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 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. 

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


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.


Anonymous said...

Ooooh yeah brother! There's this place upstate where people think wearin purple is a good idea, but let me tell ya brother, we don't even mention their name around here.

snap into a slimjim!

Unknown said...

BYCTOM returns and on the same day Illannoy fires Beck Man. Coincidence? I think not.

Unknown said...

BYCTOM, you write sublimely spectacular prose! Keep up the excellent work! I should have you guest write a Northwestern column at OTE!