Tuesday, September 8, 2015

First Impressions

In the world of college football, opinions and generalizations based on only the first week of the season have a tendency to be, um, inaccurate. Still, it's impossible not to leap to conclusions and that is part of the fun, so here are a few of mine:

Texas Sucks
Notre Dame fans are right to be happy about their team's convincing win over Texas, but they are wrong to think it's a bigger deal than a convincing win over Nevada or Western Michigan would have been. Teams are defined by their players, not their jerseys, and the players wearing burnt orange have been soft for years. No Texas Longhorns team has accomplished much of anything in quite some time, and at best, UT currently has only the fifth-best program in the state of Texas. It is going to take a while for Charlie Strong to turn around the moseying culture than Mack Brown allowed to infiltrate the program.

The Return of Defense
After several years of seeming to be absent from the game, defense is making a comeback. I have no stats or facts-laden arguments to back that up. But my eyeballs tell me what they tell me, and I just witnessed more single-weekend examples of wrap-up tackling, swarm-to-the-ball linebacking, and dominant D-line play than I have seen in several years. That is very, very good for the game.

Like an elderly curmudgeon from Queens who continues to call the airport Idlewild (instead of Kennedy), I refuse to use the cumbersome phrases Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision. The categories of Division I football shall forever remain Division I-A and Division I-AA in my book, for there is clarity in that. When you hear the phrases, you know the former is the first tier and the latter is the second.

But having said that, I am convinced that the bottom fifth of the programs in Division I-A are no better than the upper fifth of those in Division I-AA. It could even be that the bottom quarter of one are no better than the upper quarter of the other.

This past week, Portland State shocked Washington State, South Dakota State beat Kansas, Fordham knocked off Army, and North Dakota upended Wyoming by double digits. Meanwhile, perennial national championship contender Oregon did not lose, but did surrender 42 points to Eastern Washington. And Indiana escaped with a one-point win over Southern Illinois.

And go back to last year, when Georgia Southern and Appalachian State played their first seasons at the I-A level after having been rivals in I-AA. GSU finished their inaugural I-A season as the Sun Belt Conference champions while ASU finished third in the same conference. The Eagles actually went 8-0 in Sun Belt play, and when they stepped outside of the conference, their losses to NC State and Georgia Tech were by a mere five points combined -- giving them a credible talking point claim that they could play in the ACC and finish in its top half.

I believe the increasing fuzziness where the I-A and I-AA worlds meet is not a sign of the former getting worse. I believe it is a sign of the latter getting better, combined with the inevitable fallout from the 85-scholarship limit. I also believe it speaks to how fallible college recruiters are when evaluating high school players, and I believe it testifies to the caliber of I-AA coaches and diligence of I-AA players. I think it means that teams from I-A's "non-power-five" conferences should not be taken lightly, and on balance I think that is good for college football.

Grains of Salt, Part One
Take several of them if you want to pontificate about the significance of Texas A&M's victory over Arizona State. For the most part, I say this because Arizona State has been undependable and inconsistent for the last few years, which means that beating the Sun Devils counts as a good win but should not count as anything near a big win. Plus, it's hard to forget how Texas A&M was considered a national title contender last year because of how good it looked beating South Carolina in Week One -- only to wither away and finish the season 7-5.

Grains of Salt, Part Two
I like Northwestern and have talked up its football program for a long time. After a disappointing 2014, I want to believe that their upset win over Stanford heralds their return to competitiveness for 2015. I want to believe that the stifling D they played against Stanford heralds their return to the kind of bruising, clamp-down identity that defined them in the mid-1990's, when current head coach Pat Fitzgerald was an All-American linebacker... But from what I saw of that game, I simply could not tell if the Wildcats were playing outstanding defense or the Cardinal was playing pathetic offense. So for now, I say take the win with a few grains of salt and wait to see more.

My Auburn Indulgence
Coming off a disappointing season, my Tigers traveled up Interstate 85 and defeated a ranked opponent despite having a roster heavy with freshmen and sophomores. Their defense looked better than it has in years. They dominated most of the game and led 31-10 midway through the fourth quarter, despite three interceptions by Jeremy Johnson and several drive-killing penalties. Contrary to the media narrative, it was the closeness of the 31-24 final that was deceptive, not the fact that the final showed Auburn on top.

Having said that, Johnson must improve on his decision-making. He showed his accuracy and arm strength on two long TD passes (one of which was called back) but all three picks came on awful decisions. He was barely pressured on any of them, yet he threw right to defenders in areas where there was no receiver anywhere close to being open. Plus, there was a third down play on which he scrambled, ran downfield, and had plenty of open field to make the first down, yet dove to the turf and came up short by ten or eleven inches. He got away with those things Saturday, but if he keeps them up he will cost his team a couple games before all is said and done.

The Injury Superbug
Football is a tough sport and there are injuries every week, but I don't remember any opening week having as many major injuries as the one that just ended. Out for the season are Notre Dame RB Tarean Folston (ACL), Pitt RB James Conner (MCL), Stanford DT Harrison Phillips (ACL), Georgetown LB Ty Williams (broken neck), BYU QB Taysom Hill (foot), TCU LB Sammy Douglas (unspecified), and Syracuse QB Terrel Hunt (Achilles tendon)... Also out, but expected back before the season ends, are Arizona LB Scooby Wright (meniscus), Louisville WR James Quick (ankle), Kansas State QB Jesse Ertz (unspecified), Clemson WR Mike Williams ("small" neck fracture), Virginia Tech QB Michael Brewer (collarbone), UCLA DL Eddie Vanderdoes (ACL), and Missouri RB Russell Handsbrough (ankle)... Oregon QB Vernon Adams and Wisconsin S Michael Caputo left their respective games with possible concussions... And this list is far from complete.

Bring It On
I can't wait for this season to play itself out. As it does, I will be back here to opine from time to time. But no matter what happens, I say this: War Eagle!

No comments: