Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Since its never been more popular, let's fix college football, shall we?

By all apparent subjective and objective measures, college football has never been healthier.  We are four years into ESPN’s $2 billion deal with the SEC (a/k/a by intelligent people as the contract that permanently destroyed ESPN’s journalistic integrity as it relates to college football); we are one year away from ESPN launching the SEC Network (a/k/a by intelligent people as ESPN’s confession that it is no longer pretending to possess any journalistic integrity as it relates to college football); we are ten days removed from Alabama and LSU garnering 11.9 million viewers (compare that with the record shattering 10.3 million viewers that tuned in for the series finale of one of the seven greatest television shows of all time, “Breaking Bad”); and we are one year from the start of ESPN’s 12 year, $6 billion contract to carry the new college football playoff.  Upon consideration, maybe it’s fair to say that the SEC and ESPN have never been healthier.  Actually, it’s completely fair to say that. 

But don’t worry.  I’m not about to inundate you with thousands of words bemoaning the inherent bias arising from the relationship between ESPN and the SEC.  Suffice it to say, citizens of states where SEC programs reside will tell you that, of course ESPN wants to be aligned with the SEC because there is no better semi-professional football in America.  And citizens of the remaining states would tell you that, sure the SEC may have some of the best teams in America, but everybody else fights a constant uphill battle for notoriety because of the constant hype and exposure the SEC enjoys as a result of its unholy alliance with the World-Wide Leader.  There is certainly some truth to both arguments, and as with all great arguments, the full truth likely resides somewhere in the middle. But again, this is not the argument I’m here to explore.  Instead, I figured I would use my first few paragraphs back in this space to take a few pot shots at my two of least favorite institutions in college football and move on. 

Truth is, I’ve always been a huge college football fan (both literally and figuratively), but over the past few years, with the advent of the spread offense, other pass happy systems, and soaring scores (even in the vaunted SEC where their defenses supposedly play “big boy football” TM: every gas back former athlete working for ESPN college football), I’ve grown slightly disenchanted with college football.  Bear in mind, I’m not a guy that longs for the good old days that weren’t always good (TM: Billy Joel), and I’ve always loathed the three yards and a cloud of dust (TM: some really old guy that couldn’t run a 6.3 40) offense that used to define the Big 10, SEC, and even the old Big 8 and Southwest Conference.  I like offense, and I revere Mike Leach.  I mean, how do you not revere a reformed lawyer that believes in pirates and makes cameos on “Friday Night Lights?”  Speaking of which, watch this and I defy you to not love Mike Leach:

In short, I’ve always loved offense.  I loved the Ralph Friedgen/Joe Hamilton days at Tech.  Heck, I used to love staying up late, watching old Pac-10 games, and making some pizza money on the overs in those games.  Or, at least that’s what I would’ve done if gambling was legal, of course.  Now, however, something is different.  Great offenses used to stand out because they were the exception, not the rule.  Now, unless you are playing Alabama or Stanford, if you can’t put up 31 points, you are simply doing something wrong on offense.  You either don’t have sufficient talent, or you are running the wrong system, or both (See Tech, Georgia).  The result is that every time I tune into a
game, I suddenly feel like I’m back in T-8 at the Sigma Chi House, or in Fite’s apartment on 115th and Amsterdam, slugging out 63-56 playstation game, the winner of which hinges on:  1) who can manage to sack the quarterback once and force a pick; or 2) who can manipulate the clock to ensure they have one more possession than the other guy; or 3) both. 

I’ve long been one of the few NBA fans in my group of friends, and the criticism I’ve always heard about the Association is “why would I watch an entire game when I can tune in for the last 2 minutes and see everything I need to see?”  While I’ve always contended that this was a silly argument because, on any given night in the NBA, you can see no less than a dozen spectacular or ridiculous plays (both being equally entertaining) throughout the course of a game, I now find myself making the same argument about college football.  Unless you have two completely uneven teams (See FSU or Clemson vs. any ACC team not named FSU or Clemson), you really only need to tune in for the last two minutes to see the important stuff.  Case in point:  Auburn vs. Georgia this past Saturday, or pretty much any other SEC game featured on CBS this year. 

Granted, if you watch those games in their entirety, you do have the pleasure of hearing Verne Lundquist screw up no less than a dozen names and penalty calls, but even that enjoyment fades when you are 3.5 hours into the game and just entering the fourth quarter.  (Side note:  I have always loved Verne.  His “Yes Siiiiiir” call of The Golden Bear’s birdie at 17 of the ’86 Masters creeps its way into one of my conversations no less than once a week – “we won that motion?  Yes Siiiiiiiirrrr,” but all good things come to an end, and the time has come for Verne to only sit in the tower at 16 at Augusta and guide us through all the near miss 8 foot birdie putts on that glorious Sunday in April.  No shame in that, Verne. You had a Hall of Fame run.).

Again, times are good for college football, but others are growing tired of the new-found Arena League state of college football.  (Seriously, it’s not just me.  I talked to 10 people before writing this article, and at least two of them didn’t tell me I was crazy.)  But the time to change is before the masses grow wise to your problems.  The time to change is before the fall.  Why do you think Tiger Woods has changed his swing three times throughout his career, and why do you think Tiger changed his personal behavior before his life came crashing down around him?  Okay, maybe that last one isn’t the best example, but you get my point.  College football should consider change before the Playstation-Arena League evolution is complete and forever alters the game into a one-sided, offensive affair.  Fear not, however, I’m not proposing a complete overhaul of the game.  Instead, I’m proposing just three minor changes that would serve the game well and bring things back to reality without compromising any of the things that really make college football great:  the pageantry, the tradition, the rivalries, the ability for middle-aged coaches, administrators, broadcasters, and television execs to make themselves wealthy beyond their wildest dreams on the backs of a free labor force that has no rights or ability to control any aspect of their own lives while beholden to the corrupt and patently unfair cartel that is the NCAA, college presidents, and conference execs.  What?  You sensed my sarcasm in that last one?  Good.  But we’ll leave that topic for another day because, trust me, I need a lot more space to tell you how I really feel about the state of college athletics as a whole.  Then again, I may have just done it in one sentence.  Regardless, let’s move on.  Here are three minor rule changes that would have a positive impact on college football and give defenses a fighting chance:

1.      The clock should never stop after a first down.  Can anyone explain to me why this rule exists?  It results in three ridiculous consequences:  1) 4 hour football games; and 2) teams that have no business getting back into games (i.e., down 20 with 12 minutes left; or down 26-0 in the fourth quarter) to run 35 plays in a quarter and get back into the game; and 3) college coaches simply don’t have to worry about managing the clock because the rules manage it for them. 

I think the 4 hour game speaks for itself.  Show me somebody that supports a 4 hour sporting event, and I will show you someone that thinks the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has gone smoothly.  This would be someone I could not have a rational conversation with.  You know why soccer is the world’s most popular sport?  Because, even with halftime, it’s over in less than two hours.  You watch it.  You get emotionally invested (well, if you like soccer, or if you happen to be wrapped in the Flag during the World Cup).  Then you go about your day.  Two to three hours is something that becomes part of your day.  4 hours becomes your whole day.  It’s too much.  Let’s get this under control, shall we? 

The absurd comeback is another story all together.  Here’s what happens in these games.  One team dominates the other team for 3 quarters.  It proves it is clearly the better team on an even playing field, and then suddenly it finds itself at a terrible disadvantage.  The team with the big lead goes into “kill the clock” mode.  On offense, it takes the air out of the ball and works on the clock.  On defense, it drops back in coverage to prevent the big play and keep receivers in front of them and in bounds.  The only problem is that there is no such thing as killing the clock because the clock constantly stops when the desperate team invariably picks up first down after first down against the soft coverage.  Then, after the desperate team gets hope, the dominant team goes into panic mode.  The momentum has clearly shifted to the desperate team, and all hell breaks loose.  The end result?  The game comes down to an on-side kick, or a ridiculous 73 yard tip drill, and either the dominant team hangs on for dear life, or the desperate team steals a game in which it only showed up for 1 of the 4 quarters.

Now, I can already hear some of you saying that the dominant team should never take its foot off the gas.  Under the current clock rules, this is certainly true.  But it’s not reality.  If you have a 20 point lead in the fourth quarter and you keep airing the ball out and things go well, you are Urban Meyer, and nobody wants to be Urban Meyer.  If things go poorly and you turn the ball over and give up easy points, you are vilified by your fan base for being reckless.  In short, if you are coaching a team that has dominated its opponent for three quarters, you are in a no-win situation because the stupid clock rules allow the opponent the chance to nullify three quarters of dominance with one quarter either fueled by turnovers or soft defense.  And if you think this is a weak argument, I simply fall back on the fact that all this takes more than 4 hours to happen.  For the love of all that’s holy, let’s do away with the 4 hour game.

Finally, I hate that, with this rule, college coaches are almost always completely absolved from taking dumb timeouts early in a half.  There are few sources of comedy more enjoyable than watching NFL coaches constantly botch timeouts and instant replay challenges.  Why rob us of this comedy at the college level?  Every LSU game would be 37% more enjoyable if Les Miles was actually accountable for his timeouts.

2.      College receivers should be required to get two feet in bounds.  No less than half a dozen catches a game (warning:  totally made up stat) hinge on the receiver getting one foot in bounds.  The rule in the NFL has been two feet down since before I was born.  It just makes sense.  If somebody can explain to me why one foot makes more sense than two feet, I’m willing to entertain the argument, but I haven’t heard anything close to convincing yet.  And, for the record, “because it’s always been the rule” is not a good argument.  Receivers are more talented now than ever.  Let’s increase the degree of difficulty in the passing game for heaven’s sake.  Don’t worry, the kid from Baylor will still throw for 1,234 yards/game instead of 1,311.  We’ll all be okay.

3.      This one goes for both the NFL and college:  let the defensive backs use their hands as long as it doesn’t impede the receiver’s ability to catch the ball.  This is basic.  Receivers know where they are going.  DBs have no idea.  A little leeway with the hands will help things.  As the rules exist now, a DB can’t touch the receiver until after the receiver catches the ball.  Going out on a limb here, but that is typically too late.  Currently, 30 college quarterbacks are completing more than 65% of their passes.  72 are completing 60% or more. To put that in perspective, Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 with a 57.5 completion percentage.  You remember him, right?  The leader of the “Fun and Gun.”  The only quarterback Steve Spurrier has ever liked?  And, don’t forget Gino Torretta’s 56.7% in his 1992 Heisman campaign.  Chris Weinke, in his Heisman year, would have ranked tied for 54th in completion percentage this season with Toledo’s Terrance Owens.  Caron Palmer’s ’02 Heisman season would’ve have locked him in a tie for 44th this year with Anthony Boone.  And as we creep closer to the present, only Tim Tebow (remember that guy?), Sam Bradford, and Robert Griffin III in their Heisman seasons would have cracked the top 20 this year in completion percentage, with Griffin being the only guy to crack the top 10.  The point?  For whatever reason (and I’m not smart enough to know them all), it is now far too easy to complete a forward pass in college football.  A slight rule change here and there to level the playing field for defensive backs certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing for the game. 

Remember, I’m a huge college football fan.  I’m not advocating anything drastic.  I’m simply looking for ways to give defenses a fighting chance against this new wave of high powered offenses.  Of course, if your talent stinks (again, see Tech, Georgia) no amount of rule changes will change your fate.  But I’m not trying to level the playing field for the bad teams.  I’m trying to find ways to level the field between the good teams, shorten the games, make it a 22 on 22 game again, and make the first 58 minutes relevant again.  Otherwise, I might as well return to my Playstation days, set the game to 5 minute quarters, and get my football fix 30 minutes at a time because, as EA Sports bows out of the college football video game market, the real product on the field is quickly taking its place. 

Next time on “Curmudgeon On Sports” we will tackle the absurdity that are the college football instant-replay and overtime rules.  What?  That doesn’t sound fun to you?  Well, fine.  Just know I think they both stink.  Curmudgeon – Out!