Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Northwestern Preview

In scant weeks, the college football will again get underway and soon, perhaps as soon as the first forlorn kickoff returner is scraped off the field, it will be time to have The Conversation.

The Conversation dominates college football's bloviosphere for the entire season.  Its cosmology is heliocentric; everything revolves around the playoff and, ultimately, the National Championship.  For a team must be in The Conversation before it can be in the playoff, and each week, each minute of college football season, unavoidable college football pundits and bloggers and unhinged Finebaum shouters who, without Finebaum, would be forced to call people to yell at them about Alabama one at a time starting with A Aaronson and ending with T Zbikowski to cast teams out of The Conversation like the Almighty banishing Moses from the Promised Land.  It is a process so weightily asinine that it requires a Bill Simmons-esque Capitalized Phrase.

The crew of Bloviosphere II begins its two-year project to live in a self-contained ecosystem 
generating all of its energy from nightly screaming matches about the SEC.
N.B. College football is so dependent on subjectivity, arguments, and nonsense that it is the 
most Bill Simmonsy sport possible-- we should be living in a world where Bill Simmons 
develops a feud with Phyllis From Mulga

College football is the only major American sport where The Conversation has tangible effect on determining a champion.  There are 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the sheer impossibility of determining the four top teams results in a hodgepodge of computer formulae, polls filled out by hat-wearing journalists and graduate assistants, Lou Holtz's saliva, residual Civil War animus, and people paying to fly airplane banners over stadiums. Then, a mysterious Committee of Thirteen picks them with no accountability.  College football has found the most convoluted, compelling and profoundly stupid way to pick its champion short of Nostradamus texts.

Approximately 90% of the media discussion about college football is about The Conversation and more than 90 of the 128 FBS teams will not be in The Conversation for a single second.  Northwestern is one of them.

Also-ran teams in top "Power Five" conferences exist only when a Conversation team rampages through their stadiums with their entourage of bloodthirsty alumni.  Those outside the Power Five, the Mid-Majors without the influence and the money and the ludicrous propaganda television networks might as well exist in Siberia or a the very least Moscow, Idaho.

Big Ten Network programming subtly works in a sponsor while airing its The Big Ten Invents
Football: Rutgers documentary

Northwestern, along with the vast majority of college football teams, exists in a shadowy netherworld apart from the dominant college football narrative.  These teams toil in relative obscurity as tackling dummies for contenders or by beating up on each other on games televised by contractual obligation that only warrant a passing mention if they end with the requisite number of overtimes, laterals, or 300 pound men precariously running with the football, gleefully living out their Pop Warner touchdown fantasies before they gained several hundred more pounds and coaches convinced them to smash into other giants, triumphantly gallumphing along the sidelines desperately looking for someone to stiff-arm.  In an ideal world, these teams are agents of chaos, ruining a contenders' season and exulting in their opponents' shock, sorrow, and internet coach-firing.  Notre Dame, for example, deserves the indignity of losing to Northwestern so completely that, if Northwestern did not exist, we would have to invent it and its temporarily unstoppable baseball kicker.

Teams outside of the championship face spread offenses, blitz packages, and genuine existential quandaries.  There are 128 teams.  There are no draft picks rewarding miserable seasons; the only prize is its merciful end.  For these teams, the season is a Sisyphean struggle where quarterbacks metaphorically hand off enormous unmovable rocks. This is the best football.

Fans of teams in The Conversation suffer through football season as a precarious drudge through a dozen potential calamities.  Anything short of a championship is agony, a nine-win season is a failure, and anything short of that requires the immediate installation of creepy flight-tracking software to analyze coach movements.  In a sport featuring a weird, oblong ball, every unpredictable bounce portends doom and misery, and every discussion of the team welcomes a thousand armchair Napoleons spouting inane theories about a winning mentality.

Turn on the television and college football is about ESPN College Gameday, poll positions, committees, and trophies.  But for most fanbases, The Conversation is irrelevant white noise.  It is about grasping a frozen beer at 10:00 in the morning before entering an empty, windswept stadium, exulting in invites to the forgettable dregs of bowl season, buckets, Hats, and the faintest hope of ruining the season for some juggernaut team.  Their asses will remain uncrowned. It does not matter.

NORTHWESTERN ON THE FIELD

Northwestern has had a rough couple of seasons.  The 2012 campaign ended a bowl drought that originated in the Truman administration in a bowl that people actually have heard of.  The Wildcats began 2013 with high expectations, eventually summoning College Gameday to campus in a football apocalypse against Ohio State.  Since then, it is misery and strife.  Northwestern has experienced a beguiling series of impossible, last-second losses culminating in the catastrophic Hat Game Bowl Game defeat at the hands of Beck Man in their own goddamn stadium.  There have been no bowl games since the 2013 Gator Bowl.  The Hat resides in Champaign, under guard from Beck Man's elite Order of the Mustacheless.

The Order is trained from birth to defend the Hat with hand-to-hand combat, stump 
speeches, Abraham Lincoln Trivia facts, period-accurate timepieces, and bo staffs.  
Before 2009, they were known as the Order of the Flying Tomahawk with a whole other set of 
birth rituals, each of which was probably offensive and problematic, so if you think about it 
the whole turnaround into a Lincoln-based artifact-guarding death cult in such a short amount 
of time is pretty impressive

The main question is at quarterback.  Candidates include big-armed senior Zack Oliver, dual-threat sophomore Matt Alviti, and John Grisham protagonist Clayton Thorson.  Less than two weeks before the season opener against Stanford, the quarterback situation remains unsettled.  Northwestern does not necessarily need a single incumbent starter.  During the Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian heyday, the 'Cats altered quarterbacks successfully; Northwestern should push that further by having at least three quarterbacks on the field at all time, occasionally playing quarterback, occasionally playing other skill positions, and other times simply standing in the backfield attempting to confuse the defense with unpredictable arm motions while Justin Jackson runs around them.

If there is one thing to look forward to on offense, it is the return of Justin Jackson.  Jackson seized the starting job as a true freshman after the unexpected departure of star running back Venric Mark.  He ran for 1,184 yards despite coming on as the featured back in the third game.  As Siemian battled injuries, Jackson carried the offense, including going for 162 in an upset against Wisconsin and 149 against Notre Dame.  Jackson's game depends on an expert reading of holes and coverages as he slinks and slithers through the line, ending up where linebackers aren't looking for him.

A frustrated linebacker punches the mirror where he thinks Justin Jackson is, but he is not 
there; no, he is 20 yards away, scampering past a hapless safety or maybe he is cutting back,
warding off the nose tackle with his claw hand

The Wildcats will lean heavily on their defense this season.  They lost some stalwarts last year including ball-hawking safety Ibraheim Campbell and all-encompassing tackle monster Chi Chi Ariguzo.  They return a senior-heavy defensive line and Nick VanHoose at corner.  Safety Godwin Igwebuike and linebacker Anthony Walker made excellent debuts last season.  Igwebuike picked off three passes in the Wisconsin game alone, although picking off Wisconsin passes is equivalent to 1.65 normal passes since the Badgers only break out the forward pass as a droll party trick.  Walker memorably returned a pick for a touchdown in his first start and made another vital pick against Notre Dame off a pass that had comically bonked off a Notre Dame player's helmet.

The road to an unheralded Pizza City bowl game will be difficult.  The 'Cats open the season against a strong Stanford team vying for a Pac 12 North title.  They also face a resurgent Duke team in Durham.  The Big Ten West division does not inspire reverent rhapsodies or rapid mouth-foaming soliloquies on sports talk radio, but it still offers little respite; the 'Cats will likely need to eke out three or even four Big Ten victories to qualify for a bowl game.  After Fitzgerald guided Northwestern to five straight bowl appearances, fans had become accustomed to them, treating these excursions to Texas (always Texas) like a dubious birthright.  Now, expectations have relaxed.  A big upset would be great.  Bowl eligibility spectacular.  But none of this matters when some Midwestern Roscoe P. Coltrane has absconded with The Hat and it is finally time to do something about it. 
   
NORTHWESTERN OFF THE FIELD

While the Wildcats attract little attention during football season, they've found themselves at the center of the unionization debate.  This week, the National Labor Relations Board surprisingly overturned the regional board decision that labeled football players employees and allowed them to vote on forming a union.  The NLRB examined the evidence, looked at the trailblazing work by Kain Colter and the CAPA and the growing unease about the way billion dollar sporting leagues are incoherently bolted onto universities and boldly declared: "THE HELL IF I KNOW."

The NLRB overturned the earlier ruling argued that the designation of athletes as employees at a private institution would cause conflicts when expanded to public universities.  According to this article, Michigan and Ohio have passed laws specifying that scholarship athletes are not employees in response to Northwestern's initial unionization attempts.

The unionization case has exposed the dark underbelly of college football at Northwestern.  The nonsensical marriage of universities and big-time football is endemic and ever-present in the nature of college football the way the air we breathe is rife with microscopic fungus spores and our gas station soda cups are inescapably inundated with images of captain something-or-other who will defend humanity by throwing people into buildings with no apparent effect in an endless series of movies.  Even Northwestern, which has recently invested in a series of various-sized tarps to cover up empty stands (ranging from FCS Illinois Team to Purdue and It's Snowing) is inundated with Big Ten Network money and plasters fans with ads from companies who paid actual American dollars to be the Official Such-and-Such of Northwestern Football because they were swindled by some dashing Harold Hill figure.

Players, university officials, and easily-riled internet commenters can debate about the extent to which they feel athletic scholarships adequately compensate athletes for their time or the extent to which unionization is the right path for athletes.  But it is also difficult to square the opulent spectacle of college football with the actual demands from Colter's College Athletes Players Association for things like expanded medical care, protection of scholarships, and payment for use of images so they can make some money from when I use a thinly-veiled Kain Colter video game facsimile to get an endless supply of first downs against Virtual Ohio State.  It is not clear what behooves the NCAA or its member conferences to increase benefits for players when players have essentially no leverage to play anywhere else until Vince McMahon brings back a new version of the XFL where players are forced to comply with a fringe cowboy hat dress code and play is constantly interrupted by washed-up former players dramatically entering the field while everyone involved unconvincingly feigns stupefaction.

The Macho Man Timmy Hat Rage leaves college to 
join the reformed XFL, enjoying a stellar run as a guy 
who keeps forgetting his gimmick

FOOTBALL RETURNS

Northwestern is irrelevant in the national media's coverage of college football.  But off the field, Northwestern has become the most important team in the country when it comes to showcasing the meaninglessness of the NCAA's "student-athlete" designation.  Ultimately, the battle for college athletes to gain what they decide is their fair share of the monstrous profits generated by college sports will continue to dominate the off-field narrative.

But the bizarre nature of college football, almost impossible to explain in the abstract, will once again make sense as soon as the meats sizzle in parking lots, the marching bands blare their Chicago covers, and the students begin ramming into each other for our amusement.  Northwestern kicks off against Stanford in two Saturdays and all becomes lost in a haze of tarps and hands contorted into crude wildcat claws. I want college sports to reach a more equitable place even if that means massive changes that render them unrecognizable.  But I also want to watch Northwestern players score ludicrous touchdowns, completely destroy some Big Ten team's season, and defeat the Illini in some way that causes the winning touchdown to somehow trigger a vast Rube Goldberg apparatus that hits Tim Beckman in the face with a pie.  I have no idea if these two desires can coexist or if this is a delusion created by the pageantry of the music, the stadiums, and the people dressed like angry anthropomorphic animals imploring the team to touchdowns.

Friday, August 14, 2015

14 Philosophically Midwestern Universities Attempt to Play Football. You Won't Believe What Happens Next!

Oh it is coming.  August is the first ripple in the water glass, next is the coaches goldblumically cackling their way through press conferences, then a goat is dismembered, a lawyer flees to a toilet, and college football season comes stomping out of its paddock, bellowing its blood-curdling roar.

Across the country, college football teams are baking in the sun, running into blocking sleds, and getting screamed at by crew-cut wearing millionaires.  The Northwestern Wildcats are in Kenosha, trying to figure out who will be the quarterback.  Defending national champions Ohio State (good grief) are turning their training camp into a reality show called "Scarlet and Gray Days," which, stunningly, is not a turgid nineteenth century Southern Gothic epic.

Last season, a bunch of morons had declared the Big Ten dead and buried, including the least-informed football blogger in the world.  Bowl season, however, eased those doubts, with the conference scoring several close wins over highly-ranked teams.  Statistically, a close win in a single game depends so heavily on chance that no thinking person can possibly assume it means anything; these games have naturally has fueled the discourse on college football since time immemorial.  Ohio State returns as the consensus favorite amongst the football yellerati after downing Alabama and Oregon with a third-string quarterback.  Michigan seems poised for a return to prominence under Jim Harbaugh.  The Big Ten refuses to be anyone's punching bag until the first significant out-of-conference loss, in which case the Big Ten will return to its perception as a conference of ignorant fullbacks and linebackers squinting quizzically at the flickering shadow of a forward pass on a cave wall.

BYCTOM BIG TEN PREVIEW

Fortunately, the Wildcats will be avoiding the Buckeyes this season.  Another East powerhouse, Michigan State, will mercifully remain off the schedule as well.  Rutgers and Maryland as yet exist on the "here be dragons" portion of the Big Ten map.  Instead, let us turn to an exhaustively-researched and comprehensive preview of the Big Ten West and East Division Interlopers as they appear on Northwestern's schedule while pretending they won't be effortlessly clobbered by the invincible Wildcat football team.

Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota, led by crimson walrus Jerry Kill, appears to be a program on the rise.  They took an 8-4 record to the Citrus Bowl.  Minnesota had been a Big Ten cellar-dweller and reliable Wildcat victim; from 2007-2012, the 'Cats won five out of six.  More importantly, Northwestern had some spectacular Metrodome mojo, with two of the most absurd endings to a football game I've seen within the arena's glorious roof-pouch.  Minnesota had been a welcome sight on the schedule, a cobblestone on the yellow brick road to Pizza City.  Now, they are a much improved team that has irritatingly beaten Northwestern the last two years-- once with an assistant coach at the helm filling in for an ailing Kill, the other time with a 100-yard fourth-quarter kick return.  The 'Cats may regain the advantage this year by playing at Ryan Field in front of a river of maroon that has seeped down Interstate 94.  As with most Big Ten opponents, Northwestern will be relying on the home field advantage of hoping that the visiting team tenses up and gets nervous in front of an overwhelming deluge of their friends, family, and supporters and the dozens of purple-clad handclaws occasionally voicing their disapproval.

Michigan Wolverines
The Michigan Wolverines suffered the apparently unbearable burden of being kind of bad for more than one season.  The team devolved into a rudderless mess with a mediocre coach, regarded by Michigan fans as a catastrophe on par with a situation where the President of the United States has dissolved the court system and replaced all jurisprudence with trial by monster truck rally.  Michigan fans would only accept one man for the job.  And, because it is not feasible to have a team coached by an animatronic Bo Schembechler standing on the sidelines spitting out dot matrix printouts of what Bo Schembechler would do in any given situation, they decided to hire an unhinged football monomaniac.

I can't wait to hate Jim Harbaugh.  He comports himself like a nineteenth-century military officer just returned from some colonial posting no longer able to function in the West where he has to answer to a doddering hierarchy of muttonchopped generals.  Even by the insane standards of football coaches, whose lives revolve around yelling and watching film and taking fanboats to the east end of nowhere to convince a 300-pound 16-year-old to allow himself to be yelled at by them for the next four years, Harbaugh is intense.  He seems to strive to exist in a world of wide-eyed zeal, where humans only communicate in elaborate football play argots, where discourse is limited to talking about how determined you are, and where the punishments for variation in pants style are unspeakably draconian.  He is also a very good football coach and that is intolerable.

Harbaugh politely disagrees with a holding call

Northwestern had their window.  Michigan had never been so vulnerable.  And, with this final shot at crushing the Wolverines in front of a group of demoralized Michigan fans for once coming into Ryan Field with the slightest tinge of doubt in their inevitable victory, the 'Cats could not pull it off.  Instead, the teams engaged in an embarrassing display of quasi-football, immortalized now as the M00N game.  Neither team could score, hold onto the ball, or attempt any sort of coordinated movement that did not result in a Buster Keaton calamity.  Fitzgerald decided to go for two and Siemian fell onto his buttocks and now Northwestern may never beat the Wolverines again.

But what if something goes horribly awry?  What if, for some unfathomable reason, Harbaugh's tin-pot dictatory doesn't work in Ann Arbor?  What if all of the shouting and baiting officials and making dumb turning into Ghostrider faces can't turn Michigan around and the program continues to list like once-stately liner careening into an iceberg?  What if Harbaugh gets run out on a rail, with angry Michigan alumni braying about him being tainted by the NFL and the Michigan Men condemn him for not living up to their hilariously lofty Michigan coach should be on the list of possible emergency presidential successors in the face of numerous simultaneous calamities standards and bray on the internet about things being UNACCEPTABLE?

That turn of events would somehow justify the existence of college football.

Iowa
The Werther's Originals of football teams takes to the field again under Kirk Ferentz.  Ferentz's team has fallen from its mid-decade heights challenging for Big Ten titles and some Iowa fans have begun to lose their patience.  He remains dedicated to the platonic, plodding ideal of Big Ten football, churning out endless highlight reels of guards running into people.  There's nothing flashy, exciting, or particularly irksome about Iowa football except somewhere along the way they have become blood-rivals with Northwestern and should probably be crushed, with all Iowa merchandise loaded onto a boat armada and burned in the middle of Lake Michigan witnessed only by a single contemptuous man.  

For most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Iowa and Northwestern traded off foiling each others' hopes of contention and losing quarterbacks.  The stakes, however, have vanished.  Now, with the Hawkeyes stagnating at Insight Bowl levels and the Wildcats bereft of bowls entirely, the rivalry seems brief and fleeting.


Ferentz reignites Northwestern/Iowa enmity by cruelly accusing him of inadequate fist pumping 
and taking it more than one play at a time out there

Whatever lingering antipathy has declined at the same time as the Rise of Beck Man.  There is nothing the University of Iowa can possibly do that can match his ludicrous Northwestern bashing.  Iowa fans no longer care about this quasi-rivalry since Northwestern has ceased to be a thorn in their side.  That is why it is imperative that the Hawkeyes get hot and win all of their games before rolling into Ryan Field and losing on a preposterous series of laterals so Northwestern fans have another fanbase that might hate them before Beckman volunteers for interplanetary travel to start a pointless rivalry with theoretical Martian bacteria. 

Nebraska
When Nebraska entered the Big Ten, Northwestern fans immediately demanded to know: who is the true NU?  Here's a quick rundown of the case: Northwestern fans claim NU since the school is literally "Northwestern University." Nebraska fans counter by having had no idea that Northwestern had a football team with uniforms and everything. Since then, there has been a tense but civil NU d├ętente between the fans because the controversy is inane even by college football standards, a sport where people get incensed by a victorious team scoring too many points.  

Last year, the Huskers defeated Northwestern and turned our Homecoming into a pitiless sea of red.  Now, the 'Cats have to face thousands of Nebraska fans in Lincoln without the benefit of Dracula jerseys.  The Huskers have a new coach this season, Mike Riley from Oregon State.  Jug-eared cave person Bo Pelini has returned home to Youngstown State because he has figured out that there are entire generations of Youngstonians who have not been screamed at within two inches of their face.  The best way to beat Nebraska is to reclaim the crowd advantage so if you're some wealthy teeth-clenching monocle enthusiast planning to name a building on Northwestern's campus, why not endow a Chair of Showing Them What It's Like instead, buy every goddamn ticket in their stadium, and flood it with Northwestern fans or, in a pinch, Kansas State fans with holdover anti-Nebraska animus?

Penn State
 
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS, FRANKLIN, WHEN YOU DUCK NORTHWESTERN IN THE PAST

Purdue
Ten years ago, Purdue was riding high in the Big Ten, with a conveyor belt of quarterback champions.  Kyle Orton played there, and I can think of no greater aspiration for a football fan than rooting for Kyle Orton.  Now, the post-Tillman Boilermakers are a living museum of football indignity.  The high-flying offenses are probably a thing of the past because who the hell knows what kind of offense Purdue runs. The coaching staff probably puts in a tape and then says the hell with it and watches a bunch of Magnum PI reruns before passing out in their Strategy Caboose.  Everything about Purdue football is misery.  Even Northwestern, at its depths of ineptitude, managed to lose operatically, setting records and throwing things into lakes.  It would take a herculean effort to throw anything larger than a shoulder pad into the Wabash River. 

The Wabash river is further east on this map, but look at what's going on near the stadium. 
Beck Man would never stand for that.  He would have that street name changed immediately 
to That Road Up North, Chief Boulevard, or Fill In Field Here Before Submitting Form

Purdue muddles through, eclipsed even by its slightly-less-moribund state rival Indiana, bucketless and heartbroken.  Northwestern-Purdue will kick off at 8:30 AM, reluctantly televised with commentary recycled from an old copy of NCAA '05.

Wisconsin

There was uncharacteristic intrigue in Madison this off-season as head coach Gary Andersen decamped to Oregon State.  He filled the vacancy left by Mike Riley, who left for Nebraska. The Badgers failed to close the circular coaching loop by hiring Bo Pelini.  Instead, they brought in long-time assistant coach Paul Chryst from Pitt.  Once again, Barry Alvarez descended from the his lofty perch in the athletic department to lead the Badgers to an Outback Bowl victory.  This is the closest thing to a statue coming to life to coach a football team until the technology is perfected by Penn State scientists.

Wisconsin football is not about gracefully lofting passes over a defense.  It is about running around them, over them, and preferably through them by using Wisconsin's hulking offensive linemen and the parts of defenders that are still stuck to them from the week before.  Last year, the Badgers had one of the most comically lopsided offenses in college football, with Melvin Gordon wreaking havoc behind a typical wall of beef while the passing game approximated the replacement of a football with a regulation anvil.  Then, Wisconsin came into Evanston and decided to air it out.

And pass they did.  Badger fans stood there, stunned, as their quarterbacks heaved up 29 miserable passes into the field, off of helmets, and into the waiting hands of Godwin Igwebuike.  Time and time again, Melvin Gordon ran the ball close to the endzone and then watched helplessly as an inexplicable series of passes flew anywhere but.  Andersen and his coaches became textbook victims of what I call Vizzini's Law: never try to do the unexpected when the unexpected is unexpected because it is self-evidently dumb.

"The wide receivers will be wide open," Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig 
cackled while calling for another Joel Stave rollout

BYCTOM PREVIEW NUGGET: Wisconsin will probably run the ball a lot this year.

Illinois

Beck Man finally did it.  After years of clumsy rival-mongering and quizzically squinting at something in the middle distance, Ham Fistman managed to beat the 'Cats at home in a loser doesn't get to go to a crappy bowl game match.  And, given an entire off-season to luxuriate in his possession of the Hat, perhaps Beckman will grow from his glories.  Perhaps he'll make the Hat an assistant coach (Coach Hat says you're only giving me 105 percent out there), change his name to Beck Hatman, or walk around Champaign in a home-made hat-cape-- these are all things that most of us would do if we won as prestigious a trophy as the Lincoln Hat.  The Wildcats won't get a chance to wrest the Hat from Beckman in Champaign.  Instead, the contest moves to Soldier Field, Chicago's Big Ten Neutral Site, in order to seize the attention of Chicagoans interested in a Northwestern/Illinois game only if the halftime show consists of 25 guys simultaneously screaming about Jay Cutler.


Tim Beckman is the greatest thing to happen to this football blog.  He has single-handedly taken a rivalry that was at best ironic and elevated it into something approaching an actual rivalry.  He then backed up his talk steering his team into an abysmal record while bumbling around the sidelines and getting bowled over by the occasional referee.  He comported himself at all times like he was flummoxed by an unfamiliar frozen yogurt ordering procedure.  And, in a satisfying narrative twist, he somehow beat Northwestern, not only winning the Hat, but winning a golden ticket to lose a Conference USA team in a bowl game, which is the platonic ideal of stakes for an Illinois-Northwestern football game.  Beckman may not last past this season if the Illini are crappy again, but he has already accomplished everything there is to accomplish in the game of football.

It is football season.  It is Hat Season.