Friday, November 25, 2011

Rivalry Weekend: Pure, Old-Fashioned Hatred.

A few weeks ago, we took my dad to the Georgia Tech/Clemson game as a birthday gift. One might wonder how a guy from Cumberland, WI came to be a Yellow Jackets fan, but as dad tells it, they were the hometown team when he moved to Atlanta, and that was that. Anyway, it was Homecoming Weekend against a Top-10-ranked conference rival; a heavy game for 'Tech.

"Big Honkin' Deal" certified, if you will.

If we'd been doing things right, we would have hit The Varsity beforehand for some artery-clogging eats. Unfortunately, we left a little late, traffic was bad, and we ended up pulling into the parking deck without a ton of time to spare. (On the way in we passed a drunken, older guy wearing a Clemson hat and a New England Patriots hoodie. Explain that combination. We should have run him over.) We forked over the $20 fee, parked, and headed out into a brisk Southern autumn evening.

The route from the parking deck to the stadium took us across an overpass that was staked out as prime tailgating real estate. Scalpers snaked their way through the crowd: "Got One!" "Need 2!" "Four tickets! Who needs tickets? Y'all need tickets?!?! Got four!!!" Under team-logo-bearing canopies that had probably been there since well before dawn, people yammered excitedly at each other over the hiss of grills and the clanking of beer bottles in a steady hum of drawled joviality. Portable radios blared the local pregame show on AM 680: "The Fan" and generators powering TVs and digital receivers puttered merrily away. The collective aroma was a complex, delicate blend of cheap beer, good bourbon, charred meat, and intoxicated humanity.

And that was just the prelude.

We left the tailgaters behind and hung a left on Techwood Drive, Georgia Tech's Fraternity Row. Pandemonium. Alcohol-fueled students, alumni, and fans were everywhere, forming a loose migration towards the stadium lights. Those not attending the game, young men wearing blazers and ties in Yellow Jackets colors and women in dresses too short and thin for the October air, were milling around on frat house porches and lawns, tall boys, cocktails, and fifths of Jack or Jim fused to their hands. Lynyrd Skynyrd's cover of J.J. Cale's "They Call Me The Breeze" blasted from one open window. Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down To Georgia", (just "Devil Went Down" in GA shorthand), piped furiously from across the street. Here and there, clusters of orange and purple indicated the presence of The Opposition. The parade floats, retired from their earlier duties, had become makeshift dances floors/jungle gyms. The frat house lawns were already trashed, and it was still a half-hour until kickoff.

Georgia Tech's Homecoming Weekend may not rival schools like Alabama or Ohio State for sheer volume, both in the sense of population and of decibel levels, but the rowdiness-per-capita quotient must be pretty damned close.

Through that press of lunacy, we made our way to Gate 3, and into the granite majesty of Bobby Dodd Stadium At Historic Grant Field.

Our seats, it must be said, were pretty choice. Row 5, upper deck, right corner of the home end zone. The place was humming with the sort of disorganized electricity you always find in a stadium 20 minutes before kickoff; excitement and anticipation mingled with the confusion of last-second concessions stand and bathroom runs, people checking their tickets and navigating towards their seats, yelling into cellphones trying to locate their friends. After some trial-and-error, we found our numerically designated spots on one of the aluminum benches that line the upper deck. Mom went for a hotdog and popcorn. Dad and I took in the scene.

The view from that end of Bobby Dodd at a night game is something to behold. Atlanta's skyline juts up from behind the jumbotron at the far end of the field, creating the kind of backdrop that makes you wish you really knew how to wield a camera. You get the sense that the city has grown up around the stadium, which is exactly what happened. (Whenever we drove downtown when I was a kid, Dad would point out the old, blue-domed Hyatt Regency hotel that was the tallest thing in Atlanta when he moved here in 1967. That blue dome has since been dwarfed by the IBM Building, the Peachtree Plaza, and any number of other structures that, out of necessity, have had to grow upwards rather than outwards.)

In a stadium packed with rabid fans, I should make special mention of the 'Tech student seated a few rows behind us. She was obviously being fueled by some amalgamation of booze and possibly chemically-induced hyperactivity, and she had a nonstop, profane motormouth like ... like a drunken sailor amplified through a 500-watt amp. Now, there's nothing in the world wrong with a little drunken heckling. Heck, it wouldn't be a good game without it. But this was on another level. She did not stop screaming things at the players on the field ever. All night. I was honestly equal parts annoyed and impressed. Lungs of iron and a voice box of burnished steel, man.

You already know what happened on the field. The Yellow Jackets crushed Clemson 31-17, totally derailing the Tigers' BCS Title hopes and temporarily keeping Tech's own shot at the ACC Championship Game alive.

As the clock wound down, the PA announcer pleaded for orderly behavior. Stadium security positioned themselves around the periphery of the field, presumably to deter or prevent the ecstatic throngs from rushing onto it.

They never stood a chance.

It was the first time I'd ever witnessed a full-bore field storming live up close, complete with goal-post decimation and the whole bit. I don't know if they use inferior camera angles on TV or what, but the view from the in-person upper deck closely resembles an eschatological microcosm. The 100 yards of verdant turf which seemed to allow endless space for the deployment and maneuver of 22 men only moments before is swallowed nearly instantaneously. It is trampled by jubilant feet as they rush to be as near to the players as possible, and woe betide anything in their way. Pity the grounds crew.

Our walk back to the car was essentially an amplified replay of our experience coming in. Drunken optimism had been replaced by drunken swagger, and the party on Techwood had either devolved or elevated, depending upon your point of view, into something far more dynamically unhinged. Amidst the chaos, two guys slumped in rocking chairs in front of one frat house, raising their glasses and yelling happy, drunken nonsense to all passers by. Literal ramblin' wrecks, if you will. The game was through, but the night was young, and the revelers were getting their second (or possibly fifth) wind.

That's how it is when you come into a home game as significant underdogs against the number 5 team in the country and thrash them on Homecoming Weekend.

The buildup is intense. The aftermath is insanity.

And everything I just described is a mere distillation, a parlor trick, compared to what happened in College Station on Thanksgiving, and what's going down today in Atlanta and Auburn and Gainesville.

Rivalry weekend is the gift that gives every year, reliable as the mail and death and taxes. These games matter regardless of who's sitting where in the BCS rankings or the conference standings or any other external factors, really. The old syaing about winning the battle but losing the war is irrelavent if this is the battle you win. And Texas/Texas A&M, Georgia/Georgia Tech, 'Bama/Auburn, and Florida/FSU are unquestionably the biggest, baddest, noisiest, craziest rivalry games played every year. Those are the big four. Or big three, now that the Longhorns and Aggies are on a (hopefully) temporary break due to realignment bitterness. Oh, I know LSU's trouncing of Arkansas yesterday technically held the most import vis-a-vis the BCS, but the Golden Boot game never seemed to pack the concentrated wallop of the true in-state rivalries, historically speaking. (The only non-state-rivalry matchup that delivers this consistently is Georgia/Florida. It's not billed as "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party" for nothing.)

No offense meant to Ohio State/Michigan, UCLA/USC, etc., but they simply don't grow up with a bone-deep football jones. (I'm not saying it's 100% healthy. Southerners have a pathological relationship to the sport that can, if manifested too strongly, vault from eccentric obsession to total lunacy. See: the oaks at Toomer's Corner.) Point is, football is different in the south. It just is. And today is different even from our normal level of fanaticism, because today is the one-day-a-year rapture that will fuel conversations, debates, and smack talk for the other 364.

Happy rivalry day, y'all!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Vote Dale In 2011!!!!

The Major League Baseball Hall Of Fame ballot has looked awfully crowded of late. It's not actually brimming with more important or memorable players than in the past, of course, but it seems that way to me. My perception is being colored because within the past few years names have started cropping up on that ballot that I can remember watching live and in the moment. There's a huge difference between a player whose achievements you know purely from an anecdotal or statistical standpoint, and one whose most transcendent moments you can reflect on because you witnessed them as they happened.

Now that I'm seeing the same people vying for Cooperstown votes that I was excited to pull out of a fresh pack of Tops when I was a kid, I note that there's a tremendous fondness that accompanies the guys who are inextricably linked with your formative years of fandom. You get the urge to endorse their Hall Of Fame candidacies; even the guys you loathed during their playing days because they were involved in the demoralization of your team. (I forgive you, Jack Morris and John Olerud.)

And, of course, your bias inevitably swings hardest towards players who were special to your hometown team. If I were a member of the BBWAA and had a vote to cast, I would do my absolute best to suppress those feelings in the name of integrity, but since I'm not, let me take a moment to exhort those who determine Cooperstown's membership: vote Dale Murphy in.

Murphy's first ballot was 1999, making this his 13th year of eligibility. If a player has not been elected after 15 ballots, he is no longer a candidate for the vote, (though he can still be elected by the Veteran's Committee, but that could take many more years), which means the clock is ticking for ol' Dale. Allow me to make his case in three parts.

A. Achievements and stats on the diamond: While his career numbers may not seem Grade-A phenomenal in hindsight (the most glaring problem: a .265 BA), Dale Murphy in his prime was a force. He had a lifetime .815 OPS, six seasons of 30+ homers, and a 7th in which he hit 29, retiring just shy of 400 total dingers (398). Murphy earned back-to-back NL MVP awards in 1982 and '83, making him only the fourth outfielder in Major League history to accomplish that feat. The only other multiple-MVP not currently in Cooperstown: Roger Marris, who ought to be there too. As for Murphy, The rest of his litany of on-field honors reads a s follows: 7 All-Star appearances, 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, and a partridge in a pear tree.

True, Murphy's career retrospective suffers from a lack of longevity. In Rob Neyer's words, he "got a late start and suffered an early end." And yes, I know his totals pale in comparison to the gaudy numbers of many who came after him. I know his last six seasons are a statistical Scarlet Letter to HOF voters. Rarely have anyone's production and durability fallen off a cliff quite so spectacularly as Murphy's after he turned 32. We're talking Wile E. Coyote, here. Given those years of sudden and inexplicable decline, I can absolutely understand why the bleak final impression they left might negatively color the BBWAA's minds, but during his sublime apex from 1982-1987, Dale Murphy was as good a ballplayer as anyone else in the league. That level of greatness, however briefly extant, merits a plaque in Cooperstown, or at least better consideration than Murphy has been granted thus far.

B. Beyond the dugout: There have been very few men in the history of sport who have exemplified class, dignity, and basic goodness quite like Dale Murphy. A devout Mormon, a man who walked the walk of humility and service in the face of stardom, Murphy was the antithesis of everything we seem to lament about modern celebrities. There were charities, of course. The Make-A-Wish Foundatioin, The March Of Dimes, The American Heart Association, and a host of others. What set Dale apart were the extras. One of the most beloved athletes in Atlanta history, Murphy had a column for years in the Atlanta Constitution in which he responded to fan mail, always with warmth and humor. He was soft-spoken and cordial, kind and welcoming, to everyone he encountered. He always had time for the fans, for the city, for whoever needed him.

To baseball's credit, this did not go unnoticed. Murphy received MLB's Lou Gehrig Award, given to "the player who best exemplifies the spirit and character of Brother Lou Gehrig, both on and off the field ... to acknowledge an individual player’s outstanding commitment to both his community and philanthropy," in 1985. In 1987, he was one of Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen and Sportswomen of the Year, and in 1988 he received the Roberto Clemente Award, awarded to the player who "best exemplifies sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team." When people use the phrase "ambassador of the game," they mean guys like Dale Murphy.

Obviously, it's open to interpretation and debate as to how much (if at all) one's off-field behaviors and personality should influence Hall Of Fame consideration. I can only say that if anyone's candidacy were to be granted a "good-guy" bump that might make up for a not-quite-as-great-or-sustained career, Dale's the guy.

C. Resonance. Atlanta sports were, for the most part, beyond terrible in the 1980s. Our supposedly "professional" football team was so awful that it's not dignified to even discuss. I'm fairly certain the Georgia Bulldogs, or even the Yellow Jackets, could have beaten the Falcons 8-out-of-every-10 times. (Sadly, that's only half a joke.) We didn't have a hockey team anymore since the Flames had moved to Calgary. The Hawks were equal parts fantasy and frustration. We were in the heyday of 'Nique and Spud Webb and Doc Rivers, but it was fairly evident that they weren't making the NBA Finals as long as Larry Bird was alive and playing basketball. The punishment The Hick From French Lick and co. dealt us every season was miserable and humiliating. Our only respite was in the joy of watching 'Nique's pyrotechnic dunks on a nightly basis. Which, admittedly, was pretty awesome.

And then there were the Braves. There is no adjective sufficient to describe the pitiful state of our baseball team in those years. You'd go to a game and here things like: "tonight's attendance: 5,138." People were ... unenthused, to put it politely. But just as we could take a little solace and a lot of pride in 'Nique's jaw-dropping talents in The Omni Arena, we had Dale down at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. People cared because of Dale. He was all we had to cling to; this incredible player whose every at-bat or play in the field was galvanizing. Fans have a history of revering two kinds of players: superstars and "hustle guys." When your most exemplary "hustle guy" also happens to be one the the best players in the game, when he refuses to phone in a single inning in even when it's late August and the team is 27 games out of first, when he suffers every loss with quiet dignity and comes back tomorrow and hits another moonshot or makes another incredible catch at the wall, that's when you have something special. That's what Dale Murphy was. Something truly special.

It still makes me sad to think that we traded Dale to the Phillies right in the middle of the 1990 season, the year before everything turned around and the Braves began their unprecedented run of dominance. I know that the trade facilitated us putting together some of that worst-to-first '91 squad, but it still seems terribly unfair that he gave his all for us time and again, and didn't get to enjoy any of the gravy years. And then, in an extra cruel twist, Dale was traded away to the Rockies traded him right before the Phillies made their own run in 1993. Dale Murphy never got to play in a World Series.

Which is why, if there's any karma or justice out there to be had, for everything he was and everything he did on and off the field, Dale Murphy ought to be in the Hall Of Fame. It's not a rational argument, but I still think it's the right one to make, and the right ballot to cast.

Vote Dale in 2011.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tim Tebow: A Parable Of Confusion.

"Players win and winners play. Have a lucky day."

Let me get this out of the way up front: I'm pretty much neutral on the topic of Tim Tebow. I'm not invested in his success or failure as an NFL player. I find his overtly religious displays a little grating, sure, but it's his right as a citizen of this country to practice freedom of speech and expression, and I'll take Tebow's brand of publicity over Chad Ochocinco's any day. This is not a referendum on his beliefs or his character.

Now that I've covered every conceivable disclaimer angle, let's get down to it!

Back in September, when the Broncos had Kyle Orton under center and Tebow was still riding pine behind Brady Quinn, I wrote a lengthy rant imploring Denver to either play him in a system that utilized his skill set or trade him to a team willing to do so, because I wanted to see exactly what Tebow could or would be in the NFL. After starting five games this season, only three of which have been played with a modified option system that plays to Tebow's strengths, I ... I still have no idea. As far as I can see, the haters, detractors, praisers, and deifiers are all pretty much simultaneously correct, incorrect, and every little shade of grey in between.

Thursday's game against the Jets did nothing to demystify the convoluted perplexity that is Tim Tebow. In fact, it perpetuated the confusion with gusto. My brain hurt just trying to put it all together.

Let's recap what we've learned thus far about everyone's favorite hot-button, lightning-rod QB.

Point: Tim Tebow wins football games. Denver is 5-5 and a half-game out of 1st in the AFC West. With Kyle Orton under center, they were 1-4. With Tebow? 4-1, including two phenomenal 4th-quarter comebacks. Scoreboard, baby.

Counterpoint: Those four wins? Miami (needed OT to beat the second-worst team in football), Oakland (respectable, especially since the final score was 38-24), KC (meh), and the miraculously self-imploding J-E-S-T, J-E-S-T, JEST, JEST, JEST!!! (I'm not dyslexic; the Jets are just a joke ... get it?) Also, my high school's JV team could win the AFC West.

Point: Tim Tebow's teammates believe in his grit and determination!!! They know he's awesome in the clutch!!! Did you hear those post-game interviews?!?! Seriously, though, it was interesting listening to all the soundbites. Von Miller: "No matter how many interceptions he throws, no matter how many touchdowns he scores, that's Tim Tebow and I'm going to ride with him to the end. I hope he shut up a whole bunch of critics today." Champ Bailey: "[The media] don't see what he has on the inside. Yeah, he might not be the greatest passer. But give him a chance at the end? I've never seen anything like it." Eric Decker: "He gets better as the game goes on. He really does." The locker room has apparently had a collective "Come to Jesus Moment." Pun fully intended.

Counterpoint: They wouldn't need to stage these admittedly awesome-to-behold comebacks if Tebow played at a level above sub-mediocre for three quarters (and change) every game. And they wouldn't have had last night's opportunity if Mark Sanchez wasn't a doofus and the Broncos' defense hadn't made him pay for it. In addition, the outcome looks totally different if Tebow's awful, ill-advised screen pass to Eddie Royal goes for the safety it should have instead of the 8-yard gain it became. In further addition, while his teammates may, by their own admission, be playing their butts off for the guy, John(s) Fox and Elway are certainly not enthused by the prospect of continuing to deal with him. Fox is being as diplomatic as he can in interviews, but he'd clearly rather be working with someone else. And did you see Elway's reaction after Tebow's touchdown run last night? There has not been less enthusiastic applause anywhere. Ever.

Point: Tebow presents an interesting thought: can you win in the NFL in 2011 without a "legitimate" quarterback? Based on results, the answer is apparently yes. While conventional wisdom states that NFL defenses will eventually catch up to the option game and shut Tebow down, I'm not 100% sold on that point of view. Imagine a scenario in which a team truly commits to building a system around him. (It won't be Denver, but let's say someone does at some point.) If they called in Urban Meyer as a consultant and installed the Tebow-era Gators' offensive playbook, who's to say they couldn't be successful? Or give Paul Johnson a call. Georgia Tech destroyed a superior Clemson team this season based on solid defense and their unconventional, tightly-run triple option. Learn that, drill it in preseason, refine the nuts and bolts of that style to an intuitive level. Be sure to surround him with athletic hybrid backs and a solid defense and ... see where it takes you. Why can't that work at the next level? (Hell, the 49ers are 8-1 with Alex Effing Smith under center. Who says you need an elite QB to succeed in the NFL?)

Counterpoint: You, uh, need an elite QB to succeed in the NFL. So far, Denver has kept things close enough for Tebow to do his "miracle victory" routine. Given how terrible he's played through three quarters in most games, guess what happens when they run into elite offenses who hang up vast quantities of points no matter how good the opposing D is? Bad things, that's what. Eventually, you're going to need to throw the ball effectively to win in the playoffs, and he basically can't. Tebow's 2011 passing stats: 44.8% on Completions, 5.67 YDS per Pass, 78.4 Passer Rating. Those numbers would be fine if he were quarterbacking a team in 1936. Nowadays? Preeeeeeeeeetty crappy. Heart and guts and blah blah blah aside, you are absolutely screwed if you get into a shootout with an offensive powerhouse. John Fox even said as much. (Almost literally, in fact. Fox: "If we were trying to run a traditional offense, we'd be screwed.") Denver is winning now. They could win the AFC West and earn a playoff birth without too much difficulty, in fact. Beyond that? You'd be insane to trust a guy who can't really throw a football to win in January or beyond.

To sum up, I got nothing. Is he good? No. At least not in the modern sense of what a quarterback "ought to be." Does he win? Yes. At least under the current circumstances against non-elite opponents. Tebow is a walking, talking, possibly-miracle-working enigma. At this point, that's almost all we know.

Almost. We do know this: nobody in sports is more compelling or mandatory viewing right now. Commanding that kind of attention is rare in this day and age. Doing it without being either an elite superstar or a scandalized public figure? That might take an act of God.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fixin' Up The Shack.

You may have noticed that for the first time since I started including them, my usual top-of-the-post photo has nothing whatsoever to do with sports. That would be because this particular entry concerns the BCS, and a literal train wreck is the most apropos of accompanying images.

Yep, it's that time of year again, folks. Leaves are turning, temperatures are dropping, and we're staring at another infuriatingly cruddy set of hypothetical scenarios for the National Championship Game. Which of course is a misnomer for this farce of a "culmination" in which at least at least one team is guaranteed to be shafted by the capriciousness of moronic voters and an even more idiotic computer. Perception will become a very unfair reality. Somebody will be penalized for being and/or playing "the little sisters of the poor." Cries of outrage will be raised. And ignored.

None of which would be an issue if college football had, you know, playoffs.

Jim Mora's hilarious incredulity aside, how many more years are we going to keep griping about this before we fix it? Under the current rules, if Arkansas beats LSU next week, they're still not eligible for the SEC Championship Game by virtue of a ranking-centered tie-breaker. They could beat the #1 team in the nation, who also happens to be in their own division, but they still can't play in their conference championship? Sheesh.

How about this: barring a disaster, UGA will win the SEC East. What if the Dawgs beat the Tigers in Atlanta? Are they denied a shot at the crystal football because they had two early-season losses? What if LSU loses to Arkansas and Georgia both? Are they still granted consideration ahead of Boise State, Stanford, etc.?

What if Oklahoma State and Houston are the only two undefeated programs at season's end? For the sake of argument: Yes, their competition is relatively flabby. But they're destroying that competition, being that they're the two highest-scoring teams in the country and all. Is "strength of schedule", that old abhorrent phrase, really grounds to denigrate a flawless record and gaudy offensive production? (I say yes, but they'll kinda-sorta have a point if they're kept out of the Title game while one-loss-ers play. At least a little bit ... right?)

The names and mascots change, but we have these same stupid arguments every stupid season. The nebulous subjectivity of the whole process is maddening. Unlike a logical equation, we can't ever say, definitively, that X is greater than Y. We can only think it, and who's X and who's Y might vary from person to person, which is just ridiculous. Why don't we settle all of these questions like we do in every other sport, civilized or uncivilized, in every hemisphere on the planet? It's time.

Now before the clamor goes up about all the lost revenues from not playing bowl games, hold on a second. Howsabout we have bowl games that are playoff games.

I know that sounds insane, but just bear with me. Courtesy of USA Today, here's a listing of every scheduled bowl game for the 2011-2012 season:

(all ET)
Bowl Site Matchup
Sat., Dec. 17
2 p.m.
New Mexico Albuquerque Mountain West vs. Pac-12
Sat., Dec. 17
5:30 p.m.
Humanitarian Boise, Idaho MAC vs. WAC
Sat., Dec. 17
9 p.m.
New Orleans New Orleans Sun Belt vs. Conference USA
Tue., Dec. 20
8 p.m.
Beef 'O'Brady's St. Petersburg, Fla. Big East vs. Conference USA
Wed., Dec. 21
8 p.m.
Poinsettia San Diego Mountain West vs. WAC
Thu., Dec. 22
8 p.m.
MAACO Las Vegas Las Vegas Mountain West vs. Pac-12
Sat., Dec. 24
8 p.m.
Hawaii Honolulu Conference USA vs. WAC
Mon., Dec. 26
5 p.m.
Independence Shreveport, La. ACC vs. Mountain West
Tue., Dec. 27
4:30 p.m.
Little Caesars Detroit Big Ten vs. MAC
Tue., Dec. 27
8 p.m.
Belk Charlotte ACC vs. Big East
Wed., Dec. 28
4:30 p.m.
Military Washington, D.C. ACC vs. Navy
Wed., Dec. 28
8 p.m.
Holiday San Diego Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Thu., Dec. 29
5:30 p.m.
Champs Sports Orlando ACC vs. Big East
Thu., Dec. 29
9 p.m.
Alamo San Antonio Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Fri., Dec. 30
Armed Forces Dallas BYU vs. Conference USA
Fri., Dec. 30
3:20 p.m.
Pinstripe Bronx, N.Y. Big 12 vs. Big East
Fri., Dec. 30
6:40 p.m.
Music City Nashville, Tenn. ACC vs. SEC
Fri., Dec. 30
10 p.m.
Insight Tempe, Ariz. Big Ten vs. Big 12
Sat., Dec. 31
Meineke Car Care Houston Big Ten vs. Big 12
Sat., Dec. 31
2 p.m.
Sun El Paso, Texas ACC vs. Pac-12
Sat., Dec. 31
3:30 p.m.
Liberty Memphis Conference USA vs. SEC
Sat., Dec. 31
3:30 p.m.
Kraft Fight Hunger San Francisco Army vs. Pac-12
Sat., Dec. 31
7:30 p.m.
Chick-fil-A Atlanta ACC vs. SEC
Mon., Jan. 2
TicketCity Dallas Big Ten vs. Conference USA
Mon., Jan. 2
1 p.m.
Outback Tampa Big Ten vs. SEC
Mon., Jan. 2
1 p.m.
Capital One Orlando Big Ten vs. SEC
Mon., Jan. 2
1 p.m.
Gator Jacksonville, Fla. Big Ten vs. SEC
Mon., Jan. 2
5 p.m.
Rose Pasadena, Calif. BCS vs. BCS
Mon., Jan. 2
8:30 p.m.
Fiesta Glendale, Ariz. BCS vs. BCS
Tue., Jan. 3
8:30 p.m.
Sugar New Orleans BCS vs. BCS
Wed., Jan. 4
8:30 p.m.
Orange Miami BCS vs. BCS
Fri., Jan. 6
8 p.m.
Cotton Arlington, Texas Big 12 vs. SEC
Sat., Jan. 7
1 p.m.
BBVA Compass Birmingham, Ala. Big East vs. SEC
Sun., Jan. 8
9 p.m.
Go Daddy Mobile, Ala. MAC vs. Sun Belt
Mon., Jan. 9
8:30 p.m.
BCS title game New Orleans BCS No. 1 vs. BCS No. 2

I count 35 games up there, stretching from mid-December through mid-January. If we theoretically stretch the title game out to January 15 or so, it gives us five weeks to work with. So here's how we create a viable playoff system while still ensuring all that wonderful bowl-related revenue rolls in:

1. The AP Top 25 would become the AP Top 35, with 32 total teams making the playoffs. If we're letting 32 teams in, it ensures that every team from a "weaker" conference who goes undefeated won't have to watch a one-loss SEC or Pac 12 team in the title game and fume over it. Now, they could plead their case on the field. Hopefully, the ranking, voting, punditry and such around 35 teams would be sufficient meat for the writers to chew, even if they weren't determining the Championship matchup anymore. Besides, we need those people to whittle it down to 32. There are simply too many teams in college football to effectively handle a best-records-are-in system for the playoffs, so the subjective analysis of the polls has to remain as an element. When we're creating the bracket, we need some way to delineate decent 8-and-4-ish teams from crappy ones, right? And if your 8-4 team winds up # 33 in the rankings while somebody else goes to the playoffs, you should've won by more and lost by less, shouldn't you? The point is, the polls would still function, they'd just give us 32 playoff qualifiers instead of dictating every bowl matchup.

Besides being the playoff-determining engine, this system carries some ancillary benefits. Ten more teams now get to hold slots in the published rankings, granting visibility to ten more programs and providing better recruiting opportunities to previously obscure colleges. Not to mention that more rankings allows the TV networks and BCS schedulers to create more "ranked-opponent" matchups. Also, we would gain inherently added theatrics on the bottom end of the polls. Numbers 33 through 35 would be scrapping for a playoff bid, and numbers 32- through 29-ish would have to continue at a high level of play or risk dropping out of contention.

2. 32 playoff teams means 31 playoff games in the bracket. (16 round one + 8 round two + 4 round three + 2 round four + 1 National Title Game.) These would occur over the aforementioned five-week span, spread over Thursday and Friday nights and Saturdays until the brackets shrink enough to go squeeze every game into Saturday in Round Three. If the whole football-football-football-New-Year's-Eve-and-New-Year's-Day tradition proves sacred to too many people, we can obviously adjust the schedule to accommodate that.*

*Though I note that New Year's day falls on a Sunday this year. Did you see any bowl games scheduled for January 1st in that list up there? Nope. Even big-time NCAA bowl games aren't crazy enough to compete with the NFL, so I don't want to hear about the sanctity of college ball on New Year's. It's about cash and ratings, not "tradition."

3. Now, here's how we retain all the bowl revenue: Have every company who wants to sponsor a game bid on them, the same way corporations bid on naming rights for arenas. For example, instead of the BBVA Compass Bowl being between two at-large teams from the Big East and SEC, it would now be whatever playoff game BBVA Compass elected to shell out the cash to sponsor. If they can't or don't choose to spend a ton, maybe they get the round one matchup between the 14 and 19 seeds. Whatever game they get, they get their name and ads plastered all over it. Heck, we can even keep calling these games the "whatever bowls." They'll be just like bowl games from a sponsorship/revenue standpoint, only part of the larger playoff bracket as well. Same principles apply for every game on the docket: highest bidder gets the best matchup to associate with their brand. (ESPN could broadcast the BCS Playoff Bowl Auction every year. Don't you want to see the representatives from Meineke Car Care and Beef'O'Brady's furiously try to outbid one another for the rights to a "Sweet 16" game?)

Calm down, I'm getting to your concerns about logistics, tradition and such ...

4. Just like March Madness, nobody gets a home-field advantage. Whenever people argue about the rankings in college football, they always bring up that tired, overused, annoying phrase "on a neutral field." As in: "I think the Sooners would win that game on a neutral field," or, "We could beat the crap outta Auburn on a neutral field!!!" Oh, you could? Good. Then prove it. So that's where we do this, then. We'd even get some continuity with the current system, as the locations of the various games would not move from their current dots on the map. In other words, the Outback Bowl is always played in Tampa Bay, so whichever game becomes the Outback Bowl through the bidding process gets played in Tampa Bay. The Chick-Fil-A Bowl would still be in Atlanta, etc. You get the idea.

5. Since these games would now be determined by seeding, we're obviously doing away with things like "the Big 12 always plays the Pac 12 in the Holiday Bowl." Ask me if I care. The conferences as we know them now aren't going to exist in five or ten years anyway. Half of them are already misnomers via geography or the inability to count, for Pete's sake. Are we really going to be hung up on this? I hope not.

6. If Army, Navy, or Air Force don't make the playoffs, we use the 33-35 teams of the hypothetical AP Top 35 to provide them opponents for automatic bowl games. Because they're the service academies and we owe them that for the men and women they train to protect our country. (Dear BYU: you no longer get an automatic ride to the Armed Forces Bowl. Sorry, you are neither "armed" nor a "force." As a matter of fact, the Armed Forces Bowl will now be Army vs. Team # 33.) Anyway, this brings our total count of games up to 34. The 31 for the playoffs plus 3 potential service academy games. We're now only one game away from preserving every last one of the 35 currently-extant bowls.

So ...

7. The bowls that have long, prestigious histories (and that had names before every damn thing had a sponsor) retain those names and are granted places of honor in the playoff hierarchy. My thought: The Sun, Gator, Cotton, and Fiesta Bowls host the "Elite 8" matchups, and the Sugar and Rose Bowls host the "Final 4." The Championship Game remains as it is now, officially untitled as a "Bowl" and untethered to a specific city, but massively sponsored. The second-highest bidder in the land gets to host a runner-up game for third place. (Outback Bowl? Capital One Bowl? Who knows. It'll change from year to year.) Aaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnndddd ... with the "Runner-up X Bowl", we're up to the 35-bowl total we have now. So there.

To sum up my hypothetical future: We now have a five-week stretch of killer games culminating in a legitimate, indisputable national champion. We preserve field neutrality, bowl revenue, the service academy games, and the traditional import of the big-name bowls. Most importantly, we never have to listen to Boise State fans whine. Ever again.

Tell me why this can't work. I defy you to out-argue me. I'd destroy you on a neutral field.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Woah!!! Deadspin Just Broke

About 20 minutes ago, I idly hopped over to Deadspin to see what I could see, and found this article concerning an article on Tim Tebow, a comments section that exploded, and the ensuing online fracas twixt the World Wide Leader's moderators and the commentors who didn't appreciate having their posts deleted. As Deadspin notes, the "X > Tebow" meme began as a gag, but when the moderators started trying to control the situation, it turned into an all-hands-on-deck exercise in overwhelming the perceived oppressors. What they fail to note, either out of modesty or possibly lack of consideration, is their own, very hefty contribution to the mayhem.

It's no secret that one of Deadspin's favorite activities is ragging on ESPN in general and a good number of their employees in particular for their many failures, omissions, and sometimes downright dumb opinions. And, of course, many of Deadspin's readers share that less-than-flattering opinion of the WWL. Here's a cupcake-easy thought experiment for you:

What happens when an already insane situation involving ESPN and the internet is brought to the attention of a huge Deadspin readership who already don't like ESPN and have a chance to participate in the sinking of the proverbial ship?

This. (Scroll down to the comments section and behold.)

You can tell the Deaspin masses got involved because the comments suddenly became either purposefully debauched and offensive, vitriolic towards Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, and Skip Bayless, or contained other Deadspin memes like "Gregggggggggggggggg Easterbrook."

I've been staring at that comments section on-and-off for 20 minutes. This post is taking me twice as long to type as it should because my computer keeps slowing down to deal with the deluge. It's a monsoon of comments. A freaking web-posting tsunami. I've never seen anything like this. They're coming in too fast to even read. They've been moving at that clip for at least 30 minutes, and they don't show any signs of flagging enthusiasm.

The meme is X > Tebow. The full formula looks like this:

((X > Tebow) x MBI (moderators being idiots))^Deadspin = Holy %@%#!!!!

I just looked at it again. Still rolling. Snuck in among the gazillions of short, pithy posts explaining that X is, in fact, better or greater than Tim Tebow, this gem: "This. Is. Amazing!"

And it is. Viva La Revolution!!!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Locks, Stocks, & Barrels: The NFL At The Half.

Eight weeks in the books, and the NFL is swingin' like Satchmo and swaggerin' like Jagger. We've had our eyebrows raised by the sublime and the absurd, the hilarious and the tragic. We have a definitive grasp on most of the league by now, but their are still some teams providing utter confusion from week to week. (I'm looking at you, Baltimore and Philly.) In an effort to ignore the fact that the NBA should be starting tonight but isn't, here's an NFL post to keep me from crying like a small child. Unbelievably, this is the first time I've done a straight-up "power rankings" column, but there you go. Since everybody in the world churns these out on a regular basis, I thought I'd break the rankings up into groupings to give it a little zest. I present the inaugural Arena Apothecary "Locks, Stocks, & Barrels" column: NFL Edition.

Barrels. (Because you put barrels in the cellar.)

32. The Indianapolis Colts (0-8). Sheesh, you lose one guy and it's the NFL equivalent of "The Wasteland." The Manning-less wonders have been more frustrating than sad to watch this season. Except for drubbings at the hands of the Texans and Titans, and that grizzly episode of "Homicide: Life on Bourbon Street" they filmed two weeks ago, they've been stubbornly clawing away at opponents. They gave a decent Bucs squad more than it wanted, and just about pulled off the upset of the season against the Steelers. I would say they have at least a few winnable games on the schedule what with two tilts against Jacksonville and playing Carolina at home ... but rookies Blaine Gabbert and (obviously) Cam Newton are just better than Curtis Painter. Much, much, better. It's going to be particularly bitter for Indy fans when the Super Bowl rolls into town and they have to endure a week of parties, shindigs, and hoopla knowing they never even had a ghost of a chance. Oh well, there's Andrew Luck to look forward to, I suppose.

Unless these guys wind up with the #1 pick:

31. The Miami Dolphins (0-7). Just an ugly, ugly mess down in Florida. Like Indy, it's been maddening watching them play quasi-competent football, and then invent ways to lose seemingly out of thin air. They owned Denver two weeks ago, but somehow the Magical Healing Powers of Tim Tebow (by which I mean good 4th Quarter defense special teams play) burned them in OT. Then on Sunday, they had the Giants' number until it mattered. Then the only thing they had was failure. If I'm Tony Sparano, I make a play to keep my job by walking into the office tomorrow and saying something like this: "I know this isn't going well, guys, but the hot seat, really? Come on!!! My best offensive weapons are Reggie Bush and Brandon Marshall! I've got the 'choice' of Matt Moore, J.P. Losman, or Chad Freaking Henne under center, and you're thinking about giving me the axe because I can't win? Get me a damn QB. A real one. Either give David Garrard a call or let me run the table in the loss column for Luck, but don't act like this mess is all my fault." Sparano wouldn't be all that far wrong, either.

30A. The Denver Broncos (2-5). The problem is not Tim Tebow. The problem is that the alternatives to Tim Tebow are Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn.

30B. The Arizona Cardinals (1-6). The Cardinals put all their eggs in Kevin Kolb's basket, then he under-threw it and the eggs broke harmlessly on the turf, 15 yards behind Larry Fitzgerald.

29. The LSU Tigers and/or The University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Just kidding. Sort of. Have you seen those defenses? Have you watched Trent Richardson run? On a neutral field, I give them at least even odds against any team on this list so far.

28. The Saint Louis Rams (1-6). I can't get a bead on this team. I believe in Sam Bradford, although he's giving us cause to wonder if he's not "Stafford 2.0" in terms of staying fully healthy on a weekly basis. Steven Jackson is obviously a great running back. On Sunday their defense absolutely punished the Saints, holding them to 56 total rushing yards and forcing Drew Brees into two picks. And yet in the four previous games they scored a total of 27 points and gave up 112. (Of course, two of those were against the Ravens and Packers, so we can cut them a little slack.) The win over New Orleans showed that they're probably better than their record, but I can't put them any higher.

27. The Seattle Seahawks (2-5). Their only victories thusfar: against the pathetic Cardinals, and over the Giants in one of the two or three games per year when Eli Manning is simultaneously awesome (24/39, 420 yds, 3 TDs) and horrible (3 INTs). Both in that game and against the Falcons the week before, Seattle's passing game remarkably showed signs of life, but they put up a combined 15 points in the ensuing two games against the Browns and Bengals. Vaunted home-field advantage aside, this team doesn't have much of anything going for it.

Stocks. (Buy Low.)

26. The Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6). The Jags have played to the upper limits of their ability, and while that hasn't been good for many wins, they're showing flashes of potential every Sunday. MJD is still a challenge for defenders to bring down, and Blaine Gabbert could well shape up into a decent QB by season's end. If they can build intelligently around this foundation, and improve a sometimes-porous/sometimes-good defense, I can see them looking like a playoff team in a season or two. Right now, however, there are too many pieces missing.

25. The Carolina Panthers (2-6). I could watch Cam Newton play ball all day, every day. It's safe to say that A. nobody saw this kid coming and B. we're all really glad he did. Every snap has the potential for some manner of jaw-dropping wizardry. He's started a whopping 8 games and his highlight reel already looks better than some QB's entire careers. Yet his organization is holding him back; he doesn't have enough talent around him to engineer many wins, no matter what sort of crazy plays he's capable of. In short, he's the Blake Griffin of the NFL. That's not to say Carolina is devoid of other bright spots. I could watch Steve Smith and Greg Olson catch Newton's passes all day, too. They're in the process of developing that ESP thing, and it looks better every week. Trouble is, I can't stand watching Carolina's (non-Cam) running game or their terrible defense for five minutes.

24. The Cleveland Browns (3-4). Two of their three wins are against the win-less Dolphins and Colts, and the third is against Seattle. That barely qualifies as an NFL schedule.

23. The Minnesota Vikings (2-6). You really can't ever rank a team with All Day lugging the rock too far down the list, and Christian Ponder is looking like he might be a pretty good QB with more seasoning. The Vikes have two major problems: their division went and sneakily became the toughest in the league, and they'd be better off with a defense that wasn't giving up 25 points per game.

22. The Washington Redskins (3-4). I've been waiting for this team to realize that part of Dan Snyder's deal with Satan is that they aren't allowed to do anything substantial while he pockets his money. Their current three-game skid is a sign they've figured it out.

21. The Tennessee Titans (4-3). Other than Week 2 over Baltimore, they don't have a legitimate victory. (Colts, Browns, Broncos.) Matt Hasselback has been solid-to-very-good, but with Chris Johnson badly dogging it and Kenny Britt out for the year, they don't have the firepower to compete.

20. The Dallas Cowboys (3-4). If Rob Ryan can keep his yap shut and they can pull it together, the Cowboys' have a fairly soft schedule for the rest of the season.

19. The Kansas City Chiefs (4-3). Even accounting for that zany win over the Chargers last night, and the blowout of Oakland last week, I haven't seen a single thing all season to make me think KC is anything beyond a very slight road bump for all but the lowliest of opponents. I know, I know. They've won four straight and they ought to be commended for overcoming an 0-3 start to grab a share of the AFC West lead. Thing is: they've got the Pats, Steelers, Bears, Jets, and Packers all coming up. Barring a miracle, they're likely not finishing the year above .500.

Stocks. (Sell High.)

18. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-3). Hanging out in the NFC South means Tampa Bay most likely does not have a playoff shot this year, but they're continuing to evolve under the leadership of Raheem Morris, who has his team dialed in. There might not be a better, more cohesive locker room in the league. Also, Josh Freeman has completed 61% of his passes, and is maturing further as a general on the field.

17. The Philadelphia Eagles (3-4). The "Dream Team" may be dead as a moniker, but with the sheer volume of talent Philly puts on the turf every week, I have to think they're going to put it together and make a late-season run. That being said, they've proven this current iteration is not ready, at the instant I type, to sit at the grown-up table.

16. The Oakland Raiders (4-3). This is a provisional ranking. If Carson Palmer comes out of the bye week ready to play, then Oakland has enough assets in place to make the playoffs out of a lackluster AFC West. If, on the other hand, Palmer still looks like he did against the Chiefs, the Raiders are done.

15. The Houston Texans (5-3). I find it hard to take a team who starts Matt Schaub at QB seriously, regardless of their record or his stats. But somehow the Texans are atop an eminently winnable AFC South, and nothing suggests that anyone else in the division is prepared to take that away from them.

14. The Cincinnati Bengals (5-2). Maybe Andy "The Red Rifle" Dalton (best NFL nickname in years, people. Years, I say!), Cedric Benson, A.J. Green, and a Top-5 defense (3rd in PPG, 4th in yards) is good enough. After the Carson Palmer drama and parting ways with longtime star receiver Chad Ochocinco, this team looked far too fractured and discombobulated to salvage even a dignified season. Somehow, they're playing cohesive football. The only two L's on their record are comprised of one fluky-close affair with Denver and one low-scoring mess of a game with the suddenly relevant 'Niners. Then again, their schedule was front-loaded with an awful lot of tasty, tasty cupcakes. We'll revisit Cincy after they get through two games each with the Steelers and Ravens, but they look an awful lot like a legitimate contender right now.

13. The San Diego Chargers (4-3). Despite that horribly fouled-up gak job last night, it's still a team with Phillip Rivers under center. Norv Turner's San Diego m.o. has been slow starts and brilliant finishes. Given that the Bolts are out of the chute looking respectable, they'll be a force to be reckoned with if they play like they usually do down the stretch.

12. The Chicago Bears (4-3). They look good. They always look good this time of year. Matt Forte is a hurricane, and Jay Cutler is (mostly) playing well. The problem is a defense whose PPG-Allowed ranking is the same as I have them here. That and some very questionable offensive play calling keep them from a higher slot.

11. The Atlanta Falcons (4-3). After an shaky start, the Dirty Birds are playing the kind of football they ought to have been playing from jump. Gound-and-pound to set up Matt Ryan's passing to his considerable array of weapons. The Falcons are not the juggernaut many predicted them to be this year, but they're finding their feet. (Though Ovie Mughelli's season-ending injury will hurt.) Take a look at their second-half schedule: @Indy, Saints (who won't have had their bye week yet and are going to be tired), Titans, Vikes, @Houston, @Carolina, Jags, @Saints, Bucs. Realistically, they can/should win 6 or 7 of those games. 10-6 probably isn't going to win the NFC South, but it could be enough for a wild card.

10. The New York Jets (4-3). Good/Bad, Hot/Cold, meh. They are who they are. They're going to make some noise on the field. And via Rex Ryan's mouth. His swagger and bravado and such is ... well, it's entertaining as hell, but at some point you have to ask: you gonna back that up, big guy? Anyway, noise will be made. But not enough. It's probable they make the playoffs, but not much beyond that.

9. The New York Giants (5-2). I'm not at all convinced that these guys are built for the long haul, and they face an arduous stretch of games in the second half. (Pats, Niners, Philly, Saints, Packers, Dallas, Redskins, Jets, Dallas again.) However, it's pretty tough to ignore a team two games up in their division. They've been erratic at times, but the offense is putting up a very respectable 25 points a game, and the pass rush, per Giants' protocol, looks quasi-to-very dominant.

Locks. (For The Playoffs.)

8. The Buffalo Bills (5-2). This whole thing smacks of a very nice, inspiring story with an unpleasant ending. I think Ryan Fitzpatrick is a good guy to have slinging the ball around, and so far this team isn't flinching away from anything. But. They don't have the ammunition to keep this up. At least, I don't think they do. The record argues otherwise, and at some point you just have to wonder if a team has some good mojo in their corner. Buffalo might.

7. The Detroit Lions (6-2). I believe in this team. Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, the most fearsome defensive front in the league. They're not winning the NFC North, obviously, but they're potent enough to rattle plenty of windows in other teams' stadiums.

6. The Baltimore Ravens (5-2). The record is nice. The victories are commendable. But they seem to oscillate between good/great and mediocre. It may take the remainder of the season to figure out which it is.

5. The New Orleans Saints (5-3). Sure, they haven't looked great recently. It's a fair argument that Sean Payton's injury has affected this team as much as any injury has affected any team besides Peyton Manning's neck. Nonetheless, they still own the NFC South and they still have a huge chunk of talent. Never bet against Drew Brees.

4. The New England Patriots (5-2). Tom Brady is the best (active) QB in football. Unfortunately, the Pats lack anything resembling a competent defense, and currently rank 17th in points allowed. It's possible that Hoodie has lost a grip on his A-Game. Not likely, but possible.

3. The San Francisco 49ers (6-1). In a year where the passing game permeates and dominates everything, 'Frisco is tending to business on the ground, on both sides of the ball. Frank Gore has 675 yards and 5 TDs in 2011, and the 'Niners' D is allowing just 73 rushing yards per game. Jim Harbaugh has apparently gone nuclear with the whole "transforming the culture" routine. No one believed a team with Alex Smith under center could possibly be relevant, much less dominant, but here we are. Until events on the field prove otherwise, we have to respect the 'Niners.

2. The Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2). Honkie Kobe's squad is proving dominant this year. Sure, their defense is a little long in the tooth overall, but they still have more than enough savvy to make up for any degeneration in skills/athleticism. Every aspect of their game is solid-to-fantastic right now.

1. The Green Bay Packers (7-0). Like you were expecting anyone else in this slot. At this rate, Aaron Rodgers might want to change his touchdown ritual from "pantomime putting on the championship belt" to "pantomime hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Again." I know that gesture might be hard to distinguish from simply thrusting one's hands in the air, but he should hire a choreographer to make it work. Jeeze these guys are good. Yes, the D "needs" to step up. Yes, the running game is averaging just under 100 YPG, when over would make them seem better. I don't care. Watching this team is like watching a wrecking ball plowing through pudding most of the time. No team has come within a field goal of beating them all year, and they show no signs of slowing down. 'Nuff said.

Here's to the second half of the season, y'all. Yee Haw!!!!!