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    Baker broke out for one of the best tries of the year against Fiji, and is ready to help sevens grow in the U.S.

    Perry Baker plays on the United States rugby sevens team. He is known primarily for being fast, unusually fast even for a game where players run three miles at full speed in practice regularly. Baker is fast enough to look remarkably fast even against some of the best competition in the world, as he did in a spectacular try against Fiji in March. He is also elusive enough in the open field to break ankles—sometimes six at a time, if necessary.

    Baker is currently in training with Team USA in their buildup to the 2018 Rugby Sevens World Cup. He talked with us about transitioning from football to rugby sevens, how the sport could take off in the United States, and about being famous. (Famous in Fiji, at least.)

    This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

    First of all, how’s training going?

    Perry Baker: Pretty good. We finished base camp on Tuesday, and started advanced camp today.

    What do you think people don’t get about the intensity of rugby sevens training?

    PB: Spot-on, man. They don’t understand the endless aerobic fitness stuff we have to do in conditioning, and then the mental part of it trying to push yourself through certain limits. I tell my fiancée all the time. She says “you have training” like it’s nothing, she doesn’t really understand what I mean. Like we’ll have a day off, and I’ll get a massage and she says “oh you’re getting pampered.” And I’m like, you don’t really understand what camp was like a day ago!

    You played college football [at Fairmont State University] and you played in the NFL [with the Eagles] and the AFL [with the Pittsburgh Power]. Do people think you’re just out there doing football style wind sprints and that’s it?

    PB: Honestly I don’t know what they believe other than that it’s just not that hard, you know? You gotta think about it. In football, the average play lasts four seconds, just four seconds all out. In rugby, it’s seven minutes non-stop. Yeah, you might have a lineout or something that stops play for a second. But you gotta run to get in position for it, and it’s a fast lineout. You’re up in the air, moving, full-speed, full-tilt, gone. You gotta be well-conditioned, and how you get in that kind of shape is pretty unbelievable.

    In 2006, you really start looking at rugby, right?

    PB: Yeah.

    What was your experience transitioning to the sport, both psychologically and physically?

    PB: It is definitely a big transition, because no matter what your sport is you’re training differently for this. From a football standpoint, it’s totally different from how you train for rugby because you have to be just a non-stop kind of fit. We get guys who come in from Fifteens rugby and it’s a totally different game for them. We’re trying to get them caught up. We’re running five or six kilometers in a session at full speed. It’s crazy.

    You play multiple games in a day. That’s different than football, where you have five or six days between games to get all your working parts in order again. What are you doing to recover in between matches? How does that work?

    PB: Our coaches are big on being off your feet when we get off the field, hydration, and stretching. They’re really big on recovery. The moment we get off the field we have a shake made for us and some Gatorade, and we have to finish both of those before we step out of the locker room to eat. We’re also on the bikes even though we just finished running, it’s like a cool-down. Then we get a band and stretch.

    We’re really big on nutrition, too. I’m not telling you that I’m the best at trying to eat on days I’m playing? They’re always trying to get me to eat because once I get full I feel like I get sluggish, but my body needs it since I’m going so much.

    Rugby is just taking off in the States, but it’s huge internationally. Did you know what you were stepping into, internationally?

    PB: I had no idea what I was getting into, honestly. I didn’t know they traveled out of the country as much as they did. I remember when I was at Tiger, they said the boys were out on tour, and I was like, “What do you mean, on tour?” When I got selected for my first trip, I’d never been out of the country like this.

    It was exciting to me, though. You get there and you get so many people who love the game of rugby across the world. You see that and think “Man, I wish it’d get like that back in the States. If we can get this game to be this big back in the States, it’d really be something.”

    It’s amazing how you can go across the world and find that this is their game. This is their baseball, their football, their basketball or whatever the case may be. This is what they love, and how can you not love it?

    You and teammate Carlin Isles are known for being really, really fast. Is there something to the games Americans play—whether it’s football or basketball or whatever—that gives us an advantage in terms of the athletes we bring over to play rugby sevens?

    PB: Yes and no? I say we have an advantage because a lot of the stuff we do as rugby athletes do is a crossover from other stuff. In football you need to be able to have vision and agility, and in basketball you’re working in closed small spaces, figuring out how to defend, how to get out of them, stuff like that.

    You have to remember, though, that rugby players who grow up playing it have been doing it their whole life. It’s hard to transition over later. It’s hard to jump right in the deep end because the guys who’ve been doing it are working at such a high level. They’re so far ahead of them, and it’s going to be hard to pull them up to their level.

    That’s the thing about other countries. They start at such a young age. There are six year olds out there playing, and they are so tough. I mean running through tackles, and stiffarming people, and running people over. These kids are doing that at four and five. You think about football, we start at like six or seven years old. At rugby [in the U.S.], we start people as teenagers.

    We’re already playing catchup, no matter who we’ve got on the coaching staff or on the team.

    What was the thing that really threw you in learning the game?

    PB: I’d say—and I feel like I still kind of struggle with it—but it’d be the aspect of tackling. Rugby is so much about form. If you touch a person’s collar on a tackle you could be sent to the sin bin, so it’s all about tackling. In football, I don’t wait to tackle, I aim at a point and hit it. In rugby, you aim at a point and the next minute your head could be at the wrong spot. You have to be patient in rugby and wait for the right time to make your contact, meaning the right point of contact.

    Take this. On Tuesday, we were doing a tackling drill. I had Carlin, and he was right in front of me, and I was in the right spot to make a tackle. The next minute my face is right at his knee, because he just shifted in front of me and moved so quick. I was annoyed because I felt myself wrapping my arms around him, but my face was in the wrong spot. That’s the hard part about tackling in the right spot.

    And in rugby you have to do that, because if you don’t you’ll be knocked out all the time, or have a broken neck. For me, that’s always something I worry about: Having my shoulder in the right spot. It’s so tough for me because I’m ready to go in and fire at the legs.

    Because that’s what you do in American football all the time.

    PB: That’s the thing. How many times in football do you actually see someone wrap up? They try to teach you to bring your hips and wrap up, but watch the game. Most of the time it’s someone diving through the legs, or shoulder-charging someone, or using your helmet. You’re not using your head like that in this game!

    The first time I played in a tournament I did that. Everyone erupted like “Sorry, sorry, he didn’t know, it’s his first time!” I went right into a guy’s legs, wiped him out, came right from the side and went BOOM right through him. Now, as I understand the game, when you form tackle it’s so much easier and safer. There’s no high tackling where you’re grabbing someone around the neck.

    I struggle with patience, because in football it’s a game of inches and you’re not giving up any ground. In rugby, you can afford to be patient.

    Wait, tell me more about this laying out a football hit in a rugby game.

    PB: It was in Atlanta, playing South Sevens, playing a team called Old White. This guy is running and he doesn’t see me coming and I just wipe him out, BAM! Right through his legs. As I get up I hear everyone screaming, and see people running towards me, and the ref is like COME HERE and my coach is apologizing like “I didn’t teach him that, it’s his first tournament, I’m sorry” and stuff like that.

    A couple of plays later someone went for my manhood. He grabbed me and just yoked it. I mean, so hard my coach yelled at me to check and see if it was still there. I was so scared to look, because I didn’t felt like it was there anymore. It was a payback for what I did kind of deal.

    That’s a thing a lot of rugby people will say about football. The hits we think of as normal on a football field would get you kicked out of any rugby match.

    PB: I guarantee you this would change the whole mindset in football: If they got rid of helmet and the pads. In rugby, we have no pads. You look at football and parents see pads, and they think it’s safer. People feel like they can run through anything with pads on. Take that stuff off, though, and no one’s doing headfirst tackling and that stuff.

    They say we’re crazy for tackling without pads on, but we’re not doing that kind of tackling. I ran into Terrell Owens once and I told him to come play rugby, and he said “Nah, y’all crazy, y’all don’t have no pads on.” It’s a lot safer! We actually have form tackling. Even in Fifteens, in league, and you run up on someone you use your shoulder. You might have a few crazies who use their head and stuff—every sport does—but in rugby they don’t last long

    We’re the safer sport.

    Who have you played internationally where you thought: “That was definitely an experience?”

    PB: I can say a lot of the top teams are definitely like that. New Zealand, they all grow up playing the game, they’re all freaks. You can have young kids come on in the first tournament they’re playing, and you don’t realize that they’re eighteen but they’re so smart you wouldn’t know it. Playing in South Africa, too, that’s just a different experience. But it’s always a different experience, because every country has their own style they play.

    What’s a good example of that, if you had to explain it to the layperson? Like, how would you explain playing against Fiji?

    PB: The offload is unreal. With them it’s always like, “how did you get the ball off like that, or to that person?” Whenever you watch them, if they have the ball, then you will get a show put on by those guys. Their ball control is just crazy, it’s unreal. People coming out of nowhere. I just watched Jerry Tuwai (Fiji’s Sevens captain) do some crazy stuff in Vancouver. Like, how did the winger even know he was going to get the ball from you? He stepped in, crowded by like three people, and the next minute the ball is just flicked out and everyone turned to go “where did you come from?”

    They don’t even look for you. They just put a ball and it’s there. That’s their game. When they have the ball, they’re just flooding from all over with these trick offloads. It’s pretty amazing to watch, man.

    I’m glad you mentioned Fiji. I want to talk about the highlight of your try against Fiji. At one point there are three guys crashing down in position to tackle you, and then you juke them, and then they’re gone. Did you know this was going around? Have people asked you about it?

    PB: People ask me more about the chasedown in that game. That set the tone for the whole game.

    With that going around a bit, and in the run-up to the World Cup, though: Do more people know who you are now, though? And know that we have a Rugby Sevens team that’s doing really well?

    PB: I don’t know, honestly. People still don’t really understand that we have rugby. I got a text message from the guy that introduced me to the game. It was a shot from Highly Questionable on ESPN, and it was of them with my name at the bottom and he’s like “Hey, you’re on Highly Questionable.” I was like what, I love that show! I tweet Papi every once in a while because I love that guy.

    And when I got home and watched it, they were talking like they didn’t know we have a team. It’s still like people don’t know. It’s hard because we’re not televised like that. We’re on about once a year here. Thank god for the World Cup, because we get a lot of press off that. But people still don’t know.

    Do you have an overseas following? Are you big somewhere we don’t know about?

    PB: So, if you have the verification on Instagram, you can see where the majority of your followers come from, stuff like that. The majority of my followers are from London.

    Really?

    PB: Yeah. My percentage is so small in the States.

    You’re big in England.

    PB: Somewhere between sixty and seventy percent of my followers, yeah.

    So you’re huge in the UK.

    PB: I was talking to someone about how I want to go to Fiji so bad. I was talking to a few people from there, and they said “if you come to Fiji everyone would instantly know who you are, the whole island would know Perry Baker.” So I get on my social media sites, I get on Facebook, and the majority of the fans on my Facebook are from Fiji.

    We need to revise, then. Your tagline for 2018 is “Perry Baker: Big in Fiji.”

    PB: [laughs] Tell you something crazy, too. There was another guy named Baker in the 19th century that was a missionary who touched a chief’s head or something when he was a missionary, so they killed him and ate him. A few Fijian people were sending me an image they found on Facebook after our match against them that said “We killed and ate the wrong Baker.” I thought it was one of the best things ever.

    How are you feeling leading up to the World Cup in San Francisco?

    PB: We’re definitely taking it one game at a time, trying to break into the top four, and building our confidence as a launch pad going into the World Cup.

    On the flip side of it, we’re feeling pretty confident about our ability to win it on our home soil. I know how tough that can be when you’re on someone else’s turf. We go to Cape Town, and the whole stadium is in a roar the whole time. South Africa’s already tough to beat, but then you add that in and it gets even tougher. We go to Sydney, it’s the same thing with Australia. We’ll be on our home soil, and everyone will be chanting U-S-A!, but even then? Even then Fiji has a big traveling fan group. Fiji! You’ll see their blue flags everywhere.

    In San Francisco, with the whole crowd behind us? We could win it all. But we’re going to take it one tournament at a time to see where we are, and use it as confidence going into it. It would be huge for us to win it.


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    Hit it in the paycheck and keep hitting it until it gives up.

    College basketball is at a point in its history where its political system is failing, its former strongmen are weak, and its future appears to be chaos and flames with no endgame in sight. It’s natural that at this point, then, that former United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice appears. Scams ending in disaster are her specialty—not small ones, but big ones like amateurism, the Iraq War, and the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.

    The NCAA hoped the selection of Rice would boost the credibility of the NCAA in a time when its chief cash cow — college basketball, or more specifically the NCAA tournament it sells to television for billions of dollars — is disintegrating beneath a wave of FBI investigations, declining TV ratings, and an outflow of talent to the NBA and elsewhere.

    Note: Those billions of dollars are tax-free because the NCAA is classified as a 501 (c)(3), a non-profit. So are the major conferences in college basketball, football, and every other major college sport, allowing the bulk of college athletics revenue to pass through untouched by federal or state authorities. Consider declaring yourself a college football team on your taxes. If UCF and Alabama can claim national titles this year, why not you existing as a non-profit? College athletics is amazing.

    For the NCAA and its head, Mark Emmert, the committee’s report and Rice’s presence would hopefully add gravitas, credibility, and a real seriousness to the NCAA’s attempts to “fix” college basketball. That they thought this in the first place is proof that suckers, dead bodies, and trash are all recession-proof industries on multiple levels of society. The committee’s report released yesterday flopped, doubled down on amateurism, and produced nothing much beyond Rice saying “We need to put the college back in college basketball.” (No really, that’s what she said, in public, without laughing.)

    The only real desirable change in amateurism will be its death. It will die — but exactly when is still a great question. Its time of death will depend on the steady hands of two forces that don’t always play well together: The free market, and the ability of workers to effectively demand what is theirs from their employers through the channels available to them.

    The market is already tearing college basketball apart, and with reason. Labor is more valuable than in other team sports like football, meaning there are simply fewer people who can do the top-level work of playing basketball at an elite level, all playing on smaller rosters than, say, an 84-person college football roster. It is the lower case, black market version of the NBA’s labor market: Exclusive, expensive, and extremely competitive.

    Shoe companies, agents, and middlemen can thrive in a way they don’t in other college sports because of that labor’s value. They can do that even in a black market like that for college athletes, because they’re so much harder to find that even a depressed, covert market for their talent still pays well. (And should! Not many people are 6’10 and can hit a three-pointer on earth, much less in the United States.)

    And if those players don’t like the prices and um — let’s call them “benefits packages” at college programs, then they will go to Europe, or to wherever they have to go to find it. The Rice Committee blamed “corruption” in the sport for its problems. That is a very strange word to use to describe “being outbid for the services of your employees,” but you do you, committee members.

    The push for change will most likely have to come from the players. For years, the suggestion has been for players to strike in one form or another. The ideal spot for it would be the Final Four, where the number of teams is small, the spotlight is as big as it will ever get, and the players involved might be able to organize successful. The rationale: stick a spike in the heart of the NCAA’s most valuable property on national television in front of the largest possible audience, and then see how scared the invested parties get.

    That could happen. The players would also pay a brutal price for it in the short run, losing scholarships, and receiving very little in the way of public support from fans or the media. (As the NFL found out this year: Protest is always a lot less popular than anyone thinks.) The coaches would be in a terrible situation, caught between signaling support for players, immense pressure from their employers, and the resulting recruiting fallout. In a strike situation, networks would be facing three hours of dead air and the loss of millions of dollars in ad revenue.

    NCAA Men's Final Four - PreviewsPhoto by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

    A strike is dramatic, but there is a third player here: Corporations. These sponsors of college basketball are not well-equipped for conflict, and that can work in a lot of different ways for someone looking to cripple amateurism. In college basketball, shoe companies have already worked inadvertently to erode a lot of the hold the sport has over its talent. The relationships recruits have with Nike and Adidas last a lot longer than any recruit’s relationship with their school: If a five-star recruit signs with a Nike-affiliated AAU team, for example, there’s a 70 percent chance he stays with Nike for his entire career. The college is temporary, but the player-as-advertisement can be nearly permanent.

    In other words: James Harden gets $200 million to wear Adidas because he is James Harden, not because he went to Arizona State. And if companies involved in college basketball start to feel for a second that college basketball is a middleman with unacceptable transaction costs for the companies — i.e. if James Harden had a way to promote his talents anywhere else for less trouble — they would cut college basketball out of the equation with a head-spinning quickness.

    For the purposes of torching amateurism to the ground, the blueprint has to involve those corporations. To be clear: They don’t lead, and don’t make moral or political decisions. But they can and should be led into the fight — by their noses and profit margins, if necessary. It takes very little to put fear into them: A few percentage points on profit, or maybe even the dreaded falling marketing awareness among the youth demo, and they will wobble away from supporting an already wobbly partner in the NCAA.

    The NCAA just needs to be made toxic enough to be a liability for its partners. That might be easier than people even think, particularly with youth-obsessed shoe and apparel companies. In this particularly woke moment in sports history, does any shoe want to be the official symbol of Emmert’s paycheck, and not the choice of rising talent cheated of their market value? The person or people who can make that linkage in the college basketball community will have knocked out a support column of amateurism and brought corporations into the fight whether they wanted to be there or not.

    Once they get into the fight, companies will take the quickest, most profitable, and controversy-free route out of that fight. Now that requires a special player or a special team working at a special moment, but big changes always do. And if someone can make that escape path run right through amateurism, and not the players? That will be it. It’s not an easy task, especially because public opinion almost always falls to the side of institutions. That is especially true in college sports, where a player may be on campus for four years, but the fan sticks around for a lifetime.

    But if they do? It’ll be over in one swift trampling in the direction of whatever’s next.


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    College football’s sprawling randomness fits Twitter better than it does any other social media platform.

    In the right moments, with the right people, Twitter for sports can be legitimately great.

    For instance, without Twitter, I would never know that Lane Kiffin uses terrible bitmoji or that De’Anthony Thomas once saw a deer. I would have missed the joyous amplification of the Kick Six. I would not know that for every conversation — about college football, kitchen appliances, or life in general — there is an Ohio State fan wanting to know why we’re talking about Instant Pot recipes and not the Buckeyes.

    Most importantly, I would have never had the opportunity to watch a Hawaii game whose only broadcast off the island is a fan Periscoping it from the stands.

    Twitter has problems. Still: Nothing carries a live moment like it. This is especially true for college football, a sport in which 30 games can happen at once. No one can watch all of them, but Twitter creates the illusion of a national heat map. I wasn’t watching Iowa State-Oklahoma, but switched over in time. I can’t track down every astonishing Tennessee crowd shot, but on Twitter, I can count on someone screencapping for me, so that I might appreciate strangers suffering sports pain.

    The little moments become big, the big moments become phenomenal, and a sport reliant on celebrating randomness feeds off Twitter like a fat bear off an open dumpster.

    Proposed: Twitter should have been around forever for college football. These moments are why.

    Woody Hayes punching Charlie Bauman. Ohio State coach Hayes ended his career at the 1978 Gator Bowl by punching a Clemson linebacker in the face, chest, or maybe the neck. It’s hard to tell, really, which is one reason I want Twitter around, because the replays would be endless, someone would photoshop Thanos’ head onto Hayes in a matter of seconds, and the jokes would stretch well into the next week.

     Alex Kirshner

    One other reason Twitter would have helped: The announcer, Keith Jackson, was working without easily accessible replay and missed the punch altogether.

    Auburn’s old basketball arena burning down during the 1996 LSU game. Giant fireball during a live broadcast of a brutal SEC rivalry: a no-brainer pick for retro-Twittering.

    Any Barry Sanders game. Appointment second-screen viewing. Consider how fast Saquon Barkley’s best moments got the goat emoji. Then remember Sanders averaging well over 200 yards a game against college tacklers in 1988, many of whom ended up going pro in anything but Tackling Barry Sanders.

    Bonus Twitter juice: His quarterback was a heavily mulleted and much younger Mike Gundy.

    The year 2007. All of it, just every square inch of it. Twitter was technically around in 2007, but was a fawn on wobbly little legs, audience-wise. If anyone doubts how necessary it would have been at full strength, remember: App State beat Michigan, and almost no one was on Twitter to roast the Wolverines. (Which is good: They would have died from the scorching burns.)

    The hiring, firing, and revenge of Mike Price. Woo boy, this is a lot to sum up fast, but we’ll try. Imagine the live, online reaction to:

    • Alabama hiring a pass-first Washington State coach
    • Sports Illustratedwriting an expose about that coach having sex with exotic dancers after a night of carousing in Pensacola
    • That expose containing details like the dancers yelling, “Roll Tide!” and the coach replying with, “It’s rolling, baby!”
    • The coach getting fired before ever coaching a game
    • That coach filing a hefty defamation suit against SI, winning, and rolling a barrel of cash into the desert like Walter White to finish at UTEP

    That all happened without Twitter. Tragedy is real.

     Alex Kirshner

    The Deion Sanders ‘88 experience. Sanders’ legendary NFL Combine and draft day outfit would have been enough to merit Twitter, but there’s also the time he told Clemson coach Danny Ford, “The punt’s coming back,” before returning that punt for a touchdown and that time he laughed while getting out of the way before ankle-tackling a receiver.

    Sanders also would have had ALL the time to talk shit on Twitter and post shirtless pics of himself on Instagram. In his final semester, Sanders brilliantly dropped all of his classes, going pro with a whole college season to go. He would’ve never needed to log off.

    The 2004 South Carolina-Clemson brawl. Come for the mayhem; stay for the reaction to the color guy, Doc Walker, suggesting they turn police dogs loose!

    Prime 90s Nebraska. I got to watch the 62-24 vivisection of Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl live. It was like being on Twitter, but I could hear joints dislocated, so Twitter definitely would have been an improvement.

    Please imagine Twitter randos trying to hate on the 1995 Huskers, talking shit about the option being a high school offense, and then seeing Tommie Frazier break 38 tackles on the way to the end zone.

    Cal-Stanford ‘82, AKA The Play. Not only would we have had the debates about whether a Cal player’s knees were down at any point, we would’ve had people using their phones to produce and circulate Zapruder-style, MS Paint maps of the band running onto the field.

    The winning TD was scored by a ballcarrier who elbowdropped a trombone player! This alone would enrage SPORTSMANSHIP TWITTER for three days straight, even if the trombone player posted a discombobulated selfie in the end zone with a “LOL ALL GOOD” caption.

    Texas A&M-SMU 1981. Not for the game, but for this.

    Worth it for open sword carry advocates leaping to the cadet’s cause alone.

    The Fifth Down. Officials make mistakes, like the 1990 incident when Colorado QB Charles Johnson lost count of the downs and spiked the ball on fourth-and-goal. He was evidently contagious. The officiating crew granted the Buffs another down, giving them five shots to score a game-winning TD in a 33-31 win over Missouri. They did this, won the game, and no controversy followed whatsoever.*

     Alex Kirshner

    *Colorado split the national title with Georgia Tech! Controversy followed! None of this can ever be fixed, ever! Twitter woulD havE been completely rAasonable in THis situaTion, H we’RE AbsoluTely Sure.

    Wally Butts and Bear Bryant vs. The Saturday Evening Post. A live, rolling reaction to two SEC football coaches — Georgia’s Wally Butts and Alabama’s Bear Bryant — getting accused of fixing games? A lawsuit that helped doom one of America’s highest-profile magazines? It goes on the menu, and I am giving it the the hashtag #BearButtsSmear because I am a very tasteful person.

    Arkansas-Kentucky 2003. Seven overtimes and 300-pound Jared Lorenzen playing QB, the football equivalent of:

    The 2000 Independence Bowl. The weather was fine in Shreveport. By the third quarter, a freak snowstorm had set in. The game went to OT, and Mississippi State somehow beat Texas A&M despite wearing all-white uniforms in a driving mini-blizzard.

    Watching Notre Dame lose to NC State in a hurricane in 2016 was outrageously entertaining on Twitter. Watching the 2000 Snow Bowl would have been as close to The Entertainment from Infinite Jest as science will ever get.

    1999 Mike Vick. Mind-boggling GIFs and hyperbole, but also the NFL Draft debate and constant complaints about putting the premier weapon of his time in the two-stroke engine of a punt-first Frank Beamer offense. Nothing happened to Vick after college. Nothing!

    1991 Cotton Bowl. Miami finished this 46-3 blowout of the Longhorns with over 200 yards of penalties on 16 infractions, and the margin didn’t really matter. A vicious ass-kicking and the peak of the Canes’ dancing dynasty needed Twitter so badly already — for the gigantic, over-the-top penalties, the #beatemdown enthusiasm, and for wide receiver Randal Hill running halfway down the endzone tunnel after a TD and firing finger-guns at Texas with the announcer pleading, “Come back, Randall!”

    Then I remember that, for some unholy reason, Mike Francesa did the color commentary on the game. Did he hate Miami’s dancing, like a talk radio guy would? OH, YOU BET HE DID.

    Randy Moss. Randy got to play against MAC defensive backs. Translated to Twitter:

     Alex Kirshner

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    Every rivalry has something that makes it burn hot.

    Rivalry is often defined as “that moment when someone sees a stranger dressed in a team’s colors and, despite being down by three scores and on national television, still shoots both middle fingers at them and accidentally creates a Renaissance painting.”

    No one really says this. They should, though. Every other definition of rivalry is just as bad as this one and leaves out the part about being eager to shoot middle fingers at each other for no reason other than the color of a shirt.

    Even if there is a great definition, quantifying rivalries in college football gets squirrelly. They’re less constant standards of emotion, and more more like a currency. Currencies, I should say, because there are a ton of them, all in different states of repair or being, and all of them susceptible to circumstance, politics, and random acts of God.

    For instance: Some are dead, which is why we really don’t talk about Georgia Tech/Alabama anymore. Some are in stasis or suspended animation, like Texas/Texas A&M. Some rivalries are alive but in a long, one-sided kind of rut. See: Alabama/Tennessee, still heated enough to merit double middle fingers, but right now leaning 11 games to zero for Alabama since 2007. The emotion and intensity of the game is still real, and the competition portion of the festivities is not.

    Let’s check in on some rivalries. A few basic ground rules for inclusion here:

    1. Rivalries are evaluated mostly on the last four or five years. No one on the roster was there before that. The coach probably wasn’t either. The student section was in high school, and so were the players, and there is a strong chance no one remembers anything that happened in the rivalry prior to four or five years ago. But that epic game in ‘68! Stop hipstering dead rivalries to life just because you read about them. Dormant does not count here. We need live, fiery contests with spite and consequences on the menu.
    2. There are exceptions to this, like the Kick Six, which happened and was hilarious. My God, was it funny. If that happened to my team against a team I hate as much as Auburn, I would never stop being mad about it, especially because it is the kind of play that gets a name, and then joins the other plays with Proper Names, and then even young football players and children know their name, and repeat them even after being reminded of the other team’s recent dominance over their rival. Is this triggering? It should be triggering for you, Alabama, because that is the entire point of this.
    3. The rivalry has to at least be competitive over the past few years. What does competitive mean, exactly? The games should be close. If they are not close, then teams should take at least turns giving and receiving blowouts. If neither of these happen, then it means whatever I want it to mean in order to count something as a rivalry for my own purposes here. If this displeases you, please make your own list, and then email me at celebrityhottub [at] gmail [dot] com to show me what you’ve made!
    4. Rivalries should have some tusslin’ and hollerin’. In non-hilljack terms, some fighting, scrapping, some personal fouls, various football-related misconducts, brawls, resulting legislation following said incidents, bowl bans, international sanctions, and general extracurricular conflict. It all helps. For example: Alabama/Auburn is always at least a baseline rivalry, and sometimes it blooms into something where trees get poisoned, babies get named after key players in a moment, and in the most lasting moment of all, triumphantly mocking bumper stickers are made. That’s obviously a step up in intensity, and any ranking of rivalries should recognize that.
    5. The games should matter in the larger scheme of things. Again, this can mean a lot of things. Does the rivalry often determine larger conference or national outcomes? Does one team consistently ruin their rival’s seasons? Or, most exotically, do both teams ruin each other’s lives every year, no matter who wins or loses, because the results of the game are repellent to one and irrelevant to the other? Are we talking about the Egg Bowl? We are definitely talking about the Egg Bowl.
    6. You left one off! Yes, yes I did. Your favorite one, probably. I did it on purpose, because you bankrupted my family, took the family farm, stole my woman, and left my children to starve in a Topeka flophouse! This is my revenge for all that, and I’ve waited years for it.

    A PIE-CHARTED INDEX OF SELECTED CURRENT RIVALRIES

    REAL HEAT YOU GOTTA MEASURE IN KELVIN

    IRON BOWL

    Alabama/Auburn. Historically beyond credible, as it has both its own literally-metal-as-hell nickname (THE IRON BOWL), multiple games with their own nicknames, and a history so fraught the game was called off for a few decades.

    Recency matters most here, though. Fortunately for it, the Iron Bowl’s immediate past has enough heat all by itself to merit inclusion in top-flight status. The 2013 34-28 Auburn victory with the Kick Six happened, but so did a raucous 55-44 shootout in 2014, and last year’s 26-14 upset of an undefeated Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium. There are two clankers in there where Alabama just went ahead and won outright, but rest assured: They are hateful, intensely felt clankers on both sides.

    For extra spite, the Tigers celebrated last year’s win with an extremely giddy and sarcastic postgame playing of the Alabama stadium standard “Dixieland Delight.” Oh, someone got shot over the game in Mobile, too, but don’t worry, they lived. (Not always the case with Iron Bowl-related shootings!) The game matters in-state for recruiting, but it’s the cultural angle that has always been the real tinder here: Stereotypically, Auburn University is the G.I. Bill and agrarian school that actually does work, while the University of Alabama is the school for the gentry. Whether that is completely accurate or not most days of the year, it is the absolute gospel truth during the four hours or so the Iron Bowl is on.

    Note: For all Alabama’s dominance elsewhere, the last five years have Auburn going 2-3 against Alabama, about as well as anyone else over the same span and number of games. Even in rivalries, it’s important to grade anyone fighting a living dynasty on a curve, especially one as systematically and consistently cruel as Alabama’s current regime.

    Michigan State/Ohio State. Mean as hell for a lot of reasons, most notably the thin margins in games short on points and long on brutal, zero-sum, field-position football. No one is beating Ohio State consistently in the Urban Meyer era, but Michigan State has been the best or worst matchup for the Buckeyes because of their stubborn, ponderous pace, steady tackling, and their willingness to punt on every possession.

    The 2017 edition of this game undermines our whole argument—a 48-3 terror of a loss for the Spartans that showed what happens when a low-margin team completely loses the ability to tackle, punt, and keep the game close against an explosive, deeper team. But 2-3 in their last five meetings overall is solid plowing for Farmer Sparty, particularly when one of those brutal knuckups secured MSU a Big Ten championship.

    Oh, and it actually matters. Like, a lot, especially since the Big Ten sandwiched all of their major powers into one hallway fight of a division, and because Ohio State has to emerge from that division mostly unscathed in order to compete for national titles. Michigan State and Ohio State don’t have any obvious cultural clashing to do. They can even bond over both hating Michigan, which if anything lowers the temperature of the rivalry with an enemy-of-my enemy vibe to embrace.

    But if the built-in neighborly hatred of Michigan/Ohio State isn’t there, two other vital factors are: being a competitive game with an uncertain outcome, and having national and regional stakes.

    Oklahoma/Texas: The problem with the Red River Rivalry is that it’s played at 11 a.m. Central time. The players’ body clocks are running behind, no one really wakes up until the third quarter or so, and the action feels more random than anything else. This works well for the random viewer. The random viewer might otherwise opt out of a game where over the past five years Texas has rolled in reeling with multiple losses, and looked weaker on paper.

    The solution to the Red River Rivalry, however, is playing it at 11:00 a.m. Central, because totally random outcomes and unexpectedly competitive games have been the recent norm, not the exception. In 2013, a teetering Mack Brown and his final team blindsided Oklahoma 36-20. The 2015 game got even weirder: a shambolic Longhorns team that came into the game 1-3 rolling for 313 yards to give the Sooners their only loss of the regular season. OU went on to lose in the College Football Playoff. Texas went 5-7 and got Charlie Strong fired, and none of this mattered.

    Correction: None of this mattered save for spite, malice, and the satisfaction that something beautiful met something ugly, and when the two parted there was one more new ugly thing in the world. Combined with fans who genuinely dislike each other on a molecular level, possible conference stakes, and the only recorded instance of a fan tearing another fan’s scrotum in a bar fight, and it’s very, very real.

    Bonus spite: Oklahoma going on long streaks of dominating this series despite being tiny, underfunded Oklahoma to gargantuan, wealthy Texas.

    Ohio State/Michigan. Let’s be super clear here, because a lot of lawyers went to Michigan, and because a lot of Ohio State fans like to yell at people on the internet. This is canonically a great rivalry. It is inherited, and still passed down from generation to generation, and still represents a great eternal conflict between two states that once actually fought over the city of Toledo.

    That border war is described as “almost bloodless,” a clever turn of phrase summing up the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry in 2018. The blood is mostly Michigan’s at this point, with Ohio State winning six in a row in mostly dominant fashion. The flames are still real on both sides—hello, Marcus Hall—and in the sardine can of the Big Ten East, the game still matters for all kinds of strategic reasons.

    This remains a must-win for both teams for reasons beyond identity politics. But if a viewer wanted a game where the outcome was less than certain? Even given a certain spot, and an unending debate whether it was good or not? Ohio State/Michigan is in the stage of rivalry where the game transcends reality, and has become (for the moment) a powerful myth, and myths have a serious narrative problem for the college football fan: They always end the same way.

    Still, it pains me to admit how good the rivalry still is as entertainment, and how good it could be if Michigan ever starts to win these again.

    West Virginia/Oklahoma. OK, first: There is no real case to be made for this being a recently competitive contest on the field. Oklahoma has won every matchup between the two teams since the Mountaineers played their first Big 12 season in 2012, and it has not been particularly close.

    This is is not about that. This is about the matchup with the highest chippiness quotient of any recent continuous conference matchup. In 2015 there was some “pregame jawing” between the two teams in Norman; a combined 240 yards in penalties followed. In 2016 in Morgantown, the Sooners gathered at the West Virginia logo at midfield, and a pregame scuffle broke out before kickoff. The fighting proved to be West Virginia’s most competitive work of the day: The Mountaineers went into the half down 34-7 and lost 56-28.

    The 2017 matchup finally spilled into the game itself — mostly thanks to West Virginia, the team that made the brilliant calculation that the Sooners could not win the game if they were all watching from their locker room. Playing well past the whistle on almost every play, the Mountaineers managed to slow down the game itself, with at least three stoppages for extracurriculars in the first half. Those all came before the Oklahoma offense and West Virginia defense got sideways yet again just before the half, and Oklahoma lineman Dru Samia got ejected.

    Oklahoma scored on that drive anyway, which sums up about how well the “get everyone kicked out of the game” strategy worked for the Mountaineers in a 59-31 loss. (In Dana Holgorsen’s words postgame: “Well, we won time of possession.”) It might be possible that the only unifying thread here is Baker Mayfield, and that he was just that irritating for everyone he played against. It might also be possible that, for reasons no one can really explain, the cliché might actually apply here: These teams, for lack of a better or more innovative set of words, really don’t like each other.

    And if two teams that irrationally dislike each other and play frequently isn’t a strong definition of rivalry, then I am not sure what exactly is.

    USF/UCF. Objectively, maybe the best or at least best unsung categorical rivalry? Two teams located an hour and twenty minutes apart, fighting over many of the same recruits and territory, play at the end of each season for both maximum dramatic framing and (because they share a division) actual stakes. Occasionally, one of them might be angling for a national title, or at least an undefeated season they will claim as a national title. That team might go a little too far with this, and that is their right and privilege as Americans.

    American is an important angle here. The American Conference is a fine football conference like any other. The reborn/zombie Big East features players one might not find in other, more monied conferences, players other, more monied teams might not give a full chance. 2018’s UCF squad featured one-handed linebacker and future NFL draft pick Shaquem Griffin. USF 2018 had Quinton Flowers, the archetypical Great In College Quarterback who put up massive, streaky numbers for the Bulls, including consecutive seasons with over 2,000 yards passing and a thousand yards rushing. Because we cannot pay Quinton Flowers for all the joy he brought in college, please: Some team keep Quinton Flowers on an NFL roster long enough to pick up a pension.

    This series lacks a whole lot of off-the-field drama, but wait on that. It’s young, and learning, and if it keeps up at this pace, the War on I-4 could grow to something large, wild, and wonderful in the way that only things in the Sunshine State can be. By this, I mean that it could involve hurricanes, a deposed governor, the Army Corps of Engineers accidentally opening up sinkholes beneath both stadiums, some heavy insurance fraud (related and unrelated to the sinkholed stadiums), and several people in the game’s crowd being eaten or kidnapped or both. It could be all of that and so much more.

    USF and UCF had to wait until the Arena League folded to legally use the name “War on I-4” because the original “War on I-4” name belonged to the Orlando Predators, until the Arena League team went out of business in 2016. They got the nickname of the whole thing on consignment, y’all. This is the best rivalry in Florida right now, and that is before remembering that the whole thing is named after a sun-blasted stretch of highway dotted with spectacular car wrecks and terrifying anti-abortion billboards. The winning trophy should be a sign reading “PLEASE MOVE WRECKAGE TO THE SIDE,” that is nothing but a sincere compliment.

    Ole Miss/Mississippi State. The hypothesis here: The Egg Bowl is the only rivalry in college football where both teams somehow lose the game every year.

    Recent history has done nothing but add to the mounting pile of robust evidence that while life is pain, the Egg Bowl remains the drug for people who need a deeper more powerful brand of existential agony. Last-minute game-tying TD drives do not fail quietly. No, they instead end with Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace getting stripped and fumbling in the endzone in Mississippi State’s 2013 victory.

    Possible appearances in the SEC Championship game don’t just die in the Egg Bowl, as they did in 2014, when Ole Miss upset the No. 4 Bulldogs. No, they also take possible national title aspirations away at the same time, but that’s okay because it’s not like CBS showed the Egg Bowl instead of the Iron Bowl that year. EXCEPT THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED AND THE WHOLE NATION SAW IT. Then Alabama won the Iron Bowl over Auburn, and shut the door completely on Miss State’s beautiful fantasies of larger relevance.

    Again: Maximum pain, every time.

    Continued! Ole Miss needed a win to get bowl-eligible in 2016, and instead took a hefty 55-20 brick straight in the teeth from Mississippi State. That’s the game where Dan Mullen reminded everyone that his quarterback, Nick Fitzgerald, was only recruited by Miss State and UT-Chattanooga. He ran for 258 yards that day. Dan Mullen can be, for lack of a more accurate word, a real dick in a rivalry situation.

    There is so much more. Both schools constantly rat each other out to the NCAA. The fanbases split along the same lawyer-class/farmer-engineer type lines Auburn and Alabama fans do, with one group favoring seersucker and bowties, and the other leaning more towards hunting gear, dark jeans for formal occasions, and a real fondness for pointing out how they grill their own meat. (An actual stated point of pride, since open flame is banned at The Grove, and the food is—spits on ground—catered.)

    If the rivalry has a weakness, it’s that there usually isn’t a whole lot on the line in the larger picture when the two meet. Counterpoint: when there is something on the line, the underdog destroys the favorite’s dreams and ruins their year. Watching all this might sound sort of like sadism, but that would be inaccurate.

    The Egg Bowl is sadism.

    ALTERNATES LIST: SUB-BOILING BUT STILL QUITE WARM

    Arizona/Arizona State. MEAN. Competitive, heated, and good for a serious upset every other year or so. Like the Egg Bowl, the Territorial Cup is made better not in spite of two in-state teams scrapping over scarce resources, but because of them.

    Army/Navy. It’s great! It’s also super watchable because it is really rare now to see two teams both running the triple-option well! And if we’re all going to be honest, it comes a week after the rest of college football’s regular season finale, when we’re all sad, and involves two teams no one outside of their fanbases watches regularly, and both teams have to display real, touching respect each other at the end. That this is so perverse says a lot about college football rivalries in general, but it’s where we’re all at (except for Army and Navy, obviously).

    Michigan/Michigan State. Listen: I’m trying to be kind to Michigan, because they have taken a lot of flak here already so let’s see, that’s eight out of the last ten for Sparty and yup let’s just keep it movin’—

    South Carolina/Clemson. Would be way higher if Dabo Swinney hadn’t created a perfect recruiting machine and put South Carolina on the whoopin’ end of a very solid stick for a while. Four in a row and no real signs of a Clemson slowdown mean South Carolina will have to play the hard-fighting but winless underdog for a long time here. (In other words: They’ll just have to be themselves.) Actual brawls happen on the field in this rivalry, so it’s basically one Gamecock upset and a fistfight away from hopping back into the upper echelon.

    DORMANT

    Texas A&M/Texas. Maybe the only real sleeping feud that makes me sad to think about, if only because the two fanbases still talk about each other constantly like a recently divorced couple who clearly is going to get remarried after a few years of festive mistake-making. They’re so good together, and so awful together at the same time.

    West Virginia/Pitt. Dormant, but coming back in 2022 at which point it will rocket into the top echelon of college football rivalries based on sheer amount of moonshine and Iron City beer involved.


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    There’s a reason this is the lede image we swear.

    The NFL’s national anthem policy demands you respect the anthem, which is why that policy deserves no respect.

    1) Hi, I’m going to lead with this: I think the playing of the national anthem before sporting events should not be mandatory in any way whatsoever. It should not be mandatory for employees, for fans, for mascots, for anyone to stand and listen to it. If someone reads this and disagrees, that’s cool. It’s great, actually. It is super American in the best possible way, even better than Whitney Houston singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a white warmup suit in 1991. It’s hard to get more massively American than that, but civil disagreement is there.

    2) I know making this argument in 2018 is madness. But I am going to try it anyway, because 2018 is about personal growth, bigger biceps, and not yelling at strangers or friends on the internet. I will and have failed already at all of these, but trying is what matters first and most here.

    3) So I’m not going to yell. Instead I’d like to point out that the NFL floated a clumsy trial balloon of an idea yesterday through the NFL’s professional cut-and-paster Albert Breer: that home teams could decide on whether teams come out for the national anthem, and if they do come out then there would be “potential” for fifteen-yard penalties for kneeling. That is just an idea, but it is one the NFL wanted their fans to see in order to test the waters of public opinion — a little balloon, released into the wind to see which way people were feeling.

    4) This particular balloon flew straight into the power lines with an audible sizzle and then exploded. Like the death of all doomed trial balloons, it was glorious to watch. Little kids made OOOHing noises and everything. This very bad, very clumsy did not become NFL policy, but another bad, clumsy idea did.

    5) I’ll admit this much: The entire anthem debacle is kind of fun for me at this point. That a simple thing like playing a song — and some players kneeling during that song — has the NFL owners so flummoxed, so confused, and so incapable of unified action that the situation has become light farce for anyone paying attention to the story.

    6) This is basically watching giants trip on their own shoelaces, and is the best free entertainment ever because in no other part of life will any of these people lose or struggle. They have billions, except for Mark Davis of the Raiders, but I don’t think any man who loves driving a 1997 minivan in the year 2018 as an adult can be harmed. Davis is only worth like, $500 million, and is by NFL terms practically a peasant. A PEASANT, WE SAY.

    7) The dispute is, at its heart, a workplace issue. Fans attending the game are there for fun. Players are there to work, and making them appear for the anthem puts players — those with a conscience and/or real issues with the United States — in a real bind. To put it in terms marketing people might understand: The NFL has brazenly co-branded with a particular strain of half-assed but very loud patriotism. They have done it so completely that when the U.S. government becomes even more super-racist and bad than it usually is, the NFL can’t easily disassociate itself from the bad parts of that co-branding. This becomes doubly bad for the NFL when players protest on the field to point out their discomfort with that partnership and everything it implies.

    8) There’s irony here, because the thing that enabled this cheap kind of patriotism — the kind where just standing for the anthem matters more than actually exercising your rights as an American — was the anthem itself becoming cheaper. Around the end of World War II stadiums got huge P.A. systems, and the anthem became a consistent, uniformly embraced pregame ritual. Before the P.A. system, teams had to hire a band, and thus playing the anthem was expensive. In other words, enforced, ritualistic sports patriotism wasn’t cool until it was cost effective.

    9) I’d like to point this out again because it is so sad, and funny, and American: The anthem wasn’t a consistent pregame phenomenon for over forty years or so because teams were too cheap to hire a band to play it. Ask a musician and they will tell you: They’re not expensive. They’re cheap, especially if we’re talking about drummers.

    10) In short: If leagues back in the day had to pay a dollar for the anthem every time they played it, they wouldn’t have. Their patriotism was literally as cheap as it gets. The part in Team America in “Freedom isn’t free” when they quantify freedom as costing exactly a dollar and five cents? We’re there.

    11) The NFL already went into parody territory by taking money from the U.S. government for “patriotic displays”, so spare everyone a convincing argument that this is a matter of patriotism. This entire debacle over the anthem is a labor dispute, and some in the NFL will go so far in trying to win it that someone in the room at least considered the idea of writing a demented variation of compulsory patriotism into the rulebook itself.

    12) This also gets to another point, and an important one: We don’t do this anywhere else in American society. Outside of some school functions, no one plays the anthem before embarking on something important. We don’t play it before movies, mostly because that time could be sold for previews or an ad. We don’t generally play it before concerts, or before church starts, or before any other large assembly of people.

    13) We don’t even play it before big personal events, either. I didn’t play the anthem before the birth of either of my children in the delivery room, for instance. Now that I’m thinking about it, though, that would have been metal as hell in a very Team America-patriotic way, particularly if I’d lit some sparklers and ripped my shirt off. Hospital security couldn’t arrest me for this, because patriotism is not a crime even if it sets the sprinkler system off. Yes, I live in Georgia, and yeah, this might actually be on the books?

    14) And I’m not immune, because I mean that. The idea of playing the anthem in your backyard is to me both hilarious and kind of touching. My favorite HELL YES AMERICA image on the internet is Bill Dauterive from King of the Hill, shirtless and standing in front of a waving American flag. The caption reads: inarticulate yelling. At a bone-deep level I love that brand of patriotism, a spontaneous celebration of red state America’s sunburned, shirtless love for bald eagle iconography; flyovers that go way, way too low over the stadium; and in the best of situations, a spectral Dale Earnhardt giving a thumbs up from the clouds. I love it because it is mine, and because it’s deeply felt and offered on its own — usually with a long, loud WOOOO!, because there’s always got to be a WOOOO! in there. I feel it because I am Bill Dauterive, and Bill Dauterive is me, and we both love big, loud, spangly shirtless Americana at a level that at its best can even make sense to an outsider watching it.

    15) I also hate the idea of it being mandatory at any level. As an American and someone whose basic civic education came from repeated childhood viewings of Smokey and the Bandit and supplemental adult viewings of its spiritual successor — the entire Fast and the Furious franchise — I was raised to believe that Americans should have a healthy distrust of authority at every level. This goes for the government, but also for my employer, and for anyone telling me when and how to engage in a theatrical and often cynically pitched act of patriotism. The celebration shouldn’t be confused for being a value in and of itself. It is a celebration of those values — of freedom, of individuality even when the exercise of those freedoms might make you uncomfortable.

    16) I was also taught by these films that all decisions should ideally be made by a loose, attractive, and charismatic multiracial alliance of people talking over CBs while fleeing the police for the right reasons. This may not be the best or most accurate education, but it’s the one I got, and that’s why the judge is going to have to acquit me when I say I robbed that delivery truck for family, your honor. For family. The point here is relevant, though, in this sense: Patriotism can’t be dictated from the top down in any context, but especially not when dealing with a diverse, multicultural group of people.

    17) Requiring people to be patriotic in any situation at all is a bad, bad sign, anyway. Healthy countries with people who are happy to live there do not do this. In fact, it’s deeply un-American to make me do anything at all, especially at work where the idea is that I am exchanging something for compensation, not because I am following orders. Putting the anthem as a required reverence in the workplace puts “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the same level as mandatory H.R. training, and the minute something becomes mandatory it dies on an emotional level. Y’all really want the anthem to become that? Really?

    18) And frankly, it’s not like a lot of you are putting in work during the anthem anyway. I sing it a lot of the time: Loud, embarrassing, and tone-deaf, but I sing that shit because it is a song, and songs are meant to be sung. Americans on the whole sing about as often as they vote: Around 56 percent of the whole crowd seems about right. Some of you are as cheap with your singing as you are with your patriotism. It’s the kind of cheap patriotism that is so thin-skinned it sees a player kneeling as a threat to existence, but doesn’t bother to be brave or curious or honest enough to ask why we do any of this in the first place — or whether we have to, at all.


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    There is failure at the worst possible time, and then there is missing 27 in a row from the three-point line in Game 7.

    The Houston Rockets missed 27 straight three-point attempts in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last night and we need to appreciate that. All of it, for so many reasons, because there is failure at the worst possible time, and then there is missing 27 in a row from the three-point line.

    Bad luck is an everyday thing in sports. Then there is what happened to the Rockets, who got the basketball equivalent of waking up, looking at the sky, and seeing God firing two huge divine middle fingers in your face at 5:48 a.m on a Monday.

    That doesn’t really overstate the case here. There is no way to really understate just how screwed Houston was against Golden State. This is an extremity. It’s not that Houston just ended up trapped on an ice floe — they ended up trapped on an ice floe, and then their food was eaten by ice rats, and then their emergency food stash was destroyed in a fire. The fire would have at least kept Houston warm if a blizzard hadn’t moved in and covered everything in five feet of snow. The snow would have protected the Rockets from the polar bears if the wind hadn’t come in and blown it all away. The bears finished the job. Being eaten by them is the nicest part of the story.

    Twenty-seven straight misses. A divinely ordained disaster isn’t the endpoint, it is the starting point, Houston. Smarter people than me can talk about the basketball merits of committing that hard to the three-pointer. It happened, and nothing can change that, but it seems reasonable to expect that an NBA team, over any given stretch of time, could be expected to hit a statistically probable 30 percent of those shots. That’s reasonable and sane and I’d be OK with that as a Rockets fan, especially if we’re getting open looks.

    And they were getting open looks! Houston committed to the probability that they would hit some three-pointers, and in response Probability threw its cellphone into a lake, changed its name, deleted all social media accounts, and left the country with no forwarding address. It wired everything out of the bank accounts to a shell corporation in the Cayman Islands. Probability ghosted Houston and is now running jet-ski tours for the wealthy in Portugal under the name “Davin LeBlanc.” It just vanished. It did so at the worst imaginable moment against the toughest possible opponent in the biggest possible spot.

    And you have to respect watching Houston working in a luck-free environment. There is a tendency among fans to look back at a game and think the most dangerous word in sports: If. If Houston hits just three or four of those 27 attempts, this is a different game. That way lies madness, but it’s something sports fans will ruin their mental health and half a Tuesday thinking about while doing something completely unrelated. If a Rockets fan in your life crushes a ceramic coffee cup in their hands this morning during an entirely unrelated conversation, that is exactly what is happening. If is a poisonous, treasonous word.

    There should be some comfort here in that there is no real “If.” Houston drew the worst hand possible, and kept going admirably. Call it an extremely inspiring case of amnesia. After all, after missing 20 in a row, they insisted on shooting seven more before finally hitting a three. That is a commitment to the plan right there, one that in any normally distributed set of risks and returns should have worked. I’m not being glib: That’s inspiring as hell, and fearless, even if it turned into an arctic expedition horror story before the eyes of a gobsmacked home crowd.

    There should also be some consolation not in Houston being screwed, but in the insane degree of how utterly screwed the Rockets were. Missing 10 threes in a row is poor execution. Missing 15 or 20? That borders on fate. But 27 in a row? This is no longer a mortal affair. This is supernatural. This requires priests and sorcerers and even then there are no guarantees. This goes all the way back around from laughing matter to serious matter to laughing matter — a broken, mad laughter in a crawlspace, sure, but still all the way back to laughing. In more arctic doom terms: Houston tried for an Amundsen, but caught a Scott. Houston was freezing to death in the tent from the start.

    NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Houston RocketsTroy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Finally, respect the Rockets for playing out one of those stories that asks the hardest question in the world: What if, in the course of any contest, the worst thing in the world happens? What if, after losing so many hands of blackjack in a row that you’ve lost count, you say “Well this can’t happen again?” And then it does, for another 27 hands in a row, with the only way out being doubling and tripling and quadrupling down again? What if you badly need just six percent — like, say, just hitting four out of 27 missed three-pointers — of something to go right in order to survive. What if that comes up zero, even when it shouldn’t?

    Sometimes life does that. It comes up hard zeroes — not just against optimism, but against even the lowest edge of basic expectations. The Rockets got those zeroes in brutal fashion, and they still kept working. Even if they get paid to do that, there is something to be said for the effort and example, and for not crawling into the third row and ordering a beer and crying. Not that I would have objected: I would have respected that, too because GOOD GOD, Y’ALL, NO ONE MISSES 27 THREE-POINTERS IN A ROW IN A PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL GAME. NO ONE.*

    *Except Houston.


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    The end-of-game gaffe in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals was peak J.R. Smith. It’s only fitting that moment happened.

    JR Smith forgot the damn score in the final seconds of an NBA Finals game. Be clear on this: That is an insane, stupid, astonishing, jawdropping, space-assed* thing to do in any game. It is mad, eccentric, scatterbrained, daffy, erratic, vagarious, mental. It is ... it’s outright horse-minded that J.R. Smith forgot that the Cavs were tied, and sort of just invented a world where the Cavs were up?

    I don’t even know what horse-minded is, because it is a term I just made up, but admit: it works. Horses are amazing, wild creatures that sometimes agree to play by human rules, and then sometimes very much do not. Would J.R Smith seem sane for long stretches, and then bolt suddenly for no reason, or run back into a burning barn like horses sometimes do? Would J.R. Smith possibly mistake a plastic bag for a demon for no reason, like horses do, and then run the other direction screaming? Would a horse post NSFW things on Twitter in 2012 without really realizing that other people could see them? Forever?

    If that horse were J.R. Smith-minded, then yeah, that horse would absolutely do all that. Erratic, sometimes brilliant, and sometimes absolutely incomprehensible is the J.R Smith experience, and always has been. It has not changed, it will not change. It has always been the same. After the heat death of the universe, J.R. Smith will launch an escape pod along a contested trajectory through the smallest, most improbable wormhole imaginable to get to the next world.

    For instance: During an epic cold streak in the 2007 playoffs with the Denver Nuggets, Smith was benched by George Karl for hoisting fifty-footers on plays designed for Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson in the final minute of a game four loss to San Antonio. Karl’s quote at the time on Smith—averaging 4.3 points a game for the series at that point— might be downright haunting after tonight: “I have no idea what planet that came from.”

    With the Knicks, Smith became a larger, more erratic version of his already large, erratic self. Erratic can tend towards the good, like when the Knicks made the playoffs in 2012-13 in part thanks to Smith averaging 18 points per game and winning Sixth Man of the Year. That season went so well that Smith’s one game suspension in the playoffs for elbowing Jason Terry in the jaw didn’t even matter. They beat them anyway before losing to the Indiana Pacers in the second round.

    Erratic can also tend toward the bad. Smith got injured. He earned a suspension for violating the NBA’s drug policy. He was, to put it lightly, a complete trainwreck on Twitter, even before being a trainwreck on Twitter was really a thing. I’m not going to look this up and will just state this as scientific fact: Smith was the first NBA player to pay a butt-related fine for social media activity. Someone took a photo of Smith drinking a bottle of Hennessy in a club the night before Game 5 against the Celtics in the 2013 playoffs. Smith scored 13 off the bench in a series-clinching win, by the way, because nothing about J.R. Smith will ever makes sense.

    Smith allegedly missed 80 practices in a season when he played in China during the 2011 lockout. He once got a $50,000 fine for attempting to untie players’ shoes during games. That’s funny, but when things go badly for J.R. Smith, they can go badly in a very unfunny way, too. In 2007, Smith blew through a stop sign in New Jersey in his SUV and hit another car. He and a friend in the passenger seat — neither were wearing seatbelts — were both ejected from the car. Smith lived, but his friend didn’t. J.R. narrowly avoided a vehicular manslaughter charge, and served 24 days in jail on a lesser charge.

    Most pointedly given what just happened against Golden State: In 2014 in a tie game for the Knicks against Houston, J.R. Smith took a gigantic three. That would have been fine if there was no time on the clock, and it was the final shot in the game. It would have been fine if teammate Tyson Chandler wasn’t waving at J.R. like a frenzied flag man trying to warn a train about a tanker truck full of gas stalled on the tracks ahead. Smith jacked a three-pointer with twenty-one seconds and change on the clock, it clanked off rim, and Houston would ice the game with free throws.

    J.R., by his own admission, did not know the score in that game.

    Smith has been with the Cavs since 2015. With the exception of throwing a bowl of soup at an assistant coach’s head earlier this year, there is an entire canon of stories all with the same basic theme: J.R. has matured in Cleveland.

    That’s true: LeBron James has become his steadying professional guide, and helped give him an NBA title. On a personal level, it’s demonstrably true, too. The entire cycle surrounding the premature birth of his daughter Dakota at just 21 weeks — followed by the tense touch-and-go story of her fight for survival— painted him accurately as a vulnerable, caring father figure. Even the most embittered Knicks fans still love J.R. — not in spite of his mercurial NBA career and his flaws and bravado on the floor, but in large part because of it.

    The brilliant, flaky core of J.R. Smith the basketball player hasn’t really changed, mostly because what you are as a player doesn’t really change for anyone.

    It certainly didn’t change for Draymond Green, the best living goon the NBA has to offer, a practitioner of every one of the dark arts but most especially kicking opponents in the penis. When Game 1 heated up, Draymond’s response was to only became more essentially Draymond in the moment. He chucked awkward three-pointers with the exact motion of someone throwing a rotten pumpkin into a dumpster. He taunted Tristan Thompson into a technical and then danced on him and LeBron while gesturing to the crowd. He galumphed into people to grab rebounds. (Draymond is 100% a galumpher.) He was a complete asshole at all times, because being a complete asshole capable of tearing an opponent apart at their weakest seams is Draymond Green’s job. He’s amazing at it, and as important a piece of the Warriors Death Machine as anyone.

    J.R. Smith is amazing at being J.R. Smith, and being mad at him win or lose almost doesn’t make sense because you already know what can happen, good and bad. It could mean him being a part of the epic 3-1 comeback against the Warriors in 2016. It could mean him getting suspended for throwing a bowl of soup at an assistant coach.

    It could mean him doing what he did in the final seconds of regulation: Bailing out George Hill and the Cavs by flying into traffic and unexpectedly grabbing a rebound off a missed free throw. It was exactly the kind of random, brilliant J.R. Smith thing to have happen. In a world where the Cavs were ahead by one, J.R Smith would have given the Cavs a road playoff win.

    The Cavs, however, were definitely not ahead by a point. They were tied, and would go on to lose in OT.

    After the game, LeBron James was asked what J.R. was thinking in the final seconds. His answer was only answer anyone in the building could have given after watching it happen. That possibly includes Smith himself, the player whose basketball fate has always been to be the least predictable thing on the floor. What at any time at all, really, is going through J.R. Smith’s mind during a basketball game?

    James shook his head and answered.

    I don’t know his state of mind.


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    Morocco are a sad reminder that soccer is an unfair sport and it’s best not to try.

    After two games, Morocco are one of the most entertaining teams at the World Cup. They chain together long spells of possession, but don’t do it casually. Some teams control the ball casually — Argentina and Spain can move the ball around like the little car on a rideshare app. A goalie could watch Spain, and almost time exactly when they need to pay attention. As if he was squinting at a screen, and read: Shot on goal will arrive in exactly four minutes.

    Morocco treated the ball like it was set to go off at any minute. They backheeled, feinted, threaded frenetic passes through midfield. Morocco didn’t play like they just wanted to process the ball towards the goal. They threw players forward, flooding the defense with superior numbers and laying little quicksilver passes all over the place. Morocco’s 2018 World Cup team was fun to watch because, at their most active, they moved like a ball of caffeinated gnats.

    After two matches, that extremely entertaining ball of gnats has zero points. In their first match, Morocco clearly outplayed Iran, dominating possession, taking more shots on goal, and generally looking like a more coordinated, kinetic side on the field. That advantage evaporated when Morocco missed multiple goal opportunities, including a tantalizing header miss from Younes Belhanda.

    An own goal from Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz came later, and Morocco gave Iran their first World Cup victory since 1998. Correction: that was an own goal in stoppage time, in the 95th minute. Can’t leave that part out.

    Morocco had Portugal for their second game in group play. Rewind everything about the Iran match and play it back: Dazzling passing, effort all over the place, jukes eliciting audible “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd in Moscow. Snowglobe football played fearlessly, red and green jerseys flying upfield, possession dominated, etc.

    They lost again. This time defeat came off the head of Cristiano Ronaldo, so a.) Morocco is in good company, and b.) at least a player on the opposing team scored the winning goal for the opponent. Morocco dominated the match, played courageous, aggressive soccer, and in return for all that will be going home early.

    This is where some very obvious things about soccer usually appear. Some of this comes down to execution. Goal opportunities can’t be wasted. Teams that do not capitalize on set pieces do not advance in competition. (Especially when, like Morocco, they get more of them in every match, with a total of 15 set pieces in two games.) Critical mistakes at critical times usually equal critical failure, etc, etc.

    Portugal v Morocco: Group B - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaPhoto by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    That is all true. What is also true: Sometimes a team can be a joy to watch and get absolutely jack and shit in return. The list is endless: the Dantoni-era Phoenix Suns in the NBA, the Run-N-Shoot Houston Oilers in the NFL, the no-huddle offenses of Chip Kelly at the University of Oregon. In the category of the World Cup, the most recent frenzied lovable team in the category has to be 2014’s Chilean squad, a side hellbent on leaving the opponent breathless, spent, and in awe of Alexis Sanchez’s immortal and insanely jacked quads.

    That breathless Chile team got to the Round of 16 before losing on penalty kicks to Brazil. Morocco goes out a bit earlier — despite having a stellar 4-0-1 qualifying run leading up to the Cup. They’re out for a thousand little reasons: a few shots gone inches wide, a bad call or two, a mind-blowing mistake at exactly the wrong moment.

    The lesson here for Morocco is probably to never, ever try — to play a little more conservatively, a little more cynically, to manage, control, and in the end survive and advance. Fortunately for viewers, even in defeat, they didn’t seem to agree with that. Or, more likely: They were moving too fast to hear it at all.


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    What if we put the 32 best college football teams through a group stage and knockout round? Let’s simulate.

    This is a really bad, impractical idea. The logistics of a 64-team tournament with uncertain outcomes, teams with the largest rosters of any major American sport, and unpaid players? Much less one with brutal contact every game? It starts at absolute nightmare, and that’s before we get to the politics.

    The idea works for a lot of reasons, too. College football already runs on stupid ideas, illicit cash, and inequalities. As in soccer, there are probably only seven or eight teams capable of winning it all. Throw in the constant boil of deranged tribalism, and this should seem familiar to anyone who pays attention to either sport.

    Also, fantasy gives me license to make up whatever I want. Don’t be the person complaining about how unrealistic dragons are in a story that starts with “OK, so dragons are real.”

    First, let’s break up college football’s map, FIFA-style.

    The World Cup of College Football breaks the map into five groups, similar to FIFA’s six regional confederations.

    United States American Football Association (USAFA)

    Representing the Southeast, USAFA is the biggest, richest, and most overrepresented. Roughly comparable to UEFA in soccer, USAFA constitutes the entire old SEC along with quality chunks of the ACC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, and American.

    Yes, they named themselves after the entire country. They like to do that. They also made it a dumb and redundant name in order to make sure everyone knew it was American. This is also something they like to do.

    Like its European counterpart, USAFA has fixed the terms of the tournament to suit its own interests. USAFA will receive the most bids, get the largest share of the money, and win most arguments.

    Football Union — Texas (FUT)

    Essentially the legacy confederation from the Big 12 and Southwest Conference, FUT centers around the political and financial pull of Texas, mainly the University of Texas at Austin. The name also spells out “eff UT,” which is definitely not a bit of petty revenge the other members of the FUT slipped in during founding meetings.

    Mid-Western College Football Federated Amateur Union (MWCFFAU)

    The old Big Ten and MAC must have an overly descriptive, bulky name. They are very literal and Midwestern, and need a title as immovable as a beef-swole fullback rumbling to the hole on an iso play. “MWCFFAU” might be awkward, but it sure does hold down a good chunk of a business card. Also they tried fancy names once, and everyone still makes fun of them for it.

    The MWCFFAU is comparable to CONMEBOL in soccer. It produces champions and makes money hand over fist, but leans hard on two or three teams. Ooh! And Argentina is Michigan!

    Western American Conference (WAC)

    The WAC lives again! This version of the Pac-12 folds in the Mountain West and one or two independents, attempting to consolidate the mostly significant power of West Coast college football. By “mostly significant,” I mean “loses out in most football decisions come negotiating time, but still produces good teams.”

    Probably most comparable to the Confederation of African Football, in that it produces some truly entertaining teams before bombing out of group play or the Round of 16.

    North Atlantic Football Federation (NAFF)

    The leftovers from the ACC and American make up the NAFF, particularly the Mid-Atlantic members of the ACC and the Northeastern members of the American’s ancestor, the old Big East.

    Be warned: The direct comparison is Oceania.

    To make this something like a World Cup, these teams would have to play their conference-mates in a qualifying process.

    This takes years in real life, and even simming it out with a fully built series of superconferences begins to bring up rules, analytical issues, and — gasp! — MATH.

    Let’s allow others to do that for us. To get the top 32 teams in all of college football in 2017, I used Bill Connelly’s 2017 S&P+ numbers. A full explanation of his formula and methods can be found here, but in summary: It takes powerful predictors of a team’s success, balls them up into one tidy metric, and gives a solid idea of a team’s quality. S&P+ performs well against Vegas and happens to pass the eyeball test; the final AP top 10 for 2017 matches nine of the top 10 S&P+ teams. Connelly’s S&P+ projections are the basis for the results you’ll see below.

    There is another key: geography. UEFA gets 14 spots (with one for host Russia) in the 2018 World Cup. Of the top 32 teams in S&P+, about half could reasonably be called “Southern.” The rest of the distributions also match up reasonably well.

    Qualifying teams by region:

    United States American Football Association (USAFA): 15 spots

    Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, UCF, Auburn, FAU, USF, Miami, Louisville, Appalachian State, Memphis, LSU, Arkansas State, Mississippi State, and Troy

    FUT: three spots

    Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU (Note: No Texas Longhorns in the division named for Texas Longhorns)

    Midwestern Football Union (MFU): eight spots

    Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Ohio, Michigan State, Michigan, and Toledo

    Western American Confederation (WAC): five spots

    Washington, Fresno State, Boise State, USC, and Stanford

    North Atlantic Football Federation (NAFF): one spot

    Virginia Tech. That’s it. Penn State could be here, yes. However, the big money of the MWCFFAU bought them off years ago.

    Next, put these teams in groups.

    FIFA has tried using its global rankings, messed with drawing teams from geographical pots, and made something very simple very complex. FIFA is good at making FIFA necessary.

    We’ll go a little easier and a little rougher. I’ll just take 32 teams and toss them into a randomizer. The rough part: I just took 32 teams and tossed them into a randomizer.

    This kind of trainwrecking is indicative of how college football works anyway. Edit: It is better, because at least the lowest-ranked teams in this draw are demonstrably good.

    It’s not pretty on paper. Why? BECAUSE IT IS BEAUTIFUL ON PAPER, THAT’S WHY. Teams are listed in their groups in no particular order.

    Group A

    • Appalachian State
    • Washington
    • Oklahoma State
    • LSU

    A solid group, with good matchups all around. Appalachian State is the Australia. We just hope they try hard in a respectable loss.

    Group B

    • UCF
    • Miami
    • Stanford
    • Notre Dame

    Another solid group top to bottom, with UCF playing the spoiler in a kind of South Korea-ish way to someone’s Germany. (For maximum comic effect, it should be their neighbor to the south, Miami.)

    Group C

    • Fresno State
    • Ohio State
    • Michigan State
    • Michigan

    This one either shows the limitation of random grouping or validates it through comedic potential. Either way, it gives Michigan a new way to finish third.

    Group D

    • Florida Atlantic
    • Alabama
    • Georgia
    • Arkansas State

    Again, there’s some clumping here, but this happens in actual college football all the time. Lane Kiffin vs. Nick Saban is here, and it ends with some of the bitterest clock-bleeding and sideline pouting ever witnessed.

    Group E

    • Ohio
    • USC
    • USF
    • Mississippi State

    Intriguing, if only because USC as theoretical favorite is all kinds of unpredictable.

    Group F

    • Auburn
    • Boise
    • TCU
    • Troy

    Easily my favorite group. All four teams are really good at what they do, aggressive as hell, and fun to watch. If this were soccer, all four would find a way to not qualify, or to go to the next round and lose to a defensive-minded bore, 1-0.

    Group G

    • Toledo
    • Wisconsin
    • Virginia Tech
    • Oklahoma

    That’s three — three! — opportunities for Oklahoma to do something bizarre and disappointing in a postseason situation.

    Group H

    • Clemson
    • Memphis
    • Penn State
    • Louisville

    Maybe the real group of death, especially if played by 2017 Louisville with Lamar Jackson at QB.

    The results of all games will be simulated using Bill’s S&P+ stats, combined with a randomizer.

    In order to figure this all out, we will use some custom spreadsheet magic from Bill Connelly, smash each team’s statistical profile and expected win percentage into another’s, and then ask for one random outcome. For example: Clemson’s S&P+-adjusted win expectancy when matched up against Memphis is about 64 percent. For every three rolls of the Clemson-Memphis randomizer, Clemson should be expected to win twice, but we’re only rolling it once.

    College football no longer has ties, making group play a bit easier. Rather than allotting points, we can just rely mostly on wins and head-to-head outcomes. If a tiebreaker is needed past that, we’ll figure out point differential.*

    * Will this encourage teams to blow lesser teams the hell out? Undoubtedly. Is this any different than the way things already work in either sport? Not really.

    On to group play.

    Like in the World Cup, the top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout stage of 16.

    Group A results

    Appalachian State loses to Washington and LSU, but stuns Oklahoma State. The Cowboys did cough one up to Central Michigan in Stillwater in 2016, so losing in a one-off against a giant-killer makes some sense.

    Washington beats Appalachian State, loses to LSU, and beats Oklahoma State. LSU’s defensive line met Jake Browning. It didn’t go well!

    Oklahoma State loses to Washington and Appalachian State, but beats LSU. Oklahoma State is 100 percent good for losing to App State but also hitting LSU in the last game of qualifying, when they really had nothing to lose. Perfectly on brand.

    LSU beats Appalachian State and Washington, but loses to Oklahoma State. LSU never being perfect is part of the LSU deal.

    LSU and Washington advance to the Round of 16. LSU wins the group, with head-to-head win over Washington.

    Group B results

    UCF beats Miami, Notre Dame, and Stanford. Look, it’s math vindicating UCF and shaming every hater who made fun of their national title. Also, that’s 3-0 against private schools. UCF remains the defender of the middle class.

    Miami beats Notre Dame and Stanford, but loses to UCF. It’s a burn, but Miami doesn’t care as long as they beat Notre Dame.

    Notre Dame beats Stanford, but loses to UCF and Miami. Falling out of group play is bad, but there are things to comfort Notre Dame here.

    Stanford goes 0-3. Stanford going winless is most of those things.

    UCF and Miami advance to the Round of 16. UCF wins group outright.

    Group C results

    Fresno State loses to Michigan and Ohio State, but upsets Michigan State. Fresno getting the upset would require Michigan State’s offense turning to sludge. This only happens every third game to Michigan State, so yeah, this could happen.

    Michigan State beats Ohio State and Michigan, but loses to Fresno State. Upside of losing to Fresno? DISRESPECT-MINING BONANZA FOR MARK DANTONIO.

    Ohio State beats Michigan and Fresno State, but loses to Michigan State. Buckeyes probably beat Michigan and Fresno State 45-10 each, then lost to Sparty by a score of 10-7.

    Michigan beats Fresno State, but loses to Ohio State and Michigan State. Well, that isn’t even a simulation, is it?

    Michigan State and Ohio State advance. Michigan State wins group.

    Group D results

    FAU loses to Alabama, upsets Georgia, and beats Arkansas State. FAU upsetting Georgia is the funniest thing the computer spat out, and there isn’t even a second place. Actually, there is a second place, and it happens in Group D, too.

    Georgia beats Alabama, but loses to FAU and Arkansas State. Ideally, the sequence goes: Georgia beats Alabama to avenge a loss in the national title game; confident in advancing, has an incomprehensible loss to FAU; and needing a win and terrified, commits seven turnovers against an equally stunned Arkansas State. For maximum effect, Georgia nearly comes back, misses a two-point conversion, and dings a field goal off the upright at the end of regulation.

    Alabama beats Arkansas State and FAU, but loses to Georgia. Of course Alabama has a loss that ultimately doesn’t matter.

    Arkansas State loses to FAU and Alabama, but beats Georgia. Arkansas State is like any overmatched team that qualifies for the Cup. They’re just here for blood.

    Alabama and FAU advance. Alabama wins group.

    Group E results

    Ohio: Loses to USC, beats USF and Mississippi State. Let one — just one! — MAC team in the building, and this is what happens.

    USC: Beats Ohio, loses to Mississippi State and USF. A result so improbable, we’ll have to assume the computer had “a team-wide stomach flu outbreak” as a variable.

    USF: Beats USC and Mississippi State, loses to Ohio. If that Ohio game is the last one and they already had a bid to the knockout stage secured? That’s classic World Cup match-management, Bulls.

    Mississippi State: Beats USC, loses to Ohio and USF. Yeah, it’s Mississippi State. Entirely plausible that they knock off USC, then spit the bit.

    USF and Ohio advance. Ohio wins group.

    Group F results

    Auburn: Beats TCU and Troy, loses to Boise State. Auburn would totally be one of those soccer teams for whom they had to make anti-collusion rules. Doubly true if Alabama were involved.

    TCU: Beats Troy and Boise State, loses to Auburn. TCU is the charismatic, tactically unique soccer side that can advance only to lose to a dull 4-4-3 coached by a 70-year-old manager with tax issues in four different countries.

    Boise State: Beats Auburn, loses to TCU and Troy. Very appropriate of Boise State to lose to Troy, the Boise State of Lower Alabama.

    Troy: Beats Boise State, loses to Auburn and TCU. The Trojans are a crab pulling Boise State back into the small-school crab bucket here.

    Auburn and TCU advance. Auburn wins group.

    Group G results

    Toledo: Beats Wisconsin and Oklahoma, loses to Virginia Tech. In case anyone doubted the randomness element, there you go. Maybe the Rockets have a generational talent at striker or something.

    Wisconsin: loses to Toledo, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech. So this can only be interpreted as “QB Alex Hornibrook shreds every ligament below the waist on the second play.”

    Oklahoma: Beats Wisconsin, loses to Virginia Tech and Toledo. See: Oklahoma postseason escapades.

    Virginia Tech: Beats Wisconsin, Toledo, and Oklahoma. Repping Oceania proudly, Hokies.

    Virginia Tech and Toledo advance; Virginia Tech wins group.

    Group H results

    Clemson: Beats Penn State and Louisville, but loses to Memphis. Tiger-on-Tiger crime is real.

    Memphis: Beats Clemson, but loses to Penn State and Louisville. Hmmm, very Memphis to upset the possible champion, then tank the next two games.

    Louisville: Beats Penn State and Memphis, loses to Clemson. Bobby Petrino is already negotiating with South Korea for their head coaching gig.

    Penn State: Beats Memphis, loses to Clemson and Louisville. James Franklin is getting a red card for arguing with the refs in the loss to Louisville. This tourney doesn’t even have red cards, but he’s getting one nonetheless.

    Clemson and Louisville advance; Clemson wins group.

    The knockout stage is seeded just like the soccer version.

    The Group A winner meets the Group B runner-up, the Group B winner meets the Group A runner-up, and so on.

    Round of 16

    Miami beats LSU. The Canes are one of those Scandinavian teams still winning 1-0 for no apparent reason.

    UCF beats Washington. The I-Drive Revenge Tour continues, probably in front of an empty stadium, via both teams being at opposite ends of the nation and getting five days notice on where to meet.

    Michigan State beats FAU. Hey, FAU, you got out of group stage and helped knock Georgia out. Don’t call it anything but a rousing success.

    Ohio State beats Alabama. Cue all the William Tecumseh Sherman jokes from Ohio State fans.

    Ohio beats TCU. The biggest stunner of all. We’ll guess that three players on TCU’s offense were struck by lightning while Ohio played in rubber cleats. Officials missed the lightning strike, because at least once a World Cup, the officials miss something as obvious as lightning hitting three players. (And probably give a red card to one of the stricken players, to boot.)

    USF beats Auburn. Losing to livestock is a bittersweet moment for any Auburn fan. (It’s happened before, though.)

    Virginia Tech beats Louisville. VT is repping Oceania like a kaiju stomping out Tokyo.

    Clemson beats Toledo. Everyone watching at home from the Glass Bowl is still proud of you, Toledo.

    Quarterfinals

    Miami beats UCF. On form for the Sweden of Dade County to eliminate a brilliant UCF on something like a 52-yard field goal as time expires. The score is probably 20-17.

    Ohio State beats Michigan State. The score is a nerve-wracking 17-16, as always. For Michigan State, that 16 is four field goals and two safeties.

    USF beats Ohio. Our long national nightmare of living in fear of “Ohio, World Cup Champion” is over.

    Clemson beats Virginia Tech. VT, you were such a pretty kaiju, but Clemson brought a big ol’ huntin’ robot to take you down.

    Semifinals

    Ohio State beats Miami. And right on schedule, the serviceable Scandinavian team exits. They’ll talk about your bravery in Copenhagen for years.

    Clemson beats USF. I like to imagine this as Quinton Flowers getting USF to the 1-yard line, then having a game-tying TD throw bounce off the hands of a wide receiver and into the third row with zeroes on the clock.

    Third-place game

    USF beats Miami. An AAC team winning is exactly what the third-place game is for: moral victory. (Also: Not the first time this has happened, either.)

    Final

    Clemson beats Ohio State, just as has happened in two of the last four IRL postseasons and could happen again in 2018.

    Notice that this all worked a lot like the real World Cup.

    This is all an exercise in win probabilities. But those are based on real things like roster depth, recruiting, player development, on-field performance, and the results of devoting cash resources to a sport.

    USC and Georgia didn’t make it out of group play, Alabama and Ohio State lost games, and teams like Ohio and FAU got moments in the sun, sure. That happens in a big tourney with group play, a knockout stage, and just enough randomness built into the equation to allow for some genuine foolishness. Yet even with that, everything built toward what was in the end a pretty predictable ending.

    The fun part of using a format from a completely different sport was how similar the results mirror international soccer’s. Everyone is theoretically invited, there are moments, and then in the end we finish with something that looks a lot like the script always looks. In the end, that’s also the depressing part. In both international soccer and college football, there are only so many teams that have a reasonable shot at winning a title.


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    A country whose chief export is weaponized pessimism had a beautiful, happy summer, and it was weird for all of us.

    England lost, 2-1, to Croatia in the World Cup semifinals on Wednesday. All in all, it was classic World Cup form for the English.

    Their hope in the shape of a genuinely beautiful free kick goal by Kieran Trippier, a lead that felt like a death sentence, and the creeping, inevitable collapse in extra time. It was English football the way mum made it: Valiant and ultimately futile.

    One variation on previous collapses was England didn’t lose on penalty kicks this time. That part was weird, England! Let’s all forget that England actually won a game in a shootout against Colombia to get to the quarterfinals. Probably forget that England played well throughout the tournament, too, and that they made the semifinals, and that there were people in England who genuinely believed that England could win a World Cup. Forget that for a minute everything seemed — and pardon the embarrassing and deeply un-English word here — promising.

    I can say this now: We’re so glad that’s over. All that, England? The optimism, the giddy, beery celebrations, the hope? It was weird, England. It felt downright strange — almost uncomfortable, really — to see English soccer fans happy for more than a fleeting instant, much less rolling through Russia yelling “PEAKY BLINDERS” or “THIS INSCRUTABLE PASTRY WITH FISH IN IT IS DELICIOUS” or whatever English people yell.

    That strangeness comes from the contrast with the usual deep pessimism of English soccer in all this already very pessimistic Englishness. England is already the world’s greatest overall exporter of weaponized pessimism in every form. This probably started earlier than Shakespeare, but let’s use him as an arbitrary starting point here, because Shakespeare’s essential message is the most English of all: “well that was crap all along, wasn’t it?”

    • Romeo and Juliet: Love and families, total crap.
    • Hamlet: Your children are crap, won’t prevent your murder, and will probably botch your revenge, too. Also, life itself? Crap.
    • Henry V: France is crap, total crap.
    • Macbeth: Ambition is crap, witches only partially crap.
    • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Fairies? Mostly crap.

    There is a definite and consistent theme here. It continues through novels like Frankenstein (science is crap) and Middlemarch (the country is crap), and runs all the way to the present in the form of anything Ricky Gervais has ever done (everything is crap, mate), Black Mirror (what if the robot was crap, but also you? What if you were the crap robot, eh?) to its purest form, English soccer.

    There has been only one overwhelmingly positive product in the history of English culture. And even then, the Great British Bake-Off relies on everyone secretly believing their Knotsworthington Boxing Day Slaughter-Trifle is crap, and that Mary Berry is in fact lying when she says it is delicious.

    For English soccer to have a good time at all at the World Cup wasn’t just a matter of running against type. It was outright inconvenient, especially for an event where barely concealed national stereotypes make up the bulk of flyby analysis. England was supposed to come in and die painfully and stoically because that is what sides in the World Cup are supposed to do. The French implode, the Italians connive, the Brazilians dance. The Germans calculate, and I’m honestly not sure what the Belgians are supposed to do. Belgium’s cultural export is befuddlement in the way England’s is militant pessimism.

    There are roles to play, and England failed badly in being, well, England. An ebullient English side with little in the way of dysfunction didn’t just lack precedent. There was no vocabulary whatsoever for it, much less for the giddy fans roaming the streets incident-free and ladding it up.

    The English press seemed as baffled as everyone else did. Only Raheem Sterling’s goalless streak in the tournament giving tabloid journalists anything dependable to cling to, because Raheem Sterling must be blamed for everything at all times.

    Better to forget it, though, England. Remember: It was fun, and fun is crap, too. Fun leads to hope. Hope leads to expectations, and expectations lead to disappointment, and disappointment is top-shelf crap, in the sense that the crappiest crap would be placed higher than standard crap on hypothetical crapshelves.

    England doesn’t believe any of that right now, though. They can’t — not after coming within spitting distance of a World Cup final and their best finish since 1990, all done with the third-youngest team at the tournament. Maybe they shouldn’t, since all results point to reasons for optimism. They might tell you it’s a crap argument, but the only thoroughly crap argument for the moment is pessimism.

    I know, I know. It’s weird for us, too, England. But we’re all here now, telling you with the sincerity of an English husband calling his wife of forty years “dear” for the first time with tears in his eyes: It was, for once, anything but crap.

    Crapshelves, by the way, is a real town in East Midlands. Absolute crap town, Crapshelves.