2016 College Football Kickoff: Vanderbilt in search of hope and change in opener

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Once again, the Vanderbilt Commodores will help open up the college football season, this year by hosting the South Carolina Gamecocks tonight at 8:00 pm on ESPN, and they’ll be looking to exorcise some debut demons.

Vandy played in the first Thursday night season opener back in 2012, which also saw them playing the Gamecocks in Nashville. Vanderbilt lost that game, 17-13, as the result of a very bad officiating call, although they missed opportunities to secure a victory for themselves. The Commodores were part of the opening Thursday night in 2013 as well, again losing by four at home, this time to Ole Miss. They nevertheless were called upon again in 2014 to play on the first Thursday, losing so badly at home to Temple, 37-7, that I and a significant majority of our readers wondered whether VU should fire then-first-year coach Derek Mason. Vandy didn’t fire Mason, and the NCAA didn’t fire Vandy from the season-opening Thursday slot, where they again appeared in 2015, hosting Western Kentucky. That was a stupid game the Commodores lost by two points.

Which brings us back to tonight. Vanderbilt is seeking its first opening Thursday win in Nashville, and they’ll have to beat South Carolina, their original opponent in this series of sorts, to do so. The SEC Network’s analysts, including former Vandy QB and Bachelorette star Jordan Rodgers, predict a win this evening. They also predict a 5-1 start and a 7-5 overall record, though, which some may take as a sign of excessive optimism.

At this point, VU fans have every reason to expect a disaster in this game, but I think it’s fair to expect that Mason, in his third year in Nashville, will have his team better prepared to start this season than the Gamecocks under new coach Will Muschamp. One of these teams is going to secure an SEC win in the first week of the season, and, in my estimation, it’ll be the Commodores. Paul Finebaum agrees. If you want to place a bet, maybe take the under– it’s tough to envision these two teams combining for more than forty-two points.

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College football wrapup: 2014-15

The 2014 college football season is in the books, and Ohio State is the first school to win a national championship determined by a postseason playoff system.

Beyond the usual discussion of champions and coaching legacies (quickly: Urban Meyer– three national championships at two different schools, evil; Nick Saban– four national championships at two different schools, merely soulless), one of the central season-in-review topics of conversation, at least in these parts, is whether the SEC is over. Surprisingly but also not surprisingly, Paul Finebaum, voice of the SEC, answers the question implied in the previous sentence in the affirmative. (UPDATE: PFT Commenter emphatically concurs.) Although he’s been developing his position over the course of his daily radio show since roughly the first of the year, he summed up the general point in his appearance on Keith Olbermann’s show just before the national championship game:

In short: “It was a pretty bad year for the SEC.”

Although I contemplated the notion of Peak SEC at least as early as December 2012 and later pegged the possible date somewhat more recently, I’m not sure I agree that the SEC is over.

The SEC’s bowl record was 7-5. (They were 7-3 last year.) The Pacific Twelve was 6-2 (exclusive of Oregon’s national championship loss), the Big Ten was 5-5 (exclusive of Ohio State’s national championship win), the Big XII was 2-5, and the ACC was 4-7. In other words, among the power five conferences, the SEC had the most teams playing in bowl games and notched the second-best winning percentage.

What seems to concern Finebaum, though, is a sudden lack of championships. That people think the SEC is done for because one of its members hasn’t played for a national championship in a whole year and hasn’t won one in a whole two years is a testament to the never-before-seen degree of dominance the conference produced during the BCS era. Prior to Ohio State’s inaugural CFP championship on Monday, the Big Ten had 1.5 national championships since 1970. The SEC had nine in the BCS era (i.e., since 1998) alone. The ACC had two BCS championships, the ACC had two, the (now-defunct for football purposes) Big East had one, and the then-Pac Ten had one, since vacated.

After the hunt for Mississippi October turned up empty and OSU knocked Alabama out in the semis, the SEC may need to do a little more to earn its seeds next year, but I’m not sure we can say the conference is measurably weaker simply because it failed to produce a national champion this year. If anything, the above suggests the conference is as deep as ever.

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Transitioning toward the offseason and the 2015 season, I’ll use this space to remind everyone that Michigan State’s only losses in 2014 were to Ohio State and Oregon. The Spartans face both teams again in 2015, albeit without the aid of their departed defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi. Continue reading

Book Review: Paul Finebaum’s Conference has Beaten Your Conference (Probably)

IMG-20140814-00138For someone who spends twenty hours a week on national airwaves as the host of an eponymous radio show, now simulcast on cable television, and makes regular television appearances on a major network, Paul Finebaum sure does manage to keep himself hidden.

I am not a longtime listener of Finebaum’s show by any means. I first remember hearing about him when I moved back to SEC country during the 2012 football season and he was still broadcasting on Birmingham’s WJOX. Due largely to my own preconceived misconceptions, I was surprised when I first heard the show following its move to ESPN Radio in 2013 to find that it was an extremely caller-driven show, to the point where Finebaum rarely asserted his own voice for purposes other than briefly sparring with or otherwise egging on his admittedly bombastic callers. At that time, the majority of those callers remained Alabama-based, and the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry served as nearly every item on the host’s go-to menu.

While a lot of this struck me as fairly standard cheap talk radio tactics, I remained intrigued by this person, who had risen to such prominence and reported influence, despite, I thought, hardly taking active steps to exert much in the way of influence. I therefore read the then-recent and still-surprising long feature on Finebaum in The New Yorker with great interest and anticipation. I found the piece to be more an introduction for Manhattanites to the other SEC and its attendant culture than a deep dive on Finebaum himself. Finebaum as access point, rather than Finebaum as subject. (A long Deadspin feature from the same year had a similar effect.) It’s a worthwhile read if you like college football. Still, I did not feel like I knew or understood this man, though, or why he was so widely regarded.

Fast forward (the lazy blogger wrote) to August 14, 2014. The SEC Network, an ESPN entity, launches (on Tim Tebow’s birthday, naturally), and Finebaum’s book, My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football, arrived in my mailbox.

Continue reading

The OKTC-Fox Sports merger is complete

I’ve been keeping an eye on Clay Travis’ SEC-football-oriented site, Outkick the Coverage, since its inception, more recently tracking changes associated with the site’s acquisition by Fox Sports. As detailed in the comments here, certain small changes indicating the Fox connection had been appearing on OKTC as early as last July, and today, that transformation appears to be complete, as evidenced by the site’s facade redesign.

oktcnewEven the base URL and browser tab icon have become those of FoxSports.com:

oktctabPerhaps most importantly, OKTC now has a permanent link on FoxSports.com’s college football portal page, favorably situated right under the College Football header.

fscomThis can only portent well for Travis, who has continued to expand his television role with Fox Sports 1, even parlaying that into a Super Bowl assignment. Travis has been public about his expiring contract with what has been his main employer, WGFX, 104.5 FM in Nashville. While Clay seems unlikely to leave Music City and the SEC football beat entirely, he definitely is expanding his reach and the scope of his coverage. The only thing that seems unlikely for Travis in the near future, given his deepening ties with Fox and a possibly distant relationship with Paul Finebaum (or at least Finebaum’s callers), is a move to ESPN’s SEC Network, which launches this August. Fox undoubtedly recognizes the value of the SEC and the Southeast. How heavily they’ll rely on Travis to bring that audience to Fox remains to be seen, but they certainly aren’t running away from him.

A note on rants

The substantial development of online social networks as a solidifying infrastructure for the movement of information online has reinforced on the web the tenets of the attention economy and turned the internet, as concerns the sharing of content, into the interactive, digital version of a supermarket checkout aisle magazine display or afternoons on cable news networks. Whether you’re hawking cat videos or the latest from Miley Cyrus, the internet is in a serious tabloid phase, and the clickbait semantics of TMZ, Gawker, and Buzzfeed pervades. In the unending drive to control attention, the currency of our present time, everything must be labeled “awesome,” “EPIC,” “incredible,” “the best X you’ll see today,” “spectacular,” “fabulous,” and so forth, even if it’s barely out of the ordinary. It’s increasingly difficult to describe anything in measured terms, and we’re losing perspective on the degree to which anything truly is extraordinary.

The latest example of this phenomenon comes in the treatment of comments in a postgame press conference by Southern Illinois University head men’s basketball coach Barry Hinson, who expressed open frustration with his young team after a loss. It wasn’t the handful of mumbled sports cliches we’ve come to expect in such settings, but neither was it, upon my eventual listen, an extreme outburst deserving of the extreme attention it received. “Epic Rant!”, numerous outlets exclaimed. “Amazing tirade.” “Must-see video.” “Epic postgame rant for the ages,” they said.

Please. I’ve heard Denny Green. I’ve heard Jim Mora. I’ve heard Mike Gundy. I’ve heard Mary Carillo. Barry Hinson doesn’t hold a candle to those artists.

If you wanted a true rant this week, you just needed to wait until Wednesday afternoon. Colin Cowherd came on the Paul Finebaum Show and said that he thought that Gus Malzahn has Auburn situated to give Nick Saban and Alabama stiff competition in the coming years, and Cowherd predicted that the Tigers would beat Alabama again next year on their way to back-to-back national titles. Some of Finebaum’s Alabama listeners did not appreciate Cowherd’s opinions, and they called in to say so. As I heard the call of one such fan, Phyllis, unfold while listening to the Cowherd segment this morning, I had the slow-dawning realization that I was experiencing true radio magic. Listen for yourself:

(The full segment is available here.)

The de jure national championship preview

Nick Saban* and Les Miles

The New Orleans Superdome has hosted a series of big football games over the past few days, including the Sugar Bowl, a Saints playoff game, and now the BCS national championship game tonight.

Keep reading…