Sunday, September 30, 2012

Scattershot: Desultory Musings From Around College Football

Welcome to this week's edition of Scattershot, in which we delve into the Pac-12's logic puzzle, nonexistent defense, uber-existent offense, and the foundations of dominance showing the tiniest microfractures here and there.  As James Brown (the Godfather of Soul, not the NFL halftime personality) would say, "Let's get it on the good foot!!!"

And Speaking Of Good Feet ...

Middle Tennessee State did unspeakable things to Georgia Tech's defense, courtesy of one of the most dominant rushing performances I've ever witnessed.  Some kid name of Benny Cunningham, a senior who until yesterday had only racked up 91 yards and two scores all season, pummeled, dodged, juked, and smoked the Yellow Jackets to the tune of 217 yards and 5 touchdowns.  We tend talk about running styles like we talk about famous guitar players; usually guys have a distinctive signature in the way they operate.  Conversely, Cunningham was like a studio musician out there, adapting to whatever the situation demanded and playing the style necessary for success.  When he needed to hit the hole running north-south, he did it.  When he needed to change directions behind the line or make ankle-shattering cuts in space, he did it.  And when he needed to run to contact and pick up extra yards by lowering his shoulders and putting DB's on their asses, he did that too. 

Last week I wrote that Al Groh's position might be in danger after Tech's awful second-half defensive showing against Miami.  I brought the subject up to a die-hard Jackets fan at work and he vehemently disagreed, arguing that Groh's schemes were full of good ideas but the defensive front gets zero push and you can't expect the secondary to cover forever.  He's not wrong, but at some point you have to start scheming to fit your personnel.  Groh has seemed unwilling to change things up, and yesterday he again failed to make adjustments that might have helped.  (Like, oh I don't know, a novel concept such as stacking the box when you're getting run over like a raccoon on I-75 South.)  I can't entirely fault Tech's D for being exhausted since their offense coughed up four turnovers which swung some critical moments, but I still say the Al Groh hot seat watch is permanently in effect until further notice. 

The Parker Posey Game Of The Week

Here's everything you need to know about yesterday's West Virginia/Baylor game:

Geno Smith (WVU): 45/51, 656 yards, 8 TDs

Nick Florence (Baylor): 29/47, 581 yards, 5 TDs.

"All right you little freshmen bitches ... AIR RAID!!!" (it's at 0:53 in the clip.)

Also, last week I wrote the following about Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke (55/79, 730 yards, 5 TDs): "I'm fairly certain no other signal caller will come close to topping that performance this year."  Whoops. 

Standardized Testing

After Washington pulled off a stunner on Thursday night and upset Stanford 17-13, the PAC-12 resembles nothing so much as one of those annoying logic questions they used to ask on the SAT.

Washington beat Standford.  Stanford beat USC.  All three teams have only one loss. 

Yet the AP Rankings have USC #13, Standford #18, and Washington #23 (despite the Huskies' only loss coming at the hands of LSU.)

To reiterate: the national rankings are the exact inverse of the who-beat-who hierarchy. 

Q. So who's the best team in the conference?

A. Oregon.  Duh.   

Scrappy Is The Watchword

Speaking of the Ducks, both they and the Crimson Tide got more than they bargained for yesterday. Relatively speaking, of course.  I mean as much as teams like that can bargain for anything besides absolute obliteration of their opponents.  But they did resemble the heavyweight champ taking a few good shots in round one from his lesser challenger, and realizing that he has to respect that right hook at the very least.  Up against Ole Miss and Washington State respectively, Oregon and 'Bama weathered physical and feisty first halves from clearly inferior teams.  The Rebs and Cougars didn't flinch in the face of the two best teams in the nation, playing with fervor and abandon, hoping to make up in reckless arrogance what they lacked in talent.  Of course, inevitably, they got stomped.  Oregon did their gonzo-blitzkrieg routine in the third quarter to put the game far out of reach for Wazzu, who trailed by only 3 at the half.  Alabama had a tougher row to hoe, as the Rebels' vicious defense limited them to a mere 6 second-half points.  Luckily for the Tide, their own D came up with three picks and held Mississippi to 14 total points, enough for a comfortable victory overall, despite the bumpy ride.  It wasn't exactly a red letter day for the Rebels and Cougars, but even causing us to think "hey, they could make a serious game out of this" for a half was impressive in itself.     

DEE-FENSE!!!  DEE-FENSE!!!  Dee ... oh. 

The SEC East's two juggernauts showed some flaws yesterday on D.  Georgia gave up a ridiculous 44 points to Tennessee, including 20 unanswered that gave the Vols a 2nd-quarter lead.  To be fair, there were some mitigating circumstances involved in this ugly, ugly win.  Tennessee is actually a decent team this year, and Tyler Bray is no slouch at QB.  Also, it appeared early on that Georgia had some slight difficulty adjusting to the return of defensive standouts Alec Ogletree and Bacari Rambo.  Though it seems counterintuitive, getting those two excellent players back threw Georgia off a little from their established defensive rhythm until they settled down.  Those caveats aside, the Dawgs' crystal football aspirations won't allow for this kind of defensive showing against anybody else for the rest of the season, especially next week at South Carolina. 

Speaking of the Gamecocks, 17 points doesn't seem like a terribly egregious tally to cough up ... unless it's against Kentucky.  Yes, Steve Spurrier's team clamped down when it mattered and pitched a shutout in the second half, but they were behind 17-7 to the pathetic Wildcats at intermission which, frankly, can't happen if they want a legit shot at the Georgia Dome in a few months.  We'll see which team can most effectively recalibrate over the week when they meet next Saturday.

Your Weekly Notre Dame And FSU Are Relevant Again! Update 

The Irish moved up a spot to #9 in the rankings despite not having played a game this week, thanks to Stanford's loss to Washington.  They'll have the opportunity to justify the move when they play the Cardinal in South Bend on October 13th.  

The 'Noles swapped places with LSU to wind up at #3 after a 30-17 victory over South Florida.  It was s good win, but their uptick in the rankings probably had more to do with the fact that the Tigers gave up 22 points to something called "Towson."  Presumably this is an institution of higher learning which also fields a football team, but I honestly had never heard of them.  Oh well, they gave Les Miles a good fight.  I salute you, random CAA school.

Enjoy the NFL games.  Happy Sunday.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Out Of Hand

I think maybe I ought to call it quits on this whole writing thing.  I'm obviously wading around in the shallow end of the talent pool.  They say brevity is the soul of wit, but to adhere so closely to that axiom while simultaneously expressing the views of millions in a single tweet ... well, Brandon Spikes is clearly a superior wordsmith to this humble author.  After last night's debacle of a Patriots/Ravens game capped yet another comically horrible Sunday of scab NFL officiating, the Pats' linebacker managed to capture the feelings of players, coaches, media, and fans in just 137 eloquent characters:

"Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they're needed Back at work !!!! #BreakingPoint"

Breaking point, indeed.  You hear that, Roger Goodell?  The guys on the field are tired of it.  They are tired of milling around for five minutes, their muscles tightening up as their concept of flow and game pace disintegrates, while these pathetic officials parse out what exactly the hell just happened.  They are tired of obvious penalties being missed and phantom ones being called, and then walked off for arbitrary and incorrect amounts of yardage.  Mostly, they are tired of this game they play and love being warped into something uncertain, unrecognizable, and unpleasant.  Spikes wasn't the only one to violate the NFL's Gestapo "don't criticize the officials" edict, either.  Several other players, either obliquely or flat-out, voiced their increasing displeasure with the shoddy refereeing.  Which is fine so long as it remains that way.  They'll shoot off at the mouth or on their Twitter accounts and you'll fine them for it and life will go on.  But what happens when and if "breaking point" becomes something more than a Twitter hashtag? 

In 2004, I watched in horrified fascination as Ron Artest charged into the stands of The Palace at Aubrun Hills and punched a fan, the result of a game-long buildup of tension and frustration and a beer launched from the stands that showered Artest as he lay on the scorer's table.  It was one of the most appalling moments in sports history, and it did significant damage to the NBA, lending credence to every "thug" stereotype that, for whatever reason, people still bandy about today.  Now, Ron Artest is a certifiable crazy person, and it's a fair bet that most players in both the NBA and NFL would never, ever, do something legitimately violent no matter what the provocation.  But that was one bad game and a cup of beer.  Extrapolate the frustrations the players feel now, compounded game after game after game, then couple that with the mental and physical toll of an NFL season.  Is it so hard to imagine a player in week 15, his body aching and his nerves shot, fed up with too many bad calls and longer-than-necessary games, finally snapping?  If this situation doesn't get fixed, sooner or later a scab ref is going to blow a big call in a crucial game, and someone on the field is going to haul off and deck him for it.  Then where will your precious "integrity of the game" be?    

If the players are about ready to lose it, the coaches aren't far behind.  Bill Belichick was the one who actually grabbed an official at the end of the game yesterday, but it could easily have been any of the other coaches whose teams suffered under the incompetence of the scab refs.  If, for instance, the Vikings had lost yesterday, Leslie Frazier could have waylaid official Ken Roan for those two (TWO!!!) illegal challenges he went ahead and granted to Jim Harbaugh's 49ers.  Truthfully, it could have been every coach in the league, because all of them had egregiously horrible calls go against their teams at one point or another.  I'm no Belichick fan, and I even feel like yesterday was a little bit of karmic payback for every 50/50 call the Pats have gotten over the past decade.  And yeah, grabbing an official, especially when the league issued a perfectly clear warning about such behavior, was not the brightest move.  That being said, the man wanted to know whether the game deciding play was going to be reviewed, and the officials ignored him.  They were told by the league to walk away whenever they were being hassled, even if that hassle was a simple inquiry as to the process which determined the outcome of a game against a division rival.  To my way of thinking, Belichick didn't go far enough.  He should have cornered the guy and demanded an explanation.  If Roger Goodell doesn't want the refs questioned, he should bring back refs that no one (most of the time) needs to question.  Frankly, I don't care anymore about "respecting" the officials, who have done nothing to deserve it.  They have no mandate or authority whatsoever.  Understand, I don't blame them; they were simply unprepared to cope with the game at the highest level, but the league is clearly uninterested in policing them, and somebody's got to.  Bill Belichick will probably be fined and possibly be suspended, but he was entirely justified.  This isn't the last time something like this will happen, either.  If Jim Schwartz can get this worked up over a handshake, Lord only knows how furious he'll be over a bogus pass interference call. 

And then there are the fans.  Staying with the Baltimore/New England game, last night featured a full minute of this from the crowd at M & T Bank Stadium.  If you've ever been at a sporting event where the home team was the victim of a dubious officiating call, then you know there are graduated levels of fan reaction:

1. Scattered boos: A called third strike or a questionable off sides penalty, etc. in non-crucial situations.  Low-level disgruntlement and general homerism.  

2. Scattered boos + profanity and epithets aimed at the official in question: An iffy call in a more critical situation, or in a game against a traditional rival.  Your team got seriously hosed.  Mere boos aren't enough and you need to lob some invective and shockingly specific sentiments at the people responsible.

3. Coordinated chants in the spirit of the game.  Sometimes, you need to call out an official for a particularly atrocious penalty, but you do this acknowledging that these things happen to every team from time to time.  As such, you perform a spirited (yet ultimately fueled by bleak and grudging humor) group rendition of either: the rhythmic "REF YOU SUCK" chant, or the sing-song  "BUUUUULLSH****T!" chant (the latter of which is sung to the interval of a doorbell ringing, a minor third.  Just sing it out in your head like a doorbell and you'll know what I mean.)  This is designed to voice your frustration while alleviating any real anger through collective release and the understanding that everyone else in the arena is upset too. 

4. Soccer Hooliganism/Last night.  Listen to that audio again.  Those fans aren't commiserating with one another; there's no wink-wink, it's-all-part-of-the-game joyous indignation in that sound.  That's a minute-plus of "BULL-SH*T!!!!" chanted fervently and with a primal edge.  There is real malice behind it; a pathological sense of anger and indignation.  This is mob mentality, and it's scary stuff, and the league should be worried about it.  Can you imagine if last night's game had been played in, oh, say, Philly?  Yeah, that would have gone well.  This is the kind of thing that is one step away from a drunk fan rushing onto the field and assaulting a referee.

All of which doesn't even mention the gamblers.  A pissed-off fan is nothing compared to a guy who bets a few grand on Dallas covering the spread and then must watch that money evaporate into the ether via a bad officiating call that negates a touchdown.  Mark my words, there is at least one person out there who routinely lays heavy timber on the outcomes of NFL games who might become unhinged after a few weeks of this abject nonsense screwing with his cash flow.  Will this push them to do something drastic?  I'd like to think otherwise, but I wouldn't bet on it.

#BreakingPoint.  It's not just the tag line to an isolated tweet, it's a brief and accurate summation of how everyone involved with the NFL who isn't an owner or league official feels today.  As Jackie MacMullan wrote earlier today: "Enough.  Enough, enough, enough."

Just as I was finishing this post up, the Monday night Packers/Seahawks game was also decided on a horrific call.  Seattle's Golden Tate just "caught" a last-second touchdown heave to give the Seahwaks the win.  Problem: Packers' safety M.D. Jennings clearly came down with the ball.  The review, which the officials saw from multiple angles, somehow failed to overturn the obviously erroneous call.  (Not only did Green Bay make the interception, but Tate clearly commited offensive pass interference on the replay.)  Everything is in disarray.  Tirico and Gruden are sitting here killing the refs, who for some reason are still trying to figure out if an extra point needs to be kicked.  The Packers, rightfully disgusted by this whole travesty, have left the field, as have most of the officials who now seem disinterested in the whole affair.  Oh, wait, here come the Packers, putting eleven men on the field for the extra point, dutifully playing out the end of this farce.  This is horrible.  I feel dirty even watching it, but it's a morbidly appropriate end to this pathetic weekend.  

The difficulty is that, like millions of Americans, I'm still watching.  Steve Young told us last week, in no uncertain terms, what we instinctively knew but didn't really want to hear or believe: that so long as our eyes are on the TV and our wallets are emptying for RG3 jerseys, the NFL could care less about any of this.  Sadly, he was not wrong.  They don't care.  At all.  

One final incident worth noting.  We have heard for the better part of two seasons about how player safety is paramount.  If you make illegal hits, if you endanger your fellow players, the consequences will be steep and swift.  The players' health matters; the integrity of the game is oh so very, very important.  This is what we've been told.  And yet.  Yesterday Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey ran a crossing route through the end zone and got absolutely, illegally speared by Steelers safety Ryan Mundy as he attempted to haul in a pass.  On the replay, Heyward-Bey was clearly unconscious before he even hit the turf.  He was immobilized and rushed to the hospital, from whence he was released today with a concussion and a strained neck. 

No flag was thrown on the play, nor have we heard anything from the league about fining or suspending Mundy.

To reprise that Baltimore crowd last night: BULLSH*T!!!!          

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Scattershot: Desultory Musings From Around College Football

After careful consideration, I realized that only a crazy person would attempt to replicate last week's Scattershot feature for both college and pro football (plus busy nights in other sports) every week, as evidenced by my work schedule preventing me from writing anything else between then and now, much less multiple features.  I hereby declare Scattershot to be college football only from here on out so I don't feel guilty when I can't keep up with more than that.  Now let's get to yesterday, a chaotic yet declarative affair wherein the national championship picture began, with alarming suddenness, to take on its first real vestiges of clarity.

Forgetting Bobby Petrino

I have to think the 2012 Razorbacks are the first team in history to deeply lament the absence of that scumbag-weasel-boy excuse for a coach.  He's a terrible human being entirely devoid of concepts like "morality" and "accountability", but the man knows how to run a college football program at a level that new coach John L. Smith simply can't fathom.  (Honestly, it must be tough to concentrate on little things like running practices and assembling game plans when you're broke.)  That guy's chair must be feeling pretty toasty 'round the hindquarters by now.  Last season, the Hogs were darkhorse SEC contenders.  This year has been a cavalcade of ever-escalating humiliations, the latest of which was yesterday's 35-26 loss to Rutgers.  Rutgers!!!  Sheesh.  And it's not like Arkansas played all that poorly.  Tyler Wilson threw for 419 yards and 3 TDs, though the two picks probably didn't help.  Really, 26 points ought to be enough for any SEC team (except the Wildcats) to dispatch a Big East opponent, but the Razorbacks were simply too disorganized defensively to hold it together.  Rutgers' offensive line for the day: 397 passing yards, 128 rushing yards, 5 TD, 0 turnovers, 39:02 time of possession.  Dear ACC, we'll trade you Arkansas and Kentucky for FSU and Virginia Tech.  Whaddaya say?  - SEC fans.  

Al Groh's Days Are Probably Numbered

Speaking of humiliating losses, defensive collapses, and hot seats, Georgia Tech's DC did himself no favors yesterday.  At home against Miami (FLA), the Jackets' defense played as pathetic and sloppy a game as Bobby Dodd Stadium has seen in quite some time.  In the interest of fairness, I'll exonerate Groh from one of the first-half touchdowns Tech allowed, the result of an extra 'Canes possession via Orwin Smith's inexcusable self-induced safety on a kickoff return.  It's tough for any defense to get a stop when they literally just left the field and have to go back out with zero rest.  However, the second-half disintegration perpetrated by the Jackets' D yesterday (not the first time such a thing has happened under Groh) was positively atrocious.  Tech had stormed back from a 19-0 deficit, scoring 36 unanswered points behind a stellar effort from Tevin Washington.  When your offense gives you that kind of performance, you have to stand up and reciprocate.  Instead, the Jackets coughed away the lead in the 4th quarter, allowing the tying score with a mere 0:27 left on the game clock.  Then Tech stalled out in OT and allowed The U to kick a field goal for the win.  Somebody has to be 42nd in the country in points allowed, but with their offense, Georgia Tech should be better.  Al Groh might want to spruce up his resume sometime soon.  I'm just saying.   

Breakout Player Of The Week

We learned last year that TCU quarterback Casey Pachall can sling it with the best of them.  Yesterday solidified the emergence of Pachall's most electrifying target, sophomore wideout Brandon Carter.  Carter had 5 catches for 128 yards and a touchdown against Virginia, lifting his season numbers to 20.7 yards per reception and 4 scores.  At 5'11" and 161 lbs, the young receiver probably needs to bulk up a little to play with more physical corners, but his sure hands and zippy athleticism portend good things in the future.    

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright ...

And by "burning bright" I mean "crystal football aspirations going down Hindenburg-style in a disastrous ball of flames."  Yesterday's iteration of the Big Stripey Cats Bowl pretty much obliterated LSU as a serious 2012 contender in my mind.  I know they're still undefeated, and they're still 3rd in the AP rankings, and they get 'Bama at home this year, but Les Miles' team showed zero evidence of being a top-flight program yesterday.  In fact, they looked downright pedestrian; possibly even below-average.  While they did indeed put another "W" up in the win-loss column, they had to eke out a "never should have been necessary" nail-biter fourth quarter to do it.  This against Auburn, whose sole victory this season came when they toppled that fearsome opponent known as Louisiana-Monroe.  By a field goal.  In overtime.  Yes, I wrote last week about how LA-Monroe has a sneaky-tough team this year, but to reiterate LSU's dubious position: The #2 team in the country barely beat a team that barely beat a team from the Sunbelt Conference.  Also, LSU put up a profoundly dismal 12 points against the 61st-ranked defense in the country.  It's early days yet, but I'm declaring the boys from the bayou D.O.A.  They are, dare I say it ... paper tigers.  (Sorry.  /hangs head in shame.  /stands in corner.)

Wait ... What?

I don't care what Aaron Murray, Denard Robinson, Matt Barkley, or anyone else does for the rest of the year, the Quarterback Single-Game Performance of 2012 Award belongs to Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke.  The Division I record-setting outing for the sophomore QB was as follows: 55 of 79 (69.6 comp %) for 730 yards and 5 touchdowns.  I'm fairly certain no other signal caller will come close to topping that performance this year. 

Afwac.  AFWAC!!!!!

For the first half of yesterday's late game, it looked like Arizona might be poised to pull off a mammoth upset.  'Zona held Oregon's patented speed-freak option offense to just thirteen points through the initial 30 minutes of play, and appeared to be one big offensive possession from making a game of it.  Then the Ducks came out in the second half and did what they do best, sowing chaos and entropy among the opposing defense and generally exploding any normal sense of pace or context.  It was a prototypical Chip Kelly whiz-bang display, all stutter and flash and bright propulsion, and the Wildcats simply had no answer.  Hanging up 36 2nd-half points is something not many team can do, regardless of how weak the opponent.  When Oregon finds that extra, ludicrous gear, I'm not sure any team in the Pac 12 can stop them, including USC.  Early indicators point to an Oregon-Alabama title game.  Which reminds me ...

4-0.  Outscoring opponents 168-21.  Un.  Freaking.  Stoppable.  'Nuff said. 

Welcome Wagon

Missouri and Texas A&M migrated to the SEC this past off-season because they wanted more prestigious conference affiliations.  Thus far, both teams remain unranked and are 0-3 collectively against the conference.  This just how you pictured it, fellas?

Your Weekly Notre Dame and FSU Are Relevant Again! Update

The #10 Irish completed a sweep of Great Lakes State teams, knocking off the Wolverines 13-6 in a defensive-minded tilt in South Bend. 

The #4 'Noles, meanwhile, survived an early 14-0 deficit to prevail in an offensive shootout with Clemson, 49-37. 

Both teams are undefeated and in the Top 10.  

Tattoo U 

Ohio State is 4-0 and nobody cares.  

Upset Of The Week

Kansas Sate pulled a "Trading Places" routine by taking out Oklahoma, moving from #15 to #7 in the AP Poll, while the Sooners tumble from #6 to #16 as a result of the loss.  Oklahoma looked poised to sneak into the national title mix with a few breaks, but they'll be lucky now if they can sniff the Big 12 Championship game.  Meanwhile, K-State have set themselves up to build on last year's superb showing.  If the 'Cats can take care of business against the surprising number of ranked teams left on their schedule, they can start building a mini-dynasty within their conference, and mayyybbbbee on a grander stage if some improbable things fall in their favor.    

OK, I'm wrapping this up to devote my full attention to the Falcons game.  Happy Sunday!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Scattershot, Sunday Edition: Desultory Musings From Around College Football

I'm uncorking a new feature here at Arena Apothecary called "Scattershot."  As often as possible, I'll present a varied, wide-ranging list of thoughts and opinions whenever a big day happens in a given sport.  (No promises, but I'll try to get one up every Sunday for college ball, every Tuesday for the NFL, and any morning after a big night of MLB or NBA action.)  This is the inaugural edition.  Enjoy.  

Well, No One Saw THAT Coming ... Except All Of Us.  

There were a lot of whuppin's put on inferior competition by the big boys this weekend, but one in particular stands out.  Alabama's 52-0 deconstruction of Arkansas wasn't exactly unexpected, it was just a grim spectacle and a letdown.  Before the season, everyone had this circled as a pivotal game, Arkansas being the only team in the SEC West remotely capable of upending the 'Bama/LSU power dyad.  The Hogs were ranked #8 in the polls heading into last week's ostensible gimme game against Louisiana-Monroe, setting up what should have been a top-10 match-up yesterday.  Then Tyler Wilson suffered a serious concussion, the Razorbacks faltered, and the Warhawks pulled off a stunner victory in OT that sent Arkansas tumbling all the way out of the AP Top 25.  (By the way, anybody with LA-Monroe on their schedule for the remainder of the year probably shouldn't sleep on them, as they nearly replicated last week's upset yesterday against Auburn.)  With Wilson still not medically cleared to play and Arkansas still reeling from Bobby Petrino's sudden and ignominious departure, the Hogs went from the role of darkhorse SEC contender to potential spoiler to chaff for Nick Saban's grist mill in record time.  Barring something truly outlandish, the Tide will roll unchecked right into November 3rd's showdown with LSU, where once again the SEC West Champion will be crowned. 


A hearty and heartfelt "welcome back!" to FSU and Notre Dame.  As someone who grew up in an era when the 'Noles were a dominant force and the annual Florida-FSU battle often carried National Championship implications, I am of the opinion that football is more enjoyable when FSU is good.  And so it warms my heart to see the team from Tallahassee prominently ranked in the polls again.  Granted, their schedule has been front-loaded with the squishiest baking tray full of cupcakes imaginable (Murray State, Savannah State, and Wake Forest), but they've done exactly what a dominant team is supposed to do, outscoring their opponents 176 to 3.

As for the Irish, it looks like this may finally be the year when all the predictably grating "is Notre Dame back this season?" chatter is answered in the affirmative.  Brian Kelly's team strolled into East Lansing and put a 20-3 beatdown on #10 Michigan State yesterday to stay undefeated on the year.  The Irish do have some formidable challenges left on their schedule, but they appear up to the task, playing with a poise and balance heretofore absent in recent memory.  If Notre Dame is still going strong when they meet the fifth-ranked Sooners on October 27 (quite possible), I'll be ready to buy in.  As with FSU, college football is better when the Irish are legitimately in the discussion.

Let's Talk About USC.     

In case you're utterly oblivious, Standford pulled off the upset of the week, defeating the vaunted USC Trojans 21-14.  Here in Atlanta, one of the personalities on AM 680's "Rude Awakening" morning sports show is a fellow named Perry Laurentino.  Perry is a Steelers fan from Scarsdale, NY (read: band-wagoning douche with no sense of geographical loyalty) and a proud USC alum (read: insufferable douche with no sense of reality.)  He is also among the most sanctimonious and enervating people ever to blemish the airwaves, and as far as I can tell he knows nothing whatsoever about sports.  Basically, he's Colin Cowherd with a Bronx accent but (mercifully) without the national exposure.  Anyway, since right around July, which is when we start discussing the upcoming college football season in Georgia, Perry has trumpeted two semi-related proclamations at every available opportunity: that USC will end the SEC's run of consecutive crystal footballs this season, and that pretty much everyone in the rest of the country will be overjoyed by this development.  As to the former, the Trojans spent last night getting manhandled in the trenches on both sides of the ball by freaking Stanford.  (They are now ranked #13 nationally and sit at the bottom of the Pac-12 South.)  Care to hazard a guess how they'd fare against LSU or even Georgia?  Regarding the latter, it's been my experience that much of the rest of the country doesn't care all that much about the SEC dominating college football.  Oh, I'm sorry, does "rest of the country" translate into "the Pac-12 plus Boise State" in your vocabulary?  In that case, and only that case, you're correct.  But you don't hear Texas or Ohio State bitching about SEC bias.  They know the way to assert themselves is to go out and win games, and they don't sit around whining about the rankings otherwise.

(Programming note for David Dickey and the 680 brass: I deeply enjoy listening to Rude, Sandra, Leo, and B-Finn.  Please stop ruining my morning commute and get this a-hole off the air.  Thanks.)

California Love.

Don't look now, but there's another team in Los Angeles, and they're playing damned good football so far.  UCLA is 3-0, including a win over (#16 at the time) Nebraska in week 2 that vaulted them into the AP Top 25.  They're fifth in the country in rushing, and they've outscored opponents by an average of 20 points per game this year.  No, I don't think the Bruins are serious contenders, maybe not even in the Pac-12, but they look a far cry from the 6-8 doormat we watched last season.  Keep an eye on Jim Mora's squad, your best bet for a conference darkhorse/spoiler out west. 

Coming To A Conference Near You.

Like Nuke LaLoosh, Pitt apparently wanted to announce their presence with authority.  (Albeit more successfully than ol' Nuke.)  In a preview of their move to the ACC in 2013, the Panthers lowered the boom on perennial conference power Virgina Tech, bludgeoning the Hokies 35-17.  Frank Beamer's traditional calling card of tight defensive execution was simply not in evidence, as Pitt QB Tino Sunseri threw for 283 yards and 3 TDs, and the ground game added 254 yards and 2 more scores for good measure.  Pitt's defense, too, looked fairly stifling, chalked full of energy and aggression.  Paul Chryst's stint as the Panthers' head coach was off to an abysmal 0-2 start, but if yesterday's display was any indication, the ACC will have a serious new contender in the Coastal Division next year.   

Peach State Problems.

Though both Georgia and Georgia Tech won their games yesterday, they have to be just a tad worried on the defensive side of the ball going forward.  The 'Dawgs and 'Jackets coughed up 20 apiece to Florida Atlantic and Virginia, respectively.  Allowing clearly inferior teams such a generous helping of points may not have posed any real danger this week, but it could potentially be disastrous when they run into real competition.  On October 6, UGA will clash with South Carolina and Tech will meet Clemson, both on the road.  If they don't get their defensive houses in order, it will make those already-heavy games very difficult to win indeed.  (Yes, I know Georgia was missing several key defensive starters that they should have back by then, but even the second stringers shouldn't have let the lowly Owls hang twenty on 'em.)

It Didn't Matter, But ...

For a game with absolutely no implications for anyone outside of the schools involved, one of the most compelling and entertaining contests of the weekend came via a shootout twixt a pair of basketball powerhouses.  Just watch these highlights from UNC vs. Louisville, it's good stuff:

Bring It On Home To Me.

West Virginia is 2nd in the nation is passing yards per game (386) and fourth in points (55.5).  Sure, the defense is suspect, but with their relatively navigable schedule and a few (monstrously lucky) breaks, they could be right in the mix come December.  Just something to keep in mind.  P.S. - scheduling people, can we get these guys to play Oregon sometime soon?  Just think of the joy inherent in watching those two offenses trade punches.  Get back to me.

Enjoy the NFL games, and I'll hopefully see you Tuesday.  Thanks for reading. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Asleep At The Switch

On June 9th, I got to Turner Field very, very early.  This wasn't just some random day game, after all.  You can meander down to The Ted any home-game afternoon and have a fine time marinating in Budweiser and peanut shells and scorching Georgia sunshine.  This day was different, special.  This was Sid Bream Bobblehead Giveaway Day, and I'd be damned if I wasn't one of the first 20,000 through the gates fortunate enough to claim one.  Just look at that majestic representation of one of the most iconic moments in Atlanta sports history.  It's a thing of beauty.

"The Slide" took place 20 years ago this October, when the National League's power structure looked an awful lot like it does now.  By record, the five best NL Teams in 1992 were the Braves, Pirates, Reds, Cardinals, and Expos.  If you take the Nationals to be a metaphysical continuation of the 'Spos,which to a degree they are, then things haven't changed much.  (Or rather, they've changed a great deal and then changed back.)  Granted, it's not a perfect analogy.  The following things are different than they were in 1992: the Dodgers and Giants are also formidable contenders this season, which was not at all the case back then.  The advent of the Central Division and subsequent team realignment has resolved the cartographic farce of the Braves somehow belonging to the NL West.  Oh, and none of the '92 players are still active.  (I checked, Jamie Moyer didn't pitch a single game in the majors during the '92 season.) 

Not only did I get that sweet bobblehead on that Saturday back in June, I got the rosy feeling that comes from watching your team play excellent baseball.  That was back when Atlanta was only a game back of the Nats in the NL East; when Michael Bourn was raking; when Brandon Beachy and Jair Jurrjens were in the rotation; when the Braves looked great.  Things look a little less rosy today.  After muddling through a mini-swoon through the second half of August, the Braves came out smoking like a Craig Kimbrel fastball in September ... or so the record said.  The team took 9 of its first 11 games this month including five straight, and everyone in the ATL breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Maybe we wouldn't catch Washington in the divisional race, but we were going to the postseason without a hitch.  There would be no repeat of the long, precipitous decline that capped last year's campaign in agonizing fashion.  Not this year, not this team.  This team had an identity.  This team had a deep and healthy bullpen.  This team had a shot at a lengthy October run.  The problem is that the swoon never really ended.

Atlanta's offense can also be added to the list of things that are different than they were in 1992.

 From the 1st to the 13th of September that season, the Braves scored 76 runs and allowed 48.  In that same date span this year, they've scored 37 runs and allowed 41.  This month, Atlanta has been collectively outscored by a pair of teams struggling to remain relevant in the wild card race (Phils, Brewers) and a pair of teams who barely qualify as big-league clubs at all (Rockies, Mets).  Aside from an 11-run outburst against New York on the 8th, the Braves have failed to put up more than three runs in a game for ten days, and that against some of the lowliest pitching in baseball, no less.  On the year, the team OPS has been a very respectable .718.  This month it's .643.  And I don't even want to contemplate our Stranded RISP rate, which has been truly atrocious since the proverbial calender page turned. Calling the recent offensive production anemic is doing a disservice to anemia.  The Braves don't lack red blood cells, they lack blood period.  They lack life.  This team is sleepwalking through the deep stretch drive, and the situation will become untenable if they don't wake up soon.

It's not that we're headed for another closing-day loss meltdown.  I hope.  It would be almost impossible to drop out of both wild card spots with so few games left.  I hope.  (Although we said much the same last year at the beginning of the month.)  It goes back to the well-worn concept of being hot at the right time.  Two weeks ago, the Braves were scorching and looked ready to roll into the playoffs firing on all cylinders.  Now, the bats are doing a convincing rendition of John Cage's "4:33" and the pitching is coughing up five-run innings every other game.  Staggering into the postseason in a collective torpor is rarely the recipe for success.

For that reason, tonight feels big.  Back in the Ted after a discouraging road trip.  Against the upstart Nationals, a team we'll likely have to battle again in the postseason.  Against Ross Detwiler, who has semi-owned some of Atlanta's premier players this season, to the extent that Fredi Gonzalez is sitting Michael Bourn and Brian McCann tonight because they just can't seem to hit the guy.  And against the tide of inertia and entropy that has enveloped the team of late.  If we can't swim (or at least doggy paddle with gusto) in this game and the ensuing series, it's going to be sink, undertow, and out to harsher waters right quick.

This is it, boys.  Time to flip the switch.  Play ball.  


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fantasy Etiquette: 5 Barroom Rules.

It's that time of year.  Football, and its fantasy counterpart, are officially underway, and thus begins another season of mostly reasonable people turning into obsessive sociopaths because Roddy White didn't get as many targets as they hoped last week.  There are a myriad of podcasts and message boards and the KSK mailbag just churning out an endless slew of fantasy advice.  Matthew Berry is ubiquitous, God help us all. 

This is all more or less fine by me.  Personally, I've never felt any urge whatsoever to engage in fantasy sports.  I'm perfectly content watching and analyzing the games on their intrinsic merits, and I don't want or need any additional context to clutter that experience.  Also, and I often wonder how people live with themselves in these cases, I don't ever want to be in the position of rooting for a player I hate simply because he was the best guy on the board when my pick came around in a fantasy draft.  Drew Brees is one of the three best QB's in football, but he also plays for the Saints, the Falcons' most bitter rivals and divisional foes.  If he's on the board while I'm drafting, I'm a certified idiot not to take him, right?  But here's the thing: I don't want Drew Brees to have a successful season.  Ever.  I want him and the Saints to falter and flail and be ultimately lousy, every year, forever, amen.  Fantasy poses the risk of conflicting with my sacred duty as a fan to despise all those opposed to my team; of diluting my inalienable hatred.  And lord knows we can't have that.  So yeah, no fantasy for me.  But I do understand and appreciate the appeal.  You get to play GM and muck around with rosters and, if everything goes right, pick up a heap of bragging rights and some cash to boot.  And it probably does lend a little gravitas to the random Vikings-Bucs game that no one outside of Minneapolis or Tampa Bay cares even an iota about if you have someone from either team on your roster.  I'm all for people enjoying anything having to do with football.  But.


Fantasy owners of America, we need to have a little chat.  We need to establish some ground rules so that I can be around you, on gameday, in public, and not want to beat you senseless.  (Ed. Note: if you are someone who plays fantasy without going full-bore psycho about it, feel free to stop reading and go tinker with your starting roster for today.) 

Because every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday of the season, there are those among you who ruin sports bars across the land by insinuating a grating and wholly unnecessary dosage of fantasy into the proceedings.  Frankly, when your fake team's considerations become more meaningful and enjoyable than the actual games themselves, your priorities are way the hell out of whack.  Shady McCoy fumbles or the Colts' D gives up 4 touchdowns and it's a freaking zombie apocalypse for that drunk guy in the corner who is actually a Steelers fan.  People who have no connection whatsoever to the Ravens other than getting stuck with Joe Flacco as a fantasy quarterback suddenly become blithering, outraged idiots when Torrey Smith drops a pass.  The bar turns into a cacophony of cheers, profanities, and outright pandemonium as MJD saves one person's fantasy week, ruins someone else's, and the one Jags fan in the joint stares sullenly into his drink, contemplating the futility of existence.  I can't take it anymore.  Here are some fantasy-related behaviors that should be outlawed, in perpetuity, from occurring in bars. 

1. Laptop usage.  If you want to whip out your iPhone and check your stats for the day while a play is under review, or because you need to make a last-minute roster alteration, fine.  If, however, you spend more time glaring at your laptop and frantically refreshing the results of your nine leagues than you do watching actual, real, glorious football, you should be evicted from the premises immediately.  We are here to get gregariously drunk with friends and scream at 56" TV screens, not get antisocially drunk alone and stare at a 12" Dell Powerbook. It's a bar, not a f***** coffee shop.  Put the computers away.

2.  Appropriate Reactions and Decibel Levels.  Histrionics, be they celebratory or agonizing, are reserved for fans and their teams, not your handcuff fantasy back.  You know the axiom that nobody wants to hear about your fantasy team?  That's not just a gentle reminder not to bring it up in regular conversation; it applies to the barroom as well.  If your real, actual team blows a fourth-quarter lead in week 12 against a divisional opponent, you may pound your fist on the bar, scream obscenities, flip tables, smash glasses, immediately knock back five shots of vodka, or indulge in any other acceptable expression of grief and anger that occurs to you.  Likewise if they just broke off a 70-yard TD run, only, you know, you'll be much more gleeful while you break things.  Good on you.  HOWEVA, if you're wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey and a Jets cap, do not yell at the TV if Jay Cutler takes a sack.  Glower into your beer, mumble a silent curse to the gods, whatever, but keep your fantasy whining to yourself.  NO ONE CARES.

3.  Discussion of stats shall be limited to real stats.  If you want to talk about how many rushing yards the Broncos' defense allowed last year or the Tom Brady's red zone completion percentage, by all means, let's nerd it out.  However, I don't care if a receiver's value is diminished because you are or are not in a PPR league.  Any fantasy statistic that has no relation (or only an oblique relation) to what actually transpires on the field is not fit for discussion.

4.  These players don't owe you jack.  Nor, for that matter, do their coaches.  If the Texans give Ben Tate a goal-line carry instead of Arian Foster, thereby costing you precious fantasy points, guess what?  THEY'RE PLAYING TO WIN THE GAME.  They are making what they think are the best tactical decisions for their teams.  (Note: questionable if Andy Reed or Norv Turner is involved.)  When MJD sat down on the goal line a few seasons ago to keep the clock running a seal a win for the Jags, he apologized to his fantasy owners.  This was endearing and funny and totally unnecessary.  He made a heads-up play and put his team in the best position to win.  That cost you fantasy points?  Boo freaking hoo.  They're trying to put real points on a real scoreboard and make sure they have more than the other team at the end of the day.  It's bad enough how pathologically attached and entitled we are over our hometown teams, I have to draw the line at pathological entitlement in fantasy.  It's ridiculous.

5.  When in doubt, shut up.  Self-explanatory, right?  Good.

Happy football!!!