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    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.

    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 —

    Boise State v Oklahoma StatePhoto by Brett Deering/Getty Images

    — 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.

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    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:

    • 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

    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.

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    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.

    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.

    7. Me


    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 ...

    ... 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.

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    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.

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    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 big

    He’s bald

    He’s a motherfucking wall

    Brad Guzaaaaaannnnnn

    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.

    0 0

    McVay’s beard is a nearly perfect system in need of just a little more balance.

    The Los Angeles Rams have lost two in a row after starting the season 11-1. The first loss was a low-scoring struggle with the Chicago Bears where the Rams’ offense seemed to be exposed by a filthy Bears defense. The second loss: A loss to the Eagles where the Rams’ defense allowed a struggling Philadelphia attack to finally get on track.

    These are troubling trends for the Rams. I don’t care about either of them. I would, however, like to talk about Rams head coach Sean McVay’s beard.

    Before we go to the film and pick it apart: It is definitely a beard with strong fundamentals. I can’t deny that. Give McVay three weeks without shaving and he’d look like an extra from Game of Thrones. You can see that beard being incinerated by dragon’s fire, but not before noting how solid a beard it was, right? It’s good from the roots, solid and full.

    Unfortunately for McVay, it’s also a beard that grows right up to his eyeballs. In football terms, it’s got range — almost too much range, really. Like a safety who can cover a little too much ground, that beard can be trouble if given too much room to roam. It could easily be the Ed Reed of beards — ironic because Reed’s current beard, much like Reed the player, is a study in controlled chaos. (Look at that chin growth. It’d get out of hand fast.)

    Anyone coaching this beard is going to have to rein it in a little for the benefit of the whole system. And McVay, being a coach, definitely has a system going here. Note the hair, plastered in place with enough pomade to keep a headset from falling off his head. A mighty fortress is McVay’s hair: His product, never failing.

    That beard line, though: It’s mesmerizing. It is a video game character’s beard, laid over his face like it was cut from a stencil. That is a magical golden ratio type shape he’s got going on there. That beard isn’t shaved. It’s enforced.

    Scouting-wise, it could probably use some length to distract from the over-management. A beard is not a topiary, Sean. It needs some length to look more natural and less like a decal. Not too much, Sean: Like any game plan, balance is important. If growth is the run game and shaving the pass, then right now this beard is running the Air Raid, and the safeties are playing twenty yards off the ball in Cover 2.

    Some free advice from someone who has had every possible variation of beard, Sean: Run the ball a little. Establish some balance, and let that ginger face take some small gains by letting it grow out for a week. Then, go over the top for a truly magnificent score with the next trim.

    Bonus points: taking three or four minutes less grooming? More time to watch film, coach. It’s not negligence to let it grow out a little. It’s “enhancing beard recovery in the name of overall system efficiency.” See? Everything can benefit from a little coaching, especially if you don’t want to end up with A.J. Styles’ beard.

    0 0

    I saw the video of LeBron cheering up his son, and it got me thinking about being a parent.

    So I saw a clip of LeBron James talking to his son after a game, and tweeted about it. Because everyone isn’t on Twitter, I strung them all together here and added some parts I thought needed adding.

    There are a few reasons to like this other than the one I chose, such as LeBron displaying how his basketball computer of a brain doesn’t even stop working during children’s games, or him striking a fine balance between being super-interested and yet not overly intense in coaching.

    I particularly like this subtext: That not only will his son have to accept the analysis because his father, after all, is LeBron James, but that he won’t because ... well, he’s Dad, and no child can ever believe 100 percent of what Dad says. It’s not possible, not even if Dad is LeBron James.

    No matter how right LeBron might be, Bryce James is probably thinking: You’re just saying that to make me feel better, and I know that. Because kids get parented, but they also watch you parent them at the same time. Those are different things, and yet they happen at the same time because kids are 3,000 times more perceptive than you think they are (or might want them to be.)

    I’m also pleased by LeBron’s comfort in living the hair plugs/transplant/whatever he’s got lifestyle. Like Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, he’s living his truth in public, and clearly believes the results are pretty cool.

    That is a link to a really good Eli Saslow story on James. LeBron has a strange rep for alternately a.) controlling his own image and using a close circle of advisers to make decisions about access, and b.) being willing to tell his story in public on terms not always favorable to him.

    There is truth to both of these angles. Among megastars of this era with long, productive careers and a lot of money on the line, James is downright vocal.

    Compare him to his few male global peers here. Lionel Messi, soccer’s greatest player No. 1, is a cipher. Tom Brady sells infrared recovery pajamas and a $350 cookbook, and this is what will have to pass for insight into his personal life. Roger Federer hangs out in Switzerland with his perfect family in his perfect house in clothes monogrammed with his initials. When the fire rises to consume humanity whole, he will walk out from the flames without a single scorch mark.

    It’s not an obligation for an athlete to be anything publicly. People have a right to be private. Sometimes they don’t get that choice — see the entire second half of Tiger Woods’ career — but even that can be managed to a fine obscurity.

    LeBron has mostly made the choice to tell a story. That’s more than he had to do, and more than most people in his position would.

    I think LeBron lets his story be known because he thinks it serves a larger purpose.

    Read that Saslow story or any other story about his upbringing. There are two things that come through in every telling. The first is that of a very young child who did not have a stable childhood. The second is of a kid who found mentoring, comfort, and care through 1.) a struggling but devoted mother and 2.) the coaches and mentors who brought him into their homes.

    If that story keeps coming back to me, it’s because I have kids now and got to be raised by two parents in a stable home. One of those parents, my dad, didn’t really have a great blueprint for that, or at least what anyone would call the dictionary standard. He made it work in his own way, just like a hundred million other mothers and fathers.

    People do this every day. They do a job they have either never seen done before or have seen done under disastrous or chaotic circumstances, and they somehow do it well. Sometimes they do it flat brilliantly.

    Periodically they fail, too. Parenting is a series of failures, an endless chain of them, and the worst part is how sometimes you know they know. It’s right there in your child’s face, like when you’re lost, and your phone is dead, and the kid has to pee, and there’s no obvious place on this stretch of road for them to pee except in the woods, and my god, wouldn’t you kill for even one dirty McDonald’s bathroom right now.

    Sometimes, even at a very young age, children will look at you from the corner of their eye and think that maybe, just maybe, you’re not the person for this job. I know they do, because I remember doing the same thing despite being unable to drive, earn a living, fix eggs, or balance a bank account.*

    * I’ve learned to do at least two of these. SUCCESS.

    Parenting in the best of situations is about flying partially blind. For someone who grew up in difficult circumstances, it’s even harder. For someone like LeBron, it means having to do at least a little bit of that in public as well.

    He’s choosing to do more than a little bit of that here. He’s mic’d up in this clip, which everyone heard and saw because he published it on his Instagram page for his small, intimate following of 45.7 million.

    If you point this out like it means something bad: Go ahead. Being cynical would be a totally fine play. I can’t stop you from doing that. It would be your decision, one backed up by literally almost any other heartwarming moment ever seen on the internet.

    If you acknowledge that James is being recorded here and still think it’s a great moment, come on over and join me. More than any other athlete of my lifetime, James knows he’s being watched, in the good and bad senses. Despite that, he works in the spotlight, and is willing to try and be an example. He does that in little cosmetic senses like this, and also in big, tangible ways.

    There is one step further here. James is even willing to do that not just for kids, which is typically the easier sell, but for adults — even adults who have also signed up to be parents despite chaotic upbringings, or just parents period. You know we need that, right, even in the middle of the job? That it helps to see good examples of parenting, even if they’re in an obviously recorded moment from a celebrity’s life? That putting that moment on display matters beyond a moment of marketing? That in a historical moment where cruelty has been confused for leadership, this is actually leading?

    That’s rare. LeBron James is rare in a lot of ways, and keeps getting rarer by the day, because I really do — even through the veil of celebrity PR and presentation — think he’s trying to pay back kindness in a public fashion. Find someone else trying to do that at the same level, and I’ll wait right here. It will be a minute.

    P.S. His basketball brain has to be the most terrifyingly detailed place. James probably has the basketball scenes from Space Jam blocked out in his head in detail and can explain why one particular Monstar’s poor spacing allowed Michael Jordan to get the ball on a crucial late dunk.

    0 0

    Mean Gene Okerland at the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania’s WWE Hall of Fame in 2009.

    The legendary interviewer died at 76 and leaves behind an unmatched impact on professional wrestling. 

    The first impression a child watching Gene Okerlund doing an interview with any wrestler on a wrestling broadcast had to be this: He seemingly had no right to be standing there. His 5’9 frame barely came up to the collarbones of some of the Goliaths he held the mic for during promos. With midsize wrestlers, he looked tiny. Bigger wrestlers could try to blot him out from the screen entirely, reducing him to a passenger floating on a bicep.

    They could try to push him out of frame, but they rarely succeeded. Despite his relative lack of size, Okerlund — who died on Jan. 2 at the age of 76 — never shrank or shied away on screen. Even when he was quiet and serving as little more than a pugnacious mic stand for any one of a long stream of charismatic, swole-shouldered lunatics, “Mean” Gene Okerlund controlled the picture, serving as wrestling’s supreme straight man for over 40 years.

    Okerlund played the role of The Serious Adult in the Room on WWE and WCW’s biggest shows. He was the one who asked the questions, demanded answers, and served as the pivot for every beef, rivalry, feud, and outright war between the giants and bit players of wrestling. He hectored wrestlers like an investigative reporter. He was pushy, ornery, sometimes outright hostile to his subjects, playing up the drama while never forgetting to mention that the show was at the National Guard Armory in Nashville this coming Saturday, and that tickets were still available — but selling fast.

    That was his job: giving the impression that this was serious, serious business.

    Okerlund was seemingly built in a lab to do just that specifically for the sport of professional wrestling. His stentorian voice practically came with its own amplifier. His presence, though, was smallish, almost nerdy, a caricature of what Vince McMahon himself might sketch up for the role of Sniveling Broadcast Journalist. Okerlund sounded like the voice of God. He looked like God’s grumpy, slump-shouldered, balding personal assistant Kevin.

    Okerlund’s presence, though, felt 8-feet tall. He was trained as a broadcaster and DJ. He might was well have come from improv theater, though given how well he controlled a scene. Okerlund would never be the star — that was not his job, and never would be. In an over-the-top medium like professional wrestling with exaggerated highs and abysmal lows, Okerlund served as the level. He kept everything on balance, and gave the exact measure of real gravitas to a moment no matter how absurd that moment might be.

    Watch him wish a “gravely injured” Hulk Hogan well after getting beaten up by Earthquake and deny Okerlund’s ability to own the moment. You can’t. It is simply not possible.

    Okerlund essentially reinvented one job, and invented another. The job he evolved was the old role of carnival barker. Okerlund pushed it into the age of cable TV, becoming the force multiplier for whatever the WWE needed to push that week. He did all that with a jaw-dropping consistency. Okerlund stayed on the same note and level for almost a half century of work, providing a rock-steady launching pad for the launch of three generations of wrestling’s brightest satellites.

    The job he invented was being Mean Gene Okerlund. And in that job, Mean Gene Okerlund’s highest calling — and greatest moment of art — was playing the role of straight man during promos.

    What Phil Hartman was for improv geeks, Okerlund was to wrestling personalities. During a promo, sweaty wrestlers observed by the viewer at a distance in the ring in Okerlund’s hands became gonzo, intimately felt TV talent. To use a sports cliche: Cutting a promo with Mean Gene Okerlund didn’t build character, it revealed it.

    For instance: If The Ultimate Warrior was impossible to control — and by Okerlund’s own admission in interviews later, he was — Okerlund’s exasperation made it apparent all without losing the spot.

    If a wrestler was flagging, he poked and prodded until they woke up. If they missed a plot point, he went back and effortlessly redirected. If they made a huge error — like the one relative newcomer Booker T made in legend Hulk Hogan’s direction during a 1996 WCW promo — Okerlund rapidly and gracefully got the scene back on track without fuss.

    It might have been a disaster, but Okerlund made sure live disasters were brief — and in doing so, likely helped Booker T dodge any serious or lasting fallout.

    Not all of it took obvious effort, but Okerlund worked smart. If they could go for days on their own — like Hulk Hogan did — he simply got out of the way and silently played the official face of Serious Authority.

    Hogan is a good example of what Mean Gene did at his best. If a wrestler played along, Okerlund could play him into legendary status, all while keeping eye contact with the viewer just enough to say: I am here, and as the Serious Person I am vouching personally for just how serious this all is.

    Addendum: He could do that while saying“even if the man next to me is Randy Macho Man Savage.”

    The Macho Man, more than even Hogan, might be the great example of Okerlund’s on-screen powers. No one pushed Okerlund’s capabilities as a straight man further than Savage. The gravel-voiced wrestler took long, twitchy pauses without warning during his promos. He took bizarre metaphorical off-ramps, talked over prompts, and blew past questions and plot points. Sometimes, Savage reduced Okerlund to little more than a scowling, tuxedoed prop.

    Even with candy piled on his head, Okerlund holds equal weight on-screen the whole time. Macho Man Randy Savage was already bizarre enough on his own — but in contrast to Mean Gene, the Macho Man’s bronzer and chains gleam a little more lightly, his voice and shaky gestures vibrate and growl with a bit more alarm and urgency. If Randy Savage is the dish, then Mean Gene is the plate, the salt, and the tablecloth the Macho Man tucks into his tank top like a huge napkin.

    Mean Gene Okerlund was, in his best moments on TV, the contrast to the garish color palette of professional wrestling, a frame that made every color brighter and more definite.

    Sometimes Okerlund wore a tuxedo for big events like Wrestlemania and Summerslam. A tux worn to a wrestling match is the kind of cartoonish editorial choice wrestling almost almost always makes when it comes to authority, or power, or wealth, or anything, really. The wealthy don’t wear minks everywhere like Ric Flair did. The powerful don’t walk around firing everyone theatrically like Attitude Era Mr. McMahon did, and the strong don’t tip over ambulances like Braun Strowman still does from time to time.

    The master of ceremonies doesn’t really wear a tuxedo all the time, either. Gene Okerlund did, and always managed to make it a funny and serious look at the same time. It was funny because Okerlund was about to spend three hours in that tux interviewing ranting, oily men in their underwear on camera like it was the most important thing in the world. That was the gag, after all — this was a yokel of a sport, overdressing like a rube for its own working-class prom.

    Yet the tux was also a serious choice. Why? Because Gene Okerlund, looking straight at the camera without a smile, came across as a gentleman the instant he opened his mouth. And if he was here, jokes and scowls and all, well: Were we all not gentlemen and ladies then, enjoying the sport of kings? The rumble was royal as long as he was there.

    0 0

    The people in charge put college football’s biggest game in a shrine to blandness on the side of the country opposite the teams who are good at college football.

    The College Football Playoff final will happen Monday in Santa Clara, California. The scene: The home of the San Francisco 49ers and site of several casually attended Pac-12 title games, Levi’s Stadium, a modern facility just a few miles from the headquarters of the most powerful tech companies in the world.

    It has no friends, and everyone hates it. No one should feel bad about this, try to befriend it, or defend it.

    Levi’s Stadium deserves to eat lunch by itself crying.

    Getting there is bad.

    Levi’s sits a full hour in traffic away from San Francisco, just at the southern point of the Bay that looks like the tapering business end of the lower intestine. The traffic is appropriately craptacular on a good day, and the parking around the stadium limited and expensive.

    Playing there is bad.

    This is mostly because of the cursed turf, a surface openly reviled by visiting teams.

    In 2015, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker fell into a mini-sinkhole on a field goal attempt.

    In 2016, after both the Broncos and Panthers struggled to find the right cleats for it during the Super Bowl, Denver cornerback Aqib Talib called it “terrible.”

    Pete Carroll called it “lousy” last month, over four years after the stadium’s debut.

    Watching football there is bad.

    Atmosphere is non-existent, as the massive, Borg-like block of hermetically sealed luxury suites dominates one side of the stadium. In the afternoon, the glass fronts of the suites reflect sun into the cheap seats across the way.

    When it isn’t a billion dollar microwave that slow-roasts half its patrons, Levi’s Stadium has all the character of a freshly built county prison.

    For some reason, the National Championship will be played there. Why?

    There are some solid guesses.

    The Pac-12 title game venue is within leisurely driving distance of the Pac-12’s extremely expensive headquarters in downtown San Francisco. It’s reasonable to guess that conference commissioner Larry Scott’s lobbying — combined with the 49ers desperately trying to book events and offering a boatload of perks and incentives — landed the game.

    In a rotation likely to be heavy on Southern/Eastern cities like Miami, Houston, New Orleans, and Atlanta, putting a title game in Pac-12 country seemed only seemed fair.

    That only explains why the people in charge of the Playoff might have done it, not why a sane person concerned with actually putting on a good game might’ve.

    There are two West Coast sites in the rotation up to 2025: Santa Clara in 2019 and Los Angeles in 2023. Los Angeles has a long, vibrant college football history, one of its top venues in the Rose Bowl, and it generally supports at least one of its teams. (USC. It’s mostly USC.) It’s hosted other big college football things before, and did so well.

    Even with Stanford’s decade-long renaissance, the Bay Area doesn’t compare. The Pac-12 games in Levi’s have been wonderful places to hear what football sounds like once the pesky sounds of fans have been eliminated from the equation.

    It’s not a hotbed for the sport, so much so that during the mid-2000s when schools were jamming in seats to expand stadium capacity, Stanford downsized its stadium from 89,000 seats to 50,000. Cal did the same in 2010, eliminating almost 10,000 seats and reducing to a 63,000-seat stadium.

    If locals won’t turn out to watch two teams from Alabama and South Carolina — and there is very little evidence to suggest they will — then that leaves fans to fly across the country and make this look something like an actual event.


    After adding up flights that start around a thousand dollars apiece, hotels at a bare minimum of $150 a night, transportation, and food, a fan traveling to the game is looking at two grand easy ... before the ticket even enters the equation.

    There is some good news: the ticket might end up being the cheapest part.

    Prices have plunged as the game approaches, currently about a fourth of the previous year’s game in Atlanta between Alabama and Georgia. It might not even sell out, leaving a very real chance that someone could get into the game Monday night for face value.

    The bad news: None of this will change the thinking of anyone in charge of college football, because no one is in charge of college football.

    No one is really accountable for the quality of the Playoff. If no one’s accountable, then no one has to own up for the shitty surroundings. ESPN and the FBS conferences make their money regardless of the player and fan experience, and the committee’s job of matching up four teams was done a month earlier.

    This happens for a couple of really stupid reasons.

    The first: The waning but still disproportionate power of the Pac-12. For some reason or another, the nominal Power 5 conference gets big games on the West Coast despite winning only one Playoff game in the five years of the format, consistently racing the ACC to the bottom of the Power 5 in attendance, posting negligible television ratings in the regular season and conference championships, losing bowl games, and winning a grand total of three outright national titles in the last 50 years. (All held by USC.)

    When asked why, Pac-12 commissioner Scott said:

    “We do try to rotate this event,” said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who served on the College Football Playoff Site Selection committee. “Generally the West Coast location has some appeal.”

    That’s true if we are talking about the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles.

    It’s not true if we’re talking about Santa Clara or the Bay Area, where the Pac-12 for eleventeen EXTREMELY DISRUPTIVE reasons decided to put its network headquarters and offices. EXTREMELY DISRUPTIVE in this case should be heard with whooshing space sounds playing at the same time, and be interpreted as meaning “expensive for no reason besides the illusion of prestige.”

    The second reason is worse: The people in charge of college football don’t really care and don’t have to pretend to care. When the time came to stage a title game for TV, they picked a nice spot for a corporate junket — we’ll go to wine country the weekend before! WINE COUNTRY! — but a terrible place for college football. They’ll have some of those patron-cooking skyboxes and shuttle service to the stadium and will blame fans for not showing up, if they have the energy to think about it at all.

    They won’t have to think about how turning the National Championship into a minor league Super Bowl invites all of the sterile mediocrity of the NFL experience on purpose — by design, even. The idea, in the end, is to play a game in a biddable nowhere, accountable to neither community nor team, reminiscent of nothing and easily sold as ad space.

    In that sense, Santa Clara is perfect.

    It’s already a nowhere with nothing to remember it by, just unpleasant enough to make people want to forget anything they accidentally remembered.

    College football already has a deep menu of impractical home and/or neutral site destinations. These are either small college towns short on capacity but long on personality — hello, Pullman and good morning, Starkville — or huge, usually warm sprawls. They’re all bad ideas in their own ways, but unlike bad idea Santa Clara, they’re distinctly college football bad ideas.

    The game itself should be excellent, but even the Bay Area’s one asset, the weather, is cooperating with the plan to make the location as unmemorable as possible. It’s been in the low 50s and raining most of the week and will be around 55 degrees and overcast for kickoff Monday night.

    In other words, it’s the perfect temperature for a Santa Clara football game: lukewarm.

    0 0

    Clemson, Alabama, and circumstance all forced errors by the Tide, and then football’s tightest machine fell to pieces.


    Nick missed the shoulder completely. Complete whiff. Pregame omens are iffy at best, but after Bevo tried to kill Uga prior to a Longhorn beatdown of Georgia, I believe all of them. Clear sign of early trouble for Alabama.

    FIRST QUARTER, 13:20

    Okay maybe just a fluke, since A.J. Terrell got possessed by the spirit of Ed Reed here and just stole a ball. When Reed decides to possess a DB, there’s no choice but to let it happen, and that goes for everyone, Tua Tagovailoa included.

    Watch Terrell’s head snap back when he bolts. Consider making any decision in life this quickly or with this much certainty.

    That’s a dog stealing a steak off the grill. You might get burned, but the payoff is dinner.

    This happens, though. Might be big game nerves. It’s one mistake by one player in an aggressive passing attack. Machine’s not broken? Machine’s not broken.


    Rushing three against a freshman QB on third-and-14 seems like a weird decision for Alabama? Maybe the thought was that no one would make a mistake in the secondary, and even if they did, a freshman would not be able to get the ball to Tee Higgins on time with eight in coverage.

    About that!

    Reaching for explanations is the thing to do after something like Clemson hammering Alabama into sheets of cheap scrap metal happens, and it’s what I’m sort of trying to do here. This explains this. This decision, while dumb in hindsight, made sense on paper.

    Nothing about this game makes sense without yelling in wonderment. Clemson did nothing on first and second down all game, then hit third-and-longs like they were nothing. Clemson went 10 of 15 on them, including this bomb.

    Look at the speed of recognition by Trevor Lawrence. That’s practically a hiccup by the safety, but before he recovers, the ball is over his head.

    Every time Alabama left something unattended, Clemson stole it without a nanosecond of hesitation. It was hard to see that in the first quarter. Sometimes Alabama had given up long plays to start games, like against Ole Miss and Arkansas. Those games ended up 62-7 and 65-31 blowouts.

    Still cool. Little shook, but cool. Like Keith Jackson would say: just two heavyweights trading haymakers.


    It started here.

    There’s something terrifying about watching a prepared team unravel. It’s sometimes hard to even realize it’s happening — maybe they’re just sleepy? Maybe they didn’t take their meds? I bet they have to poop.

    People who are typically ultra-prepared absolutely crumble when their preparation fails them. There’s nothing left but to improvise, and Alabama has never been good at that.

    A failure in the kicking game is the simplest step toward collapse. Special teams is the paperwork of football. It should be filed on time, a matter of procedure. When it fails, it feels like blind negligence, because ... anyone can hit an extra point, right?

    It’s particularly bad for Alabama because:

    This isn’t when panic filled Bama’s mind. Panic did text to say it was on the way over, though.

    Clemson had something to do with Bama’s other errors to this point. It goes both ways when good teams play. But this is an unforced error. More will pile up as this machine becomes genuinely shook.


    The freaky chill had settled in, and things were definitely off. When Alabama made simple mistakes it should have shrugged off, it doubled down on new mistakes.

    That crept atop the chain of command, eventually forcing errors seemingly by design.

    The crucial drive was Alabama’s fourth possession late in the first quarter. Trailing 14-13 and coming off two touchdown drives, Alabama seemed poised to do that thing they do, where they put down a challenge by crushing with the run game and throwing a ball up to Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, or any other instant problem solver.

    That thing where Alabama dares the other team to be as good as Alabama at the line of scrimmage, says where the ball is going, and puts the ball in that place.

    For a minute, that was what Alabama did. Then, after ramming the ball to the one on first down with Damien Harris, Alabama called three more plays.


    Second and goal: A fake dive/toss left pitch out of this tackle over formation. They’d used this formation earlier in the game to throw a TD to a wide open tight end. That tight end’s name is Hale Hentges. If someone with that name is not a used car baron or Alabama agriculture commissioner in 30 years, something has gone wrong.

    Alabama had been running hard to the right for solid gains. This is kind of surprising. Bama’s left tackle, Jonah Williams, is considered one of the best in the country.

    Then again, Williams was matched up with Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. Ferrell spent a good part of the night snapping Williams back like a Pez dispenser, pressuring Tagovailoa, and rerouting runs.

    So Bama might have felt better about running right, behind tackle Jedrick Wills and guard Alex Leatherwood and away from First-Team All-American Ferrell.

    But when Willis false started on second and one — forced errors become unforced errors — it became second and six.

    Second and goal, plus five yards: Tagovailoa throws a quick screen to Henry Ruggs III. DB Isaiah Simmons wraps it up.

    Third and goal: Shovel pass to Harris, stopped in the backfield by defensive end Austin Bryant.

    With much of the game on the line and in two different short yardage situations, Alabama ran one stuffed run up the middle, one misdirection away from the strength of formation, and two quick pass plays that went nowhere. When ass had to be moved, Alabama didn’t trust its line to move ass.

    That was the pattern all night. Clemson’s defense gave up yards, but not when it counted, flustering Alabama into quick passes and misdirection. One team punched the ball in on the ground in Santa Clara — it was Clemson, which scored twice on Travis Etienne runs.

    That is shocking, but there’s more. Alabama spent most of 2018 hitting defenses with lighting strikes. Alabama only had 12 drives all year in which the offense ran 11 plays or more, and Tagovailoa was only on the field for six of them. Ten of those 12 drives were longer than 50 yards.

    This was an 11-play, six-minute drive to get just 45 yards and three points.

    Clemson’s defense made a few massive mistakes. The Tigers gave up a howler of a TD to open the game. They let Alabama have 443 total yards and 23 first downs.

    Yet at the crux, Clemson turned Alabama’s track meet offense into Kansas State, forcing it to plod along for cheap threes.

    After this, Alabama won’t score for the rest of the game. Clemson cooked Alabama like a chicken breast — as in, Bama was done within 16 minutes at high heat — even if we didn’t know it yet.


    [/run alabama.exe]


    [/update alabama.exe]


    [/run tua.exe]


    [/run alabama.exe]



    Alabama was already down 31-16, clearly incapable of catching a break, but the contagion of mistakes is about to turn into a full-blown plague.


    A team running a fake that takes the ball back an additional six yards from the line of scrimmage on what is already a fourth-and-6: a broken team.

    A team that does this into the teeth of a regular defensive formation is a disintegrating Terminator running through the options menu while the lights go out.

    There’s only so much one can say in the face of madness.

    Props to kicker Joseph Bulovas for hitting the hole like Lorenzo Neal, seeing Christian Wilkins, and offering a light shove while moving out of the way. If Saban wants his players to treat the game like a business, sometimes they are going to make business decisions.


    A quarterback is the only athlete with 12 legs and 12 arms — i.e., only as good as the offensive line allows him to be.

    Clemson’s starting line got an ovation when it exited the field with under three minutes left. They earned it, playing out of their minds, picking up every random blitz, and dumping Alabama’s front four. Lawrence did not get sacked once.

    Even when Clemson’s line allowed pressure, Lawrence either climbed up in the pocket (which is good!) or threw off his back foot (which is bad, unless you’re Lawrence).

    I don’t even know what you do as a lineman here. You’re flailing away at a 6’5 missile platform who’s impervious to fluster. His eyes are downfield even though you’re bearing down on him. The ball comes out about 10 feet off the ground, almost impossible to bat. It’s going where it’s supposed to go, in a hurry.

    This happened after Alabama opted for a doomed fake field goal on fourth-and-6 while already down by two scores, deciding to have the kicker block instead of having a Heisman finalist quarterback throw.

    So this score put Alabama into beclowning territory, down three scores in the biggest possible spotlight, turning this from a close loss into something laughable, brutal, and humiliating.

    But it gets worse.

    Justyn Ross, the freshman who caught this pass and ended all hope, is from Phenix City, Alabama. Alabama offered the four-star receiver a scholarship. Ross could have been catching passes from Tagovailoa in this game.

    Instead, there he is in Clemson orange, mercifully pulling the plug on Alabama’s malfunctioning machine.