Manassas Junction, Virginia, 1861 — It’s July 21, and the Civil War is about to begin for real. Union soldiers march south from Washington, D.C., to meet the Confederates, and the feeling throughout the north is that the rebels will hightail it back south after they get massacred on day one. The high muckety-mucks from D.C. — congressmen, business owners, and various other rich people — come down to picnic and watch the rout. Instead, after a long day of fighting, Stonewall Jackson and the Confederates send their enemies into a headlong retreat for Washington. As they flee north, the soldiers find the roads blocked by the panicked civilians who had come to watch the end of the pesky rebellion. And that’s how the Battle of Bull Run ended.
I was a Civil War nerd as a kid, so it probably figures that while watching the Pac-12 shock the world last Saturday, I thought of Bull Run. It was the conference’s best day in years, and it completely transformed their image around the country. The three ranked teams did their job, and that was expected — USC beat Syracuse, Oregon beat Fresno State, Stanford beat Duke. But the little guys did their part, too. Arizona dominated no. 18 Oklahoma State at home, Oregon State stunned no. 13 Wisconsin, UCLA outgunned no. 16. Nebraska in one of the best games of the weekend, and Arizona State destroyed Illinois. (Only Washington disappointed in the high-profile games, failing to make a dent against the Baton Rouge Tigers of the NFL’s Second Division.)
There are now five Pac-12 teams in the AP top 25, and two more within sniffing distance. It’s a revolution! The games were mostly at home, sure, but even under those circumstances the odds were long. Yet the mighty programs of the Big 10 and Big 12 left with their tails between their legs, fans in tow, realizing they’d underestimated the enemy. Week 2 was the Pac-12’s Bull Run, and now everyone has to take them seriously.
So I’m calling it: This is the year of the Pac-12. Here are three more semi-ignorant reasons to love the rejuvenated conference.
3. For the most part, Pac-12 teams are footloose and fancy-free. They aren’t tied to any outdated framework for how football “should” be played, and as a result they don’t play with the stiff boredom we associate with Big 10 schools. Pac-12 football is fast, dramatic, and unpredictable. It’s no surprise that a Pac-12 school (Washington State) was the first one with the cojones to hire Mike Leach, or that the brilliant Chip Kelly ended up at Oregon, or that the much-maligned Rich Rodriguez found a home in the Wild West. (By the way, to continue the analogy until you totally hate me, creativity and nontraditional tactics were also the hallmark of the Confederate generals.)
2. The Pac-12 doesn’t really care about defense. This is bad in the sense that no team has a real shot to run the table, but good in the sense that it saves us from the oppressive SEC style of football where opponents are broken down little by little in a simulation of what it must be like to watch a person slowly go insane.
1. The Pac-12 is very human, and very fallible. Anyone who watched USC on the ropes against Syracuse at the start of the fourth quarter, with a team that lost to Northwestern effectively moving the ball downfield on the no. 2 team in the country, realized that there’s no way in hell the Trojans are going undefeated. In fact, this weekend at Stanford looks like a good time for the first loss. Oregon may go undefeated in the regular season, but will get crushed to death in the vice grip of Alabama or LSU in the title game. The entire conference is like a charming ne’er-do-well who can wow you with his wit and who can seduce women at a glance, but who will definitely invest lots of money in something stupid — something like mid-trip refueling cars, where a hired car meets you on the highway and fills you up with gas on the move so you don’t have to stop — and lose $300,000.
So how do you beat a Pac-12 team? On a broad level, just wait for them to have a bad day. Stanford killed Duke 50-13 on Saturday, but only beat San Jose State 20-17 the week before. Week 1 was their bad day. But the formula for elite teams is simple – you beat the Pac-12 with defense. Stifle them, slow them down, batter them relentlessly with superior personnel, and slowly starve them of oxygen. Which is pretty much how the north counteracted the genius and spirit of the Confederate Army and won the war five years later. So enjoy Week 2, because in the end, the world rewards the practical powers.
What’s up, Week 3?
The Ranked Games
No. 1 Tuscaloosa Crimson Tide (NFL Second Division) vs. Arkansas
Oh wait — this was a ranked game, before Arkansas somehow lost to Northwest Louisiana James Monroe Technical Community College and took an almost-unprecedented dive from top 10 to unranked. You know how if you’re on an abandoned raft in the middle of the ocean, and you see sharks circling, you shouldn’t cut your finger and bleed into the water? Well, Arkansas just cut their fingers and bled into the water. Nick Saban, who is such a petty little tyrant that he chastised the media for daring to write that Alabama would probably beat Western Kentucky comfortably (final score, 35-0), has to be salivating at this game. I bet he has a weird, dark little salivating room just for these moments.
Also, congrats to the Razorbacks for accomplishing the metaphorical equivalent of riding a motorcycle with your mistress, crashing, and watching your life fall apart in the aftermath with the UL-Monroe loss. Petrino would be proud, if the damn satellite on top of his trailer home would start working.
No. 20 Notre Dame at no. 10 Michigan State
Hmmm, two teams known for sucker punching their fans anytime things look even slightly positive? This will clearly end in a tie.
No. 2 USC at no. 21 Stanford
My game of the week. The Trojans are an eight-point favorite almost everywhere you look, and the entire universe has completely bought into the Lane Kiffin–Matt Barkley hype. Before I say what I’m about to say next, keep in mind that I’ve been insisting all season that the Baltimore Orioles are a fluke, and they keep winning and making a fool of me. So maybe the Trojans are the Orioles of college football, BUT, BUT, BUT I don’t see this USC team finishing in the top 10.
I made a big show of predicting that Syracuse would beat them last weekend, and when the fourth quarter started, it looked like it might happen. USC pulled away, but I stand by the core point, which is that their defense is not very good and their offense is fueled by three stars (Barkley and wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods) who can’t possibly carry them all year. I can’t wait to see what happens against a strong defense. I’m not sure Stanford is that team, by the way — I stayed up until 2 a.m. watching them decimate Duke last Saturday, and all I can tell you is that they know how to defend a team who runs 47 straight bubble screens. But at home, when they’re hitting an offensive stride, against a team they’ve beat three years in a row? Yes, Stanford can definitely win outright.
No. 18 Florida at no. 23 Tennessee
Sneaky awesome game. I’m not sure if I should be impressed by Florida’s resilient 20-17 win at Texas A&M last weekend, since the Aggies specialize in blowing halftime leads and were unranked anyway, but I am. It’s a weird little team the Gators have, with a quarterback who throws only 16 passes a game and a senior running back (Mike Gillislee) who will eclipse his season high in rushing attempts and yards if he’s healthy enough to play this weekend, and they’ll be facing one of the best passing offenses in the country. Volunteer quarterback Tyler Bray has looked brilliant, particularly in a season-opening decimation of once-proud N.C. State. The more I talk about this game, the more I convince myself that Tennessee will win by 20, but I’m very curious to see what the ragtag Gators can muster.
Top Five Other Games
Count ’em down:
5. Louisiana-Monroe at Auburn
If the Warhawks can somehow beat Auburn, and then Baylor next week, they’ll have made it to Sun Belt conference play at 3-0 with three impressive wins. And hey, Auburn is 0-2. Baylor doesn’t have RG3. Also, worth noting that this is Warhawk vs. War Eagle. I don’t want to sound unpatriotic, but if I had to take one in a fight, I’m going hawk all the way. Sorry, eagle, but we don’t hear about the hawk going extinct all the damn time.
4. No. 25 BYU at Utah
The winner gets the famous “Birch of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” It’s basically a birch tree trunk that symbolizes Mormonism, and — no, I’m totally making this up. The winner actually gets to have dinner with Mitt Romney at a White Castle. Like, a literal white castle, not the fast food chain.
3. Arizona State at Missouri
What do we know about these crazy 2-0 Sun Devils? Does Jake the Snake Plummer still play there? Man, those were good times. In 2012, ASU has two running backs (Marion Grice and D.J. Foster) averaging over six yards per carry, and a sophomore QB in Taylor Kelly who has been pretty flawless so far. Todd Graham, whose previous credits include Pittsburgh and Tulsa, took over from Dennis Erickson this season, and is thriving in the desert. I judge that not by his two wins, which were against weak opponents, but by the fun cactus hat he wears around town. Anyway, the mighty Missouri Tigers of the SEC will be their greatest challenge yet.
2. Wake Forest at no. 5 Florida State
Keep an eye on this one. That’s all I’m going to say. Wait, no, that’s not all I’m going to say. In all likelihood, FSU will annihilate Wake and hold them to -89 yards. But what if there’s a Savannah State curse? You know, the team that got paid lots of money to be humiliated 84-0 by Oklahoma State and 55-0 by FSU in a game that was called in the third quarter? There’s no honor in that, and karma paid OSU back by dealing them a loss the very next week. Could it happen to the Noles? Hopefully, because I like curses, but probably not. This will probably be a rout, in which case the ACC Atlantic will almost definitely come down to Clemson-FSU next week.
1. No. 14 Texas at Ole Miss
There’s a saying in “The Grove,” Ole Miss’s famous tailgating area, which is, “We may not win every game, but we’ve never lost a party.” But it’s not true. In 2003, Ole Miss lost their first party in school history to Texas Tech when Mike Leach stormed shirtless into The Grove, did a keg stand, and burned a rebel flag while singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in a Scottish accent. By the time everyone recovered from the shock, it was too late. Tech also won the game, 49-45.
How Will Penn State Lose This Week?
Penn State seems to be taking a few hits from karma and losing tough games in 2012. This week, Penn State will lose to Navy on a last second Hail Mary when a cloud shaped like Bobby Bowden gathers the ball into its soft arms and lays it gently in the hands of a midshipman receiver.
Your Perfect Saturday
We assume you have two methods of watching football. Otherwise, what are you spending your money on? Really expensive tacos? You can get cheap tacos, man. We also assume you have a quick remote hand, to navigate the channels when games overlap.
Noon — Wake Forest at no. 5 Florida State — ESPN
Noon — Louisian-Monroe at Auburn — SEC Network/ESPN3
3:30 — North Carolina at no. 19 Louisville — ABC/ESPN
Almost made my top five list. Did you guys see Bryn Renner’s TKO on the field, followed by Larry Fedora putting him BACK IN THE GAME? You can see the video here, where Renner points to himself after the hit, closes his eyes, and seems to pass out on the field. Fedora and Renner both said it was a rib injury, and apparently getting the wind knocked out of you can cause a temporary blackout, but the hit looked like it came to the head, and Renner looked addled and confused when he returned to the game. He’s my ACC fantasy quarterback, and I do appreciate Fedora’s commitment to my squad, but man, that looked nasty.
3:30 — Navy at Penn State — ABC/ESPN2
6:00 — No. 18 Florida at no. 23 Tennessee — ESPN
7:00 — Arizona State at Missouri — ESPN2
7:30 — No. 2 USC at no. 21 Stanford — FOX
8:00 — No. 20 Notre Dame vs. no. 10 Michigan State — ABC
9:15 — No. 14 Texas at Missouri — ESPN
10:00 — No. 25 BYU vs. Utah — ESPN2
This Day in Fake Duke Football History
On September 13, 1982, the Duke School of Engineering invented the very first computer chess robot. Anxious to test it against human players, the engineers arranged for a match with the university chess club. Unfortunately, the man charged with carrying the equipment to the match got lost and ended up at Wallace Wade Stadium, where the chess robots defeated the Blue Devil football team 47-43 with a last-minute goal line stand.
Unorthodox Heisman Handicap
5. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA
Leading the nation with 431 yards after just two games, and averaging a killer 10.5 per carry. He’s on pace for 2,586 yards, which would fall 42 yards shy of Barry Sanders’s all-time record. I’m not sure why I enjoy keeping track of that so much. I should point out, though, that I’m annoyed by the “h” in Johnathan’s first name. So redundant.
4. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
Tied for second-most receiving yards in the NCAA, tied for second-most receptions, tied for most touchdown receptions. I’m including him because of his stats, but I fully expect him to be replaced on this list by fellow Trojan man Robert Woods. Seriously, watch the Syracuse highlights. Lee is very good, but Woods is spectacular.
3. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Whoa, Geno’s 32-36 on the year. Four TDs, no picks, and the second-highest QB rating in the country. By the way, I watch this clip of Andy and Dwight playing “Country Home” about once a month.
2. Ed Reynolds, DB, Stanford
Three picks on the year, 144 return yards, and a touchdown. He’s the token defensive pick of the week, inspired by my hope that he leads the Cardinal to an upset of USC.
1. THE KLEINAPPLE EXPRESS, QB, K-STATE
What, you thought I’d forget about Collin Klein? About his 281 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns in a one-man demolition of Miami? About his rugged good looks and down-home values? About the time he saved nine children from a burning church, and then rebuilt the church in six hours and then burned it again for charity? About how I’m now his Heisman campaign PR man? No, my friends I did not forget. Enjoy the games.