Saturday, January 6, 2018

What This Feels Like

I am the only Southerner in my family. My mom is from Duluth, Minnesota; dad hails from Cumberland, Wisconsin. They moved south to Atlanta in the 70s and, thankfully, they never left. I was born in 1982 and grew up in a house of somewhat muddled sports rooting interests. Mom and dad still loved the teams of their youth, but they had also embraced the ones who now played in their newly adopted back yard. There was some immediate connection to the Braves, since dad grew rooting for them when they called Milwaukee home, and followed them to Atlanta not too long after they moved. The Falcons and Hawks were, well, they were there, and in the era before cable packages and streaming, you kind of had to latch on to the local teams if you wanted to watch sports with any regularity. Anyway, I grew up with some residual family love for the Vikings and Packers and Twins, but mom and dad also raised me pretty firmly on the Atlanta pro teams. College Football, that was a different story.

My father to this day still carries some Gophers and Badgers pride, but he also fell in love with the whole ethos of College Football Down South. (I'll say right now that it does not "just mean more" and every eye roll tossed in the direction of Southerners who get puffy in the chest about this is not entirely undeserved. But there is something unique and sacred about fall Saturdays where I'm from. It's something to do with religion and regional sensibilities and no small amount of bullshit, but it is most definitely a very real and powerful thing that hangs in the air and grabs you by the throat and fills an impressionable youth up with reverence and joy.) So dad got into Georgia Tech since they were based in Atlanta, but also Ole Miss and South Carolina in addition to his Big 10 roots.

I had to find the Dawgs on my own.

Born two years after their last National Championship and barely cognizant of the larger world when Vince Dooley left the head coaching seat at UGA, my earliest memories of Georgia football are a hazy mix of pretty-good-to-somewhat-indifferent seasons. But I loved everything about the Bulldogs immediately. The red and black, the hedges at Sanford Stadium, the fact that they were the namesake university of my home state. Maybe more resonant than anything was the legend of Herschel Walker. Herschel is still the God-King of all UGA alums, but my Midwestern family also adored him for the years he spent wrecking shop running the ball for the Minnesota Vikings, so the connection was doubly deepened. Somehow, the history and deep love of those early 80s teams sank in bone-deep, enough to sustain it through years of Joe Cox, etc. In a world filled with team after team of abject mediocrity (Braves, Falcons) and too-close heartbreak (the transcendent 'Nique-era Hawks), the Dawgs were the one sports thing I didn't share with anyone else in my family. They were my own little world; a love of my birthplace that I could feel and share with other Georgians, but not my own kith and kin. It wasn't a treasured secret exactly, but it was a touchstone to something deep and personal that came out of the red Georgia clay and got inside my soul.

Far From Home, Remembering Larry Munson.

Amanda Mull recently wrote a BEAUTIFUL PIECE about finding a Georgia bar in New York City. A lot of it deals with finding "home" in a place where you can't imagine anything close existing. I went to college at a tiny school in Minnesota (Shouts to Carleton, go Knights!) and spent the three years after graduation living in Minneapolis. There wasn't a Georgia bar there, but I briefly converted one table of one bar into a facsimile on November 20, 2011. Liquor Lyles sits on Hennepin Avenue in the Uptown Triangle. It was not a place we frequented much, since there were plenty of bars in Uptown and a lot of them were a lot closer to where we all lived, but me and a few Carleton alums had decided to pub crawl that night, so we were there when I saw the news. It was my turn to get the next round of beers, and I was at the bar when it flashed across the ESPN ticker on the TV: Larry Munson had passed away. I immediately tacked a round of Jack Daniels onto the order, and brought everything back to our table. I then tried to explain, with tears in my eyes, what had happened and why it mattered so much. In many ways, Larry was Georgia football. Dawgs fans refer to a number of significant moments in the program's history by Munson's radio calls. "My God, a freshman!" ... "Run, Lindsay, Run" ... "The Hobnail Boot Game". We remember things through his lens, his words, his eccentric and perfect sense of the moment. I completely failed to articulate any of that to my friends, but somehow they understood anyway. Bless them, they got it, even if the particulars eluded them. A million miles from home, with my friends who couldn't have given a damn about college football, we raised our glasses and slammed shots down for a legend. I've thought about Larry Munson a lot watching this Georgia season. I don't know what his calls would have been for the Tennessee game or the SEC Championship or Sony Michel's OT touchdown in the Rose Bowl, but I know they would have been perfect. It's a damn shame he's not here to see it.

Mama Called. Twice.

I'll raise my hand and admit it: I was not overly keen on the Kirby Smart hire. When Georgia fired Mark Richt, I understood the move, but the justifications didn't make me any less sad to see him cut loose. Directly after his termination, our long-time coach went back to his alma mater, where he just finished up an extremely Richt season by leading a kick-ass, fun as hell Miami team to a less than brilliant finish. Georgia brought in alum (and then-Alabama Defensive Coordinator) Kirby Smart to take the reins. Ever since Nick Saban got the Tide rolling again to an absurdly consistent level of joyless dominance, programs in the SEC have hired what Spencer Hall refers to as "Nick Saban's Large Adult Sons", a crop of former 'Bama assistants whom they hoped would bring some of the winning magic in Tuscaloosa to their schools. It hasn't gone well. At all. Yet somehow, Georgia managed to get the only one of that group who was worth anything. (Though, in grudging fairness, Will Muschamp appears to have turned his second shot at an HC gig into something decent and moving in a positive direction at South Carolina.)

Kirby Smart has turned Georgia into 'Bama East in a remarkably short amount of time. You can look at the insane recruiting classes he's already pulling in, or the cultural shift in the whole operation, or this magical season in particular, but by any measure the Dawgs are ahead of schedule. Like Dante in "Clerks", we're not even supposed to be here today. But we are. 

Lightning In A Mason Jar.

You could back a dump truck of sports writing cliches up to this Georgia season and just pour the whole thing out. The seniors, at no small risk to their future pro careers, came back for unfinished business. The plucky freshman QB who wasn't even supposed to be starting came into his own. The bespectacled folk hero kicker knocked 'em home when we most needed it. The two hackneyed phrases that keep sticking in my mind are these:

"You can't make this stuff up."

"This is like something from a movie."

Both are true this year. You can make this stuff up and it is out of a movie. But it's a particular type of movie. Not just a movie, not even just a sports movie, but specifically a sports movie whose target demographic is between five and twelve years of age.

Think of a kid drawing a spaceship for a second. Is that child drawing just a few lasers on the thing? No, they're drawing a spaceship with ALL OF THE LASERS. It looks absurd there on the paper, but much of the beauty of children's stock-and-trade, which is wonder and imagination, lies in the hyperbole. That's why when they make sports movies marketed to kids, it can't ever be just "oh a good, fun team had a good, fun season." The protagonists have to beat the most dominant, most evil team in the finale. They have to have the craziest, most improbable season and last game. They have to break records and make history. It has to be the first of something ever. It has to be the best ever. That's what makes it special and great and magical. And that's been Georgia football in 2017.

It wasn't just that we played in the hallowed shadow of Notre Dame, it's that we'd never played there before. And then we invaded South Bend and beat the Irish on their turf. It's not that we went out and beat all our traditional rivals, it's that we completely decimated them. (We emptied an entire closet full of Hobnail Boots on Tennessee's head in Knoxville, y'all.) All those heroic movie teams have to have their moment of adversity, and that was the first Auburn game. The Tigers flat-out smoked us. It was brutal to watch. But then came the poetic hitch: plenty of one-loss teams have won National Titles, but how many got to avenge that solitary L head-to-head in the same season and on a tremendously important stage? Georgia did that. They did it with that true freshman QB and those running backs who came back even though they easily could have gone pro and the God of Thunder named Roquan Smith stacking fools up and wrecking the best laid plans of all comers' offenses and Hot Rod booting the hell out of the ball. And they did it with Kirby Smart, the one apple who somehow fell close enough to the Saban coaching tree to be ruthless and brilliant, but far enough away to maintain some joy and personality and reckless glee as he does his job. (More about this from Will Leitch HERE.)

Let's take one more moment to think about the Rose Bowl, the most perfect exemplar of this kids movie out-sized narrative imaginable. In any other circumstance, neither Georgia or Oklahoma would even have been in Pasadena.  Because of conference affiliations, non-B1G and Pac 12 schools literally have to make the Playoff in a year where the Rose Bowl has fallen into a Playoff spot in the New Years Six rotation, then get seeded into that particular game to play in College Football's most historically prestigious event. But we got there. Both schools had only played in the event once before. Even more unbelievably, despite being about as Blue-Blood as you can get in college football, they had somehow never played each other even once. This despite Georgia launching a football program in 1892 and Oklahoma in 1895.

Then the actual game happened. This was overkill, even going by the "kids sports movie" narrative. It couldn't just be these two improbable teams meeting for the first time in the most prestigious and beautiful stadium in the game. It had to be the highest scoring, longest field goal, biggest comeback, first ever overtime game in the history of the Rose Bowl. Every conceivable record was broken under that perfect sunset and in the shadow of those picturesque mountains. And when Sony Michel took that direct snap out of the Wild Dawg formation and Jake Fromm sprung him with that block ... I lost my mind. I think everyone watching did, even those with no loyalties at stake. By any measure, this was one of the greatest college football games ever played. It doesn't matter if you're a Dawg or a Sooner or a nondenominational viewer.  Years from now, people will be talking about what we watched on New Years Day, 2018.

Love And Basketball.
I moved to Chapel Hill for my fiancee. Aggie hails form a family of die-hard North Carolina fans, and she couldn't bear to leave this place that I've now grown to love deeply and fiercely. Honestly, though I've only been a handful of times for games, it's a lot like Athens here, y'all. We made a deal when I moved in: I embrace UNC hoops, she embraces UGA football. (The first year of this arrangement, Carolina went 11-1 and came within a botched onside kick officiating call of knocking off Clemson in the ACC Title Game. Georgia had an underwhelming season and fired Mark Richt. So, you know, that went well.) Anyway, I've run the full gamut of emotions with the Tar Heels in a very short time. I watched Villanova's Kris Jenkins bury the dagger jumper against the Heels in the NCAA Championship game in 2016, just after Marcus Paige rose up through traffic and hit one of the most insane shots I've ever seen. I cried. I felt desolate. I kept thinking of Aggie's father who, like me, married into UNC fandom. After Carolina took a crushing loss to Marquette in the 1977 Title Game, Eli reportedly turned to her mother Susan and asked: "Does it always hurt this much?" Susan's reply: "No, honey, sometimes it hurts much worse than this." Incidentally, that game took place in Atlanta. A year later, I watched Joel Berry and company cut the nets down, as absolutely overjoyed as a person can be. This was special. In between 2016's misery and 2017's ecstacy, I watched the Falcons blow the 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, another crushing defeat in a long sad history of Georgia sports heartbreak. (Also incidentally, both the 2016 Carolina loss and that Super Bowl were in NRG Stadium, which is cursed and should be destroyed.)

I mention all this to bring up the superstitions Aggie and her family have built up around Tar Heel basketball, and how resonant they've been watching Georgia this year. Before Carolina won the Title last year, they played Indiana in a regular season game. We'd been out running errands and stopped to pick up take out on our way home. When we turned the game on, the Heels were up big. Then things started going wrong. By the end, they had utterly imploded. Aggie didn't watch the next three games, because if your team fails when you start watching, you have to look away until they can win again.

We're getting married on the beach in April, so this past fall we took a trip down there to meet with vendors and so on. We got back late Saturday night and turned on the Georgia/Mississippi State game. The Dawgs were up 14-0 when we flipped on the TV. The first play we watched, Jake Fromm threw a dart over the middle to D'Andre Swift, who promptly fumbled the ball back to Mississippi State. Aggie's head snapped around, the superstition kicking in: "Turn it off right now. You know I'm right." We did. And the Dawgs whooped Clanga's ass for the remainder of the game.

Another superstition: ironing during games is good luck. Eli and Aggie have both saved some ironing for particularly important Saturdays this season, and it has obviously helped. (PS - Eli's family contains plenty of Dawg fans, so the whole cross-pollination of fandom thing is working out well.)

Parades I Hope We Don't Need.

We have one more game to play, and it's as loaded with those same kids sports movie narratives as all the rest of the season. Alabama, college football's evil empire of soulless dominance, is waiting. Here come more first time ever's, and more gotta-beat-the-best-most-evil-team-to-win moments. Stop me if you've heard this before, but no former Nick Saban assistant has ever beaten beaten him head-to-head as a head coach. Furthermore, we have the weight of the 2012 SEC Championship on us, when we lost to 'Bama by coming up 5 yards short in one of the most dramatic games I've ever seen. That game was played in the Falcons' stadium in Atlanta. This one will be too. On top of all that is something that just hit me the other day: The Crimson Tide began the year by knocking FSU's heralded starting quarterback out for the year in the season's opening game. Georgia also lost their QB in game 1. FSU cratered. The Dawgs transcended to this improbable date with destiny. All season long, Dawg fans have referred to it as the Revenge Tour. Every major rival, be it Florida or Tennessee or Georgia Tech or (eventually in Round 2) Auburn, we've smoked the teams that have historically stood in our way. Now we get 'Bama. Not only did they obliterate us on our home field in 2015, but that 2012 game was an existential and program-defining loss. It got Mark Richt fired. It broke our hearts. Five. Friggin'. Yards. Short. And it wasn't losing the game itself; not really. It was knowing that Notre Dame was waiting, and knowing that had we somehow managed to win, we would have destroyed the Irish almost as thoroughly as Alabama did. And we would have won the National Championship.  

But it didn't happen, and so here we are now. And I have one ask; for myself and all the other Dawg fans out there. Whatever happens, remember this season. Remember this moment, with the Rose Bowl just behind us and the possibility of Monday still ahead and undecided. SETH EMERSON and WILL LEITCH have both made cases about this already. They rightly implore us to remember that in sports, we're always one bad bounce or fluke play away from misery. So we should treasure what we have right here and now.

A few weeks ago, the WAITIN' SINCE LAST SATURDAY PODCAST compared this Georgia football season to the 1991 Braves. While Georgia didn't suddenly climb out of the basement like that team did, they have done something truly remarkable and special this season. I've been thinking about that comparison a lot, not just for the aptness of it (and hopefully it won't have the same ending), but for what happened afterwards. The Braves lost the '91 World Series, one of the best sporting events I've ever seen, in a heartbreaking game seven. When they flew home, we threw them a parade. Mom pulled me and some friends out of school to attend. We lost, but that team had given us so much joy and hope and Atlanta's teams had collectively been so awful that the whole city turned out just to thank them for being special and magical and getting so close.

I'm not saying there should be a parade in Athens if we lose Monday Night. The whole point of firing Richt and hiring Kirby was to avoid that stuff. But in the same way we loved and revered that team, let's never forget what this meant. If 'Bama wins, if Kirby's tenure never turns into the thing we hope it will, we have to remember the magic of this year. We have to treasure it, because it's been an incredible journey and it may never happen again.

Likewise, if the Dawgs can do this thing, if we pull it out, we have to remember this too. How perfect and improbable and great it all was. We want to beat 'Bama, but let's never BECOME 'Bama. Let us not turn into the monsters we abhor. In 2001, every sports fan in the world was awed by the underdog Patriots beating The Greatest Show On Turf. In 2004, we were all absolutely thrilled for the Red Sox. Now, think of how insufferable Boston fans have become. (To be fair, I lived in Boston for five years and have many dear friends who love those teams, but most of their fans are still assholes.) Alabama is the same thing. Even though we brought Kirby to Athens with the expressed purpose of replicating that success, let's never become the entitled, hateful fans it brings. Let us remember the lean years and retain some humility. Let us never become that which we despise. Let us never poison trees or talk needless shit to other fans. If this is the beginning of a dynasty at Georgia, let us be grateful and sing Glory Glory, but never forget how hard it was to get here or how easily we can slide back.

As I write this, the Falcons are playing in the Wild Card game, trying to replicate the beauty of last year. A beauty that ended in heartbreak. That's how thin the margin is. So win or lose, let us keep watching this Georgia team and all the teams that will come after it in the same way Annie Savoy described her team in Bull Durham and the same way Kirby coaches: "With joy and verve and poetry." Let us never, ever forget what this feels like.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Best And Greatest And The Difference.

It's a holiday weekend and frankly, I need to turn my brain off for just a second and avoid the chaos and conflict and noise our country is now perpetually caught up in ... so I'm'a start a fight the internet.  But, you know, not a FIGHT fight. It's just something I've had careening around in my head for about a year and I wanted to put it on wax, just to get it out there.  (Let's be real, saying I'm starting a fight on the internet would imply any substantial number of people will read this in the first place.)  

One of the most enticing elements of sports is the limitless potential for argument and debate it affords us.  Who ya got? Brady or Montana? Wilt or Russell?  Bryant or Saban? Maddux, Kershaw, Larsen, Koufax, Catfish, Nolan Ryan, The Big Unit, King Felix? We can argue about this stuff all day and well into the night and never actually hit on a definitive answer.  The fun is embedded in the discourse.  It depends on the perspective and age of the participants, and is a reliably gratifying way to pass the time when we want to hop down a rabbit hole for a while. In my recollection, there are only two legacies we collectively, as a sports-fan culture, never imagined being in doubt (or my generation didn't, anyway): Gretzky and Jordan.  I still don't think anyone has or ever will touch The Great One, but the people who grew up watching Bobby Orr probably said the same thing.  And that's why the whole mechanism of sports and generational shift and counting stats vs. advanced metrics and all the rest of it is so great. I can, and have, had the Orr/Gretzky debate with an octogenarian Bruins fan in a bar, and we both came away agreeing to disagree but respecting the other's side of the argument.

But then there's the Jordan thing, which that's been kicking up again recently, as the Cavs chase their second title in as many years and they prepare to square off against possibly the greatest collection of talent in basketball history: Is LeBron better than Michael?

I believe the question has already been answered. Twice, in fact.  I believe, and the answer will never change, no matter what happens in this year's NBA Finals or the rest of King James' career, that this is the truth: LeBron James is the single best basketball player I've ever seen, but Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. And I believe that both of those things can be true and exist simultaneously.

Let's get into this, and I'm not using numbers or metrics here, because looking at either of their career stats (not to mention LeBron's career is far from over) is like drops of water in the ocean or angels dancing on a pinhead.  Everything is going to boggle your mind either way.  King James just surpassed Jordan on the playoff all-time scoring list. Where do we go with that? What, if anything, does it signify about them as players? (And I am an avowed stats nerd, but I do think at a certain point when you get to this level of genius the numbers are so outlandish that comparisons, especially when adjusted for era and pace of play etc. don't yield all that much from a raw statistical standpoint.)  In other words, this breakdown means nothing, it is not honest journalism or coherent in any way.  As I said, this is a thought that's just been kicking around my brain, and I am writing from my gut, and if I were better or smarter or less drunk I'd go to Basketball Reference and back it all up with numbers, but I'm not because: turning brain off. So: The LeBron/Jordan Debate in my entirely subjective mind:

This goes to Jordan, and it's not close.  They were equally destructive and dominant driving into the lane, dunking all over fools and crushing everything in their path. But the hitch for 'Bron lies in the jump shot. LeBron's jumper has gone through several iterations, but every few years it inexplicably goes into a backslide where that horrendous and not-very-effective fall-away comes back and he just doesn't look right out there.  I'd like to think he's fixed it for good this year, but his shooting goes through such random hot-cold streaks that I can't be certain.  Jordan, by contrast, came into the league with a textbook jump shot, the kind of thing you'd teach on an instructional video.  He spent his career adding little pre-shot tricks and gimmicks to make it unguardable. The feints and leans and jab steps, the turn-arounds and step-backs; MJ built his game to confuse and destroy defenders, and later to ward off the ravages of time. And to continue decimating anyone in his path. Like an offensive coordinator in football, he disguised his intent by calling the same play out of different formations time and time again.  He could keep on using the same pristine weapon as long as he initially masked  it well enough, and he kept on wrecking shop even when his body had betrayed him and he couldn't elevate as high or hang in the air as long.

I want to get this up front: Michael Jordan was a superb passer; it is possibly the most underrated part of his game, historically speaking. But Jordan did not have the court vision or the passing facility LeBron does. LBJ sees the court in a way very few ever have, and his mental supercomputer operates on a level we mortals can't really comprehend. The geometry of the floor, the spacing and timing, it's all one giant erector set to LeBron. He's just putting the pieces together the way he wants, mining efficacy and elegance out of the building blocks more deftly than Jordan ever could.  Look, Jordan was an absolute GOD in every way; he was always playing the chess game three steps ahead of everyone else. Even writing this last LBJ-y paragraph has felt a little like heresy. But also this: where MJ was three steps ahead, LeBron has already tipped your king over on the board and called "checkmate." He can run point, pass out of the post, whip it across the floor in transition, dump pocket passes no one else can see ... he knows exactly where every teammate needs to catch the ball to get their best, quickest shot off, and he gets it to them in that precise location. Every time.  He finds the gradient of any defense and shades and probes against it until something advantageous opens up and then he either does the damage himself or executes the most perfect pass imaginable.  As a passer, Jordan was very, very good, but LeBron is transcendent.

I'm just calling this a wash.  LeBron has significantly more from a numbers perspective, but he's never played with someone like Dennis Rodman who gobbled up the boards at such an obscene clip that Jordan never had to carry that same responsibility. Look, if you told either LeBron or MJ they needed to grab all the rebounds humanly possible to win a game, they'd both do it.  LeBron might have a slight edge on sheer size, but again: he's never played with anyone close to The Worm. Draw.

I feel the need to keep emphasizing this: My aim here is not to denigrate Jordan in any way.  MJ was one of the most murderous, absolutely perfect and intractable isolation lock-down defenders I've ever seen.  You told him to shut someone down, he went out and did it ... within reason.  But there's a difference in pure genetics and biology and understanding of the game that can't be ignored here.  Jordan could guard just about anybody one-on-one, but LeBron is built like a linebacker with the speed and physicality to match and he can shut literally anyone down in a way Jordan's frame never aloud him to inside. The quickest most compact and powerful perimeter guys have as little a chance as the the burliest big men against LeBron.  And there's something else too: Jordan was never the best help defender. There are unquestionably some aspects in which the game has shifted from a tactical perspective from 1998 to now, but the same omniscient court sense that makes LeBron a better passer than Jordan informs his defensive instincts as well. (Again: maybe this isn't totally fair to Jordan. He had Scottie Pippen, maybe the most versatile and tenacious defensive basketball player ever, on his team. MJ was never asked to guard 1-thtough-5 or defensivley rotate around the floor several times on a single possession as James routinely does, both because the game didn't work that way and because he already had the guy that could do it for him.) But overall, in terms of size and bulk and speed and instincts, LeBron is just better.   

This is another category that maybe isn't completely fair to Jordan but even adjusting for that still tilts in LeBron's favor.  There is no way in hell Jordan could have slid to the four in those small-ball Heat lineups with Bosh at center and played sustained minutes there. LeBron is the only human, alive or dead, who could play four (or five) positions if necessary at both ends and make it work, let alone excel as he has. Jordan is the most perfect 2 Guard who ever lived, and he could paly other positions when needed, but LBJ is on a different level in this regard. This is not a Once-In-A-Generation talent we're watching. It's a Once-In-Several-Lifetimes-If-Ever-Again thing.

I can't recall for certain, but I think this argument (which is not wrong) started popping up around 2009 or 2010, when Kobe really started submitting his post-Shaq Alpha Dog resume and D-Wade was at the absolute peak oh his powers. It only intensified once the league fully embraced a wide-open game and maximizing the efficacy of shot selection and 3-and-D guys and so on.  It goes like this: "If you unleashed MJ in the pace-and-space era with the changes in hand-check rules, he would absolutely murder the league."  And that's probably right. We're talking unfathomably catastrophic numbers. 50 a game? 60? Jordan would have looked at Steph Curry draining 35-footers, calmly said "shit, I can do that too", then gone into a gym in the summer and made it so. Of course he would have.  Here's the thing: no one talks about the other side of that coin. Put LeBron James in the Bully Ball Era in your mind.  Picture LeBron, after taking a couple of hard fouls from the Bad Boy Pistons, just pissed-off and furious and turnt as hell screaming down the lane with a full head of rivet-busting steam.  Is there anyone from that late-80s/early 90s era that has a remote prayer of stopping him?  Naw, we put 'Bron in that time in NAB history, and we're still paying archeologists to dig pieces of Bill Laimbeer's skull out of the court. And if he couldn't get into the lane, he'd start spraying passes around, or settle on the low block and just roast-n-toast anyone trying to guard him. He would have WRECKED. SHOP. ON. EVERYONE.

LeBron James is the single best basketball I have ever seen in my lifetime. The most versatile, most perfect, most complete, most jaw-dropping athlete I have ever watched do anything.  To reiterate a little more forcefully, LEBRON IS THE BEST BASKETBALL PLAYER THIS PLANET HAS EVER SEEN.  Again , and I have to keep saying AGAIN, and again and again and again, I am not disrespecting Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Because:

As I mentioned up top, there is a line of demarcation we need to draw here.  There is all-caps "BEST" and there is all-caps "GREATEST" and they are related but distinctly different taxonomies and we can ascribe different attributes to them without tarnishing or diminishing the legacy or either.  We've made this mistake where either LBJ overtakes MJ or he doesn't, and this determination is fueled by some semi-randomized amalgamation of career stats and titles and moments. I think the categories are different and we can celebrate both and "LeBron Vs. Jordan" actually has two different answers. LeBron is, as I have said (and please fell free to disagree), the best basketball player I have ever seen.  He is not, and will never be, The Greatest.

It is literally impossible to overstate Michael Jeffrey Jordan as a both cultural entity at large and an international and universal envoy of basketball in particular.  Bird and Magic saved/resurrected the league when it was at a precipice and threatening to fall into oblivion.  Jordan catapulted it into the forefront of American and, shortly thereafter, global consciousness. The sheer totemic awesomeness of Jordan at the peek of his powers will never be duplicated. He was an entity that defied context, denied a box of historical context or import. Grab anyone from my generation (or the one immediately preceding it) at a  bar and start singing "Sometimes I dream that he is me ... " and they'll finish the lyric. The absolute earth-shaking totality of Jordan eclipsed and obliterated everything else.  Nobody could do what he did, the way that he did it.  Where Jordan really tops 'Bron, and everyone else for that matter, is the raw cradle of intensity within his chest, aided and abetted by his sheer athletic virtuosity.  He was a badass and swaggering and arrogant as all hell, and he gave zero fucks how good you thought you were or had been, he was going to destroy you.  Look at this:


Look at Larry Bird, one of the greatest to ever step onto the hardwood, like an old prize fighter out there. A man who knows all the tricks of the trade, ready to bait a contender into a game he isn't used to and knock him out not with strength but with sheer guile.  Then look at what Jordan does to him, when Bird realizes the kid has been working the speed bag all through training and those are the fastest hands he's ever seen coming at him.  It's not fair.  Jordan came into a league dominated by its elder statesmen and, like everyone before him, had to take his licks. (See: early-MJ Bulls-Pistons.) But then he decimated everything to such an absurd extent it was almost blasphemous.  There just wasn't anything in sports or on this planet like Jordan in the 90s. The ruthlessness, the dominance, and maybe the moments above everything else.  The Shot. The Shrug Game. Th Flu Game. The final steal-push-off-jumper sequence against Utah in 1998. I freely admit a degree of generational bias here, and I celebrate LeBron's 48 Special and The Block and his performance in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals (which I wrote lovingly about after it happened) and which I still maintain is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen on a basketball court.  LeBron can or could have been the things that Jordan was. Certainly, he has the personality and self-awareness for it.  But then, maybe he can't. Not through any fault of his own, but because the media landscape has shifted so radically between Jordan and Now.

I think maybe part of MJ's overwhelming presence and adoration was tied to a lack of access.  We couldn't know his flaws and foibles and all the other mundane things that make everyone human at the end of the day because there wasn't an outlet delivering those elements to us. All the less-than-pleasant MJ stuff that cane out in "The Jordan Rules" did not have the combustibility of the internet behind it, so we kind of collectively ignored it. We can parse LeBron on far finer terms, with far greater scrutiny.  But even so, there was something about watching Jordan rip through the league with his unprecedented amalgamation of charisma and swagger and absolute brilliance that transcends everything LeBron has ever done or will ever do. You can count all the stats and all the Ringzzzz (though if Ringzzz are your primary metric then Bill Russell settled this whole thing before Jordan was even born) but ultimately I think Jordan was The Greatest. And it's because he transcended everything else and gave us the truest, most visceral iteration of basketball as both game and emblematic cultural touchstone we're ever going to see.  LeBron is the best I've ever seen.  Jordan is still the GOAT.  

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Blueprint: The 2011 Mavs, The 2017 Falcons, And The Lessons I Hope We Learned

We're a week from the Super Bowl , and I can't stop thinking about the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.  The Mavs had an extremely quirky, deeply enjoyable roster that season.  There were the geezers (The Matrix, Jet, J-Kidd), the good players slotting into perfect roles (Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea), some odd castoffs (DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Ian Mahinmi, Brain Cardinal), and a delightful mix of little-used spare parts (Peja, Sasha Pavlovic, Tuff Juice, Corey Brewer, Alexis Ajinca, Steve Novak, Roddy Beaubois, Dominique Jones). And of course, Dirk Freakin' Nowitzki.  Dallas racked up 57 wins, wound up a 3-seed going into the playoffs, and nobody really gave them much of a shot.  Not with the juggernaut Spurs and the Kobe/Phil Lakers and the young core in OKC in the mix. 

It seems ludicrous now, but at the time, Nowitzki and the Mavs had a something of a playoff monkey on their backs. "He's too soft."  "They can't ever win the games that matter," etc, etc.  After years as one of the best players in the game working with a top-echelon head coach in Rick Carlisle and usually a decent supporting cast, popular opinion had preemptively put Dirk in the Barkley/Ewing drawer of the NBA history file cabinet: all-time great player, never crossed that last Rubicon to get a 'Chip. 

Then the playoffs started, and everything fell into place. The Mavs easily dispatched an undermanned Blazers team in Round 1.  (Though we did get The Brandon Roy Game, one of my favorite moments of all time as a basketball fan.)   They obliterated the Lakers in a sweep, and headed to the Western Conference Finals to face the Thunder.   

And hey, let's take a second to contemplate the favors Memphis did for the Mavs in those playoffs: First, they pulled off an incredible upset of the Spurs in Round 1 so Dallas wouldn't have to face them later.  I will never forget Z-Bo standing on the court after it was over, soaking in the love of an arena and a city that had finally given him an NBA home.   Then, Grit'N'Grind spent seven games bludgeoning the Thunder within an inch of their lives, giving Dallas an exhausted, beaten-down opponent to go against for a shot at the finals.  I mean, damn did the Griz do Dirk and co. a few solids there. 

The Mavs were on a genuine lightning-in-a-bottle run, the kind that comes around for a team rarely if ever.  Before the Dallas-OKC series tipped, it felt like something was creeping into their collective ethos; an all-consuming realization and resolve: "We'd better finish this. We'd better get this shit done now."  Because when were they getting a shot like this ever again?  Would the the match-ups break this fortuitously next time?  Would this core of players even be around next year? (Spoiler alert: no, and NEVER EVER ask a Mavs fan how they feel about the way their front office handled things after that season if you value your eardrums.)  Maybe most importantly, would they ever again have the benefit of J.J. Barea playing outside his damn mind for an entire postseason? (Again: no.)  

Anyway, Dallas took care of the Thunder in five games and headed to the NBA Finals to face the first edition of The Heatles.  It was almost too perfect.  Miami had beaten the Mavs in their only other Finals appearance, which you may better remember as The Great Officiating Debacle Of 2006.  The talent disparity was comical.  Dirk is a transcendent player and he had some outstanding running mates, but the Heat should have overwhelmed them with sheer versatility and speed.  Instead, Dallas finished their magical run with a 4-2 series victory, culminating in an exodus of Heat fans leaving the arena before Game Six was done, a delirious and joyful Dirk hoisting the trophy, and a very drunk Mark Cuban appearing on TV shortly thereafter to declare of Mavs supporters flooding the Triple A: "Our fans punked the shit outta their fans!"  

This Falcons season kind of has that feel to it.  Here they are headed to their second championship shot ever, just like the 2011 Mavs. Like that team, they lost their first one.  (Though, there was no shady officiating in that game, just the fact that we had Chris Chandler at quarterback and Denver had John F****** Elway.)  Like Dallas and Dirk, Atlanta and Matt Ryan also have that "can't win when it counts" label hanging around their necks.  They've had a similar spate of luck, too.  After going 15-1 the preceding season, Carolina was a trash fire this year, opening the door to the NFC South.  The Birds caught a Seattle team with no Earl Thomas and whose offensive line was basically pasteboard and duct tape in the divisional round of the playoffs.   They drew a banged-up Packers team in the NFC Championship Game and torched them like the Mavs torched OKC.  And now they have to go toe-to-toe with the Pats.

Atlanta's offense has been unstoppable this season; a history-making death machine destroying everything in their path.  By the numbers, they're nearly identical to the "Greatest Show On Turf" Rams.  But do you remember who the Brady/Belichick Patriots beat to win their first Super Bowl?  Yeah, that Rams team.  Bill Belichick is an asshole, but he's also the greatest tactician in NFL history, and if anyone can find a way to undermine the Falcons' offensive dynamism, it's him.  On the other side of the ball, Atlanta's defense has come a long way this year, but asking them to stop Tom Brady (even without Gronk) is a damned tall order.  But we have to.  The offense has to hum and growl like a muscle car with an open throttle, as it has all year.  The defense has to be the fast, chaotic entity it has become.  No one can slip up, no one can falter.  Because the Patriots have proven over and over that they will absolutely murder you for even your tiniest mistake.  Because look:

Will we be this healthy again next playoffs?  Will we be this lucky?  Will whoever comes in as OC after Kyle Shanahan takes the 49s gig sequence plays and utilize personnel as brilliantly?  "Probably not" to the first two questions and "not a chance in hell" to the third.

So this is the shot.  This is moment.  Dallas showed us all how this works in 2011.  Jesus, I hope Dan Quinn's an NBA fan.  



Sunday, January 22, 2017

Farewell To The Dome.

Two years ago to the day, I moved in with my then girlfriend, now fiance.  (PS - I am the luckiest human and have no idea why she puts up with me.) As the boxes were being unpacked, we had the same conversation that people moving in together have had since time immemorial: "What the hell are we gonna do with all this stuff?" Two people who have been living independently and are now suddenly not means you're going to have, at a minimum, two of just about everything. Did we need three stock pots? No, we did not need three stock pots. Two complete sets of dishes?  Like, eight ladles and spatulas? Nope, nope, nope. Over the next several weeks, the local PTA thrift store hit the mother load of things we had to discard.  A full compliment of cooking necessities, dishes, and flatware. Boxes upon boxes of duplicate books. And lamps. So, so, so many fucking lamps.  

By mutual agreement, only one thing escaped the great purge: Our respective collections of commemorative stadium drink cups. For Ags, this means truckloads from every athletic venue on UNC's campus and a bunch of Orioles swag.  For me, it's mostly Braves cups from the 1991 worst-to-first team all the way up through 1998, and a handful from some other baseball stadiums I've visited.  There's also one from the old Omni that a: has the home schedules for both the Hawks and my (beloved and dearly departed) IHL Atlanta Knights and b: you can't even drink out of anymore because there is a huge crack in the bottom but I'm keeping it anyway.  And there's the one pictured above, from the Georgia Dome's first season in 1992.  

Over the last 24 years, The Dome has been a fixture in Atlanta, that distinctive geodesic roof as essential to the skyline as the Peachtree Plaza.  And mostly, it has been a home for misery and mediocrity.  In honor of tonight's final game in the building, SportsCenter ran a special Top 10 dedicated to moments in the Georgia Dome.  It was ... not pretty, if you're a fan of sports in the Peach State.  There were highlights from the Final Fours the Dome has hosted. There was Kerri Strug sticking the one-foot vault landing in the 1996 Olympics.  There was a Wrestlemania clip.  And then, there were highlights of bad things happening to our teams. There was Neon Deion, beloved former Falcon and Brave, returning in a 49ers jersey and taking one to the house against us. There was the 2012 NFC Championship Game collapse the Falcons suffered (also against San Francisco, who may very well pull off a hat trick of pain if they steal Falcons offensive guru Kyle Shanahan away after the season is over.  Damn you, Niners.)  There were the Bulldogs, coming up five yards short against 'Bama in the SEC Championship game.  (Which, yes, it's a divided state and I know Tech fans delighted in this, but I'm just talking about teams within the geographic confines of our borders.)  Watching all of this in rapid succession was awful.  Not only were they replaying some of our lowest moments as fans, there wasn't one damn happy memory to balance it out. 

Then tonight happened.  I spent the game drinking out of that cup in the picture up top.  I drank the last of the bourbon out of it.  I drank a few beers out of it.  I'm drinking very cheap red wine out of it as I write this.  It seemed appropriate to celebrate the Dome's last game with a relic from its first.  And the Falcons.  My lord.  I think it's fair to say no one saw that coming.  The offense has been historically brilliant all year, just staggering in their excellence and consistency.  The defense has evolved, even after losing Desmond Trufant, into something of a respectable unit.  And what they just did to a smokin' hot Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers was phenomenal beyond words.  The most terrifying QB in the NFL, a superhuman demigod running an offense that had obliterated everything in their path and had Jordy Nelson back, and Atlanta shut that mess down.  Just absolutely destroyed the Packers on both sides of the ball.  A complete, utter, gleeful ass kicking.  Abd it still never felt safe until the clock finally hit zeros. 

I won't speak for all Falcons fans, but even after pitching a shutout on defense and blowing the doors off on the other side of the ball, I went into halftime remembering 2012.  And everything else this franchise has been through.  I have dear friends and some family members who are Packers fans, and I have friends who root for different teams altogether, and all of them were texting me or messaging me about midway through the third quarter that it was over.  I didn't buy it.  Intrinsic fear and doubt, honed over decades of futility, are tough to shake.   But in the end, we DESTROYED the Packers, just completely torched them, whistle to whistle.

The Dome has housed nearly everything over its existence. Concerts, soccer, the Olympics, even the Hawks while they transitioned from the Omni to Philips Arena.  But mostly, that distinctive, memorable roof has rested over the Falcons, in all their myriad failures and brief successes. (For all of our historical inepititude, never forget that this building birthed the Dirty Bird '98 season and some legitimately insane Vick performances and the Matty Ice era.)

Tonight was the last of it, at least where sports are concerned.  There are a handful of concerts scheduled to take place before the lights go out and the concourses are silent and The Dome ceases to be a place people go to experience memorable events.  But damn if we didn't send it out in style.  The demolition is scheduled for sometime later this year, but that doesn't matter right now.  The Falcons already gave the Georgia Dome its perfect ending: they burned that motherfucker down.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Aaron Rodgers At Hogwarts.

If you chucked the four remaining quarterbacks in this year's NFL playoffs into the Hogwarts Great Hall on Sorting Night, the Sorting Hat would have a pretty easy time with three of them.  Matty Ice? Gryffindor, easy. Brady and Big Ben are decidedly both Slytherins. But then Aaron Rodgers trudges up to the stool at the front of the room.  He's already had an interesting week. Ollivander himself was flummoxed, finally digging a special wand out of the back room after the stock product on his shelves proved insufficient.  He sits down, and Dumbledore places the Sorting Hat on his head. There is silence in the room. Rodgers closes his eyes.

Sorting Hat: "So, you've recently won another playoff game against an extremely talented Cowboys team, on the road and without your favorite safety-valve receiver. Such a daring, thrilling victory bespeaks courage, bravery, and the willingness to battle to achieve your goals. Probably a Gryff--" 

Rodgers: "Look, I'm more than just crunch-time guts, OK, guy?"

Sorting Hat: "My mistake, let's see ... what else? AH, played for one team your entire career thus far, constantly making your teammates better, loyal, the engine and soul of your team ... A Hufflepu--"

Rodgers: "You know, I think that doesn't really capture my full, complex nature, either."

Sorting Hat: "You're right, of course. Hmmmm ... a ruthless competitor, cunning, ambitious. How could I have missed it?!?!? You're a Slyth---"

Rodgers: "Oh come on, don't lump me in with those assholes."

Sorting Hat: "OK, OK, fine. What else about you ... WAIT HOLY CRAP YOU JUST DREW THAT JORDAN COOK PLAY THAT SET UP THE WINNING FIELD GOAL UP IN THE DIRT?  LIKE, LITERALLY IN THE HUDDLE?!?!?!  Such brilliant planning! Such intelligence and creativity! Why didn't I see it before????"

Rodgers: "Look, can we wrap this up? I have to go break down some film for next week."

Sorting Hat: "Ahem, yes. As I was saying, Ravencl--"

Rodgers: "Nope."

Sorting Hat: "Nope? You can't nope out of that, pal. It's the last house left."

Rodgers: "Yeah, but I am everything you've said all at once. I'm courageous and ruthless and loyal and brilliant. I'm all of that. I'm not trying to brag, it's just true."

Sorting Hat: "I see your point. Well, if I can't put you in a house, I'm not really sure what to do here."

Rodgers (taking off his robes, and walking towards the doors): "It's OK. I already used all my quills and parchment for the whole semester diagramming every possible way to dismantle the Falcons, so I couldn't take any notes in class anyway. I should probably just go. Can someone do me a solid and apparate me back to Green Bay? No? Can I borrow the cabinet thingy in the Room of Requirement and at least get back to that creepy shop in Diagon Alley? I can book a flight home from London."

*Leaves room.*

Dumbledore: "So, what exactly just happened there?"

Sorting Hat: "He was too good at everything to put him in a single house. Sorry, I just had no idea what to do with they guy.  Which, by the by, maybe we stop making houses so defined by specific traits that would obviously make people of certain dispositions want to choose one over the others? There's gotta be a better way to do this, right?"

Dumbledore: "You may be right, I shall consider it. Still, I hate losing such a promising talent as that boy." 

Sorting Hat: "Don't worry about it. Did you see that Hail Mary to end the first half of the Detroit game? That guy is definitely a fucking wizard."

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Championship Rematch We Deserve.

Last night, James Harden racked up 53 points, 16 rebounds, and 17 assists.  This not only tied him with Wilt Chamberlain for the most points ever scored in a triple-double performance, it made Harden the only player in NBA history to toss up a 50-15-15 or better.  Also last night, the Carolina Hurricanes put a team equipment manager on the ice as a goalie. Yesterday afternoon, an unranked Virginia Tech squad handed #5 Duke a delightful and utterly disrespectful ass-kicking.  Yesterday morning, LSU kicked off against Louisville and Lamar Jackson who, you know, singlehandedly accounted for 51 TDs this year en route to winning the Heisman. The Tigers held that same electric demigod to 153 passing yards, 33 rushing yards, no TDs, and a 6.9 QBR. 

I mention all of this to give you some context; yesterday contained a fairly respectable crop of "WAIT, THAT HAPPENED?!?!" sports moments.  It's important to me that you know what I'm stacking everything up against before I say this: the absolute most stupefying, jaw-dropping-ly absurd occurrence yesterday was what Clemson did to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.  This game should have been a compelling, deeply enjoyable matchup between two very different teams, almost diametrically opposed, even. Clemson was one of the most experienced teams across the board this season, and hyper-dynamic on both sides of the ball. By contrast, OSU (J.T. Barrett aside) were one of the nation's youngest squads and made the playoff by doing typical B1G things: crushing you slowly and with great precision on defense and mostly chewing you up 3 yards at a time on offense.  The 2016 Buckeyes averaged 39.5 points a game and only gave up 12.75.  Sure, some of that was padded-out totals against inferior competition, but OSU also triumphed over a really good Wisconsin squad and beat the brakes off of both Oklahoma and Nebraska.  Their only loss was an exceedingly fluky game against eventual B1G champs Penn State who are headed to what should be a really fun Rose Bowl against USC. Oh yeah, and they won The Game thanks to The Spot. (Michigan fans are STILL Zapruder-ing that thing, btw.)  

Point is, even in what was supposed to be a too-young-too-soon-kinda-rebuilding year, Urban Meyer's team was really damn good. Sooooooo, about yesterday: Clemson 31, OSU 0. Zero. Donut hole. Nada. They ain't score one damn point, y'all.  This was the most vicious hammering Urban Meyer has ever taken as a head coach, the first shutout of his career, and one of the worst beatings of Ohio State's entire 126-year existence as a football program. 

And Clemson did that while playing ... eh, they played pretty well offensively, but they weren't perfect. Deshaun Watson threw 2 picks and only averaged 7.2 YPA. No individual Tigers runner or receiver cracked 100 yards on the day, and outside of some nice Andy Teasdall punts, the special teams didn't get much of anything cooking, either.  Which tells you exactly how brutal and fast and mean and suffocating Clemson's defense was yesterday, because the team-stat disparities are hilarious:

Clemson: 24 1st downs, 470 total yards, 35:51 time of possession.

OSU: 9 1st downs, 215 total yards, 24:09 time of possession.

That's a wholesale demolition against the second-best college coach of his generation. Problem for Clemson is, now they have to face the best.

It looked like Washington might make things interesting for about half a quarter in the Georgia Dome yesterday, but then Bama and The Process shut that mess down with their usual mundane finality.  Watching the Saban-era Tide, and particularly this year's iteration, is watching a riding mower cut through weeds. It's doing the thing it was built for, and it will leave a perfectly manicured yard in its wake, but it's not a particularly compelling viewing experience. The problem with a Tide that just keeps Rolling, facelessly sweeping through valley after valley, is that nothing seems to really slow it down or cause it to change course.

Last year, Clemson came as close as any team to doing something about it.

The 2016 National Championship game was one of the most incredible things I've watched in a lifetime of college football. The Tigers gave Bama all it wanted and then some. Watson was electric, the defense was ferocious, and perhaps most incredibly, Clemson forced the implacable, unwavering Saban machine to play the game THEIR way.  Alabama had to run a decent chunk of their offense doing the spread-tempo stuff Nick Saban abhors just to keep up.  Hell, they even pulled out an onside kick, which is the sort of trickery usually reserved for lesser, mortal teams who are not coached by diminutive sociopaths and whose two-deep is not stocked like a damn bomb shelter of four- and five-star talent.  The fourth quarter was basically one extended montage of jaw-dropping excellence from both teams.  It ended 45-40 Bama, but it was obvious they were happy to get off the field and away from the jet-engine turbine Dabo Swinney hath wrought in Death Valley.

Next Monday, we get Round 2.  Clemson is a year older and more experienced and probably about as angry and excited for this rematch as it is possible for a team to be.  They won't have a chip on their shoulder so much as a Costco-sized crate of Doritos. Bama is, well, Bama. 

The Tigers brought a B-to-B+ game into University of Phoenix Stadium and absolutely wiped the floor with the Buckeyes.  They'll need an A-game performance in Tampa, but if they show up with it, we're going to get a game every bit as amazing as last year's.   Take us out, Bart Scott:

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

10 College Football Games To Watch in Week 1.

The heat won't break properly for a while yet, at least not down south.  Summer will carry itself into mid-September, taunting us with the occasional cool evening only to ramp the heat and humidity back up.  The sticky, horrid monsoon cake God is baking in our geographical oven is not quite done.  But fall will be here Friday, forecast be damned.  And the reason I can say that with certainty and a song in my heart is this: college football is back.  The tinkering with depth charts and playbook install schedules, tailgate menus and marching band halftime routines is wrapping up.  Soon, delightfully soon, we can spend our Saturdays (and hell, our Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights) reveling in the inanity and beauty of this stupid, fantastic game.  In anticipation of our long, football-less offseason's imminent demise, here are my 10 picks for games you should watch on opening weekend. (All times EST.)

10. Hawaii vs. University of California - Friday August 26th, ANZ Satdium: Sydney, Australia.  10:00PM Many, many people think these Week 1 global neutral site games are a joke and a shameless money grab and to those people I say: You are correct, and I don't care.  Gimme a game in Dubai or Luxembourg or wherever, I'm here for it.  Sure, even a newly Jared Goff-less Cal will beat the brakes off the Rainbow Warriors, but y'all ... THIS IS THE OPENING GAME OF THE SEASON!!!!!!  For the simple benevolent act of being the first guest to arrive at the party, we can forgive this game showing up early and under-dressed with nothing but a bag of Lays and a shitty $4.00 bottle of wine it purchased at a convenience store on the way over.

9.  Appalachian State @ #9 Tennessee - Thursday September 1st, Neyland Stadium: Knoxville, TN 7:30PM You're looking at this and wondering why the presumptive SEC East favorites playing a Sun Belt team rates a slot on the list, aren't you?  Let me explain.  For untold eons, Vols fans have spent every summer convincing themselves that "This is gonna be the year!" only to wallow in disappointment once they drop a few big games.  Good news for them: this may actually be that year.  The talent and experience on the roster, the coaching staff (hi, Bob Shoop!), and the whole operation may finally be commensurate with the preseason hype.  That being said, App State are feisty and physical and they will absolutely wreck your shit if you're not careful.  Even a win, if it's ugly and not utterly dominant, would set Tennessee's rabid fan base on edge and prompt another round of torches and pitchforks aimed at Butch Jones.  The potential schadenfreude is simply too enticing to pass up.

8. Georgia Tech vs. Boston College - Saturday September 3rd, Aviva Stadium: Dublin, Ireland 7:30AM Let me be very clear: This game will be trash, and there is nothing of football nutritional value to be had here.  The triple option is nifty and great, and Paul Johnson's Jackets teams have run it as beautifully as anyone ever has.  This won't matter one bit, because Steve Addazio and BC's defense can and will take the most well-calibrated and efficiently executed offenses on earth and drag them into the muck.  Of course, BC can't score any points either, so.  I put it here for one reason and one reason only: it's the Cibola game.  This is the moment in "The Stand" when Trashcan Man, having traversed half of America on foot, finally arrives in Vegas and sees a public fountain.  Parched and sun-scarred and incoherent, he plunges in and drinks and drinks and drinks the water.  Then he pukes it all back up.  That 7:30AM kickoff is there so we can replicate that moment.  We've been so deprived of college football that mainlining the stuff, even of a dubious quality, sounds just perfect. This game will maximize your opening Saturday viewing time up to a robust eighteen consecutive hours or so, if you can stay awake through the end of Northern Arizona @ Arizona State.  Glorious. 

7. #5 LSU vs. Wisconsin - Saturday September 3rd, Lambeau Field: Green Bay, WI 3:30PM Whether or not Leonard Fournette will be completely healthy by the time this one kicks off makes it iffy in this slot, but there's a lot to enjoy here nonetheless.  LSU poached the Badgers' excellent D.C. Dave Aranda this offseason which, give that man some SEC-caliber defensive talent to work with and good lord!  Also, Wisconsin has made a living as a pretty good team the past several seasons, but we all saw what happened when they opened last year against 'Bama.  The carnage will be similar although probably more entertaining simply because games that involve Les Miles are by default more entertaining than other games that do not.  Especially if Fournette isn't 100%, I'll be interested to see if the Tigers have finally put together an offense capable of matching their defensive ferocity.  Also, Lambeau Field is a pretty cool and storied place to play and/or watch football, so there's that.

6. #10 Notre Dame @ Texas - Sunday September 4th, Royal Texas Memorial Stadium: Austin, TX 7:30PM This will be more for answering a few salient questions than about an actual enjoyable football experience. 1. Can Notre Dame keep their QBs healthy and will they have success without Big Bill Fuller to throw it to?  2. Can Texas find a QB at all?  Like, one competent human who is better equipped than Tyrone Swoopes (still reportedly in the mix for a Week 1 start!).  Charlie Strong salvaged his 5-7 2015 season by beating Oklahoma and Baylor, but if they get rolled by the Irish like in last year's 38-3 opening debacle, his hindquarters are gonna start feeling mighty toasty mighty quick.  Tune in to see how it all shakes out.

5. Western Michigan @ Northwestern - Saturday September 3rd, Ryan Field: Evanston, IL 12:00PM I deeply considered Arizona vs. BYU in Glendale for this spot, but WMU playing the 'Cats has just slightly more potential for complete and outright chaos.  (Ags concurs with this decision, so you know it's correct.)  Northwestern won 10 games last year!  Their only two regular-season losses were against Michigan and the UNDEFEATED (never forget) Iowa Hawkeyes.  They were and are a pretty damn good football team, and they are welcoming the Western Michigan Broncos, who are coached by a legitimately and delightfully insane human being in P.J. Fleck. (ROW THE BOAT!!!)  By the way, WMU had the gumption to play Michigan State, GA Southern, and Ohio State last season, and didn't look as over-matched as you'd think, no matter what the final scores say.  They also won by two touchdowns over a decent Middle Tennessee State team in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl.  I have no idea what will happen in this game, but it's going to be joyfully anarchic and I will enjoy it and you should too.

4. #20 USC vs. #1 Alabama - Saturday September 3rd, AT&T Stadium: Arlington, TX 8:00PM Poor Clay Helton, he didn't ask for this.  USC is still loaded with NFL talent in the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson, but a first-time (first-time full-time, anyway) head coach trying to put on a good Week 1 showing against 'Bama will likely result in tragedy.  Nonetheless, this is a marquee brawl between blue-blood programs, and well worth your attention, if only to witness how inexorably Nick Saban can continue reloading and recalibrating the Crimson Tide into the behemoths they always are.

3. #18 Georgia vs. #22 North Carolina - Saturday September 3rd, Georgia Dome: Atlanta, GA 5:30PM Kirby Smart's debut leading the Dawgs is already a little more interesting than we UGA fans might like.  It's unclear whether RBs Nick Chubb or Sony Michel will be fully healthy for this game, and equally uncertain whether Governor Kirby will opt to let true freshman QB Jacob Eason off the chain to start.  On the other side of the ball, Georgia lost a lot of their defensive front this year, which is going to make stopping UNC's stupendous RB Elijah Hood a problem.  Point in UGA's favor: Carolina gave up roughly 1 trillion rushing yards to a depleted Baylor team running an archaic offense in their bowl game last year.  Counterpoint: The Heels were very, very good in 2015, and came within one botched officiating call of a last-minute drive shot at knocking off Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.  I believe this game will ultimately come down to whether UNC's Mitch Trubisky can make good on the promise he showed in garbage time last year at QB.  If so, Carolina will open up the season in a more dignified fashion than last year's loss to South Carolina.  If not, the Dawgs will kick off yet another year with a promising win on the way to a perfectly cromulent 9-3.

2. #3 Oklahoma vs. #15 Houston - Saturday September 3rd, NRG Stadium: Houston, TX 12:00PM Remember that WMU/Northwestern game from earlier?  You'll want to put that in a split-screen with this if you don't have access to multiple TVs at noon.  Houston burned everyone's houses down last year as the best Group of Five team by a considerable margin.  They're squaring off against the Sooners in a "neutral site" game that will probably determine the trajectories of both teams this season.  If Oklahoma loses, well, you lost to a Mid-Major, and your repeat playoff chances are already dusted.  If Houston loses, well, you couldn't beat an elite program from a Power Five conference, maybe you're not as great as we thought.  First off, the Cougars lost a lot of skill talent from their vicious 2015 ground game, which would be a problem for any program.  However, I'm not prepared to bet against Tom Herman after the miracles he's already performed.  On the flip side, Oklahoma has Baker Mayfield back at QB, one of the most dynamic and exuberant play makers in the game last year.  They also return Samaje Perine at running back to create a very problematic backfield for opposing defenses.  This is probably the Week 1 game with the most far-reaching and interesting ramifications.  However ...

1. #11 Ole Miss vs. # 4 FSU - Monday, September 5th, Florida Citrus Bowl: Orlando, FL 8:00PM AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOO BARN F***** BURNER, Y'ALL.  CHAD KELLY! QUINCY ADEBOYEJO! DAMORE'EA STRINGFELLOW! ... VS. ... DALVIN COOK!  DERWIN JAMES! WHOEVERTHEHELLFSUSTARTSATQUARTERBACK!.  HUGH VS. JIMBO!  This is going to be a hootenanny powered by cheap grain booze and pure psychosis and fans going "WOOHOO Y'ALL WE GOIN' TO DISNEYLAND TO START THE YEAR!"  Over/Under on fights between these two fanbases started in a fast-food or casual-dining establishment in Orlando that weekend: 10.5.  In all seriousness, though, this is going to be a really great game between two excellent yet slightly erratic top-flight teams.  Gawd, I can't wait.   ***

Happy Week 1, Y'all. 

***Honorable Mention:*** #2 Clemson @ Auburn - Saturday, September 3rd, Jordan-Hare Stadium: Auburn, AL 9:00PM.  Just because Clemson is a blast to watch and this is gonna be a tremendous, incalculable ass-whoopin'.