With baseball over, NBA unable to get its act together (see below), and college hoops just in its early, it's-really-exchibition-though-the-games-technically-count phase, I'm more or less forced to watch football (thank goodness for soccer, though). So, we'll start with a few comments, and my annual pathetic attempt to pick against the point spread in NFL games.
The Shame of College Football
This season, the question is which is the greatest shame that the sport has suffered? Apart from the usual dose of inappropriate favors to players tolerated by college athletic officials (Ohio State was hit, not nearly hard enough, I'd say), there is also the usual shame of the Big Cheesy Series and the unremediated selection process for the quote-unquote National Championship game. This year, as the candidates progressively eliminate themselves, the quote-unquote looks to be a choice between the blowout matchup of LSU-Oklahoma State or a repeat of the recent "Game of the Century" snoozefest game between LSU and Alabama.
The tragedy of Penn State reached its ugly climax this week, and it was shameful in so many ways: the acts alleged to have been committed, over a very long period, by one of the top assistant coaches; the cover-up, the humiliation imposed on Joe Paterno after 45 hugely successful seasons of coaching; the behavior of the students who rioted in favor of the principle of concealing sexual assaults against children; and let's not even consider the victims' emotional devastation. I've never been much of a fan of the Nittany Lions, though I may have supported them situationally in certain games (and they usually provided good value, as in having sufficient beef to bang with the best of them). Now I've got a new team to root against.
I would select as the greatest shame, though, the unseemly scramble among the various colleges changing conference "loyalties". It's a derivative effect of the BCS folly: most of it is about the colleges from the conferences whose winners do not get one of the eight automatic BCS berths trying to upgrade their status. That, and for all of the major colleges, trying to make sure that their conference has the requisite 12 teams so they can have their big-money playoff game to earn that berth.
The culmination of this travesty is the invitations apparently offered to Boise State and Texas Christian University to be part of the no-longer Big no-longer East. Louisville and Cincinnati (and DePaul and Notre Dame) were pushing it, in basketball, but the departures of the likes of Syracuse and Pittsburgh for greener pastures meant this proud conference was headed the way of the dead-and-buried Southwest Conference and the doomed Big 12. You can't tell the conference players without a scorecard, and it's getting so nobody should even care.
Although there are some partial arrangements, in which some colleges participate in conferences for only certain sports, the part that disturbs me most is how the distortions of the BCS have affected the relatively intact other college sports. This somewhat includes men's basketball, but I suspect there will be ugly echoes in many others: women's basketball, baseball, soccer, etc.
NFL at the Halfway Point
The lockout suffered by the NFL was settled in time for the regular season's planned start; only a week of preseason games was lost, and that is less than nothing. The deal, I must admit, was quite fair to the players and much better than I expected. So, I'm not feeling too much guilt in enjoying the NFL games, which I have done on a few occasions--more than I usually do--this fall.
I would say that the stories so far are these:
1) The 8-0 unbeaten start of the defending champion Green Bay Packers. As one of the Tribune beat writers noted, their pass defense is too weak for the team to go undefeated, but their scoring punch should get them through most challenges and makes them a favorite with a good chance to repeat.
2) The Detroit Lions have emerged from--years? decades? generations? of mediocrity and have surged to a playoff-worthy start in the same division as Green Bay.
3) The Indianapolis Colts' weak defense has been fully exposed by the injury to Peyton Manning and they have lost all their games, mostly by large margins.
4) The AFC in general seems to be in decline, with the exception of the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
My system relies upon difficulty of schedule balancing out by this point in the year, and the weakness of the AFC makes that assumption invalid this year. An easy schedule is mostly defined by playing lots of AFC teams, and one should avoid picking AFC teams in inter-conference matchups. That being said, here are my picks against the spread this week:
1) Houston Texans giving 3 at Tampa Bay (I have them winning by 10);
2) Cincinnati Bengals getting 3 at home vs. the Steelers;
3) 49ers giving 3 1/2 at home vs. the Giants; and
4) Lions getting 3 at the Bears. This last one is probably the most controversial pick (though the Steelers may be due for a big game against their familiar patsy). The Tribune had eight writers and the results of a video game as guides to the game: all the writers picked the Bears, but the game had the Lions by 7. I'm going with the machine here.
Soccer: Chelsea Going Down?
The Blues are in fourth, just behind Newcastle (in whom I believe very little), but it is their style which makes me doubtful. They lost 5-3 to Arsenal in a game full of defensive lapses, then failed to win vs. Genk in the Champions League. If this season doesn't improve, I think they will end up keeping their young coach and jettisoning their veterans in a rebuilding move. The players to watch will be Drogba and Cech--if they go, Lampard and Terry will follow soon after.
Manchester City is the new team made with money; they look to be a terror upon the league after their 6-1 defeat of Manchester United two weeks ago. They have not lost in the Premier League yet, and some are thinking they may never do so this year.
Finally, the NBA?
The next few days will probably determine whether there will be a regular season worth talking about this year for the NBA. We have seen the owners' best offer, and it is spurned. 50-50 did have a certain charm, but the technical aspects--how the owners would hamstring the movement of free agents, protecting themselves from their own mistakes--were too many. I don't feel that the players will do well to sit this one out. If the season must be cancelled, let's see them put together their own barnstorming league of a few teams, whatever arenas they can find, and a squad of insurance claims agents and medical cut men to fix any problems. These are valuable commodities.