(Note: College football’s heartbeat is in Texas, and we’re lucky enough to have a few longtime readers hailing from Houston. Our thoughts were with them all week as Hurricane Harvey battered the city and the rest of East Texas. They’re already digging in on the rebuild—extending a helping hand to one another because that’s what America, at its best, does—and we’d like to assist. So please, if you’re thinking of making a donation, consider the Montgomery County Food Bank. There’s an unprecedented amount of food need in metro Houston right now as people have lost their homes and paychecks due to the massive amount of storm-related closures. Every little bit helps.)
Let me take you, and our readers, back.
My little brother and I were skinny, goofy adolescents. We were all elbows, knees, ribcages and squints on trips to the beach, owing to the fact that we shouldn’t be allowed to walk from the bedroom to the bathroom without our glasses. Our Meijer-bought swimsuits cinched around our waists, we waded into the surf off of North Carolina’s Outer Banks to spend every day of spring break the same way: Playing a dipshit game called, imaginatively, “Linebacker.”
The rules are as simple as the game is asinine: You run, shoulder down a la Mike Singletary (hence the game’s name) into a wave and see if it knocks you down or if you could plow through it. That’s it. No points were awarded, nobody ‘won’ in any recognizable sense, and every halfway prideful wave with a head of steam would send us flying. We’d laugh and slap high fives whether we got bowled over, or triumphed against, and I say this again, water. We thought we were showing a ton of HEART by setting our feet and laying into the next one. It was surely as awkward a sight as you’re likely to ever see.
Fast-forward a few years to high school. Still skinny, I had also by then solidified two other much-sought after football traits: I was weak AND slow-footed. Still, I managed to dutifully stalk the sidelines and play in mop-up duty on a playoff team, and after we clinched at home my senior year, I headed off to the postgame dance with my friend, Will. Being a fellow bench-jockey, we decided to make the most of our clean uniforms and re-wear the jerseys to the dance that night (a few sprays of Axe are definitely enough to mask the light sweat worked up in warmups.) We cleaned up in a thin field—most of our more socially apt teammates headed off to non-school-sponsored parties afterward—and danced with two girls apiece and collected two AIM handles apiece. That the girls were assuredly clueless for wishing to associate with two guys who wore clean jerseys to a postgame dance is besides the fact. It was preferable to our usual Friday night of pizza and riveting Harvard vs. Yale games on Playstation 2’s NCAA Football 2003.
Finally, join me in the Tahoe Biltmore sports book, circa Sept. 1, 2007. I’m gambling on sports for the first time in my life. I have no goddamn clue what the spread means or why I’m pissing away some portion of my $25,000/year salary as a young newspaper reporter on sports betting. All I knew is that I loved football and knew a fair deal about it, having been single for roughly a year at that point and knowing nobody in my new town, meaning I could spend plenty of time with my Phil Steele’s College Football Preview magazine. I bet $20 on Texas to cover some absurd spread (they did!), and USC to cover an equally absurd spread (they did not!) The next day, I went in to turn in my two tickets, thinking I had hit on both, only to have the less-than-kindly old bookie tell me to fuck off with my SC ticket, “People used to get 86’ed for trying that kind of shit, kid!” From that point onward, I was as hooked on betting on football as I was on playing and watching it at different points in my life. What was this secret language people spoke about the game under TV banks in dingy casinos? I had to know.
Through the good, and, my God, all the bad—rape at Penn State and Baylor and Florida State and Missoula and Steubenville, old school union-busting in Evanston, being a liberal fan in America’s most conservative sport, UCLA’s early season rankings vs. their actual record literally every year, the 3-8 2016 Michigan State Spartans—I’ve loved football because it’s provided a connection for me. A connection with my brother, with my best friend from high school, with the sort of people my parents studiously avoided allowing me around during my youth. Football is a big, stupid thread. It runs you into waves, into clueless teenagers, into angry bookies, and into America, head-on. It’s not always pretty, but if you let it, it can usually be fun. AJ, we’ve got some great games this weekend: small-town Western Michigan rolls into the Coliseum to take on a vaunted USC squad. Florida is heading to Texas to take on Michigan because #getmoney. Bama gets it on with Florida State in Atlanta for the same reason. I’ll break down these and others after the turn, but first, AJ, why do you keep coming back for more?
First off, great to see you here back in this space. To me, Pints and Picks in all iterations of love, hate and ambivalence is like any notable relationship, it endures in spite of itself.
This offseason gave me both time to pause and do more research. I looked not only at the sporting world’s evolving position on football, especially on the prep and collegiate level, but also previous entries of this feature—mostly to see how much we’ve changed in voice and tone… hint: it’s a lot. I seem to have gone from gimlet-eyed college football junkie wearing my allegiance to West Coast teams on my sleeve of shopworn analogies and mixed metaphor to grizzled curmudgeon attempting to explain away poor performance at the book in time to my disenfranchisement with the game, notably, the way the athletes—professional football players disguised as students and enjoying zero of the riches that are being literally flushed through their veins—are treated.
Ultimately, I had to come to a decision. Do I keep up with this feature, redouble my efforts even, in spite of a certain moral imperative I’ve built into my narrative that I directly dissent with the game and all its distracting spectacle? Or do I quit/find a replacement that is more like the 2012 me?
It was a tough call. I didn’t feel like I could make either choice without being a hypocrite. But I did land on some kind of justification that suits my needs. It is, picking games and forcing bettors to read lots of words before we do so is what we do best in this space and on this site, it’s the core and maybe the whole of who we are. Take that away and all that’s left is a counter-narrative to the Trump administration, decrying NFL honchos as plantation owners and sneaking in any jab to baseball teams I don’t currently like. Oh, and also slamming private equity firms and bloated exhibition boxing matches.
I’ll never feel about college football the way I did in seventh grade when my father took me to my first matchup—a Cal game at Memorial Stadium. Prior to that, I’d never been to a gathering of more than a classroom full of people and walking in under the stanchions was I’m sure what most people refer to as a religious experience. The matching colors, the smell of sweaty brows and beer breath, the collective low rumble that crescendoed to a roar at kickoff and the salty, crisp fall Berkeley air filled me with contentment as I looked out over the lazy stretch of water onto the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond. It felt like we were the only people on Earth.
The players from a distance seemed like toys you could control with your mind. On TV, football was unapproachable and flat, here it was all dimensions, everyone running in every direction, chaos choreographed. My father told me to pick one player and watch only him for a set of downs, a quarterback, a running back, a lineman. He convinced me that what we were watching was more ballet than sport. It was immediately gratifying and that impression has never left me.
I too made my way to the tony shores of Lake Tahoe—though opted to wager ‘neath fake wood rafters at the Hyatt book where the only rebuke was eye daggers for forcing the ticket jockey to break a twenty on a quartet of $3 three-leg parlays while the guy behind me cleared his throat impatiently with his stack of hundreds and a clinking tumbler of Chivas Regal. It didn’t matter to me though, through the serotonin-spiking infusion of betting, I was transported back to that first game—emerging once more from the tunnel into the light.
And so, it is with resignation, admiration, consternation and adulation that I re-up for one more go-around. I do think the game and the general public’s perception of it is going to change mightily, soon. And I’ll be discussing that to exhaustive lengths in this space in the weeks to come.
West Coast football is fading from the kids’ ranks on up; parents are no longer willing to sacrifice their sons to the bloodsport and there are plenty of other options on a Saturday or a Sunday. Coach scandals, a fading ESPN and its own greed and malfeasance will continue to drag down NCAA’s image and at some point, when the economy does go south, the great middle that has propped up the sport since World War II will simply collapse on itself, no longer being able to pretend that the leisure time and money is available; everyone working their gig economy job on a Saturday to make rent and put canned veggies on the table while the oligarchs use government resources as their own personal NetJets #hermesscarf will eventually destroy what we know.
For now though, let’s still pretend it’s 1987 or 1997 or even 2007 and take a look the matchups and pretend everything’s going to be OK until Monday, shall we?
You’re underestimating what a shot of color from a Hermes scarf adds to any ensemble.
I’ll start my picks for the 2017 season by talking about what I know best. I grew up in a cradle of football fandom—the Great Lakes. Known for its marquee programs like Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State, the region is replete with Big Ten and MAC schools, campuses that’ll look great for the next 8 weeks before looking like the landscape from The Road for the 24 weeks after that.
There’s little like early-season action in that neck of the woods. It marks the short overlap of the weather Midwesterners live for with their favorite sport. You can’t underestimate the rush an intersection like that inspires—it’s like facilitating the meeting of your two best friends who are unacquainted with each other, and ending the night with them by topping off tumblers and remembering when Tim Lester and Chad Pennington went toe to toe many moons ago. Let’s celebrate it, and get into the picks…
WMU @ USC -28
Speaking of Lester, the former Western Michigan signal-caller is now the Broncos’ head coach, following the meteoric rise and slightly disappointing exit of former headman PJ Fleck. He gets handed the keys of a program that’s in flux. The Broncos could continue to build on Fleck’s strong base—the best four years of recruiting Western ever experienced, as well as its first major bowl game—or return to MAC also-ran, content to compete once or twice a coaching administration in the fiefdom that is the second-tier Division I conference. None of that gets decided in the Coliseum on Saturday, however. The Broncos’ very good defense (seven returning starters from a team that gave up just 23.5 points in postseason play last year) meets Trojan QB Sam Darnold and a vaunted SC passing attack. Darnold’s 67.2 completion percentage is best among SC signal callers for the last decade, and his o-line is returning three starters. With a national title in sight, I expect the boys from Troy to send a statement that’ll be heard ‘round college football, even over the sound of much bigger games elsewhere. SC covers a big number.
Bowling Green @ Michigan State -17.5
Chalky! I was texting with a friend and fellow Spartan fan last week. The topic was how many MSU players we were actually excited about watching, and the number ranged between four and six. The team, coming off a lousy, 3-9 2016, doesn’t look much better this year. Brian Lewerke (54% on completions) takes over at quarterback with very little to commend him for the starting job except a competent-looking 2-1 TD-INT ratio in a couple starts last year. The only thing keeping the Spartans from their traditional slow start is, fortunately, Bowling Green. With a new quarterback and inexperienced offensive line, BGSU is still reloading in head coach Mike Jinks’ second year and isn’t quite ready for the artillery Sparty can point in their direction. Particularly, MSU sports the potential of a strong running game. Running back LJ Scott is a horse, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He’ll follow a line anchored by senior center Brian Allen, the line’s lone holdover from the 2014 Rose Bowl and one of three returning starters. Cole Chewins, a 6’8”, 278 lb. man who looks exactly like his name sounds is the team’s left tackle and one of the few bright spots off of last year’s team. Look for the run game to choke the clock and reduce Bowling Green’s chances to play catch-up. Sparty covers.
Alright AJ, before I get into the big draws—including ‘Bama-FSU in Atlanta and Michigan-Florida in Texas—let’s see a few cards in your hand.
First, an admission: I had a little practice test this last weekend where I thought Rice would cover v. Stanford and had Oregon State (a team I’ve had my eye on as revamped and a sleeper in the Pac-12) beating Colorado State straight up. I was wrong, very wrong on both. Both Stanford, with Bryce Love literally picking up where Christian McCaffrey left off (to join my fantasy team) at running back, and Oregon State—which fumbled after holding up a Crying Jordan meme from the sidelines as a play call card—are still relative unknowns and it was a stark reminder that each season in college you go in cold.
I also caught some live action at Cal Poly, a school so rife with nerds and whatever we’re calling the generation post-Millennial (the Last Generation, #WaterWorlders perhaps?) who are so over football (hint: they not only know better healthwise, but the game moves much too slowly for them) the school had to roll out a free showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens post-game to get the undergrads to show. While the number of students in ironic jorts and tanks outnumbered those with Padawan braids 2:1, it was clear the majority of those attending on the Cal Poly side were of the cargo shorts and Under Armour golf shirt puffy necked dad/alumni variety. Not a good look and not a good harbinger of things to come for the long-term survival of the program.
For the record, Cal Poly let slip early and its receiving corps especially looked undercooked as they dropped at least three passes that would have resulted in touchdowns. The Colgate crowd was so well represented it was a more a home game for the pride of Patriot League from upstate New York. It was as if all 2,900 of its student body and most of its alums were bused out for a trip up and down the Central Coast to have an instagrammable weekend of wine tasting, sea lion viewing and fake locally sourced cuisine. Or maybe they were ultimately willing to travel almost 3k miles to watch Daisy Ridley on the Jumbotron. No matter, they were rewarded for the effort as Colgate came away with a 20-14 win (Cal Poly scored both its touchdowns in fourth quarter garbage time while everyone else was warming up their light sabers.)
So there you go, a couple early season offerings and the machine is sputtering to life.
Northwestern -28 vs. Nevada
Northwestern turned every Big-10 match-up into a scrap last year and finished 7-6 and with a bowl victory vs. Pitt. The Wildcats are back with more than a dozen returning starters, minus some losses at linebacker and receiver, and they look to be formidable in a conference whose best programs matriculated many top players (and coaches. See: my second pick below.)
Quarterback Clayton Thorson could be a first-rounder come April and the Cats’ o-line is seasoned and prolific. Nevada, on the other hand, comes with new everything. A new head coach, Jay Norvell (formerly receivers coach at the University of Texas) has installed a new no-huddle offense (Air Raid) and a host of new players including Alabama transfer David Cornwell at center to attempt to run it. Like any party, it’s also a question at Nevada of who won’t be there. For the Pack, the answer is, lots.
Sixteen players who were on the spring camp roster, including nine on scholarship, aren’t on the team this fall. Among notables who left are junior starting quarterback Hunter Fralick, back-up quarterback Dante Mayes, cornerback Cameron Turner, defensive end Nakita Lealao, receiver Victor Gonzalez, receiver David Harvey, defensive end Jarid Joseph, offensive lineman Daren Echeveria and tight end Evan Faunce. Mayes, Lealao and Echeveria have graduated and decided to stop playing football. Gonzalez, Harvey, Joseph and Faunce were all medically disqualified with concussions. Turner will transfer to Tennessee Chattanooga.
This is a Wolfpack squad that is literally college football’s biggest unknown going into their first game (a road game in Evanston), a fact that at least was acknowledged by the new HC as camp broke this summer. “We’re in a transition,” Norvell said. “We need more physical players and we need more speed. We need to get in the weight room and get stronger.”
Whether the Wolfpack is going to start building toward something significant in the Biggest Little City remains to be seen. For now, I think the only way this coach and this team in its debut covers is if the Wildcats decide to let the guys who usually wear the scout jerseys take the field at the half. It may happen either way.
Cal +14 vs. North Carolina
On the flip side of the unknowns on the road argument, I’m talking Cal to best UNC at Kenan Stadium Saturday.
Before the breakdown, let’s just take a moment of pause for the gift that is Cal’s letting go of southern-fried head coach Sonny Dykes. Granted, Dykes is largely credited for getting the Bears back both in the win column and the classroom after the twilight of the Jeff Tedford era and he also gets props for developing Jared Goff. But it is still up for debate whether Dykes stumbled into those roles rather than commanded them. Cal finished 5-7 last year and only garnered three wins in conference play. It was time for him to go. In his stead, Justin Wilcox, Oregon alum and son of NFL HOF’er Dave Wilcox, gets the spot behind the dais at Cal. Wilcox comes to Berkeley as the former defensive coordinator at Wisconsin (and USC, U-Dub, Tennessee and Boise State before that.) The Eugene native has served under basically every college football coach of note and notoriety (Clay Helton, Steve Sarkisian, Chris Peterson and, fine… Derek Dooley) from the last decade. Wilcox is ready, Cal is ready… the question is, is the Pac-12 ready?
Before that answer comes, the Wilcox-helmed Bears have a bitch of a test at UNC which, despite some close calls, took every game but two last season ATS and finished 8-5. UNC’s fifth-year coach Larry Fedora is coming into this season sans a starting QB with redshirt freshman Chazz (that’s two zs) Surratt and LSU transfer Brandon Harris fighting for snaps. He may have a platoon the first couple games this season or at least till the Heels get into heavy ACC play. UNC also does not currently possess a featured running back and will likely go with a trio of freshmen. Austin Proehl is the only receiver in the powder blue and white to have caught more than 20 passes in a season.
Juxtapose that with Cal’s fully baked version of Dykes’ “Bear Raid” offense, which is essentially Air Raid but with a handful of extra plays thrown in for the smart kids, executed by new OC Beau Baldwin who ran similar high-octane sets as HC at Eastern Washington. Cal’s got a surfeit of effective skill players and O-linemen returning to execute an offense that averaged 43 points last season including QBs Chase Forrest and Ross Bowers, who are also battling for playing time going into game one. Cal center Addison Ooms and tackles Patrick Mekari and Jake Curhan shore up an inexperienced but highly touted line.
But it’s at the speed positions the Bears truly stand out. Five-star wideout Demetris Robinson finished his freshman year with 50 catches and a quartet of 90-yard receiving games. Melquise Stovall, also a freshman last year, caught 42 balls as the No. 3 target. Three other returning wideouts caught at least 15 passes a piece, so the options for Cal to spread the field with five-receiver sets are nearly limitless. In the backfield, sophomore running back Tre Watson will again split time with senior Khalfani Muhammad. Their third-down option is 245-pound Vic Enwere who actually led the Bears with most yards per carry last season.
Wilcox should feel comfy from game one as the head coach gig in Berkeley is a homecoming of sorts. He met Tedford at Oregon as a defensive back and Tedford brought him along to Cal as a linebackers coach in 2004—his first real gig in college football. Fast forward to Wilcox’s defense last season at Wisconsin, the cornerstone to an 11-3 campaign for the Badgers—including a pair of OT wins vs. Ohio State and Nebraska. Beyond the whiteboard, Wilcox is an effective recruiter; though the fruits of his placement in the shadow of the Campanile might not be seen for a few years, he is a known motivator with a whole lot of empathy and a headcase whisperer, especially for those in the secondary.
Look for Cal’s defense to move faster in general from opening kickoff as Wilcox has scrimmaged the team no-huddle since the spring: “There’s a reason people go fast, there’s a reason people run the run-pass option plays… I think people have seen more and more of it, so obviously there’s things defensively that people like more, and I think they’ve grown in that regard.”
Dykes’ Bear squads were not defensive closers; that’s all Bear boosters have charged Wilcox to do. The team’s first big test comes on the road Saturday but I like them neutralizing UNC’s relatively unknown and inexperienced offense enough to run the kind of hurry up they’d like to once they get the ball.
Oh yeah, I buried the lede here, I’m taking the moneyline.
Phew. I can’t top that. I should have, as you did, primed the pump with last week’s games. But, I’m too caught up in lamenting the Detroit Tigers’ Cabrera-Verlander-(Martinez x 2-Fielder-Scherzer-Porcello) era’s window slamming shut, and the anti-climax climax that is the Dodgers’ ‘98 Yankees (or 2001 Mariners?) season to really pour much discretionary attention into football before the rubber hits the road. With that admission out there, and the knowledge that you’ve more effectively broken down those two games than I will four, here goes:
Florida State vs. Alabama -7 (Sphincter Field, Atlanta)
Listen, play the ATS if you want, here, it won’t hurt my feelings. FSU was a perfect 2-0 in neutral-field situations last year, ‘Bama was 3-1 and lost about two entire NFL teams’ worth of draft picks last spring. You’ll see talent in garnet and gold all over the field—QB Deondre Francois may well be the best skill player in the mix on Saturday, and their incoming running backs and wideouts are all 4- and 5-star recruits any coach would dream of. However, Alabama brings back a somebody at every level of the defense and offense. Quarterback Jalen Hurts does things no Tide QB ever has with his arm + feet (first ‘Bama player to ever throw for 300 & pass for 100 in one game), and he’ll be doing it for a second straight year, the first time that’s happened in Tuscaloosa since 2013. He hands off to Bo Scarbrough, who is a Heisman candidate, and they’re both protected by Jonah Williams, the Fullerton, CA product who started 15 games at right tackle last season as a true freshman. The defense is similarly loaded—strong safety Minkah Fitzpatrick plays at both the second and third levels with equal ability. I think Alabama wins the all-important talent battle and gets the slight edge on experience.
Michigan vs. Florida +5.5 (Jerryworld, Arlington)
Florida is doing the “right thing” and suspending themselves straight into a loss Saturday at Jerryworld. Listen, Gators Coach Jim McElwain is commendable, kicking 10 kids off for the Michigan game for dishonestly trying to make some money off textbooks they didn’t have the money to buy in the first place, and smoking weed. Real stand-up stuff. This is the kind of discipline—cracking down hard on your free labor for trying to squeeze any money out of a multibillion dollar industry they fuel—that gets you noticed in the country club and will have the pre-segregation crowd sending drinks over to you and missus in the formal dining room. Real moral championship cufflink material. You get a seven-figure book deal and paid appearances before ever dealership’s sales team in Gainesville for that kind of move. What you get on the gridiron, though, is a date with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on a newly-level playing field. Neither of these teams are now supremely accomplished, but Florida has a dash more experience where it counts—up along the lines, with 63 starts coming back on offense and sackmaster DE Jabari Zuniga returning to terrorize UM quarterback Wilton Speight. I’m almost positive Florida will get beaten on Saturday; but they keep it inside the number.
Alright, AJ, back to you to take it home.
I’m going to leave it there with my picks, a conservative two-game warm up for a season where I’m re-upping in the name of getting my homework done in a timely fashion.
I also want to mention that I will be donating all the proceeds from Week 1 wins to flood victims on Houston.
On Tuesday, I gave blood with Texas in mind. It may not save a life but it will do something. While I was donating, there were many wonderful people there. People who checked me in, gave me water and crackers, made me feel comfortable, made me feel good—great even—about doing it for an unknown someone else somewhere else. Ultimately, the donation was for me. It let me know there’s still something I can do, something I can give. Never forget during times of darkness how many points of light are out there surviving, helping, trying to make the world better in spite of forces much much more evil, much much more powerful than they are. We all feel helpless sometimes, we all feel like there’s nothing we can do. But take a look and the good is all around. It’s the only reason we’re still standing. You don’t have to have a lot of money or a lot of time to do something kind. Be tolerant to those who look different than you who grew up with different circumstances than you, who have faced and are facing down much tougher stuff than you. Listen. Emulate the people who make it a practice to do something good every day. Ask questions of professionals who help people for a living. Ask what they see when they look into someone’s eyes. Make a list. Act on it. You have a specific talent, use it for something that benefits someone besides you and those inside your immediate sphere. Know that you’ve made mistakes, we all make mistakes, but people don’t care about that as much as what you do in the days, weeks and months in front of you. Be better than you think you are. Surprise yourself. Surprise others. Try a little harder. Give a tiny bit more. As the woman who took my blood said, “Every drop matters. It all adds up.”
Last season (winning percentages)
2017 Week 1
WMU @ USC -28
Bowling Green @ Michigan State -17.5
Florida State vs. Alabama -7
Michigan vs. Florida +5.5
Northwestern -28 vs. Nevada
Cal +14 vs. North Carolina (Cal and the Moneyline!)