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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    1. Miami.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    2. Northwestern, postgame only.

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

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

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

    3. Auburn.

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

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

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

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

    As for Auburn’s offense:

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

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

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

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

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

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

    4. Wisconsin.

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

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

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

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

    5. Ed Orgeron, the rent man.

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

    6. Alabama.

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

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

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

    7. UCF.

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

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

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

    8. Oklahoma.

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

    9. Clemson.

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

    10. Ohio State.

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

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

    11. Army.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    UM WHAT ABOUT USC?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    1. Josh Rosen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    2. Miami.

    44-28 over Virginia.

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

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

    You, owned: I will delete my account now.

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

    3. Wisconsin.

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

    4. USC kicker/punter Reid Budrovich

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

    5. Alabama.

    Beat Mercer 56-0.

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

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

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

    6. SHANK.

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

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

    7. Georgia.

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

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

    8. Oklahoma.

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

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

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

    9. Clemson.

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

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

    10. Auburn.

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

    11. Ohio State.

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

    12. UCF.

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

    FLORIDA TECH WAS REALLY WHEN UCF PEAKED FROM A DESIGN PERSPECTIVE

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

    13. Memphis.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    1. Oklahoma.

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

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

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

    MAGIC

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

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

    2. Clemson.

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

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

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

    3. Georgia.

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

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

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

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

    4. Alabama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    Soccer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    MLB/Baseball

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

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

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

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

    NASCAR/Auto racing

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

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

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

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

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

    NBA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Doris Burke is calling NBA games.

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

    The NBA playoffs are still incredible.

    College basketball

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

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

    NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ^ Yes, including rhythmic gymnastics.

    ^ Maybe especially rhythmic gymnastics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Randy Moss is working as a paid football commentator.

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

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

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

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

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

    NHL

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

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

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

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

    CFB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Justice Hill at Oklahoma State is just a sophomore.

    Khalil Tate at Arizona is just a sophomore.

    Chip Kelly is coming back! At UCLA!

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

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

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

    Misc/general

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Lavar Ball’s Senate campaign will be wild.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    0 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    0 0

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

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

    by Spencer Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He made every college town sound like his college town.

    by Brian Floyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    by Bill Connelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

    by Richard Johnson

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

    ... and Bo Schembechler’s last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    by Jason Kirk

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

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

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

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

    He walked home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    by Dan Rubenstein

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

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

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

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

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