Thursday, December 24, 2009

Well, Bowl Season Kind of Sucks...

Okay, so bowl season doesn't "suck," per se. But the rather underwhelming slate of meager rations dished out in the first week or so of holiday pigskin action has done nothing besides induce sleep and winter doldrums. I busily masticate my teeth against the bevy of Christmas treats that I so happily shove down my throat without fear of being bloated or the future impact on my heart instead of salivating over the mid-major talent show on my television screen. What is a football fan to do?

However, there is nothing quite like coming home to a mother eager to spoil you after a long semester of blase dorm food, though. My stomach is still adjusting to real taste, apparently, but that's a digestive issue I'd rather not get into on a blog. Much too personal. Let's just say I have newfound sympathy for Grandpa Fries and his natural aversion to spicy foods. You spend enough time munching on food that doesn't shift beyond the colors white or yellow, and your stomach takes a beating when cilantro gets thrown into the mixture. Or somebody named "Donnie Bravo." On a lighter note, the wonderful Texas weather is quite the pleasant change from the incessant ice and snow storms plaguing the Midwest, so with weather, food, friends, and family, life is pretty good.

Except for the bowl games.

Not only are the games pitting no-name scrubs against their equally bland brethren, the games themselves are defying earlier projections and proving to be horribly unpredictable. These teams have no business playing in bowl games. I mean, who has really watched enough of Middle Tennessee State to know they are on a 7-game win streak and were likely to beat Southern Mississippi? Hell, I doubt I'm alone in saying that the dreadfully manipulative little green bars on ESPN's Pick 'Em game, signifying how the "nation" voted on each contest, influenced my decision more often than not with these early games.

I currently stand 3-3, which is a luxurious status when observed next to some of my less fortunate fellow competitors (cough Jared Kalmus cough), but still fairly distressing so early in the battle. But the score cannot measure my apathy, nor the fans' in most of these cases. Glorified high school stadiums filled with more empty bleachers then functioning hearts are the stars of the show, battling for attention alongside such obscure, laughable sponsors as Beef O'Brady's and an obnoxious battering of New Mexico tourism pimping. We get it, you live in a desert. Native American people used to live there. Can I gamble? That's all I need to know.

But the season got off on a twisted ankle with Fresno State's baffling performance against Wyoming and their proud band of toothless ranch-hands known as "Poke Nation" (I'm not even kidding). Despite the pitfalls of their kicker, who "wasn't recruited by anybody," Wyoming, bearers of the vaunted "poop and mustard" uniforms, ended up stifling the supposedly more talented Bulldogs 35-28 in double overtime. Fresno, fielding the best statistical running back in the country, had given some good teams close calls this year, including Boise State, and beat Illinois in the final game of the season with an incredibly flukey 2-point conversion attempt that was tipped at the line of scrimmage before falling into the hands of a confused o-lineman for the win. I had 32 confidence points on this game, so it was slightly crippling, but almost nobody picked Wyoming, a 6-6 Mountain West outfit (Mountain West > your conference), so the loss did not bludgeon my chances.

Next, I nabbed my first victory as Rutgers strutted into Orlando, Florida, home of their opponent UCF Golden Knights, and marched all over them 45-24 with an explosive offense and a chip on their shoulder that their sunshine enemies seemed to be lacking from the outset. Maybe it was the jovial poking fun at the perceived vast disparity in fan attendance from both schools, but Piscataway's finest showed up in full red glory and Rutgers stomped on Disney World's college football team. Unfortunately, I just thrashed and I sweated all afternoon, thinking that I picked UCF for home field reasons, before casually checking my computer that night and finding that, some how, I'd picked Rutgers. Must have followed the people's choice.

I didn't pick Middle Tennessee over Southern Miss, just because perpetual 1,000 yard rusher Damion Fletcher, Southern Miss' running back for the past 17 years, was likely to want to exit his college football career with a bang. But the Blue Raiders answered every score and every drive, and looked like the much better TEAM. BYU took a defeated Oregon State squad to the woodshed, which I somehow didn't pick, forgetting that the Beavers' hearts were absolutely torn out in the close loss to Oregon, playing for a Pac-10 title and a slot in the Rose Bowl. When you lose that much in such heartbreaking fashion, it's difficult to rebound and get motivated to play the Las Vegas Bowl against the Cougars and their hearty band of married Mormons

Finally, Utah polished up that sterling 3-0 Mountain West resume with a hard fought victory over a California team still lacking their best and most exciting player, tailback Jahvid Best, after a frightening concussion more than a month ago, when he was propelled a couple of feet into the air diving for a touchdown. That's too bad, cause he changes how Cal plays the game offensively. And SMU provided fans (fans?) with a long-deserved glimmer of light, winning (and playing in) their first bowl since before the NCAA gave them the "death penalty," in Hawaii no less. I figured June Jones would be comfortable in the ol' dump of Aloha Stadium, and have SMU perfecting the run-and-shoot offense. Plus, his freshman QB is a phenom, quite the stud. All this game basically imparts upon its viewers is that June Jones is a gifted coach with a knack for turning programs around, something that's more valuable in college than in the pros, and the WAC conference is probably the weakest in the country, evident by Nevada's treasure trove of 1,000 yard rushers and the fact that they almost knocked off Boise State. SMU ran roughshod in this one, exposing the West Coast as undisciplined, undersized, and, quite frankly, untalented.

I'm not impressed so far, but I hope good fortune awaits those who are patient.

So happy holidays, and let's hope I get back on track!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

From Little Cease' to Citrus Squeeze, I Got 'Em All...

Bowl season is either a source of unbridled frustration or holiday cheer for your team, but I think there's one thing we can all celebrate: we won't be seeing any of Notre Dame and the Fightin' Clausens in this year's pigskin pandemonium. Because Jesus has no mercy for the rich, or the grossly subpar. Though youthful hot shot Brian Kelly looks to bring his dreadfully overdone tough guy coaching tactics to turn South Bend's drear into Christmas cheer, the only sideline improvement we'll be seeing from the Golden Domers next year will be a coach with a semi-recognizable chin. But before I venture unnecessarily off-topic, it's time for the J-Freezy bowl pick special, with a few comments justifying my seemingly scatter-brained selections. This is no time to get into BCS talking-head jargon; merely an occasion to enjoy (or suffer through) the ever-inflating slate of bowl games, where every one is a winner (except the poor losers stuck in Detroit) and mediocrity is accepted, just like in real life. So get ready for a 6-6 bonanza and awkward introductions to previously unknown universities that begin with "East" or "Middle," because the eyes of a nation (or at least a trailer park in West Virginia) will be focused in on at least one of the upcoming 34 (good lord, that's too many) bowl games this holiday season. We'll start here with Mr. Irrelevant himself, the Little Caesar's Bowl in the hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape known as Detroit, Michigan, a setting so bleak and so barren that Cormac McCarthy would have difficulty crafting a nastier locale.

Little Caesar's Bowl: Marshall Thundering Herd (6-6) vs. Ohio Bobcats (9-4) -- The Big Ten's embarassing ass-cheek of a tie-in game thankfully had no qualifiers from their major conference brethren this season, but don't think for one second that the smaller programs take any semblance of joy in having to spend their winter break in Detroit: Marshall's head coach resigned from his post after the season, apparently choosing to return to beautiful West Virginia instead. Prestige fail, much? The seemingly despairing Thundering Herd will be pitted against the Frank Solich-lead Bobcats, who have quietly been one of the more successful mid-major outfits in the country since Nebraska's dirty laundry of a head coach took the main mantle. Ohio will likely never be a "BCS-buster," but nobody is complaining about consistent 9 win seasons at a place that is notoriously difficult to be successful at. This isn't Lincoln, folks. Ohio University gets to 10-wins against a middling Conference USA squad that's lucky to have been invited to a bowl game.

(I'll continue these in typically sporadic order, based on my confidence level on ESPN's pick 'em. In all fairness, this is finals week, and I was unfairly forced to churn out three stories for The Daily Iowan today, so blog time equals unwind time)

Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma State (9-3) vs. Mississippi Rebels (8-4) -- This contest should be dubbed the Battle of the Underachievers. Both squads entered the season with darkhorse championship aspirations, and both conclude the year in solid, if unspectacular, fashion at the historic Dallas stadium. Oklahoma State can place some of the blame on a painfully unfair suspension of their best player, the Michael Crabtree-esque wideout Dez Bryant, along with an untimely concussion to quarterback Zac Robinson towards the end of the year. Ole' Miss expected a Heisman-worthy season from much ballyhooed QB Jevan Snead, yet ended up receiving something much worse. Inconsistency will be the buzzword here as each team maniacally searches for that elusive performance where it all "comes together." Expect a healthy mustering of Dexter McCluster from the Rebels' end, but the Cowpokes have too many offensive weapons, and they will strike vengeance for the Big 12 after Texas Tech's Cotton Bowl spanking at the hands of Manning U last season. Bowl (these names just keep getting better and better): South Carolina Gamecocks (7-5) vs. Connecticut Huskies (7-5): The Huskies became America's team after the sudden and tragic death of cornerback Jasper Howard to a mid-season stabbing at a campus party, and then quickly became God's team as well following a thrilling "upset" over Notre Dame that essentially plunged the dagger firmly into Charlie Weis' deep-fried heart. UConn rode that surge of emotion to a successful late-season campaign that landed them in a bowl game against the Ol' Ball Coach and his perpetually inconsistent band of Southern misfits. Once again, the flimsy 'Cocks, not known for finishing hard, look to plunge deep into the belly of the opposition. Okay, enough of that. The "other" USC began the year in a blaze of success before gradually fading into mediocre obscurity, and one has to question how long Spurrier is going to hang around to watch this team reach its peak at 7 or 8 wins. Stephen Garcia just isn't developing like he's supposed to, and there's far too many "me-first" athletes on both sides of the ball, as evidenced by their sloppy performance against the Iowa Hawkeyes in last season's Outback Bowl. Nothing has changed here. South Carolina shows up lackluster and turnover prone, while UConn comes motivated with something big, and something profound, to play for. Never underestimate the impact of tragedy, and losing a teammate, on a team's mindset. Huskies win.

International Bowl: South Florida Bulls (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (7-5): The infamous "this game's in Canada, I thought this was supposed to be a vacation" bowl. Though the much-maligned country isn't nearly as bad as it may sound, it's still only a notch or two below the "Detroit Bowl" in it's popularity with coaches and players, not to mention the relatively cruddy matchups that it usually produces. South Florida showed flashes of greatness without their stud QB Matt Grothe, who was lost for much of the season with a blown ACL. Athletic backup B.J. Daniels looked like the real deal in a big win over Florida State, but that's before we found out Florida State sucked and was playing for a blow-up doll caricature of a head coach. As a reward for their second-half slide, the Jim Leavitt-led Bulls get the honor of playing Northern Illinois, a team that always seems to find itself creeping onto the bowl scene despite the lack of any recognizable figure or presence on their team. Dekalb's finest try to muster up their heaping helping of average to take down the athletic swamp creatures of South Florida, but Leavitt gets his team charged up and ready to play. Plus, the third-best team in Florida still beats the second-best team in Illinois (yea, you figure that one out).

Rose Bowl: Ohio State Buckeyes (10-2) vs. Oregon Ducks (10-2):
A little early in my list for the "Granddaddy Of 'Em All," eh? This tradition-laden contest and the root of all money-grubbing BCS evil pits the "borrring, we just won another Big Ten title" Buckeyes against the Oregon Ducks, who finally de-throned the Trojans for Pac-10 supremacy and proved they are more then just a fancy uniform configuration (or 300). Ohio State won their conference in typically unspectacular fashion, with stifling defense, a hydra-headed running game, and sweater-vest sporting coach with a gameplan so conservative, Glen Beck masturbates to highlight reels of Terrell Pryor handing off on 3rd and 8. Oregon, meanwhile, has the Polynesian Tim Tebow in fiesty skull-cracking QB Jeremiah Masoli, and their own elemental running back duo in the "thunder" of LeGarrette Blount (back from suspension for being a raging animal) and "lightning" of miniature speedster LaMichael James. As much as I'd love to see OSU win for the Big Ten's ever-dwindling national rep, Oregon has an athletic, explosive team, and, quite frankly, the Buckeyes almost lost to my Vandenberg-led Hawkeyes in Columbus. That's all the evidence I need. Ducks win, sadly.

Independence Bowl: Texas A&M Aggies (6-6) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (7-5): See what happens when you don't play defense, kids? You end up in Shreveport, Louisiana for Christmas. This actually figures to be a highly entertaining game, if only because a guaranteed shootout is ready and roaring to take place. Both teams finished disappointing campaigns with thrilling climaxes to the season, with the Aggies putting on a show and almost cooling the Texas Longhorns in College Station and the Bulldogs capping off the worst season of the Mark Richt era with an upset of bitter rival Georgia Tech. If Texas A&M could learn to play effectively on that "other side of the ball," then they would be markedly better than their 6-6 record indicates. With a stable of talented young running backs, the quietest superstar QB in the nation, and an athletic cast of wide receivers, this offense has the potential to be one of the best in the country. For now, Aggie fans are happy to be back bowling under Mike Sherman, but it's going to take a "Junction Boys" type of effort for rusty ol' Joe Kines to improve the defensive consistency and reward the long-suffering fightin' farmers with a slot in that Big 12 title game. Georgia has been spoiled with 10+ win seasons, and most fans probably expected the same even with the departures of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno to the NFL, both as lottery picks no less. With stud wide receiver AJ Green at his disposal, newcomer QB Joe Cox improved throughout the season, and the Bulldogs ended up fielding a scintillating quick-strike offense of their own. Look for this game to be one of the more entertaining contests on the docket. My heart says Aggies, but I've seen enough of the maroon marauders over my years in the deep South to know never to put your confidence in their abilities. Just when you think they've turned the corner, they let you down. Plus, Richt is proven. He's been in much bigger settings before, and will have his Dawgs ready to play. Not yet Aggies. Bulldogs win 45-42.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Tentative Fiesta

The melancholy winter months ahead are looming largely over the wayward flock of Hawkeye nation this December, but snow plows and -20 degree windchill are not the primary factors that make up the black cloud hanging ever-so menacingly in the Midwest sky; I'm talking about Iowa's utterly unjust behind-the-scenes battle with Penn State for at-large BCS supremacy. As many of you may already know, both Iowa and Penn State finished the 2009 college football regular season with a record of 10-2, tied for 2nd in the Big Ten conference. Iowa, however, owns the head-to-head matchup, beating Penn State in Happy Valley back on Sept. 26, 21-10, in one of the most thrilling Hawkeye victories of the past decade.

Ignoring common sense and the contrite values of on-field competition, the money-grubbing, attention-starved BCS head honchos are actually deliberating which of these two Big Ten schools to select for an at-large birth in their end of season fashion show that annually crowns the best team in the country. It's a system based entirely on historical prestige, name value, butts in seats, eyes glued to television screens, and the false premise of "tradition." It's never been a system that has inspired me to leap from my comfortable perch and riot, as the end of year bowl bonanza has always been "the way it is" since I started really paying attention to the sport at the beginning of the decade.

But Iowa's last BCS berth came in 2002, after an 8-0 conference run and Big Ten championship, so there was no controversy surrounding the prize that awaited the black and gold that season. This year, with uncertainty clouding the glorious goal at stake, I've been nervously chomping my finger nails and sweating buckets since Iowa's 12-0 defensive plastering of Minnesota on Nov. 21st, hoping and praying that my Hawks are one of the elite few chosen at the end of the year to receive the hefty monetary reward, flood of blue-chip recruits, television exposure, and last, but certainly not least, the fantastic competition that comes with a BCS bowl game. Maybe now that Jim Delaney, Big Ten commissioner and proponent of the BCS due to the stubborn, backwards-thinking greed of the Rose Bowl, might re-think his unabashed support for the system now that one of the teams from his own conference is attempting to crash the at-large party.

Both teams assuredly have their respective arguments. Iowa, of course, beat the Nittany Lions at their home stadium, and played on national TV almost every week this season. The Hawks has a notoriously large fanbase in Arizona, a sort of haven for the retired (folks undoubtedly worn down by a lifetime of winter) and the location of the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, the probable destination of the Big Ten at-large selection. Iowa fans always travel well and fill up the bowl stadiums (jumping Northwestern for an Outback bowl bid last year), and they've never been to the Fiesta, adding intrigue and new blood to the system. Penn State, on the other hand, is an undisputed national program, with fans scattered across the country and a wide-spanning history of undefeated tradition and national championships. Their coach, the venerated Joe Paterno, has been the head man for the Nittany Lions since the late '50s, and is perhaps the face of college football with his recognizably curmudgeon-ish disposition, ancient tenure, and famous horn rimmed glasses. Penn State has finished the 2009 season in scintillating fashion, thumping Michigan State in the season finale, while Iowa stumbled towards the climax in winning only one of its last three games after starting 9-0, due mainly to QB Ricky Stanzi's devastating ankle injury. But Stanzi, along with a host of other walking wounded, will return for the bowl game, wherever that may be.

In conclusion, it really all comes down to the fact that Iowa beat Penn State in a football game. Football games are played to win, and never should anything BUT winning decide the outcome or a team's success. Grouchy pragmatists may point to Kansas jumping Missouri for an Orange Bowl berth in 2007 as a sign of things to come for disillusioned Hawks. Missouri beat Kansas in the regular season, and the Tigers were Big 12 North champs. But two losses to Oklahoma, one in the regular season and the other in the Big 12 championship, left a corrosive stain on Mizzou's record, and 1-loss Kansas jumped the Tigers for a BCS berth. The Iowa-Penn State situation is different, however, because both teams have the same record, so that example is flawed. BCS, do the right thing, and put the Hawks in your bowl game, wherever that might be. The general consensus is that bowl game will be the Fiesta, against everybody's favorite blue and oranges barons of the trick play, the upset-minded Boise State Broncos, still riding the wave of momentum from their Fiesta bowl upset of Adrian Peterson's Oklahoma Sooners on an overtime Statue of Liberty play. Both of ESPN's resident bowl projection experts, Bruce Feldman and Mark Schlabach, have finally reached a consensus, placing Iowa in the Fiesta, but it's going to take an official announcement to assuage my raging fears. Other options include Miami's Orange Bowl, against the ACC champ (pulverizing Georgia Tech or up-and-down Clemson), or, if we do make the dreaded plunge into the ranks of "regular" New Year's Day bowls, the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Florida, site of perhaps the most memorable Hawkeye play of all time. The sweet taste of a 10-2 season, with the possibility of 11 wins, is still digesting, but it would go down the pipes a whole lot smoother with the sterling stamp of a BCS bowl game emblazoned on the resume. After a season such as this one, anything less just wouldn't do justice to all of the good fortune and craziness.

Next, I'll do a mini-season wrap up, with my own take on the best players, games, and moments of an incredible season.

Best Offensive Player: WR Marvin McNutt (RS-Sophomore) -- Whether due to inconsistency on the offensive line, injuries to their top 3 running backs, or Ricky Stanzi's patented pick-sixes, the 2009 Iowa Hawkeyes fielded an offense that was far from stable. They showed flashes of their potential, like the 28-point outburst in the 4th quarter of the Indiana game or consecutive long-ball touchdowns against Arkansas State, but achieving a steady rhythm was an elusive task for such an injury-plagued unit. Iowa fans never really knew what they were going to see on the field offensively any given Saturday, adding not only to the excitement of close, defensive-minded games, but the heart attack risk for overweight bearers of the black and gold. I'm giving this award to one of my new favorite players of the season, he of the endlessly manipulated last moniker, flypaper hands, and big play potential: former third-string QB and St. Louis native Marvin McNutt. Coming into the season, most fans saw McNutt's placement as number 1 on the depth chart as a fluke, a motivational ploy to get Derrell Johnson-Koulianous, the teams' established star at wideout, to put forth a bit more effort in practice. After all, the guy was a converted QB still learning the ins-and-outs of running routes, and could not have been ready for such a big role.

But McNutt quickly showed that he deserved a lasting spot in the starting lineup, becoming our most consistent threat for the first half of the season as DJK "got with the program," and then settling into the role of the Hawks' most incendiary deep threat. While DJK garnered more receptions and yards, McNutt still managed to put up 653 yards with a stunning 21.3 average yards per reception, nabbing 9 TDs to DJK's 2. His highlights included two touchdowns against Arkansas State, the 92-yard touchdown that ignited Kinnick Stadium against Indiana, his 2 stellar TD grabs against Ohio State at the Horseshoe, and finally, the iconic last-play touchdown catch to beat Michigan State in East Lansing and go 8-0 for the first time in program history. What's even more impressive about that play is that a fade route was originally called in the huddle, but McNutt, seeing that he could beat his man to the inside, persuaded Ken O'Keefe to change the call. The rest is history. McNutt's emergence is one of the best stories of the season, and the fact that he didn't make ANY of the All-Big Ten lists is incredibly stupid and inane. Honorable mention for this award could go to Stanzi, who ignored the haters and calmly won ball games with clutch savvy and nonchalant resiliency. Also, Adam Robinson was a fearsome sparkplug at running back until a stifling ankle injury ended his run at Michigan State, while offensive lineman Dace Richardson was a rock at right guard until yet ANOTHER ankle injury sidelined him for the season.

More awards to follow in the coming days...