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- 10/25/18--10:04: _The Great Albert Be...
- 10/28/18--09:58: _Lmaooo Kentucky and...
- 10/30/18--07:09: _The Real Cannonball...
- 11/08/18--05:00: _6 college football ...
- 11/12/18--12:30: _If you’re bored wit...
- 11/18/18--08:19: _Well, it’s time to ...
- 11/20/18--09:02: _7 reasons college f...
- 11/26/18--11:05: _Ranking the incredi...
- 12/04/18--09:48: _The Urban Meyer cyc...
- 12/11/18--06:30: _Atlanta United were...
- 10/25/18--10:04: The Great Albert Belle Bat Caper
- 10/28/18--09:58: Lmaooo Kentucky and Wazzu are still in the Playoff race
- Ran the ball 41 times for 189 yards on a good Florida defense and opened up the passing game for Jake Fromm. Georgia works a lot better when they remember they have two good running backs and a quarterback who needs play action!
- Stifled Florida’s budding offensive renaissance and took advantage of three turnovers.
- Killed the Gators on third down with pinpoint passing by Fromm, who came alive in the second half. He preyed in particular on Florida cornerback C.J. McWilliams, who had what we’ll call “a learning experience.”
- There are many kinds of “learning experiences.” This was the “don’t drink Gatorade with tequila” or “maybe living off five credit cards for all of 2014 was a bad idea” kind.
- It’s boring work, but they hit their kicks and punted Florida into horrible field position, eventually generating turnovers and points for Georgia.
- Kentucky, the No. 12 team in the country before this game, was a seven-point underdog going in
- Kentucky had just three points going into the fourth quarter
- Kentucky scored the winning TD on an untimed down after a sketchy pass interference call
- Kentucky absolutely stole this entire game despite looking like hot garbage for at least 50 minutes out of 60
- STEALING GAMES IS LEGAL, DO IT WHENEVER POSSIBLE, THERE ARE NO FOOTBALL COPS, NO ONE IS WATCHING, AND NO ONE WILL STOP YOU IF YOU DO IT
- Mark Stoops then had to crowdsurf to Sheck Wes and break the ceiling of Mizzou’s visitors locker room
- 10/30/18--07:09: The Real Cannonball Run
- 11/08/18--05:00: 6 college football teams nobody really wants to play right now
- 11/12/18--12:30: If you’re bored with 2018 college football, that’s your fault
- Stack embarrassing losses early in the season, including a 51-6 loss to Penn State, a 45-14 drubbing by America’s Best Team UCF, and a 38-35 howler to UNC. UNC is 1-8 for the 2018 football season, and if you are very smart, you just realized who gave the tragic Tar Heels their only win on the season.
- Improve out of nowhere and begin hammering people.
- Lose to Wake Forest, but still beat Miami to finish the season.
- Have three out-of-conference losses, one horrible conference loss, and another pretty bad loss, yet still make the ACC Championship.
- Beat Clemson and screw the ACC out of a playoff slot.
- Has eight wins for the first time since 2012, with three games left.
- Got Bobby Petrino canned.
- Has this quarterback:
- Iowa State beats Texas
- West Virginia loses to Oklahoma
- Iowa State and Oklahoma play for Big 12 Title
- Iowa State wins, screwing the Big 12
- 11/18/18--08:19: Well, it’s time to say nice things about the Notre Dame Yankees
- 11/20/18--09:02: 7 reasons college football’s fun is harder to find in 2018
- Iowa State’s upset of Oklahoma in Norman
- Syracuse flipping Clemson’s season upside down in the Carrier Dome
- Florida throwing a Hail Mary to beat Tennessee
- Penn State winning in the last minute at Iowa
- 11/26/18--11:05: Ranking the incredible LSU-A&M fight photo’s top 8 characters
- 12/04/18--09:48: The Urban Meyer cycle continues
- 12/11/18--06:30: Atlanta United were flashy champions in a fickle sports city
In 1994, the Cleveland Indians crawled through a ceiling, stole a bat out of an umpire’s dressing room, and set off a chain of events that eventually involved a former FBI agent.
In 1994, Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians had a bat confiscated by umpires during a game with the Chicago White Sox. Why did the White Sox ask for the bat to be confiscated? Because they suspected the bat was corked. Why did the Indians crawl through a ceiling, steal the bat out of an umpire’s dressing room, and set off a chain of events that eventually involved a former FBI agent? Because the Indians knew the bat was corked.
The Top Whatever is a weekly ranking of only the college football things that absolutely must be ranked at this time.
1. UCF. Had a bye this week, but took that bye week to the woodshed and gave it the thrashing it deserved. Recovery naps? Dominated. Massages? Took them like pros. Downtime Fortnite sessions? SLAMMED IT. The Knights are waiting on the Battle Bus for Temple this week, rested, ready, and so well-hydrated they’re basically individual vegetable misters.
2. Georgia. Beat Florida 36-17. The impressive things about Georgia coming back after a loss to LSU and slapping a rival into the St. John’s River:
Those are all really simple things. Most football teams can’t do a lot of really simple things at once, though, and that’s why Georgia remains alive for pretty much anything they want to win in 2018.
Oh! They also overcame an occasionally insane offensive coordinator who runs doomed sweeps on third-and-one. The Jim Chaney Experience is a Category One drug like that sometimes.
3. UAB. 19-0 over UTEP. This changes nothing in the national picture, ensures no playoff slots, and doesn’t calculate things differently for a major bowl. It’s really just to point out that UAB didn’t even exist in 2015 and 2016 due to Alabamian political intrigue, came back in 2017, and is now somehow 7-1 and sitting atop the Conference USA standings.
Taking a few years off somehow made them better. This might work for a few major programs, actually. For example: Florida State? Consider it seriously for a minute. Let it marinate before you dismiss it completely.
4. Clemson. 59-10 over Florida State. Clemson is playing football so well, they’re raising reading rates across the entire ACC.
when you're waiting for Red Dead Redemption 2 to finally finish downloading pic.twitter.com/WeYua0NlXK— Red DAD Redemption (@MattSBN) October 27, 2018
There’s nothing like a patently unfair score to send you into the arms of a good book. For some teams — like say, Florida this week— that might be something that would take a week or so to read.
Florida State fans might need something more substantial to pass the time until the pain stops. The Tale of the Heike is a blood-soaked 900 pages of medieval Japanese warfare and treachery. It’s brutal, gory, and at times incomprehensible, and that still sounds a lot better than watching this.
5. Washington State. Defeated Stanford 41-38. Excuse us for a moment, but:
Ahahahaahahahahhhahahahahahhhahahahahhahaaaaaa Mike Leach is piloting the Pac-12’s last real shot at a playoff team, and everyone’s gonna die.
The Cougs are extremely Coug-y, and for people who need explanations, here’s one. Wazzu gave up 38 points to a Stanford team not even that fond of the concept of points. Their QB is an East Carolina transfer who dresses like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite. He wears a headband. That’s how you know Gardner Minshew will be nails in the fourth quarter.
Their defense is somehow both hard-hitting and negligent. Their kicker actually gets used, which is one more example of a Wazzu team refusing to be 100 percent predictable even about ingrained weirdnesses like “doesn’t really like using a field goal kicker.” They have a brilliant receiver in Dezmon Patmon. Their coach is the most predictable part of this team, actually, which is, again: weird.
They face Cal, Colorado, Arizona, and Washington down the stretch. They could win all four of these games. They could lose all four of these games. No one is saying it is a good idea to place any hopes on Wazzu. No one’s even saying it’s not a terrible idea, but terrible ideas can also be very fun. That should be engraved in bronze over the door to the Washington State football facilities: A terrible idea that is also very fun.
6. Kentucky. A felony theft of a football game in winning 15-14 over Mizzou. Seriously, just an absolute masterpiece of football atrocity. No one should ever watch this game again, and all rights to this game should revert to the CIA, who will blackbox it in a vault somewhere in Greenland for the protection of humanity.
What you do need to know is the following:
There, we told you the important parts so you don’t have to watch it, and can instead fast-forward to the real comedy: a top-10 matchup between Georgia and Kentucky with real playoff implications coming up this week.
See? 2018 is kind of fantastic if you look hard enough.
7. Notre Dame. 44-22 over Navy. The Midshipmen were 2-5, but a win is a win, especially one gained against a pesky triple-option team. (It’s always funny UNTIL IT HAPPENS TO YOU. Signed, any Louisville or Virginia Tech fan in 2018.)
Notre Dame has these teams standing between them and an undefeated season: Northwestern, Syracuse, Florida State, and USC. Better still for the Irish: only one is a true road game, coming at USC on November 24th. And QB Ian Book shows few signs of regressing.
It is time to prepare yourselves for a full-bore Playoff crisis involving Notre Dame, is what we are saying. It might also be time to prepare yourself for “Syracuse is a quality loss” as an argument, because the Notre Dame defense will give up serious yardage at times. This is also saying that Syracuse is the last, best hope between the world and Notre Dame getting housed by Alabama for the second time in a decade.
TL;DR: We’re doomed.
8. Oklahoma. 51-14 over Kansas State and my goodness, Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles is not to be messed with in the open field.
9. Alabama. Also had a bye week. Tua threw three TDs. Don’t ask how, he just did. The long one probably came against Bye Week Ohio State’s defense, if we’re playing the numbers here.
10. Michigan. Bye week spent conditioning Chase Winovich’s magnificent hair. Between Winovich, Porter Gustin at USC, Zachariah Hoyt at Virginia Tech, and Breckyn Hager at Texas, 2018 might be the best year since like 1992 for Giant White Dudes With Majestic Viking Manes.
Or, how to plan to break the law in 20 states at once.
Ed Bolian is a mild-mannered Lamborghini salesman who teaches Sunday school at his church. He is also the driver and organizer behind the fastest Cannonball Run time ever — a 28-hour sprint across the United States that involves a thousand small challenges, and two huge ones. The first: How to document a record-setting attempt of a highly illegal speed run conducted across 20 different states without creating evidence. The second: What to do if the cop who saw the pig heart on ice in his trunk didn’t believe he was transporting a human heart for transplant? Holly Anderson joins Spencer in this week’s episode.
The Top Whatever is a weekly ranking of only the teams that must be ranked at this exact second.
1. UCF. Still undefeated, still champs, can still go to Disney any time they want, haters.
Actually, this brings me to a terrifying point about Orlando and UCF: this exactly the city and team someone would have designed as an 8-year-old. UCF’s first shot at designing a mascot? Something an 8-year-old would make.
Their all-aluminum stadium that looks like an Lego Technic set and at one point included such childish oversights as “whoops, we forgot the water fountains?” Also clearly the work of an 8-year-old.
Being undefeated, yet unable to eat at the big kids’ table? Also a very Orlando thing, especially this year, when they could win the rest of their games and still not get any closer to the playoff because of their conference and schedule. But we got straight A’s! Yes, it’s third grade math, though, and Alabama is out here doing differential equations in their sleep.
That is not your fault, UCF. That’s just where you’re at in a very unfair world. Some consolation: no other team is both 20 minutes from Splash Mountain and in a community where you can pay traffic tickets in fruit snacks.
2. Clemson. Remember when Clemson won a close game at Texas A&M earlier this year? It was a 28-26 squeaker, definitive evidence of a lot of things people wanted to assume from one college football game.
For instance, after the Texas A&M game, Clemson’s starter was clearly Kelly Bryant and not upstart Trevor Lawrence, the Tiger secondary had serious issues, and Travis Etienne and the rest of the run game were going to struggle. A&M, meanwhile, was just two points away from joining the elite, and Jimbo Fisher’s $70 million guaranteed salary was already worth it.
It’s November now. Clemson’s run game has razed much of the ACC, averaging 265 yards a game and giving luxurious protection for Lawrence, the starting QB. The defense hasn’t allowed anything close to the yardage A&M earned in College Station that night and has only allowed one team to hit triple digits both rushing and passing in a single game. That was NC State, and Clemson won, 41-7.
Texas A&M just lost to Auburn, a team desperate to fire its coach with a gigantic buyout.
No one is getting anything from Clemson this year, not on the ground, not through the air, and not in turnovers or easy possessions from their offense. They move like a service academy on the ground, defend like an Alabama, and are grooming their next wunderkind QB in practice sessions everyone else calls “live conference games.” The ceiling for this team is theoretical, at an altitude high enough to require powerful telescopes to see.
Oh, and they’re not even close to that ceiling yet.
I dunno. That’s Alabama, the team so unchallenged, other teams are resorting to desperate measures like “flying helmet-first into the apparently adamantine testicles of the immortal quarterback.”
Tua Tagovailoa described the hit by LSU as “right in the goodies,” and he had to come out for a minute. He had a mediocre night, at least on the Tagovailoa curve: 344 yards total offense, two passing TDs, one rushing TD, and his first interception of the season, which still worked out nicely for the Tide.
It is terrifying how far Alabama has come since Nick Saban’s arrival, but especially terrifying when the quarterback position is taken into account. Alabama won a national title with glorified placeholders like Greg McElroy at the helm, then turned to the workmanlike A.J. McCarron to run a standard pro-style offense for another pair of titles.
Someone named Jacob Coker won a national championship? I think that happened, though if anyone says there was anything particularly memorable about Jacob Coker, they are either a.) lying or b.) talking to Jacob Coker.
The final pivot is the really mind-bending one. Alabama switched to what looked a lot like a spread run game, started a quarterback who was nothing like his predecessors in Jalen Hurts, and ran him to another shot at a national title before switching to the next coming of Football Jesus himself in Tagovailoa.
Switching styles of offense is one thing. It’s something teams don’t do much, much less without a head coaching change. But doing that in three or possibly four different variations over the course of a decade, with five or six differently styled players, all without losing momentum?
That’s something that would kill lesser regimes. It’s evidence that Alabama’s talent level is so absurd it can sustain decisions that have destroyed other teams. It’s also evidence that Saban, for all the jokes about how much he hates changing anything, is actually brilliant at managing change.
They’re all so good at it, in fact, that Tua’s worst night of the year ended up bottoming out somewhere around other starting QBs’ best. Play your best game, and you might see eye-to-eye with Alabama’s worst. GOOD LUCK.
4. Utah State. The Aggies are a combination of two things no one wants a piece of: overdue and over.
Utah State is overdue in the sense that injuries and bad luck limited their production in 2015 and 2016. Rollover points aren’t real, but they might be for Utah State, a team on an eight-game win streak in which they’ve averaged over 50 points a game and destroyed everything in their wake.
They’re over in the sense that they are literally over, beating the spread by 13 points a game in 2018.
Most of that is due to the players, but some credit should also go to offensive coordinator David Yost for his aggressive schemes, play calling, and hair.
Mostly his hair, tbh.
5. Michigan. The 127 Hours of teams. Play Michigan, and they’re going to take a limb and immobilize you. Not in a super flashy way, no, but brutally enough to let you know: you live out here now, and you’re not going anywhere.
Ultimately, to get away, your team will have to cut its arm off with a pocket knife. Only Notre Dame brought one this year, but fortunately, Brian Kelly regrows limbs like a starfish.
6. Iowa State. The Cyclones switched to freshman QB Brock Purdy after a loss to TCU on September 29th. Since then, Iowa State has upset Oklahoma State in Stillwater, dealt out one of the most lopsided ass-kickings of the year against West Virginia, and fended off a frenetic Texas Tech for a win.
They also beat Kansas, which was a team effort. We say that to differentiate the team win from Hakeem Butler getting KU’s coach fired with a single play. That was an individual effort, and Butler deserves credit for that.
Is it possible to burn someone so badly it gets their boss fired? The evidence here seems to speak for itself.
No one wants to play Iowa State right now, and no one should, because after years of joking about how playing in Ames is a recipe for disaster — without a lot of real evidence to back that up — that reality has arrived. Don’t go to Ames. There are no funny accidents out there anymore, just dark, sinister farm country, where good teams actually do go to die at the hands of a gifted freshman QB and the Big 12’s best scoring defense.
The Top Whatever is the only ranking of teams that considers a crucial factor: must this team be ranked right now?
1. UCF. 35-24 over Navy. Wild how the team with the longest winning streak in FBS football is going to end up playing some SEC also-ran in a New Year’s bowl but still end up outside consideration for the College Football Playoff. Which SEC also-ran?
Never mind, not important, next, move it along, nope—
2. Pitt.52-22 flattening of Virginia Tech, bringing Pitt a full step closer to fulfilling the Pitt Prophecy:
That’s just going to happen, and there’s nothing any mortal can do about it because that’s what the ancients decreed.
In the meantime, appreciate Pitt piling up 492 yards against Virginia Tech coordinator Bud Foster’s defense. That sounds like a lot, and is a lot on a historical level: Pitt’s output of 654 yards is the most any Foster defense at Virginia Tech has ever given up in Foster’s 23-year tenure at the school.
BUT THERE IS MORE. The 13.9 yards per play average by Pitt was not only the most Pitt has averaged since 2005. No, that 13.9 yards per play average was the highest by any team in FBS since 2005. Virginia Tech has spent the year giving up 70-yard bombs to ODU and stat-breaking run totals to Pitt. Virginia Tech’s defense needs a damn nap and a juice box, and they need it now.
3. Jeremy Pruitt’s Coaches’ Show Face.
Let’s see if Jeremy Pruitt is more excited to do his coaches show after a big win...nope! pic.twitter.com/qMs3bLwGM5— Russell Smith (@Russell___Smith) November 11, 2018
Tennessee beat Kentucky, by the way, and yet that’s the face of a guy who’d rather be eating a bowl of tacks than doing whatever he’s doing at the moment. Tacks are not a vegetable, and thus definitely on Pruitt’s list of things he can eat.
4. Clemson. 27-7 submission of Boston College. The score is underwhelming, given Clemson’s galling talent advantage, but remember a.) the Tigers were kind of sloppy and handed BC two turnovers, b.) BC is a very stubborn defensive team and played pretty well at home, and c.) Boston College’s only score happened on a kick return by a dude who wears a hoodie under his pads.
If there is anything more New England than a kick returner who wears a hoodie under his pads, please send it to me at spencer at sbnation.com, and I will credit you for your discovery.
5. Alabama. 24-0 over Mississippi State. It’s fun to talk about how Alabama is now an unstoppable scoring machine capable of incinerating scoreboards at will. But in a week when the Crimson Tide were kept to modest totals by the SEC’s nastiest speed bump — Mississippi State, the doorjamb every team in the conference stubs a toe on — it’s best to remember Alabama still has a defense.
They have a very good defense, in fact. The Alabama defense has only allowed three rushing TDs, is No. 5 in S&P+, and held the Bulldogs to just 44 yards rushing.
Tua Tagovailoa is the more obvious guy destroying the opponent, sure. But allow us to introduce a two-word counter into the conversation: Quinnen Williams.
Quinnen Williams is unstoppable. What a monster. pic.twitter.com/HyUuG0I1FI— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) November 10, 2018
Quinnen Williams (DT #92)— James Thomas (@JamesThomasHT) September 26, 2018
Phenomenal game vs Ole Miss. I flagged 15 impact plays, just a ridiculous # for an NT.
Can't block him 1-on-1, you just can't. Overwhelms with quickness & power, plus surgical precision in his attacks: pic.twitter.com/HtV1wolkpq
Watching Quinnen Williams again vs. LSU. It’s even better. He’s an elite talent. pic.twitter.com/hfp7nROJom— J Reid (@JReidNFL) November 8, 2018
Watch Quinnen Williams bend around the C to get the sack. pic.twitter.com/mbrTN8N6Ep— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) November 10, 2018
It’s OK if your team can’t block him. Alabama can’t, either.
“I think we’re honestly a little relieved as an (offensive) line that we’re like, ‘OK, no one else can block him either,’” Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams said. He likens it to blocking “a nearly 300-pound bar of soap.”
Anyway, Alabama has their usual possibly illegal power mutant on the defensive line, they have Tagovailoa, and the fact of their complete supremacy on the football field is something everyone will just have to take as a given to work around in enjoying the rest of the football season. Good luck and Roll Tide.
6. Syracuse. 54-23 over Louisville. 187 to 61 over the past four years: That’s the point total of Louisville’s last four games against Syracuse, all wins for the Cardinals, and all administered with extreme prejudice. The Lamar Jackson hurdle happened against Syracuse. A 56-10 humiliation in the rain in Louisville happened just last year against the Orange, who’ve spent the past four years taking bricks in the teeth from Bobby Petrino’s team.
So once the tables turned? Oh, Syracuse had no choice but to burn Louisville to the ground, especially because the Syracuse offense was built without brakes of any sort. The Orangemen ran the ball 55 times for 326 yards, embarrassed Louisville to a degree not even already-embarrassed Louisville thought possible, and got some revenge in the process.
Then Petrino got fired the next day. To review Syracuse’s delightful 2018 in three easy points:
Someone should get rightfully ticked when someone says this year in college football has been boring. A quarterback who pours grape soda all over himself is leading the Orange to what might be their best season this century. If you’re bored, that’s your fault.
7. Ohio State. 26-6 puntfest win over typical PuntFest Champions Michigan State.
Ohio State got into a punt-off with Michigan State and didn’t die. This is a real achievement, since every team in a punt-off with Michigan State typically ends up on the butt end of a game when, despite out gaining the Spartans by 200 yards, they lose by some ghastly score like 15-11, and everyone watching has a very confusing time.
Instead, Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman shanked his first kick for four yards and then went on A BLOODY PUNTING RAMPAGE THAT DID NOT CEASE FOR THREE PUNTIN’ HOURS. His remaining kicks put Michigan State inside the 10-yard line five times and inside the 5 three times.
In response, the Spartan offense did nothing, then handed the ball back with great field position. It should say something about Michigan State that it took me a while to notice when was Rocky Lombardi in for Brian Lewerke, because both are pretty much good for 20-of-50 for 200 yards and no TDs with one INT, even against Ohio State’s dysfunctional defense.
8. West Virginia. 47-10 over TCU. TCU had a Masters Sunday kind of game, in that they were -7 on the ground. This is great in golf, but terrible if you’re trying to run the ball in a football game.
The victory leaves West Virginia 8-1 with two games to go. The most confusing result for the Big 12 would be:
This would be the most confusing result, and so yeah, that’s how the Big 12 rolls.
9. The beard on Georgia RB Deandre Swift’s Dad
Flawless beard game, sir.
The Top Whatever is your weekly ranking of only the teams that must be ranked at this exact point in time.
1. UCF. Still the champs. UCF will probably go undefeated again and still get walled out of the playoff, but at least they’ve pulled the most Florida of moves: turning their rickety stadium built from recycled aluminum cans into a brand strength. Does your stadium barely meet code and vibrate under even basic foot traffic? BOUNCE HOUSE.
Other schools could learn from this. Does your stadium still house unsafe levels of carcinogenic asbestos despite years of warnings by the city and state to clean it up? WELCOME TO THE COUGH TROUGH. Is it built on a Superfund site, and possibly not safe for human habitation even for just a few hours every Saturday? WE DARE YOU TO PLAY AT THE TOX BOX.
Built on an active fault line that could go off and swallow the whole place in one huge tremor? TEST YOURSELF AT CAL MEMORIAL STADIUM. This is actually Cal Memorial Stadium’s thing, because the Hayward Fault runs right down the middle of their actual football field.
Again, the weirdest thing we could make up turns out to be a real thing. The lesson here: Stop making jokes, and start taking dictation.
2. The Citadel Bulldogs. Lost 50-17 to Alabama.
The Citadel may have just posted the most dominant 33-point loss in the history of college football. The Bulldogs were tied with Bama at the half. They held the ball for 36 minutes against Alabama. Maybe you wanted to go to watch Tua Tagovailoa play in Tuscaloosa, random Alabama fan? TOO BAD, TIME TO WATCH FORMER HIGH SCHOOL WIDE RECEIVER BRANDON RAINEY RUN A QB KEEPER 25 TIMES FOR MIGHTY CITADEL.
The Citadel lost by fewer points to Alabama than Arkansas, Ole Miss, or Tennessee did. Better still: They scored more points than LSU did against Bama, and LSU was playing at home.
The Citadel is now no worse than like, fourth in the SEC West, and possibly better in the SEC East, if I’m going to be honest. Go Bulldogs.
3. Notre Dame. Flattened Syracuse 36-3. Listen, I have nothing but jokes for Notre Dame when it comes to the Yankees-themed pinstripe uniforms. Notre Dame would be the first team to co-brand a uniform with Amazon, the first to do a dual-logo football jersey with Duke basketball, and the first team to wear Range Rover-themed cleats. None of this is a surprise. If Notre Dame played a game in Spain, they would 100 percent come out in all-white jerseys in honor of Real Madrid, and definitely not Barcelona.
Unlike Real Madrid — another venerable, old money power — Notre Dame hasn’t won anything of note for years and has a hard time measuring success.
This is not Notre Dame the Football Team’s fault. As college football’s last mighty independent, the only championship Notre Dame can win is THE national title. The Irish live in the unique position of having to decide whether they had a satisfying year or not without using conference play as a report card.
If there’s a question about that for 2018 to this point, there shouldn’t be. Notre Dame deboned Syracuse, reduced them to a gelatinous thing so incapable of moving the ball that the Orange had to rely on an Officially Sad Field Goal in the fourth quarter to avoid a shutout. The offense barely had to sweat. Ian Book had open men all over the field, while the Notre Dame rushing attack clicked along nicely for 171 yards and two scores.
And that’s been the story the whole year. They’ve been better than good, to the point where the only jokes are their specialty uniforms. Which are awful. Let’s be totally clear on that while saying things like “Notre Dame should stop having flashbacks to 2012, because it is six years later and they should get over that, because this is an entirely different team and a much deeper roster.” Because at one point, jokes aside, Notre Dame will have to realize that it stands a chance to seriously compete for the one title they can win outright.
P.S. This isn’t me writing this about Notre Dame, and we will never discuss this again.
4. Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert. Q: How does a Liberty University QB who didn’t even pass for a hundred yards in his team’s 53-0 loss to Auburn merit mention in any list of superlatives?
A1: Is nicknamed “Buckshot”.
5. Clemson. 35-6 over Duke. Duke will be an underrated victory for Clemson, and it really shouldn’t be. Duke consistently overachieves, is a top 25 defense in points per game, and has a pretty good QB in Daniel Jones. Please don’t make fun of Jones when he gets drafted too high because he is large, white, and was coached by the guy who coached Peyton Manning once.
It’s not Jones’ fault he’s a dim NFL scout’s fantasy quarterback. That’s on the dim NFL scout, not Jones.
Duke even tried a play I’d never seen before: a fake quick kick on fourth and short when Jones took the snap, began to punt the ball downfield, and instead pulled up and threw to an open receiver for the first down. The receiver was open because he pushed off, but I’ll never punish effort or innovation here.
Side note: David Cutcliffe would be the worst coach to face in a backyard Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving. He’d be using the water oak for dirty pick plays, intentionally spilling sweep plays into the holly bushes, and definitely pulling double passes. Grandpa loves you, but Grandpa ain’t here to show you what a chump looks like, either.
Trevor Lawrence is coming along nicely, Clemson has at least three wide receivers who might be the next Nuk Hopkins, the defense allowed just six points, the rushing attack was balanced and deep, and Dabo Swinney learned a new word in the postgame presser.
Here is the glorious moment @WilliePStyle taught Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney the word "lamented."— Matt Dowell (@TheMattDowell) November 18, 2018
"Lamented? Is that like laminated? New word! Hey, man, I'm from Alabama. That's a big word!" pic.twitter.com/2wTfU0Zo5p
See: It’s late November and everyone is still learning and growing at Clemson, even the head football coach.
6. Oklahoma State. A 45-41 fish stuffed into the glove compartment of West Virginia’s 2018 Dodge Challenger on a hot day and left in there for a week or two.
There is one abiding rule in the Big 12: the conference is a bucket, and all the teams in it envious crabs. The minute one team appears to be heading for freedom, excellence, and a New Year’s bid? That is the moment that team is caught by the leg, then dragged back into the bucket with the rest of the other sad, petty crabs.
Hmm let’s search the photo tool for “saddest pettiest Big 12 crab in 2018” and see what comes up and —
— there we are. Stuck in a rebuild, starting a QB who would otherwise be starting at West Texas A&M, and stumbling into a game against West Virginia at 5-5, Oklahoma State had little reason to stay in the game against a rolling Mountaineers team besides the desire to ruin someone else’s season. This being the Big 12, that was more than enough for the Cowboys.
Taylor Cornelius had 444 yards of total offense, including an improbable 106 yards rushing to doom the Mountaineers. Just go watch him run a few times, and you’ll see how improbable it is. It just shouldn’t work, but somehow, there it all is, toddling down field like an NBA small forward running a 40-yard dash with his legs tied together at the knees.
West Virginia sort of forgot it couldn’t carry timeouts over into the next game, too? That happened, and likely cost West Virginia its best attempt at a last-minute score to win. This in turn cost the Mountaineers a possible shot at the playoff. This in turn means the Big 12’s best hopes are still in the hands of hated rival Oklahoma, who now has a clearer line towards everything, thanks to Oklahoma State. The circle of spite in the Big 12: it’s both endless and perverse.
7. Washington State. Boat raced Arizona 69-28. That included a 34-point second quarter in which this happened:
Arizona did this, but these kind of things happen for Wazzu this season. Their quarterback is a mustachioed, headband-wearing rec-league football god set loose in a fully functional air raid machine. Their defense is good all the time, and sometimes legit great in the second half of games. They’re ridiculously fun in the way that produces points and wins, which is a rare, rare thing to be treasured.
8. This Fresno State Fan. Siri show me images for the city of Fresno, CA.
Yeah, man. YEAH.
This hasn’t been a wild season, but there’s still plenty to enjoy at the margins.
At this same point a year ago, the following had already happened in college football:
There are more, if you want to look. There are a lot more, so many that just looking down the list kind of makes the point.
If I asked you to make a list of the same games for 2018, you’d come to the same conclusion I have. It’s not a welcome one, nor one I really want to make, but it’s unavoidable at this point: the 2018 college football season has been without bangers.
Very few dance-floor-shaking thumpers out there. There have been interesting games and teams having unusually good seasons, sure. There are great players and a few great moments. But if we’re all going to have a moment of clarity, then let’s have it at something above a whisper: 2018 has not been the most obviously entertaining college football season.
There are reasons for this.
1. Marquee games have missed hugely.
LSU-Alabama ended without the Tigers scoring a point. Washington-Auburn opened the season with a struggle that turned out to be less about two titans testing their might against each other, and more about two underwhelming squads figuring out all the things they couldn’t do. Ohio State-Penn State concluded with a wet fart.
Do you even remember 2018 USC-Texas, the followup to one of 2017’s best games? No, no you do not.
Only the Red River Shootout really lived up to the billing, and that was a noon Eastern game, which people tend to forget by 5 o’clock of the same day. Night games have consistently disappointed (and this is saying something, in a year when teams as bad as a currently 3-8 Navy have been in the spotlight), big afternoon game have been iffy, and games touted as crucial showdowns have bellyflopped out of the public consciousness before the third quarter ended.
2. The games that have been good — and the teams in them — have largely happened at the margins.
It’s emblematic of the 2018 experience that when I tried to think of the most fun I’ve had watching a game, the immediate answer was: Oh yeah, Purdue blowing out Ohio State.
FBS’ best stories have involved teams in college football’s hinterlands: Washington State in Pullman, Purdue in West Lafayette, UCF in the AAC, or UAB in Conference USA. They are delightful and obscure, relative to the teams one expects to be talking about in November.
That’s been exacerbated by a lot of big brands — Penn State, USC, Florida State, Auburn, Miami, Wisconsin, etc. — having seasons that for one reason or another are at least 10 percent letdown. (In USC’s case it’s way, way more than 10 percent letdown.) This is cold demography, but if teams with lots of fans are less interesting, then fewer people are as invested in the sport as a whole.
3. A lot of potentially interesting teams are in year one or two of rebuild. This is reason to believe 2019 will be a lot more fun.
The hiring/firing season of 2017 was a bloodbath. The natural consequence: a 2018 with a substantial number of powers and important role players still testing out their depth charts in live games.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the SEC West. Alabama has barely broken a sweat in part because it’s crazily talented, but also because a huge chunk of their division is still figuring out where to put their furniture in the new digs. Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke is a recently promoted interim under NCAA sanctions. Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Arkansas are in year ones. At times all three teams have obviously looked it.
Note: Arkansas might be in year one for another year. They might have two year ones and then jump right to year three, based on what I’ve seen out of the hard-fighting and deeply undermanned Razorbacks.
That first-year malaise extends elsewhere. Oregon, Florida State, UCLA, Tennessee, and Nebraska are under new management, and for the most part have played like it.
4. This adds to the temporary collapse of college football’s middle class.
For instance, in 2017 at the same point in the season, there were seven teams with three losses in the AP top 25. This week, there are the same number of three-loss teams — plus FOUR four-loss teams. Texas could finish 9-4 and end up in the New Year’s Six bowls as a top-12 team.
It is a bear market for quality, and it shows.
5. The Alabama Effect.
It doesn’t matter as much as people think it does, but it is real. The absolute certainty of Alabama’s dominance does take some of the drama out of a season, especially when other teams on its schedule fail to show up at all. Louisville turned out to be appalling, LSU couldn’t score a single point, and no one else has been able to stay on Alabama’s bumper for more than two quarters.
That is a terrible formula for interest. Nick Saban majored in business at Kent State, though, and can’t write screenplays for shit. No, he will not apologize for it, either.
6. P.S. The same is largely true of Clemson, too.
This equals everyone expecting a Clemson-Alabama title game, something we’ve already seen three times! That kind of expectancy isn’t helping, either.
7. Superstar players are either low-profile, following tough acts, or stuck in the margins.
Fill out your own private Heisman ballot just for fun. I won’t share mine — because as a Heisman voter, I can’t — but theoretically speaking: How far do you get after Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray before you run out of slots? Could you even name the top rusher without looking it up?
That top rusher is Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin, who plays for a 7-4 team that lost to BYU. Taylor’s situation is the point: take out Tua, and many of the game’s top performers play out of the spotlight, many for teams out of contention.
Will Grier is having an amazing season, Gardner Minshew is overseeing Arena Ball madness, and Benny Snell, Jr. has been his team’s entire offense. It’s not fair, but the three of those playing at West Virginia, Washington State, and Kentucky show how off-map this season has gotten in terms of big stories. If they played anywhere else, we’d have a more obvious cohort of “SERIOUS PLAYERS GO HERE.” Instead, we kind of have to remind everyone that they’re having incredible seasons, even if they happen to be one block off Main Street.
The best way to describe 2018 in sum: This has been the ESPNU season.
It’s where I finally learned the channel numbers for ESPN2, the SEC Network, and FS1 by heart, because that’s where the season’s most interesting things have happened. It’s been a hipster’s season with subtle joys and slightly obscure heroes. Subtle is fine, even if we’d sometimes rather have something we could dance to without thinking about it too much.
You know: A banger.
Each week, the Top Whatever ranks only the college football things that must be ranked. This week, every deserving item happened all at once.
This photo contains multitudes, and we’re going to rank them.
POSTGAME | #LSU director of player personnel Kevin Faulk and an unknown man with what appears to be an #Aggie bench credential throw punches on the field after @AggieFootball defeated @LSUfootball in 7-OT @theadvocatebrpic.twitter.com/H7EvCNmoIv— Hilary Scheinuk (@hscheinukphoto) November 25, 2018
1. The photographer. Please note that Hilary Scheinuk of The Advocate took this photo. On the list of people who get proper credit for being good at giving people things they want to see, sports photographers sit way, way down at the bottom.
She took this photo with little to no warning of what was happening, framed it beautifully, and delivered an iconic image of the kind of tomfoolery Rivalry Week is supposed to have. You wouldn’t have gotten it without her being great at her job, and pointing that out is something we need to do more often.
2. Kevin Faulk’s extremely caught hands. Those are the hands of Kevin Faulk, former LSU running back and current director of player development. They are being caught by someone with an A&M sideline pass.
I’m not here to suggest who is at fault, though there are tons of credible reports that this resulted from this Aggie-shirted person punching 53-year-old LSU staffer Steve Kragthorpe. Kragthorpe has Parkinson’s, and the punch landed on his pacemaker.
While I can’t condone punching most people for most reasons, I do get it.
3. That dude’s face. This is the face of a man who last fought someone as a child. He is now realizing exactly how long ago that was, thinking about how much bigger and stronger adults are than children.
“This would be easier,” he thought, “If I were fighting children. Preferably 53-year-old children, if that is a thing.”
This is the face of, “I really thought I would be better at fighting than this and am dealing with this new information in real time.”
This is the face of someone realizing that the perfect roundhouse punch he believed he could just learn through osmosis did not take despite repeated purchases and viewings of pay-per-view MMA events.
He is thinking about how — despite every dude’s suspicions that they are a basically trained cage fighter seconds away from springing into action when it’s go time — he is not, in fact, a trained cage fighter. Some part of him is surprised by this, because the male brain is deeply, deeply stupid like that.
If he’d read it, he’d be thinking about this article I read once where Chuck Liddell — then at the height of his powers and knocking people out monthly for a living — was asked “how to win a bar fight.” His answer: Leave, because no one ever wins a bar fight. No one! Not even Chuck Liddell! Even if somehow you avoid other people, there are the bouncers. The bouncers are undefeated because Road House is a documentary, and everything in it is accurate and real.
This man is parasailing and has just watched the cord connecting him to the speedboat snap and leave him rising into the dark depths of an oncoming thunderstorm.
This man is in trouble.
4. Scott, the peacemaker
The conscience of the picture. No one is paying attention to him, and that’s how you know he’s the conscience.
Don’t let him look too noble here. He’s the kind of person who passes traffic accidents and says “Bet they were going too fast!” or says, “well, you shoulda paid your bill on time!” when you get late fees.
You’re not helping here, Scott. You never do.
5. Jean-Paul, the voyeur
Honestly, the coldest dude here. Everyone else is in some stage of reacting to or running from the situation, and Jean-Paul here is just chillin’ in a zip-up and seeing how the events of the evening unfold following a seven-overtime football game. Also, there was a seven-overtime football game right before this.
Jean-Paul is not the person you want in a survival situation in which it’s you or the bear, by the way. Because judging by the cool but obviously interested expression, Jean-Paul might just wait to see how events unfold between you and the bear. You know: just to see.
Jean-Paul is here for the show, and chances are that being that show is never, ever a good idea.
6. Karen, living her best life at all times
What everyone loves about Karen? Her carefree attitude, infectious laughter, and complete lack of situational awareness. She is a stock photo of “Happy lady taking vacation photos in front of a burning hospital” made real. If anyone in this photo has posted “Living my best life!” from the beach while unknowingly capturing a shark attack in the background, it’s Karen.
There’s a full on brawl going on to her right, and yet she’s just going to keep on l-i-v-i-n like it’s nothing. Note: I love Karen, and she is invited to any and all future parties we’re having.
I can’t lie: This is me, the person who in any situation of spontaneous chaos suddenly gets very happy. He’s bad and the opposite of help, but remember that he’s also about as helpful as Scott the peacemaker is. You useless, useless man, Scott.
8. Kevin Faulk’s gym shorts
Faulk’s face really isn’t visible in this photo. It is visible here ...
We've rounded up more photos from the Kevin Faulk-Cole Fisher scene.— Kyle Whitfield (@Kyle_Whitfield) November 26, 2018
As the story goes, Faulk was standing up for Steve Kragthorpe, an LSU assistant with Parkinson's who was punched by a nephew of Jimbo Fisher.
Faulk's face in this lead image, woo boy. https://t.co/RhczYijSAh
... and should make clear that no one who is 5’8 gets to win three Super Bowl rings and play in the NFL for 13 seasons without being willing to throw down in a very literal way.
Faulk played every season of his NFL career for the New England Patriots, by the way. That is a rarity I now attribute to Faulk simply refusing to be cut. Starting in 2009, Bill Belichick probably informed Faulk annually that they were letting him go. Faulk replied with “nah” and the exact expression seen in that photo, and that was that. Faulk left the room still a Patriot, and Belichick just had to deal with that.
I zoomed in on the gym shorts for a reason. Anyone who wears gym shorts under their tactical coaching khakis — Faulk is Director of Player Development for LSU, after all — is staying ready 24/7/365. Maybe it’s for a workout in the gym, or in the hotel staircase if necessary. Maybe it’s for some impromptu light grappling in a crowd situation.
The point is: if you roll up on someone with the gym shorts on under the pants, punt immediately. You’re just trying this whole situation on for size. They’ve been waiting for it all along.
The three-time national champion has retired again.
1. The minute Ohio State suspended Urban Meyer on August 22nd, this was over. It was over because Meyer and the university could no longer fully trust each other, and because Meyer was dragged through the humiliation of being subservient to a school, rather than to football itself. Once the coach’s football interests became secondary to the institution’s, Meyer’s departure was set in motion.
2. That much should have been clear on Oct. 30, when Meyer began to talk publicly about his headaches caused by the arachnoid cyst on his brain. It should have been clear when the trial balloon of offensive coordinator Ryan Day becoming head coach was floated during the season or when the cameras caught Meyer bent over on the sidelines during tense moments.
This wasn’t exactly managed and scripted — but it wasn’t exactly unmanaged and unscripted, was it? We all got enough deliberate peeks behind the backdrop to see what was coming and how it would happen.
3. So now, rather than take a scandalous firing in August, Meyer gets to retire. (Again.)
The summary: Meyer took over a big program and did brilliantly on the field. (Again.) He recruited gifted players at an astonishing rate, won a championship within his first three years, and turned his coaching staff into a launching pad for assistants looking for head coaching jobs. (Again.) His teams dominated their conference, consistently competed for top five finishes, and — litmus test of litmus tests — straight up beat the standard bearer for the sport, Alabama. (Again, but don’t look at what happened the second time Meyer and Saban met at Florida.)
4. With one game left, Meyer’s seven years in Columbus produced an 82-9 record. His win percentage is better than Woody Hayes’, his resume deeper and better than Jim Tressel’s, and his ability to recruit talent is unsurpassed by anyone who’s ever held the OSU job.
Football-wise, he is the best coach Ohio State has ever had, and equaling his run there would mean hiring Nick Saban or the next Meyer to succeed him. (Again.)
5. Poor Ryan Day won’t equal him. He just won’t, and expecting him to would do a massive disservice to the elevated offensive coordinator’s prospects.
Nearly all coaching greats are followed by merely goods, because there are so few greats, period. Getting two in a row is lottery winner territory, and having any other expectations is to misunderstand basic probability. Consider how lucky Ohio State’s already been in getting Tressel and Meyer back to back.
6. No one will listen to this, and Day will be under insane pressure three hours into his tenure on Jan. 2. Get the contracts double-signed and make sure that buyout can’t budge with the weight of 10 law firms pushing on it, Ryan.
7. Meyer is a rare, rare talent — one reason he’s been allowed to do things other coaches might not be allowed to even consider.
8. For instance, Meyer was allowed to continue coaching after apparently lying about the Zach Smith case at Big Ten Media Days. Meyer would later say he misspoke and did not knowingly lie, but beating Michigan every year had to help his case with his superiors.
Meyer got a three-game suspension early in the season and was allowed to hold deeply unhelpful press conferences regarding his suspension, free rein other coaches wouldn’t have gotten. He was effectively allowed to choose his own exit, another rarity in coaching, especially at Ohio State.
9. Meyer had seemingly left Florida better than he’d found it — but then the roof caved in, and it became apparent just how much dry rot was in the walls of the place. At Florida, Meyer struggled to fill positions after staffers left for their own head coaching gigs.
At Ohio State, that attrition has been less obviously harmful to the team’s win percentage, but Meyer still struggled to replace coaching talent well. This year’s scapegoat: Greg Schiano, the coordinator whose defense allowed 55 points to Iowa in a baffling 2017 loss, repeated that with 49 to Purdue in 2018, and finished 113th in the nation in long plays allowed.
10. There was also this management issue: the time Meyer kept a documentedly ineffective staffer on because he was the grandson of a mentor, AKA Zach Smith. That staffer, repeatedly accused of domestic violence, later helped unravel Meyer’s tenure.
11. The question of whether Ohio State is in better shape going forward, rather than when he got there, has a tricky answer: give it two years, and we’ll see. The facilities, talent, and skill base at Ohio State are all undeniably better, but that was seemingly the case at Florida, too. Holding off on grand gestures about how much Meyer changed Ohio State makes sense because a.) Ohio State has been successful historically without him, and b.) making any lasting claims about a culture in college football is hard anyway, much less with a team about to shed a workaholic manager known for delegating too little.
12. There’s also the health issues (again), the bizarre inability to message anything not having to do with football (again), and the feeling that Meyer, for all his gifts, could not be a lifer at any program, and that all his success came with that price.
13. Overclocking is the word for it, when a computer is made to run faster than it was designed to run. It’s how Meyer makes a program work. Things happen fast, sometimes too fast for their own good. Coaches come and go quickly, titles fly in the window, and after five or six years, the parts start to wear down, make unforced errors, to write checks against that success, checks that will begin to bounce.
14. A difference this time: Meyer leaves after a hugely embarrassing scandal for the university, which sent a horrendous and confused message about domestic violence to the school and community beyond it. The timing of Meyer’s departure distances him from that as a story, but it shouldn’t diminish his role in the least.
15. The timing does allow for certain things. Meyer will likely return to commentary, which he’s very good at, and give him some time to sort out whatever health issues he has. It gives Ohio State a fresh start, and reminds everyone that the school is — for the moment, at least — one of the few places bigger than any one coach.
16. It also gives time for this completely hypothetical but very believable situation to unfold: Notre Dame bombs out of the postseason again, and pressure mounts on Brian Kelly as fans and analysts say he’s “taken the program as far as he can.” That might take a few years, but when it reaches a boiling point, Meyer will be right there for one of the few jobs he used to have written into this contract as buyout-free destinations: the Notre Dame head coach.
17. And when he gets there, Notre Dame will run a little too fast for its own good. It will glow and burn out like it did under the last master of overclocking a football program and immediately moving on to the next program, one of Meyer’s mentors: Lou Holtz. It’s a cycle, and like any cycle, its end is apparent from the first minute.
In the slapstick history of Atlanta sports, no one has illustrated the city’s transient beauty better than Miguel Almiron and United.
Miguel Almiron is not “undersized.” Almiron is downright little — a 5’9 attacking midfielder for Atlanta United so slight and unassuming, and lacking marquee soccer star hair, that he can be easily lost in a crowd. If I had to tell someone to find him, I’d only be able to suggest looking for the dude with:
a.) a truly awe-inspiring set of eyebrows, and
b.) the dark-haired guy who looks like the world’s oldest fourteen-year-old.
Almiron is almost sheepish in profile.
This might explain why he was so hard to see in the postgame commotion Saturday night. Atlanta United had just defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 to win the MLS Cup, marking the first championship by any team in the city since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995. There was Arthur Blank, the Home Depot baron and team owner, hoisting the championship trophy over his head with some effort. (It was touch-and-go for a minute, but he got it there.) There was shock-blonde Josef Martinez, the Venezuelan striker whose goal in the thirty-fifth minute broke the game open, cradling a baby who clearly wanted to be somewhere much quieter than a stadium full of fans.
Brad Guzan, the hairless 6’4” American goalie, couldn’t hide from anyone, much less the chants from the supporters’ section:
He’s a motherfucking wall
It took a minute to spot Almiron. He was standing with his dad, looking around and wide-eyed in the best possible sense of the word. He looked like a mildly surprised and maximally elated adolescent, not shocked but still not entirely expectant of what was a complete and certain victory.
Almiron plays for Atlanta United, a club in its second year of existence as a full-fledged soccer team. It plays in Atlanta, an often fickle, sometimes downright indifferent, and always tricky city for its major sports teams. There are tons of transplant residents who turn State Farm Arena into a home game for visiting NBA teams, and college football fans from all over who treat the Falcons as a pleasant but not obsessive follow on Sundays.
Even the Braves — the most consistent of all of Atlanta’s teams — had to move to Cobb County “to ensure attendance.”*
*Siphon the most taxpayer dollars off a willing county government
Atlanta, in turn, has to watch sports teams who even at their most successful have failed to win titles, display much consistency, or operate competently. Each franchise has had long fainting spells when they muddled along half-consciously. (See: Most of the Hawks history.) Some have served as little more than dark comedy vehicles until recently, and even then the highs have been marred by the lowest of lows.
Good sports things do not happen here, at least not without teeth-gnashing, or an eventual comeuppance, or maybe a biblical disaster. The first Super Bowl here happened the week of an ice storm, and Ray Lewis got tangled up in a stabbing, for instance. The Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl and lost their best player ever to a dogfighting ring. The city lost not one, but two NHL franchises due to neglect. The Hawks are the Hawks.
ATL United hit a slipstream in history and skipped all that.
The team sold well from the beginning, packing houses even when they were playing in Georgia Tech’s stadium to start. The brand took root with ease, and with some savvy help from the marketing department. They left United flags on doors, got Archie Eversole to record a United-themed hype video for “We Ready”, and developed a raucous bunch of supporters clubs with astonishing speed.
United’s brand off the field and presence in the city is somehow more definite and developed right now than the Falcons or Hawks might have ever been — this, despite both of those teams creeping up on a combined century of professional residence in the city.
On the field, United had Almiron. His unassuming manner off the field was a direct contrast to his hellbent pace, left-footed volleys at goal, and his startling ability to hit a full blazing gallop from a dead still start. Playing in former Barcelona manager Tata Martino’s attacking style, Almiron had free rein to create from midfield, collapsing defenses with both change of direction and outright speed.
Coltish: The word for how he moves with the ball is coltish, like a young horse just discovering just how much grass it can cover with just a few strides. Almiron’s best plays combined all that pace and vision with the willingness to barrel into defenders, and a deft enough foot to put the ball wherever it needed to be once he’d tiptoed through them.
He wasn’t perfect for United, but there were easy ways around that. Almiron didn’t always finish beautifully, but that’s what Martinez and a freewheeling green light from the manager were for. Even with his minor imperfections, Almiron still scored 12 goals in the regular season, including this stunner of a free kick against New York City a few weeks ago. In short: If the Atlanta attack was a grease fire, then Almiron was the grease.
That’s a metaphor the home of Waffle House should be able to live with forever. What’s next for United will be harder to stomach. Almiron is likely gone in a hurry, seemingly playing his way into a bid from Newcastle in the Premier League. Manager Tata Martino accepted a four-year contract to coach the Mexican national team back in mid-November. Striker and local demigod Martinez may leave, too.
Almiron sat next to Martinez during the victory parade in Atlanta on Monday morning. He was a little easier to find this time, smiling and waving and filming the crowd with his phone. He stood atop the open bus in the back with Martinez as the team threw little soccer balls out into the crowd, and hoisted the cup up for fans sitting in misting rain. Martinez gave a thumbs-up to the crowd and nodded at chants of “M-V-P.” Almiron, in contrast, looked more like a guest of the team just happy to be there.
Someone bobbed in front of the bus carrying a cardboard cutout: Arthur Blank’s head, just visible over the assembled head of the crowd, floated down Marietta Street.
The bus rounded the corner past Centennial Park and then south towards Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This was where the old Omni stood, before it was imploded for something else. Up ahead was the new stadium, a jagged pile of polygons built just next to the space once occupied by the Georgia Dome.
Buildings, like everything else, don’t really last long in Atlanta, a city that thrives on demolition, and whose most notable landmark is the airport. That may be, in part, why United thrived here so quickly. Professional soccer is a game of traffic and turnover, full of impermanence — managers leaving, stars getting transferred, movement up and down tiers, and sometimes across continents. Staying in one place for a whole career is the exception, not the rule. Things inevitably, and often suddenly, change.
The parade may have been the last hurrah of Miguel Almiron and this United team — a team that happened in some blessed, drama-free space existing apart from the rest of Atlanta sports history. Yet even with the full admission that the celebration was also the finale, there’s also every reason to believe that more than any other place, Atlanta will be ready to drive down and meet a whole new crew at the airport to try again.
Oh, and there is an airport, if you haven’t heard. It’s kind of the whole deal here. People and things come and go all the time by design — even Almiron, the teenaged-looking midfielder who helped bring Atlanta its first championship in a long, long time. The hope is to appreciate what he was on the way up, that he thrives wherever he goes, and try to remember what he was largely responsible for — a quicksilver two years of exhilarating team soccer that almost redeemed the entire slagheap of Atlanta’s sports history all by itself. That a hard-to-spot, unassuming guy from Paraguay was an essential part of the most bankable, electric thing in town.
He has to go, and we get that. That kind of mild, fond heartbreak is the standard here.
The cup stays.