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American Pride Sliding Down the Track at Sochi February 16, 2014

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The author with the United States bobsled team after they won the 4-man world championship at Lake Placid in 2012. I was so elated to have my picture taken with these fine fellows, my grin distorted my smile! L-R: Steve Holcomb, Steve Langton, Patrick Murray, Justin Olsen, and Curt Tomasevicz.

With a full week of the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi now in the books, it is finally time for my personal favorite winter sport to commence, that of bobsled (“bobsleigh” being the preferred international, i.e., non-American term).  With recent success in the sport over the past 12 years, surely the bobsled events are to gather some decent attention here in the United States, and with good reason.  We stand good chances of winning medals in all three events (2-man, women’s, and 4-man), but more importantly, we have great athletes who are also outstanding individuals representing the U.S.A.

When I first started watching the Olympics in earnest as a youngster (Calgary 1988 to be exact), I’ll never forget the first time I saw a sled fly down the track on TV.  I thought to myself, “Oh my, that was so cool!  What is that?”  Needless to say, I got hooked on bobsledding, and eagerly anticipated watching those events above all others during every Winter Olympics cycle.

If you are a football and track & field guy like I am, this is the winter sport for you.  It combines the strength, speed and power aspects of football and track, as well as the team coordination of football.  Make no mistake about it; bobsledders are the biggest, fastest, strongest athletes in all of the Winter Olympic events.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at how Johnny Quinn (a pusher for USA-2) managed to escape being trapped inside a bathroom.

Plus, it’s racing on ice, and in a country that enjoys auto racing as much as we do, that should seriously count for something as well.  And yes, our 4-man sleds are built with NASCAR technology, which is why they’re the best!

In any event, the Games in 1992, 1994, and 1998 all ticked by, and every time I watched in frustration as a medal in the sport continued to elude us.  It therefore goes without saying that one of my favorite moments of the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake was witnessing on TV USA-2 break a 46-year* medal drought by winning a bronze medal in the 4-man event, only to be bolstered further by USA-1 winning the silver.  America was “back” in the sport, and it felt great.  The fact that women’s bobsled was introduced as an Olympic event that year, with America winning the gold, was the icing on the proverbial cake.

Several years later, I started following the US bobsled team during the regular seasons (yes, there are such things in these relatively obscure Olympic sports), and started to learn the names of the fine fellows pushing and driving our American-designed and built sleds, courtesy of a project spearheaded by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine.  The 2008-2009 season particularly grabbed my attention, as I found ways to watch the races online, and pay close attention to the news of Team USA winning the 2009 World Championship, the first time America won such a distinction in literally 50 years (1959).  The following year, we won the gold medal in the Vancouver Winter Games, the first time we achieved that since 1948 at St. Moritz.

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With my good friend and fellow Purdue Boilermaker Doug Sharp, who was part of the USA-2 4-man team that ended America’s 46-year medal drought in bobsled by winning the bronze at Salt Lake in 2002. Behind us is the “NightTrain” sled that our American boys used to win the gold medal at Vancouver in 2010.

I had the blessed opportunity to travel up to Lake Placid, New York (as in, the holy grail of Winter Olympics in the Western Hemisphere) to photograph the 4-man world championships there in late Feb. of 2012 (photography being my main hobby these days).  There, I met up with a friend of mine and fellow Purdue Boilermaker, Doug Sharp, who was on the USA-2 team that won bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  During the races, I managed to take some decent sports shots, despite my learning curve.  In between the races, though, my friend Doug introduced me to a number of bobsledders, both past and present.

After runs 1 and 2, for example, I was invited into the team garage — it was like being in the dugout with the Yankees!   There, I was able to meet John Napier, a fine younger driver who was at the time the driver for USA-2.  I also met Chris Fogt, who earned a spot on the USA-1 team at the start of this season.  Moreover, I met both Adam Clark and Dallas Robinson, both from the Louisville, Ky., area (my native city and still current area of residence).  Robinson, interestingly enough, is now the brakeman for USA-2 at Sochi, both 2-man and 4-man.

During the VIP luncheon, I had the opportunity to thank a number of ladies and gentlemen for representing America so well with their accomplishments over the decade, but even after the part was over – several hours later – and the sun had already gone done, the day was not over yet.

When we left the track that evening, Doug took me over to the Olympic Training Center, where, in a most unexpected turn of events, I was able to meet three of the four current men of Team NightTrain** (such is the nickname for the USA-1 crew; they dubbed their sled “The NightTrain” during the 2008-’09 season for its fearsome black color scheme).  They were polishing their sled’s runners for runs three and four the next morning, and at this surprising opportunity, I once again was able to relay by heartfelt thanks for their efforts and for honoring our great nation in winning gold.

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USA-1 as they race down the track at Lake Placid, N.Y., during second of four runs, and en route to winning the 2012 4-Man Bobsled World Championship. Photo taken by the author.

Meeting and befriending these fine fellows was truly a pleasure.  Unlike the prominent athletes in major professional sports here in America (say, the NFL, MLB or NBA), these guys don’t get much attention for what they do.  In countries like Germany, or especially Switzerland, bobsled drivers garner as much fame as quarterbacks do here in the NFL.  How many people here in the States, who don’t follow the Olympics, know who Steve Holcomb is, let alone his push athlete teammates?

In addition to meeting Holcomb that evening, I was also able to meet Justin Olsen, who was part of the team that won gold in Vancouver.  Steve Langton took over for Steve Mesler after the latter retired, and the former is considered one of the finest push athletes in the world.  Watch for Langton as the brakeman for Holcomb in the 2-man event.  Nick Cunningham was also on hand to polish the runners for his sled.  Watch for him as the driver for USA-2 in both the 2-man and 4-man events.

They hail from all over this great land.  Holcomb comes from Park City, Utah, and was originally an alpine skier before taking up bobsled (interestingly enough, the legendary Italian driver Eugenio Monti was first a skier before he himself took up bobsleigh).  Nick Cunningham is from Monterey, Calif., home to one of the finest public aquariums in the world.  Justin Olsen is from San Antonio, home of the Alamo and the beacon of liberty that it represents to Texans and many Americans elsewhere.  Steve Langton is from the Boston area (and was a track star for Northeastern University).  The brakeman for Team NightTrain, Curt Tomasevicz – who will reportedly retire at the conclusion of these Games – hails from a small town in Nebraska, and was a linebacker for the Cornhuskers before taking up this sport.  Honestly, part of the fun of getting to know these guys was just talking to them about their native towns.

Suffice it to say these guys did not get into the sport for the fame, for there is relatively little (that is, on this side of the Atlantic, at least).  These guys compete for love of the sport and love of country.  In fact, many of these men support themselves as part of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, and have been, or still are, active in the National Guard.  Chris Fogt even served a tour of duty in Iraq.

But one thing that really struck me positively as I got to know these outstanding fellows is how much they appreciate their fans.  Many prominent professional athletes seem to wall themselves off from the majority of fans – given all the crazies out there, one can surely sympathize – and hard-core fans to them are a turn-off (here’s a tip:  want to ingratiate yourself to prominent professional athletes?  Be a fan who has perspective).  But to our American bobsledders, passionate fans are not a turn-off; in fact, they feed off their energy.

For the record, the ladies who represent America in the women’s bobsled events are no less gracious or appreciative of their fans as well.  Like their gentlemen counterparts, they are educated, industrious, dedicated, and down-to-earth.  In other words, they are every bit the embodiment of how we would ideally envision an Olympic athlete to be.

They, both the men and women, are also incredibly approachable.  They put on no airs of being “above it all,” and are always glad to meet new fans and supporters.  The fact that fans here in the States are relatively few and far between compared to the big money sports might be a factor in this, but that does not detract one iota from this positive trait.

What is even more amazing about what these talented, dedicated men and women achieve is that they do so on a relative shoestring budget compared to prominent programs in other countries.  Germany, Switzerland, and recently, Russia, lavish massive funds on their respective programs, albeit with mixed results.  Germany is never to be counted out, and the Swiss have performed decently in the 2-man as of late, having to earn back their dominant spot that they kept throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.  Russia is a constant threat to medal in the 4-man as well (Canada’s not too shabby either, fyi).  But this season, Team USA has been in contention to win almost the entire time, winning enough races for USA-1 to win the overall World Cup trophy in the 2-man event and finish second overall in the 4-man (the latter alone is impressive when you consider the crash they had at Winterberg, Germany in early January).  When one considers that these good fellows of ours achieve this with far less funding than other countries’ programs, it makes this momentous feat all the more incredible.

In short, the dedicated men and women that make up the U.S. Bobsled Team embody everything that we as fans ought to admire in world-class athletes.  You could not ask for more outstanding individuals representing the United States of America, and I for one cannot wait to cheer on my friends as they race down the ice at the Sanki Sliding Centre.  Go Team USA!

*Prior to 2002, the last time that the USA won a medal in bobsled was bronze in the 4-man event at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina D’Ampezzo.  Moreover, we have not won the gold in the 2-man event since 1936 (!) and have not medaled at all in it since 1952.  That could very well change come Monday.

**USA-1 won the 2009 World Championship, the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the 2012 World Championship (all in 4-man) using the NightTrain sled.  Geoff Bodine’s “BoDyn” program soon designed a new sled for USA-1, which they immediately dubbed “NightTrain²”, and is the sled they have been using for the entire 2013-2014 season, the Sochi Games included.  USA-2 has thus inherited the original “NightTrain,” so both sleds will be put to good use!

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College Football Week 14 Awards December 1, 2013

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 14] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him: Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Glad I’m not him: Nick Saban, Alabama

Lucky guy: Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

Poor guy: Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech

Desperately seeking a clue: Kyle Whittingham, Utah

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Tom O’Brien, Penn State

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Desperately seeking … anything:  Will Muschamp, Florida

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Ball State (defeated Miami, Ohio 55-14)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Northern Illinois (defeated Western Michigan only 33-14)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: New Mexico (lost to Boise State 45-17)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  South Florida (lost to Central Florida 23-20)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Texas (defeated Texas Tech 41-16)

Dang, they’re good: Florida State

Dang, they’re bad:  Idaho

Did the season start?  Rutgers
Can the season end?  Purdue

Can the season never endAuburn

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 3 Ohio State 42, Michigan 41

Play this again, too:  No. 4 Auburn 34, No. 1 Alabama 28

Take a look at this again, while you’re at it:  No. 13 Oregon 36, Oregon State 35

Never play this again: Ball State 55, Miami (Ohio) 14

What? San Jose State 62, No. 16 Fresno State 52

HuhPenn State 37, No. 15 Wisconsin 24

Are you kidding me?  No. 10 South Carolina 31, No. 6 Clemson 17
Oh – my – GodNo. 4 Auburn 34, No. 1 Alabama 28

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 14, pre-week 15)
Ticket to die for:  No. 3 Auburn vs. No. 5 Missouri in the SEC Championship game

Best non-Big Six vs. Big Six matchup: (none)

Best non-Big Six matchup: LA-Lafayette @ South Alabama

Upset alert:  No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Ohio State in the B1G Championship game

Must win: No. 18 Oklahoma @ No. 7 Oklahoma State

Offensive explosion: Texas @ No. 9 Baylor (Thurs.)

Defensive struggle: Memphis @ UConn

Great game no one is talking about: Bowling Green vs. No. 16 Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship game, Fri.

Intriguing coaching matchup: George O’Leary of UCF vs. June Jones of SMU

Who’s bringing the body bags?  No. 20 Duke vs. No. 1 Florida State

Plenty of good seats remaining: Memphis @ UConn

They shoot horses, don’t they?  South Florida @ Rutgers

Week 14 in review:

Wow.  Many end-of-year (or NEARLY end-of-year) weekends that bill themselves as “Rivalry Week” rarely live up to the hype.  Much of the time, the rivalry games end up as rather one-sided affairs.  Not this time, though.  Take the Ohio State-Michigan game, for example.  On paper, it should not have been anything of a contest at all.  But the Wolverines showed up in this game as they had not done so all year.  Sure, they looked formidable against Notre Dame early in the season, but they brought their game to a whole level above that in giving the Buckeyes the biggest fight of the season.  It was fitting that they saved their best game for their last of the season, and against their sworn enemy from Columbus.  In the end, a one-point margin of victory helped preserve the Buckeyes’ undefeated season and a shot at the BCS title game.

The “Egg Bowl” rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State also lived up to its tradition, in more ways than one.  For starters, it returned to its Thanksgiving Day timeslot for the first time in several years.  For another, the game was close and hard-fought right to the end, with the Bulldogs pulling out the victory they needed to become bowl-eligible.

Duke-North Carolina may be known for its bitter basketball rivalry, but today, the football rivalry was a big deal and a good game.  The Blue Devils ended up winning, narrowly, 27-25, and in so doing they clinched a spot in the ACC Championship game for the first time ever.

Another such game that looked one-sided on paper but in reality was hard-fought to the end was the LSU-Arkansas match-up on Friday.  It seems not to matter how well LSU has done in the year, or how mediocre or play the play of the Razorbacks may be, but the Hogs always seem to bring their “A-game” when they play the Tigers.  Perhaps the trophy for which they play is sufficient motivation, as “The Boot” (it is shaped in the manner of Arkansas and Louisiana together on a map) weighs 175 pounds.

Yes, there were rivalry games that were rather one-sided affairs.  The Florida-Florida State game, usually played in or around the last weekend of the college football season, was almost always the game of the week back in the 1990s.  That started to change a decade ago when FSU’s on-field performance began to deteriorate.  But recently, the Seminoles have made the right moves to return to football factory status, while the Gators’ collective performance has seen much better days.  The outcome of Florida State’s 37-7 win therefore came as no surprise.

Same thing for the Purdue-Indiana game.  While Purdue owns the series by slightly more than a 2-1 margin, today, they did not show it, as the Hoosiers beat the Boilermakers 56-36, and four of Purdue’s touchdowns came in the last 20 minutes of the game, leaving the Boiler Faithful to scratch their heads all the more.

Then there was the “Iron Bowl,” that annual storied match-up between Auburn and Alabama, arguably the most intense, heated, and passionate of all the in-state rivalries.  Through much of the season, the game was not on many peoples’ radar screens.  Not after Auburn’s dismal performance last year; not even when the Tigers were slowly getting better and better with each game under new head coach Gus Malzahn.  Yet by game time, they worked their way up to the No. 4 team in the nation, giving the engaged observer pause that this match-up could be one of the most epic in the history of the rivalry.  The game remained close throughout regulation, and technically was tied up at its end, as the last second ticked off during a field goal attempt.  That same attempt came up short; short enough that an Auburn returner was able to field it in the end zone, before promptly running out of it straight up the field.  Wait a minute, the observers were telling themselves, nothing is going to come of this.  Nothing hardly ever does.  Yet the returner kept dodging a few would-be tacklers as he ran along the sideline.  In fact, he continued to run past a few more would-be tacklers before all jerseys of the opposing color were in his proverbial rear view mirror.  Wait, can this actually happen?  OMG, it IS happening!  But this NEVER happens!  And yet it IS!  I am  in shock.

The Iron Bowl, it turned out, was not just an incredible game in this history of this most-storied of rivalries.  THIS was a shot heard ‘round the world, and we are all still in shock from it today.

Still, not a bad turnaround from going winless in the SEC last year to having only one loss this year, even now potentially vying for a shot at the national title.  Guz Malzahn deserves “coach of the year” accolades for that alone.

Oh, and Stanford-Notre Dame turned out to be a very watchable game in its own right.  If that’s not enough, Steve Spurrier proved that he is the man yet again by schooling Dabo Swinney in Columbia, with his South Carolina Gamecocks trouncing the Clemson Tigers 31-17.  Had his squad not blown the game to hot-and-cold Tennessee earlier in the year, they would have punched their ticket to Atlanta to represent the East division in the conference championship game.  Instead, the team that will have that honor will be, inexplicably, Gary Pinkel and the Missouri Tigers.  Such is the world of college football at the end of the 2013 regular season.  What a way to cap things off, and best of all, there is a great after-party next Saturday with more games on the slate!

2012-2013 Bowl Game Awards January 10, 2013

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What, you’d think I’d be lying down on the job just because the regular season is over?

COACHES
Wish I were him:  Charlie Strong, Louisville

Wouldn’t be bad to be him, either:  Nick Saban, Alabama

Glad I’m not him: Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Lucky guy:  Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Poor guy: Patrick Higgins, Purdue (interim coach)
Desperately seeking a clue (long-term, notwithstanding the win):  Mack Brown, Texas
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Bill Blankenship, Tulsa

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Lane Kiffin, USC

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Texas A&M (beat No. 11 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 4, 41-13)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Florida (see below)

(Dec. 15-31)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Purdue (see below)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t: Louisville (see below)
(Jan. 1-7)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Alabama

Thought you wouldn’t get your butt kicked, you did: Notre Dame

Dang, they’re good: Alabama (and Texas A&M!)
Dang, they’re bad:  Purdue

They can’t be that good:  Oklahoma State

Dang, they’re overrated:  Notre Dame

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Mississippi State (lost to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, Jan. 1, 34-20)

Did the season start? USC
Can the season end?  West Virginia
Can the season never end?  Louisville (or Clemson, though really, Louisville more so!)

GAMES
Play this again (Jan. 1-7):  Outback Bowl – No. 10 South Carolina 33, No. 18 Michigan 28

(Dec. 15-31)

Play this again:  Peach, I mean, Chick-Fil-A Bowl — No. 14 Clemson 25, No. 8 LSU 24

Also, play this again:  New Mexico Bowl – Arizona 49, Nevada 48
(All Bowls)

Never play this again: Heart of Dallas Bowl – Oklahoma State 58, Purdue 14
Don’t bother with this one again, eitherIdaho Potato Bowl – No. 22 Utah State 41, Toledo 15

What? Chick-Fil-A Bowl — No. 14 Clemson 25, No. 8 LSU 24

HuhHoliday Bowl — Baylor 49, No. 17 UCLA 26

Are you kidding me? Sun Bowl — Georgia Tech 21, USC 7

Oh – my – God: Sugar Bowl – No. 21 Louisville 33, No. 3 Florida 23

Wow, dudeBCS National Championship – erstwhile No. 2 Alabama 42, erstwhile No. 1 Notre Dame 14

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Cal Sport Media / AP Images

That’s why you line them up and play.  My father repeated this mantra to me as I was growing up.  Going in to the BCS National Championship game, it seemed as though Notre Dame and Alabama were rather evenly matched on paper.  The Fighting Irish had some rather impressive wins on their resume this year, far more impressive than the mediocre schedule they had played in recent years.  Beating a tough Stanford squad at home, going on the road to humiliate Oklahoma, and then closing out the regular season on the west coast to beat USC, all in the same year, is no small feat.  With such a record, it looked like Notre Dame was back, ready to butt heads with the big boys for national prominence.

Moreover, it was supposed to be a down year for the SEC, remember?  Michigan played South Carolina down to the wire (though seriously, the overall outcome was as predicted, if not by a slightly truncated margin of error), and an underachieving Nebraska challenged a, well, underachieving Georgia squad.  Mississippi State, for what a great regular season had – by MSU standards, at least – came for naught when they coughed it up to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.  The most striking example of building the case for a SEC down year was the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.  No way, under normal circumstances would LSU lose to Clemson, though to be sure, the ACC team has been known to pull one over on the SEC team in that bowl game (remember the 2001 Peach Bowl between Auburn and North Carolina?).  No. 3 Florida inexplicably losing to No. 21 Louisville can also add fuel to that fire (not that U of L’s win is something to be rued outside of SEC country!).

Forget that the SEC had three losses going into this game.  The conference was 5-3, to be exact; still a winning record.  Look at the Bama team itself.  They had graduated tons of talent to the NFL.  Quarterback A.J. McCarron was not a transcendent player at that position (as one often expects on a team that would be in the running for the national title).  The offensive line was young and inexperienced.  The Crimson Tide’s defense was not overwhelming, either, especially when compared to the smothering D’s of recent champion squads.  When paired up against the other team, one could readily predict some clearly potential mismatches.  After all, Notre Dame’s receiving corps was big and talented, and proved to be a game-winning factor throughout the season, as the Irish’s opponents had no answer for that part of their offense.

But there was more.  What gave the Irish the strong look of national viability was that Coach Brian Kelly had done an amazing job of massively upgrading the team’s defense.  At a school this is much more academically rigid as ND, certain recruiting restrictions tend to put the defensive side of the ball at a disadvantage.  One can recruit smart linemen, quarterbacks, tight ends, and receivers, after all, and they are out there.  Defense is another issue.  Never as well-choreographed as offensive, players on that side of the ball tend to be a bit more reckless, and often have to be to make key stops.  Making good grades and doing what defensive players have to do to succeed on the field is oftentimes an incompatibility.  Yet Kelly somehow made it work.

So how did things turn out they did?  Even yours truly predicted a close game, at least until some time in the 3rd quarter.  Turns out, in hindsight, we all made the same mistake we made going into the 2007 BCS game.  That year, Ohio State was the undefeated, No.1  team.  Florida got in the game almost as an afterthought.  Yet despite a touchdown by the Buckeyes on the opening kickoff, the Gators dominated from then on, leaving many viewers in a state of shock and disbelief, and also to ask each other:  how did we not see this coming?

The answer comes in two parts.  The simplest part is, they are SEC teams.  Florida then and Alabama this year played in the most brutal of all college football conferences.  Anybody who emerges as the conference champion is battle-hardened, battle tested, and ready and able to go toe-to-toe with anybody else in the country.  If one does not believe that the SEC, despite its down year this year, is still not the best conference in the country, you are both blind and detached from reality.  For one, SEC teams have won every national title since the 2006-’07 season; that’s seven consecutive years and counting.  But even more to the point, the NFL is the ultimate truth serum when it comes to who produces the best players in college football.  One NFL team general manager once observed that you could field a competitive team in the pros just by drafting players out of the Southeastern Conference.  Lots of money, along with people’s mortgages and livelihoods, rest on making such key decisions – think about that.

So Ohio State then, and Notre Dame this year, were frankly NOT consistently playing the same level of competition that SEC teams face week in and week out.  It’s fine for Notre Dame to beat Oklahoma on the road, but to turn right around the struggle at home to Pittsburgh the next game should have raised a few more eyebrows than it did.

The other part to explain how Bama ended up dominating Notre Dame is that Nick Saban is the best college coach in the business.  He learned his grinder’s work ethic from his father growing up in West Virginia, and learned how to be detail-oriented as an NFL assistant under Bill Belichick.  Being detail-oriented is a transferrable skill that works well at either the college or the pro level.  Saban knows how to prepare.  Alabama might have seemed relatively weak (compared to recent teams) having to go from one tough game to another (LSU then Texas A&M, for example).  But give Saban a full month to prepare, and the team’s true potential shines through.  Pay no attention to the Tide getting humiliated to Utah in the 2008 Sugar Bowl; pay attention to Saban’s, and the team’s, more recent body of work, that being three national titles out of the past four years.  They say that hindsight is 20-20, and in this case, it most certainly is:  Bama played better competition throughout the year, had even better overall athletes, and are guided by the best coach in the business.  Sometimes, you have to line them up and play just to be able to see those things with sufficient clarity.

Bowl Game “Categories” December 11, 2012

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COACHES: (following Week 15)

Lucky Guy:  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

Poor Guy:  Rich Ellerson, Army

TEAMS:

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t:  Navy

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Army

UPCOMING BOWL GAMES:

Ticket to die for:  No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship, Miami, Jan. 7

Best non-Big Six vs. Big Six matchup: Nevada vs. Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl, Dec. 15

Best non-Big Six matchup: East Carolina vs. Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl, Dec. 22

Upset alert: No. 16 Nebraska over No. 7 Georgia in the Capital One Bowl (formerly the Citrus Bowl), Orlando, Fla., Jan. 1 (the reasons for this possibility are to be explained in a subsequent article).

Old Rivals Reunite:  No. 9 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, Dallas (Arlington), Jan. 4    Also:  West Virginia vs. Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, Bronx, N.Y., Dec. 29

Home Field Advantage:   Vanderbilt vs. North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 31

Must win:  Pitt vs. Ole Miss (both 6-6) in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Birmingham, Ala., Jan. 5

Offensive explosion: Baylor vs. No. 17 UCLA in the Holiday Bowl, San Diego, Dec. 27

Defensive struggle: possibly none.  Then again, possibly TCU vs. Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Tempe, Ariz., Dec. 29.

Great game no one is talking about: Mississippi State vs. No. 20 Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, Jan. 1

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Ken Niumatalolo of Navy vs. Todd Graham of Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, San Francisco, Dec. 29

Intriguing Lack-of-Coach matchup:  No. 25 Kent State vs. Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, Mobile, Ala., Jan. 6

Who’s bringing the body bags? No. 21 Louisville vs. No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, Jan. 2               Also:  See next item below!

Why are they playing? No. 15 Northern Illinois vs. No. 12 Florida State in the Orange Bowl, Miami, Jan. 1

Plenty of good seats remaining: Rice vs. Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, Texas, Dec. 29

They shoot horses, don’t they?  USC vs. Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31

ArmyNavy2012-1When it comes to the bowl games themselves, plenty more humorously-talented writers than I have taken their stab at wryly skewering most of the matchups.  Perhaps the best example of this would be the talented folks at everydayshouldbesaturday.com, who have done just that regarding the aforementioned skewering.

Having said that, a brief pause is in order for the Army-Navy game this past weekend, for it was a viewing pleasure.  The game was the best of this storied match-up in recent memory; big plays on both sides, a close score throughout the game, and lots of heart and extra efforts on both sides of the ball.  It was a darn shame one of them had to lose, especially Army, who lost in heartbreaking fashion after fumbling the ball with only 15 yards and a minute to go before scoring a touchdown to otherwise win the game.  Instead, the Midshipmen have triumphed over the Black Knights for the 11th year in a row (!).  But the game was also a viewing pleasure from a uniforms aesthetics standpoint, too.  The gold in Army’s helmets was a true old gold, and harkened directly back to the glory days of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.  Why don’t they use that gold in their helmets all the time today?  The WWII maps in their jersey numbers and black helmet stripe was a way-cool touch, too!  Meanwhile, Navy’s tri-tone white helmet was awesome to behold.  Chrome-gold on blue on white is something never before seen at any major level of football; congrats to the Middies for this new innovation in artistic helmet design!

College Football Week 14 Awards December 3, 2012

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(Note:  All rankings are week 14 AP polls unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were himNick Saban, Alabama

Glad I’m not him: Mark Richt, Georgia
Lucky guy: Charlie Strong, Louisville
Poor guy: Kyle Flood, Rutgers
Desperately seeking a clue: Charlie Weis, Kansas
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Desperately seeking … anything:  Mack Brown, Texas

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Oregon State (beat Nicholls 77-3)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Stanford (beat UCLA 27-24 in the Pac-12 championship)
Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did:  Kansas (lost to West Virginia 59-10)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Georgia Tech (lost to Florida State in the ACC championship)
Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Texas State (beat New Mexico State 66-28)

Dang, they’re good: Alabama
Dang, they’re bad:  South Alabama
Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Nebraska

Did the season start? Rutgers

Can the season end?  South Florida
Can the season never endWisconsin

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 2 Alabama 32, No. 3 Georgia 28
Never play this again: No. 15 Oregon State 77, Nicholls 3
What? No. 8 Stanford 27, No. 16 UCLA 24
Huh? Louisville 20, Rutgers 17
Are you kidding me? No. 21 Northern Illinois 44, No. 17 Kent State 37
Oh – my – God: Wisconsin 70, No. 12 Nebraska 31
Told you so: Baylor 41, Oklahoma State 34

NEXT WEEK

Only one regular season game is to be played next week, which is the annual Army-Navy game:  a cherished American tradition.  Go Armed Forces – God bless our troops!

College Football Week 12 Awards November 18, 2012

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [post-week 12, pre-week 13] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him:  Art Briles, Baylor
Glad I’m not him: Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Lucky guy: David Shaw, Stanford
Poor guy: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Desperately seeking a clue:  Jeff Tedford, California
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech
Desperately seeking … anything:  Derek Dooley, Tennessee

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Alabama (beat Western Carolina 49-0)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Kansas State (see below)
Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Wake Forest (lost to Notre Dame 38-0)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Wofford (lost to No. 13 South Carolina 24-7)
Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Baylor (see below)

Thought you wouldn’t get your butt kicked, you did: Army (see below)

Dang, they’re good: Georgia
Dang, they’re bad:  UAB

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Kansas State (see below)

Did the season start? Michigan State
Can the season end?  Tennessee
Can the season never end?  LSU

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 8 LSU 41, Ole Miss 35
Never play this again: Temple 63, Army 32
What? Utah State 48, No. 20* Louisiana Tech 41, OT

Huh?  No. 23* Oklahoma State 59, No. 24* Texas Tech 21

Are you kidding me? No. 13* Stanford 17, No. 2* Oregon 14, OT

Oh – my – God:  Baylor 52, No. 1* Kansas State 24

* Week 12 AP rankings

NEXT WEEK
Ticket to die for:  No. 6 Florida @ No. 10 Florida State (notwithstanding No. 13 South Carolina @ No. 12 Clemson)
Best non-Big Six vs. Big Six matchup: (none)
Best non-Big Six matchup: Ohio U @ Kent State
Upset alert: Baylor over Texas Tech in Waco

Must win: No. 1 Notre Dame @ USC
Offensive explosion: No. 24 Oklahoma State @ No. 12 Oklahoma
Defensive struggle: No. 20 Michigan @ No. 4 Ohio State
Great game no one is talking about: No. 5 Oregon @ No. 16 Oregon State

Thanksgiving Day Special:  TCU @ No. 18 Texas

Cloud Nine Bowl:  No. 8 Stanford @ No. 17 UCLA

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Mike Riley of Oregon State vs. Chip Kelly of Oregon
Who’s bringing the body bags? Georgia Tech @ No. 3 Georgia (notwithstanding Northern Illinois @ Eastern Michigan, Friday)
Why are they playing? BYU @ New Mexico State

Plenty of good seats remaining: UNLV @ Hawaii

Plenty of good seats remaining, SEC East edition:  Kentucky @ Tennessee
They shoot horses, don’t they?  Akron @ Toledo (Tuesday night)

Instant BCS Chaos:  In just one night, the BCS standings have turned upside down.  All Kansas State and Oregon had to do was win out, and they would have been matched up in a very intriguing national championship game in Miami.  Scratch that; ain’t gonna happen.  Oregon lost a close, hard-fought game in Eugene, Ore., to a tough Stanford squad.  The game went into OT, and the Duck’s failure to score on their opening possession gave the Cardinal an opportunity to win the game with a field goal, which they did.  Another one bites the dust.

Yet half-way across the country in the heart of Texas (Waco, to be exact), something even more improbable developed.  Kansas State, at that time ranked No. 1 in the land, went down to spectacular defeat at the hands of Art Briles’ Baylor [Baptist] Bears.  The score itself was improbable:  when is the last time any top-ranked team went down to an un-ranked team by a score of 52-24?  Nothing accounts for that.  Credit Briles and Co. with coming up with an amazing game plan that effectively attacked the Wildcats where it hurt them the most, and they never let up the entire night.

Not in five years has there been such BCS standings chaos in one night of regular season football.  Yet things get even more intriguing from this point onward.  For the first time in 19 years, almost to the week, Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the nation.  No doubt plenty of rejoicing erupted in South Bend., Ind., instantly upon Kansas State’s defeat, and no doubt the merriment doubled again in light of Oregon going down at home in OT.  After winning close game after close game, Brian Kelly has brought the Fighting Irish back to national prominence and is in the driver’s seat to punch their ticket to Miami come early January.  Meanwhile, an entire nation will scrutinize Notre Dame to see if they themselves can stand prosperity as they journey to Los Angeles this upcoming weekend to take on traditional rival USC.

And just like that, the SEC is back in the national discussion:  Alabama’s upset at home to Texas A&M last week seemed to wipe out the Crimson Tide’s hopes of repeating as national title contenders.  With last night’s, er, developments, despair has instantly transformed into renewed hope and ambition.  Bama is now second in both the AP and USA Today Polls, and Georgia is no. 3.  Should both those teams win out – extra emphasis on ‘should’ – it will be a very interesting contest in Atlanta for the SEC championship come Dec. 1.

Dooley Fired:  Not only is now-former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley “Desperately seeking…anything.”  Now he’ll be desperately seeking…a job.  The University of Tennessee decided to cut its ties with Dooley after their embarrassing loss in Nashville to up-and-coming, in-state rival Vanderbilt, 41-18.  The firing is effective immediately, as it has been reported on Tennessee’s athletics website that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney (with whom I worked while a student manager at Purdue, as he was an assistant under Coach Joe Tiller) will be the interim head coach for the upcoming game against Kentucky.  Evidently, the powers that be are not giving Dooley a couple of curtain calls like those UK’s Joker Phillips has received.

Yesterday’s embarrassing loss to the Commodores was just the last straw in one bad development after another for the program; the final blow to prove to the Volunteer nation that things need to be guided in a newer, better direction. This year alone, the Vols have gone 4-7, and 0-7 in the SEC, something entirely unacceptable to a large, proud fan base, to say nothing of a program with such massive tradition and resources behind it.  In just one game shy of three complete seasons, Dooley is just 15-21 with Tennessee, but worse yet, 4-19 in the SEC, and 0-15 against top-25 opponents.  Let us not forget that his hiring was essentially a stop-gap move in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s sudden departure for the USC job.  Let us also not forget that under Dooley’s leadership last year, Tennessee lost their annual season-closer to Kentucky for the first time since 1984, and it is not a given that the Vols will Triumph over the Wildcats this year, either.  Come to think of it, has Kentucky ever defeated Tennessee in football for two seasons in a row?

Paging Bobby Petrino…

Heisman talk:  Quarterback Collin Klein of K-State was the Heisman frontrunner, but after his team lost ignominiously, and his performance was mediocre at best (27 for 50, 286 yards, 2 td’s but 3 int’s), could it be that “Johnny Football,” Johnny Manziel, himself of Texas A&M, is the new award frontrunner?  Food for thought, in any case.

Kansas State: Shades of 1998 November 18, 2012

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We’ve seen this before.  This is not the first time that Kansas State’s national championship run was ruined late in the season.  The Wildcats made a similar run in 1998, defeating powerful Nebraska for the first time in 30 years, among other things.  But come the Big XII championship game of that year, K-State overlooked a hungry Texas A&M, who snuck up on them and overtook them towards the end of the game.  Although that bumped the Wildcats down to only no. 4 in the rankings, it was too late to get a decent consolation prize.

Everyone seemed to assume that K-State was a lock on the Fiesta Bowl (where the BCS national championship was to be held), so other teams got “locked-in” to other BCS bowl games (Orange, Sugar and Rose).  With the Wildcats’ unexpected loss, they were left out in the proverbial cold, having to settle for the Alamo Bowl, then given the no. 4 pick for both the Big XII and the Big Ten.  One would imagine that they would not be too happy with having to settle for that lesser prize.  Purdue, their opponent for the 1998 Alamo Bowl, was, conversely, quite happy to make a return appearance in San Antonio (a fun town for a bowl game, fyi.), having won that bowl game the previous year.  Though the Boilers were unranked and Kansas State was still the fourth-highest ranked team in the land, Purdue came in, what made the difference was that Purdue was happy to be there for the Dec. 29 game, K-State not so much.

Despite Coach Bill Snyder’s moderately happy-sounding speech at the kickoff luncheon the day before the game (Dec. 28, 1998) in a convention room of the Marriott Hotel in downtown San Antonio, where he assured both the Wildcat and Boilermaker fans in attendance that “we’re very much looking forward to playing the University of Purdue,” they sure did not give that impression on the field of play in the Alamodome the next evening.  After a scoreless first quarter, Purdue drew (if you’ll pardon the expression) first blood in the second with a Drew Brees touchdown pass to Chris Daniels, and we never let up for the rest of the game.  Only in the last few minutes did K-State manage to inch ahead of us with a touchdown of their own, but Purdue answered on the very next possession, marching right down the field and put it away for good.  The Wildcats did have the last possession of the game, but with only less than a minute or so left in the game, they were unable to muster the necessary score.  We triumphed in the end, 37-34.  It was our biggest win in probably 20 years.

I say “we” because I was but a freshman student manager on the Purdue team during that game, witnessing all of this first-hand.  The point in all of this, given recent developments, is that we’ve seen this scenario with K-State play out before.  The Wildcats seem to be on the same path today.  The only saving grace for K-State today is that this sudden, season-derailing loss from last night came earlier than when the Big XII championship game would be (there is no such game for this season, given the recent changes in conference membership). Hence, there is still time to salvage things with earning a more prestigious bowl berth than the booby prize of the Alamo Bowl from 14 years ago.

Yet another reason for K-State getting, well, hosed that year is a manifestation of certain perpetual handicaps against the program.  Unlike traditional powers including, say, Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, or even Notre Dame, all of whom have strong, national fan bases, Kansas State, although a strong program, lacks that advantage.  Strong fan bases equal strong money and clout, something the Wildcats continue to lack.  Kansas State University is located in Manhattan, Kan., nicknamed “The Little Apple.”  It is in the middle of nowhere, in a state that has the same reputation.  It has no major market to tie itself to, unlike the Longhorns, who can not only claim Austin, but also Dallas and Houston.  The Buckeyes claim Columbus, as well as Cincinnati and Cleveland.  Even Notre Dame can claim Chicago, and to an extent, New York itself.  K-State lacks that major market anchor, and that goes a long way towards its overall lack of relative clout.  Even a team like West Virginia can claim Pittsburgh as its anchor market.  Claiming Kansas City is a stretch for KSU, who must also share the area with the Kansas Jayhawks, along with the Missouri Tigers.  Does that leave KSU Wichita?  Geography has conspired to make the lack of clout an unsolvable problem for the Wildcats, as far as one can foresee.

But another key difference in scenarios today is that, in the wake of K-State being kicked down to the no. 4 bowl pick for the Big XII Conference in 1998 —  much less the overall rankings — shortly thereafter the BCS implemented a rule that a team ranked that highly* would get an automatic berth into one of the BCS “big four,” instead of being relegated to a second or third-tier postseason game.  Perhaps the Fiesta Bowl is not out of the question, boys, but you still must pass through the eye of the needle that is Texas in two weeks’ time.

*Although Kansas State was ranked no. 4 in both the AP and Coaches’ Polls, they were actually ranked no. 3 in the BCS.