Thursday, August 21, 2008

CFN Archives: Old Weekly Affirmation Columns, First Installment - December 2005 Through September 2006

2005 Regular Season, Final Column - December 5, 2005

I. All Emotions, All the Time
II. Playing the Perceptions Game
III. USC-Texas Notes: The First of Many
IV. A Request to all Weekly Affirmation Readers

I. All Emotions, All the Time

What did this final weekend of the 2005 regular season teach us? Right to the end, this is a sport of emotions. The winners either overcome them or use them to their advantage; the losers either submit to them or fail to refine them in the first place. The teams with staying power maintain a full emotional tank every week, even when performance suffers; the teams that are blips on radar screens throw all their eggs into one basket, and when that basket breaks, those fallen eggs become mighty scrambled.

Why is USC's 34-game winning streak so amazing? (Side note: can we spare the comments about a media love affair with the Trojans? Exactly what the heck is supposed to be downplayed about a program on the verge of winning three straight national titles, one of them split with LSU? It's just like Duke in college basketball--what could Mike Krzyzewski possibly be criticized for? Winning big? Graduating players? Molding fine young men? It's the same with Pete Carroll. ANY football school would be experiencing a much-deserved national lovefest if it did the things USC has done. Now can we move on? Thank you.)

USC's nearly three-year run of uninterrupted victory is so astonishing because college football involves letdowns, lookaheads, traps, ambushes, one-game seasons from hungry opponents, and various other examples of how emotions create both surges and downticks that leave heavyweights vulnerable and underdogs in a position of power. USC, with some luck (and some luck is always part of the equation in a given college football season), has nevertheless managed to maximize its good fortune and withstand the challenges of teams who put all their emotional resources into one game against them.

After seeing Notre Dame sluggishly reach the BCS finish line; after seeing Arizona State barely become bowl-eligible; and after seeing Fresno State crash and burn this past Friday against Louisiana Tech (one week after a letdown against Nevada), there can be only one verdict about these three teams who pressed USC so hard during the 2005 season: they all devoted an inordinate amount of emotional energy to one thing and one thing only: beating USC. The Trojans were everyone's one-game season, a disproportionate object of focus, obsession and motivation from their twelve opponents. Had the Irish, Sun Devils and Bulldogs gamed against everyone else the way they all did against the Trojans, they'd be 10-1 teams, hands down.

Texas has had its own challenges in 2005, but as the defending champ with the California Cool image, it's SC who has really had to take everyone's best shot. The fact that the Trojans are where they are is testament to Pete Carroll's ability to--one way or another--keep the emotional tank full. Some weeks, it's a prank; other weeks, it's simple positive reinforcement; other weeks, it's the threat of reduced playing time in a culture of relentless practice competition. Whatever the angle, whatever the tactic, Carroll pushes the right buttons as an emotional leader and manipulative motivator on a team whose talent is so great that in-fighting over playing time could easily rip the ballclub apart. Just look at the Lakers to see how a great L.A. team crumbled under the weight of its collective talent. Carroll masters emotions even better than he masters defensive scheming, and it's that emotional command that has made USC the lasting giant on the college football scene over the past three years.

With Texas (since we mentioned the Longhorns earlier), emotions have been stabilized this year. Mack Brown has coached like a man secure in his job and comfortable in his own skin. He makes better decisions because he feels less pressure. This is true for two overarching reasons: 1) Brown knows that he has this Texas job as long as he wants it, a fact that would comfort anyone in such a high-profile position; 2) Vince Young has transformed the psychology of Texas football, which--before VY's arrival--was a point of enormous pain whenever Oklahoma, an ambush game, or a big bowl came around.

In the Brown era BVY (that's not a weird abbreviation for "Bevo" or "bevy," as in the bevy of studs Texas' coach is annually able to recruit; it merely stands for "Before Vince Young"), the prospect of facing the Sooners or other big-game opponents was met with a tidal wave of flop sweat and big-league nerves. Brown would coach tentatively, and "system" quarterbacks such as Major Applewhite, Chris Simms, and Chance Mock--while solid--did not have the swagger or the improvisational ability to mask Brown's and (offensive coordinator) Greg Davis' weaknesses. VY has changed all that. On the field, Young is able to make plays when plays break down. Off the field, Texas' spiritual leader has been able to get his teammates to work on offseason conditioning drills, to continue to sacrifice for team goals, to continue to ride his back all the way to Pasadena. Big games are no longer chaotic chemical cocktails for Texas and Mack Brown; now, Vince Young takes the burden on his very large shoulders, enabling a head coach to relax, motivate and delegate. The emotional transformation in Austin--engineered by Vince Young--is the only real reason why the Longhorns, who have had awesomely talented teams over the past several years, have finally reached the proverbial "next level."

Beyond the national title game combatants, this past weekend showed how other teams live or die based on their emotions.

Gary Danielson of ABC was, as usual, spot-on in noting how frequently Virginia Tech players--particularly receivers--complained about a lack of pass interference calls against Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. True, the Hokies deserved a few more calls than they got, and a two-point pass went against them despite instant replay, which seemed to indicate a toe drag and a successful conversion. But for all the calls the Hokies didn't get, it was alarming--and more importantly, newsworthy--for Danielson, as a broadcast journalist, to point out the automatic, knee-jerk regularity with which Va Tech receivers and players protested calls. When you're the fifth-ranked team in the country and a two-touchdown favorite against a reeling four-loss ballclub, you should be able to impose your will. Virginia Tech's dominant fourth quarter only shows how emotionally unhinged and absent Frank Beamer's team was for the first three quarters of play. A selected complaint here or there is part of any football game, but a reflexive mindset of protest was and is clear proof of a distracted, not fully motivated, and mentally unsettled team that, for whatever reason, lost hold of its emotions in the Miami game and--with the exception of a rivalry game against Virginia that got the juices flowing--never regained its mojo between the ears. Emotions devastated Virginia Tech, and Gary Danielson made an anything-but-cheap point in noticing as much.

On the other side of the ACC divide lies Florida State. An inspired performance against the Hokies proves two things, beyond any and all doubt: first, the Seminoles still have talent; second, that talent massively underachieved because it displayed zero mental toughness in lay-down-and-die debacles against N.C. State, Clemson and Florida (against Virginia, Marques Hagans played the game of his life; that loss wasn't nearly as outrageous as those other three sorry spectacles). Emotions--one can safely say--determined the trajectory of FSU's season, for better or worse. When the Seminoles didn't cave in the face of threats from Miami or Boston College, they won. When Maryland took command in a midseason game in Tallahassee, FSU fought back and prevailed. But when that same team took a punch from the Wolfpack, Tigers or Gators, the collective psyche of Bobby Bowden's sideline wilted. It wasn't so much a matter of failing to block pass rushers or execute Jeff Bowden's plays; no, the real crisis in Tallahassee was that FSU was a bunch of weak-kneed pansies who evidently needed to be insulted and criticized to extraordinary lengths. The proof's in the pudding: after getting tarred and feathered by anyone and everyone this past week, and after repeatedly hearing just how bad they were, the Noles--up and down their roster--summoned up their pride and competed for once.

Giving a damn--not packing it in at the first hint of adversity--does wonders for a football team and its reputation, dunnit? Florida State's emotional tank was overflowing Saturday night, but on several other Saturdays this season, that same tank was bone dry. It only magnifies (and puts into perspective) what USC has been able to do from an emotional standpoint: keep the juices flowing abundantly in every game, even when the level of technical or mechanical excellence isn't quite there. If USC had Florida State's level of mental toughness, the Trojans would have lost at Arizona State and Notre Dame and at home against Fresno State. It's not that the Trojans and Seminoles are so extraordinarily different in terms of their talent level (though USC, it would seem, has vastly superior depth); what separated a 12-0 goliath from a schizophrenic four-loss team was nothing other than mental toughness, the ability to channel emotional reserves effectively and consistently.

This business of emotional management, of mental toughness, is still the most underreported and underappreciated aspect of college football. It's the reason USC and Texas--like other championship game participants in past years--find themselves in The Big Game, and it explains the feats and failures of countless other teams across the country, with Florida State being a prime example of both the glory and ghastliness that emerge when mental toughness is or isn't present.

II. Playing the Perceptions Game

With the entirety of the regular season now over, and all the conference races now decided, it's worth noting how perceptions of teams change over the course of a season, right down to the final gun of the last game. In a sport where assessments of teams always (and unavoidably) change from week to week, given the volatile nature of this industry and the players who give it life, it's important to provide some much-needed perspective to blunt overly harsh verdicts and toughen overly glowing pronouncements.

Let's start with two teams that played this past weekend.

LSU is a team that, after losing big to Georgia, might be perceived as a ballclub that luckily skated by in a number of close games, only to get exposed by the Dawgs. That might be the immediate (and overly emotional) reaction to the Tigers' loss in the Georgia Dome, with the wounds of the loss still fresh. But a big-picture perspective suggests that while Auburn needed to miss a cartload of field goals to give LSU a season-defining (and SEC West-clinching) win, the Bayou Bengals--for all their inconsistency at quarterback and in their receiving corps--did the things they needed to do to win 10 games. Chris Jackson made a clutch field goal against Auburn that made overtime possible. JaMarcus Russell made money throws against Arizona State and Alabama to carry the Tigers to a pair of huge wins. LSU converted two key fourth downs on the way to a winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter against Florida. A defense that stood on its head all season long (well, until facing Georgia, anyway) denied Arkansas in the final minutes at Tiger Stadium. Week after week, a gritty team that had to deal with nothing less than major life disruptions early in the season (a pair of catastrophic hurricanes aren't exactly convenient) found a way to win. Yes, the inconsistency of the Tigers made a number of their games closer than they should have been, but LSU displayed some stones to offset their stumbles. Taking too harsh a verdict of Les Miles' first season in Baton Rouge after Saturday's disaster in the dome would be a big mistake--not just as a measure of analysis, but as a matter of humanity for a team that has done so much, spiritually and emotionally, for the state of Louisiana.

Another team likely to be viewed harshly after this weekend is UCLA. Sure, the Bruins' run defense makes matadors and swiss cheese look absolutely fortress-like by comparison, and yeah, Karl Dorrell was astoundingly cautious against USC, in a game where he had to take every chance in the book and then some. But despite the black marks of two blowout losses, 9-2 is still a sensational season for a program and coach that needed to transcend mediocrity. Because of good player development and usually fearless coaching (unlike this game against Troy, in which a three-week layoff proved to be too much for the Bruins; two weeks might have been the perfect balance between rust and rest, but a three-week vacation seemed to take away the offense's fluidity and the team's winning edge), Dorrell turned the corner in Westwood. And while his team isn't close to L.A.'s celebrated college football powerhouse (then again, how many teams are?), he got his team far enough that it had a chance to tie the Trojans with a season-ending win that didn't materialize. Safe to say, Bruin football has come a long way from that humiliating Las Vegas Bowl loss to Wyoming nearly a year ago. The 45-point loss to USC should not overshadow what UCLA accomplished this year.

A third team that finished its season this weekend, and which offers a fascinating case study about the tricky nature of perceptions, is Louisville. On one hand, the Cards committed a boatload of mistakes to keep Connecticut competitive longer than anyone had a right to expect. Then again, Bobby Petrino clearly had backup quarterback Hunter Cantwell ready to play, burnishing Petrino's credentials as a QB guru. The Cardinals make it hard for the seasoned football observer to determine if the glass is half-empty or half-full. On one hand, no one should ever be upset about a 9-2 season. Then again, if there was ever a case of an exception that proves the rule, Louisville is it. When one considers how South Florida tailed off at the end of 2005, the Cards' 31-point loss to the Bulls stands as the single biggest shocker of the just-completed season. And while West Virginia has had nothing less than a sensational breakthrough season that will catapult Rich Rodriguez' program to new heights of national prominence and visibility, it still stands that Louisville lost a 17-point lead with less than ten minutes to play against a team whose only reliable pass play was a bubble screen. If 9-2 could ever be labeled an underachieving year, 2005 was a year in which Bobby Petrino's program fell short of the mark. Perceptions--which tend to be too harsh, as opposed to being too forgiving--are legitimately uncompromising in Louisville's case.

The perceptions game doesn't just apply to teams that finished their seasons this past weekend. For all their problems in 2005, the Oklahoma Sooners show some possible signs (though it's too early to be too definitive in pronouncing this team as being "back in a groove") of returning to their old form. In a Big XII where no one has authoritatively grabbed the mantle of "best team outside Austin," the Sooners--who played Texas Tech even-steven on the road--have made a 7-4 regular season look as respectable as humanly possible. While no one would say this season was a success, the full body of work from Oklahoma--and the realization that this team, as of mid-September, was just not up to typical standards in Norman--suggests that this year has been navigated as reasonably as one could expect. In mid-October, it would have been tempting to say the OU program was in shambles; now, the perception is rightfully different, though far from being completely rosy. OU--like LSU, UCLA and Louisville--is a particularly good representative example of how a program is subject to markedly different perceptions over the course of one season.

Another example similar to OU is Iowa State. After the first few games of 2005, ISU looked like world-beaters. A 20-point win over an Iowa team ranked in the top 15 at the time will do that. Then, after an 0-3 Big XII start, the Cyclones looked like they were ready for last place in the Big XII North. But just when the Cyclones seemed headed for the cellar, they went on a tear to come within one defensive stop of the North title. However, that one stop wasn't made, and ISU wound up losing a heartbreaker in its regular season finale. Dan McCarney's team underwent four pronounced personality and identity changes, four tectonic shifts relative to national perceptions of its program in 2005. At the end, ISU didn't win its division, but it didn't miss out on a bowl bid, either. What's my recommendation for how to perceive ISU? It's hard to have one when a team constantly re-writes its story the way the Cyclones did. There's something of a choke factor going on in Ames, but in the same breath, McCarney's kids have overachieved and displayed extraordinary resilience. Yes, in college football, severely conflicting truths can and do coexist.

To carry this examination of perceptions a little further, let's consider conferences. Without ranking the conferences--they're all suspect, and hard to place in a pecking order or hierarchy of quality--let's look only at the perception of conferences as they exist now, compared to the preseason.

The ACC is clearly a conference that should suffer in the perceptions game. With a four-loss Florida State team being the league champion, it's hard to identify a single team that overachieved in 2005. Georgia Tech--with road wins at Auburn and Miami--came closest, but those triumphs were offset by losses against N.C. State and Virginia in addition to expected losses against Virginia Tech and Georgia. Boston College, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech, and N.C. State all fell short of expectations this year. Bottom-feeders in the conference weren't able to shatter common perceptions of their programs.

The Big Ten had a lot of nice, decent teams, but this conference figured to have more star power. Michigan and Iowa mightily disappointed this year, but Penn State captured the imagination of college football fans everywhere. Ohio State was up and down, but did well to steady the ship and earn a BCS bowl bid that no one is arguing with. Teams such as Minnesota, Michigan State and Purdue need to be more annually consistent for this league to surpass expectations and win the perception game.

The Pac-10 looked special in midseason, with Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Cal all pursuing USC in a race that seemed to possess star quality. But then one by one (with the exception of the resilient and resourceful Ducks), the Trojans' competition bowed out due to a combination of injuries and mental weakness. Arizona State fell off the map in late October, Cal in early November, and UCLA this past weekend against a team it didn't belong on the same field with. Because the pack in the Pac fell so markedly off the pace, it's hard to give this league too much credibility at the end of 2005. While injuries had a real and undeniable part in the decline of the Sun Devils and Bears, it stands that USC and Oregon survived their own injuries, displaying the toughness ASU and Cal plainly lacked. And as for UCLA, it's hard to give too much respect to a team that played the maddening "switch-flipping" football the Bruins did. UCLA's 9-2 season was great for the program, but in terms of giving the Pac-10 national heft and prestige, the Bruins needed to go 10-1 to make America take notice. It's instructive that USC's two particularly tough tests came from out of the conference: Notre Dame took Pete Carroll's team down to the last tick on the clock, and Fresno State didn't die until the final 90 seconds in the Coliseum. By comparison, Oregon tested the Trojans for a half, and ASU gave SC a fight for 56.5 minutes.

The Big East, while certainly the weakest of the six major conferences, might ironically profit from a contest of perceptions. The mere fact that two of the conference's previously unrecognized programs--South Florida and Rutgers--will be playing bowl games could signal growth for those schools, which lie in population-rich areas in Florida and New Jersey. And while Louisville did underachieve, West Virginia overachieved in a huge way. Moreover, the fact that the Mountaineers have historically been more of a football school than Louisville means that Big East football could reacquire some prestige after the ACC's unsightly raid of the conference.

The Big XII can't look good in the perception game. Oklahoma--while gathering itself toward the end of this season and showing that the Sooners might have found their footing for next year--undeniably dragged down national opinions of this conference. With Colorado backing into--and then getting blown out of--the conference title game for the second straight year, the reputation of the Big XII North lies in ruins. Texas Tech, perhaps by default, is the second-best team in this conference, and yet, the Red Raiders couldn't breathe on Texas. When your huge overachieving success story is Baylor, you know you're a conference with issues.

And last but not least, the SEC is probably the hardest conference to figure out in terms of national perception and conventional wisdom. Did this conference have a good year? The stories from South Carolina, Auburn and Alabama would lend force to a "yes" verdict. Did the conference have a bad year? The fact that the league's two division champions either lived repeatedly on the edge (as in LSU's case) or lacked a marquee win (Georgia's only eye-popping SEC win, before the conquest of LSU in Atlanta, came against a Tennessee team that failed to become bowl-eligible) would bolster a pessimist's perception of America's most cutthroat conference. The optimist would cite Vandy's rise; the pessimist would cite the fact that Vandy still failed to make a bowl. The SEC's happy thinker would cite Arkansas' late rise; the SEC's sober-minded killjoy would remind folks that Arkansas lost seven games. A positive spin would include the West's resurgence; a negative spin would point out the East's wobbly season, punctuated by the Vols' descent into losing-season hell. All in all, it's difficult to determine whether season-ending perceptions of the SEC reflect positively or negatively on the league.

III. USC-Texas Notes: The First of Many

It will take a full month to unroll and unpack all the angles, keys, storylines and intrigues associated with this already larger-than-life ballgame, so let's just begin with a few very preliminary thoughts, fresh off the two teams' dominant performances on Championship Saturday.

It occurred to this columnist that after an easy romp through the Big XII, punctuated by a 67-point win over Colorado that could have been a 102-point win if Texas had played its starters for the full 60 minutes, the Longhorns might not be battle-tested enough to beat USC. While Texas will be motivated by the Trojans' status as a six-point favorite, it still stands that the Horns--whose biggest triumph came back on September 10 against Ohio State--will not have had the feel of a "big-game" adrenaline rush since the Red River Rivalry on Oct. 8. USC, meanwhile, has witnessed Notre Dame, Fresno State and UCLA come down the pike to get this team locked into a big-game mindset. All the emotional outpourings that harmed Matt Leinart against the Bruins, for example, will make USC's quarterback that much more likely to avoid a sluggish performance in the Rose Bowl. Without the distractions of Senior Day and playing his final on-campus home game, Leinart--thrust into another championship battle--is likely to bring his customary game face.

On the other hand...

The thought also occurred to this writer that Leinart--despite an uncanny ability to sense pressure and avoid sacks--shows physical fragility every now and then. As mentally tough as he is, there are a few plays in each game--such as a seemingly unforced fall and, later, a fumbled center snap against UCLA--where Leinart's body seems to betray him. It's admittedly a gut feeling that's being voiced here, but one has the sense that much like Jason White in the 2004 Sugar Bowl against LSU, Leinart could become a bit of a target and suffer physically during the game. True, Leinart has the kind of line and the kind of superstar (Reggie Bush) who could make his physical limitations a moot point, but if Texas can get just a few hard shots on Leinart early on, the tough mind of a college football legend might be no match for a body that occasionally seems to fight itself. If USC can't run against Gene Chizik's defense, it is legitimately uncertain as to whether USC has the chops to pass the ball successfully. The Trojans had a plan B against most of their opponents in 2005, but if Bush is somehow contained, there's not overwhelming reason for Troy to be confident in its struggling receivers against the Horns' defense. Leinart's physical shape only reduces this confidence level even more, as the trademark balance of USC's offense might not materialize against Texas.

So, we have one thought in favor of USC, one thought in favor of Texas. We'll keep dishing out the thoughts as the countdown to kickoff continues...

IV. A Request to All Weekly Affirmation Readers

Because it's important for any journalist to be accountable to both his audience and his profession, I would like all the readers of this column to submit their raves, rants or questions about media issues in college football, be they from the broadcast, print or Internet realms. Media bias (or lack thereof) is an issue that only picks up more and more momentum each season, and as a result, it's quite worthwhile to discuss media matters whenever and wherever possible. The break between the regular season and the bowl games offers a good time to do so, as will the upcoming offseason, which will begin right after the Rose Bowl ends. The more detailed your submission, the better the chance that it will be addressed. Particularly articulate and thoughtful submissions will be reprinted in future Weekly Affirmations and stand-alone offseason pieces on media analysis, which will be more plentiful now that media debates are becoming ever more central components of a college football season and its passions. Thank you for your time, effort and interest.

* * *

2006 Offseason: August 15, 2006

Special Fans & Readers Ombudsman Issue: A Four-Part Series Devoted Specifically to CFN Readers

Part One --
Fan-Journalist Interactions: An Overview

Pat Forde, an esteemed member of the sportswriting fraternity over at ESPN who gives college football columnists a very good name, unveiled a 23-point code of conduct for college football fans a few weeks ago. That column was a real credit to Mr. Forde, who is obviously trying to improve the culture of the sport, educate the fan base, and generally make us aware of the fact that college football--like any other life endeavor--involves human beings and must therefore be entered into with care and concern for others.

What I'm about to do might seem to be a response to Mr. Forde, but I can truthfully say that I've been wanting to do something like this for the past few years. Moreover, the inspiration for this small project came about in mid-July, well before Forde came out with his column; I can rest in the knowledge that I wasn't imitating or copying anyone.

Dear readers, we're about to embark on another college football season. Neither one of us has to tell the other how much emotion and passion is given to this sport by its fans. After the long, long, LOOOONG summer of mildly interesting baseball games, the urgency of football season makes the American male's insides churn with an often-unbearable intensity. Labor Day weekend is the time when young American men want to spill anything and everything after bottling up their energies throughout the dog days. Various pent-up feelings (and fluids) come rushing forth from America's college football fans once the action returns to gridirons across the country. You don't need to tell me how emotional fans are. I understand this reality more and more each year.

But with all that having been said, there is a lot more to life than college football. This means that this wonderful sport, while lending so much passion to our earthly sojourn, is still--at the end of the day--just one small entity amidst the larger cosmos of human activities, aspirations and endeavors. The whole point about Boone Pickens' $165 million donation to Oklahoma State (referenced in a previous preseason edition of this column) was to take note of the excesses that exist in college football, at the expense of more truly charitable philanthropic/problem-addressing efforts in American society.

One element of American society beset by problems that need addressing is journalism. Sure, the realm of "hard-news" journalism--in its coverage of war, politics and economic policy--demands much more attention than football journalism, but since we're here, we might as well make football journalism as good and productive as it can possibly be. This process begins with the writer/reporter, but it ends with the readers. I write columns, but you have to read them and evaluate them. Without the reader in the crowd, the writer is nothing.

It should be no surprise, then, that a college football writer (and Pat Forde is obviously one of them) should want to improve the larger climate of the relationship between the fans who read columns and the writers who produce them. On so many levels, football talk becomes exponentially easier, more enjoyable, and more profitable--intellectually, emotionally and spiritually--when discourse between readers and journalists takes place at an elevated level.

The bad news: this isn't the case today. Sadly, the vast majority of e-mail messages I receive each season, whether critical or praiseworthy, come from a place of fierce partisanship. If I stick my neck out for a team, that fan base rallies to my defense, but this surge of support is often phrased like this: "Thanks for being one of the few writers who doesn't hate us." The clear implication is that that fan base still perceives entrenched, institutionalized bias against their school, meaning that:

A) my colleagues in the profession with a different viewpoint on a given subject are biased;

B) if I ever change my own opinion on the same subject (team) in the future, I'll be lumped in with all those other biased writers.

It gives me little comfort to be praised while also being told that all of my colleagues are biased. In the end, the rare reader e-mail is the e-mail that--while coming from a fan--can understand the deeper meanings and ideas I'm trying to convey as an editorial journalist.

The good news: there are examples of great interactions between fans and journalists, and when these examples emerge, it gives me hope in the ability of all Americans, not just readers and column writers, to get along in new and improved ways.

In the six years I've been seated in this columnist's chair, I can clearly define and identify the best exchanges and interactions with readers. These wonderful interactions are the ones that start out with the typical defensiveness, emotionalism, vitriol, and primal animal responses (from my end as well as the reader's end) that all too often characterize a fan-journalist interaction in the world of college football journalism. But something inside the reader enables him (or her) to engage me on a deeper level. (Remember, writing starts with writers, but it ends with fans; good fans are the ones responsible for really good dialogue with columnists. Fans aren't dependent on me; I'm dependent on fans.) This creates subsequent exchanges that deepen in sincerity, openness and mutual understanding. The quality of thought and insight jumps noticeably. The level of dialogue improves by leaps and bounds. It's a beautiful thing to behold, and at the end of a long journey, the fan and the writer both end up knowing a lot more about themselves, each other, and about the worlds they inhabit. This is the possibility and potential of good journalism: when the writer is earnest and the fan truly seeks increased understanding, the dialogues that can emerge are nothing short of spectacular.

Part Two --
Fan-Journalist Interactions: A Case Study

After reading yesterday's overview of fan-journalist interactions, you might want to see what a great exchange between a reader and columnist looks like. I therefore submit to you--in the days before the 2006 college football season kicks off--the single most amazing interaction I've ever had with a college football fan. It started out with bitterness, but grew to become not only a peaceful interaction between two human beings, but a wide-ranging discussion that touched on journalism and various other aspects of life. It is the ultimate primer, the supreme example of what can happen when a college football writer and a reader with a sincere heart both try to learn from the other.

You, dear readers, know precious little about what it is to live and walk in the world as Matt Zemek, soup kitchen worker and college football columnist. In turn, I also know precious little about the worlds you inhabit in your places of residence, family situations, and work environments. The only way college football dialogue is profitable is if you display the open-mindedness and patience of my correspondent this past July, whom we shall refer to as "Rich in Carlsbad (Calif.)," a USC fan who didn't like my answer to a Tuesday Question in which I said the Trojans would slip this year.

Pay attention, fans: this is what reader-columnist interactions can be like when they're at their best:

From: Rich (e-mail address deleted for the sake of the gentleman's privacy)
To: Matthew Zemek
Subject: USC Falter
Date: Mon, 10 Jul 2006 22:39:47 -0700

Wishful thinking, easterner. USC will have a top 5 defense and Brady Quinn will win the Heisman only because the two top finalists, Chauncey Washington and John David Booty, split the vote. Oh, by the way, Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith will share the glory with the AP All American tight end, Fred Davis. Sucks to be you.


On 7/11/06 7:06 AM, "Matthew Zemek" wrote:


How the heck do you know I'm from the East? I was born in Phoenix, I live in Seattle, and I was very complimentary toward USC last season.

Am I allowed to call 'em as I see 'em?

Has our college football world become this poisoned? My goodness...

Matt Zemek

From: Rich
To: Matthew Zemek
Subject: Re: USC Falter
Date: Tue, 11 Jul 2006 07:59:57 -0700

Touchy, touchy. Everybody has opinions, you get paid for professional analysis. If you had studied the returning starters, the playing time of returning players and the quality of freshmen coming in, along with the quality of coaching changes AND the quality of Pete Carroll's system AND the motivation of the Texas loss, it is ludicrous to be "absolutely sure" that USC would falter. The only potential for faltering stems from the dramatic improvement of Pac 10 teams such as Cal, Arizona, Arizona State, And Wash State, not to mention the excellence of the Oregon program.

The press, who make a living from sports, should be held to the same standard as athletes. If a player comes into a game unprepared and plays poorly, should he be criticized, even booed? It may hurt his feelings, but it's the nature of the game. Therefore, your "opinion" deserved to be booed.

As far as the easterner comment, it was poking fun at the stereotyped diversity of opinion, not blind raging - again, part of the game. So get over yourself and if you want to play, you better get in shape, it's going to be a long, fun-filled, exciting, and controversial season.

As far as the "sucks to be you" comment, I sincerely apologize. It sucks to be your wife. :)


(Author's Note: The columnist is not married, and is most familiar with Catholic women in their sixties who usually volunteer at the soup kitchen in Seattle where the columnist works during the year.)

On 7/11/06 9:12 AM, "Matthew Zemek" wrote:

I'm not touchy, you were being very insulting.

How would you like it if our roles were reversed, I was a Georgia football fan, you said that Georgia would have a down year, and I began a letter by addressing you as, "Northeastern know-nothing."

How dare anyone make an assumption about one's regional identity, and immediately charge that person with being biased and, therefore, unprofessional? That's exactly what you did to me. Is that how one human being addresses another? It's horrible manners, Richard, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

Do you call other people hicks if they like the SEC?

Do you call other people farmer-boys if they like Nebraska or Big XII teams?

You can see the road I'm traveling, and if you can't realize the harmfulness in your written words, don't pollute my inbox with them.

Do some reflecting. Human beings are not to be treated with such indifference, casualness or insensitivity. I am writing all this because I actually do expect my interactions with readers to be civil, enriching and meaningful. Just because I'm a sportswriter doesn't mean that moral and ethical considerations get checked at the door, and that abusive language is accepted as part of a "jock culture." Not on my watch.

You don't get to dismiss me or anyone else as a person, and then--after being challenged on your behavior--react as though you're above the fray.

I hope you will use this e-mail as a moment that teaches you how to respectfully address other human beings. It's not for my sake--it's for the sake of others.

Respectfully and hopefully,

Matt Zemek

From: Rich
To: Matthew Zemek
Subject: Re: USC Falter
Date: Tue, 11 Jul 2006 11:35:24 -0700

"Wishful thinking, easterner" triggered this kind of response?! Methinks thou protest too much. Let's get moral and ethical - Love does not take offense, love believes the best. Love does not accuse, condemn or villify. If being called an easterner is a racial slur, perhaps you're hearing through your own bitter filter. "Some of my best friends are easterners" so I doubt I'm racist. Never has anyone of them gotten upset when I use that "racial epithet" to their face. And by the way, don't ever criticize coaches or players for their quality of play. It would be most uncivil and inconsiderate. Just tell your readers that they meant to play better and affirm them. I'll make a note to scan your articles, not for its accuracy or insight, but for its sensitivity to the fragile psyche of the objects of your articles. Rather than focusing on the nature of my email, your compulsive addictive need for political correctness robbed us of the freedom to enjoy the full spectrum of the 'jock culture".

Watch the "Best Damned Sports Show" - they joke and razz one another and their guests all the time. They like one another and they actually enjoy an occasional joke at someone's expense. It's only offensive to those who choose to take offense. It must be fun to them because they belonged to a fraternity in college rather than a sorority!

It must have rained a lot in your region this last year. Perhaps you should ask your boss if you could do a story on USC in sunny Southern California. The sabbatical may do you good!

Finally, I'll get serious. My email objectively addressed your obvious lack of preparation in "analyzing" USC. You get paid to give thoughtful, well studied analysis. Your ignorance was inciteful, not insightful. (Please don't take offense at the grammatical license.)

So, to summarize my thoughts, take a vacation in a sunnier climate and take time to take the log out of your own eye. And when you come back happy and refreshed, I'm sure you will be more careful to study before you write your "opinions".


Just thinking of your well being. My prayers are with you.

On 7/11/06 10:45 PM, "Matthew Zemek" wrote:


You've obviously thought through your opinions and the way you voice them, so I give you credit for that. It means that you were not speaking with the level of malice I initially associated with your remarks.

I'm going to lay out a number of things for you, since you covered a lot of territory in your last letter, which I appreciate for its depth and specificity.

You have to appreciate what it means to be in my shoes as a writer. This is a prediction-based, opinion-giving business. My editor asks me to make bold predictions all the time. For a question such as this one -- "What are the three things you're sure will happen this year?" -- I am supposed to stick my neck out. Sure, I could say something really safe, such as, "Kentucky won't make a bowl" or "Ohio State will finish in the top 15" or "West Virginia-Louisville will be the game of the year in the Big East Conference." Naturally, that's not what an editor wants from a staff columnist. He wants more daring and more risk-taking with my predictions.

USC happened to be one team that I'm not high on this season. Moreover, Rich, it's not as though I think they're going to lose 4 or 5 games in a spectacular crash-and-burn. If they lose just one regular-season game, that would constitute slippage, though two losses sounds about right. So do keep in mind that "slippage" for USC still translates into a pretty fine season, and a season that 95 percent of all college football programs would kill for.

Beyond all this, though, exactly what makes an opinion inherently bad journalism? We're not dealing with facts, we're dealing with hunches. If college football writers had their jobs evaluated according to the percentage of correct predictions they made each year, there wouldn't be many writers out there. The whole point of being a writer is to craft compelling previews of games and informative reviews of games. For accurate predictions, consult a sports book.

Furthermore, I think that USC's decline will occur largely as a result of mental toughness, a subject that can't be "researched" or proven with concrete data. I'm not questioning USC's talent so much as the Trojans' maturity and poise. Saying that I'm not doing my research just doesn't apply to this situation; the same is also true for saying that I'm a bad journalist as a result of voicing a particular opinion. How can one assail a journalist on a factual level for making an opinion, something inherently removed from the realm of fact-gathering itself?

Finally, about "The Best Damn Sports Show" and journalism in general. "Best Damn" is a show that emphasizes entertainment and celebrity. It's more about buddies sitting around and talking junk than it is a serious and sober examination of the issues of the day (ESPN's Sports Reporters). Admittedly, sports talk--especially on the radio--is harsh. It is quite understandable that a person would grow up in today's America and assume that the business of sports journalism naturally demands and requires a sharp tongue with an even sharper edge. But of course, that's the fault of journalism today, not one of its redeeming values.

Much as political and so-called "hard news" journalism is governed by the bottom line and corporate interests, so it also is for sports journalism, in which attractive stories and athletes get more coverage than low-key sports personas, even if the low-key athlete is the more successful competitor. No one ever definitively established or pronounced, once upon a time, that sportswriting and the proliferation of opinions on sporting events required an acid tongue. Talking tough ("having attitude") is not part of a journalist's job description; asking tough questions and making tough statements (being bold and straightforward in commentary, analysis and fact-gathering) are part of the job. There is a difference.

I'm a Catholic Christian person, and I was taught early in life that my faith and values must inform my work. This means that even as I give opinions on college football stories and issues, I must not become caustic, foul-mouthed or disrespectful to anyone I write to. Accordingly so, I should also be unafraid to point out excesses of speech and conduct when I communicate with my readers.

This leads me to my final, specific point.

I've been doing this job for six years now. Since you read CFN, you know as well as I do that the college football world is polarized, and more specifically, polarized in much the same way America is politically. The Southeast and Central Plains--red states in real political life--are similarly aligned in college football against the West Coast (California, the ultimate blue state). If I make a positive comment about USC, I catch hell from SEC or Big XII fans. If I make a positive statement about an SEC team, I hear it from Pac-10 fans. The regional and conference-based biases in the sport are well known, and fans are very quick to charge writers with bias, the ultimate accusation of unprofessionalism that tears at a conscientious writer's soul.

So when you not only called me an "easterner," but did so at the very beginning of your letter, without any formal or polite introduction or segue, you immediately charged me with being unprofessionally and severely biased, without giving any indication that you were giving me a fair hearing or were open to anything I had to say. You were shooting first, and asking questions later. You were judging me before you knew why I said what I said, and before you had a full appreciation for the whole context that informed not just my prediction about USC football, but the nature of the business I'm in, which--unlike "The Best Damn Sports Show"--is not a broadcast medium, but a print one.

In closing, I reiterate that you had a well-mapped-out set of beliefs, which is something I clearly didn't see or know based on your first letter. Your second letter was clarifying and illuminating, and it obviously showed a certain consistency on your part, which I admire. I hope my set of explanations enables us to either have fairer, more civil discussions in the future, or that--if nothing else--they enable you to see the profession of journalism in a different and healthier light.

Many thanks for your time and careful attention.

Most Sincerely,

Matt Zemek

From: Rich
To: Matthew Zemek
Subject: Re: USC Falter
Date: Thu, 20 Jul 2006 21:46:04 -0700

Matt, thank you for your open-hearted response. "The oppressed and the oppressor are both victims of the oppression". Controversy creates interest and therefore readership. Let's face it, nobody likes the BCS, but the controversy surrounding it has stimulated an unprecedented interest in college football... readers must be pithy and provocative to get attention. Add the excitement, controversy, competition and rivalry of college football and you have the makings of unrestrained and intense "fun".

Sportswriters are lightning rods of all these intense expressions. They both attract and diffuse the fullness of emotions that otherwise remains suppressed by the cultural intolerance of our society. It's intense but fun because I've never heard of a mother drowning her five children because the NCAA finally acknowledged two of the three blown calls during the USC-Texas game; no connection between the Columbine shootings and Auburn getting screwed out of the BCS championship. You are the focal point, so the atmosphere may seem particularly venomous, but for most folk - farm boy, hick or surfer dude - it's an opportunity for some hardcore, uninhibited expression of good clean passion, both positive and negative. That's it, just a diversion from the axis of evil and sex offenders living near our schools. You get paid for your expression, we get fulfilled by our expression. It all stems from our common love of college football, not the hatred of mankind. If you want vilify the source just look to the NCAA, not the fan. They crucify players in the name of amateurism but let the profiteering of colleges go unchecked. The hypocrisy is evil and counterproductive to the welfare of student athletes.

I still can't watch the last five minutes of the USC-Texas game but I didn't slice my wrists, kick the dog, or abuse my children. So, admittedly, because of the limits of print media, I come across as caustic, but it's because flowery and cordial introductions don't make good "sound bites" and doesn't "scratch the itch" of self expression. Plus, to be perfectly frank, calling the referee a scum is easier and more entertaining than politely submitting the hypothesis that the referee may have been incorrect. "Scumming" the referee just seems like appropriate behavior in a sports bar or a sports column, though not appropriate in a church.

I love intelligent detailed analysis as much as anyone, but I love college football partly *because* of the crazy SEC hicks and the stupid Big 12 farm boys, not despite them. I'm just not offended because they think my California bias is due to my eating drug-laced fruits and nuts. It's about the opportunity for spontaneous emotional response, good or bad. No malice and no head butts to the chest, just passionate fun. The atmosphere of college football may seem like a sign of the end times, but I don't believe it's a cause.

So now we better understand one another, even though we may still disagree. I may temper my comments in the future, but it doesn't change the media fed atmosphere of the sport; and I'm not sure it's become as poisoned as you perceive.

So it's because I love college football that I retain the right to good hearted, spontaneous expression of disgust with all who disagree with me. :)



Part Three --
The Weekly Affirmation Instant Analysis Challenge

Continuing this special "fan edition" of the preseason Weekly Affirmation, it's time to introduce a new feature that will be part of the Weekly Affirmation during the regular season.

Another part of bringing fans and football writers closer together involves giving fans an appreciation for the writer's weekly task: making sense of a game with some combination of contextual depth, reasonable objectivity, and literary elegance, all on deadline. This especially applies to the "Instant Analysis" pieces that come out within 90 minutes of a game's end (sometimes sooner) each football Saturday.

If you read these kinds of pieces Monday morning or even Sunday morning, they might seem limited... maybe because they are. Monday, in the college football world, is the day for a full perspective and the biggest big-picture analysis available. Saturday evening, right after the game ends, is a time that demands examination (and description) of the biggest immediate story and the most dramatic details that emerge from the action. The full survey of the sport (especially on Mondays) is the ultimate showcase of football journalism, but an instant reaction to a just-ended game is also a time-honored--and necessary--part of the journalistic enterprise. Monday's big-picture analysis reveals football intelligence; Saturday's colorful perspective--with dashes of the poetic and romantic--reveals literary creativity under pressure. Both are needed to give (and sustain) color to the rich and textured sport of college football.

So with all this in mind, here's a challenge for college football fans who regularly read this column and the Instant Analysis pieces from Saturday evening: you have a chance to write your own Instant Analysis articles and have them published each Monday in the Weekly Affirmation.

The rules are simply the rules of good journalism and good writing (without being too complicated about it): have an eye for the big story and the proper points of emphasis; rise above your own rooting interest to create a story that is recognizably objective; and let your writing reveal your knowledge, feel and talent... under deadline pressure. The one hard-and-fast rule is that you must submit your stories to me within two hours of the conclusion of the game you're writing about. Once you qualify for consideration, I'll then look at the stories on Sunday and choose the best of the best for publication on Monday. I'll make my choices based on how much good stuff I receive: I might publish one or two stories in their entirety, or I might publish small snippets of ten stories. Each week will likely produce its own unique mix. The point, though, is that you're getting your shot at writing a college football article for a national publication of stature and quality.

Take the Weekly Affirmation Instant Analysis Challenge. Then tell me what it would be like to write 4-8 of those pieces every Saturday for 14 Saturdays each season.

(Author's Note: Part Four was omitted because it pertained to a logistical issue.)

* * *

2006 Regular Season

Week One: September 4, 2006

Television and Football Fairness

There's a very big, very urgent, and very serious issue to talk about after week one of the 2006 college football season. I hope that you, as fans, will take it seriously, and I hope that my sportswriting colleagues--here and at other outlets across the country--will take it seriously.

Moreover, if word of this column reaches TV execs, athletic directors, coaches, conference commissioners and university presidents, I hope all those fine folks will take this seriously. Everything else about the sport--who was or wasn't good; what teams and players made a big impression; how the national title race shapes up; what did we learn about the upcoming Ohio State-Texas showdown, etc.--takes a backseat to this issue. It's that important.

It can't be said any more simply: college football--as a result of the 2006 clock rule changes--has a huge problem on its hands regarding the competitive integrity of the game played on the field.

The clock rule changes were installed, of course, as an attempt to make a college football game last no longer than the traditional and longstanding time block of three and a half hours. The desire to achieve this goal is admirable, because nobody wins when a four-hour game spills over other games on other networks. This prevents fans, writers and poll voters from seeing every snap of every game. Needless to say, seeing as many snaps of as many games and teams as possible is the very thing that is necessary for the sport to have accurately-evaluated teams and, by extension, a postseason selection process that, while in need of something much better than the BCS, needs all the objectivity it can get. The college football community needs to see the full schedule of games every week, and four-hour games work against that need. Reducing the real-time length of a game--and fitting it into the 3.5-hour block--was and is very necessary. Kudos to the relevant decision makers for recognizing that need.

But oh, the way these same decision makers chose to achieve their worthy goal was nothing short of horrible. Does anyone else realize the Pandora's Box that's been opened in the college football world, at least for this season?

Without question, the rule change that would have shortened games effectively and equitably concerned the stoppage of the clock after first downs. That was and is (and will be) the biggest game-shortening device college football has at its disposal. There should never be any wrinkle thrown into a two-minute drill in the first place; if you throw the ball down the field, it shouldn't matter whether you get a first down or not. Getting out of bounds is the time-honored way to stop the clock, and no one in the sport should have to worry about crossing the first-down marker instead of going out of bounds. After all, if a player gets a first down but doesn't get out of bounds, everyone on the field has to deal with the historically and inevitably unwieldly process in which officials stand over the ball before the clock starts, only to back away and then start the clock while the quarterback and everyone else nervously waits for a signal. This messy process is exactly what shafted Washington State against Michigan in the final seconds of the 1998 Rose Bowl. And to be kind to the officials in all this, it should be said that they're put in a horrible position by clock rules that should be trashed. There's just no need for officials to have to stand over the ball; spot the ball with the clock running, and let the players get on with it instead of having to nervously look to a ref for a start-play signal. This was clearly the clock-based rule in college football that demanded a change... at least, if games were to be shortened in a fair manner.

These rules we're saddled with for 2006 are not fair at all, however. Hence, the urgency (and primacy, and singularity) of this column. Let's get on with it ourselves...

As stated earlier, the clock rules were instituted to shorten games and accommodate television by ensuring that games would fit into their traditional 3.5-hour time block. If ABC or CBS has a doubleheader at Noon Eastern and 3:30 Eastern, the networks need that early game to be done by 3:30, not 3:50. If ESPN has Cal-Tennessee at 5:30 and USC-Arkansas at 8:45, the Worldwide Leader doesn't want to have Bears-Vols end at 9:20. That would be disastrous.

Looking ahead a bit, September 16 is a day with seven five-star matchups: Michigan-Notre Dame, Oklahoma-Oregon, Clemson-Florida State, LSU-Auburn, Florida-Tennessee, Nebraska-USC, and Miami-Louisville. The various networks televising these games have smartly programmed them not as back-to-back doubleheader games (CBS has the two SEC tilts, and ABC the Oklahoma-Oregon, Miami-Louisville, and Nebraska-USC games; NBC gets the Irish, ESPN the Bowden Bowl), but as "day-night" doubleheader games. For CBS and ABC, the two networks broadcasting multiple games, game 1 of the twin-bill starts at 3:30, with game two starting at 8. This ensures that even if a game runs long, it won't bleed into the next game. Such a programming decision reflects the broadcasters' fears of a game running long, beyond the 3.5-hour time block. It's much harder to follow the entirety of a sport when the ends of big games in some areas demand attention over and against the beginnings of equally big games in other areas. Television, clearly and rightfully so, was the reason why clock rule changes were instituted. Sadly, though, the sport's decision makers changed a rule in the wrong place. This is where we get to the heart of the problem at hand.

Since so much of this issue is connected to television, the central threat to the competitive integrity of college football--as long as these new clock rules remain in existence, anyway--is in fact posed by television itself. Don't laugh. (I said this issue needed to be taken very seriously.)

Historically, television networks load up the TV timeouts early in a college football game, to ensure that advertisers have their commercials aired, and aired at a point in the game when a maximum of eyeballs are watching (in other words, before the game deteriorates into a blowout, which leads the American male demographic to switch channels). Late in the game, however--when a broadcast is either running long or on the verge of running long--the networks will stay with a game's action during the prolonged "endgame" phase in which timeouts and other clock-stopping devices are used in bunches. To keep the broadcast from running too long, and to also sustain a sense of drama for the viewer, networks don't use TV timeouts in the final minutes of a football game; if they do, it's not on a very consistent basis.We saw this in the Florida State-Miami game, as ESPN stayed at the Orange Bowl when Miami took over with 1:05 left. Sure enough, the Canes--not used to having the clock run before a first-down snap, didn't snap the ball until there were 58 seconds left. Miami lost seven whole seconds because of unfamiliarity with clock rules... and because ESPN didn't use a TV timeout.

What's the problem, you say? The problem is that with the new clock rule changes, the game clock will start BEFORE a first-down snap, once the ball is ready for play. Teams running two-minute drills will have to rush their offense onto the field right after a change of possession, which is the time when TV networks insert their TV timeouts. (See the major conflict involved here? If you do, you're right on top of things; if you don't yet see where I'm going, you won't have to wait very long.)TV timeouts, then, become a huge centerpiece in college football this season. Why? Because they represent the device that will prevent teams from having to rush their offenses on the field in order to save precious seconds late in a game. With a TV timeout, the network can come back from a two-minute break, and the two units can be on the field, ready for play, without having to scurry into position after the previous change of possession. But without TV timeouts, we're going to have frenzied fire drills in the final minutes of a game, creating predictable--and unseemly--chaos.

This brings up a huge issue which--if not addressed immediately, and in a fair, equitable and open manner--will create a firestorm among fans, athletic directors and coaches, and perhaps players who are astute enough to realize what's going on.

This simple question expresses the problem at hand: When do TV networks decide whether to have a TV timeout or not? Equally important is this simple question: will there be a uniform standard for the application or use of TV timeouts in the final minutes of a football game? And as a follow-up to that question, one must also wonder if this uniform standard will be widely disseminated/published/broadcast for the benefit of all college football teams, so that they can know exactly what to expect?

Surely, by now, you can see the problem: if Michigan is playing Ohio State on ABC, and the game is tied in the late going, a titanic uproar would emerge from Michigan fans if ABC used a TV timeout before Ohio State's offensive possession with four minutes left, but then didn't use a TV timeout before Michigan's offensive possession with two minutes left. Ohio State's offense wouldn't have to rush onto the field; Michigan's would. And if the situation was reversed, it would be the partisans in Columbus who would be irate.

Television, then, has a huge responsibility--right now!--to make a major declaration and announce, with total clarity, an absolute, binding standard for using TV timeouts in the final minutes of a game. Consultations with all relevant decision makers in the world of college football must commence at once. Teams and (especially) coaches need to know exactly what will be done, so that players can be adequately informed and prepared. I don't know what the standard should be, and to a certain extent, I don't even care. The main point is simply this: the standard must be clear, uniform, and evenhanded in its application. It can't play favorites. Tentatively, an equitable solution would seem to be that TV timeouts should be used on all changes of possession in the final five minutes of a game, so that we don't have these silly fire drills breaking out in the midst of meaningful games. But again, whatever the standard is, it needs to be fair, clear, and reasonably universal.

This is a serious issue that, if left unaddressed, will have major negative consequences for a team and, perhaps, a coach's job this season. That doesn't have to happen. College football's decision makers and television programmers need to get on the ball, and fast. Start the clock--it's time for this sport's leaders to run their own two-minute drill.

* * *

Week Two: September 11, 2006

This was a typical early-season Saturday in the world of college football: special teams units had an overwhelming impact on games, momentum became a runaway freight train, and crazy results dotted the national landscape. If your brain couldn't comprehend the madness of it all, you're not keeping in touch with this sport on a yearly basis.

Get used to it, fans, if you haven't done so already: in the world of September football (very different from October-November ball), performance levels and outcomes are volatile. Teams are working out the kinks against (in most cases) unfamiliar opponents. Teams that had week one cupcakes might learn, in week two, just how limited they are (Texas, anyone?). Conversely, teams that struggled in week one learn that they have more upside than previously expected (Washington, even in defeat at Oklahoma). And furthermore, teams who rode high in emotional season openers (Florida State, Northwestern) can come crashing down to earth when the mental tank is emptied of any reserves. It's all part of the ninth month in the calendar year, when teams settle into seasons and make a large number of really bad, really glaring mistakes... the mistakes that lose games or create shockingly close shaves.

It would be untruthful to say that Florida State's seven-point win over Troy was expected, but in hindsight, the short turnaround from the Monday night Miami game should have been taken into account. It wasn't so much that the game extracted a physical toll from the Seminoles, but that it mentally sabotaged Bobby Bowden's team. FSU annually invests a ton of emotion into the game against the Hurricanes, and with "Troy" appearing on the slate the following weekend at home, it's human nature to think that a full emotional investment did not have to be made in order to win the game. There's no doubt that from a physical standpoint, Troy--on paper--had no chance against a fire-breathing FSU defense that, against Miami, looked like the best in the United States. The reason why the game was so close, of course, was that Troy's emotional tank was full and FSU's was empty. Emotions have that power over people, and the younger the person, the more powerful an emotion swing can be.

Northwestern, who lost at home to Division I-AA New Hampshire (and by a comfy margin, 34-17), was coming off a particularly emotional opening game, an occasion made poignant by the death of head coach Randy Walker and the remembrance of his life at his alma mater, Miami (Ohio) University. After an event of that magnitude, it isn't surprising in the least that football, for one week and one game, just didn't fuel the fires in Evanston, especially against an opponent not named Michigan or Ohio State. The enthusiasm the Wildcats brought to the gridiron in week one was missing in week two; that's a healthy thing, quite frankly, because it shows that NU's football players are--in a real sense--more invested in grieving for Walker than in on-field results, which--while desirable--are not supposed to be the ultimate focus of collegiate athletics. The larger point, though, is that emotional swings will happen in September football.

Another thing that will happen in September is that momentum will rapidly flow to successful teams while abandoning the ballclubs that meet with early-game hardships. Because football is so physically punishing and yet so rarely played (once a week for just 12 weeks at the collegiate level), it is the sport in which "learning how to win" is particularly difficult. While baseball and basketball are sports that involve the perfection of a few limited but hugely significant techniques--making them studies in concentration more than endurance--football requires the ability to fight, and for that reason, it's especially easy for losing football teams to mentally "check out" when the going gets tough. It's extraordinarily difficult for a team to find the collective will to win and perform well every single week, especially when a team is young, not-so-talented, thin, exhausted, or touched by adversity. It's in the crucible of early-season (read: September) football that teams begin to forge an identity, and it takes time for many a team to master the art of "knowing how to win." Until this art is learned, momentum will frequently run over a lot of teams. After Saturday's games, just ask Penn State, Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, Oregon State and Illinois how momentum--if left unchecked--can prove to be devastating.

A third and final core element of September football is that special teams play will loom unusually large. Early-season football--which, in the college game, lacks preseason tune-ups--will inevitably be disorganized to an appreciable degree. As individual players and whole units learn their roles and assignments (it sure doesn't come immediately or automatically), chaos will crop up periodically. This puts a premium on quality coaching, in terms of both instruction and staff-wide delegation: while kids will always make mistakes at some point, the better coaching staffs will minimize big errors and thereby find themselves on the winning side of the fence (and the inferior staffs will lose). Let's look at the past weekend for (weekly) affirmation of this reality.

Rutgers destroyed Illinois on special teams. Greg Schiano over Ron Zook. Makes sense.

Oklahoma survived Washington with the help of special teams. Bob Stoops over Ty Willingham. Figures. (However, Willingham shows signs of moving the Huskies in the right direction.)

Virginia Tech used special teams to beat North Carolina. Frank Beamer over anyone. Check.

Boston College destroyed Clemson on special teams. Tom O'Brien over Tommy Bowden. Yep--the former coach has achieved much more, relative to his resources (and hype), than the latter. The better coach was the more organized coach.

Wake Forest defeated Duke because of special teams. Anyone over Duke. Of course.

So we've learned a lot from week two (if you hadn't learned these things in past seasons of college football viewing): September football is a volatile beast in which special teams, huge momentum swings, and emotional fragility will create wacky on-field results.

Keep all this in mind when you watch the seven showdowns coming up on September 16... and any other game you can find on the tube.

* * *

Week Three: September 18, 2006 - Unavailable

* * *

Week Four: September 25, 2006

Emotionally affected by college football? Join the players and teams who so clearly rise and fall based on their psychological health each and every Saturday.

A weekend of comparatively light action--with a paucity of top 25 games--allows for a discussion of some large-scale football topics, and this week's issue is something that's been forming in my mind for some time now: the relationship between performance and emotional states on a football team. Understanding this dynamic can give you, the emotionally affected fan, a chance to analyze the sport you love with greatly improved depth and clarity.

The various discussions about the Oklahoma-Oregon game last week gave rise to a debate about the quality of Oklahoma's defense, particularly in the last few minutes when the Ducks scored 14 quick points. The ebb-and-flow of the contest brought up a very interesting question about the connection between performance levels and emotional states of being: which teams play well when games are emotional, and which teams in college football play well when emotions are minimized or, in some way, taken out of the equation?

Think about this question if you're a college football fan. You have your own favorite team or conference, and you've been following this sport for an appreciable amount of time. It's worth taking the time to identify the teams that maximize positive momentum; plummet when faced with negative momentum; and benefit when the game is played in a relatively settled emotional state, after (or in between) adrenaline rushes and other volatile occasions that stir up hormonal cocktails inside young bodies.

The past weekend provided a lot of clear and striking examples of teams that handle various emotional dynamics in noticeably different ways. Louisville is a team that enjoys what I like to call "settled state" football. For the Cards and other teams like them, productive play emerges when emotions are relatively absent from the proceedings, due to a dependence on rhythm and clockwork efficiency on offense. The more cerebral and less emotional the game, the better, because Louisville wants to get into a trance where nothing disrupts timing or instincts. We saw this pattern at work on the first drive against Kansas State.

Coming out of the gate, Louisville--with oft-practiced plays that are emphasized by Bobby Petrino in the week of pregame practice--is superbly prepared and extremely attentive to details. If not challenged vigorously with a level of effort that can alter the emotional calculus of a game, the methodical Cards will cut you up. Against K-State, Louisville trotted out of the locker room and marched 97 yards for a touchdown. In a settled state, the Cards excelled. But as soon as Louisville got past the opening stages of a game and began to hiccup a few times on drives, the Wildcats and their fans jacked up the intensity of the game, and it quickly became apparent that Louisville--with backup QB Hunter Cantwell at the controls--had lost its mojo. Despite a fake punt and turnovers produced by the Cards' defense, Petrino's intricately crafted offense had been knocked off balance. The early "settled-state" start was smooth and precise; but once adversity factored into the equation, nothing added up right for Louisville's offense. This points to something telling about the Cards on a larger level: they play so well at home not because their emotions are through the roof, but because they don't have to play on the road, where negative emotions have frequently sabotaged the Cards' fragile confidence level. One can better understand last year's horror show at South Florida in light of this larger reality. Louisville can always play relaxed, "settled-state" football at home, and the absence of negative emotions--much more than the presence of good vibes--is what makes the Cards so productive at home.

Another team that played impressive "settled-state" football on Saturday was USC. This might seem counterintuitive when you consider how emotional the Trojans' defense is, but it stands up under scrutiny because the Trojans' emotional tank never ran on empty against the Wildcats. Part of understanding the world of football emotions lies in having the ability to detect noticeable shifts (up or down) in a team's collective mindset. If a team is schizoid in its psychological profile, it can be considered a more "emotional" team. But if a team consistently possesses a large quantity of fire in the belly, one can say that it is more of a "settled-state" team, given that outside circumstances don't pierce, penetrate, or otherwise affect a team's solid psychological core. USC, then, is a settled-state team because outside events don't seem to rattle the Trojans.

Last year, that emotional stability was manifested on the offensive side of the ball, which didn't flinch in the face of double-digit halftime deficits; this year, that same stability is manifested particularly on the defensive side. With USC's offense struggling against Arizona in the Trojans' Pac-10 road opener, Pete Carroll's defense--aided by superb play-calling from coordinator Nick Holt, the new superstar of the SC staff--never wavered. From the first quarter to the last, and regardless of whether USC had momentum or not, the Trojan defense protected the final third of the field against Arizona, something it has done with scary regularity in each of the first three games of the season. That points to a great "settled-state" team, not merely a good one (as Louisville is). Whereas the Cards play well when emotions are not a factor--making them a settled-state team on one level--Louisville cracks when emotions do become a factor. USC, though, does Louisville one sight better: USC can play well when emotions are nonexistent, but the Trojans also play well even if momentum is against them. They're a rich man's Louisville; conversely, the Cards are a poor man's USC from an emotional standpoint.

The concept of "settled-state football" is a hard concept to establish and explain, but hopefully, outlining the emotional profiles of Louisville and USC will prove helpful in generating some understanding of the term. What's much easier to identify, naturally, is the kind of team that shrivels in the face of hardship or surges in the face of good fortune. We saw plenty of these kinds of examples from Saturday's action, and unlike the Trojans or Cardinals, they don't need extended descriptions or dense pieces of wordy analysis.

Teams that fold up the tent whenever adversity strikes--and who revealed or reaffirmed as much on Saturday--are as follows: Arizona State and Michigan State (the two serial offenders here), followed by Ole Miss, North Carolina, Minnesota, UCLA, UTEP, and Illinois. Teams that follow this same pattern--but did not play on Saturday (or who played but had a cupcake or otherwise easy game)--are Clemson (though the win over Florida State might have created a fundamental shift in personality and temperament), Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, and Cal (remember that Cal folded in the face of adversity against Tennessee).

Teams that excel whenever they finally taste success--and who maximize stretches of positive momentum flow--are (from Saturday's games): Cal and Notre Dame (two particularly good teams in this regard), followed by Clemson, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Ohio State, and Texas. Teams that follow this same pattern--but who either didn't display it on Saturday or didn't need to--are: Tennessee (probably the number-one team in this category, especially over the past ten years), West Virginia (number two), Auburn, UCLA, Nebraska, Texas Tech, TCU, Utah, Boise State, Fresno State, and Oregon.

In closing, the ultimate college football teams will bring a combination of two qualities to the table: first, they are first-tier settled-state football teams, along the lines of USC (and a notch above Louisville), in that they can play well even when momentum is flowing against them; secondly, they can also maximize positive stretches when they do emerge, which enables them to put the hammer to teams that find themselves in vulnerable states (and who, like Arizona State and Michigan State, have a chronic condition in which adversity always seems to snowball into outright disaster).

Find your Saturdays all too emotional for your own health and well being? Study emotions... not just to calm your own mind and heart, but to also gain greater understanding of this emotionally volatile sport.

No comments:

Post a Comment