College Football Fast Five and Power Rankings: Week Two

Fast Five:  Week Two Storylines

Mayfield, Oklahoma top Ohio State

A year after Ohio State beat Oklahoma in Norman, the Sooners returned the favor in Columbus with a 31-16 victory over the Buckeyes.

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield led the Sooners to 28 second-half points, going 27-35 for the game with three touchdowns.  His Ohio State counterpart J.T. Barrett completed just 19 of his 35 attempts with an interception.  Mayfield outpassed Barrett 386 yards to 183.

The Sooners also controlled the ball well, possessing it for 35:17.  The result, despite a 3-3 halftime tie and a 17-13 game through three quarters, was a convincing Oklahoma win that moved them to second in the AP Poll.

Clemson defense stifles Auburn

In a battle of Tigers, Clemson’s offense totaled just 284 yards, but that was enough to beat Auburn 14-6 after an incredible defensive effort by the Tigers in orange and purple.

Clemson held Auburn to 117 total yards, including just 38 rushing yards in 42 attempts.  While Clemson’s own offense didn’t have their best night (284 yards), and while Clemson had two turnovers against none by Auburn, Clemson made enough plays to win–they were 9-for-16 on third down, and got two rushing touchdowns from QB Kelly Bryant, while Auburn’s failure to get touchdowns on two first-half red zone trips came back to haunt them.

Auburn was unable to return the favor for a 2011 loss at Clemson–their first as defending national champions–and their 2016 loss to Clemson in Auburn; Clemson passed their first big test in their title defense.

USC races past Stanford

USC dominated Stanford in every statistical category–the Trojans outgained the Cardinal 623-342, outpassed them 316-172, outrushed them 307-170, and had 28 first downs to Stanford’s 16–on their way to a 42-24 win.

Several Trojans had huge nights:  QB Sam Darnold was 21-26 for 316 yards and four touchdowns, with nine of those receptions for 121 yards on connections with Deontay Burnett, who scored twice, while Stephen Carr rushed for 119 yards on just 11 carries and Ronald Jones II ran for 116 with two touchdowns on 23 attempts.

If not for two pro-Cardinal factors, Stanford may have lost by more than 18.  Darnold did throw two interceptions–the only knock on an otherwise excellent game by the early-season Heisman candidate–and Bryce Love ran for 160 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

A week after struggling to top Western Michigan, the Trojans reasserted themselves as Pac-12 favorites by this commanding win over Stanford, who was coming off a 62-7 win over Rice in their opener.

Late turnover dooms Irish in slugfest

Neither team was particularly awe-inspiring in the first regular-season meeting between traditional powers Georgia and Notre Dame, but a late fumble recovery by the Bulldogs sealed a 20-19 win in South Bend.

It was a sloppy game by all accounts–the teams were a combined 7-35 on third down, totaled 20 penalties for 189 yards, and committed two turnovers each.  Irish QB Brandon Wimbush was 19-39 for 211 yards and rushed for the team’s only touchdown, as the Irish rushed for just 55 while settling for four field goals.  Georgia managed just 141 yards in the air, but 185 rushing yards helped lead them to the win.

After a back-and-forth game, Georgia took the lead with 3:39 left on a go-ahead field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship, a former walk-on who was just placed on scholarship this past week, before the fumble with 1:27 to play clinched the Georgia victory.

Hurricane Irma alters schedule

While the sports impact is a minor detail of Hurricane Irma, given its sheer magnitude and its impact on Florida and the southeast, the storm has affected college football’s schedule for both Week Two and Week Three.

Games in the state of Florida that were cancelled over the weekend include Memphis at Central Florida, Louisiana-Monroe at Florida State and Northern Colorado at Florida.  Miami’s game at Arkansas State and South Florida’s game at Connecticut were also cancelled due to travel concerns.  None of these games are expected to be made up (all are non-conference games except South Florida-Connecticut).

The Miami at Florida State game scheduled for this weekend has been postponed to Oct. 7, which was originally an open week for both teams.  As a result, Miami’s game against Georgia Tech that was originally scheduled for the following Thursday (Oct. 12) has been moved to Oct. 14.

Week Two Power Rankings

1. Alabama (2-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
After QB Jalen Hurts rushed for 154 yards in a 41-10 win over Fresno State, the Tide will face Colorado State; the Rams should be one of the best non-Power Five teams this season, but don’t expect them to be competitive in Tuscaloosa.

2. Oklahoma (2-0, LW: 6th, AP: 2nd)
The Sooners have the most impressive win so far after their convincing win at Ohio State.  They begin a stretch of three ranked opponents in four games on October 21, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t enter that stretch at 6-0.

3. USC (2-0, LW: 4th, AP: 4th)
The win over Stanford was a defensive improvement for the Trojans, who had looked sluggish against Western Michigan.  While they’ll be heavy favorites in the coming weeks, the next three teams they face can each score a lot of points if that defense doesn’t continue improving.

4. Penn State (2-0, LW: 3rd, AP: 5th)
The Nittany Lions avenged last year’s loss to Pittsburgh with a 33-14 win.  Looking ahead, their two biggest games (and the only two they won’t be favored in) are back-to-back, against Michigan and Ohio State the last two weekends in October.

5. Oklahoma State (2-0, LW: 5th, AP: 9th)
A 44-7 win at South Alabama isn’t impressive on paper, but give the Cowboys credit for agreeing to play the Jaguars, who were hosting their biggest home game ever, on the road.  This week they travel to Pittsburgh, who they beat last year in a 45-38 track meet.

6. Clemson (2-0, LW: 9th, AP: 3rd)
I still have questions about Clemson’s offense, but they answered a lot of questions about their defense in holding Auburn to 117 yards.  That said, the defense isn’t out of the woods–this week the Tigers travel to Louisville and face defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson.

7. Michigan (2-0, LW: 7th, AP: 7th)
On one hand, the Wolverines looked unconvincing at times against Cincinnati, even in a 36-14 win.  On the other hand, they have two games they should win easily and a bye week before facing Michigan State on Oct. 7.

8. Washington (2-0, LW: 12th, AP: 6th)
The Huskies have been quietly solid, outscoring their first two opponents 93-21, although their toughest opponent so far was Rutgers.  This week they finish their non-conference slate with Fresno State, before a Pac-12 Championship Game rematch with Colorado to open league play.

9. Wisconsin (2-0, LW: 11th, AP: 10th)
The Badgers, who beat Florida Atlantic 31-14 over the weekend and travel to BYU this weekend, have the easiest schedule of any top 10 team–they will face one team that is currently ranked the entire season (Nov. 18 vs. Michigan).

10. Florida State (0-1, LW: 10th, AP: 11th)
Hurricane Irma has compromised the Seminoles’ schedule; they will resume play Sep. 23 against N.C. State after a 21-day layoff.

Worth a Mention:  Duke (2-0)
Northwestern was ranked 23rd in these rankings last week, reason being that they were an experienced team from a Power Five league that I thought could be a sleeper in the Big Ten West.  Then they met Duke:  the Blue Devils outgained the Wildcats a staggering 538-191, held the Wildcats to 22 rushing yards, and gained 34 first downs to Northwestern’s 15 while possessing the ball for 41:18.  I don’t have the Blue Devils ranked, but I’m surprised they didn’t get any AP Poll votes (they did get three votes in the Coaches’ Poll).

11. Ohio State (1-1, LW: 2nd, AP: 8th)
12. Georgia (2-0, LW: 13th, AP: 13th)
13. Auburn (1-1, LW: 8th, AP: 15th)
14. Miami (1-0, LW: 14th, AP: 17th)
15. LSU (2-0, LW: 16th, AP: 12th)

16. Kansas State (2-0, LW: 17th, AP: 18th)
17. Virginia Tech (2-0, LW: 18th, AP: 16th)
18. Utah (2-0, LW: 20th, AP: unranked)
19. Florida (0-1, LW: 19th, AP: 24th)
20. Stanford (1-1, LW: 15th, AP: 19th)

21. Louisville (2-0, LW: 21st, AP: 14th)
22. South Florida (2-0, LW: 22nd, AP: 22nd)
23. Tennessee (2-0, LW: 24th, AP: 23rd)
24. UCLA (2-0, LW: 25th, AP: 25th)
25. TCU (2-0, LW: unranked, AP: 20th)

Also Ranked in AP Poll:  Washington State (2-0, AP: 21st)

Fell from Rankings:  Northwestern (1-1, LW: 23rd)

Twitter Picks for College Football Week Two

Game of the Week
#5 Oklahoma (1-0) at #2 Ohio State (1-0)
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC
Betting Favorite:  Ohio State by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Oklahoma- 6th, Ohio State- 2nd

 

Big Game Guarantee
#14 Stanford (1-0) at #6 USC (1-0)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Betting Favorite:  USC by 6
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Stanford- 15th, USC- 4th

 

Upset of the Week
#13 Auburn (1-0) at #3 Clemson (1-0)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Betting Favorite:  Clemson by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Auburn- 8th, Clemson- 9th

 

Closer Than the Experts Think
Pittsburgh (1-0) at #4 Penn State (1-0)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Betting Favorite:  Penn State by 22
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Pittsburgh- unranked, Penn State- 3rd

 

Not Closer Than the Experts Think
Indiana (0-1) at Virginia (1-0)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Betting Favorite:  Indiana by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Bad Spread Game
#15 Georgia (1-0) at #24 Notre Dame (1-0)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Betting Favorite:  Notre Dame by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Georgia- 13th, Notre Dame- unranked

 

Group of Five Game of the Week
Western Michigan (0-1) at Michigan State (1-0)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Betting Favorite:  Michigan State by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Is This Futbol?
Wake Forest (1-0) at Boston College (1-0)
Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET, ACCN
Betting Favorite:  Boston College by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Is This Basketball?
South Carolina (1-0) at Missouri (1-0)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Betting Favorite:  Missouri by 2
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Toilet Bowl
Minnesota (1-0) at Oregon State (1-1)
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. ET, FS1
Betting Favorite:  Oregon State by 2
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Miscellaneous:  The Holy War
Utah (1-0) at BYU (0-1)
Saturday, 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Betting Favorite:  Utah by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Utah- 20th, BYU- unranked

 

NFL Game of the Week
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Betting Favorite:  Dallas by 4

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 5-6
College Overall Record: 5-6
NFL Game of the Week: 0-0

Game of the Week: 1-0
Big Game Guarantee: 0-1
Upset of the Week: 0-1
Closer Than the Experts Think: 0-1
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 0-1
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 1-0
Group of Five Game of the Week: 1-0
Is This Futbol?: 1-0
Is This Basketball?: 1-0
Toilet Bowl: 0-1
Miscellaneous: 0-1

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

 

College Football Fast Five and Power Rankings: Week One

Fast Five:  Week One Storylines

Alabama beats Florida State convincingly

The #1 vs #3 showdown to start the season on Saturday–possibly the biggest opening weekend game ever–ended with Alabama winning convincingly, 24-7.  The overall stats were, for the most part, fairly even for the game, except for turnovers.

The Crimson Tide, who didn’t turn the ball over in the game, intercepted Deondre Francois twice, blocked a field goal and a punt and recovered a fumble on a kickoff.  That, coupled with Florida State being held to 40 rushing yards, left Alabama to dominate the ‘Noles, winning comfortably even though the Tide themselves had just 269 yards of offense.

Florida State loses a game… and a quarterback

The Seminoles loss naturally hurts their Playoff chances, as they now they likely have to win out to qualify.  But their season took an additional unfortunate turn when QB Deondre Francois went down in the fourth quarter with a season-ending patella injury.

Francois hadn’t played his best game–he was 19-for-33 for XX yards with a touchdown and two interceptions–but the sophomore quarterback would have been a big key for the ‘Noles the rest of the way.  Now the offense is in the hands of true freshman James Blackman, who did not throw a pass Saturday after coming in for Francois late in the game.

Moderate struggles for Ohio State and USC

Ohio State won 49-21 Thursday night at Indiana, but didn’t score a touchdown until the 5:17 mark of the first half and trailed 21-20 with 4:56 left in the third.  After a sluggish start for the Buckeyes, they finished with 29 unanswered points, led by J.K. Dobbins’ 181 rushing yards, an Ohio State freshman record.

Western Michigan led 21-14 at USC for most of the third quarter, then after USC took a 28-21 lead tied the game at 28-28 with 7:54 to go before the floodgates opened for the USC offense and the Trojans won 49-31.  The USC defense allowed 263 rushing yards to the Broncos, and the Trojans were saved by 521 total yards of their own and 28 fourth-quarter points.

Both highly-ranked clubs had moderately inauspicious starts, and both can’t afford to repeat those performances this weekend.  Ohio State hosts #5 Oklahoma, while USC hosts #14 Stanford in their Pac-12 opener.

Michigan muscles past Florida

Florida was shorthanded, especially on offense, after the suspension of 10 players for the Gators’ game against Michigan.  The lack of depth showed, as the Gators were held scoreless in the second half and Michigan turned a 17-13 halftime deficit into a 33-17 win.

The Gators were outgained 433-192 and held to just 11 rushing yards, while the Wolverines had a very balanced attack, passing for 218 yards and rushing for 215.  Michigan’s Ty Isaac rushed for 114 yards on just 11 carries.

UCLA’s comeback

When UCLA scored with 2:06 left in the third against Texas A&M it seemed insignificant, as it only pulled the Bruins to within a 44-17 deficit.  But, as it would turn out, the second-largest comeback in FBS history had just begun.

The Bruins scored four more unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter–the first two on Darren Andrews runs and the last two on Josh Rosen passes–to stun the Aggies, 45-44.  Now, after his team seemed to stop paying attention with over a quarter to go, A&M’s Kevin Sumlin is on the hot seat more than ever, and I agree that firing him may be in the school’s best interests this coming offseason.

 

Week One Power Rankings

1. Alabama (1-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
After maybe the biggest opening-weekend game ever, the Crimson Tide don’t play another ranked team until October 21, and don’t leave Tuscaloosa until September 23.

2. Ohio State (1-0, LW: 4th, AP: 2nd)
The Buckeyes didn’t play their best 60 minutes against Indiana, but they will if they want to beat Oklahoma on Saturday.

3. Penn State (1-0, LW: 5th, AP: 4th)
Penn State quietly had no trouble whatsoever with Akron (52-0 win), and now will try to avenge last year’s loss to Pittsburgh that kept them out of the Playoff.

4. USC (1-0, LW: 2nd, AP: 6th)
If the Trojans play Stanford like they played in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan, they’ll be fine.  If they don’t, they may be in for a long night.  Stanford won their opener against Rice, 62-7 in Australia.

5. Oklahoma State (1-0, LW: 6th, AP: 11th)
The Cowboys had no problem with Tulsa and shouldn’t with South Alabama this week, but the schedule will get tougher after that (at Pittsburgh, TCU).

6. Oklahoma (1-0, LW: 7th, AP: 5th)
Oklahoma will have revenge on their mind against Ohio State after last year’s loss, but will be in a tough environment at The Horseshoe in Columbus.  The Sooners beat UTEP in their opener, 56-7.

7. Michigan (1-0, LW: 13th, AP: 8th)
The Wolverines may have had the most impressive non-Alabama win of the weekend; that inexperience that many pundits (myself included) were concerned about wasn’t a factor on the big stage against Florida.

8. Auburn (1-0, LW: 8th, AP: 13th)
After Auburn’s 2010 national title, their first loss the following season came at Clemson.  Can Auburn now return the favor?  The Tigers are coming off a 41-7 win over Georgia Southern.

9. Clemson (1-0, LW: 9th, AP: 3rd)
Clemson beat Kent State, 56-3, in the first game without many of their championship stars.  We’ll know soon how good some of their replacements are–Auburn comes to town Saturday night.

10. Florida State (0-1, LW: 3rd, AP: 10th)
I’m not sure which is worse for the Seminoles long-term:  the loss to an Alabama team that looked darn-near unbeatable, or the loss of QB Deondre Francois for the year.  The ‘Noles get Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday, but can’t rest on their laurels with Miami looming next week.

Worth a Mention:  Howard (1-0)
The Bison of Howard, coming of a 2-9 campaign in the MEAC, became the biggest point-spread underdogs to ever win a game when they beat UNLV on Saturday in Las Vegas, 43-40, as 45-point underdogs.  Howard QB Caylin Newton, the brother of former NFL MVP Cam Newton, rushed for 190 yards and two touchdowns, also passing for 140 yards and a touchdown.  While the Runnin’ Rebels were 4-8 in 2016, beating them is still a high mark for Howard, in their first season under former Virginia coach Mike London.

11. Wisconsin (1-0, LW: 11th, AP: 9th)
12. Washington (1-0, LW: 12th, AP: 7th)
13. Georgia (1-0, LW: 14th, AP: 15th)
14. Miami (1-0, LW: 15th, AP: 16th)
15. Stanford (1-0, LW: 16th, AP: 14th)

16. LSU (1-0, LW: 17th, AP: 12th)
17. Kansas State (1-0, LW: 18th, AP: 19th)
18. Virginia Tech (1-0, LW: 22nd, AP: 18th)
19. Florida (0-1, LW: 10th, AP: 22nd)
20. Utah (1-0, LW: 21st, AP: unranked)

21. Louisville (1-0, LW: 20th, AP: 17th)
22. South Florida (2-0, LW: 19th, AP: 21st)
23. Northwestern (1-0, LW: 23rd, AP: unranked)
24. Tennessee (1-0, LW: 24th, AP: 25th)
25. UCLA (1-0, LW: unranked, AP: unranked)

Fell from Rankings:  West Virginia (0-1, LW: 25th)

Also Ranked in AP Poll:  Washington State (1-0, 20th), TCU (1-0, 23rd), Notre Dame (1-0, 24th)

 

 

Twitter Picks for College Football Week One

Game of the Week
#1 Alabama vs. #3 Florida State
at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga.
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC
Betting Favorite:  Alabama by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Alabama- 1st, Florida State- 3rd

 

Big Game Guarantee
#22 West Virginia vs. #21 Virginia Tech
at FedEx Field, Landover, Md.
Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Betting Favorite:  Virginia Tech by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  West Virginia- 25th, Virginia Tech- 22nd

 

Upset of the Week
Wyoming at Iowa
Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, BTN
Betting Favorite:  Iowa by 12
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

Correction:  Wyoming’s mascot is the Cowboys, not the Coyotes as listed in the above tweet.

 

Closer Than the Experts Think
Appalachian State at #15 Georgia
Saturday, 6:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Betting Favorite:  Georgia by 14
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Appalachian State- unranked, Georgia- 14th

 

Not Closer Than the Experts Think
#25 Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech
at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga.
Monday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Betting Favorite:  Tennessee by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Tennessee- 24th, Georgia Tech- unranked

 

Overhyped Game
#2 Ohio State at Indiana
Thursday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Betting Favorite:  Ohio State by 21
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Ohio State- 4th, Indiana- unranked

 

Group of Five Game of the Week
BYU vs. #13 LSU
at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La. (relocated from Houston, Tex.)
Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Betting Favorite:  LSU by 15
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  BYU- unranked, LSU- 17th

 

Is This Futbol?
#11 Michigan vs. #17 Florida
at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Tex.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Betting Favorite:  Michigan by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Michigan- 13th, Florida- 10th

 

Is This Basketball?
Texas A&M at UCLA
Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Betting Favorite:  UCLA by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Toilet Bowl
California at North Carolina
Saturday, 12:20 p.m. ET, ACC Network
Betting Favorite:  North Carolina by 12
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Miscellaneous:  A Border War In My Neck of the Woods
South Carolina vs. NC State
at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Betting Favorite:  NC State by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

 

For what it’s worth… here’s last year’s Twitter Picks results:

Overall Record: 80-54-1
College Overall Record: 67-48
NFL Game of the Week: 13-6-1

Game of the Week: 10-5
Big Game Guarantee: 3-7
Upset of the Week: 4-6
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-6
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-3
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 5-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 7-3
Is This Futbol?: 8-2
Is This Basketball?: 8-2
Toilet Bowl: 6-4
Miscellaneous: 5-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

2017 College Football Preview

After the offseason, the “talking season” (as Steve Spurrier calls it), and about a month of practice, the college football season begins tonight (with the exception of the couple of games last weekend).

Everyone thinks they know what is going to happen this season, and I’ll take my own stab at it here, but there’s a reason they play the games–you know, to prove all the pundits wrong.

So yeah, don’t take these picks to the casino.  And if you need any further proof of that, here’s last year’s preseason rankings, from which two of the top 10 have had coaches fired since.

That said, here is my best guess on the 25 best teams entering the season, plus 25 games that will go a long way towards determining who ultimately makes the College Football Playoff and wins the national title, and my predicted order of finish in each conference.

25 Teams to Watch

(AP rank in parentheses)

1. Alabama (1st)
Last Year:  (14-1, 8-0 SEC, lost national championship game)
As well as Nick Saban churns out talent year after year, even after losing several players to graduation or the draft, it’s become wise to rank Alabama #1 at this time of year until someone else proves otherwise.  That said, the Crimson Tide have actually not won a championship under Saban in any year they’ve been ranked #1 in the preseason, something they’ll try to do this year.

2. USC (4th)
Last Year:  (10-3, 7-2 Pac-12, Rose Bowl champions)
The Trojans finished last season as one of the hottest teams in the nation, winning nine straight including a Rose Bowl thriller over Penn State.  Now, with one of the nation’s best players in QB Sam Darnold, they’ll try to avoid their recent preseason rankings curse:  the last three times the Trojans have started the season ranked in the top 10 (including 2012 as preseason #1), they have finished unranked twice and #22 in 2014.

3. Florida State (3rd)
Last Year:  (10-3, 5-3 ACC)
Last year’s Seminoles team was picked fourth by both myself and the AP Poll, but lost three times including two close games.  This year’s team returns 15 starters, and has the talent to contend for a national title.  But it won’t be easy; the ‘Noles open with Alabama in Atlanta, and meet both Clemson and Florida on the road.

4. Ohio State (2nd)
Last Year:  (11-2, 8-1 Big Ten, College Football Playoff semifinalist)
The last two times an Urban Meyer-coached team lost a bowl game, they won the national title the following season.  Guess what?  The Buckeyes lost their bowl game (31-0 to Clemson in a Playoff semifinal), and they have a team capable of repeating that history.  Senior QB J.T. Barrett has as much experience as any team leader in college football, although the first task is leading the team to a division title in a Big Ten East that includes Penn State and Michigan.

5. Penn State (6th)
Last Year:  (11-3, 8-1 Big Ten, Big Ten champions)
2016’s biggest surprise may have been Penn State’s run to the Big Ten title, narrowly missing the College Football Playoff.  With both QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley returning, complimented by a strong defense, the Nittany Lions are capable of repeating their conference title, though the biggest roadblock is an October 28 trip to Ohio State.

6. Oklahoma State (10th)
Last Year:  (10-3, 7-2 Big 12)
The Cowboys came within one win of a Big 12 title last year, and their fans will remind you they should 11-2 last season (an officiating error–later admitted by the Big 12–cost them a win against Central Michigan).  The 12 starters that return include QB Mason Rudolph and several other of their strongest players from last year, and their biggest game–“Bedlam” against Oklahoma–is at home, serving as a potential preview of the reborn Big 12 Championship Game.

7. Oklahoma (7th)
Last Year:  (11-2, 9-0 Big 12, Big 12 champions)
After winning their final 10 games last year, the Sooners have some momentum, but also a new head coach in Lincoln Riley after Bob Stoops’ abrupt departure.  QB Baker Mayfield is one of the nation’s best, and the team’s depth and talent won’t be a problem–but road games at Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Kansas State may be.

8. Auburn (12th)
Last Year:  (8-5, 5-3 SEC)
The Tigers got as high as ninth in these rankings last year, and two of their losses were to national finalists Alabama and Clemson.  Now they’re the most experienced team in the SEC and add Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham at QB, the best passer Gus Malzahn has had since Cam Newton.  They’ll be tested early, at Clemson on September 9, and late, against Alabama at home on November 25.

9. Clemson (5th)
Last Year:  (14-1, 7-1 ACC, national champions)
The Tigers won their first title since 1981 last season, but the key this year will be how quickly the Tigers rebound from losing key players, especially offensively, including QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman and three of their top four receivers.  Adapting will be easier with their toughest two games, Auburn and Florida State, at Death Valley, but don’t underestimate an early trip to Virginia Tech.

10. Florida (17th)
Last Year:  (9-4, 6-2 SEC, SEC East champions)
The recurring theme in Gainesville has been a strong defense with a struggling offense, first under Will Muschamp and now Jim McElwain, but the offense should be better this year, with strong units at RB and WR and choices at QB.  The Gators will be tested early, meeting Michigan this weekend in Arlington, Tex. with 10 players suspended, but the overall schedule is favorable for the Gators to win the SEC East for a third straight year.

11. Wisconsin (AP Rank: 9th; Last Year:  11-3, 7-2 Big Ten, Big Ten West champions)
12. Washington (8th; 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12, College Football Playoff semifinalist)
13. Michigan (11th; 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten)
14. Georgia (15th; 8-5, 4-4 SEC)
15. Miami (18th; 9-4, 5-3 ACC)

16. Stanford (14th; 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12)
17. LSU (13th; 8-4, 5-3 SEC)
18. Kansas State (20th; 9-4, 6-3 Big 12)
19. South Florida (19th; 11-2, 7-2 American)
20. Louisville (16th; 9-4, 7-1 ACC, Heisman winner Lamar Jackson returns)

21. Utah (unranked; 9-4, 5-4 Pac-12)
22. Virginia Tech (21st; 10-4, 6-2 ACC, ACC Coastal champions)
23. Northwestern (unranked; 7-6, 5-4 Big Ten)
24. Tennessee (25th; 9-4, 4-4 SEC)
25. West Virginia (22nd; 10-3, 7-2 Big 12)

Also considered:  NC State, Texas A&M, UCLA, Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa, Oregon, Texas, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, TCU, BYU, Appalachian State, Washington State, Pittsburgh

Also ranked in AP Poll:  Texas (23rd), Washington State (24th)

25 Games to Watch

September 2
Florida vs. Michigan (Arlington, Tex.), 3:30 p.m., ABC
Alabama vs. Florida State (Atlanta), 8:00 p.m., ABC

September 9
Auburn at Clemson, 7:00 p.m., ESPN
Oklahoma at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., ABC
Stanford at USC, 8:30 p.m., FOX

September 16
Clemson at Louisville, 3:30 p.m., ABC or ESPN
Miami at Florida State, 8:00 p.m., ABC

September 30
Northwestern at Wisconsin
Clemson at Virginia Tech

October 14
Utah at USC

October 21
Michigan at Penn State
Oklahoma at Kansas State
Louisville at Florida State

October 28
Penn State at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., FOX
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.), 3:30 p.m., CBS

November 4
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
LSU at Alabama
Virginia Tech at Miami

November 10
Washington at Stanford, 10:30 p.m., FS1

November 11
Florida State at Clemson
Georgia State at Auburn

November 18
Michigan at Wisconsin

November 25
Ohio State at Michigan, 12:00 p.m., FOX
Florida State at Florida
Alabama at Auburn

Conference Predictions

ACC

Atlantic Division

At the top, the ACC Atlantic is as good as any division in football, putting a team in the College Football Playoff in its first three years of existence and the BCS Championship Game the year before that.

That streak could very well continue, with Florida State and Clemson’s November 11th meeting looming large.  Louisville returns Heisman winning QB Lamar Jackson, and NC State is a sleeper as one of the most experienced teams in the country.

1. Florida State
2. Clemson
3. Louisville
4. NC State
5. Wake Forest
6. Boston College
7. Syracuse

 

Coastal Division

The Coastal is typically one of the hardest divisions to pick, but this year it’s easier with a clear top two ahead of the pack.

Miami’s 15 returning starters in Mark Richt’s second season give them a slight edge over Virginia Tech, as big interdivision games–Miami at Florida State, Clemson at Virginia Tech–could play a role in who wins the Coastal, in addition to Miami and Virginia Tech’s game against each other on November 4.

1. Miami
2. Virginia
3. Pittsburgh
4. North Carolina
5. Georgia Tech
6. Duke
7. Virginia

Championship Game:  Florida State over Miami

 

Big Ten

East Division

The Big Ten East ranks among the best divisions in football, with three teams that contended for the College Football Playoff last year.

Those three are the three favorites again in for the division title, with the general consensus picking Ohio State by a nose over Penn State, with Michigan third.

With three contenders comes three defining games:  Michigan at Penn State on October 21, Penn State at Ohio State on October 28 and Ohio State at Michigan on November 25.  Two East teams play the primetime opener tonight, as Ohio State travels to Indiana.

1. Ohio State
2. Penn State
3. Michigan
4. Indiana
5. Michigan State
6. Maryland
7. Rutgers

 

West Division

While the West is overshadowed by their league’s other division, it could also have quite a race.  Wisconsin is the clear favorite, but five teams have a realistic chance.

Northwestern has 16 returning starters, Minnesota will be motivated with vocal new head coach P.J. Fleck, and Iowa and Nebraska can stay with anyone in their rugged Midwestern style of football.

Northwestern avoids the big three from the East, while Wisconsin and Minnesota only meet one of the three, and Iowa and Nebraska play two of them.

1. Wisconsin
2. Northwestern
3. Minnesota
4. Iowa
5. Nebraska
6. Purdue
7. Illinois

Championship Game:  Ohio State over Wisconsin

 

Big 12

The Big 12 discontinued its championship game in 2010 after the conference retracted from 12 teams to 10, but this year the title game returns, as the top two in the regular season standings will qualify for the December 2nd game in Arlington, Tex.

Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are the two favorites to reach that game, with the most talented teams and the most big-game experience in the league.

However, Kansas State and West Virginia may have something to say, and Texas has the talent to contend, depending on if Tom Herman’s turnaround can happen overnight.

1. Oklahoma State
2. Oklahoma
3. Kansas State
4. West Virginia
5. Texas
6. TCU
7. Baylor
8. Texas Tech
9. Iowa State
10. Kansas

Championship Game:  Oklahoma State over Oklahoma

 

Pac-12

South Division

National contender USC is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South, and may be the best of any team in the division at each position on the field.

That said, UCLA should be a solid team if QB Josh Rosen can stay healthy (he didn’t last year), although they have a brutal schedule, while Utah is young but is promising on defense.  Colorado won this division last year, but lost a ton of experience from that team.

1. USC
2. UCLA
3. Utah
4. Colorado
5. Arizona State
6. Arizona

 

North Division

Washington made the College Football Playoff last year as the Pac-12 champion, and returns solid experience from that team while avoiding USC from the South on their conference schedule.

Their game against Stanford may decide the division (November 10) as the Cardinal, who are one of the most consistent teams this decade, have lost key skill players but are experienced elsewhere and could threaten to take the Huskies’ crown.

Offensive juggernauts Oregon, with new coach Willie Taggart, and Washington State are both sleepers here.

1. Washington
2. Stanford
3. Oregon
4. Washington State
5. Oregon State
6. California

Championship Game:  USC over Washington

 

SEC

West Division

With Alabama as the favorite to win it all, they’re naturally the favorites in the SEC West, although that won’t be a cakewalk.

Auburn boasts the league’s most experienced team and the best QB they’ve had in a while in transfer Jarrett Stidham, and while LSU isn’t as strong on the experience front they are talented, as always.  Beneath the top three chances lessen, although Mississippi State is a potential surprise contender.  Ole Miss is in dysfunction after Hugh Freeze’s ouster, and that is likely to show on the field this year.

1. Alabama
2. Auburn
3. LSU
4. Texas A&M
5. Mississippi State
6. Arkansas
7. Ole Miss

 

East Division

While Florida and Georgia are the relatively easy top two picks in the SEC East, there are actually six teams with a realistic shot at winning it if the top two falter.

Tennessee can match Florida and Georgia on a talent level, and perhaps will surprise this year after being picked by everyone to win the East last year and falling short.  Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt would all need a best-case-scenario-type season and maybe some help, but all three are trending upward.

1. Florida
2. Georgia
3. Tennessee
4. Kentucky
5. South Carolina
6. Vanderbilt
7. Missouri

Championship Game:  Alabama over Florida

 

Best Teams From the “Group of Five” Conferences

The highest-ranked team among conference champions from the Group of Five conferences (the five FBS conferences that are not “Power Five” leagues) qualifies for a New Year’s Six bowl.

The leading candidate for this spot is South Florida, who is the favorite in the American Athletic Conference, the best league among the Group of Five.  The Bulls, led by former Texas coach Charlie Strong in his first season, are experienced and strong–no pun intended–at many positions, including Heisman dark horse QB Quinton Flowers.

Houston, who should be able to overcome a coaching change since Major Applewhite was promoted from within, is the biggest threat to South Florida in the American, while Appalachian State, who has won 27 of their last 32 games and opens the season at Georgia, may be the biggest threat to the Bulls regarding New Year’s Six status.

1. South Florida (American)
2. Appalachian State (Sun Belt)
3. Houston (American)
4. San Diego State (Mountain West)
5. Colorado State (Mountain West)

Group of Five Championship Games:

American:  South Florida over Houston
Conference-USA:  Western Kentucky over Louisiana Tech
Mid-American:  Toledo over Ohio
Mountain West:  San Diego State over Colorado State
Sun Belt:  Appalachian State wins regular season title over Arkansas State (no title game)

Fans Week Roundtable, Part II: Sports Heroes and Hysteria

In Part I of my Stiles on Sports Fans Week roundtable discussion with Justin Kenley (Cardinals, Panthers, North Carolina fan), Ryan Pittman (Cubs, Packers, South Carolina fan) and Garrett Black (Clemson fan), we discussed both exciting wins and heartbreaking losses they’ve experienced as fans.

In Part II, I asked more about their fan experiences, including who they admire on the field and the crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.

 

SOS:  Who is your favorite player, and why?

Justin:  For the Panthers it’s hard, but I’ve got to say Luke (Kuechly).  And not even just from that fandom perspective; I just love how he brings it every single play.  The dude is everywhere.  And I guess that’s something that, as a fan, you appreciate a guy going all out.

For the Tar Heels, it’s hard man.  I love me some Marcus Paige, though.  I just love his story.  Kind of a guy that not a lot of people knew, coming out (of high school), and “is he really going to be that good,” and to carry the team the last two years the way he did, that was just, I love Marcus Paige.

And Cardinals, good gosh, if this was six years ago, I would’ve said (Albert) Pujols, without even a wink, definitely.  I don’t know, man, I like so many of them, for different reasons.  There’s very few guys that we’ve had in the last few years that I said, “man, I just don’t like that person.”  If I had to say my top ones, I love Molina (Yadier Molina), because I was a catcher, and I think he’s just amazing at what he does.  I love the way Carp (Matt Carpenter) plays, I love the way Waino (Adam Wainwright) pitches, and then… it’s hard to narrow that one down.

Ryan:  There are three.  Jason Grilli is probably my favorite player of all time.  I met him when I was 10 years old at a baseball camp in Toledo.  He actually taught me how to bunt.  He’s a relief pitcher, and he was a nobody then, and I guess he’s kind of a nobody now, but he’s had some times where he’s been closer with the Pirates, he’s been closer with the Braves, and the occasional game saved for the Blue Jays now.

I met him 12 years ago when he was nobody, and I’ve watched him ascend throughout the major leagues, and he’s almost 40 now and still pitching.  It’s kind of cool to be like, hey, I’ve got his autograph right there.  It’s kind of cool.

Another is Omar Infante.  I just watched him growing up, and he played the same position I did, and he played for the Mud Hens in Toledo.  He played shortstop, then moved to second base; I played shortstop, then moved to second base.  And it was kind of cool.

Carlos Pena is also on that list.  There was one time I called him over to sign his baseball card, and they asked everyone to stand for the national anthem.  He’s holding my pen and my baseball card, and he says “Hold on,” and puts it on the railing, turns to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem, then he grabs the card, signs it, and then runs over to first base to play.  He went from me to first base to start the game, and it was just really cool.

And then he went on the next year, two years later, to hit 40-something home runs for those same Rays that I described earlier, the ’08 Rays, and he became a huge power hitter, and I still remembered that fond memory as a kid.  Kind of changed the way I think about professional athletes.

Garrett:  I’m gonna have to go with Hunter Renfrow.  Not only did he catch the winning touchdown, but he’s got the story and the character to go behind it, and it’s just great to see a former walk-on catch a touchdown and then be vainly tackled by three future draft prospects.

 

SOS:  Who is a “role player” you’ve always liked, and why?

Justin:  Easily Skip Schumaker.  Just a guy that comes, and didn’t matter where he was playing, he was going to bring it, every day.

I’ll never forget in 2013, we went to St. Louis for my graduation present, and the Dodgers were playing, and it was the first time Skip had come back to St. Louis after he got let go, and man, Skip Schumaker, who a lot of people wouldn’t know his name, he got a standing ovation from like 40,000 people in Busch Stadium, and it was awesome.  It was just really, really cool.

If you know the Cardinals, you appreciate what he did.  Because he could play second base, right field, pinch hit.  You knew he was going to do something.

Ryan:  I’ve always been a fan of utility players in baseball.  Currently Ben Zobrist fits that, and I guess there are so many now.  It used to be a lot more rare.

Guys like Martin Prado, who’d play every infield position and every outfield position, and I appreciate that, they might not have a set position that they’re best at, but their bat is valuable enough and their leadership is valuable enough their team can’t take them out.  So they might not have an everyday spot, but they play everyday.

Garrett:  I really have to appreciate Cole Stoudt.  Can we call a backup quarterback a role player?  Because he was never gonna be the guy.

I mean, he was a starting guy, but the expectation was never to win a championship with Cole Stoudt.  But I think he provided leadership to keep the team together, in the Tajh (Boyd) to Deshaun (Watson) handoff, and got hurt just in time for Deshaun to come.  But I think the kind of leadership he provided for the team, in that transition year between Tajh and Deshaun truly taking over, kind of kept that team together.

SOS:  That’s interesting, because that’s not necessarily a popular opinion in Clemson fan circles.

Garrett:  Here’s the thing:  at any other school that wasn’t swimming in quarterback prospects, like Clemson has been lately, Cole Stoudt could’ve started.  I mean, he wasn’t great, and to be fair we kind of got spoiled with Tajh, so we kind of expected we’d get that kind of production, and to be fair we got better later on, but we should’ve known it was going to get worse before it got better.

 

SOS:  Besides your favorite teams’ known archrivals, who is one team you can’t stand?

Justin:  I really don’t like the Reds, but I feel like that falls in that rivalry a little bit.  There’s a couple of NFL teams I don’t like.  Really, the AFC North.  The Ravens, the Bengals, and (my fiance) Courtney would kill me because Courtney is a Bengals fan, but just, the way they play just irks me.  There’s not one team—I hate the Patriots, obviously, but I feel like everybody hates the Patriots, so I feel like that doesn’t really count.

I will say in basketball, I really don’t like Kentucky.  Kentucky just, I love beating Kentucky.  I don’t mind the whole one-and-done movement to an extent, but I kind of hate the way they’ve done it, and I just, I don’t really like Kentucky.

Ryan:  Typically because of fantasy sports, I don’t hate any team, because I need their players.  That’s tricky.

I don’t like the Mets.  I really don’t like the Royals either.   I feel kind of bad saying it, but like the kind of players they had that have now since passed who were frustrating to watch, you know, Yordano Ventura was just annoying… rest in peace.  He was trying to cause fights, and they seemed to be getting into fights with other teams because they didn’t think they were getting the respect they deserved, and I was like, “come on, play the game, earn the respect,” and that was really frustrating recently.  But yeah, the Mets.  The Mets just always beat my team, knocked us out.

Garrett:  Everyone hates Alabama, but we just beat them so I don’t have as much hatred in my heart anymore.  I’m probably going to have to go with Florida State next, although that’s a division rivalry.  It’s hard to hate Pitt (laughs).

I loved beating Ohio State (in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl).  That felt good.  Because everyone was telling us how Urban Meyer’s like the best coach ever, and to be fair, he’s a great coach, but it feels good to topple the big guys.

 

SOS:  Who is one team you wish you had been alive to watch or old enough to remember?

Justin:  I would have loved to seen, and I don’t have a pinpoint year, but I would’ve loved to have seen Stan Musial play for the Cardinals.  Just because he meant so much to my grandpa; I mean, that was my grandpa’s dude.

Ryan:  Actually there’s two.  The Yankees, back when they were with Babe Ruth, and Joe DiMaggio, and those Yankee greats, I’d love to see one of those Yankee teams play.  And then, more recently, but still before me, was the Big Red Machine.  Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan

SOS: Pete Rose

Ryan:  Yeah, I’d love to go back and watch them, because they were a dominant team, but they weren’t in a big city.  They were small market Reds winning games, pretty cool.

Garrett:  ’81 (Clemson), obviously.  That was the other golden era.

 

SOS:  Do you have any strange superstitions when your favorite teams play?

Justin:  If I go to one game, and what I wear works, I wear the same thing again.

Two years ago in the (NFL) playoffs, the first day we went it wasn’t that cold, so I wore my Luke Kuechly jersey, and just a hat or whatever, but then the next game it was really cold, it got colder, and I didn’t care, I just wore the same thing.  We won in this last time, I’ll win in it again.

I’ve never been like a crazy superstitious kind of guy.  I will always, though, if I’m watching my team play, I’m going to wear something of that team.  I will do that, even if it’s just sitting on the couch.

Ryan:  Sometimes, in a game that really matters, in football or baseball playoffs, something like that, if my team is struggling, say, two-thirds of the way through the game, and I’m not wearing any gear of that team, I’ll go track down a Cubs hat or a jersey or a Packers t-shirt, just to see if (it helps), just supporting.  Never the opposite, though.  If I’m wearing gear and they lose, I don’t take it off, but sometimes you’ll get halfway through a game and go, “oh shoot, I’m not supporting my team,” so you do whatever you can to make them get back in business.

Garrett:  I have a mechanical tiger that plays Tiger Rag.  He used to dance, but the wheels broke.  Every time we score any points, I always click his paw and make him play the Tiger Rag song, and while this probably has more to do with Dabo (Swinney) and Deshaun (Watson), it has only been wrong, like, three times in the last four seasons.

SOS:  What do you mean, “it’s only been wrong”?

Garrett:  Like, whenever I hit the button every time when we play, we always win.  Again, that probably has more to do with the players, but I like to think I’m contributing.

 

SOS:  What is a crazy or unique experience you’ve had while watching a game?

Justin:  I remember, it was so funny, because my dad is not a guy to like freak out on TV.  At the game, he’ll freak out and stuff, and yell, but on TV he just doesn’t.  And I vividly remember when Marcus Paige hit that shot (to tie the game) against Villanova last year, the shot that no one will ever remember except Carolina fans, my dad jumped off the couch and just screamed his head off, and was pumped.

And I remember, it was just so funny, because obviously I was caught up in the moment, freaking out, but it was just funny to me, because I was like, “my dad never gets this into it in a game.”

The Seahawks game two years ago in the playoffs (was crazy).  We made that huge run, 15-1, divisional playoffs, and I kid you not, the upper deck where we were sitting at, we did not sit down for the entirety of that game.

Like, we were up at first half, at kickoff, when they came out of the tunnel, and then we sat down at halftime, and then when the clock hit zero we left.  And it was just crazy.  Because like, I’ve been at games where you stand a lot, but just the way that season was rolling, and the electricity in the air, you didn’t want to sit down, and so that was pretty crazy.

I about hit Courtney in the face this year, when Luke Maye hit that shot against Kentucky.  I really did.  I was punching the air, I was going nuts.

I will say, I am really weird about, like—regular season, and I can just sit on my couch and chill, but like, if it’s the playoffs, I bring a chair, and I sit probably as close as me and you to the TV, and I’m in it.  I’m in it.  Because it’s every pitch.

Ryan:  I was at Wrigley Field in 2003 when Barry Bonds, in batting practice, hit a baseball over Sheffield, through a window across the street, and that video’s kind of gone popular now, a cool “I didn’t do it,” you know, that was pretty funny though, just to—I don’t think he even noticed that it was out there, and it was like “did he just…?”  Yeah, he just hit one across the street, through a window.  That stands out.

I seem to have been to a lot of games where Top 10 plays happen on SportsCenter.  You were at one where Andrelton Simmons made that sick play against the Mets that we didn’t see because people (standing in the aisle) blocked us.

SOS:  I kind of saw it.  You were a little more blocked.  The best play I’ve ever seen live.

Ryan:  It’s kind of cool, you see it in person and then the next day it’s #1 on SportsCenter.  I was at a Hawks and 76ers game and a dunk made #1 on SportsCenter, and I was sitting right there watching it.  That’s pretty sweet.

Garrett:  The year of the “Kick Six” in the Iron Bowl, we were sitting in a beach house, and the Iron Bowl was taking a little long to finish that year, so we had the Iron Bowl going on here (on one TV), and the Clemson-(South) Carolina game going on here (on another TV).

And I would much rather see us win and Alabama win—I don’t like Alabama, but I’d rather–I’d trade an Alabama win for a Clemson win, if that makes sense—but I was incredibly ecstatic watching, what’s his name, Chris Davis run that kick, that (missed) field goal back for a touchdown, but then my joy quickly turned into despair when Tajh Boyd proceeded to throw like six interceptions.

 

Tomorrow, Fans Week continues with a look at some of the crazy things I’ve ever heard and seen from fans at sporting events. 

Fans Week Roundtable, Part I: Gratifying Wins and Gut-Wrenching Losses

Most of us aren’t members of any team or coaching staff in any pro or college sport, but there is one position we all hold:  fan.

This week, Stiles on Sports will glimpse at the admiration for our favorite teams and players, the exciting wins, and the heartbreaking close calls that are all a part of fanhood.

Welcome to Fans Week.

To start, I talked to three friends (and fellow recent graduates of Anderson University) who are as big of sports fans as I am in a roundtable discussion about their experiences as a fan.

All three have had one or more teams they pull for win championships in recent years, and all have had agonizing near misses too.

Justin Kenley is a St. Louis Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and North Carolina Tar Heels fan.

Ryan Pittman pulls for the Chicago Cubs, Green Bay Packers and South Carolina Gamecocks.

Garrett Black is a Clemson Tigers football fan.  While he only has one team he is a diehard fan of, following that team has been a roller coaster ride over the last few years.

Our conversations covered the full gauntlet of fanhood:  Part I of this two-part roundtable includes discussion on joyous championship occasions and agonizing losses.

 

SOS:  What is your best win as a fan?

Justin:  It’s got to be Game 6 (of the World Series) in 2011.

It was on a Thursday night, and I had a cross country meet Friday morning, and I had to run at 7:30, so we had to be at the meet at 6:15.  Our coach was the kind of guy that you’re in bed by 9:00 on those nights, and I was like, “nah, I can’t go to sleep.”

I was sitting on the edge of our ottoman, and my mom and dad were in there, and I remember thinking we were really done.  And when David Freese hit that triple, I lost my stinking mind.  I just went crazy.  And then, obviously, the next inning, Josh Hamilton hits a home run (for Texas), and then Lance Berkman ties it up again, and then obviously the home run in the 11th.

Honestly, the home run in the 11th, I didn’t freak out nearly as bad as I did for the triple and the single, because it was just the moment, with two strikes, down to your last pitch, but yeah, it’s got to be that.  Game 7 was kind of a letdown too–well, not for me, but as a game.

Ryan:  Probably South Carolina baseball in, I think it would’ve been 2011, they played UConn in the Super Regional, and it was at Carolina Stadium, and I was actually able to go, and I was there when they clinched it to go to Omaha.

As a fan, actually being there for that, seeing the celebration–you know, you watch other teams win on TV and stuff, but actually being there and watching them make the dogpile in the middle, that’s a priceless moment.

And obviously, my greatest sports thing as a fan ever was when the Cubs won the World Series last year.  I’ve never been happier in my life.  I was watching a team that I thought never could win win, and that was pretty spectacular too.

SOS:  Garrett, as a Clemson fan I guess yours is pretty obvious.

Garrett:  Well, let me tell you about a game that happened this past January… (laugh)

SOS:  What was that like as a fan?

Garrett:  I lost my mind.  My younger brother actually took a video of my reaction.  I go in and out of the frame multiple times because I spent the next 30 seconds to a minute just kind of screaming and running around the room.

 

SOS:  What is your worst loss as a fan?

Justin:  I’ve gotta go with the Super Bowl loss…not to the Patriots but to the Broncos.  Villanova (beating North Carolina in 2016) sucked, but just growing up in Charlotte, and loving the Panthers, and just to see the electricity that that team was bringing to Charlotte, and to be on such a roll, and then to just fall short, that hurt.

I was awful mad that night.  Because I had to drive back two-and-a-half hours from my home, because we had a Super Bowl party, and that was not a fun ride back.  Because I still think, and call me a biased fan, but I still think if we play them 10 times, we win seven of them.  I really do think that, especially that year, and they just didn’t play good, so that sucked.  Villanova’s up there, but that one really sucked.

Ryan:  I’ve got to go back to the Packers when they were playing the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.

They had the huge lead in the fourth quarter (19-7), and the Seahawks got a miraculous touchdown with like, what was it, 30 seconds or a minute left, and then freaking, was it… Bostick, Brandon Bostick, decided not to block, decided to be a hero and field the onside kick, and he ended up becoming the villain, and the Packers lost that game, which I thought was a game they should have easily won, and been in the Super Bowl that year.  And that was painful.

Garrett:  I’m probably going to have to go with the Orange Bowl loss (to West Virginia in 2012, 70-33).  Just, I remember me and my dad watching it, and I think we were down two or three scores, and we’re like, okay, now’s the time to buckle down and get with it, and I think we allowed another two touchdowns within—I mean, West Virginia was scoring all over the place that game.  So we just turned the TV off, and we didn’t speak for the rest of the night.  It was tough.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff win stands out in your memory?

Justin:  Two years ago, we were playing the Cubs in the regular season, and it was just one of those frustrating nights, the ball didn’t seem to bounce our way, nothing really happened, and then the ninth inning with two outs, Jhonny Peralta hits a line drive over the left-center field wall in Wrigley Field.

And it was just awesome to see Wrigley Field so pumped and excited, and then the air was let out of that place.  And I think if I remember correctly, they went on to win it in the 10th.  Which, it’s kind of funny that that’s a baseball game, because one out of 162, but that one stuck out in my mind.

Another one I remember… I was at Bank of America Stadium the year before we made the big run, and we went 12-4, and it was when we played the Saints, in the monsoon game.  And literally, I was up in the upper deck and couldn’t even see the field, because the rain was so bad.  It was that bad.  But that kind of like Cam (Newton)’s emergence, leading us to a division title and stuff, and that game sealed the NFC South for us.  That was awesome.

Ryan:  This is going to be a little off the grid…

SOS: That’s the point of the question.

Ryan: I think it was two or three years ago, South Carolina basketball was in the SEC Tournament as like a 13-seed, and all of a sudden they won a couple of games and made it to the quarterfinals and lost there.  It wasn’t a great season, but those two wins, I think were against Auburn and another crappy team in the SEC, but it was like—in my opinion those wins were big, because I was like, “hey look, we’re winning in the tournament.” It was symbolic to the fact that it was going to get better.  So at the time, obviously, it’s not a huge deal when a 13-seed beats a 12-seed, or something like that, it’s not a big deal…

SOS: But the next day beat a 5-seed, I think.  I want to say it was Arkansas.

Ryan: Yeah, it’s like wow, here we are, it’s a game that didn’t really matter but it gave me hope as a fan.

Garrett:  When Deshaun (Watson) snapped the losing streak against (South) Carolina, and he was playing on, what, a torn ACL, and it was a home game, in fairness, but five losses in a rivalry that heated, in a row, that was like being able to breathe air again.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff loss stands out, or “still stings”?

Justin:  Any time we lose to Duke, I hate it.  I almost treat the Duke games like playoff games.  And obviously there’s playoff losses that sting, but just regular season games—there’s always a game that where like, “man, we had that.”

I also hated when (the Panthers) lost to Atlanta, when we went 15-1.  That really stung.  Because I really thought, “we’re going to go undefeated this year.”  Only two games away from doing it, and then to win in the fashion we did in Week 17, it would’ve been nice to have won in Week 16.

Ryan:  This is going to go way back.  Wow, it must have been ’03 or ’04.  The Cubs were playing the Brewers at Miller Park.  Craig Counsell hit a leadoff home run, and the Brewers won the game 1-0.

I watched that entire game as a 10-year old, like, come on, come on, let’s get a run, like, can we score a run, because the pitching was great, and that game still stands out, because, like, the first inning home run, you can get so much time to come back, you’ve still got 24 outs to work with, and…. no.  That loss stands out.  It didn’t affect anything, but that’s a non-championship, non-playoff loss that stands out.

Garrett:  The one that’s freshest on my mind is the loss to Pitt this year, because we were the better football team, we were at home, we should’ve won that game.

But we were kind of resting on how good we were supposed to be, and not actually playing to our full potential, and I think had we won that game we wouldn’t have won the national championship.

 

SOS:  Who is one team that didn’t win a championship that you are particularly fond of?

Justin:  I loved the 2013 Cardinals.  I thought that team was loaded.  I still think we were the best team that year.  I loved our bullpen, going seventh, eighth and ninth, with (Kevin) Seagrist, (Carlos) Martinez and (Trevor) Rosenthal; I was like, “man, you get us in the seventh inning with the lead, it’s ballgame.”

I loved that team, and I hate that—I feel like it was one of those things that we just didn’t play well in the World Series, and it happens.  I loved that team, and obviously the Panthers two years ago.  That was a fun team to watch.  Cam (Newton) doing Cam things that we’d never seen before, that was a lot of fun.

But that Cardinal team was good, man.  I remember going into the World Series, and obviously, 2011 was different, because we snuck in to the Wild Card and just got hot at the right time, but 2013 I was like, “man, this is the best team I’ve seen us put together in a while.”  So just, it just kind of sucked to lose it, because I felt like we were so good, but that happens, man—sports.

SOS: Yeah, to win a World Series you’ve got to play well for a whole month.  You have an off week, you’re done.

Justin: It happens.

Ryan:  Does it have to be a team that’s my favorite team?

SOS: Not necessarily.

Ryan:  Because, there’s a handful of those teams that I just… I think the Tampa Bay Rays, back in 2008, when they made the World Series.  It was with their low-payroll, low-everything, no really big superstars, but they found a way to win games, and it was kind of cool to watch that small market team that hadn’t been in the league that long just kind of come out of nowhere with guys that were fun to watch and just enjoying the game.  That’s probably my favorite non-championship team.

I could say the 2015 Cubs, too, (once the rebuilding team was respectable), but there wasn’t that connection yet with those players.  It was still bits and pieces, and like it wasn’t quite there yet.  It was all magical anyway, we shouldn’t have even been in the playoffs that year.

Garrett:  I’d have to give it to the ’15 Tigers, the ones that lost the championship game.  They’re the ones that kind of finally shed the underperforming label, because we could’ve won the ACC as many times as we wanted to and that would always just be “all you can do is win the ACC.”

I remember, like in the 24 hours after we lost that game (to Alabama), I saw probably three or four different think pieces on how much respect people had for Clemson after that game.  It just was like the perception of who Clemson was and what we could accomplish kind of just changed overnight after that game.

 

Tomorrow in Part II, our roundtable will discuss the panelists’ favorite players to watch, who they wish they could’ve watched, and crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.