I spent last Saturday night at San Diego Stadium (new Qualcomm, nee Jack Murphy, soon-to-be-SDCCU) with 45,000+ San Diegans cheering a delightful 20-17 victory for the SDSU Aztecs over the Stanford Cardinal. Late in the fourth quarter, the lights went out temporarily (cue the ‘San Diego has no more Chargers’ jokes) and we fans lit up our cell phone flashlights to illuminate the field, inspiring a good laugh all around. The lights came back on a few minutes later and the ‘Tecs pushed down the field for the W. It was an entirely enjoyable evening. I had family up in LA that night who got to take in Texas-USC with 89,000+, an overtime thriller between a surprisingly game Longhorns squad and a flawed-but-brilliant contingent of Trojans.
I say all this to remind readers that California embraces college football. The sport has the ability to bring the masses together like nothing else—you won’t find an arena, baseball stadium, or racetrack with as many warm bodies as were in attendance at the Coliseum (or San Diego’s ‘Stadium’) Saturday night. I mean that literally, because the next day we saw how unembraceable the professional game is in the Golden State. The Los Angeles Chargers play in football’s smallest barn—the StubHub Center seats 27,000—and they couldn’t even fill it, drawing just 25k paid fans (reports say anywhere from 20k-23k actually showed). At the very same Coliseum SC filled the night before, the Los Angeles Rams managed to turn out a measly 60,000 fans.
In both cases, supporters got to watch what has become a very lukewarm pro game, chock-full of lab-tested matchups and rigidly drilled players who can’t seem to muster an entertaining drive because everyone is so evenly matched athletically. The pro game reminds me of a scene in Arrested Development where George Bluth attempts to fight his twin brother, Oscar. The throwdown ends in a draw because the two have identical fighting styles.
Things aren’t much better up north, where the Oakland Raiders are drawing 54,000 people per game to the 56,000-capacity O.Co Coliseum, and the San Francisco 49ers bring what looks like 18 people and some ‘service’ dogs to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, a brand-new field with a capacity of 68,500.
The problems with the NFL extend well beyond gameplay, AJ, and are legion. I won’t even bore you by listing them all here. But one of the biggest is the fact that your normal fan gets treated like garbage. San Diegans got dumped by a billionaire oligarch so he could play 12th fiddle in an LA soccer stadium until some new age venue in a shitty, hard-to-access part of town is erected. Over the last two years, Angelinos got two teams that charge them $100 for parking, subject them to the passing of Jared Goff, and generally play immediately under the sun for the first month of the season. San Franciscans had their hearts ripped out when the 49ers left the actual city for Santa Clara and asked longtime season ticket holders to cough up $10,000 just to keep the rights to their seats. It doesn’t help that Levi’s Stadium is unfathomably hot due to the fact that California’s microclimates are a totally foreseeable bitch. The Raiders gave Oakland the middle finger by inking a deal to move to Las Vegas, but are staying in town for an extra three years before the move. If you think your local owner sees you as anything other than a sentient ATM he can bleed dry eight days a year, you’re kidding yourself.
The NFL actively hates its fans, and some of those fans appear to finally understand that. You can only sever connections for so long, burn people (literally) for so long, and rip them off for so long before they stop caring.
AJ, our sport is college football, and it’s far from sinless. In most ways, it treats its players worse. But, one thing it very rarely does is shit on its fans. There’s still a bargain-basement cupcake on every home schedule you can take the family to, in most towns, without breaking the bank. That goes double for a bad team—you can find an under-$20 ticket to most games when a team starts sucking, but the 0-2 Chargers want $108 for a seat. A college will never leave the corner of Name of Tree Street and College Drive for a better deal somewhere else. Notre Dame is still going to play in South Bend, Indiana, regardless of its market size. Tuscaloosa doesn’t even have a Whole Foods and yet it manages to be the axis around which the sport turns. College football won’t force a rot-awful Thursday game on you every single week because #getmoney. And, because there are 130-plus teams, you’ll never have to see two finely-tuned automatons play to a draw in the trenches or the flats. There will be mismatches.
AJ, am I wrong to think that this level of the sport still cares about me, or at least doesn’t hate me?
For starters, I want to say that the above is the most glorious, fitting intro in this space, maybe ever. If and when your current win streak comes to an end, just know it’s the words that matter. Cut to photo (above) of Ace Rothstein in the final frame of Casino.
It also singes me with irony to read this and know that Saturday evening I’ll be taking my three-year-old son to the convivial confines of Alex G. Spanos stadium (the aerospace engineering major alum from the institution of “learn by doing” is now the owner emeritus to the aforementioned LA Chargers) in the heart of the Cal Poly campus to watch the home team Mustangs square off against the always venerable (they practice at altitude) Northern Arizona Lumberjacks.
For $10 I get a general admission ticket which usually has a coupon for a free pizza on the flip side. My son gets to roll in for free, and for about $10 more I can attend the Cal Poly alumni tailgater (even though I am decidedly not a graduate of the finest state school ever featured in the Rose Parade, they’re relaxed at the door) to enjoy all the Santa Maria-style barbecue, rows of horrid lukewarm 805 blonde ales cued up on a folding table, bottled waters destined for the France-sized garbage patch in the ocean, over-carbonated cokes and Costco chocolate chip cookies I can shove into my maw prior to kickoff.
All that and the smell of fresh-cut grass mingling with the occasional waft of whatever’s brewing in the nearby dorms rolling over the brown and oak-studded hillsides out to sea and it’s as perfect a fall evening as I can think of.
We’re probably only good for the first half of action (my son is three and a half), and unless the Mustangs or their foes can establish a run early and take to the sky, he’s not having it; to be clear, punts and kick returns are a very, very big deal in his world: the ball goes “waaaaaaay up” and comes “waaaaaaay down” and the guy “tries to catch it, sometimes.” I suspect he’ll be a special teams coach one day, because besides popping gum, clenching fists and throwing hats, really, that’s all you need to know in that role.
I never intended to expose my child to football, especially on the collegiate level. He’s too young to know about indentured servitude or the socio-economic factors that cloud the game for me much less of Aaron Hernandez’s severe CTE diagnosis likely sustained in prep and college ball brought to light only after he killed himself in prison. And the notion that inequity in this country creates a space for minority players to occupy the field in such disproportionate numbers as the the key to their removal from their unsatisfactory neighborhoods is still foreign to him—all in due time, I suppose.
When we did check in on the Cal Poly squad taking a thrashing from visiting Colgate, it was apparent that teams had adopted new rugby-style tackling and though the heat-seeking, brain-crushing spear hits that we have come to expect from Clemson, Michigan, Florida States and USC were decidedly absent, the result was clean and decisive hits with (dare I say) overall much better comeradery and civility to the procedure. I can only assume since the schools are nearly 3,000 miles apart that few players knew one another prior to the tilt and yet there was some wholehearted embracing going on midfield in the immediate wake of the game.
There’s not a ton at stake for football players in the Big Sky conference. Cal Poly’s football program is on the map at all for two reasons: 1) It is the real coaching destination of the fictitious red-ass coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) from All the Right Moves (and, as it later turns out, the program that would take film’s protagonist, Stefen Djordjevic, played by Tom Cruise) and 2) It is the program that lost most of its players and staff to a plane crash in Toledo in 1960. The twin-engine C-46 propliner, operating as a domestic charter flight by Arctic Pacific, crashed during takeoff. The aircraft, an old World War II plane, broke in two and caught fire on impact. Of the 48 on board, 22 were killed. Because of a scheduling gaffe, graduate assistant coach and former Cal Poly player John Madden was not on board (which is why he rode the bus after that for the duration of his career.)
Other than that, once in awhile a Cal Poly long snapper will get a few touches on the next level, but 99 percent of the guys on the field go on to work in industrial ag, or building buildings and bridges or coding websites. Football, in other words, is the game they use to keep their bodies sharp and their minds in tune and they cannot, will not, sacrifice their brains in doing so. After all, you don’t become Alex G. Spanos when you graduate with a damaged frontal cortex.
Because of these thumbnails of all that is good and, dare I say, “pure” with the sport, I’ve learned that abandoning football on the collegiate wholesale is as irresponsible as totally ignoring the reasons why I have such a difficult time supporting it. There are boys out there who are trying to learn to do things the right way on the field, how to support one another, when to trick the opponent and when to show empathy; when to express gratitude towards their teammates and opponents. The whole of it is happening so they can, one hopes, take with them the on-field lessons through a lifetime of dealings that don’t require a helmet and shoulder pads but leave one with equal number of creaks, bruises and scars. And I support that.
But when it becomes too dangerous or when corporatization and money and greed and injured heads and brutality hollow out the purpose and become the only reason why for the sport, as you so aptly pointed out above, then the lights truly should dim.
OK Kyle, you’re 8-0 over the last two weeks, which one of our mutual friends from Vegas pointed out had you put down $100 on a four-leg parlay and then let it ride the next week on another four-legger you’d be approaching seven figures right about now. Question is, what happens this week? Is retirement in your future?
Hahahahahaha. I’m a millennial living in Coastal California. Retirement is a meager account I dip into every 4 months or so when funds get tight. Even if I had actually made all the bets I’ve advised and won, it would maybe entitle me to a condo with a backyard, inside the 5, though ;).
But yeah, I’ve been hot the past two weeks, and as I pointed out last week, these things are fickle and fleeting. What I can promise the readers is another honest attempt at a perfect weekend, so here goes:
Toledo @ Miami -13
The 3-0 Rockets have the edge in experience. They’ve been at it every week, winning and generally looking like a team that’s ready to reclaim its spot atop the MAC. Miami (1-0) hasn’t been in action since week 1 against Bethune-Cookman, rescheduling games during the run-up to and aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The ‘Canes’ edge, though, is undeniable. Running back Mark Walton toted the rock in that B-C matchup for better than 9 yards per carry behind an insanely talented and experienced O-line. He and the ‘Canes’ hogs have the ability to control this game from kickoff to the final whistle.
TCU +13 @ Oklahoma State
I’m pretty pumped for this one. These two 3-0 teams are averaging 103 combined points per game. TCU holds opponents to 14.3 points per game, while the Cowboys give up just 17.3. I’m tipping the scales for the Horned Frogs for a few reasons.
- Strength of schedule: TCU and quarterback Kenny Hill have dispatched Jackson State, Arkansas, and SMU. That’s a respectable early-season slate and means they’ve been through the fire. Mike Gundy’s OSU team has faced Tulsa, South Alabama, and a moribund Pitt squad. That’s the equivalent of sparring Paulie Malignaggi to warm up for Floyd Mayweather.
- Defense: OSU has bent in its matchups, if only slightly. They surrender third down conversions 43% of the time, have given up 129.3 yards per game rushing (that looks impressive but bear with me), and allow 332 total yards per game. TCU’s numbers in the same categories are 26%, 92.3, and 265.
- Time of possession: Look, I know this doesn’t mean what it used to, but there’s something to be said for being able to handle yourself during extended drives, and keeping your defense off the field, especially against an arm like Hill’s. OSU averages just 27:17 in total TOP to TCU’s 31:49. Take all of these together, and I think Vegas is handing you money.
Mississippi State +5.5 @ Georgia
The Starkville-bred Bulldogs are 3-0 against the spread this season, in addition to being 3-0 against their opponents. The Athenian Bulldogs (also 3-0 in the real world) are 2-1 ATS, but they’ve been slightly soft against the pass, which is a situation I expect dark horse Heisman candidate and Miss. St. QB Nick Fitzgerald to take full advantage of. Fitz has been ruthlessly efficient in his last two outings—connecting on about 66% of his passes for 7.76 yards per attempt—and he no longer really gets sacked (just one through three games.) I expect he’ll eat in Athens on Saturday.
Notre Dame -4 @ Michigan State
The 2-0 Spartans have looked steady, and more importantly, sturdy, during the start to their season. Maybe even 8 wins steady and sturdy. In wins over Bowling Green and Western Michigan, the almost all-new offensive line has acquitted itself nicely, and allowed the pass game under the surprisingly mobile Brian Lewerke to work with what his run game can give him. Notre Dame at 2-1 is the kind of team that can toss a monkey wrench into that. The Irish bring 6 sacks into the matchup, four from its line and two from its linebackers, which will negate a lot of Lewerke’s safety valves as his tight ends and fullbacks will get sucked into protection. I haven’t seen anything yet this season to suggest he’ll be able to make that work with just his wideouts, and if Notre Dame can collapse on the Spartan run game, that’s all she wrote. Look for the Irish to cover.
Alright AJ, what’s the word on the West Coast?
Well, since I spent all my good-will up top excoriating the sport I’m about to encourage people to place their value menu money on, I will take a swipe from your page and keep the picks concise and clear (or edit myself trying. )
Washington -10 vs. Colorado
Last season, Colorado’s surprise return to relevance ended with broken everything during a 41-10 beat-down at hands of the Washington Huskies in the Pac-12 Championship.
Looking for revenge this weekend, the Buffs faithful are reminded they haven’t beaten Washington at home since 1990, you know, back when Bush 41 was in office and Ghost was killing at the box office.
The key to the Buffs covering the spread or winning in Boulder is neutralizing Huskies QB Jake Browning, a task that seemed all too lofty for them last fall and may be even harder now. Browning thus far this season has been the standout in a league full of standout quarterbacks (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Justin Herbert for starters all portend to see action at the next level.) …Browning, play for play, has been better than them all. Thus far, he’s completed 74.4 percent of his passes and is showing he’s a traditional pocket passer the likes of which keeps NFL front office execs up late at night stalking him on Instagram.
Colorado linebackers Ryan Moeller and Nick Fisher might be the the speediest duo in the conference and if they can flush Browning out, Colorado may have a fighting chance to get to him before he slings one 40 yards.
On offense, the Buffs’ sophomore QB Steven Montez has shown in fits and starts he can have success running a complex pro-style offense, but is still a half season away from mastery. Meantime, the Huskies still have the best secondary in the land with Taylor Rapp, Byron Murphy, JoJo McIntosh and Jordan Miller looking to bat, pick or swat every offering that comes their way—so look for the hometown of Mork & Mindy to become turnover station Saturday. Choo-choo.
UNLV +40 vs. Ohio State
Ohio State isn’t Ohio State this season and karmically, UNLV deserves to be the 40-point underdog that wins. This is more prop bet or fifth leg on a fuck-it parlay and a game you definitely shouldn’t watch.
Cal +17 vs. USC
For the third time this season, I’m taking Cal and the moneyline (with a hedge for them to cover.) Consensus No. 5 USC Trojans (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12 South) is a juggernaut, but they also come into Memorial Stadium injured and with egos bruised in the wake of a compelling double-overtime win at home vs. Texas last week.
The Bears (3-0) were only supposed to win 3.5 games this season according to Vegas, and have played some of the more exciting football this season of any team. Last week’s halftime adjustments courtesy first-year head coach Justin Wilcox to stop a speedier, more physical Ole Miss was a once-in-a-decade highlight for Cal fans.
Wilcox already has wins against the SEC and ACC and now it’s time to see what he and OC Beau Baldwin have got against intra-division rivals. Sophomore QB Ross Bowers is second-tier among the Pac-12 elites but that’s mostly because those he’s staring up at are so good. Bowers has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 799 yards and five touchdowns against some stingy defenses. But sometimes his youth takes over and gets flustered, especially on the runs with a quartet of interceptions and fumbles to his name thus far this season.
Bowers’ favorite targets are field-stretching playmakers, junior Vic Wharton III and sophomore slot receiver Kanawai Noa along with senior Jordan Veasy and sophomore Brandon Singleton give him the most options to put it up and let someone grab it in the Pac-12.
Cal senior RB Tre Watson went down with a knee injury week one, but junior Patrick Laird and third-down back Vic Enwere have carried the load for Cal as they move to a more run-first/possession offense under Wilcox.
Cal’s defense is one of the more seasoned in the division, led by seniors James Looney and Tony Mekari up front backed ably by sophomore Luc Bequette and redshirt freshman Tevin Paul. Their maturation under Wilcox is no coincidence and the squad that was last in the conference last year in yards allowed is setting itself up to be one of the more formidable. If there is a question mark, Cal’s secondary thus far has been hit or miss (depending on the quarter it seems) and USC QB Sam Darnold, once he gets going, could get some nice looks downfield.
It’s a month early for Halloween, but USC also comes into Berkeley like the walking dead. They have between 12 and 17 starters questionable or out for Saturday including LB Tayler Katoa (knee), CB Jonathan Lockett (hip), S Isaiah Pola-Mao (shoulder), OLB Hunter Echols (hip), TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe (hip), OT Nathan Smith (knee), OLB Juliano Falaniko (knee), OLB Porter Gustin (toe/bicep), DB Ajene Harris (knee), LB John Houston (neck), DL Liam Jimmons (ankle), RB Ronald Jones II (quad/ankle), WR Joseph Lewis (abdominal), DL Jacob Lichtenstein (back), OLB Uchenna Nwosu (elbow/MCL), DL Marlon Tuipulotu (knee), WR Keyshawn “Pie” Young (hamstring) with OL Chuma Edoga and DL Rasheem Green upgraded to probable.
That’s a lot missing even for a plug-and-play three-deep-at-each-position squad like the Trojans. Look for some lack of cohesion to show in the early goings at Cal. Wilcox has shown throughout his career he is a student of film and an exploiter of matchups. He knows this is not the same Trojan team that took the field three weeks ago against Western Michigan, but the question remains, are USC’s third stringers and wounded starters better than Cal’s emerging workmanlike crew? I’d bet half the rent and a quarter pounder they aren’t.
Note to readers: I tried to vet UCLA/Stanford (the battle of the perennial disappointments) and Oregon/ASU (Oregon is a 17-point favorite which seems at once attainable and untenable) and I can’t come up with a solid read on either game other than to take the over (UCLA/Stanford 63; Oregon/ASU 76) on both. Both tilts won’t be defined by defensive play.
Kyle: 4 and 0!
AJ: 4 for 7
Kyle: 10 and 1!
AJ: 5 for 12
Toledo @ Miami -13
TCU +13 @ Oklahoma State
Mississippi State +5.5 @ Georgia
Notre Dame -4 @ Michigan State
Washington -10 vs. Colorado
UNLV +40 vs. Ohio State
Cal +17 vs. USC (moneyline!)
UCLA @ Stanford over 63
Oregon @ ASU over 76