Friday, September 30, 2005

Fantasy Failure

Let it be known now and recorded on high for posterity – I am a terrible fantasy football player. I mean it. I’m really bad. Those of you who have played in fantasy football leagues with me are aware of this sports shortcoming. Maybe that is why you continue to play in leagues with me! If so, than good for you. You are obviously an opportunist and I wish you much success in life, all the while secretly cursing your name and your ability to look at this silly game objectively. Now, I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable sports fan. I watch those shows that prepare for the coming week’s schedule of games and tell you who’s hot and who’s not. I read the major columnists to see who they pick to play well. I watch games and follow up with the highlight shows. But I just can’t seem to translate that knowledge into the ability to pick the players who are going to make an impact from week to week. I’m not proud of this fact, but, as Smilin’ Jack Ross said in A Few Good Men, “These are the facts of the case. And they are undisputed.”

The first time I played fantasy football was as a senior in high school. A buddy of mine wanted to play, but didn’t want to foot the entry fee by himself, so we went halvsies. We were an unmitigated disaster. I think we won two games the entire year. I’m sure that’s why we were invited to play. We didn’t do any research. We didn’t track free agents and make timely roster moves. We didn’t pay attention to bye weeks. We focused too much on our favorite team, the Kansas City Chiefs. We simply didn’t know what we were doing. But, as massive as a failure as that first year was, two years later I was back. And two years after that, I started organizing my own league, which I have done just about every year since. About four years ago, I found a great website called “Exit 42”, operated through And this year I moved my own league to’s free site. I no longer play for prizes or money, which means I usually play with people that have a similar interest level as my own. I’m not a crazy person, certain that players are fumbling the ball in a blatant attempt to destroy my team. I enjoy the added intrigue of having a meaningful player in a game I really don’t care about – like the Cardinals-49ers this weekend. I don’t care who wins, but I want Larry Fitzgerald to catch a touchdown pass.

My point to all this is not to convince you that I am a complete nerd, though that may be an unintended bi-product. I just want you to know that I am not a complete novice when writing about fantasy football. Since I started playing, I have won a league exactly two times. I’ve finished below .500 seven times. I have more than one team this year, but only because the ESPN site is free. However, without exception, all of my teams have terrible flaws. And I can only blame myself. I am the Los Angeles Clippers of fantasy football. I am hopeless, and yet I continue to put my team out there, cross my fingers and wait for the carnage to subside.

I am not limited to just one area of weakness that sufficiently explains my fantasy failings. Though I do more research than I did that first year, I have identified three major areas that seem to get in the way of me having a quality fantasy football team. The first is over-analysis. I don’t mind admitting that I am one of those players that, on Monday morning, realizes the “fantasy stud” player of the week spent that particular game on my fantasy bench. I’ve benched quarterbacks before five touchdown performances, running backs and wide receivers before 200 yard games and defense/special teams before four interceptions/two kick off return afternoons. It’s a painful experience to look at the “box score” of my game and realize I lost by ten, but left 30 points on the bench.

My problem here is that I look too closely at the match-ups and convince myself of imminent heroic performances and they just don’t happen. I’ll look at my fourth string running back and realize he’s playing against a team with a weak run defense and my number two back, who has been playing great all year, is going against a playoff caliber team. What do I do? Bench the Rudi Johnson’s of the world to start the Kevan Barlow’s. When Johnson goes off for two scores and 150 yards and Barlow gets replaced by Frank Gore in the 2nd quarter, I’m stuck wondering what I was thinking when I made the switch. I also get caught up in the Monday Night hype. Despite my constant claims to my wife on Sunday that I’m just “checking the score”, the Monday night game is really the one I sit down for the long haul to watch. I love having a player that is going on Monday night. I love knowing that, even though I’m behind in my fantasy game, Robert Ferguson could have a huge performance in the national spotlight for the Packers. So, I sit a consistent receiver like Keenan McCardell and then watch Ferguson get shut out because Green Bay stinks. I’m just so certain these guys are going to get excited about the big Monday Night exposure. I forget that the Monday Night games really just mess up their schedule. In my opinion, that’s one of the biggest reasons why you see so many stinkers on Monday Night Football. Professional athletes are like infants in that they work best on a consistent, well-planned and iron-tight schedule. Make them break that schedule by watching on Sunday and playing on Monday night and half the time they get cranky and spit up all over themselves. (Insert your own joke here about other ways pro athletes resemble big babies!)

My second area of weakness in fantasy football has to do with player loyalty. I assign an inordinate amount of value to a player that performed well for me a few years ago. For instance, last year, I drafted Jerry Rice, knowing full well that he wasn’t much more than a fourth receiver. I considered drafting him again this year until he retired. I can’t help it. It’s like I think he’s going to be personally offended if he’s not picked up in a certain percentage of leagues. It’s ridiculous. I have the same problem with Fred Taylor. The guy gave me one good year and four years of injuries. And, yet, I see him out there in the fifth round on draft day and I just can’t resist. What if Fred recaptures that old glory? What if, for his tenth operation, they used the $6 Million Man parts and he can go bionic during the games? I don’t want to miss that, right? So, there’s Fred Taylor, taking up space on my roster. And, a couple of times during the year, I’ll start him and he’ll have seven carries for 15 yards before straining his hamstring and sitting the rest of the game.

The corollary to this weakness is my desire to grab “flash-in-the-pan” performers the week AFTER they’ve had a huge game. This really bites me in the rear with wide receivers. You see, number three wide receivers on most NFL teams are going to average about two touchdowns and 350 receiving yards over the course of an entire year. And, because they are usually at either the beginning or end of their career, their better performances are probably going to come early. So, say I see Rams’ wide receiver Kevin Curtis grab a touchdown pass in Week 3. I logical fantasy football player would think, “That’s nice, but he’s already halfway to his season total.” But, I see Kevin Curtis, wonder if Isaac Bruce is finally done, find out that Curtis is a Mormon and a returned missionary, and suddenly he’s the re-incarnation of Steve Largent. I snatch him up and throw him in my starting lineup. By the end of the year, he’s earned me a total of 15 fantasy points while Rod Smith had amassed 80 points sitting on my bench. Not good, but I just can’t help it. I get duped by these guys every year.

So, that leaves me to my final big problem – and it comes in the form of my favorite team, the Kansas City Chiefs. I love the Chiefs. I can’t help it. I love to watch Chiefs football. I loved the Steve DeBerg years. I loved the Christian Okoye years. I loved Joe Montana, Marcus Allen, Neil Smith, Derron Cherry, Derrick Thomas, Elvis Grbac, Bam Morris and Tamarak Vanover. (Okay, I didn’t love Morris and Vanover. I was afraid of them. They were thugs and that was not a happy time for Chiefs fans.) This year’s Chiefs team is no exception. Every week I have to talk myself out of picking up Sammie Parker, the small, but speedy wide out for Kansas City. “He could be awesome,” I think. “He could shock the world.” Except, he really isn’t any different than Dante Hall – an undersized receiver that is pretty easy to cover because he’s not physical enough. Plus, I get duped by Chiefs wide receivers all the time. They list these guys as the number two wide out, but in reality, Tony Gonzalez is the number one, Priest Holmes number two and Eddie Kennison number three. Anyone else just isn’t going to see the ball enough to help on a fantasy team. Why can’t I just remember that? Instead, I wait for Marc Boerigter’s break out performance so I can start him in front of a quality wide out like Jimmy Smith of the Jags. I see that arrowhead on their helmet and I assume they must be good. I’m weak when it comes to my beloved Chiefs.
So, there you have it. I’m just not good at this game. But, here’s the thing. I love to play. If I was bad at it and hated it, I would just stop. I gave up Boggle 20 years ago. I’m terrible at it, I don’t enjoy it and I refuse to play it. It makes me crazy. So I stopped. But, even though my teams are bad and even though my friends stomp me on a weekly basis, and even though it makes me doubly frustrated when the Kansas City players don’t perform, yet I still play. So, maybe it doesn’t really matter that I suck at it. Maybe the fact that I enjoy it is enough. I don’t want to be lumped into that group of fantasy players that have off-season newsletters and go to conventions in Vegas. In fact, I think non-fantasy players consider fantasy players to be the Dungeons and Dragons players of the 21st Century – a little off in the head and WAY to into the game. That’s not me. I just like picking the players, playing the game and seeing what comes next. And I’m probably going to keep trying. About every seven years, I might win a league, but if not, that’s okay. After all, it’s just fantasy. It doesn’t translate into some microcosm of my career or anything. It’s just for fun. Right?

Friday, September 23, 2005

R.I.P. 2005 Kansas City Royals

Here rest the Royals of Two-Thousand-Five -
A season of hope no longer alive.

They gave it there all, or so we were told
But even this youth movement got a bit old.

So, now we move on and we hope for more wins –
A chance to raise banners and plenty more grins.

The try-out has ended - phase-two we will start.
Berroa and Lima and Long must depart!

So, David and Allard and even you, Buddy,
Sign the right players and this time, please study!

Say “NO” to Sosa, don’t get swept off your feet-
When it comes to next year, we fans want to compete!

This time you’re on notice, we’re reaching the end.
Our patience will break for there is no more bend.

Our loyalty’s true – we’ll be back in Oh-Six.
But last place again and it’s you we must fix.

This is the end of the line for me and the 2005 Kansas City Royals. Last night, on my birthday no less, they fell to the Indians and hit the century mark for losses. In their final ten games, they have to play better than .500-baseball to avoid setting the franchise record for losses. The next three games come against a Cleveland team trying to make the playoffs. The boys in blue finish the season on the road against Minnesota and Toronto. So, with ten games to play, and barring something miraculous like Allard Baird admitting that he’s the illegitimate son of George Steinbrenner or Buddy Bell taking the field to play third base, this will be my last column of 2005 dedicated to MacDougal, Sweeney, Stairs and the gang. I will wait for the cheering to subside before I continue!

It has been a year of few ups – drafting Alex Gordon - a can’t-miss prospect from Nebraska that grew up on Royals’ baseball, sweeping the Yankees at home, Krispie Kreme donuts – and plenty of downs – Pena quitting on the team, 19 losses in a row, the inability to actually sign Gordon to a contract. I think we can all agree that it has been a pretty disappointing and at times frighteningly ugly season. We’ve seen some terrible baseball at Kaufman stadium. We’ve seen ninth inning implosions when a win seemed assured. We’ve seen deer-in-the-headlights second basemen that look legitimately scared when the ball comes their way. We’ve seen two outfielders converge on a fly-ball, than both start jogging toward the dugout without actually catching the ball to make the final out of the inning. We’ve been the running joke for every sportscaster in the nation from Dan Patrick at the WorldWide Leader to the fill-in weekend sports guy in Glendive, Montana. We need a break. We need a vacation. We need to get away from Royals’ baseball, reevaluate our goals and decide if we’re still compatible. We can spend the playoffs rooting for small market teams that have made it work – it will be like seeing other people.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Haven’t we all had that conversation with a one-time significant other? Heck, I said it to my fifth grade girlfriend less than 24 hours after we started “going together”. The strain was just too much! It was affecting my school work. My kickball average was plummeting. I didn’t know if I was supposed to sit by her at lunch! I had to call it off.

So, I’m putting the Royals on notice and I hope they’ll take this time to decide if they really can be the team I need them to be. Otherwise, one of us is going to have to walk away. I can start rooting for the Cubs and probably be fine. At least they’re trying to win. The Royals can go to Portland or San Antonio or Vegas. It would be an amicable split. I could watch them every other weekend and look through my old Royals’ baseball cards on holidays. Every once in a while, I’d have that pang in heart and want them back. I’d think of Brett and White and Saberhagen. I’d smile when imagining Bo Jackson chasing down a fly ball, Freddy Patek turning two, Steve Balboni’s bald head.

But then I’d remember the hard times. I’d remember when Juan “Rally Killer” Gonzalez sent his luggage to spring training, but he didn’t show up for another week. That was a sign of things to come. I’d remember the Nefi Perez signing and being excited for this young, spark-plug of a shortstop, only to see him flop, give up and mope around the field until the season ended. Funny, he seems fine now with Chicago! I’d remember the injuries – Jeremy Affeldt’s blistered finger, Mike Sweeney’s aching back, Aaron Guiel’s blurry eyes. The thing I’d remember the most are the players that got away. Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran – that could have been the greatest outfield in the league for the past five years. I understand the need to trade away big names while you can still get something in return. Until there’s a salary cap, that’s the way it will be in small-market baseball. But, the key is that you actually get some value back. Allard Baird has proven time and time again that he just doesn’t get the job done. The prospects don’t pan out and we’re left holding the bag in last place.

For now, I’m going to take a break. I need some time away from this team and maybe from Major League Baseball all together. I’m excited to watch good baseball in the playoffs, but when the Indians are eliminated and the A’s are at home, it will be the same old teams fighting for the World Series crown. It’s getting old, Major League Baseball. Our relationship has lost its spark. We’ve become routine and it’s time for a change. It’s time to do something to make baseball meaningful in Seattle, in Milwaukee, in Pittsburgh, in Kansas City. Though I get frustrated with the Glass family, at least they’re trying to make a difference for the good of the sport. David Glass is the biggest proponent of a salary cup in those owners meetings. He wants the team to be competitive, but he wants the field to be leveled. What will it take to make that happen? An NHL-like lockout? The owners holding strong to break the player’s union? An act of Congress? Perhaps. I just don’t understand how these owners can look at the unparalleled success of the NFL and not see the importance of a hard salary cap. It’s time to take the power out of the pocketbooks and put it back in game management and player development. Is a salary cap a sure sign of success? Of course not. For every New England Patriots there’s an Arizona Cardinals. But, at least then the fans would have someone to blame. When the New York Yankees starting infield makes more money than your entire team, there’s a problem.

Now, I know, I’ve been down this road before. And, without significant restructuring at the owners meetings, it’s entirely possible that I’ll be writing about this again next year. But, for now, I’m ready to take a break. For now, I’m ready to close the book on the 2005 Royals. For now, I’m ready to watch some football and college basketball. And when the curtain goes up on the new-look 2006 Royals, I’ll be ready. I’ll be excited. And, like every year for the past 25 of my life, I’ll hope for wins. But, really, Royals, I mean it this time. You need to deliver. This is your final chance.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Explain It To Me Like I'm Five-Years-Old

It finally happened. I have to be honest, I wasn’t prepared. I really didn’t think she’d ask me this early. I mean, she’s only five. She’s not even in kindergarten yet. But, there she was, looking up at me with those big, brown eyes and hoping for an explanation. How could I get through this? What could I possibly say that would help her understand? How did she figure out so much so soon? She shouldn’t be burdened with this knowledge at such a young age. Heck, I shouldn’t be burdened with this knowledge in my early 30s. But, the realities of life came crashing down on us – father and daughter together. That’s right, my oldest daughter came to me and asked the one question I didn’t expect. And it slapped me across the face like the cold, winter wind on the Kansas prairie. “Dad, are the Royals bad?”

For the last five years, I’ve taught my kids the same thing during baseball season. In our house, we cheer, “Go Royals!” and “Boo Yankees!” That’s just the way it is. I’m a Royals fan and I feel it is my natural born duty as a father to pass my love for all things powder-blue down to my posterity. And, so, when we tune in to a baseball game, no matter who is playing - we barely ever get to SEE the Royals play anymore - we cheer, “Go Royals!” or “Boo Yankees!” They call their New Jersey cousins and yell, “Go Royals! Boo Yankees!” We go to T-Bones games and call “Go Royals! Boo Yankees!” (My kids are still young enough that this is cute, trust me.) We listen to Denny Matthews on the radio and shout, “Go Royals! Boo Yankees!”

However, with football season upon us and the Royals preparing to set franchise records for failure, we decided to break out the next round of cheers – the winter cheers, “Go Chiefs! Go Jayhawks! Boo Raiders! Boo Wildcats!” (By the way, the “Boo Wildcats!” cheer has been particularly difficult to impart because my children believe anything involving cats must be good. How can I possibly overcome this potential developmental roadblock in their young lives? Maybe I’ll just let the school system deal with it – except what are the colors of our elementary school? Purple and white! My kids may be doomed!) So, we’re calling out the cheers and remembering that a football is brown and pointy and kind of looks like an egg, when my oldest chimes in with a “Go Royals!” This is fine until her three-year-old brother reminds her that the Royals don’t play football. Forget the fact that he tells her they play basketball. That’s not important. I’m still a good sports-fan father! Finally, my three-year-old daughter declares that we can no longer yell, “Go Royals!” at which point the five-year-old is reduced to tears.

When I finally get things calmed down, my oldest starts asking me questions. I should have seen where this was going, but I was busy cleaning up spaghetti sauce and didn’t catch on in time. She starts with the simple plea, “Daddy, I can still say ‘Go Royals!’ right?” I tell her of course she can. “Daddy, are the Royals still playing?” They are playing a game tonight, I say. “Daddy, are you going to cheer for them?” Here’s where I made my mistake. I told her I hoped they would win, but they hadn’t played well against this team – the Chicago White Sox – all year. I thought it was over and she even walked away for a few minutes. But, suddenly, she was back and the question was out of her mouth and I was caught, “Dad, are the Royals bad?” What could I do? I’m not big on lying to my kids, which meant saying they were good was out. So, I told her the facts: this year, the Royals have not won very many games and are probably going to finish last. Her response was simple: “Oh.” Disappointment – one of the worst things to see your kids experience.

Now, maybe I’m making too much of this. Maybe she doesn’t care because at this age, sports isn’t about the competition and the winning and the money and all the other things that we love and hate about sports as adults. For a five-year-old, it’s really about doing something together with her dad. And that’s wonderful. But, there’s going to come a time with one or more of my kids when they look at the Royals and say, “Is this really the team I want to be rooting for? Is it really fun to see these guys play?” Of course, my hope is, when that time comes, the answers to those questions will be “YES!” Maybe then, the Royals will be competitive again. Maybe Major League Baseball will figure out that the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is killing the game in two-thirds of their markets. Maybe the Glass family will decide, “To heck with Wal-Mart, let’s build a winner in Kansas City!” It’s possible. We can hope.

But, for the here and now, those of us doing our best to raise a future generation of Royals fans are really stuck. You see, for a five-year-old, there are different kinds of bad. There’s the bad taste of foods they don’t like or don’t want to eat – lima beans, salmon, rye bread. This kind of bad varies from night to night depending on moods and levels of exhaustion. Then there are cartoon character bad-guys they see on television – Syndrome on “The Incredibles” or that blue guy on “Kim Possible”. Those guys are bad because they fight against their heroes. Then there’s the kind of bad the means you’re not very good at something. It has recently come to my kids’ attention that I am a “bad” rollerblader – I fall down or wave my arms or skate into the grass. If you’ve never had a five-year-old and two three-year-olds demonstrate pity for you by pretending to fall off their bikes or skates to make you feel better, you should try it sometime. It is both hilarious and demeaning at the same time. Anyway, this is the kind of bad we’re talking about when we discuss the Royals. When it comes to putting a quality baseball product on the field, the Royals are most definitely bad. And, for my three kids, unless it involves Dad falling on his rear in the driveway, this kind of bad is not that much fun.

So, what do we do now? As fans, what can we do? Our team is bad. In fact, our team is really bad. They are so bad that, even though most of their prospects are already playing at the major league level, you never see the Royals mentioned when baseball experts talk about “can’t miss” players. Apparently, most of our top prospects could just as easily be sacking groceries in five years. For an organization claiming to be rebuilding through youth, this is really scary. The best prospect we’ve seen in years – third baseman Alex Gordon, the number two draft pick out of the University of Nebraska – remains unsigned in a contract dispute while the worst pitcher in the major leagues – Royals’ right hander Jose Lima – continues to pile on “performance incentives” based not on quality baseball but on number of starts and innings pitched. He will probably make $3.75 Million this year. Buddy Bell was brought in to restore good, quality fundamental baseball. I don’t see it. The difference hasn’t been all that great to me, and the losses continue to pile up. The mainstream sports media treats the Royals like little kids trying to grab a seat at the adult table. “Oh, isn’t that cute. The Royals are playing again. Let’s take a look for some laughs. Okay, now back to the major league schedule.”

Now I hear we are getting ready for phase two of the Allard Baird rebuilding plan – also known as the acquisition phase. Big signing number one? Matt Stairs. I know, he’s not an actual acquisition but a re-signing. Still, the first salvo fired in phase two of the acquisition phase is a middle-aged outfielder with mild power? Look, I like Matt Stairs. I think every team needs a Matt Stairs to fill in every fifth day in the outfield or pinch hit once a series. But to claim him as a cornerstone of the rebuilding effort is not filling me with confidence in a team that says they want to be competitive in the division. And besides, wasn’t Stairs brought to Kansas City originally during the last time Baird started targeting big names? As I recall, the 2004 acquisition phase included the likes of Benito Santiago and Juan Gonzalez – also known as Rally Killer. And the results? The worst team in the history of Royals baseball – until this year. So Baird’s track record of bringing in impact free agents isn’t all that impressive, either. What are we shopping for this year? A front line starting pitcher, a power-hitting corner outfielder and an impact second baseman. The payroll is expected to be in the mid $50 Million range. Not awful, but still between a third and a quarter of the payrolls of the big market contenders. And, the Royals are fully aware they will have to throw extra money at big names just to convince them to play in Kansas City. That may have been the most painful sentence I’ve ever written. Professional athletes – the cut-throat mercenaries of our day – don’t want to play for a team this bad. How sad is that? Kansas City used to be a baseball town. I think that feeling died with Ewing Kaufman.

Amidst all this talk of big names like Kevin Millwood and Todd Walker in Royals’ blue for 2006, there’s this little nugget: The front office is now claiming they knew this year would be painful because they wanted to evaluate the talent already in house. I understand the need to constantly check the progress of our young players. I’m pretty sure that’s why each major league team has at least three affiliated minor league teams and the September call up period. But did we really need to throw away an entire major league season for this? And if they knew this was the plan going in, why not let the rest of us know up front? And, putting on my moralist cap, isn’t that a bit dishonest to be fully aware that you are putting an inferior product on the field and still charging full price for tickets, parking and food? Does any other business work this way? Doesn’t Wal-Mart itself put products on sale when trying to evaluate the consumer demand? Does any other major league team operate this way? If they do, I sure don’t see it. Even the Devil Rays and Rockies aren’t arrogant enough to claim they weren’t really trying this year.

I’m resigned to the fact that Baird is going to get at least one more year. For all his claims of “phase two”, I’m pretty sure we’re up to “The Nightmare at Kaufman Stadium Part XVI”. We all know Buddy Bell will be back. Maybe he’ll overcome his lifetime record as a manager next year and turn into the second coming of Joe Torre. I think we’ll see some different names on the jerseys next year, but I don’t see a lot of really big names that will be on the market and in the Royals’ price range. Whoever comes to town will join David DeJesus, Mike Sweeney and the immortal Matt Stairs to compete for the American League Central crown, exclusive rights-holder of getting swept in the first round of the playoffs.

However, amidst all this excitement for a new year of Royals baseball, we the fans need some guarantees. I want someone in the Glass family to acknowledge that this is the last chance for Allard Baird. If the Royals are not playing meaningful games in September next year – within five games of the division title or A.L. wildcard, give the man his walking papers. I’m sure he’s a nice enough guy, but he hasn’t done the job here in Kansas City. I’m starting to wonder if it’s just laziness and the Glass family doesn’t want to go through the hiring process for a new general manager. Get over it. We deserve someone else.

I want a year-long moratorium on talk of a new stadium. Right now, the Royals don’t deserve anything new. When the team is on track to shatter the franchise record for losses, I don’t want to hear anyone from the Royals’ front office attacking Jackson County’s management of the Truman Sports Complex. Win first and we’ll discuss a stadium later.

Finally, it’s time for the Kansas City Royals to be fun again. The best way to do that is to field a winner. You do that, and people will be in the seats and having a great time at the K. However, if that’s too much to ask, then take a lesson from the T-Bones and try some gimmicks. For a team approaching 100 losses, Buck Night and fireworks aren’t enough. Let the fans throw pies at Lima. Let five lucky winners try and hit a homerun. Have everybody dress like their favorite Royal from the 70s. I’d definitely be sporting a big, bushy moustache like the Quiz, a toothpick like U.L. Washington or thick rec-specs like Darrell Porter! How about a contest for best imitation of George Brett in the pine tar game? If you can’t make the ballpark a fun place to be, you have no business in baseball.
Baseball is all about fun. It’s about laughing and cheering and winning. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Kansas City wants to support major league baseball. We want to spend our evenings at the stadium. We want to yell “Go Royals!” and “Boo Yankees!” We’re all here just waiting for the Royals to make the first move. But, for the vast majority of us, money is too tight to come to the ballpark and watch bad baseball. We’re nearing ten years of “rebuilding” and not being competitive. As that trend continues, more and more kids are going to realize they don’t have to root for the Royals. Not with the Red Sox and Cubs and even the Yankees on TV three nights a week. Rooting for a contender means you always have a good answer when your daughter asks, “Dad, is our team bad?”

Thursday, September 08, 2005

ARE We Ready For Some Football?

The 2005 National Football League season kicks off tonight with Randy Moss and the Oakland Raiders heading into New England to take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots. It should be a good game. There are some interesting questions for both teams in this League of Perpetual Hope. Will Moss and LaMont Jordan be enough to hide the serious problems on the Raiders’ defense? Will the losses of Romeo Crennell, Charlie Weiss and Teddy Bruschi leave the champs exposed in the AFC East? Is there a way to bet on whether or not Randy has smoked pot prior to any given game and, if so, will Vegas set a line on the amount consumed? Is Bill Belichick alive or is he simply a robot that has been expertly programmed by a Dr. Evil like villain living deep inside a volcanic crater in the South Pacific?

But, even as I have been pondering these questions, the one thing that keeps popping into my head is, “Are we REALLY ready for some football?” With the after effects of Hurricane Katrina playing out on one third of the channels on my television; with gas prices so high that it costs as much to drive to a game as it does to get in the gate; with my own employment situation currently in limbo because a group of executives can’t decide how many six figure directors to employ, am I truly prepared to say that I’m ready to sit back and watch a bunch of overpaid athletes try and break each other to pieces for 60 minutes? In one simple word, “Yes.”

That’s not to say the realities of the world don’t weigh heavily on my mind. I have so many questions about Katrina, I hardly know where to start. I live in eastern Kansas and I don’t have any idea what the scope of this hurricane must have been like. But, don’t you have days of warning when a hurricane is approaching? In Kansas, when the tornado siren goes off, you go to your basement. That’s what you do. Why didn’t more people evacuate? Everyone keeps talking about the slow response of the government, and certainly it would have been wonderful to get food and supplies in there sooner. But it seems to me those rescue crews were working from the moment the storm was gone. Doesn’t it take some time to organize relief efforts? At the risk of sounding like a Bush apologist, at what point is this the president’s fault? At what point do the people in New Orleans start saying, “Yeah, maybe the looting was a bad idea. Maybe we shouldn’t have been shooting at rescue workers. Maybe we could have left the city when the warnings were issued.” I just don’t know if I can listen to more people say how ashamed they are to be Americans. Yes, this disaster was terrible. But it was epic. And the response has been in kind. There are relief funds everywhere. Nearly half a billion dollars has been collected. Troops have been called in. The levee has been temporarily repaired. This is the greatest country in the world. It’s the spirit of the people that make it great. It’s my contention that this is a land protected by God as the people are willing to live good lives. Does that mean that bad things don’t happen? Of course not. But when things go bad, we muster our courage and get to work. Whether that work is on the front lines along the Gulf Coast, by hosting a displaced family in your home or by giving money to the Red Cross, the point is that much of this country and the government that represents us is responding. Stop screaming and pitch in.

So that takes me back to my original question. In the face of this disaster and other crises facing each of us, is football really the best thing for us? The answer came to me today as I was thinking about this column. Because, despite all the tragedy and pain and frustration on the news, one of the lingering questions in my mind was, “How will the inability to play a single home game affect the Saints this year?” The thought kept creeping in and I kept pushing it back as inappropriate. But, the truth of it is, we care about our sports. We seek the refuge and respite that comes from being a fan. We pray for the people directly affected by this tragedy and we hope our team wins this Sunday. And so, instead of writing about all the tragedy that I’ve seen over the last ten days, I’m going to write about the National Football League. If you’re not interested, that’s fine. If you could use a break, I hope you enjoy what I have to say. If you are dying to see that first snap, just relax. Football is back to provide the distractions we all need from the constant challenges of life.

That being said, I’ve always thought one of the best jobs in the world would be with Monday Night Football. This is the final year of MNF in the primetime network spot. Next year, the Worldwide Leader takes over and if you don’t have cable or satellite, you’re out of luck. I’ve always wondered, why is it so difficult to program the MNF schedule? What’s the big deal? I think I could do it. But, first, I think we need to establish the ground rules.

First, forget about the “traditional rivalries” or past Super Bowl matchups. If one of those teams is in the tank, the game is not interesting to me. Does that mean no more Washington-Dallas on Monday night? Yes, and it should. I tune in one Monday night to see a quality game between two teams with playoff aspirations. I’m just not that interested in Brett Favre’s deteriorating talent or Bill Parcell’s frustrations with his offensive line. I want to see quality football. It’s a fact that there are more quality teams in the AFC right now. If that means we see more AFC teams on Monday night, so be it.

Second, stop pestering me with personnel matchups. I don’t care about Kurt Warner facing the Rams or LaMont Jordan showing the Jets what they lost. At some point, the league and the network need to understand that these individuals don’t drive viewership. If you’re serious about the MNF game being the featured game of the week, then it needs to be the game between the best two teams. Does that mean some teams will appear more than others? Yes. But the good teams have earned that opportunity and should be rewarded. Now, I’m of the opinion that the MNF schedule should have some flexibility to it in the second half of the season. I think the league could figure out how to give enough notice to allow for this change. They’ll try it next year with the Sunday night game on NBC. But, again, if Monday is your feature game, then you need to make sure you’ve got teams with something on the line.

Third, if all else fails, go for offense. I’m a football fan and I enjoy watching a great defense play. But, I’m going to watch the game no matter what. If you’re trying to attract the casual fan in today’s fantasy football crazy world, then you need the big touchdown passes and the long runs. You need games in the 30s. Nothing is worse then realizing that you’ve wasted three and a half hours on a 10-7 stinker. You know which teams are going to put up points. Make sure those offenses get a chance to shine.

Now, there are other things I’d love to change. The games start too late and last too long. The halftimes are over-produced. There’s too much canned content that comes off as silly (the player introductions and fun facts like “My favorite movie is Scarface” baloney). The sideline reporters rarely provide any valuable information because they’re busy interviewing Ben Affleck in the stands. But, I understand that much of these issues are the desperate acts of a marketing department trying to increase ratings. The simple answer that will solve that problem is to make sure the game is good. If the football game is good from week to week, people will watch. We want to watch. We’ve just started a new work week and Monday Night Football should be the NFL’s dessert cart after the Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet. So, if I ran the league or the network, these are the 16 games I’d want on Monday night. (There is no Monday-nighter on the last week of the regular season.)

Week 1:
Indianapolis @ Baltimore: ABC will carry Philly at Atlanta, but the Colts offense is too good to pass up. Peyton Manning is the MVP and could throw for 40 touchdowns this year. They should open the season on Monday night.

Week 2:
San Diego @ Denver: Two playoff teams from 2004. The best running back in the league with LaDainian Tomlinson. This should be a great game. Much better than the Redskins at Dallas.

Week 3:
New England @ Pittsburgh: The two best teams in the AFC last year square off again in Week 3. Should be a solid game. The scheduled game is KC at Denver, which should be good, but the Pats-Steelers is better.

Week 4:
Philadelphia @ Kansas City: Solid offenses should equal lots of points. Now’s the time to start projecting which teams are going to be in the hunt this year and the Eagles and Chiefs both qualify. Much better than the Packers-Panthers game on the schedule.

Week 5:
Pittsburgh @ San Diego: This is the game on the schedule, as well. Should be a fun one with two teams that could be back in the playoffs this year.

Week 6:
St. Louis @ Indianapolis: The league makes a good call again with this one. The Rams offense should be back in top form and we know the Colts are going to put up points.

Week 7:
San Diego @ Philadelphia: The league is offering the Jets at Atlanta, which will be decent, but only if Vick is effective. I’d rather see these two proven offenses.

Week 8:
Minnesota @ Carolina: This is a great game as well as being my pick for the NFC Conference Final. These two teams will be really good this year.

Week 9:
Indianapolis @ New England: This one’s a no-brainer and the league didn’t whiff. These two teams have been at the top of the AFC for years and it shouldn’t be any different this year.

Week 10:
Kansas City @ Buffalo: The Chiefs offense is just too good to keep off the network for very long. Fans like touchdowns and the Chiefs score them in bunches. The scheduled game is Dallas at Philly, which could be decent, but Parcels’ offense is usually on the boring side.

Week 11:
Pittsburgh @ Baltimore: Great game. Divisional matchup. Two solid teams all around. The schedule offers Minnesota at Green Bay, but they are hanging their hopes on Brett Favre playing like the Favre of five years ago. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Week 12:
New England @ Kansas City: I think this is a potential play-off preview. These two teams will be good and this game will be the best of the Thanksgiving weekend.

Week 13:
Atlanta @ Carolina: Another divisional matchup with a lot on the line. Should be an exciting game, especially if both defenses are as good as advertised. I know that goes against one of my rules, but the fact that the playoffs could be on the line makes up for it.

Week 14:
St. Louis @ Minnesota: These are the two best all-around offenses in the NFC. They will definitely put on a show in Minnesota. Way better than the Saints and the Falcons.

Week 15:
Philadelphia @ St. Louis: I know that gives us the Rams two weekends in a row, but the end of the season is almost here and these are the best two teams going head-to-head.

Week 16:
New England @ NY Jets: The last Monday night game of the regular season goes to the best two teams in the AFC East. I think the Jets have to win this game to make the playoffs.


I’ll finish off my look at the NFL with my final predictions. Again, as I mentioned last week with my college football preview, these predictions are free of charge, extensive research and behind the scenes expertise. Just one man’s opinion. You can grade me later.

AFC North: 1) Pittsburgh, 2) Baltimore, 3) Cincinnati, 4) Cleveland.
AFC South: 1) Indianapolis, 2) Houston, 3) Tennessee, 4) Jacksonville.
AFC East: 1) New England, 2) New York Jets, 3) Buffalo, 4) Miami.
AFC West: 1) Kansas City, 2) San Diego, 3) Denver, 4) Oakland.

AFC Wildcard: Kansas City over Baltimore, New England over San Diego.
AFC Divisional: New England over Pittsburgh, Indianapolis over Kansas City.
AFC Championship: Indianapolis over New England.

NFC North: 1) Minnesota, 2) Detroit, 3) Green Bay, 4) Chicago.
NFC South: 1) Carolina, 2) Atlanta, 3) Tampa Bay, 4) New Orleans.
NFC East: 1) Philadelphia, 2) Dallas, 3) New York Giants, 4) Washington.
NFC West: 1) St. Louis, 2) Seattle, 3) Arizona, 4) San Francisco.

NFC Wildcard: St. Louis over Atlanta, Carolina over Seattle.
NFC Divisional: Carolina over Philadelphia, Minnesota over St. Louis.
NFC Championship: Minnesota over Carolina.

Super Bowl XL: Indianapolis 31, Minnesota 23

Enjoy the season. Don’t take it too seriously – those guys on your fantasy team aren’t really playing for you. Don’t take it too lightly – it’s okay to enjoy a football game. Your life and problems will still be there afterwards, but you’ll be a lot more relaxed. So, sit back and take in a game when you have a chance. Hopefully, your team will be competitive and you won’t be saying, “We’ll be better next year” after week six. In today’s NFL, that’s all we can really ask for.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

College Football for Dummies

Tonight marks the beginning of the 2005 college football season, highlighted by a not-so-instant classic between USC and Central Florida. No, not two-time defending national champion USC. The University of South Carolina will open up in the spotlight, fresh off an old fashioned, get a grip, WWF style slapdown from the NCAA for various violations under former coach and former legend Lou Holtz. And there is little doubt on whom that spotlight – and every other camera employed by the Worldwide Leader - will shine the brightest: that self-effacing, pass-loving, score-running-upping Ole’ Ball Coach himself, Steve Spurrier.

I, for one, can’t think of a better way to start the season than with Spurrier trying to erase the memory of his disastrous stint as coach of the Washington Redskins. You just know he’s going to try and score 100 points. Forget the fact that there may not be a single player on the field that could start for this year’s edition of Spurrier’s former college team, the Florida Gators. Forget the fact that Central Florida finished last season with as many wins as I have BMWs (read zero). Forget the fact that in the last five years, the Gamecocks might as well have been playing in the Carolina Penal League considering all the rules being broken behind the scenes. Some big hits, long touchdowns and thousands of inebriated college students are all it takes to make me ready for some football.

When the sporting seasons change, everything starts afresh. As of this moment, my two favorite college football teams – the Brigham Young University Cougars and the Kansas Jayhawks – are undefeated and tied for first in their respective leagues. Anything is possible. The Cougars could overcome the last few years of disappointment and underachievement by making a run at the Mountain West title. The Jayhawks could leave behind their own rule-breaking and felonious recent past and take control of the Big 12 North. Uncomfortably large Kansas coach Mark Magino could go an entire season without making me wonder just how many turkey drumstick’s he polished off at halftime. Anything’s possible. The sky’s the limit. And, to show that I am serious about the coming season, I’m offering - free of charge, extensive research and behind the scenes expertise - the Matt Karpowitz 2005 College Football Preview Edition.

Big 12 + 1 Capsules

Baylor Bears – 2004 Record: 3-8 – This team is bad. There’s no other way to put it. The best player on the team is the punter, Daniel Sepulveda. If judged solely by football and men’s basketball, the Bears should be booted from the Big 12. Another disappointing season awaits on the gridiron. Must see game: November 19 versus Oklahoma St. Their last conference game could be the only one they have a shot at winning.

Colorado Buffaloes – 2004 Record: 8-5 – Last year, a .500 conference record was enough for Colorado to win the Big 12 North. The same low standard is probably in effect this year, but the Buffaloes should be able to do much better than 4-4. Joel Klatt pilots an offense that is the class of the division. Look for Colorado in the Big 12 Championship game again this year. Must see game: September 24 @ Miami (Fla.). This will be a solid test for the Buffaloes and a chance to show the nation that there’s more to Big 12 football than Oklahoma and Texas.

Iowa State Cyclones – 2004 Record: 7-5 – The Cyclones are ready for another bowl appearance in 2005. They will give Colorado a run in the North, though they probably don’t have the defense to overtake them. This team is young and ready to get better, and they play in a division where everyone seems to have at least a shot. QB Bret Meyer will have another big year and the Cyclones will be playing in December. Must see game: November 12 versus Colorado. Iowa St. could really shake things up in the North with a win over Colorado in November. Getting the Buffs in Ames could end up being the difference.

Kansas Jayhawks – 2004 Record: 4-7 – The Jayhawks came close plenty of times in 2004, but couldn’t quite get over the hump. 2005 will be a year of regression and probably will bring serious change by the time it is over. With legal problems off the field, possible academic fraud in the football offices and an athletic director with little regard for the head coach, the Jayhawks will have to win to save Magino’s job. Unless Charles Gordon can play every down on offense and defense, I just don’t see that happening this year. Must see game – October 8 @ Kansas St. In-state bragging rates are all that will be on the line when these two teams square off in Manhattan. However, a win here and/or over border rival Missouri could make Mangino difficult to fire.

Kansas State Wildcats – 2004 Record: 4-7 – Is the magic gone for the Wildcats? That’s what everyone in K-State Country is asking. Coach Bill Snyder is looking to silence the critics, but there’s not much left in the cupboard in 2005. An underperforming defense and questions at quarterback will make it difficult for the Wildcats to get back to their winning ways. Add to that the daunting task of replacing tailback Darren Sproles and Kansas State may again be home for the holidays. Must see game – October 29 versus Colorado. This game marks the beginning of a crucial four game stretch against Big 12 North opponents.

Missouri Tigers – 2004 Record: 5-6 – With Brad Smith running the offense, nothing is impossible for the Tigers. Once again, the coaching staff is changing things up to allow Smith’s natural talents to shine through. Every time he walks on the field, he’s the best athlete out there. The question is, does he have the confidence to make the decisions on the fly that will make the offense go. On the sidelines, head coach Gary Pinkle has to be wondering how many “mulligans” he’s going to get before he’s looking for work. Must see game – October 1 versus Texas. The Tigers get the Longhorns early. Plus, Texas may be looking past Missouri to the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma the following week.

Nebraska Cornhuskers – 2004 Record: 5-6 – The Bill Callahan experiment continues in Lincoln. Can the Cornhuskers really win with the pass? My money’s on no. Nebraska will continue to struggle and Callahan will be yet another Big 12 North coach in the hot seat by the end of the year. For this once proud program, mediocrity just isn’t going to be good enough. Must see game – October 29 versus Oklahoma. Anyone who remembers the 80s and 90s in the Big 8 will be shocked at the divergent paths these two teams have taken in the last few years. Look for Oklahoma to cruise into Lincoln and crush the Huskers.

Oklahoma Sooners – 2004 Record: 12-1 – Oklahoma is my pick to come out of the Big 12 and play a role in the national title hunt. This team will be young, but a steady diet of Adrian Peterson running the ball should be enough for them to take control. Plus, no matter how much everyone seems to love Texas this year, head coach Bob Stoops has owned the Longhorns. Until that trend changes, I’m going with the Sooners. Must see game – October 8 versus Texas (in Dallas). The Red River Shootout has been the catalyst to the front of the Big 12 for the last three years and this year shouldn’t be any different. Oklahoma will keep Vince Young off the field by calling Peterson’s number early and often.

Oklahoma State Cowboys – 2004 Record: 7-5 – Head coach Mike Gundy takes over for the departed Les Miles and quarterback Donovan Woods will have fun with the spread offense. But it just won’t be enough in the super-stacked Big 12 South. With only 14 returning starters and the challenge of learning a new system, there’s not enough time to learn on the fly. I see the Cowboys as the fifth best team in the South. That won’t be enough for a bowl game appearance. Must see game – November 26 @ Oklahoma. The Cowboys will look to play spoiler and knock their in-state rival out of the national championship picture. A win here could be enough to make them bowl eligible.

Texas Longhorns – 2004 Record: 11-1 – This team will be very good, there’s no doubt about it. I just don’t think they’ll be good enough. One Rose Bowl victory, no matter how exciting, isn’t enough to overcome their regular season big game collapses. Vince Young is good and the Michigan game was phenomenal. But every year, there’s that one player that everyone falls in love with based on one game. I think that’s Vince Young in 2005. Plus, replacing Cedric Benson will be too much. Must see game – September 10 @ Ohio State. A loss in Columbus will puncture the balloon early for the Longhorns. Though I admire them for scheduling this game, college football is one and done. Losing one this early will leave no margin for error throughout the rest of the year. That’s a tough task with Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Texas Tech still on the schedule.

Texas A&M Aggies – 2004 Record: 7-5 – Reggie McNeal was Vince Young before anyone knew Young’s name. He’s got a better arm, better vision and he is unbelievably strong. This team is well balanced and is going to make some noise. The schedule plays out very nicely for them – at least until November arrives. They finish the season at Texas Tech, at Oklahoma and versus Texas. Ouch. Must see game – November 12 @ Oklahoma. This could easily be a battle of undefeated teams. The Aggies will be looking to serve notice and make a play for the national title.

Texas Tech Red Raiders – 2004 Record: 8-4 – With this offense on the field, anything can happen. It seems like they are always running down hill and into the endzone. Taurean Henderson can hurt you running the ball or catching it out of the backfield. Once again, the Texas Tech Achilles heel will be defense. The Red Raiders don’t field a great defense in the first place, and the offense scores so fast, that the D barely has time to catch their breath before they’re running back out there. Lots of high scoring games in Lubbock. Must see game – October 8 @ Nebraska. After opening with four straight home games (Florida International, Sam Houston State, Indiana State and Kansas) this will be the Red Raiders first real test.

BYU Cougars – 2004 Record: 5-6 – I know, the Cougars are not in the Big 12. But, they should be. Rumor has it they were offered a spot when the Big 8 became the Big 12, but turned it down. This year’s Cougars have a legitimate shot at the Mountain West crown. Watch out for WR Todd Watkins and the return of the classic blue and white uniforms. Must see game: October 22 @ Notre Dame. It’s always fun when these two religious schools get together. Both programs have fallen on hard times, both have first year coaches trying to restore past glory, both are trying to prove they can play elite college football and still uphold high academic, moral and religious standards. Of course, on the football field, that seems to translate to lots of grappling, cursing and name calling.

Games Not to Miss:

If you could only watch one college football game a week for the entire regular season, you would want to make sure you got the best one, right? Well, my crack research staff has put together a schedule to help you out. If you can’t make the one I picked, go for one of the alternates. If you can’t see any of them, stay up for the late night SportsCenter. Now, all you have to do is convince your significant other that once a week for the next 14 weeks, you have an appointment with the couch, the Doritos and the remote. Good luck to you with that.

Week 1: Boise St. @ Georgia (9/3) – Georgia takes a big risk scheduling this WAC powerhouse at the beginning of the year.
Alternates: Bowling Green @ Wisconsin (9/3), Wyoming @ Florida (9/3), Notre Dame @ Pittsburgh (9/3), USC @ Hawaii (9/3), Miami (Fla.) @ Florida St. (9/5).

Week 2: Texas @ Ohio St. (9/10) – Easily the biggest game in September. The loser will have to work hard to get back in the national championship picture.
Alternates: Notre Dame @ Michigan (9/10), Arizona St. @ LSU (9/10)

Week 3: Tennessee @ Florida (9/17) – These two teams hate each other. This will be Urban Meyer’s first test with his spread offense in the SEC.
Alternate: Pittsburgh @ Nebraska (9/17)

Week 4: Notre Dame @ Washington (9/24) – Ty Willingham gets a shot the team that so unceremoniously got rid of him in the off season.
Alternates: Michigan @ Wisconsin (9/24), Tennessee @ LSU (9/24)

Week 5: Michigan @ Michigan St. (10/1) – This instate grudge match is always a good game, and the Spartans will be looking to ruin the Wolverines’ season.
Alternates: USC @ Arizona St. (10/1), Texas @ Missouri (10/1)

Week 6: Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas) (10/8) – Oklahoma will want to remind everyone that the Sooners are the defending Big 12 Champs.
Alternates: Kansas @ Kansas St. (10/8), Georgia @ Tennessee (10/8)

Week 7: Florida @ LSU (10/15) – The biggest road test of the year for the Gators comes against Les Miles’ Tigers.
Alternate: USC @ Notre Dame (10/15)

Week 8: Michigan @ Iowa (10/22) – A huge road game for the Wolverines. The Hawkeyes are very tough at home and will be looking for some national respect.
Alternates: BYU @ Notre Dame (10/22), Purdue @ Wisconsin (10/22)

Week 9: South Carolina @ Tennessee (10/28) – Will Spurrier and Fulmer even shake hands at the end? Those two guys hate each other.
Alternates: Oklahoma @ Nebraska (10/28), Florida vs. Georgia (at Jacksonville) (10/28)

Week 10: Miami (Fla.) @ Virginia Tech (11/5) – Another game with much emotion, this one should be for the ACC title.
Alternate: Pittsburgh @ Louisville (11/3)

Week 11: USC @ California (11/12) – Cal truly believes they are the better team and should have knocked the Trojan off last year. Great grudge match.
Alternates: Boise St. @ Fresno St. (11/10), Florida @ South Carolina (11/12), Texas A&M @ Oklahoma (11/12), Iowa @ Wisconsin (11/12)

Week 12: Ohio St @ Michigan (11/19) – No matter who your favorite team, this game is always one of the best of the year. Don’t miss it.
Alternates: Fresno St. @ USC (11/19), Utah @ BYU (11/19)

Week 13: Texas @ Texas A&M (11/25) – The traditional day-after-Thanksgiving grudge match for Texas bragging rights.
Alternate: Florida St. @ Florida (11/26)

Week 14: Army @ Navy (12/3) – With only five games on tap for the final weekend before the bowls, get that patriotic feeling with Army-Navy.
Alternate: UCLA @ USC (12/3)

The Final Four:

In a perfect world, at least the top four teams would play in a Final Four style playoff to determine the real national champion. Who will those four teams be and why? I’ll tell you, and I’ll even take it one step further. The eventual National Champion will be one of these four teams. You heard it here, first folks – from four to one, the teams to watch in 2005:

4) Michigan Wolverines – Look out for Michigan this year. The Big 10 always seems to knock itself out of contention and the current bowl system does not account for power conferences that beat up on each other from week to week. But the Wolverines are good enough to run the table this year in the Big 10 and with the national championship being played in the Rose Bowl, they’ll want their traditional spot representing their conference. Michigan will have to earn it with road games at Wisconsin and Iowa, plus the big rivalry with Ohio State in Ann Arbor this year. But, don’t be surprised if the Wolverines are playing on January 4 in Pasadena.

3) USC Trojans – I know, this isn’t a big surprise. It seems everyone and their dog is picking USC to win their third straight title this year. And they are definitely going to be up there. This team is battle tested and proven. The transformation of Pete Carroll from mediocre NFL coach to superstar college coach has been amazing. The Pac 10 is a little light again this year and Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush will be enough to make any opponent more than a little nervous. But, the Trojans have some roadblocks this year that could really surprise them. Traveling to Hawaii (9/3) is never easy and the trip to Cal in November will loom large. But, USC should have more talent on the field than any of their opponents and will be in the hunt for the national title.

2) Oklahoma Sooners – You’ve heard it all before. “The league is too weak.” “They don’t have to play anyone.” “It’s just name recognition.” But, the truth is, the Big 12 isn’t as weak as it’s been in the past and Oklahoma will earn it’s place in it’s third straight national championship game. The best player in the country runs the football in Norman and Adrian Peterson is ready to prove it. They’ll run the ball all day and play tough defense. Plus, they have a linebacker named Rufus. These guys are very good. And, not that they needed any more motivation, but I think they’ll be a little bit tired of the sports media’s love fest with Texas and Vince Young. Get ready for Bob Stoops to have a front row seat for the Tournament of Roses Parade.

1) Florida Gators – The best team in the toughest conference deserves to play for the national championship. That should be a law. The best conference in America this year will be the SEC. The best team will be the Florida Gators. Can Urban Meyer’s offense succeed against bigger, faster and tougher defenses than what he faced in the Mountain West? That’s the biggest question mark of the year. But with Chris Leak under center (or in the shotgun) and the best group of receivers in the country, these guys are going to be flying around the field. Deception can beat speed and Meyer’s offense is all about deception. You just don’t know where the ball is going to go. Plus, the schedule helps. The biggest road game of the year comes October 15 at LSU. The Gators get Tennessee and Florida State at home and Georgia on a neutral field. To me, that’s a recipe for success.

So, there you go. Urban Meyer will lead his second straight team to an undefeated season and this time he’ll come away with the hardware – a national championship for Gator-nation. And, if I’m wrong? Well, don’t worry. We get to do it all over again in 12 months.