Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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20 Oct 2008

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Road Trip Report

by Russell Levine

It was my annual road trip weekend, as I gathered with a handful of friends in State College, Pennsylvania, to catch up, tailgate, and attend the Michigan-Penn State game. The upshot is that I got to witness a college game in one of the country's best atmospheres. The downside is I didn't get to gorge myself on everything else this past weekend's schedule had to offer, so my observations are going to be limited (mostly) to the Nittany Lions and the Wolverines.

That the game ended up a rout didn't do much to diminish the weekend for me. Getting to attend games is a rare enough treat that I try not to let the outcome affect me to too great a degree -- especially in a year like this one, when a blowout wasn't exactly unexpected.

Michigan at least made the game interesting for a half, coming out and gashing Penn State on the ground on the way to opening up a 17-7 lead. No, I didn't expect it to last, and when the wheels came off in the third quarter the way they have been doing all season I just kind of smiled and nodded. OK, so part of that was me not wanting to give the Penn State fans the satisfaction of seeing me upset.

I had received a voicemail from my wife at halftime that said something to the effect of, "Wow, Michigan's playing well. You do know you're going to get your a#$ kicked in the second half." Sure enough, my Wolverines self-immolated in the third quarter and Penn State finished the contest on a tidy 39-0 run, even managing to cover the spread on an 80-yard screen pass in the final minutes.

I knew this was going to be a tough season. That I made it through the opening loss to Utah without cursing even once was a concession to that knowledge. That I only got a little upset during the turnover festival against Notre Dame was more of the same. The Illinois game simply confirmed that this team would not eke out a bowl berth. Toledo left me shrugging my shoulders.

It's not that I don't care -- quite the opposite. It's just that I've made peace with it. Pretty much every major program outside of Michigan has been through something like this in the past 15 years. Florida, Florida State, Miami, LSU, Ohio State, Nebraska, Alabama, USC, you name it. They've all had the bottom drop out -- at least by their standards. Michigan has had tough years, and more mediocre ones than the fans would care to tolerate, but nothing like this. Nobody's immune forever.

None of what has taken place this season changes my opinion on Rich Rodriguez. I don't know that he's going to succeed at Michigan, but this year doesn't make it any less likely. I'd rather have the team take its lumps for a year or two while the personnel is completely transitioned to the new offense than even start contemplating more change.

Michigan didn't just undergo a facelift, it threw in the tummy tuck, the nose job, the boob job, and the chemical peel as well. It's not going to look beautiful for a couple years while it recovers. Even the facilities are undergoing a major upgrade. When it's all done, I predict everything will be fine, just as it has been for other schools that have undergone radical change (Ohio State and Florida are just two recent examples).

Penn State's fans may have reveled in finally ending Michigan's nine-game, 12-year streak Saturday, and doing so in emphatic fashion, but they also know they're going to face a similar transition some year soon. Not necessarily this year, either, even if they do go undefeated. Unlike Lloyd Carr a year ago, Joe Paterno has given no indication that he's ready to retire, and the likelihood is that, whenever it occurs, his separation from the program is not likely to be easy. Brett Favre's divorce from the Packers is a good parallel.

But Paterno is surely only focused on this campaign, and right now it has all the signs of being a magical one. Of course, it could all come crashing down Saturday night in Columbus against the Buckeyes, but for now the Lions are riding high on the heels of their first 8-0 start since 1999.

I'll be rooting for them to pull it off, too, because of how much I respect their fans. Not only do they pack a stadium that isn't in the geographic vicinity of a major metropolitan area with 110,000 fans each week, but they're also excellent hosts.

This was my fifth journey to Beaver Stadium to watch Michigan, and other than dodging a few snowballs when a rogue blizzard left the stands packed with snow in 1995, I've never had a bad experience. Fans are friendly, honest, and respectful. They'll give you a hard time for wearing opposing colors in the parking lot, and then offer you a beer or a brat.

I had been warned that this year might be a little different, that the streak against Michigan might lead to some pent-up frustration, but it wasn't the case. Maybe it was because Michigan played well enough in the first half to put a scare into the fans, but there was no out-of-bounds rubbing it in before, during, or after the game.

I find that at most road games, if you're not inviting torture by talking trash nonstop, the fans are pretty benign. There are a few knuckleheads everywhere (and more than a few at some places) that do their best to ruin it, but college fans are like the happy drunk at the bar, whereas NFL fans are like the angry, beer-muscled drunk looking to get into a fight.

I have just one complaint about Penn State: The game presentation is awful. The canned music, the cheerleading by the public address announcer and the techno music all have to go. They're better than that. If I hear "Welcome to the Jungle," I automatically think I'm at a Jets game. I even heard Bon Jovi over the P.A. Penn State -- don't be like Rutgers.

OK, I actually have two complaints. Penn State fans, please get over the two seconds thing from 2005. Michigan won the game, and did you a favor. If Penn State wins that game, they go undefeated and finish third in the BCS. We just gave them a target for their anger.

While I'm at it, here's a list of other unacceptable things about college football:

  • Games on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday nights.
  • Teams taking the field through giant inflatable helmets.
  • Smoke machines.
  • Stadiums named after pizza chains or movie-rental companies.
  • Third jerseys

And yes, I'm quite aware that Michigan's current coach was once a part of this abomination, which violates at least four of my rules:


Have some additions for the list? Leave them in the comments.

John L. Smith Trophy

Not too many choices this week, given that I only saw a couple of games. Thankfully, Rich Rodriguez provided me some ammunition.

Michigan was still in the game, tied 17-17, midway through the third quarter. All the momentum was on Penn State's side, but Michigan hadn't yet fallen off a cliff. Starting quarterback Steven Threet was on the sidelines, nursing a bad elbow. A mistake by the kick returner left Michigan in poor field position at its own 16-yard line. A holding penalty was followed by two negative plays, leaving Michigan with a third-and-21 at its own 5-yard line. If any situation called for a fullback dive and a punt, it was this one. But Rodriguez had walk-on backup quarterback Nick Sheridan take a five-step drop into the end zone, where he waited an eternity before taking a sack for a safety that would give Penn State the lead for good.

I'm still on board with the program Rich, I just didn't like that call. Enjoy your JLS Trophy -- looks like the only one you'll earn this year.

BlogPoll Ballot

This season, I am again voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog, and now available on CBS Sportsline. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment, and I may make changes based on comments for a revised ballot later in the week .

Rank Team Delta
1 Texas --
2 Penn State 1
3 Alabama 1
4 Southern Cal 1
5 Oklahoma 1
6 Oklahoma State --
7 Florida --
8 Ohio State 5
9 Georgia --
10 Utah 4
11 LSU 1
12 Texas Tech 2
13 TCU 13
14 Boise State 1
15 Pittsburgh 11
16 South Florida --
17 Georgia Tech 9
18 Missouri 7
19 Brigham Young 11
20 Boston College 6
21 Florida State 3
22 Arizona 4
23 Northwestern 3
24 Ball State 1
25 Tulsa 1



Dropped Out: Kansas (No. 17), California (No. 18), Virginia Tech (No. 19), Michigan State (No. 20), North Carolina (No. 21), Wake Forest (No. 22), Vanderbilt (No. 23).

Rankings that may require further explanation: Texas's rout of Missouri solidifies its spot at the top of the poll. Penn State has been more consistently impressive than Alabama, which has had a couple of close calls. The group from four to eight is bunched very tightly, with a drop-off starting with Georgia at nine. Lots of guesswork in the poll's bottom half -- remember, I didn't see a lot of games this week, instead relying on box scores, blog posts, and College Football Final.

Games I watched at least part of: Florida State-North Carolina State, BYU-TCU, Michigan-Penn State (attended).

Posted by: Russell Levine on 20 Oct 2008

20 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2008, 12:06pm by Deadball

Comments

1
by Kevin Eleven :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 11:15pm

1. Texas- Texas jumps to #1 after an impressive win against Missouri.
2. Alabama- I think they should be ranked ahead of Penn State, but why do I suspect this team might finish 9 - 3?
3. Penn State- they play Ohio State next week, and OSU is firing on all cylinders.
4. Oklahoma State- has a legitimate shot next week at Texas.
5. Oklahoma- if Texas wins out, they're screwed.
6. Utah- this team is for real. The winner of Utah vs TCU deserves a BCS bowl, even if it is one-loss TCU.
7. Southern Cal
8. Georgia
9. Ohio State- in a month they could be back in the championship picture.
10. Florida
11. Texas Tech- here's another unbeated team that could easily finish 9 - 3, or maybe even 8 - 4.
12. TCU
13. LSU
14. Missouri- despite having lost two in a row, I'm convinced they're better than every teamI have ranked below them.
15. Pittsburgh
16. Boston College- the big win against Virginia Tech pushes this one-loss team way up.
17. Boise State- #17 feels a bit high, as the Oregon win looks less impressive now. But no one below them has a strong enough case.
18. Ball State- they beat Navy, and Navy beat Georgia Tech...
19. Virginia Tech- and Virginia Tech beat Georgia Tech...
20. Georgia Tech- so those teams have to be ranked ahead of Georgia Tech.
21. BYU
22. USF
23. Florida State
24. Minnesota
25. Vanderbilt

2
by Fourth (not verified) :: Mon, 10/20/2008 - 11:54pm

You referenced Florida twice in your post. Our only bottom out in the last 15 years was the 3 years of 8 win seasons under Zook. The 06 season was less a phoenix from the ashes than just getting back in stride after a short stumble. Of course, I can't think of any team in recent history that's had the same level of sudden major surgery the Michigan program just had. You'll get back in a year or two though, I have no doubt.

3
by Kevin Eleven :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 12:16am

Ah, 2002 again.

Florida hired Zook and I was amazed. A guy I'd NEVER HEARD OF got the Florida gig. I hate UF, but if coaching is a Christmas Tree, Gatorland is at or close to the Angel's head.

10
by peachy (not verified) :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 12:23pm

Yeah, I was going to mention the same thing. It would take a direct act of God at this point for Michigan to finish the regular season with 7 wins, a #25 ranking and a New Year's Eve berth... and that was Zook's worst result.

4
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 2:32am

I have just one complaint about Penn State: The game presentation is awful. The canned music, the cheerleading by the public address announcer and the techno music all have to go. They're better than that.

That's fair criticism, in my mind. Much more reasonable than some of the other complaints I've heard. A few people complained that we have to get rid of that "stupid lion roar" - hint, it started in 1968. Penn State hasn't significantly changed jerseys in forever, we have the same head coach as we did in the Ford administration - sense a pattern? Tradition wins, deal with it - most other schools have a similar bizarre tradition. Someone else complained that "We Are Penn State" is stupid, which similarly made me laugh. All school chants are stupid - you just think yours isn't, because, well, it's yours.

Still, though, you'll have to deal with the canned music somewhat. Zombie Nation's a tradition at this point, and if you noticed, Penn State's big on tradition.

Unlike Lloyd Carr a year ago, Joe Paterno has given no indication that he's ready to retire, and the likelihood is that, whenever it occurs, his separation from the program is not likely to be easy. Brett Favre's divorce from the Packers is a good parallel.

Did you read Orson's story on ESDBS a few days ago? I don't think the end of Paterno's era is going to be a big deal, because I think college football is all he has. I also don't think the administration will kick him out, once they step back and realize that the program is still well-run and under control. Paterno will be coaching as long as he wants, and I think when he stops, the next coach will already be working for Penn State.

One thing I think even Penn State fans don't understand is that "just any coach" won't work. Penn State's probably the strangest school atop the athlete graduation lists (given that they're not a major academic school like Notre Dame), and I'm positive the administration wants it to stay that way. For one thing, I know the alumni want it to stay that way.

7
by Russell Levine :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 9:52am

I can accept Zombie Nation at this point and the scoreboard lion roar and "We Are Penn State" are just annoying for the visitors, but not awful.

But to me, the plain uniforms and the strong traditions just don't mesh with Bon Jovi, Blur, and G n' R. I hate it. You're better than that!

5
by Kunk (not verified) :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 9:39am

Russell, where were your seats on Saturday?

As a Penn State fan in the visitor's section, I was surrounded by several affable Michigan fans. I think many Penn State fans have made a concerted effort to police each other after some recent unfortunate incidents involving other team's fans. That said, I enjoyed being in the Michigan section much more than I had expected (the outcome of the game certainly helped).

Minor 2005 beef that usually gets obscured by the "2 seconds" argument: Jason Avant's (I think it was Avant) "catch" on the sideline that didn't get reviewed. A lesser man would be bitter, but not me.

6
by Russell Levine :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 9:50am

I was in NJU, row 75, one section over from where most Michigan fans were gathered up in the corner of the end zone. I was pleasantly surprised by the Michigan turnout. If the fans are really turning on the program, as some in the Detroit media would have you believe, I don't think you'd see them traveling in force to a game in which the likely outcome was a blowout loss.

Avant had his toes in.

8
by zlionsfan :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 10:08am

Well, if it's any consolation, every time I play at Michigan State in NCAA 09 (doesn't matter which team I am), they mention the 1990 UM-MSU game and the 28-27 score, but skip over the blatant pass interference on the two-point conversion attempt.

One of the great things about college football is that it always seems to produce moments like that ... the longer you're a fan, the more of them you collect. (Note that the 1979 "lateral" against IU doesn't bother me at all ... generally speaking, your reaction to these events depends entirely on which team you supported at the time.)

9
by Yinka Double Dare :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 12:12pm

The "2 seconds" argument is especially annoying to hear because JoePa himself had 2 seconds added back on the clock on the previous go-ahead drive for Penn State. It was the right call when JoePa got the 2 seconds added and it was the right call when Carr got the 2 seconds added. This wasn't "Spartan Bob" or the fumble call in the Illinois/Michigan game that led to the initial investigation into the possibility of a replay system - Illinois fans still bring that one up too (and that truly was a bad call, unlike the "2 seconds").

I hate canned noise at college football games in general when there is a band present. If you have a band, let them be the entertainment. They do seem to have upgraded the lion roar sound -- it used to sound awful on TV, now it just sounds generally crappy and annoying. But much better than the old Lion roar in the Silverdome, which in person sounded like an airplane toilet flushing. Which was often pretty approrpriate for the Lions.

15
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 6:52pm

I honestly don't think that Penn State fans are really complaining about the officiating. They don't complain about the officiating against other teams, and certain times it's been just as bad - in 2002, the Iowa game was far worse, obviously - and people mention the Michigan game from that year more.

I think it's just a natural response to the fact that Michigan's had such a long winning streak. The fact that Michigan fans lorded it over Penn State fans for so long probably didn't help.

It's kinda frustrating, because that was such a good game in 2005, in a season that was absolutely loaded with great games.

11
by jw124164 :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 12:53pm

Kevin 11:

Georgia Tech did not lose to Navy - they lost to Va. Tech. Who lost to Boston College, who lost to Georgia Tech. So that's a logic loop that leaves the three teams tied at #16 (all three of these are better than Ball State or Boise State).

16
by Kevin Eleven :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 8:26pm

You're right. :)

12
by DangerGnat :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 2:38pm

Why did you drop Oklahoma below USC, then claim that 4-8 are very tightly packed? Not that it matters much, but just curious, why move any of these teams if they're tightly packed?

13
by Kevin from Philly :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 3:06pm

I was lucky enough to go up to PSU with some guys from work years ago. Great town, lots of fun - generally a nice treat for a first timer at a college football game ( I went to Drexel, which barely has sports). The general concensus from all the PSU guys was that every Big ten teams fans are fun - except for Ohio State's. Lots of taunting, smug behavior, etc. From the few OSU guys I've met since, that seems to be true (although they seem cool outside of football discussions). This week should be a great game.

14
by The NBA Logo (not verified) :: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 4:48pm

"And yes, I'm quite aware that Michigan's current coach was once a part of this abomination, which violates at least four of my rules"

Well, three of the five: This is a Saturday game, and our little jewel of a stadium is named after a pharmaceutical magnate [not that I care -- it will always be simply Mountaineer Field to me].

Btw, I hope *Michigan's current coach* chokes on a wheel of brie from Zingermans.

17
by Russell Levine :: Wed, 10/22/2008 - 1:59pm

Four violations in that video: 1) Inflatable helmet; 2) Smoke machine; 3) Third jerseys; 4) Bad heavy-metal music over the PA.

Stadiums named after people that donated the money are fine (Carrier Dome, whatever they call Mountaineer field). Papa John's Cardinals Stadium and Movie Gallery Stadium are not.

18
by Vin (not verified) :: Wed, 10/22/2008 - 3:38pm

Russ, I think I heard you swear a few times during the Utah game. Still, that was fewer than me.

As for the "game" in State College this past Saturday (we scored first!), I didn't hear the PSU band play once in the 2nd half. Although I guess it's possible they were playing along with "Welcome to the Jungle," "Livin' on a Prayer," "American Girl," "Kernkraft 400," "Song 2," "Hey Baby," and "Seven Nation Army" and I didn't hear it. Yeesh, when you have a good band, let them play! It's like a cross between Triple-A baseball and a regular season NBA game in there, but much louder. Luckily, that's the only blemish on what is (for my 2 cents) always the best road trip in the Big Ten.

PSU 34, OSU 31 this Saturday.

19
by Solomon (not verified) :: Wed, 10/22/2008 - 10:34pm

I will stick with my earlier prediction of Ohio State 27, Penn State 17. No way does PSU score 34 on OSU's defense (yes, I know USC scored 35, although 7 came from a pick-6).

If OSU wins Saturday, beats the school up north, and beats at least one of Illinois and Northwestern, it will be at least a modestly successful season. That would keep the conference title streak alive and provide another win over TSUN.

I hope OSU makes the Rose Bowl, but only as conference champion (not the back door, Illinois method).

Don't sweat the polls -- they will sort theselves out. I doubt more than two BCS teams (if even that many) run the table.

20
by Deadball (not verified) :: Thu, 10/23/2008 - 12:06pm

As a fan of a mid-major who gets to tussle with Big ten teams regularly, no fans get off on beating up on smaller schools like Iowa fans do. OSU fans may be thuggish when dealing with other Big Ten fans, but generally left us alone. Iowa fans never quit.