Tuesday, August 18, 2015

20 INSANE College Football Predictions for 2015

Okay, so these predictions aren’t all INSANE, but I wanted a nice clickbait headline since social media taught me everyone loves clickbait.

Please remember – I will revisit this after the season. In 2013, I did pretty good. In 2014, I did not, even though I correctly picked the national champion.

1) TCU & Ohio State will go undefeated

It has been very surprising to read the ongoing narrative that college football is wide-open this year. This is solely due to the new playoff, which opens up more slots for teams to play for a title. Because if this were a BCS year, there would be no “wide-open” narrative, merely the feeling of inevitability.

To me, 2015 feels an awful lot like 2005. If you recall, USC came into 2005 as the defending champion, with a ridiculous amount of returning offensive stars, and obliterated everyone. That’s 2015 Ohio State. And if you recall, Texas came into 2004 off of a 1-loss season, a tremendous bowl performance and bringing back its Heisman-worthy quarterback. That’s 2015 TCU.

I don’t see either team losing. In fact, I don’t see either team coming close to losing. They both start on the road against Power Five non-conference opponents. They will both win by 21+ points. They will be #1 and #2, in some order, for the entire season. Yet neither team will win the national championship.

2) Cincinnati will go 12-0....but lose the AAC title game

gunner kiel 2015If Gunner Kiel can stay healthy, Cincinnati will be the best Group of Five team. They were a really good team last year that didn’t quite get the respect it deserved due to tough road losses to Ohio State and Miami. Most damning, they were ambushed by a vastly improved Memphis team in between those two games – ugly three game losing streaks tend to make people forget about you.

Here’s to guessing that won’t happen again. Cincinnati should be 3-0 heading into a big Thursday night rematch at Memphis, which I believe the Bearcats will be primed and ready for. They return home for another rematch game against Miami – another Thursday night game – that will provide yet another national TV showcase. Miami is still not that good. The tricky game is the road game at BYU, but it comes after a bye week and the jury is out on BYU being any good this year. The last six games are all winnable.

So that puts Cincinnati at 12-0, with a high ranking, maybe even on the fringe of the playoff discussion, when they host the AAC Title Game in December. The problem? They’re going to play Memphis again. And it’s really, really hard to beat the same team twice. They won’t.

3) Notre Dame will lose to Navy
4) Notre Dame will make the playoff

The first year of the college football playoff revealed an interesting quirk – it’s better to lose to an average team than a great team. When we examine resumes of contenders in December, it’s clear that quality of wins is going to be the determining factor. It certainly was last year when Ohio State crept past the two Big 12 teams. In my opinion, TCU was the better team but losing to Baylor robbed them of the key quality win they needed. If TCU had lost to, say, Kansas State but had beat Baylor, they would have had a stronger resume. We’ll see if this trend continues, but the playoff committee has clearly shown a preference in Year 1 toward big wins.

Which brings us to Notre Dame and their perfect playoff-era schedule. They play 4 teams that would qualify, in the preseason, as a quality win – Georgia Tech, Clemson, USC and Stanford. They also play a slew of teams, such as Texas and Pitt, that should be decent enough to help their overall strength of schedule. That includes Navy, a team that always gives Notre Dame fits. This year, Notre Dame plays Navy the week after a trip to Clemson and before a visit from rival USC. Might as well just put TRAP GAME in bold letters.

Notre Dame is good enough to go undefeated. They won’t. They are good enough to go 11-1. By losing to the right team – and by ending the season with a win over 11-0 Stanford – Notre Dame will find itself in the Top 4.

5) Stanford will win the Pac-12

Stanford went 8-5 last year. They should’ve gone 11-2. They lost to Notre Dame on the road on a blown assignment during a 4th down play. They were driving to beat USC before a late turnover. And they lost to Utah in double OT. Stanford was way too good last year to lose those games – they were not good enough to beat Oregon or Arizona State. But those losses served to ruin expectations for Stanford in 2015. It doesn’t quite make sense.

I was in Vegas in late July and I jumped all over Stanford at 25-1 to win the National Title. One down year has made way too many people forget about Stanford. QB Kevin Hogan is still there, and he’s still the same QB that was bandied about a first-round draft pick prior to last year.

Most important, though, is the schedule. With the exception of USC, they play all the other top Pac-12 teams (and Notre Dame) at home. They play 5 road games and USC is the only one who even went to a bowl – a remarkable bit of luck in an insanely stacked conference.

dak prescott touchdown
6) Mississippi State will win the SEC West

I know Mississippi State is losing a lot of talent from last year’s team, but the thorough lack of respect for the Bulldogs is astounding. This team was #1 for nearly half of 2014 and was in the playoff hunt until Thanksgiving weekend. The season ended with a thud, but they are not the first, or last, team to get vexed by a triple option team. Simply put, the Orange Bowl made the Bulldogs look much, much worse than they were.

Oh, and I may be burying the lede here, but Mississippi State returns the best QB in the SEC. Dak Prescott was an absolute monster in 2014 and he was my Heisman choice for most of the year. He is back. Josh Robinson is back. Dan Mullen has been recruiting like crazy. Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss are all looking to break in new starting QBs. Arkansas needs to make another huge leap to get into title contention. And Texas A&M sucks.

The season will be defined in September, when the Bulldogs host LSU and go on the road to Auburn. An easy October means the Bulldogs could – again – be undefeated and in the thick of the playoff hunt come November.

7) UConn will make a bowl game

What’s the fun of August without irrational optimism? Bob Diaco said UConn was going undefeated, so maybe a 6-6 prediction isn’t that insane.

8) Baylor will lose at least 3 games

I’m selling on Baylor this year for two reasons. First, I don’t think Bryce Petty got nearly enough credit. There’s a notion that Baylor develops “system” QBs and that you can plug in anybody there to get similar results. I do not buy that at all. Baylor won 2 conference titles in my lifetime and Petty was at the helm both times. That means something.

Secondly, Baylor’s game does not travel. They are unbeatable at home and very, very beatable on the road. They also have a dreadful schedule, with 7 easy games leading up to a bye on Halloween, which is followed by a ridiculous finish where they play the Big 12’s five best teams in five weeks, including road trips to Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU. Yikes! Given Baylor’s high expectations, I could see one loss becoming two, becoming three as the wheels come off.

9) Texas A&M will lose at least 5 games

Unless Johnny Football is walking through that door, Texas A&M is going to be what they have been for 20 years – a five-loss football team. It is insane to me that people are picking them to actually win the SEC West, when it’s far more likely they finish last. People are pointing to hosting Alabama and Auburn as a reason for them to surprise people….but they are 3-7 at home in SEC conference play. Kyle Field has been a cakewalk for visitors.

Maybe it’s Kevin Sumlin’s appeal, or the renovated stadium, or a ridiculous notion that the state of Texas is now somehow Aggieland, but Texas A&M is not a Top 10 program. The SEC West is loaded and they’ll start the year with a loss against Arizona State.

10) Frank Beamer will announce his retirement in October

It’s not quite a Bobby Bowden situation, but Virginia Tech has lost 17 games in the past three years. For a program, and a coach, that pumped out 10-win seasons like clockwork for 15 years, that’s rough. Unfortunately, I don’t see things dramatically turning around for Beamer and the Hokies.

A Labor Day night beatdown will get the vultures circling. I expect them to right the ship enough by October that Beamer will get to announce his retirement at the end of the season, which will give Va. Tech to give him the proper sendoff he deserves and allow the succession plan to get going before recruiting.

11) Michigan will win 9 games

In horse racing terms, the 2014 Michigan season was a total toss-out – just draw a line through it. The entire program was in such disarray that once the wheels started coming off, the season was lost. The results after the Minnesota/Shane Morris fiasco did not matter. The season was over.

That is a long-winded way of saying Michigan is not your typical 5-7 Big Ten team. They are more talented than that. They needed a new coach. They didn’t just get any new coach, they got arguably one of the Top 5 coaches in all of football. How will they not get better?

Secondly, the schedule is ideally set up for a huge gain in wins, even if the season starts with a loss to Utah. They play three straight home games after the opener, which means they should be playing BYU to enter Big Ten play at 3-1. They get their two toughest conference opponents – Michigan State & Ohio State – at home. The road trips to Penn State, Minnesota and Maryland aren’t easy but Michigan should realistically expect to win each of those games.

Lastly, has Michigan football ever entered a season with so little expectations? I mean, no one nationally is talking about them. They will get a fair amount of hype for the opener, but an expected loss to Utah will remove that hype. That might be the key to Michigan returning to a New Year’s Day bowl. Hello, Outback Bowl.

bobby petrino screaming
12) Louisville will beat Auburn

Bobby Petrino is a pretty horrible being, as the inclusion of Devonte Fields on his roster reveals. But Bobby Petrino is also a pretty damn good football coach, as the Cardinals win over Auburn will prove in week 1. Louisville is a much better team than people give them credit for and Auburn is a tad overrated. I could see Auburn becoming a Top 10 team by November – I don’t see them getting their act together by week 1.

Let’s not discount the motivation factor. For Auburn, this is a season-opening game, no more, no less. For Louisville, this is a season-defining game, particularly after the drubbing fellow SEC team Georgia dealt them in their bowl game.

13) No SEC team will make the playoff

Okay, this is my boldest prediction by far and the one that I feel most confident about. Why? The SEC is in a down cycle. No, it’s not terrible. Yes, it will have at least 2 teams playing in New Year’s Six bowls. The problem is the league lacks the elite teams that deserve to play for a title.

Here’s the deal – the SEC has about 10 teams that could win the SEC. That means a lot of parity. That means a lot of fun football. That means a lot of losses for a lot of teams. I highly doubt we’ll see a return of last September, when the SEC West beat everyone. Auburn will lose to Louisville. Texas A&M will lose to Arizona State. Tennessee will lose to Oklahoma. Those non-conference losses, compared with the grind of the SEC, will lead to a two-loss champion in a year where Notre Dame, as an independent, will usurp their playoff spot.

This is the not-so bold prediction: all hell will break loose on ESPN when 11-2 Georgia gets ranked #5 in the final poll.

14) No ACC team will be in the Top 10 after the regular season

The ACC has been a mediocre conference in the 21st century. The only change came in the past few years as Jimbo Fisher returned Florida State to their prior glory. They are in for a tough rebuilding year – they were lucky as hell to go 13-0 last year – and will probably be 2- or 3-loss outfit. They may be Top 15 or 20, they won’t be Top 10. Neither will Clemson. Neither will Georgia Tech. Without Florida State at an elite level, the ACC will return to sending a multiple-loss team to a major bowl game. It will be forgiven this year, though, because….

15) Duke win the ACC.

Why not? I don’t have this based on any football reason. It feels like a down year for the ACC and Duke has been improving. It would be fun. And who wouldn’t love a Memphis/Duke Peach Bowl??

16) The Orange Bowl will do insane ratings on New Year's Eve; the Cotton Bowl will not.

I have #1 Ohio State vs. #4 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. Everyone will change their New Year’s Eve plans to watch.

I have #2 TCU vs. #3 Stanford in the Cotton Bowl. No one will change their New Year’s Eve plans to watch a game that will kick off at 4:30 p.m., aka when half the country is still at work.

Will it lead to playing the semifinals on New Year’s Day every year, like God intended? We can only hope.

17) Memphis will play in the Peach Bowl & Justin Fuente will get an SEC job

Well if I have Cincinnati at 12-0 and losing the AAC title game to Memphis, it makes sense Memphis will be the Group of Five representative. I see the Tigers going 11-2, with losses during the regular season to Cincy and Ole Miss. The revenge win on the road at Nippert Stadium will make them AAC champs and easily the best Group of Five team.

The problem is that Justin Fuente will almost certainly get too big to stay at Memphis and his reward for one of college football’s most remarkable turnarounds will be an SEC gig. Unfortunately, that SEC gig will be Vanderbilt but it’ll be a big step up.

18) Mike London will be the first coach fired

I’m not sure if this is a bold prediction, or an acknowledgment that Virginia has the worst September schedule of any team in the country. Who thought it was a good idea to start at UCLA, then host Notre Dame? And then end September with a visit from Boise State? A 1-3 start is nearly assured.

By the time UVa plays road games back-to-back against Miami and Louisville, London will be coaching for his job and a bowl game. They would have to go 5-3 in the ACC to make a bowl and I’m not seeing it. When UVa gets loss #7, London will be let go. My best guess is after the Miami game on Nov. 7.

19) Trevone Boykin will win the Heisman Trophy

If I have two teams undefeated for the whole season, passing #1 back and forth, then it’s fairly obvious where the Heisman Trophy is going. The problem for Ohio State is an embarrassment of riches will split the vote – even more so now that Braxton Miller is playing H-back (shudder).

That leaves Boykin, whose play in 2014 was the biggest revelation in the sport. TCU has always been a good team offensively, but the way Boykin fit the up-tempo spread game that TCU introduced last year was beyond stunning. With another year in the system, it could be even more potent. Unlike with Ohio State, only 1 player will be getting the headlines.

20) Stanford will win the National Championship

I put my money where my mouth is. While in Las Vegas last month, I got Stanford at 25-1. Here’s how the Cardinal season plays out: they will start 11-0, lose to Notre Dame, win the Pac-12 title game, beat TCU in the Cotton Bowl, stun Ohio State in the title game, and I will cash in a big winning ticket. Now that’s insane.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Could 2015 Be The Best Sports Year Ever?

We should have known something was up on the first day of 2015.

For the first time in history, major college football gave us a playoff and the results far exceeded anything anyone could have expected. The Rose Bowl and Superdome crackled with life for hours. The Oregon destruction of Florida State was a history-making event. The Ohio State/Alabama Sugar Bowl was an all-time great game.

2015 sugar bowl
When Ezekiel Elliott sprinted for the game-clinching touchdown, the Superdome exploded – as did I hundreds of miles away in my living room. As a college football fan, it was what I always wanted. I wanted to see the best teams fighting it out to determine who was best. Not pollsters or coaches or commentators – it was players on the field leaving it all on the line.

It was the best New Year’s Day in two decades and rivaled many of them before that. Of course, the morons that run college football moved those games on New Year’s Eve for this year, but that’s a story for another day.

In short, the first college football playoff kicked off what has been the most thrilling six months on the sporting calendar that I can ever remember, rolling right through Dustin Johnson’s unforgettable three-putt on Sunday during a train wreck U.S. Open.

As you’re reading this, I’m sure you have your own moment running through your head. From every sport – save NASCAR, which has been completely awful – there have been indelible moments that will pop up in montages for decades.

What is your favorite?

The NFL provided multiple heart-stopping playoff games, culminating in a Super Bowl that concluded on the one-yard line with one of the most controversial play calls in history.

The NBA Finals gave us LeBron James putting forth the best statistical effort ever while the Warriors redefined how the sport was played. The first round series between the Clippers and Spurs gave us one of the best Game 7s ever, which just happened to take place after the Kentucky Derby and before the biggest prizefight in a generation.

Speaking of horse racing, that sport delivered the first Triple Crown in 37 years and American Pharoah looks to recalibrate the ceiling of an entire sport.

The Stanley Cup playoffs, well, I guess they did what they do every year. There were seemingly multiple overtime games on a nightly basis for weeks. The two conference finals were thrilling, particularly the battle between the Blackhawks and the Ducks. The Final series didn’t feature a two-goal lead until the bitter end.

rickie fowler win
The PGA Tour ushered in a much-needed new era of American golf with Jordan Spieth running away with the Masters and Rickie Fowler winning the Players Championship in the most exciting final round shootout in that tournament’s history. Even Tiger Woods’ decline has been fascinating in that rubber-necking, “I can’t look but I will” sort of way.

March Madness lived up to its billing but, unlike so many previous iterations, the excitement did not die once everyone’s brackets were torn up. It built to a glorious crescendo, with Kentucky escaping by a thread against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight and then losing their undefeated season to a motivated Wisconsin team in the Final Four. That Duke won the title in another thriller is almost irrelevant.

Even baseball, whose season is less than three months old, has given us a wide range of fascinating subplots, such as the resurgence of the Cubs and the emergence of Bryce Harper.

Personally, there have been more moments in the past six months where friends have texted, or the bar I was in exploded, or the party I was at stopped, than I can ever remember. It felt like every time there was a major sporting event – yeah, we’ll exclude Mayweather/Pacquiao – it lived up to the hype and then some.

That is made even more remarkable by the time we live in. Everything is hyped to the point of exhaustion. The Golf Channel does an hour-long pregame show for the Colonial. I think ESPN began its pre-game for the first college football title game on Saturday. It takes something extraordinary to make all that talk seem worthy and, time and time again, the sports world delivered.

We spend too much time analyzing and not enough time appreciating. In the past two weeks, I saw a Triple Crown, an incredible Stanley Cup Finals, a once-in-a-lifetime performance by LeBron James, the beginning of the Women’s World Cup and a fascinating golf major. It’s been an embarrassment of riches for the sports fan.

We still have six months to go. If they rival the first six, 2015 will cement its place as the greatest sports year ever.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

American Pharoah’s Belmont Stakes Win Will Echo Forever

“I can’t explain, but I wanna try.”

In my memory, the 90,000 screaming fans at Belmont Park aren’t making a sound. It’s only that horse, making that move, at that moment.

american pharoah belmont stakes
For the 2015 Belmont Stakes, our seats were at 1/8th pole. My Dad and I had sat near there every year since 1999. Most years, we saw horses struggling – extending themselves further than they ever had or ever will again. It was a battle merely to get to the finish line.

On June 6, 2015, it was different. American Pharoah didn’t run by us – he flew by us. That’s my memory. If you watch a replay of the race, the 1/8th pole is where Victor Espinoza finally urged American Pharoah to run and he took off like a 747. You can use any word you can find in the thesaurus. He exploded. He rocketed. He unleashed a super-charge burst that will ring through history.

There is no such thing as hyperbole when discussing American Pharoah’s Triple Crown. That, in short, is the beauty of it. His performance made all the wait worth it. His triumph proved the Triple Crown wasn’t broken. It was perfect.

The Belmont Stakes is my favorite day of the year, whether there’s a Triple Crown on the line or not. It is fitting that the Triple Crown came ten years after Afleet Alex, who himself ran all three legs, burst down the Belmont stretch with the most powerful, awe-inspiring move I had seen in my life. Like Pharoah, Alex coasted until Jeremy Rose said go and, as Tom Durkin famously said, he was “going, going, gone.”

In retrospect, the Triple Crown was won in a matter of seconds. As Gary Stevens astutely noted, the race was over after three strides. American Pharoah was so superior to his competition in every way that he simply toyed with them. A year after California Chrome couldn’t quite get the mile and a half; Espinoza rode an incredibly conservative race.

Why wouldn’t he? So many times, I arrived at Belmont Park believing this was the day. I knew for sure that Smarty Jones would not be denied. I knew that Big Brown’s inferior competition couldn’t beat him. I knew California Chrome’s acceleration would send him into history.

The failures added up year after year but the belief never wavered. That was never truer than this year.

Only Smarty Jones had instilled a confidence in the crowd at Belmont during a Triple Crown. On that day in 2004, the crowd truly believed they attending a coronation. I wrote about the “wall of sound” that engulfed Belmont that day, when Smarty opened up at the top of the stretch. When he lost, that wall turned into disgusting silence. It was the most gloriously painful sporting event I will ever attend.

When American Pharoah opened up around the far turn at Belmont this year, the crowd was excited but not ready to explode. My Dad yelled, “They’re not catching him!” and I told him to shut up.

But the most amazing thing happened – as Pharoah ran by you, you knew. The thought gives me goosebumps 17 days later, and will for the next 17 years.

The sound cascaded down the Belmont grandstands with the horse. When he ran by, looking the way he did, you knew you had just witnessed history. When he flew by the 1/8th pole, everyone in my section started high-fiving and hugging because it was all over by the shouting. When he crossed the finish line, the sound was so loud I didn’t hear a word of Larry Collmus’ now-famous call.

Many people have said that they cried when Pharoah crossed the finish line. I can’t say that happened to me but something else just as strange did – my Dad started hugging strangers. So I started hugging strangers. So did my 21 year-old cousin, who chose the most excellent Belmont Stakes to make his first. I hugged the guys in front of me. I hugged the guy across from me I hadn’t talked to. Hell, I even hugged the beer vendor!

belmont stakes crowd
There will never be another reaction at a sporting event that will ever compare. You never get 90,000 people cheering for the same team. There is always at least a pocket of fans rooting for the opposition. No one was rooting for Keen Ice – I gladly ripped up my win ticket on him and threw it around like confetti.

The noise was indescribable. I’ve been thinking for weeks how to explain it and I can’t. When Smarty Jones hit the lead, I explained it as a “747 taking off from inside your stomach.” But this was more. It was a roar mixed with joy mixed with screaming with a dash of the unthinkable. No one could really understand what they were feeling because we didn’t really know how to react. The vast majority of the crowd wasn’t even alive for the last Triple Crown.

The night before, I told a friend I thought this was the year. He then asked me what I would do if it happened. I said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t. I had always thought about a horse winning the Triple Crown but never let myself imagine the reaction.

It didn’t matter. I could never have imagined that reaction. My Dad sat down during the celebration, shook his head and said, “I almost passed out.” That’s how intense it was. You saw people randomly sit down for a second and do the same thing. It was too much. It was overwhelming.

The buzz never subsided. For the weeks leading up to the race, the New York Racing Association had begged fans to not leave right after the race to allow crowds to leave in waves. They had no such problem this year. No one wanted to leave.

There are always two races after the Belmont Stakes, in part to keep the crowd from not leaving at once. Following Chrome’s failure in 2014, the place was completely vacated by the last race. This year, it felt like 75 percent stayed. How do you walk away from history?

I walked around the paddock area after the Belmont, striking conversations with random strangers about their experience. “I’ve been going since Charismatic,” I would say. “My first was Point Given,” said one man. “Been here since Funny Cide,” told me another. A woman said she had been every year since 1997 and brought her 16-year old niece for her first to see Pharoah. There were tears in her eyes.

Some two hours after the race, the Goo Goo Dolls began their post-race concert and the party kept going. Since we had a 2+ hour drive back to Connecticut, we couldn’t stay until Iris. We rode in silence, all three of us clearly playing the event over and over in our head. I couldn’t wait to go home and watch the replay to get a sense of how it played on TV.

Upon arriving back home, my Mom said it looked “incredible.” My phone, dead at the track, lit up with a string of texts from everyone I knew. I laid in bed for hours, checking Twitter, reading articles and never wanting the moment to fade.

When I went to work the following Monday, I was asked about the event. It was impossible to describe. The following Tuesday, my Dad emailed me: “I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t explain it.”

That’s why American Pharoah’s victory will echo forever. The unexplainable always does.


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Monday, June 22, 2015

The U.S. Open is on the Verge of Irrelevance

Our national golf tournament has an image problem. It’s now the tournament everyone hates.

The U.S. Open is one of golf’s majors but it received nothing but a mountain of negative publicity over the past week, from a course in unplayable condition to a new TV deal with Fox Sports that was an unmitigated disaster.

jason day us open
I love golf. I love the majors. I watch to be entertained. The other majors all have a defining, unique characteristic that draws in viewers.

The Masters is, well, the Masters, with the greatest back nine on Earth. The British Open is the history of golf sprung to life, where the conditions determine the score and you’ve traveled back in time. The PGA Championship is the professional major – a tournament that goes to America’s most entertaining courses and lets the pros make birdies to win. Even the Players Championship, the so-called Fifth Major, is the epitome of “modern” golf, with a stadium design, the island green and the ultimate in risk/reward golf.

The US Open? It’s the sadistic golf tournament, where the best players in the world struggle to make pars in a desperate attempt to win a major.

During an illuminating Golf Channel feature on the genesis of Chambers Bay, it explained that the course was awarded the 2015 U.S. Open because two historic courses – Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills – declined to host the event. That should not be a surprise. In 2004, the USGA destroyed Shinnecock Hills to the point that some holes were quite literally unplayable on Sunday without being watered. In 2006, Winged Foot was so hard that Geoff Ogilvy won at +5 as Phil Mickelson disintegrated down the stretch.

In fact, the overwhelming memories I have from the U.S. Open over the past 20 years is the USGA tricking up and ruining the best golf courses in our country. In 2010, the wonderful Par 5 14th hole at Pebble Beach was unfair. In 2013, Merion’s 18th green could not receive a ball and keep it. This year, the greens at Chambers Bay were compared to broccoli and “outdoor bingo” by pros.

The course management by the USGA in its bizarre quest to keep the winning score at level par results in golf courses that resemble paved highways and par fives becoming par fours. This year, the group took it to another extreme by switching the pars on #1 and #18 every day. It’s a joke and everyone but the USGA realizes this.

It’s a shame because our national open should be a celebration of golf in this country. Does anyone give a flying you-know-what if the winning score is 10-under or 2-over? Not only do the vast majority of golf fans not care, they would certainly prefer the former to the latter.

It is bizarre, but the USGA knows it has an image problem because it left a successful, two-decade partnership with NBC to pursue a new one with Fox. The only slight problem is that Fox had never, ever televised a golf tournament before.

There is no polite way to describe Fox’s coverage of the 2015 U.S. Open. Joe Buck was his usually snarky, unfunny self who appeared to be watching his first golf tournament. Curt Menefee was certainly watching his first golf tournament. They had Charles Davis – a college football announcer!! – handling post-round interviews. The camera routinely failed to follow the ball. The on-course reporters were awful, culminating in Corey Pavin blaming the trees – there is a grand total of 1 on Chambers Bay – for players not gauging the wind correctly. Holly Sonders second question to champion Jordan Spieth on Sunday was, “Did you bring a fifth outfit?” I could go on for another 400 words but you get the idea.

I understand the USGA’s desire to switch it up, but leaving NBC was made all the more head-scratching since NBC and the Golf Channel are the same company. In this newly-created void, the British Open swooped in and will receive far superior coverage from those two entities in the near future while the U.S. Open is covered by a group of novices.

Unfortunately, there is little impetus for change. By its status as a major, the U.S. Open will always draw an audience. Players like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlory may complain about the set-up but they know, ultimately, they need to play and win the tournament for their legacy. For the rank and file, the U.S. Open has proven to be the best way to sneak in a major on the resume, just ask Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson, Steve Jones or Michael Campbell. It is a tournament that has become far too dependent on luck and that opens up the cast of characters who can win.

I watched the U.S. Open this weekend, but it was different. In fact, I turned off Fox’s primetime coverage on Thursday and Friday because it was unwatchable. Between the clown’s mouth greens and the incessant banter of nonsense, it was too much. If not for an amazing finish over the last three holes, the tournament would have been remembered as one of the worst ever.

A half-century ago, golfers grew up wanting to win the U.S. Open – from Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus, our national open was the ultimate.

Today, golfers grow up dreading the U.S. Open. As kids, they are in the backyard making birdies to win the Masters or the British Open. No one dreams of making par to win a major. That’s why no one dreams of winning the U.S. Open anymore.

If that trend continues, the U.S. Open will continue its fade. It is clearly third on the major totem pole and the far more exciting Players’ and PGA Championships may soon overtake it.

The USGA needs to stop destroying our nation’s best golf courses and start showcasing our world’s best golfers.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Major League Soccer Needs Me, but They Can’t Have Me Yet

Soccer is popular in the United States. Major League Soccer is not. This is a problem.

I am the fan that MLS needs to thrive. I watch too much sports. I spend too much money on tickets. I love watching soccer. I hate when Liverpool’s season goes to hell. I love when working from home coincides with the Champions League. I cannot be bothered with MLS because it’s an inferior product. Why watch the minors when the majors are on?

mls sucks
Soccer cannot reach its potential here without the casual fan that ignores MLS. From the 20+ million who watched the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup to the 2 million that watched last year’s Champions League final to the 1+ million that routinely watch big Premier League matches on NBC and NBCSN, we know that casual fan exists.

Major League Soccer lags way behind. In 2014, the MLS Cup did not crack 1 million viewers on ESPN, though that was better than the mere 500k the country’s biggest domestic game did in 2013. This year, a move to Fox Sports 1 has not helped – a Real Salt Lake/Toronto FC match drew only 211,000 viewers on a Sunday night.

There are hotbeds of support for MLS. If you’re reading this in Seattle or Portland, you have a different view of the league than I do in Washington, D.C., where the team plays in an old football stadium that is literally crumbling. Still, the fundamental hurdle for MLS is the stubborn insistence is overlaying American-style sporting economics on a game that is ill-suited to serve it.

I was introduced to the league’s inability to truly grow the game in 2007 when I broke the story that a group in Hartford was denied an MLS team because Bob Kraft claimed Hartford as his territory.

Let’s be clear: Hartford is/was a perfect target for MLS expansion. Rentschler Field, opened in 2003, is an excellent soccer venue. It has hosted several U.S. men’s and women’s national team games, most notably Landon Donovan’s last USMNT game. It seats 40,000. Connecticut is a soccer-mad state – my high school won state titles in both boys and girls soccer when I was there yet didn’t even have a football team. Hartford is starving for pro sports, as you know when you hear a “Let’s Go Whalers!” chant break out during UConn games.

Regardless, Kraft blocked it by using language right out of the NFL manual – “my territory.” Hartford is 90 minutes from Boston. Kraft has his soccer team playing in an NFL stadium in front of 60,000 seats every time out.

This is where MLS is stunting the growth of American soccer. The owners – many of whom also own NFL teams or other pro teams – are borrowing from a playbook they can’t run yet. The stadium fiascoes in Minneapolis, Miami and here in DC are the most prominent examples.

But it goes beyond owners attempting a cash grab by overvaluing its product. The product, quite frankly, sucks.

Steven Gerrard coming to the LA Galaxy next year continues a legacy of older European stars coming to MLS to cash easy checks. Beckham was the first, but there will be more – Cristiano Ronaldo is rumored to be on his way in 2018. Acting a senior tour for older stars is not the way to build the league.

Even when American stars return, it is done through a secret process that no one understands. Sure, it’s great that Dempsey and Jones and Bradley are in MLS but it is way better for the U.S. Men’s National Team that DeAndre Yedlin is playing for Tottenham. Why do you think J├╝rgen Klinsmann has been so adamantly opposed to national team stars playing here?

In MLS, the salaries for the rank and file are a joke. How can the media say that MLS is a legit goal for young American players when so many make the same salary – less than $50,000 – as a newspaper reporter? Newspaper reporter is the worst job in America, by the way.

The Designated Player Rule, which exists only to save owner’s money, essentially prevents from the league’s overall talent level to rise or for dynasties to emerge. America needs its power clubs. Where would MLB be without the Yankees? The NFL without the Dallas Cowboys? College football without Alabama or Notre Dame?

Let’s look at Seattle – if they are successful enough to draw twice as much as anyone else in the league, they should be able to spend twice as much. Instead, MLS has a salary cap borrowed from the NFL with a fraction of the revenue.

We have to address the league’s setup, which eschews common sense and has 60 percent of the league making the playoffs. What’s even the point of watching the regular season? I guess that helps explain why no one does.

Did you know the Montreal Impact was playing the CONCACAF Champions League final last week? Doubtful, since it was on Fox Sports 2. Did you know the U.S. Open Cup is the American equivalent of the FA Cup? Doubtful, since the latter is on Fox proper and the former is never acknowledged by MLS.

These are issues that don’t need to exist. Pay the players. Pay players in their prime big money to play here. Promote the Champions League. Promote teams fighting to qualify for the Champions League. Promote the U.S. Open Cup. Make the regular season mean something.

Much of what I just wrote has been boiled down to a single issue facing American soccer: the lack of promotion/relegation. It’s too easy to say that would fix everything but it would clearly and obviously do something to change the staid culture of club football here. The growth of soccer has led to clubs with rabid support popping up in cities like Indianapolis and Jacksonville. They deserve a chance to play top-level soccer.

Think – would the Green Bay Packers exist if the NFL was doling out franchises today? Of course not. But could you imagine an NFL without the Green Bay Packers? Of course not!

Nothing will change because MLS has convinced the soccer media that the status quo is working, though the league has never made money. This attitude permeates throughout, particularly on the issue of promotion/relegation. It leads to this tweet, which properly sums up why MLS will always be minor league:

Can’t you feel the arrogance dripping from that tweet? It is this type of “love it or leave it” attitude that hurts MLS. They expect American soccer fans to blindly support the domestic league out of an obligation. That’s not how things work in this country. You have to earn our fandom, you have to earn our money and you have to earn our appreciation.

I do watch the Premier League. And it’s a really, really big loss for American soccer because I’m not the only one. Until that changes, our domestic league will never be the major league our country
deserves.

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