Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Week 1 College Football Picks: Best Opening Slate in Years

Welcome to my Picks column, because I like acting like I know everything. I’ll post this every Wednesday. I’ll pick 10 games and 1 Upset Special, which is a touchdown or more underdog who I think will win outright. For entertainment purposes only...

Picks: 0-0
Best Bet: 0-0
Upset Special: 0-0

We hit rock bottom in 2010. I was feverishly counting down the days until the opening weekend. I couldn’t wait, as I can’t every August, for college football to return. And then it did. And then I yawned.

The 2 marquee games were TCU vs. Oregon State in a half-empty JerryWorld and LSU vs. North Carolina after 8 UNC defensive starters had been suspended. The opening Thursday featured Southern Miss vs. South Carolina. The Friday night gave us Arizona at Toledo.

While I was eagerly – and soon to be disappointed – awaiting the UConn/Michigan game, the noon kickoff games provided zero entertainment. There was only 1 matchup of 2 BCS schools and it was Missouri vs. Illinois. It was also not on TV as I lived in Hartford at the time. It was a mind-numbing exercise in misguided expectations.

Thankfully, that trend has turned and hopefully for good. While Georgia at Clemson is the headliner, there are good matchups between quality teams starting from the first kick on Thursday at 6pm. Even the matchups between non-BCS and BCS teams are more intriguing than usual, with Orange Bowl participant Northern Illinois traveling to Iowa, BCS buster possibility Fresno State hosting Rutgers and Florida hosting a MAC team that returns its QB from a 9-win 2012.

There are cupcakes to be sure. There will always be cupcakes in Week 1. There are just less of them this year. Which is good, because I need to save room for the wings. And ribs. And beer. And etc. etc.

Odds are from here as I write this post. Home team in ALL CAPS

Bryn Renner UNC QB
North Carolina (+12) over SOUTH CAROLINA
I can’t imagine a worse week 1 opponent for South Carolina. If you’ve watched or read any of the college football previews, the focus has been squarely on the Gamecocks, their national title hopes and Jadeveon Clowney winning the Heisman. The talk about UNC? Pretty much non-existent.

If you watched UNC last year, you know that they have an excellent offense led by QB Bryn Renner and they can score a bunch of points on anyone. Stopping people is a different story. But as we saw in last year’s Outback Bowl, you can score on South Carolina. And I think UNC will. Everyone is taking UNC lightly, and with Georgia looming next week, I think South Carolina does too. I don’t know if UNC has the firepower to actually win but as Lee Corso says, “Ah fuck it.” I mean, “Closer than the experts think.”

VANDEBILT (+3.5) over Ole Miss
Was it just a year ago that Vanderbilt was the hot up and coming team in the SEC? All of the buzz is now firmly aimed at Ole Miss but I can’t really figure out why. Yes, they have a ton of high-profile recruits but they are still freshmen. Vanderbilt played in this Thursday Night showcase last year and almost stunned South Carolina. The fact you get points here is shocking and is almost too easy – Vandy is winning this game.

Some angles get played up more than others but Vanderbilt has two concurrent negative stories working against them – the charges of rape against 4 now-former players and the poor ticket sales. The latter may push coach James Franklin out of town. The former is cause for concern. Neither will affect the team on Thursday night. If anything, it may motivate them further.

Rutgers (+10.5) over Fresno State *Upset Special*
Yes, Fresno State is a hot “BCS Buster” candidate. But its last game was a shellacking at the hands of SMU in the Hawaii Bowl. What am I missing? Rutgers was one terrible half of football against Louisville from playing in the Sugar Bowl and getting a lot more preseason love then they’re getting now. The 10-point spread is absurd, I don’t care where the game is being played. I hate rooting or pulling for Rutgers, but this is a game they should win. If they don’t – it’s a long year in Piscataway. And for reasons other than it being Piscataway.

Toledo (+29.5) over FLORIDA
The rule of thumb is to not pick an underdog unless you think they can actually win the game, regardless of the spread. Well, yes, I do think Toledo could beat Florida. I doubt they will but a 9-win team returning its starting QB is getting disrespected big-time by this 4-touchdown spread.  Even if Florida does dominate like it’s supposed to, they failed to show the offensive blaze that would let them cover this spread. This goes into halftime close, Florida pulls away late and Toledo covers.

CINCINNATI (-10.5) over Purdue
Purdue is terrible. Cincinnati is not. I wrote Cincinnati would be undefeated headed into November. They ain’t losing this one. Need I say more?

Mississippi State (+12.5) over Oklahoma State
This is one of the more intriguing games of the weekend that I feel is a total tossup. Last year, these teams were both mediocre at best in their respective conferences. Somehow, Oklahoma State has parlayed that into being the preseason Big 12 favorites while Mississippi State has been tossed aside like an also-ran. Throw in the fact that it’s a neutral site and I could see either team winning. Until Oklahoma State proves me – and 2012’s results wrong – I will err on the side of caution. And the SEC.

While I’m here, can anyone explain to me how Oklahoma State is the preseason favorite in the Big 12? Everyone is down on Oklahoma, which happened to go 10-3 last year with each loss coming to a top 10 team (Notre Dame, Kansas State & Texas A&M). Meanwhile, Texas won 9 games, finished strong and won a nice Alamo Bowl game against a top 15 Oregon State club. Oklahoma State lost to both teams last year. Besides, Baylor is winning the Big 12.

Jordan Lynch QB
Northern Illinois (+3) over IOWA
I don’t get this line at all. Iowa was terrible last year. Northern Illinois made the Orange Bowl and put up a decent fight against a top-flight team in Florida State. The undoing for Northern Illinois and Jordan Lynch was the NFL-caliber defense Florida State put on the field to slow him down. Does Iowa have that? If they do, no one has alerted me. The game is at Iowa, but don’t you think Northern Illinois will be highly motivated to shut everyone up after the smear campaign launched at them since busting the BCS last year?

Jordan Lynch is back. He will be by far the best player on the field. I would have made this my Best Bet but I have another juicy line I couldn’t pass up.

Alabama (-20) over Virginia Tech
I wanted to pick Virginia Tech just to be contrarian. I wanted to find any excuse to pick the Hokies. But beyond, “Frank Beamer is a good coach,” I got nothing. They can’t make this line high enough. Unlike other dynasties in the BCS era – namely USC – Alabama shows no sign of complacency. Likely because Nick Saban preaches against it at every opportunity. They will be showing up in Atlanta with bad intentions to make a statement. Pray for Virginia Tech.

Georgia (-2) over CLEMSON *Best Bet*
I wrote in my Bold Predictions piece that Georgia would annihilate Clemson. I’m not changing up that pick now. Georgia is my pick to win the National Title. Clemson is my pick to be the ACC’s annual poster child for disappointment. Has any team ever gotten more mileage out of a Peach Bowl victory that was gifted to them by some atrocious Les Miles coaching? That win doesn’t make up for the South Carolina destruction to end the season. I have no faith in Clemson and will not have any faith until they win a big game in the regular season. Despite being a Top 5 team, Georgia might have the biggest chip on their shoulder of any time in the country. Dawgs are going to roll in Death Valley. And the ACC failure marches on…

Lsu (-4.5) over Tcu
I will be rooting for TCU to win. But they won’t. LSU has more players. LSU has better players. We saw this scene unfold in 2011 when big, bad Oregon traveled to Texas and left with bloody noses and scars. TCU is not the same TCU team that won the Rose Bowl and had an NFL QB at the helm in Andy Dalton. TCU may make noise. They make challenge for the Big 12 title in a down year in the conference. They aren’t beating LSU on the big stage on opening weekend.

If LSU wins, it will truly be a sad day for college football – especially if Jeremy Hill plays. If you don’t know, Hill was LSU’s leading rusher in 2012. He was also on probation in 2012 for an improper sexual relationship with an underage girl while in high school. He violated his probation – or so you would think – when he was caught on camera running up from behind and suckerpunching someone. Because Louisiana is where LSU plays, somehow his probation remained unchanged. LSU coach Les Miles let his team “vote” whether Hill could play or not – give me a fucking break – and he will likely play on Saturday.

It’s disgusting. But if you want your kid to grow up, get arrested twice and face no consequences – send him to LSU.

WASHINGTON (-3.5) over Boise State
Another pick I made in my Bold Predictions column. In fact, let me just cut and paste here: “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.”

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Monday, August 19, 2013

8 Ways to Fix IndyCar Racing

IndyCar racing in 2013 is far more exciting than NASCAR.

Judging from the ratings, I am in the extreme minority. But that’s not my fault. That’s IndyCar’s fault.

Since the traumatic split between CART and the IRL in the mid-1990’s, open wheel racing in North America has fallen multiple laps behind NASCAR. At the time, it more than the split drove the change.

NASCAR was a more exciting sport. We loved the tire-rubbing, doorhandle to doorhandle, 3-wide racing on classic tracks with classic, archetypal, bordering on stereotypical drivers. The Earnhardt’s, Allison’s and Waltrip’s of the world brought us in.

As NASCAR evolved, it lost much of what made it great. Beyond the departure from tracks like Rockingham and the moonshinin’ vibe from the drivers, the racing has devolved into boredom. I literally fell asleep during this year’s Daytona 500, watching cars form an assembly line for 3 hours.

IndyCar, on the other hand, is fresh and exciting. The cars still race double-wide. The speeds are breathtaking. The drivers do not like each other – the feuds are reads and the sniping words ring like the sweet music of a lost era. Unless you’re Will Power.

Unfortunately, no one is watching. It’s not because of the product. It’s because of the marketing. Here’s how IndyCar can fix this.

1) All Races on NBC

For some reason, IndyCar has levied barbs at NBCSN and blamed them for their lack of IndyCar promotion and the decline in ratings. It’s mind-boggling but a symptom of the larger issue – IndyCar cannot get out of its own way. For almost 20 years, the sport’s leaders have done almost everything in their power to ruin the sport. It’s time to change that.

The biggest problem facing IndyCar is the divided TV contract. While NASCAR has a split contract, it’s clearly and obviously divided between the first half of the year (Fox) and the second half (ESPN now, NBC in the future). You know, as a fan, where to tune in.

Indy 500 on NBC
For IndyCar, it’s not. Even for the signature event, qualifying and practice for the Indy 500 is on NBCSN while the race itself is on ABC. Over the summer, the races alternate between NBCSN and ESPN. It’s mind-boggling. With the divided deal, neither network is terribly invested in promoting it and the races go off largely unnoticed – you tell me the last time you heard IndyCar discussed on SportsCenter.

The solution is simple, making even more sense now that NBC made its big move for NASCAR. Bring the entire series, the Indy 500 included, to NBC and NBCSN. For the first time, IndyCar will join a network with the other top auto racing series and can piggyback off of that. Schedule races after Formula 1 races, or before NASCAR races, and promoted during both. IndyCar has been ignored by Speed Channel during its entire existence. NBCSN will be the closest thing to a Speed Channel replacement. Embrace it. Let NBC do for IndyCar what it did for the NHL.

ESPN brings no value to IndyCar because IndyCar brings no value to ESPN. Much like I discussed when talking about ESPN not caring about the new American Athletic Conference, the channel is no longer in the business of promoting leagues – only maintaining.

2) Less Street Circuits, More Road Courses

There are only 3 road courses on the 2013 IndyCar schedule. This is borderline criminal. While street courses can be exciting, they are not as exciting as true road courses and frequently create the type of assembly-line driving that so frustrates me about NASCAR.

It’s time to make a change. The perfect IndyCar season, in my mind, is a 20-race schedule with 8 street circuits, 6 ovals and 6 road courses. This year’s schedule has 10 street circuits, 6 ovals and 3 road courses. It’s not fair. It’s not even. It’s not maximizing IndyCar’s potential. And it’s actually a pretty easy fix to reduce the number of street circuits – wait until #5.

3) Overhaul the Points System – Emulate Formula 1, not NASCAR

The IndyCar points system is a mishmash of the Formula 1 system – with points dramatically weighted toward the top – and the NASCAR system – with points to everyone and bonus points for things like poles and laps led.

The NASCAR system works for NASCAR. It does not work for IndyCar. Why IndyCar steals any of the points system from NASCAR confuses me. The Formula 1 point systems works to perfection for that circuit and open wheel racing translates overseas, doesn’t it?

Currently, Formula 1 only awards points to the Top 10 finishers, with the winner getting 25 points and it goes down through tenth-place. I don’t believe IndyCar should swipe this system as is – maybe top 15 works better for IndyCar, maybe top 12, etc. – but that should be the basis.

Not only does this add intrigue to the points battle, it adds an element of intrigue to every race. If you watch Formula 1, you see the thrill of cars battling to get in or stay in the top 10. You know the implications when a points leader crashes and doesn’t register a point. The NASCAR point system is set up to prevent wild swings each week. The Formula 1 enables wild swings.

For a sport like IndyCar trying to rev up enthusiasm, wild swings are a good thing. Go for it.

4) Tighten the Schedule: Start Earlier, End Earlier

I took another look at the IndyCar schedule before I went to write this and I shook my head. It makes no sense. There is a race on Labor Day weekend in Baltimore – and not another until October. There is a race almost every weekend in June after the Indy 500, but only 2 in July and 2 in August, when the sports world offers up little in the way of competition. What gives?

Here’s one indisputable fact – IndyCar cannot deal with football. NASCAR is 100x more popular than IndyCar yet has found its ratings crippled by NFL and college football in recent years. Why end in the season in October? Not only are you facing football, but also the MLB playoffs and the beginning of the NHL and NBA seasons. If there is one month you would not want to compete in, it’s October. So of course, Indy Car has 3 races that month – more than July & August – including the 
season finale.

Time to change that. The season needs to end on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day – that is the last pre-NFL Sunday of the year with little to no competition, except the stray college football game, the first weekend of the US Open tennis tournament and the third round of a PGA Tour event. In short, it’s perfect.

Working back from that, the season needs to be loaded up in July and August, where there is no football, minimal interest in baseball before the pennant races heat up and the NHL and NBA have long since finished. There should be at least 3 races in both July and August, if not 4.

Although the season has only 3 races in October that, in theory, need to be moved into the schedule, the season should start earlier than late March. There’s no reason why there can’t be races in Florida and Long Beach – traditional early season races – in February and early March. Though college basketball dominates March, February is another light month of sports after the Super Bowl and the IndyCar series could easily carve out a weekend – maybe the week after Daytona – which they could try to lock in as a traditional season opener.

5) No Doubleheader Weekends

Is this amateur hour? Doing 2 races at the same track on the same weekend is an admission of defeat. They couldn’t get to 19, or 20, legit races so they doubled up. Stop it. It’s not major league. Would Formula 1 or NASCAR run two races in two days? Of course not.

Furthermore, it could be dangerous. As I was watching the second of the Indy races in Toronto, the announcers discussed the impact of driver fatigue from two races in two days. Ultimately, there was no repercussions from that statement. But in a sport as dangerous as IndyCar racing, why in the world would you eve risk that? If you want to grow the sport, go to more places. You want to give Toronto two races in a weekend? Fine, but do it another way…

6) Promote the Indy Lights Series Better

Did you know that IndyCar had the equivalent of the NASCAR Nationwide Series? Unless you’re a diehard fan, you probably didn’t. The Indy Lights Series exists. Sort of. The races are rarely, if ever televised live. They are never promoted. They are never given their proper due.

We have seen the success of the Nationwide Series, ever since the glory days as the Busch Series in the mid 80’s. Every IndyCar weekend should include an Indy Lights Series race that should be televised live by the rights holder, which should be NBCSN. There is no downside. NBCSN gets more, precious live sports. IndyCar gets to promote its younger drivers and future stars. Every track and promoter on the series gets another event to sell tickets too. The team owners get a more prominent avenue to develop talent. And sponsors get more exposure.

7) Focus on North America. Forget the World.

IndyCar seems to have given up on some of its global domination dreams, but I need to put this here to cover my bases. One race in Brazil? Can’t hurt. Asia? Stay away. A new race in Italy? Dumb idea.

Formula 1 is the world’s most popular motorsport. An IndyCar race in a global venue, in a place like Japan or Italy, will inevitably be viewed upon as a minor league event, whether that is accurate or not.

8) Make Juan Pablo Montoya & Sam Hornish Return

Two of open wheel’s biggest stars have been languishing in stock cars for too long now. Hornish failed in the Spring Cup and is currently fighting for a Nationwide Series title. Montoya has shown flashes of brilliance but never put it together to make a Chase for the Cup.

It’s time to bring the stars back. The IndyCar Series has stars, but Montoya and Hornish – both before and after their NASCAR stints – are more recognizable than any except for Helio Castrosneves. Make them a big offer. Get them back in the fold. Start fighting back against NASCAR.

Will IndyCar ever return to its status, last held 25 years ago, as the biggest motorsport series in the United States? Maybe not for another 25. But that doesn’t mean they can’t try.

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