Who To Root For: 2019 College Football Edition

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Epistemic Status: Unquestionably Accurate

Football, like all sports, is better with someone to root for, and someone to root against. It’s us versus them. Ideally, it’s our house, because no one beats us in our house. That gives us a baseline heuristic – root, root root for the home team – if we can’t do any better. Luckily, we can do better. Not only are some teams objectively superior to others in their worthiness of our quest to be adjacently vicariously victorious, consistently rooting for the same teams is much more fun than choosing independently each time.

With so many teams out there, it’s tough to untangle the right rank order of who to root for. Luckily, that’s where this post comes in. We will rank all the teams you might encounter, complete with explanations, so that not only will you know who you’ll be supporting, you’ll know why you’re supporting them.

Before we start naming names, let’s go over some basic points.

Personal Connections

In any choice between tribes, my tribe is better than all others. Your sports team is vastly inferior, that simple fact is plainly obvious to see. For these rankings, you get to enjoy my personal connections as a substitute for your own, since thinking is hard and exporting it is great. However, if you do have personal reasons to shoot a team or two all the way up (or down) the rankings, you should totally do that.

That starts with your alma mater. Wherever you went to college, or your spouse or children or parents went to college, you’re mostly stuck with them. The question is how much you are stuck with them. Hardcore sticklers say that subject to special one-time exceptions like a child going off to school or moving across the country, you’re stuck with where you went to college. That would force me to make ‘my’ team the Columbia Lions, since technically the college constitutes players into uniforms on a regular basis, forming what they questionably call a ‘football team.’ By this theory, I should have thought of this problem before I opted into a league without any scholarships, and it’s my own damn fault for not getting into Stanford.

My ruling that is in no way selfishly motivated is that Columbia isn’t good enough to count. Or good enough to anything else, really. I say that if you spent your college days exiled to Division II, or worse, than you have suffered enough. Any Power 5 team counts. Any Group of 5 team lets you also choose a Power 5 team to mostly embrace as well. And even if you have a Power 5 team, you can and should still have a favorite team from each other conference.

I encourage those I know to bring in more personal connections in the comments, so I have more things to root for and against. Remember, they’re objective!

Be Unique

A unique team coach, name, tradition, strategic focus, mascot, uniform color, you name it. Personal connections and stories are even better. It’s all good, the more the better. A coach with a larger than life personality, who shapes his world in his image, is an amazing sight. Be yourself, like no one ever was.

Play to Win the Game, and Play it Right

Teams that aren’t trying to win dishonor the game and aren’t fun to root for. Teams that do everything they can to win honor the game and are fun. Especially important is to employ good strategy. Few things are worse than watching your team punt when it shouldn’t, or run when it can’t, or fail to know how to manage a clock.

Thus, Tulsa gets a big boost from its coach that didn’t carry a punter on his roster because he ‘didn’t want to get into bad habits.’ Can’t help but root for a guy like that.

The outer game counts, too. Managing your roster wisely, spending your money effectively, and trading effectively, are also to be admired. Billy Beane is a baseball guy but another exemplar of what you have to root for. Teams that overperform their recruiting abilities and budgets are great.

If you know your clock management, if you have your advanced statistics mastered, if you do the best you can with the tools you are given, that’s big. Anyone out-thinking their opponents, anyone who out-prepares, deserves your support. An example of out-thinking would be tennis star Martina Hingis. She was a joy to watch because you could see her out-thinking her opponents every point.

This also includes doing your basics. Train and demonstrate mental and physical toughness. Learn to block and tackle. Don’t commit procedural penalties or otherwise play sloppy. Be all in, make the most of what’s available, and do your job. Next man up.

Note that none of this means taking the game or yourself too seriously. It’s a game! All games are to be taken seriously in an important sense, and totally not seriously in another important sense. And remember to…

Have Fun Out There!

Some teams use lots of fun traditions for themselves and their fans and understand that while you play to win the game, it’s also a game. Why so serious? My favorite example of this is Mets vs. Yankees in baseball. This is from a few years ago but I’d expect it works the same way today. You’d look over at the Mets bench and everyone would be joking and laughing. Look over at the Yankees bench and you’d see a bunch of joyless corporate sellouts in identical pinstripes. What’s the point in that?

Johnny Damon started out playing baseball for the Boston Red Sox and no one had a bigger smile. Then he signed with the New York Yankees and I never saw him smile again during a game. Such a life mistake.

But Keep it Classy

It is vital to have class. If you have already won the game, take a knee or run the ball out. Piling on the points or padding your statistics is an insult to the game. If your players disrespect the game or themselves, sit them down. If they break the rules, punish them. Don’t pressure teachers or help them pass their classes. Definitely don’t cover up their failures or manipulate test scores.

Ehatever you do, don’t sweep actual bad behavior like sexual assaults or violent crimes, be they by players or coaches, under the rug. Doing this systematically automatically makes you a villain while anyone involved remains at the school.

Be respectful of your opponents. Say the right things in your interviews. Stay positive. There is an exception for special rivalries, where polarity reverses, but you get two, maybe three of these teams, tops. If your opponents get hurt, be respectful.

If something goes wrong, take responsibility. Strive to do better. If something goes right, be gracious, share the credit, and highlight what the other team did right. If the other team does well, acknowledge their achievements. Elevate the game. Always be trying to bring everyone up, help them do better, learn better, be better inside and outside the game.

You are responsible for the behavior of your fans in all of this. Enthusiasm is a positive, but you gotta keep it classy.

Play clean. Cheating is right out. Angle shooting is almost as bad.

Dodging strong opposition to try and game the playoff system, make a bowl game, or to generally make your life easier, is super lame and a big mark against you. Teams that are especially bad about this include most of the SEC, and this is marked with reference to these easy ‘cupcakes.’ Adding big games to your schedule, especially against historical rivals, is a big plus.

We also strongly oppose buying the game. When you leverage your money advantage to sign free agents, that’s not to be admired. In college, that never happens, no sir, that’s against the rules, so it only happens all the time. Which means it’s now also cheating, and cheating is super bad. If you cheat, we hate you. This overrides playing great and striving for excellence.

So for an example even non-sports people know, we all hate the New England Patriots.

Overperform and Keep it Interesting

Always root for the underdog, all things being equal. This both means the school or team that is an underdog in today’s game, and it means the school with fewer resources to devote to football. If you have less money to hire coaches, a smaller fan base and a less rich area from which you can recruit, and fewer traditions and other reasons for recruits to choose you, you are at a huge disadvantage. Overcoming that and still putting up a good fight is greatly to your credit.

What is not to your credit is to be a sad sack in a division or conference that reliably runs you over. Even if it is, in some sense, ‘not your fault’ because of course you will play in the best place you can, and you don’t have the resources to do better, you are not putting a quality product on the field. The games are not interesting. Being a one touchdown underdog makes you the ideal hero. Being a four touchdown underdog makes you a cupcake. Why are we even watching, unless we’ve wagered on the game? It does mean that if you pull off the upset, you’re that much bigger of a hero, but such events are quite rare, and catching them in progress requires watching live, which is generally the wrong way to be watching games on Saturdays.

Ranking Tiers

There are seven tiers.

Us – This is my team. There can be only one.

Hero – Clear good guys who you want to do well unless there’s a strong reason why not.

Friendly – You wish them well all things being equal, but not enough to care.

Neutral – Teams you don’t care about either way. Probably decent chaps.

Loyal Opposition – Rivals of your favorite teams, so you often want them to lose for strategic reasons, but you don’t have anything against them or anything.

Villain – Actual bad guys. This can be for good reasons, or because you don’t like their stupid face. Or both. And who says their stupid face isn’t a good reason? Sports!

Them – The most hated of them all. Like we, you only get one, so make it count.

If you are a full tier higher than your opponent, then that is more important than other game factors like home team or favorite.

It is not sufficient to be more important than the interests of a team that is more extreme than both of them. If you need a certain result to stop a villian or the dreaded them, or even more importantly to help us, then we wish to make it so unless the difference is at least two levels between the teams playing. How many levels are required depends on how big the outside stakes are. If a playoff birth or championship hangs in the balance, that takes priority over anything but us.

The other factor that can cross levels is causing chaos. Football season is mayhem, and the more mayhem, the more fun. We come first, but beyond that, we’re happy to risk at least one level of rank in order to cause chaos, both in terms of the game today and in terms of which team makes it.

If outside factors aren’t conclusive, and the two teams are in the same tier, then you look at who is at home and what the gambling odds are. You want to root for the home team, but also for the underdog. If the home team is an underdog, your job is easy, and a large home underdog (+7 or bigger) is enough to jump a tier that isn’t us or them. If the home team is the favorite, the break even point for me is the same as where the teams are equally good, at -3. At that or less, I stick with the home team by default. More than that, and it’s time to root for the upset. But if it’s close, then anything cool – a nice play or decision, a good story, or a whim – can override. Because why not?

Team by Team

If one conference was ‘my’ conference it would be the Big 10. But we respect the best. So we’ll start at the heart of the sport, with the SEC.

SEC

The SEC has been the best conference for a while, largely because they take themselves too seriously and have nothing better to do with their time. Every now and then the Big 10 claims to be better, and then they play football against each other.

They call themselves the SEC because no one involved knows how to manage a diversified stock portfolio. They prefer cupcakes.

The SEC slogan is ‘it just means more’ which is because everything else there means less. This focus on winning remains admirable.

SEC West

The SEC West is the strongest division, by far, in all of college football. It’s great to watch. In our ongoing root for chaos against order, we want them all to either crash and burn and take each other out, leaving everyone shut out of the playoffs and top placements, or for them to dominate so much that they threaten to take up multiple slots and drive everyone insane.

Since the division is so good, we won’t gloss over anyone.

LSU

Biggest Plus: Hometown coach Ed Orgeron

Also Good: Unique Yellow Uniforms, Great Division, Calls Stadium “Death Valley”

Biggest Minus: Fan Entitlement

Also Bad: Non-Unique Stadium Name (Clemson also has a “Death Valley”)

Rank: Hero

Don’t underestimate the value of unique. Even yellow uniforms. Anything that makes you different is great. You want to play to your strengths and what makes you uniquely you. Coach Ed Orgeron is a great example of that, a hometown boy who is so obviously thrilled to be there and won the job by winning the hearts of the players. Kudos for going with that instead of bribing a top name from outside.

If you don’t like games with very low scores, this might not be the team for you. I for one find it refreshing to win games without an offense.

LSU has a long tradition of being a top-tier program, so there are constant calls to fire Ed just like there were constant calls to fire previous coaches. That’s a shame, but that’s also the job. In some ways it’s annoying. You have a top-25 team and you’re constantly mad about it. In other ways it makes them an underdog, because they’re in the same class and division as Alabama and Auburn and feel like they belong at that level.

Alabama

Biggest Plus: Nick Saban and company do everything right.

Also Good: Unique name with great slogan (“Roll Tide!”), history of admitting Jews when they were being kept out of the Ivy League, Great Rivalries and Divison

Biggest Minus: They also have infinite resources, so they win way too often. They certainly don’t need the cupcakes.

Also Bad: I mean the games aren’t even close. There’s nothing to watch. They don’t even slow down late because their B team would be ranked in the top 25 most years.

Rank: Hero

Alabama has been dominant for a long time. As long as Nick Saban is their coach, this isn’t going to stop. The only reason other teams are competitive is that his former underlings learned how to do things right and are now in charge of the other good programs like Clemson and Georgia. Nick is pretty much the best. He cares about all the right things, says the right things, and gets properly angry when everything isn’t perfect.

The problem is that rooting for a team that is favored in most of its games by multiple touchdowns is not all that exciting. Nothing wrong with an easy game every now and then, but often the first close game Alabama plays will be the Iron Bowl at the end of the season. Alabama losing is always a good chaos move. So they have hero rank, but you end up rooting against them often enough anyway.

Auburn

Biggest Plus: Alabama needs a strong rival to keep things interesting, has pulled off some amazing upsets.

Also Good: Good at making most of what they have, fan willingness to take on and fully hate a true juggernaut, coach Gus Malzhan is fun and wants it so bad and is always on the verge of getting fired, willingness to schedule strong PAC-12 teams.

Biggest Minus: Willing to make compromises to win (see: Cam Newton).

Also Bad: Keep blowing their chance to cause real chaos recently by losing late, sense of entitlement.

Rank: Loyal Opposition

Auburn does not appear to maintain rigorous academic or other off-the-field standards for its athletes. That is not great, but the difference between them and most other programs is mostly that they were less subtle about it. So I’m willing to not make a big deal out of it, given how much there is here to love. Auburn creates a lot of great games and keeps them interesting. That’s what the loyal opposition lives for.

Mississippi

Biggest Plus: Refuge in team name audacity

Also Good: Cheering up the less fortunate

Biggest Minus: They are literally called the Rebels

Also Bad: Spelling difficulty

Rank: Villains

Naming your team after a rebellion against the United States, and in favor of enslaving fellow human beings, is quite the bold move, yet given the location, it seems to fly under the radar. I’m kind of impressed. And it’s not without its advantages. Having people to root against with no regrets is always nice.

Mississippi State

Biggest Plus: More cowbell

Also Good: Surprisingly competitive, team is not called the rebels, legacy of Dan Mullen

Biggest Minus: Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Also Bad: The name ‘Egg Bowl’

Rank: Neutral

Mississippi State has been entertaining lately, putting up fights in games that were expected to be snooze fests, and doing so while making correctly bold in-game decisions. It’s hard not to root for that. With coach Dan Mullen moving on to Florida, they will presumably slip back from Friendly to Neutral status, as they don’t naturally give someone like me much other reason to root for them.

Texas A&M

Biggest Plus: The 12th Man

Also Good: Strong tradition and willingness to spend what it takes, getting it done as an ‘A&M’ school, creating wizardly quarterbacks

Biggest Minus: What they spent a lot of that on, the 0th Man, Jimbo Fisher

Also Bad: Feels like it should still be in the Big 12

Rank: Villain

Strong traditions and student enthusiasm are pretty great. They’re what the sport is all about, so despite jumping ship on the Big 12 into what seemed like clearly the wrong conference, there was a lot left to like. Then they hired Jimbo Fisher. When you hire Jimbo Fisher, you make it clear that it’s whether you win or lose, rather than how you play the game. This should lead to an even stronger SEC West and even more exciting football, but it also gives us a villain to root against.

Arkansas

Biggest Plus: Watching people leave good jobs to come here and fail thanks to completely unrealistic expectations

Also Good: Watching people’s reactions to those failures, Arkansas has a little town called hope

Biggest Minus: At some point constant failure stops being interesting

Also Bad: Their defense, and their offense, at least in divisional context

Rank: Neutral

If you get the opportunity to hire someone great, you take it. I can’t hold that against you. You’re supposed to do that. So when Arkansas finds itself with a big budget and over-sized expectations and opposition, but without good help, naturally it will come for those we love. Then those people take the job, and we’ll hate them, because they abandoned us, sure. But it’s not like Arkansas is paying huge money for scoundrels and buy success – that’s (among many others) Texas A&M. Arkansas is merely trying to keep pace and stay afloat. So I’m fine with it, but it’s not something interesting enough to root for.

SEC East

The SEC East is a pale shadow of the SEC West this past decade, as many of its teams have been down for quite a while. They used to be someone.

Florida

Biggest Plus: New head coach Dan Mullen

Also Good: The chomp and the swamp, strong rivalries

Biggest Minus: Long history of ugly-ass football

Also Bad: We remember Tim Tebow. Also Urban Meyer.

Rank: Loyal opposition

Historically Florida has been a clear source of scum and villainy. Their games were an insult to the sport. Then there’s that Tim Tebow guy, and that Urban Meyer guy. So this wasn’t a hard call. Dan Mullen being given enough real resources to make a difference forces us to rethink all that. We now have a team that goes for it, that tries to do exciting things, that aspires to that which it should be. Their rivals are other Florida teams that we hate, so that’s always a big plus. Legacy matters, so there’s a lot of ground to make up for, but at least this is a beginning. I wanted to root for them rather than simply against Miami in the season opener, but the legacy and being too obvious a favorite made it hard. We’ll see.

Kentucky

Biggest Plus: Basketball season

Also Good: Good defense, surprising ability to slog through on occasion

Biggest Minus: Football season

Also Bad: Long history of ugly-ass football

Rank: Neutral

It is charming to see a team like Kentucky try to grab for the brass ring, despite lacking in the talent or ability to score points usually associated with such aspirations. Perhaps their other sports accomplishments are rubbing off on them. If they can make their methodology less ugly, they can maybe be a team we can root for in this context. For now, they remain the essence of neutrality.

Tennessee

Biggest Plus: Payton Manning

Also Good: Bold color choice, potential redemption story, expectations

Biggest Minus: Have not tried that hard to hire Payton Manning

Also Bad: The team, realistic expectations

Rank: Friendly

You see the story all over the country. A once proud team humbled by years of failure, whose coaches are held to the standards of glory days. In this case, I can be more sympathetic, because I’m a sucker for the bright orange uniforms, and because there’s something Shakespearean about the drama here that I don’t feel in most of the other places. Anything in sports worth doing is probably worth overdoing. I’ve also always been a fan of famous alumni Payton’s, as I am with most smartest guys on the field acting as their own head coaches, and also because he’s hilarious. Can we please get him to take the job?

Vanderbilt

Biggest Plus: A letter all to themselves

Also Good: Feels unique in ways it probably isn’t, but every bit helps

Biggest Minus: Contextual non-entity

Also Bad: I can never be motivated to remember where they are

Rank: Neutral

This is the essence of a neutral team. Conferences and divisions cannot simply kick out teams that don’t perform for a while, so they’re stuck with them. But without a chance to watch them or worry they might win something, there’s nothing to go on, and they don’t do much to try and change that.

Missouri

Biggest Plus: A new media market for the SEC

Also Good: Some cause that got people to protest, probably

Biggest Minus: Whatever they were protesting against, probably

Also Bad: Duplicate team name, also most hot takes on the protests, probably

Rank: Loyal opposition

I mention the protest, despite it being a while ago and not knowing any of the details or ‘facts’, because there isn’t much else to go on. Nothing seems salient, and I can’t give them points for those uniforms because they’re pretty ugly. Given I can’t care about them enough, it wouldn’t be right to send them all the way to villain status just for that, so I’ll settle for one rank removed and still be able to back them when there’s important work to be done.

Georgia

Biggest Plus: Great product on the field

Also Good: Great coach name in Kirby Smart, feels iconic, great rivalries

Biggest Minus: No tech

Also Bad: Actual bulldogs

Rank: Friendly

Kirby Smart learned from the best (and by the best, we mean Nick Saban) which is how one has the potential to compete with Alabama. Then he went ahead and did his job, week after week, year after year. The issue with Georgia is that, unlike their in-state rival, they have no tech. Georgia just assembles a strong recruiting class and then does solid things with them over and over again, and hopes that is good enough. It never feels like there’s a story behind it. That keeps them out of the top tier, but there is no reason to be unfriendly with a team that has made the competitive landscape much more interesting. Thanks mostly to Georgia, every SEC championship game has the potential for chaos.

South Carolina

Biggest Plus: Easily outshines North Carolina

Also Good: Can take a repeated beating and keep on ticking, I suppose

Biggest Minus: Picked a much harder rival than North Carolina

Also Bad: Nothing especially inspiring or interesting

Rank: Neutral

Should they still have the right to the name South Carolina, or should they have to do a name swap? Officially, you never lose that right, so they get to keep using it indefinitely. We all know the truth. Then again, I live very close to New York University and we don’t even field a team, so it could be much worse.

The Big 10

The Big 10 is the division that thinks it is every bit as good as the SEC, and manages to periodically fool those making the rankings, only to end up playing games. At that point, people figure out that there are some minor speed, power and skill issues.

They call themselves the Big 10 because they have fourteen teams.

The Big 10 slogan is “Big Stage, Big Life, Big 10.” This has something to do with marching bands, including a member of the Rutgers band whose instruction for the big ad selling the conference was something like “act like a deer in headlights that has no idea what to do now that it’s in the conference to pick up a major media market.”

The Big 10 is ‘my’ conference of choice, because it contains the greatest hero (aka my team) and the sport’s greatest villain, is relatively local, and reliably delivers interesting games. Also, as evidenced by the ad, the whole conference has high academic standards and are generally giant dorks. So they’re my kind of people.

The SEC puts as many good teams as possible in the West. The Big 10 balances this by putting all its good teams in the East. It’s only fair.

Big 10 East

Ohio State

Biggest Plus: No longer employs Urban Meyer

Also Good: Honest about not coming here to play school, makes Michigan cry yearly

Biggest Minus: Everyone involved is a known giant douchebag

Also Bad: Cheating, bribing, covering up scandals, complete lack of class, not here to play even a little school, get playoff spots they don’t deserve, always overrated, incidentally keeps getting in our way

Rank: Them

When I was experimenting with daily fantasy sports, my partner in the enterprise was a Cleveland native. As their professional teams continued to suffer, as they often do, it was easy to share my sympathies. I could tell he was often in physical pain. Even he agreed without prompting that Ohio State are a bunch of giant douchebags. They’re the classic sports movie bad guys you love to hate. We can all agree these are horrible human beings engaged in a profane enterprise. Which is how our country can finally come together.

Michigan

Biggest Plus: Supererogatory levels of hatred towards Ohio State

Also Good: Watching offense fail to come together, watching coach Jim Harbaugh suffer, play in the literal Big House

Biggest Minus: #YouHadOneJob

Also Bad: …and you screwed it up.

Rank: Loyal opposition

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is in pain. All great football coaches are constantly in pain, but Jim takes it the extra mile. He is quite invested in Michigan football, and it’s great to see how much he cares. That’s especially true when he lets us all down, as he is wont to do. He is very good at some aspects of the game, like creating a strong defense, but not at others, and seems destined to usually fall short. Lucy will keep pulling the football away, and we’ll all enjoy see it coming. And while we didn’t want Ohio State to win, we still have our solace. Michigan also often stands in our way, which makes it extra easy to not feel the least bit bad for them.

Penn State

Biggest Plus: Closest actually good team to New York

Also Good: White outs, choice of enemies, resilience in the face of…

Biggest Minus: Oh, yeah, THAT.

Also Bad: Saquon Barkley being picked second, choking repeatedly on big leads when it matters

Rank: Neutral

So, yeah. That happened. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and sometimes people care more about winning and keeping up appearances than anything else. I still don’t have a great model for how someone can both take great care to make sure their students get educations off the field instead of focusing too much on the sport, and also look the other way while their assistant rapes kids. The question then becomes, how much do we hold the past against Penn State, versus note that all the people responsible are gone, and celebrate the new wave’s resilience in the face of adversity. As always in sports, the right answer is to observe what you’ve already decided the answer to be. In this case, I notice I don’t have one reliable answer, but seem to settle around neutral when I think about rank order inside the division.

Michigan State

Biggest Plus: This. Is. Sparta.

Also Good: Making a lot out of a little year in and year out, being the hero we need

Biggest Minus: Zero sense of humor

Also Bad: Frequent total inability to move the ball

Rank: Heroes

All teams choose a name and wrap that name up in tradition. Few truly live the name in full spirit. The Michigan State Spartans go the extra mile. Each year they battle richer city states that have every advantage, using the fuel of pure determination and toughness. Usually they make it far closer than it has any right to be. Often they emerge victorious. You have to tip your cap to such efforts, and hope they can laugh about it after graduation.

Indiana

Biggest Plus: Giving us the everlasting gift of Lee Corso

Also Good: Pavilion named for John Mellencamp, and of course Hoosiers.

Biggest Minus: Can’t compete in our hearts with that kid from Purdue

Also Bad: Memorial Stadium is kind of a downer, never playing a man short

Rank: Friendly

There is not much to say about Indiana. They do their best to put a respectable product on the field, with mixed success. Someone has to fill out the conference and ensure access to geographically adjacent major media markets, so it might as well be them. It certainly can be a lot worse, as the next two teams will demonstrate, and Lee Corso makes me smile weekly to this day despite clearly no longer playing with a full set of scholarships, but it has been a long time since they’ve done something interesting.

Maryland

Biggest Plus: Theoretical access to the Washington, DC media market for the Big 10 network

Also Good: Messing with Texas, hopefully solid academics

Biggest Minus: Claiming to be a member of the Big 10

Also Bad: The team

Rank: Loyal opposition

Maryland being added to the Big 10 was an unadulterated money grab. The conference could have had their pick of high quality teams to take competition to the next level. Instead, they made a play to force open a major media market, on the theory that cable networks would not be able to refuse to include games of a local team getting cut to ribbons by superior opponents, and to give the existing teams an easier route within the conference. Forever will this team be a black mark upon this otherwise fine collection of institutions.

Rutgers

Biggest Plus: Theoretical access to the New York media market for the Big 10 network

Also Good: Jon Finkel, surprisingly solid academics, not forcing people to say they graduated from “New Jersey University,” the look on that guy’s face in the marching band ad.

Biggest Minus: New Jersey

Also Really Bad: Claiming to be a member of the Big 10, the team

Rank: Villains

Rutgers being added to the Big 10 was an unadulterated money grab. The conference could have had their pick of high quality teams to take competition to the next level. Instead, they made a play to force open a major media market, on the theory that cable networks would not be able to refuse to include games of a local team getting cut to ribbons by superior opponents, and to give the existing teams an easier route within the conference. Forever will this team be a black mark upon this otherwise fine collection of institutions.

Big 10 West

Wisconsin

Biggest Plus: We. Are. Wisconsin.

Also Good: Jump Around, everything about coach Paul Chryst, developing top running backs, having their own distinctive style, great fundamentals, rescuing innocent victims of New Jersey, Seth Burn, Gaudenis Vidugiris and a big shout out not only to all the alumni I know but to the whole Madison Magic community, and other neat stuff like that.

Biggest Minus: Rolling over for Ohio State that time in the conference championship game, and losing all the other ones

Also Bad: Quarterback play, accidentally overrating our running back talent in the NFL draft, our chances of covering large point spreads, not needing any stinking Badgers

Rank: Us

Wisconsin is my college football team. Don’t forget to jump around in your seat between the third and fourth quarters. When I speak of “we” I speak of Wisconsin. Should it also be your team? Perhaps, especially if you’d like to swing by my place to watch together every so often. That’s how I chose them in the first place, because I had multiple friends already in on the Badgers. Several years in, I regret nothing. Year after year, I get a team I can easily root for, giving me hope and faith of being temporarily, adjacently victorious, with traditions and principles and play style I can get behind. It is great to see how we learn to fight at the line, to reliably turn out NFL-quality running backs despite recruiting in New Jersey, to play the right way and win with solid football. Wisconsin also benefits because it is one of the few teams that really can pound the ball and run play after play, and succeed, while stopping any opponent daring to do the same. That makes for a great rooting experience, as you get to see a lot of good things happen. I see why people want to establish the running game even when it doesn’t make sense. I do wish we were more aggressive on fourth down, and knew how to do better at quarterback. And I of course wish we could have won one or two of those championship games. But given our level of recruiting ability, I will never have any complaints. Except for all the constant complaints.

Minnesota

Biggest Plus: Daring to call your team the Golden Gophers

Also Good: Paul Bonyan’s Axe, the quiet week we’ve had in Lake Wobegon

Biggest Minus: Gets pretty cold up there, doesn’t it

Also Bad: Not being above average

Rank: Friendly

There are two great kinds of rivals. There are the kind that you hate with a passion every minute of every day. Then there are the ones that are friends except for when you face each other, like when super heroes have versus issues. I’m a big fan of that second kind. Minnesota provides that, with just enough fear that they might win the Axe to keep us Wisconsin fans on our toes. Everyone should have about this win percentage, except mathematics is a thing.

Nebraska

Biggest Plus: The ongoing saga of Scott Frost

Also Good: Many past Nebraska teams, the wisdom and generosity of Warren Buffet

Biggest Minus: The suspicion that their fans are the relatives of Penny from The Big Bang Theory, and also Penny

Also Bad: Letting yourself go after they let you into the club

Rank: Loyal opposition

Nebraska has a long history of playing excellent football. It is hard for me to see them that way, because all I have seen is Nebraska increasingly failing to play such football, year after year, and my brain does not instinctively think Nebraska is a place great football should be expected to come from. That could soon change, because alumni Scott Frost who led South Florida to an undefeated season and semi-serious ‘national title’ claim a year after failing to win games at all, has come home and set to work. The voters are giving them a shocking amount of respect, so we’ll see what happens.

Illinois

Biggest Plus: Their basketball team from about a decade ago was beautiful to watch

Also Good: The University of Chicago, the phone at Wells and Lake

Biggest Minus: The wind

Also Bad: Lack of good stories

Rank: Neutral

I have nothing against Illinois, but I also can’t get excited. I’ve got nothing to work with here. They show up, they play their role, but there never seem to be any stories. I was actually a fan of their basketball team when I was first getting seriously into sports, because they would pull off plays where I could see them out thinking and outmaneuvering their opponents, in a way that I rarely can appreciate in basketball. I just don’t have the eyes for it, I suppose. I’m open to them showing me something on the field, but I don’t expect it.

Purdue

Biggest Plus: Everyone’s favorite superfan, Tyler Trent, leading the charge to victory against the hated them

Also Good: Making boilers, potential world class running backs, saying Pur-DUE!

Biggest Minus: Tyler not making it

Also Bad: Cancer

Rank: Heroes

Purdue football is suddenly doing impressive things on the field, and was the inspirational story of the year thanks to super fan and, alas, cancer non-survivor Tyler Trent. Tyler wanted nothing more than to lead his team to victory, and (almost) all of America was thrilled for him to get his wish. If they can build on what they have done, and continue to be explosive, it would be great to have another true threat we can root for around the conference, even without Tyler. And remember, you always have to say it pur-Doooo!

Iowa

Biggest Plus: Talking to your kids about an undefeated Iowa

Also Good: What seems like sheer force of will

Biggest Minus: The ugliest ugly football that ever uglied

Also Bad: Warping the presidential process, Ethanol subsidies

Rank: Heroes

Iowa does not care how ugly they play. Scratch that. They seem to actively want to play as ugly as possible, but in a way that holds the potential to win surprisingly many games. Even the uniforms get in on the act. A small amount of ugly is ugly. An epic, unprecedented and embraced amount of it is a sight to watch. When they upset better teams with far superior recruiting classes and expectations, you can see the fury. It’s a beautiful thing.

Northwestern

Biggest Plus: In the geographically appropriate conference after all

Also Good: Taking up the purple mantle, academics

Biggest Minus: Terribly named

Also Bad: Good enough to sometimes beat us without being good enough to be that impressive a win

Rank: Loyal opposition

Respect is due for the unique look, and for sticking to its guns on calling itself Northwestern. A surprising number of people I know have considered attending purely for the academics, so there’s that. The problem is that they are reliably on the cusp of being good, sufficiently that they can beat you, but without doing anything noteworthy. Which means they’re not being quite impressive enough for anyone to give you much credit for holding them off. They can even steal the Big 10 West on occasion. The risk/reward here is terrible, so they go into the opposition column.

ACC

The ACC is another division that thinks it is as good as the SEC, and in this case has a lot of geographic overlap and thus plays rivalry games every year to try and prove it. The depth never seems to quite be there, but they’ve put up better showings than I would have expected, and Clemson has become co-best team in the country with Alabama. The difference is that Alabama has lots of rivals that are threats to its dominance within its conference and division, whereas Clemson gets to play in the ACC.

The ACC’s slogan is “Bring your A game” to remind its teachers how to handle athletes.

They have two divisions. The Atlantic division is called the Atlantic division because it is near the Atlantic coast. The coastal division is called the coastal division because it is near the Atlantic coast.

In the interests of finishing and not having to put in too much lame filler, we’ll be condensing the team profiles from here, especially the minor teams that don’t leave much impression – I’ll mostly just say that and move on. Five is a lot of conferences. Not everyone gets a complex story from everyone’s point of view.

Atlantic Division

Boston College

Biggest Plus: How they look when compared to the other Boston football team

Biggest Minus: Inevitable unfair associations with the other Boston football team

Rank: Friendly

The northeast does not have enough college football, because it lacks sufficient college football fans, and because the Ivy League decided to sign a suicide pact in order to avoid anyone defecting by trying to have any fun. There are, it seems, more important things to focus on. So given the lack of alternatives, we can be thankful for Boston College.

Clemson

Biggest Plus: Awesome football

Biggest Minus: Papa John’s Pizza

Rank: Friendly

Let’s play good idea, bad idea. A good idea is throwing all your fans a pizza party at the stadium as thanks when you make it into the College Football Playoff. The positive focus of the Clemson program is robust and refreshing. A bad idea is getting the pizzas from Papa Johns. This has nothing to do with politics. That’s an optional added bonus, if it helps you get offended by Papa Johns, but is not remotely the worst thing about that enterprise. It has everything to do with it not being pizza. I do realize that options for a stadium’s worth of pizza around Clemson University are likely limited. That is entirely fair, but there is simply no excuse. If you have to, throw a different kind of party. I do realize that Clemson is one of the best two teams in the country, and I’ve spent this entire briefing on their pizza choices. That’s because I feel very strongly about pizza, and also because they otherwise do things right, keep their heads down and stay consistently excellent. I especially respected how they handled their quarterback issues last year. So there’s no doubt that we should be friendly, but I can’t call anyone who considers Papa Johns to be pizza, to be heroes. Love you guys, but if we get another round, Roll Tide.

Florida State

Biggest Plus: No longer employs Jimbo Fisher

Biggest Minus: Still a bunch of cheating cheaters

Rank: Villains

I love that Alex Hornibrook fled Wisconsin thinking he could do better, and couldn’t even secure the starting job. I don’t even know if that makes me like Florida State less or more. I only know that they were already near the top of the villain list. Florida State has a long history of doing whatever it takes it ensure that players come to its fine institution, and that they don’t interact with anything that might accidentally force them to either learn or behave in a responsible, ethical or legal fashion. I do not expect the departure of Jimbo Fisher to do more than slow this down a bit, and I wish their program a very lengthy recovery. Also, guys, either tell every other team that references Native Americans they can’t also do the Tomahawk chop, or stop acting like you have a special association with it that makes you better or less obnoxious.

Louisville

Biggest Plus: Outsiders play exciting football, being so good they can’t ignore you

Biggest Minus: How they did that, including behind the scenes

Rank: Neutral

When I first started watching, Louisville were on the outside looking in, trying to get good teams to play them, getting close to putting up undefeated seasons that clearly would not have been enough, and hoping against hope to be part of a power conference. They sort of got their wish when invited to the Big East, then they turned around and mostly got it by joining the ACC. It felt like a betrayal, but the conference was doomed anyway at that point, so it’s not really fair. Then again, we could also talk about the things done by Bobby Patrino and others, and their willingness to take him back. One can’t help but have a bad taste in their mouth about the whole thing. I’ll always be thankful for our time watching Lamar Jackson, but that now is poisoned by the Giants coming within one pick of getting him and somehow failing to draft a quarterback at all, then drafting the guy from Duke the next year with the sixth pick of the draft. Which of course is in no way the fault of Lamar Jackson, but sports is not fair that way. Overall, they get enough boost from their past underdog status that it feels like it comes out to about neutral.

North Carolina State

Biggest Plus: Technically, yes, North Carolina is a state with a university

Biggest Minus: Completely inessential

Rank: Neutral

As you can tell, they haven’t left an impression. Don’t care either way.

Syracuse

Biggest Plus: New York has a football team, and even a legit basketball team

Biggest Minus: We use the term New York loosely, hitting people with cars, upsetting the giants

Rank: Heroes

As a team that fully embraces their simple yet powerful color schema of Orangemen, and the only New York based team closer than Buffalo that plays what can fully be described as football, it was easy to form an early connection with Syracuse. Remember that the Giants and Jets play in New Jersey. One could even in theory go to a game some time.  My good friend Seth did the same only far more so, and their basketball teams give us something to root for that might legitimately go all the way at some point, which helps keep interest up during otherwise sports-light February and March. Syracuse has given the top players of the ACC surprising runs for their money, including a giant upset, in the past few years, and has climbed all the way to being ranked. That’s pretty exciting. If I didn’t have Wisconsin, this would likely be my team. Which I’m glad it isn’t, since that would stick me in the ACC.

Wake Forest

Biggest Plus: Evocative name of university

Biggest Minus: Lack of impressive wake and/or forest

Rank: Neutral

As you can tell, they haven’t left an impression. Don’t care either way.

Coastal Division

Duke

Biggest Plus: Not the Duke basketball team

Biggest Minus: Still Duke

Rank: Loyal opposition

As we all know, Duke sucks. This is football, so Duke actually sucks, which is a bonus. I don’t have anything bad to say about their football team and they must have a large chip on their shoulder, but then again, they are still Duke. So there’s that.

Georgia Tech

Biggest Plus: Unique triple option offense

Biggest Minus: Unique triple option offense

Rank: Friendly

Georgia Tech has an offensive play. It is extremely cool. The triple option allows them to see what the defense is giving them, and place the ball where it can do the most good. There is only one problem with this plan, which is that they could really use a second cool offensive play. Or a second offensive play at all. That is not quite fair, they do on occasion pass the pall or otherwise do something slightly different, but it is pretty close. This feels like it should lead to more binary outcomes than it does – if you can successfully defend all three legs of the triple option you should shut Georgia Tech down, and if you cannot do so, you should get run over, so why don’t both of these happen more fully more often? A lot of things like this turn out statistically not to matter when you run the numbers, in ways that are confusing to me. In any case, I’m glad that they exist to give us something different, but also glad we don’t have another power five team doing the same.

Miami

Biggest Plus: Inevitable collapse when it counts

Also Good: Technological innovation

Biggest Minus: The height of arrogance, the height of obnoxious

Rank: Villains

Miami has benefited greatly from two key pieces of tech, to which my hat is off. First, they have managed to get full ownership of being ‘The U’ and even of holding one’s hands together in a U shape. This has many football-related metaphorical benefits and makes them seem super important. It’s quite an impressive thing to pull off. One also must give credit to the turnover chain. Turnovers are often pure effort plays. It’s hard to motivate players to be fully tuned into something that might not happen for them the entire season, or even their entire time at college, and always be ready to take advantage, but making that extra effort is worth a lot, as every turnover is a potential game changer. By rewarding responsible players with the coveted and now much-copied turnover chain, they managed to actually, as far as we can tell, dramatically improve their turnover rate to absurd levels, which unfortunately means that everyone else now feels the obligation to create a knock-off version. Also unfortunate is that both of these innovations are opportunities for all involved to be obnoxious, arrogant pricks, and everyone involved takes full advantage of all such opportunities. Miami is full of the types of people who think good times are mocking anyone who dares question the glory of the great U, or who doesn’t recognize that they are the one and true U. For that, they will always be dastardly villains. Getting to face them in bowls recently, and crush them utterly, was pretty great. So is watching them fail time and again to recapture former glory, as they get off to unsustainable starts thanks to soft opposition, huge expectations and extra turnovers, then find out that they can’t sustain that they face real teams down the stretch.

North Carolina

Biggest Plus: Being the anti-Duke without the accompanying annoying dominance

Biggest Minus: Not wanting to accidentally root for them in March

Rank: Friendly

I have a friend who went there and likes college sports. That’s always a nice plus. Beyond that, this clearly is not their sport, but it’s fun to watch them try.

Pittsburgh

Biggest Plus: Rivalry game called The Backyard Brawl

Biggest Minus: Good friend moved there, for some reason

Rank: Friendly

Occasionally they come up with an upset. It’s always fun when that happens, so they get some positive associations, but not much resonance beyond that.

Virginia

Biggest Plus: Might be for lovers

Biggest Minus: Likely to be armed

Rank: Neutral

As you can tell, they haven’t left an impression. Don’t care either way. Every other team has won their division once in the last six years, so I’m passively rooting for them to pull it off this time for that reason. When everyone is a winner, no one will be. Remember that, kids at games that don’t keep score.

Virginia Tech

Biggest Plus: Virginia has tech

Biggest Minus: That tech is playing the game to cover the spread

Rank: Villains

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, can’t get fooled again. Try and fool me three times, no one was fooled. Multiple times, I witnessed the same scenario. Virginia Tech reached an endgame scenario where there is a known correct answer, which is to take a knee and secure victory. Instead, Virginia Tech chose to score meaningless points, including kicking field goals that could have potentially backfired and let the other team back in the game. Except that the points were not meaningless. Many alumni of Virginia Tech, who had laid a certain number of points on their favorite team, were quite thankful for the team’s unorthodox decision. Virginia Tech games, even when I did not watch them, continued to fall far closer to the point spread than one would expect, game after game. This was so consistent that the amount charged for buying points in Virginia Tech games was often double or more what it is normally, if you used the cheapest method of buying points. You could sell the points for more than it usually cost to buy them, but no one was foolish enough to take the bait. It was that blatant. So can I prove it? Of course not. But they are, or at least were, a bunch of filthy corrupt cheating bastards.

PAC-12

The PAC-12 is a division that thinks it is the future because it has high academic standards – it even has a number in its name that matches the number of teams in the division, which is a harder task than you would think – and it has lots of strong teams and is based on the thriving west coast, but it can never win playoff games and includes Arizona State. It has North and South divisions and a rivalry game called The Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State, because the area is recently settled, preventing all this from being too soon. Because they play on the West Coast, they often don’t have a timing conflict with other leagues, and their full name is PAC-12 After Dark.

North Division

Oregon

Biggest Plus: The mighty duck

Biggest Minus: Likely blood type

Rank: Heroes

The duck is not only Lee Corso’s favorite mascot, it is likely the best of all the mascots. If you need proof, or even if you don’t, watch this clip. They also own the color green and the rights to a giant O, originate lots of great quarterbacks and coaches, have players that reliably show integrity, have been refreshingly willing to go for two, fight a yearly Civil War, and are likely the best hope the PAC-12 has for national glory and respect. It’s hard to ask for much more than that, unless you’d like one or two more key wins. Which would be a reasonable thing to ask for.

Oregon State

Biggest Plus: Consistently good enough to ruin otherwise promising seasons for other PAC teams

Biggest Minus: Wasting the team named the Beavers that frequently plays on PAC-12 After Dark

Rank: Neutral

Oregon State does have five conference championships over the years, so while they are not in the top tier, they are a legitimate threat. It’s still hard to get excited by that, when there are teams around them with better programs and better stories, so they’re. Getting Oregon State to the next level, or at least giving them a more interesting story, would round out an otherwise quite intriguing division that otherwise gives a lot to connect to when it’s time for PAC-12 after dark.

Washington

Biggest Plus: Boise State gets to join a major conference, hello to Chris Peterson

Biggest Minus: Trying to get me to root against Mike Leach, it’s not going to happen

Rank: Friendly

Boise State may never get its chance to fully compete with the big buys, but we got the next best thing when Chris Peterson moved to Washington and took with him the core of what made his Boise State teams great, combining it with the resources of a power conference team like Washington to create a competitor for the national title. It would be great to see what he could do with something one more level up. For now, I find it easy to root for Washington given it is using skill to punch above its weight and my many friends in and affinity for the city of Seattle, where I even considered moving not too long ago. There’s lots of reasons the place is thriving so much it can afford a high minimum wage – never underestimate a place with zero state and local income taxes that combine with real civilization. Washington now feels like it has a unique identity. There are two problems rooting for them full blast. The first is that it doesn’t feel like they have the recruiting slash talent chops to do what they would like to do, so I’d expect to be set up for a lot of disappointment. Second, their big rivalry game is the Apple Cup against Mike Leach’s Washington State, and seriously, how do you root against that guy?

Washington State

Biggest Plus: Mike Leach. The man, the myth, the legend

Biggest Minus: Not enough Mike Leach

Rank: Heroes

Old faithful, the Washington State University flag, appears without fail on every ESPN  College Gameday. Fans ensure it makes its journey around the country, week in and week out, two hundred times in a row.  That is dedication. Even more dedicated to unique quests of his own creation, and to making the world a more interesting and wonderful place, is coach Mike Leach. When you need advice, Mike Leach is there. WHen you need wisdom or to know where things are at, Like Leach is there. When you need to know what to make of the news of the day, Mike Leach is there. When you need someone to teach a class equating their football games to guerrilla warfare, Mike Leach is there. Here are some of his best quotes. This is his Twitter feed. I realize I am not remotely doing this man justice here, because the form simply is not up to the task. But if we’re going to get through everything as a country and a planet, we are going to need more people with the wit, wisdom and wonder of Mike Leach.

California

Biggest Plus: True denizens of Berkeley presumably hate the team

Biggest Minus: Berkeley, California

Rank: Villains

I have discussed my issues with Berkeley before. I see no reason to go into them again. I have watched a Berkeley football game from a sports bar near campus, and observed the distinct lack of either enthusiasm or any semblance of a high-quality area sports bar in which to watch football. The key question is, do we root against Berkeley having nice things because of all that it has done, or do we root for Berkeley having nice things if the people in Berkeley don’t appreciate them? I can see the argument for the opposite point of view, especially with Stanford as the main rival, since Stanford does appreciate its team and still counts as San Francisco. Some day I will get a chance to go to a game, and I hope to have enough advance warning to, assuming the place in question is not Stanford, first acquire visiting school apparel.

Stanford

Biggest Plus: Actual educations are available

Biggest Minus: Royally screwed me during admissions process, also San Francisco

Rank: Villains

Stanford draws people to The Bay, which then draws other people to The Bay, which ruins lives and helps try and ruin mine. As I said under Berkeley, I’ve been over all that before. Also, Tom Martel roots for Stanford hard, so getting to imagine him suffering is a bonus. But I’m not going to tell those stories here. Instead, I will tell the story of how Stanford actively attempted to sabotage my life. I attended a high school where I was only allowed to send out seven college applications; this was before there was a widespread common application, and the school refused to cooperate with more than seven slots. State and city school were assumed to be universal safety selections, so you really only got five slots to work with. Since you wanted to balance reaches with solid choices with diversity of options and all that, each of these five slots was precious. The school made statistics on admissions available, so we could make better decisions. This was pretty great, as I wouldn’t waste a slot on places that were sure to reject me, and I could know that NYU was functionally a safety school given I had a backup safety behind it, so I had four slots left for places that might reject me. Then I got a letter from Stanford, congratulating me on my math competition record, and inviting me to apply for admission. I knew that they were going to reject me anyway, because literally zero applicants with my grade average had made it into Stanford in several years. My parents, alas, despite both having PhDs, did not appreciate that statistical proof is proof, and insisted I apply to this fine institution. This resulted in me, on the phone with an admissions officer, pleading with her not to accept me, but rather to let me hand the phone to my mother so she could explain to her that I need not trouble myself with an application. This, of course, did not work, leaving me with only six slots instead of seven, since my Stanford application was of course dead on arrival. So we here will always hate Stanford.

South Division

Arizona

Biggest Plus: Quarterback Khalil Tate is exciting

Biggest Minus: Too hot, yet usually surprisingly easy to handle

Rank: Neutral

As you can tell, they haven’t left an impression. Don’t care either way. I did get slightly excited by Tate going on a run after becoming the new quarterback, but it didn’t add up to enough to get me to pay that much attention, given how unexciting I find the PAC-12 South.

Arizona State

Biggest Plus: Herm Edwards, Good Place joke material

Biggest Minus: Hangovers

Rank: Heroes

Who doesn’t like a good party, and playing to win the game? As long as this is the site of Herm Edwards’ grand comeback attempt, we’ll always be in their corner. After all, they’re buying.

Colorado

Biggest Plus: I once lived in Denver for a year

Biggest Minus: Among zero Colorado fans

Rank: Neutral

Colorado used to dominate their divisions. One can interpret that as ‘wow Colorado used to be good at football’ or one can interpret that as ‘wow Colorado used to play against bad teams and now it is in mostly over its head.’ It certainly did not seem, from my time in the state, like there was anything like the passion that would let them compete properly with the big boys. It was cool watching them win a PAC-12 South title, but mostly because it let us celebrate a collapse by USC and the triumph of an underdog, which is why being neutral but traditionally bad is usually a way to end up being the team I’m rooting for.

Utah

Biggest Plus: Historical outsider challenger of the power conferences

Biggest Minus: Failure to sustain that level of play after gaining admission

Rank: Friendly

A series of undefeated Utah teams that forced their way into premiere bowl games was an easy team to root for. When they gained admission to the PAC-12, it was exciting to wonder whether they could become an elite team. They’re still a remarkably good team that is often ranked, but now they are one team among many in that middle tier, so as the history fades they become less and less exciting.

UCLA

Biggest Plus: Traditional enemies of USC

Biggest Minus: Chip Kelly story is no fun if he succeeds

Rank: Loyal Opposition

Chip Kelly did a great job coaching Oregon (yay!) then he took a job in the NFL coaching the Eagles (boo!) before failing to San Francisco (boo!) and then failing back to a gigantic salary at UCLA. Once someone abandons their roots and then fails up in such an epic fashion, making good seems like it ruins the fun, so I don’t want to see UCLA start winning enough to make his run there feel successful. The least he can do with such a big paycheck is suffer.

USC

Biggest Plus: Great safety school if you can make it in

Biggest Minus: How much it will cost you

Rank: Villain

There are many articles filled with good reasons to hate USC. Getting to play in the same stadium as the bowl game your conference champion gets to play in is an absurd advantage. The ‘spoiled children’ thing and all the overpriced fluff coming out of the university outside of football, or so I’ve heard, and its inevitable roll in the recent college admissions scandal. The slight technical legal problems of its famous running backs, Reggie Bush and O.J. Simpson. The general feeling that they expect to and feel entitled to win, which always bugs me when it isn’t backed up. And, of course, my feelings about California. I have the strong instinct that these are not the heroes, above and beyond concrete reasons why. Despite all that, there’s one important redeeming quality I will always remember. USC was playing against Notre Dame. The game was secured, with USC driving the field one final time to run out the clock. It was fourth down. The over had come in, but large favorite USC had yet to cover the spread, the combination of which would have been quite bad. I assumed it was over. USC dropped back to punt. But it was a fake. They threw the ball down the field, got a pass interference call for a first down, and went on to drive for a touchdown. On the one hand, this was a lot like Virgina Tech, in that it showed a complete lack of class and total disrespect for the principles of the sport. You simply don’t do that. But it did show that they hated Notre Dame that much. And that has to count for something.

Big 12

The Big 12 is the division that thinks the best defense is a good offense. In context, it’s hard to argue with. The offenses are explosive and fun to watch, especially given their lack of real opposition. Their lack of defense includes an inability to convince teams to stay in the conference, leaving them without divisions or a proper cable network. Luckily, the greed of the Longhorn Network has kept Texas from having the ability to switch into a different conference, so as long as Oklahoma stays put, they’ve still got something. It’s definitely the lesser of the five power conferences, and the one I find least worth following, plus I want to wrap things up, so I don’t feel too bad about not getting too into the weeds here. As you no doubt know or have guessed by now, they are called the Big 12 because there are ten teams in the conference.

Oklahoma

Biggest Plus: Amazing offensive displays

Biggest Minus: Confusing people on what “OU” means in a sports context

Rank: Friendly

Oklahoma reliably recruits top quarterback talent. It is not hard to see why. With such a great offense built around them, and such a weak set of defenses to tee off against, it’s easy to provide temptation for those inevitably headed for first pick draft status. Have they all left you? Never fear, the transfer portal is here. It’s all quite fun to watch, and usually the best hope the Big 12 has of ensuring there are five conferences seeking four playoff slots. We can’t have those numbers being equal, that’s no fun. I also have the benefit of an old friend who attended, which is more than I can say for any other team in the conference.

Oklahoma State

Biggest Plus: Mike Gundy reliably produces quality bedlam

Biggest Minus: Claiming the right to wear orange

Rank: Friendly

This highlight reel only somewhat does justice to the joys of Mike Gundy. He is no Mike Leach, but at least the man is making an effort. Oklahoma State is also another source of overperformance, of grabbing for the brass ring that they by all rights should have no hope of competing for. I always have a soft spot for that.

Texas

Biggest Plus: Keeping a fifth power conference alive through pure greed

Biggest Minus: Intolerance for being messed with

Rank:  Loyal opposition

The University of Texas has its own television network. I will say that again. The University of Texas has its own television network. This prevents the rest of the Big 12 from having a network. Thus, it cripples the Big 12, but it also prevents Texas from joining a better conference, so it not clear which direction the net effect goes. Regardless of intent, it is the action of a supremely greedy and arrogant school, that thinks they are better and more deserving than anyone else. I also strongly suspect it has been a major distraction, and a reason why Texas football has not fully recovered to its former glory. You can either spend your time on football, or you can spend your time on your network. This helps reinforce me firmly on the Oklahoma side of the rivalry, rendering Texas the loyal opposition. We do need them to be strong so that there are two sides of the coin in an otherwise weak conference, and they take proper refuge in audacity, plus they had a great comeback to take a championship away from USC on my watch before the fall, so I can’t consider them true vilains.

Texas Tech

Biggest Plus: Impressive outshining of Texas State Bobcats

Biggest Minus: Underhanded attempt at two-for-one team name

Rank: Neutral

Priors tell you that a team named the Raiders, which even alternates between two ominously double-named mascots, is full of scum and villainy. One must be cautious. What kind of tech are they hiding behind? On the one hand, it’s clearly up to no good, on the other hand I’m curious to find out and hopeful it can help them compete with the other Texas teams. In my experience they are on the verge of being serious enough rivals to be interesting, but mostly do not quite get there.

TCU

Biggest Plus: Legitimately had a playoff spot stolen out from under them by the playoff committee and given to super-villainous Ohio State in broad daylight

Biggest Minus: Stands for Texas Christian University

Rank: Neutral

It was brutal. TCU was in a playoff spot, won its game convincingly, and was passed through multiple spots by Ohio State because somehow we were convinced to lay down to them in the Big 10 Championship Game. Then, when the time came for reciprocity, of course Ohio State did not keep up their end of the bargain. TCU fans doubtless will remain bitter for a very, very long time. As will all good-thinking folks, since they hate Ohio State. And all of this is rightfully so. Another point in their favor is to use TCU as the official name for the university, which makes it easy to know what initials to look for. It’s good to appreciate the little things. That to me is about enough to balance out being known as Texas Christian University. If something is good and happens to also have other features people feel are righteous, there is nothing wrong with that. But when you put the righteous label a bit too prominently in your labels and marketing strategy, that never bodes well. Consider the parallel to vegan food. There is lots of good vegan food. Most days I will eat some, and it will be delicious. However, if the food calls itself vegan food, it’s almost certainly going to be terrible.

Iowa State

Biggest Plus: Perfect scruffy underdog exiled from its natural conference

Biggest Minus: There is no I in team

Rank: Friendly

Iowa State is tougher than it looks. When you come to Iowa State, you are in for a slug fest, and there is real risk you will not make it out of there. That is the ideal type of round-out-the-conference team from a fan perspective, as opposed to the conference perspective where their goal is to open up a media market for the conference cable network. We need more teams like Iowa State.

Kansas

Biggest Plus: Knows to focus all recruiting on basketball

Biggest Minus: Contrast is too sharp to allow proper appreciation of underdog status

Rank: Neutral

I need to get this out. I can’t even bring myself to care about one Kansas team that’s never done anything, let alone two.

Kansas State

Biggest Plus: Not making me feel even a little bad not knowing what to put here

Biggest Minus: Not making me feel even a little bad not knowing what to have put up there

Rank: Neutral

I need to get this out. I can’t even bring myself to care about one Kansas team that’s never done anything, let alone two.

Baylor

Biggest Plus: Many students were able to transfer away

Biggest Minus: The scandal that made them transfer

Rank: Villain

Baylor has not been playing by the rules, nor was it ever the type of place that gave its students an accurate picture of the world. Seeing its downfall after coming so close to the playoff brought only a smile to my face.

West Virginia

Biggest Plus: The absurdity of them being in the Big 12 conference

Biggest Minus: Selling out their old conference to get there

Rank: Neutral

Conference realignment was a great way to find teams to hate. Any time a team walked away from their old rivals and partners, especially without following the rules set out for doing so, in order simply to move up to a slightly superior conference (also known as ‘one that would still be around after realignment’) is an obvious villain move. This is doubly true when the new conference makes no geographical sense, with the compensation being the sheer absurdity of membership. Then again, where else would they go? They weren’t getting a Big 10 invitation, and they don’t seem coastal enough for the ACC, so given they are a pretty solid program I guess this actually makes reasonable sense for both sides. So I don’t have to hate them for it, plus they’re West Virginia. They’ve suffered enough.

Other Teams of Note

By default, any team that is not in a power conference (and not Notre Dame, since it is only not in one by its own choice) is a hero if it is attempting to challenge the big boys. Thus, unless there is a damn good reason why not, any outsider trying to break in will be the hero. This applies to Houston, Northern Illinois, Memphis and especially the two big threats Central Florida (who are even self-proclaimed national champions with a story so good I really do think they deserved a shot at Alabama after the season was over, although they would have gotten utterly destroyed) and perennial powerhouse Boise State, which I believe has been kept out of the PAC-12 because of either lack of strong academics and/or its blue field. Both reasons seem plausible. We then end with one last villain, the one true independent:

Notre Dame

Biggest Plus: Extra chaos potential

Biggest Minus: Giant obnoxious fan base, refusal to play by the rules

Rank: Villains

You seem to believe that you are special. You believe that the rules do not apply to you. Obviously you are mistaken. Except that they aren’t. The rules really do not apply to Notre Dame. They can play who they want, toss away and renew their rivalries on a whim to weaken or strengthen their schedule based on what they think the playoff committee is rewarding these days, not play a conference championship game, and still claim after all of it that they deserve a shot at the national title. They don’t, especially given their track record when we let them do that. If they want a national title, they can join the Big 10 or ACC or even PAC-12, play in a title game like the rest of us, and prove it. The sheer amount of obnoxiousness surrounding Notre Dame boggles the mind. One good thing is that they have so many overconfident fans that the betting lines consistently bias in their favor, so keep that in mind if you are a betting type of person.

Conclusion

Most of these evaluations are personal, based upon my history, my knowledge, my circumstances and my preferences. That does not make them right or wrong, and you should use the information to help inform you, but definitely disagree with a lot of them. Are there places were I am wrong? Certainly I’ve made some errors of fact, and some errors of judgment, and most importantly some key errors of omission because of things I do not know. These are strong beliefs, because it is more fun that way, but mostly weakly held, because it is more fun that way as well. Don’t hesitate to advocate for or against your favorite or least favorite team. We are who we are. Otherwise, I’m happy to listen.

There is a lot more to say about getting proper enjoyment out of college football, or any sport, that would be far beyond the scope of this already ludicrously long post. But it seems right to say a few brief words.

The most important thing is to pay attention. Watching a game in the background, or flipping between games looking for scores, or otherwise not picking up detail and context, is an impoverished sports experience. You can and should do better. Pick up and relish the stories, the details, the little battles, the strategic choices. Focus on whichever parts you find most interesting, but whatever you do, focus. Then let all of this build game after game, week after week, until you too could write something like this if you were so inclined.

Even if you would, of course, be wrong.

 

 

 

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