Friday, December 19, 2014

The Bowl Picks, Part 3: The Glorious Return of New Year's Day

Click to read Part 1 or Part 2

The first New Year's Day I ever remember changed college football forever. That's not hyperbole.

In 1988, NBC gave up the Rose Bowl. It's fascinating to think about in retrospect but NBC didn't feel the game warranted a high fee and let the game go to ABC. At the time, the Rose Bowl was in trouble due to its association with the Pac-10 and Big Ten. In particular, this was a time dominated by independents like Miami, Florida State, Penn State and Notre Dame.

1989 notre dame
In response to losing the game, NBC moved the Fiesta Bowl opposite the Rose Bowl. It was the first time another bowl game was played against it. To add salt to the wounds, the 1989 Fiesta Bowl featured Notre Dame winning the national championship over fellow unbeaten West Virginia and the game trounced the Rose Bowl in the ratings.

For the next five years, New Year's Day became a ridiculous feast of football. There was the Rose and Fiesta in the early evening, the Orange and Sugar at night, and the Citrus, Hall of Fame (now Outback) and Cotton in the later afternoon. As the child of a Notre Dame grad who instilled a love of college football, it was the single greatest day of the year.

It was too much of a good thing. The bowls were pitted against each other and the system broke down. Fans wanted a national championship game every year. The bowls were sick of cannibalizing the audience. New Year's Day slowly disintegrated.

The best games, with the exception of the Rose, moved post-New Year's Day. With the dreaded double-hosting model, the BCS moved the title game 10+ days past New Year's Day at times. It was absurd. It was sad. It was terrible.

However you feel about the four-team playoff, the college football leaders clearly recognized that they had to do something. Hockey – frozen ice hockey – had taken over New Year's Day with the Winter Classic. What in the name of America had happened?

Now having both semifinals on New Year's Eve the next two years is insanity, there is no doubt that having the six big games on the two holidays is a huge plus for the sport. There will be energy and excitement around a day that has long defined college football.

It'll be good to have you back, New Year's Day. It had been a strange 20 years.

TCU (-3) over Ole Miss
I think TCU is better than Ohio State. I think TCU is better than Baylor. I think TCU should have been in the college football playoff. Now, I don't think it was a grave injustice – they blew the game at Baylor and probably weren't the “one true champion” of the Big 12. But they were the best team.

gary patterson tcu
And I think Gary Patterson knows all of this. His response to being left out of the playoff was markedly different than Art Briles. In part, it's because Patterson knew that TCU needs to win all of its games to make the playoff. Paterson is very realistic about TCU's place in the college football world – they won a Rose Bowl, sure, but they need to prove they belong at the Big Boy table for the duration.

That's why I believe TCU is going to come out and lay an absolute whipping on Ole Miss. It will be a fascinating matchup with the fantastic Ole Miss defense, but it's a matchup that plays in TCU's favor as they can exploit matchups in the secondary to rack up yards through the year. I don't see Ole Miss scoring enough to keep up.

Arizona (-3) over Boise State
The worst thing that happened for Boise State was the Pac-12 Title Game. Arizona got embarrassed and they have been licking their wounds for a month by the time this game kicks off. Do you really think they want to end this fantastic season with two bad losses?

Let's not forget that Rich Rodriguez is an incredible bowl coach. He is 2-0 at Arizona and he won his last two with West Virginia, including the 2006 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia that was a landmark win for the Big East and that program. This is a similar game for Arizona. They are favored but they need a big win to establish that it is a perennial Pac-12 contender.

Boise State is good – but it's Mountain West good. The only time they played a top Power Five team this year, Ole Miss played a C- game and still whipped them. Boise State has improved since then, I just don't think they've improved enough.

Mississippi State (-7.5) over Georgia Tech
This is a terrible matchup for Georgia Tech. Mississippi State is very familiar with option tendencies and reads from what they run on offense. They have a massive and talented front seven that has shut down everyone's running game this year.

While everyone loves Georgia Tech's offense, their defense has been pretty porous at times and Dak Prescott could have a monster game. On paper, everything about this game points toward Mississippi State so I'm not going to out think myself.

Auburn (-7) over Wisconsin
Auburn hired Will Muschamp as its defensive coordinator. Wisconsin's coach left to go to Oregon State. These are two teams headed in different directions. Auburn saw Ohio State score 59 and they'll be gunning for that number.

Melvin Gordon could have a big game, but even if he gets Wisconsin to 35, that won't trump Auburn getting to 65.

Minnesota (+6) over Missouri
Minnesota has been one of my favorite teams all year, constantly covering double-digit spreads down the stretch. It is another great matchup pick, as Missouri is built with fast defensive ends who rush the quarterback while Minnesota is built to smash you straight-ahead with RB David Cobb.

The last time Missouri played a team like that, it was Georgia and they lost 34-0. Is Minnesota as good as Georgia? No. But they will run at will, control the game and tempo, and grind out a tight win.

Michigan State (+3) over Baylor
First off, I am not picking Michigan State because I think Baylor won't be motivated. Now, that may change if Art Briles gets crazy and goes to DC to coach RG3. But I firmly believe Baylor will be sufficiently pumped up and motivated to play in its first Cotton Bowl in more than 30 years. Art Briles is a Texas guy and he knows the importance of the Cotton Bowl.

However, this is a game Michigan State has to have. I know that seems weird to write but Michigan State failed in its only two big games this year against Oregon and Ohio State. If you go 10-3 without beating a ranked team, does it count? This is a statement game for the Spartans and it will validate their entire season.

Baylor's defense is putrid and Michigan State's offense is miles better than it was last year. Even if this game turns into a shootout, Michigan State is equipped to handle it.

Florida State (+9.5) over Oregon
Are you kidding me with this spread? I am well aware Florida State hasn't beaten an elite team all year, but they have beaten many decent to good ones. They haven't lost in two years. You're giving me more than a touchdown? Thank you very much.

jameis 2014 acc
All year, I've thought Florida State is the best team and Jameis Winston is the best player. The problem is they show this for about 10 minutes a game and those 10 minutes are enough to win. I thought the ACC Championship game was one of their more impressive, complete games on offense and they were vexed – as many are – by the triple option.

Can Oregon slow down Florida State? If Winston avoids turnovers, I don't think they can. Can Florida State slow down Oregon? I think they can. That's the difference. Oregon can get into a rut just as Florida State can and it's tougher for them to get out of it because so much is based on tempo.

It would not surprise me if this game felt a lot like last year's BCS Title Game, with Florida State doing enough at the end to pull it out.

Alabama (-9.5) over Ohio State
Alabama is the best team in the country and I'm starting to think they're the best team in the country by a significant margin.

If there is a team that can give Alabama trouble, though, it's this Ohio State team – if J.T. Barrett was playing. Cardale Jones is a better throw and he's a big dude, but he lacks the running ability of Barrett. We've seen time and time again over the past few years that a running quarterback is the Tide's Achilles heel. It feels like this is too tall a task for Ohio State, especially since I do not trust their defense to keep Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon in check.

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The Bowl Picks, Part 2: No Such Thing as Too Many Bowls

Click to read Part 1 or Part 3

Are there too many bowls?

This is a question that gets asked a lot in December. The answer, if you're a college football fan, is no. How could it be yes? We are in the final stretch of the season. Once these games are over, there is no more college football for eight long, long months.

new mexico bowl
The people that answer yes are either NFL fans or not football fans. They see “meaningless” bowl games between South Alabama and Bowling Green and it offends them for reason I cannot fathom.

The bowl system is perfect American capitalism. When there are too many bowls, the market reacts accordingly and bowls die. Remember the Silicon Valley Football Classic? Or the International Bowl? Some games don't work. Some do.

I never understood why people get mad that these student athletes get to play another game in a (usually) warm city over the holidays. For so many seniors, their football-playing career ends with a bowl game. Why take that away from them?

Sure, 6-6 Miami versus 6-6 South Carolina in Shreveport doesn't sound like a great time. But it means something to someone. ESPN isn't airing the game on ABC due to benevolence – they're airing then because people will watch it.

People like me. I love bowls. Are there too many? Nah, there aren't enough.

Cincinnati (-3) over Virginia Tech
Was there a more mediocre team in the second half of the year than Virginia Tech? Was any more result in the past decade more head-scratching than Virginia Tech's over Ohio State? Seriously, I cannot think of a recent national title contender that has a stranger loss.

On the other side, Cincinnati proved it could score on absolutely anybody and proved down the stretch that the defense could do just enough to let them win. They held on to win crazy games against East Carolina and Houston to finish as co-champions of the AAC. I don't see Virginia Tech scoring enough points to keep up.

Arizona State (-7.5) over Duke
As long as Arizona State doesn't spend the night before partying in El Paso, they will win this game by two touchdowns. Of course, I would be deathly afraid of making this pick in Vegas because teams have a funny way of getting run over in the Sun Bowl. Seriously, the game almost never makes sense or features one team – see USF, 2007 or USC, 2012 – that play the game like they are hungover. Because they are hungover.

Arizona State is a superior team in almost every possible way to Duke. As long as they can pass a breathalyzer on their way to the field, they will win.

Miami (-3) over South Carolina
Ah, a good ol' battle of who could care less. I'm taking Miami because the recent vote of confidence to Al Golden shows the administration is going to give him at least one more year to finally drag Miami out from the Nevin Shapiro scandal.

As for South Carolina, they suffered through their most embarrassing season in about a decade. In 2005, the Gamecocks brought about 10,000 fans with them for a really fun Independence Bowl against Missouri. This year, their ticket sales will likely stay in triple digits. They have little to play for. Even if they did, I don't know how they could stop Duke Johnson.

boston college football
Boston College (-2.5) over Penn State
There will be a ton of Penn State fans at Yankee Stadium as they play their first bowl game since the 2011 season. However, Boston College is just as excited to play a bowl game where their fans may actually show up. Remember, for the past decade, BC has been sent to Boise and Detroit and Shreveport – all because of the dreaded “fans don't travel” label. There will be a decent amount of BC fans in attendance at Yankee Stadium and, come on, Boston fans in Yankee I need to explain the added motivation?

Also, Boston College is a much better team. So there’s that.

USC (-7) over Nebraska
As with the Sun Bowl, the Pac-12 team is vastly superior. While you may think USC would be unmotivated by playing an inferior opponent so close to home, I think the novelty of playing in the Holiday Bowl for the first time and the desire to make a national statement will overcome that.

This game is an 8pm kick on ESPN on the Saturday after Christmas – it will do tremendous ratings and USC teams tend to play best when the lights are brightest. Nebraska? They want it to be 2015.

Texas A&M (+3.5) over West Virginia
This is a perfect game for Texas A&M. They finally leave the SEC West and play a team without a defense. When Texas A&M has played teams without a defense – think South Carolina in week 1 or the road win at Auburn – the results have been very, very good. Texas A&M can outscore anybody. West Virginia can score as well, but they can't score as much as Texas A&M.

Clemson (+3) over Oklahoma
I'm going with Clemson as a hat tip to Dabo Sweeney. The past two years, he knocked off top 10 opponents as an underdog – LSU in the 2012 Peach Bowl and Ohio State in last year's Orange Bowl. Since the Orange Bowl fiasco to West Virginia, you can tell Dabo has put added emphasis on winning bowl games. The injury to DeShaun Watson has many throwing in the towel on Clemson but that is so unfair to a Tigers team that is legit Top 20.

Do you trust Oklahoma in a big spot? I don't. I don't care if Trevor Knight is back. I've been burned way too many times this year backing the Sooners.

charlie strong texas
Texas (+7) over Arkansas *Upset Special*
Look, I know Arkansas won back-to-back games against Ole Miss and LSU. But are they the most overrated 6-6 team in history? People were acting like they were Top 25 material at 6-5. If you didn't notice, Arkansas does not have a passing game.

Texas can stop run. Texas will stop the run. Frankly, I don't see how either team is going to score in this one, but I'm leaning with the Longhorns as I believe they will keep it low-score to win, say, a 14-10 game.

Notre Dame (+8) over LSU
If Notre Dame doesn't turn the ball over, they will win this game. It's really that simple. LSU has been unimpressive on offense all year and that may give the Irish's putrid defense a chance. But again, it all comes down to turnovers.

Georgia (-7) over Louisville
Georgia, with or without Todd Gurley, is at least a touchdown better than Louisville. The Cardinals are a decent team but they simply aren't in the same league as Georgia. You wonder about motivation for Georgia – but I saw many Louisville fans complaining about getting “stuck” in this game. I've been to Charlotte for this game and it's a great city for a bowl. My gut tells me Georgia fans show up en masse and watch the Bulldogs put forth a big statement to launch its 2015 season.

Stanford (-14) over Maryland
I can't think of a worse matchup for Maryland. Teams that run the ball well – see Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State – destroyed the Terrapins. This could get really, really ugly if Stanford feels like it.

Houston (+3) over Pittsburgh
This is a peculiar battle of two teams going through coaching changes. But while Houston fired its coach and hired Ohio State OC Tom Herman in one of December's most impressive hires, Pitt lost its coach for the second time in four years to another Power Five school. Pitt has to be demoralized. Houston is energized. When you have two relatively equal teams, that may be all it takes.

Tennessee (-3.5) over Iowa *Best Bet*
I love Tennessee in this game. Or more aptly, I hate Iowa in this game. Iowa did not beat a team that finished with a winning record. They beat only 2 bowl teams, in Illinois and Pittsburgh. They got to 7 wins by virtue of a soft schedule.

While you can make a similar argument for Tennessee, there is little doubt they played tougher competition better – close losses to Georgia, Florida and Missouri showed how close they were to an 8- or 9-win season.

Tennessee played a ridiculous amount of underclassmen. With the benefit of a whole season and 15 practices, I expect Tennessee to be sitting on a huge performance.

Oklahoma State (+5.5) over Washington
Didn't Bedlam feel like a revival for Oklahoma State? I know this violates my rule of paying too much attention to momentum but there was so much negativity leading into that game, with the prospect of missing a bowl and Mike Gundy's name being thrown around for every job. What happened? They won a stunner over their archrival and Mike Gundy re-committed to Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys were decimated by injuries and that took away from what could have been a decent season. They will end in impressive fashion while Washington has been fairly unimpressive all year. It feels like Year 2 is when Chris Petersen will get things rolling in Seattle.

East Carolina (+7.5) over Florida
I don't know. I really don't know. East Carolina has been a bizarre team all year, blowing at least two games – Cincinnati and UCF – they should have won. They gave away games to South Carolina and Temple – the former excusable, the latter not – due to turnovers. But they can score a ton of points. They also seem to suffer from what was “USF disease” in the late 2000's in that they get amped for big non-conference games and totally ignore conference games.

I don't know what to make of Florida. I get the sense the Florida State game was their bowl game and this is just playing out the string.

Toledo (-3) over Arkansas State
Toledo is a better team than Arkansas State. Sometimes bowl games can be simple: pick the better team.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Looking Back at My Terrible Preseason College Football Predictions

Everyone makes outlandish predictions in July and August about college football. By December, 99.9% of those people ignore them unless they happened to get something right.

Well, not me. In fact, this is my most enjoyable post to write all year. Sure, it’s painful and I’m an idiot. But it’s fascinating to see just how wrong I was. So review my 20 Bold Predictions for the 2014 College Football season after a quick look at the piece that garnered the most traffic in October – and not so much in November.

usc beats notre dame
This was my boldest of bold predictions and, for two months, it looked like I was right. Or at least in the vicinity of being right. Then Everett Golson morphed into Tommy Rees and turnovers – the exact reason I said Notre Dame was better than their record in 2013 – reared its ugly head again.

Seriously, Brian Kelly, what the hell? In three of the last four seasons, Notre Dame has been undone by turnovers. In the other season, 2012, their least talented version went 12-0 and played for a national title. How is that possible?

I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon but if they can eliminate turnovers in 2015, they should again be a playoff contender. And if they don’t, they’ll go a maddening 7-5 again. By the way, you think Kelly was missing Bob Diaco as the defense got slaughtered in November?

1) The SEC won’t get 2 teams into the playoff

My reasons were off-base but I was ultimately right. I said that the top teams would be susceptible to upsets from “lower division” teams like Mississippi State and Ole Miss, except they were upper division teams and the whole SEC West was just too darn hard.

Add to the fact the SEC East was a dumpster fire, and it really stopped this debate from happening. In fact, only the Big 12 even came close to getting two teams in.

2) Todd Gurley will win the Heisman Trophy
3) Georgia will make the college football playoff

I’m putting these two together because once Gurley got suspended; both of these went out the window. I still don’t know how Georgia lost to Florida – Gurley or no Gurley – but they were not an elite, Top 4 team without him.

4) Ohio State will go undefeated

To be fair, I wrote this before Braxton Miller’s preseason injury. And if it weren’t for a baffling inability to block a blitz against Virginia Tech, I would’ve nailed this. Unfortunately, now on its third quarterback, it feels like a huge ask for them to beat Alabama.

5) Auburn will lose at least three games

This one was pretty easy, just looking at the schedule.

“The Tigers have road trips to Kansas State, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama. Their SEC East rotating opponent went from Tennessee to South Carolina. LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are still on the schedule. There may be nothing wrong with going 9-3 against that schedule. But that’s the ceiling.”

They went 1-3 in the aforementioned road games, only beat Kansas State, and they added a bad home loss to Texas A&M to finish 8-4. I don’t think anyone thought Auburn had a bad season – they had five road games against Top 15 teams. So I’m not sure this was a bold prediction, except in comparison to their insane 2013 season.

6) An AAC team will be in the playoff hunt come December

Um, no.

7) The weekly playoff rankings will be a disaster

cfb playoff rankings
I don’t know if disaster is the right word, since people watched and it drove debate. I will say they were pretty stupid, since TCU dropped from #3 to #6 after winning a game 55-3. Like, what’s the point? I doubt anything will change since it did good business for ESPN.

I do want to quote something I wrote just to hammer home how incredibly stupid it would be for the NCAA Tournament committee to follow suit:

“Could you imagine if the NCAA Tournament committee put out a field of 68 every week and then had the chairman defend it on ESPN? Even if they just did, say, the #1 seeds, it would be an exercise in the absolute absurd.”

They want to do this! Absurd.

8) Maryland will win 8 games; Rutgers will be lucky to win 4

Funny that I put these two together because if Maryland had held on in the finale over Rutgers; I would have gotten the first half right. But they didn’t, so I didn’t. I look forward to Stanford smashing Randy Edsall’s team in the Foster Farms Bowl.

As for Rutgers, they were who I thought they were – they beat teams they should beat and lost to teams that should lose to. The only change was the schedule turned out easier than anticipated – Michigan and Washington didn’t make a bowl and Navy fell far short of expectations. Combine that with a win over Maryland, and Rutgers went 7-5. Of course, their reward was a trip to Detroit but still, they exceeded their 6-7 record from 2013.

9) Tennessee over Oklahoma will be the year’s biggest upset

Um, no. In my defense, if Joshua Dobbs was the UT quarterback for the game, it might’ve happened. Instead, it took Tennessee about half a season to make the turnaround I was expecting from them. Oklahoma was every bit the disappointment I thought they would be.

10) The Big 12 will announce expansion plans by November

Well I guess I should have written December, but the conference is not expanding yet as it waits for the NCAA to rule on its exception to have a title game with 10 teams. If that happens, expansion will not. If it does not, then expansion will. Don’t listen to clueless Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby – what I wrote in July still holds true today:

“The talking points about no conference championship game are already starting and next year the Big 12 will be the only conference without a title game, including the non-power conferences. That’s not going to work long-term. Before this season ends, the Big 12 will realize it needs to match the number in its name and will announce such.”

11) Florida State will not make the college football playoff

I based this on Florida State losing the ACC Title Game to a massive underdog. Oh so close! I also predicted they would lose to Notre Dame. Oh so close! Instead, Florida State hasn’t lost in two years and Jameis Winston, when he’s on, is still the best QB in college football.

The Rose Bowl can’t get here soon enough.

12) Navy will win 10 games this year

Man, after the Ohio State game, I felt good about this one. It ended up being misguided. The schedule ended up being harder than I thought as both Rutgers and Air Force were much improved from 2013. Really, only the loss to Western Kentucky is a head-scratcher and they went 7-5.

13) Arizona will win the Pac-12 South

NAILED IT! I love when I get one right. Even sort of nailed the whole division:

“USC is in a year of transition under a first-year coach, UCLA is getting way too much hype and Arizona State has to visit Tucson – it’s all coming together.”

14) Oregon will lose two games…and still make the college football playoff

Do I get half-credit? I predicted Oregon to lose to Washington State (huh?) and UCLA, while beating Arizona twice. They beat Arizona once in the title game and got the playoff berth. I believed in the preseason and again during the season that a two-loss team would make the playoff. I was wrong. I do think that will happen sooner rather than later.

oregon pac 12 title
I also predicted Oregon/Ohio State would play in the Rose Bowl and many were confused why that didn’t happen, to also set up Alabama/Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. The committee was very beholden to their rankings at the end but maybe massaging the matchups – which give such little advantage in a four-team tournament – would be a good thing?

15) Bo Pelini will be fired

“Nebraska isn’t winning any titles this year and it’ll be time for a change that is long overdue. I cannot be the only one who finds it ridiculous that Nebraska fans are accepting of four-loss seasons, right?”

Many people dwelled on the fact that Nebraska won 9 games but that wasn’t the point. Nebraska has not won a conference championship since 1999. That is crazy to me. I don’t know if I would have hired Mike Riley but change was definitely needed. In retrospect, they probably should’ve parted ways with Bo after 2013.

16) Dana Holgorsen will be fired

Missed by a mile here.

18) South Carolina will make a New Year’s Six bowl, and be disappointed

It’s an absurd thought right now to think of the Gamecocks playing on New Year’s Day and their fans being disappointed. No, disappointment is going to Shreveport and selling less than 1,000 tickets.

In retrospect, no one knew how awful their defense would be. I was not alone in pegging the Gamecocks for big things – they were preseason Top 10 and stayed there for about, oh, 60 seconds into the Texas A&M game to start the season. South Carolina will be one of the more interesting teams to watch in 2015.

19) Ratings for the Peach Bowl, Fiesta Bowl & Orange Bowl will be down

Last year, the Peach Bowl drew 8.69 million viewers on New Year’s Eve night with Johnny Football. The Fiesta Bowl drew 11.30 million on New Year’s Day night, post-Rose Bowl. The Orange Bowl did 11.40 million on a Friday night, Jan. 3, opposite the Cotton Bowl.

I have maintained from the beginning that playing both semifinals on New Year’s Eve starting next year is completely asinine – the ratings this year will give us an indication of how asinine. Without a huge TV draw in any of the three New Year’s Eve games this year – I do think ratings will be down. It’ll be a test of the power of ESPN.

I mean, I’ll be watching. Will the condensed schedule of the New Year’s Six help all the bowls? We shall see.

20) Ohio State will win the National Championship

Oh, hello…Maybe I should’ve waited a month to do this post?

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Meet the Man Behind the Promotion-Relegation Banner at MLS Cup 2014

During this year’s MLS Cup, the most talked about aspect of the game on social media had little to do with the thrilling finish or the fitting end to Landon Donovan’s career. It was a banner flown over the stadium that read, “US SOCCER PROMOTION-RELEGATION NOW!”

Unless you are completely unaware, the lack of promotion and relegation in American soccer has been a sore sport for many, as it is custom in every other country playing soccer in the world.

Through a coincidence, my recent post on a hypothetical relegation league for the NFL drew the attention of Ben Fast, who just happened to be the man behind the now-legendary MLS Cup banner.

This week, I interviewed Ben (@bwfast) about his motives and whether promotion/relegation is realistic here.

Q: When did you come up with the idea for the banner at the MLS Cup?

A: During the 2014 MLS regular season, some Colorado Rapids fans flew an air banner against their ownership that read "YOU HAVE WRECKED OUR CLUB KSE & HINCHEY OUT!"

I saw some buzz on Twitter about it and the air banner idea stuck in my head as a viral way to get a message across. During the MLS conference finals, the idea came to my mind as the MLS Cup final site was narrowed to LA or Seattle. I started researching options and getting quotes for banners in both cities. LA has some great deals.

Q: What goal did you hope to accomplish? Do you think you did?

A: I know that promotion-relegation is one of the two or three most popular topics in American soccer today, so it made sense to utilize the stage to bring the message of opening the pyramid further in to public consciousness. I addressed the banner to U.S. Soccer because opening the pyramid is a USSF issue, not an MLS one.

I was certain that many people would take picture tweets and make the message go viral. I've heard it calculated that ten million people were reached with my banner message over Twitter alone. I am not sure how to calculate that, but I wouldn't doubt it. It definitely increased conversation on the topic and energized those who are openly advocating for an open pyramid.

Q: Why do you so strongly support promotion/relegation in American soccer?

A: I love American soccer and I am passionate about seeing the USA be one of the greatest soccer countries in the world on both the club and international scene. I believe that an open pyramid is the most efficient way to spur player and club development that can rival the global "gold standard" context.

Also, I am passionate about the game of soccer and I believe that inclusiveness and opportunity that an open pyramid promotes and provides is part of soccer's essence. It is quite easy to argue in favor of free markets. It works in business, so why not soccer?

Q: What do you make of people that have surmised the strong support for promotion/relegation is actually hurting the cause, by making the MLS dig in their heels?

A: MLS has a monopoly on U.S. Soccer's Division 1. They are thoroughly content in a position of closed-market, single-entity D1 irrelevancy in a country which has millions of passionate soccer fans. Based off of internet traffic, TV ratings, and attendance, MLS is falling off the pace in comparison to foreign soccer leagues in terms of popularity in the USA. Through marketing arrangements via their MLS marketing arm (Soccer United Marketing, or SUM), the MLS D1 monopoly is selling off American market potential to imported soccer friendlies that parade through our country on a regular 

mls sum MLS is one club with shareholders – it is not a collection of independent clubs and owners. The tight controls and restrictions of MLS are designed to keep this sitting duck D1 league afloat while shareholders profit on import soccer gate receipts. Many MLS owners have ties to NFL and it is theorized by some that MLS control of D1 is an attempt to subdue the growth of real, open-market soccer in the USA.

But yes, I believe that sparking conversation and asking questions is the best way to bring reform, even if the questions are uncomfortable.

Q: In theory, how would you like to see promotion/relegation work in America?

A: Two separate pyramids, east and west. They could meet at Division 1 in some sort of conference crossover. The pyramids would probably go down at least 8-10 tiers. I could see states like California hosting dozens of D1 capable clubs. The arms race that would take place in an open U.S. soccer market would be obscene.

Q: In practice, how do you think it could be achieved? Would MLS take the lead? Would USSF have to?

A: Opening the pyramid is a U.S. Soccer Federation decision. MLS is free to choose not to participate. Leagues don't have pro/rel, federations do.

Q: Do you think promotion/relegation will happen in American soccer? If so, in how many years?

A: More soccer crazy people in the USA need to start caring about the domestic game. Part of that is due to "old country" roots and loyalties, which I understand. Another critical part is educating the average American soccer fan. I was once ignorant about the closed, limited U.S. pro soccer market we have in place. I ran in to the conversation on Twitter, thought about it for myself, and I came to a simple conclusion that the free-market soccer model used around the world is the best option for soccer competitiveness.

Q: Finally - promotion/relegation is never discussed for other sports. Should it? Or do you believe it is uniquely suited to soccer?

A: It is only critical in soccer because soccer is a global market for talent. Talent is most efficiently produced in a merit-based, on-field system of talent sorting. When we match the U.S. pay-to-play, coach decision development system versus the world's merit based model, the U.S. falls woefully short. I think promotion-relegation would certainly help the other isolated American sports if used.

Can you imagine how many Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry types would emerge in basketball in a promotion/relegation merit-based system?

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Monday, December 15, 2014

The Bowl Picks, Part 1: Lessons Learned for Picking Bowl Winners

Click to read Part 2 or Part 3

The bowl game is the most unique form of postseason in American sports. Yes, there are many that would rather see a playoff. But in the absence of a playoff, college football delivers two-plus weeks of postseason games across the country. It is utterly fascinating and I love everything about it.

However, one of the bowl season's best qualities is that picking games is nearly impossible. There are a million variables that create head-scratching results. What's important? What's not important?

Attendance means nothing

There is a lot made about whether a team can travel or if the fan base is excited about a particular bowl game. This is important to bowl directors, conference commissioners and the bottom lines for rich folks. It means absolutely nothing to the players and the coaches. As an example, Michigan State is having trouble unloading Cotton Bowl tickets since something like 60,000 MSU fans were in Pasadena last year. Do you think Mark Dantonio or the players care? They want to beat Baylor, period.

Motivation is different for everyone

washington byu 2013
“Does a team want to be here?” That is the most asked question from football analysts in early December and if you can correctly answer it, you may steal a few winners. But don't forget that motivation constitutes different goals for different teams. Just because a team got passed over for a better bowl or had a disappointing season doesn't mean they have nothing to play for. A good coach can motivate his players for any game.

Coaching transitions are usually a black flag – but not always

Last year, playing for an interim head coach, Washington came out like a team possessed and absolutely annihilated BYU in a very surprising result. USC, playing for its third coach of the 2013 season, played an inspiring game in the Las Vegas Bowl – a game seemingly beneath them – and laid waste to Fresno State. An interim coach is bad news 70% of the time, but in that other 30%, it can be a very positive factor.

Forget conference affiliation

The bowl results are important for relative conference strength. Individual games, however, are not an indication. A good team can come from a bad conference and an overrated team can come from a good conference. The Big Ten is a Vegas underdog in every single one of their bowl games. Do you really think they're going 0-10?

There's no such thing as momentum

The bowl games are essentially a different season. Coaches have 15 practices to work young players and the final games of the season are way in the rear-view mirror by bowl time. Don't pick a team just because they won their last two or three games.

Coaching means that much more

Everything we've discussed above is really a long-winded way of saying coaching really, really matters. If you are confident in a coach, then back him and go for it. In last year's BCS, Bob Stoops, Dabo Swinney and Mark Dantonio came away with wins because they had their teams ready to play and they had specific schemes that exploited the weaknesses of opponents. In all 3 games, the less talented and less heralded team won. It didn’t have anything to do with motivation or desire (sorry Alabama) but one team executing a better game plan.

Never underestimate senior leadership

While much is made of how bowls are springboards for next season, they are also the final games for many players. Many will never play football competitively again in their lives. Regardless of coaching changes, fan travel or achievable goals: these players do not want to lose their last game. Never forget that.

Regular Season Record: 79-88-1
Best Bet: 6-9
Upset Special: 7-7-1 quest to finish .500 ended in horrific fashion, with a 2-9 showing on Championship Weekend. If you read my rules for picking bowl winners, maybe you should just do the opposite of these pics?

Louisiana-Lafayette (-1) over Nevada
This game kicks off at 11 am ET, which is 10am in New Orleans and 8am in Nevada. Will the Nevada players get adjusted in time? Furthermore, this is La-Lafayette’s annual home bowl game – it is their fourth straight trip to the New Orleans Bowl. They have won the last three in front of huge crowds, culminating in more than 54,000 for last year’s game versus Tulane.

new orleans bowl crowd
The fans, understandably, have been suffering from fatigue and “only” 11,000 may make the trip. That doesn’t matter. This is the Ragin’ Cajuns’ Super Bowl and they will treat it as such. Save for one misstep against Appalachian State, they were superior to its Sun Belt competition all year long. They will win their fourth-straight New Orleans Bowl.

Utah State (-10.5) over UTEP
Utah State’s Matt Wells is my favorite young coach in the country. I am shocked a bigger program hasn’t nabbed him yet. Utah State was down to their fourth-string QB by the Boise State season finale yet was still playing for a Mountain West Mountain division title. They have quality wins over Air Force and BYU and are simply a far superior team. Utah State is not the type of program that can overlook bowl games and ESPN exposure – they will be making a statement.

Colorado State (+4.5) over Utah
Jim McElwain just left for Florida. Utah has sold out its ticket allotment while Colorado State is struggling. Utah is a ranked Pac-12 team. Colorado State is an unranked Mountain West team. It feels like Utah should win easy, right?

Wrong. Colorado State was probably the best Group of Five team for most of October and November. Their loss to Air Force clouded things, but losing to an option team is never cause for great concern – it’s an anomaly. Colorado State has a ton to play for and I would expect them to put forth a huge effort despite losing their coach. Also, I’ve been going against Utah all year long and I’m not changing now.

Air Force (+1) over Western Michigan *Best Bet*
I must be missing something because this line makes no sense. Air Force is a superior team, with wins over Boise State, Navy and Colorado State – three wins better than anything Western Michigan has. Maybe Air Force isn’t thrilled about a bowl game in Boise? They will show up.

South Alabama (-3) over Bowling Green
I’m making this pick because I think Bowling Green stinks. I watched them get obliterated in their last two games by Ball State and Northern Illinois, while South Alabama nearly beat Navy and is playing in their first bowl game ever.

memphis football 2014
Memphis (-1) over BYU
I really wish this game had a better time slot, because a game this good should not kick off at 2 p.m. on a random Monday. Now, I’ll be off and watching it…but more people should.

As for the game itself, this feels like a total toss-up but I’m leaning to Memphis because they were so dominant for the last two months of the season. BYU was a different team when Taysom Hill went out and they righted the ship only when the schedule got real, real easy.

Northern Illinois (+10) over Marshall *Upset Special*
Northern Illinois crushed the spread in their last two games and I was right there to enjoy it. Absolutely no reason to jump ship now, especially with this disrespectful spread – NIU is a better team than Marshall.

San Diego State (-2.5) over Navy
So many reasons to like SDSU here. For starters, they played two option teams – New Mexico and Air Force – and shut both of them down. Secondly, it is a literal home game. Third, Navy has not lived up to preseason expectations and looked far from imposing in close wins over South Alabama and Army. Feels like this could be an easy Aztec victory.

Central Michigan (+3) over Western Kentucky
I liked the video of Central Michigan discovering they were headed to the Bahamas. Also, I just like picking all the bowl games.

Fresno State (+1.5) over Rice
Rice gave up 76 points in its last game to Louisiana Tech. This pick isn’t about momentum, it’s about the fact Rice is a bad football team. Fresno, at 6-7, is not exactly a world-beater. But of their 7 losses, four were to currently ranked teams and a fifth was to Nebraska. And they gave Boise a decent game twice in two trips to the Smurf Turf. They also have a great coach and I feel they will have extra motivation to make up for their face plant in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl.

Illinois (+6) over Louisiana Tech
I am fully aware that this game will take place in a half-empty (at best) Cotton Bowl the day after Christmas. But isn’t Illinois uniquely prepared to play in front of 50,000 empty seats? Rim shot!

Seriously – Illinois is not a touchdown worse than Louisiana Tech. Beating Penn State and Northwestern may not mean much to many but it was hugely impressive for Illinois. They also beat Minnesota, which is an order of magnitude better than any win Louisiana Tech has. When in doubt, always pick against Skip Holtz.

Rutgers (+3) over North Carolina
I hate North Carolina because they made no sense all year. Yes, I picked them to win the ACC and they made me look foolish. They went from destroying Duke to getting destroyed by North Carolina State and that pretty much sums up their season.

As for Rutgers, I believe they are ready to make people like me eat their words. They pulled off a stunner to end the season over Maryland yet still got shipped to Detroit while the Terps get Stanford in California. I think the Knights want to stick it to the Big Ten and show why they are above getting stuck in Detroit.

UCF (-2) over North Carolina State
UCF’s season-finale against East Carolina was a nice microcosm of their season – they were the better team, almost blew it and yet still pulled it out. This is another virtual home game and you know AAC teams – all of them – enjoy playing and beating Power Five teams. It may be tight but UCF will pull it out late.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Promotion and Relegation is a Billion-Dollar Idea for the NFL

During Sunday’s MLS Cup, someone wasted money to fly a banner advocating promotion and relegation in American soccer.

la nflWhile promotion and relegation are commonplace in soccer leagues worldwide, it is the sport least equipped to handle it in this country. MLS is far from becoming a major league. Maybe promotion and relegation would help – but it could also be disastrous. Living in D.C., I can tell you that the DC United would not survive relegation. It may not survive anyway.

But why is this discussion focused solely on soccer? Basketball and hockey could easily institute a promotion/relegation system. I mean, the NHL has a crop of six to eight cities – Seattle, Kansas City, Ontario, Hartford, Las Vegas etc. etc. – that come up every time expansion is mentioned.

However – and I buried the lede – there is only one American sport that could institute promotion and relegation tomorrow and start printing money. Yes, it’s the professional league that prints money every day – the National Football League.

The NFL has several real problems. The concussion crisis remains a significant fear in the future of the sport. Roger Goodell is a liar. Domestic violence is not taken seriously. The player conduct policy is still being rewritten. The drug policy is joke.

Yet, to hear NFL owners talk, there are other, more pressing problems. Surprise, surprise, they revolve around money. They need a team in Los Angeles, preferably two. They really, really want a team in London. They need more inventory for television partners. They want to make more money.

So, Roger Goodell, this is the billion-dollar idea that solves all of your perceived problems – a 10-team Relegation League that plays on Thursday nights.

Where would those teams come from? Well, the NFL wants two teams in Los Angeles and one in London. There are three. San Antonio and Orlando have stadiums ready for NFL teams. There are five. Las Vegas needs only a stadium. That’s six. Maybe we give Toronto a try with its own team? How about Louisville, Memphis and Salt Lake City – three Top 50 markets with college stadiums that could serve as a stopgap?

10 Teams: Los Angeles 1, Los Angeles 2, London, San Antonio, Orlando, Las Vegas, Toronto, Louisville, Memphis and Salt Lake City.

Figure out the schedule and playoffs to get two teams bumped into the NFL while the lowest two NFL teams get relegated. This solves so, so many problems.

The Thursday Night Conundrum

The NFL loves being on Thursday night. CBS loves it too as would any other network. But the games absolutely suck and it’s borderline criminal to make players take part in two games three days apart.
This relegation league fixes this problem because the games would be every Thursday night. They’re still part of the NFL and still on national television, essentially their punishment for being relegated are no weekend games. That seems fair, no?

If the NFL wanted to get real greedy – you know they want to – they could add a single Wednesday Night Football game with the 4 games on Thursday nights.

Gets Teams in L.A. and London

For the past month, it has become an open secret that the Raiders and/or Rams are moving back to Los Angeles. Maybe Oakland hasn’t proved to be an NFL city, but why St. Louis? Forgetting the delicious irony of STL County cops losing out on overtime after threatening the Rams, why should that city lose its NFL team? How is that fair?

The London issue is one that will linger forever until a team is there because who knows if London would support a team and how the travel would work. In the relegation league, the risks are minimized because if it doesn’t work, you can close shop without it impacting the league at all. Ditto for trying it in Toronto.

More jobs for more players

How quickly would the NFLPA say yes? We are instantly adding more than 500 football jobs. Heck, Goodell and company can spin their way into being job-creating American heroes.

roger goodell money

Billions upon billions in revenue

How much would someone pay for an NFL team in Los Angeles? We know Steve Ballmer just paid $2 billion for an NBA team. Even if we take a most conservative estimate – and average the entry fee at $500 million per team – that is instantly $5 billion for the NFL. Instantly! And that’s before whatever outrageous sum of money ESPN or Fox or NBC or all three would pay for TV rights.

Let’s make the sport fun again

Why did Tim Tebow never get a true chance? Why can’t Art Briles or Paul Johnson try their unique offenses in the pros?

The biggest problem with the NFL product is how everything looks the same. All the offenses are so similar. Especially now with the rules as they are, it’s becoming target practice for guys like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Chip Kelly was a breath of fresh air to the league and the Eagles instantly became one of the league’s more intriguing teams. 10 more teams means more Chip Kelly’s and fewer Jay Gruden’s.

Punish bad teams!

Dan Snyder has destroyed the franchise here in Washington. There are never going to be repercussions. If anything, his losing is rewarded with top draft picks that he can summarily ruin. You think DC fans are mad now – imagine if they were playing for their lives at the big boy NFL table?

I’m a Jets fan. I have been rooting against my team for weeks now so we can draft Marcus Mariota. If I’m rooting for my all-time favorite team to lose, something is wrong.

Gambling! Fantasy football!

We all know why people watch the NFL in the regular season. Five more opportunities each week to gamble? Yes, please!

It would be trickier for fantasy football but here’s a guess that we figure out. Maybe in addition to our NFL teams, we get two or three players on our roster from the relegation league? You think having fantasy football in our lives for six days a week would work? Based on the success of weekly and daily leagues, I’m going to say yes.

No 18-Game Regular Season

The NFL has been hinting at adding games for 10 years because it would make them so much more money to add two more weeks. But if you add a relegation league and add, say, $10 billion to the bottom line, maybe that isn’t necessary?

I don’t see any way politically the NFL can expand the regular season. Besides, instead of adding 2 weeks on already taxed players, they can add 16 with all new players!

The Drawbacks? They Exist

They do. I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I didn’t think the positives outweighed the negatives. But here they are:
  1. Is there enough talent? The starting QBs in the NFL can be underwhelming to say the least, which you know if you’ve watched the Jets play.

  2. How do you manage the draft? The relegation teams have to be a part of it, so do they draft from #33 to #42? Well I just added two hours to the NFL Draft’s First Round and made the NFL another $100 million.

  3. Could an NFL team get relegated and disappear? This is a gigantic risk for NFL owners, especially an incompetent boob like Dan Snyder, since his fans are ready to cut and run as is.

  4. Would you have to re-work NFL divisions every year? With 10 teams, the relegation league can be one table. But the 32-team NFL needs divisions for scheduling. I think changing them every year to make geographic sense would be fun. Or it may be the impetus for the NFL to scrap the AFC/NFC designations and move to four, 8-team divisions like the NHL. It’s an issue, but one that $10 billion can solve.
So after reading that, what do you think?

I doubt it will ever happen but it is incredible to think about. Would you watch? Would you be excited? Do you think it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever read?

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