Super Bowl LII: America’s Super Bowl

Forget Frank Bruni’s column in the New York Times about how this was the Super Bowl America deserved, and instead realize this was an American Super Bowl.

Now what do I mean by that?

Well, on the one hand, you have the New England Patriots, or as some Americans would call them, the 1%.

They’ve gone to half of the last 16 Super Bowls, and a win on Sunday would have given New England its sixth title, tying them with the Pittsburgh Steelers for most all time.

Tom Brady is a 40-year old multi-millionaire in peak physical condition, and married to a world-renowned supermodel.

Bill Belichick, through every scandal that’s plagued the Patriots, from Spygate to Deflategate, adds rings and titles to his trophy case like he was Meryl Streep at the Oscars.

And then you have their fans.

Since New England won its first Super Bowl in February 2002, the Patriots have won an additional four Super Bowls, the Red Sox have won three World Series titles, the Bruins have won two Stanley Cups and the Celtics have an NBA title.

In other words, New England fans are the spoiled rotten children of Wall Street executives Americans have come to loathe while witnessing the economic desperaity between rich and poor.

Then there are the Philadelphia Eagles and their nationally, if not world renowned, fans.

No matter which side of the political aisle you are on, the Eagles and their fans represented the opposition.

If you’re a Democrat, the Eagles represented the same “got-lucky” (Philadelphia was a 40:1 Super Bowl longshot and an underdog in each of their three playoff games) crowd that took over the White House when no one thought it possible.

If you’re a Republican, the Eagles were told they weren’t good enough and didn’t belong in the NFC Championship Game, let alone the Super Bowl (think back to Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment).

And on both sides, carnival barkers singing “Fly, Eagles Fly!” while driving a monster truck up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, get under your skin like someone from the opposing side of the aisle calling you a “snowflake.”

So outside of those living in Philadelphia and New England, who did you cheer for, the 1% or the opposition?

 

 

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Alabama-Georgia: ESPN’s white elephant?

At a time when the NFL’s popularity is on the decline, college football’s is on the rise.

Back in October, Gallup conducted a follow up to its 2012 poll, asking Americans which sports they were a fan of.

The poll found support for professional football sank 10 points from a high of 67% in 2012, to 57% in 2017. In contrast, support for college football rose two points from 54% to 56% over the same time span.

Those numbers should come as welcome news to folks over at the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” Instead, storm clouds are on the horizon, and tonight, there’s a good chance they pour.

After last summer’s infamous purge, when over 100 journalists, staffers and on-air talent, including Trent Dilfer, Ed Werder and Danny Kanell were let go in order to cut the bottom line, ESPN hoped to reshape the company into a modern sports media powerhouse, built around how viewers consumed their content.

Contributing to ESPN’s financial woes are burdensome contracts the network signed with the NFL and NCAA which cost the network billions of dollars while producing meager results.

Monday Night Football has flopped in recent years, with lackluster matchups and a revolving door of forgettable play-by-play and color commentators trying to replicate Al Michaels and John Madden.

Any given Saturday, ESPN has to compete with CBS, the Pac-12 Network, Big Ten Network, Longhorn Network and a bevy of FOX entities (FOX, FS1, FS2) for college football ratings.

And so, when Alabama put the nail in the coffin on Clemson’s season in a much-hyped Sugar Bowl letdown on New Year’s Day, honchos at ESPN likely emulated Charlie Brown and let out a, “good grief!”

Why?

Because an all-SEC college football championship has happened before.

It bombed.

In January 2012, Alabama took on LSU in a rematch of “The Game of the Century” that LSU won two months prior, 9-6.

Nielsen ratings showed Alabama-LSU II, a 21-0 blowout by the Crimson Tide, was at the time, the third-worst rated title game in history.

And that game is eerily similar to tonight’s matchup between Alabama and Georgia.

2012: LSU came in as the higher ranked team and had home field advantage (the game was played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans) against Alabama.

2017: Georgia comes into the game ranked No. 2 in the country (Bama is No. 4), and the game is being played in Georgia’s backyard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Even though the game will feature, “the two best teams in the country,” vying for a national title, Alabama-Georgia comes with a lot of baggage for ESPN.

1.) Outside of SEC country, people hate the SEC.

Call it the Tom Brady effect. Outside of New England, Tom Brady is largely loathed by football fans. They see him as arrogant and pompous, the pretty-boy who’s married to a supermodel and always wins.

The same goes for the SEC. Since 2000, the SEC has nine national titles*

They’re the pretty-boy that’s always selected to the College Football Playoff, and more likely than not, the team that wins.

2.) Even in SEC country, people will have a hard time with this matchup.

In North Florida, home to the University of Florida in Gainesville, people are celebrating the Central Florida Knights as the national champions. That isn’t saying every Gators fan would agree that a team that wasn’t selected for the CFP is a national champion, but good luck getting them to say hated rivals Georgia or Alabama are either.

Across the rest of the SEC states, how do you choose who to root for?

Auburn fans most definitely will not cheer for Alabama.

But will fans of teams in the SEC West cheer for Georgia, and fans in the SEC East cheering for Bama?

Or will they, like a great deal of Americans, give up, and watch The Bachelor instead?

3.) Why is the national championship game featuring two teams from the same conference?

A lot of people have a hard time fathoming how Alabama, a one-loss team that didn’t win its division or conference, was selected for the CFP over a one-loss division champion, but conference loser, like Wisconsin, or two-loss division and conference champion, like Ohio State or Southern Cal.

It’s still bugging people a week after the Sugar Bowl, with ESPN’s Facebook page getting comments along the lines of, “Bama doesn’t deserve to be in the championship.”

ESPN currently owns the television rights to the College Football Playoff and Final through 2025.

So they’re wedded to this thing whether it succeeds or fails.

But at a reported $470 million annual price tag, having a game like Alabama-Georgia flop, is something the network can ill afford.

If the game draws viewers, like Clemson-Alabama II, then it’s a hit and everyone’s whining was for naught.

If it bombs, like LSU-Alabama II, then ESPN will lobby the playoff committee hard to eliminate the possibility of an all-SEC CFP Final ever again.

* LSU and Southern Cal are considered co-champions of the 2003 college football season according to official NCAA records.

No. 21 Michigan – Maryland preview

COLLEGE PARK – After coming up short against Rutgers last weekend, the Maryland Terrapins are looking to rebound as they welcome the No. 21 Michigan Wolverines to Maryland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

A win against the Scarlet Knights would have made Maryland’s path to a second consecutive bowl much easier. Instead, the Terrapins must find a way to beat two of its remaining three opponents, all ranked, that have a combined 6-3 record against the Terps since they joined the conference in 2014.

The last time Maryland knocked off more than one ranked opponent in a season (the Terrapins beat No. 23 Texas in September) was 2007.

Suffice to say history is not on their side.

Meanwhile, Michigan will look to keep their slim Big Ten East title hopes alive. Already 1 1/2 games behind division leading Michigan State, the Wolverines face a difficult schedule of their own.

After today, Michigan faces No. 8 Wisconsin on the road before their annual season finale against No. 13 Ohio State in Ann Arbor in two weeks.

The Wolverines will leave College Park with games at No. 8 Wisconsin and home against No. 13 Ohio State left on the schedule.

Maryland comes into yet another game facing questions at quarterback after starter Max Bortenschlager was knocked out of the game against Rutgers leaving his status for the game uncertain.

If Bortenschlager is unable to go, sophomore Ryan Brand, an Air Force transfer, will likely make his first career start for the Terrapins.

Last week in relief of Bortenschlager, Brand completed 8 of 12 passes for 68 yards and almost brought the Terps back to tie the game.

With Wilton Speight and John O’Korn still nursing injuries of their own, Brandon Peters will make his second consecutive start at quarterback.

The sophomore from Avon, Indiana completed 8 of 13 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in the Wolverines win over Minnesota last weekend.

Michigan will likely rely on Karan Higdon to carry the load against a Maryland defense that has given up an average of 198 rushing yards in three games against ranked opponents.

If the Terrapins have any shot at winning this game, it will likely depend on their ability to force turnovers. Against Michigan State, the Wolverines committed five turnovers without taking the ball away from the Spartans a single time.

Game Notes:

  • Since joining the Big Ten, Maryland is 1-2 against the Wolverines. The Terps beat Michigan, 23-16, in their inaugural Big Ten season, but lost the last two by a combined score of 87-3.
  • Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin served as Jim Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator in 2015 before being hired at Maryland.
  • Michigan holds the all-time record in the series, 5-1.

 

 

 

 

Meet the “Melbourne Marvel,” Maryland punter Wade Lees

Studying for exams in Waterfront Library at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, Wade Lees couldn’t help but wonder how he got there.

He’d dropped out of high school in the 11th grade to pursue a career in the Australian Football League, just like his father Ray, and was considered one of the best all-around prospects to come out of his home state of Victoria in years.

Lees Ballarat

Lees in action for Casey against North Ballarat (2010)

After playing six seasons for the Casey Scorpions in the developmental Victoria Football League, Lees was on the verge of jumping to the AFL. Then fate intervened.

In 2012, Lees ordered a fat-burning supplement that unbeknownst to him contained trace amounts of a substance banned by the AFL.

Customs officers intercepted the package upon its arrival to Australia, and reported it to league officials, who subsequently handed the top prospect an 18-month suspension.

Just like that, Lees’ lifelong dream of becoming an Aussie Rules football player was over.

Typically, when an athlete’s career comes to an end, they find a new line of work, get married and move on.

Wade Lees was never typical anything.

He’d been dating his girlfriend, Caitlin, for some time, but at 24, marriage was on neither of their minds.

Since he didn’t finish high school, his prospects of finding a job were bleak at best.

For a while he supported his mother working construction in Melbourne, where brutal summer temperatures can typically top more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wade Lees had officially hit rock bottom.

He decided to use some of his savings to go “walk-about,” on a four-month journey across Europe and North America.

While in the United States, Lees reconnected with an old friend from home, Cameron Johnston, who just so happened to be the punter at Ohio State.

Johnston connected Lees to former NFL punter, Nathan Chapman, who ran ProKick Australia, an academy in Melbourne designed to help Australians transition to American football.

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Nathan Chapman at the ProKick Australia Academy

Chapman, who spent time in the Packers and Bears organizations in 2004, was a former AFL star with the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn Hawks.

“Wade was a natural kicker during his 12 months in the program,” Chapman said. “When he first joined, we focused on academics, but football remained a release for him.”

If he was ever going to play college football, Lees had to rectify one glaring problem.

He never finished high school.

Lees attempted to use his experience in the VFL for credit on applications to universities across Australia.

Only Deakin, one of Australia’s most prestigious universities, was willing to accept the former prospect.

Lees was a full-time student again for the time in a decade.

Before leaving for a job with Southern California, Michigan’s special teams coordinator, John Baxter, attempted to recruit Lees to Ann Arbor.

No scholarship offer from head coach Jim Harbaugh ever materialized.

Enter newly installed Maryland head coach, D.J. Durkin, Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator in 2015.

For years, the Terrapins had one of the worst special teams units in the country, something Durkin aimed to fix.

He lost former Lou Groza Award winning kicker, and Lees’ fellow countryman, Brad Craddock, to graduation, and punter Nick Pritchard proved to be a distraction after famously fighting a sideline bench following a shanked punt against Michigan State.

“Wade was a perfect fit for D.J.,” said Chapman. “He’s strong-minded, and brought an added toughness to the program Durkin was looking for.”

By January 2016, Lees was on a flight to Dulles, scholarship in hand, to join Durkin in College Park.

“It was really strange when I got here,” said Lees. “I spent the first couple of months on Craddock’s couch because the semester had already begun and housing was full.”

Craddock

Lees (left) and former Maryland FWAA All-American kicker, Brad Craddock (right)

Even though Craddock is four years younger than Lees, the latter noted how the former became his “big brother,” showing him around campus and College Park, helping him acclimate to life in the United States.

“I never would have settled in so easy without him,” Lees said.

At 29, Wade found himself competing against guys born more than a decade before him.

“I was used to it. In the VFL, I was 24 and playing with guys ranging from 18 to 34.”

That sentiment has transcended his academic career as well, intent on a communications degree, with most of his fellow classmates having no clue how old he is, “especially after shaving.”

Lees still misses playing Aussie Rules football, especially the constant action, rather than running onto the field only six or seven times a game to punt and hold kicks.

He also longs for the natural comforts Australia has to offer, including pristine beaches, surfing and sun noting, “there’s just no good beaches around [Maryland].”

Lees’ active lifestyle previously included finishing a triathlon in 2013.

But don’t be fooled, he’s still got a sweet tooth, in particular for the Australian chocolate candy, Cherry Ripe.

“When mum was here for four weeks, I had her bring boxes from home since you can’t get them here.”

Lees’ most guilty pleasure of all however, remains Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.

“I went to all three of her [Katy Perry] concerts with Caitlin when she performed in Melbourne a few years ago. I’m a huge fan. I just wish she and Taylor could put the feud behind them because I love them both.”

In the meantime, Lees has continued his quest to win the Ray Guy Award with his left leg every Saturday since being named to the preseason watch list.

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Lees rugby-style punt in action

His best performance of the season came against Central Florida in September, when he averaged 47.1-yards per punt, including a career best 64-yard punt. For the season, Lees is averaging 39-yards per punt on 42 attempts.

Against Indiana on Saturday, Lees averaged 42.2-yards on five punts, including a 51-yard punt that pinned the Hoosiers on their own 1-yard line late in the game.

“It’s an honor to be nominated, but I’m focused on winning and keeping the award [which has gone to four Australians in a row] in our hands.”

Northwestern-Maryland Preview

COLLEGE PARK –  With both teams coming off their worst loss of the season, Maryland (3-2) and Northwestern (2-3) will face off in their first ever meeting this afternoon at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.

The game marks the midpoint of the season for both teams, each at a critical juncture heading into the second half.

Northwestern currently sits in last place in the Big Ten West, without a conference victory.

Following this afternoon’s matchup, the Wildcats face a three-game stretch against Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska.

Maryland is fifth in the Big Ten East behind perennial powerhouses Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State.

Northwestern, along with Indiana and Rutgers, represent the Terrapins best chance to accumulate the six wins necessary to become bowl eligible.

Maryland also has road games at Wisconsin and Michigan State and home games against Michigan and Penn State to close the season.

Complicating matters further, both teams received their bye week early in the season, leaving no time to heal injured players.

If any team could really use a bye right now, it’s Maryland.

Max Bortenschlager, already the third quarterback to start a game for the Terrapins this season, left last week’s game against Ohio State with a concussion, and remains a game time decision.

If Bortenschlager can’t go, Caleb Henderson, a junior transfer from North Carolina, will make his first career start.

Henderson came in following the injury to Bortenschlager, and finished the game 1 for 1 for no yards and no touchdowns.

Maryland will need to rally around whoever starts at quarterback in order to bounce back from a 66-yard performance against the Buckeyes.

The Terrapins offensive line failed to protect Bortenschlager, who was sacked six times a week ago, or create holes for a running game that amassed 262 yards on 47 carries two weeks ago against Minnesota.

Northwestern has quarterback issues of their own, and Coach Pat Fitzgerald has speculated backup quarterback Matt Alviti could see extended playing time if starter Clayton Thorson fails to impress.

Thorson struggled against the Nittany Lions last weekend, and was pulled in favor of Alviti, who led the Wildcats on their only scoring drive of the game.

Northwestern is also likely to rely on standout running back, Justin Jackson, who comes into today’s game averaging 4.2 yards per carry this season, along with four rushing touchdowns.

The Wildcats enter the game as 3-point favorites.

Game Notes

  • The two teams will not meet again until October 17, 2020 at Ryan Field in Evanston.
  • Pat Fitzgerald began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Maryland in 1998.
  • After the game, the Terrapins will have played every team in the Big Ten except for Illinois. The Illini travel to College Park next October.

Prediction

Northwestern 24, Maryland 18

 

Preview: Maryland-Ohio State

COLUMBUS – Coming off a second straight Big Ten opening win, the Maryland Terrapins are on the road again this week as they take on the 10th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

The Terps (3-1) and Buckeyes (4-1) are both coming off impressive road victories.

Ohio State routed Rutgers, 56-0, while Maryland picked up its first conference road win since 2015, defeating Minnesota, 31-24.

Third-string quarterback, Max Bortenschlager, will make his second straight start for Maryland following season ending injuries to starting quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome and backup Kasim Hill.

Last week, Bortenschlager went 18 for 28 for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

Meanwhile, running backs Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson combined for 201 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries.

Their ability to run the ball effectively against Ohio State’s defense would likely take some pressure off Bortenschlager.

In addition, the Terrapins must contain the Buckeyes fourth-ranked offense, led by quarterback J.T. Barrett.

Barrett, the Buckeyes all-time leading passer, threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns against Rutgers, while running for an additional 89 yards.

Ohio State leads the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 564.8 yards per game, through the first six weeks of the season.

Wide receivers, Parris Campbell and Johnnie Dixon, will look to capitalize on a Maryland secondary that gives up an average 248 yards passing, tied with Illinois for 11th in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes enter as 30 ½ -point favorites, and while Maryland has never beaten Ohio State, the last time the two teams played in Columbus, the game was tied after three-and-a-half quarters.

The question is, can the Terps compete with the Buckeyes all four quarters on Saturday afternoon?

Game Notes:

  • Maryland’s last win over an AP Top 10 team came in 2007 against 8th ranked Boston College.
  • The Terrapins haven’t beaten multiple ranked opponents the same season since 2008 when they knocked off California, Wake Forest, Clemson and North Carolina.
  • Ohio State is 3-0 all-time against Maryland. The Buckeyes beat the Terrapins, 62-3, in College Park last November.

Prediction:

Ohio State 45, Maryland 13

Just Win Skins: Washington upsets the Raiders on Sunday Night Football, 27-10

LANDOVER, Md. – Behind a strong defense that held the Oakland Raiders to 128 yards of total offense, the Washington Redskins upset the Oakland Raiders, 27-10, at FedEx Field on Sunday night.

That 128 total yards is the lowest managed against a Redskins defense since the Denver Broncos put up the same total in October 1992.

After lighting up the New York Jets for 230 yards and three touchdowns last week, Oakland quarterback Derek Carr managed only 3.8 yards per completion, for 118 yards and a touchdown.

Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, meanwhile, completed 25 passes for 356 yards and three touchdowns.

Both teams are now 2-1.

On the second play of the game, Carr was intercepted by Redskins cornerback, Montae Nicholson, who jumped in front of a deep pass intended for Amari Cooper.

Cousins then an eight play, 67-yard scoring drive, capped off by a 22-yard touchdown pass to running back Chris Thompson.

Filling in for an injured Rob Kelley, the fourth-year back from Florida State caught six passes for 150 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for an additional 38 yards on eight carries.

Carr, who hadn’t throw an interception in the Raiders’ first two games, was picked off again in the second quarter, this time by Kendall Fuller on a pass intended for Seth Roberts.

Cousins then drove Washington on an 11-play, 72-yard drive capped off by an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis.

The Raiders offensive line not only struggled to protect Carr, who was sacked four times, but failed to create holes for running back Marshawn Lynch to run through.

The Oakland backfield managed only 32 total yards. Lynch ran for 18 yards on six carries.

Leading 14-0 at halftime, the Redskins began the third quarter with a 52-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Josh Doctson.

The Raiders would get on the board following a muffed punt by Jamison Crowder that Oakland recovered on the Redskins 18-yard line and converted two plays later into a 21-yard touchdown pass from Carr to Jared Cook.

Another Redskins fumble two drives later led to an Oakland field goal.

Game Notes:

  • Oakland has not started 3-0 in a season since 1990 when the team was in Los Angeles.
  • Washington has now won consecutive home Sunday Night Football games for the first time in its history.
  • Cousins did not throw an interception or fumble the ball for the first time since Week 16 of last season against Chicago.

Up Next:

WASHINGTON: The Redskins travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs next Monday night before their bye in Week 5.

OAKLAND: The Raiders head to Mile High as they face 2-1 division rival Denver next Sunday before welcoming the Baltimore Ravens to the Black Hole in Week 5.