The State of the Bluegrass: Tigres y Gatos, Part Deux

helmets

Well folks, it appears as if my beloved Kentucky Wildcats will have their most recent must win / statement game / game of the year this weekend when they travel to Columbia, Missouri to take on the Tigers of Mizzou. This comes after a couple heartbreaking losses for the Cats. After a magical, and nearly perfect [damn you Florida] start to the season UK will look to erase the last 2 weeks and get back to their [new] winning ways.

(Photo Credit, Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

(Photo Credit, Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

 

The first of those losses [Tigers v. Cats Part One], was somewhat of a brutal mauling in the box score, but the game itself wasn’t nearly as bad as the score indicated. The Defense played LSU tough, but the brutality with which LSU traditionally wears teams down, and the absolutely overpowering aura of Death Valley proved too much for this particular Cats team to handle. Thats ok. They’re young. They’re learning. They’re improving. And even the best teams have trouble going down to Death Valley and winning. Better times are on the horizon.

Speaking of which, last weekend’s game against #1 ranked Mississippi State presented just such a reason for optimism and sign of growth. Kentucky lost at home to the Bulldogs 45 – 31 this past Saturday, but showed us just about every positive the Bluegrass State could ask for. The 45 points is veeeery misleading. MSU scored their last 14 points on a 73 yard run by Josh Robinson, and that fluke of all flukes kickoff return for 61 yards. Take those points away and Kentucky only gave up 31 points to Mississippi State, a more than reasonable score considering they’re the #1 team in the country with the (former) Heisman favorite Quarterbacking them (a guy people had been comparing to the lofty likes of Tim Tebow and Cam Newton all season long). Hold a team like that to 31 points and with a little luck (turnovers, big plays, special teams) you have the brewings of an upset.

Now, we all knew getting a win against #1 (even at home where we have been incredibly effective this season) would require a lot of help in the way of luck. We needed mistakes by MSU players and coaches, turnovers, and big plays to turn our way while limiting our mistakes to zero and keeping the thing close all day. We got some, but not all, of the necessary ingredients for an upset on Saturday. Dan Mullen made one of his patented bone headed moves, going for it on 4th and 10 to start the 4th quarter instead of punting and pining the Cats deep, giving Kentucky a chance to tie the game immediately after the Kentucky offense had thrown together an absolutely stellar TD pass from Patrick Towles to Javess Blue cut the lead to 7 late in the 3rd.

The Cats, however, didn’t capitalize on that drive. Instead they went 3 and out and punted the ball right back to MSU with the score still 31-24 Bulldogs. So we weren’t able to capitalize on the big MSU mental mistake we were hoping for.

Moreover, we didn’t quite get the MSU mistakes on the field we needed either. Generally to pull an upset you need a couple turnovers. Well, in addition to forcing tons of 3 and outs, and being absolute beasts on 3rd down, our defense forced 4 fumbles out of Mississippi State. Yet somehow we couldn’t recover a single one of them. That’s not bad coaching or bad playing, just bad luck. Fumble recoveries are exactly the kind of luck we needed that day and just couldn’t get. Also, the 1 pick we managed came too late in the first half to really swing the game.

Furthermore, we did not play mistake free like we needed to. We had 4 fumbles of our own and lost 1 of them deep in our own territory, setting up an early MSU score that put the Cats on their heels for the rest of the game. If it weren’t for that play the whole game could have been a whole lot tighter all the way through.

While we may not have gotten the luck we needed, and may not have played as mistake free as we needed to, however, we certainly did manage to do a ton of damage to Dak Prescott’s Heisman campaign in my opinion. The only problem was that we made his teammate, Running Back Josh Robinson, look like a Heisman candidate in his own right. Note exhibit A, B, C, and Z:

That was 6 broken tackles if you’re keeping score at home, at it wasn’t until the 7th AND 8th guys hit him together that he was brought down. Also, there was this.

And that, my friends, is perhaps Kentucky’s biggest, [and in my opinion their only major] flaw. Run defense. All three of Kentucky’s losses this year have come in large part at the hands of dominant rushing attacks. Matt Jones rushed for 156 yards and a TD in the Florida game, and as a team Florida had 237 yards on the ground. LSU rushed for a combined 303 yards and 3 rushing TDs against us. And Robinson just burned us for 198 and 2 TDs, while as a team MSU poured on 326 yards and 4 rushing TDs. Hell, even their premier win of the year vs. South Carolina featured a stellar rushing performance by Mike Davis who ran for 183 yards and 3 TDs. Plain and simple this particular Kentucky team stops the run about as well as Wonder Bread stops an atomic bomb…

If you’re wondering, no… the Wonder Bread did not survive the test…

crying bread

The problem is tackling. Kentucky football was blessed with 3 consecutive iterations of spectacular interior linebackers. It started with Wesley Woodyard (2x First Team All SEC). Moved on to Danny Trevathon (1 First Team All SEC and 1 Second Team All SEC). And ended last year with Avery Williamson (1 Second Team All SEC). All three of these guys are now starting in the NFL, and Woodyard was the Defensive captain of the Super Bowl runner up Denver Broncos last year. Soooo its fair to say we have been slightly spoiled at the position.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, all three of their Holy Trinity of Inside Linebackers have moved on to the NFL, and while I'm certainly happy for them, I would certainly love to see any of them in the Kentucky Blue again.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, all three of their Holy Trinity of Inside Linebackers have moved on to the NFL, and while I’m certainly happy for them, I would certainly love to see any of them in the Kentucky Blue again.

I mentioned in my preseason article how much this team would miss Williamson, the most recent of these three All-SEC linebackers to graduate. He covered up innumerable mistakes and mismatches for Kentucky during his time in Blue, and while I certainly had hoped that the defense could make up for his departure with growth elsewhere, I was skeptical.

(Photo Credit, David Stephenson, Lexington Herald-Leader)

(Photo Credit, David Stephenson, Lexington Herald-Leader)

Now, part of my hopes came true. This Kentucky defense is definitely better than any defense Williamson was ever a part of. However, the linebacking corps is undoubtedly worse with his departure. There appears to be a plauge of ‘arm tacklers’ on this team. Guys try to tackle opposing running backs with a single arm, or simply by hitting them without wrapping them up and dragging them to the ground. They don’t finish the play and bring the guy to the ground. This kind of thing might work for the best of the best, but that is not what we have at Kentucky. What we have are GOOD players. Not great but good. And coaches who put those players in positions to make plays and stop running backs. Unfortunately, their weak tackling and poor technique are hopelessly easy for opposing running backs to break, as Robinson demonstrated by breaking 6 tackles on a single run this weekend. Let’s just show you once more to illustrate the point.

Yeeeeesh.

Now, thats not to say that our defenders can’t stop the run. Our secondary is much improved, and can make tackles when called upon, but if an opposing running back has broken into your secondary, the battle is already lost. You need to stop them at the 2nd level, aka the linebackers, as a worst case scenario, and never want to be stopping them at the 3rd level (your secondary). So lets ignore that for a second. Ideally you’d LIKE to stop them right at the line of scrimmage, at the defensive line. Our D Line does an excellent job at this. That is where the elite players of this unit are located. Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith and beasts, and while their primary roles are to be pass rushers, they know how to wrap up their man and bring him down if the opposing team decides to rush to the edge. They’re quick enough to get to their man and strong enough to bring him down. Where Kentucky struggles, however, is when opponents run up the middle and overpower us.

Matt Elam is a truly elite run stopper at Nose Tackle. The man is an absolute wooly mammoth out there.

I can’t even figure out how guys ever get around him. Unfortunately for UK, however, the coaching staff hasn’t made him an every down player yet. Perhaps because he hasn’t developed the requisite stamina to be an every down, or near every down player. Perhaps because they fear his youth will make him prone to mistakes. Or perhaps they simlply like keeping him fresh for crucial 3rd downs etc. The fact of the matter he isn’t and every down guy. Our other DTs are very very good, but not elite, so of course occasionally a RB breaks through them. This is just going to happen more often than not in the game of football when you have 5 offensive linemen and a Tight End blocking against 4 defensive linemen. The battle is inherently out of the defense’s favor.

Josh Forrest. A Kentucky native and next man up in UK's line of Inside Linebackers. (Photo Credit @UKFootball Twitter account)

Josh Forrest. A Kentucky native and next man up in UK’s line of Inside Linebackers. (Photo Credit @UKFootball Twitter account)

That’s where your Middle linebacker needs to step up and make the play. Thats what we had with Woodyard, Trevathan, and Williamson. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to muster these stops consistently with this year’s team. Now don’t get me wrong. Josh Forrest  is undoubtedly a good player. And his interceptions are certainly a sight for sore eyes (2 this year when we, as a team, only had 2 all last year). Moreover, he certainly has a ton of tackles so far this year (65), but unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story. His technique needs work, and he could probably stand to get a little stronger so he wouldn’t struggle so much bringing down the Aurochs and Buffalo most SEC teams utilize as running backs. He already has most of the physical tools for him to be the next elite UK Middle Linebacker. He just needs to work on his technique and put everything together yet. That’s when the 300 yard rushing games stop. A day that can’t come soon enough.

Hopefully Forrest improves over the next few games (as a crucial stretch of win-able road games is now in front of Kentucky with Mizzou, Tennessee, and Louisville… Georgia… mmm… maybe not so much… but 3/4 ain’t bad!) and hopefully he and current freshmen inside linebackers Nico Firios and Dorian Hendrix can stabilize the position for years to come. For the time being, however, lets look at the positives! This Kentucky team, flaws and all, just took the #1 team in the country to the wire. With what little luck Kentucky had it is amazing how close they managed to make this game. Pat Towles had by far the best game of his career. Senior receivers Javess Blue (still the best name of any Kentucky player ever) and Demarco Robinson were all over the field making spectacular plays. The defense was stout and solid. And we didn’t even have our best offensive weapon, freshman running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, on the field!

A little reminder for those who forgot.

And while Blue’s TD was indeed impressive, and MSU’s Josh Robinson was incredibly good all day, let’s not forget Kentucky’s own Robinson. Mr. Demarco Robinson had a nifty touchdown of his own.

Those feet!! Those magical feet!!! How did they stay inbounds!!??

Anyway, we gave MSU all they could handle. And as an aside, yes the onside kick was the right call. That touchdown was a freak occurrence. With the penalty on the previous PAT an onside kick risks giving the ball to MSU on the 35 yard line, but a kick out of the endzone would have put them at the 25 yard line anyway. 10 yards is more than worth the risk of getting the ball. Yes, angry Kentucky fans EVEN WITH TWO TIMEOUTS left. With the way Josh Robinson was running the ball you probably only have a 15% chance of getting the ball back with enough time left on the clock to score, and only a 5% chance of actually scoring. So yes, the risk of the onside kick was the correct call. And this game should only have been a 7 point loss… 10 points worst case scenario. Again, that was a freak play. Ok, glad we put that one to rest… hope you got all your anger out.

Here, have some Wonder Bread. Freshly toasted.

BUT ANYWAY to push things in a more positive direction, I say all this to talk about why Kentucky’s next game is their biggest big game of the year of the century yet! Kentucky plays Mizzou this weekend as they take their 3rd shot at clinching bowl eligibility. Now, while Kentucky has gone winless on the road thus far this season, Columbia is not exactly the same kind of road environment as The Swamp and Death Valley. In fact, Mizzou has been garbage in their last 3 home appearances this year. Consider the evidence:

Last week Mizzou played Vanderbilt (far and away the worst team in the SEC this year) at home and barely snuck out a 24-14 win. [That snapped a 2 game home losing streak by the way.] Now, they did win this game so you have to give them credit there, but if Vandy can play Missouri that tight at home, Why Not Kentucky? (see what I did there Mark Stoops?)

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Three weeks ago, October 11th, they played a Georgia team reeling from recently losing Heisman candidate Running Back Todd Gurley to suspension and were SHUT OUT! AT HOME! BY A TEAM MISSING THEIR BEST PLAYER! Now, Georgia can do that to a lot of folks. They’re that good. But shutout? C’mon. UK may have gotten bloodied in Baton Rouge, but we didn’t get shut out… and that was a road game… not at home… egads Mizzou…

Now here is the real beauty. Saturday, September 20th. Mizzou welcomed the Indiana Hoosiers Football Team to town. The same Hoosiers team that is 10-26 combined the last three seasons. The same Indiana that has finished last or second to last in the Big 10 the last 6 years running. The same Indiana team which, even with their big road upset of Mizzou has only been able to muster a 3-4 record this season. Their other 2 wins on the season? Those came against Indiana State (an FCS school…) and North Texas (2-6 on the year and the worst team in Conference USA…) Not exactly the same kind of competition as Kentucky. Now sure, Indiana plays some fun, high tempo offense this year. They try to make every game a shootout and hope they can outscore their opponent, defenses be damned. But still, how the hell did you lose to Indiana, Mizzou?? If the hapless Hoosiers can do it, Kentucky surely can too.

This Kentucky team isn’t perfect. They’re also not as good as some of the crazies would have had you believe after that 5-1 start (win the SEC East? Next year? Maybe. This year? Let’s just get to a bowl game please). The run defense is a flaw, and the offense doesn’t always click on all cylinders. Next week, however, there’s no reason to think this UK team can’t grab its first road win of the year. The offense looks the best it has all year, and can only get better once Boom gets back in the lineup. Matt Elam and our young Secondary get better with every game we play. And Missouri has proven that they are anything but intimidating at home. These are not the Bayou Bengals of LSU,  but perhaps something more akin to Hello Kitty in Yellow and Black. So bring on your super scarey “Stripe Out” Mizzou, cuz I’m about ready for the Wildcats to avenge those stupid T-Shirts you made… Right about meow motherfuckers… Go Cats.

mizzout

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The Magnolia State Saga Continues

Yes that is their real state flag.

Yes that is their real state flag. A mashup of France and the Confederacy?

The State of Mississippi has yet to let me down with this exciting, magical pair of football seasons they’re throwing together. I mentioned last week how they had a pair of tough games coming up this weekend. I wanted to savor they unbelievable things they had been able to do thus far because it was easy to believe that if anyone could go into the Cowbell Den that is Starkville and win it would be #2 Auburn, and there was no reason to think Texas A&M couldn’t upset Ole Miss at home, especially when they were pissed off and coming off a loss. And then the games happened.

Over 110,000 people showed up to watch the Rebels crush the Aggies (Image Via http://olehottytoddy.com/2014/10/12/ole-miss-rebels-texas-recap-new-normal/)

Over 110,000 people showed up to watch the Rebels crush the Aggies (Image Via http://olehottytoddy.com/2014/10/12/ole-miss-rebels-texas-recap-new-normal/)

Ole Miss went down to A&M and buried them. The Game ended up being 35-20 but it wasn’t even close. The Aggies were never better than 2 TDs down. And scored 13 of their 20 points in the 4th quarter and all 20 of their points in the second half.

fda

Mississippi State, however, felt a little different. On the surface they absolutely beat down Auburn. That first quarter was an absolute spectacle. The rest of the game was too although for multiple ever-changing reasons ranging from a freak monsoon, to Heisman hopeful Dak Prescott’s turnovers etc. And yet somehow throughout the entire thing, State seemed to be completely in control. Mullen made some absolutely atrocious coaching calls all game long, the biggest example being the inexplicable Fake Punt play. I get it. Its one thing to just step on someone’s throat when you’re really feeling it, but that play had about as much chance for success as Custer following Crazy Horse into the Little Bighorn.

custer miss state

And it didn’t stop there. With 7:26 to go in the game Dak Prescott ran the ball out of bounds when he should have slid to keep the clock running and ensure the victory. Mullen went for it on 4th and 8 instead of kicking a field goal in the 4th quarter that would have almost certainly have guaranteed the win. And lets not forget all the turnovers from our alleged Heisman leader Prescott. In a lot of ways this team played and looked terrible. And yet? THEY COMPLETELY FUCKING DOMINATED AUBURN! THE NUMBER 2 TEAM IN THE COUNTRY AND DEFENDING SEC CHAMPS!!! Even through poor coaching, mental missteps, turnovers and everything else, Mississippi State looked dominant against Auburn. And they shut down one of the best offensive minds in football today, Gus Malzahn.

Somehow this doofus (right) knocked off Malzahn (Photo Credit: Kevin Cox, Getty Images)

Somehow this doofus (right) knocked off Malzahn (Photo Credit: Kevin Cox, Getty Images)

Now, when the new polls came out this week that picture perfect “shared third place” thing that the two Mississippi schools had was over. Ole Miss held down the #3 spot, but Mississippi State leapt over Florida State to claim the #1 spot. However, with all those mental missteps it just doesn’t feel like like Mississippi State is the #1 team in the country. I mean… I think they deserve to be ranked there after that spectacle they went through being #8 in the country on the road, #6, and then #2 all in a row. And they certainly look dominant enough, both offensively and defensively, to be there. However, they are perhaps the most beatable #1 overall team I have ever seen.

Win or lose against LSU this Saturday Kentucky will get the first road crack at our newly minted #1, and I’m chomping at the bit for a chance at these guys. For all we know Mullen is already half way through contract talks to replace Will Muschamp at Florida, and doesn’t bother to gameplan. Now, I still love the story of these two Mississippi schools dominating the gauntlet that is the SEC West. I’m still rooting for the Egg Bowl to be between two undefeateds and I would LOVE it if both schools someone made the 4 team playoff. All I’m saying is that I’m just glad Kentucky gets the first crack at them as a number one, and I hope Mullen calls fake punts all day long. Why not?

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

Born Again in the Bluegrass: The Year of Perpetual Statement Games

Kentucky Football is on the rise. Or so UK fans tell themselves every week as they walk out of Commonwealth Stadium. But somehow, by the time next week’s game starts, they’re back to their old ways. Cursing the refs and wailing “Oooooonly Kentucky football.” Its as if everyone believes Billy Gillispie is sitting in some hut down in the Bayou somewhere casting some voodoo shit on us. Making us think we lose even when we win.

Dontchu use dat voodoo magic on me Billy G... Keep dat shit to yo'self

Dontchu use dat voodoo magic on me Billy G… Keep dat shit to yo’self

Mark Stoops’ “Why Not” campaign is every bit as much for the UK fanbase as it is for recruits and players. This coaching staff is built top to bottom with winners. They win recruiting battles, the win football games, hell, the Defensive Line Mark Stoops and D.J. Elliot built won a national title down at Florida State. The players are winners too. Maybe not all the juniors and seniors. They’ve lived through 2 years of Joker Phillips losses and Stoops’ first 2-10 season, but everyone that has been brought in from JUCO guys to transfers to recruits, redshirts to freshman starters, they’re all winners. They were all the best players at their high schools, some of the best players in their states, and some of them were among the best players in the United States as recruits.

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

As Kentucky Football fans we loooove to talk about how Bear Bryant started here. How he won the SEC and his first national title with us, before Alabama so cruelly stole him away from us. We’ll tell you that the spread offense that took off in the Big 12 during the late 90s and 2000s started with Hal Mumme and Tim Couch at UK, and even Tom Leach’s golden years of the Air Raid Offense at Texas Tech with stars like Michael Crabtree (which Neil Brown still coaches today for his Alma Mater) originated at UK. And somehow, none of this helps us shake the stink of years of consistent struggles. We may show blips of success (1950 National Title, 1976 Co-SEC Champs, ’97 Tim Couch and Hal Mumme knock off Alabama in Commonwealth Stadium, ’98 they beat LSU in Baton Rouge, and in ’99 Tim Couch became the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The 2007 miracle victory over #1 LSU and the 2008 near upset of #2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa in front of 90,000 pissed off Bama fans.) but  I can count those moments on my hands, and one of them didn’t even involve UK, it involved a kid leaving for the NFL draft. And if you wanna take it further, it just takes one look at the list to see its few and far between when we even get to a bowl game.

But that right there is the Kentucky fan mentality. Every kid and coach on this team is a winner. They know how to win. Winning is all they’ve done. But the fans? Except for those rare blips of glory, all they’ve done is lose, lose, lose no matter what. The people involved with the team may not need to learn how to win, but the fans sure do. And this whole year will be one big learning lesson by the looks of things, which I’m more than ready to embrace.

Its become a little bit comical to me how every single game every single week is the “game of the year” for us. UT Martin and Ohio were important because of last year’s loss to Western Kentucky in Nashville. We had to make sure there weren’t going to be any more stupid slip ups. Florida was important because it was Stoops first big chance for a signature win of the year (and if theres such a thing as a signature loss he certainly got one, but oh well). Vanderbilt was huge because it was our best chance to end the streak of 0 wins in conference against SEC teams since November 26, 2011… almost 3 full years (but what a win that was).

South Carolina was big because it was another chance for that elusive signature win for Stoops. Hell, even Louisiana-Monroe was important because it represented a potential 5th win for the year (meaning we now have 6 tries to get our 6th win and qualify for a bowl) and because we needed to avoid a trap game and a let down before the big LSU game next week. And obviously the LSU game is our latest “Game of the Year… of the week…”

And even though we’re already setting ourselves up for another dose of this next week with Mississippi State, it won’t be any less true then either. If we beat LSU, thats SPECTACULAR. A road in in the SEC (our first of the year) in perhaps the most hostile environment in the conference (and maybe all of college football) against a traditional SEC power. This would be huge. But LSU is unranked. We’ve yet to beat a ranked opponent in the Stoops era. Moreover, not only is MSU ranked, they’re the #1 team in the country (deserving or otherwise). So there’s no doubt that would be the game of the year for us whether we win or lose against LSU this week. A win there would mean Kentucky was on the map nationally and would start getting major buzz to fight Georgia for the SEC East title this year.

As far as the game itself, it won’t be easy. Kentucky has only played ONE road game all year so far (@ Florida) so they’re relatively untested and they lost that game so they’re definitely unproven. (Moreover, LSU just went on the road to Florida and beat them by a field goal last week, so in that regard they’ve got us topped.) But even if we’re untested and unproven, that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen them come up big this season. We’ve seen a spectacular touchdown run by Boom Williams in overtime. We’ve seen a perfectly scripted, and executed Neil Brown trick play to Ryan Timmons to tie up the South Carolina game. Hell, we saw a win against Steve Spurrier who has owned Kentucky for his entire college football coaching career. Not to mention we’ve seen an ESPN top play quality grab from our resident athletic freak Javess Blue (holder of the “Best Last Name on the Team” award 2 years running. Sorry Gruenschlaeger. Better luck next year).

(Photo Credit: David Stephenson, AP)

(Photo Credit: David Stephenson, AP)

Kentucky has only played one road game all year, and that was a loss to Florida, but they played them close and easily could have won that game if it weren’t for 2 defensive backs colliding with each other on what could have been the last play of the game. Furthermore, they had some great showings and near misses on the road last season. A near miracle comeback against South Carolina in Columbia and a chance to beat Mississippi State in Starkville with 25 seconds to go and UK on the 30 yard line. So by no means to we simply wilt on the road. Now, we were never tested the same way those drunk Tiger fans will test us at 7:30PM this Saturday, but hell I’ll take my chances. Mark Stoops has done what I never though was possible at Kentucky. He’s built a power running team with a dominant Defensive Line that can compete with anyone in the SEC. I always thought Kentucky could win in the SEC, but I thought it would be with a Big 12 style (Hal Mumme) spread offense that aired it out, over the heads of those rhinoceroses other SEC teams call defensemen. In fact I thought Neil Brown was the much more important part of the Stoops coaching staff as he was not only a Kentucky native, but would bring in this style of offense.

Instead, we have our own rhinoceros in the form of Matt Elam, and a couple stud defensive ends in the form of Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith to anchor the line. Perhaps more importantly, however, UK’s D Line is DEEP. Besides the 3 bluechippers mentioned we’ve got Mike Douglas (whose tipped pass ended up winning us the South Carolina game) Melvin Lewis, Reggie Meant, Jason Hatcher, Cory Johnson, Jabari Johnson, and Farrington Huguenin to ensure that we can always keep a fresh unit on the field, which will be incredibly important against LSU. Because even though LSU is having a down year (one of the main reasons for all this Kentucky optimism going into Death Valley) their running game is still their strength offensively. I can’t remember the last time an LSU wasn’t able to run the ball down Kentucky’s throats. Their quarter back play is definitely questionable this season which is a good thing, because even though UK is #2 in the nation in interceptions, a lot of that is simply broken down plays caused by our D Line wreaking havoc on opposing O Lines and QBs, rather than by stellar secondary play. Moreover, even though a lot was made of Josh Forrest’s 15 tackles in the South Carolina game, our Linebackers struggle mightily to wrap up guys and make tackles. We’ve seen enough broken arm tackles and stiff armed UK players this season to make Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathon, and Avery Williamson cry. The Linebacking play NEEDS to get better, but until they do we’ll be relying on the D Line to come up big and shut down Leonard Fournette and Kenny Hilliard at the line of scrimmage if we want to have any chance of getting our Defense off the field, but I for one am hopeful that they can do it.

More of this. (Photo Credit: Travis Spradling)

More of this. (Photo Credit: Travis Spradling)

Less of this (Photo Credit USA Today Sports)

Less of this (Photo Credit USA Today Sports)

Offensively, Stoops has built us an SEC style power running team. We have a stable of running backs so deep it really makes me feel for a guy like Josh Clemons who (because of his injury history) just can’t break into the lineup. Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp, Braylon Heard, Mikel Horton, Ryan Timmons at times, and even the aforementioned Clemens make the RBs by far Kentucky’s deepest skill position, and perhaps the deepest position on the team period. Hell, even QB Patrick Towles rolls out with his enormous 6’5″ frame to run a la Ben Roethlisberger. If it weren’t for the fact that LSU’s Defensive line weren’t composed solely of Grizzly Bears and their Linebacking corps of Silverback Gorillas I’d say we could trust the running game to carry us through the crowd noise and sneak out a tough defensive victory. As it is I’m still happy to take our chances.

This game means a lot to Kentucky. Beating an LSU is an achievement we rarely get to see in the comforts of the Bluegrass state let alone in Death Valley. Doesn’t matter if LSU is ranked or not.  Right now Kentucky is ranked the #30 in the AP Poll compared to LSU’s #27 so a win for either program will jettison them into the top 25, somewhere Kentucky hasn’t been since 2007, the year of our last win against LSU. After that win against #1 LSU UK hosted college game day the next week against #8 Florida, and there’s a 90% chance UK would host it again this time against #1 MSU if they pulled off this upset. So there’s a lot at stake here for fan pride, even without considering the fact that UK is tied for 1st in the SEC East and could put themselves in the driver seat to play in the SEC title game. Now that might not come to be, but it sure is nice to be able to dream with this team after so much losing. Win or lose, everything will be fine. We’ve got a team worth watching and a team that wins. Now we just need to hope the fans can pick up on that, and start believing themselves. Unless of course Les Miles is hanging out in that VooDoo hut with Billy G. Then we’ve probably got some serious, scary shit comin’ our way.

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Promising Beginnings and Unexpectedly Early Crossroads

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With the international break now upon us, I figure its time for some reflection on my first season as a Premier League fan. So far I couldn’t be happier about my experience. Villa came out with a great start (10 points in 4 games including a win against Liverpool), and even though they’ve struggled of late (3 losses to Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City) that was to be expected, and they looked good anyway. Paul Lambert has somehow rebuilt Villa’s back line in one fell swoop over the summer (taking Alan Hutton out of the dog house back to the starting lineup at Right Back and playing new signees Philippe Senderos at Center Back and Aly Cissokho at Left Back). Missing the captain Ron Vlaar is obviously not ideal but both Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker haven’t looked bad at all filling in for him at Center Back. However, both of them have missed what looked to be sure fire goals off of set pieces which is not ideal. Particularly worrisome because goal scoring and even shot generation appear to be major problem areas for Villa thus far.

With Vlaar out Lambert seems to play much more conservatively, using Kieran Richardson in the midfield as an extra defender of sorts instead of someone such as Joe Cole (still dinged up) or Jack Grealish (still too young to really be the guy anyway, as assistant coach and beard aficionado Roy Keane has elucidated), both of whom would enter the game more offensively minded. So as much as I love the hard working, gritty defense of this Villa squad, its a little painful to see the lack of offensive creativity and a seeming refusal by Lambert to push the ball forward.. like… ever…

However, even with that said the team has still been incredibly fun to watch, and there is ample reason for hope on the horizon. Vlaar should be returning soon, and perhaps with his captain back anchoring the back line, Lambert will take the risk to inject a guy like Cole (as long as he has anything left in the tank at this point in his career) into the starting line up and generate some scoring chances. Moreover, star striker Christian Benteke (Villa’s leading scorer the last 2 seasons even with a season-ending injury last year) finally made his return to the first team against Man City, which will obviously be a huge offensive boost.

Having Benteke back is sure to boost Villa's offense (Image via Getty Images)

Having Benteke back is sure to boost Villa’s offense (Image via Getty Images)

But all isn’t completely rosy moving into the international break. For one thing Senderos appears to have gotten injured on international duty and will miss the Everton game. But the larger issue is the persistent issue of money at the Villa of recent times. With all the uncertainty around Randy Lerner’s attempted sale of the team there is no knowing what kinds of funds are available to Lambert to build, or even maintain his squad. He, along with new Chief Executive Tom Fox, flew to the US this week to meet with Lerner and discuss finances and contracts. Specifically (we assume) contracts for Ron Vlaar, Fabian Delph, and Jack Grealish, all three of whom will be out of contract this summer, meaning the club could potentially lose them for nothing.

(Image Credit: Neville Williams)

(Image Credit: Neville Williams)

The Grealish issue appears to have largely resolved itself as he seems close to a new deal with the club, as evidenced by his pulling out of Ireland’s recent match to hammer out contract details during this international break. If all goes as planned and Grealish re-signs it will be a huge boon for the club. Locking up Grealish (only 19 and considered a bright rising star in the league) will mean the club has secured a cornerstone for its long term future.

Vlaar is the lynchpin to Villa's defense, and the captian should remain a cornerstone of the club for years to come (image via astonvilla.co.uk)

Vlaar is the lynchpin to Villa’s defense, and the captian should remain a cornerstone of the club for years to come (image via astonvilla.co.uk)

The larger concern, however, is the short to mid term future of the club. And here’s where we come to Delph and Vlaar. Vlaar’s importance is obvious. He’s the captain and the anchor of that defense. Without him the club needs to play more conservatively all over the pitch which as we’ve seen during his time out with injury, means little offense and fewer goals, which I’m sure you’re aware is not a winning recipe.

(Image via http://www.avfc.co.uk/page/NewsDetail/0,,10265~3334030,00.html)

(Image via http://www.avfc.co.uk/page/NewsDetail/0,,10265~3334030,00.html)

Losing Delph, however, would perhaps be even more damning. His offensive creativity represents one of the few bright spots of Villa’s offense. He’s a rising star in the league, and for England, and losing him would absolutely set the club back on its current rebuilding stint.

Lerner is obviously reluctant to sink too much more money into a club which he apparently has lost interest in owning. Moreover, Vlaar and Delph may not even want to return to a Villa side that has nearly been relegated 3 years in a row. Delph appears primed to become a major piece for England’s international squad, and even to become a top player in the Premier League. He may value a chance to play for titles on the top clubs in the League over staying with the rebuilding Villa. Vlaar meanwhile, has already proved himself to be a major international player after Holland’s run to the final 4 of the 2014 World Cup.

As far as I see it Villa is set to make the next (perhaps first) big step in their rebuilding process this season. This is primed to be the year that they leap up from the relegation danger zone (15th-20th) to solidly mid table, which in light of recent events (16th – 2011/12, 15th – 2012/13, 15th – 2013/14) is a much bigger deal than it would seem at first. They could probably land anyway from 7th to 14th in the table this year, and I’d take that happily I think. It would mean we secured our status as a Premier League team for next season, but more importnatly it would give us the opportunity to build on that improvement and keep on growing. Young players like Grealish, Benteke, and Ashley Westwood could continue to grow and develop. We could ensure that the Tom Cleverly loan becomes permanent. And we could use both the January and Summer transfer windows to further improve the team, hopefully with as resounding a success as the signings of Senderos and Cissokho have proved to be thus far.

YOU STAY AWAY FROM MY DUTCHMAN LOUIS VAN GAAL!!! HE'S MINE NOW!!! YOU AND YOUR HILARIOUS ACCENT CAN'T HAVE HIM!!! (Image via: Dean Mouhtaropoulos, Getty Images South America)

YOU STAY AWAY FROM MY DUTCHMAN LOUIS VAN GAAL!!! HE’S MINE NOW!!! YOU AND YOUR HILARIOUS ACCENT CAN’T HAVE HIM!!! (Image via: Dean Mouhtaropoulos, Getty Images South America)

However, Delph and Vlaar might not take such a finish so happily. Vlaar is nearly 30, and with his former international boss now at Man United his days with Villa may be numbered. Moreover, United appear to be hoping to buy up Delph AND Vlaar in one fell swoop, but even if they don’t land the package, Delph is being courted by Arsenal. Both players could leave Villa for their respective new homes this summer on free transfers if things don’t go right at Villa, and if we don’t sell them during the January transfer window that means losing these key pieces for nothing.

Go away Arsene Wenger!!! Delph doesn't want to play for your silly football club!!! Arsenal is a silly place!! ... Can't trust those frenchmen....

Go away Arsene Wenger!!! Delph doesn’t want to play for your silly football club!!! Arsenal is a silly place!! … Can’t trust those frenchmen….

I’d much rather keep both of them as losing them in any capacity sets back the rebuilding clock significantly so I certainly hope Lambert’s talks with Lerner have gone well. This may very well be the most important part of Villa’s season this year. More important than the Arsenal win or a much hoped for Europa League berth. If not it may very well mean back to the bottom with Villa, and a return to relegation scares for a long time to come. I really don’t know if staying with Villa is whats best for thsoe two guys. At Manchester United and Arsenal they may very well have the chance to win Premier League AND Champions League titles. And they can probably grab a lot bigger pay day than they can get from the floundering Lerner. But I really see a future for this club with them. I really think this club can make some major leaps and bounds if they continue to grow and hang on to this core they’ve developed. I guess all I can do for the time being, however, get down on my knees and beg Moses Keane to lead us to the promised land.

Moses Keane

 

Please Lerner, let me go on dreaming.

So You Say Football is for Feets

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So … I appear to have become a fan of the British Premier League. In truth I’m quite pleased with this reality. I’ve wanted to get into the Premier League for quite some time now, and even tried picking a few teams, but it never stuck. For the last three World Cups (the first World Cup I watched from start to finish was the 2006 World Cup when I was 16. I believe it was the first World Cup where ESPN broadcasted all the games). In any event, after the 2006 World Cup I discovered that the sport of soccer (football… but I’m American… So these things just happen…) was really fun to watch. The lack of scoring never bothered me too much because I was used to watching hockey, and while the NHL is certainly more high paced, frantic, and prolific when it comes to goals, the rhythm and back and forth was very familiar.

However, I was completely lost when it came to trying to watch professional football at this point. This is where I developed the opinion that I simply liked watching soccer to “root for the flags.” Argentina had been my team of choice to watch during the Cup because I found them excited, thought they had a chance to win, LOVED their jerseys, and had a friend in school who was studying abroad from Argentina, so it was fun to hop on the bandwagon. Moreover, even though it seemed at the time like Argentina was Tevez’s team, all the announcers kept telling me how this tiny hobbit of a man, Lionel Messi, was the real star on Argentina and was going to be one of the best football players who ever lived when all was said and done.

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

So after that 2006 World Cup I decided I would try to follow Messi’s team, which I discovered was Barcelona. This was a problem, however, because you couldn’t watch ANY La Liga games on TV, at least where I was at, except El Classico, whenever it rolled around. So long story short, I because the world’s most passive Barcelona fan… I didn’t really like the team (never saw them play) but liked one player on the team… and basically just checked in on the standings one every month or so. There didn’t seem to be much competition in La Liga as it was primarily a 2 horse race with 3 or 4 other contenders injecting themselves from time to time, only to eventually fade. Moreover, I had stumbled upon Bill Simmons’ older articles on choosing a pro soccer team to root for and felt like the league I really wanted to be following was the Premier League anyway, I just didn’t know how to pick a team. So in the end, La Liga, and Barcelona never really resonated with me, and I faded on the soccer fandom, and on the attempt to pick up a professional team. I just figured maybe it wasn’t for me.

And then 2009 rolled around and it was back in the saddle. Bill Simmons started dragging a cavalcade of soccer guests across my face on his BS Report Podcast in preparation for the 2010 World Cup, and I began to get incredibly excited again. Whether or not I would ever be able to become a pro soccer fan I knew I loved World Cups, and it helped that I was in college now (hotbed for pretentious (often but not always) dudes who love soccer and even more so that one of my good friends Tyler was a non-pretentious version of a soccer fan. We worked together and began talking about the World Cup every day at work, building excitement. And in order to keep up with Tyler in conversation (a real soccer fan whereas I considered myself only a passive one) I started following different soccer podcasts, and reading up on ESPNs soccer coverage.

(Photo Credit: Ross Kinnaird - Getty Images Europe)

(Photo Credit: Ross Kinnaird – Getty Images Europe)

More importantly perhaps though were the Simmons podcasts because I already listened to him. He was pushing the Jozy Altidore thing and I thought I had a real opportunity here. Altidore was all hyped up to be a big American star in World Football, and what was more important for me, he was currently on loan to Hull City in the British Premier League. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to start rooting for a team. Their jerseys were cool. Rooting for them wouldn’t be a bandwagon move. I would have a REASON to root for them (I was already an American Soccer fan, and this would let me bridge to British Soccer). Unfortunately he did not play great and the team go relegated, quickly ending that attempt.

However, I watched that 2010 World Cup and loved it even more than the 2006 iteration. I knew I needed to figure out a way to become a football fan year round, but I just hadn’t figured it out yet. I knew the Premier League was the League for me (especially after my La Liga attempt) I just needed a team so after that 2010 World Cup I decided to sit down and think these things through in earnest.

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That 2010 World Cup was just too fun for me to let soccer pass me by again. In 2006 I had barelyl any idea what a World Cup was and got drawn in, but this time I had been preparing for over a year, and just couldn’t imagine letting go of soccer for another 4 years.

Now, I really like hopping into new leagues and over agonizing over choosing a team to follow. As such I’ve developed somewhat of a system or method for when I pick teams. But before I go on I want to point out that my fandom didn’t stick after this 2010 World Cup either, but this is where I first starting thinking these things through for the BPL.

I tend to favor a specific kind of sports franchises. I like sleeping giant types or at any rate I like to get in on the ground floor with a team. This probably comes most specifically from my Detroit Lions fandom where it felt like I earned my fandom through years of torment. I never “just hopped on a bandwagon” with them. Conversely, I never felt truly passionate rooting for the Red Wings. I do love the team. I love the history, the tradition, the fans, everything. But I wasn’t alive during the “Dead Wings” era. I only ever saw them winning and felt like I didn’t EARN a right to root for them. That’s a large reason why I practice Sports Bigamy with the NHL and root for the Nashville Predators, but that’s another story for another time. When I was younger (like… elementary school young which makes this even more ridiculous) it always bugged me when my friends would say they were Denver Broncos fans or Green Bay Packer fans instead of Minnesota Vikings fans. I’m a massive proponent of proximity playing a major roll in sports fandom (you should root for the nearest team to you, and to do otherwise makes you a traitor to your homeland)  Or that’s what 3rd Grade Rick thought anyway… (Yes… I have been neurotic from a young age… lets move on…) Now, that specific example wasn’t even the most egregious because at least Green Bay, Denver, and Minnesota are actually the nearest(ish) teams to North Dakota (where I grew up) but it was absolutely disgusting to me when people if Fargo decided they were LA Lakers fans, UNC basketball fans, New England Patriot Fans… basically all the disgusting bandwagon movements they could choose. So long story short I never wanted to be that guy.

Former Lions GM Matt Millen has far better fashion sense than player scouting... and yet look at that sweater... that should tell you all you need to know about the Millen Years for the Lions. But either way, sitting through those miserable years made me feel like I earned the right to be a Lions fan, and thats a feeling I now desire from all my sports teams.

Former Lions GM Matt Millen has far better fashion sense than player scouting… and yet look at that sweater… that should tell you all you need to know about the Millen Years for the Lions. But either way, sitting through those miserable years made me feel like I earned the right to be a Lions fan, and thats a feeling I now desire from all my sports teams.

In any event this same mentality has been very much present in my varied attempts to become a BPL fan.

So in any event I wanted to root for a big club, with a relatively large and well developed fan base that had stuck with them through major struggles. I’ve already tried the “small club” thing in the NHL with the Nashville Predators, and I love it, but its just too hard to watch them trade off key players for young pieces year after year. I can’t knowingly walk into that situation again in another sport. Especially one where I’m hoping to stick to a team so badly this time.

SO ANYWAY in 2010, following the World Cup, I decided I wanted to be a Newcastle fan. They’re a big club, they have a lot of history and are a Premier League stalwart. They have great fans and really feel like a unique culture exists behind them to drive them. Moreover, there was very little bandwagon feel, but this appears to have been too early yet again for anything to stick. It didn’t help that Newcastle is in a lot of turmoil these days, but perhaps more damaging was the fact that American coverage of the sport just wasn’t up to snuff yet. Fox was still in charge of soccer coverage in the US and they seemed to treat the sport like some sort of backup plan. As if they had lost out on bidding for the NBA, and this was them trying to scramble and pick up the pieces. I don’t think it was until NBC took over BPL games recently that the ground was really stable enough for me to find and stick with a club.

Breakthrough:

(Photo Credit: Rick Scuteri)

(Photo Credit: Rick Scuteri)

So let’s fast forward quick to this years World Cup. Again a lot of excitement, but this time there were a few factors had changed around me leading up to it.

logosmall

 

The first, and definitely the biggest factor was the Men in Blazers Podcast with Roger Bennett and Michael Davies. These guys are absolutely fantastic. They are both Englishmen who moved to America, and have adopted the USMNT as their second home team for World Cups. I started listening to them in hopes of being more prepared than ever to follow the US in the World Cup, but along the way was exposed to their spectacular (and hilarious) coverage of the Premier League. I tuned in for the World Cup, but they ended up hooking me on the BPL. I cannot imagine a more perfect scenario as their podcast allowed me to follow the Premier League for a full year without the need to pick a team first. Before I was overwhelmed with the idea of trying to watch every single game and keep up with all the teams and storylines of the League by myself. Thats why I wanted to pick one team. I wanted to be able to zoom in on “my team” and follow them, and learn about hte rest of the league through them. That just hadn’t worked though. Now, with the Min in Blazers I got a chance to follow the whole entire League and become a fan of the entire BPL (just like I became a fan of the entire World Cup before I started to watch the USMNT or Argentina back in 2006) before worrying about picking a team. The League became so easily consumable that I couldn’t help but start to like it, for real this time. It wasn’t just that I WANTED to like it. I ACTUALLY liked it.

fifa3

Moreover, in preparation for the 2014 World Cup I finally went out and bought a copy of FIFA. Sports video games have been ridiculously helpful to me in the past in adopting new sports Leagues (worked for me with the NFL and NHL both). Playing FIFA helped familiarize me with the major players in the world, the big clubs, the structures of the League systems in Europe, promotion, relegation, how deep or shallow various nations’ top leagues were. It taught me what POSITIONS existed on a soccer field, different formations, different roles for different players. How to qualify for the Champions League or the Europa League. Who gets in from what leagues and what countries and how the leagues are structured. It taught me how TRANSFERS worked which was infinitely helpful. There is so much about top level soccer abroad that is different from how American Franchise-based sports leagues work. It has always been completely alien to me. There are just so many things I didn’t know which were barriers to me loving world football that were now finally unlocked for me. FIFA let me pretend to be a manager or owner of a football club of my own and learn the system from top to bottom.

nbc_epl

Then, as previously mentioned, NBC has been a major help as well. They play every game meaning I can watch all the big games of the week, and every match for my chosen club. Moreover, they’ve thrown together a great group of individuals to cover soccer for America and Americans who do not patronize the audience at all, but still cover it in an intelligent and easily understood manner. (Moreover, it helped me personally that their brought the Men in Blazers into the fold). They have experience grabbing a whole League of a niche sport in America hoof and horn and trying to make it consumable to the American public from their excellent work with the NHL, and that really shows with how they are now handling the BPL.

I absolutely love waking up and spending my Saturdays with these guys.

I absolutely love waking up and spending my Saturdays with these guys.

Also, the BPL is the first time in my life I’ve loved the presence of a time difference with sports. Most Premier League games are on at 10am on a Saturday in the Eastern Time Zone where I’m at. First and foremost this means that none of the games conflict with other American sporting events I may want to watch. Sure I don’t get to watch ESPN’s College Gameday anymore, but I can still tune in to see whatever school is hosting it for 20 or 30 minutes through the day. The damn thing is on for 4 hours anyway. But it doesn’t conflict with any College Football games even though it shares Saturdays with them here in the US. It doesn’t have to compete with the NFL at all, as they never play Saturdays. The NHL, NBA, MLB, and College Basketball will never play a game before noon. Its as if this time slot was built PERFECTLY for me to fit soccer into my life. Plus the particular time slot meshes so well with one of the major things I love about soccer. Soccer can be very intense and physical, but a lot of the time it has a beautiful rhythm. Its incredibly relaxing for me to watch an evenly matched soccer game (as long as I don’t have a rooting interest). This means even for the select games that are on at 7 or 9am I still have no problem watching it. Its not like watching the brutal physicality of an NFL game or the crushing hits of a hockey game first thing in the morning. Its exactly the right speed for me to start off my Saturday mornings. Moreover, the time never seems to be an issue for Sunday or Monday games either. Now the only thing for me to do was go the rest of the distance, and pick a club of my own.

Picking a Club:

Here was the tricky part. I had tried this multiple times before, but never with any success. In either event I knew a few clubs I didn’t want to root for and I knew I wanted to have a real case for picking whoever I did (besides the ol’ “they were good” … if NBC is goign to play every game then there is no reason to simply select a good team who will make the prime time slot every week). So of course first I thought about the big time powers.

1024px-Chelsea_FC.svg

I used to like Chelsea because I loved Didier Drogba, and those Kentucky Blue jerseys. Also, they were Michael Davies’ team so I knew I’d get a lot of insight into them from my beloved MiB show. But I should couldn’t stomach hopping on a club that (although it has tons of wonderful history) had come out of thin air to rise to the top of the league. Plus it just felt too horrendously bandwagony. So they were out.

Manchester_United_FC_crest.svg

Manchester United was never even a consideration. The Bandwagon-y-est of the Bandwagon Teams.

Liverpool_FC.svg

Liverpool was my friend Tyler’s team, but for some reason I could never make myself hop on with them. Maybe its because I wanted to root for a different team from him to be different, but for whatever reason, Liverpool never felt like the club for me (even though those jersey’s… errr… kits…. are spectacular).

Arsenal_FC.svg

Arsenal was probably the closest I came to rooting for one of the Big Four. They haven’t had a ton of success lately so I wouldn’t feel like I hopped on a bandwagon of recent times anyway. I liked their jerseys, their history, their fans. It was cool that they were a big London club. But it still felt like I was just picking a big winner. There is just too much depth to English Football for me to just grab one of the 4 most successful clubs. So out they went.

Manchester_City.svg

Manchester City feels like the kind of team I would have happily picked if I had been able to stick with a team in 2009, but now with their current success I couldn’t possibly hop on that bandwagon.

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I couldn’t make myself pick Tottenham, because they were they team Bill Simmons picked after his aforementioned article on picking up a BPL team. I had no interest in simply following his path directly, and plus they club just didn’t stand out to me in any way. So there goes the last of the Big Six as well.

Everton_FC_2014

Everton seemed like almost a perfect match for me at first. Tons of history. Great fans. Forced to live in Liverpool’s shadow. Moreover, they are Roger Bennett’s team which was a huge plus. I loved the self deprecation with which he approached his love of his club. It reminded me of my own Lions fandom, and seemed like exactly the kind of familiar experience I would do so well with. Again I loved the blue kits. Plus, they had an American star, Tim Howard, playing a prominent role on the club. I even halfway adopted Everton as my surrogate team last year, living Everton’s nearly magical season through Rog’s eyes. In the end, however, I never felt like they were my own team. I felt like I was piggy-backing on Mr. Bennett and decided I really needed something that felt like I made my own decision.

Swansea_City_AFC_logo.svg

I strongly considered following Swansea, but it just seemed like I was going too far and too hipster to pick a Welsh club.

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After following last year I really liked Norwich City. I loved that their uniforms were green and yellow, two colors apparently avoided by all the other clubs. And I really thought I might just succumb and grab a small club like this as my team. And then they got relegated. Soooo that was a no go. And it furthered my resolve to avoid the smaller clubs out of fear I would just lose my team in the end anyway.

Ultimately I narrowed things down to 4 real contenders that I thought fit what I liked in a sports team. Newcastle. Hull City. Aston Villa. And West Ham United. Two of these teams were clubs I had tried to root for in the past and wanted to give a second shot. The other two were new to the agenda but clubs I really wanted to give a try.

Newcastle_United_Logo.svg

Newcastle ultimately didn’t make the cut because this Pardew fiasco just seemed too toxic to get involved with right now. The club has so much history and a great fanbase and such a unique and brilliant culture, but its an unbelievably toxic situation that I don’t know I can risk being a part of. I realize it would really make me feel like I owned a part of that club and earned my allegience, but after three tries with professional soccer, I really want my third attempt to stick. So I had to cut them from the list.

Hull_City.svg

Hull City was incredibly intriguing to me for several reasons. Of course I had already tried to watch them once. I loved their uniforms. Moreover, even though they got relegated, they’re back with a vengeance now. They’re the latest British club to be graced with a loaded foreign owner splurging on overseas purchases to inject new life into his club. I watched a couple of their games at the start of the season and they played a style of football that I really enjoyed watching. Even though Jozy was ancient history Nikica Jelevic and Abel Hernandez (one of those new big signings) are incredibly exciting offensive threats, and Mohammed Diame (another big signing) has been somewhat of a revelation all season. Moreover, I always loved their jerseys, and felt like they had a real passionate, blue collar fan base that would be fun to be a part of. However, the absolute disaster at Cardiff City last year both infuriated me (THEY’RE NICKNAMED THE BLUEBIRDS!!! YOU CAN’T MAKE THEM PLAY IN RED) and worried me. Obviously Chelsea and Man City are gold standards where a rich owner can come, inject money and players into the club, and benefit everyone. But Cardiff was a disaster where an owner made himself bigger than the club and is actively working to destroy the club’s tradition. Hull scares me because the stories about wanting to change “Hull City” to “Hull Tigers” feels like an owner yet again putting himself ahead of the team, actively working against club culture, and leaving fans to fight for the right to maintain cultural ownership of their club. So that scared me off Hull.

West_Ham_United_FC.svg

I very nearly became a West Ham fan. They have spectacular jerseys, they’re a big club with a lot of fans, and some big time pop culture gravitas. Spectacular nickname “the Hammers”. They play football that is fun to watch, work hard, have a lot of tradition and great fan support. But ultimately they just didn’t charm me as much as the team I actually chose.

My New Club:

And that left Birmingham’s Aston Villa as the club for me.

Aston_Villa.svg

Now, to start things off, Aston Villa has been a club that intrigued me for a long time. To start with, way back in 2006 when I started trying to familiarize myself with the clubs of the Premier League their name stuck out. I assumed incorrectly that they were in some town called Aston Villa (they are in fact in Birmingham) and convinced myself that it must be some old former Romano-Briton town, which appealed to me infinitely being the history nerd that I am. Moreover, in 2009 when I again began to think of picking up a Premier League team I thought I might revisit them (before ultimately picking Newcastle). However, at the time I remember hearing on some podcast or another about all the turmoil the club was going through at the time and I ended up getting scared off. In the 2009-10 they were having a good season (ended up finishing 6th) but everyone seemed to be talking of looming collapse on the horizon resulting from ownership uncertainty (another red flag for me) which ultimately came to be in the form of successive 9th, 16th, 15th, and 15th place finishes where the club has been clinging to its Premier League status and threatened with relegation year after year. Now, I’ve mentioned I like the idea of following a football club that mirrors my Detroit Lions, but this was a little too close. A little too reminiscent of the Matt Millen era. And at least when the Lions suck they can’t get relegated. Moreover, while at first I thought it was cool that Villa was owned by an American, when I learned it was former Browns owner Randy Lerner an enormous red flag flew up for me. This looked like a disaster.

I cannot wait to make my first visit to Villa Park.

I cannot wait to make my first visit to Villa Park.

However, I still couldn’t help but be intrigued with the idea of following a rebuilding project like this. Villa seemed to have several key pieces already in place in Vlaar and Delph among others. They had an American keeper which was a major plus. The uniforms were always beautiful in my opinion (the Claret and Blue is just stunning). In fact, while I liked West Ham’s jerseys they always just struck me as a knock off of the Villa jerseys which I had first been attracted to. I liked that fact that they weren’t based in London so I get to avoid the ol’ American problem of assuming all BPL teams are in London. I like that they’re in Birmingham which I have learned is “England’s Second City” so its a major city but not London. Moreover, the team is absolutely rife with history. They’re one of the oldest football clubs in England. They’re a founding member of the Premier League and in spite of the last 3 seasons of serious doubt, they have yet to be relegated EVER *knock on wood*. There was just too much to like here so in spite of the struggles, in spite of the iffy ownership situation (Lerner himself with the potential for a shady Kazakh billionaire to buy the team in the near future) I just wanted to be a part of this club. I wouldn’t feel like much of a bandwagoner and would feel like I got to come in on some kind of ground floor watching the team rise from the turmoil of the last three seasons.

Beautiful grounds, beautiful kits. I'm sold. (Photo Credit: Michael Zemanek)

Beautiful grounds, beautiful kits. I’m sold.
(Photo Credit: Michael Zemanek)

Now, I’d be a liar if I said the great start to their season this year wasn’t a big factor in my choice. By all accounts that start made it look like Villa was done being a relegation risk team and would at least be able to firmly assert themselves in the middle of the table. And while recent events may shake that view I’m still confident. Their recent stretch of losses has been against the Premier League powers and considering they grabbed a win from Liverpool, anything else is just icing on the cake. In truth this stretch itself (playing all of last season’s top 5 in a row and all of the top 6 in 7 games) was a huge plus for me. It means that early in the season I get to really immerse myself in the League and really feel like I’m watching the Premier League. I get to see my club play all the big clubs, watch all the stars of the League and the sport against my new favorite players, and it really makes me feel like I’m a part of all this, more so than watching Villa play Burnley would (no offense Burnley… but … y’know…).

And now, only 7/38ths through the season I couldn’t be happier with my choice. I’ve thrown myself into the club, the history, the stadium and city. Most importantly I’ve tried to immerse myself in the bios of the players, learning their history, clubs they’ve come from, national backgrounds, and I finally feel like I’ve gotten what I wanted back in 2006. Now I have a soccer club I can root for year round, and I can enjoy the Premier League at long last. I no longer have to be just another World Cup fan.

Ask Not For Whom the Cowbell Jing-a-Lings; It Jing-a-Lings for Thee

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Wow. What a weekend for College Football. 3 of the top 4 and 4 of the top 6 teams got knocked off, and the entire state of Mississippi hasn’t been able to reclaim this kind of happiness since before the Battle of Vicksburg. Let’s dwell on that for a second.  Ole Miss beat #1 ranked Alabama… Holy Shit.

(Image Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports)

(Image Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports)

This is an event of cataclysmic proportions here in SEC country (as it always is when Bama loses), but I couldn’t be happier about it. Before this game the general world consensus was that this game would follow the same course as Georgia vs. Alabama circa 2008. This was right near the beginning of Alabama’s rise to dominance in College Football. However, coming into that game the big story was the Georgia Bulldogs. #3 in the country. The game was a blackout. The crowd was amped up, Matt Stafford was still the QB in Georgia, and Bulldogs fans were ready to take the next big step on their route to a national championship… about that…

(Photo Credit: Doug Benc/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit: Doug Benc/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit: Mark Almond, Birmingham News)

(Photo Credit: Mark Almond, Birmingham News)

(Photo Credit: Kelly Lambert, Online Athens)

(Photo Credit: Kelly Lambert, Online Athens)

playdead

 

Yes Ugga… thats about as well as it went… but hey, didn’t those black jerseys look awesome??

The game ended 41-31 but it wasn’t even close. It was 31-0 at the half, at which point Alabama completely took their foot off the gas and went into cruise control to secure the victory. Now, before the weekend’s slate of crazy games this is the fate people were predicting for Ole Miss (I heard it from Ryen Russillo on the SVP and Russillo Show, and I totally agreed, which shows how much I know about college football I guess). That was clearly incorrect.

Not only did Ole Miss win, but they won in spite of controversial calls going in Alabama’s favor. The number one team in the country, and perennial SEC bully just got knocked off by a school which has been perceived as a perpetual bottom feeder in the conference since Eli Manning left. This game was such a big even for the school, the state, and the conference, that not only did they tear down the goalposts, but the fans then started a fund to help the school pay for new posts, as well as the SEC fines for storming the field. And they raised more than the necessary amount in just a couple days time.

Now, all that is INCREDIBLY impressive and I was thoroughly stunned to see it happen (we watched it on the giant TV monitors in Commonwealth Stadium before the UK South Carolina game kicked off) but the more interesting story to me was the case of the cowbell-shaking fans of Mississippi State and their bulldogs this weekend.

(Image via Mississippi State Alumni Association)

(Image via Mississippi State Alumni Association)

Ole Miss may be an SEC bottom feeder of sorts, and they may be a little brother to the likes of Alabama and LSU, but Mississippi State is the little brother to Ole Miss… meaning they could not possible get any further down the foodchain, right? Well apparently not because one week after crushing SEC powerhouse and #8 ranked team LSU [IN BATON ROUGE!!!] they proceeded to beat down #6 Texas A&M like Chong Li murdering Ray Jackson in Bloodsport.

THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN!!!!!!! So its one thing for Ole Miss to pull off an upset now and then, and Ole Miss has even been hailed as a program on the rise the last couple years because of stellar recruiting, but MISSISSIPPI STATE?!?! Now, I won’t dwell on Kentucky’s big win this weekend here, but its amazing to me that these 3 schools who have all circled the drain together the past half decade or so  and all pulled off massive wins in the same weekend (Mississippi State is so seemingly poorly thought of that their semi-permanent cross conference rival [SEC East vs. West] has been Kentucky. Thats the esteem with which the SEC holds State. They think they’re equivalent to Kentucky football which, as a UK fan, I can tell you has been no great shakes until these last 2 seasons). Ok… anyway… a short aside for a little backstory on why the State win is so shocking even if the Ole Miss win is fairly believable…

The two Mississippi Schools, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt have been, in large part, bottom feeders for the majority of the SECs reign of dominance in college football. For Vanderbilt this is generally because they’re a “smart kid school” of sorts with a relatively underdeveloped fanbase, respective to other SEC programs, and more importantly its because any and all good recruits in the state of Tennessee go to UT. For Kentucky its generally been because well the top 3 or 4 recruits in the state of Kentucky have always been really solid players, they often haven’t chosen to go to Kentucky, and even when they have, 3 players does not a team make. And in the state of Mississippi the problem has generally been that there are enough solid recruits in the state to fuel ONE big college football team, but never two, and the two schools have traditionally fought each other to death, only to split the total number of recruits between one another anyway.

Now, around 5 years ago, State got the upper hand in this recruiting relationship, which became a major factor in 2 Ole Miss coaches (Ed Orgeron and Houston Nutt) getting fired before the school finally found Hugh Freeze. In the last couple years, however, Ole Miss has dramatically and radically turned this around, as mentioned above. Not least of which included a top 10 class in 2013 and a top 20 class in 2014 as well as the #1 player in the country in 2013. Outside observers were starting make make comments to the tune of “if Will Muschamp gets fired at Florida, Dan Mullen (Mississippi State Coach and former Florida Assistant) better hop on that job while the getting is good” and “Ole Miss has grabbed every player worth playing in the state, so Mullen better get his resume ready.”

So you can see why it would be extremely surprising to see Ole Miss at number 3 in the country right now, but not totally unbelievable. They’ve finally found the right couch. They’re locking down all the top talent in their state, including some of the best talent in the nation, they have a solid and historic tradition and passionate football fans. They have plenty of building blocks for this to happen. Even last year they had already shown signs of this growth, hopping into the top 25 poll multiple times through the season (#21 once, and #24 a couple times) on the backs of their rebuilt defense. So although it still seems insane for them to knock off #1 Alabama and rocket to #3 in the country, we could see this kind of growth was coming.

State on the other hand?  They’ve made a bit of a habit of starting off hot, before collapsing in hilariously cataclysmic fasion. I’m thinking specifically of the 2012 season where they came roaring out of the gates, winning their first 7 games and screaming to #13 in the country before losing 4 of their last 5 games (including the season finale against rival Ole Miss), losing their bowl game to NORTHWESTERN of all schools, and ending the season unranked. THATS the Mississippi State that we’ve been expecting. Thats the Mississippi State we got last year when they went a completely bland 6-6. And that is NOT the Mississippi State we have this year. This year we have a school with Dak Prescott, THE FRONT RUNNER FOR THE HEISMAN TROPHY!!! FROM MISSISSIPPI STATE!!! I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW DAK WAS A NAME!!!

This year we have another #3 ranked school in the state of Mississippi.

And how picture perfect is that? The AP just decided “screw it” and ranked both Mississippi schools #3. “We don’t know… lets just call’m both 3 and wait till one, both, [or neither] of them starts losing.”

That could very will be this week, as Ole Miss now has to play a pissed off, embarrassed, and motivated Texas A&M team IN College Station. State has to play Auburn who… y’know… no big deal, but they’re #2 in the country and look like the best team in football. They could both lose this weekend. Or maybe they could keep shocking us all, win their games, and go into the season finale both undefeated, playing for the SEC West Title, a chance to win the SEC overall title, and a chance to play in the first ever College Football Playoff. Wouldn’t that just be perfect for two teams with great fanbases, great traditions, and far too little reward. Ole Miss has tailgating in The Grove and Mississippi State has those incessant cowbells.

Together they form this spectacular rivalry and old southern aristocracy and class blended into new south traditions of college football for Ole Miss versus the rough, uncut, farm folk and redneck feel of Mississippi state. A class of sub-cultures within the greater culture of the South, all trapped within a Mississippi microcosm. Thats why it would be so damn lovely if these two schools kept this up and ran the table. Probably won’t happen… in fact it almost definitely won’t happen… but hey… this sure is fun while it lasts. Here’s to hoping they give us a show for the rest of the season, and make that final game as big as it has ever been. Meanwhile, I’ll just be over here takin’ mah crazy pills and living life.

asdf

The Changing of the Guard: Over my Dead, Steroid-Ravaged Body

Alright… so… I know I’m way behind the times here… but I decided to throw together a little retroactive recap and analysis of last season’s Challenge Finale. At least I’ll get it out before the new season starts. BUT ON TO THE STORY!

the-challenge-finale-recap

The entire season of Free Agents, to me, represented a referendum on the Real World vs. Road Rules challenge. It was supposed to be a changing of the guard. A clash of generations. And a torch passing from my generation of Challenge fans and competitors (the old Era of Real World/Road Rules challenges where people had to do silly things like cover themselves in condiments or melt a block of ice with nothing but their vigorously shaken posteriors) to the new, streamlined, sports-centric “Challenge” where they tried to embrace their identity as what Bill Simmons has dubbed “America’s 5th Major sport (behind the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL).

This entire season seemed to be a turning point from the start. First and foremost, the numbers were disproportionately in the newcomers’ advantage. When you look at the primary contenders, both for guys and for girls, newcomers dominated the field for this challenge. I’ll run through the girls’ side first because they’re a bit of a different animal. The primary contenders here (at the start of the season) were: The Godzilla of female Challengers (seriously… watching this freak of a human being compete is like watching Andre the Giant battle some horrifying alliance of Oompa Loompas and Munchkins from Oz. You really thing the sheer number of opponents will matter and the Vegas line is just begging you to bet against her, but you just know you’re gonna lose money in the end),

laurzilla

 

Cara Maria (always a pre season favorite, but you know you need to hedge your bet as some point because the inevitable mental breakdown and tears are on their way), and Camilla (same story as Cara, except instead of a meltdown into tears this one is a drunken meltdown where she yells at someone for something they didn’t do and tries to get herself kicked off the show…) and both Nany and Theresa proved themselves to be capable of competing in the top flight (if not at an elite level) for seasons to come. Ok so we had 5 primary contenders for the title on the girls’ side and ALL of them are New Era Challengers. Now, this is a much different story than with the guys because the only truly dominant force the Founding Era girls had was Evelyn who appears to be permanently retired. So in any event it appears as if the girls have irrevocable moved on to the New Era.

laurel-stucky-real-world

The guys, however, are different. Now it didn’t appear this way at the start of the season. The male competitors who stood a real chance of winning (preseason) were Bananas, CT, Roid Rage Zach the Viking, Leroy (one of my personal favorites), Jordan (… little shit…) BDN (Brandon), and Isaac. Two Founding Era guys and five New Era guys. More than twice the number of New Era! If only by sheer weight of numbers you would have expected one of the new generation to win this thing. In reality, however, if not for a surprise last-minute elimination half of the finale field would have consisted of founding veterans (Bananas and CT) while only ONE finalist was an elite New Era guy (Zach), and one was a complete wildcard new guy (Boston Johnny). Moreover, the rookie in the final (Boston Johnny) seems to be accepted by the by the Old Guard guys (or at least by Bananas as he intimated on a podcast with Bill Simmons this summer) as one of their ilk rather than one of the impetuous New Blood, which is pretty interesting in its own right.

I still can't believe we were denied CT and his beautiful beard in the finals...

I still can’t believe we were denied CT and his beautiful beard in the finals…

You see, I never bought into the “pay your dues” narrative that guys like Bananas, Kenny, and Evan tried to force feed us. It always struck me as insincere. Guys like Bananas would try to say “wait your turn until I’m too old to do this.” If they had their way noone else would ever grab a title. That’s bullshit. That doesn’t promote competition. However, in the aforementioned interview with Simmons, Johnny made some really interesting points that justified this argument to me (another notch on the rehabilitation of Bananas in my eyes… this season was full of them).

In any event, Bananas went on a tangent elucidating why he hates Jordan but loves Boston Johnny by juxtaposing the two. He hinged his argument on a baseball analogy. Basically he wants the young guys to prove themselves the way rookies do in real major sports (again pushing the argument of the Challenge as a 5th major sport) where rookies are forced to carry veterans equipment, dress in ridiculous costumes, and are generally hazed and humiliated for the benefit of all but them. Now, this in and of itself did not win me over. This is the same discussion from past seasons which in my opinion seemed to fundamentally inhibit growth of new characters. However, when Johnny explains it, things become much more sensible. He feels that the Old Guard figures such as Evan, Kenny, CT, and himself MADE this show.

Oh long lost days and casts of yore... how I yern for your return

Oh long lost days and casts of yore… how I yern for your return

At the end of the day this show is a competition for prize money. The prize money is taken from this shows popularity and its ability to drive advertising revenue for MTV. It’s the guys like CT, Kenny, Evan and Bananas (and retired players like Brad, Derrick, and Mark etc) who CREATED this show in part with the MTV producers. They are the personalities who have driven the shows popularity. Their storylines have sustained the show for 25 seasons, and they need to be credited for that. When these new players come in, for whatever reason (they’re attention whores looking for fame and exposure, they just want the prize money, the want a free trip to a foreign country, they want free booze) WHATEVER it is… they would not be able to do so if it weren’t for the guys who came before them and made this show a staple on the network. History matters, and whether the New Era gentlemen will be taking the reigns some day or not, the fact remains that they haven’t yet.

These are the Challenge glory days that MADE the show. And these are the guys who built this dynasty.

These are the Challenge glory days that MADE the show. And these are the guys who built this dynasty.

Against all odds (listed above) the Old Guard DOMINATED this challenge and proved their value above all challengers. Moreover, the one wildcard rookie who made the finals has admittedly put himself under the wing of the Old Guard, bought into the propaganda, and played by their rules. So not only do the Old Guard still have an ample amount of juice (pun intended) left in the tank themselves, they very much maintain the ability to make and break other characters on the show (both by developing their on-screen personas and characters AND helping them physically [Bananas trains with LeRoy in the offseason, helping to condition him for challenges]). Furthermore, the one New Era challenger we got in the finals (Zach) put on an absolutely disgraceful display. I think it was convenient that his cramps coincided with LeBron’s now infamous cramp incident in the NBA finals and I do buy that this hindered him greatly during the competition, but to hear him whine and complain after cultivating this personality as a modern-day Thor was absolutely disillusioning, disheartening, and served to pull back the veil of this dominant New Generation on whole.

Stopped short again my burrito wrapped friend.

Stopped short again my burrito wrapped friend.

These new characters are DEFINITELY entertaining, they WILL one day take over the show once the bodies of vets like Bananas irreparably break down, and the ARE vital to the continued success of the show both as entertainment and as an ever-increasing physical spectacle. However, clearly it is not time for the Old Guard to step away just yet (much to my own pleasure). They are clearly still the top of the hill, and their ways haven’t been proved ineffectual yet. Their years of mental and physical experience in these challenges, as well as their offseason determination to commit to the show will carry them on into the future, and hopefully they can pass their skills on to worthy heirs once the time has come… but that isn’t yet.

Just a couple of Johnnys on a volcano