Before we got totally distracted by the looming election, our last post on sports left off just before the beginning of the baseball playoffs. Our Reds incredibly failed to convert on a two-game lead over the Giants with three home games, providing just the boost the San Franciscans needed to go on and win the pennant and the world championship. My preseason pick, the Detroit Tigers, also went down meekly before the Giants; their key failure was somehow losing the first game of the World Series when they had the world's best pitcher, Justin Verlander, and faced retread #4 starter Barry Zito. Congratulations to the Giants--and their smoke and mirrors!
We are excited about the new college and NBA basketball seasons, we will ignore the absence once again of NHL games, and we are somewhat dismayed by Chelsea's recent form in Premier and Champions League play, but, inevitably, this time of year we have to talk about football (American) a little. I am watching more games this year and enjoying them more, though I have more than a few complaints about what I'm seeing.
The Luck of the Irish
I was preparing to write the article I usually prepare this time of year about how the BCS screwed up, once again, and how their championship game would be unfair to someone. In this year's case, it appeared to be Notre Dame. With Kansas State and Oregon unbeaten and clearly ranked 1-2, and Notre Dame and Alabama (the best team, in spite of their upset loss the previous week to Texas A&M) destined to be outside looking in on the BCS biggie, it appeared the expansion of the championship to four teams, announced earlier this fall, was going to be a year too late.
What I did not expect--what no one expected--was that Saturday night both K-State and Oregon would fall from the ranks of the unbeaten. Kansas St. was thoroughly trounced by an eager Baylor team, while Stanford proved that, while the Cardinal can't quite maintain the consistency needed for a top ranking, it can beat anybody on a given day.
So, Notre Dame--which is unbeaten, has played some tough teams but has had more than its share of narrow, even lucky, wins against teams both good and bad--is now the only major college team that is undefeated and bowl-eligible (Ohio State has chosen to take its postseason ban this year), and would look to play (and probably get beaten by) Alabama in the championship game. One hurdle remains for each: Notre Dame must defeat their perennial nemesis, USC, and Alabama will need to win its SEC championship game (against Georgia or Florida).
USC has had a very difficult season, falling from a high early season ranking, and most recently being shown up by crosstown rival UCLA, and their star quarterback Matt Barkley will not be playing vs. Notre Dame, but I would not exclude the possibility of a win by the Trojans. They will be at home, and Notre Dame has often come up short against USC, especially when they really needed to win. As for Alabama, usually they look like world-beaters, but they did not that day (at home!) against Texas A&M, a team that has just moved into the SEC and has a tangled history with Alabama, having to do with various sainted coaches like Bear Bryant who started out there. It looks like the beginning of a great, renewed rivalry.
A&M's move into the SEC is hardly the worst of the new conference shake-out moves; look at the Big East, which will have a Western division entirely made up of schools west of the Mississippi, or the Big 10, which now has 14 teams (so which are the small 4, I wonder?) committed to it, due to adding Midwestern powerhouses Rutgers and Maryland. The Big 12 (formerly the Big 8) is down to 10, so it loses its prized conference championship. Notre Dame has committed to the ACC for everything except football, though it will play five games a year against ACC teams (should be better for their record than tough games with teams like Michigan and Michigan State). It's hard to tell which conferences are gaining and which are losing out, really: I think the Pac-12 and SEC are doing well, but I'm not sure about the rest. The Big 10 might seem to be doing well, but between postseason bans for its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) and switching around, they will have one of the worst representatives in a BCS spot reserved for their league. A pox on all of them!
NFL: Who's Left Standing, Conscious?
Comments about "the product": I see an arms race between a desperate effort to use rules to protect quarterbacks from blind-side hits and defenses getting better and better at all-out pass rush. I see the evolution of fumbles from ballcarriers dropping the ball to defensive strategies which feature "tacklers" who don't tackle but punch at the midsection of the ballcarriers to try to loosen their hold so they can rip the ball out of their hands. The efforts to try to reduce the damage from concussions look more like trying to reduce future lawsuit damages than anything resembling real concern for safety and health. The most important game situation these days is often the judgement of the official in the replay booth looking at the super-slow motion to figure out whether the ball was completely ripped out of the rusher's arms before his knee touched the ground.
Still, despite the developing problems with the product and the feeling that the whole enterprise is doomed, interest remains high. There is both enough parity to make the outcome of almost any game in doubt before it starts, but there is also enough quality that some teams rise above mediocrity. There will be some new teams in the playoffs (49ers and Texans would be the current favorites to meet in the Super Bowl) and plenty of familiar faces as well (Green Bay, New Orleans have overcome poor early-season records and look dangerous, while Peyton Manning has re-emerged with Denver). Ratings should be good.