Tuesday, November 10

Down in a hole

Somewhere in South Carolina, a close friend of mine is digging a hole. He's tearing up his own back yard - a small part of it at least - and he's digging. He's doing this for a dramatic gesture. He will bundle his well-worn Michigan jersey in plastic and place it in that hole. He vows not to collect it until Michigan makes a BCS bowl game.

At Mgoblog, Brian has given his last word (for now) in defense of Rich Rodriguez. Everything he writes is on the money in this complicated situation.

I love Lloyd Carr. The man took over our program at a really rough time and went out and won a national championship. He is a local hero in many ways, a Michigan man, and someone whose character should be admired not simply because of his ardent beliefs, but because in many ways he brings out the best in college football. He was not simply a coach, but viewed himself as a teacher. He believed in the game and believed in his players. Plus, he's the man who convinced me that we do indeed need a playoff. That said...

I think when people talk about the end of the Carr era, it's important to keep one major factor in mind: Mike Hart. He was a three-star recruit from the middle of nowhere New York that put the entire team on his back for four straight years. Sure, there was other talent, but after Braylon Edwards left, this wasn't exactly a stacked team. Outside of 2006, the defense was a mess, but Hart kept Michigan in every game he played. Remember in 2005 when all of Michigan fandom said "We have no chance to beat Michigan State!"? Hart came back healthy for the game and saved the day with 218 yards. We can all list a dozen games where he was the difference for Michigan. Appalachian State was supposed to be included, but, well, that thing about the abysmal defense. The Mike Hart teams won in spite of themselves and largely because he gave us a chance in every game where he was healthy. But there's a reason he never beat Ohio State, and it has little to do with him. The cupboard wasn't totally bare, but someone had been removing items when we weren't looking. Hart just made it seem like it was still relatively stocked.

For years, many people said, "We gotta fire Lloyd Carr!" My response was always the same: "OK, who do you want?" There was never an answer for this from the haters. Those who want Rodriguez axed don't have an answer either. Nearly every big-time program who fires their coach to start a new regime goes through this. The conventional wisdom is that Carr tried to put his assistants in place to take over. He gave them more responsibility in 2007. They failed. An easy transition was impossible. If we'd hired Les Miles, Marty Schottenheimer, or George S Patton, we would have had very similar problems.
Not our coach

The overriding obvious idea here is that this really sucks. As Ray Liotta said in Goodfellas, "This is the bad time."What my friend in South Carolina is doing is really important, but there's one aspect that is the most crucial part of the gesture. He's putting that jersey in plastic (please double-bag it, Roberto). He's not laying Michigan to rest. This is not a burial. This is a time capsule for himself. When he retrieves it some November day, he should buy it a bouquet of roses first (or a sack of doritos or whatever bowl-themed present is most apt). Then he should hug it high and tight like Ennis Del Mar.

I've identified my local futbol team here: Independiente. It's the third most popular team in Argentina, and has one of the richest traditions. The two most popular are Boca and River. Between them, they actually claim over 80% of the fans which is stupid, but Argentines generally like to follow the pack. Every team has nicknames they call themselves (in River's case: Los Millionarios) and names that everyone else calls them (River's: Las Gallinas (the female chickens)). Independiente used to be great, but since I first arrived here, they have been sucky to crappy. This season, they are actually playing well - winning games they shouldn't and playing above their talent. It seemed that Michigan was going the same direction, but perhaps that will have to wait until next year (ojalá!) I bring this up because the opposing team's nicknames for the Independiente fans is Los Amargos. This means, "The Bitter People." Translation - always negative, all the time. If that doesn't fit with the stereotype of a Michigan fan, then I'm Cristina Kirchner. I certainly didn't plan it that way, but maybe as Michigan fans, we're destined to suffer.
Not a Michigan fan - yet

I've been playing ultimate frisbee down here. Our team hasn't lost since March and yesterday we won the second championship in the history of the country. I bring this up because we weren't always such a dominant team. In fact, when we lost those two games in March, one team thrashed us 15-7. Since then we've been rolling. Why? We got mad, and we put in the practice. This experience will season these players, hopefully for the better. As much as this hurts us as fans, it's ten times worse for them. They're very young. Nobody can say they're not trying. They've come a long way from Toledo, even as they are sure to lose these last two games. We thought last season was the bottom. Really, we're looking at it right now, at least in terms of our patience and experience as fans. If Michigan pulls out a miracle in the last two weeks, it is a corner turned. And if not, you can't tell me this team isn't going to be more prepared next season.

So bury the jersey well, my friend. I expect it won't be ready to be dug up until November of 2011. By then it will be properly seasoned and in need of a big hug.

UPDATE: Maize N Brew chimes in

Friday, September 11

On Deals

Hey, Argentina, I thought we had an agreement. I was going to move to a country where they care about soccer, and you were going to play in the 2010 World Cup - and play well. This is not only embarrassing, I'm feeling totally ripped off. For those uninitiated, Argentina has never missed a world cup, but after losing to Brazil and Paraguay in succession this week, they have currently positioned themselves out of the tournament. There are two games remaining, but Argentina does not control its own destiny. They have to win them both and hope that Ecuador loses one.

They boast one of the two best players on the planet and a coach who was one of the greatest of all time. But this is not a team. Every player seems reluctant to give up the ball. Maybe they're all so good they think they can win games themselves. but this isn't working. It's easy for people to blame Diego Maradona, and it's clear that he's not helping the team win. But these problems existed before he arrived.
A man at the end of his tenure...?
As I said, I feel cheated. There's still an outside chance that FIFA will make some kind of exception or that Argentina can make its way in via the open slot. But at this point, nobody in this country has any confidence that such a thing will happen. They're beyond crestfallen. They're disgusted.
...this guy thinks so.
Michigan's another story. We had our own agreement. There would be ups and downs in equal measure, but the team would always be at least pretty good and I would definitely have a game to watch in January. Last year, well, we all know what happened. Then again, I'm the one who moved away. For me to whine any more about 2008 is like complaining that the girl you dumped is dating some cheesy schmo. But if we're talking about disgusted fans, it's hard not to think about what happened last year.

But then this happened:

And then this:

And suddenly... we got us a football team again. I'm tempted to check my expectations, thinking about the miracle against Wisconsin last year. It's so hard to tell early in the season what is real and what is not. That result turned out to be decidedly not real. Those who said Michigan was lucky to win were correct. And Wisconsin soon proved to be a team somewhere between mediocre and lousy.

But last week, the excitement returned. As a Michigan fan, you expect such moments. You've been promised them over the years. You get to thinking you deserve them, and maybe you do. Relief quickly turned to joy and anticipation for the next game.

Part of the deal is that Michigan never rolls over against Notre Dame. I don't think the Irish have ever blown us out, at least not in the last fifteen years. The Notre Dame fans I talk to think that they're going to cruise through this game, but that's par for the course in South Bend. Overconfidence goes with the territory. That said, they looked pretty impressive against Nevada.

I've lost all hope for Argentina. Our deal is broken. But then again, if Michigan wins tomorrow, it's clear that the fan contract is wholly renewed. There's still time for Argentina to get their act together, though I'm not ready to enter any pact with Maradona still in charge. Either way, he's likely gone. I just hope that Michigan sends Charlie Weis to join him in early retirement. VAMOS AZUL!

Wednesday, August 26

Road Games College Pick 'Em

For long about ten years now, a group of us in Chicago have been playing Pick 'Em. Over the years, our group has gotten bigger and more diverse. We now have people playing on four continents (and I'm working on Asia!). I assume if anyone is actually reading this blog anymore, they know how this works. But just in case, here's the info:

Pick the winners from the AP Top 25 each week. Rank each game by how confident you are in your pick. You get points for each game you picked correctly. Whoever wins is the smartest. Sound like fun? Of course it does!

Click on this link to join!
Group ID#: 8332
Password: goblue

Obviously, if you're reading this it's in your RSS feed and you're shocked that I've posted anything here at all. Yes, regrettably it has been quite a while since I've had anything to say here. However, I have been busy writing in various other places, most notably Fighting the Youth and Reed's Ramblings. Furthermore, the college football season is just eight days away and the local futbol season began last weekend. So consider this post the declaration that Road Games will be up and running again very, very soon. Until then, saludos!

Sunday, April 19

Super Clásico Bros.

Much like college football, the rivalries here in Argentina are the most important games of the year. Each team has their counterpart who the fans hate with all of their soul. Win your rivalry match and the season is a success. Lose, and it is a failure. For many fans, even the championship is secondary. The whole country turns its attention to the rivalry or clásico in a given week. And no clásico matches the fervor of Boca/River.The Boca Juniors are the most popular team in Argentina - one of the most popular in the world. Diego Maradona, despite getting his start as an Argentino Junior, will always be associated with Boca, having played the majority of his career there. They sport a rather fetching combination of Yellow and Blue, originally chosen due to a ship from Sweden. No joke. One could even call the yellow "maize" (although corn here is referred to only as choclo). Rival fans refer to them as Los Bosteros, meaning "manure handlers", but of course they were able to make the nickname a point of pride. Perhaps it's like the "Bug Eaters" in Nebraska, but I have to review my 'Husker lore. Traditionally, Boca appealed to the more blue-collar citizenry, though times have changed and the identities are not so clear cut anymore.
Photo by Fabián Marelli, La Nacion
River Plate is the only team that can remotely challenge Boca's popularity. Originally, the two clubs were both centered in the city's Boca neighborhood, but in 1923, River moved to the more affluent (and safer) Nuñez area. Their stadium is the largest in the country. Fans of other teams often point out that the army built the stadium for them, but this often comes off as "stadium envy." When that doesn't work, they call them the Gallinas. This literally means "hens", but is of course calling them chickens. But of course female chickens. While in the past, River drew the more wealthy crowd, that, too has changed and there have been some rather dangerous and wild incidents at their stadium.
Photo by Mauro Alfieri, La Nacion
I made several efforts to obtain tickets to the Boca vs. River match today, but was unable to find one for less than 600 pesos. It was a gorgeous day, the first really cool one we've had this autumn (yes, it's autumn here - south of the equator and all). Unwilling to pay the same as the tourists, I had to resort to internet viewing. It really tamped down the intensity, particularly since nobody scored in the first half. But the second provided more excitement. When Boca took the lead on the left foot of Martín Palermo, people all over my neighborhood hollered "Gooooool! Gooool!!" Horns were honked. River countered just minutes later off a booming free kick that zoomed past the keeper. My neighborhood erupted again, though the noise came from a completely different set of people.
English highlights can be found here, but I think you'll agree the announcers are far too polite.

And that's where things ended. Maybe ending in a tie is still like kissing your sister, but they're certainly more accustomed to it here. And considering there are no playoffs unless there's a tie in the season's final standings (and you think the BCS is frustrating - that's a whole other blog post), they won't likely play each other again until the next season. But if you think about it, it will only make the next one that much more important. At least Boca won't get voted out of going to the Rose Bowl. I hope to get to some more games soon, but Boca River may have to wait until I get some sort of promotion or commit to a team so I can get season tickets. For now, it was an exciting day that the entire city paid attention to, the closest thing they have to a Super Bowl.

Sunday, March 15

Argentine Soccer, Take 1

I ame behind in the analysis of which team I shall call my own here in the Torneo Clasura. That process will begin in this space shortly or longly. But in the meantime, I was finally able to check out a local match, something I wish I had done my first week in town.

Obtaining tickets to a fútbol game here in Buenos Aires is no easy task. I had the good fortune of friends who were able to help, but it meant traipsing across town on the hottest day of the year. The salt stains left on my red shirt were evidence of the effort, but more importantly the tickets in hand, three different versions for each seat, heightened the anticipation level. I was strongly cautioned about personal safety, partly because this was a rivalry game, and because it was in a lousy neighborhood, but mostly because it was an Argentine fútbol match. I left my cell phone, watch, and even wallet at home and wore a non-descript, black t-shirt. Taking the 128 to the game, there were a few guys Independiente jerseys. They hollered insults to any Racing fans we passed on the street, but generally behaved themselves. There was no commandeering of the bus or anything. Upon arrival, it was clear that I had been overly cautioned. There were thousands of police officers, and we were patted down three times before we got to the actual stadium.
Club Atletico Independiente vs Racing Club

Joining me was one of my old Michigan roommates. Chris and I had done this walk together many times before, though the last was a sloppy loss against Illinois on a miserably rainy day in 1999. This was reminiscent of the lead-up to every game I attended last season. Even though their season had so far lacked promise, the Red Devils were in high spirits. This was their Iron Bowl, their version of The Game. The hop in their step was only interrupted for pee breaks. The fans were roughly 95% men, one clear advantage college football affords. The police steered fans of each team down different streets, so there could be no risk of an altercation.

The Independiente stadium is currently under construction, so their home games are being held at the venue belonging to Huracán. To call it dilapidated would be a compliment. Harvard Stadium felt newer. Each seat was made of cement, complete with a contoured back – fixed right in as part of the structure. There are two sections available in each stadium, platea and popular. Popular is where all the most insane fans sit (really, stand and jump) and is cheaper. Again for the sake of safety, we sat in platea. But the fan in me was longing to join the hooligans. Because soccer can be rather mundane if you are not pulling one way or the other, Chris and I opted for the “home” team.

Argentines loves to brag about their fútbol. Truth be told, they love to brag about their everything, but one point of particular pride is that they have the craziest fans in the world. At an individual level, these people can go toe to toe with any college football fan. I have no idea how many were in either end, but they generated a ton of volume. Chris noted that Michigan doesn’t come close, and that’s about right. But didn't remotely match the volume I heard at Clemson or LSU. Still, when you consider there were probably only 20,000 fans for Independiente and 10,000 for Racing, they really brought it. Individual signs for each neighborhood could be found all over the populares. Generally a simple Olivos, or any other area, in the team’s colors. Right before kickoff, each of the populares unfurled a gigantic banner that covered their entire end of the stadium. They were like Paul Bunyan’s bedsheets. Tiny hands reaching up and poking the banners made them appear to come to life, moving like a ship lost at sea. As the players ran out to take the field, fans from both ends hurled enough toilet paper to drape Toomer’s Corner ten times over into the air and onto the field. It was amazing. If that kind of thing doesn’t get you excited to watch a game, you’re not human.

Both of these teams are having lousy seasons, but the loser would really have nothing left and likely be needing a new coach. Right from the start, it appeared we had made the right choice. The Independiente players just had more fire (and likely more talent). Ten minutes in, they notched a great goal on a header off a free kick, and the place went berserk. A fan to our right who appeared like he’d be more at home in popular immediately jumped up, turned to the Racing end, and aggressively grabbed his genitals while hollering in their direction.

The Racing fans, for their part, were really impressive. Though in smaller numbers, they made as much noise as their counterparts, but all of their cheers and songs were really in unison. I think they must meet and practice during the week. At halftime, they donned yellow construction helmets as a way to razz Independiente for their still-not-completed stadium. And when I say “they”, I mean thousands of them. And they all waited for halftime to do it. The thing is, their team is generally terrible, and even when Independiente scored goals, they hardly groaned. I can’t think of a college football equivalent – where a team is such a cheerful glutton for punishment. Washington probably came the closest. Notre Dame at least has all that history. This would be like if Vanderbilt had the most passionate fans in the country.
If only the team was ready to go to work

Independiente controlled most of the action, with Racing rarely creating a promising opportunity. The best player on the field was easily the Red Devils’ Rolfi Montenegro. It struck me how amazing it is to watch someone in any sport that is so talented that you feel like they don’t even belong on the same field as the rest of them. During my trip, the only ones that come to mind are Jake Locker, Justin Beaver, and, gulp, Vernon Gholston. (Tebow didn’t have his best outing in the Cocktail Party). A touchy foul in the penalty box gave Rolfi a penalty kick for a score after which he took off his shoe and sprinted around the field, displaying it above his head for everyone.
Rolfi looks a lot younger from far away

Throughout the match, fans cheered for every minute event. Again, if you take soccer too passively, it loses a lot. Whenever anyone made a mistake, the crowd whistled and shouted “Boludo!” Boludo is a local term meaning something in between asshole and moron often heard when driving or joking around with friends. A player from either team could accidentally kick the ball out of bounds, and the reaction would be the same “Boludo” --> You f*ed up! Ha-ha. or “Boludo” --> You f*ed up! You asshole! When #11, a striker for Independiente had the ball, the package man to our right consistently yelled, “Dale Negro!” (pronounced “dah-ley, neh-gro”), which basically means, “Come on, black guy!” This was probably yelled at least 30 times by crotch guy alone. Take that to mean what you will, but adding to the oddity of is the fact that the guy’s last name is Moreno, which pretty much means “dark guy”. Had he simply said, "Dale Moreno!", I would have thought the same thing anyway.

With about five minutes left in the game (it’s impossible to know exactly because there was no clock in the stadium), we decided to make an early exit. Chris had arrived on the red eye the night before and we had a heavy does of Argentine nightlife planned. They make the home team’s fans wait a half-hour to leave because, again, they don’t want any altercations. But by all accounts, it was a peaceful finish, with the Red Devils reveling in their triumph, and Racing firing their coach before we made it home. After my first game here, I’m most struck by the enthusiasm. In some ways, there’s no question that it tops anything I’ve seen in a college football stadium, and I’ve been to an LSU home opener. I can’t wait for round two.

This video is in Spanish, but is very worth watching. Note especially the paper from 22-32 seconds.

Friday, January 30

Futbol Season Is Nearly Upon Us

There's some sort of Super Bowl thingy this Sunday. It's been interesting to see the reaction, er, non-reaction to the event here in Buenos Aires. I have pretty much avoided all coverage of it, and that's the way I likes it. I don't even know if I'm going to watch the game at all. I don't care who wins and am only rooting for Steve Breaston to garner the MVP (or at least be stopped just short of the goalline by Larry Foote). Maybe if I can teach some locals about the game, it'll be worth enduring. After all, it is America's fourth biggest holiday, right?

With the real football season already in the books, and one last game to go in the version that still employs Tony Siragusa, we're in the thick of the offseason. Reports about recruiting and coach-hiring and all sorts of other barely-football-related matters abound. But here in Argentina, the autumn season of La Primera División Argentina is about to kick off. Everyone tells me that the fans here are craaaazy and thinks I should compare them to the college football fanatics from home. Putting aside false modesty for a moment, I can't think of a better person to play judge.

Soccer is nearly unwatchable if you're not actually rooting for one of the teams. At this point, I have no team of my own and don't have any preconceived notions about any of them. It's a rare opportunity to make a fresh choice. I feel like every other team in my life was somewhat chosen for me, but this is my chance to become a fan with eyes open all the way. So I aim to pick one and will do so very publicly here in this space. Coming next week, the criteria I plan to use and a synopsis of every team I can realistically choose. Before making my final decision, I plan to check out the stadiums and fans as well. Hopefully by mid-season, I'll be painting my face and cursing at the television again.

As I said, soccer games are kinda hard when you don't care. Soccer highlights, on the other hand....seriously groovy:

Thursday, January 22

Fisking the ESPN Prestige Rankings

ESPN has put together a "prestige ranking" of all the I-AA college football programs. "ESPN's Prestige Rankings are a numerical method of ranking the best FBS college football programs since the 1936 season." Obviously, this is more of an exercise that is just for fun and not to be taken too seriously. But at times, I like to take frivolous things more seriously. It's the nerdy statistician in me. So let's take a look at what they did and where they may have erred.

Their system:
National Title: 25 points
Major bowl berth: 10
Major bowl win: 10
Conference Championship: 10
AP Top 5 Finish: 10
AP 6-10 Finish: 6
AP 11-25 Finish: 4
Heisman Winner: 8
Bowl Appearance: 3
Bowl Win: 3
10-win Season: 2
Week as AP #1: 2
Win over AP #1: 1
Each All-American: 1
First Round NFL Pick (since 1970): 1
Losing season: -2
TV Ban year: -1
Bowl Ban year: -2
Probation year: -1
Financial-aid Penalty year: -1
Recruiting Penalties year: -1
Each penalty of "show cause action:" -2

What they definitely got right:
  • 25 points for a National Title is dead on.
  • They handled the conference championship perfectly, and have the right amount of points on it (see their page for details or just trust me).
  • 8 points for a Heisman trophy is probably right. Perhaps it could go to 10, but it is a major aspect of the sport, even if you disagree with it.
  • The AP finish rankings are pretty much perfect.
  • When it comes to one point for each All-American, you could debate that this isn't important and that team success should supersede everything. But everywhere I went, the great players were integral to the thoughts and feelings that everyone expressed to me. At LSU, I heard no less than 40 renditions of Billy Cannon's punt return vs. Ole Miss. Even the youngest Dawgs wanted to discuss Herschel Walker's amazing freshman season. Tommie Frazier could run for governor of Nebraska one day and win in a landslide. When talking about prestige, certainly the great players who made the great plays matter. Do offensive linemen really belong in this category? Maybe not, but to keep the methodology consistent, you have to include them.
What they got wrong:
  • Including points for a 10-win season is very problematic. It inherently means less than it used to, thanks to the additional games on the schedule and the fact that those additional games are almost exclusively facing the weakest competition available. I don't think that beating Georgia Southern really improved Georgia's prestige any, but it did get them to 10 wins this season. Furthermore, it shouldn't be included because it is redundant with all the other measures. In statistics, it's akin to what we'd call an overspecified model.
  • Including each week ranked as the AP#1 and giving it two points, yet counting a victory over the AP#1 with only one point seems totally backwards to me. Alabama held their #1 ranking the week they beat Mississippi State. Did that really add to the program's prestige in any way? The sport of College Football is inherently about the big moments. And there is no bigger moment in the sport than taking down the #1 team in the country. This should be worth 10 points on its own. Just ask Texas Tech fans. Crabtree's touchdown against #1 Texas trumps any prestigious moment in the history of the program and will until they win the conference (and even then, there will be some who argue that this was bigger).
  • Strength of Schedule is basically absent outside of the one point for taking down the AP #1. It's a part of the game (well, it used to be anyway). I realize it would be hard to include this, but the "big games" are important. Perhaps including nationally televised broadcasts would have been good (though quite unfairly skewed as well). Or at least a point for every win over an AP ranked team.
  • First round NFL Pick doesn't belong here. Does Ryan Leaf's NFL experience add to the prestige of Washington State? He was chosen 3rd overall. Also, since it only goes back to 1970, it will skew the data to more recent success. ESPN still has trouble understanding that the two sports are not the same. Also it's relatively redundant with the All Americans.
What's missing?
  • Part of a program's prestige has always been wrapped up in its all-time great coaches. Can you think of Ohio State without Woody Hayes? Or Alabama without Bear Bryant? It would not have been hard to include points for any coach that was with a school for at least ten years and had at least a .700 winning percentage. For Penn State, give Paterno credit for each decade of tenure.
  • Because their system goes season by season, there is nothing for all-time records. For most fans, this certainly plays into the argument for the prestige of their school. It would not have been hard to include a certain number of points for every 100 wins all time. Yes, there would be some redundancy, so perhaps this is not needed.
  • Nothing for attendance? Shouldn't Miami should be penalized for their lousy fan base? Fans are a part of the game, too, and certainly affect the prestige of a program.
They actually address this issue, saying:
The AP poll was introduced that season, making it the first time the longest-standing news organization in the United States began ranking teams and crowning a national champion. Starting in 1937, the NCAA began recognizing "major college programs" (now known as the FBS). To accrue points, a program had to be recognized as one of these major programs by the NCAA.
This is a curious decision to me. When we are talking about "prestige", that doesn't precisely equate with "history", but they're certainly related. To begin in 1936 is to begin after the death of Knute Rockne. In these rankings, we have no Four Horsemen, no Red Grange, none of the "point a minute" Fielding Yost teams, and none of the great Army teams from that era. However, all these seasons matter to many fans today, and are talked about specifically in terms of prestige. Go to South Bend sometime and see if nobody quotes Grantland Rice to you. I promise you it's not possible.

The omission of all early seasons will knock down Michigan and Notre Dame at the least. Perhaps this is by design? As I learned on the road last season, Notre Dame is universally resented around the nation. Michigan is coming off a down year. They have two of the most active internet fan bases and will surely be irate about a lower ranking, causing them to talk about this endeavor that much more. Uhh... kinda like I'm doing right now. It seems like their rationale here doesn't really meet with the overall goal of the project, so I find myself skeptical about the decision. I mean, shouldn't Michigan beating Stanford 45-0 in the very first bowl game add to its prestige a bit? We'll see how things net out as they reveal 1-10 over the next two days. So far, #s 11-119 feel pretty accurate.

Overall, these rankings make a lot more sense in the pre-BCS, pre-horrendous scheduling era. If anything, they point out how much of the tradition has eroded in the last ten years. If I had to bet, my money would be on Nebraska or Oklahoma to take the title. Those "bonus" scholarship players and years of beating up on the other 6 teams in their conference are going to pile up the points.

Tuesday, January 13

Road Games Top 25

I'm not part of the Blogpoll (and really, it would be unforgivable if I were considering how hard it was to see games from Buenos Aires this year), but I'm putting together my own Top 25 anyway. As I said last year, these rankings are based on season-long performance, not “who would win right now.” Because that would be an exercise in conjecture and inherently debatable. Explanation at the bottom:

1) USC
2) Florida
3) Texas
4) Utah
5) Oklahoma
6) Penn State
7) TCU
8) Alabama
9) Texas Tech
10) Oregon
11) Ole Miss
12) Boise State
13) Ohio State
14) Oregon State
15) Georgia
16) California
17) Florida State
18) Virginia Tech
19) Oklahoma State
20) Iowa
21) LSU
22) Cincinnati
23) Missouri
24) West Virginia
25) Arizona

Here's the thing. The way the schedules are nowadays, most of the teams play a pretty weak slate. A great team should win all its games. But teams either have off days or happen to schedule opponents who are equal to the task. These days, such dream matchups are all the more rare. When multiple teams are tied in the loss column, some choose to disregard the loss and only look at the wins on their resumé. I tend to go the opposite way. Some losses are more forgivable than others.

USC was penalized for losing to a perceived lousy team. But as the season progressed, it became clear that Oregon State was much improved after their first two performances (thanks largely to the discovery of tailback Jacquizz Rogers). In addition, nobody seems to recall the Trojans' loss was a Thursday night road game. Year in, year out, we see more road teams struggle on weeknights than in any other type of game. There must be a backlash against them after all the rampant pro-USC coverage because I don't hear anyone pleading their case. I don't particularly like 'em, but to me, USC played the best football this year, including their absolutely flawless performance in the Rose Bowl. Penn State made a bunch of mistakes, but even with a perfect game would not have seen victory. Florida had a great season, but a home loss to Ole Miss is clearly worse, and USC generally dominated every game they played afterwards. Plus, I don't think that Oklahoma is that much better than Penn State anyway (one slot to be precise).

What to do about Utah? Like it or not, style points matter in college football. Utah barely escaped against Oregon State, Air Force, New Mexico, TCU and, um, Michigan. Nobody was lamenting the supposed shoddy treatment for Utah until they handled Alabama. Now they're national champions? Alabama was overrated all season thanks to their opening-weekend victory over Clemson (who, incidentally, ended up at 7-6 and fired their coach). 'Bama played a schedule with few heavyweights, but included Arkansas State and Western Kentucky. They failed to dominate any of their stronger opponents. Yes, I know they're the SEC West Champion, but this was the weakest SEC year in a while. In my mind, the result of the Sugar Bowl did more to validate the notion that 'Bama wasn't that good than the fact that Utah is the best in the land.

I feel like I have TCU too high (credit for the bowl win, but what else did they really accomplish this year?), but I don't know who else to put in that slot, so they remain #7.

I'm left feeling very disappointed by this season, and not just because Michigan was terrible. As I said in the aforementioned posting, I have come around on the playoff debate. It is inevitable (eventually), and at this point it is best for the game, as long as they keep it to six teams or fewer (as many others have noted, look no further than this week's NFC championship game for supportive evidence). Given the current system, Oklahoma didn't deserve the BCS nod, and I can't fathom why any voter outside of Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer would have put them where they did. Sure, their schedule was slightly stronger than that of Texas, but they were beaten by the Longhorns, whereas Texas lost a road night game to a strong team by one second. Haven't we now learned about teams rolling up extravagant point totals yet not having a consistent defense. I said no conjecture, but I do believe that Texas could take Florida head to head. As it stands, they each played Oklahoma evenly, though the Sooners made a lot more errors against Florida. So we must yet again lament the matchup that should have been, just like we do seemingly every other year.

Wednesday, January 7

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

It feels like so many aspects of college football have been changing lately. It's been over a year since I finished my big journey, and in that time, we've become acquainted with so many new names, teams, and rules. A few weeks ago, the folks from Stone Station made their annual trek to Salem, VA for the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. In 2007, even though my itinerary was complete, I decided to brave the winter weather and make an extra road trip to Virginia at their invitation. Obviously, that would have been darn near impossible from Buenos Aires this season. I chose to only be there in spirit.
Hmmmm. These teams look familiar.

At Auburn, the richest boosters finally got rid of Tommy Tuberville, and not because he nearly trampled me at the Iron Bowl. Apparently, Tommy never licked the right boots in Auburn, but as the trees at Toomer's Corner were loaded with toilet paper, no one in attentance could have imagined that he'd be gone a year later.
Tommy's second-to-last Iron Bowl

Meanwhile, across the nation, everyone from Barack Obama to the lowliest intern at ESPN has been weighing in on whether we need a playoff. Blah blah blah. So maybe things haven't changed so much. Actually, my opinion has been altered a bit since I wrote about the topic last time, partly due to my interview with Lloyd Carr. His main point - right now, we're deciding a champion, but not letting it be decided by what happens on the field. And that's pretty right, especially to fans who today happen to be in Austin and South Central.

Still, I can't help but be filled with uneasy trepidation about the topic. When at Wisconsin, I interviewed a man named Ken Simmons who'd played for the Badgers as a walk-on. He'd been a part of the team during their only winning season between 1963 and 1981 when they managed a 7-4 record in 1974. Decades later, he was able to see his son walk on and a daughter play for the softball team. He continues to work with the athletic department. Like many veterans of the game, he held a long perspective on things. The last thing he said to me in our interview was "Look at why there is the passion there is for college football. You don’t want to change that a whole lot. I think that’s why they’re moving as slowly as they are."
Not Ken Simmons

Over at SI.com, Stewart Mandel recently recounted the story of his first trip to the Rose Bowl. It was a visceral reminder of mine two years later. That's a tale I've planned to tell in this space for a while now. I hope to share it soon. Needless to say, it was one of the highlights of my life. The point is, so many of the people who offer their expert opinion on bowls, playoffs, and championships don't really know anything about college football. It's not the NFL. And in fact, that's a big part of why we like it.

Clearly the BCS isn't working. We were told it would provide a definitive answer on the National Championship. Like many newfangled doo-dads, it failed to deliver on its promises, but we all should have known they were too good to be true. Now fans are left with unattainable expectations. One day, the NCAA will institute a playoff. It is inevitable in the long run. But since they have totally botched the BCS since its inception, do we have any faith in the idea that they won't completely botch a playoff, too? The BCS is terrible, but it's still better than a wrong playoff would be. 16 teams? Welcome to the NFL minor league. As Ken said, if they're not careful, they could ruin the game completely. With ESPN and Fox having as much control as they do, it's more fragile than you think. Besides, if the NCAA isn't going to address the issue of cupcake non-conference scheduling, then I don't trust them to tackle this with the good of the game in mind either.

When you see the games live and in person, you catch a lot more than you can over TV. That's just the way it is. It's how I was able to identify Ohio State's weaknesses on defense just days before Illinois exploited them last year. But when you can't see the games at all, it's like you're watching everything underwater, depending on blogs and youtubes and choppy Slingbox connections to capture the moments for you. You're that much farther removed. That's how this season has been for me. Honestly, I miss Saturday. And whatever changes occurred were far away. With Michigan this year, maybe it was for the best. But it's still my favorite sport, the game I can't get enough of. It's been hard not to be close to it after my year "on the ground." But with a National Championship(ish?) game to be played tonight, let's just pause a second to remember how special it is. No amount of controversy, even it comes via executive signing statement from the White House, can trample that.

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