For a few precious hours last Saturday, it felt like the college football season had begun two months early. Or at least it did in my Brooklyn neighborhood, where fans in U.S. soccer jerseys spilled on to the sidewalks outside of several overflowing sports bars. The atmosphere inside my chosen viewing locale, Downtown Bar and Grill, was every bit as intense and electric for USA-Ghana as a September game day in Ann Arbor or Tuscaloosa.
But alas, once that second Ghana goal went through the net, a sense of utter deflation took over the room. It wasn't just that our dream of a deep World Cup run from the Americans was dead; suddenly a whole bunch of bandwagon soccer fans like me had to ask themselves: "NOW what are we going to do for the next two months?"*
(* -- Personally, I protected myself somewhat from this occurrence by adopting Argentina as my "backup" team prior to the tourney, and Diego and the boys have not disappointed. It's not too late to hop on board.)
The answer: Start talking about college football. Sept. 2 still seems an eternity away, but hey, my Phil Steele preview arrived in the mail last week and Washington's starting quarterback visited our offices this week, so let's start filling the void, shall we?
And let's start with that aforementioned barnstorming quarterback.
Hey Stewart, I've got a preseason question for you. Washington recently launched an East Coast campaign to put a face with a name -- Jake Locker -- that is starting to get wide recognition as a Heisman contender. With the obvious exception of Mark Ingram, who do you see as the other early contenders? And do you think someone from the often forgotten Pacific Northwest ever has a real shot at getting a Heisman, even with the skill set that Locker has?-- Richard Gau, Gilbert, Ariz.
First off, give credit to Washington for its creative Locker media push. (He spent Monday and Tuesday visiting ESPN's campus and meeting with various East Coast-based media, including Sports Illustrated.) A lot of people outside of the Pac-10 don't know much about the guy because his team has been so far off the national radar. Now, Heisman voters aren't sheep. They're not going to vote for a guy solely because they met him in June. But much like the famous Joey Harrington billboard in 2001, the trip got Locker in the news, at least for a couple of days, which created awareness. Now he and his team have to go deliver on the field.
At the same time, I don't think the Pacific Northwest teams are forgotten anymore. Oregon, for one, gets plenty of coverage. Dennis Dixon launched himself into the thick of the Heisman race three years ago with almost no prior name recognition, and Jeremiah Masoli could have done the same this year had he not blown it for himself. Jacquizz Rodgers is pretty close to a household name as well.
Meanwhile, the one guy I'm fairly certain won't win the Heisman is Alabama's Mark Ingram. As we've seen with recent winners like Jason White, Matt Leinart and Tim Tebow, voters hold those players to an even higher standard the following year. To pull an Archie Griffin today, someone would likely have to put together an absolutely monstrous year, which for Ingram might mean rushing for 2,000-plus yards. With Alabama likely to open up its passing game a bit more and Trent Richardson sharing carries in the backfield, I don't see that happening.
The guys I think you'll see mentioned most frequently as candidates to start the year will be (in no particular order): Ingram, Locker, Rodgers, Terrelle Pryor, Kellen Moore, Ryan Mallett, Noel Devine, LaMichael James, Ryan Williams, Christian Ponder, Jacory Harris and Case Keenum. These are guys who fit the traditional Heisman mold: established quarterbacks or running backs with built-in name recognition who are likely to put up big numbers.
Some guys who would jump up the pecking order pretty quickly if they and their teams get off to hot starts: Matt Barkley, Andrew Luck, Landry Jones, Garrett Gilbert, John Brantley, John Clay, Dion Lewis, Evan Royster, A.J. Green, DeMarco Murray, Jonathan Baldwin, Michael Floyd, Jerrod Johnson, Robert Griffin, Josh Nesbitt and Julio Jones.
The other thing we know for certain is that come December, there will be at least one or two finalists, and perhaps even a winner, who weren't on anybody's radar coming into the season. Go back to this time last year and you won't find Ingram, Toby Gerhart or Ndamukong Suh on too many Heisman Watch lists. Who will those guys be this year? Like I said, we don't know. It would be impossible to predict. They may include someone who's not even currently projected to start for his team. But here are a few under-the-radar possibilities: Arizona running back Nic Grigsby, Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton, and, for this year's Suh, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn.
I think I learned something new this summer: The big teams don't care if we have a playoff or a BCS or anything else. Whatever happens, they will be fine. It's the lower-level BCS teams -- Iowa State, Washington State, Kansas State, etc. -- that will fight tooth and nail to keep the current system. They have the most to lose if things ever change. Am I right?-- Mike Nicholas, New Orleans
You are absolutely, 100 percent right, Mike. And in being right, you touch on an extremely important angle that's almost never addressed when discussing BCS vs. a playoff.
I think we can all agree that a playoff, were it to suddenly materialize tomorrow, would please an overwhelming majority of fans. It would also be received quite warmly by Boise State, BYU, TCU and all the other non-AQ schools that feel disenfranchised by the current system. Of course, we also know they're not the ones making that decision. The BCS conferences are.
So ask yourself: Of the 67 schools that control the BCS, how many would actually benefit from a playoff? I.e., how many programs realistically compete on a regular basis for national championships? Ten? Maybe 15? At the very most, 20. But if you're at Michigan State, Ole Miss, Oregon State or any other rank-and-file BCS program, the current system is far preferable. You get to mooch financially off the two or three elite teams in your conference while at the same time competing for more realistic goals (an occasional conference title, decent bowl games) that keep your fans engaged and encouraged.
Reasonable minds may disagree as to whether a playoff would devalue the regular season, but the reality is, a playoff would completely alter fans' standards for success. Just like with any other sport, any season in which your team doesn't qualify for the playoffs would be deemed a failure. Which means, even with a 16-team playoff, roughly 85 percent of the country will be disappointed every season. And if you happen to be a fan of a team that perennially misses the playoff -- which, within some BCS conferences, might be eight out of 12 teams -- it stands to reason that your interest in the sport would wane.
Conference commissioners must look out for the welfare of all their teams, not just the elite ones. They know they'll never have it better than they do with the current system, which creates (mostly) meaningful postseason opportunities -- and thus, maintains seasonlong interest -- for the vast majority of their teams. Playoff or no playoff, Texas will be fine. Texas Tech will not. In fact, in a true March Madness-style playoff, in which every conference gets a berth, it's not inconceivable that Boise State, much like Memphis or Gonzaga in basketball, would become a more lucrative property to television networks than two-thirds of the current BCS-conference members.
So you can guess who's fighting the hardest to keep the current structure intact -- the same type of schools that stood to lose the most had the Pac-16 gone down.
Simple question: Which schools' offenses/defenses do you most enjoy watching? Thanks.-- Daniel, Atlanta
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I much prefer to watch a good spread-rushing offense over a traditional Power-I offense, and Oregon's has been the most fun by far for the past several years. It's fast, its precise, and when Chip Kelly has the right quarterback (Dixon, Masoli) at the helm, the possibility of someone ripping off a 60-yard run exists on nearly every play. Georgia Tech's triple-option feels similar when it's clicking, but when it's not, it can actually be kind of laborious (see: the Jacket's past two bowl games).
With defense, I'm probably not astute enough to pick up on the various nuances that make one 4-3 defense more fun than another. All you can ask for is a defense full of athletes that blitzes a lot and flies to the ball. Therefore, it changes from year to year -- the 2008 USC defense was incredible and NickSaban's two national title defenses fit the bill. But one fairly unique program that stands out is TCU, both because of the scheme (4-2-5) and the Frogs' propensity for fast, swarming linemen and linebackers like Jerry Hughes and Aaron Schobel.
Stewart, a buddy of mine lives/works outside of Knoxville and gave me a call from Neyland Stadium last week. Turns out, he was checking out a pair of season tickets for Volunteers football (apparently there were more than 1,000 available). I assumed that most BCS schools had waiting lists a mile long for season tickets which brings me to the following question: Has Tennessee fallen on hard times, is the economy just that bad, are multibillion dollar TV deals causing fans to stay home, or are all the octogenarians you see on football-Saturdays finally passing away?-- Bryan Collins, Dayton, Ohio
All of the above.
According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the school conducted a survey to find out why so many season-ticket holders (2,800) declined to renew, and the two most commonly listed reasons were the economy and age. I'm sure that's true to some extent. There's also the theory that fans aren't as motivated to attend live games now that virtually every game is available live and in HD. Yet if Tennessee was coming off a 10-2 season and ranked in the preseason top 10, I guarantee you there would be no tickets to be had.
Season tickets are the ultimate pledge of loyalty. A school is asking you to invest a considerable amount of money (oftentimes a significant donation is required just for the right to purchase tickets) for the privilege of being part of its game-day experience, no matter the opponent, no matter the team's record that year. Yet Vols fans have been subjected to a particularly unusual test of their loyalty over the past two years, as the school first ran off a legendary coach (admittedly, one whom many had grown tired of), then replaced him with a renegade young outsider who bolted after a single season, leaving the program in disarray. Things will get better, but considering the circumstances, it's hard to blame those 2,800 fans for throwing in the towel, especially if they were already pushing their economic or health limits just to attend the games.
What a great celebration after Landon Donovan's goal in the U.S.-Algeria game. It was great seeing how excited the whole team was and allowed the TV viewers to get even more caught up in the emotions/atmosphere of the game. Too bad that same celebration on a college football field would have drawn flags from every direction. And yes, I'm a UGA fan who's still sour about the call on A.J. Green last year.-- Ben Millis, Greenville, S.C.
Indeed, that may be the lone aspect of the game that World Cup referees haven't managed to screw up.
Stewart, what do we need to do to convince ESPN to keep Derek Rae, Martin Tyler or Ian Darke on the company payroll through college football season?-- Seth, Omaha
No kidding. The World Cup has illuminated just how plain, uncreative and controversy-shy most American sportscasters can be. How many times have you watched a college football game where the replay shows a blatantly atrocious call and Brad Nessler or Bob Griese chimes in with something like, "Oooh -- I don't know about that." CBS' Gary Danielson, to his credit, tends to be more blunt, but even so -- imagine if Darke had been calling the Georgia-LSU game last year when the ref flagged Green for that celebration penalty. He would have said something like this (in a British accent):
"An absolute disgrace. There should be massive outrage on the side of the Bulldogs at one of the most odious pieces of officiating this sport has ever seen."
And then he would work in some reference to a Rolling Stones album.
For all the talk about SEC dominance the past four years, I find it even more remarkable that the national championship is so rarely won by a program which hadn't won it before. In fact, the last time a program won one for the first time was 1996 with Florida. It wasn't always this way. Four programs won their first title in the '80s (Clemson, Penn State, Miami and BYU). The '90s also saw new champions Colorado, Georgia Tech, Washington, FSU and Florida. Since then, only Virginia Tech in 1999 and Missouri and West Virginia in 2007 have even had realistic shots at it in late November. Why can't anyone new seem to get its first?-- Michael Burt, Indianapolis
Great question. I think you have to consider two major changes that coincided almost exactly with the period in question, and which have directly influenced the national championship: the increased importance of conference affiliation, and, of course, the creation of the BCS.
Of the teams Michael mentioned, Penn State, Miami and Florida State all built themselves up while still independents. With the freedom to create national schedules, they built up credibility by playing and beating the big boys on a consistent basis. Obviously, that start-up route is no longer possible. A program like Boise State only gets to play one or two such games a year and therefore has taken much longer to gain the respect of pollsters.
And then there's the fact that none of those teams actually played in a BCS Championship Game. With all due respect to Georgia Tech, its championship path in 1990 involved playing a seven-game ACC schedule, non-conference games against 6-5 South Carolina, 6-5 Virginia Tech and 5-6 Georgia, and a Citrus Bowl win over No. 19 Nebraska. BYU not only played in the WAC but finished its season in the Holiday Bowl facing 6-5 Michigan. I don't bring this up to denigrate these teams, but there's no denying that the path to a national championship for most teams today -- a 12-game regular season in a major conference, a possible conference title game and then a 1 vs. 2 bowl game -- is significantly harder than 20 years ago.
So we are told that Texas now has the right to pursue the launch of its own television network. Great, but what exactly does that mean? It is clear when a conference decides to do this that the conference will decide which games are shown there and which go to network TV, etc., but for an individual school? How can that work? Surely the Red River Shootout won't move from network TV, but is Iowa State vs. Texas destined for some channel no one in Ames will get?-- Blake Meisenheimer, Minnetonka, Minn.
I'm not sure the folks at Texas know for themselves yet what exactly the Bevo Network (or whatever it will be called) will comprise, but I don't think it would affect national networks' packages. It would probably closely follow the Big Ten's model. Live game broadcasts account for a relatively small percentage of that network's overall programming. It's built an array of studio shows and other original features, airs reruns of classic games, etc. The live games it does show are generally those that don't get picked up by ABC or ESPN and which, in the past, would have either been syndicated on local channels or not televised at all.
I assume the same would be true for Texas. Most of its football games get picked up by ABC/ESPN or Fox Sports Net, but there will still always be one or two a year that slip through. Last year, for instance, its season-opener against Louisiana Monroe was shown on Pay Per View, while four of its non-conference men's basketball games were syndicated locally. Realistically, Texas' network would only get to show those few leftover games while perhaps re-running more prominent games the next day or later in the week. It would also presumably air more non-revenue sports, produce coaches shows, nightly highlight shows and other Longhorn-related programming.
Time will tell whether it's a feasible venture. The Austin-American Statesman has reported possible start-up costs of between $15 million and $30 million. From the outside, you might read all that and think, "Who would possibly watch that?" But the answer may well be a couple million Texans, which, if true, would get the network on basic cable throughout a huge state and thus allow it to become profitable.
With the U.S. loss in the World Cup and the subsequent righting of the universe with America's interest in soccer returning to minimal levels, how about you give us some good ways to avoid work and occupy our free time until football season gets here.-- Bo, Atlanta
I'm telling you, the universe hasn't been righted yet. As long as Argentina's still alive, so, too, is my World Cup interest. (After that, admittedly, I will probably lose interest until 2014.)
But look, it's been an unusual summer already. There was expansion mania. There was an 11-hour tennis match. A bunch of pitchers made America's most boring pastime that much more boring by getting all 27 batters out. And now we've got the LeBron-free agency mess, which, even if you don't care about the NBA, should be amusing to watch just from a media standpoint. (We've already had one major organization report on a meeting that never happened.)
There will be plenty more reasons to avoid doing work. For instance, try reading every word of Phil Steele's preview. You won't get an iota of work done before October.
Note: The Mailbag will be off next week, returning July 14.