Here at the Addison Recorder, we all love sports, but our loves were not created equal. Forget just me and my two cohorts; almost no one I know outside this site has an emotion to match Alex Bean’s magnificent obsession with football, NCAA more than the NFL. Far more. I’d swear that not just the blood but every fluid which comes out of his body is Michigan blue and maize.
And so, with one beyond devotee and two men who appreciate the game at least enough to provide intelligent and witty commentary while hanging with other men, I decided that this year I’d pay more attention to college football than usual, if only to keep up.* But as I read the Phil Steele preview magazine, squinting over the 400 or so pages of closely packed print and so many abbreviations that the kind of glossary you need to understand Westeros is necessary, I came to a triple epiphany. First, with the exception, and very huge one, of the sheer joy there is in debating the issues with your friends or the other bar habitues over a few cold ones, there is almost no point to predicting the NCAA season. Second, even if they introduce playoffs or some kind of new organizational structure, there might never be a way to determine the best team in football.
And third, the NCAA football championship is the sports equivalent of the Grammy Awards. Because, although both concern things I hold dear and are immensely entertaining, there is almost no way in hell they’re picking the best of the best.
Let me break down the Grammys, as I see them, before we make the comparison and spend the rest of this piece on football. There’s a distinct difference between the Grammys and other awards ceremonies. Film, for instance, while produced in a wide variety of genres, all play by the same basic rules of format and construction: actors, writing, mise-en-scene, etc. Be they Oscar-bait period dramas or sci-fi spectacles, every film sticks to the essential components, so evaluating and comparing quality is theoretically possible.
The same goes with television, drama, and most literature. But in music, every genre has a different series of rules: pop music is arranged and structured differently from “rock,” which is different from metal, blues, country, jazz, classical, etc. The musical genres sound almost nothing alike and each has a different standard for how a successful work is judged. So when you decide to place all of the music in one year up against each other and say “this is the best,” you run into problems.
For example, and my favorite example at that, the late, great Blender magazine, when picking the weirdest moments in rock history, singled out the 1982 Grammys for bestowing the most statuettes on that singular group of musical geniuses, Toto.
Yes, Toto swept to SIX AWARDS, including the hallmark Album of the Year, on the backs of Toto IV. The one with “Africa” on it, a song I sometimes hope I never have to hear again.
Now truth be told, Toto IV is by no means a bad album. It has “Rosanna,” which deservedly won Record of the Year for cramming so many brilliant melodic hooks into 5 1/2 minutes, and the underrated ballad “I Won’t Hold You Back,” sung by the guy who played guitar on “Beat It.” And “Africa” isn’t annoying when you hear it sung a capella. But how can you objectively say that Toto IV was better than fellow Album of the Year nominees The Nylon Curtain (Billy Joel) or The Nightfly (Donald Fagen, which the members of Toto were convinced would win)? Better than fellow winners Miles Davis, who released a magnificent comeback live album, Sarah Vaughan with her all-Gershwin LP, the Chicago Symphony for recording Mahler’s Seventh, or Willie Nelson and his virtuoso recording of “Always On My Mind?” You can’t. And it happens year after year. Even with genuinely great albums, it’s hard for me to say Time Out of Mind or 21 are the best the music world has to offer when there’s so much out there.
College football is not music, obviously enough. Every game is played by the same rules, each position handled the same way. But like the Grammys, the NCAA tries to rank and qualify a mass almost beyond comprehension.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, I am about to make Mr. Bean very, very happy.
One of the greatest moments of my life as a sports fan was watching Ohio State win the 2002 national championship over Miami in double overtime, ending with an unequalled 14-0 season. However, were the Buckeyes really the best team that year? They were a solid unit full of great role players, but even forgetting how that same championship game was a bit tainted by some borderline officiating, they also played a relatively light schedule for the regular season in a less-than-inspired Big 10 year.
Therein lies the problem. There are at least 90 top-caliber recognizable college teams, but the season lasts 12 games at the most. And not only do teams play at least half of their games within their conference, but also the scheduling mannerisms of college football allow for a picking and choosing of opponents. With these standards, picking one single team as the best is an exercise in windmill tilting.
Of course, the unworkable alternative is for everyone in I-A to play everyone else. And while Alex would love that, a never-ending season would start to feel like an allegorical fantasy story about a never-ending war which dominates the culture.
So this is not a preview column per se, because I have no fricking clue how to analyze the season and make predictions and such. Not even within the conferences, because every team’s schedule is way different from the other teams’! If one squad is playing a bunch of AP Top 10 nominees and another has colleges from Nowheresville, I’m not going to compare them!
Therefore, since in my mind picking any team to come in first seems a fool’s errand, I take another tact. In reading magazines and the Internet, I found six teams whose fortunes I decided to follow this year. Some are far more qualified for a title shot than others, but what I’m hoping for are shots at a bowl, undefeated seasons, thrilling moments, games that go down to the wire and if lost do not disappoint, so well were they fought, and if won are cause for a flourish of celebration. This is the reason we watch sports, after all.
Let me get the one team which will make people groan out of the way first:
USC Trojans (Pacific 12)
There will be cries here of “front-runner!” But three factors went into my singling out the University of Southern California. First, I have a special fondness for the university. I lived a few minutes away from it. I took the GRE English Literature exam there, which helped bring to me Chicago. I saw Bruce Springsteen perform practically right on the campus. And I have many friends who graced its halls for the full term. Unlike Florida State, Alabama, LSU, I feel a connection to this place.
Second, I never deny the brilliance of the running game, and the adrenaline boost of perfectly strategized defense, but the most thrilling part of football for me, is the exhilarating arc and dance of the forward pass…those few seconds of graceful flight above and relentless dance below, the outcome never certain until the final second, has few equals in any sport. And the thought of Matt Barkley tossing pigskins to Marqise Lee and Robert Woods all season, possibly to the national title, is a beautiful one.
Third, a lot of my picks are based on the idea of stories…of cementing a team’s narrative into the grand narrative of football. USC is coming off two years of what some critics feel were sanctions far too harsh (though that’s a column for another day), and are finally eligible again postseason play. This is a team with something to prove, so much so that Barkley turned down NFL overtures to play his senior year for the Trojans. Even if they fall short of the national title, they should fight as hard as their namesakes in defeat.
On the other end of the state, there is one team I’d get a kick out of seeing USC take an upset to…
Stanford Cardinal (Pacific 12)
Phil Steele’s magazine, which I alluded to before, mixes numbers Bill James would drool over with a self-congratulatory air James never adopts. It is too much reading for one man and one sitting, but he helped me pick three teams I wanted to follow this year with his annual Surprise Teams list: teams not ranked in the preseason Top 10 who could contend for the national title. Stanford is at the bottom of his list, but they entice me because of their construction: an all-around team with no significant weaknesses and plenty of strengths: rotating quarterbacks, a powerhouse rusher in Stepfan Taylor, and the linebacker duo of Shane Skov and Chase Thomas…coming off a #4 ranking and the loss of Andrew Luck, the team from the Bay Area, like their Los Angeles counterparts, has the motivation to prove they can contend with only thirteen returning starters. It should make for a thrilling season. (AND I give mad props to Stanford as the jewel of California education.)
Steele’s top surprise team also garners my attention…
Texas Longhorns (Big 12)
If USC is all offense, Texas is all defense. Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat are considered the best defensive end combo in the country, a combined 510 pounds of running roughshod over people, and with seasoned backs led by Kenny Vaccaro backing them up, Steele labels them the “best defense in the Big 12.” But defense is only half the battle, while Texas’s offense is nothing too special outside of sophomore running back Malcolm Brown, their offensive line is nearly as great at block and tackle as their counterparts, giving the scorers plenty of room for gridiron marches. In short, Texas football this year is akin to a sports version of The Dirty Dozen: teach them, train them, excite them, turn them loose on America and watch the blood and bruises pile up.
The same logic behind my supporting USC also led me to…
Virginia Tech Hokies (ACC)
Virginia Tech has one of the most brutal schedules on the East Coast and an almost entirely inexperienced offense…but their defense, led by Kyle Fuller at cornerback is one of the scariest in the NCAA, and that offense is anchored by Logan Thomas, who almost evenly split his 30 touchdowns last year between passing and running. Throw in a historic tendency for upsets, and even with potentially playing Florida State TWICE, Virginia Tech could give us the most exciting season of the year.
The general consensus is that the SEC is the mother of all conferences, so I have to follow somebody there. But I’m skipping past LSU, Alabama, and Florida in favor of…
Auburn Tigers (SEC)
This is in part a tribute to Alex and I’s storied career at MAPH, for our dear friend Adam Osborn, scholar, master chef, dedicated insomniac, owner of the world’s craziest dog, and significant other of future physical therapist extraordinaire Ashley DePalermo, is studying medieval literature at Auburn, so I already love this school…
But also, Auburn has a fantastic narrative. A national title winner over Oregon two years ago, the Tigers dropped to 8 wins as almost all their starters graduated or went elsewhere. But this year they field a team dominated by upperclassmen, including the offensive leaders Philip Lutzenkirchen and Ontario McCalebb (who SOUND like characters from a medieval saga), and a schedule which excludes Florida but includes every other top conference team, though with only four road trips. A fight to reclaim a top position in the league with plenty of fans cheering them on is the stuff of inspiration.
And finally, my home turf…
Ohio State Buckeyes (Big 10)
Ohio State is, and always will be, my team, my family’s team, even though I don’t think my dad has said a single kind word about any Buckeyes coach in my lifetime, and you all know I’ll be needling Alex on OSU-Michigan day, but this year I can only root for them to shake up the conference and national title hunt as they serve a one-year probation for the sad misdeeds of the still fondly-remembered Jim Tressel era.
But Jake Stoneburner and John Simon could spend their senior years as spoilers for the four Big Ten teams with legitimate title shots–Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and yes, the Wolverines.
And Braxton Miller shows enough promise to be the greatest quarterback to grace Columbus in fifteen years at least…all under the new and inspired leadership of Urban Meyer.
So that’s my cross-country trip through a sports world where the title seems kind of arbitrary, but everyone has a great time anyway, and I expect plenty of great times in the next three months. Follow along in the Recorder for more…
Though this raise the always intriguing question of WHO follows us. I don’t know all our readers, but I might be able to guess come December if one of these teams wins their conference, or more, and starts singing “Africa” on camera.
*I already feel like this was an inspired choice…indeed, I’m already planning something similar for the MLB season next year.