This is one of the hardest entries I’ve ever had to write. Try as I have, things just haven’t been going well lately for me and my love of many years. We’ve encountered some bumpy roads in recent weeks, and though we’ve tried to talk it out there’s no getting around the fact that the magic is gone.

So it is with heavy heart and some sadness that I break the news to you — I’m getting divorced.

Let that sink in for a minute. I know it seems harsh, but there really is no other recourse. We’ve danced the dance long enough, and time has run out on us. So we will be a team no longer.

When you open the newspaper tomorrow, so may see it in the vital statistics — Wachsman from sports fanaticism.

There will be less of watching this

There will be less of watching this

It was fun while it lasted, to be sure. And the memories will always be there — Ohio State’s national championship over Miami in January 2003; the New York Rangers Stanley Cup in 1994; the Cincinnati Reds wire to wire World Series crown in 1990; Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46 in 1986; all of the individual players I’ve come to follow, most notably Johnny Bench, Roger Staubach, Secretariat, Albert Pujols, Adrian Peterson, Eddie George, Magic Johnson, John McEnroe, Smarty Jones and Mark Messier; and the times I’ve had with friends and family alike, recounting the games and remembering where we were when specific events happened.

You may ask, how did we get to this point? It’s pretty simple — time just ran out. Rather, time became more precious.

It’s easy to focus your attention on sports when you’re carefree and single. In fact, one of the reasons I WAS single was probably because I put too much emphasis on sports. I stayed in a lot of weekends watching football and basketball, severely hampering my abilities to meet and mingle with the ladies. But at the time I didn’t care. I was in my element, and didn’t want it to end.

Time passes, however, and you grow up, and sometimes you settle down. That’s what I’ve done. It’s been a gradual process, but little by little sports has lost some of its appeal. That visceral feeling I’d get after a win (or loss) by the Buckeyes has mostly disappeared. Yeah, I might be a little bit agitated about a loss, but that feeling will be gone in an hour. Same with the Dallas Cowboys — though maybe that’s because I’ve come to expect it. Choking in the clutch has become a regular occurrence for America’s Team, yet I somehow would be right there in front of the television, thinking that some other ending could happen. What a dope.

No more.

And more of this

And more of this

No more will I invest entire weekends to watching football. There are more important things in life, at least for me. I have come to enjoy my family — and want to do more of that. I like watching the kids play, and hope to get more involved in the play and helping them improve. I know my wife, Stacey, hasn’t always been thrilled about me being planted on the sofa, remote in hand, watching behemoths smashing into each other all afternoon and into the night. The constant “how much time is left now?” was an indicator that she wasn’t too pleased, and before I thought she was overreacting. But after stepping away and thinking about it, she was right. There is more value in being with the family unit than there is watching guys score touchdowns or dunk basketballs. It may be a fun show to watch, but in the grand scheme of things it means little.

I’ve had a reputation for some time as the guy who people would come to if they wanted to settle a sports argument. They might be bickering over something, and finally say, “let’s ask Wacker — he’ll know.” While there is a sense of pride in being a go-to guy for sports (or, as Stacey says, a phone a friend on Millionaire. Honey, that show is no longer on, but I appreciate the sentiment), there’s also some pressure too. It would make me watch games that otherwise would mean nothing to me, just to see if something happened. I’d stay up late to watch the scoreboard show so I could see if Utah State managed a late rally, or to see if Hawai’i finally won a game. You never know when you’ll be asked this stuff. I don’t want to be the guy who is defined by sports, and right now that’s what I feel like. I want people to know me more as a great father and husband and family man, with an array of interests — not just sports.

I would like to say the break will be clean and swift, but I know better. There will be times when I want to go back — sports can be a temptress — and the likelihood is that if an event is on I might sit down to watch. But no more will I invest all of my time and energy into it. Who knows? It might feel liberating when someone asks “Mike, what did you think of that play in the Packers game?” and I say, “I don’t know. I didn’t see it.” They may be shocked, maybe even crestfallen, but they’ll live.

What does this mean in the big picture? Well, it means no more blog, for sure. It was becoming sporadic anyway — I’d wonder “is this an issue that merits blogging?”, then would come up with an idea only to lose inspiration at the keyboard. That was the first sign that the love was waning.

It also means fewer road trips. Right now I go to a couple of baseball games a year, and have been fortunate enough to attend three of the last four NCAA Basketball Final Fours. Should my buddy Louis Eisenberg continue getting tickets through the lottery I will continue to go, but it will be more about the bonding and fun than it will be about the games. I will continue to take an interest in horse racing, but again more as a bonding effort with my dad, who got me into the whole betting aspect of things. Once there is no shot at a Triple Crown I’ll be on the sidelines until next year.

There will also be no more fantasy football. That one is bittersweet, because I really like the guys in my league. There’s good-natured smack talk, a lot of knowledge and competitive games on a weekly basis. It’s just too much work, too much of an investment. I want to watch game because I can, not because I have to. There are few things more frustrating than watching random games on Sunday and seeing guys you care nothing about scoring touchdowns against your “team”. It makes you falsely root for guys you otherwise wouldn’t walk across the street to see, and that seems a bit ridiculous to me. I want to root for Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson because they’re great talents, not because they scored 35 fantasy points for me in a given week. So it’s bye-bye fantasy football.

Will sports and I ever get back together? On a permanent, fanatical basis, no. Why go back to the agony, even if there is the ecstasy that goes with it? There’s more heartache than joy, and it’s too easy to get caught up in things that really shouldn’t be affecting you as much as they do. I’ll probably know my team’s schedules, maybe even pin them up on my cubicle at work. But I won’t lose sleep over missing the fourth quarter, should it come to that.

I know on a lot of Saturdays I’ll find myself rooting mightily for Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes — but if we happen to be out doing something as a family I won’t be checking my phone for updates. I will be focusing my attention on them, because they are the most important thing in my life. I haven’t always shown that, but starting now I will.

Same thing with the Cowboys and Sundays (and Mondays). If they’re on and we’re home, I’ll have it on. But should we have something scheduled, that will take precedence. No more will I think someone is dumb for scheduling their wedding on an OSU Saturday, or that they’re a better person because they could sit through games from noon to midnight. I used to be that person, and while it was enjoyable at the time, it’s not where I need to be right now.

So I will bid this column, and sports, a final adieu, and will say that it’s been fun. I hope you readers have enjoyed what I’ve written, even if I did focus a bit too much on teams I liked rather than a broad spectrum of items. So sue me.

If you see me on the street and want to give a hug or a pat on the back, thanks — but it’s not necessary. I’ll be just fine. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the world will be a much better place with sports in its proper place — the background.

It was good while it lasted, but now I’m moving on. Goodbye, sports. Hello life, and balance, and love, and family. It’s good to meet you.


NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament-Louisville vs Syracuse

It’s finally here … well, hours away really … but the greatest single event in all of sports is ready to get going, and in this year of the shrinking gap between the haves and have-nots it’s anyone’s guess as to who will be cutting down the nets in three weeks in the Georgia Dome.

The selection committee got all the teams right for a change, though there will be some (justified) grousing about seedings for some (no love for the Pac-12?). The number one seeds are even right, though I suppose a case can be made for swapping Gonzaga and Miami (Fla.) on the top line. The Hurricanes DID win the ACC regular season and conference tournament titles, and that should count for something — even in a down year for the ACC. But Gonzaga lost just twice, played a representative non-league schedule and has largely flown under the radar due to most of their games being played on the West Coast. Folks, the Zags are good.

As the bracket is perused, here are a few random thoughts —

Very little question about Louisville being the top overall seed — The Cards won the final Big East Tournament in convincing fashion and have a dynamic, long group of defenders who can get out and attack the opposition. Peyton Siva is the guy that holds it together, but the emergence of big man Gorgui Dieng has really made this bunch lethal. It would be a shock if this bunch isn’t taking Hotlanta by storm the first weekend in April.

Dissing The Pac-12? — It was nice to see Colorado get a deserved bid, though a 10 seed might be a little low for this bunch, which has the nation’s most unheralded glass-cleaner in Andre Roberson. The Buffs should get by a jack-it-up-from-anywhere Illinois team, but you have to wonder why Oregon, which won the league tournament, got a 12 seed? Few thought the Ducks were on the bubble, but they apparently were. Add in the fact that UCLA got a six seed despite being underwhelming much of the season (and now without Jordan Adams) and Arizona being seeded probably a line too low and you have the makings of some legit griping on the left coast.

Strongest Region — This is not as cut and dried as it seems. Many would say that Louisville’s Midwest Region is loaded with power, and includes perennial Final Four contenders Duke and Michigan State, as well as interlopers Saint Louis, Oklahoma State and Colorado State. That might not be wrong, but I believe the South, led by top seed Kansas, could give the Midwest a run for its money. The Jayhawks lead an impressive grouping, which also touts Georgetown, Florida and 2011 darlings Virginia Commonwealth. But there is also a North Carolina team that is rounding into form and can be dangerous — and as an aside, and even though the committee says it doesn’t think of things like this ahead of time, who really believes they didn’t lick their chops at a potential matchup of Kansas-UNC in the round of 32? San Diego State and Minnesota add to the overall depth of this region, and it’s my pick for the strongest.

Low Seeds Ready To Become Household Names — The upsets could once again be plentiful on the first weekend, but are there any teams that could hang around longer than that? We’ve found a few — 10 seed Cincinnati in the Midwest;  If 11 seed Middle Tennessee State gets out of its game with St.Mary’s it could be a real handful for Memphis; Shifting to the West, it wouldn’t be a complete shock if 8 seed Pittsburgh knocked off Gonzaga in the third round, as the Zags don’t like matching up with physical, efficient, possession-limiting teams; Belmont, seeded 11, has the chops to knock off Arizona and to hang with New Mexico in a bid for the Sweet 16; Moving to the South, it’s wouldn’t be a surprise to see South Dakota State and star guard Nate Wolters knock off Michigan; Another 11 seed, Minnesota, will be too much for an overseeded UCLA team, and could give Florida problems in the next game; And don’t be surprised if 7 seed San Diego State, led by do it all Jaamal Franklin, has the goods to get past chronic underachiever Georgetown; I seem to be in love with 11 seeds this year, and Bucknell is another that could hang around for a while from the East Region. Future pro Mike Muscala will be too much for Butler, and could be a challenge for Marquette as well.

First No. 1 Seed To Exit  — Indiana. Yes, the regular season champs of the nation’s best league will be the first to bite the dust. The Hoosiers are very good, but in UNLV they will meet a team just as athletic as they are, one that can shoot the trey (four players hitting better than 34 percent the arc) and get physical with the Hoosiers backcourt. If Mike Moser continues to get healthy the Rebels will be hard to deal with.

Atlanta Bound — It will be two veterans and two newcomers playing in the Georgia Dome, and the experienced programs will be the ones vying for all the marbles.

Louisville beats Michigan State

New Mexico beats Gonzaga

Kansas beats Florida

Miami (Fla.) beats UNLV

On championship night, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals will be hoisting the national championship trophy and keeping the state of Kentucky atop the basketball world.

I have never been to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I was supposed to go this past summer, but my media cohort Mark Podolski in Cleveland dropped the ball — as usual — and couldn’t come through. So another year passed without me seeing the shrine to baseball history.

Whenever I decide to go, I won’t be able see the sport’s all-time hits leader, all-time home run king, arguably the best pitcher of the modern era, and other greats. Why? Because the sanctimonious lot known as the Baseball Writers Association of America has decided that it is to be the arbiter of who should and shouldn’t be in the hallowed Hall — even if their numbers say it’s a slam dunk.

220px-BarryLamar_BondsThe debate about whether any of the great players of what has now been dubbed “The Steroids Era” belong in Cooperstown is not without merit. Some — most notably Sammy Sosa — only became great after the era of PEDs had started, supposedly at the start of the early 1990s. Others, such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, had already established a trail of greatness and consistency that most likely would have had them kicking in the doors of the Hall anyway. Did their (alleged) usage help their numbers? Of course. Players wouldn’t have taken the stuff if it didn’t give you a benefit. Countless players of the era were users, but not all had the talent of Bonds and Clemens. How do we know? Well, they didn’t put up the numbers for one thing.

To disqualify these players for their transgressions is silly, for three reasons —

  • There are already known cheaters in the Hall. Anyone remember Gaylord Perry, king of the spitball? — a pitch that was outlawed in 1934 yet helped him pick up numerous wins and gain a huge advantage over hitters. Any substance on the ball — and in Perry’s case it was usually Vaseline — will help it move in and out of the strike zone, befuddling hitters. Clemens’ PED use might have added a couple of mph to his fastball, but if it wasn’t moving it didn’t matter. Hitters could get to it. Not so with Perry and his spitball
  • Baseball tacitly allowed the players to use because there was no testing policy in place. While there was a written rule stating that PEDs had no place in the game, there was no testing mechanism in place. I don’t recall anyone in baseball’s front offices wringing their hands and lamenting PED usage when Sosa and Mark McGwire were staging their great home run battle in 1998. Both were hitting the longball in record fashion, bringing fans to the ballpark and turning on television sets. McGwire finished with 70 homers, Sosa with 66, and everyone forgot about the work stoppage just a few years earlier.
  • The measure of greatness is how players fared IN THEIR ERA, and if this was the era of PEDs and “everyone” was using, then the best of the best were still the best. Bonds had already won three MVP awards prior to the PED era, and Clemens already had three Cy Young awards tucked in his back pocket. They were already among the best in the game — it wasn’t like their steroid use vaulted them over a bunch of clean players who were mashing the baseball. If you are a pre-eminent player in your era, then you are at least in the discussion for Hall worthiness. And these guys were the pre-eminent players, in their own era. It may be an era the baseball folks want to forget, but it happened.

Here is one other rub for all of these “purists” who want to erase the black mark of steroids from the game, to punish the players that used. The official name of the shrine is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum — the museum part being just as important as the hall of fame part. Museums preserve history, and these guys should be in no matter what. If they want to create a separate wing, fine. If they want to put them in with everyone else but write about what they did, fine. But to act like these guys didn’t exist is a stain on the game, no to mention unfair to the players.

mike-piazzaPersonally, I think all of them should be allowed in. Attempting to parse them out individually is an exercise in futility, so if their numbers showed they were great enough, let them in.  If I had a vote, Bonds and Clemens would be in easily. I would also enshrine Mike Piazza, arguably the greatest hitting catcher of all-time (.308 batting average, 427 home runs), who has been penalized merely due to whispers. His name was never in the Mitchell Report that detailed rampant PED use in the game, he wasn’t ever implicated by his own clubhouse guy, a guy who did play a huge role in the Clemens’ fiasco. In short, Piazza is being denied because he happened to play with these other guys, and no numbers are above suspicion.

I would also vote Tim Raines and Jack Morris in, and maybe Craig Biggio. I thought Biggio was more of a compiler than anything else, but then I checked the numbers — 668 doubles, more than any other right-handed hitter in history; only two hitters who played primarily second base had more hits than he did (Eddie Collins and Napoleon Lajoie, and neither one played a game after 1930); and he’s the only player in the past 100 seasons to have a 50 homer, 50 stolen base season. Was he dominant? No. But he was an all-star at three positions (second base, catcher and outfield) and put up numbers worthy of enshrinement.

Baseball has had its eras —

  • The Dead Ball Era (1901-1919), when pitchers ruled and 1-0 and 2-1 games were routine;
  • The Live Ball Era (1920-1941), where the pitchers took a backseat to hitters, who smashed batting and home run records on almost a yearly basis;
  • The Integration Era (1942-1960), when negro players could finally join the majors. Records set prior to this can be looked at with skepticism because Major League players didn’t have to face Satchel Paige or pitch to Cool Papa Bell or Josh Gibson;
  • The Expansion Era (1961-1976), when baseball ballooned from 16 to 24 teams, and more players who weren’t quite up to snuff got work. In this era, the pitcher’s mound was lowered (in 1969, producing a spike in offense), and the designated hitter was established in the American League (1973), meaning feeble-hitting pitchers no longer batted.
  • Free Agency Era (1977-1993), where movement of big-time players for big-time salaries was rampant. Runs per game went up to numbers that rivaled the Live Ball era, and while home runs weren’t rampant, turf fields meant hitters got on base more often due to ground balls, and also had more stolen bases.
  • Steroids Era (1991-2005), where physiques changed, video game numbers were compiled and fans’ thirst for excitement was quenched.

To have a Hall of Fame without the best of the best is laughable, and shameful at the same time. To think that fans of the sport can’t make their own judgements about players is demeaning, and to not have a record of all of the important and great players of an era is lacking.

There are already players in who are known cheaters, so for baseball writers to draw a line in the sand now, and become moralists, do the game a disservice.


The long and winding bowl road started in Albuquerque on Dec. 15th, and finally ends tonight in Miami with a long-awaited showdown between the royalty of royalty in college football, Notre Dame vs. Alabama.

The Irish vs. The Crimson Tide. Knute Rockne vs. Bear Bryant. Rudy vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd (think about it for a second, it will come to you).

There is so much history and tradition in the BCS championship game that any background info is rendered moot. When this one was announced it was a license for the folks in Miami to start printing money. Both fan bases were guaranteed to turn out in droves, for different reasons.

For Notre Dame it’s a chance to get back to relevance after over a decade of spinning its wheels. Brian Kelly has engineered a big turnaround in year three, and the echoes have definitely been awakened in South Bend, and in all of the pockets of America where fans root for the Irish.

For Alabama it’s a chance to achieve true dynasty status — not easy to do in this day and age of reduced scholarships and alleged “parity.” Hell, to even get through the SEC year after year is a testament to how good the Tide program has become under Nick Saban. It would be Alabama’s third title in four years, and the seventh in a row for the SEC.

Both teams got here with the top two defensive units in the land, though Notre Dame has been slightly more impressive against good opposition. Alabama played a pretty bad schedule — Western Kentucky, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic, along with a respectable Michigan team — and missed most of the stronger SEC entries this year — Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, though it did beat the Bulldogs in the league championship game. Against the best of the SEC, Bama won by four (LSU and Georgia) and lost by five at home (Texas A&M).

The Irish had some close shaves of their own — beating Purdue, BYU and Pittsburgh (in overtime) by three points each. But they were also impressive against the two best teams they played, beating Stanford by seven points and blasting Oklahoma 30-13 in Norman. That’s the game that really opened some eyes, and made people think this Notre Dame squad had the stuff of champions.

The drama and the stakes will be high, but the score will likely be low as these teams play what should be an old-fashioned smashmouth football game. Fans of the new age of spread offenses and gimmicks might be disappointed, but fans of “big boy” football will be glued to the edge of their seats until the final gun.

ALABAMA (12-1)

hi-res-6554194_display_imageOFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH — OG Chance Warmack. It’s not often that an offensive lineman takes center stage, but Warmack is the best of a very talented trench group, and an argument can be made that he’s Alabama’s best player — period.  Warmack has quick feet, great technique and a nasty attitude, and that will be needed against an Irish defense that touts DL Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. Warmack will have to be at his best to keep these two off of QB A.J. McCarron and out of the backfield, because if Bama can’t run it can’t win.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH — S Robert Lester and Vinnie Sunseri. Both will be tabbed with covering standout TE Tyler Eifert, and if they can’t do that the Irish will eat up big chunks of passing yardage and put Alabama back on its heels. Eifert moves around a lot, sometimes lining up at receiver, which means he could find himself locked in battle with Dee Milliner, one of the best corner men in the country. But the safeties will have the majority of time on Eifert, and their success or failure will determine the outcome.


Everett-Golson-StoryOFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH — QB Everett Golson. The sophomore has come along after a brief early season benching, and a case can be made that he’ll be the best signal caller on the field. Not known as a great runner, Golson is mobile enough to be a headache. But it’s his arm that really does damage, and if Alabama can’t hit him or get him off his game things will be decidedly in favor of the Irish.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH — CB Barrett Jackson. He will be the man in charge of shadowing Bama’s electric freshman receiver Amari Cooper. Jackson has great athleticism and speed, and picked off four passes this season. So he will make you pay for your mistakes. He will be tested mightily against Cooper, a speedster who tallied five touchdowns (including the game-winner over Georgia), but if he can keep the big plays to a minimum the Irish will be right there.

Alabama has shown a few cracks this year, most notably against a mobile quarterback with an arm — Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. He was able to buy time against the Tide’s talented linebacking group, and Golson may be able to do the same behind an offensive line that is physical and more athletic than people think.

One concern for Notre Dame is the big stage — it’s been eons since the Irish have played in a game that mattered THIS much. Win and it’s back among the elite, but lose and there are questions about whether this was a fluky season and the nailbiters showed that they were just barely able to get by. Alabama is used to this environment and won’t be knocked off kilter by a few things going against them.

There’s no doubt Alabama has the talent edge — even the Irish would tell you as much. There are stars at every level, and talent is usually enough to get a team victory in a tough situation.

But this Irish team has something about it — hard to put a finger on it, but there’s a resiliency you don’t see every day. They had plenty of chances to falter but didn’t, showing a will to win like few teams we’ve seen. They remind me a lot of the 2002 Ohio State team that won it all, against a Miami team that was seen as invincible and loaded with NFL talent. Miami hadn’t been hit in the mouth all season, and when the Buckeyes did that and showed that they weren’t going anywhere, a classic unfolded.

Early in the bowl season I was torn on this game, and vacillated between the Irish and Tide, sometimes in the same day. But as the New Year got closer, the pick became clearer.

One team has the ability to win a variety of ways, while the other HAS to be running the football well to win. One team comes in as an underdog (nearly a double-digit one at that) despite being unbeaten, while the other may be getting by on pedigree and name more than actual results. And one has Manti Te’o and the other doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the Tide has talent at linebacker — and defensive line and in the secondary, and everywhere else for that matter. But Te’o is the kind of player that steps up huge in big games, and will make up for any mistake he might happen to make. It’s cliché to say that one guy doesn’t win a game for you, but Te’o could be an exception. I’m not usually one for hokey stories of destiny, or happy endings for someone who has endured unspeakable lows during the season — for those who don’t know, Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend died on the same day in September, six hours apart.

I like this Alabama team a lot, and if a blowout happens it will be in favor of the Tide. But the struggles of the SEC in bowl games — LSU losing to Clemson, Florida getting housed by Louisville, Mississippi State falling against Northwestern — need to be examined. Maybe the league isn’t quite as dominant as people think it is this season. The battle-tested Irish will be able to weather an early storm and steady itself for a long, physical contest. I’m not calling for overtime like that storied OSU-Miami showdown, though I can’t say it would be a complete surprise.

In what some would call one of the biggest upsets in BCS title game  history — though I am not among them because the Irish are more talented than many believe — Notre Dame will come through because Golson won’t be rattled by his surroundings and because the defense will be relentless, making a few more game changing plays than the Tide. Notre Dame (+9 1/2) 24, Alabama 20

I know, I know, I know. Putting two days worth of bowl games into one entry seems like the lazy man’s way out — and to a certain extent it is. But there is a reason for it — both of the games leading up the BCS National Championship stink, and I didn’t want to waste any more space than necessary talking about them.

Both of these contests reek, but for different reasons.

Today’s is a matchup of 6-6 teams — Pittsburgh and Ole Miss — and we know how well THOSE usually turn out. That’s not even counting the fact that Pitt in a bowl game spells disaster, especially against a young and hungry SEC squad.

Tomorrow’s game is bad for another reason — it pits two mid-major conference squads against each other. Kent State and Arkansas State aren’t bad teams on their own, and the game could actually have some exciting moments. But as a lead in to the big enchilada, it’s like Big Time Rush opening for Led Zeppelin.

Nonetheless, as is my duty, I will take a look — albeit a brief one — at these two contests.

Jeff Scott, Kaleb Eulls, Nickoe Whitley

BBVA Compass Bowl — Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. Ole Miss (6-6)

The Panthers have become accustomed to Birmingham’s Legion Field, taking part in the previous two Compass Bowls — including last year’s 28-6 drubbing at the hands of SMU. At least in this one they have a real coach instead of an interim. After being led by interims the past two postseasons, first-year coach Paul Chryst stuck around after hearing his name come up for the Wisconsin opening (the Badgers hired Utah State’s Gary Andersen). That should ease the mind of the Pitt players, but it won’t bring their talent level up.

Oh, there are a few gems here, including RB Ray Graham and QB Tino Sunseri, but the Panthers are a team largely devoid of offensive playmakers. The defense is blue-collar but can be had on the ground, which means the Rebels should take a run-heavy approach.

Hugh Freeze made a huge turnaround in bringing Ole Miss from 2-10 a year ago to the postseason this year. A punishing ground game is a big reason for the return to respectability, as the Rebels scored 23 touchdowns and averaged nearly 170 yards per game toting the rock. RB Jeff Scott is solid, and QB Bo Wallace is more dangerous with his legs than his arm. But that’s not a bad thing as Pittsburgh is pretty good against the pass.

Look for Ole Miss to be the happier, more spirited team, and that should be enough to bring the Rebels above .500. Mississippi (-3 1/2) 31, Pittsburgh 16

driarcher Bowl — Kent State (11-2) vs. Arkansas State (9-3)

The Golden Flashes were thisclose to playing in the BCS, but an upset loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game relegated them to an afterthought. This is Kent’s first bowl appearance in 40 years, so you know they’ll be excited. It will also be the last game for coach Darell Hazell, one of the few outgoing coaches allowed to lead their team in a bowl game. Hazell will head to Purdue once this one is finished, and you can bet he’ll want to leave a good impression on both his former and new employer.

Kent can score but can’t stop anyone — and Arkansas State is the same, which means this one could have some fireworks.

The Flashes are led by electric RB Dri Archer, who ran for 0ver 1300 yards and scored 15 touchdowns and also led the team in receptions with 35 for another 539 yards and four scores. Oh, and he returns kicks, too. Word of advice — stay close to the TV when Kent has the ball because you never know what Archer may do.

The Red Wolves played Northern Illinois in this game last year, so they know their surroundings. That means they could be a bit down as they expected a bit more this year. A 2-3 start hurt, but reeling off seven straight to end the season was a huge positive. QB Ryan Aplin is a good one, throwing for over 3000 yards and notching 23 TD passes, and his favorite weapon is freshman WR J.D. McKissic, who grabbed 92 passes for 909 yards and four scores. They know how to move the chains, and would prefer the dink and dunk approach rather than the big play.

The presence of Hazell and the fact that the Flashes are merely in the postseason should be enough to bring a victory in what could be a pretty entertaining game. It’s too bad no one will be talking about it. Kent State (+4) 38, Arkansas State 33


Johnny Football vs. Sooner Nation. The new kid on the block vs. an all-time great program (third all-time in winning percentage).

No matter how you slice it or what matchup you want to focus on, tonight’s Cotton Bowl has the potential to be THE absolute best of this bowl season. Not the most important, the best.

Both of these schools have history, though the Sooners have been more relevant on a more consistent basis. They’ve had legends like Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer, and players such as the Selmon brothers and Billy Sims and Marcus Dupree. Texas A&M has Manziel, who is actually the school’s SECOND Heisman Trophy winner — John David Crow was the first — and once employed a guy named Bryant as head coach. Yes, THAT Bryant.

The two were, until last season, conference brethren. But A&M bolted for the greener pastures of the SEC, where Manziel became a phenomenon after knocking off seemingly unbeatable Alabama.

So while the backstories are there for both teams, it’s what they’ve done this year that will determine the outcome of the contest.

Both teams have high-powered offenses, each among the top 10, and mediocre defenses, so points should be abundant in this one. While the spotlight is on Manziel, the Sooners aren’t exactly chopped liver. They have QB Landry Jones, who decided to come back for his senior season, and LB Tom Wort will be an important piece to the defensive puzzle as the Sooners try to stop Manziel and a pretty solid A&M rushing attack.

On the flip side, A&M will rely on DE Damontre Moore to make Jones uncomfortable in the pocket. If Jones has time he will pick apart an A&M pass defense that ranks 80th in the country, so Moore’s play will be paramount.

A&M is probably just happy to be here after years of recent struggles, but you have to believe Oklahoma is disappointed that it missed out on a BCS bowl game. The Sooners have won five straight and appear to be just angry enough that they’ll show up and play hard. The Sooners have actually won their last three bowl games, while A&M has dropped five of its last six and 11 of its last 13. So the postseason has not been kind to the Aggies. It will be interesting to see if Manziel can change that.

Oklahoma has the pedigree to keep A&M’s big plays to a minimum, and while Manziel probably won’t wilt on the big stage — he did knock off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa — it’s questionable whether his teammates will give him enough support. A&M has been to this bowl game twice since 2000 and wasn’t close either time while Oklahoma beat Arkansas 10-3 in the 2002 edition of this game.

This one should be a delight to fans of offense, with a high probability of the last team getting the ball winning the football game. We think Manziel will have just enough to squeak it out, but wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Sooners make yet another Heisman winner feel empty after a bowl game. Texas A&M (-4) 42, Oklahoma 41


Tonight’s Fiesta Bowl showdown between Oregon and Kansas State is one of the more anticipated matchups of the bowl season. Two teams that were at one point vying for the national title, running similar offenses, will try to short-circuit the scoreboard with their wealth of skill position players. So this one seems like a big deal.

Ten years ago tonight, a REALLY big deal took place at the Fiesta Bowl, when underdog Ohio State took on a Miami team loaded with future NFL stars in a game that many pundits felt was going to be a one-sided mess in favor of the Hurricanes. Four quarters and two overtimes later, it was the Buckeyes that had pulled off the upset and hoisted the crystal trophy that is symbolic of the national champion.

That game is still, to this day, the most exciting sporting event I have had the pleasure to witness. Yes, it was in an official capacity, so I couldn’t really have my “rooting hat” on, but there was still a buzz, an electricity in the place that you could honestly feel. It wasn’t like the other games I had covered — and there had been countless showdowns with Michigan, two tilts with Notre Dame and a few other big non-conference contests — and the fact that the national championship was on the line made it even more special. I tell people that I’ve always loved the 1991 double overtime basketball game between Ohio State and Indiana. Both teams were ranked in the top five, neither squad led by more than six points at any time and there was clutch play after clutch play. But in the end, it was just a single game, not for all the marbles.

That BCS title tilt between the Buckeyes and Hurricanes is still among the top five college football games ever played, and the fact that is was for EVERYTHING only makes it better. There have been plenty of great games played, but the truly elite contests are the ones where someone can hoist a trophy.

When Ken Dorsey’s final pass fell harmlessly to the turf and the OSU bench emptied in exultation, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. All of the dignitaries on the Buckeyes sideline showed they still had some lift as they jumped high into the air, mobbing the people closest to them. After the dust had settled and the interviews were finished and the stories were written, it was a pretty quick and easy walk back to the hotel. We stayed up to watch SportsCenter to see how they would cover the game — and then watched it five more times, making sure that what we had witnessed wasn’t a dream.

Tonight’s game may not be quite as high stakes, but it should be high-octane, especially on the Oregon side. The Ducks bring the fastest offense in college football to the table, while Kansas State answers with quarterback Collin Klein and a solid yet unspectacular defense.


The Ducks have QB Marcus Mariota, who should be a front-runner for next year’s Heisman Trophy, along with the one-two punch of Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas in the backfield. Kansas State doesn’t have the speed to stick with the Ducks so it will have to hope that Oregon has some self-inflicted wounds that turn into points.

It’s possible that the distraction of NFL coaching interviews might be an issue for Ducks coach Chip Kelly, who will be gone with the wind once this game is over because the NCAA enforcement folks will be ruling on a recruiting issue very shortly. It won’t be good, which is Kelly will make like Pete Carroll and get while the getting is good, leaving his players holding the bag.

Kansas State’s Bill Snyder has taken the Wildcats to their second renaissance, transforming what was once college football’s all-time worst program into a contender. He left, they faltered. He returned, they’re back. You do the math. The guy can flat-out coach. Whether or not he has the athletes to stay with Oregon is another story.

It says here that the game will be close for a while, maybe even to halftime, as Kansas State uses its physicality to upset some of Oregon’s game plan. But the Ducks are relentless, and will eventually gain a foothold. Once they do, it’s lights out for Kansas State. I would like to think the Wildcats have a shot to make history, but I just don’t see it. Then again, I didn’t really see Ohio State’s national title win coming, either. Oregon (-8) 45, Kansas State 27

First of all, Happy New Year to everyone out there in the blogosphere. I hope that everything went smoothly, and there was only minimal damage to the family room from the partying/drinking that went on last night. And if you woke up wearing your wife’s nightgown … well, that’s more on you than anything else.

New Year’s Day was always a hallowed one for fans of college football, due to the special nature of the games being played. There were just four games that day, all of importance — the Cotton would lead off, followed by the Rose, and then the Sugar and Orange would play opposite each other on separate networks. There was none of this “every game on ESPN” garbage that we see now. Each major conference was represented, and it gave fans a chance to see teams they might not normally see on a regular basis.

Those were the good old days.

Now New Year’s Day is just another day of games — most aren’t all that important, and it’s not the must-see TV that it was in the past.

Today is largely a showcase for the Big Ten, as five of the six games feature a team from that league. Whether or not this is a good thing — that’s for you to decide. All I know is that I wouldn’t expect much happiness from the Midwest at day’s end.

Gator Bowl — Northwestern (9-3) vs. Mississippi State (8-4)


I was going to simply write “SEC vs. Big Ten” and leave it at that, but there is a bit of a storyline here. Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl game since 1948, and this is the Big Ten’s best chance at picking up a victory. Mississippi State has tanked in all of its big games, and the Wildcats offense could create just enough problems for that to happen again.

Players To Watch — RB Venric Mark (Northwestern), QB Tyler Russell (Mississippi State); PICK — Northwestern (+1) 31, Mississippi State 26

Heart Of Dallas Bowl — Oklahoma State (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6)


There were high expectations in Stillwater, so you have to wonder about the attitude of the Cowboys heading into this game. Purdue is happy to be in any bowl game after cobbling together a season of mediocrity, so it will come out firing. Problem is, Purdue is bringing a knife to a gun fight. The Boilermakers don’t have much star power on offense or defense, and Okie State is teeming with athleticism and explosiveness on both sides of the ball. If OSU is focused this is a blowout. If not, it could be a game. I’m guessing it will be a little of both, as Okie State starts slowly then gains momentum.

Players To Watch — RB Joseph Randle (Oklahoma State), DE Kawann Short (Purdue); PICK — Oklahoma State (-17) 45, Purdue 24

Outback Bowl — South Carolina (10-2) vs. Michigan (8-4)


SEC vs. Big Ten.

Actually, these two teams are pretty similar, bringing hit-or-miss offenses and physical defenses to the table. That means it will come down to talent, and the Gamecocks have the edge. They haven’t been great in bowl games, though, losing three straight before breaking through last year over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. Michigan may not want any part of an SEC team based on its last two contests — 41-14 loss to Alabama to open this season, and 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the 2011 Gator Bowl. There may not be a ton of scoring here, but South Carolina can score points in creative ways, so look for Steve Spurrier to pull a few rabbits out of his hat.

Players To Watch: DE Jadaveon Clowney (South Carolina), do-it-all Denard Robinson (Michigan); PICK — South Carolina (-5 1/2) 24, Michigan 16

Capital One Bowl — Georgia (11-2) vs. Nebraska (10-3)


SEC vs. Big Ten.

This is another one of those games whose outcome could be determined by whether or not Georgia wants to be here. The Bulldogs are infinitely better and more talented, but you have to think there are some lingering thoughts about just how close they were to playing for the national championship. If that hangover persists, Nebraska is the type of physical team that could push them around. Not having DL John Jenkins could add to that as well, and Mark Richt hasn’t always been the best sideline coach in America. A win and things are OK — not great, but OK — in Bulldog land. But a loss? Well, that’s the kind of pressure the program doesn’t want to deal with for an entire offseason.

Players To Watch — LB Jarvis Jones (Georgia), QB Taylor Martinez (Nebraska); PICK — Georgia (-10) 31, Nebraska 24

Rose Bowl — Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5)


Strength vs. strength here, as the Cardinal bring a ferocious run defense (2nd in the nation) against a monster running attack (12th). Wisconsin’s offensive line is huge and could have some success, but here’s the problem — the Badgers are SO one-dimensional that they’re easy to defend. Stanford is disciplined, physical and faster than people think, and will close off a lot of the running lanes. A lot of people believe that UCLA gave the blueprint on how to attack the Stanford defense, but the Bruins had something the Badgers don’t have — a mobile quarterback. Curt Phillips is not a threat to run, nor much of a threat to pass. After some early success, the Badgers will find the going tougher and tougher. Yeah, Barry Alvarez will be on the sidelines, which will be good for an early boost. But he’s not blocking or tackling or throwing the football, so that buzz will last just so long. The Big Ten has won Rose Bowl since Wisconsin won in 1999 — Ohio State over Oregon in 2010 — so if the Badgers win they’ll be bucking history.

Players To Watch — RB Stepfan Taylor (Stanford), WR Jared Abbrederris (Wisconsin); PICK — Stanford (-6 1/2) 31, Wisconsin 17

Orange Bowl — Florida State (11-2) vs. Northern Illinois (12-1)


If Florida State shows up, this one will be as messy as the elephant halftime show that was once the staple of the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles are loaded with talent, have a great defensive line and enough speed to form a track team. But they also have a nasty little habit of not showing up when the opponent is thought to be average, which is the national perception of the Huskies. That’s wrong, but since they don’t play on TV every week they’re seen as a lower-tier team. Jordan Lynch will be the best player on either offense, and the Seminoles will have to do everything in their power to stop him or else this one is tight late in the game. And when the game is tight late, FSU usually crumbles.

Players To Watch –DE Bjoern Werner (Florida State), QB Jordan Lynch (Northern Illinois); PICK — Florida State (-13 1/2) 26, Northern Illinois 23

It’s New Year’s Eve day, which means that depending on your occupation you’re either preparing to get stupid drunk or you’re planning to take things easy, hitting the sack just after the clock strikes midnight.

Who are we kidding? We know that EVERYONE will be getting stupid drunk, but in the run up to watching the ball drop there are four bowl games, of varying import and interest. You have the team that started the year atop the polls (USC), the team that played in last year’s national title game (LSU) and a rematch of two teams that played the first week of the regular season (Iowa State-Tulsa).

Do with that information what you wish, but please be careful and exercise some caution during the revelry. We want everyone around for a bountfiul New Year’s Day, which promises to have a ton of intrigue and fun with its bowl games.


Music City Bowl — North Carolina State (7-5) vs. Vanderbilt (8-4)

Also-rans from the ACC and SEC don’t normally seem to make for riveting television, but if history is any indicator this game should be pretty exciting. Three of the last four contests have been decided by six points or less, with one double OT contest included. So tuning in to the end is recommended.

The Wolfpack would have been viewed as the favorite of this corner, but the firing of coach Tom O’Brien has thrown the program into a bit of transtion and it may not be out of it in time. Vandy has an excellent coach in James Franklin, who seemingly did the impossible by taking the Commodores to consecutive bowl games. Actually, it WAS impossible as that had never before happened.

NC State will go as far as quarterback Mike Glennon takes them — and he has a chance to take them quite a ways. Glennon is a favorite of pro scouts, has a great arm and doesn’t get rattled by pressure, and he’ll see pressure against a very good Vandy defensive front.

The Commodores offense isn’t anything special, with no unit among the top 50 nationally. But they move the ball just enough, and against a pretty inept Wolfpack defense there will be opportunities for big plays.

With talent being just about equal, the nod here goes to Vanderbilt due to better coaching and excellent special teams. Those are the things that can determine a close game, and this one has the makings of that. Vanderbilt (-6 1/2) 26, North Carolina State 21


Sun Bowl — USC (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7)

This one’s pretty simple — USC had a disappointing season, is without QB Matt Barkley and, most likely, electric WR Marquise Lee, and simply doesn’t want to be here, as actions earlier in the week (late for a bowl-sponsored function, tweeting how boring El Paso is) show. Georgia Tech got a bowl bid due to a stupid provision that the runner-up in the ACC title game gets selected for a bowl game, no matter the record.

The Yellow Jackets are going to do what they can to show that they want to be here, and will try to get the disappointing taste of the regular season out of their mouths. USC will continue to be disinterested, and will be weighed down by Lane Kiffin, who is among the worst game day coaches in America.

Yeah, USC has the better players, even with some stars missing. But I’ve seen this movie before, and it didn’t end well for the “better team.” It won’t this time, either, as Tech bucks history and breaks its winless bowl streak (in four tries) under coach Paul Johnson. Georgia Tech (+7)  31, USC 27

Alex Singleton, Derrick Mathews

Liberty Bowl — Iowa State (6-6) vs. Tulsa (10-3)

I’ve been to the Liberty Bowl, and can say that it’s nothing special. The side trips to Beale Street and Graceland were more interesting, but maybe that’s because we were following an Ohio State team that didn’t want to participate (and summarily lost embarrassingly to Air Force).

For Iowa State and Tulsa, this should be chock full o’ fun, as neither team is a perennial postseason participants. This bowl game hasn’t had a blowout since 2003, so chances are good that it will be close.

These two teams played in the season opener, with ISU winning 38-23 but have gone down different paths since. Tulsa got hot while the Cyclones struggled to get bowl eligible after a 3-0 start. The Golden Hurricane have gotten it done with offense, and should prove to be a stern test against an ISU team, and has talent at all levels on defense.

Look for Tulsa to utilize a three-headed monster at running back, led by Alex Singleton, which will wear down a physical but undersized ISU front seven. Tulsa (Pick) 41, Iowa State 26


Chick-fil-A Bowl — LSU (10-2) vs. Clemson (10-2)

Tigers vs. Tigers. Death Valley vs. Death Valley. Identical records. Someone will go home happy.

A true offense (Clemson) vs. defense (LSU) battle, both teams want to erase the memory of last season’s bowl defeats — Clemson allowing 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl and LSU falling in the national title game to Alabama.

Clemson has a host of offensive stars — QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington and WR Sammy Watkins — and made a living all year on explosive plays. Those may be hard to come by against an LSU team ranked in the top 10 nationally in nearly every meaningful defensive category. DE Sam Montgomery and LB Kevin Minter anchor a ferocious group, certainly the best front seven Boyd and company have seen this year — and they played against Florida State.

LSU hasn’t been the most consistent offensive squad around, but has gained steamed down the stretch. Much of that can be attributed to RB Jeremy Hill, who is dangerous out of the backfield and in the return game. Clemson will need to shut him down if it has any hope of winning.

This is not typically a very close game, with only a pair of contests since 2000 being decided by six points or less. LSU has been good in big games lately, winning 11 of its last 15, while Clemson has been just the opposite, winning only one of its last six postseason contests.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Clemson come out firing early, but LSU has too much up front (on both sides of the ball) to lose. LSU (-4) 34, Clemson 24

Now we’ve reached the fun part … days and days of multiple games, some that will actually be fun to watch. So there won’t be a whole lot of rambling here, just a look at the games.

Armed Forces Bowl — Rice (6-6) vs. Air Force (6-6)

Two teams that love to run the ball, which means this one could be finished in under three hours. Air Force has the better defense and a dynamic combo in QB Connor Dietz and RB Cody Getz, and Rice’s anemic stop unit should be on its heels all day. The Falcons won just once in their final five games while Rice got hot late, going 5-1 down the stretch.

Four of the last five games in this bowl have been good, being decided by six points or less. Air Force won the last time it was here, and its ability to grind the clock and convert on third down (better than 50 percent for the season) will be the difference in the game. Air Force (-1) 36, Rice 31


Pinstripe Bowl — West Virginia (7-5) vs. Syracuse (7-5)

This one has a chance to be the wildest game of the bowl campaign, so buckle in and get ready. The fact it’s being played in Yankee Stadium is a nice bonus.

Neither team is particular adept defensively, though the Orange are a bit better. Offense for both teams is off the charts, with Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib a fast-rising prospect. He’s licking his chops at the prospect of facing WVU’s 107th ranked pass defense.

Syracuse has won 10 of its last 13 bowl games while the Mountaineers have dropped four of their last five, with none of those losses being by less than 10 points. WVU has Geno Smith at QB, and he has great weapons in Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Nassib has a big arm, can throw on the move and doesn’t get rattled by the surroundings. In a game that could truly come down to the last possession, we like the Orange as the better all-around squad. Syracuse (+4) 44, West Virginia 39

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Navy (8-4) vs. Arizona State (7-5)

Bowl games are often about perspective, and Arizona State knows that all too well. Last year ASU trudged into the Las Vegas Bowl dejected after failing to meet expectations and got blown out by Boise State. This year there is a different feeling, like the start of something big, and the Sun Devils want to take full advantage.

Navy finished on a 7-1 run, including a win over rival Army, and has gotten it done with a freshman quarterback. However, the Middies defense leaves a lot to be desired, and fundamentals and discipline will take you only so far. ASU is bigger up front and should be able to protect QB Taylor Kelly, who is a threat to run when the pocket collapses. But ASU hangs its hat on defense, creating mismatches in the opposing backfield. Chief havoc-wreaker is DT Will Sutton, who will become a familiar sight to Navy backs.

About the only way we can see Navy keeping this one competitive is if Arizona State turns the ball over a ton or if it someone comes out uninspired. With the potential of a springboard into a big 2013, we see that as only a remote possibility. Arizona State (-14) 35, Navy 20

Alamo Bowl — Texas (8-4) vs. Oregon State (9-3)

The last time Texas was here it won a nailbiter over Iowa. But that was 2006, when the Longhorns were still a pre-eminent college football program. They’ve fallen on hard times — relatively speaking — and are looking for some sort of tonic for three consecutive disappointing seasons.

Oregon State was believed to be an also-ran in the Pac-12 but used a stifling defense and good enough offense to win nine games. It’s pretty apparent that Mike Riley can coach, and he has a team that appears ready to breakthrough into true contending status.

Oregon State has a solid tandem at quarterback, but Sean Mannion will get the start. He’s a good one, and he could be made even better if the Beavers can gash the porous Texas run defense (101st nationally) to set him up to make plays. Texas has been out of position consistently all season and opponents have put together clock-eating drives. Mannion is a veteran who knows where to put the football so Texas will need to be in his face all evening.

Texas has just about as much blue chip talent as anyone in the country, but it just hasn’t clicked in recent years. QB David Ash has been up and down, and he’ll have to be more up if the Longhorns are to win the game.

Oregon State seems to be the looser bunch, enjoying their time in San Antonio and looking ready to go. Texas is playing an in-state game and should have a lot of support, but with the pressure of expectation weighing heavily that may not be a good thing. Oregon State (-2) 28, Texas 21

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl — Texas Christian (7-5) vs. Michigan State (6-6)

Michigan State was expecting to contend for the Rose Bowl, so you have to think it’s down about having to trudge out to Arizona to play in a game named after a coma-inducing chicken wings chain. TCU isn’t thrilled to be here, either, but a Thanksgiving day win over Texas gave the Horned Frogs some momentum, which they hope to carry into the offseason.

This one should be ruled by defense, so fans of big hits and physical play will be happy. TCU has won six of its last seven bowl appearances, including an upset of Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl two years ago, while Michigan State had lost five straight bowl games before upsetting Georgia last year in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl last year.

Michigan State will look to set the tempo with talented RB La’Veon Bell, but TCU has the horses to stop him with the nation’s 10th-ranked run defense. That will force QB Andrew Maxwell to make throws downfield, something he has not been able to do consistently.

TCU will counter with a grind it out attack, with short passes and tough inside runs. There aren’t a lot of stars on offense, but that hasn’t been necessary as the defense has been more than good enough. Dual threat QB Trevone Boykin took over for incumbent Casey Pachall, who was charged with DWI and entered an inpatient program, withdrawing from school. Boykin is still young, but as long as he can keep turnovers to a minimum the Horned Frogs will be OK. He doesn’t have a great arm but can run a bit, so Michigan State will have to stay disciplined at the second level.

Points will be hard to come by here, but TCU has a little more potent offense and an opportunistic defense that should be good enough to pull out the victory. TCU (-2 1/2) 21, Michigan State 13

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