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    Every rivalry has something that makes it burn hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Again: Maximum pain, every time.

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

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

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

    The Egg Bowl is sadism.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    *Except Houston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    James shook his head and answered.

    I don’t know his state of mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    United States American Football Association (USAFA)

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

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

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

    Football Union — Texas (FUT)

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

    Mid-Western College Football Federated Amateur Union (MWCFFAU)

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

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

    Western American Conference (WAC)

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

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

    North Atlantic Football Federation (NAFF)

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

    Be warned: The direct comparison is Oceania.

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

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

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

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

    Qualifying teams by region:

    United States American Football Association (USAFA): 15 spots

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

    FUT: three spots

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

    Midwestern Football Union (MFU): eight spots

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

    Western American Confederation (WAC): five spots

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

    North Atlantic Football Federation (NAFF): one spot

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

    Next, put these teams in groups.

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

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

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

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

    Group A

    • Appalachian State
    • Washington
    • Oklahoma State
    • LSU

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

    Group B

    • UCF
    • Miami
    • Stanford
    • Notre Dame

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

    Group C

    • Fresno State
    • Ohio State
    • Michigan State
    • Michigan

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

    Group D

    • Florida Atlantic
    • Alabama
    • Georgia
    • Arkansas State

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

    Group E

    • Ohio
    • USC
    • USF
    • Mississippi State

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

    Group F

    • Auburn
    • Boise
    • TCU
    • Troy

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

    Group G

    • Toledo
    • Wisconsin
    • Virginia Tech
    • Oklahoma

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

    Group H

    • Clemson
    • Memphis
    • Penn State
    • Louisville

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

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

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

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

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

    On to group play.

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

    Group A results

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

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

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

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

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

    Group B results

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

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

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

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

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

    Group C results

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

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

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

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

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

    Group D results

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

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

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

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

    Alabama and FAU advance. Alabama wins group.

    Group E results

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

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

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

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

    USF and Ohio advance. Ohio wins group.

    Group F results

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

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

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

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

    Auburn and TCU advance. Auburn wins group.

    Group G results

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

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

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

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

    Virginia Tech and Toledo advance; Virginia Tech wins group.

    Group H results

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

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

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

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

    Clemson and Louisville advance; Clemson wins group.

    The knockout stage is seeded just like the soccer version.

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

    Round of 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

    Third-place game

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Jon and Spencer list the people they do not want to fight.


    Mirko Cro Cop was not the best mixed martial artist who ever lived; were I approaching this accordingly, I’d opt for someone like Anderson Silva. Relatively speaking, that would be a blessing: I’d take a kick to the head, and next thing I knew I’d be lying in bed watching a courtroom TV show, which is one of my favorite things to do.

    Cro Cop, whose very name evokes two of humanity’s greatest threats in crocodiles and the police, deployed some of the most terrifying leg strikes the sport has ever seen. You can’t make it through any Cro Cop article or YouTube comments section without reading: “right kick hospital, left leg cemetery.”

    That left leg might get you in the head, but it might also catch you straight in the liver. He might target a specific internal organ to lacerate. I can’t imagine anything more upsetting than that. Look at the strike he delivers to Bob Sapp at 4:05 here. More importantly, watch the delay. Pay attention to how long it takes Sapp to collapse in agony.

    Sapp’s body takes a full two seconds to process that disaster has struck. It’s as though it’s a new language of pain that must be run through a translator before it can be experienced.

    If I were to fight Mirko Cro Cop, I would probably not be able to beat him.


    Those who have known me for a long time may have guessed this one.

    Baseball fights are usually very goofy-looking. They’re fought by clumsy dads who have stumbled out of bed in the middle of the night to go investigate a weird noise. Most of them have maintained a resting heart rate for the last 20 minutes. This is a recipe for haymakers that land several miles off-target, some half-hearted shoving, and one or two guys tripping and falling.

    This has always presented an opportunity for those who can truly fight to stand out among their peers. Kyle Farnsworth was one of the hardest-throwing pitchers of his era. He stood 6’4, weighed 230, possessed like one percent body fat, and knew how to fight.

    Farnsworth was in a few great fights throughout his career, but his most iconic moment was a flawless takedown of the RedsPaul Wilson.

    Farnsworth nearly beans Wilson during a bunt attempt. Wilson does not charge the mound. Farnsworth charges the plate, drives his shoulder right into Wilson’s belly, puts him in the dirt, and connects on a haymaker that cartoonishly sends multiple pieces of baseball equipment flying out of the scrum.

    Farnsworth’s probably the best fighter who ever played baseball. Historians might float some gin-pickled ill-tempered guy from like 1912. They all weighed 140 pounds and none of them ate a banana’s worth of potassium in their entire lives and Farnsworth would have ended every single one of them.


    Sean Hannity is a devoted disciple of, uh,

    strip malls. But the point is, he has put in significant hours studying and practicing some kind of fighting, which is far more than I can say of myself. Even if he spends two hours a week in a kimono shrieking “hi-ya!” and hitting a cardboard cutout of Bill Ayers with a pair of nunchucks, he’s better prepared than I am.

    There’s a very real chance that he would lay me the hell out. It’s a humiliation I would be unable to bear.


    Every myth about the greatest Olympic superheavyweight wreslter ever is true. He was 15 pounds at birth. He is from Siberia. He did finish his international career with a record of 33-1, and did not lose a match for twelve years straight. Karelin was once asked who his toughest opponent was and answered “My refrigerator.” This is because he bought a refrigerator and decided to carry it up to his apartment by himself. At the time, Karelin lived on the eighth floor.

    Karelin really did work for the Russian Tax Police. He really did win matches by being immovable at 6’3” and 285 pounds, and by picking up his superheavyweight opponents like stray hogs and slamming them backwards onto the mat. He really was built like the man who bullied Ivan Drago in high school, and acted like it in the ring.

    Most people might pick someone who could punch well to be the person they’d least like to meet in the ring. I think punching Karelin with any level of force would just make him mad. Someone who can knock out an opponent can end the terror in a few seconds. As a secondary act of accidental mercy, I might not even remember it afterwards. (Thanks, hypothetical 1986 Mike Tyson.)

    But getting thrown around a ring, submitted, and torqued into a thousand equally horrible positions by a wrestler the size of an actual bear with strength to match, a shaved head, and a stated affinity for ballet and poetry? It’s all bad, but getting suplexed to hell by the man Dave Barry once called “the bouncer in the meanest bar in hell” would be so much worse than anything else I could imagine. It would go on as long as he liked, I couldn’t do anything about any of it, and he’d be thinking about Mussgorsky arias the whole time.


    The bareknuckle boxing legend who once agreed to fight a 45 round fight. Johnson got knocked out in the 23rd round of that fight, yes, but given that it was one hundred degrees outside in Cuba, he was a fugitive from the law, and was a 37 year old man fighting a six foot six cowboy from Kansas, I’ll stand by this as no discredit to his inclusion here. Even his losses scare me.

    The matchup gets so much worse when his fighting style is factored in. Fighting bareknuckle, Johnson would often wait out his opponents in early rounds, and then cash in by laying on punishment when the other fighter was fatigued. Against me, Johnson could jog while eating a large sandwich in the ring for ten rounds, watch me puke twice out of exhaustion, and then pick exactly which ribs of mine to snap before felling me out of boredom in the round of his choice.

    It’s bad when someone can pummel you. It’s worse when they can choose exactly when to do it.


    I can’t think of anything more humiliating than being destroyed in the octagon by the man who wrote the Curious George soundtrack, full-stop. Double humilation if Johnson kicks my ass while wearing some pukka shells and a hemp fiber shirt with an environmentalist slogan on it. Triple if he’s la-dah-dah dah-dah-dah-ing on my ass while he does it. (He’s gonna lah-da-da my ass while he does it, I just know it.)

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    For nine years, a since-fired assistant coach was accused repeatedly of domestic abuse, all of which is now becoming public.

    This is where Ohio State would have to start, if it wanted to defend its football coach, rather than fire him.

    Don’t misunderstand me: firing is very much an option here. Ohio State has already placed Urban Meyer on leave as it investigates his handling of domestic violence allegations against longtime assistant Zach Smith.

    If Ohio State comes to the conclusion that Meyer knew of the allegations and yet did nothing until the public found out, it could decide to fire him for, among other possible reasons, fostering a toxic culture.

    Defending Meyer would be more difficult. To defend Meyer, Ohio State would have to defend him bringing on a coach with a domestic battery allegation, just for starters.

    It would have to defend the head coach then claiming there was “nothing to” a 2015 domestic incident, saying so as recently as a week prior to a report that Shelley Meyer, a psychiatric nurse and his closest confidant, had received pictures of a bruised Courtney Smith in her text messages.

    Meanwhile, Courtney Smith is laying out a public case that Zach Smith abused her for years, as records of her police claims against the assistant coach are becoming public.

    Let’s start with what we know.

    In 2009, Smith — then an intern under Florida head coach Meyer — was charged with aggravated battery against his pregnant wife, Courtney Smith. Meyer later said he reported it to his superiors. Per Brett McMurphy, she says former Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce (Zach Smith’s grandfather and Meyer’s mentor) and Meyer’s “life coach” Hiram de Fries asked her to drop charges — which she did.

    In 2015, police visited her home on suspicion of felonious assault, recording an arrest of Zach Smith before later changing the report, per McMurphy. Records show several other domestic reports to Powell police.

    She says in 2015, she texted Meyer’s wife and other women around the program about abuse by Zach Smith. Per Courtney Smith, Shelley Meyer said she would tell her husband, but there is no evidence she did.

    In 2018, after the public learned in July that Smith had been charged with trespassing in May, Ohio State fired him.

    Legally, this is all defensible right now, if that’s the standard.

    But that won’t be the standard. It shouldn’t be the standard, even if Meyer’s employment survives Ohio State’s probe.

    There is a years-long, first-person account of Zach Smith abusing his wife. According to McMurphy, there are text messages showing Shelley Meyer was aware of Courtney Smith’s abuse injuries and that the wife of another staffer said Urban knew.

    If Meyer’s wife knew, then believing the head coach knew nothing would strain the imagination of even the most skeptical observer.

    And that’s in addition to a July report that Meyer had been quietly trying to push Zach Smith into other jobs over the offseason.

    Upon completion of its investigation, Ohio State must at least admit Urban Meyer had a consistently alleged domestic abuser on staff, and that multiple domestic violence investigations were nothing at all until a local magistrate said they were, as previous court actions became public.

    That skeptic would have to convince themselves that a judge was the one to inform Urban Meyer of things about Zach Smith that Meyer hadn’t noticed in nine years prior.

    Football coaches are some of the most detail-obsessed people on the planet. Their programs live and breathe off information control, both on and off the field. Meyer is one of the most successful football coaches alive. If he didn’t know, it would either be willful ignorance or negligence.

    If he did, it would be deliberate negligence and show Meyer only acted to fire Smith once the law made keeping Smith an impossibility.

    But it shouldn’t take a court order to recognize signs of domestic violence and act accordingly — unless, of course, you didn’t really want to do anything all along.

    0 0

    Myth, memes, and Muscle Milk: studying the leaders of the pack, with the help of several FBS specimens.

    The stories about them aren’t all the same, but they hit a lot of the same notes. Strength coaches drive up to the football offices at 4 a.m. in F-850s, trucks so large they’re only legally sold to men who can deadlift more than 500 pounds. A full barbell power cage and a Ford Mustang GT sit in the back. They carry both everywhere, sometimes without the truck.

    Their height: somewhere between five and seven feet tall. No matter the height, they all weigh 400 pounds of rock-solid, creatine-fueled muscle. The physique might not look like 400 pounds; cracks in the sidewalk are the proof. They wear weightlifting shoes with raised heels in the shower, drink steaming black coffee from rain barrels they carry in one hand, and spontaneously appear with scowls behind linemen about to pick fried food off buffets.

    Strength coaches eat steaks from bison they caught themselves with nothing but knives and loincloth. The thrill of the hunt would be enough by itself, but lean protein in bulk is too much to resist.

    Observers report yelling — different yells for different occasions, some positive, some very positive, and some a specific kind of agitated, but still positive. The strength coach’s call is a hoarse one, starting around 4:30 a.m. and continuing until nightfall, sometimes over ear-splitting Metallica.

    Strength coaches reportedly bench your max for a warmup. They wear heavy coats in July to show the power of the mind over matter, or wear shorts and an undershirt on the field in November. Strength coaches headbutt players wearing helmets and pick up entire assistant coaches like bags of mulch, to keep them from getting penalties.

    They have been seen fretting in spreadsheets over bar speeds and plateauing power clean numbers.

    The reports agree on one thing: strength coaches do a lot of the heavy lifting, literal and figurative, in making a team stronger and faster. They often do this when no other coaches are around. They run workouts, track totals, count steps. They do this all with the help of a loyal pet wolf.

    Some of these things might be true. Somewhere between myth and meme, the strength coaches are often appreciated, but proper documentation is lacking. There needs to be more study.

    Here is an in-progress field guide. Fortunately, the subject is not an elusive one. (No one that huge is.)


    The strength coach emerged recently, first appearing in the Midwest. Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney hired Boyd Epley — a scholarship pole vaulter, albeit a ripped one — in 1969 at the urging of future Cornhuskers head coach Tom Osborne.

    Devaney agreed to let his players lift weights, but with one caveat: “If anyone gets slower, you’re fired.”

    So Epley started Nebraska’s strength program alone in an un-airconditioned shed and used paint cans as weights. No one got slower.

    Strength programs popped up pretty much everywhere. Everyone eventually started doing what Nebraska was doing.

    Fifty years later, strength coaches manage weight rooms the size of Nebraska’s old practice facility. They manage their own staffs. When NCAA rule changes limited the amount of time position coaches could spend with players, strength coaches became the staff members with the most rule-sanctioned player contact.

    That change did not escape the notice of head coaches, who pumped up the position to become more swole with responsibilities than previously imagined. Their organizational importance bulked up beyond proper squat technique. Strength coaches now talk about being “culture drivers,” have gameday duties, and yes, still teach 18-year-olds how to be physically uncomfortable in the name of becoming a better athlete.

    They are the front-line evangelists from the program to the players. Their voice is often as loud as the head coach’s and heard just as often. (If not more, and at much greater volume.)

    Ask Mike Gundy. He’s a head coach.

    “Rob (Glass) is such an important part of what we do at Oklahoma State in terms of setting the culture and in developing our players as men. His impact goes far beyond the weight room.”

    Dwight Galt is the head of strength and conditioning at Penn State, so he is obviously biased on the topic. But he is also in his fourth decade of making players stronger and faster — see Vernon Davis’s legendary combine or Penn State’s recent tear through the NFL’s meat market for proof — so he might know what he’s talking about: “If you mess the strength coach hire up, you’re in trouble.”


    That all strength coaches have beards or shaved heads is unsupported by observation.

    For instance, Galt rocks the bald head/goatee combo. Gus Felder at Miami wears the same, minus goatee. Glass is old school like Epley, clean-shaven with a perfectly normal haircut. Adam Smotherman at Clemson has a goatee because his beard is “patchy,” and also because his wife has forbidden him from growing a mustache.

    Smotherman singles out fellow strength coach Rhett Brooks at Arkansas for facial hair excellence:

    “He has a great red beard. It’s just a hard, awesome beard.”

    LSU’s Tommy Moffitt has no facial hair or trademark haircut. However, “I had a mean mullet back in the day.”

    Matt Hickmann at MTSU wears a true combo-breaker, proof that there is much variation in the species: just the beard, sans mustache.

     Oklahoma State
    Rob Glass


    Definitely diurnal. Barring some early or late film study, strength coaches are usually the first in the building.

    The general rule: The strength coach’s day starts 30 to 90 minutes prior to the players arriving.

    At Miami, Felder gets in at the crack of 4:25 a.m. He guides the day’s workouts while wearing a necklace with a miniature, gold version of a 45-pound plate hanging from it. Each member of his family has one. His is engraved with Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

    Galt gets in the door most days around 7 a.m. He describes himself as “right in the middle” of the standard schedule. Smotherman gets in earlier, especially during the summer, when his alarm goes off at 4:45 a.m. for a 5:30 arrival. (“I’m a morning person.”)

    Moffitt gets in at 6:30 a.m., and checks his email and plans for the day. For summer drills, Hickmann peeks in around 5:30 a.m.

    Glass is in the lot at 5:30 a.m. He says being up that early has one significant benefit: “We don’t have to worry about getting a parking spot.”


    There isn’t one exact path to growing into a mature strength coach. But there is no substitute for experience. No one ever really stops training, ever, because everything changes a little all the time.

    This is especially true for veterans. Galt graduated with a business management degree from Maryland, then volunteered for six years in the gym. In the interim, he worked as a meat cutter, for the Washington Capitals as an assistant strength coach, and as a framing carpenter.

    In 1989, eight years after he graduated undergrad, Galt was making $15K a year and still working at the grocery store.

    Glass began around the same time, as an assistant football coach with a business administration degree. Glass has now been around Oklahoma State since 1985, so long that he trained his current boss, Gundy, when the mulleted coach was a Big 8 quarterback.

    (Glass’s summary of Gundy as an athlete: “His competitive fire was off the charts. It wasn’t like he was a real gifted guy, but his competitiveness was astronomical.” Also, the first version of the Gundy mullet? It had “a little perm” to it.)

    Glass knew he wanted to go into coaching, but wasn’t sure where he’d land. He found strength training when Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones asked him to run “the winter program,” i.e., what schools called their offseason conditioning.

    Glass fell in love with it. Unfortunately, he had no real training, a common dilemma in the ‘80s, when the profession was still in its infancy, something strength coaches still take care when discussing. Glass took graduate courses in kinesiology and working (in his own words) “in scramble mode,” traveling to other programs to bring proven ideas back to Stillwater.

    A lot of strength coaches do have relevant undergrad degrees. Moffitt majored in health and physical education. (“I’m a gym teacher!” he texts when I ask him for his major.) Felder majored in kinesiology. Felder and Smotherman have master’s degrees.

    Their resumes come with long chains of acronyms: CSCS, SCCC, SSN. They denote types of certifications, something the NCAA has required full-time strength coaches to have since 2015. The NCAA’s definition of what makes up certification is broad, and the requirements can vary.

    For example: The Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association’s offers the SCCC, the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified Certification. It requires a 640-hour practicum/internship program, a written exam, and a practical exam done before a panel of certified strength coaches. A certification offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association— Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist — requires a college degree or enrollment as a senior, a CPR certification, and passage of a written exam.

    Experience matters most, though. That’s gained the hard way, through interning, volunteering, and hustling until full-time work comes. From 2008 to 2010, Hickmann lifted in the morning, mowed lawns, trained MMA in the afternoon, worked in a bar, and slept when he could. Somewhere in all that, he volunteered at Cumberland College until they brought him on full time in 2010.

    Sometimes coffee helps.

     USA Today
    Adam Smotherman


    Hickmann’s tastes are more particular than most. He prefers Kimera, a brand describing itself as “amazing artisan high-altitude coffee with powerful vitamins proven to boost cognitive function.” Felder drinks black coffee, no cream, no sugar. Clemson’s Smotherman is a fan of gas station coffee.

    Coffee isn’t as big a thing as one might think, though. Galt has gotten through three decades of getting up early without regular caffeine. Glass also makes his 5:30 a.m. without caffeine.

    Consider the terror in that sentence alone. Some strength coaches just wake up likethat at 5 in the morning.

    Then, if you’re Scott Cochran of Alabama, you rub Icy Hot in your armpits. You know, just for a little edge on big days.


    What gets them there? Moffitt believes the job found him.

    “As far back as I can remember, I was enamored by the strength game. I think strength training found me, not the other way around.”

    His upbringing helped. His family was both obsessed with hoss-level strength and blessed with it. Moffitt’s father was strong enough to grab support poles in the basement of their house and hold his body in a flag pose, his legs parallel to the floor. His brothers broke bricks in their hands for fun. Tommy grew up reading about strongmen like Paul Anderson, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s childhood idol Reg Park, and O.G. iron fiends within football.

    There were more practical reasons for being strong. Growing up in rural Springfield, Tennessee, most of the jobs involved some kind of heavy labor.

    “It paid to be strong. If you were strong, you got good work,” Hickmann says.

    He likes the job — the training, coaching, and friendly yelling — but he also enjoys the connection.

    “We’re here to do a job, and it’s to make sure athletes are safe and strong and can perform. But we’re also here to serve as examples. These guys are maturing. I didn’t have a lot of direction growing up, so coaches always served that role for me.”

    There are benefits other coaches can’t have: the year-round impact on players, the hands-on job, the slightly fewer meetings, and the satisfaction of taking powerful athletes and approaching monster status.

    Even over the phone, every strength coach sounds at least a little giddy when telling someone about a player with a gigantic power clean or back squat. Strength and power alone do not pay the bills, but they are a narcotic that comes with the job.

    Those bills do get paid now. The rise in coach salaries came twice as fast for strength coaches. The USA Today NCAA Salaries database shows the lowest-paid Power 5 strength coach in 2017 still made $150,000, while Chris Doyle at Iowa made $675,000 as the highest-paid in the nation.

    Like almost everything else in the amateur game, strength salaries look increasingly professional.

    Which is a long way from Moffitt’s first college job. When Tennessee called in 1994, Moffitt was coaching at John Curtis Christian High School in River Ridge, Louisiana. The school had won three state titles during Moffitt’s time as a strength coach and assistant. And until television money beefed up college football’s payrolls, the move was not the bump in salary and benefits one might assume.

    “Financially, at the time, it was a lateral move.”

    Tommy Moffitt


    The strength coach may be found in the wild, commuting from home to the weight room. Spotting them is easier than sighting other wildlife, because strength coaches usually drive vehicles proportional to their size. Most of them drive — and this is the correct word — big-ass pickup trucks.

    Moffitt is demonstrative about it. “I drive a King Ranch. And I LOVE it.”

    Smotherman drives a smaller model. (“The other guys make fun of me for it.”) Glass drives an F-150 because “it’s good for hunting.”

    Felder drives an F-150, too. He owns a couple of motorcycles, too. Felder is 6’3 and weighs somewhere around 300 rock-solid pounds. The Harley might look proportional. There is no way his rocket-fueled Suzuki Hayabusa does, however.

    Hickmann has the other option: a muscle car, in his case a 2005 Mustang GT.

    Galt might be the most strength-type. He has a Shelby GT500 and a big Ram pickup.

     Penn State
    Dwight Galt


    Twenty-four years ago, when Moffitt arrived at Tennessee, a lot of players went home for the summer. They got jobs, hung out, and fell off the workout wagon. Fall camp really wasn’t for refining technique. Fall camp existed for getting players back in shape.

    Summer workouts are all but standard now. Early enrollment is more common, too. More training equals players staying in shape year-round; less time spent on conditioning means quicker installs and more efficient practices; more efficient practices are said to equal fewer injuries.

    Counterintuitively, staying in shape year-round creates a novel problem for coaches like Moffitt: making young players rest.

    “Before, you looked for opportunities to get them into the weight room. Now, you’re looking for ways to give them rest.”

    More has not necessarily been better. At Oklahoma State, Glass and his staff have to balance the demands of conditioning with the realities of competing in a power conference, one where a team from Stillwater has to go four quarters in Norman and Austin. That requires a flexible coach like Gundy.

    “He’s totally carte blanche with me, which lets me do a lot. We may not have the roster depth that other people have. We’re getting better as coaches, and we used to overdo stuff. We really work together with Coach Gundy on that, with tracking.”

    Moffitt uses GPS tracking at LSU, along with other apps, to track player readiness, output, and distance covered in practice. There are ways to test hydration, sleep, or anything that can be measured within reason, and maybe a few things well past it. This means instant feedback on an iPad, later pored over in the offices.

    Other coaches admit the challenges of keeping up with technology.

    “Me, I’m an older guy, and the technology is kicking my ass,” says Glass. “The younger guys help me with that. If I had to do that by myself, I’d probably fail now.”

    As for working with millennials — whether they need to be coached differently, and whether millennial athletes question methods too often — opinions vary. Hickmann thinks they need answers because they get so much more information than previous generations did. Moffitt worries about motivations, whether they play football because they love it.

    Felder has no problem with athletes who ask questions.

    “I actually like the ‘Why?’ guys.”

    According to Felder, there’s another issue:

    “Millennials just aren’t used to being pushed as hard. It’s our job to work with them, to push them.”

    There are new techniques, programs, and fads. No one is immune to them, but strength coaches agree on a few principles:

    • Players are nothing without effort.
    • Effort starts in the weight room.
    • The weight room requires commitment and attention to technique.

    Smotherman speaks for everyone when he reiterates that the work has to be done, and the weights can’t be light.

    “I heard a preacher one time say, ‘If you want to get strong, you gotta pick up something heavy.’ That’s kind of the foundational piece of it.”

    And if it all the gear had to come out of the gym except for one thing, what would be left is obvious.

    “Nothing will ever replace the barbell,” Moffitt says. He pauses for emphasis. “Nothing.”