Wednesday, December 17

Bowl Pick 'Em

Some readers participated in the College Pick 'Em this season. It was a lot of fun. Yay! We're doing a Bowl Game Pick 'Em as well. Just one set of picks, winner take all. Of course, there are like 32 dang bowl games, so it's a lot to pick. But also a lot of fun. So, in case you want in, here are the details:

Click here to sign up. We're Group ID# 16182 and the password is "goblue". Sorry, non UM fans. It's all we have this year... Name your team and leave a note on the message board if you like. The first game on the schedule is December 20th, so get your picks in now. See you there!

Sunday, November 23

On Going Home Again

Recently, Life Magazine released all of their photos online via Google. It's a remarkably large archive, and of course the first thing I did was search for University of Michigan Football. That didn't exactly provide a motherlode of shots. But when I dropped the word football, all kinds of interesting aspects of life in Ann Arbor were revealed. Student nurses supervising while sick children play with live animals. Young dudes gathering to strum guitars in a dorm stairwell. Young couples openly defying the town's "kissing ban". And of course, excited students cheering for some reason:
Dude in the glasses seems less enthused, but his hands are gigantic!

It's neat to see all these things because even though they're from over fifty years ago, they remind you what college is all about. The times were different, and therefore so were the standards. But the goals were the same. Maturing to adulthood in such a place is a luxury, one that often takes a long time to appreciate. It's a big part of why we watch college football in the first place - to remind ourselves of those salad days.

I came back from Argentina this weekend, in large part to return to my college town, reunite with old friends, and cheer on the team one last time this season. Perhaps foolishly, and perhaps because I haven't seen but four of the games, I thought that we had a chance to compete in this one. That we had played better on the road is where I hung my faith. Catching a glimpse at the still-in-progress Michigan Stadium gave me pause. "How can a team play in front of girders and expect to succeed? No wonder they stink here." From nearly the beginning of this game, however, what I saw appalled me. Like many other bloggers, I have understood the need for patience this season. But in the last game of the year, against our rival, it was a pathetic display. We all know that there is a limit to the team's talent. But they looked disorganized and passionless to me.

A tradition for us at this reunion is to visit the old college homestead, drop off some fresh beer for whoever happens to reside there now, and briefly reminisce about who passed out where. For the first time, we were not allowed inside. They wouldn’t even accept the free beer. Maybe that’s OK. When I was in college, we never lost 42-7 to Ohio State. Actually, we beat them three out of four years. This rejection was perhaps indicative of how the mood has soured. Stewart Mandel claims that Michigan’s players didn’t “buy in” to Rodriguez’s system and his efforts this year have resulted in nothing but failure. Meanwhile, Brian defends the plan, and Dave stares off into the future with calm acceptance. I am afraid to say that after this game, I am inclined to agree with Stewart. My long-term hopes have soured a bit. I cannot blame a loss like this on talent disparity alone. Something is wrong.

When out at a bar in the after-aftermath, I talked to a girl who claimed to be friends with members of the team. She commented that when the team stays in their hotel for home games, they have bed-check at 11pm. Then some of the players invite their friends over to party. This woman seemed a credible source, though who knows if she has any idea what she's talking about. Consider this hearsay and rumormongering at this point. Then again, what kind of team plays so horribly at home? Perhaps the girders have nothing to do with it. If this is true, it is obviously unacceptable behavior. That’s all I’ll say about a rumor impossible for me to verify.

I used to hold up my four years of college as the unluckiest in modern Michigan fan history. After going undefeated the year before, we lost four games every season I was a student. We didn't beat Northwestern once. And the year after, the team won a National Championship. But the pain felt by current seniors has clearly trumped anything I endured. Right now, today, Michigan isn't really Michigan. That's a very sad thing.

But hey, they can't take the past away from us. We'll always have Tom Harmon and Charles Woodson and that time we stole the chairs from Burger King and used them in the kitchen all year. This season's over, and frankly I don't want to think about it ever again. The past may only be so much use, but I'll take it because right now, it's all we have.

Tuesday, October 21

So What Now?

I'm dreading this posting. A lot has changed in just a few weeks. I'm afraid of what I will convince myself. I'm still having trouble getting over the Toledo loss. While most of the Michigan blogosphere has rightly been defensive of the team, given the bare cupboard and new system, I don't know what to believe. Losing to "little brother" did little to help matters.

When people, usually the most fair-weather of Michigan fans, would complain over the years that "Lloyd Carr needs to go," I would always respond with the same question: "Who do you want to hire, then?" None of these folks ever gave me a halfway decent answer to that question. One said "Marty Schottenheimer." Part of the problem was that they never appreciated Carr, which to me, meant they never appreciated Michigan. We may not have had the flashiness of the mid-90s Florida Gators, but every year, we had the chance for greatness and at worst found ourselves in the Alamo Bowl. Even when Michigan was "terrible," Michigan was always good. And I think it's especially clear now how many people took that for granted.

For the last ten years, friends and I have participated in a weekly college pick 'em contest. Put simply, you pick the winning team for each game among the AP Top 25. In ten years, I have never once picked against Michigan, no matter how grim a game may have looked. There was no point in playing the game if I couldn't pick my team. But Penn State was an entirely different scenario. The spread was 23.5, and I was certain it was low. While I didn't hesitate to pick Michigan, cross my fingers, and hope for the best, others changed their approach. That they ended up picking correctly did nothing to assuage the outrage and incredulity heaped upon their heads by those who kept the faith. But now that the dust settled, and Michigan has lost to our "little brother," these acts of "treason" stand significantly. This isn't just about razzing our buddies.

I go back to those whiners that demanded a coaching overhaul. I wonder what they have to say this year. My guess is that they're not watching games, and certainly not reading this blog. They've moved on to Halloween costumes or winter vacations or something else to complain about. But the rest of us are still here. And we're trying to deal. Dave is numb. Brian, defeated by ennui. Hoover Street wants the season to be over. Wolverine Liberation Army sighs and then dutifully trudges onward. And Vijay is resorting to picking winners of all the other games. The bloggers are not dead inside, but in a sense, they are creating shelter for hibernation. Me, I just feel more disconnected every week. If I could get the slingbox to work, maybe I could share in the pain better. But reading boxscores of these games is like living through the last scenes of Chinatown every week. I'm helpless and frustrated. People here keep telling me to forget about it, that I'm living in one of the most exciting cities on the planet with summer just around the next corner. And maybe they're right.
Jake can't forget, and neither can I!

But I can't help noting that the life of a Michigan fan has changed dramatically this season. And honestly, it's OK for people to view it differently. My friends who have "turned their back" on the team have every right to do so. But I can't. I didn't go to Michigan for the football team. I went because it was the best education I could get and the right environment for me. My first steps into Michigan Stadium were on a gorgeous August day to watch the team trounce Washington State. I arrived and left by myself, not knowing anyone else who had tickets yet. That was really my first steps into this game, and even though that contest was hardly significant, I know now that it stirred something in me that has only become stronger every year until it culminated in a 22,000 mile road trip. Michigan football isn't that girlfriend I can't quite get over. It's more like a part of my family - suddenly in the role of the unreliable uncle who you have to forgive all the time.

I'm going to stand by this team, even if some of my buddies can't or won't. In the aftermath of my stunned, "woe is we" posting after the Toledo loss, some commenters reminded me that when we do bounce back, and we surely will, it will be all the better for this suffering. I don't doubt that. Though I have some great friends here in this new country of mine, none of them is a Michigan fan. Actually, none of them is a college football fans at all.

The past can't be taken away. We won a National Championship when I was 22 years old. We've been good ever since I set foot on campus. Maybe a little suffering isn't so bad. And hey, AARP Magazine named Ann Arbor the best city in America for retirees. (#1 in the nation, baby!) I just hope I don't have to wait until I'm that old for the joyful times to resume. But even if I do, I'll always consider myself a Michigan Man. I don't know how else to live at this point. Now let's get Uncle Borracho to rehab, quick.

Monday, October 13

Sagarin Check - Week 7

Things have changed a bit since our last Sagarin Check just a couple weeks ago. Again, speaking as a trained statistician, the Sagarin ratings have long been my favorite of the computer rankings around town for college football. Let's run the voodoo down.

The eyes have it - Atop this week's rankings, we find the Texas Longhorns, in agreement with both mainstream human polls. It's the win of the year so far. We'll see how they fare this week against Missouri.

I'm smelling what you're steppin' in - The Top Ten is in general accordance with the AP and Coaches polls with the only exception being that Boise St. is swapped in for BYU. Why is BYU still so lauded? Because they pasted UCLA? Give the Broncos some love. They've still got Ian Johnson! Who doesn't like that guy?

The decline of western civilization - As expected, the mid-majors are slowly dropping, though. Two weeks ago, they ruled the bottom half of the top ten. Now, they're stretching towards the teens.

Still Traveling - USC is perched way up at #2. Now, remember last time I talked about how the Bayesian Shrinkage shouldn't be an issue. Maybe I was wrong because their wins-and-losses-only ranking is 15 and is unbiased. But maybe I was right because their Predictor # is off the charts. However, some other goofy rankings may indicate we just don't have a big enough sample size without scores - Utah at #4 is one.

Whitlock must be proud - Ball State is the other. I'm not sure how this is actually possible, but Ball State is #5 on the wins-only chart. Here, they've been blowing people out, but if their SOS is 107, and we're only talking wins-and-losses, I don't see how they could possibly be #5. Also benefiting, Michigan State is way up at #10. They've had their share of close games, so

Moving up - Texas Tech now appears legitimate at #11.

More dams to build - Because they've played three teams in the top 13, Oregon State sits at #17 even though they're 3-3. Watch out for this time to rise and be ranked by the end of the year.

Failing the smell-test - Iowa at 38 seems high.

Sheesh - Clemson, whose coach was just let go, all the way down at 77 in wins-only. And Tennessee is at 115!

Harrisonburg in the house - James Madison University, a place I (kind of) visited on the road last year is the highest FCS team in the list at 63. That's ahead of Purdue, East Carolina, and Arkansas.

Conference call - The Big 12 has opened up a pretty solid lead on the Big Ten, who were in 2nd place when we last did this. Actually, the ACC is closing in on the Big Ten as well.

Worst Place! - Last time we did this, Army went out and won their next two games against Tulane and Eastern Michigan. This week, North Texas barely edged out Idaho for the lowest ranked I-A team. Watch out, Louisiana-Monroe, the Mean Green is coming for you!

I don't want to talk about it - Michigan is 82. Call it a wild guess that it's the lowest they've ever been since Jeff started this in 1985 (and hopefully ever will be - even if they get thumped this week, it'll be by the #3 team).

Saturday, October 11

Concerning Unspeakable Acts

I just walked out to my balcony. It's cloudy here in Buenos Aires. A dark day. A single bird told me "Poo tee weet." I came back inside.

What on earth…? No, I didn't watch that debacle. We don't get the Big Ten Network here. With minutes left in regulation, I sped through the play-by-play online. Believe me, I think that was enough. Still, we remained on the precipice of avoiding the worst loss in Michigan history. Then that little, brown football icon flipped to Toledo. Then it was game over. The jury reached its verdict. Your football team is terrible.

As much as I was disgusted with people booing the team this season, and as ugly as things have been at times, this is a new low. A loss to Utah was forgiven because it was the first game with new personnel. Notre Dame was bothersome, particularly since the team had every chance to climb back into the game, but fumbled it away. Illinois was explained away with the assumption that the Illini were just that good (incidentally, the gophers may have something to say about that). But this? I can’t possibly express the feelings. I’m not even angry. Just beaten. I was an out-of-stater. I didn’t arrive at Michigan expecting to get caught up in football. But after my second game, a tight loss to Notre Dame, it was a part of me. Now. Now? Again, I'm a beaten fan. And I couldn’t even see the game.

Has any college football fan base been through more torture over the past four seasons? Nebraska? Tennessee? I don't think there's a comparison. Let’s break it down.
  • 2005: the team blunders its way to its worst season since 1984. Fans are tortured by the following: Losses gift-wrapped by Chad Henne to Notre Dame and Wisconsin, losing the Brown Jug to Minnesota by choking at the end of the game in mind-numbing fashion. Tyler Ecker staying in bounds against Ohio State. Tyler Ecker running out of bounds in the Alamo Bowl after being shivved by Sun Belt referees.
  • 2006: the team dominates all opponents in the regular season leading up to the most anticipated Ohio State game in history. The modern patriarch of the program dies the day before the game. Michigan loses a wild affair in heartbreaking fashion, then goes on to the Rose Bowl where USC pounds them.
  • 2007: Appalachian State, Oregon and the Statue of Liberty, Teasing us by winning the rest of the games until Chad Henne’s shoulder and Mike Hart’s ankle, and Ryan Mallett’s ham-hands turn on us. A fleeting, joyous goodbye for Lloyd Carr in the Capitalism Bowl.
  • 2008: Please don’t make me do it.
What have we done to deserve this?

Last Thursday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. I can only fathom that we as a fan base have not done our due diligence in recent years and are therefore falling victim to a vengeful Old Testament God. If that's the case, which number plague was this game, and how much worse is it going to get? Let my people go.

There will be no bowl games this year. There may not be any more victories at all. Somewhere in South Carolina, a very close friend may be considering taking up smoking again. It’s not his fault. Here in Buenos Aires, is it time to switch to soccer? The bird was right. Because what else can you say at a time like this?

Update - others react:
MaizenBrew looks on the bright side
MGoBlog threw things (not like you think)
WLA crack open their history books
Hoover Street Rag quotes Bush. Yeah, the band. I know!
Genuinely Sarcastic is fed up with you people (rightfully so)

Monday, October 6

The Times That Try Men's Spirits

Last year, everyone I met expressed equal parts jealousy and excitement about my road trip. Nearly every day was a joy, meeting great people and talking about the game I love. But of course, there were many moments where I quickly realized I was dealing with loudmouthed imbeciles. That was funny for a month or so, but halfway through the season, the loudest spewers of nonsense started to get to me. Nowhere was this a bigger problem than at the Florida/Georgia game in Jacksonville. I actually got angry, particularly during the game. It came from both sides of the red and blue divide. I went and found some of my favorite Gator and Bulldog fans afterwards to remind me why I was on the road in the first place.

Saturday, I had no plans, so it was an easy call to hit up El Alamo again to see what we were made of against a good team. I wasn't optimistic at all about this game, and was roundly chastised by Brian for feeling that way. Maybe that got to me a bit, but for some reason I started to think that we had the goods to take Illinois out. Joe the Bartender is an Illinois grad, so I was stunned to find that the TVs were already claimed by Notre Dame/Stanford and Alabama/Kentucky. Unknowingly working against my own self-interest, I had directed the Notre Dame fans to the bar in the first place (via the internet), so I decided to chat them up and see if we could split time. While seeming a nice enough fellow, the Domer in charge was so old school, he thought Notre Dame was still good. Lauding all their wonderful recruits, he compared Michael Floyd to Randy Moss and averred that Notre Dame will beat Michigan in their next five meetings. He was so intent on Notre Dame, that he was reluctant to share the TV even during the halftime show. Little respect was given for the fact that without my help, he would never have found the only bar in BA showing football in the first place.

To my right were two older men relatively uninterested in football, choosing instead to banter about the US presidential race. Misinformation abounded. When they forcibly tried to explain to the waitress (adorable girl, by the way) that Obama wants to raise everyone's taxes and how that's going to kill the economy, I nearly butted in. But thinking back to those Cocktail Party frustrations, I let the argument go. Besides, by then the game was on, and Michigan was up 14-3, and a slew of Michigan fans in BA on vacation had just come in.

A day that began with minor irritation ended with frustration and further disbelief at Michigan's inability to hold on to the football. Mama said there'd be games like this, right? At least this year. And the all bonus mistakes don't help the cause any. I have to wonder if all the fumbles are because they're still spending so much time thinking instead of just playing. When we lost another on a kickoff, I and the other Wolverines had had enough. We let them put on baseball. Joe shouted out an "I-L-L", but nobody returned his call. He didn't seem to mind. Like last year, even though I can't get enough of this sport, there are days when the cards don't fall right. At least I could hit the nightlife in Buenos Aires. Juice Williams can't take that away from me.

Maybe I'll go back again next week. I know the Michigan/Toledo game won't be on, but perhaps that will be for the best. It's a must-win to be sure, and I don't know what I'll do if we lose. Maybe slug the nearest available loudmouth. College football is the wonderfullest game around, but it sure can bring you down sometimes.

Other reax:
MaizenBrew is decent
MGoBlog is deflated
Wolverine Liberation Army is defeated

Friday, October 3

Sagarin Check

To the people I met on the road last year, I would imagine it would come as a surprise that I'm a statistician. Yes, it's true. I'm a total nerd, and have been for most of my adult life. When I would hear complaints from fans about those sinister "computer polls," I'd have to cringe a bit. Computer rankings are not perfect, but they do serve a purpose. They take the emotion and "conventional wisdom" out of the decision-making process. That can have its own flaws, to be sure. By the end of the season, maybe everything is clear anyway, but soulless (and bias-less) computers can be a ballast to our beliefs or at times alter our convictions for the better.

Of all the computer systems, the Sagarin ratings are my favorite (until I find the time to create my own). The methodology is sensible, and founded in proper statistical analysis. I won't get into all the gory details, just take my word for it. It's probably still a bit early in the season for this, but with everyone's heads spinning from last week's rash of upsets, let's see what the poll has to offer. Note - even Sagarin himself thinks it's a bit early so he incorporates Bayesian Shrinkage which, in effect ties the rankings back to a pre-season assignment. But we're far enough along in the season, that its impact is lessened. So let's dive in and take a look at some of the more interesting points.

Roll Tide - Alabama tops the rankings, disagreeing with the AP, Coaches, and Blogpoll rankings, though many bloggers have outlined their reasons that Bama should be on top. However, when it comes to "pure points" without regard for wins and losses, they're only in 5th, suggesting that they're vulnerable.

They'll Have to Fight On - USC shows up at #3. This is where that whole lack of emotion comes in, but also the fact that the Trojans have only played three games. Remember, early in the year, blowouts are going to matter, and their two wins were stompings. But they're still #6 going solely on wins and losses without regard to points. Don't write this team off yet.

Mid-Major Love - BYU's getting all the press, but Boise St. is even higher at #6. And going just on wins and losses, Utah is #2! Note that "just wins and losses" is the version that gets used in the BCS (and comprises roughly 5% of the total outcome, so relax). There are four mid-majors in the top 12. In general, the strength of schedule for these teams will decline as everyone plays more conference games, but at this point, it looks like the computers won't prevent a mid-major from gaining a BCS bid.

Don't Believe the Hype? - Gameday may be coming to Vanderbilt this week, and the Commodores are ranked 16 in the blogpoll, but on "pure points", they're way down at 28. Sagarin thinks this means they're gonna lose some games, but I've long felt there's something to be said for teams that know how to eke out victories, no matter the score. If they keep it rolling this week against Auburn (and you know it won't be a blowout), consider me on board.

Forgotten, But Not Gone - Virginia Tech shows up at #16. They're all the way down at #24 in the coaches poll. Written off after that loss to East Carolina, they're still hanging around and are #10 in the BCS sumbission. Oregon is in a similar situation (#17).

Lions and Tigers, Oh My - Penn State and Missouri have both played Illinois, and in all conventional polls, the Tigers are well in front. But Penn State is #4 here and Mizzou is alllll the way down at #30. They have 142nd worst schedule. You'd think with the high-powered offense they'd be in good shape, but "pure points" has them even lower at 35. How all the pollsters can put Missouri above Penn State at this point is baffling to me. PSU performed better against their common opponent and have a shellacking of Trojan-killers, Oregon State. Similarly, Kansas is way down at #42.

In the Middle of Seven Sad Forests - Washington, 0-4 after losing to Stanford (and losing their QB), has played the nation's toughest schedule. They've lost to Oregon, BYU, Oklahoma. We can safely say that they're the best 0-4 team the country. Well, at least the one with the best excuses.

Some Kind Glitch? - McNeese State has the #2 rated schedule. They've only played one team in the FBS - North Carolina. Uhhh... wtf?

At the Bottom - The nation's worst team is Army, who just lost to Texas A+M. So I can't imagine anyone is going to argue with that.

Conference Call - When it comes to ranking conferences, the computers can be that much more useful. It's hard enough to keep 119 teams straight, but you can at least examine a team's entire schedule. But our emotions may put too much into a game between, say, Illinois and Missouri. According to Sagarin, Big Ten is the second best conference in the country. Hard to believe, ain't it? Incidentally, SI's - Bill Trocci at least mentions that fact and actually appears to take it under advisement in his weekly conference rankings. The Big 12 is just behind them, and the SEC is way out in front. The Mountain West remains back at #7 even though they claim three teams in the top 12. Let's keep that in mind, 'kay?

Thursday, October 2

We're Going Bowl Streakin.....maybe

As you probably know, Michigan holds the current record for longest consecutive bowl appearances. After owning it for years, Nebraska missed a bowl during the transition to Bill Callahan. Don't they feel silly now? Given the current "requirements" to participate in a bowl game, once this record is relinquished, it will never be regained. I mean ever. Michigan fans love to tout the programs many historic accomplishments, but unlike "Most wins of all time," this one is precarious. Perhaps even more important than the streak itself is the fact that qualifying for a bowl game means an extra six weeks of practice. This would obviously be a huge boon for next season given the new system. Plus, recruiting, donations for facilities and plenty of warm fuzzies.

To guarantee a bowl slot, Michigan must get to 7-5. At 6-6, there would remain a chance, but we would probably need some help. First, let's break down the lay of the land.

The Big Ten has seven bowl tie-ins: Rose, Capital Citrus, Hall of Outback, Alamo, Champs, Insight, and Motor City. A Big Ten team with a 6-6 record can not be selected over a team with a better record, even if the bowl in question is in Detroit and the team in question played Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State, and Florida Atlantic in their non-conference schedule. 6-6 only gets Michigan in if the Big Ten has remaining slots. Bumping up to eight bids for the conference via the BCS could be huge. With the current +1 format that means there are three at-large bids, plus the two slots for the BCS title game. A second bid for the Big Ten would be very helpful. Unfortunately, it does not look very likely. With Michigan beating Wisconsin, and with Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State all playing each other, the odds of two teams with only one loss are not high. Furthermore, the mid-majors are currently on a tear with three teams currently in the top 17. They will grab at least one of the at-large bids, possibly two.

Now, a 7-5 Michigan team will surely be offered a slot, even if we are 11th in the conference. Sorry, Northwestern, that's just how it is. The key question is, if Michigan ends up 6-6, will that be good enough for top seven, record-wise? Where things stand today:
Team Overall Record
Penn State 5 - 0
Northwestern 5 - 0
Michigan State 4 - 1
Ohio State 4 - 1
Minnesota 4 - 1
Wisconsin 3 - 1
Iowa 3 - 2
Michigan 2 -2
Purdue 2 -2
Indiana 2 -2
Illinois 2 -2

The top four teams and Wisconsin are sure to be going bowling and will surely be better than 6-6. That leaves two open bowl bids. Guessing their final record based on what the teams have remaining:
Team Final Record
Minnesota* 6 - 6
Iowa 5 - 7
Purdue 5 - 7
Indiana 3 - 9
Illinois 7 - 5
*It is impossible to tell how good Minnesota is at this point, so I assumed that they are moderately sucky.

Beacuse these are mere guesses, you see that for those final two spots, it's going to be very tight. Anyone except Indiana could conceivably reach 7-5 this season. There's no clear prediction, but we do know that getting to 7-5 will guarantee Michigan a berth, regardless of what happens.

So what's Michigan going to do then? On one hand, I'm going to get a bit mathy with this, and on the other, I'm going with my gut. But I had math flakes for breakfast, so maybe my guts can crunch these numbers.

The schedule:

Game Chance of Victory Expected Record
Illinois 35% 2.35 - 2.65
Toledo 90% 3.25 - 2.75
at Penn State 15% 3.4 - 3.6
Michigan State 30% 3.7 - 4.3
at Purdue 50% 4.2 - 4.8
at Minnesota 65% 4.85 - 5.15
Northwestern 40% 5.25 - 5.75
at Ohio State 25% 5.5 - 6.5

Perhaps I'm being a bit pessimistic here; let me know what you think of the percentages. If these guesses are correct, the final prediction comes down to whether you round up wins or losses. The Wisconsin win changed everything. If the team were sitting at 1-3 right now, change that final prediction to 4.5-7.5 and start praying really hard. The bottom line is, every game counts from here on out. A bowl game is within reach, but not without at least one more upset. This week would be a great time to start. I recommend beginning by fielding the kickoff.

Wednesday, October 1

The Start of an Era

More than any time I can recall, Michigan fans came into this season in a forgiving mood. We knew how difficult it would be. It is college football. In the beginning of any season, hope is always available. But we're no longer at the beginning. And the only hope remaining was that the team could improve as they go. I almost didn't make it to the bar, knowing we had little chance of winning and that the Slingbox signal, so far from pristine, would only add to any frustration felt during a defeat. Of course, once Saturday rolled around, I couldn't resist. I've never been one to accept negative fate in advance.

El Alamo is pretty much the only bar in Buenos Aires showing college football. Consequently, there are people from all over the US. We had fans of Auburn, Tennessee, Florida State, Texas, Notre Dame, and a Panamanian who doubled as a devoted and vocal Sooner. And that was just for the early games. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to take an egalitarian approach to the changing of channels. When you're watching via the internet, you can't split that signal between TVs. We missed large chunks of the game, but perhaps that was for the best. At the end of that first half, I had serious contemplations of delving more deeply into my alcohol and giving up my lobbying efforts for more time on our game. Brock, the Wisconsin fan sitting next to me, felt the opposite, calmly enjoying the score updates that seemed to come every couple of minutes.

But we bounced back just in time to see Koger's touchdown. And there was that hope again. Further channel hopping added to the tension before we finally got back, once again just in time for a Michigan score. Brandon Minor's touchdown run got the whole bar excited. Well, nearly everyone. We hung on through Thompson's interception return after which there was much rejoicing. High fives all around! OK, not quite. Poor Brock looked more like this:
With time winding down and the Auburn/Tennessee match finally over, I tracked down the bartender demanding a swift return to the activities Ann Arbor for Wisconsin's last, tension-laden drive. Then it was over. I and the other Michigan grad in the bar belted out an unruly and off-key rendition of The Victors. Sometimes you win.

No matter how it went down, whether you want to attribute the outcome to pluckiness or luck or karma, the impact of this win will last. It's a confidence boost, to be sure, but beyond that, it proves that Michigan is still Michigan. The fans that didn't leave at halftime were rewarded, but knew not to rush the field. This isn't Rutgers. Regardless of a new regime and freshmen running the offense, we know what we are. And the team proved it in the second half. The hope's no longer blind. The future looks brighter today.

Others react:
Mgoblog
MaizeNBrew
Johnny (RBUAS)
Wolverine Liberation Army

Friday, September 26

She Caged Him Up With a Cyclone Fence

Being out of the country certainly has its demerits. You have to learn a whole new system for everything. From getting to work to buying groceries to getting a drink at a bar. Even though I'm in a place where nobody gives a damn about college football, I've been able to follow things pretty closely. But with nobody else here the least bit interested in the game, sometimes things are going to slip through the cracks. I knew that the top 25 schedule seemed a bit light this Saturday, but somehow totally forgot that USC had a game last night. Maybe they forgot, too. At least until the second half, but by then it was too late. What the hell happened in Corvalis last night? This was a team that lost to Stanford and lost 45-14 to Penn State. They had no business hanging with USC, let alone beating them, right?

I had planned to write a post today talking about how the season had been unbearably predictable and rant for a while about the crappy non-conference scheduling taking all the fun out of the game. Those problems are all still relevant and will continue to haunt the game until the NCAA decides that health is more important than wealth. I'm not holding my breath on that one, and may pop off again soon, but in the aftermath of the biggest upset of the season, it seems an odd time to complain about ennui.

SEC fans must be ecstatic. Their two least favorite teams have already screwed the pooch, and thanks to their survival of their usual slate of non-conference cupcakes (Arizona State & Clemson not withstanding), they have half their teams ranked - even Vanderbilt. The odds of an SEC team making the title game are extremely high. Who knows, maybe they'll face someone from the Mountain West.

Maybe this season will turn out more interesting after all. Perhaps even this week. Can TCU beat Oklahoma? Can Michigan upend Wisconsin? And just how good are those Nittany Lions? Someone's due for a fall. Here's hoping I can see it through the blurry broadcast at El Alamo. See you there.

Tuesday, September 16

Worse Than It Looked

I remember I once lauded the Michigan Notre Dame rivalry as one of the nation's greatest because no matter how good the two teams were, the game was always a close one. Games that should have been blowouts were competitive, if not nailbiters. Then 2003 happened. #5 Michigan walloped the #15 Irish squad, 38-0. Ever since, the close games have been full of mistakes and the rest have been embarrassments for one team or the other, deserving of all the yakety-sax derision heaped upon them. Michigan's seven fumbles and two interceptions are all you need to know to determine which category this game belonged to. Though somehow, Notre Dame let the Wolverines hang around for nearly the entire contest.

Back to the game at hand. Friends who have seen other Michigan games this year claim that this was our strongest outing yet, and I believe them because they're honest, thinkin' folks. Plus, they seem to agree with MGoBlog's take. Still, that was pretty excruciating, not to mention disconcerting. What I once held up as one of the true pinnacles of college football is now a dead rivalry because one of the two teams is certifiably dead. And that team won the game. Because if Notre Dame couldn't dominate this Michigan team, especially when gifted six turnovers, the Fighting Irish are officially down for the count. After the game, Charlie Weis said, "We definitely showed up against a good opponent and it’s sweet." I can count at least three incorrect aspects to that sentence and one resides in a gray area. As I said last week, Notre Dame desperately needed to win this game. But to win it like this is almost worst. Had they lost - lost to the worst Michigan team since 1968 - they could have cut bait, thrown Charlie Weis and his bumb knee overboard and went about hiring a real head coach. This win is a reprieve of Weis and a reason not to eat his bloated contract at the end of the season. There is still a chance that such a thing happens, but Weis has now proven his hiring a failure. That's why, even though they won, Notre Dame lost. They won't be playing like champions any day soon, and I honestly feel badly for them. Heck. I feel badly for the game of college football. It never should have come to this.

At least I was finally able to watch some college football here in Buenos Aires. I found a bar here that was loaded with fans from all over - Texas A+M, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State (yikes!), USC, Auburn, UCLA (double yikes!), and a gigantic contingent from Georgia. It would have been a great time if it weren't for those damn fumbles. Heck, it was a great time anyway. I got to hear from fans of the Big 12, Pac Ten, and SEC how awful the Big Ten is. What fun! How peeved are they going to be when either Wisconsin or Penn State runs the table and ends up in Miami? Really peeved, that's how peeved! And I'll be at "El Alamo" with them to hear further grievances. The .500 bowl record versus the SEC is my lone trump card - a weak one at that, but I plan to continue playing it as long as I can (likely termination date - January 1st, 2009). The real test is if I come back next week when Michigan has a bye. We'll see.

Thursday, September 11

One for the History Books

It was late April, 2006. I remember my upstairs neighbor, a proud Notre Dame graduate, glowingly asking me, "Did you hear we got our quarterback?" In a similar tone, I replied, "Yep. Did you hear we got ours?" My how things have changed.

When I started my trip last year, I chose Notre Dame for three reasons. 1) They had one of only two compelling home games across the nation to start their season. 2) It was close to home, so last-minute arrangements would be easy. 3) I had a feeling they were in for a down year, and I wanted to catch them when things were still cheery. But I don't think I or anyone else believed that the wheels would fall off quite so dramatically. Every week. In the weeks leading up to the debacle versus Georgia Tech, Domers were cheery as anyone. At the tailgates, they were all certain of victory, and to a man, they all had immense faith in Charlie Weis. I can't imagine that South Bend will be quite so sunny this Saturday morning. The cloud now looming is not merely threatening; it is dark enough to block one of the most successful programs in history from view completely.

Michigan, on the other hand, was to accomplish great things last season. We all know what happened starting that very day. Let's not dwell on it, OK? After all the events of last season, the approach for Michigan fans is an new and bewildering one. Nobody was very surprised when we lost to Utah. We're clinging to hopes of making a bowl game to keep the streak alive, and have real fears that we're going to suffer the same fate as the Irish last season. And our Golden Boy tasked with taking the program into the next era skipped town. (The saga of Ryan Mallet isn't the only reason I removed myself from the yearly recruiting chatter, but it certainly played a role.)

Hardly the clash of titans we expect when the two winningest programs in college football face off, the game is being openly derided in the media. Perhaps it should. Certainly, neither of these teams is going to win the national championship this season. However, in the context of college football, this game is immensely important. If Notre Dame loses this game, their situation becomes quite hopeless. Despite his outrageous contract extension, Weis has to be fired. Retaining him essentially proves the accusations of racism levied at the school, regardless of Willingham's failures at U-Dub. After a 3-9 season, if he can't beat this Michigan team, what possible argument can he make to continue as head coach?

Michigan, on the other hand, is staring that 3-9 possibility in the face. Excuses abound. No offensive linemen, no quarterback, and a new regime are all somewhat fair reasons for failure. To lose this game is somewhat expected. But winning this game will give the team the same boost Notre Dame got in 2005. That game is probably the biggest reason that the school and its fans showed such confidence in Weis. It was a sign that brighter days were ahead. That the sign turned out to be connivingly false shouldn't bother Michigan at all if we pull this game out. What a boost it would be for the rest of the season.

I find myself in a weird position this time around. I grew up despising Notre Dame, and attending Michigan only steeled my hatred. I've long said that the world of college football is a better place when the Irish are doing well, even though I had no love for them. But a funny thing happend to me last year. I spent enough time with the Domers that I began to understand them a bit. Even worse, I realized I actually liked them. I know. Gross, right? It was a bit like making out with your sister. It affected me to the point that when Michigan won last year's battle of 0-2 juggernauts 38-0, I really felt sorry for the folks in South Bend.

So what of this week's game? I have my viewing location staked out in Buenos Aires. They promise me the game will be on. Does my soft heart coupled with the fact that Notre Dame needs this game so much more than we do affect my mindset at all? Of course not. I hope we win 39-0! That is wholly impossible, and I will take a win under any circumstances. At this point, I'd still take some solace in being called tallest midget as opposed to the dumbest imbecile. In the long run, it might actually matter a lot.

Tuesday, September 2

A Work In Progress

Sometimes the parallels are too easy. This Argentina thing is a major change for me. I'm approaching life in an entirely different way. How can I not? I struggle to speak the language and have only a handful of friends here. It goes without saying, they're not college football fans. But I was still pumped up for the start of the season. I didn't have Monday off of work, but I still knew it was time to watch the greatest sport on the planet.

So I began my quest to track down a broadcast. My hotel TV has 80 channels, with seven of them devoted full-time to sports, three flying the ESPN banner. Yet no mention of the season's kickoff could be found; and later, no scores reported. Coworkers and hotel staff provided no promising leads, but my Buenos Aires guidebook did have one that seemed promising. Surely the World Sports Cafe & Restaurant would be my salvation. I mean, of all the Saturday sports out there in the world, NCAA football must make the cut, right?

Well, I'll never know if I could have found the Michigan game - or any others - because when I arrived at the World Sports Cafe & Restaurant, here is what the site had to offer:Apparently World Sports haven't been bringing in the business. Much like my team, I'm starting over. Brian referred to the situation as being under construction. Just like the World Sports Cafe & Restaurant and my viewing plan of attack. The Slingbox is hooked up in Chicago now. Unfortunately, it's not playing nice with my laptop yet. Breath is held and fingers are crossed for this weekend.

But the games were still played without me. Since I've seen none of them, it's like I'm telling second-hand stories. As bad as Michigan's day reportedly was, at least we didn't have any problems with our weekly conference call. And at least we're not Texas A+M. But there seems to be a strange acceptance of mediocrity after the first game. We all knew this was coming. And we're stung after the '05 and '07 seasons, so we know it can get worse. WLA seems to have a "the outcomes don't really matter, so let's reminisce about the bad-old times" mentality, while Johnny feels calmly disconnected from this year's team. I'm like them, but one step farther removed. I knew there would be various challenges with this move, but after such an incredible ride last year, and really the last fifteen, I'm not about to step aside. Like the Wolverines, I think I can find a way to figure this stuff out.

Friday, August 29

Welcome Back, Jack!

Last year, I gambled with my own fandom, seeing if I could handle the season without catching every minute of every Michigan game. I'd never done that before, but I was still getting plenty of football, obviously. This season is a lot more, well, arrrgggghhhh. Nobody can seem to tell me where I can watch college football here, and that is likely because there simply isn't a place for it. Not even on a satellite dish. In sum, I'm out over my skis like Sarah Palin.

To be totally honest, that has tempered my usual excitement a bit. At this time last year, I was ready to holler my brains out. Now, I am going to scouring the internet for live feeds, trying desperately to get in touch with my Slingbox buddy back in Chicago and mainly hoping Michigan pulls out a win tomorrow when they officially beta test Rodriguez Version 1.0. I have no idea if that will happen and neither do you. Ah, college football. This is exactly why it's the greatest game on the planet.

Other people who are excited out there, too:

Jason (OSU)
Cory (UT)
Johnny (UM)
Jonathan (USC)
Doug (Georgia)
Dave (UM)
Brian (UM)

Go Blue!

Tuesday, August 12

Wake Up Paul. Don't Believe You're All Alone.

There’s nothing like the tail end of summer. The beastly heat that torments us through July and most of August begins to subside. Some of the trees start shedding their leaves. And at long last, football season is just days away. For some of us, we’ve known this feeling ever since our fathers took us to those first games – back when we paid as much attention to the hot dogs and marching bands as we did the touchdowns. For others, we didn’t catch the bug until we arrived on campus and fully embraced school spirit, forever connecting ourselves to our university. No matter how you came to adore college football, you know the feeling so well. While many Americans lament the end of summer and dread the autumn, concerned about winter lurking just around the corner, we feel differently. Though summer offers the opportunity to be outside and enjoy life, we keep one eye fixed on Labor Day weekend. The first kickoff can’t come fast enough.

Every year around this time, I always think back to my sophomore year of college. It was the welcome end of a summer spent back in the old bedroom at my parents’ house, working at a grocery store, finding myself living a life I thought I’d grown out of. I arrived back on campus with breeze pushing me. It was time to start living again. And the first kickoff of a new season was inherently intertwined in that feeling. It didn’t even matter that Boston College completed an 80 yard bomb on the first play of the game. Football reminded me what it was to be a Michigan student more quickly than any of the other endearing aspects in Ann Arbor. It was immediate.This past season I was privileged to experience college football in a way that nobody ever had before. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know all about it. I met so many incredible people across the country. I think I must have interviewed over 1000 fans. This was after most of those fans had fed me hand-crafted eats and more regional beers and bourbon-laden cocktails than I could possibly remember, particularly after some of those cocktails – you know what you did, Knoxville. Not that I’m complaining. But it wasn’t just crashing parties week after week. I got in touch with regional cultures and attitudes. I heard most of the great fight songs ever put to stepping. I made friends all across the country. For all of these things, I feel blessed. Over the last decade, I always claimed that going to college was the time of my life – that nothing will ever compare to it. The statement had always remained true until my trip last autumn. It was a journey I will always hold close to my heart. Lucky for me “going to college” is just ambiguous enough that I can say I wasn’t lying.The crazy thing is, as big a fan as I was before last season began (my friends who don’t follow the game naively assumed I was among the most extreme outliers), after the trip, I’m more obsessed than ever – more appreciative of the fact that there is no better game. And even though we all have our differences, there’s far more that binds us than separates us. From the first Notre Dame fans I talked to all the way through a sit-down with Lloyd Carr last week, every single person I met smiled with an eager sparkle when they started talking football. This game means a lot to us, and we can't help but get excited when we get the chance to explain as much.

On several occasions toward the end of last season, emotion struck me suddenly. Not just when the Michigan players raised Carr upon their shoulders in Orlando, but on the field at the Iron Bowl when I heard the fight songs and realized this was about to come to an end. When I hit Los Angeles, all alone and tired, but with the knowledge that I at least had one more day in the sun to meet, eat, and enjoy my last game. And of course when I got to see some new old friends at the Stagg Bowl. I can easily say I care more about this game than I ever have before. I don’t know if that’s supposed to happen at age 33 or not.So why am I so sentimentally reflective today? The season is nearly upon us. My team is starting a new era. Based on how unsure everyone seems about who’s #1, we could have every bit the exciting season we had last year. But unfortunately for me, it’s going to be a lot harder to follow. After spending ten years working the same job here in Chicago, I had the ultimate adventure last season. But I’m not done roaming. This week, I will be moving to Argentina. I’ll be living there for two years. Maybe longer. They are bonkers for futbol there, but I am told by my new coworkers that Futbol Americano de Universidad is extremely hard to come by. I am holding out hope that I can find a sports bar to serve as my Saturday home, a place where I can continue to mingle and debate with fans of all the schools across America. If that fails, perhaps the internet can be my savior, but watching alone will be especially difficult after last season.Senator John McCain has said on several occasions that he never really loved America until he was deprived of her company. While I’ve always considered myself a good citizen who cares about my homeland, I understand what he was saying, albeit in a slightly different way. I never truly loved the land until I got to see nearly the whole thing last fall. As much fun and excitement as the football season gave me, I often find myself thinking about bounding over rolling hills in western Idaho or following the Mississippi River to find my way home from Baton Rouge. I recall recharging my batteries in Charleston, South Carolina and a lazy, hung over afternoon in Sausalito. I go back to three brisk days in Manhattan or cruising across the Bonneville Salt Flats at dusk. Maybe I always loved America, but I never really appreciated it like I do today. And now I’m leaving. It’s a strange fate I've given myself.Of course, I couldn’t be more excited about the trip. My Spanish is improving daily and the job will be full of challenges and interesting work. Now is the time of year when we all start rationalizing our team’s prospects, convincing ourselves that the season will work out just fine after all. No matter the departure of experience or problems from the year before. Maybe the kids will grow or improve. With college football, you never know for sure. I've certainly been doing that with regards to Michigan. I have to since right now, we don’t even have a quarterback. But I may also be doing it with regards to this trip, too. There will be struggles, but for now, I still believe in BCS dreams (¿Buena Comunidad y Suerte?).No matter what happens, I plan to continue blogging this year. Obviously the topics and approach will change a bit, but I definitely want to keep this site a place for all the teams, not just mine. We’ll just have to see how well I can cover everything from the southern half of the globe. I’m not any less excited for the season, even if I end up going to 17 fewer games than last year. And if disaster strikes and Michigan has their worst season in history, at least it'll already be spring for me. Those autumn memories can remain pristine as ever.

Sunday, August 10

I'm Kind of Tired 'Cause You Wouldn't Let Me Sleep Last Night

Odometer: 22,131
Location: Chicago, IL
States Visited: Indiana, Michigan, Illinois


I'm extremely short on time right now for reasons I will explain very soon. But despite my current busyness, I was able to fit in one last road trip. This was the culmination of a year's worth of research and a pilgrimage on various levels. I headed back to Ann Arbor, likely my last chance to do so for quite a while (again, I'll explain soon). Of all the driving I've done, this trip is the most familiar. I think I could do the Chicago to A2 jaunt in my sleep at this point. But I wasn't just going up there for the hell of it. I had been fortunate enough to set up an interview with Lloyd Carr. After getting all charged up reading Dave's heartfelt posting, I tried to make the most of the meeting.

We spent an hour in his office, talking about the state of the game and taking a few minutes to reminisce about that glorious 1997 season. The focus of my questions were primarily for my book, so certain curiosities such as, "What do you really think of Urban Meyer?" went unasked (though he briefly dropped the subtlest of hints at that particular topic). I hope to get an excerpt up here soon, time permitting. But I will say this, the man is sharp as a tack. Not only did he remember the name of my high school coach from his days on the recruiting trail while coaching at Illinois (1978-79), when I was unsure of which season Washington had played Minnesota in the Rose Bowl, '60 or '62, he knew it was 1960 immediately. We found ourselves agreeing on so many areas, I had to wonder if it was solely because he was my team's head coach and had therefore informed my sensibilities. I'm sure that must be at least partially the case. In sum, it was a fantastic hour for me, and I think he enjoyed our chat a little bit, too.
Yeah. This'n'll be framed.

After leaving Carr's office on a bit of a high, I poked around campus just a bit before going south to take a look at the progress on Michigan Stadium. The way things look right now, I question how ready they will be for that Utah game in three weeks.
They have begun to put the bricks on, though.

Gate 9 on the north end is "done", though it looks as plain as a prison entrance. I assume there are forthcoming additions to spruce things up a bit.
Near the Indiana/Michigan border on my way home, I stopped at a fruit and vegetable stand across the street from a Panera Bread. Over the course of the season, I rarely had time to hit any side-of-the-road, family-run joints. I picked up some corn, blueberries, and tomatoes. They were about the same price as the local chain grocery store would have charged, but my goodness could you taste the difference. The tomatoes were so ripe they were practically bursting. They hadn't been carted halfway across the earth to arrive on my plate. It was nice to know that at the end of this trip, I'm still able to get a bit of the local flavor, even if I ended up savoring it in my own kitchen.

As I referenced above, I'll have a big update in the next day or two.

Monday, July 28

Mike Slive Interview

In some ways on this past season, I felt like William Miller in Almost Famous. Not only was I touring the nation, I was able to see sports at a level I never expected. This included press box seating near such big names as Stewart Mandel, Roy Kramer, and Barry Alvarez. It even included a head coach inviting me over to his house for breakfast, but you’ll have to wait for the book to hear that tale. Several months ago, I was fortunate enough to interview SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Below is an excerpt of our conversation. Remember that this project of mine was always focused on the fans, so that’s the nature of the majority of these questions. To be sure, I could have pressed him on a few of these issues and wish I had done more of that. Here's what he had to say.

How would you describe the typical SEC football fan?

There’s no such thing. I think more about the fans as a group than I do as individuals, and I think they share common characteristics. When I think of an SEC fan, I think of loyalty, passion, knowledge, concern and abiding interest in their institution and in their athletic programs. And it matters not whether they’re graduates. A fan base is made up of people from all walks of life. People with all different backgrounds.

One of the things I’ve often watched and really marveled at and enjoyed is the fact that in our league, our institutions and athletic programs have a definite family orientation. It’s not unusual to see three generations of a family attend, for example, a football game together You often see Mom and Dad, children and grandma and grandpa. And you realize that it wasn’t long ago that the grandma and grandpa were mom and dad. And before that, they were the children. The family shares an experience – they look forward to it as part of their family rituals, family events, family life cycle events. It’s always very heartwarming when you walk through a stadium and you see that.

Coaches salaries seem to be increasing at a rapid rate. What do you think about that?
I approach it first from the point of view that the conference or the NCAA can’t control salaries by law. The last time the NCAA tried to do that, they settled a case for 53 million dollars. There isn’t anything we can do about it. These are institutional decisions and have been driven by the marketplace for coaches, which is impacted by the NFL and also by the importance of success at all of these institutions. I am concerned about increasing costs, of which salaries are a part, and the ability for revenue to keep pace with the cost. So yes, it’s a concern as an overall part of the health. As I understand, the number for salaries is about 3% of an institution’s overall budget and that hasn’t changed in 15 years. The visibility has made it a significant issue. I think our presidents have been looking at this issue. They are subsidizing athletics.

In the final analysis, what’s the nature of the question – are we asking whether or not it’s a fiscal issue, moral issue. Given the way athletic departments are required to fund themselves by our major institutions and to the extent that football revenue can support 20 other sports. Should a president make more than a football coach? In a perfect world yes, in the way intercollegiate athletics has grown up as an auxiliary enterprise w/o university funding, the generation of that income becomes imperative.

Being commissioner, is it harder to be a fan?
This is my standard answer. When I go to a conference game, I’m neutral – I just hope the officiating goes well. During bowl games, I become a fan. The anxiety that one feels in being a fan is hell. Because it’s exciting and fun, but it’s a very different experience for a commissioner when a team is playing a national championship game versus a conference game. You just become a fan.

Regarding the playoff debate, does the SEC have an official position?
In our annual spring meeting, our presidents met, and last year when Dr. Matching brought up the concept – our presidents and chancellors talked about it. They overwhelmingly said that they were not interested in a playoff, but at that time authorized Dr. Kian at Ole Miss and me to explore other formats in the context of the BCS. Our exploration has been more in the area of a plus one within the context of the BCS.

When I ask fans what they wish was different about the game, the only complaint on which everyone agreed was the way non-conference games keep getting less and less competitive. This came up again and again. What’s your take on the issue?
I have been outspoken from here, not having to coach these teams and not having to produce the revenue – it has always been my hope that we will play more significant inter-conference games on a home and home basis for the fans, and selfishly for the conference because the more high quality home-and-home games that we play gives us much better inventory to negotiate with when it comes to talking with television. With a home-and-home, every other year gives us a better schedule for our television folks. Right from the beginning when we went to twelve games, it has been my goal to improve the non-conference schedules. That’s one issue where I totally agree.

When I was at Tennessee, a couple of fans suggested that we create an SEC-Big Ten Challenge, similar to the ACC-Big Ten challenge in basketball. Take one weekend early in the season and match up home-and-homes with the strongest teams playing one another. Then switch the teams every two years. Is there any chance we can get this to happen?

I have heard such a suggestion before, and the positives are very clear. It is an interesting idea, one we would look at, but at first blush some of the obstacles may be insurmountable.

What do you like best about college football?
Oh boy, I like a lot of things about it. There’s just the same experience you have. When you drive up to a stadium and feel the pulse and the excitement and see the tailgating and the recreational vehicles and the colors and the anticipation, and in our league, the stadiums are full, the weather’s usually good. The anticipation is great. And the games have been fabulous in our league. They’re so competitive and so unpredictable. There’s something special about a football weekend, the Friday night leading up to it, the Saturday game. Also the institution is the focus of attention. It’s a rallying point for alumni, friends, and administrators. There are so many offshoots of the game itself that can be very positive for the institution. That’s really a very difficult atmosphere to duplicate in other sports and at other level of competition.

Do you have a favorite memory?
It’s hard to duplicate winning the National Championship two years in a row and being on the field and being on the podium and sharing the excitement. But I will tell you this, that’s exciting, but it’s no more exciting than that same experience at the SEC championship game. Our championship game has all the same trappings of the NC game. Same, if not more intense fan support b/c it’s both our teams. It’s sold out in the wintertime before anybody knows who’s playing. Our people will tell you it’s as good as any bowl game if not better. It’s as good as any NC game. Sharing with them the other ecstasy and sense of accomplishment that they feel at that moment.

Thursday, July 17

Some New Movies

...well, not new, but newly available. Just up and running, SnagFilms.com is to documentary film projects what Hulu is to television. Among the multitude of films there for your perusal are a handful of college football specials. I'm most partial to the extremely comprehensive Rivalries: The History of Ohio State and Michigan, which features the following remarkable quote from an aging Pat Summerall: "1991 was a rout all the way but it was exciting because of the magic of Magic Desmond 'Magic' Howard." But I recommend taking a peek at the following movies as well:

Live The Dream (Texas' national championship run in 2005)
National Champions: The Story of the 2006 Florida Gators
Out of the Blue (Boise State's 2006 season and Fiesta Bowl victory)
Rivalries: The Tradition of Georgia vs. Florida

(HT: /film)

Wednesday, July 16

Stagg Bowl Recap

Continuing my series of "nostalgia files" that didn't make their way into SI On Campus due to my own lethargy or otherwise busy news weeks, I am turning on the way-back-machine. Today I present the column I originally wrote after the Stagg Bowl, way back in mid-December. Travel with me back to the past to reminisce about my trip to Salem, Virginia for the D-III championship game.

For the last 15 seasons, Salem, Virginia has played host to the two teams who have survived the gauntlet of the Division III playoffs. One could call it the D-III Super Bowl, but everyone uses its given name, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. For the third consecutive year, Mount Union faced off against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for the national championship. Predictions of freezing rain had clearly kept some folks from making the trek, but plenty of enthused fans and alumni arrived at the stadium parking lot early to celebrate making it this far.

Mount Union came in as prohibitive favorites, having only lost three games this century, and owning two straight victories over the Warhawks in Salem. To an impartial observer, the landscape of revelers could be a bit confusing. Both teams claim purple and black as their colors. Perhaps that was just as well. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but fans from both sides were friendly to one another, greeting their opposition with smiles and, quite frequently, beers. The celebratory air did much to cut through the freezing cold, and when that failed, purple people jumped in their cars to warm up. Those who made the drive down from Alliance, Ohio did so with supreme confidence that the Purple Raiders would win their tenth crown, flying banners that said, “Merry X-mas” and “Welcome to the Kehres Bowl” in honor of their coach, Larry Kehres. That the team had outscored opponents 605-55 over the course of the season only served to buoy that confidence. In a bold move, some Mount Union fans wore t-shirts listing their national championships, including 2007.
Just some of the confident Purple Raiders

However, the visitors were not limited to Purple Raiders and Warhawks. Alumni and current students from across the D-III landscape showed up to take part in the festivities. Representatives from Virginia’s Christopher Newport University, Wesley College in Delaware, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas and countless others made the trip to meet some of their brethren and talk football all weekend. In an example of the minor clash of cultures on display, a man from Texas kidded another from Wisconsin, “You talk funny! I have a cousin from Ohio. He talks funny, too.” Despite some gentle ribbing, there is a clear kinship among everyone making the pilgrimage to Salem. Division III doesn’t garner the national attention of the big schools. When it does find the spotlight, derision is often not far behind. These fans are quick to complain when talking heads call their sport “High School Football.”
Fans came from all over America

A group from Virginia’s Bridgewater College has been coming down to Salem every year since their team lost to Mount Union in the 2001 Stagg Bowl. Stone Station, so called because they do their home tailgating in front the house of school president, Dr. Phil Stone, employs contributions from all of their constituents. The result is a buffet fit for a king bestowed on any hungry soul in the vicinity. Much to the delight of the entire parking lot, they served up pulled pork, deep fried turkey, crab soup, barbecued chicken, ham sandwiches, fried potatoes, various salads, and made-from-scratch brownies and cookies. Once the first person yelled “Dig in,” the line didn’t stop flowing until ten minutes before kickoff. When the Whitewater band arrived, they headed straight for the spread, with one member exclaiming, “We’ll find the Whitewater tailgate later. I’m getting in line.” More than simply an impressive display of generosity, the folks at Bridgewater look forward to this event all season. It’s just as fun for them to meet far flung D-III fans as it is for those fans to chow down on all the tasty grub. While folks sampled the group’s eats, they did their best to stay warm, huddling near wood-burning fire pits. Stone Station knows how to pamper.

By the time the game kicked off, the dreaded rain finally arrived. Outside of some of the ballcarriers, nobody seemed to mind. Most unaffiliated fans pulled for Whitewater to get the upset, hoping the third try would be the charm. The game featured big hits, shifts in momentum, and some huge plays. Through the strength of Gagliardi Trophy winner Justin Beaver’s legs and an impressive defensive performance, they managed to outplay Mount Union. In the game’s closing minutes, the Warhawk fans briefly dusted off the “Over-rated!” chant, but quickly switched to “U-Dub-Dub!” A much more appropriate cheer given the respect these two teams have for one another.
Being photographed with the lowest rung on the Sports Illustrated ladder was hardly the biggest thrill of the day for the Whitewater Dance Team

After players from both teams shook hands, the Warhawks collected their trophy and posed for a team picture. Once that was finished, they shouted in unison, “Miller Time!” When one of the neutral fans blurted out, “It’s a Wisconsin thing,” a Whitewater fan said, “That’s right! We don’t drink Budweiser.” The Whitewater players then ran over to celebrate with their fans. Within fifteen minutes after the games end, the skies opened up and doused the area with rain. That cut the post-game celebration short, sending people back to their hotels. It was just as well. The pinnacle of Division III football had delivered. The game was excellent, but perhaps more importantly, the game’s followers had gotten to know one another. They all have hopes of their team’s chances to play their way into the Stagg Bowl next season. But even if the team doesn’t bring them to Salem, they plan to come anyway. After comments about the thrilling game, the most frequently heard farewell was, “See you next year,” a promise sure to be fulfilled.

Monday, July 14

Tailgate Report Card: Florida vs Georgia

I know what you're thinking. They tailgate for Softball? Well, perhaps they do, but in going through all my notes, I realized there were a couple SI On Campus stories I wrote that were never published. Consider this my "things I lost in the fire" era. So we are going way back to the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party for this one. I don't even remember what I wrote, but here it is...

Setting A neutral-site game has a lot to offer in terms of heated pregame passion shown by both sides. But the area surrounding Alltel stadium in Jacksonville is hardly anyone’s version of paradise. The tailgating areas mostly consist of cement parking lots packed with cars and little room for major grilling or tenting. That said, one has to be impressed with the immense scale of the scene. You could walk for ten blocks in any direction and still not leave the tailgating areas. Grade: C+

Knowledge of Fans As the day wore on, it seemed the level of football knowledge decreased. I’m sure it was just buried beneath all the bourbon, beer, and other consumables. A lot of people were local Jacksonville and not as into the college game as one would expect in an on-campus setting. Every Georgia fan I spoke with was convinced they had no chance to win the game. Then again, had any of us heard of Knowshon Moreno before Saturday? Grade: C

Eats
Most tailgates served pre-prepared grub or made sandwiches. Grills were rather scarce for an SEC football matchup. Part of that could have been due to the fact that this is neither team’s normal home turf. However, some more committed groups managed to put together beef tenderloin, low country boil, BBQ ribs, hot nachos, and of course heaping piles of barbecue. But how seriously does one have to take grub at a cocktail party? Grade: B-Drinks They don’t call it the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party for nothing. While there was plenty of beer to be had, bourbon was the most popular ingredient of the day. Mixed with ginger ale or coke, big bottles found themselves emptied by the end of the day. One group busted out the champagne as soon as they arrived, but many Georgia folks popped corks after the game ended. You’d be hard-pressed to find a thirsty soul in Jacksonville Saturday. Grade: AYard Games Tight quarters meant little room for throwing and tossing. Still, people managed to get in a little cornhole, beer pong, and washers. Grade: B-

Cheers and Songs It seems these neutral site affairs bring out the best in pregame enthusiasm. Florida fans started with “Orange! Blue!” The Georgia backers then countered with “What’s that coming down the track? A huge machine that’s big and black!” Gators shouted “It’s great, to be, a Florida Gator! It’s great, to be, a Florida Gator!” Dawgs woofed with a tenacity that would make Arsenio Hall blush. As kickoff approached, chats grew louder and more frequent. Walking into the game, many young men and women had already blown out their vocal cords. Grade: A

Eye Candy One could easily argue that this game is the reason the category was invented. Beautiful Georgia girls dressed in red and back sundresses and traveled in groups all day. If that wasn’t your thing, Florida cuties donned jerseys and short shorts. The day’s competition wasn’t limited to the on-field action. Ladies from both fan bases brought their A game. Even the unattractive girls looked good. I didn’t want to leave. Grade: ASuperfans Hardly anyone was painted or wearing outlandish getups. One guy’s outfit featured a plush coat in Gator blue and was topped with a homemade pimp hat. But beyond that, everyone sported team colors. Red slacks were frequent, as were Percy Harvin jerseys. Grade: C

X-factor Many games feature large huddles of RVs assigned to special sections near the stadium. But there’s nothing quite like RV City in Jacksonville. Because neighbors for the week are from opposing camps, they make special effort to wave their team’s flags and decorate their home. The result is a bizarre sort of anytown USA feel, with pride on display. Everyone managed to get along. Grade: B

Best Tailgate The standout effort belongs to Gator Hawg’s Lawg Annual BBQ. Fans of both teams flocked to their spot in RV city throughout the day, and with good reason. Over the course of the weekend, they went through four bushels of oysters, 600 pounds of barbecued pork, and enough ribs and baked beans to choke a tyrannosaurus. But perhaps the best feature of their setup is that they had two porto-lets all to themselves. The only complaint would be that their TVs were a bit dated. Plasmas would have been nice, but the classic screens fit with the vintage RV motif. Grade: B-

Perhaps because of the recent one-sidedness of the rivalry, everyone was pretty cheerful and there to have a good time. Digs on the opposition were frequent, but altercations were few and far between. I was surprised at how many Florida and Georgia fans arrived as part of the same crew. The stadium itself is awfully sterile, as is the environment nearby. I know it’s tradition to have the game in Jacksonville, but I don’t see any major reason not to go to a more typically home-and-home matchup. But it was a great experience and I’ll be recommending to friends and acquaintances to take their own visit to the WLOCP at least once.

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