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The College Football Alphabetical: Saying Goodbye To 2010, One Letter At A Time

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The final edition of the Alphabetical rambles, ponders the difficulty of endings, attempts to drive home just how singular Cam Newton was, and sings the praises of the best restaurant you will ever find in a convenience store ever.

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The final alphabetical for the year covers lessons learned, or at least "things which are true for this year and this year alone." Note them, and then promptly forget them for 2011. They will change immediately.

A is for Augury.  People remain terrible at polls, and for two important reasons. The first reason: life is hard to predict, and people are quite bad at dealing with this. That applies to all things, which is why you buy insurance and wear a seatbelt, because while you may be certain you are a good driver in full possession of your faculties that doesn't mean there's not a drunk naked trucker having a very bad day in his personal life about to ignore that red light at an intersection you're crusing through. (The drunk trucker in this scenario:  Mark Mangino. Hard times affect us all.)

The other reason behind polling sucking as badly as it does is the unwavering conservatism of most pollsters. See the preseason top ten, for example:

1 Alabama (54) 0-0 1491

2 Ohio State (3) 0-0 1400

3 Boise State (1) 0-0 1336

4 Florida 0-0 1237

5 Texas (1) 0-0 1223

6 TCU 0-0 1160

7 Oklahoma (1) 0-0 1104

8 Nebraska 0-0 1033

9 Iowa 0-0 1007

10 Virginia Tech

That's not insane, especially with perennial blue-chip stocks like Texas and Florida going haywire this season and diving into junk bond territory, value-wise. But it is exactly what you see year in and year out in terms of salting the top ten with established brand names and ignoring turnover at skill positions, trends in production (see Florida and Texas' offensive declines, for instance), and Oklahoma's penchant for blowing whatever expectations you care to lay on them.

(Auburn, for the record, sat at 22 and 23 in the AP and USA Today polls, respectively. Oregon came in at 11 in both. This year was an accident.)

B is for Boldness. So if you do feel like taking a flyer in a preseason poll on a team, go right ahead. You may look insane at the end of the season, but at least you'll avoid being one of the walking dead mumming "Oklahoma/Texas/Alabama/Florida" over and over again.

C is for Cliche. Defense wins championships! Unless we're talking about this year, the exception proving no rules. Of the top ten scoring defenses, six finished out of the top 25, while eight of the top ten in total offense finished in the top 25. If it felt like a year of DBs flapping their arms fruitlessly at passes soaring overhead for long completions, that's because that is exactly what was happening.

D is for Disintegrate. Just watch the LSU defense, one of the best in the nation over the course of the year, dissolve beneath the pattern-breaking power of a running QB of unparalleled size, speed and talent. I saw this with my own eyes and still can't really believe it happened.

An LSU fan next to me began to openly root for Newton's injury at one point in this game. Her son, sitting next to her, just shook his head and said "I don't know if you can hurt him, Mama." He had that kind of effect in person on even the most bitter opposing viewers.

E is for Expenditure. Cam Newton accounted for 1473 of Auburn's 3987 rushing yards and 20 of their 41 rushing TDs. Newton passed for 30 out of their 31 TDs and 2854 of 3002 passing yards. 4327 of the 6989 yards gained by Auburn came via Newton's feet or his passing arm, and he even decided to catch one TD just for the hell of it. Whatever Auburn did to get Newton, morals, rules, and NCAA bylaws aside, it is hard to make an economic case that it was not completely worth it.

F is for Flukeness, continued. The aforementioned statistical freakiness is precisely what allowed a team finishing 60th in total defense to win the national title. Nick Fairley may have been the crucial factor in disrupting Oregon in the title game, but Newton's ability to lean in for first downs and to pull play after facemelting play out of his back pocket kept Auburn in every game they played this year.  Even Texas' 2005-06 title team didn't lean this much on one player; their 10th ranked defense was at least a standard deviation better than Auburn's in comparison.

When I say fluke, I mean it in this sense: dependence on one player to this degree is always fluky, but especially so in this case. It's a testament to Cam Newton's insane talent, which may even after a Heisman and a BCS title be underappreciated. He may have just had the greatest single impact of any one player on one team in the modern era, and because he plays in Auburn and not at USC or Florida you'll never really get the full scope of it until years later. (There's also the question of how he got there, but that is a matter for the FBI and the NCAA to sort out now.) 

G is for Goodfellas. If you do have a problem with Martin Scorcese's best film--and we take it over Raging Bull because unlike Raging Bull, Goodfellas has a fierce, sick, and extremely twisted sense of humor--it is with the ending. Henry Hill spends the last 15 minutes of the film chasing invisible helicopters, obsessing over spaghetti sauce, and cramming his nose full of high grade cocaine. It's a jarring and incongruous end, and anything but standard issue Hollywood ending material.

If you have a problem with this ending, it is not because it is too jarring, but precisely because it is too realistic. Real endings are often horrible, abrupt, and nonsensical. They are rarely well-scripted. They often roll out suddenly without any real warning, and often arrive with a speed the brain can't really handle. Emotionally they are almost always unbearable.

So any constructed ending like the end of a sports season is necessarily a matter of choosing your degree of absurdity. I will happily admit there is no real logic behind wanting a playoff out of fairness. A playoff is just a matter of structuring that absurdity, and that you just trade one variety for another. In a college football bowl system a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team never, ever knocks off the defending champions in a first round game.

And in an NFL playoff TCU would actually have a shot at winning a title, and not be shuffled from consolation game to consolation game. (Though beating Wisconsin in the Rose was a lovely consolation prize, and not just because they got to debut the best uniform tweak of the bowl season, the Horned Frog logo with a rose in its mouth.) Someday the money will push college football into a playoff, and then we'll have an entirely different kind of absurdity on our hands.

Complaints about the ending will live on, because endings are by definition problematic. Problematic does not mean unenjoyable, however. In the end the only honest answer to "Why do you want a playoff?" for me is "because it means more chaos with more on the line at the end of the season."  It backloads your chaos, and I'm a sucker for backloaded chaos, because I love watching everything go haywire at the very end. (I.e, College Football's own version of the Goodfellas ending, spiralling out of control at the very end.)

H is for Hell. Texas suffered immensely this season, and for that they receive no pity, but let us at least recognize the majesty of Mack Brown's streak of ten win seasons not only coming to an end, but doing a flaming end-over directly into an ammo dump. They lost to Kansas State in one of the most unwatchable beatings this year, a game where K-State just embraced being a glorified high school offense and threw exactly four passes in beating a punchless Longhorn squad. Some do small fails, and some do medium fail, but Texas only does Texas-sized fail. We applaud the consistency all around,

I is for It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterdayyyyy Eeeeeeee. Tim Brewster, we shall miss your endless stream of positives, often said even when there was nothing to be positive about. (And in your tenure at Minnesota, there wasn't much to be happy about.) Randy Shannon, we'll always be sort of scared of you even if the rest of the ACC isn't. Urban Meyer, this still feels redundant; Dave Wannstedt, you'll go 7-5 somewhere else, we can just feel it. Jim Harbaugh, you'll be back in three years at Michigan, and this is fact. Rich Rodriguez, never, ever leave people who love you. They're a rarer quantity than you think they are, especially if you make the mistake of hiring Greg Robinson as defensive coordinator. Just lie back and be still, Bill Stewart: this won't hurt at all.

J is for J.R. Ewing. Mack Brown will cut you so fast, son. The Tuberville protocol describes the process of gradually having your ineffective assistants whittled off your staff by public pressure until you eventually resign or are fired. Mack Brown ain't having any of that slow death by paper cut, son, since beneath that smiling good ole boy exterior is a savage competitor willing to part with old friends in a heartbeat if it affects his bottom line. Texas went through a defensive purge in 2008, demoting some while hiring Will Muschamp to run the Longhorn defense, and this year did th same to his offense AND his strength program. Thought untouchable for his loyalty to Brown, Greg Davis received the slip that is pink from Mack along with other offensive coaches and longtime strength coach/sideline mustache model Jeff Madden.

The point being: there's good ole boys, and then there are the JRs of the world who are happy to backslap and grin, but who might do just that while knocking you into a tree shredder for their own benefit. Mack Brown does not trifle, son, especially when you begin to mess with his five million dollar a year paycheck. <----seriously, that's what he makes. You are in the wrong business.

K is for Knoledge is Smrt. If this playcall makes Bret Bielema wake up screaming for the rest of the offseason, well...good. It should. Wisconsin capped the 0-5 New Year's Day for the Big Ten by driving for the potential tying score, and did so by running the ball with ease the entire drive. They then opted for a shotgun pass against a gassed TCU defense, and Tank Carder batted the pass down, and yeah you go ahead and scream over that. It's only eight months until you play another game. Won't hurt at all.

L is for Mike Leach. It is January 18th, 2011, and Mike Leach is still only semi-unemployed. You know, if you just happen to need an offensive genius. You don't often just find them lying around on the floor untended.

M is for Michigan State. Eight months should be more than enough time for Michigan State to recover from a 49-7 Capital One Bowl emasculation, but just barely. After all, getting out of traction can take about that long, and towards the end of the game I was getting texts from Alabama fans that read like this:





This was the most lopsided game between two BCS teams I watched all year long, and the strongest piece of evidence that at the end of the season even Alabama knew they'd underacheived to a grievous extent in 2010. It's unfortunate that when they hit the bar looking for a grudge fight Michigan State just happened to be there wearing the wrong kind of shirt and sitting in the Tide' special stool.

N is for Novel. Ohio State beating an SEC team, and Arkansas' receiving squad all developing a nerve disorder of the fingers all at once. The Sugar Bowl was full of surprises, including Jim Tressel using the word "ass."

I...I didn't even know the man could yell. The SEC would finish at 5-5 in bowls and with a loss to Ohio State, so as much as I love them dearly the "S-E-C" cheers should calm down for the offseason, or at least until the next rousing karaoke rendition of "Sweet Home Alabama" cranks up in a bar somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon. (I have seen this happen. It is amazing and horrifying all at once.)

O is for Opposite Day. Notre Dame destroyed Miami in a bowl game. No, that happened too, really.

P is for Pandas. There is an argument that pandas, though undoubtedly cute, should be allowed to go extinct since after all they mate poorly, live off an extremely inefficient diet of primarily bamboo, and do not excel at avoiding predators. Failing Darwin 101 every day is sort of the ultimate test, which is why ESPN playing the part of the Zookeeper for financially untenable bowls is fine with me. We don't need to keep the Armed Forces Bowl alive for future generations, since without their corporate protector many of these just feed what is already a wildly inefficient system.

Q is for Quorum. This may as well apply to a lot of D-1 programs, who famously lose money each year to the detriment of higher education, society, think of the children blah blah blah. There isn't a magic number of FBS programs, mind you, but if schools honestly asked themselves "What's this doing for our school? Are we really enjoying the process of putting this huge, potentially wasteful endeavor together? Do we want to scrape and save for the right to field a plush mascot of dubious quality and frightening design?", the answers would be painful in many cases.

As for the callous fan not invested in these things, really, if (picking blindly here) say Toledo ceased to exist as a football program, would the sport miss it as a whole? This is extremely insensitive thinking, but keep in mind I'm not saying they shouldn't exist. They just shouldn't exist in FBS, and should be relegated to an easier, less potentially expensive level of competition.

R is for Rerun. Watching Oregon's hurry-up slowed down by Auburn's slamming defensive line reminded me of the 2008 title game between Oklahoma and Florida. I watched both in person, and in both cases a record-setting offense ran into a defense far faster than anything they'd seen all year. The crucial difference between the two games: Florida stunned Oklahoma with speed through the secondary, while Auburn's came almost entirely from the defensive line. Oregon's guards and center could have cried during plays and I would have forgiven them, and if you had a heart you would, too.

S is for Spring. Spring practice is the next semi-real football you have to look forward to. Do you have any long Russian novels to read in the interim? I recommend Anna Karenina, through for shorter stuff Gogol is always a nice change of pace. It may seem absurd to read a story about a giant nose running around in a military uniform ordering people around, but 5-19 Gene Chizik just won a national title over a coach who was at the University of New Hampshire five years ago. Life is strange; embrace it or perish.

T is for Theater. Recruiting announcement I'd like to see: come in wearing a hat, but then take off hat unveiling wig in the colors of the school, but then OH TRIPLE SNAP--the real hair has the logo of the school shaved into the side.

U is for Untoppable. This all assumes you can't get a live tiger to walk out onto the stage to announce you're headed to LSU, or an alligator to announce you're headed to Florida, or better still to demand that the two fight in front of a horrified audience in order to determine your commitment. (This scenario does not bode well for the alligator, btw.)

V is for Vainglorious. Thanks to another year of Mark May and Lou Holtz attempting to each be the center of attention on screen while Rece Davis plays the part of Bugs Bunny to their twinned Daffy Ducks. For a few years the mixture of smug and incoherent offended us, but maybe the Stockholm Syndrome has kicked in properly now. (This can be the only possible explanation, because seriously, it's Lou Holtz and Mark May and I just said I liked them.)

W is for Wildmen Of Appalachia. Am I already looking forward to the prospect of Dana Holgorsen running an offense in the Big East against a Charlie Strong defense? Yes? Did I just say I was excited about something involving the Big East? Is it the offseason? Yes?

[/drowns in pool of own tears]

X is for Xenodocheionology. A love of hotels, something I acquired this season. Only one thing will make me despise a place that lets you throw your towels on the floor without straining your relationship: paying for internet. Looking at you, MGM Grand Las Vegas. It's not like I didn't just pay my internet fee four floors below ten times over at the blackjack table; instead, I get a "resort fee" tacked onto the bill that I can't avoid even if I wanted to. It's not capitalism if you have to pay for it. It's capitalism if I'm too stupid and greedy to resist the shiny thing you're selling me.

But rental car places that allow you to throw keys at people while running to planes, and who ignore large bullet holes and elk dents in the side of your car? LOVE YOU FOREVER, Y'ALL.

Y is for Yapness. An obscure word for hunger, and easily cured with a stop to the best single food establishment I went to all year long, the Best Stop in Scott, Louisiana. A mile off I-10 you will find fresh boudin, boudin balls, beef tongue, stuffed pork chops, and every other deadly animal-fat laden cardiac bomb you could ever hope for, and not stopping there for something is a criminal waste of your time if you decide to drive on and not get at least a bag of boudin and cracklings. This verdict includes a year when I stopped in New Orleans twice and ate my weight in food there. (Just further proof you can do anything at a convenience store in West Louisiana.)

Z is for Zaijian. This concludes the Alphabetical for the year 2010-2011. Thank you as always for your patronage. Until then, we go into hibernation, singing "Daisy" all the way into the oblivion of the offseason.