Oklahoma at FSU — First of all, to the athletic directors, thank you. We may not say it enough, but we appreciate everything you do. Not everything, but we appreciate this game. Both your squads harbor national title aspirations and neither needs to play a game like this. There are plenty of multidirectional, religious A&Ms who could use a check with which to pay their chancellors. So, thanks.
It’s early enough in the season that neither of these teams will be out of the running with a loss, but for Florida State’s program this is unavoidably a measuring stick. Has Jimbo patched this ocean liner that fast? I mean, that was pretty damn fast. He’s certainly recruited well enough. Captain Bubby built the enviable vessel from scratch and sailed the high seas awhile, wide-right field goals notwithstanding, using the safe bay of the ACC to conserve resources, but then he let the ship get looser and looser and looser until the staunchest Bowden supporters were jumping off the bow. Those NCAA jerks took all those wins away, leaving him no shot at catching Paterno. Somewhere in there FSU lost to the Gators about a half-dozen times in a row. No conference titles recently. Now, they did install a state-of-the-art system for academic cheating, which is a time-consuming administrative distraction. They were so good back in the ’90s, their losses few and far between and honestly perplexing, that it took me years to believe they were slipping, to stop regarding their losses as huge upsets. Those defenses they used to have, some days you couldn’t even play against them. It wasn’t that they were merely talented and dangerous defenses, though of course they were. You could not play against them. You were unable to run plays. They were instantaneously in your backfield upon the snap — like, all of them. Marvin Jones would be drafted and here would come Derrick Brooks, and then Derrick Brooks would graduate and here came Sam Cowart.
It took a long time not to feel a thrill at an FSU loss, but the losses have been many and the thrill is gone. I don’t like those guys, but I am nostalgic for the days when the FSU-UF tilt was a de facto national semifinal — win and you’re in the title game. Last year, the Seminoles lost by 30 to this Oklahoma team, so for the FSU players this is a revenge game. Back a decade, in one of those few and perplexing FSU losses I was talking about, the Sooners stifled FSU’s offense and field-goaled their way to a national championship. It was the most recent appearance FSU made in the big game, so for Seminole fans this is also a revenge game. You never forget those national titles you should have had. Oklahoma’s got the veteran quarterback. FSU’s got the home field. Oklahoma knows what it is. FSU hopes to be what it once was.
LSU at Mississippi State — Mississippi State was a doomed program a few years ago. Not down, but doomed. May as well close up shop. Then here came Dan Mullen on a wave of energy and sporting a new-fangled offense and getting all up in Houston Nutt’s recruiting grill and generally putting Starkville back on the map. (Not maps of the United States, but at least maps of Mississippi.) Oxford is quaint and historic and easy on the eyes, while Starkville looks like a freight depot that was about to shut down until it was saved at the last minute by the arrival of an oversized community college, but at the moment, State is the better football program. Could the Bulldogs ever win the modern SEC? Was 1998 their only chance and they blew it? That loss to Auburn last weekend was very damning. Very damning indeed. It was far from Chris Relf’s fault they lost (not suggesting that), but if he goes airborne on that last play, we could be talking about tonight’s game in terms of the winner having a leg up for the Western Division, not in terms of Mississippi State dampening LSU’s national championship hopes. I sigh. Literally, sitting in the bar at you-know-where, with my Caesar salad and sort-of pumpernickel on a wood plank, I sigh thinking about that last play. Chris, my man, next time you see the end zone in front of you on the last play of the game, launch yourself into it.
Ohio State at Miami — Again, kudos to the ADs. Above the call of duty. We thank you. And so, another game in which the home-team players have a recent loss to avenge and the home-team fans are still stewing over a decade-old lost title. This time it’s the home team that boasts the experienced quarterback. Both these programs have those NCAA killjoys devising punishments for them as we speak, but I remember being 20 years old and I don’t think the players are worried about that stuff. The Ohio State players still want to go undefeated, and that should be their goal. The Miami players want to defend their home turf and then get coked up and go yachting. Sorry. That was uncalled for. Immature. I crossed the line. But isn’t it fascinating, seeing two storied programs who are both in big trouble battle it out as the guillotine hangs overhead? It’s like if Magic and Bird had gotten caught embezzling, and before they were shipped to their separate jails they played one-on-one on TV. It’s probably not like that at all. No, it’s very different than that.
Simple Math (or if you went to LSU, Advanced Math — or if you went to Mississippi State, Figurin’ You’d Just Assume Not Fool With)
(6-7) — The record last year of Boise State’s 2011 big-conference conquest, the Georgia Bulldogs. So far this season, the Bulldogs are 0-2. TCU already has a loss. Oh, boy, here we go again. That old, familiar Idaho waltz. What are we going to do with you? Your name will be repeated all season as you bash through the High Desert National Park Elk-Molesting Conference, John Saunders calling you the “fly in the ointment” about 400 times between now and Christmas break. What to do? There won’t be a playoff anytime soon. Maybe we’ll wind up with two 40-team mondo-conferences and the champions of those two conferences (which will be determined by interdivisional fourth-quarter time of possession) will square off in the national title game, and with any luck you’ll be a member of one of those conferences.
I’m going to list the 2011 schedule of a certain SEC team, one the voters had the good sense to put into the title game even with two losses a few seasons ago, and also list your 2011 schedule, Boise. I’ll grant UGA as a road game for you, even though playing them in Atlanta isn’t quite the same as taking them on betwixt the hedges.
SEC Team: Oregon, Northwestern State, at Mississippi State, at West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, at Tennessee, Auburn, at Alabama, Western Kentucky, at Ole Miss, Arkansas.
Boise State: at Georgia, at Toledo, Tulsa, Nevada, at Fresno State, at Colorado State, Air Force, at UNLV, TCU, at San Diego State, Wyoming, New Mexico.
See how even though their conference schedule makes yours chuckle-worthy, they still go and play Oregon and West Virginia, both of whom are better than Georgia? I know, there are always excuses. I don’t need to hear them again. I don’t even dislike you. I like your trick plays. I love the maximum effort, the grit. I admire your camo turf, those blue-uniformed defensive backs blending right in as opposing quarterbacks look downfield. Let’s talk solutions. I’ll tell you what I’m prepared to do. I’m prepared to put you in the big game this season, to make you the non-SEC school in the championship. There’s no denying you’ve been good for a long time, and though there hasn’t been a specific year in which you’ve earned your way into the big game by compiling enough quality wins, we can consider this deal a lifetime achievement award. Here’s the catch: You’ll pull yourself from BCS championship consideration for the next 10 years and declare on your website that you aren’t a fly, but a really good football team, and that there isn’t any ointment, only a bunch of teams that play much more difficult schedules than you. Deal? One shot and then go away?
(0) — Number of BCS titles USC wound up with. Just reminding everyone, partly to be a dick. But also partly to point out how great these seasons are in which the title (and media attention) is up for grabs. We’re not in the midst of what passes for a dynasty these days, and isn’t it great not to have one program shoved down your throat? Even I, as a Florida alum, can acknowledge how annoying the Tebow circus became. (At least, in that case, the crystal footballs appear to be in Gainesville permanently). Thank god Auburn came back last year and beat Alabama. If the Crimson Tide had won back-to-back national championships, the very next day thick-armed movers, cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths, would’ve loaded the entire town of Bristol onto those WIDE LOAD trucks and moved it building by building right next to Tuscaloosa. A big, huge telecasting suburb. The saddest part is that in USC’s case (since its 2004 trophy was confiscated), all the patella-area scarring incurred by the media was in the name of zero BCS championships. This season all sorts of teams have national title hopes — not we-want-to-play-well-and-get-to-a-good-bowl-game hopes but legit we’re-the-best-team-in-this-whole-country hopes. Some of which have never won a national title, or maybe won one so long ago that nobody remembers: Wisconsin, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Boise State, Oklahoma State.
(1) — Rank of Auburn’s defense for the 2004 season. That’s the year the media was having such a great time in L.A. they forgot all about a certain lovely village. A national championship season was pushed under the rug by the frenzy surrounding a Trojan faux dynasty. Auburn went undefeated in the SEC and went ahead and won its bowl game, and nary a cry for it was heard. This was a team that had three members of its offensive backfield taken in the first 25 picks of the following NFL draft and had the aforementioned top defense in the land. So media (I’m talking to the ones that count — TV and radio), when you get a chance to spread the love around, spread the love around, because the team you’re repetitively bludgeoning us with either isn’t as good as we think or they’re cheating. And fans, enjoy this non-heavy-favorite season. Delight in it.
And as for any scar tissue incurred for naught in Southern California, same as always: vitamin E and time.
Books for dudes (and non-dudes?) who are smart but don’t have the time and/or inclination to sift through the offerings of literary fiction and who could use a solid recommendation or two and who, if they ignore that recommendation, will feel guilty and think a little less of themselves because they know that quality reading improves the quality of the individual
The Book: You Know Me Al
The Author: Ring Lardner
The Sport: Baseball
The Dope: To pull off an exclusively epistolary short story is no small trick. To pull off a whole epistolary novel — to adhere strictly to the format and somehow create compelling characters and settings and even a plot while also somehow avoiding the feeling of redundancy — is something most of us writers know better than to attempt. Fortunately, Ring Lardner is better than most of us writers. All the letters are from the same person, Jack Keefe, a brutish and boorish pitcher plying his trade in the time of $1,200-a-season contracts. Al, the guy in the title, is an old friend of Jack’s and the recipient of all the letters. Al is the sympathetic character, and grows more sympathetic in direct proportion to how assholish Jack grows. He’s an asshole from the start. From there, mix in measures of success and money. Lardner manages to display his main character’s various faults without the character ever being aware of them — that’s the comic tension. I won’t call Jack sympathetic, but you will feel sorry for him fairly often. He’s a tragic figure, adroit at one narrow craft and terrible at life. Bad teammate. Bad friend. Bad drinker. Bad with personal finance. Prejudiced against left-handers. Cocky. Lazy. You Know Me Al is a great character study and an engrossing look at old-time baseball. And it’s full of the best dugout humor I’ve ever heard, most of it lost on Jack Keefe.
John Brandon is the acclaimed author of Citrus County. He is writing weekly on college football for Grantland.
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