EL HOMBRE KNOWS SPORTS
After an off-season characterized by conference realignment shenanigans and agents’ being described as “pimps” by an on-again, off-again coach, it is great to have some football to watch for a change. There will be plenty of drama, especially once ADs try to search for new coaches before firing their old ones, but at least we can look forward to weekends filled with footballs flying – and perhaps a fully-developed power running attack or two.
The spread offense isn’t exactly in the ICU, but teams are figuring out how to defend it more effectively, meaning we might actually see some offensive linemen who can move forward and – holy smokes! – real, live fullbacks on the field. Let’s not get carried away and expect a return to real football throughout the nation, but the basketball-on-grass crowd has been served notice: The tough guys are coming back.
Here are some of the other storylines worth following throughout the season.
Cheat On: Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, USC’s schedule cards used to include the Rose Bowl as the team’s 12th game, and according to most Trojans, their birthright. If ‘SC was paying by the line for this year’s cards, it was able to save some money, because the Men of Troy aren’t going anywhere after their season finale against UCLA. A nasty probationary sentence in the wake of Reggie Bush’s ill-gotten cash and prizes has rocked Southern California, keeping it from a bowl game this year, taking away some scholarships and costing the Trojans star offensive tackle recruit Seantrel Henderson, who left the program after learning of the probation. Making matters worse is the hiring of carpetbagging coach Lane Kiffin, who made zero friends at Tennessee and now has to satisfy a new AD, Pat Haden, who appears to have zero tolerance for tomfoolery, or fools for that matter. All dynasties end eventually, and the USC’s recent era of dominance may be over.
CSI: Ann Arbor: And Chapel Hill. And Columbia. And…well, you get the picture. If the NC2A can rain down serious hellfire down on USC, it means business. So, look out Michigan and North Carolina. Beware half the SEC and South Carolina. Perhaps this is the new age of justice in college athletics. No longer with the folks in Indianapolis just pick on the little guys and let the big-timers get away with more violations than Lindsay Lohan commits. The most disturbing of the latest problems comes from UNC, where it is alleged that several Tar Heel players had papers written for them by a tutor who used to be coach Butch Davis’ nanny. Holy academic fraud, Batman! If this is verified, the alleged culprits might be tossed from school, instead of just banned from their spots on the team. Keep an eye on this one, and pay attention to the NC2A. It might just be coming to a powerhouse near you.
Try, Try Again: Bob Davie couldn’t do it. Ty Willingham couldn’t do it. Heavy C couldn’t do it. But Brian Kelly can, and if you believe the propaganda, he will lift Notre Dame back to a level of prominence enjoyed by Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian. That’s going to be hard without the level of athletic talent found at SEC schools, Texas, Ohio State and other places that have a more cavalier approach to academic portion of the student-athlete concept. Every time ND gets a new coach, we are bombarded with reasons why the Fighting Irish are ready for a return to the national picture. The fact is, the program hasn’t had the players, so they haven’t won the games. Kelly is perfect for South Bend. He’s Irish. He’s arrogant. He’s been successful before. What he isn’t is blessed with a loosening of the admissions requirements. Had that been the case, Pope Urban VI would have taken the gig five years ago. Expect eight wins for the Irish this year. Some creative scheduling down the line could result in a BCS berth. But it will take a serious aligning of the stars for ND to win it all.
Partial Idiocy: The Big Ten’s announcement that it was expanding triggered hysteria that rivaled the runs on banks in 1929. The Big 12 was almost blown apart. The WAC was. Big East administrators started Prozac drips to keep calm amidst reports they would be left with C-USA leftovers and any old Yankee Conference castoffs they could convince to elevate their programs. And the Pac-10 finally realized that the rest of the country doesn’t care about it. There was plenty of craziness to go around, but the worst of it may come later this year, when short-sighted Big Ten money-grubbers decide the best way to align the new, 12-team version of the Western Conference includes splitting Michigan and Ohio State into different divisions. Although they didn’t move their annual game – played on the final Saturday of the regular season for all but one of the last 75 seasons – to October, the division split is an abomination, because it takes the schools out of daily, head-to-head competition against each other. All of this comes because of the possibility that splitting the schools could result in a title game matchup between them that produces an avalanche of cash. First off, there’s no guarantee it will happen regularly. Secondly, it’s an obscene move by greedmongers who have clearly lost sight of college football’s tradition and meaning. Worse, the people in charge at Michigan and Ohio State pushed for it. That’s disgraceful. Splitting Michigan and Ohio State takes away a big part of what made the schools’ rivalry so great, all because there could be a big payoff once in a while in early December. Shame on you.
Be Careful What You Wish For: At this point, it would appear that people who like and approve of the BCS fall into two categories. The first is the “it’s better than what we had” cadre, which employs the same logic as Soviet citizens who felt Brezhnev was “better than” Stalin. The second is filled with blind sycophants, paid mouthpieces (see Hancock, Bill) and the lazy-brained, who blindly support the contrived system. But enough about that. The real story this season has to do with Boise State, which by the virtue of its good fortune from the college football sorting hat, has a chance to play in the BCS championship game next January. If the third-ranked Broncos get past non-conference tests against Virginia Tech and Oregon State, they could well get a shot at the title and strike a blow for the great unwashed in the college football world. Huge responsibility would accompany such an opportunity, since if BSU were to flop, the entire mid-major world would be marginalized and removed from serious BCS consideration. No pressure, fellas.
The Interloper: Okay, so we all knew Jimbo Fisher would eventually replace Bobby Bowden at the helm of the Florida State Bowden built into a national power. But many – Bowden included – thought the takeover wouldn’t happen until 2011. If you believe the latest news, Bowden was offered the opportunity to be a wax replica of his former self for a season while Fisher did all the heavy lifting. The August drama has obscured the fact that Fisher must now revive a program that has teetered over the past decade and craft a new identity that doesn’t include its iconic symbol. The return of QB Christian Ponder should make that job easier, and the Seminoles have already returned to the recruiting trail with a vengeance. But after pledging to stay away from the program and let Fisher work, Bowden has returned. He poses no threat to Fisher, but his willingness to throw bombs at administrators, including school president and former Bowden player T.K. Wetherill, shows that he still wants some influence. Fisher should hope that doesn’t mean questioning a fourth-and-one call against Miami.
The Envelope, Please: One of El Hombre’s favorite memories of his storybook childhood came when Oklahoma kicker Uwe von Schamann nailed a 41-yard field goal in 1977 to give the visiting Sooners a 29-28 win over Ohio State and send Buckeye coach Woody Hayes into a full, abusive froth. Von Schamann and Hayes are long gone from the college football landscape, but expect to see their descendents squaring off for all those BCS marbles (don’t get EH started) next January. Buckeye QB Terrell Pryor showed in last year’s Rose Bowl romp against Oregon’s flag-football defense that he can be extremely dangerous, while the Sooners are ready to roll back with a vengeance after last year’s misery created by Sam Bradford’s injury. When the pads stop popping in Glendale, the Buckeyes will have some overdue revenge, and the Big Ten will have a spot at college football’s big table once again.
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EL HOMBRE SEZ: If Roger Clemens’ posse of $500/hour mouthpieces can convince a jury to render a “not guilty” verdict in his perjury trial, he may have just paid the highest-ever admission fee to Cooperstown. Then again, it’s one thing to obfuscate, bob and weave in front of a jury and another to convince skeptical Hall of Fame voters that Clemens wasn’t a juicer…Looks like incarcerated Giants wideout Plaxico Burress isn’t playing ball this year, thanks to a judge who shot down his work-release request. Aw, shoot! Oops, maybe that wasn’t the best way to express outrage…Whether it was overwork, poor mechanics or some sort of curse on the woeful Nationals’ franchise, it is a true tragedy that pitcher Stephen Strasburg must undergo Tommy John surgery Friday to repair a torn tendon in his pitching elbow. All serious injuries are sad, but this comes to a player on whom a team and city placed its hopes. Strasburg might rebound and become a dominant pitcher, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever reach his complete potential. That’s a damn shame…Can you name another one-time major sporting event that has lost more luster than the U.S. Open tennis championship? Once a must-see event, it is now populated by a group of largely-anonymous players, all but a handful of whom don’t matter a lick to American audiences. Worse, it takes weekend TV time away from college football. Where have you gone, John McEnroe?
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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?: Now that we’re in September, the Phillies must stop talking about how long the season is, how much experience they have and start winning games. Throughout the past five months, whenever the Phils committed unpardonable sins like losing four to the Astros or using Dannys Baez out of the bullpen, they were quick to remind nervous fans and cranky media the season consisted of 162 games, not 16 or even 82. The time for patience is over. The Phillies are three games out of first in the NL East and have yet to demonstrated any sustained consistency at the plate. If this is indeed the team’s time, then we should expect excellent play and no more calls for patience. As the team’s margin for error shrinks, its accountability will rise. It’s time to see if the Phillies are really a championship team, because the long season is getting pretty short.
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AND ANOTHER THING: Throughout the next several days, NFL teams will determine final depth charts and make the difficult decisions about who belongs and doesn’t belong on their teams. It’s an arduous process that always ends in dejection for dozens of hopefuls. Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt has already made one player pretty upset when he announced Derek Anderson will be his starting QB when the Cards open the season next weekend. That ran counter to the hopes and dreams of one Matt Leinart, who during his brief NFL career has done nothing to show he belongs as a regular under center in the league, yet somehow thinks he deserves a starting spot. In response to Whisenhunt’s decision, Leinart whined to the media, whined to the coach and generally acted like the kind of petulant child to whom you would never turn over control of your offense. Leinart is inconsistent, doesn’t seem like a particularly hard worker and hasn’t exactly established himself as a leader. And, now, because of his behavior, he could be traded to some garden spot like Buffalo. Hope the tantrum was worth it, Matt.