Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Alphabetical: College Football, Week 12

A is for Altitude.
Your one sentence summary for the weekend:

Blue-chip superpowers rage comfortably through the weakest slate of games this season.

Texas Tech and Oklahoma kept their respective points-machines in the garage this week. Alabama left no fingerprints in a heartless and clinical dissection of Mississippi State, a team that had won two straight against the Crimson Tide. Southern Cal let talent missiles loose against Stanford at the Farm. Florida staged a four-quarter mortification of their former coach at the Swamp. Ohio State pulverized a mistake-prone Illini team on the road.

Goliath had a good weekend, and Team Under Armour will have to wait until next week to stage plucky upsets. Steady state dynamics for the moment ruled, something the next two weeks should cure in short order.

B is for But! Minor ripples of interest, though, persist: Michigan sealed the worst season in its 129 history in a snowstruck loss to Northwestern, Steve Spurrier suffered his worst loss ever as a head coach in the Florida game, Maryland continued to play ACC Roulette by beating UNC, South Florida flopped spectacularly, LSU had to score 30 in the fourth quarter to beat Troy (the ones from Alabama,) Oregon State remained on the Rose Bowl track, and Boise State and Utah remained undefeated in lopsided fashion. This was a pig of a weekend, but you cannot prevent us from putting it in a tuxedo and calling it a gentleman nonetheless.

C is for Courtesy. Cincy head coach Brian Kelly is full of sportsmanship and good cheer. For evidence, please see the 7:45 mark in the video, where players hoist the keg of nails, shout some huzzahs, and then a grumpy man marches across the screen from right to left waving off some unseen, off camera person dismissively.

The man off-camera is Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe, who denied the traditional post-game handshake after a pre-game argument over Cincinnati having a prayer at the 50 yard line on the Louisville logo. Kelly was furious over the tiff after Cincy won 28-20 and took the inside track to the Big East championship. I'm sure he's a delightful man at parties, especially after you beat him at a game of Cranium or something.

D is for Deflated. USF's season, post-Kansas win: a proud, floating piece of engineering filled with explosive hot air. The October 2nd 26-21 loss to Pittsburgh: a man smoking carelessly on the foredeck. The result:

Or put in a mathematical sense, a 1-4 skid through the Big East with only a win against conference garbage scow Syracuse as comfort. Please put the reminder not to get too excited about South Florida into the electronic pal of your choice, and schedule it to go off somewhere around October 1st, 2009. We'll all need it again next year, too. From a friend who was at the game: "USF should have arrived to the game in a clown car." Six turnovers merit some big shoes and rainbow wigs, methinks.

E is for Excellence in Play-calling. Needing a TD late in the fourth quarter with 8 minutes left, Auburn opted for the following play sequence.

1st-10, UGa28 6:08 B. Tate rushed to the right for 3 yard gain
2nd-7, UGa25 5:41 B. Tate rushed up the middle for 4 yard gain
3rd-3, UGa21 5:12 B. Tate rushed to the left for no gain
4th-3, UGa21 4:13 K. Burns incomplete pass to the right

Two cardinal sins in one series occurred here. First, the hot hand, Mario Fannin, who rushed for 107 yards and had 2 TDs on the day, sat on the bench for the final drive. Why? The math-deficient answer from Tommy Tuberville:

"Ben was running the ball pretty good," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said afterward.

Tailback Ben Tate finished with 37 yards on 14 rushes. He averaged 2.6 yards per carry compared to Fannin, whose average was 7.4 and whose big-play ability gave the Tigers a chance in the first place.
He was not running the ball well, and also was not running the ball with any sense or hope thanks to the offensive play-calling by the Auburn coaching staff, who attempted three straight runs into a keyed-in Georgia defense before hopelessly flailing away with Burns on fourth down. Tony Franklin was a problem at Auburn, but not the problem.

F is for Fat, and Occasionally Charming. He is so insufferably arrogant he is likely making the joke just to hear himself talk, but Charlie Weis did give quality quote after Navy pulled off two onside kicks in a 27-21 victory over Navy.

''I'm looking to see if anyone wants to be on my hands team next week,'' Weis said after Navy recovered two late onside kicks. ''Any volunteers?''
Weis also stubbornly ran 51 times against the 96th ranked pass defense in college football. Hey, a win's a win!

G is for Gutted. Losing by fifty is definitive enough, but all but conceding the game with a throwback play to go down 21-0 turned a romp into comedic farce for South Carolina. It was car-crash bad, a slow-motion disaster, so bad you had to laugh, and had "Yakety Sax" playing behind it even though no music was playing at Florida Field. Daring converted to lunacy becoming farce = this game.

H is for HBCU. Kudos and due plaudits forwarded to ESPN for taking a lackluster slate of national games and ditching them for a trip to FAMU in Tallahassee, giving some much-needed pub for HBCUs and their thumping football traditions including -- yes, obligatory mention -- the furious Marching 100 of the FAMU band.

Getting this nightmare fuel out of your head, though, will be a very difficult task.

MAKE ITS DEAD EYES STOP LOOKING AT ME -- deep breath happy place deep breath happy place ....

I is for Ice Station Zebra. In his crazy reclusive Vegas penthouse stage, Howard Hughes watched the film Ice Station Zebra over 150 times. The film focuses on competing Soviet and American submarine recovery teams attempting to find a satellite that crashes to earth in the Arctic in appalling conditions.

Forgive me for having Hughes flashbacks watching Northwestern/Michigan, a fight between three teams: the Wildcats, the Wolverines, and the elements. Snow fell throughout the second half, covering camera lenses and reducing the screen to a foggy haze of green, white, and sludgy browns.

The little bits of purple and white running around won 21-14 on two late passes by C.J. Bacher. While every account of the game will focus on Michigan officially locking up the worst season in the 129 season history of the program, please note the eight wins for Northwestern this season, and that their coach is 34 years old, and that these are all very cuddly and heartwarmings things for a program whose head coach dropped dead two years ago and could have taken the program's success with him if not for the work of a young and tenacious coach bent on keeping Northwestern alive. Triumph despite the elements is Northwestern football under Pat Fitzgerald. Let it snow.

J is for Jealousy. To the points-poor around the nation -- Hello, Auburn! -- direct all jealousy to Houston. Case Keening threw for six touchdowns in a 70-30 defeat of fellow blowout artists Tulsa. Tulsa coach Todd Graham had no comment on the game afterward, as he was in the bathroom talking to his agent on his cell phone.

K is for Kismet. Da'Rel Scott really was ready in his way in Maryland's 17-15 victory, but Chris Turner and his beautiful Little Lord Fauntleroy curls deserve mention for grabbing fate's coattails and not letting go on the final drive against North Carolina.

Down 15-14 late, Maryland embarked on the kind of drive you knew in your bones would score: 19 grinding plays, several invented from thin air by Turner, including a nine yard scramble on 4th and 5 and a 3rd and 11 reception pulled down by Ronnie Tyler on 3rd and long. The ACC is frustrating, but it is never boring in the fourth quarter. (Attention Gameplan: a "fourth quarter alert" for all ACC games would be a nice feature for next year.)

L is for Limpid. As in "absolutely serene and untroubled," and just the word to describe Jarrett Boykin as he uses his Tyree hand (e.g. his head) to catch this pass against Miami Thursday night.

Dez Briscoe of KU made a nearly identical catch in third quarter of KU/Texas, as well. Both deserve notice for outstanding circus catches made in service of middling squads, a.k.a the Calvin Johnson Award for Outstanding Service in the Name of 7-5ish Teams.

M is for Muddle. If you're wondering who's going to win the ACC, it's simple in that everyone and no one are basically alive for a title. Maryland leads the Atlantic Division right now, and Miami leads the Coastal after UNC's loss to Maryland. If both of these teams win out, they meet in the ACC Championship game in Tampa. See, isn't that easy? This is the ACC, and both teams will fail to do this, but it is a nice, tidy thought, isn't it?

N is for Name. Your name of the week: Cooter Arnold, wide receiver for North Carolina. That he and Tennessee quarterback Jim Bob Cooter never got to play on the same team and thus establish the legendary "Cooter to Cooter" connection is one of life's great crimes against you. Never forget this.

O is for Onslaught. Florida and USC both hit a point in their games Saturday where their talent differential kicked in and did the work for them. In SoCal's case, it was C.J. Gable galloping loose on a kickoff return against Stanford; in Florida's case, it was a simple Percy Harvin run turning a 28-3 rout with some competitive hope left into a travesty. Talent takes three yard gains and turns them into 70 yard game-breakers. It turns 17-17 into 45-23 in the span of a half. At its best, it is both horrifying and awesome at the same time to watch in action.

[Editor's Note: We assure you, Spencer did include a 'P' here, but we were asked to remove it. You will spend the rest of your life wondering what was written here originally.]

Q is for Quarkbacks, Unite. Subatomic particle-sized running backs are your new bicycle, and you love it. Florida's three-headed wonder midget of Rainey/Demps/Harvin tallied 265 yards and four TDs against South Carolina. Self-described "little dude" Jacquizz Rodgers ran for 144 yards and a score against a stout Cal defense. BC's Montel Harris, generously listed at 5'10", gouged 121 yards out of FSU's hide and scored a TD in showing them that yes, perhaps they should have recruited him out of Jacksonville. This is the era of the Quarkback, and Murray Gell-Mann will tell you all six flavors are delicious (unless you're an opposing defense, of course).

T is for Tim Brando Never Lie, Yo.

"America can't wait for that matchup, can they?" -- Tim Brando in reference to a possible Rose Bowl matchup between Oregon State and Penn State, who fought to a thrilling 45-14 victory over the Beavers earlier this season at Happy Valley. Sarcasm is the tastiest of rhetorics.

U is for Unpunctual. LSU was late and did not appear for their scheduled game with Troy University until the fourth quarter, where they scored 30 points to finally overcome a 31-10 3rd quarter deficit and save the Mad Hatter from extreme embarrassment at home. Most fans missed the comeback, as the stands were reportedly half-empty when the Tigers exploded to prevent the upset. Christmas gifts for LSU: we recommend a defensive coordinator, a colorblindness test for Jarrett Lee (who threw another pick six in this game), and that old reliable for Miles, white hat polish. (Never fails to please.)

V is for Victory Hurts. Blake Gideon, outstanding freshman safety for the Texas Longhorns, learns that sometimes even victory can involve getting knocked out by a rampaging running back like Kansas' Angus Quigley.

The arms twitching: that's the queasy part there. For the record, Texas is describing it as a hard hit and is "evaluating" Gideon's condition. (Meaning: it's a concussion, because when you take a walloping helmet to helmet hit and ride the invisible motorcycle like that, you're concussed, and will likely play next week anyway.)

W is for Walloped. With a shovel, specifically. Miami ripped six sacks out of Virginia Tech, doing it the way they do it in the 305: nastily with four down linemen bent on inflicting pain and humiliation on all they see before them. Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor ran like confused antelope all night, surrendering three sacks to Marcus Robinson alone. The game ended with Taylor being sacked by Allen Bailey, who once killed an alligator with a shovel. (Note: each time Allen Bailey's name is uttered, I will mention that he once killed an alligator with a shovel.)

Y is for Your Comeback is Due Any Day Now. Florida State's return to greatness -- the one promised under De Facto Coach Pro Tempore Jimbo Fisher and nails-hard offensive line coach Rick Trickett -- is once again postponed. We apologize for the delay, but Boston College ran for 176 yards on our vaunted defense despite the fact everyone was wearing black shirts because Nike asked them to for a "blackout." (The black out is 1-2 this year, BTW: Georgia, loss against Alabama at home; Utah, win over TCU.) We also promise not to lose homecoming to Boston College in the future if this is a preventable scenario, and thus not blow yet another shot at making the ACC championship game this year. Thank you for your patience. Signed, the Florida State University football program.

Z is for Zaniness. It is the official stated policy of the Alphabetical that watching Jim Tressel call an offensive game is like watching an old man attempt to break into a house in that is both wrong and poorly done. I'd rather get my teeth cleaned by someone in the grips of delirium tremens than have him call the plays for my football team. This is not because it is ineffective, but because it is suicidally boring.

Ohio State saves us from this in two ways. Beanie Wells sometimes does this ...

... and because Terrelle Pryor thinks college football is easy, and flipped lids once again with dextrous improv against Illinois in proving his own assessment of the game correct. Imagining Pryor's exploits in an offense capable of fully exploiting his assets- - like the one run by Chip Kelly at Oregon, for example -- will have us distracted for the rest of the year. For me this idea is like having Vida Guerra doing squats next to you at the gym, but in a non-lecherous football sense, of course.

Johnson wins record-tying 3rd Cup title

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Nothing could stop Jimmie Johnson's drive into the NASCAR record books. Not even a final, furious push by Carl Edwards.

Edwards led a race-high 157 laps, ran out of gas as he crossed the finish line, but still won Sunday's season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Still, his series-high ninth win of the year wasn't enough to wrest away the Sprint Cup title.

Johnson locked up his third consecutive championship with a solid 15th-place run, beating Edwards by 69 points to join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers in NASCAR history to win three straight titles.

"It's the ultimate reward. We worked so hard to put ourselves in this position," Johnson said. "It's just total teamwork and dedication. There were times this year when things were dark, but we buckled down and got to work and that's what it was really all about."

Yarborough won his three titles 30 years ago, under a different scoring system and in a very different NASCAR. He accomplished his feat when drivers scraped together the cash they needed to race, and the champion was the guy on top at the end of a long grueling season.

Johnson's titles have been won in the glitzy new Chase to the championship format, where the best 12 drivers compete over a 10-race sprint to the title.

Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have mastered the system, proving themselves unbeatable in their pursuit of Yarborough's mark. They've won their titles with consistency — he finished outside the top 10 just twice in this Chase, a 15th-place finish at Texas — and by winning eight of the last 30 Chase races.

They've also gotten very rich along the way: Johnson has won more than $2 million in the 10 Chase races this year. Yarborough earned a combined $1.63 million in all three of his championship seasons.

Although the industry was keenly aware of its front row seat to history, the celebration seemed subdued because of the economic crisis that's finally found its way to NASCAR. The Big Three automakers are crumbling, car owners are struggling to find sponsorship, and widespread layoffs are expected Monday, when teams could combine to let go up to 1,000 employees.

Just this weekend, NASCAR said it would suspend all testing next year to help teams save millions in their 2009 budgets.

Had the crisis hit earlier, and the testing ban was in place this season, Johnson very well might not have won the title. He struggled at the start of the year in adapting to the full-time use of NASCAR's current car, so he and crew chief Chad Knaus embarked on an aggressive testing schedule that helped them catch the competition by late summer.

By the time the Chase began in September, Johnson drove right past them.

"It's what we work for, it's what we do," said Knaus, the first crew chief to win three consecutive titles. "We don't want to do anything but race and win races and win championships."

When Edwards won back-to-back races at Atlanta and Texas to take a bite out of Johnson's points lead, Johnson rebounded with a win at Phoenix last week to make Sunday's drive a mere formality. He needed only to finish 36th or better to win the title, but got off to a rocky start when he qualified 30th.

But Johnson moved to the top of the speed charts in Saturday's practices, then wasted no time driving through the field at the start of the race. He picked up at least one position a lap at the start, and was running inside the top-10 as the race neared its conclusion.

He stopped for gas and tires with 13 laps to go, leading to his 15th-place finish.

Edwards pushed it to the limit, knowing he had to win the race, lead the most laps and pray for Johnson to have some trouble to win his first title. But he was a gracious runner-up, and after his trademark celebratory backflip, he walked over to Johnson's passing car on the track to congratulate him.

"At least we can lay our heads down tonight and know we won some races and just got beaten by a true champion," Edwards said.

It was the second straight night Edwards won the race, yet still came up empty in the championship bid. He won Saturday night's Nationwide Series event, but came up 21 points short of champion Clint Bowyer.

Edwards' win Sunday chopped 72 points off of Johnson's margin and he was optimistic as he crossed the finish line, radioing his Roush Fenway Racing team "we'll definitely get them next year."

Kevin Harvick finished second and was followed by Jamie McMurray and Jeff Gordon, who finished the year winless for the first time since his 1993 rookie season. But the four-time series champion didn't let his own struggles dampen his Hendrick teammate's celebration, as Gordon walked to the victory stage to offer his congratulations.

Bowyer finished fifth and was followed by Kasey Kahne, Travis Kvapil and Casey Mears.

Tony Stewart, in his final ride for Joe Gibbs Racing after a successful 10-year run, wound up ninth after giving up the lead late in the race to pit for fuel.

"We didn't win the race, but they knew we were here and we showed why we've been champions and won 33 races with this team," said Stewart, who is leaving to run his own race team next season.

Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Matt Kenseth, who won the 2003 series championship in the final year of the old points system, led late but ran out of fuel and finished 25th in his first winless season in seven years.

"We just can't seem to get things to go our way," said Kenseth, who was frustrated teammate Edwards could stretch his gas but he could not. "I don't understand how he can make power and still get that much better fuel mileage than us. I had such a big lead, I was just riding around."