Thursday, September 1, 2011
Important College Football Questions ... ANSWERED
By Chuck Klosterman and Michael Weinreb
We thought it would be fun for Chuck Klosterman and Michael Weinreb to debate this year’s college football season, via e-mail. Turns out it was really only fun for us.
Good morning, Michael J. Weinreb. I was recently asked to have an e-mail conversation with you about college football, because — as we all know — there is nothing the average consumer enjoys more than reading the e-mails of two unemployed people they've never met. I was initially going to start our exchange with "The SUPERHOT questions for 2011," which typically involves all the issues everyone in the media is talking about: Who will win the national championship, who will win the Heisman Trophy, and how Oregon and Miami will deal with the dark clouds of impropriety that engulf their respective programs. However, I'm going to take things in a different direction. I'd like to hear your opinion on a variety of questions that absolutely no one is talking about. They are as follows:
1. Who do you think will win the Mid-American Conference?
2. Who do you think will finish second in the voting for the Doak Walker Award?
3. Who will have a better statistical season: Florida quarterback John Brantley (now being coached by new Gator offensive coordinator Charlie Weis) or Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert (now being pushed by Colt McCoy's little brother, the oddly named Case McCoy).
4. If Boise State were in the SEC East, how many games would it win?
5. If Nebraska immediately wins the Big 10, does that essentially prove that the Big 10 is not an elite conference?
And a good afternoon to you, Charles I. Klosterman, Esq. I will address your obscure queries, but in order to placate our audience of curious gamblers, witch doctors, and engineers who unwittingly construct time-traveling boxes in their garages, I will say, in response to your HOT topics: Oregon, Andrew Luck, and "Phil Knight will find way to purchase the NCAA." Now, on to more esoteric concerns.
1. I don't fully understand the ramifications of the potential superconference realignment, but it seems daunting. I know that you harbor a generally antiplayoff viewpoint, but I think part of the reason you take this anachronistic stance is because there's always the chance that if Ball State was to go undefeated, it could at least be included in the proverbial BCS (or potential playoff) conversation. But say there are four superconferences, and say that the playoff is derived entirely from these four superconferences. Is this a good thing? Isn't that endless sense of possibility — of Miami (Ohio) beating Arizona — what makes the NCAA tournament the best of all American sporting events? And shouldn't any playoff system take that into account? Marginalizing conferences like the MAC might not make any actual difference in who wins/plays for the national championship, but the perceived difference would be considerable.
That said, I will choose Toledo, because it has a running back named Adonis.
2. Do you remember when Ricky Williams wore Doak Walker's number as a tribute? It's kind of weird that a player who had both a legendary college career and an incredibly impactful professional career is going to be remembered most for wearing a wedding gown and smoking ganja on a mountaintop. If you were asked where the greatest run of Ricky Williams' career would rank among the most memorable public impressions of him, would it even place in the top eight?
3. I know you're a big Charlie Weis supporter. I know, in fact, that you sent me this e-mail upon the occasion of Weis' hiring:
From: Chuck Klosterman Subject: print and save this e-mail
Date: January 2, 2006 9:37:23 PM EST
To: Michael Weinreb
Over the next 10 years, Notre Dame will win more national championships (three) than every team in the Big 10 combined (one).
Now, I know what you will say: You will say, "This prediction is still in play!" And technically, that's true. But the spirit behind your e-mail was that Weis would somehow alter college football as we know it, and in this, he failed. He still could be a genius, or he might just be a heavyset braggart with an unfortunate haircut. At this point, it's 50/50.
I have no idea if Gilbert is more talented than John Brantley, but I am far more sympathetic to him after he stepped into that national championship game two years ago. I already see him as the real-life Matt Saracen, and now I see Case McCoy (who is probably a perfectly nice guy, for a dude named after a carry-on item) as J.D. McCoy (and by the way, what happened to J.D. McCoy? Did he graduate? Is he a methamphetamine addict? If they do make an FNL movie, can we at least get some sense as to how his college career panned out? Maybe he winds up getting drafted no. 1 by the Chargers?)
4. I think Boise could beat every team in the SEC East. I think it could beat most of the teams in the SEC West. I could see them going 12-1 or 11-2 and losing to Alabama or LSU in the SEC championship game. I think it's pretty stupid that people still presume they're not on a level playing field when they continue to defeat top teams year after year. They lost one game last season, to an 11-1 team with an NFL-caliber quarterback on a couple of blown kicks, and they have one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the history of college football coming back this season. The only people who don't take them seriously at this point are turf-grass scientists.
So let me ask you this: Let's say Boise beats Georgia the first week of the season, 17-14, on a field goal in the final minutes. That field goal is set up, in part, by a disputed personal foul penalty on the Georgia defense. Boise then runs the table. The Broncos win every other game they play by at least a touchdown. Meanwhile, Georgia runs the table in the SEC, beating South Carolina 31-14 and Florida 38-21 and Auburn, 27-10. And then they beat an undefeated (and even more dominant) Alabama team in the SEC championship game, 21-20, on a field goal set up, in part, by a disputed pass interference penalty on the Alabama defense.
So Boise is 12-0, and Georgia is 12-1, and Oregon goes 12-0 out of the Pac-12. Who plays for the BCS Championship? And how much of an argument is there?
5. Nebraska’s winning the Big Ten is a distinct possibility, and it seems like this question about the Big Ten’s weakness will immediately become the storyline if it happens. The Big Ten is kind of like the NBA at this point; wildly popular, and yet always on the verge of disaster. But really, it doesn't mean much. It means that Nebraska is at a potential zenith point and that the traditional "power programs" in the Big Ten are in transition.
The larger question is this: In 1994, Penn State had a better strength of schedule and scored 47 points per game as compared to Nebraska's 35. Penn State put up 63 points against Ohio State and had both the top quarterback and the top running back in college football that season, and only fell out of the no. 1 spot in the polls because the Nittany Lions refused to run up the score against a hapless Indiana team. So let me ask: While it is patently obvious that Penn State deserved to win the national championship that year, will you finally admit that Kerry Collins deserved the Heisman Trophy, as well?
OK, first of all, if we're going to go back and republish random e-mails from the past 15 years, you are going to fucking regret it a lot more than me. Secondly, Ki-Jana Carter gained 1,539 yards for Penn State in 1994, and he probably would have been a decent kick return specialist for Nebraska that year. Actually, that's not true. I rescind that statement. The Huskers could have used him at free safety. Are you ever going to get over this? You're like those lunatics who still hate Steve Bartman. Besides, Penn State really isn't a football school, anyway. Isn’t it significantly more dominant in volleyball? Thirdly, I’m sick of talking about Friday Night Lights.
Boise State would not go undefeated in the SEC East. There's no team in the SEC East the Broncos couldn't beat, but they could never beat them all in the span of a single season. They may beat Georgia, although that game is now something of a must-win for both teams — the Bulldogs have to play South Carolina in Week 2, and somebody will probably blow up Mark Richt's Buick if they start 0-2. But let's work through your little hypothetical: If Oregon goes 12-0 (with wins over LSU and Stanford), it’d obviously be the best team in the country. If Boise and Georgia were the top two contenders, I think the consensus would be that (a) Georgia is better, but (b) you cannot deny Boise State (and reward Georgia) if they played a head-to-head game that the Broncos won. I'm sure people would complain about this, but there are idiots who complain about everything. Boise State is entering the season ranked (by just about everybody) in the top 5. If the Broncos go undefeated — and if there's only one other undefeated program — there's no possible justification for not placing them in the BCS Championship. Because if you don't, you're basically telling them to kill their football program and just worry about basketball. You can't have a scenario in which going undefeated is meaningless.
To me, the question over the BCS Championship always shows how misguided America is. Whenever we get to December, there are always all these people talking about who "deserves" to play in the national championship, as if this is some kind of unalienable right you're entitled to by virtue of how well you match up against teams you haven't even played. I don't care who "deserves it," because nobody deserves it. That's an emotional argument. I like sports because sports are interesting, and there's no system more interesting than Division I college football. Its imperfection is the key to everything, because it balances an inherently unbalanced world. I thought the coach from TCU made a great point last year; basically, he argued that the lack of a playoff actually gives smaller programs a much better chance to win the national title than a playoff would (and he's totally right — had Auburn or Oregon lost a regular-season game last year, TCU would have played in the title game, even though the Horned Frogs likely could not have won four straight games in a 16-team playoff). This is not pro football, where every owner has the same ability to spend money and draft talent and build whatever team they imagine; colleges and universities aren't equal and never will be. The fact that LSU has to play seven or eight games against opponents who could feasibly beat Boise State (while Boise plays only three teams who could feasibly beat the Tigers) does not make things worse. It makes things better. It makes every LSU game worth watching (not to mention how Boise is always worth watching, because they Broncos essentially eliminated from the conversation if they merely beat teams by 14). The degree of difficulty is ultimately the same for both programs, because the scales are so dramatically different. Nobody questions whether or not LSU is able to recruit better talent than Boise, or if the Tigers have better facilities or more pro prospects; the question is whether or not they can take that greater talent and succeed under more difficult conditions. The championship itself is fictional. That's the interesting part. But we exist in a pro culture, so people can't see this. They care only about who's collectively classified as no. 1 at the end, which is why you can't get over 1994.
My runner-up for the Doak Walker award: Louisiana Tech's Lennon Creer — a combination of John Lennon, Apollo Creed, and what would happen if the word "career" was only one syllable. Also, I predict that Minnesota defeats USC in the opening week of the season and then finishes 6-6.
I have nothing against Nebraska, Charles. Jarvis Redwine is the greatest running back whose name should have been co-opted by a '90s grunge-rock band. The best game I ever attended was in 1982, when Penn State defeated Nebraska on a diving catch by a tight end nicknamed "Stonehands." I think Tom Osborne is a genuinely admirable human who should have kept the ball in the hands of Turner Gill. I'm excited about the renewal of the Penn State-Nebraska rivalry, and not just because it gives us a perennial reason to tell our wives that there is an important football game on that we cannot miss (also, Penn State now has a running back named Silas Redd, which kind of brings us full circle).
But the whole idea that the 1994 argument even exists is what's ridiculous. I'm not really upset that Penn State didn't finish first in 1994; I'm upset that Penn State didn't have the opportunity to finish first in 1994. That it took nearly a century for college football to acknowledge the fact that at least the two highest-rated teams should have the opportunity to play each other in a bowl game is what frustrated me then, and the game's continued intractability in the face of its flaws is what frustrates me now. However, I also recognize that you are a sporting Vulcan, and that, while you have a curious lingering partisanship toward the teams you admired as a youth (like Nebraska), real emotion scares you. And so you lash out and refer to my fandom as "lunatic" behavior. That's fine. It is easier to be detached. And I think you make an intriguing case for the notion of each team measuring itself against its own circumstances. But I don't quite get your argument that finishing first shouldn't matter.
After all, you said, "You can't have a scenario in which going undefeated is meaningless." And then you paraphrased the TCU coach, Gary Patterson, saying that it would be easier for his team to win the national championship without a playoff. The only problem is this: TCU went 13-0 last year and didn't play for the national championship. It went undefeated, and wasn’t even seriously considered for the title game. It was meaningless enough that you, who are not what I would call a casual college football fan, seem to have already forgotten about it. Am I misunderstanding your point? I mean, I did attend a state school. But this is what concerns me about the superconference model: It pretty much eliminates any program that isn't already established. I don't know if it allows for a team like Boise to elevate itself into a national power from out of nowhere.
So allow me to tap into your curious emotional landscape and ask you a few things: First, can you explain, once and for all, your continued obsession with Cotton Bowl (both the game and the stadium)? Second, in the next 10 to 12 years, presuming Miami does not get the death penalty (and gets, say, two or three years of probation and a bowl ban), who has a better chance of winning a national championship: Notre Dame or the Canes? (And will North Dakota State win a Division I-AA national championship before either of them?) And lastly, among these Heisman candidates — Andrew Luck, Kellen Moore, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore, Trent Richardson — which will have the most disappointing season?
First of all, regarding your alleged admiration of Tom Osborne: He wasn’t a very good congressman. As for TCU well, obviously, it never lost a game. The Horned Frogs had the most successful season possible; they achieved every goal they could control. But there were three undefeated teams last year, and two of them were from stronger conferences. Those two teams were the reasonable selections for the BCS Championship, and I suspect they were probably the two best teams in the country. But Patterson's point was that the likelihood of TCU going undefeated during the regular season (and making the title game, under a specific set of circumstances beyond his control) is still greater than the likelihood of TCU winning the title through a playoff format. Now, if there was a collegiate playoff, I would love to watch it. I wouldn't lobby against its implementation (in fact, last year would have been an especially great tournament, which I suspect Alabama would have won). But I don't dislike the way things are now. I enjoy bowl games; I don't care if other people don't. You can’t build your life through the desires of strangers. I will watch the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
As for your other questions:
1. The Cotton Bowl is my favorite stadium, and it used to be my favorite bowl game. I have specific reasons for feeling this way, but I choose not to express them here. The fact that the Cotton Bowl has been moved to the new Cowboys Stadium is a travesty, and I'd classify my ongoing interest in the game as "eroding." I will, however, continue to use AT&T as my long-distance provider.
2. Miami is a corrupt program, but I'd be deeply disappointed if the Hurricanes received the death penalty. I'd prefer they receive virtually no penalty at all. I don't care what they did. I don't care how many whores were delivered to Devin Hester. It has nothing to do with me. They're a corrupt program and everyone knows they're corrupt, and that's its own penalty. And college football is better when the Hurricanes are awesome. They're the most historically important program of the past 30 years. If someone says, "I love the Miami Hurricanes," it tells you a lot about who that person is and what they value (and such signifiers are what make sports fandom semi-important). So my hope is that Miami will be given a penalty that has almost no impact on the future. Granted, this is unlikely. I think it will (at the very least) lose a lot of scholarships, which means most of the best high school players in Florida (i.e., the best high school players who exist) will end up at FSU, Florida, USF, and UCF. But here's the thing: If they can't get the best players, the Hurricanes will go after all the players the other schools are afraid to recruit. They will go after players who would be deemed unacceptable at other places. And if you recall, that was a major reason Miami became a power in the 1980s. So I would assume that — unless it’s given the death penalty — Miami will likely be in a better position to win the 2021 national championship than Notre Dame. But even as I type that sentence, I question my own thinking. If Brian Kelly could have an undefeated regular season at Cincinnati, why couldn't he have an undefeated season at a school where recruiting is easy and the schedule is similar? If Notre Dame goes 10-2 this year, I think there would be reason to believe the program may return to prominence within five seasons; if it goes 8-4, it probably means there's no fixable solution on the horizon (and that it’s basically a mid-major without a conference). But I think it will probably go 9-3, which will tell us nothing.
(Related question: After SMU was given the death penalty is 1987, the conventional wisdom was that this sanction would never be employed again, simply because the penalty was so severe that no program would be able to rebuild after the total annihilation of the program. Yet SMU has done so; it took more than 20 years, but they'll probably win Conference USA this season. So — if a program can get the death penalty AND eventually recover over time — does that (perhaps) justify the severity of the penalty? In the case of SMU, one could argue that the death penalty served its purpose perfectly.)
3. Among the names you listed, I would guess LaMichael James has the most potential to disappoint, mostly because the Oregon program seems in flux, but also due to the nature of the Ducks offense. What they do is so forward-thinking that it's difficult to anticipate how the individual pieces will perform. I would be surprised — but not remotely shocked — if he ended up being the second-best RB on the roster before the end of the season. It always feels like anything is possible there. I'd have never guessed James would be better than LeGarrette Blount in 2009, so who knows who might be better than James in 2011? This is another quality that makes college football so different from the pro variety: If a starting running back in the NFL gets hurt, nobody thinks, "Well, maybe his backup will actually be better. Maybe we just don't know how good this new guy is." Because in the NFL, everyone knows everything. There are no unknown qualities. In college, the future is always unclear. Look what happened to Pittsburgh last year: Dion Lewis rushed for 1,800 yards as a freshman and was supposed to be Tony Dorsett, but he ended up leaving school early because he basically lost his job to Ray Graham.
I think Lattimore will have a huge year. Steve Spurrier is harsh on quarterbacks, but he's loyal to tailbacks; Lattimore will probably touch the ball 32 times a game. Richardson will not have Lattimore-like statistics, but he'll be the best RB in the SEC on any given first down. Kellen Moore is in a unique position — if he throws for 3,000 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 picks, his season will be seen as a total bust. Luck's in a similar situation, because anything less than the Heisman is a failure to fulfill expectation.
How do you feel about what has happened to the Big 12? What’s the matter with Kansas?
And do you like the new Pac-10 (or is it the Pac-12)? Do you think Lane Kiffin has a good marriage?
How many teams in the Big 10 would win the Big East?
I think we agree that college football is more satisfying than the NFL largely because it is messy and imperfect. There are people (such as the founder of this site) who have trouble comprehending that this is the reason why we like college sports better, but I would submit that the end of that Boise State-Nevada game was the most wrenching moment of the 2010 football season. Could you name a single NFL game last year that even approached that level of emotion? I can't. I wanted to buy that Boise kicker a beer, give him a hug, offer him a Xanax, and allow him to hide out in my basement for the rest of his life. I don't think the implementation of a playoff system would impact the emotional weight of the game, and I don't think permitting dudes to accept free tattoos or sell a Poinsettia Bowl ring on eBay would affect that, either. At least, I hope it wouldn't.
OK, so other than the Cotton Bowl, what was your favorite bowl game as kid? I have powerful memories of the Bluebonnet Bowl. They played it in Houston on New Year's Eve, so it was something to watch until they rolled out Dick Clark. I remember that they put up one of those phone-poll questions during the game, and they asked you to call some 900 number and pay 75 cents for the privilege, and I convinced my mom that I should do it. I wrote out an entire three-page speech in response to this question. I can no longer recall what the question was, but it must have really raised my ire. (Maybe it was something about Joe Paterno's pants.) For some reason, I thought they actually wanted the input of a 9-year-old in central Pennsylvania. And then I called and an automated voice said, "Thank you for voting NO," and hung up. That seems like an appropriate metaphor for the bowl system.
You know, you say Miami is a corrupt program, but the weird thing is that it previously both was and wasn't: Randy Shannon had one of the highest Academic Progress Rates in the country, and only one of his players got arrested in four years. So from that perspective, the Hurricanes were actually "cleaner" than Notre Dame, though I'm guessing Jimmy Clausen did not have easy access to prostitutes. But when you say, "Miami will go after all the players the other schools are afraid to recruit," I think that's the quandary they face. Their entire program is defined by misbehavior and self-aggrandizement, and now they're in this weird position in which they have to embrace that history (in order to survive) and repel that history (in order to survive). I don't know how they do it. In a weird way, the death penalty might be preferable, because it would allow them a clean break from their past, and maybe they'd be better positioned than SMU was to make it work again. These things change so fast now. I mean, Florida State is the power program in Florida again. Three years ago, the Seminoles looked doomed. Now I think they'll probably win a national championship before 2016.
As to your queries, I don't really have a strong emotional attachment to the Big 12 as it currently exists. I still think of it as the Big Eight. In fact, if they decided to split up altogether in order to reestablish the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference, I'd be thrilled. Conference alignments are nothing but nostalgic attachments, so none of this should bother us at all. And yet it does. It feels weird when they change. "Colorado belongs to the Pac-12," is one of those sentences that I won't be able to type without feeling like I've erred until the 2018 season (in fact, I just Googled this twice, and I *still* had one of those pangs with which I thought, "Wait. Is Colorado in the Pac-12?")
I think West Virginia will be a BCS team. Their coach is a skydiving Mike Leach disciple who loiters outside of casinos; how can they fail? But I believe that Wisconsin, Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan State, and potentially Iowa and Penn State (depending on their quarterback situation), could win the Big East with relative ease. If the Big East and ACC ceased to exist as football conferences, I'm not sure how much it would affect my life. Although I think Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech is the most underrated coach in the country who will probably never win a national championship.
And while we're disparaging the NFL, who are the most exciting purely "college" players in the country? Denard Robinson seems like the ultimate example of this. If he were an NFL quarterback, I think James Harrison would decapitate him and then eat one of his shoelaces out of spite. And yet I will watch every single game Robinson starts, because he makes plays that are simply not possible in the pro game. He'll never be as good as Matthew Stafford, and yet he's 3,000 times more interesting.
Within my memory, the Orange Bowl always seemed like the biggest game, but — because my elementary school inevitably returned from Christmas break on January 2 — I almost never saw the second half of any Orange Bowl. I usually had to watch the highlights on the Today show.
Denard Robinson is definitely the most exciting player in the country (and perhaps the most exciting THING in the country, regardless of classification), but it sounds like Michigan is actively trying to make him less exciting on purpose. It is my understanding that new Wolverines coach Brady Hoke is going to install a pro-style offense, apparently because well, apparently because he likes to make bad decisions. Rich Rodriguez clearly had some problems in Ann Arbor (it should have been obvious that you can't run the 3-5-5 3-3-5 against physical Big 10 teams like Wisconsin), but there is no way anyone who plays Michigan won't be totally relieved that they no longer spread the field. I would have given Rodriquez one more year for that reason alone. Forcing Denard Robinson under center is morally reprehensible; it's like turning Ozzie Smith into a left fielder. I will never root for Michigan again, except when it plays Ohio State. In terms of other "college only" QBs I'm intrigued by: Taylor Martinez (Nebraska), Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) and whoever ends up running Georgia Tech's flexbone are all in my wheelhouse. Among non-quarterbacks, I'm most interested in future millionaires Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) and Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma). I suppose it's possible that they didn't jump to the NFL due to lockout fears, but I like to imagine they both returned to college because they secretly hate each other. Moreover, this will really raise the stakes in another of 2011’s not-so-HOT questions: Who will finish second in the voting for the Fred Biletnikoff Award?
You know, I feel like this conversation has run its course. Nothing was accomplished. We basically just ran out the same obvious war horses that every other bozo in the country is going to mention on television. I mean, does anyone really need us to tell them that Denard Robinson is fast? We would never have that conversation in real life. The Internet forces people to pretend. Was this really 5,000 words of value? We never mentioned the Sun Belt Conference once. We should have talked more about the service academies. This was a failure.
You know, I always thought that Dee Dowis’ real name was actually “Dee.” And I imagined him as an Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew F-16 missions with his arm dangling out the window. But his real name is Michael, and he is a pharmaceutical sales manager in Greenville, S.C.