold on to the ball. In 2012 and 2013, he averaged over 7 yards a carry. He had 4 carries for 33 yards in the first half of the Auburn game and then he disappeared. He also fumbled 3 times on 92 carries in 2013. By contrast, Yeldon fumbled 4 times on 207 carries. To make it worse, it seemed like every fumble was during a critical point in the game. The running backs didn’t fumble in the first quarter. They waited until the 4th quarter with 4 minutes remaining in the game to cough it up. Looking at you, Scott Cochran.

Saban has had some tremendous offenses during his tenure at Alabama, but it has been on the defensive side of the ball where his teams have excelled. In most games, Alabama was capable of scoring 35+ points a game, but they really didn’t need to because opponents were lucky to get first downs. Getting any points was reason for opponents to celebrate, even when the score was 42-7. The 2013 defense, however, was not a solid defense. I can’t really believe that I just wrote that about a defense that finished in the top ten nationally in just about every defensive category. Ala, such is the expectation Saban has created with his defenses.

The Defense
The 2013 defense lacked two things that recent Alabama defenses had, a pass rush and solid play by the defensive backs. You can be okay without one of those, but not having either is a bad combination.

The Defensive Line
The defensive line was admirable against the run, but there never seemed to be a push in to the pocket to put pressure on the quarterback. The defense ended up with 22 sacks on the year, with 13 of those coming in just 4 games. The defensive has got to be better at pressuring the quarterback.

The Defensive Backs
The loss of Vinnie Sunseri hurt Alabama more than most people wanted to believe. His instincts for the game were, and remain, remarkable, but he was also the defensive “quarterback” and no one filled that void following his injury.

Landon Collins will, ready or not, have to assume the leadership role in Alabama’s defensive back field. He’ll have talent around him in Geno Smith, Eddie Jackson, Tony Brown, and Jarrick Williams, but they are green. Greener still (by virtue of enrolling in the fall instead of in January as Brown did) is highly touted Marlon Humphrey who is waiting in the wings for his opportunity. Defensive back play has to be more consistent this year for Alabama. Remember the days of corner blitzes with Javier Arenas? The defense is going to have to improve significantly before Saban is willing to try that with this bunch.

The Special Teams
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention special teams. Alabama must replace both placekicker and punter in 2014. I read a Twitter post from an Alabama fan that, essentially, read I care not about offense or defense, just tell me we have a kicker than can make a 22-yard field goal. This is Adam Griffith’s time. Can he handle it? We’ll see.

So, there it is. Alabama has several question marks leading in to the 2014 campaign. If I didn’t mention the group (receivers, linebackers, etc) then the belief is that group should be pretty solid. As we saw last season, “solid groups” don’t make a team. The chemistry was off on offense, and inconsistency and injuries took a toll on the defense. Alabama has to solve those issues if it wants to return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.

If you’ve made it this far in the post, thank you.

Next Friday I will begin picking the weekend games in the Freestyle Friday post. I will go ahead and tell you that I believe South Carolina will defeat Texas A&M in the Thursday night game. I see it as a 3 to 4 point game. I also like Ole Miss over Boise State and Vandy over Temple.

We’re 5 days from the kickoff of the 2014 college football season. That’s worth smiling about.