Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

There will be a familiar face on the sidelines at Assembly Hall tonight, and it will be interesting to see how the crowd reacts. Mike Davis will make his return to Bloomington, now as head coach of the Texas Southern Tigers.

How will he be met? Will he be greeted as one of the three men to take Indiana to a Final Four, or as the man who oversaw Indiana’s first losing season in 34 years? Will he be seen as the man who helped keep the Indiana program together after the scarring, public divorce from Bob Knight, or a divisive figure who tried to push away all that was good about Indiana under Knight and whose very presence on the sidelines divided the fanbase? In this, the start of the eighth season since he left Bloomington, will fans say good-bye or good riddance?

If you weren’t there at the time, you wouldn’t understand. Why is this a big deal? The way coaches move around they play their former teams all the time, why is this any different? The answer is simple. Mike Davis represents the beginning of a post-Bob Knight Indiana University, for better and for worse, and the Hoosiers still haven’t managed to really figure out that transition in any relevant way 15 years later.

Mike Davis’ tenure began in 2000, being named interim head coach when Bob Knight was fired. For a large chunk of the Indiana fan base, that was strike one, and the single biggest hurdle to his success. Think about the difficulties in replacing a living legend as head coach. Now imagine that the coach in question was forced out, and you were given literally days to prepare to replace him. The coach in question has publicly called you out for taking the job in some perverse take on loyalty. Throw in, just for fun, the elephant in the room that is race.
This is what Mike Davis had to deal with, and he managed to win 21 games and make the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round. That loss, a 4 point upset at the hands of 13th seed Kent State, had half the Indiana fanbase calling for him to be fired. In hindsight, maybe that would have been best. Indiana could have cast a wide net on a national coaching search and hired a name that would go well with the Indiana tradition. That very offseason, Louisville hired Rick Pitino. Davis could have rode off into the sunset as a footnote, but remembered as the guy who kept Indiana together in it’s darkest hour. He surely would have had his choice of jobs.

Instead Indiana chose loyalty, and for one brief, shining year, it looked brilliant. Mike Davis followed up his first year with a Big Ten Title and a tournament run to the National Championship game. It was an incredible couple of weeks that included a one point win over Duke that sent students into the streets to celebrate. That was followed up by revenge for the year before with a blowout win over Kent State, and a win over Oklahoma where ironically Mike Davis thoroughly outcoached the man who would replace him at Indiana, Kelvin Sampson.
Even still, Mike Davis could not unite the fanbase. They called it a fluke. He won with Knight’s players. Most disturbing were the complaints that he just wasn’t “Indiana” enough, that he was changing the program’s traditions and didn’t care about the school’s past. Those arguments came across at best as sour grapes over the Knight decision. At their worst, it came across as overtly racist, with the most misguided segment of the fanbase angry about cornrows, baggier shorts, and an NBA (read: black) style of play. When they missed the tournament the next two seasons, the voices of dissent grew louder, and by the time he entered his final season there was only one possible outcome. On January 10, 2006, Indiana was ranked 9th in the country. Still, fans called for him to be gone. The Hoosiers went 3-5 in their next 8 games, and the criticism grew deafening despite remaining in the top 25. Mike Davis missed the next game against Iowa, a game at which many fans wore all black to protest Mike Davis still being in charge. Five days later, Davis announced he would resign at the end of the season. Davis’ Indiana career ended a month later, after losing to Gonzaga in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the third time in his six years Indiana made it past the first round. Tom Crean has done it twice in his first six years. Kelvin Sampson managed it just once. Even the legend himself, Bob Knight, only did it twice in his final six seasons

This isn’t to say Mike Davis was completely without blame in the situation. There were times he looked over his head coaching in the Big Ten, and missing the tournament two years in a row was inexcusable. He did a terrible job of recruiting inside the state of Indiana, where the high school talent has always been the Hoosiers’ natural advantage. Most importantly for his situation though, as someone who needed to win his fanbase over, he couldn’t stop himself from putting his own foot in his mouth. He openly talked about a desire to coach in the NBA He told fans “help is on the way” following a loss to Kentucky, seemingly throwing his current players under the bus. That was the same year he went to the Final Four. He lamented Indiana not making the NCAA tournament at 15-14 because they were the 5th seed in the Big Ten Tournament, as if that was a guarantee for the postseason. Time and again, Davis showed he was just awful at trying to spin things his way. It grated on even his most ardent supporters.

I count myself as one of those supporters. I wanted Mike Davis to succeed, was happy for him when he did, and upset when he didn’t. I wasn’t stupid; by the end I wanted him to leave simply because it was obvious the situation had grown too toxic to ever work, but I wasn’t happy to see him go as so many were. I’ve always attributed that to the fact that I was a student at IU when they made their Final Four run. Those fans cheering in the streets after the Duke win? I was one of them. I still remember walking down the street and seeing a group of fellow students running through traffic after coming out of Kilroy’s Sports Bar, coming over to celebrate with me and my friends. They were complete strangers, and one of them, a coed who couldn’t have been more than 5’2″ and 100 pounds, ran towards me to leap in my arms to celebrate. In her drunken state she misjudged and, with a running start, wound up jumping up at me and punching me square in the eye. And you know what? I married that girl.

OK, no I didn’t. I married the girl who was standing next to me, and couldn’t stop laughing as I tumbled like Apollo Creed taking one final shot from Drago. I couldn’t stop laughing either, or cheering, or just flat-out savoring what might have been the best night of my college life. It was a campus-wide moment of pure euphoria. It’s the feeling Indiana students must have had in 1976, or ’81, or ’87. It’s the feeling current students must have had after Christian Watford drained that shot to beat Kentucky. After a night like that? A tournament run like that? Mike Davis was going to have to do a whole helluva lot wrong for me to not be on his side.

For all the drama and all the tribulations, the numbers don’t lie. Mike Davis is still the winningest coach at Indiana in the 21st century. He has won exactly as many Big Ten titles as his successors combined. He never suffered any NCAA violations, which is more than can be said of the Kelvin Sampson era, and his players stayed out of the police blotter, which is more than can be said about the current team. What kind of reaction will he get tonight? I can’t speak for what it will be at Assembly Hall, but in my living room, it will be a warm one.

 

Jump Into the Fire

Depending on if you were with the football department or the accounting department, Saturday was a very good or very bad day for the University of Tennessee-Martin. Bad, because of the 45-16 thrashing you took at the hands of the top ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, good because of the inevitable payday that came out of it.

These games aren’t great for college football, but they’ve become a part of it and they aren’t going anywhere. When the NCAA approved a 12 game schedule in 2006, these games became a necessity to fill things out and the fact that they help keep smaller football programs afloat financially is enough of a positive for me to look past the competitive mismatches. Besides, it’s not like it really affects the college football landscape or the National Championship picture. I mean, just about every FBS team in the country puts a lower division patsy on their schedule so it all comes out even, right?

Wrong. Remember again what week it is. Now look at who Mississippi State (and Mississippi) played this week. In November. It turns out, these games against lower division teams are just one more hurdle to a fair and even-handed outcome at the end of the college football season.

In college football, more than any other sport except maybe auto racing, your starting position matters. Pretty much every other sport, everyone starts tied for first. This has never been the case for college football, where the polls decide the eventual champion, or at the very least who will play for the championship. This year, Florida State started very much in first place. This makes it incredibly difficult for a school like TCU, who is 8-1 but started the year unranked, to make much headway. For a school like Marshall, who is undefeated but started the year unranked and plays in a non-power conference, it makes it nearly impossible. The fact of the matter is the entire season is set up in the first few weeks. If you are number one and lose, all you have to do is keep winning after that; if the teams that moved ahead of you lose, you will rotate right back into the National Title picture. If you start the year ranked 20th and lose, your title hopes are done.
This is where the scheduling comes in. As I mentioned before, nearly all FBS schools schedule a lower division opponent. However, only one conference has consistently figured out how to do it to their advantage. This season, 46 FBS vs. FCS games happened in week 1. Last year, 31. On average, over the last three years, 94 of these types of games have been played in the first four weeks of the season. Yet Mississippi and Mississippi State just both played their patsies in their 10th game. Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn all still have it to look forward to – on November 22!

This isn’t a coinicidence, and it’s not a new thing. Since 2009, Alabama has played a lower division team every year for their 11th game. Auburn has scheduled it for game 10 or 11 every year but one. Same thing for Florida. In fact, just check out this chart to see how the SEC as a whole schedules their non-FBS opponents:

SEC CHART

Obviously some schools have been more aggressive with this scheduling than others (ahem…Alabama, Auburn, Florida…), but the SEC on a whole is trending in this direction while every other conference in America continues to do things the same as always, with these types of games early in the year. The SEC is putting these game on the schedule at the time it helps them the most. For one, it provides a nice break in the middle of a grueling conference schedule. More importantly, though, it might actually help with the polls. No team is going to move up in the polls early in the year when they play one of these games. Some voters might even penalize teams for it. Is anybody going to hold the fact that Mississippi and Mississippi State played glorified scrimmages this week against them? No. We’ve already made up our minds about them. Their reputation is set. The SEC is taking the weakest part of their schedule and tucking it away where voters won’t care, and it’s brilliant.

This isn’t meant to diminish the SEC and their success in the last decade. If anything, it highlights how good they are as a conference – they even know how to play the perception game better than everyone else. I would expect that more and more teams will schedule this way in the future. The thing is, it’s probably not good for college football and it’s fans. At a time of year when we should be gearing up for the playoffs, we should be watching conference games and rivalries that will decide who will and won’t be there in January. The college football season doesn’t need a November break for games that should have been tune-ups played in late August. There are a lot of problems in college football, and most of them are way too complicated for a quick fix. This isn’t one of them. A simple rule stating that games against non-FBS school must be played in the first four weeks of the season would do it, and the NCAA should make it happen.

She’s still preoccupied with 1985

If I had to describe my feelings for the Kansas City Royals for the first 18 years of my life, the best word would be apathy. I grew up appreciating George Brett, and have vague memories of watching the 1985 World Series, but mainly they were just another team the White Sox battled with in the A.L. West. By the time I graduated high school, Brett was just a memory and Bob Hamelin wasn’t the answer; the long journey towards being a 29 year punchline was well underway.

In 1997, however, my thoughts (or lack thereof) about the Royals changed due to the four words that are the cause of 97% of all changes men ever go through – I met a girl.

She was originally from Missouri, not too far from Kansas City, and her father raised her with the Royals. When she broke her arm in the 4th grade, she got her cast signed by Frank White at a local bank. She told me about one of her favorite memories growing up – running around Kauffman Stadium with her sister picking up those plastic collector cups with pictures of guys like Brett, Quisenberry, and Saberhagen. Driving home from games in her Dad’s station wagon she’d fall asleep, crashing after too much cotton candy and baseball, listening to the sound of forty or fifty of those cups clanking around in the back.

So eventually I became if not a Royals fan, at least a Royals supporter by marriage. In a house where the MLB Extra Innings package is a must, the Royals have always been a regular go-to game to watch. And while she has always been one to prefer going to games rather than watching on tv, she’d keep an eye on Joe Randa and Runelvys Hernandez, get nostalgic about the good old days, and wonder what happened. That kind of nostalgia was all the Royals really offered. She rooted for Mike Sweeney, and cursed out the franchise as they let guys like Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, and Carlos Beltran go, but the team made it really, really hard to keep fans passionate. As managers turned like leaves, from Muser to Pena to Bell to Hillman, she watched fewer and fewer games. She’s never given up completely, but the fire was gone.

Which is what has made the last few months, culminating in this week, so incredible for me to watch. America has been watching the rebirth of a fan base on tv, but I’ve been lucky enough to watch it in my living room. I’ve watched her eschew sleep, staying up until the early morning to watch her Royals steal, bunt, scratch and claw their way to four straight wins. She may have to work the next morning, (real work, not like sporadically updating a blog and watching Yo Gabba Gabba while coaxing a 1 year old to eat his peas) but she doesn’t care. This is the kind of sleeplessness that leads to euphoria, where adrenaline kicks in and even if the game ends at midnight you can’t fall asleep until one.

That kind of feeling is good to see. It’s been missing for Royals fans for 29 years, and having it back is good for baseball. When a dormant fanbase wakes up, the game becomes stronger.

When we were still dating, my wife and I went to a White Sox/Cubs interleague game. She had never been to one, and I was telling her on the way how much fun those kind of rivalry interleague games are. (This was when it was still relatively new). “I know,” she said,  “I remember how much fun it was when I was a kid and we went to a Royals-Cardinals game.” It took me a moment to realize there was no interleague when we were kids – she was talking about the 1985 World Series. She had no idea.

That may be the greatest evidence ever as to why you don’t take a six year old to the World Series, but it’s also the reason I’m pulling for the Royals throughout October. I want my wife to experience a World Series she actually remembers. I want to hear that conversation after they win when she calls her dad and they share their exuberance. Most of all, I want to see that look on her face, the look she got to see on mine when the White Sox won in 2005. She celebrated with me that night like she had been a Sox fan her whole life. I hope I get to do the same for the Royals.

 

It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)

Derek Jeter’s walk off winner Thursday night will surely go down as the one of the top 10 greatest caps to a career in sports history. So what are the others?

10. Goose Gossage

Goose Gossage had 310 saves in his Hall of Fame career, but hadn’t recorded one in over a year when he entered the game on August 8, 1994. What made it great was the way he did it. This wasn’t a namby-pamby, up-by-three-in-the-ninth save. Goose worked three innings of shutout ball to earn it in the most old school way possible. Closers who work three innings died out when guys like Gossage retired, so it’s fitting he ended his career that way.

9. Michael Jordan 

Jordan had 15 points on 6-15 shooting to cap a 37-45 campaign for the Washington Wizards.

Wait – why am I including this?

It’s simple. He went out when he wanted. His final, graceful, championship winning jumper over Bryon Russell is what we wanted. That was the perfect ending. But Jordan makes this list to remind us that we don’t get to make the rules. Every athlete has to deal with the degradation of their skills and life after the game. Jordan makes the list for reminding us that the best ending is the one the athlete chooses.

8. Sam Hanks

Sam Hanks was the kind of race car driver who ran everything, everywhere. Midget cars, stock cars, Indy cars, you name it and he drove it. He won everywhere he went across the country from L.A. to Chicago, except the most important place to a driver – Indianapolis. From 1940-1956 Hanks tried 12 times to win the Greatest Spectacle in racing. (Those numbers aren’t off - he took a “break” from racing to serve in World War II.) Each time he fell short. On lap 135 of his lucky 13th try, however, Hanks took the lead and never gave it back. As he celebrated in victory lane, he announced his retirement at the pinnacle of racing.

7. Sandy Koufax

At the start of the 1966 season, Dodger team physician Robert Kerlan told Koufax he needed to quit pitching; his arm simply couldn’t take anymore. Koufax went against doctor’s orders and gave it one last try, and in doing so went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA. He threw 323 innings on an arm that was essentially finished. Needing a win on the final day of the season to clinch the N.L. Pennant, Koufax took the mound on two days rest and threw a complete game, 6-3 victory. The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is because technically, it’s his next to last game. He lost game 2 of the World Series 6-0. (Don’t blame Sandy – the Dodgers had 6 errors that day and only 4 hits!)

6. Ray Bourque

1,826 games. That’s how many times Ray Bourque had to take the ice in order to hoist the Stanley Cup. After 19 seasons as the heart and soul of the Boston Bruins, Bourque left for a loaded Colorado Avalanche team in one last desperate attempt to win the only the thing that eluded him in his Hall of Fame career. He scored the game winning goal in game 3, and was on the ice as time ran out in game 7 with the Avalanche up 3-1. When Joe Sakic was handed the Cup to take the ceremonial first lap, as is his honor as captain, he deferred to the deserving – and patient – Bourque.

5. John Whittemore

Whittemore was a track and field athlete, competing mainly in the javelin, long jump, and discus. In his final meet, he set a world record in the javelin at 11 feet, 2 inches. That may sound unimpressive until you realize he was 104 years old. When asked about the record, Whittemore played it off. “If I don’t drop it on my foot, I set a world record.” He died about a year later, presumably while wrestling a bear named Chuck Norris on top of a mountain he climbed because that’s about the only conceivable way he could have gone.

4. Rocky Marciano

The lure to get back in there for one last moment of glory is strong in boxing, perhaps more than any other sport. Ali did it. Holyfield did it. It even ended up killing Apollo Creed. So for Rocky Marciano to end the way he did – undefeated heavyweight champion of the world – is incredible. Some people have tried to remove some of the luster on Marciano, pointing out that while he may have retired as the undefeated champion, many of the greatest fighters he faced were in the twilight of their careers. (Jersey Joe Walcott was 38, Archie Moore was 39, and Joe Louis was 37), That neglects one thing. Nobody else ever did it.

3. Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente’s last regular season at bat was a double off of Jon Matlack for his 3,000th career hit. Two months later, Clemente was arranging flights of emergency relief supplies for Managua, Nicaragua, after an earthquake. When he got word that corrupt officials were keeping the supplies from getting to those who needed it, he personally went on the next flight. It crashed in the ocean near Puerto Rico. Clemente’s baseball career ended as we would expect - setting milestones. His life, while ending in tragedy, also ended with him trying to help others, and that is a better eulogy for this humanitarian than any of us could ever hope to write.

2. Ted Williams

45 players have hit a home run in their final major league at bat. Excuse me for skipping over Bert Haas and Chico Walker, but I think we’ll focus on the guy who hit 521 total. Williams, who was never one for curtain calls, didn’t take one that day either. The brilliant writer John Updike explained why better than anyone when he wrote about that game. “Gods don’t answer letters,” he said.

1. John Elway

Elway is the one who has ruined it for athletes forever. Every time you see someone chasing that last shot at glory, that picture perfect, storybook ending, you may as well call it “Chasing Elway.” To win back-to-back Super Bowls – and be named MVP – at the age of 39 while playing for the same team for your entire career? It simply cannot get better. Everyday, kids all over the world play out that kind of moment in their head while playing in the backyard. Elway lived it.

 

 

 

All Things Must Pass

In 2004, when the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918, Boston wasn’t the only one celebrating. In many ways, the entire baseball world celebrated. The end of the curse and the redemption for the poor, tortured Red Sox fans was national news and the feel good story of the year. It was one of the stories that transcended sports, where suddenly your grandmother knew who Curt Schilling was. It lasted throughout the year – “There’s Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore in a movie about it!” “There’s Johnny Damon on Queer Eye For the Straight Guy!” Sawxmania was still going so strong the next October that a lot of people were stunned when they were swept out of the playoffs in 2005 by a Chicago White Sox team on it’s way to their own drought-ending World Series win.

A funny thing happened after that. Despite ending a longer championship drought, the nation didn’t really seem to care. There were no movies. Nobody gave Ozzie Guillen a makeover on reality tv (which is a shame, because that would have probably been must see tv). It seems the only people who cared were White Sox fans. What’s more, most wouldn’t have it any other way. Speaking as a Sox fan, I can say that it is part of the equation. There is a Rodney Dangerfield, “no respect” attitude. This can probably apply to a lot of teams – no one nationally really cares about the Astros, or the Mariners, or the Brewers, or probably 2/3 of baseball if we are being honest about it. However, when you share a city with one of those teams the nation does care about it becomes magnified. So when the only people celebrating the White Sox World Series win were Sox fans, it seemed right. Let the fairweather fans and national pundits fawn on the Cubs if they ever win it all, but our bandwagon is full, thank you very much, even if it is small.

This is all a very long winded way to talk about another celebration that will be going on at U.S. Cellular Field this weekend. While the nation once again turns it’s eyes on an “important” team, and gushes uncontrollably about the spectacular career of Derek Jeter, a small corner of the baseball world will be saying their good-byes to Paul Konerko. And it will be every bit as hard, and every bit as emotional.

How do you quantify what Paul Konerko has meant to the White Sox? How do you say thank you to a guy who has represented the city of Chicago for 16 years, who turned down every opportunity to play elsewhere, sometimes for more money, to stay with the Sox, and did it all with a sense of class that is missing so often in sports today? This is the guy who stashed the ball from the final out of the 2005 World Series, not so he could keep it for himself but so he could publicly present it to team owner Jerry Reinsdorf at the team’s victory rally.

His 432 home runs as a member of the White Sox are second only to Frank Thomas. Expand that to all of Chicago and only Sammy Sosa and Ernie Banks have more. He is the team’s all-time leader in total bases. Six times he broke the 100 RBI mark, and 4 times he hit .300, which probably comes as a surprise to some who think of him strictly as a power hitter. Do those numbers quantify what he meant to Sox fans? Not even close. In fact, perhaps the only thing that can explain it is this:

That grand slam, which put the White Sox up 6-4 in game 2 of the World Series, was the moment it became real. When Paul Konerko hit that ball is the moment I said to myself, “Oh my God, we’re going to win this thing.” Forget that the game wasn’t over, and that there were two more to go. I just knew. That’s what happens when a guy is the heart and soul of a team.

None of this is meant to demean or diminish the attention Derek Jeter is receiving. He is a great player and a great ambassador of the game and deserves all the love and adoration he has received this season. He’s a locked in, first ballot Hall of Famer and even I will admit that Paul Konerko is firmly entrenched in the Hall of Very Good. It’s just that, much like the Red Sox in 2004, I don’t really care. They weren’t my team. Jeter’s not my guy. He may be the capital-C “Captain”, but he’s not my captain. At the same time,  just like 2005, it doesn’t bother me that Konerko isn’t getting a lot of attention as he says farewell. For better or for worse, this has become the White Sox fan way – insulated, familial, and fiercely proud and protective of those who we consider part of the flock. Paul Konerko was our guy. We will say goodbye this weekend. The rest of baseball can celebrate whoever or whatever they want – Sox fans are busy.

When Konerko re-signed with the White Sox in 2006, turning down offers from the Angels, Orioles, and others, his agent said this:

“Paul really did some soul-searching over the last couple of days, and he started to realize that, if all else was equal, he wanted to be a member of the Chicago White Sox. He really likes it there. And just as important, he feels people like him there. He knows he has a lot of fans, and he respects that. He even talked about the fact that some kids there would be disappointed if he wasn’t back there.”

Well, he was right. People do like him there, and they’re going to miss him.

 

 

All Apologies

In the past, I have been labeled a Big Ten apologist. It is a charge that, while not without merit, I have never truly accepted. I genuinely believe that a lot of the Big Ten bashing of the last decade has been unfair, and in a sport where public opinion literally helps decide a champion it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that because Wisconsin and Michigan State have been top dogs recently instead of traditional powers like Ohio State and Michigan, too many people are quick to say “the conference is bad” instead of “Bucky and Sparty are good”.

See, that may sound like Big Ten Apologist talk, but it’s not. Because if I were really a Big Ten apologist I wouldn’t be comfortable saying this: in 2014, the Big Ten sucks.

What other possible conclusion can I come to? How could I say otherwise after a Saturday when it took some late Hawkeye heroics for the conference to manage a 2-2 split with the MAC, or when all that stood between McNeese State and victory at Nebraska was a 58 yard touchdown run in the final 30 seconds? How can I defend a conference where Illinois has had to come from behind to win in the 4th quarter twice – against Youngstown State and Western Kentucky? What does it say that the Big Ten had one of it’s worst days I can remember and my beloved Indiana Hoosiers, the team we usually expect these kind of results from, didn’t even play?

Things don’t look better at the top of the conference, where the Big Ten could have made their early push for dominance and prove they were the “power conference” they are supposed to be. Michigan State and Michigan were both embarrassed on national TV, and Ohio State saw the wind swiftly removed from their sails with a home loss to Virginia Tech.

It’s the worst possible year for the Big Ten to be this way, too. In the past, the Big Ten has had to struggle with BCS nonsense. Last year, for example, Michigan State was a fantastic football team. Aside from a tough early season road loss to Notre Dame, they were unbeaten, with an average margin of victory of 18 points. The problem? They weren’t ranked until week 9, and weren’t in the top 10 until December 1st – the week leading up to the Big Ten Championship game. There is no doubt that the Big Ten’s soft reputation combined with the fact that sportswriters and coaches didn’t expect them to be that good in back in August when they first guessed at their polls helped keep Michigan State out of the BCS title game.

This year? No problem! We’re settling it on the field! It may not be a great playoff (there’s a whole article for another day) but it’s a playoff. Finally, those of us who want the Big Ten to have a chance to show what they can do have the system where they can do it, and from what I’ve seen so no team in the conference should be within 1,000 feet of that playoff.

Admittedly, it’s early. There’s time for someone to put this start in the past. Maybe Wisconsin rolls and the LSU loss becomes an afterthought. Maybe Notre Dame is a top team again, and Michigan’s loss doesn’t look as bad. Maybe, somehow, Penn State runs the table. Still, the old cliche about how a sports season is a “marathon, not a sprint” doesn’t apply to college football. Even with a playoff, one loss – or even one closer-than-it-should-have-been win – is a lot to overcome. College football isn’t a marathon. It’s a sprint with hurdles, and the Big Ten has already tripped.

Do It Again

It might just be the hardest thing to do in sports. It’s only happened eight times total, and four of those were before 1980. As the NFL sees more parity, it seems to be getting harder. That’s why it will be so impressive when the Seattle Seahawks repeat this year as Super Bowl champions.

There are plenty of reasons not to pick Seattle, but they are intangible. Things like “it’s harder to stay on top” and “everyone is gunning for you”. Here’s what is tangible – the Seahawks still have a dominating defense, one of the league’s best ground games, a brilliant coaching mind in charge, and perhaps the most underrated quarterback in the NFL.

That’s not to say it will be easy – the depth in the NFC, particularly the Seahawks’ own Division, will make it a hard road. The last time I thought a team was this sure of a bet to repeat it was the Green Bay Packers, and Eli Manning quickly ruined any hopes of that. So while I feel confident in my pick of Seattle to repeat, I’m still going to hedge my bets and run down the rest of the league and how likely they are to win football’s greatest prize.

Contenders
Any of these teams have a legitimate shot at bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.

Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers is back, and looks like last season is behind him. He also looks poised to go from being the best quarterback in the NFL at leading a one dimensional offense to being the best at leading a balanced one. Eddie Lacy is the real deal, and the Packers are more dangerous because of it. The question will lie (as it has since the year after their Super Bowl win) with the defense, which should be just good enough not to be a liability. The magic number for Green Bay should be 13. If they can win 13 games, that should be good enough for home field throughout the playoffs and keep them from having to go to Seattle. If that happens, watch out.

Cincinnati
There are three times I think can win the AFC, and I’m leaning towards to Bengals for no other reason than they feel like a team who has paid their dues in the last two post-seasons and are due. Defensively, they are probably the best team in the AFC. Offensively, they seem to improve every year in no small part because Andy Dalton does. A lot will depend on Giovanni Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill taking pressure off of Dalton and not forcing him to try and make things happen. If they succeed, so will Cincinnati.

Denver
The last time we saw Peyton Manning and the Broncos, they were being outplayed by everyone in New York, including Bruno Mars. That bad taste they left in everyone’s mouth can overwhelm the fact that they are still probably the best team in the NFL on paper. Montee Ball will have to step up in year two, and it will be interesting to see how Peyton Manning fares with another year under his belt, but anything less than the AFC title game should still be a disappointment for this group.

New England
There isn’t much to say about the Patriots that hasn’t been said over and over again since the turn of the century. They find new hurdles, and Bill Belichick finds news ways to overcome them. Tom Brady remains steady even as his career heads towards the sunset, and as long as he is there, it’s insane to dismiss his team.

San Francisco
The 49ers seemed to take a step back last year, and that means this season could be the balancing point for the franchise. Colin Kaepernick was not, as some proclaimed, the greatest quarterback in NFL history last year. Far from it, in fact. He doesn’t have to be for the 49ers to win – the defense is still solid and Frank Gore is now the veteran leader of what could be a deep backfield – but he has to regain some of that magic we saw two years ago for the 49ers to have a real shot at returning to the Super Bowl.

Pretenders
These teams should be playoff locks, and may even host a game, but are missing something that will keep them from a championship.

Philadelphia
Last year Chip Kelly did the unimaginable – successfully transitioned to NFL head coach from the NCAA. This year the pressure will be on to maintain the success and return the Eagles to the Super Bowl. They may have the most dynamic player in the NFL in LeSean McCoy, and Kelly knows how to use him to the fullest extent of his talents. A lot will lie on Nick Foles, who looked like a world beater last year with 27 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. It would seem impossible for him to repeat that kind of success, and because of that the Eagles should fall just short of their lofty expectations.

New Orleans
As long as Drew Brees is in New Orleans, the Saints should be a contender. If they get off to a hot start, don’t buy in too fully – they open the season against the Falcons, Browns, Vikings, Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Lions. That and a week division will get them in the playoffs, but there is too much depth in the NFC for them to make much noise.

Indianapolis
It’s hard to shake the thought that the Colts are not as good as their back-to-back 11-5 records indicate. At some point, beating up on the woeful AFC South won’t be good enough. Still, Andrew Luck seems due to make that jump to “elite” status this year. He has the weapons to do it with T.Y. Hilton and a healthy Reggie Wayne. As Luck improves, the Colts should too. Just maybe not as fast as some in Indianapolis might want.

Pittsburgh
1971. That’s the last time the Steelers didn’t post a winning record three seasons in a row. Back to back 8-8 seasons may not seem like the end of the world for a lot of franchises, but things are a little different for Steelers fans. The good news is, things should be turning around in the steel city. The addition of playmakes like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown should help Ben Roethlisberger, who has been asked to do too much in recent years. The Steelers aren’t Super Bowl ready yet, but they are on their way back.

Happy to be there
Any one of these teams could make the playoffs, but don’t expect them to stick around long.

New York Giants
A lot of people say Eli Manning isn’t as bad as he looked last year. A lot of people are frankly, wrong. Last year was the third time in a ten year career he has lead the league in interceptions. He has averaged 17 a season in his career. He is this generation’s Joe Namath – a statistically average quarterback who is held higher thanks to Super Bowl success. The Giants may very well be back in the playoffs this year, but it will be mostly due to Tom Coughlin and a stout defense that was made better in the offseason with the addition of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond.

Chicago
Does anyone get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment more than Jay Cutler? Nearly everyone agrees he is not a “franchise quarterback” talent, yet he gets blasted in Chicago for not being one. It’s like yelling at a Chevy Malibu for not being a Corvette. If Cutler can stay healthy, he has perhaps more weapons around him than anyone in the NFC. Name one quarterback who wouldn’t want Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte around him? That alone may sneak the Bears into the playoffs, but it will all hinge on a defense that was terrible last year but (hopefully, in Bears fan’s minds) was rebuilt in free agency in the off season.

Kansas City
Which is the real Kansas City Chiefs? The team that started 9-0 last season, and had a dominating defense, or the team that finished 2-6, giving up 30 points or more four times down the stretch including 45 in a playoff game against the Colts despite forcing four turnovers? While the truth likely lies someewhere in the middle, the Chiefs won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. Still, Alex Smith has become a respectable starting quarterback and Jamaal Charles is electrifying. This team should be talented enough to make the playoffs again, but it may be close than fans in K.C. would like.

Carolina
Last year was a great one for the Panthers, as they improved by five games and won the NFC South. They promptly followed it up with an offseason in which they lost their top two receivers in Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, and the majority of their offensive line. Cam Newton should have no one to throw to, no one to block for him, and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield to share the load. It makes the inevitable “what’s wrong with Cam Newton?” pontificating we are going to hear by week 6 that much more infuriating.

Baltimore

Speaking of Steve Smith, Baltimore is where he landed though that was overshadowed by Ray Rice’s domestic violence charges and subsequent (too short) suspension. Steve Smith should form a nice tandem with Torrey Smith for Joe Flacco to throw to, but Rice’s return to form will be vital if the Ravens want to get back to the postseason. He was awful last year on and off the field, but it’s easy to forget he’s only 26 and should still have plenty of tread on the tires.

Arizona
The Cardinals face the unfortunate task of being a pretty good team in a brutal division, where pretty good just isn’t enough. Andre Ellington is poised for a big year at running back, they have a great receiver tandem with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, and their secondary is one of the best in the NFL. Still, they are looking at another year with Carson Palmer at quarterback and the loss of Karlos Dansby should loom large on defense.

Going Nowhere Slow – They aren’t the dregs of the NFL, but they aren’t reaching the post season either. The face of parity.
Buffalo
Tampa Bay
Washington
Detroit
Tennessee
Miami
Atlanta
San Diego

The Draft Party Starts Now – It’s going to be a long, long year in these cities.
Minnesota
St. Louis
Dallas
Jacksonville
Dallas
New York Jets
Oakland
Houston

Hey, at least Lebron is back.
Cleveland

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
WILD CARD ROUND
EAGLES OVER GIANTS
49ERS OVER SAINTS
COLTS OVER STEELERS
BENGALS OVER CHIEFS

DIVISIONAL ROUND
SEAHAWKS OVER 49ERS
PACKERS OVER EAGLES
BRONCOS OVER COLTS
BENGALS OVER PATRIOTS

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS
SEAHAWKS OVER PACKERS
BENGALS OVER BRONCOS

SUPER BOWL
SEAHAWKS OVER BENGALS