Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Is Maryland the Big Ten’s Version of Texas A&M?

Texas A&M football meant nothing.

That was the program’s status before joining the SEC. In 2009, Texas played for a BCS title. In 2010, TCU won a Rose Bowl. In 2011, Baylor produced a Heisman Trophy winner. Texas A&M was not merely an afterthought nationally – they did not exist.

randy edsall 2014
For years, the Aggies languished in the shadows. They were considered to be the little brother of Texas. They were not on the same level as Oklahoma, or even Oklahoma State. When rumblings about Texas A&M joining the SEC started bubbling during the realignment craze, people were incredulous. Hell, I argued Boise State would mean more for the Big 12.

There was a common belief that being the outlier in the SEC would be problematic for Texas A&M. The reasons for their acceptance centered on television money and recruiting, also known as two things that figured to help future opponents more than Texas A&M.

Instead, being the outlier changed the program. While I believe they are headed for a decline post-Johnny Football, there’s no arguing that the move invigorated the program and the fanbase. They recently added more seats to Kyle Field. Donations are way up. Recruiting hit new highs, even before Manziel took over.
Texas A&M escaped from the shadows of former rivals to stand on its own.

In looking at the Big Ten’s new arrivals for 2014, they come from wildly differing histories over the past decade. Rutgers, since their magical 2006 season, has been promoted endlessly by the then-Big East as what college football could be in New York City. They lit up the Empire State Building once and the Big East couldn’t stop talking about it.

Think about all the promotion that has been put forth for Rutgers and you wonder if they are going to see any bump from the Big Ten, other than the gigantic lump introduced to their wallets.

Contrast that with Maryland, who suffered for years like Texas A&M in the shadows of more established programs. In basketball, Maryland could never gain the national respect Duke and North Carolina did despite a National Title. In football, Maryland’s success always came with an asterisk – yeah, they won the ACC, but Florida State was down.

Unlike Rutgers, Maryland never received the full promotional push from its conference. The ACC led zero commercials with Maryland. While a contingent of Maryland fans will miss the rivalries with Duke and Virginia, they are about to understand how sweet the air is when no one else is breathing it.

When it comes to football, Maryland will see an immediate bump in scheduling a la Texas A&M. You think Aggie fans were happy when Iowa State and Kansas were replaced by Alabama and LSU? Maryland has traded a slew of average teams – think Pitt, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest – for regular visits from three of college football’s biggest brands in Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Sure, the schedule got a lot harder but it also got a lot more exciting.

The money will come pouring in and it will change things. For starters, it should allow Maryland to renovate and/or expand its subpar football stadium. I went for UConn/Maryland in 2012 and I won’t go back unless it gets a lot better.

The recruiting will change too. For better or worse, the Big Ten is considered a better football conference than the ACC, which is essentially viewed as Florida State, Clemson and a bunch of interchangeable basketball schools.

Here’s the most important part – Maryland has a chance to be really, really good this year. Injuries have decimated the Terps during Randy Edsall’s tenure so far but the talent is there. In Stefon Diggs, Edsall has an exciting, highlight-reel-ready superstar that could garner headlines.

And look at the schedule – it is no stretch to believe Maryland could be 5-0 through September when Ohio State comes to town for the first Big Ten home game.

The title of this post was formed as a question because Texas A&M didn’t take off into the stratosphere until they beat Alabama in 2012. For Maryland to truly take advantage of their new-found wealth and exposure, they need a program-defining win.

Maryland has Ohio State and Michigan State coming to town – two teams that, like Alabama in 2012, should be national title contenders. Win one and the Maryland football program may finally reach its unlimited potential. 

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Week 1 College Football Picks: Welcome to the Double Elimination Tournament

Oklahoma in 2008 is the last non-SEC team to play for a National Title with a loss. In the past five years, unless you played in the SEC, you had to go undefeated to play for it all.

When Clemson and Georgia opened last season with their marquee, Top 10 showdown on ABC, Clemson’s entire season was on the line. Georgia’s was not. We knew that Georgia would have opportunities to rebound from a loss. Indeed, by the end of September they had beaten LSU and South Carolina to vault back.

clemson georgiaFor Clemson, there was an unfair amount of weight placed on that game because a loss would have eliminated them. It was the biggest deficiency of the BCS system that non-conference games meant way too much or far too little. As we saw with Florida State and Ohio State last year, going undefeated was more important than playing quality opponents.

With the arrival of the college football playoff, that is a thing of the past. These early non-conference games are no longer life and death for title hopes but will play a huge role in determining who makes the Final Four.

A year ago, a Wisconsin loss to LSU would end their dreams. This year, a loss will merely be one piece of the puzzle in determining whether a team was worthy.

The dream is that college football eventually reaches college basketball, where playing and losing to a good team is deemed more beneficial than beating crappy teams. We saw this in action with SMU, who were cut from the NCAA Tournament bubble because their non-conference schedule was comical.

The easiest way to play for a title in college football is still to win all your games. Regardless of what anyone says about strength of schedule, an undefeated Power Five conference will make the playoff. In fact, based on the AAC’s excellent non-conference schedules, I believe UCF, East Carolina or Cincinnati would be in the discussion if they ran the table.

For most, though, the 2014 season ushers in a new era of college football – losing a game is okay.

From year-to-year, this has varied. In 2007, LSU could lose twice and win a title. In 2004, Auburn could lose zero and not even have a chance. With the field opened up to four, any power conference team can feel pretty good with only one loss. When you pick up your second – then you’re going to need some help.

So in a move that only the confused sport of college football could pull off – the non-conference games on opening weekend have diminished in importance, while simultaneously becoming more important than ever.

I love you, college football.

Regular Season Record: 88-76-2
Best Bet: 6-9
Upset Special: 9-6
I was watching Lisa the Greek during the Simpsons marathon, and the TV handicapper says, “When you’re right 52 percent of the time, you’re wrong 48 percent.” Well I hit on 53% in 2013. I beat the house!

If you’re unfamiliar, I use the lines found here when I write the column. My Best Bet is the pick I feel best about and I am usually wrong. My upset special is the double-digit underdog that I think will win outright. I think I’m better on those.

SOUTH CAROLINA (-10.5) over Texas A&M *Best Bet*
First game of the year is my first Best Bet of the year. What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s start with South Carolina’s dominance in opening week games. They haven’t lost an opener in the 21st Century, with the last 0-1 start coming in 1999 when they went 0-11. They have played on the opening Thursday night seven times since 2005 and have won seven times, with the only close games in that stretch on the road (NC State in 2008 and Vanderbilt in 2012).

On the flip side, I strongly believe Texas A&M is in real trouble this year. They were a four-loss team with one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the history of college football. The defense was atrocious. They lost two other Top 10 picks. They have to start on the road with a new quarterback? No, thank you.

South Carolina gets to trot out an experienced and capable QB in Dylan Thompson, a dark horse Heisman contender in RB Mike Davis and a stout defense. This one could get real ugly.

Ole Miss (-10.5) over Boise State
Congratulations, Boise State – you are now the Texas of the mid-major college football programs.

boise state loss
Texas is ranked #24 in the Coaches Poll for reasons I cannot fathom. But people see Texas and they think of the past, so they vote for them. Likewise, several prognosticators have tabbed Boise State as the “Group of Five” representative this year. Everyone who predicted that didn’t watch Boise State play last year.

If they did, they would have seen a Broncos team that got slaughtered by its two Pac-12 opponents – Washington to open the season, Oregon State to close it. Chris Petersen is gone. They have a new starting quarterback. They lost four games last year in a depleted Mountain West. We’re expecting them to compete with a Top 20 SEC team with a three-year starting QB and five-star recruits everywhere?

I’d take Ole Miss if the line was 25.

WASHINGTON STATE (-8.5) over Rutgers
I am already on the record saying that Rutgers will be lucky to win four games based on an insane schedule, which features six road games against bowl teams. This is one of them. Rutgers was a bad team last year and, really, should have axed Kyle Flood. It’s going to be a long year but one that Rutgers fans won’t care about. They just got into the Big Ten! Who cares about silly things like wins or losses right now?

This will be a big year for Mike Leach as the program tries to take a step up in arguably college football’s toughest division – a division that got even harder with the arrival of Chris Petersen. This is a must-win for the Cougars and they’ll deliver.

Ucf (-1.5) over Penn State
This is going to be the tough year for Penn State. The attrition from the Sandusky sanctions is really going to hurt. The depth is going to be tested. Bill O’Brien left and though James Franklin will make an impact, his team is simply behind the eight-ball this year. I don’t think opening in Ireland is going to help things.

As for UCF, they should probably be a touchdown favorite. Yes, Blake Bortles is gone. But 10 starters return on defense. They were three points from being undefeated last year. There is plenty of speed at the skill positions. You have to imagine the team will be extra motivated by the bizarre report that George O’Leary was “considering” retiring after the game. UCF was the AAC’s biggest success in 2013 and they should continue being the league’s standard bearer in 2014.

Ohio State (-14) over NAVY
Navy is going to be really good this year, with a chance to win 10 games. This was setting up to be the ultimate trap game for Ohio State, with Virginia Tech coming to town next week and facing an option offense that always causes fits. In fact, before Braxton Miller got hurt, I was leaning heavily toward Navy.

Not anymore. The focus on this game from Ohio State went from about 70% to 110%. They’re going to rally around new quarterback JT Barrett and put forth a showcase statement. You think Urban Meyer has enjoyed being told that his team can’t win the Big Ten now? Ohio State was my National Title pick and it was because the talent level is becoming SEC-like across the board.

Ohio State, with their A game, should beat Navy by two touchdowns regardless of who is playing quarterback.

VIRGINIA (+21) over Ucla
West Coast team playing a noon start on the East Coast. It’s a great angle in the NFL. It’s why I think UConn beats Boise State on Sept. 13. And it’s why I think this game ends up being a lot closer than people think.

It can’t help UCLA that their tires have been endlessly pumped over the past few weeks. I like UCLA as a potential Pac-12 South champion, but there has been a wave of predictions that has UCLA in the playoff and Brett Hundley winning the Heisman. You get the feeling UCLA thinks they will win this game by merely showing up. They might, but they won’t cover.

California (+11) over NORTHWESTERN *Upset Special*
Pat Fitzgerald deserves a gold star for getting people to believe in Northwestern. To recap, the Wildcats lost their last 7 games, spent the offseason dealing with the unionization fallout and their best player just transferred to West Texas A&M. Northwestern shouldn’t be a double digit favorite over anyone.

To illustrate why home and home series are better than neutral-site games, Cal wants revenge. If you don’t recall, Northwestern beat Cal to open last season in a late-night thriller, after which Cal coach Sonny Dykes was ticked off at Fitzgerald for Northwestern players faking injuries.

Cal went 1-11 last year as they completely transformed the offense under Dykes. You have to believe Year 2 will go a lot smoother.

Arkansas (+20.5) over AUBURN
Here’s my angle: Gus Malzahn’s Auburn teams have been slow starters. In 2010 and 2014, the offense sputtered through August and September before rocketing into high gear by the end of the season. It could make Auburn an annual playoff contender and a team no one wants to see in November.

alex collins heismanBut in week one? That’s doable. My working theory is that his offense is so predicated on speed, repetition and precision that it simply takes a few games to get everything working in sync. The offseason troubles of Nick Marshall haven’t helped.

Arkansas was not good, at all, last year, but showed signs of improvement down the stretch as they played a lot of freshmen and sophomores. They gained valuable experience and you know Bret Bielema wants to make a big first week statement. He would rather it be a stunning victory, but a close loss will have to suffice.

GEORGIA (-7.5) over Clemson
Making picks in week one in college football, without the benefit of preseason games, is about taking a stand. You may look like a fool but you have to trust your gut. There’s always next week to recoup.

So here goes: Georgia will be a national title contender this year and Clemson will not be even an ACC title contender.

As with the Northwestern/Cal game, this is the return bout and Georgia has some unfinished business.

Florida State (-17.5) over Oklahoma State
What am I supposed to say here? If you were to go through the 22 starters, Florida State would have the better player about, oh, 22 times. Oklahoma State doesn’t even have one player on the Big 12 preseason team. Yikes. The only reason this isn’t my Best Bet is because Florida State could put forth a D-minus effort and still win – I have no idea if the Noles will be motivated.

Lsu (-5) over Wisconsin
In the wake of Braxton Miller’s injury, much was made that Wisconsin would now be favored in every game they played. It has helped make this one of the strangest opening week lines in recent memory. LSU started out -7 over the summer, but action on Wisconsin drove the line way down, to LSU by less than a field goal. Now, the line has reversed back and LSU is getting the action.

Ultimately, I do not get the love for Wisconsin. Against teams that finished in the Top 25 last year, they were 0-3. In 2012, they were 1-4 against teams that finished in the Top 25. That’s 1-7 over the past two years.

There’s no way I’m picking them to beat LSU in Houston. I could see this game playing out very similar to LSU’s opener last year against TCU, where the Tigers eventually ground the Horned Frogs into paste by the third quarter.

Like Alabama, LSU has taken kindly to these opening week showcase games – they are 3-0 since 2010, having beat North Carolina in Atlanta and Oregon and TCU in JerryWorld. They’ll add Wisconsin in Houston to that list.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Football is Preventing Domestic Violence from Being Treated as a Real Crime

To Nebraska, Tom Osborne is a legend beyond reproach. He is their greatest football coach. He represented them in Congress. He led the university through trying times as athletic director.

To me, Tom Osborne is the man who revealed that beating up a woman is okay if you’re good at football.

ray rice court
I was 13 in 1995 and that year’s Nebraska team was arguably the best college football team in my lifetime, matched only by Miami in 2001. In September of that season, star running back Lawrence Phillips assaulted his girlfriend, which included dragging her down three flights of stairs. I was horrified by that news. What kind of a disgusting human being does that?

Phillips famously returned from suspension just in time for Nebraska to win its second-straight national title in the Fiesta Bowl over Florida. When the Big Ten Network’s propaganda arm produces shows about those Nebraska teams or Tom Osborne, the Phillips saga is whitewashed and ignored. Even 15 years later, Nebraska fans were supportive of Osborne’s decision to let the woman-beater help him win another title.

It’s not as if this occurred in some media vacuum because Twitter didn’t exist. People knew. And people were upset at Osborne’s actions.

The Phillips incident exemplifies one of the more infuriating aspects of following sports – trying to view the world through the prism of sports. The actions of Phillips were dissected in terms of whether or not he should play football, instead of dissecting whether or not he should be a free man. If you’re wondering – he is currently not a free man and won’t be for the next two decades.

This issue has not changed over the past 20 years. In 2012, Slate revealed that two-thirds of the NFL employed a player arrested for domestic violence. That same year saw two former players (Chad Ochocinco and Deion Sanders) involved in high-profile domestic violence incidents.

For all this chaos, there had been little outrage. In large part, this was due to the nature of domestic violence – we never see it. It happens behind closed doors. It happens out of the public’s view.

That changed dramatically when security cameras caught Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.  Suddenly, the general public realized that domestic violence is not “past troubles” or a “an off-field incident” like commonly reported – but a frightening and disgusting act of aggression.

Still, the outrage over the Rice incident didn’t reach a boiling point until it intertwined back with sports. Even Rice’s disaster of a first apology – you know, the one where he talked about getting knocked down and made his wife apologize – didn’t rise above a wave of angry and confused tweets. It wasn’t until Rice’s laughable suspension of two games was handed down by Roger Goodell that people realized that smoking pot is twice as bad as striking a woman and changes in attitude were necessary.

The aftermath to the negative publicity was again couched within the confines of sports. As reported by the Washington Post, the NFL is looking to increase the suspension for such abuse to four to six games. Well, holy shit, problem solved, right?

Those who cover and watch sports like to use these games as a looking glass to view the real world and it’s a hopelessly outdated notion, one propped up to make us feel better about wasting so much time away watching something so trivial. We are now a half-century removed from when Billie Jean King could be a true spokesperson for women’s rights or Muhammad Ali could encapsulate the anti-war movement.

The reason for this disconnect is that athletes make too much money in 2014. They are now entitled, privileged citizens of the United States. Is there any doubt that if Ray Rice was an average person that he would be in jail right now?

We have reached the point where discussing the fallout from a domestic violence case can be construed only in terms of football games missed. It’s disgusting. It’s nauseating. It’s not changing.

joe mixon jail
At Oklahoma, a highly-touted freshman running back by the name of Joe Mixon punched a female in the face, knocked her out and broke several bones in her face. While Mixon claims it was in self-defense because he was being verbally assaulted with racial slurs, he still punched a woman in the face. I’m not sure how a 110-pound woman could pose a legit threat to an Oklahoma running back. There’s video of the punch, so there is nothing “alleged” about his actions. He was suspended earlier this week for the entire season.

The reaction from one Oklahoma blogger included this question, “How is this going to play in the locker room?”

If your sister or mother was punched in the face, is that one of the first, say, 1,000 questions you’d have? That blogger is far from the only person to discuss the Mixon case in football terms, but all it does is serve to minimize the crime.

As Ray Rice’s suspension was handed down, ESPN’s bottom line crawl said he was suspended for “allegedly striking his then-fiancĂ©.”

It was beyond absurd. There was nothing alleged about the incident. It was caught on camera! He apologized for it! He was charged! He pled no-contest!

Yet if you were unaware of the news and read that crawl, you would have cause to question the league and feel sympathy for Rice. “They suspended him for allegedly doing something? Isn’t this America? What happened to due process?”

Domestic violence is a frightening and disturbing topic that we never discuss appropriately. The stats are sobering. Every year, 1 in 3 women who is a victim of homicide is murdered by her current or former partner. And most incidents are never reported – Rice’s wife declined to press further charges and likely would not have pursued any if she was knocked out in their home instead of a casino.

Football is not the sole reason for the lack of true progress on domestic violence – see Brown, Chris – but as the nation’s most popular form of entertainment, it holds an outsized place of importance in the American culture.

Millions of men have been told, via the sport, that domestic really isn’t that bad. It’s a significant problem in this country and one that will fade to the background until the next time.

And yes, there will be a next time. And a time after that. And a time after that…

So please remember that the next time Ray Rice gets a standing ovation. And, yes, there will be a next time.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Could the College Football Bubble Burst?

The 21st Century has been great for college football because it’s been bad for nearly everything else.

For the entirety of the 20th Century, the sport was undervalued. It is now on the verge of being overvalued.

This shouldn’t be the time to be discussing the potential burst of the college football bubble. The season is rapidly and finally approaching. The newly launched SEC Network is depositing checks with many zeroes into the bank accounts of ESPN and SEC schools. The forthcoming college football playoff will add many more zeroes to many more bank accounts.

sec network launchHowever, the more I hear college presidents and conference commissioners speak, the more I’m worried we’re losing the plot.

There’s no going back on the events of the past three years, when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany mentioned adding a 12th team to even up his conference and all hell broke loose. The Big 12 nearly died. The Pac-12 nearly ruled them all. The Big East did die. As did the WAC. Texas doesn’t play Texas A&M, Kansas doesn’t play Missouri and West Virginia doesn’t play Pitt.

Up until the 1998 season, college football crowned a mythical national champion. Think about how absurd that is as we enter the playoff era – in 1997, there only two undefeated teams and they didn’t play each other.

While some mistakenly credit the BCS for driving interest in college football, it was merely the notion that fans wanted a true national champion. The BCS, for all its flaws, did that. It was a 2-team tournament that left out many willing participants over the year, but it served its purpose.

At least, it served the purpose that its founders wanted it to. Everything else that followed – the double-hosting model, the 12th game, the conference realignment, the skyrocketing TV deals, the new networks – were not in Roy Kramer’s mind in the 1990’s when he first suggested the BCS.

It’s worth noting here that college football is not more popular than it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. With the exception of the epic Texas/USC Rose Bowl, the ratings for title games have not matched the peak of 2000 and 2001. This past title game between Florida State and Auburn was only the 9th-highest rated in the BCS era.

While there are more games on television, the audiences do not match the heyday of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Florida State/Notre Dame in 1993 drew 22 million viewers. It was the most at the time since the 1991 Orange Bowl, which would have out-rated every BCS title game save one and was going up against the Sugar Bowl.

That’s a long way of saying college football has not grown in popularity in 25 years. The competition has weakened. Thanks to DVRs and Netflix, entertainment programs have shed millions of live viewers. Other sports, namely baseball, have seen its national audiences massively decline. Before LeBron arrived, the NBA was in the same boat.

College football survived and thrived in large part because it was different. There was timelessness to the sport that made it stand out. The rivalries. The tradition. The conferences. The bowl games. New Year’s Day. It begat a product that was greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a testament to the game that it was able to withstand the monumental stupidity of the “double-hosting” BCS model for nearly a decade.

johnny football money fingers
Yet, as we stand on the precipice of another season, there is a never-ending discussion and debate about money. It starts with a college football playoff that is trending toward chaos as things like “strength of schedule” are held up as criteria without any insight into how or why. There remains disagreement over whether to include the “best” teams or the “most deserving” teams.

The Power Five conferences have pushed for autonomy, which in turn has reignited the notion they would break off and form their own Division 4, a sort of NFL-lite that no one is clamoring for.

The moat guarding the big boys gets deeper by the minute, as this horribly depressing article on the future of Navy football illustrates:

"I have no idea what's going to happen. We'll try to make the best out of whatever rummage is left. It's like a tornado comes through and we'll try to rebuild our house with the scraps that are leftover," [Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo] said. "I've seen some of these things coming for a long time. I don't like it and I don't think it's right, but it's reality. What can we do?"

The best way to describe what makes college football came from President John F. Kennedy, when he asked, “Why does Rice play Texas?” College football was never about the money. It was about Rice trying to beat Texas. Now, they don’t even get a chance to.

So when does the bubble burst?

Is it when cable finally goes a la carte and millions of people balk at paying for ESPN and ESPN2 and Fox Sports 1 and BTN and the Pac-12 Network and the SEC Network and...?

Is it when the Power Five finally break off and college football turns into small-town version of the NFL?

Is it when high school sophomores start signing with agents?

Is it when the SEC expands to 16 teams and Alabama plays Tennessee once a decade?

College football has changed in almost every conceivable way in the past quarter-century. The revenues have skyrocketed to a once-unthinkable degree. There was a romance to college football – the mythical designation of its national champion served to remind. That romance is long gone. Does that matter?

For 2014, it does not. If the leaders of my favorite sport keep going down the path motivated by greed, it will. 

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It Happens: How Alabama Rebounds in 2014

The most telling moment of the 2013 Alabama football season didn’t come from an Alabama player.

As Chris Davis scampered into the end zone and all hell broke loose on the plains, Alabama QB A.J. McCarron walked over to his family and then-girlfriend, now-wife Katherine Webb. When McCarron approach, Webb cocked her head slightly to side, said, “I’m sorry,” and gave him a kiss.

nick saban shrugged
It was the same reaction my girlfriend would give me if I complained about being stuck on the Metro. It was not the reaction you would expect following one of college football’s most historic losses.

I was rewatched the replay of the ending and this really confused me. Maybe I missed it when watching it live, but why didn’t they seem more upset?

Quickly, the camera pans to Nick Saban taking his headset off and walking to shake hands with Gus Malzahn with the disgusted look of someone who has to stay an extra hour at work on a Tuesday.

Then it hit me – the Alabama/Auburn game was the ultimate, “Shit Happens” game and everyone associated with Alabama football knew it as soon as it happened.

There are all types of losses in sports. The “Shit Happens” loss – or “It Happens” for the families – is the rarest.

Stunningly, Auburn pulled off two of these in a row last year and the response from the felled was telling. When Georgia gave up a late miracle touchdown, its coaches famously crumbled to the turf because their entire worlds had been shattered. When Alabama did the same, Nick Saban essentially shrugged his shoulders.

It happens, right?

It’s a lot harder to get worked up about such circumstances as a two-time defending national champion. If that exact last second play was redone 1,000 times, it’s entirely likely Auburn would have won the game in regulation zero times.

The fallout from that game became a talking point this summer after Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, in a strange show of bravado, spent his offseason taking shots at the entire SEC based on the Sugar Bowl. Nick Saban countered, as only he can, by essentially saying his team didn’t give a crap.

I agree with Saban. And it’s why I think Oklahoma is this season’s most overrated in the preseason.

There is precedent with the Crimson Tide and Sugar Bowl no-shows. They infamously forget to show up for the start of the 2009 edition, falling behind 21-0 to a Utah team that was much, much better than they expected.

The following year, Alabama won its first national title in 17 years and ran off three in four years.

But the comparisons to the 2009 season pretty much end after the Sugar Bowl loss hangover. The 2009 Tide brought back its starting quarterback. That team was not the SEC favorite, an honor that bestowed on the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators. And that team began the season in Atlanta against a Top 10 Virginia Tech team – this year’s team faces a 4-win West Virginia team.

So despite the two consecutive losses to end 2013 and the departure of A.J. McCarron, as well as the usual NFL migration of top talent, Alabama begins the season behind only defending champion Florida State in the polls.

Alabama is expected to make the first college football playoff. Personally, I don’t think they will but I’ve been wrong before and I’ll certainly be wrong again.

The plight of the Alabama football team this year will be one of the sport’s most eagerly anticipated storylines but it may not be one that has any interest until November.

Look at the schedule over the first two months and tell me who is going to beat Alabama. The non-conference slate opens with West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss – three teams that combined to win as many as Alabama in 2013.

Of the first five SEC opponents, Florida and Arkansas are coming off of atrocious seasons, Tennessee remains a work in progress and Texas A&M returns to Tuscaloosa without Johnny Football. With the possible exception of the road trip to Ole Miss, there is a realistic chance that Alabama arrives in Death Valley on November 8 undefeated and untested.

For a conference that is supposed to be teeming with power teams, Alabama drew just about the softest schedule imaginable – no Georgia, no South Carolina, no Missouri and no non-conference tests.

Regardless of schedule or opponents, Alabama is must see television, particularly following the ugly end to 2013.

What will we see? Will Alabama be able to carry that offseason motivation through an early cupcake slate? Will Nick Saban be able to get his team championship-ready if the first SEC games provide little to no resistance? Will the lack of tough opponents become a talking point for their playoff possibilities?

It’s unfortunate that we may not get these answers for three long months. But you might want to hold off on making any plans the night of November 8. 

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why the PGA Championship is My Favorite Major

No kid ever grows up wishing to win the PGA Championship.

That is the dichotomy of the season’s final major. It is one of the four biggest tournaments of any given year, but clearly occupies a space below the other three majors. Yet year after year, it’s the most exciting.

2008 pga championship
For years, CBS dubbed the tournament as “Glory’s Last Shot,” which was alternately the cheesiest slogan in sports and the most accurate. It essentially summed up why the tournament mattered – it’s a long seven months until the Masters.

Of course, the season doesn’t truly end with the PGA Championship as the FedEx Cup, Ryder Cup and Tour Championship all loom. Sadly, the PGA Tour applied pressure and the tagline has been changed to the dull “The Season’s Final Major.” Let’s call the Super Bowl, “Football’s Last Game of the Year.”

For the average sporting fan, the PGA Championship still ends the season. It’s the unofficial beginning of the end for summer. The coverage this weekend will be full of commercials for football and the new CBS primetime lineup. Enjoy the 30,000 Thursday Night Football ads you’ll see.

Everything about the tournament seems average. There is no fawning over Augusta. There is no moaning over the USGA ruining a golf course. There is no prose about the birthplace of golf.

This week, Golf Channel’s Chris DiMarco described the course setup at a PGA Championship as “fair,” which is pro-speak for, “We make birdies.”

It  explains why the PGA Championship has consistently delivered more drama, more stories, more excitement and more great shots than any other tournament in the past 25 years.

In 1991, CBS and TBS began coverage of the tournament, which led to expanded coverage and renewed interest. It coincided with the arrival of John Daly, who took the country by storm at Crooked Stick, and I remember watching the PGA intently over the weekend for the first time in my life.

By the time Tiger Woods came along, the tournament – like all others – received a tremendous boost because of his oft-stated goal of catching Jack Nicklaus.

In 1999, he dueled with a baby-faced Sergio Garcia and Sergio’s shot from the trees has been replayed approximately 10 million times since.

But it was the 2000 edition that changed everything. Simply put, the 2000 PGA Championship is the most exciting golf tournament in my lifetime.

On that final day, journeyman Bob May shot a 66 to match Tiger Woods, who shot 67, as they dueled on the back nine of Valhalla – where the major returns this year. The story was almost too perfect. Tiger was coming off of two straight historic victories in the U.S. and British Opens and was at the height of his powers. Bob May was nobody.

Their back nine and three-hole playoff are the most thrilling sustained period of golf I have ever watched. The first playoff hole, to me, is the peak of golf. People appeared to be hanging from trees. The gallery was loud and jacked up. May hit one of the best chips you will ever see, only to be answered by arguably Tiger’s most iconic shot – the 20-foot birdie that he ran after to point into the hole. The whole thing is fascinating.

Since that year, the PGA has delivered memorable moment after memorable moment.

The David Toms hole-in-one during his 2001 victory over Phil Mickelson. Rich Beem draining putt after putt to stave off Tiger in 2002. Shaun Micheel in 2003 and Mickelson in 2006 hitting remarkable shots on the final hole to win.

Starting in 2008, the PGA delivered perhaps the best four-year stretch of any tournament in history.

2008: Sergio and Padraig Harrington duel on the back nine, culminating with Sergio’s losing one in the water and Harrington drilling a birdie putt to win.

2009: Y.E. Yang stuns the world by staring down Tiger in the final group, mere months before Tiger’s whole world came crumbling down.

2010: Dustin Johnson and a sand trap that wasn’t really a sand trap but was.

keegan bradley2011: Jason Dufner blows a huge lead as Keegan Bradley sinks putts from everywhere down the stretch. Their first playoff hole features two shots knocked dead stiff. At the time, Bradley and Dufner were basically unknowns – just three years later, both are big stars.

Last year, Dufner conquered the PGA with one of the best iron performances you will ever see. The type of approach game that golfers fantasize about when their eyes close.

What makes the tournament so great – and why I believe it is so conducive to dramatic finishes – is that there is no pretension about its place in the golfing landscape. The course isn’t tricked out. There are no PGA Championships traditions. The energy and atmosphere is brought on by the fact that it’s your last opportunity for a long, long time to win a major. It increases everything.

In short, it is a golf tournament. That’s it. That’s why the ratings lag behind the other three majors.

It doesn’t matter. On the final round of the 2011 PGA Championship, I had just moved to DC and had yet to get cable. I had a television on the floor with four channels. When I saw that Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley – who the hell are these guys? – were battling for a win, I was depressed. “Man, this is going to be a rough afternoon.”

Instead, I was treated to an exhilarating final round, like I am seemingly every year.

College football is coming. The summer is ending. The PGA Championship is delivering. It’s the story of August.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Painful Descent Back to Mediocrity for Texas A&M

The biggest college football draw on television in 2013 was Alabama. Are you surprised?

The second biggest college football draw on television in 2013 was Texas A&M. Are you surprised?

Texas A&M LSu
If 2013 was almost any other year in the past century, you would be. But 2013 in AggieLand was not like any other thanks to the overwhelming presence of Johnny Football. It is no stretch to say that Manziel was the most discussed college football player in a generation – even surpassing Tim Tebow.

The Johnny Football phenomenon could not have come at a better time for Texas A&M. When the rumors started percolating about the potential move to the SEC, it was viewed through a similar prism as the Rutgers move to the Big Ten. Simply put, A&M was perceived to being added for the millions of people and millions of dollars the state of Texas could bring to the SEC.

Instead of a doormat collecting a paycheck, Texas A&M quickly became a national story as Manziel scrambled his way to a Heisman Trophy and danced into the hearts of millions. In 2013, every A&M game was appointment television, culminating the week before Thanksgiving when a largely meaningless A&M/LSU game drew a ridiculous 7.5 million viewers to CBS.

The accompanying hype reinvented Texas A&M as a football program. The stadium went through a massive upgrade. The coaching salaries skyrocketed. Coach Kevin Sumlin travels to high schools on a “swagcopter.” The painful end to the Mack Brown era at Texas left a power vacuum that A&M exploited to the nth degree.

What did Texas A&M actually accomplish in the past two seasons? They won a Cotton Bowl and a Peach Bowl. They lost four games last year. Their defense in 2013 was one of the worst ever fielded in the modern SEC. I mean, seriously, how do you lose four games with Johnny Football at the helm?

Here’s where I bury the lede – Texas A&M is going to be really bad in 2014.

The average college football player was in preschool the last time that Texas A&M won its conference. That average player was not alive the last time – the early 1990s – that Texas A&M was a true national title contender when November rolled around.

It’s called regression to the mean. It’s especially true in college football, where programs have shown the ability to make momentary leaps to the forefront due to star players and quickly regress.

Do you remember Purdue in the Rose Bowl thanks to Drew Brees? Maryland in the Orange Bowl? Arizona State playing for a National Title behind Jake Plummer?

In a decade, we’ll view the Johnny Football era the same way. The descent back to mediocrity begins this year as Texas A&M enters the cruel reality of a post-Manziel world.

If it were just Manziel leaving, the Aggies might be okay. But they also lost Mike Evans and Jake Matthews – two Top 10 picks in this year’s NFL Draft.

When Alabama or Ohio State loses three first round picks, they reload. When Texas A&M does, it is cause for serious concern. Yet it is not as concerning as the Aggies’ schedule.

kevin sumlin kyle fieldWith the possible exception of Notre Dame, I believe A&M has the toughest schedule in the country. They lost at home last year to Alabama and Auburn. This year, they play both potential Top 5 teams on the roads. Those are two guaranteed losses.

They open the season – and the SEC Network – with a road trip to South Carolina with a new quarterback. Yikes. That’s another loss.

Mississippi State is a trendy darkhorse for a program ready to make a big leap, in part due to QB Dak Prescott. Yep, A&M visits them too.

The home slate features visits from Ole Miss, Missouri and LSU – three more teams that feature in preseason Top 25 polls.

How many games is A&M going to lose this year? I’ll tell you right now that if they go 8-4 again, it’ll be a miracle.

Thus the descent commences.

On its best day, Texas A&M is the fourth-best team in its division behind Alabama, Auburn and LSU. It can’t even claim Texas thanks to Baylor. What happens for the next recruiting cycle when Sumlin is out there on his swagcopter following a 7-6 season that ended with a loss in the Birmingham Bowl?

This is arguably the most important season in Texas A&M history because they need to capitalize on the Johnny Football momentum now. In today’s media landscape, those Johnny Football highlights will look like relics from a different era come fall 2015.

The problem is that Texas A&M is not that good. Truth be told, they weren’t that good last year but the magic of Johnny Football kept the ship afloat. Without Manizel – to say nothing of Evans and Matthews – the Aggies were a five-win football team in 2013.

Instead, the Aggies will be a five-win football team in 2014.

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