Friday, July 4, 2014

Going Out on Their Shield: Eulogizing the 2014 US Men's National Team

As the US Men's National Team was taking the field for the first of two extra time periods, I was sitting down in the director's chair at the news station where I work to direct the 6:00 p.m. newscast, a task that would require my full attention for the next 30 minutes.
I want you to imagine how difficult that might have been for me. I grew up playing soccer in the US. Small and slight of frame until I stopped playing because of injury, I was competitive with my cunning and speed. Soccer fit me and I embraced it with open arms. 
I remember the 2002 campaign, tearing out pages of player profiles from ESPN: The Magazine and taping them to my walls, waking up early in the morning to watch the opening match of the tournament against Portugal, being outraged at the no-call on the handball against Germany, but ultimately being proud that we punched above our weight class all the way to the quarterfinals.
I try to forget 2006, a disappointing foray that saw us get drubbed by the Czechs, heroically draw the Italians and then the first of a three-part installment known as the "Drama with Ghana." The first time I hung out with my now wife-to-be, we watched USA-England in 2010. I can recall the name of the ref that wrongly disallowed the winning goal against Slovenia (Koman Coulibaly) and as most Americans, remember exactly where I was and who I was with when Donovan's goal went in against Algeria. 
So try to fathom the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when my team, our team, was playing the most important 30 minutes of the 2014 campaign and I could not watch. I absorbed the action through disgusted grunts and muffled cheers from the room behind me, not really sure how we got here but knowing it was over, the result suspended in time for me in a strange sort of way. 
I shuffled through Wednesday like a mourner in denial. I knew we were done, but I needed to see the body in the casket. I needed closure. So last night I sat down on my couch, fired up the On Demand and watched all excruciating 120 minutes of the final match for the US men in Brazil. And what an exquisite corpse it was. 
Our boys "went out on their shield" as the ever-eloquent Ian Darke put it. The performance from Tim Howard has and will go down in history as one of the best performances by a goalkeeper in a World Cup and certainly the single most heroic performance by a member of the US Men's National Team. The man was absolutely extraordinary, under constant siege and stood on his head for 120 minutes and came out on the wrong end of the result. 
Even worse, Tuesday was undoubtedly Howard's last significant contribution for the US in a World Cup. He deserves a huge thanks from US Soccer and from the fans. What Tim Howard did on July 1, 2014 is one of the reasons we watch sports: for moments that transcend the game, to see things we previously had thought impossible. So thanks to Tim for a brilliant, shining performance that I will always remember. 
Prior to the tournament, I was among those who stated that we had to trust Klinsmann, but also muttered out of the side of my mouth that I did not agree with the inclusion of Yedlin or Green in the final 23-man roster. I, like many, didn't think they were experienced enough to contribute at such a high level. 
I was wrong. Yedlin is going to be in the national team squad for a long, long time. His ludicrous speed, utilized on the right wing, is almost comical to the point where I caught myself laughing in disbelief at a couple of the runs he made against Belgium. 
And then there is the polarizing figure of Julian Green, a young man many of us wrongly demonized for ousting Landon Donovan from the roster, a young man who did nothing less than bury his first touch of the game in the back of the net.
I don't know if that late sub in Salvador was a shot in the dark by Jurgen, but again, as he looked many times this tournament, he appeared to have the magic touch. Remember Klinsmann bringing on Zusi, who provided the service for Brooks, who then scored the winning goal against Ghana?
As a manager, when so much is left up to the players, it doesn't get much better than that. Tactically, he adjusted very well for the Portugal game. We lost our most critical player in Jozy Altidore and I hardly noticed as the US bossed the No. 4 team in the FIFA World Rankings like that was what they were supposed to be doing. (What's that, Portugal scored a late equilizer? I've permanently erased that from my memory like DiCaprio forgetting that his wife killed his kids in Shutter Island.)
I'll always remember this World Cup for the performances of all the subsets of players who aren't necessarily stars in the national squad: older guys getting their first shot like Jones, who buried one of the best goals in US Soccer history against Portugal and Beckerman, who was rock solid in the defensive midfield. And we can't forget the ageless wonder, Demarcus Beasley, who looked every bit of 20, not 32, in this World Cup.
It was the World Cup of MLS in a way for the US, with guys like Besler, Gonzalez, Zusi, Bradley and Dempsey making significant contributions. (Gonzalez's performance against Germany was heroic and Besler was our most consistent defender of the tournament in my opinion).
On the whole, although it ended in defeat (as it does for 31 other teams), two days later, much like the Germany game, this is a loss that feels like a win. There's so much to be proud of if you're a fan of the United States. Howard's heroics. Significant contributions from the MLS players, which suggests the game is growing on the home front. The performances of the younger guns provide hope for the future; we haven't even mentioned Fabian Johnson, who marauded down the right flank for the better part of three games like his hair was on fire.
I'll remember Klinsmann's ability to assemble a squad that felt like it came together unlike any group I can recall since 2002, a team that felt like they were ours and not only were they playing for the man next to them, but they were playing for us. We gritted our teeth and endured the storm when we had to, playing the familiar counter attack style of US soccer, but showed flahses of the attacking football Klinsmann had promised us (think second half, Portugal). After the 2014 campaign, I'm all in on Klinsmann.
Finally, I'll remember the way America embraced this team and this game and I hope that the belief and passion exhibited all across this great nation during these past few weeks won't waver. They call it the Beautiful Game for a reason, America.
If you enjoyed any of what you saw over the past few weeks, I implore you to stick with it. Pick an MLS team. Go to some games. If you can't go to games, there's this handy thing called the Internet where you can literally find anything, anywhere, at any time. Go play some pick up games with friends. Join the American Outlaws, a fine group of the US's most ardent supporters.
But most of all, don't shrug your shoulders and say, "Guess we have to wait four more years," because that is simply not true. The next World Cup cycle begins in 2015, not 2018, with the preliminary draw on July 25, 2015. The women will play a World Cup next summer in Canada and if you thought the US men were good, holy smokes wait 'til you get a load of the women, who are consistently one of the Top 3 teams in the world in the women's game. I know what you're thinking, "Women's soccer? Isn't that an oxymoron?" First of all, no! And secondly, our ladies are really, really good.
The men will play in the Gold Cup next summer (think the World Cup of CONCACAF, which is the acronym for the North and Central American region of FIFA in which the United States competes), a highly entertaining tournament mostly because the teams competing all know each other so well.
So while Tuesday night felt like a Luiz Suarez bite to the shoulder, it doesn't have to end there. While Tuesday was the end of the Americans' campaign in Brazil, let's not remember it as the end of a World Cup for our boys, but as the beginning of soccer's explosion in America. Let's keep the ball rolling.


Nick Sellers is a full-time newscast director, part-time sports writer. To disagree with him publicly, tweet him @sicknellers or comment below. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

USA vs. Azerbaijan Recap and Reaction

For a lot of US Soccer fans, it still seems like a cruel nightmare that Landon Donovan has been excluded from the World Cup squad, a campaign that was supposed to be the American hero's swan song.
But excluded he has been and it's time to move on. These are the 23 players that are going to Brazil, the 23 that will be proudly wearing the American shirt and the 23 that will be facing the likes of Ghana, Portugal and mighty Germany. I'm still scratching my head at the Donovan decision, but these 23 deserve the same unwavering support you gave Donovan for so many years.
So it's with an eye to the future that we take a look at the US's performance against Azerbaijan (THE LAND OF FIRE), FIFA's 85th ranked nation. The first of three matches in the run up to the World Cup, this matchup, against an obviously inferior opponent, was designed as a confidence builder.
And in that sense it very well may have served its purpose for the younger players, but in assessing the squad as a whole, it's difficult to determine anything of real value against an opponent like Azerbaijian, who parked the bus for the better part of 90 minutes. Running full steam at a brick wall over and over and over again and having to attack and defend in transition (as they will have to do in Brazil) are two very different things.
But what did we learn? Here are some takeaways from last night's 2-0 win at Candlestick in San Francisco, by position:

  • Goalkeeper: Tim Howard was largely untroubled all night, with the exception of having to make a save early off a bad giveaway early from center back Matt Besler. For all intents and purposes, Howard could've been in a lawn chair sipping a margarita from the 7th minute on. But this wasn't really a position of question for the US Men's National Team, unlike...
  • Defenders: Perhaps the biggest concern heading into the upcoming World Cup is who is going to pair at center back and how will the whole back four fair against the attacking prowess of Ronaldo and the air superiority of Germany? Predictably, that wasn't really answered last night, as the defense remained largely untested and were free to foray into the attacking third at will, with Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler looking particularly dangerous. A bad giveaway from Besler was the only real negative for the defenders on the night, but without any real attacking threat, the jury is still out on the back four. 
  • Midfielders: No St. Landon, but there were some very positive performances in midfield on Monday night. Many grumbled at Brad Davis's selection to the final 23 but Davis showed last night that he deserved his spot, providing great service that lead to both US goals, the second of which he put right on the noggin of Aron Johannsson. Davis was also dangerous in build up play and should've earned a penalty in the 48th minute but was denied by the Costa Rican ref. DJ Mix Diskerud (Is that not a thing yet? I'm making it a thing.) once again found himself in the right place at the right time for the US, pounding home a deflection off a Michael Bradley shot. The more I watch Diskerud play, the more I like his game. He often finds himself in the right place at the right time and made an instant impact coming off the bench. Bradley looked flat by his standards, but Bedoya and Zusi also provided some positive performances, considering the circumstances. 
  • Forwards: It would've been a huge relief for US fans and for Jozy himself if Altidore had gotten back on the score sheet, but he did provide the same, physical hold-up play he's known for. Wondolowski was unlucky not to score, as a fourth minute chance found the waiting arms of the Azerbaijan keeper and a 15th minute, more carefully placed effort produced a good save from the opposing netminder. Johannsson finished nicely off the aforementioned Davis service, but should count himself lucky for being that unmarked in the box. 
Concerns still loom, but positive performances from Davis, Diskerud and Johannsson win the day. I'd like to see more from mainstays like Bradley and Altidore and Clint Dempsey's late scratch from the starting lineup due to a sore groin remains a worry. Call me an optimist, but tempering my opinion against the weakness of the opposition, I rather liked the performance as a whole. 
Improvement surely needs to be made, but there is time for that. The real questions were not concerning Bradley or Howard or Dempsey, but about some of the younger or less experienced players like Wondo, DJ Mix (just let this happen) and Brad Davis and I think some of those questions have been answered and in a way that US soccer fans and Jurgen Klinsmann are happy with. 

TL;DR: No goals yet for Jozy, Diskerud gets a new nickname and solid performances from younger, less experienced players guide the US to a 2-0 win over an inferior Azerbaijan squad. 

Next game: USMNT vs. Turkey, Sunday June 1, 2:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2. 


Nick Sellers is a full-time newscast director, part-time sports writer. To disagree with him publicly, tweet him @sicknellers or comment below. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Life After Landon

My initial, knee-jerk reaction to the news that the second most-capped, highest-scoring player in US Men's soccer history was left off the final 23-man roster headed to Brazil for this summer's World Cup was a melancholy mix of anger and sadness. For the first time since 1998, Landon Donovan would be watching the World Cup from his couch.
And for that reason, before writing anything (as I am wont to do when something strikes close to my heart. And if you know nothing about soccer fans, know that we are an emotional sort.), I took a night to sleep on my gut reaction and tried to gain some perspective, arriving at the following:

  1. It is in Jurgen Klinsmann's best interest for the United States to succeed in Brazil. I know this seems like an obvious statement, but it throws into doubt what some folks are saying about the apparent feud between Klinsmann and Donovan, their disagreements about his hiatus, etc. I wasn't in the training camp watching a 32-year old compete against the likes of Zusi, Bedoya and Green. Klinsmann has said from the start that he is taking the best athletes to Brazil. Donovan's exclusion is unpopular, but probably not unwarranted. I sincerely doubt Klinsmann would intentionally damage his chances of success by excluding someone fit to play and able to help his team win. Klinsmann has never been afraid to make the unpopular choice and he showed that again yesterday. 
  2. Klinsmann's track record with the US is proven. Qualification was a bit dodgy in the beginning, but the first points in qualification in Azteca against bitter rival Mexico since 1997 and friendly results over Germany and the first win on Italian soil EVER were impressive, even if they were against weakened versions of those squads.  For now, Klinsmann's the boss and tactically so far he has been sharp. Let's trust that this move was sharp as well. 
  3. The 23 going to Brazil need our support. Yes, it feels like we just announced the Avengers and excluded Captain America, but the 23 representing the United States worked hard to get where they are and like it or not, this is our team. True blue American soccer fans will remain steadfast and hopeful that we find success in South America. 
  4. I knew this day was coming. He wasn't going to play forever. My earliest memories of the US at the World Cup are vague images of disappointment in France followed by more vivid memories of waking up at 5:30 in the morning to watch the United States take on Portugal in 2002 and being delighted that my loyalty was being rewarded with results. I can't really recall a World Cup without St. Landon and it is likely that most of the US's young fan base can't either. Brazil was supposed to be his swan song, but at least we'll always have this. And of course this
But it's not about then, it's about now. And the pressure is on Klinsmann now. If the US gets results in Brazil, this whole circus goes away. That said, three players who made the squad have never competitively suited up for the United States and a living legend is going to be watching from home and there's part of me that's always going to have a problem with that. 
Leaving Landon off the roster communicates that his experience, leadership and class (form is temporary, class is permanent) are of no value to the US squad anymore, which I have a hard time reconciling. It's hard for me to believe that a seasoned, motivated and intelligent player in Donovan has no place in the roster, but a young man in Julian Green, who has no competitive international experience AND with which the other members of the roster have no experience deserves a spot more than a difference maker like Donovan. It is difficult for me to fathom a late-game situation in which I would not want Donovan on the field. 
But I wasn't in camp at Stanford. I am not the coach and I am not privy to the information that Klinsmann is. As a US fan, I hope to be proven wrong. As a Donovan fan, I am deeply disappointed. Regardless, the torch has been passed. It's Dempsey, Bradley and Howard's team now. Brazil is on the horizon and there's much to look forward to. While uncertainty abounds about formations and tactics, we can be sure that life after Landon has now begun and that the US, with Donovan or without him, needs results in Brazil. Here's to hoping they get them. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

BCS National Championship Preview

Monday night's BCS National Championship Game needs no introduction so I'm not going to give you one. Let's dive right in with some analysis and predictions, shall we? 

All Aboard the Gus Bus


Auburn's rise back to national prominence has been nothing short of miraculous and let's be honest, the Tigers are lucky to be here. Gus Malzahn has done a great job resurrecting a dead-in-the-water Auburn program that didn't win a single conference game last season and I don't want to discount anything he's done this year but without The Prayer in Jordan-Hare and the ensuing Vatican-certified miracle that occurred two weeks later against Alabama in the Iron Bowl, Auburn is playing in the Gator Bowl, not the BCS National Championship Game.
Former cornerback Nick Marshall quarterbacks the Tigers and as you might imagine, Auburn is not very proficient in throwing the football: the Tigers sport the nation's 107th ranked passing offense. Marshall's completion percentage is just a shade over 60% and the junior has just 12 TDs in the air this season. 
Their defense is not much to write home about either. Nationally, Auburn ranks 87th in total defense, gives up an average of 423.5 yards per game, has no stars on the defensive side of the ball and gave up 38, 28 and 42 in their last three games of the season. 
Before you start throwing your "blatant homerism" flag at your computer screen, calm yourself. These are facts. Auburn isn't great at a lot of things. But that's not Auburn's game. They're not going to air it out on you. Marshall throws only when he absolutely has to. He attempted just 11 passes in the SEC title game and hasn't completed more than 20 passes in a game the entire season. He's also been in single digits in pass attempts a couple of times in 2013: at Arkansas, at Tennessee and vs. Florida Atlantic, but he left that game early with a shoulder injury. The defense isn't going to grind you to a halt. They're pretty much there to give the offense a breather. 
The Tigers do one thing, but they do that one thing very well: run the football. Somehow, in one season, Malzahn has taken a hapless offense and turned it into the best rushing attack in the country. The Tigers posted nearly 600 yards of rushing offense against Mizzou in the SEC title game, 296 against Bama the week before and 323 in the Georgia game. Tre Mason is putting up video game-type numbers. 304 against Mizzou? No problem. 164 and a TD against the impenetrable Bama? You got it. 
The Tigers greatest advantage is their momentum. After the aforementioned miracles, they have to feel like they're bullet-proof. Auburn has been through the fire and come out the other side enough times this season that No. 1 Florida State will seem no obstacle for their confidence. 

"This is Our Time"


All season long I've tempered my opinion of Florida State football with cautious optimism. I had read this script before: older quarterback leaves for the draft, "young gun" takes his place, expectations soar and then a couple of bad losses send myself and the rest of the fan base crashing down to earth.
Seminole fans will remember when Christian Ponder left for the NFL in 2011 and EJ Manuel was finally going to get his shot as the lead man instead of performing mop-up duty or filling in when Ponder's wonky elbow went haywire. 
Three straight losses in late September and early October 2011 tempered that feeling pretty quickly and while EJ's career was remarkable, it didn't take the football program to the heights that fans wanted. Florida State was a perennial power in Bowden's time and Tallahassee was impatient with EJ and Jimbo in those years.
Enter 2013 and Jameis Winston, who, by the time he's done will likely be the most prolific quarterback in Florida State history. I purposely excluded Jameis from my preseason Heisman column and was hesitant to sing his praises after he threw just two incompletions against Pitt in the season opener.
As a writer, I often try and remove the rose-colored glasses of a fan and take a more detached look at situations, especially those involving Florida State. I figured if Jameis could lead the team into Death Valley in October and emerge with a victory, then it might be time to admit the Seminoles had the potential to do something special this season.
I'm not going to rehash the events of that night, nor the games that would follow, but it was at that point that it became clear that not only was this year's team capable of great things, but that Jameis was a special player and a special leader.
But Famous Jameis is only one piece of the puzzle. Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin are all within 100 yards of 1,000 yard seasons. The running back corps is three, maybe four deep if you include freshman Ryan Green. Karlos Williams, the third man on the totem poll, is averaging over eight yards a carry. Nick O'Leary is having a career year at tight end.
The defense lost several guys (including two first rounders in Bjoern Werner and Xavier Rhodes) to the NFL Draft and got better. Jeremy Pruitt and his squad experienced some growing pains in the first few games of the season (see Boston College), but haven't given up more than 17 points since a home win over NC State on Oct. 26.
The difference this year for FSU as opposed to the first few years of the Jimbo era is that they are a complete football team. FSU doesn't need Jameis to be the world's best sherpa and carry them to the mountain top because so many other guys are talented enough to make a difference.
The defense plays with hate in their heart. (LaMarcus Joyner became one of my favorite Seminoles of all time this season. Dude's an absolute animal.) The offense is a well-oiled machine. Special teams is no longer a liability but a strength (see Aguayo, Roberto). The coaching staff has their men believing and speaking confidently, minus the arrogance so often evident in many young athletes today.
I'd need more fingers and toes if I were to count how many times this season I've heard a guy in Garnet and Gold speaking with respect for his opponent, about the goal of a national title and handling their business. The attitude has changed. The culture has changed. As Jameis said after the Clemson game, Florida State is bringing that '90s swag back to Tallahassee. Now all that remains is to finish the job.
In 2011, the official Nike shirt for the Florida State student section was boldly emblazoned with the words, "This Is Our Time." Two years later, that might finally be the case.

Envelope, please... 



Before I dole out my prediction, let's swing it over to contributor and all around good dude Gamblin' Rob (a long time Bama fan and FSU alum) for a totally unbiased prediction. Rob? 

"Florida State will dominate on offense, scoring just about every possession. Their strength will come from Nick O’Leary, who will be everywhere on the field a tight end can be. The running game won’t be as impressive, as the bulk of their yardage will come through the air against an Auburn defense that ranks 95th nationally in yards per play with 5.96 given up. I’d venture to say that FSU will knock that average up a yard or two.
Auburn’s offense will struggle with its usual run attack, but find some success in the air with some mismatches and catching the defense off guard. Tre Mason will still put up good numbers, but it won’t be video game type numbers. Look for Nick Marshall to get shut down and eventually Auburn will be forced to move to a more complete style of offense to combat the stingy FSU defense.
Overall the game will seem tight in the first half, and as long as FSU stays out of turnover land, look for FSU to chop away with a 54-28 victory. Jameis Winston will come away with the MVP, with at least 4 passing TDs and at least 1 rushing.
(Disclaimer: I hate Auburn more than anything. That being said, my prediction is completely unbiased. Maybe.)" 

Thanks Rob. Here's my take: 
Florida State is the more talented team. I believe overall they're better coached and as a whole they are a more complete football team. That's not the alumnus in me talking, that's the analyst in me talking. The Seminoles should win this game. 
I wouldn't count Auburn out though. They can score in a hurry, get yardage in chunks and most of all, they believe that they should be there. Nowhere else in sports does momentum matter more than in the college game and there are a hundred different examples of the little guy punching above their weight and taking down the heavy favorite. 
Make no mistake though, Auburn is no Boise State. Malzahn coached in a national title game in the not so distant past. If Auburn can stick to their game plan and get a few stops on defense, they'll be in this game in the fourth quarter and that's all they've really needed this season. 
In the end though, I believe FSU will be too much for the upstart Tigers. If Florida State can build an early lead and force Nick Marshall to throw the football, they could put Auburn in hot water early. Winston will likely be a little juiced to start, but once he settles down, Auburn better look out. 
Florida State pulls away in the second half, 42-27. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Bad Apple, College Football Algebra and Predictions for Week 5

They say there's a bad apple in every bunch and if Week 4 of the college football season was an apple it would've been the soggy, decaying, worm-ridden apple at the bottom of the barrel that even a roach would refuse, which is to say, Week 4 was almost unwatchable.
The early slate of games didn't have much to offer, so I flipped on Pitt-Duke and actually said to myself, "I'm rather enjoying this Pitt-Duke game." It was at this point that I pinched myself to wake me up from some horrible nightmare where Pitt-Duke was the most entertaining game on TV.
Later in the afternoon, watching Florida and Michigan State on offense was like watching a cat attack its reflection in a mirrored door. Try as they might, they're going nowhere and if the weekend could be summed up in one play, it was when Spartan quarterback Andrew Maxwell sprinted out of bounds three yards down field on a 4th and 20 to seal the victory for Notre Dame.
But let's bury the memory of those three games, a lackluster Bama result, a Buckeye blowout and a near wetting of the bed by a Michigan team that looks like it has no business in the Top 25 and rejoice that most of the FCS teams have bowed out from the schedule and embrace Week 5, where many teams begin a run of conference play.
Let's break down this week's games for the Top 25:

No. 25 Fresno State at Hawaii: I'm not going to pretend like I've seen a down of Fresno State football this year, not out of an active avoidance but merely because they just snuck into the Top 25 this week and they're on the West Coast, which means I don't see them much.
But I can tell you this: senior signal caller Derek Carr has 12 TDs to just one interception this season and the Bulldogs have wins over Rutgers and Boise State and if they play their cards right could run the Mountain West this year. An 0-3 Hawaii that hasn't scored more than 14 this season shouldn't put up much of a fight. Bulldogs win a rare Sunday college football game.

No. 20 Florida at Kentucky: Being in the state of Florida and "hate watching" the Gators almost every week, I've seen most of UF's games this year and their offense really has a tough time moving the football (66th in the country in total offense) and is even worse at finding the end zone (89th in points scored). Doesn't really sound like the most underrated team in the country, does it Gary Danielson?
My point being that for all their talent on defense, their offense is devoid of playmakers. I hate to call an injury a blessing in disguise, but with the loss of Jeff Driskel for the year perhaps Tyler Murphy can at least inject some energy into a stagnant Gator offense.
As for Kentucky, Mark Stoops is a great coach, but it'll take him a couple years to get the Wildcats to compete consistently in the SEC. And if Florida's offense is bad, Kentucky's is worse, and good luck moving the ball against a good Gator defense, even if they are sans Easley. Gators grab a SEC road win.

No. 16 Washington vs. Arizona: Excluding an opening weekend win by Washington over Boise State, here's a list of the Huskies and Wildcats opponents through the first four weeks: Illinois, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA. In short, neither team has played anyone worth their salt in the college world and in terms of predicting a winner, this is a toss up.
In college football, we use a team's victories as a measuring stick for how good we think they are and how we imagine they'll compete against other teams. I like to call this the Transitive Property of College Football. Team A beat Team B, but Team B beat Team C, so therefore Team A is better than Team C. We almost had a glorious example of this Saturday night when Connecticut, who had lost to lowly Towson had Michigan on the ropes for the better part of three quarters. It's by no means an exact science, but it's a lot of fun to mess around with and sometimes all we've got after a couple of weeks of FCS matchups.
If applied to this Washington-Arizona matchup, here's the list of FBS teams the Huskies and Wildcats are "better" than: Air Force, Cincinnati, Central Michigan, New Mexico and UTEP. Not exactly your world beaters.
In that respect, Saturday should be interesting. Both of theses teams are looking to make waves in the Pac-12, but we don't really know a whole lot about them. Arizona returns all 11 starters on defense this year, but I like senior quarterback Keith Price to deliver on his home turf (and what a beautiful turf it is). Huskies win a game that is largely a question mark.

No. 15 Miami at South Florida: After a signature win over Florida in Week 2, the Hurricanes took a week off, scored the most points in school history against a sorry Savannah State squad and look to be the second best team in the state of Florida, a debate that should be settled on Nov. 2 when the 'Canes visit Florida State in Tallahassee. Running back Duke Johnson is a playmaker and the defense has stepped up, but Stephen Morris has room to improve as a passer against elite defenses.
If Miami is Florida's second best team, South Florida might be the state's worst. The Bulls gave up 53 points to FCS McNeese State in the opening weekend, lost to Michigan State in Week 2 and were handled by the FAU Owls on Sept. 14. When you're getting "handled" by FAU, it's time to reevaluate where you're at as a program. South Florida just doesn't have enough working for them on either side of the ball to give Miami any kind of trouble. Hurricanes win and win big.

No. 14 Oklahoma at No. 22 Notre Dame: Fittingly so, is there a luckier team in college football than the Fighting Irish? If you watched their game against Michigan State on Saturday, you'll know that had the Spartans been able to move the ball at all they would've won that game running away. Consider this as well: as bad as Michigan has looked the past two weeks, they beat Notre Dame in Week 2. Handily.
The strength of the Irish for the past couple years has been their defense, but it's pretty easy to look good against Temple, Purdue and an offensively impotent MSU team. Oklahoma has some dynamic guys on offense in quarterbacks Trevor Knight and Blake Bell and regardless of who starts (Knight has been sidelined by injury recently) I see the Luck of the Irish running out this week. Sooners expose the Irish in their own house.

No. 12 South Carolina at UCF: I really feel this game could sneak up on South Carolina, who is good, but I don't believe they're great and they face a UCF team that was sneaky good last year (Golden Knights finished 10-4 in 2012 and were not far from being better than that).
But as much as I love an upset, in almost every case the talent gap between a school like South Carolina and an up-and-comer like UCF is just too wide. Yes, UCF is off to a hot start, yes, the South Carolina defense has given up 76 points in three games and yes, Blake Bortles sounds like the name of a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but the names that will matter in this game are the ones you already know: Connor Shaw, Mike Davis and Jadeveon Clowney. Cocks cruise on the road.

No. 11 Oklahoma State at West Virginia: After a notoriously prolific offense sputtered its way through three games and then got shut out by Maryland, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen has elected to start FSU transfer Clint Trickett at quarterback on Saturday as the Mountaineers welcome in No. 11 Oklahoma State.
Allow me to flex my knowledge of West Virginia third string quarterbacks named Clint Trickett: Trickett is not very mobile, not particularly strong, has a neck the thickness of a pencil, but is a solid pocket passer and could at least provide some experience at an absolute question mark of a position for WVU.
Trickett's debut aside, the Mountaineers have been on a steady decline for the better part of the last year (4-8 since Oct. 13 of last year and two of those wins were over William and Mary and Georgia State) and won't have enough to hang with a really good Oklahoma State team. Sophomore quarterback J.W. Walsh is a baller and with Texas going belly up already this season, the Cowboys have a real shot at a Big 12 title in 2013. Don't expect a floundering West Virginia to get in their way.

No. 10 Texas A&M at Arkansas: Love him or hate him, Johnny Manziel has already reminded us all of why he captured the nation's attention last season and was able to guide the Aggies to a win over 'Bama and himself to a Heisman trophy. Say what you want about his personality, but Johnny Football is a gamer, is eighth in the nation in total offense and for all intents and purposes is just getting warmed up.
New Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema will get his introduction to SEC play at home against the Aggies having won three of his first four after, most recently dropping a tough one to Rutgers. Looks like Arkansas will be without starting QB Brandon Allen for a second straight week and good luck keeping up with the Aggies with a stand-in at your most important position on offense. Aggies win this one running away.

No. 8 FSU at Boston College: Everyone in the country is high on Florida State right now and I can tell you that in Tallahassee folks are even more enamored with redshirt freshman quarterback Famous Jameis Winston.
FSU is 13th in the country in total offense, fifth in points scored and third in points allowed, half of that earned with the backups in by halftime. I want to believe in the 'Noles so badly it hurts, but I've been burned before and their schedule through the first month couldn't have been any softer.
A game against BC shouldn't tell us much about an incredibly talented Florida State squad. Winston has a slew of weapons at his disposal in Shaw, Benjamin, Greene and O'Leary, the running back corps is four deep and Winston himself is supremely talented. And that's just the offense.
Boston College will play their typical possession style of football (force turnovers, grind the clock, hold on to the ball), but won't have enough to stop FSU. The Seminole faithful will have to wait a few more weeks before they really find out what this team is made of. 'Noles roll in Boston.

No. 6 LSU at No. 9 Georgia: Hands down the weekend's best matchup will feature Zach Mettenberger returning to Athens to try and stick it to the Dawgs while Aaron Murray and company will try to continue their climb in the polls after an opening weekend loss to Clemson.
I see this game going one of two ways: either the game gets sloppy and things start getting wild, which can only help the home team, Georgia, or LSU just wins this one running away. I don't want to get too high on Mettenberger just yet, but he's been much better this year and I think that Bama game last year, even though it was a loss, was a real turning point for him.
Will Mettenberger outduel Murray? Probably not, but he'll manage the game and LSU is a much more complete team than Georgia right now. Everyone's talking about Gurley and Marshall, but LSU has a pretty nice backfield as well, led by Jeremy Hill and a great weapon at receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. The Tigers also sport a better defense and I'll be darned if Les Miles doesn't do two things: eat grass and win the special teams battle. I'll take the Tigers on the road.

No. 5 Stanford at Washington State: Apart from yelling expletives at opposing coaches, what's Mike Leach up to these days? Well, he's already helped Washington State match their win total from last year and things seem to be improving for Wazzu.
But not improved enough to match Stanford. The Cardinal have become a well-oiled machine under David Shaw and took Arizona State to the woodshed last week in a game that was never really close. Junior Kevin Hogan had his best game of the season last week, but needs to be a little more accurate. Linebacker Shayne Skov is one of my favorite college football players right now and he and the defense will handle their business. Cardinal, as they so often do, grind the Cougars down and win in Seattle.

No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 23 Wisconsin: I know it was two weeks ago, but let's go ahead and clear the air with this: Wisconsin got jobbed in that Arizona State game and if you haven't seen the video and need a reason to smash your first through some dry wall in the name of justice, then watch this.
In the meantime, the Badgers have a game to play and watch out for running back Melvin Gordon, who hasn't rushed for less than 140 in a game yet this season. Joe Stave is capable at quarterback and it doesn't hurt to have a safety valve like senior receiver Jared Abbrederis hanging around.
Tough game for Braxton Miller to come back to, as the notoriously physical Wisconsin defense is no FAMU and is 10th in the country in scoring defense giving up just 10.5 points per game. The numbers say Ohio State, but I'll take the Badgers' brand of physical football over Ohio State's spread offense any day. We're calling this one the From the Cheap Seats Upset Special of the Week. I like the Badgers to upset the Buckeyes and take home a W on Saturday.

No. 3 Clemson vs. Wake Forest: Clemson-Wake Forest is this week's token "No Analysis Necessary" game. Clemson is a very good football team. Wake Forest is a very bad football team. Couple that with the fact that Wake is winless in Death Valley since 1998 and you don't need me to tell you that the Tigers are going to toy with the Demon Deacons like a cat would with a mouse before it eats it. Clemson wins big at home.

No. 2 Oregon vs. Cal: What if I told you one of the quarterbacks in this game led the nation in total offense for an individual player? And what if I told you that player was Cal's freshman quarterback Jared Goff? Through three games, Goff is averaging 429.7 yards per game by himself.
And yet, Cal is 1-2, having played and lost to two ranked opponents already this year. Airing it out is all well and good, but getting into the end zone is another matter. You know what you're getting with Oregon and what Cal will be getting is something it can't keep up with. Mariota and company light up the scoreboard in Autzen with another big-point performance. Cal can't withstand the Ducks' Quack Attack, Oregon wins.

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 21 Ole Miss: Everyone seems to think that because Bama has had a couple of lackluster performances they should therefore be on Upset Alert for this Ole Miss game, but you try staying on top of your game week in and week out while gunning for your third straight national title. It sure is lonely at the top.
I know the VT game wasn't impressive and the Colorado State game was cause for concern (let's keep in mind, Jim McElwain was the offensive coordinator for Bama for three years), but allow me to direct your attention to the Texas A&M game. In their excitement over seeing the number one team potentially fall this weekend, people seem to have forgotten that Alabama went into a hostile environment, took one on the chin in the form of an early 14-point deficit and still waltzed out of College Station with a win. They're seasoned, they're resilient, they're incredibly well-coached and I think AJ McCarron is one of the most underrated players in the nation.
I like Ole Miss's youth and give them a couple years and this game would really scare Bama. But not yet. The Tide rolls in Tuscaloosa.

Like the blog? Hate it? Want to heckle me as my picks are going south on Saturday? Follow me on Twitter: @sicknellers.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Third Annual From the Cheap Seats Preseason Top 25

You made it. Congratulations. Now take a deep breath and come to terms with the fact that there's college football on this week. I know for most of the year it's been a post desert, but friends, it's almost time for upsets, underdogs and real, meaningful games and I cannot help but get excited for college football season.
Just as the Hall of Fame Game is a harbinger of the NFL season, the release of the preseason polls lets us know that college football is right around the corner. What do they mean? Absolutely nothing. USC was last year's preseason AP No. 1 (But not the From the Cheap Seats No. 1. That distinction went to Alabama, who went on to win the national title. That is neither here nor there. But it is here.) and finished 7-6.
So for practical purposes, preseason polls are pointless (Jump back to the title. Considered titling the article the "Pointless Top 25" or the "PowderPuff Top 25" but for search engine reasons, I couldn't let myself do that). They do, however, give us an excuse to talk college football and for that, I think we can all be thankful.
How do I determine my rankings? They're one third based on the "state of the program," one third based upon "on-paper talent," and one third based on my gut, which, at least in matters of college football almost never fails me (the jury's still out on how it handles these). Enough conjecture about the reasons for our impending conjecture, let's get to it.

25) Miami: The 'Canes finished 7-5 last year, but return 10 starters on offense and eight on defense, including their leading passer (senior signal caller Stephen Morris), leading rusher (superstar-in-the-making Duke Johnson), leading receiver (Phillip Dorsett) AND leading tackler (Shayon Green).
By all accounts Stephen Morris has been very impressive in spring and summer and should be everything Jacory Harris was supposed to be in his tenure at the U. The big question with Miami is whether they can finally turn the corner and contend for an ACC title this year, Al Golden's third. I think they can and will.
Circle the Calendar: We should get a pretty good read on this year's team on Sept. 7 when the 'Canes host Florida at home, but the game with the biggest implication is a division matchup on Nov. 9 vs. Virginia Tech. 

24) Michigan State: Sparty always sports a great defense and this year will be no different as State returns seven starters including leading tackler Max Bullough who had 111 tackles last year.
The big question (as usual) will be where the offense is coming from. The Spartans lose Le'Veon Bell, who accounted for 92% of their rushing yards last season. Senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell should improve (2,606 yards, 13 TDs and 9 INTs last year) and has nowhere to go but up, IF he can earn the starting job. You'll remember Sparty was 7-6 last year, but lost conference games by one, three, two, four and three points. Look for Dantonio to make the necessary improvements.
Circle the Calendar: Sparty visits Notre Dame on Sept. 21 and will look to avenge a 20-3 drubbing at home last season. 

23) Northwestern: The Wildcats finished an impressive 10-3 last year, including a 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Northwestern sported a dynamic offense last year, mixing the run and pass well and return their top three rushers, including senior quarterback Kain Colter. Colter was the starter last year, but left most of the passing up to Trevor Siemian. Look for Colter and Siemian to continue to rotate to good effect.
The defense was in the top 50 last year, but the good news is outside of Ohio State, there aren't exactly any Oregons on their schedule, as you might expect playing in the Big Ten.
Circle the Calendar: Early October will be the defining moment of Northwestern's season as they host Ohio State on the 5th and then travel to Wisconsin on the 12th. 

22) Notre Dame: The AP ranks Notre Dame No. 14 and USA Today has the Irish at 11, but I was iffy even putting them in this Top 25. Yes, Brian Kelly and the boys are one year removed from a national title appearance, but the difference in talent between the Irish and the Tide was glaring.
Long have Notre Dame been rewarded based on merit of tradition. Not here. Remember that Notre Dame was about nine points away from being pretty mediocre (three-point wins over Purdue, BYU and Pitt) and then go ahead and remove their two top rushers from last year and star quarterback Everett Golson and I believe I'm being quite generous at 22 for the Fighting Irish.
Circle the Calendar: Test No. 1 comes at Michigan on Sept. 7, but most of their tough opponents are at home (Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC). Pencil in a loss for Nov. 30 at Stanford. 

21) UCLA: Jim Mora's Bruins were a pleasant surprise last season, squeaking their way into the Pac-12 Championship game in part by virtue of USC's free fall in the second half of the season, but still performed well and earned a 9-5 record and would've had 10 had they not run into the offensive juggernaut of Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.
UCLA does lose leading rusher Jonathan Franklin, but they retain leading passer Brett Hundley (a respectable 3,740 yards, 29 TDs to just 11 INT as a freshman last year), leading receiver Shaquelle Evans and leading tackler Eric Kendricks. Expect the Bruins to continue to improve under Mora's guidance in 2013.
Circle the Calendar: The Bruins face the Murderers' Row of the Pac-12 in October with visits to Stanford (Oct. 19) and Oregon (Oct. 26) in consecutive weeks. 

20) USC: What hurt USC last year? An oft-injured Matt Barkley, unreasonably high expectations and a pretty tough schedule (at Stanford, Oregon, at UCLA and vs. Notre Dame). What will help them this year? A more confident Max Wittek at quarterback, the return of leading receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner Marquis Lee and the return of five out of six of their leading tacklers. It also doesn't hurt that they manage to avoid Oregon entirely and have Stanford and UCLA at home this year.
Circle the Calendar: A trip to South Bend on Oct. 19 should be a pretty good indicator of what Lane Kiffin has on his hands in 2013. 

19) TCU: Last season after Casey Pachall withdrew from school to enter rehab the Horned Frogs went just 3-5 under the direction of freshman Trevone Boykin, who filled in as best a freshman could be expected to in a really tough situation.
Pachall returns this year and is the FBS leader in career passing efficiency among active quarterbacks this season, which is certainly good news. File this under good news as well: the defense, which finished 16th in total defense last season, returns nine starters.
The bad news? Their schedule is a gauntlet: vs. LSU, at Oklahoma, at Oklahoma St., vs. Texas. Gary Patterson has to be pleased with the talent he's returning but it's a tough road ahead for the Horned Frogs in 2013.
Circle the Calendar: Opening weekend against LSU should give us a great read on this year's edition of the Horned Frogs. 

18) Nebraska: The final ride of the "Grenade Launcher" has arrived. Taylor Martinez and his goofy throwing delivery (he made a marked improvement last season, but why strip him of a great nickname that I'm pretty sure only myself and my brother use?) enter their senior season and Martinez is poised to carry the Cornhuskers into contention for a conference title.
The real story of Nebraska's season will be the defense. Last year the Blackshirts finished 35th in total defense but gave up 63 to Ohio State and 70 to Wisconsin respectively and return only four starters on that side of the ball. John Papuchis and company are going to have to tighten up if Nebraska wants make some noise this season.
Circle the Calendar: You've got to wait until November before the Cornhuskers will be truly tested. A Nov. 9 date with Michigan in the Big House should be a tough go of things. 

17) Boise State: Earlier we mentioned the "state of the program." You've got to go all the way back to 2005 to find a year in which the Broncos have won less than 10 games, a mark that most blue chip powerhouses can't boast. Petersen and program are cunning, brave and more than anything else, consistent.
The Broncos return senior Joe Southwick at quarterback and while he's no Kellen Moore, he'll get the job done against a pretty weak Mountain West conference. BSU only returns nine starters on both sides of the ball, but Petersen's system and a weak schedule should allow for plenty of success for the Broncos this year.
Circle the Calendar: Petersen is not one to shy away from contact and regularly schedules tough openers for his teams. Opening weekend this year is no different. The Broncos visit Washington in what is sure to be their toughest game of the season. 

16) Michigan: Big Blue gave South Carolina all they could handle in the Outback Bowl last season, but ultimately came up short and finished a disappointing 8-5. Turns out after a breakout season in 2011, most of college football had Denard Robinson's number in 2012 as Michigan couldn't hang with the big boys, losing to every ranked opponent they faced last year.
Devin Gardner takes over full time for the departed Robinson and Big Blue also returns the dangerous Fitzgerald Toussaint, who returns from a broken leg. If a couple of things go the right way for the Wolverines, Michigan could be contending for a Big 10 title.
Circle the Calendar: No Alabama to open this year and UM gets two of their toughest games at home: vs. Notre Dame on Sept. 7 and vs. Ohio State on Nov. 30. 

15) Oklahoma: Gone at quarterback is four-year starter Landry Jones and in steps redshirt freshman Trevor Knight who beat out Blake "Belldozer" Bell for the starting job this offseason, much to the dismay of brick walls everywhere.
The Sooners only return 11 total starters and only four on defense, but back is last year's sacks leader Chuka Ndulue and senior cornerback Aaron Colvin, who lead the team with four interceptions.
With the lack of an experienced signal caller and so many new starters on defense, the Sooners will fly under the radar a little bit this year. If Knight can settle in early, OU could make some noise in the Big 12 this year.
Circle the Calendar: The first real test for the young Knight and Bob Stoops will be Sept. 28 at Notre Dame. The Red River Shootout always has big conference implications and this year will likely be no different. The Sooners face Texas in Dallas on Oct. 12. 

14) Oklahoma State: The Pokes are better than their 8-5 record last year and expect them to prove it in 2013. Clint Chelf and JW Walsh both return at quarterback for OSU, but head coach Mike Gundy has yet to name a starter for the fall. Chelf boasts experience, but the younger Walsh had a higher QB rating and completion percentage in 2012.
Whoever will be gunning for the Pokes, they'll get their top three receivers back in Josh Stewart, Blake Jackson and Charlie Moore. OSU also returns 15 total starters including three of their top four tacklers last season on defense and three seniors in the secondary.
Circle the Calendar: An opener against SEC foe Mississippi State should be a good barometer of how OK State should fair this year. Circle Nov. 16 at Texas as well. 

13) Texas A&M: There's no sense in discussing anything but whether Johnny Manziel will play this season. Last year's Heisman trophy winner has been hit and hit hard by the curse of too much too soon and there are a number of storylines you could cite this offseason that indicate the fame is taking its toll on the young Manziel.
Even if he does play, I don't know that we can count on him duplicating what he did last year. Because so much of his game is improvisation and there are ways to deny him those opportunities, what will he rely on when he gets in a jam? Last year he had the element of surprise working to his advantage, but now his successes are well documented. While the Aggies return a fair amount of talent, it seems unlikely that Manziel and company will soar to the heights they did last year.
Circle the Calendar: Sept. 14 the Aggies host Alabama in what will surely be one of the best games of the young season. 

12) Florida State: Famous Jameis Winston is set to take over at quarterback for the Seminoles, although Jimbo was coy on this point until just last night. The good news for the freshman signal caller is that there's a ton of experience returning on the offensive line and plenty of weapons at his disposal, including the rushing duo of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr.
Only four "starters" return on defense but there's been enough rotation in recent years that there shouldn't be much drop off in production. Add in the addition of Jeremy Pruitt at defensive coordinator and it wouldn't be surprising if a great unit improved on last year's performance.
Why do I have the Seminoles so low? Because I've been hurt before. In recent years, there always seems to be that one game that derails Florida State's chances at staying in the national title conversation well into November. 12 wins last year, but the true measure of Fisher's success will be if he can avoid the head-scratching loss that has plagued the Seminoles in recent seasons.
Circle the Calendar: The schedule is pretty soft this year, but Oct. 19 at Clemson will likely decide the ACC Championship. Keep in mind that FSU hasn't won at Clemson since 2001. 

11) Texas: After the Longhorns got whipped by West Virginia and Oklahoma in consecutive weeks in 2012, you probably stopped paying attention to Texas and without you watching they quietly finished 9-4.
This year Mack Brown's squad is absolutely loaded, returning 10 starters on offense and nine on defense with a Texas ton of experience to boot. I wouldn't expect them to give up 48, 63 or 50 this year.
But, as it has been since the departure of Colt McCoy, the question will be, "who can take the reins at quarterback?" For a state so renowned for its quarterbacks, the most prominent university in the state hasn't been able to get it right for years. David Ash returns under center and so does Case McCoy, Colt's younger brother. It was trial by fire for these two early in their careers, but with a couple years of experience the offense should improve under their direction.
Circle the Calendar: No disrespect to their early opponents, but once again the tilt in Dallas against Oklahoma on Oct. 19 looks to define their season. 

10) Louisville: It's tough to gauge how good the Cardinals will be.
On the one hand, they return the talented Teddy Bridgewater, six starters on offense and 10 starters on defense. Charlie Strong is proving to be an outstanding head coach and apart from the incomparable Bridgewater, the most impressive thing about his Louisville teams have been the defenses, last year's iteration finishing 23rd in the country in total defense.
But on the other hand, Louisville struggled against some mediocre competition last year, beating teams like FIU and USF by a combined nine points and losing in overtime to Connecticut. Their most impressive victory came over a obviously unmotivated Florida team that looked like they ate their weight in creole and then took the field at the SuperDome (except for Jon Bostic. Creole makes Bostic MAD.).
And because we don't have a playoff, we might not know just how good this Cardinals team is. By virtue of their weak schedule, even if they go undefeated they might find themselves out in the cold a la Boise State in years past.
Circle the Calendar: Louisville shouldn't be tested until their final game of the season when they travel to Cincinnati on Dec. 5.

9) LSU: With everyone talking about Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama in the SEC, the Tigers are quietly still one of the best teams in the conference. They've lost some talent on defense (only four returning starters) but return eight on offense, including their top two rushers, top four receivers and senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Mettenberger didn't exactly light the world on fire with a display of aerial prowess last season (58.8 completion percentage, less than 3,000 yards and just 12 TDs to seven INTs), but that's alright, Les Miles would rather run anyway. Tigers fans should be encouraged, however, that Mettenberger had his best game against the country's best defense in Alabama last season. If he can somehow bottle that success, the Tigers could threaten in the SEC West (but probably not).
Circle the Calendar: Sept. 28 at Georgia and Nov. 9 at Alabama will determine whether the Tigers can sneak their way into the SEC Championship Game or not. 

8) Florida: As a Florida State fan, it physically hurts me when Florida is successful. But as a college football columnist, I'd be lying to you if I didn't say I was impressed by Florida last season. Consider the following: the Gators tore through the SEC last season with a sophomore quarterback and won games at Texas A&M, at Tennessee, vs. LSU, vs. South Carolina and at Florida State.
This year the Gators face another brutal schedule: at Miami, at LSU, vs. Georgia and vs. Florida State. In 2013 however they'll be suiting up with considerably less talent on defense, only returning four starters and losing four of their top tacklers, but much like last year, expect Will Muschamp's team to thrive when faced with adversity.
Circle the Calendar: Sept. 7 at Miami feels like a trap, but Nov. 2 vs. Georgia has huge division implications for the Gators. 

7) Clemson: It could be the year of the Tiger in the ACC. Clemson is coming off an 11-2 season, a Chick-Fil-A Bowl defeat of LSU, is hungry for more and return senior quarterback Tajh Boyd for one last shot at an ACC title.
Things set up nicely for the Tigers in-conference: they get their biggest test in FSU at home and avoid the better teams in the Coastal division (Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina). The loss of DeAndre Hopkins and leading rusher Andre Ellington should be cause for concern as Hopkins out shined sensation Sammy Watkins last year (18 TDs to Watkins' three).
Circle the Calendar: With success in the ACC almost guaranteed, whether Clemson can contend for a national title will be bookended by their out-of-conference matchups with SEC members Georgia (Aug. 31) and South Carolina (Nov. 30). 

6) South Carolina: Apart from watching Jadeveon Clowney physically and emotionally eviscerate opponents this season, Gamecock fans have plenty to look forward to in 2013. Connor Shaw returns as both their leading passer and second leading rusher last season, but not to be lost in the shuffle is the talented Dylan Thompson, who will spell Shaw if need be or if Spurrier lines Shaw up at receiver. Either way, look for Spurrier to air it out as he loves to do.
With the aforementioned animal wreaking havoc on the defensive side of the ball, look for South Carolina to contend in the SEC East and perhaps for a national title.
Circle the Calendar: Sept. 7 at Georgia likely decides the SEC East and whether or not the Gamecocks will get a shot at some crystal this season. 

5) Stanford: I absolutely love what David Shaw is doing at Stanford. The perception was that Jim Harbaugh was leaving the program in Shaw's very capable hands and that has proven to be true as the Cardinal finished 12-2 last season and by virtue of beating UCLA twice in a row claimed the Pac-12 title.
This year sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan returns having gained some experience spelling Josh Nunes last season. The offensive line is very experienced and the Cardinal return eight starters on defense, including senior linebacker Shayne Skov. Stanford is consistent and play a fundamental football that is easily duplicated. Look for them to contend for a national title this season.
Circle the Calendar: November will be a big month for Stanford's national title hopes. They face Oregon, USC, Cal and Notre Dame to close the season. 

4) Georgia: Them Dawgs is hell, don't they? Georgia was one play away from knocking off mighty Alabama in the SEC title game last season and I have no doubt that they would have absolutely embarrassed Notre Dame in the national title game had they got there.
But they didn't and it's surely left a bitter taste in their mouths all offseason. While Georgia lost a substantial amount of talent on defense (only three returning starters), the offense returns nine starters, including the best quarterback in the conference in Aaron Murray and the rushing tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (Gurshall).
The bad news is that three of their first four are against teams ranked in the Top 15. But if the Dawgs can navigate a tough first month and maintain control of the SEC East, they could find themselves in the de facto national semifinal that is the SEC Championship.
Circle the Calendar: Aug. 31 at Clemson will be fun, but if Georgia wants to get another crack at Bama, they MUST win Sept. 7 vs. South Carolina. 

3) Oregon: Chip Kelly has defected to the NFL (why on earth would you EVER leave this place?) and new Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich has his work cut out for him. Yes, he was on staff for the meteoric rise of the program, but keep in mind that it was Kelly calling the plays during those years even though Helfrich was the offensive coordinator.
A tough loss to Stanford last year kept the Ducks out of the national title game and kept us from watching what would've likely been a MUCH more entertaining game than the clinic Bama subjected Notre Dame to.
They're close enough to taste a national title and this year they return sophomore Marcus Mariota at quarterback, who as a freshman completed 68.5 % of his passes and tossed just six picks to 32 touchdowns and fits the Oregon mold of "armed and dangerous" they like to field at signal caller.
I love their brand of football and if the defense can make even a slight improvement they'll be in the conversation again this year.
Circle the Calendar: Oct. 12 at Washington should read as a big trap, but don't forget a Nov. 7 date at Stanford with a chance to avenge their lone loss last year. 

2) Ohio State: Of the top ranked teams, Ohio State's schedule is surely the softest, opening the season against Buffalo, San Diego State, at Cal and vs. Florida A&M. It doesn't get much tougher from there on out, with the Buckeyes potentially playing two ranked teams the rest of the season.
So there's no reason why Ohio State shouldn't find themselves in the national title game. With nothing to play for last season, the Buckeyes went 12-0. This year, it shouldn't take much motivating from Urban Meyer to get Braxton Miller and company to match that mark.
With another year in Meyer's system, Miller is sure to continue his growth and is my early favorite to win the Heisman trophy. Eight other starters return on offense, including all but one wide receiver and most of the offensive line. Defense loses some talent, but Meyer is a proven program builder so expect them to reload rather than rebuild.
Circle the Calendar: The Buckeyes should coast through their schedule until the season finale at Michigan on Nov. 30. 

1) Alabama: If Saban continues on his current tear, they might just end up renaming the whole state after him and Auburn will be forced to move their whole university to Mississippi out of shame. The remarkable thing about the current success the Tide are enjoying is it is in part due to the talent Saint Nick has brought in, but more due to the fact that Saban has created a culture where winning is the only acceptable result.
Coming off a second straight national title, Saban was reportedly showing film of the Texas A&M game in the weight room this offseason. Why? Because he's obsessed with perfection and that obsession is a big part of why 'Bama is so good. The standards are ridiculously high and the players are all in.
Senior quarterback AMcCarron returns this year and brings weapons TJ Yeldon and Amari Cooper with him. I could load you up with stats but just remember the bit about the culture Saban has created and that's all you need to know. Their schedule sets up very favorably for them and the feel is that even if they get a third, unless they do it Saban's way, it won't be good enough. God help you if you're on his war path this season.
Circle the Calendar: Sep. 14 the Tide roll into College Station to take on Texas A&M. A win is not a forgone conclusion, but trust that Saban will be properly wound up for this one. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

2013 Heisman Trophy: Preseason Predictions

College football's most hallowed individual award is given annually, "to the college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." The trust doesn't award it to the guy with the most touchdowns, yards, sacks or fake dead girlfriends (sorry Manti) and for those reasons there is always debate as to what a Heisman trophy winner does make: character, stats, on-field performance, etc. 
But in the past few years, a distinct pattern has emerged. Since 2000, only one non-quarterback has won the award (Mark Ingram in 2009) and with that one exception in mind, since 2006 it has gone to a quarterback that was a threat on the ground and through the air. Here's the list since 2006: 
  • 2006, Troy Smith, quarterback, Ohio State: 2,542 passing yards, 34 TDs, 204 rushing yards, 1 TD. 
  • 2007, Tim Tebow, quarterback, Florida: 3,286 passing yards, 32 TDs, 895 rushing yards, 23 TDs. 
  • 2008, Sam Bradford, quarterback, Oklahoma: 4,720 passing yards, 50 TDs, 47 rushing yards, 5 TDs. 
  • 2009, Mark Ingram, running back, Alabama: 1,658 rushing yards, 17 TDs. 
  • 2010, Cam Newton, quarterback, Auburn: 2,854 passing yards, 30 TDs, 1,473 rushing yards, 20 TDs. 
  • 2011, Robert Griffin III, quarterback, Baylor: 4,293 passing yards, 37 TDs, 699 rushing yards, 10 TDs. 
  • 2012, Johnny Manziel, quarterback, Texas A&M: 3,706 passing yards, 26 TDs, 1,410 rushing yards, 21 TDs. 
Specifically, look at the winners from the past three years. Between Manziel, RG3 and Newton not a single guy had less than 25 passing touchdowns and no one had less than 600 yards on the ground, statistics indicative of their dual-threat skill sets. 
In a day and age of social media, one-minute highlights and increasing sensationalism, a distinct pattern has emerged: the guy with the most flash, the most impressive stat-line, and the guy who peaks at the right time (Newton, RG3 and Manziel all had signature wins late in the season: Newton beat Bama in his final regular season game, Griffin III dumped No. 5 Oklahoma, Texas Tech and a ranked Texas team for his finale and Manziel was sensational against the eventual national champion in early November of last year) goes home with the bronze. 
And with that criteria in mind, here are some early favorites for this year's award: 
  • The Long Shot: Jadeveon Clowney, Defensive End, South Carolina. A defensive player hasn't won the award since Charles Woodson in 1997 but Clowney's got a handful of advantages over defensive players of years past. Clowney plays in the best and highest-profile conference in the country and will therefore have ample opportunity to grab the media's attention this season. If he keeps making sensational hits like this (that video has been every college football fan's mana from heaven for the past six months) he's the defensive player with the best shot at the award. If a defensive player with less measurables (Te'o) can finish second, surely Clowney can find himself in the conversation late this year, but will likely find himself on the outside looking in. 
    • Marquee games: at Georgia, Sept. 7th; vs. Florida, Nov. 16; vs. Clemson Nov. 30.

  • The Dark Horse: Tajh Boyd, Quarterback, Clemson. Boyd certainly fits the mold of the last few years (Tajh finished second on his team in rushing last year with 514 net yards and threw for 3,896 yards and 36 TDs in 2012), but what hurt him last year was his team's results in big games (losses at Florida State and vs. in-state rival South Carolina). If he's going to win this year, that's going to have to change, but playing in the ACC it's difficult to nab a signature performance late in the season (Clemson's November schedule: at Virginia, vs. Georgia Tech, vs. The Citadel and at South Carolina), so you must make the most of those games that the media views as important. If Boyd can do that, he'll find himself in the Top 3 come November. 
    • Marquee games: vs. Georgia, Aug. 31; vs. Florida State, Oct. 19; at South Carolina, Nov. 30. 

  • The Runner-up: Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback, Louisville. Why Bridgewater over Boyd? Because it's July and I like his name better, that's why. In all seriousness though, there are other stars on the Clemson roster (Sammy Watkins is sensational), but if Louisville gets a big W, it's because Teddy Bridgewater pulled himself up by his boot straps and dragged them to a victory (see 2013 Sugar Bowl). You don't get the same sense from Boyd; Bridgewater dictates a game, Boyd tends to manage it. If Louisville does well, it will be because Bridgewater is the hero and boy does America love a hero (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man, Thor, Man of Steel...I think I've made my point). But what hurts Boyd will also hurt Bridgewater: playing in a weak conference. Lousiville's strength of schedule is on the lower end of the spectrum and while he will certainly be sensational, it will be tough for him to grab national attention playing the likes of Memphis and Temple week-in, week-out. 
    • Marquee games: at Kentucky, Sept. 14; vs. UCF, Oct. 18; at Cincinnati, Dec. 5. 

  • The Champion: Braxton Miller, Quarterback, Ohio State. This year's trophy is Miller's to lose. Miller is blessed with being the best player on his team and plays in the Big Ten, which, regardless of its sinking talent level seems to be second only to the SEC in media exposure. He'll certainly benefit from a second year in Urban Meyer's offense, which is tailored to his skill set. While Ohio State's schedule isn't particularly strong, there's enough there for him grab some signature wins. If Miller can improve even slightly over last year (1,271 net rushing yards, 13 TDs, 2,039 passing yards, 15 TDs), his sensational play, big stats and national exposure will help him bring home the bronze this year. 
    • Marquee games: vs. Wisconsin, Sept. 28; vs. Penn State, Oct. 26; at Michigan, Nov. 30. 
What do you think? Am I on-point here or way off-base? Did I miss a freshman phenom you think could make a run? Tweet me @sicknellers or e-mail the blog at sick.nick.sports@gmail.com. 
As always, thanks for reading and fret not, the dog days of July are almost over and college football is right around the corner. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

NCAA Football '14: The Devil's in the Details

For college football nuts the two most important days of the year are the first day of the season and the day that the latest edition of EA's NCAA Football drops and you can finally guide your alma mater to the national title that you've been longing for. 
Like many of you, I pre-ordered NCAA Football '14 and have spent the better part of the last week with the game. I'm not prepared to review the game in full (as I have only spent time with the Dynasty mode), but here are some early impressions: 

  • The gameplay is the best the series has ever offered. The new physics engine feels great, running the ball is finally an enjoyable experience and the "read" indicator for option plays adds a helpful hint for beginners. 
  • On the flip side of that, defense is still tilted in the computer's favor on the higher difficulties and sometimes it feels like you're being punished because your AI-controlled player loses a man in his zone or a defensive back inexplicably stumbles. These things happen, but they don't happen as often as the computer would make you think and sometimes the experience suffers for it. 
  • Recruiting has been revamped and instead of calling prospects and making pitches, you simply assign points to recruits and essentially cross your fingers. On a positive note, you spend much less time in the recruiting menus and more time on the sticks. However, after assigning the maximum allowed points to a recruit and offering a scholarship, there's not much more you can do but hope. Jury's still out on this one. 
  • The coaches' skills trees are a great addition. You can now decide if you want to be a power recruiter, a master game manger or a nifty combination of both. It also forces you to consider your conference and what skills could be useful to you. For example, if controlling a Pac-12 team, it might be useful to boost your defense's stamina for those up-tempo offenses. Or, if you'll be facing the power run games of the SEC, you might want to max out your run-stopping ability early on. In-game achievements give you points to spend on your coaching trees so each result is consequential and it adds a lot more weight to the game. My favorite feature of this year's edition, hands down.  
  • The game is not without its disappointments though, mainly in the presentation. And when I say the presentation, I mean all aspects of the presentation. The announcers are white noise and rarely say anything relevant. On several occasions I've caught Herbstreit chastising a quarterback for not throwing the ball away immediately after the signal caller side-armed it into the stands. The pre-game intros are annoying and don't add much for me. Seeing a poorly rendered Chief Osceola run out onto the field isn't getting anyone fired up. In-Studio Updates have returned and you can almost hear Rece Davis cringe when delivering lines like, "This one's tighter than spandex on a sumo wrestler." A lot of the elements that are supposed to make it feel more like an ESPN presentation just feels hokey and it's something that could be done without. 
  • The graphics for anything not on the field look like they could be from the last generation of consoles. The fans look terrible, mascots are alright, but you'll often find things where they should not be, like a quarterback's hand towel in the middle of his stomach or a mascot's arm elbow-deep in his own head. 
The problem with NCAA Football '14 (and many of EA's sports offerings, for that matter) is that they aren't being pushed by any competition. You would hope that being the ONLY college football franchise would raise the mantle of responsibility, but that's not the case (just ask South Alabama, who was omitted from last year's edition entirely). And that's why they can get away with things like having the wrong cut of grass on a field, having throw-away announcers or having poor graphics on a next-gen console. 
The gameplay is great and if you're a fanatic, you'll play it and you'll love it and the tweaks they've added encourage you that they're not asleep at the wheel. I just couldn't help but be a little disappointed in all of the little things and the devil's in the details. Hopefully some tuning updates will fix some of the things mentioned here, but you can't help but get the sense that it could've been so much more. For now though, it's a welcome distraction in the dog days of July, leading into the new season. NCAA Football '14 gets a 7/10...for now.

Want to play? My gamertag is "sick nellers." 
Like the article? Hate it? Let me know on Twitter @sicknellers or on Facebook, "From the Cheap Seats." 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Fixing the Pro Bowl

The NFL's Pro Bowl has degenerated into something so despicable that as one of the last two football games of the year it barely serves as a suitable appetizer before the football feast that is Super Bowl week.

I tuned into last night's Pro Bowl for about ten minutes and after the second or third whistle that signaled a play had been blown dead because a running back had gained all the forward progress he could and just stopped running, I promptly changed the channel.

Excluding the sideline interview with a bleeding JJ Watt (whose bloody finger and ensuing comment to the Commish about "playing hard" felt more staged than the last production of Wicked), nobody seemed concerned with even creating the illusion that they cared about being out there.

The problem with the Pro Bowl? How much time do you have? Plagued by an absence of some of the game's biggest stars, no real consequences and poor timing, the NFL's Pro Bowl is the worst All-Star game in pro sports.

So how do we fix the Pro Bowl? I'm glad you asked:

Raise the stakes 
One of the biggest knocks on the Pro Bowl is that it feels like it doesn't matter, because, frankly, it doesn't. Nobody gives a damn! Any depressed retail manager will tell you that to get people to care about what they're doing, you must add incentive.
There is no home field advantage for the Super Bowl, so let's toss something stupid like that out of the window (here's looking at you, Bud Selig). Why not pepper in some real consequences?
How about cash incentives for big plays? Wouldn't it be great to realize that not only did Antonio Cromartie make a great play and pick off Eli Manning, but he also just paid child support for one of his 25 kids?
What about letting stats in the Pro Bowl count for something? Pipe down football purists, you know it'd be great TV to watch Drew Brees or Tom Brady chase records against a bunch of All-Stars.
You could even get a little gimmicky with it. The winning conference stays at a luxury hotel for next year's Super Bowl, loser stays at a Motel 6 by the highway. The possibilities are endless, just something, anything to add some intrigue to what is now a boring, insufferable contest.

Change the rules 
Here's a list of things prohibited in the Pro Bowl:

  • Motion or shifting by the offense 
  • Having three receivers on the same side of the formation 
  • Anything other than a 4-3 defense 
  • Blitzing 
  • Press coverage outside of five yards 
  • Rushing on a punt, FG or PAT 
Are you kidding me? Are we even playing football anymore? Time to cut the boys loose. Let 'em play, Roger. 
Goodell might also consider adding a "Commissioner's Choice" selection to the roster. Who wouldn't want to see Ray Lewis squirrel dance his way across Aloha Stadium one last time? 
Hell, while we're here, why not let one old pro come back for each squad? Wouldn't adding a Brett Farve or a Jerome Bettis greatly increase the intrigue of what is now an utterly uninteresting game? I'm not suggesting an old-timer's football game (now THAT would be unwatchable), but adding a football version of a "designated hitter" to the Pro Bowl would at least be an interesting wrinkle and at worst a lawsuit, but I think the Shield can handle another one of those. 

Guarantee Player Contracts for the Next Year
Admittedly, I stole this one from Peter King, who on the Dan Patrick Show this morning smartly stated that if you guarantee a player's contract for the next season, they're likely to give more effort in the game. (It should also be noted that when initially asked about the Pro Bowl King stated, "I don't want the Pro Bowl." King 1, Commish 0.)
Football is a violent game and injuries are going to happen, but if the players cared about getting hurt, they wouldn't be playing football. They care about getting paid. So make sure they'll get their green through the coming year and we're going to hear the pads popping a little louder in Honolulu.

Move the Date
For the most part, All-Star games are inconsequential, but playing the Pro Bowl a week before the BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR dwarfs its importance even more.
I propose moving it to the third Sunday in February, which this year would be the 17th. All-Star Games should feel like a bonus, not like they've been crammed between two high-stakes weekends of football. Moving it to two weeks after the Super Bowl allows a week of celebration for the victors and the option of playing football at a high level one last time before the long offseason begins.

Like the ideas? Have some better ones? E-mail the blog at sick.nick.sports@gmail.com.

Friday, November 30, 2012

College Football Week 14: The Everything Burrito


I recently treated myself to a steak dinner at a local restaurant and, not having had steak in quite some time, I savored every last morsel of meat, right down to the fatty parts that most people cut off because their "refined" palettes are too good for the excess fat (but I, being impoverished, do not make such discriminations).

I hope this column is like a fine steak after a long, dark steak-less period in your life. The season is nearing its glorious end where two teams will play in a national championship game that everyone will complain about and we've got a lot of ground to cover: conference championships, the Heisman trophy presentation and rivalries (sorry, no NHL report cards as requested; the NHL is on ice). So pop some Adderall and let's get to it.

Championship Weight


Before we get to the fatty parts of the steak, let's stick with what has been the lean, choice cut of this column for its illustrious two-year existence: previews and predictions. 

ACC Championship, No. 13 Florida State vs. Georgia Tech 

We'll roll through these championship games in order of ascending entertainment value (excluding the C-USA title game because 1. I'm my own editor and 2. The game between UCF and Tulsa doesn't have BCS implications. Sorry Golden Knights and Hurricanes.). By that token, it's no surprise the ACC title games slides into dead last, as the ACC has been an absolute dumpster fire this year. How bad is the ACC? Coaches are leaving to coach at Kentucky (which is and always will be a basketball school), that's how bad. 

Speaking of sinking ships, if Florida State has shown they can do anything this year, it's beat up on inferior competition (NC State notwithstanding) and they should be able to do just that against Georgia Tech. 

In college football, you are who you play and if you look at GT's schedule, their 6-6 record becomes even more underwhelming. A 21-point loss to Middle Tennessee State, a 24-point loss to BYU, a mid-season firing of the defensive coordinator and then a dismantling at the hands of Georgia last week suggest that any team with marginal offensive talent can score on the Yellow Jackets. 

While the Seminoles are perhaps not as good as we thought they were (that's the best you're getting Gator fans. I will tip my hat no further.), they are still talented on offense and at least should be able to score on Saturday. Triple option be damned, 'Noles win in Charlotte. 

Pac-12 Championship Game, No. 16 UCLA vs. No. 8 Stanford 

Wait, didn't we just do this? We did? That's right, Stanford will play UCLA for the Pac-12 title less than seven days after beating them in their regular season finale, 35-17. 

What did we learn last week? Only that Stanford's defense could handle Jonathan Franklin (1,506 rushing yards, 11 TDs) and Brett Hundley (3,234 passing yards, 26 TDs) and that between Stepfan Taylor and Zach Ertz, the Cardinal can muster enough offense to beat the higher scoring members of the Pac-12 (as they did with Oregon earlier in the month). 

What will we learn Saturday? That defense really does win championships. The Cardinal will stymie the Bruins for a second consecutive week, this time on their home turf. Stanford silences UCLA...again. 

Big Ten Championship, No. 12 Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

While the ACC has been awful, the Big Ten has suffered a down year as well, thanks in part to NCAA sanctions, but also thanks to just some really awful football. One of the bigger disappointments in college football this year has been Wisconsin, who made the Rose Bowl the past two years and will be playing to do so again on Saturday. 

The only thing standing in their way? The Grenade Launcher and the Cornhuskers offense. It took some time, but after giving up 63 earlier in the year to Ohio State, I think we can put the "Blackshirts" moniker normally given to Nebraska's vicious defense to rest and recognize that Taylor Martinez and the offense is the strength of this team. 

And I think that strength will carry Nebraska to victory. It's just been too disappointing a year for Wisconsin between Montee Ball's injuries and a five-loss season, including last week's overtime loss to a Penn State team that literally had NOTHING to play for except pride (and while we're here, good for Bill O'Brien and the guys on Penn State's squad, who, while they won't get to go to a bowl game, far exceeded everyone's expectations). 

I'll take the Huskers to win and replace the Badgers in the Rose Bowl this year. 

MAC Championship, No. 21 Northern Illinois vs. No. 17 Kent State

Whoa, a MAC team is ranked in the BCS Top 25? Wait, TWO MAC teams are ranked in the BCS Top 25? Now you're telling me there are two WAC teams also in the Top 25? I think the Mayans might have been right about 2012.

All kidding aside, (and I never thought I'd say this), but the showdown between the Golden Flashes and the Huskies could actually be worth the watch. Friday's game in Detroit pits pedigree against passion. The Huskies have won 11 games each of the last three years while Kent State eclipsed five wins for the first time since 2006, willing their way to an 11-win season. 

Both teams have dynamic playmakers in NIU's Jordan Lynch (who leads the team in passing and rushing, accounting for a total of 39 TDs) and Kent State's tandem of Dri Archer and Trayion Durham, both of which are over 1,000 yards and are tied for a team leading 14 touchdowns. 

In the end though, I think NIU is the overall better football team. They're more experienced, play better defense than the Golden Flashes and Lynch can and will carry his team to victory if he has to. NIU by a nose (sorry James). 

SEC Championship, No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Georgia

Easily the most compelling game, not only because of its national title implications but also because it pits the best offensive line in the country against one of the best defensive units in the country, specifically keep an eye on Barrett Jones vs. big ole John Jenkins (that's 660 total pounds of lineman right there). 

On offense, it's well-documented that Alabama likes to run the ball first and pass second, but boy can the Tide run. Between Lacy and Yeldon, Alabama might have the best one-two rushing punch in the country, but don't forget about AJ McCarron, who has shown he can step up in big games (remember LSU? Not sure if those were tears of joy or tears of surprise. "Sweet Baby Bear Bryant, did I really just do that?!?!" We're gonna go with joy.).

Defensively, Alabama is scary good. Bama, as we've seen, is incredibly disciplined, sometimes almost to a fault. Sure Texas A&M was a hiccup, but Johnny Manziel isn't your average quarterback (which we'll touch on later) and he attacked the Tide with something you don't encounter much in the SEC: athleticism at the quarterback position.  

If Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has time to sit in the pocket and read the defense, I imagine it would be much like if I tried to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Some folks are saying Bama's secondary is their weakness, but Bama and star defensive back Dee Milliner are third in the country in passing defense, allowing just 5.75 yards per pass attempt this season. Also don't forget that Saban takes personal pride in coaching the secondary and I'd be shocked if they come up short in a game of this magnitude. 

When it comes down to it, the Tide have been there before. Saban and company will be up for this one and I don't think Murray has it in him to win the big one, or at least he hasn't shown he can and to do so against Alabama would be a tough place to start. A lot of people are picking Georgia, but you're king until you're dethroned, right? The Tide take care of the Dawgs in Atlanta. 

The Heisman Trophy

Annually awarded to the "most outstanding player in college football," the Heisman trophy's criteria allows for a little wiggle room. "Most outstanding" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, which is why the country is divided over this year's candidates.

Your finalists are Matt Barkley, Geno Smith...wait, sorry I'm stuck in September. Here are the real finalists:

Collin Klein, Quarterback, Kansas State University

Let's start with Optimus Klein. I tweeted earlier in the year that Klein was Tebow 2.0, minus the obnoxious self-righteousness and indeed their playing styles are eerily similar. But it was Tebow's character that made him so popular and propelled him to a Heisman victory in 2007.

Unfortunately for Klein, he doesn't quite have the flair or following that Tebow had. Also unfortunately for Klein, he got shut down by a god-awful Baylor defense late in the year, and, as I think we'll find out, the Heisman trophy is very much a "what have you done for me lately?" award.

Simply put, he doesn't have enough flash in his game and, quite frankly, K-State hasn't marketed him very well. As much as it pains me to say, I wouldn't put my money on Klein taking home a bronze trophy in December.

Manti Te'o, Linebacker, Notre Dame

Te'o has been outstanding for the nation's "best" team ("best" in quotations because imagine if we had a selection committee for the BCS rankings instead of computers. Think March Madness but with football. Do you think Notre Dame, with three wins of just three points over Purdue, BYU and Pitt, would still be number one? Didn't think so.) and is hoping to be the first primarily defensive player since Charles Woodson to win the Heisman trophy.

Manti's disadvantage is twofold. First, his impact on the game is often difficult to quantify being on the defensive side of the ball, and all too often the Heisman is about stats. That said, Te'o isn't in the Top 50 in the country in solo tackles or sacks. Additionally, Te'o only plays defense.

No special teams, no return yardage, just hard-nosed football, which isn't "sexy" enough to win you the Heisman anymore. I'm not saying he doesn't deserve it (if you know me, you know I love defense), I'm saying his game doesn't translate into a successful Heisman campaign.

Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Texas A&M

Which brings us to Johnny Football. Manziel has done a lot of growing up this year but has hit all the criteria we've seen lacking in the other two guys. Johnny has racked up the stats (second in total offense this season) and Manziel has a signature win (Johhny Football ran circles around No. 1Alabama in Tuscaloosa earlier this month). And unlike Klein and Te'o, Manziel plays with some flash.

Manziel is sensational, something that can't be said for the other candidates. You're holding your breath when Manziel is scrambling past defenders; you're not glued to your TV as Collin Klein crams the ball down the defense's throat at the goal line.

The trend continues (Cam Newton, RG3), another dual threat quarterback will take home college football's most coveted trophy. 

Fine with Fighting

I recently attended a rivalry game (can you guess which one?) and allow me to first say this: College football rivalries embody everything that is good and holy in the sport: competition, history, and most of all, passion. 

That being said, there feels something fundamentally wrong when those who have no family history with a university and did not attend the university for which they are cheering, personally attack those that do and did. 

Don't get me wrong, I love trash talk, yelling obscenities at opposing fans and teams, and caring entirely too much about the outcome of a football game. 

But something feels amiss to me when someone who has arbitrarily attached themselves to a football team, and not a school, drags the name of the opposing school through the mud. You love your team, I love my university. As far as I'm concerned, you don't have a dog in the fight. 

Perhaps I'm being a touch too sensitive in light of my team's recent loss and perhaps I'm not seeing the bigger picture here (college football is big business, the more people with a rooting interest, the better it is for the sport), but please, bandwagon fans who have only been watching since 2006, stay in your own yard. 

While we're here, I have a question for Florida fans. I'd wager 95% of the Florida fans I know are not only outstanding individuals but also know a thing or two about football (it hurt me to say that, but sometimes the truth hurts). That said, at a FSU game earlier this year, I watched a Florida fan being escorted from the student section in Doak Campbell after flying the bird and trying to pick a fight with everyone around him for the better part of the first half. 

It's important to note that FSU was playing Duke that week, so really there was NO REASON FOR HIM TO BE THERE. That was not the first time I've seen something similar to this happen. 

My question for you all is this: Do you witness similar things from rival fans at home UF games? Are these the bandwagoners I described earlier in this section? Were these incidents isolated and not representative of the Florida fan base as a whole? 

Sound off either in the comments or e-mail the blog. When I asked folks what they wanted to read prior to this column, the response was great. Keep the requests and questions coming, I'd love to do a mailbag of some kind soon. 

Enjoy your football and we'll see each other again before bowl season.