Wednesday, July 31, 2013

6 Easy Steps to Making Women’s Pro Basketball Matter

I like women’s basketball.

I know that makes people like Bill Simmons laugh, but I can’t help it. Yes, most of this attributed to growing up in Connecticut and being privy to the greatest dynasty in the modern era of college sports. The UConn women have done more for women’s basketball than any other entity in the past 20 years.

And that includes the NBA. I know this because I watch the UConn women. I don’t watch the WNBA.

Since its creation, the WNBA has existed mostly as a punch line and summertime diversion. It has never caught on. Its ratings are miniscule and laughable. Many of the sport’s top players still retreat to Europe during the offseason to make real money.

It doesn’t add up. Women’s college basketball is very popular. Women’s college basketball is very exciting. It can’t just be the tie-in to a fan’s alumni that makes it that way. The sport can be successful. It needs an overhaul.

1) Start Season in January, End Season in August

Without a doubt, the worst thing about the WNBA is its gimmicked season, timed to start as the NBA playoffs are winding down. They only play 34 games. They try to squeeze an entire season in a few months. They try to take advantage of the lack of competition for the sports fan in the summer. It makes sense, to a point. I completely agree the season should end in late August, prior to the onslaught of the football behemoth. I disagree with the notion the season needs to start only after the men get done playing.

skylar diggins wnba
Let the women have a real league. Dramatically lengthen the season and start it in mid-January. With the PGA Tour moving away from a calendar season, there is now no major sport in America that kicks off its season with the New Year. Hello, opportunity. If I’m running the women’s pro basketball league, I target the Saturday before the NFC/AFC championship games – at that point, the first Saturday in 5 months without football – and use that day to tip off the season. 

2) Expand to 16 Teams – I know, I know

Expansion? How in the world is that a good idea? Well, for one, the talent level is there. And there needs to be more opportunity for players. Secondly, the league currently has 8 playoff spots for only 12 teams – why even play a regular season?

More importantly, there are plenty of arenas out there that would love to have a winter/spring tenant, even if they aren’t selling the joint out. My suggestion for 4 more teams? Las Vegas, Kansas City, Nashville and Tampa. Each city has a state of the art arena. Each city does not have an NBA team. Each is a major city that could embrace women’s basketball.

The league is not and will not be taken seriously with a 12-team league in which 75 percent makes the playoffs. It’s just not big enough to be a real league. It needs fresh blood. It needs more areas to tap into. It needs to provide a public demonstration of strength and growth.

The league just got a tremendous influx of talent with last year’s draft – hello Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins & Elena Delle Donne. The time is now. Strike while the iron is hot.

3) Eliminate Divisions, Everyone Plays Everyone

Once you go to 16 teams, get rid of the divisions and have everyone play everyone else four times. That gives you 60 games per team – twice as many as they play now. And the divisions, while marginally reducing travel costs, are unnecessary. Frankly, I would like to see divisions eliminated across most American sports, with the exception of football. The English Premier League and other top soccer leagues show the value of having one table. The NHL is moving closer to that direction, by reducing the number of divisions from 6 to 4. Why does the NBA need an Atlantic Division when it can just have an Eastern Conference?

It’s a long way of saying one table would make the league unique in American sports and much, much easier for the common fan to understand and get caught up on. You see one group of standings. The playoffs are seeded 1-8. There are no advantages. Every team plays the same schedule. It could set the league up as a trend-setter, instead of ripping off of bad ideas that don’t work.

4) Lengthen the Playoffs, Make Them Legit

The current WNBA playoffs are Best of 3 for the first two rounds, with a Best of 5 for the Finals. It feels amateurish. Best of 3? What other professional sport decides a playoff series with a Best of 3? Why not just do a one-and-done tournament in that case?

Obviously, the WNBA has established it’s Best of 3 format to condense the season even further so it ends before the next NBA season ends. It’s farcical. The first two rounds should be Best of 5. The Finals should be Best of 7. If you want your sport to be respected and acknowledged, it needs to be treated with respect and acknowledged as a legit professional sport. Preferably, by the people running the sport.

5) Change the Name. The WNBA is a Dead Brand.

The WNBA name needs to be replaced. Like, as in yesterday. The name has become synonymous with mocking the female sports movement. Most of this damage has been self-inflicted, due to the NBA’s insistence on the shortened season during the men’s offseason and the relentless advertising during the NBA Finals, aka the worst possible time to promote the sport. Have you ever looked at Twitter in the minutes after a crappy WNBA ad runs during the Finals? It’s not pretty.

Lose the name. Reinvent the league as a new brand. It can still be operated by the NBA, but the ties need to be scaled way back and rarely acknowledged publicly. By being the WNBA, the league has been treated as the NBA’s charity case to females for the past 20 years. Whether or not that is the case is irrelevant – that’s the perception. You don’t need to be a PR professional like myself to understand that once a perception is locked in, it’s almost impossible to change.

No, changing the name doesn’t cure all the WNBA’s ills. But it’s a start.

6) LEAVE ESPN!!

I said this about the Big East. I said this about the American Athletic Conference. The point cannot be stressed enough – ESPN is not a good place for a minor sport trying to grow. ESPN does not care about minor sports. ESPN is about the NFL, NBA, MLB, college football, college basketball and individual majors for golf and tennis. That’s it. That’s the whole list. That’s why ESPN charges every cable subscribed in this country $5+ per month. That’s where their money is tied up. That’s what their attention is paid. That’s how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.

And that’s fine.

NBCSN. CBS Sports Network. Fox Sports 1. Those are 3 networks all starving for fresh, live sports programming. Fox Sports 1 essentially created the “new” Big East conference because it had a hole for weeknight programming. The CBS Sports Network airs PBA Bowling and Arena Football. NBCSN basically airs a test pattern on weeknights once the NHL season is over, with the only exception taped coverage of the Tour de France for 3 weeks in July.

You think maybe there’s an opportunity here?

Professional women’s basketball has potential. It’s had potential for two decades. No one has tried to capitalize on it because no one has been incentivized to. The NBA doesn’t care about it. ESPN doesn’t care about it.

It’s time for a change. A new network – one that would care about building up a new sports property to its lineup – could be the impetus for change the women’s pro game has been waited for.

Frankly, the sport deserves it. The game can be great. The game can be exciting. The game can be engaging. It just needs to be noticed.
 
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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

USC Will Be Back in 2013 Because They Never Left

How quickly we forget. How quickly things change.

At this time in 2011, USC was an afterthought. With Pete Carroll escaping to the NFL, with NCAA sanctions taking a toll on depth and with unproven Lane Kiffin as coach, the Trojans were written off.

They went 10-2. They beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium.

At this time in 2012, USC was the preseason #1. With Matt Barkley returning for his senior year, with the bowl ban lifted and with a suddenly proven Lane Kiffin as coach, the Trojans were penciled in to play for a national championship.

They went 7-6. They lost to Georgia Tech in Sun Bowl.

As we approach the 2013, USC is a punch line. Lane Kiffin, quickly demoted from savior to failure, is on the hot seat. The media – the same bunch of men and women that anointed USC as preseason favorites in 2012 – have piled on, some calling for Kiffin’s ouster after last year.

How quickly we forget. How quickly things change.

Of course, if you were to dig a little deeper, you would see that USC played close to their realistic expectations in 2012. It was the media’s outsized expectations that caused problems.

Despite the bowl ban being lifted, the lack of depth finally caught up with USC in 2012, especially on the offensive line, which relied on freshmen and inexperienced newcomers early and often. A poor offensive line – almost always ignored by the sports media at large – will always doom a supposed super season. Notre Dame in 2006 had the same type of hype, and in the end similar failure, because they couldn’t keep Brady Quinn upright.

Somewhere, Matt Barkley is nodding sadly.

On Oct. 27, 2012, USC was 6-1 and ranked #10 in the country. On that day, Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee lit up Arizona in Tucson. Alas, the defense played the role of sparring partner and allowed Rich Rodriguez’s revamped Arizona offense to run wild. USC lost. The national title dreams were spoiled. The Pac-12 title hopes fell off a cliff. The season ran off the rails.

In retrospect, USC never had a chance. Besides injuries and inexperience, they played one of – if not the – toughest schedule in the country. When the final AP Top 25 poll came out, USC had lost to #2 Oregon, #4 Notre Dame and #7 Stanford. Not that playing 3 top 7 teams should ever be an excuse at USC, but it must be taken into account.

marqise lee usc 2013
As we review USC’s 2012 season, it was disappointing and not befitting the standard USC has set for the past 80 years. But it’s not the end of the world.

USC is still USC. As part of my college football predictions post, I said that USC would win the Pac-12. I still firmly believe it.

For starters, the Trojans will still trot out Marqise Lee, who is – in my opinion – unquestionably the best wide receiver in college football as we start 2013*. Whenever you have the best player in the country at a position, you are starting the year with a leg up.

*Okay, okay, not exactly a bold statement.

Secondly, the offensive line – the young, inexperienced line of 2012 – returns 4 starters. By the end of the year, the offensive line had become less of a concern as talented players gained invaluable experience. If only Kiffin could match up this year’s line with last year’s quarterback.

The defense is undergoing a dramatic overhaul by moving to a 3-4 but should be much improved over last year’s team with 7 starters returning. True, in all honesty, they have to improve because it’s almost impossible to get worse. It’s worth noting that in a loss to Oregon, USC put up 51 points. In a loss to UCLA, they gave up 38. Against Arizona, they put up 36 and lost. With even a decent defense, USC wins 10 games last year.

The schedule is also dramatically easier, both in and out of the conference. The Trojans should not break a sweat starting the season 4-0. Oregon cycles off the schedule. Stanford, UCLA and Arizona – road losses in 2012 – make the trip to the L.A. Coliseum.

They get 5 conference home games thanks to the 9-game Pac-12 schedule. The four conference road trips? Arizona State, Oregon State, California and Colorado. Not exactly a murderer’s row. The toughest road game is the trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame. While I think Notre Dame is going to be a top 10 team, the loss of its starting quarterback, best defensive player and the difficulty of returning to last year’s level mean the Irish could be an easy mark this year. Regardless, that game has no bearing on the Rose Bowl.

The schedule. The returning starters. The change in defensive philosophy. The stars are aligning for USC. With one obvious exception – the quarterback position.

The Trojans have not named a starting QB as I write this. It wasn’t pretty against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech when Barkley was out injured. The season could be submarined again by poor QB play. But Lane Kiffin has proven, during his first run at USC and his 2011 run with Barkley, that he can develop an offense and a quarterback. And the best wide receiver in the country will help.

Lane Kiffin has not forgotten how to coach. He has been brash and outspoken his entire career. When USC was rolling in 2011, the media lapped it up like my dog drinking her water. When USC hit the skids in 2012, the media enjoyed the fall a bit too much.

USC is too talented to be that bad two years in a row. When the media picked USC to finish third – in its division –in 2013, it just confirmed my belief. You disrespect Goliath and you usually end up paying for it.

USC has all the motivation in the world. They have a dream schedule for the first month – unless you think an ACC minnow like Boston College will cause them heartaches. Hint: they won’t.

USC will enter Sun Devil Stadium on September 28 at 4-0. They will be ranked, at least in the top 20 and maybe even higher depending on how impressive their early victories are. The season will be on the line.

If they beat Arizona State, as I believe they will, the sky’s the limit and I’ll look like a genius. If they don’t, I’ll look like an idiot and will join the chorus calling for Kiffin’s head on a platter.

But circle the date – the fate of the Pac-12 may be decided by October.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

14 Things the American Athletic Conference Must Do to Succeed

Will the American Athletic Conference succeed?

When the conference officially debuted on July 1, well, I wasn’t optimistic. As a UConn fan yearning for a golden ticket to a “Power 5” conference, it wasn’t the best day. ESPN quickly revealed that its smear campaign against the Big East may have transferred over to a lack of interest in the American.

But after a month of reflection – I believe the conference has a chance. The looming Division 4 rumors will not be a death knell, more of a subtle sea change that gives the Power 5 more influence but not all the influence.

There is a brief glimmer of hope for the American Athletic Conference to build itself back up to “power conference” status. Or at least get into the ballpark in the next 5 years before its TV rights go back out to bid.

Now obviously there is one thing the conference must do over all else – just win, baby. The conference can’t control that. They can control everything else. Here is how the American Athletic Conference can thrive:

1) Sensible Divisions Based on Geography

This is simple and obvious, but is the most important. It cannot fall into the trap that the Big Ten and ACC fell into by trying to divide by perceived strength and balance. It worked out terribly for the Big Ten, though they are changing it next year, and the ACC stubbornly maintains its Atlantic/Coastal divisions despite the fact no one can remember who is in which division.

For the 12-team American, which starts in 2015, the alignment is pretty easy. The North includes UConn, Cincinnati, Temple, Navy, East Carolina and Memphis. The South includes SMU, Houston, UCF, USF, Tulsa and Tulane. Not only does it make geographic sense, I don’t notice a big imbalance between the relative qualities of the programs.

2) Rivalry Games on Thanksgiving and Black Friday

UConn football AmericanThe next several steps focus on the need for the American to establish an audience. Or more specifically, to avoid getting lost in the shuffle. ESPN, and Fox Sports, and CBS, and conference networks, air a lot of games. It’s increasingly difficult for any college game to carve out a unique timeslot or audience. Or even find a time when there is only one or two other games going on, as opposed to 10 nationally televised contests.

Here’s my solution for the end of the regular season since the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend is the most crowded.

Establish an end of the year rivalry game for each team within the conference. Play these games on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, in the same slot, every year. Don’t have a tradition? Create one.  Rutgers played UConn at 10am on Thanksgiving morning in 2004 – and I loved it because if you wanted to watch football, you had to watch my Huskies. So let’s roll with it.

Thanksgiving, 10am: ECU vs. Memphis
Thanksgiving, 8pm: UCF vs. USF
Black Friday, 11am: Navy vs. Temple
Black Friday, 2:30pm: Tulsa vs. Tulane
Black Friday, 6pm: UConn vs. Cincinnati
Black Friday, 9:30pm: SMU vs. Houston

3) Weekly 11am Game every Saturday

Remember what I just wrote about it being impossible to get a timeslot to yourself these days? Well here’s one solution. Last year when Notre Dame opened the season against Navy in Ireland, it kicked off at 9am on CBS and was the only game going. Of course, games in Ireland don’t happen every week, but the same principle applies.

On New Year’s Day for about a decade, I watched the Outback Bowl more than any other of the early kickoffs. Why? Because it started at 11am and I watched it. If the game was good, I continued watching through its conclusion, before catching up on the other games. The American can take advantage of this. Make the 11am timeslot a weekly tradition.

4) Own Friday Night Football

In 2006, the Big East returned to prominence thanks in large part to back-to-back Thursday night classics on ESPN featuring Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers. Of course, it ended up being a double-edged sword as the ratings successes of those games proved the value to other college conferences beyond the Big East and ACC, and then to the NFL.

The American is not going to get more than 1 or 2 Thursday night games per year. And with NFL games every Thursday night, in addition to the usual strong lineup of broadcast television, is that where the American really wants to be?

No, it’s time to take over Friday nights – long the home of WAC shootouts, Boise State classics and shocking upsets. Every week, there should be an American Athletic Conference football game on ESPN2 at 8pm. Period, end of story. I know the common complaint – Friday nights are for high school football. My response is, “Who cares?” The conference, right now, is fighting for survival. Friday nights are, to use a term from my day-job, a “growth opportunity.”  

5) Create Preseason Bowl Games

There have been a lot of rumors floating around about the conference looking to start up bowl games, specifically one in Miami at Marlins Park, which is all well and good but is not the “growth opportunity” the conference needs to look at.

No, the conference needs to focus its energy on creating pre-season classics, a la the Chick-fil-a Kickoff in Atlanta and the Cowboys Classic in Dallas. These are important for a multitude of reasons, but mostly the television rights for these games, the recruiting advantages, the lure of playing major name-brand teams and the ability to garner additional interest in the conference as a whole.

My suggestion is to create 3 games on opening weekend in fertile recruiting areas that align with 4 conference teams that rotate against big name opponents. Play one game on Friday night, one game on Sunday night and one game on Labor Day afternoon – currently three timeslots that have little to no competition.

Create a game for the Superdome in New Orleans, with Tulsa, SMU, Houston & Tulane rotating as the American representative.

Create a game for the Citrus Bowl in Orlando with UCF, USF, Memphis & ECU as the rotation.

Finally, create a game in the Mid-Atlantic (DC, Baltimore or Philly) with Cincinnati, UConn, Navy & Temple as the rotation.

What do major schools like? Money, recruiting and exposure. These games would give them all three. Think about this opening weekend scenario for a quick second: Houston vs. Arkansas in New Orleans on Friday night; USF vs. Clemson in Orlando on Sunday night; and Penn State vs. Cincinnati in Philadelphia on Labor Day afternoon. It works.

6) Play the Title Game on Thursday Night

The first weekend of December is going to be extremely crowded with conference title games on Saturday. The Friday night timeslot has been established at certified #MACtion, in addition to the Pac-12 title game in years when Fox televises it.

Likewise, the Big East had tried – sometimes successfully like in 2012, sometimes not – to schedule a key conference game on the last Thursday of the year. It makes perfect sense to keep that going and schedule the title game in that timeslot and be the only college game going on at the time.
The only drawback is poor attendance but, again, this is about exposure and a wide TV audience. The ACC drew flies for its first few title games and, despite the mocking, they’re still around, right?

7) Don’t Expand Unless it’s BYU

Realignment, realignment, realignment. It’s all we’ve talked about for the past, uh, 5 years at this point? It may never stop. But for the American, the conversation starts and ends with one team – BYU. It’s the only team the conference could realistically add that would bring value. I’m not saying BYU is joining anytime soon as they seem content in their attempt to become Notre Dame 2.0, and that’s fine. But if BYU ever changes its mind, be there, be prepared and then we can start gossiping about team #14.

BYU football 2013
8) Play BYU A Lot

Did I just mention BYU being independent? I think I did. One huge problem BYU has had, and probably will continue to have, is scheduling decent games later in the year, especially in November. Even Notre Dame was running into that problem and ended up pairing with the ACC to ensure they didn’t end up playing an Idaho or New Mexico State in mid-November.

The American should reach out to BYU yesterday and offer them up a similar deal, with 4-5 guaranteed games with conference teams. The American’s best attribute is location – highly populated, metro areas across the eastern half of the country. BYU wants to be a national team that plays a national schedule. It seems like a perfect match and helps boost the American’s television deal value, in addition to BYU’s own deal with ESPN.

9) Stay at 8 Conference Games, No Permanent Crossovers

8 or 9 conference games? The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 will be at 9. The ACC will be at 8, with the Notre Dame games. The SEC is currently at 8 but must eventually go to 9 or drop permanent crossovers. The Mountain West is at 8, in large part due to Air Force being unable to go to 9 due to playing Army & Navy every year.

Well, the American is in the same position with Navy having 3 non-conference games set in stone every year with Notre Dame, Air Force and Army. So 9 is a non-starter. Without permanent crossovers, every team will play every other conference twice every four years. It works. Don’t mess it up.

10) Be a Bowl Lurker

The bowl lineups for just about every conference have been announced and, yikes, it doesn’t look good for the American. That’s okay. The fact is that the only thing that matters, or will matter, is getting a team into the college football playoff, either as a Top 4 team or playing in one of the New Year’s Six bowls. After that, it’s just window dressing.

That being said, the American needs to lurk and prepare to fill open slots. The SEC, for example, will have contracts with up to 10 bowls. Well you have to imagine the SEC is going to get 3, maybe 4, heck even 5 teams in those New Year’s Six bowls. That opens up a lot of bowl slots in a lot of good bowls. The American would be wise to sign up backup contracts with these bowls and be flexible with teams to take advantage of this.

Other conferences will likely come up short too – John Swofford said he wants 11 tie-ins for his 15-team conference. The ACC will never, ever, ever have 11 bowl eligible teams. The Big Ten is also likely overextended since the new 9-game schedule adds a loss to half the league.

11) Be Greedy – Put Advertising Everywhere

The TV deal blows. That much cannot be denied. But that doesn’t mean the American can’t make money other ways. We’ve seen the debate about jersey advertising – something that is commonplace in other parts of the world – slowly reach the United States with the NBA looking to take the lead. Well, why not jump to the front? Let FedEx put its logo on the Memphis uniform. Money is what the American lacks – it’s time to think outside of the box.

I was watching Canadian Football last week and there were 4 huge ads on the field. Let American teams go for it. Ads are good if it means more money. There are other ways the conference can sell itself – if there was ever a time to whore it up, it’s now. The gap between the American and the ACC is huge. A little creative thinking will close that gap. Greed is good!

12) Create a Powerhouse Editorial Staff

ESPN shut down the American blog on July 1. I got really, really mad about it. It’s time to (very subtly) throw up a giant middle finger at the ESPN, SI.com and Yahoo Sports’ of the world. If they don’t want to cover the conference like they cover others, that’s fine – they only write bad things anyway.

Follow the lead of professional leagues, specifically the NFL, and create an in-house conference editorial staff. You can start off with bloggers. Bring in a few journalism veterans*. Shape the message. Bring the news. Filter out the commentary from the sports publications and their inherent bias.

*I’m a blogger and a journalism veteran. Just saying…

13) Keep a United Front Publicly

UConn and Cincinnati will leave the American in a heartbeat. Everyone knows that. But the public groveling from both – especially from Cincinnati – was disturbing. The entire league needs to agree, behind closed doors, to stop the public appeals for a better conference. UConn has closed ranks since the ACC failure and said all the right things about making things work in the American. I don’t follow Cincinnati sports close enough to know if they’ve done the same. In public, everyone needs to be on the same page and supporting Mike Aresco. This is a must. Perception is reality in America. And the American.

14) Do Whatever ESPN Wants

Play games on Wednesday afternoons? Do it. Play games in Singapore? Do it. Do the Bristol car wash in May? Do it. Play bowl games before Christmas? Do it.

ESPN is the American’s best friend right now, even if they’ve been a really, really shitty friend in the past. For the conference to succeed, they need ESPN to be a willing partner. Will it ever happen? Who knows? But it cannot be antagonistic. We know where the American stands in ESPN’s eyes right now.

It doesn’t matter. The conference must embrace ESPN until the contract comes up for renegotiation. Until then, leave the ESPN-bashing to me and my friends.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

20 Bold Predictions for the 2013 College Football Season

My post Monday on Louisville losing 4 games in 2013 got me thinking – what else do I think is going to happen this year? I feel like this is going to be a crazy year along the lines of 2007. It would stun me if this year plays out like it should, with the top teams exerting dominance and upsets few and far between.

So without further ado, here are my 20 Bold Predictions for the 2013 College Football season:

1) Alabama will not win the National Championship

Alabama will be the preseason #1. They will be a prohibitive favorite in every game they play. They are expected to dominate the competition like the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. They will end up being more like the 2002 Miami Hurricanes. We have seen in past history that teams going for a 3-peat (or pseudo-3-peat) like 1996 Nebraska, 2002 Miami or 2005 USC tripped up in the most remarkable circumstances imaginable. This year’s Alabama team reminds me a lot of the 2005 USC team, after Leinart decided to come back for his senior season. Expectations will not be met unless Alabama wins every game, including the title game, by 3 touchdowns. They will make the National Title game. They will not win. Sorry, you have to wait for #20 to find out who does.

2) Georgia will annihilate Clemson in Week 1

The game is at Clemson. The Tigers are riding momentum from a big bowl victory over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on the last night of 2012 and they return a bunch of offensive superstars including Tahj Boyd and Sammy Watkins. The game will have been circled for 9 months by the time it happens. ESPN College Gameday will be there. It will be the centerpiece of opening weekend.

And what happens in these opening weekend showcases? The SEC dominates whoever they play, usually a hapless foe from the ACC. SEC football and ACC football operate on different planes of existence right now and that will continue in Death Valley. Clemson may put up some points but their defense doesn’t have a chance in hell of slowing down Aaron Murray and company. Georgia will win by three scores, at least.

3) Boise State will lose to Washington in Week 1

This has almost nothing to do with football, which is admittedly odd and stupid for a college football blog post. But here’s the deal – Washington is returning to a renovated Husky Stadium, playing on campus for the first time since 2011 and hosting a team it almost beat in the Las Vegas Bowl. The stars are aligning. Boise State is good, but it is not of vintage Bronco greatness. Washington will ride the wave of emotion from a frenzy crowd in primetime – the game kicks off late night on the East Coast – and will score a huge victory for a program that has been trying to get over the hump for a couple years now.

4) An American Athletic Conference team will be in the National Title hunt in November

There are a lot of great teams coming into 2013. Unfortunately, they all reside in the SEC. I foresee a a chaotic year like 2007 when preseason favorites went down early and opened the door for surprises like Kansas and Missouri to climb into national title contention simply by winning – even if they weren’t beating anybody great.

Cincinnati BCS 2013With Louisville already out of the way – they’re losing 4 games, remember? – it opens the door for another American team to step up. My best guess in Cincinnati, though UCF and its nonconference games against South Carolina and Penn State provide two huge opportunities to make a splash. Cincinnati is much better than the national media is giving them credit for and should be able to roll into November with unblemished records. This will happen much to the consternation of other major conferences and should provide a fun end to the old Big East football conference. The contender, either Cincinnati or UCF, won’t end up undefeated but, much like Louisville last year, they will win their BCS bowl game. Just because ESPN is un-American.

5) Ohio State will play Michigan twice
6) Ohio State will lose to Michigan once
7) It will cost them a spot in the title game

The Big Ten has made very few poor decisions. There’s a reason they make more money than any other conference and it’s not even close. The only slipup, which will be fixed next year by divisional realignment, was splitting up Ohio State and Michigan. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too by having the big rivalry game and the Big Ten Title game featuring their two flagship programs. It hasn’t worked out so far, but it will in 2013. That won’t be a good thing for the Big Ten.

And so, we will see the folly of their ways. Ohio State will enter the first game against Michigan 11-0. Michigan will be 10-1, having lost to only Notre Dame. Both will have clinched spots in the title game. With nothing to play for in the first meeting, Michigan puts up a decent fight but loses. The following week, Michigan beats Ohio State in the title game and goes to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State wonders what could have been. Jim Delany tries to blame it on the SEC.

8) Baylor will win the Big 12

The Big 12 is not going to have a banner year. No other conference was hurt more by players graduating or leaving early. Texas seems to be perpetually down. Kansas State won’t play back to last year’s level. Oklahoma, well, they just seem off. It opens up a bit of a power vacuum for this year and no team is more poised to claim it than Baylor. The light bulb, particularly on the defensive side, seemed to go off during its beatdown of Kansas State last November. And its destruction of UCLA in the Holiday Bowl may have been the most impressive bowl performance (non-Alabama division) of the season but no one saw it because the game kicked off seemingly at midnight. Baylor has a killer offense. It has a rapidly improving defense. They will win the Big 12*

*Jesse Palmer said something similar on College Football Live last week, but I swear I thought of it first. Besides, having Jesse Palmer predict something is akin to ensuring it will never, ever happen. Maybe I should’ve skipped this one.

9) There will be no BCS Buster

The “BCS Buster” concept exists for one more season. Following the Northern Illinois debacle of a year ago, it would be a fun way to go out if, say, a 2-loss Boise State team or a 1-loss North Texas was able to break into the BCS party. Alas, it won’t happen. Every major conference will have a conference champion in the top 15, to close that loophole opened up by a five-loss Wisconsin team in 2012. No team from a non-BCS conference will go undefeated, rendering their hopes of crashing the party impossible. We’ll always have 2007 Hawaii though…

10) Texas A&M will lose at least 3 games

I’m not sure if this is a bold prediction at this point, but Texas A&M is due for a big-time regression to the mean. They lost a lot of talent from last year’s team, including probably the best offensive lineman in football, and they go into 2013 with a huge target on their back. It is insane to expect Johnny Football to play back to his record-setting level of a year ago and you know other SEC West teams have spent the offseason devising ways to make sure that doesn’t happen. Alabama and LSU are 2 definite losses. Back to back road trips to Ole Miss and Arkansas will provide another loss. With the season falling so far below expectations, it could be a 4- or 5-loss campaign. Things will go south in a hurry after Alabama delivers an epic beatdown in College Station.

11) This will be Mack Brown’s last year at Texas

Mack Brown won a national championship. He revitalized a Texas program that was shockingly on the verge of irrelevance in the mid-1990’s. It doesn’t matter.

The team hasn’t sniffed a conference championship since Colt McCoy left town and, even worse, things don’t appear to beat turning around. A nice win in the Alamo Bowl ended 2012 on a good note – but after Rose Bowls and Fiesta Bowls, even playing in the Alamo Bowl is a big step back. Another offseason of hype will lead to another early season disappointment. Mack will see the writing on the wall and announce that he will step down at the end of the season, preventing an ugly Bobby Bowden situation where they fire a National Champion. Texas will play in another Holiday Bowl and the Texas job search will be the main off-the-field storyline through the bowl season. I’m not bold enough to predict who takes the job – but it will start the coaching carousel.

12) Jadeveon Clowney will win the Heisman Trophy

It’s been building for a few years now. Defensive players are slowly creeping up the Heisman voting tallies, culminating with Manti Te'o being in a spot where if it was not for Johnny Football, he would’ve won going away. Clowney began his Heisman candidacy on New Year’s Day when he murdered a Michigan running back and will be the most hyped player, along with Johnny Football, going into 2013. With NFL scouts already drooling, Clowney will get the benefit of the doubt that other defensive standouts have not. Instead of focusing on meaningless stats like sacks, announcers and analysts will focus on the way Clowney disrupts the game and how offenses need to rearrange entire gameplans to deal with him. A few big plays, a few more SportsCenter highlights and a few South Carolina wins will end with Clowney raising the trophy in New York.

13) Notre Dame will lose 1 game, and not to who you think

Notre Dame is back. I know the loss to Alabama exposed Notre Dame as not being ready for that type of competition, but there are about 118 FBS teams that would’ve traded places and gladly accepted that beatdown. The loss of Everett Golson hurts, no doubt, but there is no coach better than Brian Kelly at overcoming QB issues and changes. Look no further than his tenure at Cincinnati, when he was at times rotating QBs every play and still winning easy.

Louis Nix Notre Dame 2013
Notre Dame’s foundation is on the defensive side and with big-time stars like Louis Nix returning, the Irish should have no problem remaining an elite team. The schedule is easier than people think, which means Notre Dame’s return to glory will include a hallmark of past teams – the unexpected loss. Notre Dame fans are nodding right now, thinking of Stanford in 1990, Tennessee in 1991 or (shudder) Boston College in 1993.

My best guess? Notre Dame enters November undefeated and loses to BYU at home, the week before a  much-anticipated showdown with Stanford on Thanksgiving weekend. Notre Dame will go 11-1, play in a BCS bowl and Domers will complain. See, Notre Dame really is back.

14) The ACC will not have a national title contender

Is this a bold prediction? I really should amend it. Let me try again:

14) The ACC will not have a national contender by October 1

Okay, that feels better. Clemson will lose opening weekend to Georgia. Virginia Tech will lose to Alabama. Miami will get run over by Florida. And Florida State will get upset by a surprisingly good Pitt team on Labor Day night. Is there anyone else? And for the tenth year in a row, the Orange Bowl will get a multi-loss ACC champion for its trouble. The new system – and the SEC or Big Ten’s third-place team – can’t come soon enough for the irrelevant Orange Bowl.

15) Pitt and Syracuse will both win at least 8 games

The Big East played much, much better football than anyone ever gave them credit for. The BCS bowl records and superb non-conference records should have given that away, but that would fly counter to the “Big East sucks and everyone knows it” meme that ESPN loved pushing.

Pitt and Syracuse were both average teams in 2012, but rapidly improving ones. Syracuse, in particular, seemed to hit its stride in November and Pitt, well Pitt is always Pitt. Good thing for them they’re playing in a weaker conference this year. They may not contend for a conference title in year 1, but both teams will sneak up on ACC foes that have a) never played them and b) will underestimate them. As a UConn fan, I won’t be rooting for either – but it will amuse me plenty when they’re taking down the NC State’s and Georgia Tech’s of the world.

16) Army will beat Navy

Okay, this may not be a bold prediction since it almost happened last year. But I wanted to get it down on paper so I can point to it in December and act like I’m Jimmy the Greek or something. The long streak will finally end. In an even bolder prediction – both teams will make bowl games too.

17) Penn State will not have a winning record

Bill O’Brien is getting a ton of publicity and credit this offseason, all of which is richly deserved for the magnificent job he did in 2012 getting Penn State to pull together in the wake of crippling NCAA sanctions. There is only one problem with success – the expectation that more is coming.

While the team was hurt by defections, the depth will really become a problem in 2013 as seniors have moved on, the scholarships start to dry up and the motivation that carried the team last year starts to fade. I believe O’Brien could overcome those factors and scrape together 8 wins. He cannot overcome a new quarterback – even if that QB is the #1 QB recruit in the land – trying to get acclimated to college football. The schedule is also much tougher with two non-conference tests (Syracuse & UCF) along with back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State in October and Nebraska and Wisconsin to close the season in November. It feels like a 6-6 year in Happy Valley – not that that’s a bad thing considering their predicament.

18) USC will win the Pac-12 and play in the Rose Bowl

Why? I have no good explanation. UCLA and Arizona State both seem like better teams in the Pac-12 South. Arizona is improving rapidly. Stanford and Oregon remain the class of the conference, and maybe the nation. Washington and Oregon State look like Top 25 caliber teams. Lane Kiffin led a dumpster fire last year with an NFL quality QB in Matt Barkley. And I’m picking them to win the Pac-12 despite not even having a starting QB named?

Yes, yes I am. I really don’t have anything to say to back up this prediction, other than Marquise Lee. Let’s move on…

19) 2 SEC teams will play in the National Title game

Well, I’ve ruled out Ohio State and the Big Ten. The ACC stinks. The American will be good, but not that good. Boise State will lose in week 1. The Pac-12 is going to be won by USC. Notre Dame is going 11-1. Who could possibly play for the National Title?

Aaron Murray Georgia QBHere’s how the season is going to play out – feel free to fly to Vegas on these predictions and make it work for you. Alabama will go 12-0. Georgia will go 11-1. So will South Carolina. But South Carolina will have beaten Georgia head-to-head while South Carolina only loses  a cross-divisional game at Arkansas. It means that #1 Alabama will play #4 South Carolina in the SEC title game.

On the last weekend, #2 Ohio State will lose to Michigan while #3 Georgia – ranked so high thanks in part to wins over Clemson, LSU and Florida – stands waiting in the wings. Alabama beats South Carolina and we have #1 13-0 Alabama playing #2 11-1 Georgia and, well, no one is happy. Because even though Alabama and Georgia are the most deserving teams, the fact that 2 teams from the same conference didn’t play each other in the regular season will rub people the wrong way. As we know, the BCS is not going to go out without controversy – that’s not a bold prediction. When in doubt, the BCS creates a new controversy.

20) Georgia will win the National Championship

In the end, Georgia beats Alabama in the title game as the South takes over the Rose Bowl for the last BCS title game. The game may be good, it may not be, and it doesn’t really matter. Alabama’s dynasty run ends on the same field it started against Texas. Georgia gets its first national title in three decades. Mark Richt gets the last laugh on all the doubters – mostly insane – who were calling for him to be fired.

And sportswriters across the country will gleefully write their BCS obituaries and we say goodbye to 2013 and enter the 4-team College Football Playoff era. What could possibly go wrong then?

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Conversation Between Two People About Sharknado

“So, it’s been almost a week. Have you seen it yet? Have you seen Sharknado?”

“Seriously…that’s why you called me?”

“Come on; tell me if you’ve seen it.”

“No, I haven’t. And I don’t plan to.”

“Oh man, come on, you’re killing me. I need to talk about this. The Tara Reid acting of sorts. The return of Steve Sanders. The science! Why are you being so anti-fun?”

“I’m not. I just don’t understand why everyone is getting all worked up over a cheesy SyFy movie.”

“And the pot starts talking down to the kettle. Remember that one with Debbie Gibson that you wouldn’t stop talking about?”

“First of all, it’s Deborah Gibson now. Secondly, you shut your mouth. Those were classics. Let’s not forget that in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, the Shark ate a plane in mid-air!”

“So you do like that crap.”

“I did.”

“Are you about to go on a hipster rant?”

“No, it’s a post-hipster rant.”

“Fine, proceed.”

Sharknado poster
“You see, the SyFy movies are stupid and cheesy and enjoyable. But they are like an extra chicken nugget in your McDonald’s order or an extra dumpling from New Big Wong. It’s a guilty pleasure. You’re not supposed to go that crazy for it. Everyone on Twitter sucked the fun out of Sharknado by being too excited for it, as if they hadn’t seen a cheesy SyFy movie before. I mean, fuck, they’ve already made movies with sharks eating planes, what’s new here??”

“You done?”

“No! The entire Internet was overrun last week with snarky people making snarky jokes about a movie that was clearly made for about 30 dollars in about 30 minutes for some cheap, summer programming. Oh really, Tara Reid can’t act? Wow, biting commentary. Oh really Jim Cantore, you’ve never seen a Sharknado, I’m stunned. Oh the special effects suck, I—“

“Ok I get it.”

“You asked for it.”

“I am going to go out on a limb and say I did not ask for your hipster opinion. Though I have asked you stupid things in the past like that awful Jack Swagger video.”

“I don’t know why I indulge you sometimes.”

“You just like getting angry about things.”

“Do not.”

“Sharknado’s ratings – go.”

“Well, yeah, it annoys the crap out of me when people assume people yapping on Twitter are going to send ratings through the roof. As if the whole world is on Twitter, thus if something happens on Twitter, it will show up the next morning in ratings. Truth is, the vast majority of people in America are not on Twitter at any given moment. And I never understood why a thousand people making fun of a crappy movie would get people to watch it. It’s not like the wrestling when people are like, ‘Yo, Daniel Bryan is killing it right now’ and I have to see what’s happening. I knew what was happening with Sharknado and I did not care. God I could not have cared any less.”

“Why is this making you so angry?”

“Because I wish there was an alternate universe that I got to watch Sharknado like I watched the Deborah Gibson crap. Just on a whim and randomly. Like I’m flipping channels on a Sunday afternoon and there it is, a terrible cheesy movie that will help me forget about the fact that Mark Sanchez has thrown another interception and the Jets are down 3 scores.”

“Would talking about the Jets making you feel better?”

“…..”

“You made a sound but I couldn’t quite make it out.”

“…..”

“Okay, that sounded like anger, we can move on. Or back to Sharknado. See I really think you’ve missed the point entirely. It’s fun watching crap with people. It’s just that instead of watching it with your buddies, aka me, on the couch over a few beers, you’re watching it with your online social networks.”

“First off, that sounds horrible. Secondly off, you sound like Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t want to do things with my online social networks.”

“That’s total bullshit, you tweet about UConn football and your dislike for Coach Gramps on a daily basis during September and October. Frankly, by November you’ve lost your will to care, but that’s the same thing.”

“I think that’s different.”

“How is live tweeting another UConn loss any different than live tweeting about a shitty SyFy movie? I think you’ve been in DC too long, have been exposed to hipsters too long and you’ve become one of them. You’ve become a douche.”

“Ouch.”

“The dude I knew would have jumped headfirst into Sharknado.”

“Pun intended?”

“No, but awesome.”

“See, maybe you should’ve tweeted that out. You would’ve gotten like 12 retweets.”

“So if Twitter didn’t exist, if you were just home by yourself on that Thursday night, no access to your social media networks – would you have watched Sharknado?”

“Possibly.”

“Possibly?”

“Like if I was flipping channels, like with Mega Shark, I would’ve stopped on it and given it a chance. I would not have planned my evening around it.”

“So what did you watch instead?”

“Uhhh,”

“Oh God.”

“I mean, yeah, just something on the Internet.”

“Good Lord, you spent the night watching porn didn’t you?”

“No, not that. And please, I wouldn’t tell you that unless I watched something awesome.”

“Old wrestling?”

“Yeah.”

“So you spent the night watch wrestling on YouTube from, let me guess 20 years ago – “

10 years ago.”

“Okay, from 10 years ago and you’re making fun of people that snarked about sharks on Twitter?”

“How about those Jets, am I right?”

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Substance Trumps Style: The Erin Andrews Story

It’s not easy being a woman in the sports media world.

You are objectified constantly and consistently.

And it’s not getting easier.

During the NBA Finals, one of the more amusing subplots was Gregg Popovich’s obvious disdain for the in-game interview with the sideline reporter. That sideline reporter happened to be Doris Burke, a tremendous analyst and announcer. Here’s an excellent interview with The Sherman Report that goes over Burke’s own amusement – or lack thereof – with the whole sideshow.

On Twitter, the reaction was less measured and articulate. When Doris Burke trended during the NBA Finals, it was due to 2 groups of people. There were those who wrote hateful, disgusting things about her looks – none of which I will link to here – and there were those who wrote about her attractiveness in aggressive terms – I ain’t linking to those either.

It properly summed up the female experience in the sports media – you will inevitably be judged on your looks.

Erin Andrews sexy
But looks only get you so far. When you think about the females in sports that have had long, prosperous careers, it is the substance that drove them. Even though Joe Namath made her a punch line, it is Suzy Kolber’s skills that have kept her at the forefront of ESPN’s Monday Night Football coverage. While Dennis Miller loves Lesley Visser, it is her command of the microphone that has kept her a viable commodity for decades. Linda Cohn went on a date with a Deadspin editor, but that’s not why she’s one of ESPN’s most valued SportsCenter anchors.

Doris Burke, like those women mentioned above, will work in basketball as long as she wants to because she has the talents. She knows the game. She explains it well. She asks the right questions.

Substance always trumps style.

No one has learned that lesson harder than Erin Andrews, who should probably write the aforementioned Deadspin a royalty check every month.

The rise of Erin Andrews coincided with the rise of Deadspin – among other TMZ-like websites – that brought a different spin to the sports world. While 80 percent of Deadspin staff and readers will disagree, it is pictures of women that first brought the site readers. It evolved and has produced compelling, fascinating coverage – the saga of Manti T’eo clearly jumps to mind – but it grew thanks to the page view culture we live in.

At the forefront of this was Erin Andrews. An attractive, tall blonde with a killer smile, there was no mistaking that she was going to become a pet project at ESPN. Thanks to her coverage of college basketball and college football – and all the young, unadulterated testosterone that surrounded her – her aura grew.

Her celebrity took a huge leap forward when another Disney property, Dancing with the Stars, put her on the show and introduced her to a wider audience. It was not just the horny sports fan who was now into Erin Andrews, it was the male (and female) population at large. It took an ugly turn with the peephole incident but there was no mistaking the fact that Erin Andrews had crossed over from “well-known sideline reporter” to “emerging celebrity.”

There was just one problem – she didn’t have the talent to back it up.

I never paid too much attention to her skills as a sideline reporter because, for the most part, I find sideline reporters to be completely and totally useless, especially in football. They do some “fun” features to kill time. They relay information that anyone else in the world could. They do quick, no substance interviews at halftime. With the exception of the on-field postgame interview, which is usually all “We played hard” fluff, there is little value a sideline reporter can provide.

But then I watched Erin Andrews host College Football Live on a random weekday afternoon. Perhaps it is unfair, perhaps it is harsh, perhaps it was her first time hosting the show – but she was awful. After watching pros like Chris Fowler, Rece Davis and Joe Tessitore host the daily show with the ease of putting on a left sneaker, the lack of polish from Andrews was startling.

This is not to disparage Andrews – I highly doubt I have the skills to host a college football television show, though I would love the opportunity.

The higher ups at ESPN, I have to believe, knew deep down that Andrews was never going to rise above sideline reporter. That’s not an indictment – Lesley Visser has had one helluva career doing just that. But that wasn’t where Andrews thought she should be, that wasn’t where her celebrity level would allow her to be and that’s not where her pay grade would accept for her to be.

Fox took a chance. They hired Andrews and made her the face of their new college football pregame and postgame shows as the network jumped into the regular season college football fray.

They did no favors by saddling Andrews with Eddie George and Joey Harrington – two other unproven, if popular, former superstars. There is likely enough blame to go around for all three. The fact, however, remains unchanged.

The studio show sucked. It was unwatchable. It was uncomfortable. I had discussions with friends, coworkers and family about how bad it sucked. “How long could you stand it?” “Isn’t it the worst?” “What was Fox thinking?”

It was the equivalent of pulling back the curtain and revealing the secret – Erin Andrews is extremely pretty. And that may be it.

It is remarkable to see how far she has fallen in such a short timeframe. Just a couple of years ago, she was arguably the most recognizable female face in sports – athlete or otherwise. She was everywhere. ESPN promoted the heck out of her. Deadspin and the like posted seemingly daily updates with new pictures, new anecdotes and new rumors about her love life.

People cared then. People do not care now.

The rumors are already flying that Fox will dramatically revamp their college football studio team for the upcoming season, though how it affects Andrews is still up for discussion. Fox has invested (I would assume) a lot of money and effort into grooming her into a star. Maybe there is more to her hosting skills than I am giving her credit for. Maybe she has a future as a host.

More likely, she will return to the sidelines and resume her previous, successful role as in-game reporter. It will feel like a demotion, both to her and the public at large. But it is inevitable.

No one should feel bad for Erin Andrews – she has made a tremendous amount of money, received a tremendous amount of coverage and has created a tremendous amount of buzz.

We are an increasingly superficial society. It has not changed our fundamental need to be entertained.

Substance will always overcome style.  Unless you’re Kim Kardashian.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Louisville Will Lose At Least 4 Games in 2013

It happens every year in college football.

A team will win a major bowl game in impressive fashion and the hype builds. The star player, usually the quarterback, is an underclassman and the Heisman buzz begins. The team makes the cover of all the preseason magazines, picked to win its conference and run the table for an undefeated season.

Every year, this one team falters.

No, I’m not talking about Alabama. I’m talking about Louisville.

It amuses me how so many of the college football media warn us to not put too much stock into bowl game results, to not get too carried away by hype and buzz – and then proceed to lose their minds every year over one team that obviously and clearly cannot back it up.

Bowl games are important. Bowl games are fun. Bowl games can be program builders.

Bowl games do not impact the following season.

Louisville is the team of the moment thanks solely to its absolute destruction of Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

It calls to mind the most recent flameout – West Virginia. To cap off its 2011 season, West Virginia – after a decent, if not great, regular season – strolled into the Orange Bowl as the Big East champion to face another decent, if not great, team in Clemson. The Big East champs drilled the ACC champs to the tune of 70-33. It was a beatdown of epic proportions and one that sent the college football world in a tizzy due to Geno Smith returning and the offensive genius of Dana Holgorsen on full display.

As the Mountaineers prepared for its impending move to the Big 12 in 2012, the hype machine went into overdrive. They were going to show up Texas and Oklahoma. They were going to rip through the Texas Tech’s and Oklahoma State’s of the world. Geno Smith was going to win the Heisman. They were considered an outside national title contender. Everything seemed to be falling in place.

For September – aided by a Charmin-soft schedule – it looked like West Virginia was the real deal.

Except they weren’t. Anyone who had watched West Virginia during the 2011 regular season knew their deficiencies. They couldn’t play defense. Geno Smith did not handle pressure well. Holgorsen’s team had a terrible knack of letting opponents stay in the game. It all came back to bite them.

The 2012 West Virginia football team was last seen getting drilled in the snow and muck of Yankee Stadium by a decidedly mediocre Syracuse team.

If you’re a Louisville fan, you may want to buy your Pinstripe Bowl tickets now.

UConn Teddy Bridgewater
Louisville’s win over Florida seemed to mean more than West Virginia’s because 2012 Florida was a order of magnitude better than 2011 Clemson. There was just one problem – much like Alabama getting rocked by Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, Florida didn’t show up. Their fans didn’t care, signified by the horrific sight of the Sugar Bowl being played in front of 20,000+ empty seats.

The game meant everything to Louisville. The game meant nothing to Florida. The quotes, one in particular, from Florida players in the offseason confirm that.

That hasn’t stopped the college football media from piling onto the Louisville bandwagon. To make matters even worse for the Cardinals, they play a supposed “weak” schedule in the new American Athletic Conference.

If you watched Louisville during the regular season, you know how close they were to a 7-5 type season. They almost blew a gigantic lead at home to North Carolina. They beat an 0-12 Southern Miss team by 4 points (granted, it was during a monsoon). They beat a 3-9 South Florida team by 2 points at home. They beat a 3-9 FIU team by 7. They needed overtime and a miracle to get by Cincinnati. They were thrashed by Syracuse – the same team that thrashed West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl. They lost to UConn – a terrible, awful, unable to score football team – at home.

They would not have even made the Sugar Bowl if Rutgers, as they are wont to do, didn’t choke away a big lead, at home, to clinch the school’s first major bowl berth.

Based on the regular season, no one in the right mind would pick Louisville as a Top 10 team. They are a fringe Top 25 team, at best. Alas, one primetime victory on ESPN over an SEC team has changed the entire conversation.

I hold no ill will toward Louisville, despite the fact they got the ACC “golden ticket” over UConn. I respect Charlie Strong. I think Teddy Bridgewater is an amazing quarterback and is undoubtedly the reason Louisville won 11 games last year. I think the recruiting has picked up. I think the team will be more than competitive. I think they have a chance, if things go well, to win the first American Athletic Conference championship.

But they are not a national championship contender. Teddy Bridgewater is not going to win the Heisman Trophy. The schedule is tougher than anyone will give them credit for – thus, the inevitable losses will feel even more shocking.

So how is Louisville losing 4 games? For starters, opening against Ohio in an ESPN slot on Labor Day Sunday is not the way I would want to start the season – Ohio is not a team you roll over. While I think they win that game, I believe they go down to Kentucky in week 3. Playing Kentucky week 1 into the Mark Stoops era would have been perfect, but I like the momentum Stoops built and playing at home against an archrival with a lofty ranking – disaster written all over it.

The next 2 losses will come at home in quick succession when Rutgers, who was frankly a better team in 2012, and UCF, who is way better than anyone knows, comes to town. The last loss will come in the season-ender when Cincinnati, likely still playing for a BCS berth, exacts their revenge 
on Louisville.

Let’s not forget the added motivation that teams like USF and UConn have – they know that Louisville is leaving the conference. As we’ve seen during past tours of teams playing a lame duck season – Boston College in 2004 is arguably the best example – the other teams like the send a message on the way out. It would not surprise me if USF or UConn play above their heads and give Louisville a fifth loss.

The 2013 Louisville football season will be a disappointment. You shouldn’t feel bad for Louisville. They’ll join the ACC in 2014. They have a Sugar Bowl ring. They won a National Title in basketball. The women’s team made the Final Four. Life for Louisville athletics is pretty sweet.

But to expect them to recapture the magic of a charmed 2012 season is too much to ask. If you want to make some easy money, go to Vegas and bet the under on Louisville’s win total.

They will be this season’s biggest failure. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

More Than Just a Dream, But a Great Album

Don't they know, the speaker is about to explode?
Don't they know, this building is about to blow?

Headphones don’t do it justice.

That’s the best way to sum up how I feel about “More Than Just a Dream,” the second effort from Fitz & the Tantrums.

The album is big. It’s grand. It’s all-encompassing. It’s consuming. It fills up the space.

So much of my music listening occurs with headphones in my ears. Whether it’s at the gym, in my office, at home writing or taking the Metro to and from work, I always seem to have headphones on. For some albums, this is preferred. For this album, it is not.

Fitz and the Tantrums Album Cover
Every time I listen to it, I want to turn the volume up. It can’t be loud enough because the room can’t be big enough. It’s an arena-dominating record disguised as a throwback and the result is truly a sound unlike what other bands are producing in 2013.

When I wrote about the Strokes’ last album, I led off by saying that I didn’t know what to make of the record. I had to put it away for a week because it didn’t sound like the Strokes. It didn’t sound like what I thought it would. Simply put, it didn’t immediately grab me.

With “More Than Just a Dream,” the album knows what it is – and thus, what it will be – from note 1 of song 1. You know what you’re in for and it instantly grabs you. You know the sound. You like the sound. You want more of the sound.

What has fascinated me about Fitz & the Tantrums from the first time I heard them was their supposed throwback vibe that the media latched onto for its debut album. At that point, the label seemed to make sense – the first album did feel like an album from 25 years ago dressed up and modernized for the 2010s.

This album, however, does not. While there are clearly elements – the back & forth between the male & female leads, the brass sections, the pounding drums, the up-tempo beats – that are taken from different eras, they combine to form a new sound. It’s not exactly the “Sound of the Future” that Daft Punk is endlessly striving for, but it stands out. It’s very difficult to stand out musically in 2013 because it feels like everything has already been done. This album, however, has not.

The best part, and why this album crawls into your consciousness while refusing to leave, is the intensity. Fitz & the Tantrums are a tremendous live act. On stage, they bounce around and bring enough energy for a crowd of any size to feed off of. Many times, great live acts fail to bring that to their records. Most famously, KISS couldn’t translate its live show to vinyl until they actually just went ahead and recording a live show.

On “More Than Just a Dream,” the energy never leaves. There is urgency to the album that never stops. There are no lulls. There are no dull moments. There is no portion where you think to yourself – well, they really mailed this song in. Even if there are some tracks that aren’t standouts – I’m not a big fan of #3 The Walker – they put so much heart, soul and intensity into the track that you’re never tempted to hit skip.

The strongest part of the album is tracks 4 through 6 – Spark, 6am and Fools Good.

Spark is the standout track and, of course, what I quote to begin this post. It encapsulates everything I like about Fitz and Tantrums. It’s catchy. It’s grandiose. It explodes through the speakers – and they sing about speakers exploding. It’s not the type of socially conscious song that critics adore. It’s just a damn good 3-minute song that will get your foot tapping, your head nodding and your heart bumping. And if you’re at a party, it’s the type of song that makes you stop in mid-conversation and say, “Damn, that’s a good song.”

6am keeps up the energy in a different light, with a quieter beat and more significant subject matter – the loss of a lover. Only Fitz could make you smile and air-drum along to what is actually a really, really depressing song if you dwell on the lyrics. But you can’t because the song is so damn enjoyable that it makes you smile – as if you know he’s depressed, he knows he’s depressed, but it’s all good because we have this song.

The trio of perfection ends with Fools Good, another lyrically sad song that could have gone off the rails quickly with the first lyric, “Oh maybe I just wasn’t good enough to blow your mind, you know I’ve tried.” In the hands of Jason Mraz or John Mayer, that lyric kicks off a painfully pathetic song about self-loathing and failure.

In the hands of Fitz and the Tantrums, the lyrics are depressing and longing – but spun ahead to searching for “something better for the next time.” The positivity during the depths of despair is something we all strive for, whether we admit to or not, and Fitz and the Tantrums delivers every time.

In the end, that may be the album’s, and the band’s, strongest suit. It’s happy. It puts a smile on your face. It’s an old-school band with an old-school sound and an old-school motivation.

Fitz and the Tantrums are putting on a show. They exist to entertain you.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

RG3 Has Revived The Redskins, United DC and May Soon Walk on Water

I’ve wanted to write about Robert Griffin III from the moment the Redskins drafted him. I knew he would be big. I knew he would own this city. I knew he would change the franchise.

But no one could have predicted how much.

So why am I writing about RG3 today? Because I finally found an anecdote to lead with that shows how RG3 has completely taken over this city.

My girlfriend is a pre-school teacher. She can’t talk about RG3 in the classroom. Why? Because if she does, the kids will start chanting. And they won’t stop.

“RG3! RG3! RG3!”

The thought of a bunch of 3- & 4-year olds chanting in unison for a football player who has been in the city for only a year makes my heart melt and gives me goosebumps.

RG3 Griffining Vs the Saints
As a sports fan, you’re always looking for those signs, those little things, that prove sports mean more than they really do. 99.9% of time, it’s not there. Sports are just sports. It’s entertainment. It amuses us the same way Dancing with the Stars or the Bachelorette amuses others. The winning and losing matters very little, except from a very personal happiness point of view. The Redskins making the playoffs didn’t make my rent easier to pay or my credit card debt to go down.

Yet, there are these kids chanting his name like RG3 is a savior or something.

Maybe he is?

Part of the human experience is the things we share. Sports are right up there, especially when it comes to cities, because it’s the easiest thing to talk about it. The metaphorical water cooler has expanded past the literal water cooler in your office but the notion still exists. What do you talk about with someone on a random Tuesday morning? Do you really want to bitch about the humidity again?

Nope, you have RG3.

It’s not like the Redskins dominating the news in D.C. is a new phenomenon. The tenor, though, has changed dramatically. I am by no means a lifelong DMVer – I went to college here and I’ve lived here for the past 2 years, which means I lived here for a grand total of 6 years. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize the Redskins are team A#1. The Nationals and Capitals can fight for the second spot. The Wizards can….well, I think the Wizards are behind the Kastles and DC United. But I digress…

My dad’s good friend lives in Virginia and, unlike me, was born and raised in the DMV. He’s a lifelong Redskins fan. He’s enjoyed the victories and the Super Bowls. He’s dealt with the harshness of a new decade. In particular, he’s had to come to grips with having arguably the worst owner in sports. As he explained to me:

“I want the Redskins to win another Super Bowl. But I can’t picture it because I don’t want to see our (expletive deleted) owner holding that trophy.”

Dan Snyder is no longer Public Enemy #1. Even if he is still a terrible owner. Even if he’s moving the Redskins training camp 4 hours away. Even if the horrible FedEx Field that caused RG3’s knee to explode is on him. Even if the free agent signings are still questionable. Even if his stadium still stinks. Even if the team is still racist.

Dan Snyder is okay. Why? Because he employs RG3.

I have told the following anecdote to just about everyone I’ve met in the past 2 years: I feel like I discovered RG3 first, along with 40,000 other UConn football fans. In September 2008, UConn was actually really good – this was the pre-Gramps era – and on its way to a 5-0 start and Top 25 ranking. Baylor came to East Hartford as a supposed patsy.

Instead, RG3 put up this game. He was incredible. Everyone was asking the person next to them – “Who is this Baylor QB? Where did he come from??” He was just a freshman. He was by far the best player on the field. Only Darius Butler – future NFL DB for UConn – could even remotely keep pace with RG3. You rarely get to see the future of football unfold expectedly right in front of you.

Since that game – UConn won, naturally – I’ve been a huge fan of RG3. I wanted him to succeed. And when he went down with an ACL injury in 2009, I felt that we were going to be deprived of the future of football that I had seen a year earlier.

The best thing about RG3 is how nonchalant the toughest challenge could be. He was never fazed by that injury, and he returned even better. He was never daunted by the challenge of the NFL. He brushed off the naysayers – aka, the whole Black Quarterback thing – leading up to the NFL Draft and throughout his rookie season.

When he went down against the Seahawks in last year’s playoffs, it was like watching a family member get hurt. It was impossible to watch. I want Mike Shanahan tarred, feathered and run out of town for endangering him. I wanted RG3 to be okay. I didn’t want to be sad. I didn’t want to miss out on the future of football.

By all accounts, RG3 is aiming to return for week 1. Based on his history, I have to assume he will.

I want RG3 to be successful. I want him to win a Super Bowl. I want him to end up in the Hall of Fame. I want him to reach his limitless potential. I want him to redefine how the game of football is played.

If he doesn’t, that’s okay. He has already revitalized a franchise and a city.  

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