Friday, September 27, 2013

The Best Sporting Event You Won't Watch on Saturday

It is the best of the sport; it is the worst of the sport.

On Saturday, Belmont Park will play host to what could prove to be the sport’s best day of action. With the exception of the Breeders’ Cup, no track will host five Grade I stakes – along with a Grade 2 stakes with a field to die for.

The Kentucky Derby winner Orb will be there. The Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice will be there. The best 3-year-old filly in training and Kentucky Oaks winner, Princess of Slymar, will be there to face the best older mare in training, Royal Delta. The Grade I winners of the Donn Handicap, Whitney Stakes and Woodward Stakes will be represented. Even a forgotten horse like Flat Out has a quite a story – he’ll be attempting to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the third year in a row, a feat not accomplished in some five decades.

In short, it is an amazing day of racing. But you won’t watch it.

orb winning
Oh sure, there’s a chance that lodged between a pair of heavyweight college football games Saturday afternoon – these races will go head to head against Oklahoma/Notre Dame and LSU/Georgia – that you wouldn’t have watched anyway. But a horse race takes about 2 minutes to complete. You couldn’t spare 2 minute to watch the best races of the year?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The races won’t be televised. They’ll be on TVG, a channel that is devoted to hardcore gamblers and horse racing freaks like me. It’s in the 700s on the Comcast dial in DC and it’s in standard-definition.

In essence, the Fall Championship Meet at Belmont will showcase everything that is great and everything that is flawed with the sport.

On the great side, there is the behemoth known as Belmont and the historic nature of these races. While other sports struggle to compare eras, for horse racing and these races, it’s a direct line you can draw from today’s stars to yesterday’s legends. The purity of the Jockey Club Gold Cup has remained unchanged – it is usually the first time that the stars of the Triple Crown grow up and face their elders.

It is where 3-year-olds like Curlin, Easy Goer and Skip Away stamped their greatness. It is where older horses like Cigar, John Henry and Affirmed established another piece of their Hall of Fame careers.  It is a race that in 1978 saw two Triple Crown winners – Affirmed and Seattle Slew – partake in one of the most fascinating horse races of all-time. It has been aired on ABC, CBS and ESPN. With any luck, it’ll be on Fox Sports 1 next year thanks to a recently announced deal.

But before reading this blog post, did you know what was happening at Belmont? Did you know there are 6 races with championship implications and the best horses in the country running?

Horse racing, as I’ve mentioned before, is not dying but horse racing needs help. I love horse racing. If I hadn’t driven from DC to Connecticut the past two weekends for UConn debacles, I’d be joining my Dad at Belmont this weekend. It’s worth your time. It’s worth your enjoyment. It’s worth a few dollars to drop on the horses in the hope of striking it rich.

But I’m just a guy with a limited reach typing furiously trying to spread the word. I don’t have the pull. And it doesn’t seem like anyone in the horse racing industry does either right now. With the exception of the Triple Crown races – and maybe NBCSN’s coverage of Saratoga – the sport is barely a blip on the radar.

In 2012 at New York racetracks (Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga), a total of 1.7 million people bet $674.9 million. If you include betting on New York races from all-sources – internet, OTBs, other tracks – the number goes to a whopping $2.5 billion dollars.

Yes, that’s a “b” as in three commas.

Yet, arguably the sport’s most exciting day on Saturday will go untelevised, largely unwatched and decidedly unnoticed.

I’ll be watching.

I want to see who will win the battle between potential Horse of the Year Royal Delta and definite Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Princess of Slymar.

I want to know if the uber-talented and now healthy Graydar, the winner of the Grade I Donn Handicap, can return to form.

I want to see if Forty Tales – a horse I saw in person dust them off in spectacular fashion on the Belmont Stakes undercard – has the fortitude to knock of the older sprinters.

I want to find out if Laughing, a winner of three straight close decisions, is as good as her record indicates or if a horse like Kissable is more than just an awesome name.

I want to enjoy the Jockey Club Gold Cup. I want to see if Palace Malice – the horse who brought me so much joy and money at the Belmont Stakes – can shock the world again at Belmont.

I want to have company Saturday.

But no one else will be watching.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Week 5 College Football Picks: Shakeup Saturday

Picks to Date: 28-16
Best Bet: 1-3

Upset Special: 4-0

There is only one thing that upsets me about this week’s slate of games – no ESPN moniker! It used to be an annual ESPN tradition to give a nonsensical name to weekend of games, whether in college football or basketball. I think they still do Rivalry Week in college basketball. But I miss Separation Saturday!

Most weeks I write a few paragraphs before diving into the games. But this week’s games are too good. I have a lot to say. So let’s dive in?

PURDUE (+3.5) over Northern Illinois
The reason for this pick is a simple matter of relative competition. In its last two games, Purdue played home vs. Notre Dame and then traveled to Madison to get run over by Wisconsin. Those are two very, very good football teams, at least Top 20 material. Northern Illinois struggled to beat Idaho and Eastern Illinois. They have spent the last two weeks playing teams in different galaxies.

Northern Illinois still has Jordan Lynch and a solid offense, but the defense seems to have reverted to constant #MACtion mode. Purdue is young, inexperienced and clearly preparing for a long year. But this feels like the kind of game where they have a mini-breakthrough. There’s almost no hope for Purdue to make a bowl game, but their bye is next week. I expect a huge performance at home – the ESPN2 exposure helps the motivation – and they will put an end to Northern Illinois’ ill-fated run at a second straight BCS bust. Keep reading for my pick for this year’s BCS buster.

ucf beats penn state
UCF (+7.5) over South Carolina
If you read what I wrote two weeks ago or last week, you’ll know that I have two feet on board the UCF bandwagon. UCF is a really, really good football team that everyone seems to be sleeping on. They beat Penn State on the road and if it were not for a very late Penn State TD, they would’ve won by 10 points and would’ve gained their rightful place in the Top 25 rankings. Blake Bortles is a big time quarterback. More importantly, UCF has been building to this one season for a decade. They know the poor American conference loses its BCS bid after this year. They got one shot.

On the other side, what about South Carolina has been so great this season? They melted, almost literally, in the second half against Georgia. They were far from impressive against North Carolina. Despite a hot start, Vanderbilt was down 10 with a first and goal in the fourth quarter before a crippling turnover. Why is South Carolina a Top 10 team? Simply put, I don’t think they are. Throw in the fact that there is no way they take an unranked UCF team seriously, this game is going down to the wire. It would have been my “Upset Special” but there was another line too juicy to pass up…

East Carolina (+11.5) over North Carolina *Upset Special*
This line does make an ounce of sense to me. North Carolina just lost to Georgia Tech in decidedly uninspiring fashion. They didn’t play that great against a South Carolina team with serious flaws. Their offense, so potent a year ago, seems a step slow this year. Given how Giovani Bernard has lit it up for the Bengals, maybe that isn’t a surprise?

East Carolina gave Virginia Tech all they could handle a couple weeks back and have no doubt in their minds that they can win this game. They usually knock off one BCS conference team per year – though with NC State looming, they may make it two this year. You have to pick the team you think is going to win. North Carolina has given me no indication yet they are any good. East Carolina has. There’s the pick.

Navy (-3) over WESTERN KENTUCKY *Best Bet*
Look at Navy’s schedule. Other than Notre Dame, who can’t Navy beat? Pitt at home? Duke? Toledo? San Jose State? There is an extremely good chance – if Navy continues to play well – they will be 6-0 going into its home game against Pitt on the last weekend of October. Win that game, and they would stroll into Notre Dame Stadium undefeated and playing to become this year’s BCS buster.

And, really, wouldn’t that be the ultimate BCS disaster scenario? Because when the bowl bids come out – Navy will still have one game left, against Army, to play. Wouldn’t it be a sweet way to send off the ill-advised BCS by having a Top 12, 11-0 Navy team ready for a BCS berth but with one more game to play? What would they do? What if they gave Navy an Orange Bowl berth and they lost to Army, playing a scenario out of the 1970s?

Of course, there are a lot of dominoes that need to fall before the deliciousness can occur. Western Kentucky received a lot of preseason hype thanks to the return of Bobby Petrino but, shockingly, he is not a miracle worker. And it appears anyone can beat Kentucky. The Navy dream continues for one more week*.

*By making it my Best Bet, I have almost guaranteed that it will not.

CLEMSON (-29) over Wake Forest
This is the weekly “will they cover by halftime?” special. Wake Forest is truly terrible. Somehow, I’ve watched them play 3 times – the Friday night snoozefest against Boston College, the loss at home to Louisiana-Monroe and then too much of their game vs. Army last week before tailgating for UConn/Michigan. The constant in all three? Wake Forest looked awful. This is a team that not too long ago was winning ACC titles and playing in Orange Bowls. Sad, sorry Orange Bowls. Clemson looks like a national title contender. If this game wasn’t in Death Valley, maybe I’d consider a late cover for the Demon Deacons. Instead, it’s just going to be ugly.

On the plus side, I will not watch this game. I have better viewing options.

purdue notre dame 2013
NOTRE DAME (+3.5) over Oklahoma
You know it’s a good weekend when this game is relegated to almost an afterthought. I am picking Notre Dame for the fourth week in a row – I have lost the last three times. Pretty sure that’s the definition of insanity. But luckily, I don’t need anything different to happen as the Vegas oddsmakers are doing it for me. Notre Dame can go out, win ugly and I finally get a victory.

So why do I have faith in Notre Dame? For starters, Brian Kelly has instilled such a determination in this team that it seems almost impossible for them to lose in the regular season, especially at home. As we’ve seen with Michigan, it took a Herculean effort from Devin Gardner – one he has not been able to duplicate – to win. And frankly, Notre Dame was the better team that not but questionable coaching (too many passes) undermined them.

As for Oklahoma, I remain unimpressed. Yes, Blake Bell played well against Tulsa. Again, they played Tulsa. The Notre Dame defense isn’t the monster it was a year ago but it’s still better than Tulsa. At least I 
assume they are. For Oklahoma, I still can’t get the image of the West Virginia game out of my head. I was watching a better game at the time (ND/Michigan) but every time I flipped onto Fox, Oklahoma had the ball and was preparing to miss a third-down. It can’t all be the quarterback’s fault, you know? And if Bell was so good, how in the world didn’t he get the starting nod to begin with? The Tulsa game will prove to be an aberration.

GEORGIA (-3) over Lsu
Georgia was my preseason pick to win the National Title. If they lose this game, they’re not winning the National Title. So I have to pick them. And I am. Gladly. If Georgia had opened up with just about any other team in FBS, they’d be undefeated and probably ranked #3 or #4. As is, they played a legit Top 5 team on the road. They lost by 3. It happens. Georgia is better for it. They are tested. They are ready. When you’re play you’re third Top 10 team in September, there is nothing you’re not prepared for.

LSU, though, I’m not buying it. Their big win so far was over TCU, which was quickly exposed by Texas Tech and I still don’t know how or why they were ranked in the preseason. LSU beat up on some patsies and then dropped the hammer on an Auburn team that was 3-9 last year. Zach Mettenberger’s resurgence has gotten so much play, that would you think he turned into a cross between Tom Brady, Johnny Football and Johnny Utah. He may put up good numbers against a decent Georgia defense. But the LSU defense has been surprisingly suspect.

The most intriguing subplot may come after the game is over and we get another 35-31 shootout, on the heels of the Georgia/South Carolina, Alabama/A&M firefights, and the media spends the next week decrying the end of old-timey SEC football. I mean, I’m just giving you a heads up.

ALABAMA (-15.5) over Ole Miss
There are 2 ways and only 2 ways that this game goes: Alabama wins by 28 or Ole Miss wins. I’m going to 
steal a Sports Guy bit and give reasons for both.

Alabama Wins by 28: They’re tired of hearing about the poor performance last week. Nick Saban says the word “Process” 6,000 times this week. Alabama doesn’t lose to Ole Miss. The Tide took a breather last week. Ole Miss has their attention. Process, process, process.

Ole Miss Wins: They’re tired of hearing about Alabama’s poor performance last week. They smoked Texas at Texas, they ain’t afraid. They’ve already won two road games. Jeff Scott is a difference maker few other teams have. Hugh Freeze. A bunch of young kids that believe. HUGH FREEZE!!

In the end, I feel that Ole Miss is too young for a game of this magnitude. Yes, beating Texas at Texas is a huge accomplishment and should not be taken lightly. That’s a program-defining win. Beating #1 Alabama at Alabama is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for a school like Ole Miss. The schedule conspired against them – Bama had their letdown last week and spent all week hearing about. They are getting Bama’s best shot. They can’t beat Bama’s best. At least not yet.

Arizona (+10) over WASHINGTON
Look, Washington was impressive in its opening victory against Boise State.  I get it. We get it. They also beat Illinois by 10 which is, well, it’s something. We don’t know anything about Arizona yet, except they smashed 3 cupcakes.

So the question becomes, is Washington really that good or is Arizona actually good? Based on Rich Rodriguez’s track record – non-Michigan division – I’m going to go with the latter. I know it’s a road game. I know Washington has a lot of momentum. But I can’t shake this feeling that Washington is a little overhyped and overrated this year. In short, they feel a lot like Arizona does to me – a good to potentially great team that will win 8 or 9 games.

OHIO STATE (-7) over Wisconsin
I don’t think anyone realizes how good Ohio State is yet because they haven’t played anybody. They will find out Saturday night. As for Wisconsin, the controversial loss to Arizona State masked the fact that they were in a position to lose to Arizona State – a team that promptly got embarrassed by Stanford a week later.

Ohio State is another Stanford. Ohio State is going to embarrass Wisconsin. I didn’t give it the “Best Bet” nod because that would only jinx it. Besides, ESPN College Gameday is following Ohio State next week to Northwestern – the Buckeyes have to win this game.

Stanford (-10) over WASHINGTON STATE
Stanford coach David Shaw got quite a blessing last week. His team annihilated a ranked opponent, but then let up to make the score closer than it should’ve been. The result? He gets to pound into his team’s brain all week that they have to play for 4 quarters and finish the job.

Poor, poor Washington State. Though they deserve every ounce of the beating they’re about to take by shamelessly trying to keep a meaningless shutout in tact last week against Idaho. You reap what you sow, Mike Leach.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is The NFL Too Big To Fail?

I love the Jets. I hate the NFL.

I am obsessed with fantasy football. I loathe Roger Goodell.

Thus, every Sunday and most Monday night I am glued to the television supporting a sport I love and a league I despise.

I would love to tell you that I’ll stop watching. I would enjoy sharing that my disdain over the actions of the NFL is so great that I cannot bear support them for one week longer.

But I am not a liar.

Thus, this is the conundrum that many fans find themselves in. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

The NFL is too big to fail. The question in my title was misleading – the question has been answered a thousand times over. The real question is – what will happen? And the real answer is likely, “Nothing.”

We shouldn’t support the NFL like we do. In fact, Americans have almost been trained to reject their corporate overlords. We don’t like when things become too popular. Our bands and brands, our performers and leaders, we usually tire of them when they hit critical mass. Look at ESPN. In the 1990’s, the upstart misfit from a mid-sized town in Connecticut was adored and beloved. Today, the network is one of the most powerful and valuable media brands in the world – there are entire sites devoted to mocking it or airing its dirty secrets.

The NFL? We can’t get enough.

Even as the league pays nearly $1 billion to former players. Even as it strong-arms ESPN out of promoting its coverage of the concussion issue. Even as players suffer injuries at an alarming rate.

We don’t care.

I wrote about the new college football rule for targeting that features an automatic suspension for a helmet to helmet hit. It is a tremendous rule. Players deserve to be punished immediately and severely for a play that is dangerous and has led to the concussion epidemic that has taken over the sport.

helmet to helmet fine nfl
You will never see that rule in the NFL. Because the NFL doesn’t care about player safety. Oh, they levy fines. And players write checks. It’s water under the bridge. When your game check is $250,000 and you’re fined $50,000 – who cares? You still made $200,000 for a week’s worth of work. If you believe in your mind you made it there due to your aggressive – read: dangerous – play, why would you change?

You wouldn’t.

The NFL cares so deeply about player safety that they have again begun a push for an 18-game season. Because nothing says “player safety” like exposing players to 2 more games of punishment. The NFL knows that regardless of what fans say about it, they will watch. Fantasy leagues will get 2 more games. TV networks will get 2 more games. Gamblers get 2 more games. Everyone wins! Except the players.

But the players aren’t the only one who lose in the NFL’s total domination of the world. We suffer too. The fans suffer on a weekly basis. In fact, I would argue that the NFL is the most un-fan-friendly league in the world. They can be. They know we’ll watch.

Have you attended an NFL game in-person recently? I will spare you the horrifying details on the cost – of tickets, of food, of beer, of parking, of souvenirs. It is simply a hideous experience. The game is made for television. It is made for the people who paid nothing instead of the people who paid hundreds. The never-ending television timeouts. The lack of replays. The staggering amount of extremely drunk old men. Attending a game is largely not fun once the tailgating ends. Yet we still go. We have to. We have a collective addiction to football that we cannot cure.

Even when we do watch from home, we are inevitably screwed. Take it from me as a Jets fan. I live in Washington, D.C. now. The Jets are rarely on. The archaic television policies the NFL continues to abide by leaving us in the dark ages. Oh, sure, the NFL RedZone is great. You know what’s better? Watching any game I want.

On Saturday night, many college football fans were up in arms that ABC decided to do a split-national telecast in its 8pm primetime slot. You either got Michigan/UConn or Kansas State/Texas.  People were upset. They are used to being able to watch every college football game every week.

This scenario plays out every single week in the NFL! No one complains.

Even worse, the NFL will never, ever have competition. In any other form of business – and I mean, literally any other – this would be considered a monopoly. In football, that means an anti-trust exemption and tax breaks.

Even when another league thinks of coming up – the short-lived XFL or WLAF or UFL – they are roundly and routinely mocked by the media. You know, the legion of sportswriters whose paychecks largely exist due to the success of the NFL. They’re in on it too. The next time you hear a bad word on television about the NFL will be the first – every single broadcast channel has an NFL contract.

Just this summer, Fox Sports 1 jumped into the sports media fray. Their goal of beating ESPN was as laughable as the United Football League trying to out-rate the NFL. The Fox Sports 1 launch was met with open arms – competition is great! – while the UFL was met with the resounding sound of silence. And, yes, Fox Sports 1 has been every bit the failure so far that the UFL was.

Is there hope out there?

No.

And we only have ourselves to blame. We let it get to this point and there’s no turning back. The money is too great. The popularity is too entrenched. The league is too ingrained in our lives.

Roger Goodell will continue to cash 7-figure checks over the littered bodies of men who no longer have memories. Taxpayers will continue to write 10-figure checks to build palaces for billionaires. The media will continue its forced love affair with the league in fear of being outcast from a cash cow.

I’d like to continue this rant. But I need to check out the waiver wire for my fantasy football league.

Sigh. I hate being part of the problem.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Losing Should Never Be Rewarded in Sports


They do not trade their best players after 2 games for draft picks. They do not blow it up to hit rock bottom.

They do in the NFL.

The shocking thing? Many NFL writers believe this is a good thing. And that’s sad.

trent richardson traded
This week, the Cleveland Browns traded Trent Richardson for a first-round pick next year. Richardson was a first round pick just last year, third overall in fact.

The spin after the trade – at least from Cleveland and writers in favor of the trade – is that Richardson had been underperforming. It’s a curious position to take. Considering all summer, the Browns were pumping up Richardson as their back of the future. That they were going to use him on every down. That he would get more carries, more touches and more catches.

Instead, the Browns revealed their lack of interest in winning this season. On the first drive of the 2013 season, Trent Richardson carried the ball 4 times for 26 yards. That 6.5 yards per carry average was good enough for only 9 more carries the rest of the game. Brandon Weeden threw the ball 50+ times. The Browns lost. The season was already over.

Richardson’s career, however, is not. The Browns have given up on him after one season for reasons that are obvious and deeply depressing. They are tanking.

The Browns would be better served as a franchise if they didn’t win another game this season. In fact, there is no reason for them to even try. They will not make the playoffs. The only positive outcome for this season is the #1 pick in a 2014 draft loaded with potential franchise quarterbacks.

How does that make you feel as a fan?

The draft system in American sports is deeply flawed. It’s always been deeply flawed. It’s just become more deeply flawed as the games have evolved. Smarter men are now General Managers and they’ve identified the loophole.

The NBA attempted to fix this with the pure draft lottery instituted in the mid-1980’s. Though the conspiracies that the NBA fixed the first one for Patrick Ewing to end up on the Knicks, there is no doubt that it was enacted for the right reasons.

Even the draft lottery has fallen apart. Now there is a “weighted” system where you are still rewarded for embarrassing your city and your franchise by tanking on purpose to lose games.

It’s a simple fix. Go back to a true draft lottery in the NBA – and institute one in the NFL.

The Cleveland Browns, in no uncertain terms, should never be rewarded for what they did this week. The fans of Cleveland – those poor, tortured souls – shelled out thousands of dollars for season tickets and hundreds of dollars for Trent Richardson jerseys. Their reward? Nothing. A promise to get better in the future – after more tickets have been sold.

What is a Browns fan to do? There is no recourse. You have to sit back and watch your team lose, basically on purpose, for the next three months.

This is all done in the name of “parity,” which is the worst possible goal any sports league could chase. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world because parity most certainly does not exist – the rich get richer, the other teams need to build up to that.

Look at college football, a sport that is defined by its defiant lack of parity. The bluebloods rule the sport. It is good for the sport. As a UConn fan, Michigan comes to town on Saturday and it will be the biggest crowd in UConn history despite UConn trotting out the worst team in its brief FBS history. Why? Because Michigan is always good. The sport thrives on the top teams being the top teams year after year. It’s why John F. Kennedy said, “Why does Rice play Texas every year?” and why that means so much. You strive for greatness by playing the best.

I could continue to list the examples, of how sports hit their peak when there was a dominant team – the Heat of LeBron, the Bulls of Jordan or the Yankees of Jeter, Mo and Andy.

Even the NFL, the poster child for parity, hit its stride when parity was non-existent. And I’m not talking about the glory years of the early 1990’s when the Cowboys and 49ers existed on a different planet than the AFC.

I’m talking about 2007, the clear demarcation of the NFL taking off from not only its sports brethren, but all other forms of entertainment. Why did that happen? In part, live events were becoming the only communal television events.

But more important, the NFL had a remarkable season. The Thursday Night package on the NFL Network was legitimized when the 10-1 Packers took on the 10-1 Cowboys. The sports world almost literally stopped – NBC, CBS and the NFL Network all aired the Patriots last regular season game against the Giants to go 16-0. This was driven by greatness.

The success of the NFL does not hinge on the Cleveland Browns. It will not be undermined by tanking. Whether the Browns go 0-16 or 4-12 this year, the NFL will still be the biggest monster in the room.

It’s not right though. Relegation will never come to American sports. But there must be something put in place to prevent travesties from what occurred this week from happening again. Fans deserve better. Put in a true lottery in place and prevent tanking from being a sound strategy.

Until then, Cleveland fans would be wise to do the unthinkable this year – root against their team.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Conversation Between Two People About Miley Cyrus

“Did you see it?”

“Ugh.”

“What’s that for?”

“You only call me when you ask me if I’ve seen something. So I know it’s probably something stupid and/or ridiculous that is only going to annoy me. And then you jot down whatever I say because you used to be a reporter. You’re going to put it on your blog. And you’re going to get like a million page views out of my anger.”

“A million?”

“Yeah, you told me that piece on Sharknado was a hit.”

“No I didn’t. Sharknado had a shelf-life of about 10 minutes. The movie was a hit. You were not.”

“Well God dammit, then why is you still calling me?”

“It’s amusing. And it’s an easy way for me to pump out a blog post.”

“Are you recording this?!?”

“How else did you think I did it?”

“….”

“Exactly, so anyway, did you see it?”

“I’m almost afraid to ask at this point.”

disgusting miley cyrus
“The new Miley Cyrus video, Wrecking Ball. The video is exactly what you’d think. Except she’s naked.”

“No, I did not see it.”

“Seriously? You love crappy videos! Remember how that awful Jack Swagger video made you feel?”

“I would prefer not to.”

“Okay, okay, why haven’t you seen it?”

“I’m on a Miley Cyrus boycott.”

“Since when?”

“Since the VMA debacle.”

“But you said you didn’t even watch that!”

“True. So maybe since the publicity around the VMA debacle? You know I was too drunk at my fantasy football draft to watch.”

“How’s that going for you?”

“Well my team is 0-2 but Trent Richardson was just freed from the shackles of Cleveland. Yeah baby! Let’s talk about that. Man, it must absolutely suck to live in Cleveland and root for the Browns. They just punched every fan in the groin. Acting like Trent Richardson is somehow not good. Barry Sanders couldn’t run for 100 yards behind that line. I tell you what…”

“No, no, that’s fine. I write enough about football on my blog. I need some pop culture. Need to Grantland it up.”

“Are you using Grantland as a verb now?”

“I’ll do anything to get some of that sweet, sweet Bill Simmons paper.”

“Do I get a cut?”

“Only if you start talking about the Miley Cyrus video I asked about. Or at least your reasons for a boycott.”

“Typical white girl. That’s why. Aping on some ratchet culture, acting like she’s trendy. Go watch Ms. New Booty Miley. We’ve been twerking since…well since I was your age. This isn’t new. This is old.”

“Are these talking points from your girlfriend?”

“Well, yeah, basically. But she’s right. Who cares about a spoiled rich girl acting like trash? It’s not sexy. It’s not provocative. It’s a cry for help. She should just have a big ‘Daddy Doesn’t Love Me’ sticker across her forehead. Or her ass. It’s not like back in our day.”

“Back in our day?”

“Yeah, remember when Britney took her clothes off at the VMAs? We loved it. You know why?”

“Because Britney back then was smoking hot and Miley isn’t?”

“Yes. And no. Britney was trying to seduce us. She wasn’t trying to shock us. She was just like, here I am, a teenaged smokeshow, watch what you can’t have, ps I’m a virgin. It was perfect. Even Christina rocked it.”

“Aguilera?”

“I believe she was X-tina at the time. Now that’s how you do trashy! Wiggle your ass, writhe around, get dirty with three r’s and act slutty. Either of those alternatives is better than Miley’s pathetic plea for attention.”

“But it’s working! Even CNN had it on their front page over Syria.”

“That was a sad day for journalism.”

“I totally disagree with that! As a news organization, you can’t decide what people are interested in. You have to give them what they want. A sad day for humanity, maybe, but not journalism.”

“Whoa there buddy, totally disagree on that! CNN can decide what is more important. Us potentially going to war with Syria trumps a rich white girl shaking her ass against another rich white dude.”

“You need to face facts that people care about Miley Cyrus.”

“No we don’t! Just because websites and bloggers, like your dumb ass, keep putting her name in headlines as click-bait doesn’t mean we care. She’s everywhere right now so we have to pay attention. If only for me to go to work and shake my head with co-workers over it. Yeah, yeah, it’s terrible and stupid. No I don’t know what twerking is. And so on and so forth.”

“So what’s your suggestion?”

“Simpsons-style baby.”

“Huh?”

“Just don’t look. Just don’t look. Just don’t look at the monster.”

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Week 4 College Football Picks: Is Clemsoning Still a Thing?

Picks to Date: 22-11
Best Bet: 1-2
Upset Special: 3-0

One week after The Game of the Century of the Year of The Week and the endless hype around Johnny Football, this week’s schedule provides little. Okay, it provides nothing. How do you know it’s bad? ABC has a split-national telecast for its 8 p.m. primetime spot. One game features the dumpster fire that is Texas. The other features something even worse…UConn*.

*Yes, somehow, UConn is being shown on ABC in primetime because Michigan comes to town. Any hot seat ranking that has Mack Brown listed above Paul Pasqualoni is wrong. Coach Gramps will be fired, just as I said he should’ve have been last year. The players hate the coach. The fans hate the coach. The only group that doesn’t hate him is the media. But the media hated Jim Calhoun and Randy Edsall, so they can go…moving on…

Sometimes, these perceived slow weeks on the schedule provide for a surprisingly entertaining Saturday full of upsets and close finishes. This week, however, is not one of those weeks. On Saturday, only 2 ranked teams play on the road. Michigan, which gets to beat up on UConn, and Arizona State, which travels to #5 Stanford.

In fact, only 6 ranked teams (not including Arizona State & Stanford) play a team from another BCS conference. And one of those teams is SMU. In short, it is a putrid slate of games.

So much so that ESPN College Gameday will be in North Dakota and the most interesting game could take place Thursday night. Or it’ll be another blowout.

clemsoning
Clemsoning is a thing. Or it used to be a thing. And it may again be a thing. That’s why Thursday night’s game for Clemson at North Carolina State is so intriguing. The last time NC State played at home, they needed a last-minute field goal to put away Richmond. The last time Clemson played an FBS team, they were beating fellow Top 10 team Georgia in a thriller.

On paper, this is not a game. This is not even in the vicinity of a game. The #3 team in the country should beat this NC State team 10 times out of 10. Except it was just last year that a #3 team in the country visited NC State…and lost.

When people describe Clemsoning, this is the exact scenario they discuss – losing a road game to a terribly mediocre team like NC State. It’s a fascinating spot for Dabo Swinney, Tajh Boyd and Clemson to find themselves in. They are #3. They are a legit national title contender. Boyd is a legit Heisman Trophy contender. Yet there is a significant portion of the college football world that will tune in Thursday expecting them to fall flat on their face.

Clemson (-14) over NORTH CAROLINA STATE
They are not falling on their faces. At least not this week. When you look at their schedule for this year, it becomes pretty obvious that Clemsoning happens either at Maryland, the week after Florida State, or their next Thursday night game, a home game against Georgia Tech. North Carolina State is just not good.

Boise State (+3) over FRESNO STATE
My, oh my, have people leapt off the Boise State bandwagon. I had predicted, since July, that Washington was going to beat Boise State in the opener. There was just way too much working against Boise in that game, from the new stadium, to the pressure on Washington, to the new offense Boise was trying to install. It may have been the first time Boise State had played one of their annual tough openers where there was more pressure on the other team.

Looking at this game, the pressure is now squarely on Fresno State. Thanks to their thrilling opening weekend win over Rutgers, they are a fringe Top 25 team. An undefeated season will almost undoubtedly get them into a BCS bowl in the last year of the BCS buster as they are, along with Northern Illinois, the only 2 possibilities. It’s a home game. There’s a changing of the guard feel in the air. It’s the only game on Friday night. It’s a big stage.

What’s that? A big stage? Boise time! If you think I’m going against Chris Peterson on a Friday night, you’re crazy. Has Boise State ever lost on a weeknight?

GEORGIA TECH (-6.5) over North Carolina
Sometimes, you make picks based on facts and prior results. Sometimes, you don’t. Look, we don’t know how good either team is. Georgia Tech beat up on a couple of patsies. North Carolina was no match for South Carolina and beat up a terrible team. This is the litmus test for both.
So why am I picking Georgia Tech? Home game. Triple option. 68 points. Paul Johnson. Duke is decent.

LOUISVILLE (-41.5) over Fiu
Holy crap! This may be the worst possible game you can make between two FBS teams. FIU is beyond bad. They got just destroyed by Bethune-Cookman. They hired Ron Turner for reasons no one has been yet to decipher. They may lose to high school teams. Louisville is a finely-tuned machine at this point and looking to drop a sick number – maybe 70? 80? – to get people’s attention and make them forget about a sloppy first half against Kentucky.

More important for Louisville at this point is the emergence of UCF and Rutgers needing to beat Arkansas (I didn’t pick that game because I have no idea) this weekend. UCF, as I wrote last week, is now poised to be Louisville’s biggest opponent. Their game is a Friday night primetime game on ESPN so it could be a big one. If you’re a Louisville fan, ignore your team for two weeks, buy all the UCF gear you can find, learn the fight song (I assume they have one) and root like crazy that they beat South Carolina next Saturday.

Also, do not call them Central Florida. They really don’t like it. I know an alum. Trust me. It really ticks them off. Wait until game week to do that.

West Virginia (+6.5) over Maryland
An interesting neutral site game in Baltimore for a very under the radar rivalry that hit its peak about a decade ago, when Maryland was good and West Virginia was getting really, really good. I watched Maryland in person last week as they destroyed lowly UConn and I came away…unimpressed. Maryland has some really, really good players. Stefon Diggs is on the shortlist of best wide receivers in the country, up there with Sammy Watkins and Marqise Lee. C.J. Brown is an excellent dual threat quarterback.

But there was just something off about Maryland’s performance. They had too many turnovers. The play-calling was – a Randy Edsall staple – too conservative. The defense gave up way too many yards to a UConn offense that had trouble scoring against Towson. All in all, the performance was underwhelming. Now, West Virginia hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire but they know their season hinges on this game – I fear Maryland’s players, with their first taste of success under Edsall, may have read too many press clippings this week.

NOTRE DAME (-6.5) over Michigan State *Best Bet*
Michigan State is quite possibly the worst offensive team in a BCS conference, including UConn. They couldn’t score against South Florida. McNeese State put up half-a-hundred on USF. Michigan State couldn’t score against Western Michigan. Nicholls State was able to score against Western Michigan.

sad michigan state fan
To recap, Michigan State’s 2 FBS opponents are a combined 0-6 and have gone 0-2 against FCS schools.  I bring this up because Michigan State is RANKED in the Coaches’ Poll. UCF just beat Penn State in Happy Valley. Texas Tech just beat TCU. Auburn just beat Mississippi State. All three of those teams are undefeated and have a win that is miles better than anything Michigan State has done. It’s reason #1,530,284 why the Coaches Poll is a joke.

So, yeah, that was a lot of bitching and moaning. Long story short, Michigan State is a borderline bowl team. Notre Dame will go between 8-4 and 10-2. The game is in South Bend. The only angle you could take is that Notre Dame would be looking ahead to next week’s game against Oklahoma. But after sleepwalking against Purdue for 3 quarters, they’ll show up. This game will be over at halftime.

USC (-6) over Utah State
“If only USC had beat Washington State,” the Utah State coaching staff is thinking this week. Then, USC would be 3-0, ranked and feeling like they didn’t need to improve. Instead, the loss set a fire under their ass and they finally looked like the team I thought they would be against Boston College. Don’t forget, USC has the talent to compete with just about anyone in the country – they just don’t have the depth. And their defense is looking like one of the top units nationally, which is bad news for my man Chuckie Keeton.

The recent results have also messed up the spread. Utah State looks good. But they are still a one-man team that couldn’t beat Utah. They should be getting more than a touchdown on the road against USC.

Auburn (+17.5) over LSU
I am picking Auburn based solely on the fact I think they cover late like Vanderbilt did against South Carolina last Saturday night. I think it’s in the ESPN/SEC contract that the Saturday primetime game has to be interesting going into the fourth quarter. LSU wins by two touchdowns – after Auburn scores a garbage TD in the last minute to cover. And if that isn’t having faith in you pick, what is?

Michigan (-17.5) over UCONN
The UConn should be fired. He should have been fired last year. Because Michigan almost lost to Akron, they will show up in force on Saturday. That’s bad news for what is shaping up to be the worst UConn team – BY FAR – since it moved into Rentschler Field in 2003. Which is appropriate, since the odds of their being more Michigan fans at the game than UConn fans is very high. Ugh, this is depressing. Even more depressing is that for the second straight week, I’m driving 6 hours to watch the game.

Thankfully, we always win the tailgate.

TEXAS (-3.5) over Kansas State
You know why Mack Brown is a great coach and would make a great Senator? His spin after the latest debacle against Ole Miss was beautiful. He immediately focused on the Big 12. He laid it out for his players. All will be forgiven and forgotten if we win this conference and play in the Fiesta Bowl. And he’s right!

Will Texas win the Big 12? Based on the evidence so far, absolutely not. But in the course of a press conference, Mack Brown extended the carrot to his team. They will win this game. Also, Kansas State is not as good as Ole Miss or BYU. So that helps.

Utah (+7) over BYU *Upset Special*
Man, it was very hard to find an Upset Special this week. For those unfamiliar, my Upset Special is a team that is a touchdown-underdog or more who I think will win outright.  With so many ranked teams playing cupcakes, and so many mediocre teams playing each other, it was really hard to find one. I landed on Utah because, well, I don’t know about BYU.

Is BYU the team that could barely get a first down against Virginia? Or is BYU the team that could barely crack the 500-yard rushing mark against Texas? I think it’s more the former – the night against Texas starting good and then spiraled out of control. Utah appears to have an explosive offense and have already played two exceptionally tight games, a win over Utah State and an overtime loss to Oregon State. They are battle-tested. I think BYU comes back down to Earth.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Is Fox Sports 1 Already a Failure?

It was billed as the biggest cable network launch in history.

It may be billed as the biggest cable network flop in history.

It has now been exactly a month since Fox Sports 1 finally hit the airwaves, after an interminable summer of hype and commentary. In a way, it was brilliant. The summer months are brutal for the sports world, especially in the 24-hour, instantaneous news cycle we live in. Just ask Johnny Football about that.

fox sports 1 logo
With little to discuss, a new 24-hour sports network filled the void perfectly. With ESPN dislike at an all-time high – again, ask Johnny Football about that – the sports world, at least the variety that cared, was intrigued. Sports media columnists and websites devoted thousands upon thousands of words to the forthcoming launch. The battle for Fox Sports 1 to get carriage agreements with cable providers led to daily, if not hourly, updates. Finally, on Saturday, August 17, the new ESPN competitor was launched and the world was supposed to change.

The Earth is still round. Sports fans still watch ESPN. Whatever Fox executives were hoping for, the results have been the opposite. At times, the proverbial test pattern would draw better ratings than Fox Sports 1.

One month is too soon to declare a cable network a failure. Or is it? Another Fox launch, FXX, got off to an excellent start with the debuts of Always Sunny and The League retaining most of its audience from FX. The first day marathon of Parks and Recreation generated positive social media buzz. The name FXX may be clunky but the network is working.

Fox Sports 1? Not so much. But how has it fallen so flat?

Fun, Fun, Fun

It does not take a rocket scientist to ascertain that the network’s biggest mistake was taking shots at ESPN. Why poke the bear? Fox Sports 1 was never, ever, ever going to overtake ESPN in its first year, let alone its first month.

As full disclosure, I’m a PR guy. I’m currently the Director of Communications for the Newspaper Association of America. In my 11-year career, I’ve been a reporter for 6 and a PR/marketing guy for 5. I know the drill. And I know the trap that Fox fell into.

They struck upon an angle – “We’re going to compete with ESPN!” and a tagline – “We’re going to be fun!” – that hit the sweet spot of sports reporters and bloggers. They wanted to write those stories. They lapped it up like my dog at her water dish after a long walk. It was a perfect message for the slow summer months with space to fill.

There was, however, one small problem. It did not resonate with the sports fan. I was interested in Fox Sports 1 purely from a sports perspective – “Hey, there’s a new channel with sports on.” I had zero interest in watching Fox Sports 1 try to yuck it up and have more fun. And heaven help you if you’ve tried to watch Crowd Goes Wild for more than 5 minutes.

The fatal flow is this promotion was the simple fact that no one has ever accused ESPN of being too serious. When a Fox executive said that they were going to stop taking sports too seriously – like who cares about steroids, am I right? – they were essentially insulting the sports fan.

We do care about steroids. We do care about concussions. We care about the serious issues.

If we wanted to see forced laughter, then the NFL Today on CBS would be our #1 rated sports show. It’s not. If you were to ask a sports fan why they watch sports, where do you think “fun” would rank?

We watch ESPN when live sports aren’t on because we watch ESPN when live sports are on.

And no amount of fun could change that.

The Rights Stuff

ESPN president John Skipper brought up an excellent point about Fox News.  “If CNN had exclusive rights to the inauguration, election results and weather,” he said, “Fox News wouldn’t have snuck up and whupped them.”

Sports are all about live programming. It is about the games. ESPN doesn’t make its money on First Take or Around The Horn or the 1pm Wednesday SportsCenter. It gets $5.50 from every cable home in America because of Monday Night Football, the NBA Playoffs and Notre Dame/Michigan in primetime on a Saturday night.

Despite Fox’s proclamations that they would have the live sports right to compete with ESPN – they are in a different stratosphere. And not in a good way. Their college football games have left a lot to be desired through the few first weeks. Last Thursday, ESPN drew more than 2 million viewers for a tight (if atrocious) game between Texas Tech and TCU. Fox Sports 1 was airing Tulane and Louisiana Tech. ESPNU, somehow, aired a far more exciting and interesting game between Arkansas State and Troy. ESPN’s third channel was better than its supposed first channel competitor.

The Fox games may get better as the season progresses – their main contracts are with the Big 12 and Pac-12, which conspired to play a nonstop string of cupcakes to kick off the season. Once the conference matchups start, the games should improve. To a point.

On Sept. 7, ESPN aired Miami/Florida, South Carolina/Georgia and Michigan/Notre Dame. Fox Sports 1 will be lucky to air 3 games that good all season. That’s just the second Saturday in September for ESPN.

The lineup should start improving next year, when some NASCAR races and MLB games move to the network. But it’s still not ESPN. Even its ploy to create a new Big East seems misguided, unless Syracuse, UConn and Pittsburgh have rejoined the league and I missed it. You think ESPN is sweating a Xavier/Creighton battle on a Tuesday night? Talk about ESPNU material.

In fact, Fox Sports 1’s only success has come in a place you’d expect. In a place where they are the only rights holder. The UFC.

Second String Talent

NBS Sports Network, now NBCSN, was ESPN’s last great challenger. But their rhetoric died down when their plans for global domination were thwarted by the Worldwide Leader. They aggressively bid for the Pac-12 television package, but lost. They made no secret in their desire to gobble up the “old” Big East, only to see ESPN and Fox conspire to destroy it. They desperately wanted the Thursday Night NFL package that the NFL (smartly) kept for their own network.

NBCSN quickly changed course. They are not an ESPN competitor. But they could be eventually. They have quietly assembled first string talent for first string broadcasts in four sports – hockey, auto racing, soccer and horse racing.

fox sports 1 blondes
With the possible exception of hockey, these are not major sports, though NBCSN will add NASCAR in 2015. What the network has done, though, by establishing dominance in these sports is to provide the absolute best announcers and analysts. The Formula 1 team, for example, is the same high quality team we came to expect from the deceased SPEED Network. The horse racing team does a fantastic job dissecting races, whether it’s the Blue Grass in April, the Preakness in May or the Whitney in September.

This is key because it makes NBCSN feel like a major network. When the network tries again down the line to acquire game-changing sports – the NFL’s, NBA’s and Big Ten’s of the world – they will be prepared. And fans have come to respect and trust that NBCSN will have the best announcing teams possible. In short, they won’t have second string talent.

On Fox Sports 1? Where to start? Let’s go with college football and its motley crew of leftovers, newcomers and questionable hires. Clay Travis is a JV version of Paul Finebaum. Petros Papadakis is the imitation Lee Corso. Eddie George is what Desmond Howard has nightmares of being on television. Erin Andrews is…well, she’s terrible.

The game announcers are equally uninteresting, past the #1 team of Gus Johnson and Charles Davis. ESPN quite literally has 10 announcer pairings that are better than Fox Sports 1’s #2 team. Don’t blame me, Fox, you invited the comparisons. And right now, your network looks terrible in comparison.

If you don’t agree, try to decipher anything Joey Harrington has to say during a game. As North Dakota State was pulling off an incredible upset of Kansas State in week 1, Harrington was borderline unwatchable with his “commentary.” Quotes necessary because I don’t know what he was talking about.

The Elephant in the Room

In the end, none of this matters. The previous 1400 words? Just me giving my fingers a workout. Why? Because until the end of time, ESPN will be the #1 sports cable network.

Once ABC Sports died in 2006, that ship had sailed. ABC is now home to college football, the Indy 500, the NBA…and that’s it. NASCAR will hang around for one more year, potentially, before disappearing. This was a calculated decision by Disney. ABC doesn’t air sports anymore. ESPN does.

The bulk of Disney’s sports properties air on ESPN. Think of all the former ABC Sports properties or potential broadcast-worthy events that have migrated to cable. The Rose Bowl. The upcoming College Football Playoff. Monday Night Football. The British Open. The US Open. Wimbledon. NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup. The NBA conference finals (once an NBC staple).

In short, ABC is the only broadcast channel in which the sports cable partner is valued more. CBS will always put its top events on broadcast as opposed to the CBS Sports Network. NBC will do the same for NBCSN. And until proven otherwise, the top sports properties in the Fox stable will air on Fox proper, not Fox Sports 1.

That’s why ESPN is the Worldwide Leader in Sports. And that’s why it always will be.

But where’s the fun in that?

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why The College Football Targeting Rule May Save The Sport

College football’s new targeting rule isn’t actually new. It’s been on the books since 2009. But for 2013, the punishment changed dramatically.

Instead of receiving only a 15-yard penalty, the offending player now can also be ejected from the game. If the penalty occurs in the second half, a player is suspended from the first half of the following game.

It has changed college football. It may save football in this country.

When the news about the punishment change this summer, the response was just as hyperbolic.

clowney destruction
It reached such epic proportions that an official – an actual, licensed football official – said that if the rule had been in place last year, that Jadeveon Clowney’s now-legendary hit against Michigan in the Outback Bowl would’ve drawn a flag and an ejection.

The rule was in place. There was no flag.

Facts, of course, can sometimes get in the way of a good story. For weeks, college football bloggers and writers pontificated on how the rule was going to cause trouble. How it was going to further change the game of football from what it was to what it shouldn’t be – and this is where you throw in the derogatory, “not soccer!” reference.

Even more pointed, there was concern that the rule change was going to severely impact a crucial game and that fans would be up in arms. The aforementioned Clowney scenario was replayed for readers. What if Clowney is ejected for a clean hit? What if South Carolina loses a game because of it? What if? What if? What if?

I was watching the Toledo/Missouri game during a commercial Saturday in the South Carolina/Georgia game. Missouri senior LB Andrew Wilson, a co-captain, was ejected in the second half of the game on what initially appeared to be a clean tackle. The crowd, predictably, booed. Then they showed the replay (they did on TV, no idea about in the stadium). Wilson launched himself in the air and led with his forearm to the head of a Toledo receiver who was defenseless. It was exactly the type of play that needs to be weeded out from football. It was the rule enacted to perfection.

On Sunday night, Giants CB Prince Amukamara launched himself like an absolute idiot – head-down like a missile – trying to tackle a Cowboys receiver. The receiver ducked and he smashed into teammate Ryan Mundy and gave himself a concussion. There was no penalty on the play because you’re allowed to hit your teammate in the head with your helmet. It is the type of boneheaded play the NFL has tried, unsuccessfully, to weed out with fines and suspensions after the fact.

The difference in the penalty is all you need to know in why it’s working on the college level and not on the pro level.

As I watched college football over the first few weeks, it seemed almost jarring to see so many form tackles, like the one Clowney used to dislodge the Michigan running back from the ball but not his consciousness. Form tackling in football is tough, but it is not violent. It is not meant to maim the opponent, merely bring him to the ground. It can look violent. It does not send people to the hospital.

Two weeks, granted, is a small sample size but referees were actually calling less targeting penalties – 1 in every 12 games in 2013 compared to 1 in 8 in 2012 – than last year. Why? Because the players got the message. They just want to play. The previous penalty of merely 15-yards was not a deterrent. And why would it be? A big hit may injure an opponent, take a guy out of the game. Now? You’re taking yourself out of the game.

By the time these players get to the pros with bad habits, it’s too late. How do you tell a guy who has always led with his helmet to stop? In his mind – rightly or wrongly – he knows that he’s a multi-millionaire based on how he’s always played. A fine from Roger Goodell of any amount isn’t going to change that. He will merely rebel against the system and wax poetically about the death of football while ignoring the $765 million the NFL is now paying to a bunch of players who can’t remember their last meal.

The NCAA has done little, if anything, right in the past few years. This rule change, however, is a shining beacon of light across a wasteland of crapulence. They are actually putting the health and well-being of the student-athlete first. They are showing a commitment to the players that are making their institutions of higher learning and cable companies so much money.

For the first time since the concussion debate started chugging along, we have reached a moment of change. It is the tipping point.

Ask any college football fan if their experience with the game has been lessened because of the rule. Ask them if Notre Dame/Michigan somehow meant less because they wouldn’t see a guy get knocked unconscious in mid-air by a helmet-to-helmet hit. Ask if football felt less real, less aggressive, less violent over the first two weeks.

The most important benefit to the rule change, though, will not be felt this weekend or this year. It will be felt in 2015. And 2017. And 2019. Because today’s college stars are tomorrow’s professionals. This rule change is going to do what the NFL cannot do – through no fault of its own – and that is to make the game safer.

It is impossible to eliminate injuries from football, or any athletic contest. But you can eliminate the stupidity of purposely causing injuries. That was the helmet-to-helmet hit. That the culture of idiocy that led to defensive players attacking opponent’s head and the rise in concussions.

The targeting rule in college football is an important first step to ridding the game of one of its ugly aspects.
Instead of considering what if the rule causes a player to be ejecting, we should be asking what if the rule wasn’t in place.

Instead of criticizing the NCAA at every opportunity – and Lord knows I’m guilty of that – we need to applaud the organization. They are making football safer. They are making football better.

Now about this paying players thing…

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Week 3 College Football Picks: American Disaster

Picks to Date: 13-9
Best Bet: 0-2
Upset Special: 2-0


As a UConn fan, I have defended the Big East at every opportunity. I felt the league got the short end of the stick from commentators who ignored facts for years. The conference, by almost every conceivably measure, was better than the ACC from 2005 to 2011. If only the league had stayed together, it could have remained neck and neck with the ACC and a rapidly deteriorating Big 12 as the 4th best league, behind the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12.

AAC logo
Alas, the league crumbled. West Virginia, Syracuse and Pitt have all moved on and, frankly, they all look terrible. Rutgers and Louisville have one foot out the door. The Big East was never a great football league. It was never to be confused with the SEC. But it was solid. It delivered quality teams and exciting games. It could have blossomed with a new television partner, either NBC or Fox, to develop it. It could've been a contender.

The American Athletic Conference? It is the polar opposite of the Big East. Remember in 2005, the first season of the "new" Big East and everyone predicted doom and failure? Instead, West Virginia went down to Atlanta and smoked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. By 2006, 3 Big East teams were in the top 10 and games between WVU, Louisville and Rutgers delivered Thursday night ratings that have since been unmatched on ESPN and opened the floodgates for other leagues -- i.e., all but the Big Ten -- to move games to weeknights. You can draw a direct line from West Virginia/Louisville in November 2006 to Oregon/Stanford in November 2013.

The American in 2013 is not the Big East in 2005. It is, to put it politely, a dumpster fire. UConn got run over by an FCS team. USF got destroyed by an FCS team and then rolled over against a mediocre Michigan State team. Cincinnati laid a gigantic egg against Illinois. SMU barely escaped the wrath of an FCS loss. Temple and Houston played the first American conference game and, well, the less said about it the better.

In short, the new conference has been a total and complete disaster on the football field. There's still a lot of season left and many big games for the conference, but it doesn't look good. Louisville's hope for a National Title, and Teddy Bridgewater's dream for a Heisman, may rest with...UCF. Yep, UCF. Why? Well you need to keep reading.

I need to mention here that my Best Bets haven't won while my Upset Specials haven't lost. 

TEXAS TECH (+3) over Tcu
We will look back in November at TCU and wonder how they were ever ranked at all. They had no chance against LSU, despite a good-looking final score. They battled with SE Louisiana last week for three quarters. They were a 6-win team last year. Where did all the hype come from? Has TCU reached Texas/USC/Florida State territory where they are ranked in the preseason based on name recognition?

On the other side, Texas Tech is, well, Texas Tech. They're going to throw the ball 100 times. They're going to score a ton of points. And they're going to be next to impossible to beat in Lubbock. Kliff Kingsbury is on the verge of a defining win very early in his tenure. With the tenuous state of the Big 12 this season, Texas Tech could be on the verge of a monster season.
east carolina virginia tech
EAST CAROLINA (+7.5) over Virginia Tech *Upset Special*
You want a BCS buster for 2013? You may find it in this game. East Carolina has the schedule to do it, with North Carolina and NC State coming up, and a soft Conference USA conference slate. 3 wins over ACC teams, even if they're only decent ACC teams? Yep, that'll work. But you can't get to 3 without getting to 1. Virginia Tech's defense is their strength and they'll have to stop East Carolina's potent offense. Here's a little shocker though: East Carolina's offense is a lot better than Alabama's.

Ucla (+4.5) over NEBRASKA
The real bet here is the over, since neither team seems to feel like playing much defense. But this game appears that it will play out much like it did last year in the Rose Bowl, with a lot of offense from both teams earlier and then UCLA eventually pulling away late. Wyoming put up 600+ yards on Nebraska. UCLA's offense, led by superstar QB Brett Hundley, is an order of magnitude better than Wyoming's offense. Last week, the Texas defense was the poster child from a crumbling icon. This week, Nebraska gives up 700 yards and ESPN analysts spend all next week babbling on about the great Blackshirts defense of the 1990's. You know it's been about 15 years since Nebraska was a national contender, right?

Louisville (-13) over KENTUCKY
I said Louisville would lose 4 games this year. I was wrong. I know in my post, I said Louisville would lose this game. At the time, I believed it. I was mistaken. Louisville is not losing this game. I still don't believe the Cardinals will go undefeated, but it's looking more like a 10-2 year, as opposed to an 8-4 debacle. On the plus side, that post did introduce me to the stupidity that is the Louisville fanbase...or at least the lunatic fringe that likes to hurl insults behind the "Anonymous" user name. It'll make it that much more enjoyable when 10-2, #7 Louisville is playing in the Champs Sports Bowl or whatever it's called now.

OREGON (-27.5) over Tennessee
They came. They saw. They conquered. That was the result of Oregon's cross-country trip to Charlottesville last Saturday. Virginia had just beat BYU. They appeared to be a decent team. They didn't occupy the same galaxy as Oregon. And with their uniforms, Oregon actually appeared to be a team sent from Outer Space to destroy mere mortals in this game we call football. It was not fair. DeAnthony Thomas is not fair. For Butch Jones, this game is not fair. A cross-country trip to get blasted by the University of Nike on ABC? The only - and I mean ONLY - positive for Tennessee and its fans is that no one will be watching this game.

Alabama (-7.5) over TEXAS A&M
Everyone will be watching this game, except for me. I'll be in an East Hartford parking lot drinking beer and preparing to watch UConn play Maryland in the Edsall Bowl. So this game, right? I'd like to go into detail about my pick, why the Alabama defense will stop Johnny Football, why the Alabama offense is improved from week 1, why the A&M distractions will catch up to them, yada yada yada.

Sometimes, games are won by attitude. Alabama is not losing this game. Nick Saban won't let it happen. People tend to forget that Alabama basically overslept in last year's game and spotted A&M 3 touchdowns. They still almost won and probably should've won. Here's to Alabama showing up on time and taking A&M behind the woodshed. Oh God, I'm starting to sound like Paul Finebaum.
UCF football 2013

Ucf (+4.5) over PENN STATE
UCF's biggest fans right now are Charlie Strong and Mike Aresco. If UCF can pull this off, they have a bye week before a MONSTER home game against South Carolina on Sept. 28. Penn State has looked decent against inferior competition but Northwestern's total destruction of Syracuse made the Nittany Lions' victory far less impressive. UCF has looked tremendous in dispatching two overmatched foes. Sometimes looks can be deceiving. Other times, they are not. (Such insight, right?) UCF knows this is their one year to play for an automatic BCS bowl bid. The program has been building to this year and this moment for a decade. It means too much to them. UCF wins outright and you can just start cranking up the hype on the South Carolina game.

Maryland (-7) over UCONN 
Do I really have to explain why? Stupid Coach Gramps, ruining everything Randy Edsall built in 2 years. Please come back Randy! All is forgiven!

Notre Dame (-20.5) over PURDUE
The Notre Dame gameplan against Michigan last week was so terrible that I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. Michigan couldn't stop the run...so Notre Dame never ran. Michigan couldn't stop the blitz...so Notre Dame never blitzed. When Notre Dame ran, they moved the ball easily and scored touchdowns. When Notre Dame blitzed, they got pressure on Devin Gardner and scored touchdowns. Credit to Michigan for the big win, but so many questions for Brian Kelly and company. What were they thinking??

It doesn't matter this week. Notre Dame can do whatever they want. Purdue is atrocious, further confirmed when Cincinnati came back after blowing them out to get rocked by Illinois. Purdue may be in the running for worst BCS conference team. Notre Dame is angry. I bet ESPN/ABC is thrilled to have this blowout set for primetime.

Oregon State (+3) over UTAH *Best Bet*
Is there a more predictable, unpredictable team than Oregon State? They're going to start off slowly, lose a bad game, then quietly turn it around and end up beating someone they shouldn't while on its way to winning 8 or 9 games. The loss to Eastern Washington was a red herring because Eastern Washington is really, really good. If they were a Pac-12 team, they would be 6-6 at least. And they would beat Utah.

Utah did surprise me in week 1 by beating Utah State but their defense was not good and Chuckie Keeton had a field day, though he does that a lot. Oregon State can score. Oregon State knows that the bad FCS loss doesn't change anything about their end goal - playing in the Rose Bowl. If Oregon State makes the last second field goal against Eastern Washington, they are favored by 7 points at least in this game. This is my Best Bet because Oregon State is way too good to lose this game.

Wisconsin (+5.5) over ARIZONA STATE
New Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen is the best coach you don't know about. His turnaround at Utah State was nothing short of immaculate. His start at Wisconsin has been flawless, literally without a point given up against two cupcakes. The team that went to 3 straight Rose Bowls is in very, very good hands. We don't know anything about Arizona State yet. But 5.5 points feels like way too much since I think Wisconsin should be favored. If the game was being played during the day and the Arizona heat, maybe it would make sense. But a 7:30pm local kickoff means decent weather and a Wisconsin ground game that will be ready to chew up the Sun Devils. Yay late night football!!

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