Sunday, October 23, 2011

College Football Playoff Preview No. 1 (or try this, Mr. Whitlock)

On the heels of a memorable college football Saturday, renowned sports columnist Jason Whitlock took to social media to defend the status quo postseason bowl system.

Tweeted Whitlock: "CFB is great. Best regular season in all of sports. I'm cracking on the people who think CFB needs a playoff. It doesn't Leave it alone!!!"

Whitlock is right that the college football regular season is great, and yesterday was proof. Michigan State's Hail Mary win over Wisconsin and Texas Tech's gritty upset in Norman confirmed that sentiment, among other exciting games. But Whitlock is wrong that a great regular season means the postseason system should be left alone. It shouldn't. College football has the potential to possess both the greatest regular season and the greatest postseason in all of sports.

A college football playoff would attract impressive television ratings and sold out super stadiums. It would rival the drama of March Madness by pitting underdog upstarts like Toledo and Arkansas State against the sport's Blue Bloods like LSU and Oregon.

The last several years on this blog for fun, I've intermittently posted my weekly college football rankings. Whitlock's tweet has motivated me to try something a little different. I've created a playoff scenario not unlike those offered by real life college sports experts. I've used some of the scheduling and seeding formulas used in the FCS playoff system and the NCAA tournament. Each week, I'm going to post what a hypothetical college football postseason tournament would look like, and below is my first offering.

Here are the nuts and bolts: the tournament would be a 16-team, single elimination field. The champion from each of the 11 FBS conferences would automatically qualify for the tournament and the best five remaining teams would receive at-large bids, similar to the NCAA tournament.

In my system, eight higher seeded teams would host first-round games. Just like the NCAA tournament prevents teams from the same conference from meeting in the first or second rounds (unless this is impossible, as with last year's tournament because of so many Big East teams qualifying), my format does the same.

My proposed playoff system incorporates college football history by including the BCS bowl games. Here's how it would work. The four regular BCS bowl games - the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange Bowls - would serve as the quarterfinal games for the tournament. Just as there are conference tie-ins for the different BCS bowls, this tournament has tie-ins as well. The top seeded SEC school automatically would play in the Sugar Bowl bracket. The top seeded Big Ten or Pac 12 school would automatically be seeded in the Rose Bowl. The top seeded Big 12 team would feed into the Fiesta Bowl and the top seeded ACC or Big East team would feed into the Orange Bowl. So in my hypothetical system, if LSU defeated Nevada and Kansas State beat Michigan State in their first round games, they would play in the Super Dome for the quarterfinals in what would be called the Sugar Bowl.

The semifinal games could be played at neutral fields and called the national semifinal, and then the championship game would be played at whichever BCS bowl stadium's turn it is to host the title game. For instance, this year's title game will be played at the Super Dome, so that's where the final tournament game would be played as well.

In my first bracket, I took the first-place team from each conference, plus five at-large teams (which is subjective), and then seeded them based on their BCS and Sagarin rankings. As I said, choosing the five at-large teams is subjective. I included Oklahoma over Wisconsin, South Carolina or Nebraska for the final spot. Obviously this will change from week to week. I adjusted the seeding to comply with the scheduling rules, and here is what I came up with.

You could even maintain a semblance of the current bowl system by having teams that didn't qualify for the playoff face off in traditional bowl games. Doing so this season would theoretically generate games like Nebraska vs. South Carolina, Wisconsin vs. Arizona State or Georga vs. Virginia Tech.

I'm pretty sure Alabama and Oregon fans would sell out the Fiesta Bowl. I would imagine that a national semifinal game between Stanford and LSU would generate outstanding television ratings.

As it stands now, college football parlays its amazing regular season for the worst postseason in all of sports. It doesn't need to be this way. And anyone who argues that such a schedule would be a drain on the student athletes needs to look at the FCS system, which ends its season with a 16-team playoff. It defies logic that such a system is perfectly fine for Montana State or Delaware by too draining for LSU or Clemson.

Because only 16 teams qualify for the tournament, this system actually puts more emphasis on the regular season. Reaching your conference championship game in order to make the tournament is that much more important. I don't know about Mr. Whitlock, but I don't view an exciting postseason and a great regular season as mutually exclusive.

Sugar Bowl
1. LSU (SEC) vs. 16. Nevada (WAC)
8. Kansas State (at-large) vs. 9. Michigan State (Big Ten)

Rose Bowl
4. Stanford (Pac 12) vs. 13. Cincinnati (Big East)
5. Oklahoma State (Big 12) vs. 12. Houston (C-USA)

Fiesta Bowl
2. Alabama (at-large) vs. 15. Toledo (MAC)
7. Oregon (at-large) vs. 10. Oklahoma (at-large)

Orange Bowl
3. Clemson (ACC) vs. 14. Arkansas State (Sun Belt)
6. Boise State (Mountain West) vs. 11. Arkansas (at-large)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why I'm rooting for the Brewers this October

This post is for people like me who don't have a team to root for in the baseball postseason. Let me quickly thank the 2011 Chicago Cubs for being uncompetitive and uninteresting.

Moving on. If you're trying to figure out why to care this postseason, let me suggest rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers. I'm not going to go on some soap box rant about the purity of small market baseball. I'm going to offer a first-hand account of why the guys on the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers deserve to be supported by fans.

The heart of the roster is the same as the 2005 Nashville Sounds, which I covered on a daily basis for the Nashville City Paper. Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Yovani Gallardo, Ryan Braun. The Brewers will sink or swim because of these guys. The same group led the Sounds to the postseason, though most of them were in the big leagues before the team went on to win the Triple A championship.

Apart from being incredibly gifted players on the field, this group of guys was unbelievably nice off the field, at least to me. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun were stars with big name recognition, so one might have expected them to be standoffish with a reporter for an alt-daily, which they probably rarely read. The team also included outfielder Nelson Cruz, who is slugging away for the Texas Rangers. Cruz's English wasn't great, but he seemed to genuinely enjoy talking to reporters.

On the contrary, both were always willing to talk after games and handled themselves like old pros. They were polite, accessible and well spoken.

I wanted to share two quick anecdotes which I think demonstrate what I'm talking about. In one game against the Memphis Redbirds, Fielder was involved in an explosive argument with Memphis star Adam Wainwright. After a bang-bang play at the plate, Wainwright reportedly yelled, "Why don't you learn to play the game," to Fielder. The next thing I know, Fielder is charging at Wainwright with the ferocity of a raging bull, and needing to be restrained by multiple teammates.

I had two of the biggest up and coming stars in all of baseball engaged in a pretty amazing shouting match, so I knew that was my story after the game. Being a cub reporter, I was anxious that Fielder would be annoyed or even hostile at having to answer questions in the clubhouse. I approached with trepidation. Sounds infielder Chris Barnwell was sitting next to Fielder. "Oh hear we go, here come the hyenas," Barnwell said when I approached with my recorder.

"Nah, it's fine man," Fielder said, patting me on the shoulder. "Ask your questions."

He went on to apologize for his display of emotions while also pointing out, fairly, that Wainwright crossed one of those invisible lines in baseball. Don't question another man's knowledge of how the game is played. Fielder especially took offense since he grew up around the game because his dad was a professional player.

Just 20 years old, at the time, Fielder turned away from how most stars would have acted and treated me like an equal.

My other story involves Ryan Braun and the night he learned he had been called up to the big leagues. Essentially, Braun's childhood dream had come true and his life was about to be forever changed. I had the exclusive he had been promoted, at the time, but I needed to interview Braun.

The cell phone signal at Greer Stadium is spotty, to say the least, and Braun roamed around the outfield while he told his family in California he had been called up. I stalked around him at a safe, but noticeable, distance like a weirdo. I didn't want to intrude, but I also wanted him to see me so he knew I had to talk to him.

Once his calls ended, Braun apologized for making me wait and told me he appreciated me talking to him regularly because he knew he would get interviewed on a daily basis in Milwaukee as well. "It's been fun, man," he said, beaming.

That group of guys truly loved the game and they were extremely down to earth. I don't know if fame and fortune has changed them, and I'm not surprised those guys have achieved both in the ensuing six years. We often focus too much on what's wrong with professional athletes, so I wanted to take a few minutes to give this group of former Sounds credit for demonstrating what's "right."

For one October, they've given this Cubs fan something to root for. Go Brewers!

College Football Rankings Week 6

The SEC is looking a little top heavy. LSU and Alabama appear to be the top two teams in the country, but the next tier was supposed to be represented by Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina. Each of those teams already has an unimpressive loss on its record. If one of those teams, or perhaps Georgia, doesn't step up, then it's very possible LSU and Alabama could finish with a combined one loss and make the case for a championship game rematch. I doubt Clemson will keep it up, but it's pretty damn impressive they've beaten Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech.

1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma
4. Clemson
5. Wisconsin
6. Boise State
7. Stanford
8. Oklahoma State
9. Oregon
10. Texas
11. Michigan
12. Georgia Tech
13. Arkansas
14. Nebraska
15. Illinois
16. Virginia Tech
17. Florida
18. West Virginia
19. Kansas State
20. Auburn
21. South Carolina
22. Baylor
23. South Florida
24. Florida State
25. Georgia

Saturday, October 1, 2011

No. 22 My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket released their legendary album It Still Moves the same week I moved with my buddies from a grungy apartment in Antioch to a revamped 70-year-old 2-story home int he Belmont neighborhood.

It was a happy, loose, carefree time in my life and the album's songs were the perfect soundtrack.

In time, MMJ would follow with excellent albums like Z and so-so albums like Evil Urges. Along the way, the band never relinquished its mantle of world's best live band.

In Defense of Netflix (and Qwikster)

Netflix is catching a lot of heat for deciding to divide itself into two separate services and double its prices. The company did little to calm the storm when its CEO sent a weird, meandering email announcing, on the heels of colossal losses and fleeing subscribers, it was changing the name of its staple mail delivery service.

As someone, well several people really, pointed out a name change seemed like a strange idea since Netflix had actually became a verb in the American lexicon. Even worse, Qwikster is such a patently bad name, it was easy to see why Netflix was in a dive.

After the company announced that streaming and home delivery services would each cost $7.99, I carefully studied my family's Netflix usage to calculate what we could afford and whether $15 a month could be justified.

In the end, we elected to pay for both services. Here's why:

Over the last month we've streamed two of the best movies I've ever seen, and I say that without hyperbole. Bill Cunningham, New York is a documentary about renowned fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. The movie is touching, inspirational and insightful, just about everything a documentary is supposed to be. BCNY had a short run at our local indie theater, where tickets were about $10 a piece. My wife desperately wanted to see the movie, but unfortunately we were unable to before its short run ended. If it wasn't for Netflix streaming, we never would have seen BCNY, which is sure to get Oscar consideration next year.

We also streamed Alfred Hitchcock's unabashedly cool crime drama Dial M for Murder. With video stores out of business, the only place to find a classic film like this would be the local library, where the selection is spotty and the availability is hit-or-miss. We popped on the XBox and within minutes were watching one of the slickest most interesting murder mysteries (well I guess it's not really a mystery since we know whodunnit) I've ever seen. Again, if it wasn't for Netflix streaming, we never would have seen this film possibly.

More recently, we've begun watching Breaking Bad, the gritty family/drug drama starring television's best actor Brian Cranston. A season of Breaking Bad ranges from $15 to $30 at local big box stores. With three seasons available, Breaking Bad justifies the $7.99 monthly fee for the next several months.

We also decided to keep the home delivery service, even though we agreed Qwikster is a God awful name. In the last month, we've rented several films that aren't available to stream on any service and therefore would cost about $20 a piece if we decided to buy them. There's always cheaper rental options like Red Box, but the availability is inconsistent and indie films are rarely ever in stock.

Win Win was probably one of the best sports movies (yes, it's a sports movie) in recent memories. It stars Paul Giamatti as an unlucky family man and high school wrestling coach who has a 16-year-old show up on his doorstep. Surprise, surprise, the homeless kid is a phenom wrestler.

Everything Must Go sees Will Ferrell take a successful turn as a serious actor, even though the movie is actually a comedy.

Paul is a stoner movie about an alien on the lam with a couple of comic book nerds as his guardian. This is no doubt a movie I would have loved even more 15 years ago, but I'd still recommend it to my friends who love brainless, low-brow, highly-quotable movies.

We also rented Limitless, a convoluted thriller about an average guy who becomes a U.S. senator by taking a drug akin to adderall-meets-ecstacy-meets-crack. It helps his brain absorb and retain knowledge and next thing you know the failing writer becomes a Wall Street tycoon and national figure.

All of these films ranged from good (Paul) to excellent (Win Win). They arrived about every third or fourth day in our mailbox and, since we are both homebound and poor because of our precious 1-year-old, it was perfect entertainment value for us. Several of those films would have piqued our interest to see in the theaters, but we knew we could wait because they would come on Netflix at a fraction of the cost.

Even with the price increase, Netflix actually saves us money on going to the theater or whatever other entertainment source we might have otherwise spent our money on. It also helps us see movies we otherwise would have missed.

OK, that's my explanation of our choice. I certainly understand why people switched to streaming only or canceled altogether, but for me it would have been a mistake. Now, if you have Netflix go stream Bill Cunningham, New York or rent Win Win. You won't be disappointed.