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    Yes, there’s a lot of Virginia in here.

    1. THE “GOD DON’T LIKE UGLY; HE LOVES IT” PLAN

    • Michigan State
    • Stanford
    • Alabama
    • NC State

    A plausible scenario, actually. Michigan State winning out against the rest of their schedule with 13-9 games would be weird, but not the weirdest thing Michigan State has ever done. Alabama is easy to put in; NC State is less simple and way less likely (see the entire “Swinney Debacle Scenario”), but still possible. Stanford needs the Big 12 to hand out some round-robin losses, but can knock out Notre Dame itself on Nov. 25.

    The over for all of these games would be somewhere around 45 points total. Ratings would fall among every key demographic except the elderly, who would send ESPN/ABC tender AOL and Hotmail notes from their iPads about how finally, someone put football teams that play at sensible paces back on top of college football.

    2. THE COACHES ARE FIGHTING

    • Notre Dame
    • Penn State
    • TCU
    • Oklahoma State

    OH MY, THE COACHES ARE FIGHT-Y. JAMES FRANKLIN HAS HIS CHEST PUFFED OUT AND IS CHARGING THE FIELD BECAUSE YOU MADE EYE CONTACT WITH HIM! JAMES FRANKLIN, LIKE A WOLF OR A GUY DRIVING AN F-150 WITH A LIFT KIT, INTERPRETS EVERY EYE CONTACT AS A DIRECT CHALLENGE! THE FIRST RULE OF DEALING WITH JAMES FRANKLIN IS NEVER MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH HIM! NOW YOU MUST FIGHT!

    GARY PATTERSON IS BEATING YOU WITH HIS WOODEN LEG! HE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A WOODEN LEG! GOD KNOWS WHERE HE GOT THAT, OR WHO FROM!

    BRIAN KELLY IS BRIAN KELLY!

    WHERE’S GUND—

    HELLO, BOYS. LOOKS LIKE WE’VE GOT ENTIRELY TOO MANY TROUBLEMAKERS HERE. TOO MANY 40-YEAR-OLD ADOLESCENTS, FELONS, POWERDRINKERS, AND TRUSTEES OF MODERN CHEMISTRY!

    3. THE SWINNEY DEBACLE PROTOCOL

    • Alabama
    • Ohio State
    • NC State
    • Georgia

    Engineered specifically for maximum Clemson fury.

    It includes the team Clemson beat to win a national title last year; a division foe who’d have to get here directly through Clemson; a team Clemson blanked last year in the Playoff; and an on-again, off-again rival on the field/perennial recruiting opponent.

    There are some serious rivers to cross to get here. Georgia would have to win out, then somehow beat an undefeated Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. This assumes Alabama wins the rest of their games, which is maybe the most comfortable assumption of all.

    It would help if that Georgia victory looked fluky or was very close. Alabama as a one-loss team would need help to get in the Playoff, and by help, I mean teams dropping games left and right.

    The Wolfpack would have to win their matchup over Clemson, sweep the rest of their schedule, and win the ACC Championship. To give you an idea of how rare this is, they haven’t won the ACC in the sport of football since 1979, and the last time NC State finished with just one loss was 1957.*

    *Note: Even in that year, the Wolfpack put up two ties. If ties still existed, Arkansas would have zillions of them, but Michigan State, NC State, and South Carolina might actively try for them.

    Ohio State is the most reasonable piece here. Now that Michigan’s offense has entered some kind of extended rehab/scrimmage period, Penn State is their most challenging game remaining, and that’s a home game for the Buckeyes.

    4. THE ADDERALL SPECIAL

    • Oklahoma State
    • Ohio State
    • Washington State
    • USF

    If you cross-index “total offensive plays” and rankings, this is basically the foursome you get. (USC is up there, but has played fewer games.)

    In order to get this Playoff, the most sluggish of conferences by pace — the SEC — needs to implode and fall out of the national title race. You’d also need Wazzu to recover and finish strong (nahhhh), Notre Dame to drop another game (not impossible), and for the ACC champion to finish with two losses (also not impossible.) A scenario that depends on consistency from Washington State is probably one that’s already dead, but it’s not completely insane.*

    *It is, however, 99.99999999 percent insane.

    Oklahoma State and Ohio State don’t need outside help to make this happen.

    South Florida needs to finish undefeated, keep Quinton Flowers injury-free, and hope that in a field of badly dented candidates, the shiny and ding-free budget model from the American is the best possible pick for a four-spot.

    I just turned USF into a well-maintained rental car bought at auction, and I am sorry for that.

    5. PULL OVER, THAT PASS TOO FAT

    • Washington State
    • Memphis
    • Ohio State
    • Virginia

    Every game in this setup would be seven hours long. It would be bad, but there would be so much of it.

    Part of the reason this exists is to create one, just one, scenario where the Memphis Tigers steal a bite of that sweet, sweet Playoff money.

    Did you know Virginia was winging the ball around like a Big 12 team this year, or that the tatted-up quarterback doing it was named after his cool uncle who showed off his knife collection while babysitting? You probably did not. By the way, don’t read more about that uncle if you don’t want to hear the very sad ending to that extremely cool uncle’s life!

    Also, Ohio State’s been passing the ball really well (and 37 times a game so far), especially for a team that couldn’t throw a ball in a lake successfully last year.

    6. TRIUMPH OF THE GEEKS

    • Notre Dame
    • Virginia
    • Stanford
    • Oklahoma State

    In every other scenario, Notre Dame doesn’t need much help to get in, really. Win out, and then rely on the grabby little hands of the Playoff committee to snatch Notre Dame up for the sake of television ratings. They’re a good team, have a loss they can apologize for adequately, and will have a presentable schedule.

    But! If we want to put Stanford in, then we’re talking about a bit more engineering. The Cardinal have two losses already and need to beat Notre Dame, a team that can’t afford a second loss.

    So, we’re going to need some disasters to happen elsewhere. We’re going to need Alabama to win the SEC, but take two losses and look awful beating the East team. That would mean dropping the LSU and Auburn games, and then playing what could only be described as a 60-minute atrocity in Atlanta so unwatchable the rest of the country recoils from the idea of watching the Tide play another game.

    Kentucky can speed this along by being the team that beats Georgia and wins the East (but loses to Louisville), because no one on the committee could really accept a Playoff team losing to Kentucky. That’s not fair, but say it out loud and know how right this is.

    This also assumes everyone in the Big Ten ends up with two losses and that the committee kind of forgets Notre Dame isn’t a Big Ten team. Stop acting like that totally doesn’t happen already.

    Keep rolling with this stupidity by assuming a miracle of a season at UVA. Yes, this would mean former SEC East champion Indiana would have a transitive win over the entire ACC. Why do you flinch and shudder when I say that?

    Oklahoma State is in the Triumph of the Geeks scenario because I a.) couldn’t really find another super smart team to put in, and b.) petrochemical engineering and veterinary medicine are really hard. Expand your narrow definition of geekery and put these boots on, y’all. They’re comfy, and in Stillwater, you can wear them with shorts and formal wear.

    7. WHAT

    • Kentucky
    • Virginia
    • Utah
    • UCF

    Forget you saw this. Speaking it into existence is a crime.

    8. ANAEROBIC FOOTBALL (LIVES WITHOUT AIR, YOU SEE)

    • Georgia
    • Wisconsin
    • Alabama
    • Notre Dame

    If you believe the forward pass represented a moment when our culture took a wrong turn straight to Helltown, this is your desired setup.

    It may be a surprise to see Notre Dame here, but the Irish really have gotten this far in life without having to pass. In fact, they keep the ball on the ground about as often as the gold standard for water buffalo offense, Wisconsin.

    We’d all be watching at least the first 15 minutes of a 30 for 30, because all of these games would finish in under three hours, and airtime ain’t gonna fill itself.

    9. RATINGS DISASTER

    • Stanford
    • San Diego State
    • Virginia
    • UCF

    Ideally, for maximum disaster, this comes down to a Stanford-SDSU rematch. In the event of this disaster: Consult the following footage to determine which side of the American cultural divide you land on, and root accordingly.


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    The Top Whatever ranks only the teams that really need to be ranked, starting with the unbeatens. If you’re looking for the polls for some reason, those are over here.

    1. Penn State.

    42-13 over Michigan. That score is merciful, but not for lack of trying. James Franklin had the backups running plays at the Michigan 10, with time expiring, when Penn State could have kneeled, because:

    • Penn State suffered its worst loss of 2016 to Michigan, a 49-10 beatdown that might have been motivation for Penn State playing the entire game at high gear.
    • OK, not might, but definitely, since Maria Taylor overheard offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead quoting the 2016 games’s score back at Penn State’s offense before the TD to put the Nittany Lions over the 40-point mark.
    • Because Franklin is a competitor, which is another way of saying he’s as petty as petty can be, from saying Pitt and Akron were basically the same team to nearly getting into a fight with former Georgia (and current Mississippi State) defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in 2011.
    • Because little has changed with either Penn State or Michigan from the start of the season. Michigan is still a solid defense playing without much offensive production to protect it; Penn State is a balanced, dangerous team with two offensive pieces capable of messing up your entire world in one play. Put the two together, assume all things stay constant, and the results are going to be lopsided every time.
    • Because Penn State sacked John O’Korn seven times and forced a fumble. No quarterback in the history of college football has ever won a game while being sacked seven times and fumbling once.
    • This is a stat that is completely true, and don’t bother looking it up, because I certainly didn’t, but it’s at least 95 percent true. (Probably.)

    Penn State is undefeated. The Nittany Lions’ schedule gives them one of the most direct lines to a playoff slot. Their schedule also happens to include a rampaging Ohio State next week and a brutal, stingy Michigan State the next.

    TL;DR: The path to the top is very clear. It goes straight up that cliff covered in rattlesnake nests and broken glass.*

    *Is Franklin going to try and punch a snake? Has he seen Hard Target at least 40 times? Reader, Franklin is the college football coach most likely to punch a snake. If his DVD collection doesn’t include at least one hella scratched copy of the Jean-Claude Van Damme/John Woo classic, I will personally mail Franklin one American dollar for him to punch. George Washington won’t stop staring at him, and direct eye contact is always a challenge.

    2. Alabama.

    Processed “rival” Tennessee 42-7, canned the Vols, and sold them for meat across the fine supermarkets of the Southeast.

    There’s a lot of ways to paint a portrait of horror here. Numbers are one option. Alabama’s offense had 35 first downs, while poor Tennessee only scraped together seven. I could point you to the 604-to-108 in the total yards column, too, or maybe highlight Tennessee going a pitiful one-of-12 on third downs.

    If numbers don’t move the needle, maybe former Vols torching Butch Jones on Twitter will do.

    If that still doesn’t work? Anecdotes might help, like the sad tale of Tennessee almost scoring a touchdown on offense. The Vols got all the way down to the Alabama 1-yard line. They then false started, stalled the drive, and extended Tennessee’s 12-quarter offensive TD drought.

    Tennessee did score on an interception return ...

    ... only to have DB Rashaan Gaulden flip double birds at the Alabama crowd and get tagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. This was actually the best-executed thing Tennessee did all game, because if you’re going to commit to one, you might as well hand out a double serving while you’re at it.

    The real Alabama death machine watcher, though, knows the ultimate sign of an Alabama blowout. The game got so out of hand that Ronnie Clark, the sixth-string running back, got to carry the ball twice. Clark was a four-star tight end recruit who could start almost anywhere else in college football. His appearance lets an opponent know that what is still a game for you just became a scrimmage for them.

    At Alabama, he’s the vultureback. If you see him, you’ll know that only your bones are left.

    3. Goldy the Gopher.

    Not Minnesota, but Goldy.

    4. TCU.

    43-0 over Kansas. If a team has to play Kansas, and has no other choice because it’s a conference game, then the most a team can do is beat Kansas so badly it sets a new record for beatings, even the beatings involving Kansas.

    TCU held Kansas to a Big 12 record of 21 yards, handing the Jayhawks their 44th straight loss on the road. I’m going to stop talking about Kansas because sadness is contagious.

    5. Miami.

    A 27-19 game of keep-away with Syracuse, which rudely ran more plays than Miami, but also politely turned the ball over four times. Miami played its third close, single-score conference game in a row and won. Teams can do this when they keep the turnover margin tidy, and when the quarterback can throw 43 times without anything too terrible happening.

    Malik Rosier is 6-0 as a starter this season. He has worked a lot like the rest of the team: efficiently and sometimes explosively dismantling opponents, not making a lot of mistakes, and thriving in close games. He’s not been great at any one thing, but that’s this team, really. They do a lot of things well; more importantly, they don’t do anything too badly.

    Miami does have two weaknesses someone might exploit, if they can.

    One: Since the loss of Mark Walton, the rushing attack has suffered a bit, and someone who can really defend the run could turn Miami into a one-sided attack. See: Notre Dame, coming to Miami on Nov. 11, or Virginia Tech, whose numbers are even better, coming to Miami on Nov. 4.

    Two: They have definitely not shown the ability to knee-kick a defender in the facemask.

    TONY JAAAAAAA

    Eric Dungey and Syracuse didn’t win on Saturday. They did, however, highlight this facemask-kicking weakness.

    6. Wisconsin.

    38-13 over Maryland. The Badgers stumbled out of the gate on offense, throwing a pick and fumbling before getting right with a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive.

    From that point, Wisconsin was its usual self: stingy against the run, patient with its own rushing attack, and good enough through the air for a significant cushion.

    It’s pleasing that every Saturday, Wisconsin keeps being the team most like its mascot. They move through a game like they have short, powerful legs, steadily digging away. The Badgers do sometimes come out of their den slowly, but when they do, they defend their territory savagely.

    They are more explosive than one might think. QB Alex Hornibrook averages almost 10 yards per attempt, just like badgers, who despite being short-legged, can run at up to 19 miles per hour in short bursts. Try and sleep tonight, knowing that a razor-mouthed heavyweight turbo-weasel that can outrun you is lurking in the Wisconsin woods. Might be talking about the animal. Might be talking about the football team. Either or both, really.

    7. Houston Water Bottle Guy.

    Houston, 4-3 after this week’s loss to Memphis; Houston Water Bottle Guy, undefeated.

    8. UCF.

    Got Navy’d, which explains why the rampaging UCF offense only scored 31 points. (“Only.”) Playing triple-option teams is wrestling in molasses for everyone. It is especially frustrating for teams as explosive as UCF, who have to hold serve on offense, get the ball back a few extra times on defense, and then crank through first downs until a haymaker or two hits home.

    It also helps when the triple-option team’s quarterback makes a very unfortunate read or two.

    UCF is not a novelty. Putting them in the Top Whatever is not cute or throwing charity the way of an AAC team. The Knights are a delight because they clearly enjoy not just beating teams, but destroying them with flair, something rarely seen since ... well, since Oregon’s Chip Kelly teams, the ones UCF head coach Scott Frost worked on as an assistant. Speculate about where he might end up all you like, but enjoy this team now, for what it is in 2017: a genuine, polished monster.

    P.S. The game between USF and UCF on Nov. 24 might have real, national-type implications for the playoff. JUST AS EVERYONE PREDICTED.*

    *Note: No one predicted this.

    9. USF.

    34-28 over Tulane. This is a compliment: USF QB Quinton Flowers is second in our nation to Baker Mayfield in making complete horseshit plays, i.e., unscripted, improvised plays that make defensive coordinators mutter “horseshit” under their breath.

    For example, this is from a horseshit play:

    IT’S FUN TO THINK YOU HAVE AN ANGLE SOMETIMES

    See, the funny part is that this was supposed to go left, and Flowers has already turned right. There, he finds two defenders waiting for him, both leaning right, but with reasonable pursuit angles.

    This is the scene about three nanoseconds after the previous photo.

    SEE THAT’S THE WHOLE DEFENSE BEHIND HIM, WHICH THEY’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE AT ALL

    A blip later, there’s nothing in front of him but the end zone. This is the kind of greatness that happens when a quarterback can make horseshit plays.

    Flowers is one of the best kind of college quarterbacks. He runs brilliantly, often off-script. His passing might be erratic, but if he only completes 10 passes, it’s a lock that two will be for touchdowns. (This is what happened against Tulane: 10-of-24 through the air, for two TDs, one INT, and 127 yards.)

    There will be long periods where he does nothing or scrambles himself into backfield trouble. Then, after a lull, Flowers will slip a tackle and ruin a pursuit angle, and all hell will break loose. You know: the kind of completely joyous horseshit quarterback play that — if Flowers heartbreaking backstory didn’t do it already— endears a player to a fan base for life.

    Again: USF plays UCF on Nov. 24, and it’s going to be better appointment viewing than the “War on I-4” has any right to be.

    UNDEFEATED AND WISELY AVOIDED PLAYING FOOTBALL THIS WEEK

    Georgia. The Bulldogs spent the bye week preparing for Florida, or studying film of a chicken trying to take flight. Remember: The Top Whatever only ranks teams based on what they did this week versus their overall record. Georgia spent the week watching Florida game tape, and watching farce/comedy doesn’t qualify as work.

    The Bulldogs still control everything in front of them thanks to a clean record and that one-point win over Notre Dame in South Bend. Georgia could owe the entire season to Rodrigo Blankenship, a former walk-on kicker in Rec Specs who occasionally does interviews still wearing his helmet, for his late field goal against Notre Dame. Georgia was saved by a nerd, and famously nerd-hating Dawg fans will have to live with that.

    TEAMS WITH ONE LOSS WE MUST BEGIN CONSIDERING FOR THINGS

    Notre Dame. Flattened a disjointed USC, 49-14. It’s not shocking that Notre Dame is good. It is shocking how they’re doing it. On paper, Notre Dame looks like a service academy and runs with Brandon Wimbush and Josh Adams like they’re pushing a single wing all the way to the state championship in high school.

    Go look it up: Notre Dame’s peers in the top 10 for total rushing yardage include all three service academies, former Navy coach Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech squad, and Alabama. 2017’s hottest club is MOSTLY GIVING UP ON THE FORWARD PASS.

    Oklahoma. Won a barn-burner on the road versus Kansas State, 42-35. Probably sitting on the outside of any Playoff bubble, but controls a substantial chunk of its fate by a.) having TCU and Oklahoma State coming on the schedule and b.) Baker Mayfield doing things to keep OU in games, like picking up 15 yards on fourth-and-4 out of absolutely nothing.

    First-rate horseshit college football quarterback greatness.

    Oklahoma State. A 13-10 winner in OT against Texas. Maybe the most surprising score of the week, because a Texas-OSU overtime should be 56-55, but it’s a win. Gundy don’t care.

    Montana Tech. The Orediggers sit at 6-1 in the NAIA’s Frontier conference, and are owners of the weekend’s most gigantic box score in a 93-19 ... win? There really aren’t words for scoring 93 on someone, even the clearly outmanned Montana State-Northern Lights, so just call it this: Montana Tech scored so many points that all the scores won’t fit in the scoring summary table.

    NC State. The mystery of IS NC STATE ACTUALLY GREAT AT FOOTBALL THINGS? will thankfully clarify itself when NC State plays Clemson and Notre Dame.

    Until then, this is me at all times when discussing NC State.

    RESIDENTS OF RALEIGH REPORT STRANGE SIGHTINGS OF A GOOD FOOTBALL TEAM

    Michigan State. Scraped by Indiana, 17-9. The bad news, for any other team, would be failing to get 300 yards of offense and grinding out wins in the hardest possible fashion. The good news for Michigan State: This sounds like how Mark Dantonio does things anyway. In the next three weeks, the Spartans play Ohio State and Penn State, and oh man, could they mess up a lot of things for a lot of people in that timespan.

    Washington State. Recovered by beating Colorado, 28-0, in a cold, driving rain in Pullman. Luke Falk still doesn’t look right, but Wazzu is still in the co-driver’s seat in the Pac-12 North and only has one loss. Technically alive for things beyond the Pac-12, is what we’re saying, but barely.

    ONE-LOSS TEAMS THAT WISELY AVOIDED PLAYING FOOTBALL THIS WEEK BUT STILL MERIT MENTION

    Clemson. Still insanely talented and probably still capable of figuring out the quarterback spot after the injury to starter Kelly Bryant against Syracuse. In barely related news: WOO BOY DABO BOUGHT HISSELF A TUDOR-THEMED CHAIN HOTEL-LOOKIN’ MANSION.

    Virginia Tech. Humiliated UNC 59-7, but UNC helped generously with that. Still carrying a nasty loss to Clemson on the resume, but also still in charge of its own fate in the ACC.

    Washington. Still playing for big, important things, and also still ashamed owners of the season’s most baffling loss, at Arizona State last week. Like their rivals across the state in Pullman: Technically alive for larger things.

    ONE-LOSS TEAM IN MEMPHIS WE LIKE MENTIONING BECAUSE THEY ARE VERY FUN AND ALSO MEMPHIS

    Memphis. The Memphis Tigers beat Houston 42-38 in this week’s most off-the-rails game, scoring all of their points in a blazing second-half comeback. Memphis realistically has no chance at the Playoff. I don’t care because the Tigers are very fun and tend to play their games like making the rent depends on it.

    Also: Riley Ferguson is having a better year than Sam Darnold and would be just as happy to steal a signing bonus from the Jets. OOOOH, HE’S 6’4, NFL SCOUTS. YOU GAVE BROCK OSWEILER MILLIONS AND CURRENTLY PAY BRIAN HOYER MONEY. GIVE RILEY FERGUSON AT LEAST ONE HUGE SIGNING BONUS. THE UNIVERSE OWES HIM AT LEAST THAT MUCH.


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    Ranking only the college football teams that absolutely must be ranked at this time.

    AS ALWAYS, WE BEGIN WITH UNDEFEATED TEAMS THAT ACTUALLY PLAYED FOOTBALL THIS WEEKEND.

    1. Georgia.

    The best way to show the size of the giant ass-kicking pile the Georgia Bulldogs amassed in a 42-7 win over Florida: start with one small point. Jake Fromm, Georgia’s freshman quarterback, threw seven passes, not in one quarter, not in a half, but for the entire length of one regulation football game against a conference opponent and hated rival.

    Unless you are Navy or another triple-option team, let me tell you what throwing seven times in a 42-7 win means. It means one team beat the other team’s ass so badly, they didn’t even have to get up off the couch to do it. It means Georgia saw Florida getting Georgia’s last beer out of the fridge, and without really waking up, winged the remote control all the way across the house and into Florida’s temple. The remote control came flying back like the hammer of Thor, of course.

    Note: This is the only superpower I can see any Georgia fan really wanting that doesn’t involve golf.

    This meant that without even looking at the rest of the box score or watching the game, the Bulldogs probably ran the ball at will. (They did, for 292 yards and four TDs.)

    It meant that at no point did the Georgia defense allow the Gators’ offense to change the pace. (They did not. Florida’s putrid offense flailed so badly that it might have contributed significantly to firing Florida’s head coach.)

    I don’t think it’s just because they play in the burnt-out shell of what used to be the SEC East and are the last unvandalized mansion on the block. Georgia is 8-0 because it’s ridiculously disciplined, well-coached, and unlike a thousand other teams in the country, builds around its ingredients.

    The Bulldogs have two outstanding running backs and a young QB. Guess what they do? They run the ball with those two backs, block well, and don’t ask Fromm to do too much yet. The Georgia defense? Y’all, just watch how they read and react, and see what simple, systematic teaching can do to free up defenders to make plays without getting too deep in their own heads.

    They’re smart. That’s a word the entire state of Georgia has a problematic relationship with, but the truth is that this isn’t UGA’s full potential. This is an intelligent, managed team playing clean, brutal football.

    P.S. I don’t even think this team is much more talented than a lot of the teams they face yet. The bulk of what Georgia could be is still in the mail, growing in the weight room in the form of incoming recruiting classes and underclassmen. Doubt this, and ask yourself why Florida tossed Jim McElwain on the curb, free to a good home, and why Tennessee is going to rehome Butch Jones any day now. This is good, but there is much more coming, and everyone in the SEC East knows it.

    2. Iowa State Wario.

    Iowa State has two losses, so by the standards of the Top Whatever, they can’t make the undefeated rankings. But you know who can? IOWA STATE WARIO.

    TCU v Iowa StatePhoto by David Purdy/Getty Images
    THEY’RE A-GONNA WIN

    So much came together here:

    • the extremely smart hiring of Matt Campbell from Toledo
    • an historic upset of TCU in Ames, the second time an undefeated team has tussled with the Clones and come away bloodied
    • the decision made by this fan to not only dress up as the finest Nintendo character ever for Halloween,
    • but the EXCELLENT decision to wear that costume to the game and then onto the field in celebration
    • and the photographer, David Purdy, realizing the greatness of this moment.

    3. Miami.

    Tighter win than expected in a 24-19 victory over UNC, but remember: Miami is the kind of team where every game sort of comes out to 24-19, no matter the opponent.

    The things to be concerned about remain the things to feel good about. The Hurricanes can’t run the ball, so they have to rely on QB Malik Rosier for production. Rosier put up 350 yards and three TDs in a win, so it continues to be a strength.

    The Miami defense gave up 27 first downs to North Carolina, continuing a streak of allowing opposing offenses to move the chains on the Canes. On the other hand, the Miami defense forced four turnovers and is riding a serious streak of turnover luck, soooo ...

    Here we are, pointing out that Miami seems to be 2017’s Lucky But Also Good Team, and that’s fine. Miami’s 7-0 and winning where it counts: on the scoreboard and in the standings. The Canes are not just good enough to make opposing coaches mad, but make them mad at the otherwise completely inoffensive Mark Richt.

    P.S. I hope Richt told Larry Fedora to “stay blessed.” That would be 10 times more infuriating than any profanity he could have thrown back at him.

    4. Wisconsin.

    24-10 over poor, poor Illinois. Warning: The footage below may be too erotic for some readers.

    You: Wisconsin’s schedule is weak, and they’re not overly impressive

    Me: 8-0, and an offensive lineman reminded the world what real joy is. Also, no one has to worry about justifying a thing with Wisconsin. They win in the Big Ten Championship Game and they’re in; they lose, and they’re out, via some pretty comfortable justifications regarding that strength of schedule.

    Also, why are you bringing up stuff they can’t control, and not appreciating the fine, fat-dude thuggery of this team’s excellence? All Wisconsin wants to do is drop that ass on other teams’ heads for four hours. Let them revel in their plodding greatness before tangling them up with the Ohio States of the world.

    5. UCF.

    Beat FCS Austin Peay, 73-33. It’s a cupcake game, but thankfully someone still believes in testing to see whether all the numbers work on the scoreboard. UCF is now the only undefeated non-power team after USF lost to Houston. If the Knights win out, they’ll be that team looking to blindside someone in a New Year’s Day bowl.

    DID NOT PLAY THIS WEEK BUT IS PROBABLY THE REAL NO. 1. PLEASE REMEMBER THAT I DO NOT RANK TEAMS THAT DID NOT PLAY, ALABAMA FANS WHO WILL EMAIL ANYWAY

    Alabama. Probably the best team in the nation, but also definitely on a bye. Nick Saban definitely spent it horsewhipping his staff into watching 70 hours of footage of LSU’s jet sweeps.

    ONE-LOSS TEAMS TO CONSIDER FOR PLAYOFF-TYPE THINGS

    Notre Dame. Disassembled NC State, 35-14.

    This is a safe space. Admit how fun it is to watch Notre Dame lean on teams until they collapse. Talk about how satisfying it can be to watch Josh Adams run the ball. OK, don’t talk about that one too much, because Irish fans will flood your mentions about how you’re not respecting Adams enough, even though you’re talking about how good he is? (I don’t know, the Yankees are out of baseball’s postseason, and Duke basketball has started yet, and they’re bored or something.)

    It’s not aerial circus pretty. But beauty takes a lot of forms, reader, and it’s important to appreciate them all.

    That’s mean and admirable, but the real story is the Irish defense. They held NC State to a piddling 50 yards on the ground and harassed talented Wolfpack QB Ryan Finley into irrelevance for much of the game.

    For those just remembering that they are Notre Dame fans: Talk about the underrated defense, and hold off on buying that Warriors jersey for a few weeks, and you’ll continue to pass as a Real Human Sports Fan for a bit longer.

    Oklahoma. Beat Texas Tech, 49-27. Hopes Iowa State beats everyone for the rest of the regular season, frankly, and doesn’t care who knows it.

    Ohio State. Handed Penn State its first loss in a 39-38 thriller. J.T. Barrett went 13 for 13 in the fourth quarter for 170 yards and three TDs and was evidently the best passer in the history of college football for a while. I can’t say for sure that Barrett in that game wasn’t the greatest quarterback to ever play football, and neither can you.

    Clemson. 24-10 over Georgia Tech. Hey, QB Kelly Bryant seems to be moving just fine, and that’s nothing but good news for the Tigers’ prospects as they get back into the ACC and Playoff race.

    Oklahoma State. Winners, 50-39, over West Virginia, and with Bedlam coming up this week, have a lot in their control re: further ambitions.

    Washington. Ran the ball a whopping 58 times against UCLA in a 44-23 win because ... because they could? Yes, because they could. See all comments about Georgia above for what that means about a team in a non-triple option context.

    Virginia Tech. If they want to startle some people after a workmanlike, 24-3 win over Duke, beating an undefeated Miami and taking control of the ACC Coastal this coming week would be the way to do that.

    TEAMS THAT LOST THEIR FIRST GAME THIS WEEK. PUT IT ON THE TRAILER, TAKE IT TO THE GARAGE, AND COME BACK NEXT WEEK

    TCU. A 14-7 loss to Iowa State in Ames is a way more respectable way to fall off the wagon than it used to be, TCU. Take some consolation in that, and the rest of your schedule, which should keep you in contention for all kinds of things.

    USF. Don’t watch how USF lost this game, 28-24, to Houston. Just know that the Bulls gave up a fourth-and-24 pass for a first down on the final drive, then watched Houston QB D’Eriq King run 20 yards untouched for the winning TD. BAD. IT WAS VERY BAD FOR EVERYONE BUT HOUSTON TO WATCH. LIKE A CAR CRASH YOU SAW COMING BUT COULD NOT SCREAM TO WARN ANYONE ABOUT.

    Penn State. Not their fault they lost 39-38; played best college football quarterback ever of the week.


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    The Top Whatever is a weekly ranking of only the college football teams that are ranked in The Top Whatever.

    1. Iowa.

    The Top Whatever does whatever it wants and what it wants to do. What it wants to do this week is put Iowa at number one.

    Why? Because of all the cataclysmic beatdowns, ass-handings-to, and defeats handed out on Saturday, none — we repeat, none — were more unexpected, complete, or stunning than Iowa beating Ohio State, 55-24, effectively throwing the Big Ten’s Playoff hopes into the river and handing Urban Meyer the starkest loss of his lifetime.

    Don’t say you saw this coming. Maybe you hoped for a solid Ferentz-ing, sure, in which Iowa turns the game into a whole lot of nothing, like Iowa’s 14-13 upset of Michigan in 2016. Some other inert foolishness like a safety or two or a blocked punt would happen.

    Playing an underdog Iowa and losing is supposed to be like being crushed to death by a refrigerator. It’s your fault for trying to move it alone.

    This was not that kind of Iowa win. This was three hours of raining sledgehammers without a single piece of shelter. This was a battering. This was the point in a wrestling match when a desperate wrestler reaches for the rope, almost grabs it, and is then dragged back to the middle of the ring by their heels, kicking and screaming.

    It’s not just that Iowa pulled off the Stone Cold Stunner. It’s that Ohio State sold it so theatrically, with J.T. Barrett throwing four INTs and the defense giving up about 500 yards to a team that struggled to score 10 on Northwestern ... in an overtime game. I mean: Iowa QB Nathan Stanley — who’s fine, but not the quarterback on the field being considered for the Heisman — threw for five TDs.

    That stat alone is spitting out the beer on the flop, Ohio State, but if you’re into history: this was the most points an Urban Meyer team has ever given up, ever. The list of teams Iowa scored more points than in that data sample includes the scorching 2008 Oklahoma Sooners, who scored an FBS-record 702 points that year before only getting 14 in a loss to Florida in the title game. (The offensive coordinator for that team, Kevin Wilson, called the game for Ohio State this Saturday.)

    Iowa topped that, and even threw in two fakes, including a fake punt deep in their own territory when up by 35. Iowa is a mild-mannered account manager most of the time, just hoping to mostly go 8-4 and get a nice vacation in Florida once a year. Then, one night a year, they get way too drunk and start a bar fight with someone who wakes up on the floor, thinking, I did NOT see that coming, and certainly not from that guy.

    It’s your floor, Ohio State. Lay down on it for a minute. Find a pizza down there. It’s been there way longer than five seconds, but it’s a bit late to care about food safety.

    The Big Ten’s reaper wears black and gold, and he runs outside zone all game long.

    2. Clean underwear

    Your parents might not be happy with you charging the field to celebrate, sir. But they are happy that when you did it, at least you had a clean pair of drawers on to show that you were raised to make yourself presentable.

    3. Georgia.

    Defeated South Carolina, 24-10. The teams most people rightfully compare this Georgia team to are Nick Saban’s Alabama teams, and that’s fine. They play suffocating, pattern-reading defenses, run the hell out of the ball, and get timely play from their quarterbacks. Like a lot of Saban teams, the smartest guy on the team does happen to be an inside linebacker.

    In this case that’s Roquan Smith, who knows exactly what your play is at least 90 percent of the time. Smith is a football genius, and watching him diagnose plays in real time is mandatory viewing for football geeks.

    But — and this is no small compliment — it’s also hard to not compare them to the undefeated 2004 Auburn team. There are two running backs, presenting different challenges to defenses, but each strong enough to carry a team by themselves if necessary. There’s a mobile quarterback who refuses to make mistakes. There’s a rock-solid defense.

    The one key difference, historically speaking: 2004 Auburn played The Citadel, ULM, and Louisiana Tech, while UGA played fellow Playoff contender Notre Dame on the road and won. That might make all the difference in the world when selection time comes.

    If this offends Auburn fans, that’s also fine. The Tigers host Georgia this Saturday. They can shut down this comparison themselves, if they like.

    4. Miami.

    Led Virginia Tech around by the nose in a 28-10 win. Since we’ve been saying this for a month now, we’ll keep saying it: the Canes are the team that’s totally comfortable in a close game, because they’re the source and solution to all of their own problems.

    Miami took a 14-0 lead, then helped give that early lead away when QB Malik Rosier threw two interceptions, allowing Virginia Tech to creep to 14-10 in the third. Counterpunchers are happy to wait. The Canes waited for VT to make a mistake — a fumble for turnover, followed by a penalty for a late hit on Rosier — and then capitalized on a deep strike to Christopher Herndon IV that effectively put the game away.

    The rest was Virginia Tech thrashing away in vain, followed by shots of Jennifer Lopez holding up her own turnover chain. It’s not science, but when a team has a pet celebrity mascot or two, a couple of good props, and the ability to stay chill in single-score games, the issue of having overwhelming talent doesn’t matter much.

    This is all working, and if it works against Notre Dame in Miami this coming week, everyone will have to come around to America’s Most Relaxed Team being a Playoff contender, single-digit wins and all.

    5. Turnover Plank.

    Kennesaw State is 8-1 and defeated Montana State 16-14 yesterday. They do not have a turnover belt, turnover chain, or turnover trash can. They have a turnover plank.

    That’s an Ed, Edd, and Eddy reference on a college football sideline. It does not overstate the case to say that I would take a knife for Kennesaw State and the Turnover Plank right now.

    6. Notre Dame.

    48-37 over Wake Forest reminds us: Notre Dame is so good that we can all start drafting compliments based off their innate strength. If a good chunk of Georgia’s excellence is based off beating Notre Dame, why not note Wake Forest is pesky as hell and pressed the Irish harder than a lot of other, allegedly better teams on their schedule? That’s how good you are right now, Notre Dame. We can talk about how good the other team was.

    What isn’t good is Brandon Wimbush suffering a nasty contusion to his hand when a Wake defender ran helmet-first into it or running back Josh Adams missing the second half with what Brian Kelly called “not feeling right”, whatever that is. Also, the Irish gave up over 500 yards offense to Wake Forest, including 331 yards through the air. Miami might notice that.

    They might also notice that, even without Adams, Notre Dame still ran for 380 yards, because 2017 is the year the best teams all decided the forward pass was overrated.

    7. Oklahoma.

    62-52 over Oklahoma State on the road in Stillwater. The entire box score is summarized below.

    BAKER MAYFIELD HAS ALWAYS BEEN MAGIC

    There is not a game Oklahoma’s defense cannot lose, and there is not a game Baker Mayfield’s offense cannot win. He threw for 598 yards and five TDs — and also two INTs, including a late pick in the redzone to give Oklahoma State its last chance.

    Any Playoff involving Mayfield vs. the Alabama defense is a matchup we would endorse. Win or lose for Oklahoma, it would be four quarters of breathless, hell-for-leather football, and at the end, everyone would be very, very tired.

    After Bedlam, the combined offenses of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have gained six miles of offense this season, or double the three miles or so of distance gained by the combined Florida and Florida State offenses. The worst offense for this in the country is UTEP, which has gained just over a mile through nine games. UTEP can’t even get you to the nearest gas station, man.

    8. Alabama.

    Their 24-10 processing of LSU. Speaking of excellent teams who believe the forward pass is a detriment to American society, Alabama had one of those games when, for a few tantalizing moments, it looked vulnerable.

    LSU outgained Alabama, outrushed the five-headed Alabama running attack, and did a few things downfield to suggest Alabama’s defense might let a competent team push the ball around. Alabama is basically running Kansas State’s 2014 offense with five-star talent, right down to the pop pass over the middle of the field. Better teams, like LSU, know it’s coming and can sometimes clamp down on it.

    Unfortunately for everyone else, this is usually when Alabama sees this on tape, too, and locks down those weaknesses in the system. The Borg didn’t get the whole galaxy scared by being sloppy for long, y’all, but it does knock them down a few pegs for the week.

    P.S. The Borg also need to work on that strength of schedule, but it’s not their fault they’ve laid such thorough waste to everything around them that finding a test is a real challenge.

    9. Clemson.

    Outraced NC State, 38-31, because this NC State team and this Clemson team under current management only play close games. Kelly Bryant is coming along nicely after an ankle injury, and the defensive numbers might be a bit deceptive because a.) Ryan Finley is an underrated QB, and b.) Clemson forced turnovers when it had to, including a game-clinching INT with NC State driving in the waning seconds.

    The Tigers also made an NC State fan so mad he did this, and I believe this is a bullet point on their Playoff resume.

    10. TCU.

    Winners of a rare Big 12 slugfest with Texas, 24-7. A loss to Iowa State and an otherwise clean slate? TCU is basically Oklahoma minus one Mayfield and plus one very good defense. (See: Allowing Texas to rush for exactly 27 feet.)

    Everyone’s forgotten about the Horned Frogs after that loss to the Cyclones. Everyone should remember them real quick, provided they get a chance to beat Oklahoma and then finish out the rest of their schedule against Texas Tech and Baylor. Let’s check the schedule ... ooh! Guess who they play this coming week?

    Surprise! It’s Oklahoma.

    11. Wisconsin.

    Suddenly the obvious best and purest team in the Big Ten, following a 45-17 dispatching of Indiana. The Badgers still haven’t played anyone, but as if on cue: Iowa, fresh off that epochal cratering of Ohio State, comes to town. Combine that with a hypothetical win over whoever shows up in the Big Ten Championship, and the Badgers have a chance at the Playoff.

    P.S. WATCH THE HELL OUT FOR IOWA. THEY’RE ON ONE.

    12. Washington.

    Beat Oregon, 38-3, a team that once upon a time used to beat Washington like a rented mule. Dog. Whatever, I don’t even know if you can rent dogs. Change it back to a mule, but the point is that Washington has now fully reversed the order of power in the Pac-12 North. Last year, this defeat for Oregon seemed like a reckoning. This year, it barely raised an eyebrow, and not just because the Ducks lost their starting QB to injury last month.

    Statistics still love the Huskies, even if the polls and national punditry don’t. Math isn’t a friend, no matter what your teacher in middle school told you. They were saying that to make you feel better because they were kind and because lying is free.

    While we’re lying: you’re still in this, Washington! Even though you had the weirdest loss a really good team had this year, one that not even your friend Math can explain!

    13. UCF.

    Won, 31-24, over a very game SMU, but that’s deceptive thanks to three turnovers by the Knights. They still had an obscene 615 yards despite SMU stacking the box against UCF’s run.

    TWO-LOSS TEAMS THAT EFFECTIVELY ENDED THEIR PLAYOFF RUNS BY LOSING THIS WEEKEND AND ARE NOW PLAYING FOR SPITE

    Oklahoma State: Bedlam’d, still going squirrel-hunting today, because life goes on.

    Penn State: Tedium only makes Michigan State stronger, and nothing is more tedious than a huge weather delay. Penn State never really had a chance, and that’s before you take Spartans QB Brian Lewerke throwing for 400 yards into account.

    Ohio State: Good lord, what the hell was that?

    Virginia Tech: Not the first to wake up disoriented in Dade County after a long night.

    MEMPHIS?

    Got the palindrome going by beating Tulsa, 41-14, and preserving an 8-1 record. Props to Tulsa, though, for Goldie the tee-fetching dog and Goldie’s best friend, a 135-pound Newfie named Willis.

    Yes, they have a social media presence.


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    Thirteen thoughts on the big, messy life of one of wrestling’s greats.

    1. The Ric Flair documentary Nature Boy features a story about Ric Flair surviving a plane crash. The plane was a Cessna 310 headed from Charlotte to Wilmington, N.C., and it overloaded at takeoff with beefy wrestlers and a promoter, David Crockett. The pilot dumped fuel to compensate for all the extra weight and tried to switch to the tanks in the wings — empty fuel tanks, it turns out — and the engine died. The plane fell rapidly, narrowly missed hitting the water tower of a prison, and hit the ground just short of the runway in a stall at around 100 miles per hour.

    The crash cracked three vertebrae in Ric Flair’s back. When Flair healed and got out of the hospital, he became Ric Flair, the flamboyant, rhinestone robe-wearing, trash-talking, luxury-brand wrestler completely. There is before the crash, when Flair would live as Richard Fliehr off camera, and there is after the crash. That’s all in the movie.

    What isn’t in the movie: The time he was struck by lightning and lived while another man died, or the time a well-past-60 Flair got pantsless onstage at a Myrtle Beach bar and ordered drinks on the house, or the time he went overseas for a tour where he desperately needed the money, but found a bar on arrival and bought drinks for the bar with money he didn’t have, or ... oh god, the spaghetti incident. The spaghetti incident is not in the movie, and if the spaghetti incident isn’t in the movie, well, it has to make you wonder what other lunacy sits on a cutting room floor somewhere.

    2. That is not the fault of Nature Boy as a documentary. Like almost everything in the documentary, that is Ric Flair’s fault. Ric Flair is at fault for so many things, according to the principal witnesses in Nature Boy. Ric Flair is to blame for losing the money, all of it, every night to bartenders, to attorneys, to the former Governor of North Carolina from whom he bought a limo after bragging about having a limo, and then realizing he didn’t have one. Ric Flair paid a random teenager in Charlotte $25 a night to drive him around and called him “his driver.” That’s not in the documentary either, by the way. Ric Flair told the audience that afterwards in the Q and A in Atlanta. Ric Flair can’t even tell all of Ric Flair’s stories at once.

    2017 Summer TCA Tour - Day 2Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

    3. The witnesses detailing this include a legendary roster of wrestlers and friends, sure, but the principal witness — and most damaging one — is Ric Flair himself. He is situated front and center, interviewed by director Rory Karpf sitting just off camera. Flair looks like someone who treated his body brutally, but honestly given what wrestling for 40 years while drinking heavily could do to a person, Flair — on the outside, at least — looks great.

    4. He starts to look even better when he talks about what being Ric Flair entailed: At least 10 drinks a day, to start, along with wrestling two or three times a night for years on end, the aforementioned random plane crashes and other perks of constant travel, all while somehow staying in wrestling shape year-round. Despite attempting to destroy himself with prejudice in his prime (and well beyond it), the documentary brings in heavy hitters and bit players in wrestling to all acknowledge the same thing: For most of his career, Ric Flair was a brilliant technical wrestler who made everyone around him better.

    5. That part might be the most comfortably compelling part of the entire documentary. A genuinely humble-seeming Hulk Hogan shows up just to admit he could only wrestle four kinds of short matches, while in comparison Flair could go full-bore for an hour in any scenario you liked. Ricky Steamboat talks about Flair’s unreal stamina and the brutal workouts they endured as rookie trainees in Verne Gagne’s wrestling camps. The Undertaker not only talks, but thoughtfully and approvingly breaks down Flair’s technique in the ring. That’s not surprising to anyone who knows Mark Calaway outside of the ring, but is still jarring for the casual viewer used to only seeing his face rise ominously out of a coffin or glowering from under a hat.

    The file footage backs that up brilliantly, too. When Sting laughs and says Ric Flair was “the biggest whiner in the ring ever,” there’s a fantastic cut to scenes of Flair operatically flying to the mat, pleading to the referee, and taking a theatrical beating from Sting. There’s also the follow-up by Sting: That as a young wrestler, Sting wasn’t owed any of that. Yet Flair went out of his way to coach up-and-coming wrestlers in the ring, and sold their moves with complete commitment to the bit, all out of a real generosity he showed to his partners in the ring. If anything in a story about wrestling is real, it’s that. Flair, at least in the ring, appears as the most caring, charismatic, and giving man who ever eye-gouged someone in a Loser Leaves Town match.

    6. The rest of his life is the expected disaster — maybe more so than expected, actually. There are all those interviews and file footage, but Most of Nature Boy is told by Flair himself, in his own words. Note: Not told by Richard Fleihr, but Ric Flair. According to Flair, the guy with his birth name was “some guy who couldn’t last one year at the University of Minnesota.” The interviews with his first wife, Leslie Goodman, are particularly haunting for that switch: At some point after the plane crash in North Carolina, the persona of Ric Flair took over, and Richard Fleihr ceased to exist.

    7. It would be possible to watch the entire documentary and take it as a standard sports dramatic cycle of rise-excess-fall-tragedy-redemption. That could be done, if you wanted to watch it that way. There is a fantastic segment about Flair’s rivalry and in-the-ring creative partnership with Dusty Rhodes. There are all the stories of Flair’s drinking and profligacy and his distant relationship with his parents. (Who according to Flair saw him wrestle a total of three times in his life.) There is — with some careful editing — the redemption of Flair’s failure as a father with his son, Reid, through his daughter Charlotte’s entry into professional wrestling.

    8. Nature Boy can go that way, if you want it to. It’s also possible to see Flair slowly sink into the horror of his later career and demolished personal life and see a person so devoured by his onstage persona that he never recovered. Seeing Flair talk about his son Reid — who overdosed at the age of 25 trying to start a professional wrestling career like his father — is excruciating. It’s also made excruciatingly clear that Ric Flair had no ability whatsoever to parent his children, much less deal with their problems when they became adults and needed real help. The attention to detail and generosity in the ring translated to outright negligence outside it.

    2017 Summer TCA Tour - Day 2Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

    9. Worse: By the time all 90 minutes of Nature Boy rolls by, it’s clear that there really is no difference between the in-ring character and the man. It’s not that the tears aren’t sincere: It’s that at every point in the interviews with Flair — even the most emotional, vulnerable points — it feels like Ric Flair is selling. It’s genuine, but it’s the kind of genuine you get from someone with an overpracticed, stage-ready genuine. At the end Nature Boy has Flair holding his daughter’s hand up in triumph in the ring after Charlotte wins her first WWE title. The scene is heartrending: He’s clearly a proud father, but also Ric Flair basking in the role of being Ric Flair in the spotlight.

    10. The most moving scene in the documentary, appropriately enough, involves his other family: Wrestlers. More specifically, it involves a wrestler, Shawn Michaels, chosen to retire Flair in a Career-Threatening Match at Wrestlemania XXIV. Present-day Michaels is interviewed for the segment. He sounds little like his in-ring persona, and openly mourns for what Flair had become: A wrestler who stayed too long, gave almost everything to the business, and let whatever was left leave with his alter ego. For Michaels, Ric Flair went from an idol to a warning.

    Then Nature Boy lets the scene roll: The retirement match, after nearly 30 minutes of classic Flair struggle, ending with Flair eye-poking Michaels, nearly pulling off a pin out of nowhere, then taking a massive counter hit and staggering in the ring waiting to be finished. Michaels plays the role of remorseful finisher to the hilt, even pulling a move before it starts, too overcome to end a legend’s career.

    Michaels then says “I’m sorry, I love you,” and ends the match with a pin, a post-match kiss on the forehead, and a grief-stricken retreat from the ring.

    It’s not real, and it’s also as real as anything else in Nature Boy.

    11. That’s probably Ric Flair’s fault, too. With no separation between the ring and real life, Ric Flair in Nature Boy is never off duty. Everything is a sell, or a work. It’s bad enough when his ex-wife or his son says as much. It is much, much worse when the bulk of the evidence comes from the man himself through on-camera interviews. Flair happily admits to the excess of Ric Flair being completely real, but also shows no ability to introspect and consider why it all happened in the first place. Karpf tries gamely and repeatedly to get Flair to talk about his chilly relationship with his parents. He gets nothing. The overwhelming sense is not that he’s stonewalling, but that after years of embracing the act there might not be anything back there anymore.

    13. This wasn’t in the movie, either. After the screening I attended in Atlanta there was a Q and A with Flair, where he talked about the aforementioned spaghetti incident, how he got drunk after a match in Philadelphia, went to dinner, screamed “I GOT ELEVEN OF THESE” at the table and threw his $30,000 Rolex watch into a plate of spaghetti. The next morning, he had to go through the trash trying to find it. This is also when he told us about the time lightning struck his umbrella while he was getting off a plane in Charlotte in 1983, bounced to the man behind him in line, and killed that man. He explained neither of these, and then offered to buy everyone drinks next door.

    12. TL; DR: It would be very hard to write a wrestling version of Sunset Boulevard and not cast Ric Flair as Norma Desmond. Nature Boy’s biggest fault is being too short to encompass the extravagant, rhinestone-dotted plane crash that Ric Flair’s life evidently was and still is. But after 90 minutes you get the point: Ric Flair was ready for his closeup, and after 90 sometimes hilarious minutes of looking at it, the face looking back after a lifetime of hard-lived wheelin’, dealin’, and kiss-stealin’ can be a terrifyingly empty one.

    13. In conclusion, say it with me in a sad, low Ric Flair voice after considering the impermanence of humanity’s greatness, and and the hollowness of fame writ large on a single man rendered incapable of taking care of the ones he loves through ego-driven self-deletion and alcoholism: Woooooooooo.


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    The Top Whatever is your weekly ranking of only the college football teams that really need to be ranked at this exact moment in time. If you’re looking for the polls for some reason, they’re here.

    1. Miami.

    Got Notre Dame the hell out of here for the year by humiliating the Irish 41-8 in Miami.

    Notre Dame did hand the Canes four turnovers, turnovers Miami tidily turned into a blowout with timely offense. Take out those four turnovers, and we’re all looking at a much closer game between two teams that are really not that far apart in overall talent.

    That is a charitable reading, one that’s almost as giving to Notre Dame as the Notre Dame offense was to the Miami defense.

    On the other hand: Miami spent most of the second half in complete shutdown mode and ran the clock like it had to get to Club LIV by 11 for a recruiting meetup. This might actually be accurate. The Canes rented out the LIV at the stadium as a reception area for incoming recruits.

    Your school could never, mostly because it doesn’t have a nightclub inside its stadium. (Yet.)

    Calling a program BACK is so dangerous, but facts only here:

    • Miami looked a full standard deviation faster than Notre Dame at almost every position.
    • The Hurricanes are undefeated a week shy of Thanksgiving, won the ACC Coastal Division for the first time ever, and only need to beat Pitt and UVA to finish the regular season without a loss.
    • There was a pretty solid brawl by the concession stand between UM and ND fans, as is tradition.
    • Never mind who got the better of that.
    • Never mind, I said. SCOREBOARD. SCOREBOARD, OK? SCORE. BOARD.

    It’s fine to say it, even if the Miami that rolled over Notre Dame didn’t look much different than the team that squeaked out a 25-24 win over Georgia Tech at home. The Canes play blazing defense. They aren’t spectacular on offense, but they take efficient advantage of field position and turnovers. The Canes are counter-punchers and know it — after all, what other team chose its sideline trophy based on the understanding that it was going to make youmake a mistake?

    Miami remains a team of managed margins on most nights. Those can add up to something huge when Miami forces the other team into mistakes.

    Still, go ahead and say it: Miami is back. Please remind everyone of this when the Canes regress to the mean and need a late field goal to beat UVA next week. The 2017 Miami Hurricanes, America’s Team Most Comfortable In Close Games™.

    2. Northwestern, postgame only.

    23-13 win over Purdue, but that’s not what we’re celebrating here because WHY IS NORTHWESTERN DANCING TO BOOSIE AND WHY IS IT WORKING???

    No. 71 is moving like he feels this song in his bones and is about to spell out “Boosie Badazz” at the top of his lungs. Also, good form in immediately fading out the song before the rest, because it gets problematic in a mixed crowd quickly.

    Northwestern’s Twitter handle is “NorthWWWWWWestern Football” right now, begging the question: How are the Wildcats America’s realest candidate for the title of swaggiest three-loss team? We have no answers, only evidence and Pat Fitzgerald probably signaling in a blitz next week with the “shoulders, chest, pants, shoes” dance.

    3. Auburn.

    There’s the kind of blowout Miami had over Notre Dame: over early in a flurry of turnovers and touchdowns, then as they say in soccer, “a firmly parked bus.” The point being proved, the blowout-er is happy to throttle down and grant the blowout-ee a dignified end.

    That was not this 40-17 blowout. This was a one-sided ejection from the premises, and Georgia was the drunk who thought he could take three bouncers at once. This was full-bore cage match only one party knew about in advance. This was the kind of blowout the insurance company won’t cover. Check the policy: “acts of God” are covered, and “the devil whalin’ on your ass for three hours with a two by four” isn’t.

    Georgia’s lowest rushing on the year had come on the road against Notre Dame, when Sony Michel and Nick Chubb totaled only 185. Against Auburn, the entire team gained 46 yards, nine fewer yards than Auburn’s Eli Stove got all by himself on Saturday. Stove is a wide receiver.

    This is one of a thousand signs that something went VERY, VERY, VERY WRONG, GEORGIA, but there’s more. Auburn’s defensive line not only eliminated Georgia’s elite running attack, but became the first team to really pressure freshman QB Jake Fromm, sacking him four times and forcing him into impossible situations early and often.

    As for Auburn’s offense:

    Darius Slayton’s catch here is a sublime example of body control and position relative to the defender, with a breathtaking set of hands to bring in a touchdown other receivers might have dropped.

    This entire game could represent something for Auburn as a whole. This kind of game didn’t come out of nowhere. People were bullish on them in the preseason, and with reason. They had talent on both sides of the ball, a new and touted transfer quarterback with plenty to prove, and a manageable schedule, despite challenge. When Auburn catches Georgia like this, it validates what a lot of people thought the Tigers could be. They can’t undo a blown 20-point lead to LSU and sputter in an early matchup with Clemson. They can, however, ambush Georgia in one of the more shocking blowout upsets of the year.*

    * No one is beating Iowa for this title. No one. Not even Cal, and Cal beat Wazzu 37-3.

    Auburn has a game against ULM to get through before the Iron Bowl. A win would usually be a forgone conclusion for Alabama under normal Saban-era circumstances. However, an injured Alabama light on linebackers just gave up three rushing TDs to Mississippi State in a thriller on the road, marking the first time anyone has scored three times on the ground against Alabama in a single game since 2006.

    Auburn might have noticed that. The World’s Most Dangerous Team Of the Week is halfway to upending the SEC’s chances at the No. 1 seed and two-thirds of the way to making its case for stealing the Playoff bid for themselves. To do that, Auburn would have to beat Alabama, then defeat Georgia again in the SEC Championship Game. The first step involves matter of luck, but the second step — after watching what Auburn did to Georgia this weekend — feels like a given.

    P.S. With a minute and 25 seconds left, up by 23 points and with the backups in, Auburn threw a pop pass downfield for one last first down. Auburn might love you as a brother on Sundays, Georgia, but on Saturdays, they still haaaaaaaaaaate you.

    4. Wisconsin.

    Beat Iowa 38-14. The good news is that no one can ever take away putting 55 on Ohio State, Hawkeyes. The bad news? There was a fight in the parking lot of the Woodman’s, and you lost real bad. Wisconsin’s defense limited Iowa to 66 yards and five first downs, which is bad even by the standards of Florida Gator offensive football. That’s not a place you ever want to end up in, Iowa.

    Wisconsin is still undefeated. Using some transitive math, if Wisconsin were to play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, the Badgers would beat Ohio State by a conservatively projected score of 93-38. That is a joke, something we have to say, because there are 15 Ohio State fans with a sense of humor. The remainder spends its time scanning the internet, looking for any opportunity to point out how you should be discussing Ohio State at this moment and how disrespectful it is that you’re not.

    That is a bad place to be, especially when you’re just looking for creative storage solutions on Pinterest, and suddenly someone in the comments says something like, “These are clever, but you know what else is clever? Kevin Wilson’s halftime adjustments and grooming of J.T. Barrett as a legitimate NFL-caliber quarterback.” (You’ll spot that same Buckeye in the Weather.com comments a week later, calling for Barrett to be benched.)

    That’s almost as bad as getting your ass handed to you In the parking lot of a Woodman’s a cold night in November. (Almost, Iowa. Almost.)

    5. Ed Orgeron, the rent man.

    Life’s a circle. Fortunately, Ed Orgeron is wearing roller skates.

    6. Alabama.

    Survived Mississippi State 31-24. Most Alabama fans probably feel like a one-score win on the road where the defense lets a team rush for three touchdowns on the Crimson Tide is a loss.

    This is incorrect. Losing to a suddenly dangerous-looking Auburn would be a loss, and a devastating one. However, the great luxuries of Alabama mean a.) the fall-back option in an emergency is QB Jalen Hurts winging the ball to WR Calvin Ridley for easy TDs, and b.) we’re only acting like Alabama isn’t going to win out to keep from getting bored.

    Because the Tide will win out, and the only ranking that matters is the last one. In the meantime, we can put them down here like they’re not death itself. An inevitability we’re avoiding at all costs. Both, whatever, same really. I don’t have to write about it until it happens, and no one can make me.

    7. UCF.

    Handled UConn 49-24. The Knights did not receive the Civil ConFLiCT trophy because everyone has forgotten it ever existed, including Bob Diaco, the man who invented it.

    Unrelated but also important: UCF’s beefy-ass Viking of a punter squats 585 pounds.

    Hard to have one big leg if you don’t have two, y’all.

    8. Oklahoma.

    A 38-20 win over TCU that ended at the half, when the Sooners were up 38-14 and figured it was time to stop putting the playbook out there. The Sooners play Kansas next week. After Baker Mayfield gets to 400 yards of total offense in the middle of the second quarter, Oklahoma fans should sedate him and place him in bubble wrap until the West Virginia game.

    9. Clemson.

    A low key, 31-14 win over Florida State. The lack of buzz about beating the Seminoles would have looked very odd preseason, but an awful 2017 for FSU will do that to what should otherwise be a trophy win. Clemson can work a Playoff slot out for itself pretty simply: Beat The Citadel and South Carolina, then Miami in the ACC Championship Game, and it’s in. The first two are doable. The third is a mystery, because you’re not the only one adjusting to a world where Miami football is a dependable quantity.

    10. Ohio State.

    Proud dealer of the week’s biggest asskicking, handed to Michigan State 48-3 in a game that could have been much worse. The Buckeyes are a brilliant team with one explicable loss (to Oklahoma early in the season) and one no one will ever be able to explain (to Iowa on the road).

    We have no idea what the Playoff chances are, but this is certain: If Ohio State does not make it, it is going to incinerate someone in a consolation bowl with the fire of a thousand suns, then claim it was the best team in the nation at the end of the year. That is a title no one will be able to take from you, Buckeyes, mostly because it is imaginary and self-awarded.

    11. Army.

    Being 8-2 and within reach of 10 wins for the first time since 1996 is enough for honorary placement. But where Army really shines is being the team whose style is most consistent with its school’s entire reason for existing: the ground attack. The Black Knights have thrown the ball 57 times for the entire year, just once in their last two games against Air Force and Duke.

    Those were both wins, but we all already knew that, because nothing is more humiliating than beating a team without even throwing the ball once. Georgia Southern is an amazing football program.

    LOST THEIR SECOND GAME OF THE SEASON, ENDING ALL PLAYOFF HOPES, AT LEAST UNTIL EVERYONE ELSE LOSES AND EVERYONE REMEMBERS THAT THEY’RE REALLY GOOD AND MAYBE DESERVE A SLOT WE DUNNO

    Washington. Lost 30-22 to Stanford despite the advantage of facing Cardinal RB Bryce Love on one bad ankle. Too bad for you, Washington: Bryce Love’s one good ankle is INCREDIBLE.

    TCU. Lost huge to Oklahoma, but still holds an inside track on a slot in the Big 12 Championship, where it would face ... Oklahoma. The Horned Frogs’ consolation gift after a hammer to the toes is an offer of more free toe-hammering. Life sucks like that sometimes, TCU.

    Notre Dame. A gigantic loss to Miami is bad, but recovering with a win in the conference title game wait—

    UM WHAT ABOUT USC?

    Beat Colorado 38-24 in Boulder. Doesn’t remember a lot of what happened, but that’s typical for Boulder. Probably going to win the Pac-12, no big thing. Just livin’, bro. Just livin’.


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    Other websites will tell you how to talk to your relatives. We will help you fight them and escape your Thanksgiving in mostly one piece.

    Grab the right weapon. The kitchen, where all the sharp things are, is the high ground, eh? WRONG. The garage is the mother lode, stocked with all the nastiest implements to survive a prolonged bit of hand-to-hand combat with your family. I like a shovel for the ideal combination of heft, versatility and durability. If you're forced to fight from a young boy's room, salt the floor with Legos to slow down any approaching threat. Home Alone was real; take its lessons seriously.

    Humility is survival. No one can fight. Unless you know you can, and have a proven record of hulking out like Stephen Jackson and taking on an entire arena, survive by knowing your limitations. Stick to proven tactics. Aim for sensitive joints and body parts. Ric Flair poked opponents in the eyes and punched nuts and blindsided opponents from unsportsmanlike angles. You know who survived five decades of vicious professional wrestling? That's right: Ric Flair. Make a little "Woo!" as you come off the top of the steps to knock your brother-in-law out with a cheapshot from a Dyson vacuum cleaner if it helps you remember. Play like a rat, survive like a rat.

    Your dad. Your dad's tired, he doesn't want this. Point him at the couch upstairs and give him the option of a dignified surrender. He will take it, because Dad's tired, and the best weapon to defeat him is that marathon of MythBusters on SyFy. Your dad's a Jamie man, because he never talks and doesn't like anything, either.

    Your brother. With the weed-whacker, again. Or the Blower, the weapon that does no damage but makes everyone want to beat his ass twice as bad. Don't waste effort on your brother. Like Vince Vaughn in a serious drama, he is there to annoy, not to be taken seriously. Keep it moving.

    Your uncle. Oh, he got really into CrossFit after his recent divorce? Too bad dodging this heavy-ass casserole dish thrown at your head isn't part of a WOD, eh? A hundred and twenty bucks a month to get knocked the hell out by five pounds of crockery and complex carbohydrates. Elite fitness, my ass.

    Your mother. Another target to avoid, as she has more reasons to be mad at you than anyone in the building. Flee any room she enters; parry and stall if possible; do not, I repeat, do NOT engage.

    Your aunt. Underestimate her and die. Your aunt is a master of emotional jiu-jitsu, the most lethal martial art. She also stabbed your uncle once after he lost the mortgage in a backroom craps game at the Sleep Inn on Exit 76. Stuff your ears with napkins to blot out the sounds of her telling you how your mother didn't really love your father; apply quick submission hold; pray she doesn't have a dagger concealed in her boot. (She will!)

    Your nieces and nephews. It will try your emotions to fight children, but they will turn on you.  It's necessary to have a strategy. Contrary to popular opinion, you cannot fight more than five third-graders at a time. A good rule to follow is to divide your own body weight by the average opponent weight. For instance, if you weigh 210 pounds, you can fight three 70-pounders to a draw, or at least beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen from the dining room. Break them psychologically if you can by destroying their tablets. A broken arm will heal; a broken iPad is forever.

    EXCEPTION: Your giant nephew Tommy. The one who weighs 285 and is the starting tackle for his high school football team. Pay him money and make an ally of him. Do not attempt to fight him. You are not Red Viper. You are not Red Viper. You are not Red Viper.

    Keep it moving. The goal is escape. You can't beat them all, so treat this like a classic Jackie Chan fight scene involving more than one person: run, fight if you have to and then keep running. Were you thinking about making a dramatic stand on the stairs to prove a point for yourself? Well, you go ahead and do that, General Custer. You go ahead and do that.

    Forget the turkey. Unless it was fried AND brined, it was going to be dry and kind of subpar anyway.


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    The Top Whatever is your weekly ranking of the college football things that must be ranked right now.

    1. Josh Rosen.

    There was so little happening this week in college football that I can do something weird and overdue here: actually pay attention to a player. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen lost a 28-23 rivalry defeat to USC in which he looked good and sometimes amazing while his team won or lost at random rates.

    That sums up Rosen’s entire career. Rosen came in a five-star, can’t-miss prospect from a powerhouse in California, St. John Bosco. Rosen never sat on the bench, starting as a freshman and playing well enough to elicit slobber-worthy commentary from scouts. He threw for 3,669 yards and 23 TDs, looked as beautiful as he was supposed to, and got UCLA to an 8-5 record.

    Rosen also had a hot tub in his dorm room. That’s important, but only for spiritual reasons.

    It seemed like a beginning. It just wasn’t the beginning people might have assumed, one in which UCLA takes advantage of a USC laboring under a coaching change and NCAA sanctions, rides a brilliant young QB to glory, and fulfills the promise of an entire program. In L.A. terms, this is a pretty good pitch.

    It is not the one life picked up for option, however. The script Rosen got instead: go through three offensive coordinators in three years, take a beating in year two when the offensive line loses three starters, finish your career throwing beautiful passes in a losing effort to your crosstown rival, and wake up the next day to find out your head coach has been fired on his birthday.

    It wasn’t what it could have been, but it will be nice moving forward. The setup for USC-UCLA this year was a comparison between Sam Darnold and Rosen as NFL talents in an already heated rivalry game. Rosen arguably got the better of Darnold in direct competition, throwing for 421 yards, making some jaw-dropping throws, and calmly rolling through progressions and taking easy throws when he had them. Unlike Darnold, Rosen threw touchdowns, didn’t let the clock run out on his offense in the first half with a field-goal attempt in the making, and appeared to make solid decisions.

    UCLA could never get most of its parts working at once during his three-year stay. It wasn’t Rosen’s job to get them all working at once. The guy responsible for that lost his job.

    Rosen’s job was to play quarterback as well as he could. Despite his pedigree as a super-hyped five-star, Rosen did. Rosen limped through games behind patchy lines and threw TDs to an ever-changing cast of receivers. Only in his freshman year did he have anything like the protection of a run game. Rosen worked the last two years alongside some of the worst rushing in the nation and still managed to produce.

    This isn’t a song of woe for Rosen. But it feels necessary to say something before he goes over the lip of the horizon and into the NFL. Where others might have bailed, Rosen stuck it out through a situation he never felt was hopeless.

    That might have been madness, from a professional perspective; even in 2017, when Rosen stayed upright for an entire season, he took the most sacks of his career. But fans aren’t rational, and neither is football all the time.

    From a UCLA fan’s perspective, Rosen was down for the team even when being down for the team made little sense. That’s something endearing, like being a fan of a program that never won more than eight games even with a first-round pick at quarterback.

    If it were his fault, Rosen would have been the one who got fired.

    2. Miami.

    44-28 over Virginia.

    You, smartassedly: Oh, Miami isn’t good. They were tight with UVA until the fourth quarter.

    Me, wisely: Miami was overdue for a letdown after a massive beating of Notre Dame, Kurt Benkert is actually officially Pretty Good at quarterback, and you probably only watched the Notre Dame game. Miami’s thing all year long has been playing close games and still winning them.

    You, owned: I will delete my account now.

    Me: [makes U sign and is crowned king of the internet and granted all powers obligated to that title].

    3. Wisconsin.

    Bellied up and butted guts with the Wolverines until they gave in, 24-10. When Wisconsin plays a similarly built team, something fun happens: Both teams do a Wisconsin imitation, and whoever flinches first loses. Michigan found out it’s hard to do a better imitation of Wisconsin than Wisconsin does, especially when running against Wisconsin’s defense becomes impossible.

    4. USC kicker/punter Reid Budrovich

    Per USC’s depth chart, No. 46 Budrovich is a 185-pound walk-on backup punter. Per this clip, he is a 270-pound, 8’0-tall Viking who can snap a caribou’s neck like a stale candy cane. Watch the large man with a beard on the bench and tell me he’s not seeing an 8’0-tall Viking.

    5. Alabama.

    Beat Mercer 56-0.

    Being a longtime Georgia resident and expert on the state, these are the things I know definitively about Mercer University. I know that Mercer University is a private university in Macon. I know if you go to Mercer, you can be at least three things: a future member of state government, a Nancy Grace, or a Big James Henderson, the first man in the world to bench over 700 pounds in a drug-tested competition.

    If you have a choice, I’d go with being Big James Henderson. Somewhat related: Bench-pressing 700 pounds to the sound of gospel music live on Christian television is absolutely one of the most Georgia things to ever happen anywhere.

    Oh, and Mercer is not an FBS program, and no one has to mention this game or Alabama playing it. Did things get so out of hand that the Vultureback got carries? Yes they did, because Alabama’s sixth-string running back, Ronnie Clark, got four carries. RESPECT THE VULTUREBACK.

    6. SHANK.

    SOMETIMES AN OUTSTANDING LACK OF EXECUTION IS A FORM OF EXCELLENCE TOO

    It’s not just that it misses, it’s that it travels three times as long laterally as it had to vertically and takes four seconds in slow motion to find its final resting place in the stands. If a kicker is going to miss, he might as well make it a masterpiece. And this by Texas Tech? This is a masterpiece.

    7. Georgia.

    Beat Kentucky 42-13, avenging a three-point win from 2016. Shut up, a three-point win over Kentucky is still a kind of a loss. It just is, because in a time of turbulence, some things in the SEC simply have to stay the same, and that might as well be “feeling bad about barely beating Kentucky.” Georgia’s fine unless it loses to a 5-5 Georgia Tech team this week, which it won’t do.*

    *wiggling eyebrows and nodding and winking as hard as I can while saying this

    8. Oklahoma.

    Let’s talk about Baker Mayfield grabbing his crotch during a 41-3 blowout of the Jayhawks.

    It should be possible to say watching Mayfield is great — and that he has a tendency to get emotional — without being overly hysterical either way. Because I want to dismiss it. I really do. Mayfield is unreservedly fun, and pointing out that he shouldn’t have done something while also not siding with people who hate fun should be something a fan can do. Someone should be able to move on without making it a capital-T Thing!

    Watch us do that right now, then join me after the three seconds of attention this deserves.

    9. Clemson.

    Beat The Citadel, 61-3, and no one was seriously harmed, and that’s all that needs to be said about Clemson.

    Yes, that includes, “The team Clemson lost to got blown out by Louisville to the tune of 46 points.”

    10. Auburn.

    Turned back an early challenge from Louisiana-Monroe and cruised to a 42-14 win. Auburn stands at 50 percent BUTTS OUT at the moment, with the most difficult step remaining in the form of Alabama waiting in the Iron Bowl. Make no mistake: A full 100 percent BUTTS OUT rating would be Gus Malzahn’s finest achievement since taking a team to the national title game with a defensive back playing quarterback.

    11. Ohio State.

    52-14 over Illinois. We thought we were immune to the sadness of Illinois football, but then the box score spells out “Chayce Crouch: 4/14 for 16 yards passing” and the darkness just kind of spreads through your chest all over again. DID YOU KNOW: Every Sufjan Stevens song isn’t about Illinois football, but all the sad ones are.

    12. UCF.

    45-19 over Temple. Now leaning toward UCF creating a special Citronaut alternate uniform for the bowl game, so that when the Knights take out their frustrations of having a perfect season and getting no Playoff bid, they do it wearing this.

    FLORIDA TECH WAS REALLY WHEN UCF PEAKED FROM A DESIGN PERSPECTIVE

    Nothing would be more humiliating than losing by 20 to the Citronaut.

    13. Memphis.

    66-45 over SMU. Just want to note Memphis came so, so close to the Devil’s Box Score here: 66 points on 663 yards of offense.


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    The evidence of what happened in the Iron Bowl is all over the lawn.

    AUBURN, Alabama — The hedges at Jordan-Hare Stadium sit between the stands and the field on two sides. In the event of an emergency, they can be scaled, jumped, or tumbled through on the way to the field. The first wave always has a few casualties, brave souls, stuck ass over teakettle for a moment before the shrubbery spits them out onto the field. Note to those who might try it some day: You will win, but not before the hedges throw you around a little.

    The list of those emergencies worthy of fighting the shrubs at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama includes but is not limited to: fire, earthquake, lightning strike, stampede, and Iron Bowl.

    There is no debate about Auburn’s 26-14 win over Alabama being an Iron Bowl. It qualifies categorically for hedge-stomping.

    However, exactly when the hedges were doomed is up for debate.

    A scientific person would have written the hedges off at the half. After 30 minutes, Auburn had run 42 plays, stymied Alabama’s run game, and had the Crimson Tide in the rare situation of working from behind. When Alabama can’t get off the field on third down, the play count creeps up. (Auburn went nine-of-18 on third down.) When the play count creeps up, the short gains get longer, and even the big, relentless bodies of the Alabama defense fatigue. (Hint: It’s the same thing that happens to everyone, i.e., you give up yards, points, and ultimately a loss.)

    The superstitious person might have called it at another point. Trailing 20-14 in the third quarter and in good field position after a 55-yard kickoff return by Trevon Diggs, Alabama sputtered around on offense, though not before Jalen Hurts launched an insane third-down pass into double coverage in the end zone, had it tipped, and sent the entire stadium into a temporary state of delirium when Alabama tight end Hale Hentges nearly caught the tip for a touchdown.

    Note: Hale Hentges isn’t even from the state, and his name already sounds like an Alabama governor’s name. If he’d caught that TD, he would have been made governor eventually, if not immediately. It’s bad for the Tide that he did not, but probably good for Hale Hentges personally, given how many Alabama politicians end up indicted.

    Then Alabama faced a fourth-and-9 on the Auburn 17 and sent out the kicker.

    This should be a normal moment in a football game. It can’t be for Alabama against Auburn, because once upon a time, a kindly mountain sorcerer helped a young Nick Saban out of a jam in West Virginia. In repayment, the sorcerer asked for one thing: that Saban never, ever kick a field goal in a crucial situation on short yardage, because field goals are for cowards. Saban agreed, and the wizard was appeased.

    A young Nick Saban forgot his promise, though, and called for a field goal in his first game at Toledo. From that point forward in crucial situations, Nick Saban’s teams would be cursed on field goal attempts.

    This is an absurd and completely fictional explanation of what happens to Alabama on crucial field goals, particularly against Auburn. But it works as well as any other theory because nothing else explains why, on a routine attempt, Alabama’s otherwise reliable holder J.K. Scott bobbled a snap, reset, and found himself playing improv quarterback with the entire Auburn defense after him. Holder/placekicker Andy Pappanastos is in the box score officially as a receiver, because Scott did complete a pass to him for a loss of 9 yards.

    Maybe all that greenery was doomed before this ever started, though.

    It might have started after LSU beat Auburn 27-23 in Death Valley on Oct. 14, when, after some soul-searching, Auburn went on a blind tear through the rest of its schedule. The Tigers topped 40 points in each of their next four games. That run included the outright alarming, 40-17 upset of Georgia that proved Auburn was definitely no longer the same team that lost to Clemson and was maybe even a real threat for the conference championship.

    Gus Malzahn said as much himself, post-Alabama: “This time of year, very few teams are playing their best football, and we are doing that.”

    What also started well before this game: the sideways slide of injury and attrition for Alabama.

    Alabama started out by ruining Florida State’s season in a 24-7 game that looked a lot like every other Alabama game ever under Saban. That similarity, however, faded down the stretch. The defense got injured, particularly at linebacker, something that most observers laughed off because of Alabama’s almost unfair depth at every position. That laughter stopped vs. Mississippi State and became a dead serious issue against Auburn, especially with Jarrett Stidham gaining crucial yardage off zone reads and scrambles.

    That’s not all. The offense — don’t laugh — did really lose something with the departure of Lane Kiffin. The plays are still there, including the quick horizontal stretches Alabama used early to spread out Auburn. Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley, and the stable of running backs are still there, too. The rhythm, timing, and ball distribution, though: They’re different, and not for the better. When Alabama gets behind the sticks or on the scoreboard, it’s all on Hurts to bail out the offense with QB runs and long passes.

    It works, sometimes. It only worked sporadically against Mississippi State. Against a disciplined Auburn line, it ceased to work altogether. The entire Auburn defense is too young to know what a phone booth is, but that’s what it had Hurts playing in for much of the night.

    For the first time in recent memory, Alabama’s offense looked inept. Auburn did that to it.

    When the hedges and Alabama and all sense of order were collectively doomed doesn’t even really matter.

    With the final seconds ticking away, a mob poured out onto the field. Over the hedges, past former Auburn QB Jason Campbell, past a sheepish but clearly pleased Tim Cook of Apple, past grinning offensive line coach Herb Hand, past boosters and random grandkids gawking for selfies with players, past ESPN’s Marty Smith, diving into the scrum to get a mic in the face of Malzahn, who was was so swarmed with cameras that bystanders could only point at the flashbulbs and yell, “I GUESS THAT’S GUS,” while holding up cellphones.

    Auburn was what it is by charter: an engineering and agricultural school. First there was the controlled demolition on the field, done cleanly in 60 minutes. The celebratory vandalism is designed, too. Toilet paper in designated trees (and a few unofficially chosen ones here and there), a rush to the field, and the removal of the hedges that the groundskeepers already know they will have to repair and regrow.

    The Kick Six four years earlier was the most glorious robbery in the history of college football. Auburn took away Alabama’s offense, defense, special teams, chance at a national and conference title, undefeated season, and did it all with a single play. That’s a robbery — a swift, effective, and stunning theft accomplished in a single 109-yard swipe of the football across the field.

    This was different.

    When you do all that according to plan for four quarters, dominate Alabama at almost every position, accomplish all the same things in 60 minutes of clean work, but then play Alabama’s “Rammer Jammer,” followed up by a just-sarcastic-enough singalong of Alabama’s crowd favorite “Dixieland Delight?” afterwards? When it all happens by the numbers, and then you steal their theme music?

    That’s not a theft, Auburn. That’s a heist.

    And like any good crew of jewel thieves, Auburn left its calling cards behind so everyone knew who did it. A set of decimated hedges here, a light dusting of toilet paper waving in the trees over there.

    NCAA Football: Alabama at AuburnJohn David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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    Tennessee's attempt to hire Greg Schiano was a bad idea for obvious reasons, and it revealed the real power behind the program.

    Trying to hire Greg Schiano to coach Tennessee football wasn’t a bad idea. It was, at minimum, four bad ideas.

    First: Schiano is an authoritarian program-builder with no local ties and a tendency to rub those around him the wrong way. That sounds a lot like Butch Jones, the coach Tennessee just fired, only more expensive.

    Second: Schiano’s record is good, but not great or inspiring enough to merit instant consideration. The program Schiano rebuilt was Rutgers in the 2000s. It took five years for Schiano to get Rutgers to a seven-win season in a conference weakened by the 2004 departures of Miami and Virginia Tech. In 11 years at the school, Rutgers won just four games over ranked opponents. Again: If Tennessee wanted this, they could just rehire Butch Jones. His keys to the building probably still work.

    Third: Schiano was tyrannical at Rutgers, disliked by NFL scouts, and was the cornerstone of a budget-trashing push for football funding at Rutgers. (Rutgers even cut out part of an ecological preserve and gave Schiano an interest-free home loan so he could build a house practically on-campus.) He became a laughing stock in the NFL. His time at Ohio State as an assistant has been mostly fine, provided you write off giving up 55 points to Iowa as recently as this season. Iowa has gone an entire month at a time without scoring 55 points as a program, even though the Hawkeyes probably went 4-0 in that month, because no one stretches groceries like Kirk Ferentz.

    Fourth: Schiano was a hard sell to begin with, and then was sold very, very poorly. The connections between Schiano and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State are, by legal standards, hearsay. That can’t be stated enough. What also can’t be stated enough is this: If the public discussion about the coaching search begins with “Now, about his name appearing in a court document involving that child sex scandal,” then that chapter of the discussion is over before it even started. That is a horrendous visual for a university that just paid out a $2.48 million settlement to eight women in a sexual assault suit involving the football program, and whose previous coach got calls from the police about a rape investigation before even the players did.

    There are probably more reasons, but the point should be clear. In terms of earning a job or demonstrating an obvious, first-choice level of competence, Schiano was not a clear No. 1 choice for the Tennessee job. It could be argued that in this unusually deep pool of available coaches in 2017, Schiano wasn’t a top five or 10 pick for the Tennessee job — and that’s considering the list of coaches available after Chip Kelly and Dan Mullen were taken off the board.

    ***

    It should be easy to see who killed the Schiano deal: Everyone outside of the Tennessee athletic department’s offices, and maybe a few people inside it, too.

    There are other explanations. Some in the media claim Schiano was railroaded by an internet mob bent on using disinformation to scuttle an instantly despised coaching hire. That explanation feels marginally true, but maximally false, particularly when “social media outrage” can be given as a causal reason for anything. It seems especially inaccurate within a community as small and insular as the Tennessee athletics. To wit: If misinformation painted on a rock on campus is evidence of real, influential opinions, then Peyton Manning is running for president.

    The people most disappointed by the suggestion of Greg Schiano included those who know the program best, who were most invested in the program, and who understand the program’s recent history all too well. Yes, there are people in the Tennessee fan base who made bad faith arguments against Schiano. But they’re a margin, a fringe — albeit an ugly one — growing on the edge of a much larger, decade-long discontent within the Tennessee fan base.

    The likeliest case — and a way, way better mechanical explanation of what happened with Schiano — is more complex, local, and mundane. Tennessee’s big boosters obviously signed off on athletic director John Currie’s choice. In reaction, the vast upper-middle and middle classes of Tennessee supporters threatened to vote with their feet and their wallets when Schiano emerged without so much as a trial balloon or even a rudimentary PR campaign to test the idea. That included season ticket holders, donors, and Tennessee’s large and influential group of NFL veterans.

    Which brings up an important question no one really has a simple answer to: While we’re wondering about curious management decisions, does anyone really know who, on a given day, controls a college football team?

    In figuring out how this latest debacle happened, it means considering not a mob, but the actual group of ever-changing stakeholders who have an ever-varying amount of sway over how a college football program works.

    In Tennessee’s case, as a state university, it turns out a lot of people own the football program. As a state university, the number of stakeholders directly include bodies like the Board of Regents, or even something as distant as the Tennessee legislature. In a moment of good judgment so rare it has to be considered both coincidental and accidental, members of the Tennessee legislature roundly condemned the hire and applauded its collapse. To put that in context, consider that one of the only other things that has ever united the Tennessee legislature is a hatred of sagging pants.

    University administration is involved, particularly the director of the athletic department. One factor in the case of Tennessee to consider here miiiiight just be the unique and shaky position of their athletic director. An athletic director has power, sure — but that power can vary wildly from school to school, and depends greatly on their track record and connections. Unfortunately for him, Currie was hired in February of 2017. If all of this seems like the actions of someone still feeling out the terrain less than a year into the job, well: It might have been just that.

    There are big boosters like Jimmy Haslam, the Pilot Flying J gas station baron and owner of the Cleveland Browns. At Tennessee, they’re rich enough that they and their friends get $20 million yachts stuck on the river on the way to party at the Alabama/Tennessee game.

    Their influence is not exact or systematic, but it is powerful. Big-money boosters throw enough money around to get names on buildings, push hirings and firings at every level of the athletic department, and most importantly hold the ear of everyone powerful who matters in the program and beyond. In Haslam’s case, this is especially true: He’s close with former Vols coach Phil Fulmer, was a college roommate of Senator Bob Corker, and is definitely the brother of Bill Haslam, the current governor of Tennessee and former mayor of Knoxville. (When we said before that Tennessee was insular and small, we meant it.)

    That’s a lot of power, but eventually the middle matters. Football programs need actual butts in seats a lot less than they used to thanks to television money, but they still need the steady cash flow of season tickets and home-game revenue. Tennessee, in particular, with 102,455 seats to fill in Neyland Stadium, needs all the butts it can get.

    More than that, programs need proof of life to translate into revenue, something to take back to the administration while pointing to increased applications and cash given back to the university while saying, “We still matter, and are worth all the trouble and conflicts of interest a large football program can bring.”

    The answer to who controls college athletics is an extremely familiar one for anyone talking the SEC: A college football program, operationally, runs a lot like a church. Realistically, a few people pay for everything, but don’t really own it. The reverends set the table organizationally; the deacons run everything with help from volunteers. The financing can be mostly above board, or not at all; a good chunk of the labor is often of the unpaid variety.

    When deacons pick a preacher no one likes without even consulting, the collection plate dries up. To keep that from happening at any college program, the deacons might want to at least consider what the congregation is thinking before making a move. When they don’t, you get a Sunday as bad as the one Tennessee had before rescinding the offer to Schiano.

    Metaphorically speaking: They may not write the checks for the new chapel, but the congregation’s attendance is what makes it a church. If the congregation doesn’t see something like salvation in the service, they’re going to stop showing up altogether. And after a decade of bad-to-indifferent leadership at the pulpit, Tennessee football wants something, anything that feels like at least a peek at the promised land. If they get it with a new hire, that will be one piece of good news for Tennessee. The other good news will be that the congregation saw something it didn’t like, and still cared enough to yell about it.


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    The Top Whatever is a weekly ranking of only the college football teams that must be ranked. This week, noted lifelong Alabama hater Spencer Hall argues for the Tide in your top four.

    1. Oklahoma.

    Beat TCU again, 41-17, like that’s a thing a team can do routinely. Note: This is not a thing a team can do routinely, unless that team has Baker Mayfield. Y’all remember how this happened, right, and how we even got here?

    That the long path to Oklahoma getting an undisputed spot in the final four of the 2017 Playoff begins with Mayfield walking on at Texas Tech, not because he didn’t have scholarship offers, but because he wanted to“play somewhere big?” That after a bright start at Tech, a bad relationship with the management there ended up with a transfer to Oklahoma, where his first championship came in ... intramural softball?

    That he appeared in a video for the women’s gymnastics team? And did NOT phone it in, not even a little?

    MAGIC

    That he has Oklahoma in the Playoff with a chance for a national title? And that as good as Mayfield and the Sooners offense have been all by themselves, the part of the team that Gary Patterson praised after losing the Big 12 title game was the defense?

    We don’t think Patterson means you’ll actually have fun! Oklahoma is in as the Big 12 champion with one loss, and it has a former Texas Tech walk-on who gets so competitive, he grabs his junk during blowout games against lowly Kansas and is probably planting an Oklahoma flag in your front yard right now because, to be honest, your yard disrespected Mayfield by not already having an OU flag spiked into it.

    2. Clemson.

    At no point has Clemson looked like the 100 percent most terrifying team in the nation. Generally, they preferred to handle teams with ease on defense and bring along first-year starting QB Kelly Bryant slowly. For a second, consider what that means. Clemson is so deep throughout the defense, and so menacing along the line, that the offense could comfortably do some on-the-job training. The Tigers could do it not only without damaging their chances at an ACC title, but without damaging their chances at a national title.

    That’s a sick level of luxury, but that’s where Clemson is at right now. Their one loss came on the road at Syracuse after Bryant was knocked out with a head injury. The rest has been according to plan, a steady build through the season capping with what this team is capable of as a fully developed whole: 38-3 over a good Miami, featuring a tidy 23-of-29 from an relaxed Bryant.

    Clemson might even be a year ahead of schedule, if everyone’s being really honest. But if this is what ahead of schedule is, then dear reader, the schedule was wrong. They’re here, possibly the deepest squad in the Playoff field. Fear them, or wind up another data point on their growth curve.

    3. Georgia.

    28-7 over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. Georgia got to even things up neatly, nullifying their only loss with a win and doing it the way Georgia’s won most of its games: brutal defense with a relentless work rate, and a run game that would, at one point, break open the entire game.

    Work rate, by the way, is a soccer term for all the running and chasing a player does while not in possession of the ball. It is usually rated in terms of the distance a player travels during a match. In Roquan Smith’s case for Georgia, that felt like somewhere around five miles. Smith was everywhere and missed nothing Auburn threw at him. The defense is best measured in statements like “damn it felt like there were 12 defenders on the field most of the time” and “Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham looked like a man playing in a powerful hailstorm only he could see.”

    As for the resume: Georgia are SEC Champions with one loss, and that’s good enough, but for added spice, look at the swath of destruction they wrought through the bulk of their schedule. The SEC East might be mostly made of only the most expensive trash, but Georgia reminded put up large numbers on its side of the board, and keeping the numbers on the other side very small.

    P.S. Do not imagine the chaos right now if Georgia had not beaten Notre Dame 20-19 back on September 9th. Again: Do not consider, college football, how only one point kept you from complete chaos.

    4. Alabama.

    I don’t want to do this. Believe me. Nothing bores me more than Alabama football, and all the boring things about Alabama football:

    • The unending cycle of defensive dominations, accompanied by just enough offense to get leads;
    • the ridiculous prattling about the Process, which just sounds like Nick Saban working too much and hiring consultants to watch his consultants to watch his consultants;
    • The roster, an endless crew of four- and five-star recruits, many of whom never really see playing time because they get lost in the machine;
    • The fanbase, now so bored with constant winning that they have to invent complaints. (For instance: There are real people who think Jalen Hurts, whose throws are measured out like they cost Alabama real money each, is holding Alabama back. YOU PEOPLE NEED A FOUR-WIN YEAR TO RECALIBRATE YOUR EXPECTATIONS, YOU PAMPERED HOUNDSTOOTH HEELS.)

    Short of being an Auburn fan, I am the last person in the world who wants to watch anything remotely like more Alabama football, especially when the Tide didn’t win their own division, much less their own conference.

    But: The other real option here is Ohio State, a team with two losses, including a 31-point loss to Iowa, and a strength of record that, prior to the championship game, was rated well below Alabama’s. The playoff’s stated goal is putting the four best teams in, not the four best conference champions.

    Alabama had one bad moment on the road against a hated rival. (Injuries contributed, showing that even Alabama can be affected by injury eventually.). Its key component in the out-of-conference schedule was Florida State, a team whose season collapsed when starting QB Deondre Francois was injured by the Alabama defense. The departure of Lane Kiffin was supposed to take something vital out of an Alabama offense; instead, the Crimson Tide are actually up a few tenths of a point per game.

    If it gets too hectic in terms of advanced stats and strength of schedule: Ohio State lost by 31 points to Iowa and coughed up another game before that to Oklahoma. The four best teams should include Alabama, a team that did not lose by 31 points to Iowa.

    Either I’m right, or I get to watch Alabama lose in embarrassing fashion. Either way, we win.


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    The Top Whatever ranks only the teams that really need to be ranked, starting with the unbeatens. If you’re looking for the polls for some reason, those are over here.

    1. Penn State.

    42-13 over Michigan. That score is merciful, but not for lack of trying. James Franklin had the backups running plays at the Michigan 10, with time expiring, when Penn State could have kneeled, because:

    • Penn State suffered its worst loss of 2016 to Michigan, a 49-10 beatdown that might have been motivation for Penn State playing the entire game at high gear.
    • OK, not might, but definitely, since Maria Taylor overheard offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead quoting the 2016 games’s score back at Penn State’s offense before the TD to put the Nittany Lions over the 40-point mark.
    • Because Franklin is a competitor, which is another way of saying he’s as petty as petty can be, from saying Pitt and Akron were basically the same team to nearly getting into a fight with former Georgia (and current Mississippi State) defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in 2011.
    • Because little has changed with either Penn State or Michigan from the start of the season. Michigan is still a solid defense playing without much offensive production to protect it; Penn State is a balanced, dangerous team with two offensive pieces capable of messing up your entire world in one play. Put the two together, assume all things stay constant, and the results are going to be lopsided every time.
    • Because Penn State sacked John O’Korn seven times and forced a fumble. No quarterback in the history of college football has ever won a game while being sacked seven times and fumbling once.
    • This is a stat that is completely true, and don’t bother looking it up, because I certainly didn’t, but it’s at least 95 percent true. (Probably.)

    Penn State is undefeated. The Nittany Lions’ schedule gives them one of the most direct lines to a playoff slot. Their schedule also happens to include a rampaging Ohio State next week and a brutal, stingy Michigan State the next.

    TL;DR: The path to the top is very clear. It goes straight up that cliff covered in rattlesnake nests and broken glass.*

    *Is Franklin going to try and punch a snake? Has he seen Hard Target at least 40 times? Reader, Franklin is the college football coach most likely to punch a snake. If his DVD collection doesn’t include at least one hella scratched copy of the Jean-Claude Van Damme/John Woo classic, I will personally mail Franklin one American dollar for him to punch. George Washington won’t stop staring at him, and direct eye contact is always a challenge.

    2. Alabama.

    Processed “rival” Tennessee 45-7, canned the Vols, and sold them for meat across the fine supermarkets of the Southeast.

    There’s a lot of ways to paint a portrait of horror here. Numbers are one option. Alabama’s offense had 35 first downs, while poor Tennessee only scraped together seven. I could point you to the 604-to-108 in the total yards column, too, or maybe highlight Tennessee going a pitiful one-of-12 on third downs.

    If numbers don’t move the needle, maybe former Vols torching Butch Jones on Twitter will do.

    If that still doesn’t work? Anecdotes might help, like the sad tale of Tennessee almost scoring a touchdown on offense. The Vols got all the way down to the Alabama 1-yard line. They then false started, stalled the drive, and extended Tennessee’s 12-quarter offensive TD drought.

    Tennessee did score on an interception return ...

    ... only to have DB Rashaan Gaulden flip double birds at the Alabama crowd and get tagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. This was actually the best-executed thing Tennessee did all game, because if you’re going to commit to one, you might as well hand out a double serving while you’re at it.

    The real Alabama death machine watcher, though, knows the ultimate sign of an Alabama blowout. The game got so out of hand that Ronnie Clark, the sixth-string running back, got to carry the ball twice. Clark was a four-star tight end recruit who could start almost anywhere else in college football. His appearance lets an opponent know that what is still a game for you just became a scrimmage for them.

    At Alabama, he’s the vultureback. If you see him, you’ll know that only your bones are left.

    3. Goldy the Gopher.

    Not Minnesota, but Goldy.

    4. TCU.

    43-0 over Kansas. If a team has to play Kansas, and has no other choice because it’s a conference game, then the most a team can do is beat Kansas so badly it sets a new record for beatings, even the beatings involving Kansas.

    TCU held Kansas to a Big 12 record of 21 yards, handing the Jayhawks their 44th straight loss on the road. I’m going to stop talking about Kansas because sadness is contagious.

    5. Miami.

    A 27-19 game of keep-away with Syracuse, which rudely ran more plays than Miami, but also politely turned the ball over four times. Miami played its third close, single-score conference game in a row and won. Teams can do this when they keep the turnover margin tidy, and when the quarterback can throw 43 times without anything too terrible happening.

    Malik Rosier is 6-0 as a starter this season. He has worked a lot like the rest of the team: efficiently and sometimes explosively dismantling opponents, not making a lot of mistakes, and thriving in close games. He’s not been great at any one thing, but that’s this team, really. They do a lot of things well; more importantly, they don’t do anything too badly.

    Miami does have two weaknesses someone might exploit, if they can.

    One: Since the loss of Mark Walton, the rushing attack has suffered a bit, and someone who can really defend the run could turn Miami into a one-sided attack. See: Notre Dame, coming to Miami on Nov. 11, or Virginia Tech, whose numbers are even better, coming to Miami on Nov. 4.

    Two: They have definitely not shown the ability to knee-kick a defender in the facemask.

    TONY JAAAAAAA

    Eric Dungey and Syracuse didn’t win on Saturday. They did, however, highlight this facemask-kicking weakness.

    6. Wisconsin.

    38-13 over Maryland. The Badgers stumbled out of the gate on offense, throwing a pick and fumbling before getting right with a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive.

    From that point, Wisconsin was its usual self: stingy against the run, patient with its own rushing attack, and good enough through the air for a significant cushion.

    It’s pleasing that every Saturday, Wisconsin keeps being the team most like its mascot. They move through a game like they have short, powerful legs, steadily digging away. The Badgers do sometimes come out of their den slowly, but when they do, they defend their territory savagely.

    They are more explosive than one might think. QB Alex Hornibrook averages almost 10 yards per attempt, just like badgers, who despite being short-legged, can run at up to 19 miles per hour in short bursts. Try and sleep tonight, knowing that a razor-mouthed heavyweight turbo-weasel that can outrun you is lurking in the Wisconsin woods. Might be talking about the animal. Might be talking about the football team. Either or both, really.

    7. Houston Water Bottle Guy.

    Houston, 4-3 after this week’s loss to Memphis; Houston Water Bottle Guy, undefeated.

    8. UCF.

    Got Navy’d, which explains why the rampaging UCF offense only scored 31 points. (“Only.”) Playing triple-option teams is wrestling in molasses for everyone. It is especially frustrating for teams as explosive as UCF, who have to hold serve on offense, get the ball back a few extra times on defense, and then crank through first downs until a haymaker or two hits home.

    It also helps when the triple-option team’s quarterback makes a very unfortunate read or two.

    UCF is not a novelty. Putting them in the Top Whatever is not cute or throwing charity the way of an AAC team. The Knights are a delight because they clearly enjoy not just beating teams, but destroying them with flair, something rarely seen since ... well, since Oregon’s Chip Kelly teams, the ones UCF head coach Scott Frost worked on as an assistant. Speculate about where he might end up all you like, but enjoy this team now, for what it is in 2017: a genuine, polished monster.

    P.S. The game between USF and UCF on Nov. 24 might have real, national-type implications for the playoff. JUST AS EVERYONE PREDICTED.*

    *Note: No one predicted this.

    9. USF.

    34-28 over Tulane. This is a compliment: USF QB Quinton Flowers is second in our nation to Baker Mayfield in making complete horseshit plays, i.e., unscripted, improvised plays that make defensive coordinators mutter “horseshit” under their breath.

    For example, this is from a horseshit play:

    IT’S FUN TO THINK YOU HAVE AN ANGLE SOMETIMES

    See, the funny part is that this was supposed to go left, and Flowers has already turned right. There, he finds two defenders waiting for him, both leaning right, but with reasonable pursuit angles.

    This is the scene about three nanoseconds after the previous photo.

    SEE THAT’S THE WHOLE DEFENSE BEHIND HIM, WHICH THEY’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE AT ALL

    A blip later, there’s nothing in front of him but the end zone. This is the kind of greatness that happens when a quarterback can make horseshit plays.

    Flowers is one of the best kind of college quarterbacks. He runs brilliantly, often off-script. His passing might be erratic, but if he only completes 10 passes, it’s a lock that two will be for touchdowns. (This is what happened against Tulane: 10-of-24 through the air, for two TDs, one INT, and 127 yards.)

    There will be long periods where he does nothing or scrambles himself into backfield trouble. Then, after a lull, Flowers will slip a tackle and ruin a pursuit angle, and all hell will break loose. You know: the kind of completely joyous horseshit quarterback play that — if Flowers heartbreaking backstory didn’t do it already— endears a player to a fan base for life.

    Again: USF plays UCF on Nov. 24, and it’s going to be better appointment viewing than the “War on I-4” has any right to be.

    UNDEFEATED AND WISELY AVOIDED PLAYING FOOTBALL THIS WEEK

    Georgia. The Bulldogs spent the bye week preparing for Florida, or studying film of a chicken trying to take flight. Remember: The Top Whatever only ranks teams based on what they did this week versus their overall record. Georgia spent the week watching Florida game tape, and watching farce/comedy doesn’t qualify as work.

    The Bulldogs still control everything in front of them thanks to a clean record and that one-point win over Notre Dame in South Bend. Georgia could owe the entire season to Rodrigo Blankenship, a former walk-on kicker in Rec Specs who occasionally does interviews still wearing his helmet, for his late field goal against Notre Dame. Georgia was saved by a nerd, and famously nerd-hating Dawg fans will have to live with that.

    TEAMS WITH ONE LOSS WE MUST BEGIN CONSIDERING FOR THINGS

    Notre Dame. Flattened a disjointed USC, 49-14. It’s not shocking that Notre Dame is good. It is shocking how they’re doing it. On paper, Notre Dame looks like a service academy and runs with Brandon Wimbush and Josh Adams like they’re pushing a single wing all the way to the state championship in high school.

    Go look it up: Notre Dame’s peers in the top 10 for total rushing yardage include all three service academies, former Navy coach Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech squad, and Alabama. 2017’s hottest club is MOSTLY GIVING UP ON THE FORWARD PASS.

    Oklahoma. Won a barn-burner on the road versus Kansas State, 42-35. Probably sitting on the outside of any Playoff bubble, but controls a substantial chunk of its fate by a.) having TCU and Oklahoma State coming on the schedule and b.) Baker Mayfield doing things to keep OU in games, like picking up 15 yards on fourth-and-4 out of absolutely nothing.

    First-rate horseshit college football quarterback greatness.

    Oklahoma State. A 13-10 winner in OT against Texas. Maybe the most surprising score of the week, because a Texas-OSU overtime should be 56-55, but it’s a win. Gundy don’t care.

    Montana Tech. The Orediggers sit at 6-1 in the NAIA’s Frontier conference, and are owners of the weekend’s most gigantic box score in a 93-19 ... win? There really aren’t words for scoring 93 on someone, even the clearly outmanned Montana State-Northern Lights, so just call it this: Montana Tech scored so many points that all the scores won’t fit in the scoring summary table.

    NC State. The mystery of IS NC STATE ACTUALLY GREAT AT FOOTBALL THINGS? will thankfully clarify itself when NC State plays Clemson and Notre Dame.

    Until then, this is me at all times when discussing NC State.

    RESIDENTS OF RALEIGH REPORT STRANGE SIGHTINGS OF A GOOD FOOTBALL TEAM

    Michigan State. Scraped by Indiana, 17-9. The bad news, for any other team, would be failing to get 300 yards of offense and grinding out wins in the hardest possible fashion. The good news for Michigan State: This sounds like how Mark Dantonio does things anyway. In the next three weeks, the Spartans play Ohio State and Penn State, and oh man, could they mess up a lot of things for a lot of people in that timespan.

    Washington State. Recovered by beating Colorado, 28-0, in a cold, driving rain in Pullman. Luke Falk still doesn’t look right, but Wazzu is still in the co-driver’s seat in the Pac-12 North and only has one loss. Technically alive for things beyond the Pac-12, is what we’re saying, but barely.

    ONE-LOSS TEAMS THAT WISELY AVOIDED PLAYING FOOTBALL THIS WEEK BUT STILL MERIT MENTION

    Clemson. Still insanely talented and probably still capable of figuring out the quarterback spot after the injury to starter Kelly Bryant against Syracuse. In barely related news: WOO BOY DABO BOUGHT HISSELF A TUDOR-THEMED CHAIN HOTEL-LOOKIN’ MANSION.

    Virginia Tech. Humiliated UNC 59-7, but UNC helped generously with that. Still carrying a nasty loss to Clemson on the resume, but also still in charge of its own fate in the ACC.

    Washington. Still playing for big, important things, and also still ashamed owners of the season’s most baffling loss, at Arizona State last week. Like their rivals across the state in Pullman: Technically alive for larger things.

    ONE-LOSS TEAM IN MEMPHIS WE LIKE MENTIONING BECAUSE THEY ARE VERY FUN AND ALSO MEMPHIS

    Memphis. The Memphis Tigers beat Houston 42-38 in this week’s most off-the-rails game, scoring all of their points in a blazing second-half comeback. Memphis realistically has no chance at the Playoff. I don’t care because the Tigers are very fun and tend to play their games like making the rent depends on it.

    Also: Riley Ferguson is having a better year than Sam Darnold and would be just as happy to steal a signing bonus from the Jets. OOOOH, HE’S 6’4, NFL SCOUTS. YOU GAVE BROCK OSWEILER MILLIONS AND CURRENTLY PAY BRIAN HOYER MONEY. GIVE RILEY FERGUSON AT LEAST ONE HUGE SIGNING BONUS. THE UNIVERSE OWES HIM AT LEAST THAT MUCH.


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    Ranking only the college football teams that absolutely must be ranked at this time.

    AS ALWAYS, WE BEGIN WITH UNDEFEATED TEAMS THAT ACTUALLY PLAYED FOOTBALL THIS WEEKEND.

    1. Georgia.

    The best way to show the size of the giant ass-kicking pile the Georgia Bulldogs amassed in a 42-7 win over Florida: start with one small point. Jake Fromm, Georgia’s freshman quarterback, threw seven passes, not in one quarter, not in a half, but for the entire length of one regulation football game against a conference opponent and hated rival.

    Unless you are Navy or another triple-option team, let me tell you what throwing seven times in a 42-7 win means. It means one team beat the other team’s ass so badly, they didn’t even have to get up off the couch to do it. It means Georgia saw Florida getting Georgia’s last beer out of the fridge, and without really waking up, winged the remote control all the way across the house and into Florida’s temple. The remote control came flying back like the hammer of Thor, of course.

    Note: This is the only superpower I can see any Georgia fan really wanting that doesn’t involve golf.

    This meant that without even looking at the rest of the box score or watching the game, the Bulldogs probably ran the ball at will. (They did, for 292 yards and four TDs.)

    It meant that at no point did the Georgia defense allow the Gators’ offense to change the pace. (They did not. Florida’s putrid offense flailed so badly that it might have contributed significantly to firing Florida’s head coach.)

    I don’t think it’s just because they play in the burnt-out shell of what used to be the SEC East and are the last unvandalized mansion on the block. Georgia is 8-0 because it’s ridiculously disciplined, well-coached, and unlike a thousand other teams in the country, builds around its ingredients.

    The Bulldogs have two outstanding running backs and a young QB. Guess what they do? They run the ball with those two backs, block well, and don’t ask Fromm to do too much yet. The Georgia defense? Y’all, just watch how they read and react, and see what simple, systematic teaching can do to free up defenders to make plays without getting too deep in their own heads.

    They’re smart. That’s a word the entire state of Georgia has a problematic relationship with, but the truth is that this isn’t UGA’s full potential. This is an intelligent, managed team playing clean, brutal football.

    P.S. I don’t even think this team is much more talented than a lot of the teams they face yet. The bulk of what Georgia could be is still in the mail, growing in the weight room in the form of incoming recruiting classes and underclassmen. Doubt this, and ask yourself why Florida tossed Jim McElwain on the curb, free to a good home, and why Tennessee is going to rehome Butch Jones any day now. This is good, but there is much more coming, and everyone in the SEC East knows it.

    2. Iowa State Wario.

    Iowa State has two losses, so by the standards of the Top Whatever, they can’t make the undefeated rankings. But you know who can? IOWA STATE WARIO.

    TCU v Iowa StatePhoto by David Purdy/Getty Images
    THEY’RE A-GONNA WIN

    So much came together here:

    • the extremely smart hiring of Matt Campbell from Toledo
    • an historic upset of TCU in Ames, the second time an undefeated team has tussled with the Clones and come away bloodied
    • the decision made by this fan to not only dress up as the finest Nintendo character ever for Halloween,
    • but the EXCELLENT decision to wear that costume to the game and then onto the field in celebration
    • and the photographer, David Purdy, realizing the greatness of this moment.

    3. Miami.

    Tighter win than expected in a 24-19 victory over UNC, but remember: Miami is the kind of team where every game sort of comes out to 24-19, no matter the opponent.

    The things to be concerned about remain the things to feel good about. The Hurricanes can’t run the ball, so they have to rely on QB Malik Rosier for production. Rosier put up 350 yards and three TDs in a win, so it continues to be a strength.

    The Miami defense gave up 27 first downs to North Carolina, continuing a streak of allowing opposing offenses to move the chains on the Canes. On the other hand, the Miami defense forced four turnovers and is riding a serious streak of turnover luck, soooo ...

    Here we are, pointing out that Miami seems to be 2017’s Lucky But Also Good Team, and that’s fine. Miami’s 7-0 and winning where it counts: on the scoreboard and in the standings. The Canes are not just good enough to make opposing coaches mad, but make them mad at the otherwise completely inoffensive Mark Richt.

    P.S. I hope Richt told Larry Fedora to “stay blessed.” That would be 10 times more infuriating than any profanity he could have thrown back at him.

    4. Wisconsin.

    24-10 over poor, poor Illinois. Warning: The footage below may be too erotic for some readers.

    You: Wisconsin’s schedule is weak, and they’re not overly impressive

    Me: 8-0, and an offensive lineman reminded the world what real joy is. Also, no one has to worry about justifying a thing with Wisconsin. They win in the Big Ten Championship Game and they’re in; they lose, and they’re out, via some pretty comfortable justifications regarding that strength of schedule.

    Also, why are you bringing up stuff they can’t control, and not appreciating the fine, fat-dude thuggery of this team’s excellence? All Wisconsin wants to do is drop that ass on other teams’ heads for four hours. Let them revel in their plodding greatness before tangling them up with the Ohio States of the world.

    5. UCF.

    Beat FCS Austin Peay, 73-33. It’s a cupcake game, but thankfully someone still believes in testing to see whether all the numbers work on the scoreboard. UCF is now the only undefeated non-power team after USF lost to Houston. If the Knights win out, they’ll be that team looking to blindside someone in a New Year’s Day bowl.

    DID NOT PLAY THIS WEEK BUT IS PROBABLY THE REAL NO. 1. PLEASE REMEMBER THAT I DO NOT RANK TEAMS THAT DID NOT PLAY, ALABAMA FANS WHO WILL EMAIL ANYWAY

    Alabama. Probably the best team in the nation, but also definitely on a bye. Nick Saban definitely spent it horsewhipping his staff into watching 70 hours of footage of LSU’s jet sweeps.

    ONE-LOSS TEAMS TO CONSIDER FOR PLAYOFF-TYPE THINGS

    Notre Dame. Disassembled NC State, 35-14.

    This is a safe space. Admit how fun it is to watch Notre Dame lean on teams until they collapse. Talk about how satisfying it can be to watch Josh Adams run the ball. OK, don’t talk about that one too much, because Irish fans will flood your mentions about how you’re not respecting Adams enough, even though you’re talking about how good he is? (I don’t know, the Yankees are out of baseball’s postseason, and Duke basketball has started yet, and they’re bored or something.)

    It’s not aerial circus pretty. But beauty takes a lot of forms, reader, and it’s important to appreciate them all.

    That’s mean and admirable, but the real story is the Irish defense. They held NC State to a piddling 50 yards on the ground and harassed talented Wolfpack QB Ryan Finley into irrelevance for much of the game.

    For those just remembering that they are Notre Dame fans: Talk about the underrated defense, and hold off on buying that Warriors jersey for a few weeks, and you’ll continue to pass as a Real Human Sports Fan for a bit longer.

    Oklahoma. Beat Texas Tech, 49-27. Hopes Iowa State beats everyone for the rest of the regular season, frankly, and doesn’t care who knows it.

    Ohio State. Handed Penn State its first loss in a 39-38 thriller. J.T. Barrett went 13 for 13 in the fourth quarter for 170 yards and three TDs and was evidently the best passer in the history of college football for a while. I can’t say for sure that Barrett in that game wasn’t the greatest quarterback to ever play football, and neither can you.

    Clemson. 24-10 over Georgia Tech. Hey, QB Kelly Bryant seems to be moving just fine, and that’s nothing but good news for the Tigers’ prospects as they get back into the ACC and Playoff race.

    Oklahoma State. Winners, 50-39, over West Virginia, and with Bedlam coming up this week, have a lot in their control re: further ambitions.

    Washington. Ran the ball a whopping 58 times against UCLA in a 44-23 win because ... because they could? Yes, because they could. See all comments about Georgia above for what that means about a team in a non-triple option context.

    Virginia Tech. If they want to startle some people after a workmanlike, 24-3 win over Duke, beating an undefeated Miami and taking control of the ACC Coastal this coming week would be the way to do that.

    TEAMS THAT LOST THEIR FIRST GAME THIS WEEK. PUT IT ON THE TRAILER, TAKE IT TO THE GARAGE, AND COME BACK NEXT WEEK

    TCU. A 14-7 loss to Iowa State in Ames is a way more respectable way to fall off the wagon than it used to be, TCU. Take some consolation in that, and the rest of your schedule, which should keep you in contention for all kinds of things.

    USF. Don’t watch how USF lost this game, 28-24, to Houston. Just know that the Bulls gave up a fourth-and-24 pass for a first down on the final drive, then watched Houston QB D’Eriq King run 20 yards untouched for the winning TD. BAD. IT WAS VERY BAD FOR EVERYONE BUT HOUSTON TO WATCH. LIKE A CAR CRASH YOU SAW COMING BUT COULD NOT SCREAM TO WARN ANYONE ABOUT.

    Penn State. Not their fault they lost 39-38; played best college football quarterback ever of the week.


    0 0

    Yes, 2017 was trash, but we’ve got some sports hope for you in the new year.

    Soccer

    Christian Pulisic is only 19 years old and, barring disaster, will have at least two more shots at a World Cup team as an American soccer player. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png

    ATL United drew 886,000 people to watch soccer in Atlanta in its first season.

    Weston McKinnie is only 19 years old and, barring disaster, he’ll have at least two more shots at a World Cup team as an American soccer player. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png

    Lionel Messi is still one of the best soccer players in the world at the age of 30.

    ^ Cristiano Ronaldo is still one of the best soccer players in the world at the age of 32.

    ^ If either, or both, of these things makes you sad or angry: Neither one of these things can stay true for long.

    The failure of the United States to make the World Cup hopefully means a complete demolition of everything wrong with American soccer. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png

    We will all get to watch Fox hilariously work overtime on selling a World Cup to an American audience without the United States Men’s National Team in it. #https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png

    Everyone will get to root for the team of their choice on their merits alone in this World Cup. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930125/ripusasoccer.0.png

    ^ This should be Nigeria, of course, because Nigeria is the most entertaining soccer team, and deserves your love above all others.

    A rabid, gluttonous soccer fan may now stream nearly every league’s games on the planet directly into their faces. (Legally, of course.) # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930127/computer.0.png

    ^ You’d never stream illegally, we know that, we just want to clarify that. We’re not the police as far as you know.

    Sports gambling will be legal everywhere, and you will be able to wager on anything from the comfort of your phone.

    ^ Sports gambling will be legal everywhere, and you will be able to make fun of your friends for being stupid enough to gamble on sports live from the social media accounts on your phone.

    ^ Sports gambling will be legal everywhere, meaning you can gamble on sports from jail with your contraband cell phone after you commit crimes to feed your sports gambling addiction.

    MLB/Baseball

    Baseball is actually a very healthy sport with strong local followings. It’ll be fine. Nothing else sells 162 games worth of ads per team. Nothing.

    This is the part where we tell you to be very excited about a young baseball player—someone like Ronald Acuña, baby! (Grant Brisbee told me who he was, but he seems very exciting!) Baseball is fun.

    College baseball is growing even if Mississippi State abandoned their glorious fire trap of a tailgating situation.

    The best, most passionate, and underrated college sports playoff is the Women’s College World Series.

    NASCAR/Auto racing

    Auto racing is suffering, but it’s also the sport most likely to put you into a VR helmet, showing you exactly what a driver is seeing during a race in real time.

    ^ Did you just think about what this might look like during a rally car race? Get nauseated but excited thinking about what this would look like for an F1 race at Monaco? Auto racing might not be dead-dead yet.

    Less money coming into NASCAR might mean a designed return to lawless racing and on-track brawling for ratings. This might be desperate. It might also be very entertaining.

    ^ A desperate need for viewers might also get NASCAR to do something serious about hiring diversity in the sport—and not just behind the wheel.

    A car can still run at 200 miles per hour flat out at Talladega without touching the brake once.

    NBA

    The NBA is in a golden age and it’s so obvious that even saying this is already a cliche.

    A 6’11” point guard who plays in Milwaukee can dunk from the three-point line in two steps—and does this pretty frequently.

    Boogie Cousins and Anthony Davis play on the same team—and they might be the three spot on the menu on any given night on League Pass.

    LeBron James is only 32 and still playing the best basketball of his life.

    ^ He also called the President “you bum” on Twitter, which made him the new President. LeBron James is now the first man to be President and also an MVP candidate.

    The 76ers and Knicks are stocked with astonishing talents for years to come. No, really, that’s an accurate sentence.

    James Harden is allowed to do whatever he wants on any night of the week in the city of Houston and it is a delight to watch.

    Russell Westbrook exists, and sometimes that alone is enough to keep going.

    The NBA has MVP-grade talent from Greece, Los Angeles, Cameroon, Akron, Latvia, and Washington, D.C.

    Someday someone will love you like John Wall loves Washington, D.C., and the Wizards. And like D.C. and the Wizards, you won’t deserve it. (But you’ll take it.) # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930137/walljersey.0.png

    Doris Burke is calling NBA games.

    The NBA on TNT is still the best wraparound sports TV show even if Charles Barkley has been phoning it in hard for like 10 years now.

    The NBA playoffs are still incredible.

    College basketball

    The good news for college basketball is that the FBI should be done with things in three to four years, tops.

    ^ That’s it, there’s really not a whole lot else to be optimistic about here.

    NFL

    The Chiefs offense under Andy Reid uses every cool play from college football and makes it work at the pro level, which is fun.

    ^ Andy Reid is also using Alex Smith to run it because Andy Reid understands comedy and football.

    Tom Brady operating the Patriots’ offense is a marvel to behold, and Brady is the most graceful quarterback of all time.

    ^ No one has to admit that Tom Brady The Football Player is good publicly but we can all share this here on the internet where no one can see it.

    ^ He’s starting a second career as a new age fitness grifter, true, but none of that should interfere too much with watching him instantly recognize the weak point in a defense and putting a ball on a receiver with jaw-dropping accuracy.

    Von Miller comes off the edge every Sunday like he’s speed skating in hell and racing one inch ahead of the devil.

    Julio Jones is healthy, magnificent, and in 2017 was evidently saving up touchdowns for your future entertainment.

    Aaron Rodgers is infinitely more fun to watch than Tom Brady, just as good, actually has a sense of humor, and will never try to sell you a two hundred dollar cookbook.

    Aaron Donald could be the United States’ representative for every Olympic sport—all of them, winter or summer—and we would win just as many medals, if not more.

    ^ Yes, including rhythmic gymnastics.

    ^ Maybe especially rhythmic gymnastics.

    NFL cities appear less susceptible to giving cities taxpayer-subsidized stadiums than ever before.

    Russell Wilson is a joy to watch work even if he is the NFL’s most Fanny Pack-ass Player. Maybe because he is the NFL’s Most Fanny Pack-ass Player.

    ^ He’d be even more incredible if he had more than three offensive lineman protecting him at any time.

    The Bills will continue exist to validate your feelings about management being incompetent.

    ^ The Browns will continue to exist to validate your feelings about life being unfair, and also about management being incompetent.

    ^ The Patriots will continue to exist to prove your suspicion that only four people ever really own anything, and that you definitely aren’t one of them.

    ^ The Saints will continue to exist in order to remind you that other people are always having more fun somewhere without you.

    Randy Moss is working as a paid football commentator.

    Steve Young recently bit the head off a fish on air. It’s not all hopeless on the TV side. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930131/headlessfish.0.png

    At least Jerry Jones has the generosity to be a properly insane New Gilded Age billionaire for entertainment purposes.

    Players are retiring earlier and earlier, which is a very, very good thing if the NFL is not going to fix itself for the long haul.

    The NFL’s ratings falling might get the NFL to try and rebuild the sport for the long haul. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930107/nflstatgraph.0.png

    ^ They probably won’t do this. But it’s nice to hope for the best from people, isn’t it? Delusional, but nice.

    NHL

    The NHL still has the most epic playoff in all of sport, even if it does destroy sleep schedules, productivity at work, and occasionally downtown Vancouver.

    Doc Emrick could make a cockroach race sound like the Kentucky Derby’s last 30 furlongs. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930111/mic.0.png

    Theoretically speaking, Gary Bettman can’t be commissioner forever.

    ^ Until then, booing Gary Bettman remains one of sports’ most reliable and respected traditions.

    CFB

    If an Alabama fan: Nick Saban shows no signs of retiring.

    ^ If you are anyone else: Eventually, one day, Nick Saban will have to retire and stop coaching Alabama football.

    No one in the sport has gotten smaller, slower, or less talented—except for you, the viewer.

    There is more college football on that one human being could possibly watch and that’s before you even get to the Pac-12 playing four games at 3 a.m. on a Sunday.

    Several court cases could destroy amateurism as we know it, and get players a piece of the very large and unshared college sports revenue pie.

    More and more people are recognizing Big Red, the greatest mascot in college athletics, and becoming aware of the good work he’s done. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930123/bigred.0.png

    The passing of time means everyone gets a day closer to the return of the NCAA Football video game franchise.

    ^ We’re not saying it’s going to happen. But if it does, well buddy you’re getting closer to it whether you like it or not.

    Justice Hill at Oklahoma State is just a sophomore.

    Khalil Tate at Arizona is just a sophomore.

    Chip Kelly is coming back! At UCLA!

    RB J.K. Dobbins at Ohio State is just a freshman and already has a 1,000-yard season.

    No matter what happens—fall of society, collapse of civilization, flooding of the land by the rising sea—the Iron Bowl will happen in the final week of the regular season.

    ^ We’re very serious about this. They’ll grow gills. #RollDamnMerpeople

    Misc/general

    The sport of grappling will become an entire growth industry all by itself—mostly because it already is.

    The World Tag Championships is the real sport of the future and that’s fine because watching two people play tag in an obstacle course is way, way more entertaining than it has any right to be.

    There are more women’s sports on broadcast television than ever, and with higher ratings and better funding than ever before, too.

    Serena Williams will come back to tennis after giving birth to a child and taking a full year off at minimum and still beat the brakes off Maria Sharapova in straight sets. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930105/racket.0.png

    E-sports will gradually become more comprehensible to the general viewer. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930115/gamecontroller.0.png

    ^ Even if it doesn’t become more comprehensible, it will become louder and more frequently broadcast, and sometimes that’s enough to get everyone adequately addicted.

    Lavar Ball’s Senate campaign will be wild.

    There will be actual competition for ESPN in the sports sphere. (It won’t be in the major sports, but still.)

    Golf will continue to enable our nation’s most luxurious and sometimes dramatic couch naps.

    With peer-to-peer economy, guess who the next AirBnB of the San Diego Chargers is? Well, it’s you.

    ^ This may not be an exaggeration. The Chargers might need to spend a few nights at your place.

    Drones! There are just gonna be drones everywhere with cameras, and the best part will be watching them run out of juice and crash into the middle of live games. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930119/drone.0.png

    You and your friends might be able to crowdfund that competitive MarioKart league you’ve been talking about for years. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930115/gamecontroller.0.png

    ^ You and your friends will probably not do too much jail time for encroaching on the copyright territory of the Nintendo corporation.

    With a GoPro, anyone can become an extreme athlete! Except for you, you’re probably just going to hurt yourself, stop that.

    Roger Federer has all the money he will ever need and is past his athletic prime, thus allowing others to flourish in his prestigious wake. # https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/9930105/racket.0.png

    ^ That said, Roger Federer will probably win a Grand Slam this year at the age of 36.


    0 0

    Nick Saban’s machine broke and forced the Tide to win unforgettably.

    Remember this: Rodrigo Blankenship almost saved Georgia singlefootedly. The kicker with the rec specs and the name straight out of an indie rock witness protection program kept rescuing the Bulldogs in a national championship game against Alabama with three field goals, including a bomb of a 51-yarder in overtime. It is really not often someone gets to describe a field goal this way, but Rodrigo was on fire so here goes: It was a scorching kick bordering on the erotic, even for those without a field goal fetish.

    Georgia would lose just a few plays later, a result that seems almost irrelevant to anyone watching the game because for so long this was just that: A game, an actual competition. It was a surprising comeback win from an Alabama dynasty that never has to come back, all done against a team that has so rarely put it all together to get here in the first place, Georgia. It started with a surprise, ended with a walkoff shocker, and in between had moments of unstaged brilliance for almost everyone — even the normally forgotten kicker.

    Georgia’s kicker only stepped into the overtime spotlight because Alabama kickers remained the best running gag in college football. If there is one relief for people tired of Alabama winning everything, it can be that Andy Pappanastos — who missed a 36 yarder to win the game at the end of regulation — did not wake up in Tuscaloosa this morning as a pariah with Georgia as national champions. All the greasy breakfast food and strong coffee in the world wouldn’t burn off that emotional hangover.

    But fortunately for Alabama, the breakdown of Saban’s machine designed to digest opponents over 60 minutes of grinding football sparked a confusion that produced something much more captivating and memorable: A team of outrageously good individual players playing catch-up on offense, desperate, intense effort on defense, and a sideline so emotional that Mekhi Brown took his on-field tussling with Georgia to his teammates and coaches. Brown would retake the field and immediately tear Mecole Hardman down by the shoulder pads on a kickoff return. He did this with one arm, and arrested an accelerating Hardman to a full, spinning halt in about three-tenths of a second.

    Those little one-on-one reversals were happening all over the field, for both teams, all the time and at every single matchup. To continue the thread: Hardman got caught like a toddler running into traffic by Brown. Hardman also incinerated his man on an 80-yard TD catch in the third quarter. Alabama DB Tony Brown got beat on that play, but opened the game for Alabama by absolutely bullying Javon Wims out of the ball on a strip following a long completion from Georgia QB Jake Fromm. Wims would go on to make a contortionist’s catch around Anthony Averett, hooking his leg around the Alabama DB to stay in bounds.

    A turn for one, then another, and another. I can’t remember a game where so many little individual plays and players could be named offhand and with such ease. I just can’t, and that’s before even getting to Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne’s night demolishing the middle of Georgia’s offensive line. Payne was a one-man gravitational distortion field — and even he had plays where the Bulldogs line stymied him. (Especially in the first half, when Alabama’s vaunted line stunts got nowhere against the Bulldog offensive front.)

    Tua Tagovailoa got the last word, but the phrasing matters here. Tagovailoa came in for a faltering Jalen Hurts, threw three TDs, and in between extremely freshman-type moments jolted Alabama’s offense back into the game. He also eclipsed what would have been the story of the game had Georgia won: Freshman Jake Fromm’s fearless night against the Bama defense. Fromm hit five third-down conversions longer than third and six against Alabama, including the 80-yard bomb to Hardman in the third quarter.

    A freshman did that against an Alabama defense that knew what was coming. Facing him for the next two or three years in the SEC will ... hold on, let us find just the right word ... it will suck. It will absolutely, positively suck.

    It will also, for lack of that better word out there, suck to face Tua Tagovailoa. It will suck because as a freshman Tagovailoa made the kind of play freshmen make to lose games. He took a 16-yard sack on first down in his first possession of overtime, a bad play for any team, and a nearly disastrous play for one with a badly malfunctioning kicker.

    Then a freshman quarterback somehow diagnosed cover-2, looked off a safety like only a few seniors can, and dropped a gift-wrapped, perfectly accurate, and beautifully thrown touchdown into the hands of another freshman, DeVonta Smith.

    There are a lot of ways to look at Alabama winning a 26-23 game. I wanted to start by saying that I had been right in saying that Alabama would win, because being right is a cheap way of feeling good about yourself. But being right by betting on Alabama is the cheapest way of feeling good about yourself. It’s almost cheating, because betting on Alabama in college football is betting on the house in a casino. Over time and with enough games, they always win. Nick Saban is the Saturn of the sport, turning his children loose into the world only to eat them later when they come for the crown. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart came real close, and in this story he ended up on the dinner table with an apple in his mouth like the rest of Saban’s former assistants.

    That’s not where this game ended up. The adults in the room, if they had their druthers, wanted control, processes, a game decided by kickers and sacks and field position. They got some of that, sure. But once a game broke out, a bunch of recent children had to play sometimes erratic, sometimes brilliant football at the very limit of their capabilities live on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. Their mistakes were huge, but so were their recoveries, and their counter-mistakes and counter-recoveries, until in the end someone had to accept the formality of a victory.

    In the end, the last play came off the hand of an 18-year-old and landed in the hands of a 19-year-old. According to the plan, that wasn’t supposed to happen, but youth has always been the first and best hope for redeeming the dull, faulty plans of old men.

    That’s why you watch otherwise structurally rotten college football, after all. If there are the fumes of exhilaration still lingering from watching what should have been a sluggish, extremely professional exchange of football propositions, it is because of the players. The teams may be good or bad or indifferent, but the kids are, and always have been, absolutely brilliant.


    0 0

    The sport’s greatest voice passed away at the age of 89.

    Keith Jackson created the map of college football for the rest of us.

    by Spencer Hall

    Keith Jackson could wander. It was more fun when he did. He did it more frequently as he got older. He would note a lineman’s big ass or pause in the middle of an otherwise flawless, minimalist broadcast to say, “My, oh my, have airplanes changed the way we lived.” Sometimes the judge, in the middle of an otherwise perfectly overseen trial, would stop and ask the plaintiff about their hydrangeas.

    The wanderings were rare. He was, more than anything, intensely focused. At his best, he felt like a medium. An experience came through him, not around him or in spite of him, and always, always in perfect rhythm. Listen to Desmond Howard’s punt return against Ohio State.

    Do you hear how innately rhythmic his voice is, both in the lilting lulls during the kick, and then when he quickens the pace and — instead of narrating — punctuates the moment with single notes? How he works with the crowd exploding around him, not against it? Jackson’s delivery came in triplets when he got excited, always falling downhill off a big first syllable, the perfect blend of two gifts he received early in his life: a burly accent straight out of Roopville, Georgia, and a polish added by years as a broadcaster in radio and television.

    That training meant calling everything ABC threw at him, but college football was different. One of Jackson’s gifts that made him so, so good at college football games was to make the viewer feel at home wherever the game might be. Ann Arbor became the Big House, Nebraska became the friendliest town in the world, and even beneath “the broad shoulders of the San Gabriel Mountains” you could feel at home, because ... well Keith did, didn’t he? Nowhere wasn’t home on a Saturday if Keith was calling it, because he had a map with a single line connecting everything.

    This was all part of a whole to him. The things with names had definite pronunciations only Keith could nail; the things without names would be given them in time. The language of this sport — right down to the love for the great, the ugly, the undersized, the local, and the brutal — is his.

    I can’t drive that point home enough. The words that come out of our mouths and onto a screen or the page about this sport aren’t bad imitations of Grantland Rice or Dan Jenkins. For a half century, the lexicographer of the sport was Keith Jackson, and everyone else came in at a distant second at best. Everything I have ever written about the sport contains a deranged, badly degraded permutation of his diction and cadence. It is base DNA, and for at least two generations, the rest is just mutation after mutation.

    One more gift: he never lost his accent. I swear it came out 3 percent harder when he called college games. It made him a welcoming, unintimidating guest from a definite somewhere, but never so much of a somewhere as to overwhelm or exclude.

    Looking back, it should have come out a little bit harder when Keith Jackson called a college football game. Accents always come out harder at home.

    He made every college town sound like his college town.

    by Brian Floyd

    My favorite clip of Keith Jackson isn’t a call or a moment, but a monologue.

    Jackson, nearing the end of his career, waxes poetically about Pullman, home of Washington State University. This was 2002, my senior year of high school. I grew up in a family of Cougs, rooting for the team, but had never seen Pullman.

    It didn’t fully make sense until years later, but the feelings of nostalgia in Jackson’s voice could just as easily be my own, years after graduating. It’s the best description of Pullman I’ve heard.

    Jackson made his way to study broadcasting in the middle of wheat fields in Washington. He took a path many from Washington State hope to take: local radio, then local news in Seattle, then toward the pinnacle of college football broadcasting at ABC.

    He called plenty of iconic moments, but above that was his ability to set a scene, stakes, and surroundings. He was describing Pullman in the clip above, but could just as easily rip off a soliloquy about part of Nebraska, California, Iowa, or Louisiana. He was great at setting up the moment, then letting it unfold for you without too much of him — maybe with a “Whoa, Nellie.”

    A kid from a dirt farm who went to college at a land-grant school in Washington was a perfect voice for his era. He was an alumni of my school, and someone we continue to hold up with pride. But he could just as easily have been one of yours.

    All his little references to places and nicknames were his way of telling you that you belonged.

    by Bill Connelly

    In 1998, when I was a Mizzou sophomore, the Tigers had their best team in almost 20 years. They went to play top-ranked Ohio State in mid-September, and nearly 20 years later, I only remember a few things about the game. I remember current Mizzou head coach Barry Odom forcing a Joe Germaine fumble in the first half, that it was returned for a touchdown, that the Tigers led by one at halftime, and that Ohio State had the Mizzou option swallowed up in the second half and pulled away for an easy win.

    Most of all, I remember “a burly bunch from Boone County.”

    That’s what Keith Jackson called Mizzou in the pregame, and I not only remember the phrase nearly 20 years later, I remember how it made me feel. I was absolutely giddy. My team was not only in a game important enough to get KEITH JACKSON on the call, but he had a nickname for us. He knew where we lived!

    He was the best at the little wink. Keith always gave you an extra piece of information to let you know that he was paying attention, that your team mattered. Maybe it was the county in which your school resides, the river that runs by your campus or stadium, or the home town of your left guard.

    He was always intent on letting the game be the star, preferring to let the action unfold. But when he set the table, he made sure you knew you were welcome at it.

    For most of us, the legend begins and ends with the Rose Bowl.

    by Richard Johnson

    The last time I saw Keith on television, it was in the most fitting setting: the Rose Bowl broadcast booth, alongside Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. It was inside the press box that bears his name at the venue he’d dubbed The Grandaddy of Them All, the same place where he called Peyton Manning’s first game ...

    ... and Bo Schembechler’s last.

    That place which was the backdrop to the first time I saw him, on the night he delivered the soundtrack to the greatest game I’ve ever seen: Texas over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl (I interviewed his colleagues from that night for this story). I was too young to appreciate the history behind the mic. All I knew was his voice was cool and the game was awesome.

    Jackson was the voice of the sport for so many. His speech was folksy and colloquial, yet authoritative. That twangy baritone rumbled until the pitch had to change to announce a “fuuuuuuumble” or to tell Desmond Howard “goodbye” before saying “hello, Heisman.”

    How is it that the voice of God could sound just like a lovable country bumpkin?

    I remember being at my parents’ house, cruising their omnibus cable package earlier this summer. An old regular season game was playing. It was Ohio State and someone else from the 1970s. The teams didn’t matter. What mattered was Jackson on the call. I’ve fallen into Jackson YouTube holes time and time again. I wasn’t able to appreciate him much live, but I was able to view him as a piece of college football history.

    His last Rose Bowl in attendance — Penn State and Southern California, as he would have called the Trojans, did battle in an epic game — wasn’t enough, clearly. The Grandaddy raised the stakes in 2018 for Georgia and Oklahoma’s epic Playoff bout. It is a use of poetic license by me, a writer, to say this, and I don’t care: the Rose Bowl saved its best for Jackson’s last.

    We don’t know whether he was able to watch the game. But as Sony Michel crossed the goal line and the team from Jackson’s home state won in dramatic fashion, I hope he gave a private “Whoa, Nellie” for old time’s sake.

    He helped make a regional game irresistible to the rest of the country, whether he wanted to or not.

    by Jason Kirk

    “Kids growing up in the Midwest, playing football in the street, in the snow and the mud, dream of someday being good enough to play in the Rose Bowl. That’s the ultimate in college football for the Midwestern kid.”

    That’s Bo Schembechler, who’d announced the 1990 Rose would be his last. His 194–47–5 record as Michigan’s coach had included seven losses in the Rose, each by 10 or fewer points. The Wolverines entered Pasadena with an outside shot at his only national title, if Colorado and Miami lost and voters overlooked Notre Dame’s head-to-head edge to give him a lifetime-achievement No. 1.

    But USC won, thanks to a young man with a different lifelong attachment to the Rose.

    After scoring the winning touchdown, celebrating with teammates and packing up his hardware, Ricky Ervins did something that probably no other Rose Bowl player of the game has ever done.

    He walked home.

    Unique among Rose Bowl most valuable players, Ervins grew up less than a mile from the famous stadium, parked cars there on New Year’s Day, and was a star at Pasadena Muir High.

    Jackson followed his call of the winning score in the “old-fashioned donnybrook” with a characteristic 53 seconds of silence. The game no longer had national stakes by that point, yet it still meant everything.

    The Rose would spend much of the ‘90s delaying the BCS’ institution, preferring to preserve its ties to only two conferences. Jackson’s career would end in a Rose won by a team from neither of the game’s traditional regions (with some people inferring that he hoped for “Southe’n California” to beat the intruders). The last game he attended would be a traditional Midwest vs. West Coast classic, momentarily untainted by the Playoff. And the final Rose of his lifetime would be won in its first-ever overtime by a team from his distant birth state against another interloper whose name you can’t say without hearing him: “OAK-lahomaaa.”

    It took us decades to decide Pasadena sometimes belongs to all of America. Jackson didn’t square with the idea, saying the 2003 game missing out on the top three Big Ten/Pac-10 teams “aggravates the hell out of us on the West Coast.”

    But of course he was part of the venue’s national legend all along:

    “I remember when Alabama came to the Rose Bowl [Stadium] to play UCLA [in 2000], and several of the Alabama players came and had their sit-down with Keith Jackson,” [Todd] Harris said. “And I remember distinctly, one of the tailbacks, I remember he walked out of the interview with Keith, and he said to a bunch of his buddies that were waiting in the hall, ‘I just spoke with the voice of God.’”

    That Michigan-USC Rose is the first non-Tecmo football game I remember actually paying attention to, including the ACC games I’d attended and Pop Warner games I’d played in.

    “There’s something great about a cool TV grandpa who wanted nothing more than for me to like a fun thing.”

    by Dan Rubenstein

    My parents didn’t raise me with any sort of college football allegiances, but my dad loves the sport, and we watched a ton on Saturdays. Growing up in LA, that meant a lot of Pac-10, every Rose Bowl, and whatever huge game was on that week. That meant Keith Jackson, who was so essential, I just assumed he was the broadcaster for every college football game. In my mind, the guy who called games was folksy and said, “WHOOAAAAA, NELLIE,” every so often, and no other sport had that.

    My favorite two games in the mid-to-late ‘90s were Florida-Florida State (alternated between CBS and ABC because of TV deals) and the Rose Bowl. I loved Florida State’s speed, always had my FSU gear on (3,000 miles away from Tallahassee with zero connection to the school), and needed Keith Jackson to get way more excited about Warrick Dunn than he did Danny Wuerffel.

    The Rose Bowl meant going to a neighbor’s house for a New Year’s Day party, where the kids ran around or played video games, some of the adults hung out around the kitchen, and the rest of them (plus me) planted in the living room with the game on one of those thick, projector-type square screens. I don’t have one specific favorite call or moment in those Rose Bowls. My happy place was watching a huge game being played under a warm sky on green grass, with Keith welcoming us into the new year chuckling about the pure size of an enormous lineman or enjoying a big catch in a way that made it feel like he’d never seen one like that, even though he had.

    These are all things that, unfortunately, I haven’t really thought about until this weekend. The sport changes quickly enough that we’re all just trying to keep up, and it’s pretty terrific that a more deliberate, warmer voice retired RIGHT before social media began parsing every moment, quote, tweet, whatever.

    So with a second to think about him, there’s something especially great about a cool TV grandpa who wanted nothing more than for me to like a fun thing for being fun. That includes chuckling about an enormous lineman.


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    AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND: WHERE THE WRITER FINDS A LOVELY CITY BUILT ON VOLCANOES, PUBLICLY LISTED PHONE NUMBERS, AND MANY SIGNS TELLING HIM WHERE NOT TO LOOK FOR A LEGENDARY MOUNTAINEER’S HOME

    New Zealand’s largest city is all built on a huge volcanic field that was active as recently as 550 years ago or so and could theoretically blow up one day and be buried in a hellstorm of magma and rock.

    For the moment it’s beyond fine. The harbor is dotted with green islands and tour boats and is crossed by a wide-arched bridge tourists may bungee jump off for a fee. There is a bar district around the water where, on an extremely long and unusually perfect summer night, people sit on enormous white pillows lined up along the waterfront drinking wine and talking to each other. It seems like an insane luxury that no one seems to be looking at their phones, but it’s happening nonetheless.

    I ended up in boat-drunk summery Auckland because I wanted to figure out, 10 years after Sir Edmund Hillary’s death, how the first person to climb Mount Everest ever happened. I promise that is not as insane a question as it sounds, particularly when you put him in context.

    For instance, there are sports people whose astronomical talents justified everything ever written about them who ended up in the right place at the right time: Pele bubbling up from soccer-mad Brazil; Michael Jordan being born in basketball-mad North Carolina; Usain Bolt coming from Jamaica at a time when the island’s track program is dominating the world and was a perfect vehicle for his nearly perfect talent.

    Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi both landed in soccer hotbeds and fell into the cradle of moneyed, highly organized talent development programs; Tiger Woods came from modest means, but his talent was nurtured ruthlessly by a father bent on forging him into golf greatness.

    In other words, sports gods are usually born gods, but it helps if they land in the right place, with the right parents and mentors, all at the right time.

    Sir Edmund Hillary, though — nothing about him outwardly makes sense. He came from Auckland, as far away as a person could come, geographically speaking. Unlike a lot of adventurers and gentleman sportspeople of his time, he was not wealthy. He became a passable athlete eventually, but he started out in school described by his gym teachers as scrawny and weak. He had no obvious and immediate gift for self-promotion. His default mode was shyness — so much so that his future mother-in-law proposed to his first wife, Louise, for him.

     Getty Images
    Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary

    Yet there Hillary is, grinning from the pages of my 1961 edition of the World Book that, as a child, I read cover to cover instead of paying attention to my teachers. For my entire childhood, that was the image of adventure, daring, and what today would be considered a deranged level of self-deprecation and humility.

    That picture of Tenzing Norgay — the second man atop Everest and Hillary’s Nepali climbing partner — with one leg in a huge snow boot cocked up on the ice, being captured by someone behind the camera who somehow did not care about taking a selfie at the top. Hillary left the summit without getting a photo of himself.

    Hillary also doubled down on what would be an easy meal ticket all by itself — being the man who climbed Everest — and became much more than a mountaineer. He became an Antarctic explorer, a Yeti hunter (briefly and unsuccessfully), a humanitarian who built schools and hospitals for the Sherpas who got him to the top of Everest, an explorer-for-hire, a filmmaker and author, and a diplomat.

    Someone could argue there were more important figures in sport, but then again, how can someone argue with a mountain climber whose face ended up on his country’s money while he was still alive and who has a mountain range on Pluto named for him?

    I wanted to see what Hillary’s seriously large legacy was in New Zealand and figure out if he was something beyond exceptional, or if the place itself had a lot to do with a humble beekeeper becoming a giant figure in mountaineering and beyond.


    I started in Auckland because Peter Hillary suggested I start there. I found his number with one internet search, and Edmund Hillary’s son — an accomplished mountaineer, adventurer, and philanthropist himself — answered the phone after his wife handed it to him.

    This level of accessibility is a real thing in New Zealand. Rugby legend Sonny Bill Williams walks down the street mostly unbothered in Auckland. A quick question from an Australian radio reporter in October 2017 regarding the pronunciation of the new prime minister’s name found its way to a Jacinda Ardern. She informed the reporter that yes, the accent on the PM’s name fell on the first syllable, as in AH-dern. The new prime minister, who picked up the call when it came through at her desk, was happy to answer the question herself.

    It is, at all times, a relentlessly down-to-earth place. And before the relentlessly down-to-earth Edmund Hillary became famous, he was born, raised, and went to school in Auckland. He was a good, but not spectacular, student, and he tramped around the hills to the west of the city as a young man who didn’t really know what he was going to do with himself. After he became famous, he bought a house overlooking the harbor with some of the money he got from books and lectures about summiting Everest.

    He decided to put a pool in because, according to Peter Hillary, putting in a pool meant having a project.

    “He loved anyone who had any sort of project. One of my enduring memories is his study with a foolscap pen and pencil, whether it was business, the Ganges expedition, or a trip he was planning to take us on.

    “He decided to build this massive extended veranda area out over the harbor areas of Auckland with these high-density supports and struts himself. It was the most gorgeous location.”

    Hillary did the design himself. He did much of the construction, too, with help from friends until an outsized cantilevered deck stretched out from the house. Then, because he was Edmund Hillary, he decided to put an aluminum-sided above-ground pool on top of it and fill it with water for his children and their friends.

    There was one oversight.

    “There was no guard rail. It was one of the most dangerous swimming pools ever built because the land sloped down and away from the deck. It was about 25 feet above the edge of the property.”

    I paused when he was telling this story to ask: Did anyone ever fall off it?

    “We occasionally lost a kid over the side, but they tend to bounce.”

    That is a theme here. Most of Hillary’s projects involved intense planning — to a point. But in the moment, improvisation ruled when it had to. On Everest, Hillary had to thaw out his boots over open flame when they froze up. On the Antarctic expedition in 1957-58, Hillary and his team of New Zealanders were originally told to lay supplies for British scientist Vivian Fuchs’ expedition and then head back. Hillary headed for the South Pole anyway, because:

    I continued as though the exchange of messages had never occurred ... It was becoming clear to me that a supporting role was not my particular strength. Once we had done all that was asked of us — and a good bit more — I could see no reason why we shouldn’t be organising a few interesting challenges for ourselves.

    They made it to the South Pole driving four tractors, and then they met the expedition leader later.

    His base for all that adventure was Auckland, a city on the edge of the world. The Hillary family — with three young children, no less — would take early jet-age planes on multiple trips around the world, traveling from New Zealand to Chicago to Nepal to London.

    They would inevitably come back to Auckland, a sprawling city that can feel like a British suburb until you notice the Maori and other Polynesian residents, the odd vegetation, or that Santa Claus in the Christmas displays in the windows of Smith and Caughey department stores hanging out with pirates and wearing shorts and jandals for the holiday.

     Photo by Express/Getty Images
    Sir Edmund Hillary and others near an upturned airplane on a snowcapped mountaintop in Antarctica, 1950s

    Auckland by location, more than anything else, begs people to get outside. One of the thousand things Hillary’s name is on is a lung-busting, four-day trek along the West Coast. It sits in the hills where he trained for expeditions and tramped as a member of local tramping clubs (still accepting members, btw) and gradually started to find his purpose in life when he noticed that, more than almost anyone else, Edmund Hillary did not seem to get tired no matter how bad the terrain might be.

    The Hillary Trail runs right along the front of another Hillary house — or, more properly, his “bach” — one of New Zealand’s beach houses often built with whatever happened to be laying around at the moment. I wanted to see the house for selfish reasons. Because it was his, because it represented so much of what was cool about New Zealand in general, because it sat in the middle of the most stunning slice of Pacific Rim scenery, all green hills running to the sea and waves breaking on black volcanic basalt. There are cows in the green hills over the Tasman Sea on the west coast of New Zealand that live rent-free in a nicer place than I ever will, and there is nothing I can do about it.

    The entrance to the Hillary Trail on the segment by Hillary’s beach house was blocked off with tape. Across it, there was a sign explaining that the area was closed for preservation of the native Kauri trees along the path.

    Not being a native, I obeyed it. That wasn’t the only sign, though. New Zealand is covered in extremely explicit and abundant signage. Driving down the road there might be a sign warning drivers to pull over and take a break if they are even the least bit tired. Then, half a mile later, there will be another reminder: Did you see that last sign, the one where we warned you about being tired? You might want to think about that a bit, if you would, please.

    Radio PSAs warn against the dangers of frying drunk. Don’t laugh. Apparently, in a country with no danger of gun violence, it’s a priority to warn against getting hammered, putting on an entire greasy pan full of sausages, and then passing out on the couch while they burn an apartment block to the ground. Mention this to a Kiwi, and they will get a thoughtful and concerned look on their face like someone who isn’t from a hellworld where people eat Tide pods and toddlers kill people with poorly kept firearms. No, it’s a real problem.

    There are signs posted with detail — so, so much explanatory detail. Someone decided early in the history of the country that an entire country needed citations, footnotes, and expandable hyperlinked comments. That is why every statue has a note on it detailing the sculptor, every tree in sanctioned arboretums (noted by, yes, more properly denoted signs) has a sign with its species on it, and every possible warning that can be given about an outdoor situation is given on signs in parks and beaches.

    It can feel like developing a slow-creeping form of schizophrenia. See: The sign on the ancient elevator in my hotel in Auckland that reads, PLEASE CLOSE BOTH DOORS AND TREAT ME GENTLY I AM OVER 70, makes me, for a span of two days, develop a caring emotional relationship with a creaking, erratic old Otis elevator. I was proud of it for making it up three stories; I got the tiniest bit angry when I saw a tenant slam the old mesh door shut with a bang. She’s 70, you bastard, no one treats Ilsa like that.

    Ilsa wasn’t the only non-human thing I gave a name. I named a seagull the size of a pitbull Dave at Karekare Beach — a wide, misty volcanic beach on the coast west of Auckland not far from where I wanted to go. Dave needed a name in case he decided to interrogate me because figures of authority like being addressed by their proper names.

    Dave the giant seagull let me pass. Karekare Beach looks familiar for one reason and one reason only: It is the beach from the opening of Jane Campion’s The Piano. The rest is completely alien. There are massive ferns, more ferns, backup ferns for the backup ferns, odd conifers and clusters of the pohutukawa, aka the vermillion-bloomed New Zealand Christmas Tree, cabbage trees, and the occasional wide-windowed house spotted between plants on sloping hillsides diving right into blackish volcanic sand beaches.

    There is another sign here: “POWERFUL CURRENTS: SWIMMING ALONE HERE IS DANGEROUS!!! DO NOT SWIM HERE ALONE!!!” And right past that sign, on the far, far edge of a city built on a ring of volcanoes, walks a lone morning swimmer in a bikini, toweling off and heading to the parking lot.

    It all seems very safe and also sort of not safe at all.

    OHAKUNE/RUAPEHU, OR WHERE THERE IS A PERFECTLY GOOD STARTER MOUNTAIN FOR ASPIRING MOUNTAINEERING LEGENDS WITHIN DRIVING DISTANCE OF HOME

    I drive south out of Auckland toward Tongariro National Park. The highway south runs past volcanic cones and down through the steaming earth and geysers at Rotorua. The town has public gardens with roses the size of a human head and a Tudor-style spa built next to the dead geothermal lake with a bowling green straight out of a British period piece.

    The New York Times just added Rotorua as one of 2018’s “Places to Visit.” It didn’t mention the sulfurous fartstink surrounding anything within shouting distance of the lake once. It also didn’t mention the signs reading, “WARNING: THERMAL POOLS AND ACTIVITY!”, usually right next to where pioneering and evidently very, very cold New Zealanders used to climb right into the bubbling, murky water.

    There’s more steaming ground past that, and farmland, and then the road runs right to Mordor.

    The first mountain Edmund Hillary really fell in love with is not Mount Doom, aka Mount Ngauruhoe, the spot Peter Jackson chose as the home of Sauron in the TheLord of the Rings trilogy. That is next door, relatively speaking, and is part of a three-peak circuit called the Tongariro Alpine Circuit, which includes Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Hillary’s first mountain, Ruapehu.*

    *The record for running between all three belongs to Kiwi mountain runner and “self-employed builder” James Coubrough. He ran the mountainous 20km trek with 3,500 feet in vertical gain in a lung-busting 1:48 in 2011. Lately Coubrough also competes in something called the “Crazyman,” a 56K race featuring a kayak run, a mountain bike segment, and run. No, there is no one in New Zealand who is not secretly an expert in an arcane sport or outdoor activity.

    Ruapehu was a plot point for Hillary in more than one sense. As a young, relatively aimless college student and later dropout, Hillary didn’t appear to have any gift for self-promotion. He developed one, though, and ended up being an excellent promoter of his own work, charities, and books, TV, and films.

    Particularly in his autobiographies and stories about Everest, he told his stories consistently and with an eye for giving the readers what they wanted early, and often. He usually led with the hits — the Everest trip, right up front. If that’s what you wanted to read, well, you got it.

    But if someone wanted an origin story, well, he had that, too. His first trip to the mountains came at the age of 16 on a school trip to Ruapehu:

    As our bus carried us steadily upwards... its headlights sparked into life a fairyland of glistening snow and stunted pines and frozen streams....I was in a strange and exciting new world...for ten glorious days we skied and played...

    He didn’t talk much about other, later trips to Ruapehu, on long weekends away from Auckland with his friends after he started getting a reputation as a mountaineer, and before Everest. Those trips usually included appearances by Louise Mary Rose, a member of Auckland’s tramping club, and a viola player good enough to get a scholarship offer from the University of Sydney.

     Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
    Edmund Hillary with his first wife, Louise Mary Rose

    She was at Ruapehu in 1951 when Ed Hillary and fellow Kiwi climbing legend George Lowe made an appearance, speaking “Hindustani” to each other at dinner and told her they would take her climbing. In 1952, she, Hillary, and Lowe were at Ruapehu again, this time with Hillary and Lowe fresh off a thrilling expedition to the still-unclimbed Himalayan peak of Cho Oyu.

    Lowe and Hillary risked an attempt on the huge mountain even though much of it sat in Chinese territory. They did this partially because they wanted to prove themselves for a future attempt on Everest, but also because — in their own thinking — as New Zealanders they wouldn’t be as much of a trophy for Chinese soldiers patrolling the area.

    Hillary also believed that at altitude he could outrun any Chinese soldier on Cho Oyu. This carried over to other expeditions, too. On a recon trip around Everest, Hillary scrambled around the Tibetan side of the mountain without fear because he did not believe Chinese soldiers went above 16,000 feet or so. This is all to say this: that marauding Chinese soldiers with guns were considered a minor threat in the calculus of mountaineering. That alone should tell you how dangerous the rest of it was.

    The two rock stars had a bad climb that weekend on Ruapehu in 1952. Lowe hurt his hands showing off for tourists up on the mountain, while Hillary dislocated his knee. Louise Mary Rose writes in one of her letters from the period about Ed being in considerable pain but going straight to bed that night. He did something first though: Ed loaned Louise his down jacket.

    Three months after Hillary climbed Everest, Louise and Ed got married. They had three kids, 22 years of marriage, and a partnership that started the Hillary Foundation’s work in Nepal building schools and hospitals.


    Ruapehu isn’t huge. At just over 9,000 feet, it looks more like a Scottish peak, broad and low, rising up from the patchy earth tones and forest surrounding it like a sagging meringue on a pie. That’s what it looks like in photos, at least. Walking out both mornings in the resort town of Ohakune, there’s nothing to see but a broad earthy brown base, ending in a thick gauze of gray clouds that didn’t move for two days.

    There is a volcanic crater lake up there — one that until pretty recently people used as a giant natural hot tub, at least until seismic activity intensified and folks realized that swimming in a volcano’s simmering crater lake might not be the best idea. The natural dam containing the lake can break. In 1953, the same year Hillary summited Everest, a mudslide from the lake destroyed a rail bridge. A train rode right off the tracks and into the mud below, killing 151 people in what to that date was the worst disaster in the country’s history.

    There is an elaborate system of sensors and alarms now to give those down the mountain a heads up. When a siren goes off midday in Ohakune — a long, keening wail of an old school air raid siren, the kind you hear in films about the Battle of Britain, to be exact — I walk into a hotel and ask a clerk if that’s something I should be worried about.

    “Nah, that’s fine.”

    There is a pause.

    “What is it? The siren.”

    “Oh, that! That’s just the volunteer fire department.”

    “I thought it was the volcano warning or something.”

    “Oh no that’s different. I think? I think that’s different.”

    It’s a fierce little starter mountain, really, one situated four hours south of Auckland. Even a future legend needs a starter mountain, an incubator just big enough to inspire ambition, but small enough to handle. Someplace free and close enough to start big things on a little scale, if someone were looking to do that. Someplace that’s still got enough real danger, whether you like it or not.

    Or maybe someplace that, in the summer, is small enough to run down the street in a Borat mankini at 11 in the morning, unharried by the authorities. That is what a college-aged man chose to do while I was there, running past me with a skimboard tied to his ankle and clattering behind him, his blond hair floating in the warm breeze. Like seemingly everyone else in New Zealand, he was outside.

    CHRISTCHURCH, THE PLACE TO THINK ABOUT DISASTERS BOTH RECENT AND LONG GONE, AND ALSO TO PURCHASE A HAT

    I flew to Christchurch and bought a hat. I had to buy one: Not only was it unusually sunny, but there still isn’t a whole lot of shade downtown. Christchurch is a city where it feels like all of the places someone might seek shelter from a summer sun disappeared all at once, replaced by stacks of shipping containers, construction sites, and — yes — very thorough signage explaining how all this will be upright again one day.

    Hillary was from Auckland, but his legacy is scattered through the second-largest city in New Zealand, too. Christchurch is the gateway to Mount Cook, where Hillary learned alpine mountaineering and made his name as a climber. The Hillary Institute for Leadership is headquartered here. So is the International Antarctic Centre, the hub for the New Zealand, Italian, and American programs — programs Hillary helped establish and worked with during his stint as an arctic explorer. Seeing the sign at the airport reading, “ANTARCTIC CENTER” is beyond jarring because in Christchurch, Antarctica isn’t something abstract from a map. It is, from there, an almost local stop.

    A good bit of the heart of Christchurch disappeared on Feb. 22, 2011, when an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit 6 miles outside the city center. This followed a 7.1 the previous year outside of Christchurch, a quake that loosened up a lot of the stone buildings put up by Christchurch’s Anglican founders. The 2011 quake finished the job, bringing down the Canterbury Television building, collapsing the spire on Christchurch Cathedral, and killing 185 people in all. In the aftermath, almost a fifth of its population left the city.

    By the most optimistic estimates, it will take Christchurch 50 years to recover. That recovery is happening, and recovery also remains an agonizingly slow process. Almost seven years later, there are gaping holes in the city — city blocks that exist only in theory demarcated by chain link fences and orange construction markers. The first to leave Christchurch — the young and the Maori, mostly — have seemingly come back for the construction and service jobs here. It feels young and still as half-built as the old building facades held up by ziggurats made of shipping containers.

    Christchurch is a place to think about being lucky and then not being lucky. Sir Edmund Hillary ended up lucky in a lot of ways. He was born at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place, and ended up in a lot of other right places at the right time as a result. He knew it, too. In his own words: “Nothing can replace courage, a resounding motivation and that little bit of luck.”

    The only inaccurate bit in that statement might be the word “little.”

    Before he ever became a mountaineer, Hillary survived a boat accident in Fiji during World War II that threw him back-first onto a hot engine, resulting in extensive second-degree burns across his back and face. He led some of the first climbs through unscouted Himalayan ranges at high altitude without suffering major injury, and that’s just as well. If hurt, there was no hospital to treat him for 100 miles in any direction. The first one in the Khumbu region around Everest would be the one he helped build.

     Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
    Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay enjoy a snack

    Hillary survived a serious attack of altitude sickness on Makalu in 1954. (Ironically, after summiting Everest, Hillary would have trouble with altitude for the rest of his life, effectively ending his career as a serious mountaineer.) The incident was so serious The Times of London panicked when news of Hillary’s sickness got to the newsroom. They had no obituary ready in case he died.

    On Friday, Dec. 16, 1960, Hillary was late to O’Hare Airport in Chicago and missed his connecting flight to New York. TWA 266 left on time without him, flew to New York City, and collided with an off-course United Airlines DC-8 midair before crashing into Park Slope. One hundred thirty-four people, including every passenger on both flights and six people on the ground, died.

    There’s one more. In 1979, Hillary and his radio man and close friend, Peter Mulgrew, had a side gig narrating Air New Zealand aerial tours of Mount Erebus on Antarctica. Hillary was booked to narrate the Nov. 28 flight, but he had another commitment and had to cancel. Mulgrew subbed in for Hillary on Flight 901 and died when the plane crashed into Erebus at cruising speed, killing Mulgrew and everyone on board.

    Edmund Hillary missed two flights that would have killed him. A third — a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla in 1975 — took two people he could never replace. Heading to join Edmund in the construction of a school in the town of Phaphlu, Hillary’s wife Louise and his youngest daughter, 15-year-old Belinda, were killed when their plane crashed shortly after takeoff.

    The pilot was a New Zealander named Peter Shand. Louise Hillary knew him: She and Ed had dinner with him nine days before the crash, and in her letters she describes him as disorganized. He worked for Nepal Airways despite having a long record of inattention to detail and sloppy performance. On the day he died, along with 40 percent of the Hillary family, he had taken off in a plane with a control rod still locked in an aileron — effectively rendering the plane incapable of banking.

    Hillary arrived shortly after the crash in a helicopter and saw the bodies himself. For the next four years, Hillary retreated into drinking, benzodiazepines, and silence to deal with the dark depression that followed the crash. He kept going as well as he could, but according to family, friends, and those who knew him, when he lost his wife and younger daughter in a single blow, Hillary would never be the same person he was before 1975.

    MOUNT COOK, THE PERFECT INCUBATOR FOR MOUNTAINEERS, WHERE THE WRITER DECIDES AN ENTIRE COUNTRY IS FULL OF ACCIDENTAL ASTRONAUTS

    Leaving Christchurch and heading up toward the tallest mountain in New Zealand is simple: Go west until Pocket England ends and Pocket Montana begins. If the scenery turns into Pocket Norway, then the car has gone too far south; if everything starts looking like Mini-Oregon, turn around and head west until big mountains reappear. If there are vast, Big Sky-looking valleys, a slew of blue lakes that get bluer the closer they get to their source glaciers, and brown plateaus perfectly suited for a downhill Orc charge pop up, stop.

    The weather said it would be clear and fine at Mount Cook, so it was not. The weather turns without warning around Mount Cook, mostly because it is a mountain, but also because it is a mountain on an island with a maximum width of 250 miles. The weather can run right off the water and turn a clear day into blizzard conditions with what is often frightening speed.

    On this day the top is obscured by clouds. A spitting, sporadic rain hits on the drive up to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, the museum and education center tucked away into Mount Cook Village. I buy a poncho at the gift shop — because I will not be prepared for anything, ever — and some coffee at the cafeteria. The window panes there are dotted with a line of chevrons; on further inspection, each is a little, long-jawed Edmund Hillary head in profile.

    In the museum dedicated to Hillary and the history of Mount Cook, there are a few things worth noting. There is a tractor from the Antarctic expedition, some of Hillary’s mountaineering gear, and a lot of photos of his expeditions. Some early newspaper ads for Mount Cook on the wall deliver an underwhelming but honest pitch for a vacation destination: “MOUNT COOK: IT’S FINE.”

    Mount Cook sits in a national park about the size of the city limits of Durham, N.C. In that postage stamp-sized chunk of land, there are 20 peaks over 3,000 meters. Forty percent of the park is covered by glaciers — real, gnarly glaciers, the kind of ice a lot of mountaineers don’t get many chances to navigate. Someone looking to learn to climb big mountains with snow, ice, and mixed terrain has a custom-built sandbox just waiting here.

    Edmund Hillary does not discover the mountains without visiting Ruapehu, but he doesn’t learn how to survive in them without Mount Cook and the surrounding area. On weekends off during his Air Force training during World War II, he hiked miles in both directions to get to climbing peaks — usually alone, and often with very little understanding of what he was doing.

    After the war, he learned alpine technique from Harry Ayres in the mountains of the South Island, and he made the first climb of the South Ridge of Mount Cook in 1948. He prepped for the 1953 Everest expedition with fellow Kiwi George Lowe here and used the nearby Tasman glacier to test the tractors for the 1955 Antarctic expedition.

    Mount Cook/Aoraki trained Hillary but also helped make mountaineers like Freda Du Faur, George Lowe, Graeme Dingle, Peter Mulgrew, Russell Brice, and Peter Hillary. It’s another little perfect incubator nestled into New Zealand, a place where if someone wanted to, say, become an alpine badass — or at least a competent weekend warrior — they could, all within striking distance of home and a decent cup of coffee bought with a Hillary fiver.

    Or failing that and not wanting to become unstoppable, glacier-hopping alpinists, they can hike with their kids up to the glacier overlooks and yell at them when they peer over the edge of the overlooks. They are not sheer cliffs, but steep piles of glacial moraine, rock and dirt. The kid I’m thinking about had his head way out over the edge despite his mother yelling at him, “YOU ARE SCARING ME” from down the trail. A small part of me wanted to turn and tell her that it would probably be fine if he fell and rolled down the slope. Kids bounce.


    If he’s not the guy on the $5 bill, then Hillary is to younger New Zealanders a kind of standard bearer for Kiwi-ness: humble, down-to-earth, and dedicated to serving others. Some, but not all, know Hillary for a bit more than that — i.e., for enduring two of the worst things that can happen and pushing on despite disaster.

    That he pushed on is accurate in a lot of ways. He took one last adventure with the Ocean-To-Sky expedition in 1977, taking Kiwi-built jet boats as far as they could go up the Ganges River before heading to the mountain source of the river on foot. He served as New Zealand’s high commissioner to India and Bangladesh in 1980s, adding diplomat to his resume despite having no formal training. (Hillary also formally served as the ambassador to Nepal, though informally he’d already had the job for years.)

    Hillary continued with his Himalayan Foundation work, making his last visit to Nepal when he was 87 years old. When he arrived at the airport, he could check in as a returning citizen or as a New Zealander — the country had already given him honorary citizenship in 2003.

    The widower eventually remarried, too. June Mulgrew lost her husband, Peter, on that Air New Zealand flight to Mount Erebus that Hillary was originally booked on. June and Edmund married in 1989 and stayed together until Hillary’s death a decade ago.

    He read adventure books. He worked at home on the Hillary Foundation, his nonprofit devoted to giving young people in New Zealand the same outdoor experiences that had changed his entire life. He traveled, gave lectures, and went to the North Pole in a plane with Neil Armstrong just to say he’d done it. He never stopped trying new things, even after he’d become someone with an entire encyclopedia entry’s worth of things named after him.

    Peter Hillary considers that his father’s ultimate talent. “My father’s real gift was one of reinvention. He never stopped, even when he was doing something he wasn’t familiar with.”

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    Portrait of Sir Edmund Hillary

    Hillary could do that in part because he had to: His entire professional life was one of hustling from one expedition to the next, from one project to the next. He had to figure out how to get a department store in Chicago to pay for a Himalayan expedition (answer: turn it into a Yeti hunt, which it did), or get funding for schools in Nepal, or how to keep all of this afloat while still doing the things he loved.

    Hillary could also reinvent himself because being from New Zealand made it a necessity. Without the weight of budgets, established institutions to completely sponsor what he wanted to do, he often had to make do with what he had and improvise the rest.

    The “number 8 wire” mentality was named after the standard fencing wire used by New Zealand farmers for years. It originally meant getting things done with scrap parts, with recyclables, with whatever is on hand. The tractor or boat might be held together with wire — like, literally so — but it got everyone where they needed to go.

    The number 8 wire mentality is both a necessity and a tradition across the board for New Zealand and for a lot of its most recognizable figures and teams.

    Before he ever made a Lord of the Rings movie, Peter Jackson shot Bad Taste over four years on weekends and nights, played two roles himself, and spent only $25,000 total to make the film. Bruce McLaren learned to build and drive cars by hanging out in his dad’s garage in Auckland. When he didn’t like how a particular piece of bodywork on a car worked at speed, he sometimes used a pair of garden shears to cut the offending piece off before taking the car back on the track to see how it worked. Peter Blake mortgaged his own house to help finance New Zealand’s entry in the 1995 America’s Cup — the Cup where in a shocking upset New Zealand beat the United States 5-0.

    The All Blacks rugby team might be the greatest sporting instance of the number 8 wire mentality. New Zealand is outclassed in population and budget by its major competition in rugby. (The budget for the English national rugby team alone might be 10 times what New Zealand can claim for its squad.)

    The team’s travel load just to make its games in international competition is mind bending. The All Blacks’ trainer, Nic Gill, estimated that in 2016 alone the All Blacks covered 155,000 miles through the air and crossed something like 75 time zones on the way.

    Despite those obstacles, the All Blacks thrive. Since the creation of the IRB International Rugby Rankings in 2003, New Zealand’s most prized sports team has held the No. 1 ranking 85 percent of the time and is the current No. 1 team in the world.

    Over a crackling connection by phone, hunkered over a phone/laptop/car battery arrangement in a Mount Cook parking lot that reeked of some serious number 8 wire engineering on my part, I asked Gill: how? How did they consistently punch above their weight, with fewer resources?

    Gill summarized it as this: “We might not have the money, we might not have the resources, but tell you what, we’re gonna bloody put our best effort into it and take that as a challenge. You’re going to have a crack. And if you don’t win or you don’t make it, well, that’s all right, at you least you had a crack.”

    Gill, by the way, has a crack at an Ironman at least once a year.


    It’s been 10 years since Hillary, after a lifetime of near-misses, somehow managed to die of old age. After his body was cremated, most of his ashes were scattered in a private ceremony at sea in Auckland. Some of the ashes were kept for an attempt to scatter them atop Everest, but local lamas in the Khumbu region opposed it as “inauspicious.” A part of Hillary is presumably still sitting in Tengboche Monastery, waiting to be scattered at a park to be built in his honor in Nepal.

    There are other bits of Hillary scattered all over the place. There is a rugby championship, The Hillary Shield, named after him; a mountain range on Pluto, the Hillary Montes, matching a complementary and equal Plutonian range named after Tenzing Norgay; and the Hillary Trail outside Auckland. There is a 25,000-foot unclimbed peak in Nepal named Hillary Peak, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, the Hillary Hut in Antarctica, the Hillary Foundation, and what was the Hillary Step on Everest.*

    *The Hillary Step, a 40-foot cliff marking the last real obstacle to the summit of Everest, was affected or possibly collapsed by the massive 7.8 Gorkha earthquake of 2015. How affected is still a matter of some debate. The 10,000-foot drop to the right of the Hillary Step if a climber completely falls from it during the ascent of Everest, however, is still there.

    At the center named for him, the statue of Hillary stares out toward the glaciers around Mount Cook. They used to cover the entire floor of the valleys leading up to the mountain. The Tasman Glacier has receded far up the valley now, leaving a luridly blue-green lake dotted with icebergs in its wake. I can look up from the overlook and see its path almost like the ice in motion: back, up, and away from the earth, in retreat from heat and rising water.

    No one can be ready for what comes with that retreat. Even if the wealthy try to use New Zealand like some kind of life raft against the uncertainty of the rest of the world, they can’t buy the inheritance Hillary had. The legacy here isn’t one of ease or certainty — not at all, not even with the most famous New Zealander of all, someone whose legacy is as much of the place as it is of the man, and as much of the culture and his surroundings.

    Sir Edmund Hillary was lucky. He grew into being a strong athlete, was inquisitive, and had a giving spirit, but he also wound up in exactly the right place to shape him into what he would be.

    The only way people got to New Zealand in the first place was by sailing together, outmatched against the sea in open boats. Humanity may have to take to them again to survive. When they do, New Zealand stands a better chance than most of making it.

    There will be no titles, just first names. They will have a crack. When they survive, the secret will be how they were raised on the edge of the shaking, boiling world, born 12 hours away from the rest of the globe and living in the last new world this earth had. Hillary may have gone the furthest of all of them yet, but they are by birth all accidental astronauts.

    Illustrations by Tyson Whiting.


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    What time is men’s cross-country skiing on at the Olympics? Plus all the rules, streaming information, listings, and more you need.

    If downhill skiing is the sport of alpine kings, then cross-country skiing is the sport of very cold paupers. Racing across mixed terrain under their own power, competitors on skis race for up to two hours at a time, often collapsing in real, painful exhaustion at the finish.

    There are no rifles involved like biathlon, no break for thrilling ski jumping like in the combined event, and no ramps, moguls, or freestyle stunt work. Cross-country skiing is brutality, redlined heart rates, and the long, slow build of a chase across open snow leading up to a desperate finish.

    It is impossible to watch without realizing why the snowmobile was invented. The United States has only won one medal in the sport, ever. It probably will not win this year because Scandinavians and other people from really cold places are way better at it than Americans are. You should watch anyway.

    What time and how can I watch?

    Begins on Feb. 10. Ends on the last day of the games, Sunday, Feb. 25. ONLY ON NBC. You can also live stream NBC, NBCSN, and Olympic Channel coverage via Fubo.TV on your computer or mobile devices.

    Why should I quit my job and become a lifelong devotee of men’s cross-country skiing?

    Because the crowds carry cowbells. Because those crowds treat every lap like it’s a NASCAR race, and not a sweating bunch of athletes in bodysuits trying desperately not to vomit on themselves in freezing temperatures. Because after a while, once the brain gets into the rhythm of cross-country skiing, there is something beyond gripping about a long, slow hunt for the leader across a broad screen of icy white death. Because the last lap is legitimately thrilling, the final stretch absolute madness to watch, and afterward most people celebrate lying on their back after collapsing.

    What are the rules of cross-country skiing? Follow up: What is the weirdest rule of cross-country skiing?

    The rules are sort of complex for something so repetitive and simple. Racers must ski in the style of the race, either classic (in-line or “striding”) or freestyle (more of a side-to-side motion.) Racers cannot impede or block one another on the course, and tracks must be mostly followed in certain events and at certain times on the course. Using different techniques around corners is a touchy spot, and a potential violation during a race. Competitors may receive one violation without penalty, but two gets the racer a disqualification.

    The weirdest rule: A 2016 ruling dictates that poles in “Classic” cross-country ski races must be only 83 percent of body length. This is a point of contention because some in the cross-country community were lobbying hard for 84 percent. Sports are so, so stupid sometimes.

    What can I talk about to impress the cross-country enthusiast in my life?

    How cross-country skiers have VO2 maxes exceeding that of marathoners, including for a long time the world record holder in Norwegian legend Bjorn Daehlie. For bonus points, mention that Finland’s greatest champion, Eero Mäntyranta, had to be an actual mutant to be the greatest in the sport. (His body generated 50 percent more oxygen-carrying capacity than a normal person’s due to a genetic condition.)

    Explain what insiders look for when watching the sport.

    The guy who finishes first, mostly. Like any racing sport over distance, it’s about who looks comfortable, who holds back the longest, and who can best time their last rush to the finish line.

    Whose jersey should I buy?

    Either Johannes Klaebo, this Olympics’ variation of The Unstoppable Norwegian Cross-Country Skiier, or Swiss skier Dario Cologna. Cologna is already one of the sport’s leading figures, but he recently touched Roger Federer. Cologna is now logically more of a champion via exposure and osmosis alone.

    What is the sport’s AMERICA RATING?

    This is a decidedly un-American sport in that it involves snow, endurance, and patient viewing, but do not let that stop you. It is very American in that it requires a lot of expensive equipment, and also because it looks like someone with a lot of GRIT and HEART would do very well at it. Note: There have been cross-country champions who were 5’8 standing in their skis. DANNY WOODHEAD 2022 OLYMPIAN SKIER, COME ON DOWN.

    What’s the best GIF I can watch from men’s cross-country skiing?

    It can be this close

    Note: This is not a legal technique.

    Racers may not receive assistance from bystarders or from any other form of power


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    “We’re just here to try and get weird.”

    He is from Sacramento and the earth wants him to fall. The earth wants him to fall because he is drunk in the middle of the desert with 200,000 of his friends in an American flag blazer, hammered. He is a crime against the concept of equilibrium teetering in his American flag shoes at one in the afternoon, bumping into me ever so slightly like an antenna in the wind.

    He looks like Macklemore’s younger brother, Chad. Chad Macklemore is mostly winning the fight against the earth and gravity trying to pull him down. His buddies all wore the jackets, too, though he had to freelance for the blue pants checked with white stars. The sunglasses are wraparounds, his hair is gelled back, and he wants nothing more than a Rickie Fowler autograph.

    “It would make my day, dude. It would just make this whole day if I got a Rickie Fowler autograph.”

    He staggers in a little, then back out, and checks his phone blankly.

    “It would just make my whole day.”

    Three men standing next to us wearing identical blue T-shirts with white gothic lettering reading “DILLY DILLY” nod. I ask Chad Macklemore how he plans to get Fowler’s autograph. He answers by telling me how he woke up this morning. This has nothing to do with Rickie Fowler or an autograph.

    “The first thing I did this morning was shotgun a beer and jump into the pool. I already got interviewed for it by a TV crew, it’s crazy. My dad saw it.”

    What did your dad think?

    “He said he was jealous and he should be. Hey, who’s that?”

    “That’s Tony Finau.”

    “Oh, I don’t know him.”

    Finau steps onto the tee box and lines up his drive. The 10th hole stretches out in front of him. The TPC Scottsdale course does not hide the desert: It winds green belts of grass around it, laying down neat paths of turf between patches of native cactus, cottonwood trees, the odd bunker or two, and beige-y barren earth. It’s a genuinely thoughtful thing that thousands of drunk people in American flag blazers, dri-fit golf outfits, and at least five Big Dog T-shirts will trample over without a thought.

    Course stewards hold up QUIET signs for comedy’s sake. The crowd dims to a mumble. A stately man in a blue velvet robe wearing an eagle medallion stands watch opposite the tee box. Chad Macklemore — who says he does something with hospitals and the insurance industry during the week — pauses for a second. Finau cracks a passable drive into the green part of the course, and Chad bellows out:

    “HEY LET’S GET IT TONAAAYYYYY!”

    The man in the jacket is an unarrested free crime against nature. He should not be upright after drinking this much, and certainly not in the desert, where there should not be a golf course, or a giant series of water hazards, or a stadium set up around those water hazards, or bars? There are three bars, and over 200,000 people drunk as hell out in the blasting sunlight of the desert where maybe there shouldn’t be people at all, and especially not Chad Macklemore, who should not be standing or have gotten into the stands at 16 yesterday, but who waltzed in with his friends after he bribed a security guard.

    “Eighty bucks and we were in. He was chill.”


    The first thing to know about the Waste Management Phoenix Open is that the sponsorship and name is a hard troll from the start. Waste Management — the kind of dark, billion-dollar corporate megalith that should absolutely sponsor a golf tournament advertising itself as “green” in the middle of the desert on a golf course — is headquartered in Houston. Its chief competitor, Republic Industries, is a six-minute, 2.9-mile drive away from the tournament’s home at TPC Scottsdale.

    That pissing contest between two giant corporations mutated what was already a rowdy tournament into ... this thing, this beast, which is either the PGA Tour’s biggest event by attendance, a carbuncle on golf’s ass, the only real capital-P People’s Tourney on the tour, or the apogee of all Caucasian American leisure aspiration crammed into the space of what is mostly just three holes of golf in the sun-scorched Phoenix suburbs.

    Only one of these is non-debatable. In a sport where attendance is a plebeian concern, the Waste Management Phoenix Open is a giddily nouveau-riche exception to the rule. In 2006, 365,000 people showed up for the entire length of the tournament. This year, a tipsy 216,818 showed up on Saturday alone, with 719,000 showing up for the week. If we use Minneapolis’s own accounting, the Waste Management Phoenix Open turned out more people than the Super Bowl did.

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    Most of those people never get much farther than a hundred yards past the gates. Some don’t even get that far. The buses driving in from Arizona State and beyond spill out slam-drunk undergrads onto the pavement at 9 a.m. The police give fair warning to underage kids that they’ll be ticketed if they leave the vehicle. The firefighters wait with IVs at the ready. If someone is too drunk for the Waste Management Phoenix Open — and dear god, would that be a level of intoxication indiscernible from actual damnation — the drunk tank next to the jail nearby has snacks, a TV, and some chairs waiting. They don’t want anyone to go to jail, but this is Arizona. Jail, if you’re not a pleasant drunk, is always an option.

    The crowd that does make it inside barely moves past the gates. The 18th hole is right there on entry, with at least three bars along one side, stands and suites set up along the other, and access to the 17th and the giant white arena built up around the 16th hole beyond it. People sort of bleed over and past the final turn, mostly onto the 10th, where I see Phil Mickelson walking up the fairway on Friday in a pair of shiny pants. A woman yells from the crowd.

    “LUV YA PHIL! LOOKIN’ GOOD IN THEM PANTS!”

    Phil tips his hat and gives a nervous smile. Mickelson is an Arizona State graduate but even he’s not completely comfortable with the humanity creeping in on all sides. At other events golfers get at least an attempt at silence in between camera flashes, the overhead hum of planes toting banners, and whatever hiccups the crowd generates. They do not get the full-spectrum abuse most other athletes get — except here, where at the 16th a full crowd is waiting for them. People who’ve been waiting in the sun for two, sometimes three hours to get in the grandstand, or worse: those who have corporate tickets and spent an entire day drinking on someone else’s tab. People who might not watch golf, or understand the RESPECT signs posted in green and white and yellow all over the course.

    There are people who will — gasp! — boo. In 2016, Bubba Watson made the mistake of saying he only attended the Phoenix Open “because of his sponsors.” Watson met a landslide of boos on 16. When Watson bogeyed it on his way through on Friday of that week, an audible “YOU FUCKING LOSER” came through on the broadcast. Watson, for lack of a better word, was shook, and with reason. Other athletes might get booed, but at this golf tournament not only are the athletes used to pleasant white noise in the background — they’re now incredibly close to the Coors Light-soaked dude in a “FORK ‘EM” hat who, yes, might be yelling hockey-grade profanities at them.

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    Not that all the fans are like this. Bubba Watson practically begs for abuse just standing there. Rickie Fowler, though, gets the other end of the spectrum. The Waste Management crowd swarms around him in part because he is at the top of the leaderboard this week, and in part because he, like a lot of them, is from the West Coast and has worn a flat-bill baseball cap into adulthood without shame or discomfort. He tees off and gets a booming response from the crowd no matter where the ball — lost in the blazing sunlight to everyone not wearing blast-grade sunglasses — lands.

    Fowler tips his hat and walks up the fairway to the soundtrack of the highest praise possible from the Waste Management crowd: Someone, at the top of their lungs, yelling out, “BIG DICK RIIIIICK.” He gives no response.


    The second thing to know about the Waste Management Phoenix Open is that there is real balance in this ecosystem. I’m talking to two locals and standing behind the stands on 17, just past the hillside dotted with passed-out or merely napping drunk people either waiting for a spontaneous reboot, or to be hit by an oncoming drive. That is a real possibility. Mickelson put a shot directly in the middle of a gaggle of prone margarita-stunned ladies earlier in the week on the hill. They mostly moved out of the way so he could play through, but whether they can be considered part of the course after a certain BAC is reached is a question golf officials need to address.

    “Lot of Midwesterners here,” one of the locals tells me.

    Her friend is here thanks to a ticket she got because she donated blood.

    “Yeah that’s cause it sucks where they’re from,” she adds, re: the visitors.

    Where they’re from if they’re not from Phoenix are for the most part cold places — Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto. They wear chicken suits, Dilly Dilly shirts, matching dri-fit golf shirts with things like THE MURPHY TREK 2018 stenciled on the chest. They are, by a shocking percentage, here for bachelor parties. The Waste Management Phoenix Open is the broheim antipode to the entire Nashville bachelorette phenomenon and its screaming horde of drunk ladies partying by a river while sipping cocktails out of obscene straws.

    Bros come to the Waste Management Phoenix Open for bachelor parties. They come in numbers, and usually in matching shirts. They drink beer in a dry place starting at inappropriate hours. They yell out commonly employed phrases from television shows or commercials as social signals. They hold IRL conference calls where they huddle up, and agree or disagree on the attractiveness of passing women. At night they purchase reasonably priced steaks, share creamed spinach at local steakhouses, and drink in Old Town Scottsdale. They all go to bed earlier than they thought they might because golf starts early, and because they are all a bit older than they thought they were when they started the trip.

    The Glowinski party from Toronto — all thirteen of them — wear matching orange shirts. The hashtag #GLOWJOB 2018 stretches across the back. “Glowjob” is a reference to an obscure, possibly original sexual maneuver the inventor can no longer perform due to the torque it placed on his neck. Mr. Glowjob walks the course with a three-foot-tall cardboard cutout of his own head. He is getting married; the rest of his crew, which fluctuates in size depending on who’s teetering around lost at the moment, is here to meet women.

    “What’s with the head?”

    “The girls like it. The girls like the head.”

    “Has it helped your guys meet anyone?” I ask.

    “No. But girls have come up to me and kissed and licked it.”

    “Do you think that’s going to get your guys a date here?”

    He pauses. “No. But it’s a cool head, isn’t it?”

    They’re following fellow Canadian Ben Silverman. Others follow golfers they simply like, or whoever’s hot that week. Justin Thomas attracts a sizable bro-bolus (Brolus?) when he goes on a tear on Friday; Fowler, Mickelson, and Bryson DeChambeau all pick up trailing crowds through the weekend, too. A coalition of Commonwealth fans in Union Jack-patterned suits and yellow and green Aussie outfits has an impromptu summit on a hillock by the tenth hole. They sing “God Save the Queen” slowly and loudly.

     US PGA TOUR

    I hear variations on the phrase “That was the best steak dinner I’ve ever had” at least three times. I see pictures of “the Vomit Dollar,” a pile of money someone laced over a substantial spread of vomit on a hillside just to see if someone would touch it. I see one guy with his boys, sitting on the burnt brown trampled grass, slowly pulling the lace of a Converse all star while his friend talks to a girl. I watch a guy fail — and fail spectacularly — to answer the question “Which one of us do you think is the prettiest?” properly. (For the record: There is no right answer other than “Don’t make me choose!”)

    It’s all very problematic and also sort of chaste at the same time, or at least as chaste as an event with 200,000 drunk people at once can be. The bachelor parties are here for the dirtiest version of a safe-ish good time you can get: A drunk golf tournament where men show out for men, the women show out for women, and they leave for mostly separate quarters.

    Even most of the fights happen by some kind of rule. The guys who got into a brawl during one of the early rounds were wearing different football jerseys: An Eagles fan and a Patriots fan, tussling behind the Bottled Blonde behind 18. It’s a logical, expected fracas, one that belongs.

    Belongs is a mood here, for a certain kind of belong. There is so much straight, white male belonging to be had at any golf tournament, but at the Waste Management Phoenix Open — where there’s room to move, to mingle, to clearly be seen — it tips past any reasonable standard of focus on the game, and out towards each other. There are so many dudes in sports jerseys from any league, and golf gear and smoking cigars and spitting in this really theatrical dude sort of way, and basketball jerseys reading “BEER” with the number 30, all desperately wanting something that looks like an affiliation, a tribe, a commonality, a crowd, a friend, dare I say it — a bro. There are no fireflies in the desert but I kept imagining the loneliest bunch of mostly caucasian men in the wastes, lighting up their asses in the bright daylight of the Valley of the Sun, flickering out the same message while buzzing aloft with a beer bottle-can in hand.

    Hey. Bro. Bro. BRO. Hey. Bro.


    The third thing to know about the Waste Management Phoenix Open: Time exists in the space between the observer and the next two margaritas. There is no time before it. There is no time past it, at least not time worth considering. It is not five o’clock forever here because time isn’t even that specific. That would require looking at a clock, anywhere, ever.

    It is a formula and the math checks out. The Waste Management Phoenix Open is its proof:

    The question “Why is this golf’s biggest event by attendance” has an answer, and that answer relies in part on that formula. There is a future here, but one that is always two margaritas away; it can get no further, and no closer, for anyone at any time.

    That math doesn’t happen in a vacuum — there are some awfully big givens in that equation. People from Phoenix have been coming here for decades now — steadily, reliably — to get hammered and sunburned and see who they see and maybe, just maybe watch a little golf. It is a local thing. Rather, it is a very Phoenix-type local thing in that it has all the expected desert mutant excess: Crayola green golf courses strapped onto the surface of Mars, boozy Arizona State people either living hard on the cusp of graduation or well, well past it, sun-stained middle-aged men living the HGH/TRT lifestyle swole off God knows what else.

    That, more than anything, explains why the Waste Management Phoenix Open works in the first place. Los Angeles would never be as devoid of self-awareness. New York would never even consider it — the level of sun exposure alone ruins the formula, much less how even more of the crowd at 16 would be reserved for corporate seats. Atlanta lives in the shadow of Augusta, the exact opposite of everything happening here, save the golf. Seattle would shut it down for being an environmental disaster; Orlando simply lacks the required levels of H2-Bro in their water supply.

    Everyone else, though? Why they’re coming is so much less clear for me. It’s fun, sure. But fun alone doesn’t explain a staggering behemoth of a sporting event growing larger each year out in the rocky desert like an irradiated freak of nature, coming closer to festival status and moving further and further away from being a mere Golf Tournament.

    The bachelor parties from out-of-town on long beer marches through the cart paths, the Canadians on holiday, the Californians on a long weekend east, the Texans from Dallas and Houston, they’re all mostly white, and mostly young, and mostly looking for some kind of shared oblivion for the weekend that feels wholly like theirs. They can blurt out zero-shelf-life cultural catchphrases on tee shots and approvingly note a themed t-shirt. If they’re a little older, they can follow Phil Mickelson around with their older friends and treat him like a living case study in excellence they can take back to staff at the office, muttering about how he plays the right way while a drunk lady yells about how good his shiny pants look.

    It is a place where someone could go to a Nelly concert stinking drunk in a Tommy Bahama shirt in 2018 and pretend that it’s 2003, all without shame or judgment. The Nelly is verified: he did, in fact, close out the concert series at the Coors Light Birds Nest—a tent-based nightclub in the Open’s parking lot— on Saturday night this year. The presence of Tommy Bahama is only assumed, but still highly likely.

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    And if the goal really is to get weird, then all the non-natives flocking to the Waste Management Phoenix Open can get the exact type of weird they want: The least threatening, most conventional type of weird imaginable. A Waste Management Phoenix Open visitor will get drunk — maybe just from the fumes — in a strange outfit on a golf course, mostly around people who look like them, maybe wearing a chicken suit, maybe jumping into the water if your buddy dared you a grand you wouldn’t do it. (For the record, the guy took the dare and jumped in — one of three who went in the water on the week.)

    They might even watch some of the golf, or wonder how the hell any of this feels in July when it’s 122 and the sun is trying to strip the grass from the earth like a heat gun peeling back the paint on a wall.

    That kind of thinking probably asks too much of the math here, the math that says time only exists two margaritas ahead. Just as importantly for anyone who flies across a continent for the complete amnesia of a weekend at the Open, there’s another secret ingredient to its appeal. Looking backwards through time in the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s unique math is undefined, and therefore impossible.


    On Saturday I followed Rickie Fowler’s trio, the largest crowd of the day. Fowler teed off at 17 to one or two more calls of BIG DICK RICK!, and then walked up the fairway with his caddie. A phalanx of bike cops trailed the golfers, quietly working a rear-guard action against the crowd.

    The Fowler pod trudged towards their tee shots — way, way farther than one would even expect, because somehow in the midst of all this there are still professional golfers, golfers hitting shots at artillery distances with sniper-like precision in live competition. The golf itself is so distal to everything else happening, the crowds so much less predictable than the usual mannered golf crowd, that it’s hard to notice PGA Tour pros doing the ludicrous things PGA Tour pros do with shocking regularity.

    That unpredictability was a lot worse in the past. In 1999, a heckler following Tiger Woods was taken down by security. The heckler had a gun on him. In 2001, someone heaved an orange onto the green while Woods was putting — a weird, off-putting moment for anyone, but a legitimately scary one for someone two years removed from the heckler incident. Woods stayed away from the tournament for fourteen years before returning in 2015.

    The crowd’s worst excesses have been tampered down over the years with security, but the concerns over the Waste Management Phoenix Open extend past player safety. It’s a cautionary tale for what golf could be when other tournaments see the receipts from bumper crowds and beer sales that would make a hockey vendor blush, and then decide to cash in by following suit. It will grow too big for its own good, becoming completely unmanageable to the point where the actual golf can barely happen. It is, yes, too vulgar for the sport, too big for the city of Scottsdale to handle, and too chaotic for golfers to show up to in the first place. The 16th hole “degrades the game.” The crowd. The loud, drunk, crowd, there for itself first, and maybe second for the golf.

    At the day’s end, the chief issue for the Waste Management Phoenix Open is more mundane: fatigue. At five o’clock, the crowd has gone into full bleary child mode. As Rickie Fowler’s group whacks its way over the water hazard and up to the green on 18, the large, collective toddler of a horde closing out the course with Fowler has not had a nap. It is showing. Drunk off fatigue and too much sun, it collapses on the green slopes of the course with greater frequency and with less shame. It wants food, any food, at this point. It wants another bottle or two to tide it over until dinner.

    A man in sunglasses, croakies, and jorts yells to a woman atop the hill headed to the concession stand. He waves his hands over one another, palms down, the universal sign for getting cut off.

    ”I’m not drinking anymore.”

    She nods, and starts up the hill again. He stops her, points, and pauses before correcting himself.

    “Hey, hey, I’m not drinking any less, either. Two Miller Lites and a shot of Red Bull.”


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    Josh Allen is tall. I watch a lot of college football. The one thing I definitely know about Josh Allen is that he is tall. Every time he played, I would note that, and tell my friends: My, is he tall. He is no Brock Osweiler, the most notably tall football player in the history of football, who from his college debut forward was only known as “Brock Osweiler who is 6’7”. But of all the things to know about Josh Allen, the Wyoming quarterback who may be a first round pick for an NFL team in 2018, the first is his height. He stands 6’5”.

    Josh Allen is a catapult. He’s a big, sort-of-exact instrument capable of throwing the ball very, very, very far on a football field. Like a catapult, he has wheels, though relative to other things on the field those wheels turn relatively slowly.

    He might not be much use at close range.

    Accuracy is a very important thing for a quarterback. There were fifty-three quarterbacks in college football who completed sixty percent of their passes. Josh Allen was not one of them.

    Josh Allen is a car bought by someone who does not buy cars often. It is a hard thing to successfully sum up the potential of a single athlete in a team sport. It gets much, much harder when talking about a quarterback. A quarterback could, in theory, be asked to do everything: film study, game planning, adjusting pre-snap alignments on an offense, calling plays, selecting plays from an option, reading a defense, making a shift, re-reading after a shift, sending a player in motion, re-re-reading a defense, and then in two to three seconds at most getting rid of the ball before being annihilated.

    This is why a good 50% of all coaches treat quarterbacks like a necessary evil. QBs have to be there, are extremely important, and also have a tendency to break the whole machine if they go wrong. Most people, when coming to a decision like that, play it safe and abstract their needs.

    Somewhere there is a dropdown menu for quarterbacks in the marketplace. In the case of Josh Allen, he fits the needs of someone who clicked “HEIGHT” and “ARM”, left the rest of the options blank, and did not watch one video of even a single test real test drive. This is how most Americans shop for their second largest purchase, a car. Thinking that the NFL would be any different about their largest purchases would be to question the NFL’s American-ness. Some NFL team is going to get a Maserati, because it sounded cool! Some NFL team might be trading in the car for a new one in two years because the reality of owning a Maserati always comes up well short of the expectations.

    Josh Allen is a just an ol’ high prairie wind rustling through the junipers. You like that? Of course you like that, everyone likes good branding. Josh Allen sounds cool to some people for the same reason Carson Wentz sounded cool to some people. He came from a SMALL SCHOOL, which is basically the football equivalent of calling something “artisanal.” He went to out-of-the-way Wyoming after a stint at a junior college, which is why even a lot of college football fans haven’t seen him play.

    There’s a little Aaron Rodgers in here, a little Wentz, and just enough of a whiff of a lot of intangibles the NFL talent scouting community cannot resist when it comes to certain prospects. If this isn’t clear, let me help. Please put on your best Jon Gruden voice and read it with me: I call this guy cowboy, cause he’s from Wyoming and likes to sling it! Josh Allen sounds a lot like a lot of other good ideas, so he must be a good idea, too.

    Full disclosure: Josh Allen is from California, and this is mostly garbage, but by small margins it’s the kind of non-quantifiable thing people fall in love with when the charts and graphs and projections have been looked at a thousand times. Ooh, put his game tape in a mason jar, cause he’s the heartland’s pick! Josh Allen doesn’t deserve this, but we’re here and it’s happening whether anyone wants it to or not.

    Josh Allen is a bug cleaned off large windshields. The game tape is not why anyone is drafting Josh Allen, and is the principal reason college football people give the full collar-tug when his name pops up that high on draft boards. No one has a problem with players on mediocre-to-bad teams getting drafted high. It’s just that most of them were at least memorable, or had memorable performances in games against high-profile talent.

    This falls under the anecdotal, but since stats are for losers (thanks Mel) let’s compare. Carson Wentz was an FCS quarterback, but still won championships at North Dakota State. When Jay Cutler was at Vanderbilt, the team’s record did nothing to dissuade people from going slack-jawed at his arm strength. Fittingly, his big moment was almost beating Florida on the road, which sort of sums up the whole Jay Cutler story arc right there. Almost incredible.

    Joe Flacco at Delaware was a transfer who had obvious skills, moments, and insane grades on the unreliable eye test. Ben Roethlisberger was can’t-miss at Miami (Ohio), and only lost one game his senior year. J.P. Losman was ... he was drafted by the Bills, okay? He doesn’t count, and with the exception of last season the Bills don’t count here, either.

    This is all just saying: If everyone hears someone’s name as a draft pick at QB and goes “Who?” there might be something to give a potential drafter pause there. Not because the person went somewhere small, but because when that player got a chance to play in the spotlight they didn’t scare anyone watching or playing the game

    Josh Allen is an advertisement for the Big Ten. Josh Allen got killed by Iowa just like Ben Roethlisberger did. In 2003, Roethlisberger threw four INTs in the opener to lose 21-3 to the Hawkeyes. In 2017, Josh Allen threw two picks in a 24-3 loss. The lesson for a young QB with serious NFL draft prospects is to never let your team schedule Iowa in your final season. They will cost that prospect money, even if only in the short term.

    Josh Allen is a suggested follow on Twitter. Fitting a certain profile is as much why he’s bring looked at so hard by scouts. It’s not sexy to say this but there is a system behind the scrutiny, and the system sees all the things it wants out of a new quarterback. Josh Allen is 6’5, has a gigantic arm, and can, at times, make breathtaking throws downfield in a college football game. We can work with that, is the thought, even from the New York Jets, who have not worked with any quarterback very successfully ever. The system was built to identify talent, talent has measurements. Josh Allen fits a few of the most desirable ones. Computer, draft Josh Allen.

    Josh Allen is a C student with two excellent test scores. The system was made to identify talent, sure, but it was not made to develop it, or even recognize where that talent might be uneven or spottily distributed. Josh Allen’s accuracy can be dodgy. That may scare interested parties the most, because accuracy is so necessary in modern football across the board. The short to mid-range pass is football offensively now, and if it arrives late or high someone runs the other way with it for six points.

    Josh Allen is your future brilliant college dropout. There is something super-American about all this. The NFL is really good at spotting things labeled talent. It is also rigidly inflexible at adapting to new talent or irregular/odd talent if it doesn’t fit the exact mold—even if that talent yielded results in the right framework somewhere else. The training to succeed at that level is, more often than not, skimpy at best. Josh Allen could be the rural high school valedictorian who, despite obvious talent, fails at negotiating the system and drops out after three semesters. He could be your cousin who still works as a dealer at the Mohegan Sun despite that outrageous SAT. It’s cool, they have benefits and he gets to meet a lot of interesting people.

    Wyoming v UNLVPhoto by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Josh Allen is Jamarcus Russell. It’s there, if someone wants it to be. Jamarcus Russell is a punchline now, but at the time he was drafted in 2007, the LSU quarterback summed up everything someone might want—by profile, at least— in a quarterback. It would be deeply unfair to quote people after the fact about predictions they made in the past about where Jamarcus Russell would end up, wouldn’t it. The future is so uncertain, and the—

    “I can’t remember being in such awe of a quarterback in my decade of attending combines and pro days. Russell’s passing session was the most impressive of all the pro days I’ve been to. His footwork for such a big quarterback was surprising. He was nimble in his dropbacks, rolling out and throwing on the run. The ball just explodes out of his hands.” — Todd McShay

    “The workout Russell had was Star Wars. It was unbelievable.” —Jon Gruden

    “You’re talking about a 2-3 year period once he’s under center. Look out because the skill level that he has is certainly John Elway-like.” — Mel Kiper

    Ah, that’s not fair at all, is it? It’s fun, but there are now hundreds of scouts looking at Josh Allen, and their talent level varies wildly and widely, too. Most everyone agrees Allen is tall, can throw the ball through gale force winds, and that he could be exactly what a coach might need in a certain offense and context. The rest is up for debate, including the whole very real question of his accuracy as a short range and mid-range passer. Who doubts the importance of stats here, by the way? Mel Kiper, who, again, says that stats are for losers, and mainly if we’re talking about his case for Josh Allen, who he says is a first rounder. For the record I thought Jamarcus Russell would be good, but like most everyone else I did not know he would go to what was then one of the worst franchises in the NFL, or that he really, really liked lean.

    Josh Allen is Blake Bortles. Not an insult, shockingly, after 2017-18. Blake Bortles for a while was the highly-touted talent asked to play too soon and cast adrift on the seas with a disastrous franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars. This could be the scenario for the large adult son of the Wyoming Cowboys, and it is a tricky one, because it involves everyone around Allen getting better consistently, a run game to balance out what might be a hit-or-miss passing game, and a team with management happy to let Allen endure some very public growing pains.

    Because the secret here is that by the numbers Blake Bortles has gotten marginally better, while the whole team got drastically better, and that if Josh Allen can land in the right place he can Bortle the daylights out of this situation? Preferably in some place very far away from an intense spotlight? This is the first time anyone has every wished for two Jacksonvilles or two Jaguars franchises, but a duplicate/alternate Jaguars franchise located in Jacksonville Two would be ideal for a big and very raw prospect like Josh Allen. “Jacksonville Two” would also be the worst Damon Lindelof show ever made.

    Josh Allen is a phenomenal case study in confirmation bias. The revolution in statistical analysis in sports has hit football very, very unevenly. In general, teams use statistical analysis a lot more than people think, particularly for staff management and other very corporate-y things. They use statistical analysis in evaluating the draft and value, unless they have a Bill Walsh hanging around. There was only one of those, and apparently he was as good as a computer.

    In gametime decision-making and talent evaluation, analytics still lose to gut instinct more often than not. (See: Football’s refusal to do simple math and go for it on 4th down more often than even the most cautious computer would.) Most of that stubborn refusal to math is a long, weird defense of tradition, along with a fear of being mocked if and when a fourth-down try inevitably fails. Related: No one ever brings up when a team loses anyway after punting on third and short, which is really something we all need to try to do.

    Confirmation bias can be just as prevalent when it comes to evaluating talent. To be fair: Whatever moment started an NFL scout’s fascination with Allen, I can’t blame someone for having it. Allen throws 60 yards accurately on air in workouts. He is famously tall. Allen has enough speed and agility to do the job, no obvious character flaws or troubled history, and can throw the ball sixty yards downfield with accuracy. Did I mention that part? Say it again and feel the power melting your brain into a satisfied goo: Sixty yards downfield with ease.

    He doesn’t look that way on tape playing for Wyoming. But there are probably reasons for that, right? He did lose a bunch of talent from his team in 2016, when he had better numbers. Allen does play in a college offense with college players, an inferior scheme and supporting cast of Mountain West-level talents. If my team drafts him, surely it won’t be like that. When have the Browns ever failed to develop a prospect? Or maybe more appropriately: Sure, we’ve failed in the past—but this guy is can’t miss, even for us.

    Confirmation bias is a worm that crawls into the brain of even the smartest people, and sometimes it finds its way into a host by riding along inside a bright, shiny apple like a Josh Allen-type prospect.

    Josh Allen might be Josh Allen. There is so little chance he will actually be a consistent starting quarterback in the NFL. So many things can happen, none of which are the intended end of this process. Josh Allen, if he is lucky, will get to be Josh Allen. His case will be his own, his career will be as long as he wants it to be, and he’ll leave football healthy and with much more money than he came in with. That would be the ideal case, wouldn’t it? That in the end, he’d get to be the most intact, happiest version of himself, no matter what happens on the field?


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