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College Football Week 3 Awards (2016) September 19, 2016

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 3] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES Wish I were him: Bobby Petrino, Louisville

Glad I’m not him: Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

Lucky guy: Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

Poor guy: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Butch Jones, Tennessee

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

Desperately seeking … anything:  Sean Kugler, UTEP

TEAMS

Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Clemson (defeated South Carolina State 59-0)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Wisconsin (defeated Georgia State 23-17)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Appalachian State (lost to No. 25 Miami 45-10)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Ohio U (lost to No. 15 Tennessee 28-19)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Louisville (blew out No. 2 Florida State 63-20)

Dang, they’re good: Louisville

Dang, they’re bad:  Virginia

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Texas

Did the season start?  Iowa

Can the season end?  Idaho

Can the season never endOhio State

GAMES

Play this again:  Cal 50, No. 11 Texas 43

Play this again, too:  Nebraska 35, No 22 Oregon 32

Never play this again: No. 5 Clemson 59, South Carolina State 0

What? Nebraska 35, No 22 Oregon 32

HuhCal 50, No. 11 Texas 43

Are you kidding me?  No. 10 Louisville 63, No. 2 Florida State 20

Oh – my – GodNorth Dakota State 23, No. 13 Iowa 21

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 3, pre-week 4)

Ticket to die for: No. 11 Wisconsin @ No. 8 Michigan State

Also: No. 12 Georgia @ No. 23 Ole Miss

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five matchup: BYU @ West Virginia

Best non-Power Five matchup: Georgia Southern @ Western Michigan

Upset alert: No. 5 Clemson @ Georgia Tech

Must win: No. 19 Florida @ No. 14 Tennessee

Offensive explosion: Cal @ Arizona State

Defensive struggle: South Carolina @ Kentucky

Great game no one is talking about: Oklahoma State @ No. 16 Baylor

Intriguing coaching matchup: Jim McElwain of Florida vs. Butch Jones of Tennessee

Also: David Cutcliffe of Duke vs. Brian Kelly of Notre Dame

Who’s bringing the body bags? No. 6 Houston @ Texas State

Why are they playing? Mississippi State @ UMass

Plenty of good seats remaining: North Texas @ Rice

Week 3 Take-aways:

After a lull of marquee match-ups last week, we the fans were treated to more great games this week. Watching two top ten teams in Florida State taking on Louisville is no better way to kick of the week’s massive slate of game. One-sided though the game may have been, it remained engaging in seeing the vaunted Seminoles lose by such a huge margin. Bravo, Cardinals!

Much hype has ensued in the wake of Texas defeating Notre Dame during the opening weekend. “Texas is back” has been an oft-repeated mantra. Their loss on the road to Cal calls said mantra into question. Only in the ensuing weeks, when the Longhorns play more of their respectable opponents, namely, Oklahoma State (whom they play next week), Oklahoma, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas Tech, West Virginia, and TCU will that mantra be either confirmed or denied.

 

Just to get this off my chest, who would have anticipated that the Kentucky – New Mexico State game would have been the offensive explosion that it turned out to be? An exciting game ensued, to be sure, but allowing a Sunbelt team to score 42 points on them is not the most ringing endorsement of the Wildcats’ defense. If these shadows remain unchanged, this does not bode for when UK enters the conference part of its schedule.

 

But all that aside, there were many sublime matchups this week. Oregon lost on the road to Nebraska in a game that went down to the wire. Texas lost to Cal in the same manner. As mentioned earlier, Louisville vs. Florida State was a marquee, top-ten matchup, until the Cardinals proceeded to obliterate the ‘Noles. The games in the 3:30 (EDT) time slot seemed, on paper, to be a respite before the bigger games ensued in the evening, but even they quickly became intriguing. In addition to the Ducks-Cornhuskers game, an improving Colorado gave Michigan a good fight before the Wolverines finally decided to start playing football. Ole Miss threatened to knock Alabama off its top spot in the polls. The evening time slots treated us fans to Texas-Cal, Michigan State @ Notre Dame, Ohio State @ Oklahoma (it has been a while since those two powerhouses butted heads), and BYU put up a great fight against UCLA. A great day for the game, when one tallies up the results and the moments.

Next week will frankly not measure up compared to this week and to week 1, but one cannot expect every week to deliver matchups like this. That said, some good conference games await us, as well as some tasty pre-conference games from power five teams across the board. Week 4 may not be as strong as week 3, but plenty of interesting games await us in any case!

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Which Team Wants It More? December 16, 2015

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 Who wants it more?  More to the point, which team is happier to be there?  That is the most important question in determining the outcomes of the upcoming bowl games.  It is not easy, but it will be the make-or-break factor.  It affects the performance of the team.  If they are not that motivated to be there, but the underdog team is, the actual odds favor the latter.  Therefore, the real question becomes, which team will show up to play?  To create a better understanding of this condition, allow me to offer Exhibit A:

The season was that of 1998.  Kansas State was rising up in the polls throughout the year.  They defeated mighty Nebraska (yes, the Cornhuskers were still very vaunted then) for the first time in three decades.  The Wildcats went undefeated for the regular season, and were poised, at the No. 2 national ranking, to go to the first ever championship game of the Bowl Championship Series, which that year would be the Fiesta Bowl.

Kansas State’s only hurdle to clear to make that coveted berth was the Big XII Championship game, in which they were naturally favored.  Yet underdog Texas A&M had other plans, and managed to upset K-State that game.  Gone were the Wildcats’ national championship hopes, but it was worse than that:  other teams had already secured major bowl slots, so K-State was demoted all the way down to the Alamo Bowl.  Coincidentally, they would play Purdue, which was the team I was on as a freshman staff member.  We were happy to be there:  Kansas State, however, was disappointed to be there.  Come game time (Dec. 29, 1998), it showed.  Even though the Wildcats were still ranked at a feared No. 4 while we were unranked, we nevertheless led them throughout most of the game.  Despite a late 4th-quarter touchdown that put them temporarily in the lead, we answered by marching right down the field for a game-winning score with only about a minute remaining.

On paper, K-State should have beaten us by at least two touchdowns.  But the final, actual score said otherwise.  Why?  Though, the Wildcats were clearly the better team on paper, we wanted to be there more than they did, and by a considerable margin.

Such a scenario has played itself out many times in the years since then (and no doubt in the years before), which is what makes bowl game prognostication for more unpredictable than just comparing regular season records and major stats.  The upcoming line-up of bowl games asks this very question more than a few times.  To wit:

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 19, 3:30 PM EST, ABC

BYU (9-3) vs. No. 22 Utah (9-3)

The Utes are the higher-ranked team.  At one point they were ranked as highly as No. 3 in the nation.  Surely they must have had higher bowl aspirations.  On the other hand, the Cougars are dealing with coaching turmoil since their head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, just bolted for the Virginia job.  My conclusion is to therefore not out-think things, and go with the odds, which slightly favor the Utes.

Hyundai Sun Bowl, Dec. 26, 2:00 EST, CBS

Miami (FL) (8-4) vs. Washington State (8-4)

Beware the deception of identical records.  For whereas the Cougars have had Mike Leach in place for a couple of seasons now, the Hurricanes are going through coaching changes, having fired Al Golden mid-season, leaving assistant coach Larry Scott to serve at the helm in his temporary stead.  Incoming head coach Mark Richt will watch from the stands.  The Miami players claim they’ll show up motivated, but can these kids overcome the coaching transitions while the Washington State players will enjoy stability?

Foster Farms Bowl, Dec. 26, 9:15 PM EST, ESPN

UCLA (8-4) vs. Nebraska (5-7)

The Bruins surely had much higher bowl aspirations as the season began, and at one point enjoyed a top-ten ranking.  Getting upset at home to Arizona State did not help their campaign, though, neither did losing to Washington State, either.  The losses to both Stanford and a resurgent USC can be excused.  Be all that as it may, they’re in this particular bowl, which lacks the prestige of bowls in the days that follow.  Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers are one of those lucky dog teams who, at 5-7, are very fortunate just to get a berth.  Why?  Because Big Ten fans travel in DROVES.  Expect a sea of red in Santa Clara, Calif., and a closer game than the records suggest.  You might even take the under on Nebraska.

Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 29, 5:30 PM EST, ESPN

No. 10 North Carolina (11-2) vs No. 17 Baylor (9-3)

On paper, this is a very marquee matchup between two very good teams.  The problem?  Both teams feel as though they deserved better bowl games.  Last year, the Bears were in the Cotton Bowl, for goodness sake.  Meanwhile, as strong as a team as the Tarheels have been, one would think they would have grabbed a more prestigious berth, too.  What therefore makes this scenario unique is that BOTH teams will likely come in under-motivated (we’re dealing with 19/20 year-old kids, after all).  The question becomes, which team will be less under-motived than the other?  Since UNC started out with lower aspirations, they might end up making this game very, very interesting.

Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 30, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

Auburn (6-6) vs. Memphis (9-3)

Tigers vs. Tigers?  That alone is intriguing.  But the War Eagle variety surely had higher bowl aspirations (they started out the year ranked No. 6) than the variety from Memphis, who turned out to be a surprisingly strong team.  Auburn likely views this bowl berth as both a come-down and a quasi-home game at the same time.  But Memphis might be glad just to make it to a bowl game, since their postseason appearances have been far fewer than those of their opponent.  The Vegas odds favor Auburn by 2.5.  That is enough of a margin of error for Memphis to win by a close one, provided they appear with just enough motivation.

Holiday Bowl, Dec. 30, 10:30 PM EST, ESPN

No. 25 USC (8-5) vs. Wisconsin (9-3)

Late enough for you out east?  Regardless, there are varying degrees of motivation with these two teams.  If you’re Wisconsin for example, who would not be happy to spend late December in beautiful San Diego?  If you’re USC, you’ll be glad to be there after all the coaching and leadership turmoil with which you had to contend earlier in the season.  The kicker?  That particular turmoil is now behind the Men of Troy.  New head coach Clay Helton has clearly righted the ship, and the program is headed in the proper direction again.  That’s good.  But, he just fired 4 of his assistant coaches.  That’s bad, especially when the Trojans only have a handful of practices to prepare for a game with a depleted coaching roster (using grad assistants to fill in some of the roles) while Wisconsin lacks this disadvantage.  The Badgers, furthermore, always show up well to bowl games:  they are one of the most reliable programs in that regard.  The odds-makers in Vegas still give USC a 3-point advantage, meaning that there is potential for an upset.

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, Dec. 31, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

No. 18 Houston (12-1) vs. No. 9 Florida State (10-2)

The Seminoles likely see having to play the lowly Cougars, while the latter will likely feel honored to play in such a relatively prestigious bowl game.  Should this scenario play out, the respective motivational levels are to be adjusted accordingly, giving us potential for one of the biggest upsets of this bowl season.

Rose Bowl Game Pres. By Northwestern Mutual, Jan. 1, 5:00 PM EST, ESPN

No. 6 Stanford (11-2) vs. No. 5 Iowa (12-1)

Since when would a team show up to the Rose Bowl under-motivated?  It is the Granddaddy of them all, folks!  But in the case of Stanford, they likely had the goal to make it to the playoffs instead.  Meanwhile, Iowa is going to their first Rose Bowl in 25 years.  To the Hawkeyes, this is a once-in-a-generation Super Bowl.  Granted, Iowa is a good team, but Stanford, on paper, is much better.  Under normal circumstances, Stanford should win by two touchdowns.  But with Iowa being especially focused and disciplined, expect a tough, close game that could go either way.

Taxslayer Bowl, Jan. 2, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

Penn State (7-5) vs. Georgia (9-3)

This used to be the Gator Bowl, fyi.  Georgia seems to be the stronger team on paper, but they just lost their head coach and will be coached by assistants in this bowl game, while Penn State has stable leadership in James Franklin.  Expect the Nittany Lions to therefore pull off the upset, unless the interim head coach at Georgia can effectively rally his troops.

Nebraska fans are delusional. December 5, 2014

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bo-pelini-450x300In case any reader has missed the news, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has been fired…for going 9-3.  Most fan bases would be happy with their team having such a record.  Of the fan bases that would not, most would at least tolerate it if they sensed that the program was still headed in the right direction.  Of the few remaining fan bases that would not tolerate such a record, let us put them through a litmus test.  Test Item A:  are you an upper-tier program in the Southeastern Conference?  Yes or no?  If no, are you Florida State, Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU or Texas?  No?  Then the problem is not with your coach, it’s with you.

Specifically, it is with “you” in two ways:  first and foremost, it is with your school’s geography.  Second, it is with your unreasonable expectations in this new era.  This includes you, Nebraska, and I shall explain. 

First, let us point out the obvious:  gone are the days of Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne when the Cornhuskers were regularly competing for the national title.  For, you might acknowledge, but why?  The reason is simple.  Thirty years ago, Nebraska was one of the relatively few teams that regularly got on TV.  Therefore, if a prized high school football player was being recruited nationally, that recruit had a vested interest to play for a Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan or Penn State if he wanted to get national attention.  All that changed when college football television coverage started to expand, as it did in earnest starting 15 years ago.  All of a sudden, top-ranked recruits with options did not need to go to cold, isolated, academically-rigid schools in order to get on television regularly and earn their fame.  Now, with a much-expanded list of school options, they quickly noticed that schools in the Sunbelt did not have the problems of snow drifts in winter, did not have the academic rigidity of most schools up north, and best of all, the co-eds were much prettier.  You’re an 18-year old kid who can run a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash, and can pick any school you want.  Are you going to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, where it is cold, is isolated, and you have to deal with snowbanks for four months out of the year, or are you going to pick USC or Texas, where it’s 70 degrees in January, and the girls are [mostly] knock-outs?  These days, it’s a no-brainer.

Second, Nebraska is not exactly the kind of state the produces its own in-state talent.  States that do not are at a structural, geographic disadvantage from those that do.  Usually, they have to go several states away to get the players they need, be it California, Texas, or even New Jersey.  Now that Nebraska is out of the Big XII, their recruiting pipelines to Texas have been largely severed.  Moreover, most 17 and 18-year old kids don’t even know who Tom Osborne is/was (heck, they were toddlers when he retired), let alone give a hoot about the tradition of Nebraska’s team, or even Notre Dame’s for that matter.

Given that the key to success in college football is talent acquisition, when you have a host of schools that can offer more to prize recruits than you can offer, that puts you at certain structural disadvantages.  It is not anybody’s fault per se, but it speaks to the fact that the patterns of life in America themselves have changed.  Sorry, but those are the breaks.

But that is not all.  The other issue is finding good coaches themselves.  It used to be, again, in the days of Daveney and Osborne, that being an assistant coach at Nebraska was a relatively plum job, as far as assistant coaching went.  Not anymore.  To be sure, the Cornhuskers do pay their coaches a bit better than more Big Ten schools (their offensive coordinator, Tim Beck, got a raise in January of 2013 from $365K to $700K), but that’s still chickenfeed compared to what most coaches make in the Southeastern Conference or even at, say, Texas.

Again, you’re a coach with options.  You have a pretty wife and good-looking kids.  Are you going to be able to persuade her to move with you to cold, isolated Lincoln, Neb., when you also have the option of taking her to Tucson to coach for the Arizona Wildcats, to Tempe to coach for the Arizona State Sun Devils, or to Austin to coach for the Texas Longhorns?  It’s a surprisingly easy sell to persuade her to let you take an assistant job at TCU, since that plugs you into the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.  If you take a coaching job at Georgia, that puts you within an hour-plus of Atlanta, and in Athens, Georgia, one of the most ‘happening’ college towns in America.  So, wives of assistant coaches, what’s it going to be?  Lincoln, or Tucson?  South Bend, or Austin?  Ames, Iowa, or Atlanta?  State College, Pa., or Los Angeles?  This, my friends, is the “game within the game” that nobody ever mentions, but plays a huge roll inmany a football program’s fortunes, especially in this day and age.

Given all that is working against the Husker Nation’s favor these days, Bo Pelini’s job of going 9-3 is, frankly, miraculous.  This is to say nothing of the job he and his staff have done (remember the aforementioned challenges of putting together a good coaching stuff in the Corn State?) regarding player development, because keep in mind of the other aforementioned challenge of not having the pick of the recruiting litter anymore.

And yet he was fired, for a 9-3 record this year.  Does the deluded fan base of Nebraska think they will be able to do any better than Pelini?  If so, who?  Granted, the man had a rather abrasive personality, and he could thus easily rub lots of people the wrong way.  But behind closed doors, away from the cameras, all coaches can be at least occasionally abrasive.  It goes with the territory.  So I ask again, whom does Nebraska intend to find that will do a better job than Pelini?  The reason I posit this question is, if the Huskers no longer have the first dibs on prize recruits, what makes them think they will be able to attract a prized head coach?

College Football Week 2 Awards September 8, 2014

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Yes, we’re back.  After having missed handing out last week’s awards due to travels abroad (having visited two, count ’em, TWO different continents in the Eastern Hemisphere!), we’re back, and as Little Richard would say, we’re ready-ready-ready to rock n’ roll!

(Note: All rankings are current AP [week 2] unless otherwise noted.)

 

COACHES
Wish I were him: Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech

Glad I’m not him: Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Lucky guy: Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Poor guy: David Shaw, Stanford
Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Dan Enos, Central Michigan

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Charlie Strong, Texas
Desperately seeking … anything: Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: No. 9 Texas A&M (defeated Lamar 73-3)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: No. 19 Nebraska (defeated McNeese State 31-24)
Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: San Jose State (lost to No. 5 Auburn 59-13)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t: Memphis (lost to No. 11 UCLA 42-35)
Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did: No. 15 Ole Miss (defeated Vanderbilt, 41-3)

Dang, they’re good: Texas A&M
Dang, they’re bad: SMU
Can’t Stand Prosperity: Texas

Did the season start? Ohio State
Can the season end? Miami (Ohio)
Can the season never end? Oregon

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 14 USC 13, No. 13 Stanford 10
Never play this again: No. 23 Clemson 73, South Carolina State 7

What? Eastern Kentucky 17, Miami (Ohio) 10

Huh? No. 16 Notre Dame 31, Michigan 0
Are you kidding me? Virginia Tech 35, No. 8 Ohio State 21
Oh – my – God: BYU 41, Texas 7

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 2, pre-week 3)
Ticket to die for: No. 6 Georgia @ No. 21 South Carolina

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five matchup: Nebraska @ Fresno State
Best non-Power Five matchup: New Mexico State @ UTEP

Upset alert: Tennessee @ No. 4 Oklahoma

Must win: No. 12 UCLA vs Texas

Offensive explosion: Louisiana Tech @ North Texas
Defensive struggle: Penn State @ Rutgers
Great game no one is talking about: No. 21 Louisville @ Virginia

Intriguing coaching matchup: Bret Bielema of Arkansas vs. Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech

Who’s bringing the body bags? Wyoming @ No. 2 Oregon

Why are they playing? No. 8 Baylor @ Buffalo

Plenty of good seats remaining: Eastern Michigan @ Old Dominion

They shoot horses, don’t they?  Boise State @ UConn

 

Week 2 Take-aways:

This week’s results do NOT bode well for the Big Ten! Where to begin?

  • For starters, Illinois had to squeak by Western Kentucky, 42-34.
  • Then there was Nebraska having to score a last-minute touchdown to beat lowly McNeese State at home, 31-24. Way to live up to that No. 19 ranking, Cornhuskers!
  • Cracks in the proverbial damn truly became evident with Purdue’s ignominious loss at home to Central Michigan – a team that the Boilermakers have historically owned – 38-17.
  • Of course, Wisconsin was supposed to make mincemeat of Western Illinois, so nothing to see there: moving on.
  • Iowa slowly plodded to victory over Ball State, 17-13; hardly an impressive win.
  • Penn State seemed to allow Akron to make a game of it, 21-3.
  • Middle Tennessee seemed to provide some challenge to Minnesota, losing to the Golden Gophers only 35-24.
  • Northern Illinois actually did beat a well-coached Northwestern team, 23-15.

The best part (“best” being used facetiously) was that it got worse as the day progressed.

  • In the evening, Notre Dame undressed Michigan, 31-0
  • Then-unranked Virginia Tech came into the Horseshoe to upset then-No 8 Ohio State in a very embarrassing way, 35-21. Are the Buckeyes that crippled without Braxton Miller?
  • At least then-No. 7 Michigan State had a valid excuse, losing late in the game, on the road, (heck, on the West Coast) to current-No. 2 Oregon. Moreover, in further defense of the Spartans, they made a good game of it for more than half of the match-up. Still, a loss is a loss.

Yes, this will really bolster the conference’s credibility with the selection committee come season’s end.

In other news, it appears as though Charlie Strong truly does have his work cut out for him at Texas. The problem with the flagship program of the Lone Star State was that it lost its intensity, that things had become both stale and too synthetic under previous head coach Mack Brown. Strong had proven that he could restore the intensity of one program already at the University of Louisville: the powers started to think that he could do the same thing at Texas. Well, evidently he has not restored enough intensity to that program. Either that, or BYU just has the Longhorns’ number, but I doubt it.

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

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IMG_1743

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.

IMG_1357

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.

TeamNightTrain2012

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!

2012-2013 Bowl Games of High Interest December 26, 2012

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As mentioned in the previous installments, I have ranked the bowl games by category, with the major criterion being level of desirability to view, partly on my end, partly on the end of the average viewer who is NOT a certifiable college football addict like yours truly!

To find a complete bowl game schedule where each game is found in order of date and time each game is to be played, go here.

This third installment is of bowl games about which I am VERY interested (as usual, all times are Eastern Standard).  Happy Kwanzaa (LMAO!  I’m sorry, I just can’t say that with a straight face!).

Holiday Bowl (San Diego), Thurs., Dec. 27, 9:45 PM EST

Baylor (7-5) vs. No. 17 UCLA (9-4)

My [potential] “offensive explosion” bowl game for the 2012-2013 season.  To paraphrase the guys at EDSBS, what’s better in a bowl game than seeing both teams’ offensive coordinators emptying the most shameful corners of their playbook?  Better yet, it pits bears vs. bruins; how often does one see that in a bowl?  Just sayin’!

Alamo Bowl (San Antonio), Sat., Dec. 29, 6:45 PM

No. 23 Texas (8-4) vs. No. 13 Oregon State (9-3)

Yes, I’ll admit, I’m a bit biased.  After all, I was part of the team that won the 1998 Alamo Bowl, arguably one of the more memorable games in the series.  But that aside, the Alamo Bowl is always a good matchup.  Is it quite as good as when it was Big Ten vs. Big XII?  The realignment to a Pac-12 vs. Big XII matchup has not watered things down any, at least not yet.  Remember last year’s offensive explosion between Baylor and Washington?  That one is not soon to be forgotten, either.  This time, the Longhorns are playing, which automatically makes it good.  Granted, Oregon State is favored on paper, but do not underestimate Texas’ home field advantage, given that their campus is only a little over an hour away.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl (Atlanta), Mon., Dec., 31, 7:30 PM

No. 8 LSU (10-2) vs. No. 14 Clemson (10-2)

Nothing like closing out the old year by watching a classic SEC-ACC matchup in Hotlanta!  Of course, there have been plenty of such “classic” matchups on paper over the past several years, but they have usually amounted to rather one-sided affairs in favor of the Southeastern Conference.  You’ll have that.  After all, not all Peach Bowls, er, Chick-Fil-A Bowls can be like the Auburn-North Carolina game back in 2001!  In any event, the funny guys at EDSBS have come up with three possible scenarios of how this one will play out (all with varying degrees of probability – refer to game ranking #6).  I particularly like the “LSU blowout” scenario!

Gator Bowl (Jacksonville, Fla.), Tues., Jan. 1, 12:00 PM

Mississippi State (8-4) vs. No. 20 Northwestern (9-3)

My “great game that nobody is talking about,” for it pits two scrappy teams struggling for respect in their respective conferences.  Better yet, it’s a very dramatic culture clash within the bowl season, for the only private school in the B1G meets, well, the “clanga-clanga” of cowbells.  It also makes for an intriguing coaching matchup in one coaches favors the pass while the other favors the run.  How can a viewer lose with this whole proposition?

Outback Bowl (Tampa, Fla.), Tues., Jan. 1, 1:00 PM

No. 10 South Carolina (10-2) vs. No. 18 Michigan (8-4)

The matchup is intriguing on the surface alone.  ­One side is a traditional blue blood, figuratively and literally.  They won the first ever bowl game and gave birth to the college fight song as we know it today.  Oh well, and Michigan also has the most wins of any football program, ever.  The other side, South Carolina, is something of a late bloomer.  A relatively late joiner of the SEC, for years they had been a conference doormat prior to the Lou Holtz and especially the Steve Spurrier eras.  But this game is where the newcomer will take down the old guard, should everything work out on paper.  Yes, that’s a rather dry way of putting it, but if I made any allusions that the Gamecocks should bury the Wolverines underneath the pavement for some horrified archaeologists to discover a century or two later, well, I might get accused of plagiarism, or something.

Capital One Bowl (Orlando, Fla.), Tues., Jan. 1, 1:00 PM

No. 7 Georgia vs. No. 16 Nebraska

First of all, let us get this out of the way right now and admit that this game is not quite as interesting as the Outback Bowl, but it’s interesting nonetheless.  If Nebraska had their hands full against a 7-5 Wisconsin team at a neutral site, good Lord, what is the seventh-ranked Georgia squad going to do to them?  Second, what on Earth are the Cornhuskers doing being ranked 16th in the AP after a such can of whoopass had been opened up on them in Indianapolis?  All that being said, the only thing that Nebraska has going for them (and I mean the only thing) is that the Bulldogs are a senior-laden team that was underachieved all season, and be very, very aware of such teams when they show up in bowl games, as they are likely to disappoint.

Rose Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.), Tues., Jan. 1, 5:00 PM

Wisconsin vs. No. 7 Stanford

The good news for Wisconsin is that they caught Nebraska off guard during the Big Ten championship game and have earned a third-straight berth to the Granddaddy of Them All.  The bad news for Wisconsin is that they must face a Stanford squad that is arguably more formidable than last year’s Andrew Luck-led team.  The Cardinal can more than match the Badgers in the trenches, and that instantly takes away their competitive advantage.  More bad news:  barring the possibility of Stanford breaking out their black helmets and all-cardinal Nike Pro Combat unis, this bowl  game will be the matchup of the generic uniforms.  The good news for all of us is that we will be “looking live,” as ABC’s front line crew of Brent Musburger and Kirk “Herbie” Herbstreit will be calling the game, folks!

Sugar Bowl (New Orleans), Wed., Jan. 2, 8:30 PM

No. 21 Louisville vs. No. 3 Florida

Yeah, yeah, I know that I filed this upcoming game under “who’s bringing the body bags?”  That’s my safe prediction.  My less-than safe prediction, shared by others, is that Florida’s occasional quarterbacking ineptitude might align itself with Louisville’s occasionally vulnerable secondary.  Of course, even if both of those things click simultaneously, it’s not that safe of a bet that the same clicking will occur between the Gator’s formidable defense against the Cardinals’ Teddy Bridgewater, as sad as I am to say.  Then again, it is the Big Easy, and the Charlie Strong can always dial up some voodoo magic.

Fiesta Bowl (Mesa, Ariz.), Thurs., Jan. 3, 8:30 PM

No. 4 Oregon vs. No. 5 Kansas State

When two teams in a bowl game that are very closely ranked square off, it is almost always interesting.  But the game is watchable for other reasons as well, such as the intriguing contrast between the two teams.  In one corner, wearing purple trimmed with white and silver are the Wildcats, with old man Bill Snyder working his magic albeit with a conventional offense.  In the opposing corner, wearing some sort of green trimmed with yellow (we think:  it could be black, silver, or something else, for that matter), is Chip Kelly’s Ducks, along with his progressive, hurry-up, hyper-drive offensive play.  Think of the overall interest amounting to a weird variation on the old saying that “opposites attract.”

Cotton Bowl (Arlington, Texas), Friday, Jan. 4, 8:00 PM

No. 9 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 Oklahoma

Old conference rivals reunite in a relocated classic bowl game (used to be in, well, the Cotton Bowl, now it’s in Jerryland).  What makes the matchup even more interesting is that the Aggies’ current head coach, Kevin Sumlin, was at one time an assistant under Sooners’ head coach Bob Stoops.  That notwithstanding, in all likelihood the pupil will become the teacher.  Oklahoma is another one of those teams about which to beware, that being a team with lots of seniors that has underachieved all year; rarely does a team like that come through victorious during bowl season.  Moreover, during the later part of the regular season, Coach Sumlin was coaching A&M so well that it seemed as though they could beat anybody in the nation.  With that being said, this will be a major test to see whether or not they can beat anyone in the postseason.

BCS National Championship (Miami), Mon., Jan. 7, 8:30 PM

No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Alabama

On one hand, it is unlikely that Notre Dame has ever encountered any team with Alabama’s overall athleticism.  On the other hand, Notre Dame has won lots of close games, and there is some skill to that.  Ultimately, the game will come down to one of two things:  will the Irish receivers be too much for the Crimson Tide’s secondary, or will Bama’s offensive line gradually take over in the middle of the third quarter?  The result of the game will hinge on either contingency.

Memo to Big Ten: More is not always better November 21, 2012

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More is not necessary better.  If one of your favorite products introduces a new product line, will that help the overall brand, or will it detract from productive capacity and quality control resources for the product and you and others already know and love?  If your favorite airline adds more routes, instead of enhancing the brand, all it might do is cause more flights to be delayed.

The reason I bring this up is because the news has come out that the Big Ten is inviting both Maryland and Rutgers into their prestigious conference.  The invitation obviously benefits these two universities, but how does it benefit the Big Ten?  More is not always “more,” as in better.  It’s not as if the Big Ten is adding Notre Dame and Texas, in which there would be more great TV games and home games.

The benefits for Maryland and Rutgers are obvious.  Neither teams are making much money with their athletics programs (least of all Rutgers), not with the relatively lousy television deals they currently have.  By joining the Big 10, that problem instantly vanishes, since that conference has one of the best TV deals in the business.  It is not rocket science to figure out why a poor guy wants to marry into a rich family.

Moreover, while those two teams’ conference fit is a geographic stretch, academically it somewhat makes sense.  Like almost all other conference members, Maryland and Rutgers are both members of the Association of American Universities, for what that is worth (oddly enough, Nebraska is the only B1G member not yet in that affiliation).  Adding these two schools could further enhance the conference’s already solid academic reputation.

But aside from that, how does the Big Ten benefit?  From a fan’s perspective alone, this could border on havoc.  Think of the traveling distance.  Many Big Ten fans travel by the busload to some away games.  A band of Nebraska fans traveling to Piscataway, N.J. to see their beloved Cornhuskers play Rutgers would literally be journeying halfway across the country.  That’s a huge difference from a more typical conference matchup in which some Wisconsin fans would have but a [roughly] three-hour run to Iowa City to cheer on their Badgers against the Hawkeyes.

Moreover, think of home game schedules for a moment.  So few great home games are available year in and year out.  Think about how many season ticket-holding fans have to put up with lousy match-ups at home.  Wisconsin playing Cal Poly or Ohio State playing Youngstown State at home might be easy wins, but they are horrible games for the fans.  Ditto with the Buckeyes playing the Blazers of UAB; yuck!  Fans of B1G teams wait patiently from great match-ups, such as the Buckeyes coming in to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for a night game, or Michigan State coming into Northwestern for a close, hard-fought match-up.

With Rutgers and Maryland now in the mix, those great regional rivalries that fans hunger for are now further in jeopardy in place of a potentially mediocre match-up with these mediocre teams.  Again, what has the Big Ten, on balance, to gain from this?  The Terrapins’ affiliation with the conference will not make the program improve.

It also messes with traditional rivalries.  The Terps have nothing to do with the Spartans, Buckeyes or Badgers.  Their rivals are Virginia, North Carolina, etc., all in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  Leaving the ACC for the B1G means all those rivalries instantly vanish.

Ah, but adding Rutgers and Maryland into the conference means that the Big 10 can tap into the New York City and Washington, D.C. markets, say the expansion advocates.  But people in those markets don’t care about either team, so says Nate Silver, who has a great piece that voices that same concerns written on this page.  Silver’s analysis shows that there are low percentages of college football fans in those two large metro areas.  Why compromise teams’ schedules for such a diminishing return?

The bottom line is that the Big Ten, arguably most prestigious athletic conference overall in college athletics (notwithstanding football alone, in which the SEC is, at this time, head and shoulders above everyone else), is running a serious risk of diluting their brand.

If you want further proof of this real possibility of brand dilution, look no further than the Pac-12 to see how this move makes no sense.  Any benefit of adding Utah and Colorado is marginal at best.  The Utes have been mediocre this year, and the Buffaloes have been an outright embarrassment, as they are arguably the worst team in the FBS (see: “Dang, they’re bad,” see: “Can the season end?”).  Yes, the Pac-12 has some great teams right now:  six of its member teams are, as of his week, ranked in the top 25.  But Utah is not among those who are ranked, and, as already mentioned, Colorado is embarrassingly abysmal.

At least when the SEC expanded, it brought in Missouri and Texas A&M; two quality programs.  Maryland and Rutgers just dilute the brand, and further weaken an already teetering Big East.  Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany may think that bringing these two teams in will allow for it to reach certain key “demographics,” but not only does Nate Silver show that those demos are not as inviting as they would initially appear, Dan Wetzel of Rivals/Yahoo! points out similar problems.  Delany and the rest of the conference leadership need to snap out of this trance before they make a horrible mistake that will ruin the brand.