Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A season ends

The point was driven home with each Texas A&M touchdown, each highlight by ridiculous Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel, each punt by Missouri, far past the point of overkill. It was evident going into this game, but painfully obvious by the time Texas A&M took a 42-0 lead over Missouri. The Aggies (10-2, 6-2 in SEC) are having a much better start to life in the Southeastern Conference than fellow newcomer Missouri (5-7, 2-6 in SEC).

Texas A&M benefited from the stumbles of Arkansas and Auburn in its West Division. But first-year coach Kevin Sumlin and Manziel, the freshman known as “Johnny Football who just might win the Heisman Trophy, largely helped the Aggies make their own luck and take advantage of those opportunities.

Like Charlie Brown getting rocks while trick-or-treating, Missouri got injuries, struggles keeping a quarterback healthy and effective and an East Division that was a bit tougher than expected.

But on Saturday night, Missouri was a prop, the necessary “other team” in the story about Johnny Football and rising Texas A&M. If you threw a quarter in a jar each time the cameras showed Manziel on the sideline, you might be buying dinner.

The injury excuse was real for Missouri, particularly on the offensive line. But the Tiger defense had star linemen Sheldon Richardson back Saturday and was pretty much injury-free, and yet Missouri couldn’t force a punt until the fourth quarter, with A&M backups in the game.

The loss ended Missouri’s season and snapped the program’s streak of seven straight bowls. It was Missouri’s first losing season since 2004, and worst overall and conference records since 2002, coach Gary Pinkel’s second year.

Playing five top-10 teams made for a tough road, but it’s the home losses to the likes of Vanderbilt and Syracuse that will likely vex Tiger fans while watching other teams play in the bowls.

This season had its indicators of how narrow the margins are between success and failure. If Ricahrdson plays against Syracuse, if Missouri didn’t drop a potential game-winning interception in the end zone in that game, if quarterback James Franklin doesn’t take a helmet to the knee against Vanderbilt, maybe the Tigers are in a bowl this year. On the flip side, if the Tigers don’t score on fourth-and-long against Tennessee, if they don’t make that goal line stand against Arizona State, if they don’t rally against UCF, this season could’ve been even worse.

But 5-7 is where the Tigers ended up. After Missouri’s last losing season, eight years ago, Pinkel made big changes to the offense. He largely seems to attribute this season to injury woes, but he still may make a few tweaks this offseason.

Missouri also needs a big recruiting year to build up depth. Talent depth makes teams more immune to the injuries and suspensions that are a part of big-time college football.

Tiger fans have a right to be angry and disappointed with this season. It felt like a lost chance to capitalize on all the fan fervor of the move to the SEC. Next year is huge.

Next week we’ll wrap up this season and take an early look at 2013.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Kansas City and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year. It's a day where the dominant message is to be thankful. It's a day to savor food and plenty, but also a day that kicks off the season of giving. It's football, it's family, it's wonderful.

My family goes to Kansas City each year on the holiday. Sitting here in Columbia I can picture driving in the sun past fields on I-435 in Kansas to get there. We're a melting pot, fans of Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Kansas State, TCU. The Detroit Lions toil away on the big TV* while everyone eats.

* Joe Posnanski: "I love that one day a year I'm allowed, no, encouraged, no, commanded by American law and the powers of tradition to sit in front of the television and watch the Detroit Lions play football." 

When I think of Kansas City, Thanksgiving is definitely high on the list. It fits well with the city, with all those years of Joe Posnanski's clip-and-save-worthy Thanksgiving columns in the Star. The Plaza lighting that night is one of the city's great traditions. For so many years in the magical '90s, Thanksgiving brought lots of excitement that each year could be the one the Chiefs broke through. You could feel the whole city anticipating the playoff success to match all that regular season success. They're still waiting. I'm a 49ers fan, but there feels like a bit of a void this year with no Chiefs hope. Those were special years when I was a kid and Arrowhead roared and anticipation for the Chiefs and the Plaza lighting mirrored each other.

After the meal comes the backyard football game. When I was younger I wore Steve Young and Jerry Rice jerseys out there; Thursday I plan to wear my Michael Crabtree jersey. Oh to have a highlight reel of the plays on that expanse of grass. The "Statue of Liberty" fumble. The defenders-fall-down cutback in the snow. The cracked ribs play. The attempted pump-fake where the ball flew out of the quarterback's hand. All those sensational catches. The interception returns. Defenders bunched for a blitz, the quarterback hastily heaving the ball in the air, through the crisp blue sky, into a forest of hands.

Afterwards comes the end of the Cowboys game at JerryWorld, an iconic football team with a huge, opulent stadium and massive HD video board and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and big Salvation Army kettles... about as American an event as you'll find. We often play men vs. women Trivial Pursuit after, a delightful exercise in minutia.

That's a peek at my Thanksgiving. You probably have your own traditions and joys in your celebrations. I'm thankful for a lot, including my Thanksgivings in Kansas City.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On college football...

Some thoughts after last Saturday's wild day of college football, and the accompanying insanity that clings to the sport like a disease.

1. I hurt for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. The soft-spoken, brilliant old coach had his squad from the charming Flint Hills three wins from a national title. They were favored against Baylor, and likely would have been favored at home vs. Texas and against Notre Dame in the national title game. Three wins as a favorite away from a national title from the school dubbed "Futility U" by Sports Illustrated before Snyder arrived in the late 80s.

Back then, K-State was the worst college football program in the nation by far. Snyder impossibly lifted the Wildcats to greatness, remaking the logo, the attitude, the team, the town. When he arrived, Manhattan, Kan., was only accessible by two-lane road. Now the four-lane road from I-70 into town bears Snyder's name, as does the stadium where the Wildcats play. Snyder retired once, then came back and restored the program he'd built after it slipped under Ron Prince. Snyder has 168 wins at KSU. The coach with the second most had 39.

Snyder and the Wildcats were once my nemesis, if you can believe that. They struck at Nebraska's stranglehold on the Big 12 North; they beat Mizzou to win the North with myself in attendance in 2003. But somewhere along the way they won my respect. I love how they play; players underrated by the know-it-all recruiting evaluators, hardworking, minimize mistakes, take pride in your school and your performance. They play like a humble, hardworking Midwestern team. Snyder is a humble, understated, hardworking Midwestern guy. They don't trade on the past reputation of their school; they can't. They have to and do earn every accolade. They stand up to the blue bloods, hit them hard, and often win (see: KSU vs. Texas).

I thought just maybe Snyder would get that brass ring this year, a national title. He was a win away from playing for it in 1998, but a late fumble and blown lead in the Big 12 title game led to an overtime loss that Snyder later compared to the death of his mother. This one stings maybe just as bad. But still, an outstanding season for a team picked to finish in the middle of the Big 12. With a win against Texas, the Wildcats will clinch their second Big 12 title under Snyder. Their last conference title before Snyder saved the program, and possibly the town? 1934.

2. It's kind of exhausting talking college football with SEC zealots. There are perks to Missouri's new membership in the SEC, for sure, but enlightened, fact-based discussion of college football isn't necessarily one of them. Trouble is, every SEC zealot conversation must have the default assumption that every SEC team is superior, even the best teams in other conference aren't that good, and an SEC player must win the Heisman Trophy. Winners from other leagues are the product of systems or inferior competition. Well, I don't care much for default assumptions in such discussions. SEC zealots call Notre Dame a fraud because they have only faced one top-50 offense. Never mind that exalted Alabama has only faced two, losing to one of them.

SEC zealots insist Georgia is good even though the Bulldogs have beaten Florida and... Vandy at home? They insist SEC schedules are brutal, and many are, but they ignore the wide variation in schedules, and that with a 14-team league and an eight-game schedule, teams can duck many of the best teams. They ignore that impartial computer rankings say the Big 12 is the best league this year, and that teams in that league must play all nine of the others. Look, the SEC is a very strong conference, the best in most recent years. But would it kill them to acknowledge there are other good teams and players, and that there are some dog teams in the SEC? I love the league's personalities and atmospheres and am impressed by its talent; I just need some objectivity in my sports discussions.

3. Conference realignment has jumped the shark with the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutgers. It's a blatant, naked attempt to get the Big Ten Network on cable packages in New York and other East Coast markets. Never mind that New Yorkers are none too fanatical about college football, certainly Rutgers college football. Rutgers is 9-1 and the New York Times doesn't have a Rutgers beat writer. They run AP stories on the Scarlet Knights. The Big Ten needs growth markets with the Great Lakes states declining in population or growing only slowly? So long as Michigan and Ohio State have enrollments of 50,000 or more and keep pumping out graduates/customers, the conference's future is fine already.

Conference realignment has always been all about money, but this is the latest, most extreme example. Maryland and Rutgers bring NOTHING in terms of tradition, football prestige or fit. In a Washington Post poll, 70 percent of Maryland fans didn't want the move. It's tough to imagine Big Ten fans supporting it. Sorry, Northwestern, you get fewer trips to the Horseshoe and Camp Randall, but enjoy New Jersey! And for what? The Big Ten is already quite lucrative and all over ABC. Not ESPN, ABC. Broadcast. Big time, big money. What will schools do with this additional cash? More TVs in the weight room? Build more luxury boxes? Pay higher travel bills? Was Ohio State, one of the nation's biggest athletic department budgets, hurting for cash?

What are we doing here? Nebraska and Missouri will now travel to Atlantic coast states to play games, but they won't play each other. They won't play neighboring Iowa State or Kansas/Kansas State. Years from now, people will look back on the last three years and condemn the leaders of college athletics for their poor stewardship of the game. The game, always corrupt and hypocritical and greedy, has reached new levels. The NFL seems more pure and less commercialized now. It harbors no illusions about what it is, a business. Wow, college football.

4. But after plenty of old-man-yells-at-cloud ranting, let's end a bit better note. This weekend does have the usual incredible slate of Thanksgiving weekend games. (Albeit missing some great rivalries due to the abomination of unyielding conference realignment. No kidding, Iowa State-West Virginia occupies the Friday afternoon ABC slot that Texas-Texas A&M filled for several years. Cancel my appointments.) Notre Dame tries to clinch an improbable spot in the national title game against USC. Oregon and Georgia try to avoid stumbles against their rivals, trying to hang in the national title race. For my purposes, Nebraska tries to clinch the Legends (?) Division title against Iowa and Missouri makes a last, desperate push for bowl eligibility against Texas A&M.

So yeah, college football has its flaws, and people in charge have been harming the game. But there is a reason we keep coming back. Enjoy the weekend.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tigers must beat A&M to play in a bowl

Missouri’s lost season took a turn for the worse on a chilly November night at Faurot Field last Saturday. A mediocre Big East team, Syracuse (6-5), came to Columbia and snatched the win away from the Tigers (5-6, 2-5 in Southeastern Conference play), one Missouri desperately needed to secure bowl eligibility.

Early on, it looked like a game one would expect with an SEC team hosting a Big East team. Missouri raced to a 17-3 lead, but a Syracuse touchdown before the half ensured this would not be easy for the Tigers.

The Orange tied the game at 17 in the fourth, triggering a shootout of sorts as both teams fought for their sixth win, which means bowl eligibility. Missouri kicked a field goal with less than two minutes to go, but steady senior quarterback Ryan Nassib and the Orange sliced through the Missouri defense for the winning touchdown.

Adding insult on Syracuse’s winning touchdown was that it came when Missouri left Orange receiver Alec Lemon, who had only racked up a mere 227 receiving yards so far, wide open. Lemon ran a wheel route as Missouri blitzed, and due to a coverage breakdown he was able to cruise easily into the end zone with 20 seconds left. Missouri had no answer for Lemon, who finished with 12 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns, but leaving him all alone had to be frustrating for the Tigers.

Missouri was playing without defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, its best defender, suspended for breaking team rules. Quarterback James Franklin was knocked out of the game with a head injury in the fourth quarter.

It was the latest adversity faced by the Tigers this season, and the latest example of Missouri being unable to overcome it.

This one will reverberate. Missouri finished the season 3-4 at home, despite generally bigger home crowds and an enthusiasm boost from the move to the SEC. Getting to 6-6 and playing in a lower-tier bowl is nothing to brag about, with over half of Football Bowl Subdivision teams playing in bowls. But going 5-7 and missing a bowl in this day and age is awful. Barring a huge upset at Texas A&M on Saturday (6 p.m. on ESPN2), Missouri will not play in a bowl for the first time since the 2004 season.

Due to schedule quirks, this is Missouri’s third trip in three years to “The Home of the 12th Man.” Missouri won there each of the last two seasons, but this year the Aggies are favored by more than two touchdowns.

Texas A&M (9-2, 5-2 in SEC play) is led by freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Johnny Manziel, known by adoring Aggie fans as “Johnny Football.” Manziel led Texas A&M to a stunning upset at then-No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 10, and last week he became the first freshman to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.

If Missouri’s defense plays its best game, I could see the Tigers hanging around, but it’s tough to see them getting the win.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Four overtimes and the Pinkel Slip

Missouri’s 51-48 win over Tennessee in four exhilarating overtimes on Saturday felt like a season-saver. The Tigers headed into the game in Knoxville at 4-5 with the road to a bowl bid in peril.

The Tigers were also a game under .500 last year when they came from behind to win as an underdog on the road, at Texas A&M. This year, Missouri (5-5, 2-5 in SEC play) seemed overmatched in the first half, falling behind 21-7 as Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 in SEC) rolled up and down the field. Missouri was helped by a kick return for a touchdown, a missed Tennessee field goal, and a forced fumble, the specialty of this Tiger defense, all of which kept Tennessee from putting the game away.

Missouri gamely fought back, and after several momentum swings in the overtimes, the Tigers pulled out their first SEC road win. It also felt like redemption for Missouri quarterback James Franklin, who after a four-interception performance at Florida last week was outstanding when it mattered most last Saturday, including a 25-yard touchdown pass on fourth down in the final minute and three more touchdown passes in the overtimes.

Missouri benefited from some questionable decisions by Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. With his offense on the field on a fourth-and-three in Missouri territory in the second half, Dooley opted to have his quarterback punt the ball away instead of going for it. (Just a tip, if ever you find yourself coaching the 2012 Tennessee Volunteers and can choose to rely on your offense or your defense, go with offense.)

If Dooley is indeed let go, that would mean both of Missouri’s SEC wins came against coaches who were subsequently fired, with Kentucky’s Joker Phillips getting let go already this season. Maybe there should be a term for this phenomenon. Getting the Pinkel slip?

Regardless of the Tennessee’s current state, this was a win Missouri sorely needed, and they came from two touchdowns behind on the road to get it. Well done.

The win moved Missouri within one game of bowl eligibility. The Tigers’ best chance to get that done is this Saturday at home against Syracuse (6 p.m. on ESPNU).

Syracuse (5-5, 4-2 in Big East play) has been far from great this season, but they did pick up a big win last Saturday when they rolled previously undefeated and then-No. 9 Louisville, 45-26. The Orange are 1-4 away from their Carrier Dome this season, with the one win 37-36 at South Florida.

Missouri is favored by nearly a touchdown, although Syracuse has a capable quarterback in senior Ryan Nassib. Nassib has thrown for over 3,000 yards this season, with 21 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions. He tossed three touchdowns with no picks in the win over Louisville. He has capable targets in Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales. The Orange also have a solid group of linebackers.

Given that Missouri’s other remaining opponent is Texas A&M, a team last seen beating No. 1 Alabama on the road, so it would be good for Missouri to get that sixth win against Syracuse. I think they will.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


I joked with some friends the other day that I keep learning a little bit more about women each week and that, in a scant 972 years, I should have them figured out. But other than the whole "read my mind instead of me verbalizing my thoughts" mystery, I actually don't think it's THAT complicated. I mean, it's not rocket science to show other humans you care about them. I guess it's just a question of actually doing the small and not-so-small gestures to show it. And finding the right girl.

Finding her makes all the little indignities of the dating experience worth it. In and around my college years, I took some mighty, Casey-in-Mudville-type hacks*, but they didn't lead to anything. When I was younger I almost desperately wanted to find her, but I surely wasn't ready. Then I realized it was a blessing to start out on one's own, learning about money and running a household (I know, using that term loosely here). In ensuing years, enjoying the autonomy of living alone and perhaps seeing Debra berate Ray one too many times on "Everybody Loves Raymond," I was in no hurry for any of that. Hopefully I've reached a balance in recent years, ready to go for it when I find her but no longer in some great rush. I mean, it is fun to have authoritarian control over the many pointless little decisions that make up a decent chunk of life.

**"And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go, 
     And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow."

Really, though, what are we looking for? Well, Kate Upton, who by being on a magazine cover can hold up a checkout line almost as much as someone paying by check. Kidding aside, there's more to it than that. Like personality, to borrow from that catchy old Lloyd Price song.

The other night, I was staying up too late, watching 30 Rock. I'm not sure if it was sleep deprivation, but I found myself debating Liz Lemon's attractiveness, in her quirky sort of way. Why? Well, turns out a woman being smart, funny and witty is pretty attractive. I mean, if I find a woman who can appreciate (tolerate?) my occasionally convoluted quips, and spin a few of her own, then I think we'd be doing okay. More than okay, even.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election thoughts

Like Leap Days and the Summer Olympics, our presidential elections dance across the stage every four years. With that in mind, here are four thoughts on this election.

1. I love the idea of history being made, how these infrequent presidential election nights are remembered through the ages. My grandparents' first election was 1952, when Eisenhower got elected. My parents' first presidential election was 1976, when they voted for Carter.

I missed the 2004 election by two and a half months, so my first presidential election was 2008. Most people just get one presidential election as an undergrad, and this was a big one to have. Young voters were a key ingredient that year, and campuses always seem to buzz for big elections, with all these ambitious, hopeful young people around. I remember seeing Obama's victory speech that year, then going to the Stoney Creek Inn to hang out with a friend who had had a long day covering election stuff, and had seen his GOP have a rough go of it. Perhaps forever, elections and the Stoney Creek Inn will remind me of each other.

2. For me, the most surprising thing about the 2012 election was that Republicans seemed genuinely surprised that Romney didn't come close in the electoral vote count. As a journalist and generally a fan of bad sports teams, I've long ago separated what I WANT to happen from what I THINK will happen, but maybe this was simply wishful thinking from people who wanted their guy to win. But I think in this day and age, and with the electoral college system, experts are pretty good at projecting elections. The New York Times' Nate Silver gave Romney just a 9 percent chance of winning heading into election day. Silver looks at polls in "swing" states, and more importantly movement and trends within polls, Silver projected every state correctly, right down to Florida being brutally close but an Obama win. Some attacked Silver's methods leading up to the election, but his ridiculous success was vindication.

Never at any point Tuesday night did I think Romney would win. He never picked up a state that wasn't a sure Republican state going into the election. As one headline put it: "Moneyball has come to punditry."

3. I think America deserves (at least) two robust political options, so here's my unsolicited advice for the GOP. Two ideas. One, clear out the "crazies," as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, puts it. The far right is dragging them down. Nominating more extreme, tea party candidates has cost Republicans five Senate seats (Akin and Mourdock in 2012, Angle, O'Donnell and Buck in 2010) they definitely could have (should have?) won, which would have given them control of the Senate.

Second, modify the platform/approach. The Democratic Party was a punching bag in the 1980s and had lost five of six presidential elections before strategist James Carville said "It's the economy, stupid" and moderate, economy-minded Bill Clinton got elected in 1992. Republicans should pitch over and over the conservative tenets of leaving people alone to prosper and how they are the party of job creation. Have a stance on social issues, but don't lead with that. Maybe re-evaluate your platform on immigration. The GOP lost on Hispanics 70-30 this year. Imagine if they do that poorly again in 2016 or 2020 as Hispanic populations rise. The idea of losing Texas and/or Arizona as GOP locks should mobilize Republicans. Finding a way to get non-whites to vote Republican is key. (They kept the White House, but my tip for Democrats: Get better at deficit/debt reduction. A lot better.)

4. Most people understandably denigrate or even ignore our political system. It is certainly flawed and has plenty of unsavory characters. But it does beat the alternative. It beats dictators, elections with less integrity or waiting for Charles and Camilla to become your king and queen. I'd just ask, don't assume anyone who voted against your guy is stupid or just doesn't get it. Nearly 60 million people (last I checked) voted for Mitt Romney. That many plus about two million voted for Obama. I'm not going to say 60 million or so Americans are dumb because they disagree with me on something this nuanced. I'd hope you won't either. Obama has said he's learned from mistakes in his first term. Republican leaders seem to be understanding a need to strike a more cordial, cooperative tone as well. We'll see on both. But if you take nothing else away from all this, remember this: You control how you'll live your life, regardless of who won. Don't blame leaders, don't make excuses. Good luck.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

After loss in the Swamp, Tigers head to Rocky Top

For big-time college football, it’s about wins and losses, and Missouri has been losing more than winning lately. That being said, Tiger fans probably were more impressed with the team’s effort in last Saturday’s 14-7 loss at then-No. 8 Florida than in the team’s win over bumbling Kentucky the week before.

Missouri (4-5, 1-5 in SEC play) led 7-0 at the half and battled to the end with the Gators (8-1, 7-1 in SEC play) before over 90,000 fans in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, menacingly known as the Swamp. Since Steve Spurrier became Florida’s head coach in 1990 and ushered in the modern, dominant era of Gator football, Florida is now 127-18 in this daunting venue. That’s 18 home losses in 23 seasons.

And yet, largely on the strength of its own defense, Missouri found itself with the ball in the game’s final minutes, driving for a touchdown that would force overtime, or give the Tigers a chance to go for two and the win. But the touchdown never came, as quarterback James Franklin tossed his fourth interception of the day, in the end zone.

It was a brutal day for Franklin, still feeling some effects from the knee injury that caused him to miss the previous two games. He completed just 24 of 51 passes. He faced extreme pressure from Florida’s outstanding defensive line, and running back Kendial Lawrence was largely bottled up, making things that much more difficult. Missouri moved into Florida territory on its last six drives, but got no points out of these drives, largely due to those turnovers.

However, Franklin is still Missouri’s best option at quarterback right now. Freshman backup Corbin Berkstresser has showed his limitations this season, and it isn’t worth it to cost redshirting Maty Mauk a year of eligibility by playing him now, with only three games left.

Missouri needs to win two of those three games to run its streak of bowl appearances to eight.
Missouri’s game at Tennessee on Saturday (11:20 a.m. on SEC network, to be broadcast on a local channel; check listings) could quite possibly be one of those needed wins. Tennessee (4-5, 0-5 in SEC play) opened the week as a slight favorite, but the Volunteers are vulnerable.

Tennessee’s struggles have put coach Derek Dooley on the hot seat, but the Volunteers have faced a rugged SEC schedule so far. Tennessee’s five SEC opponents so far are Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina. All have winning records in SEC play. The Vols’ close with Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, which are a combined 4-15 in SEC play.

Tennessee earned a wild 55-48 win over Troy last week. Tennessee gave up 721 yards. The Volunteer defense has had issues this season, but the offense can be potent, leading to near-wins at Georgia and South Carolina.

The Tigers should be able to score, but Tennessee’s offense should also cause plenty of post-score renditions of “Rocky Top.” For anyone nostalgic about the Tigers’ old conference, this one may have the feel of a Big 12 shootout. It’ll just be played on Rocky Top in Neyland Stadium, another classic SEC venue.