Unfair. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
We are helping someone choose a college football team. This is our countdown for 2012. It may take a few words to explain it. The first talky part is here.
11:59 There are players to the teams that will be courting you, and you will have to learn a few things because in college they are slightly different, Dan. The spaces around them yawn a little bigger, the running lanes open a little wider, and the windows of the NFL can sit open like neglected garage doors in the passing game.
11:43 It is in some ways a more forgiving game. In theory, a future lawyer could be playing out there, and not professional athlete who was born leaping through the ceiling of their house and dominating every sport they concentrated on for longer than three seconds.
11:30 This lawyer we use as a case example we just made up? They are still an astonishing athlete, and dauntingly so. They have a word for 95% of those people who play football in high school and think they can walk on to a BCS conference football team. That word: ultimate frisbee enthusiasts.
11:02 The game of college football is a video game with endless respawn, ammo lying everywhere, and powerups under every dead foe. Comebacks can happen. Very good teams with very highly paid management will make mistakes, brazen, fartheaded mistakes children would not make. In the NFL, each team has six bullets. Miss with one, and it could be fatal. In college, miss with one, and heyyyyy look the other guy just accidentally threw a bullet at me instead of firing it. That was nice, other team! Thanks.
10:56 These teams have parts, and you must know them.
10:53 There are the offensive and defensive lines, human barricades and angry beef committing anonymous murder. Do you have a friend who thinks football is dumb? Please have them explain blocking schemes to you, and then watch them stammer out what will be the wrong answer no matter the scheme they choose.
10:46 Offensive linemen usually rank out at the top of IQ scores by position in football. They also play a faceless, brutal position where they will hit or get hit on every single snap they play. They are told to gain weight—often absurd, scale-breaking amounts of weight—to remain on the depth chart. They crave sleep more than anything else, and only touch the ball when something very wrong or very funny happens.
10:20 A fat man handling the football is football’s greatest delight. Don’t say something else is. You are wrong. No matter how they may deny it, a defensive or offensive lineman with the ball in his hands believes the universe has finally come to its senses and let destiny grip the wheel. You bastards. You're going to see what I knew all along: that I was made to do this, and that you fuckers are all about to taste 300 rolling pounds of hot festering death. There may be a part of their brain that relays all the logical instincts of this moment--panic, terror, obvious shock at having the ball in their hands--but in their soul, they know. The rhino's chance to absolutely level a hapless tourist fallen off the safari wagon is a magnificent thing: never, ever root against it.
Do it. You know you want to.
10:03 The offensive lineman also has to answer an LSAT question every play. If five men are arranged so, and another four men are sent to advance past them in any combination possible, but also perhaps with one, two, or sometimes three additional men sent along with them, then...your quarterback is sacked. I'm sorry, that took too long, and your quarterback is dead. Were you terrible at those chair/seat/permutation questions on standardized tests? Most people are, and that is one of the reasons five men struggle to block four men consistently in football.
9:40 Additionally, the offensive line has the curse of playing against defensive linemen, the greatest joke evolution ever pulled on the human race besides the knee joint.
9:28 Defensive linemen weigh 300 pounds, and yet can run a forty yard dash in under five seconds and do backflips. Marcus Thomas, a solid 305 at the time, did one flatfooted at Florida. Jason Pierre-Paul, a USF defensive end who didn’t even play football until his junior year of high school, could reel off twenty back handsprings at a time. Jevon Kearse, another Florida defensive lineman, once had to wait in line for a team vertical leap test. "Coach, if I can touch the ceiling, can I get out of this test?" The coach said yes, since no one had even scraped the celing on a dare, much less slapped it, which is precisely what Jevon Kearse did before walking out of the room.
9:24 Defensive linemen are not normal, and do not like to wait in line.
9:02 Offensive linemen play against them every snap of their lives. They also get zero glory. Perhaps your friend has a point about offensive linemen, at least, not being bright. (Or at least not very wise.)
8:53 Then there are linebackers, fullbacks, and tight ends.
8:42 The entire purpose of fullbacks and linebackers is assault: continual assault, often with something like a running start. The bodies grow smaller as you move out from the line; the potential impacts increase. At one time in college football, the fullback would touch the ball. He may still, but you’ll notice everyone to a man flinch a little when it happens in a non-option offense. This includes the fullback, who now has been reduced to a kind of squatty tight end in most offenses.
8:29 This is a shame because the fullback at one point in college football history was the misery hammer, the bludgeon, the ground-and-pound submission move all other offensive flow revolved around. Some vestigial fullbacks still exist, and are making a kind of comeback. For the most part, the spread and the single back offense have made what was once a utility into something close to a novelty. The fullback is the handkerchief of football positions, something once considered a gentleman's necessity but now eliminated from the list of standard equipment.
8:11 Owen Schmitt somehow looked like a 1960s fullback in a 2000s spread offense. For this reason alone he is our favorite fullback of all time, but he also used to bash his own head in with his helmets, cried when WVU beat Oklahoma, could power clean an elk, and had a mohawk. This is a fullback. The world should make more of them.
8:10 Shut up no one knows what an H-back is. No seriously shut up.
8:02 Linebackers tend to be the most branded position by school, almost a reliable subspecies for each team.
7:58 Ohio State’s linebackers: big white dudes with foam rolls and mullets until an unfashionable point way too late into the 1990s. Penn State: same, minus the foam rolls and add in a Slavic name. Alabama: gigantic black guy who says four, possibly five words during the entirety of his tenure at a school. Miami linebackers are all avatars of Ray Lewis, haunted souls from miserable backgrounds who turn their bodies into vectors of the unbearable grudge they will never fully settle with fate.
7:51 Just know this about college linebackers: they sort of don’t know what they’re doing a lot of the time, and that makes them a particular joy to watch. Like three year olds at the Derby, they might jump over the rail and exit the race entirely, or might round the final stretch and find the skilled hands of an unseen silent genius at the controls. They will blow a coverage on one play. On the next play, backed up at the goal line they conceded to the opposing offense, they will knife through two blockers to bury a sure touchdown in the backfield.
7:48 This inconsistency might frustrate someone used to watching the NFL's flawless, low-variance reps. On that: if the notion of watching something violent, untrained, and wondrous growing up in front of your eyes doesn’t appeal to you, leave now. College football fans are the backwoods amateur zookeepers of athletics. We found this thing in the woods, and it was adorable and fierce. We loved it for a short time, even when it ate our couch and stole steaks off the flaming-hot grill. Then, when it got too big for us to handle, we had to let it wander out of the menagerie and into the forest. There are tears, but there is also this new strange creature that showed up at our door last night.
7:45 Hello is said as quickly as goodbye, and never without some aura of transient, hectic sadness in the transaction.
7:32 Do not ever let someone play tight end. It is the position on the field entailing the most varied form of sadomasochism. A tight end has to block, often matched up against rabid linebackers. The bites occur during run plays, and require a series of shots in the stomach. They are very painful, but not as painful as taking a helmet in the ribs on a crossing route or post run right up the seam of the defense. There is a safety waiting out there. He moves quickly, and when he gets there he will attempt to separate the tight end’s soul from his body. On rare occasions, the tight end will even carry the ball. This is a sign the tight end’s coach despises him, and truly wants him and the entire profession of football to die and be gone from the earth forever. Do not ever be a tight end.
7:20 Do not ever be a running back, either. You can absolve yourself of all responsibility here, though. Running backs are not really made. They happen. The ball simply appears in their hands, and never leaves. They have assignments, but those are secondary to the animal role they play. The part in The Avengers where they’re divvying up roles, and they turn to the Hulk, pause and just say, "Um, smash?" Ultimately, that’s what a running back does in college football. You can get better technically, but somewhere along the way, ideally, you were hit with some gamma radiation and turned into something a bit more sparkly and springy than basic human material.
7:11 And yes, in the NFL, there might be a few more details, more pass blocking, more intricate route running and blitz pickup. Even then, though, the running back is an animal let loose with the ball, the missing element turning any defense into an overclad fox hunt, mercury rolling around a kitchen counter, or at their most brutal a bull goring a hapless, white-pantsed runner on the streets of an endless Pamplona.
7:06 Earl Campbell is that bull. He will always be that bull. Barry Sanders is the uncatchable fox, something unearthly moving at four frames a second.
6:54 If you do happen to get a chance to be reborn, be a quarterback in your next life. Encourage your next-life children to be them, as well. Even bad ones are golden retrievers happily passed forward in society, petted, and given plush beds to lay on. Your third-string college football quarterback still signs up for the benefits program: an AM radio talk show, a cozy spot at a dealership, an attractive mate or two capable of pumping out children placed into good schools immediately.
6:48 They might have to do things, sure. Quarterbacks in college have to be five second smart. They either make a read, decide, and deploy, or something very bad will likely happen in no more than five seconds. The fun ones work purely by instinct and bravery. Tyler Bray, playing at the time of writing at Tennessee, honestly doesn’t think in X’s and O’s. His brain fast-flashes through visual frames. If he sees one of his jerseys without too much opposite jersey around, the ball’s out.. It happens in pictures, not words, and it is milliseconds in the making.
6:36 Sometimes this goes brilliantly. Sometimes the entire stadium shits themselves and begins weeping the minute the doomed ball begins to move forward, away from the quarterback’s hand, and into the waiting mitts of an opposing defensive back.
6:29 Another type of quarterback is the conservator. The ball is a trust, and he will do two things with it. He will hand it off to the running back, or he will throw a modest, safe pass to a wide-open receiver working a modestly ambitious route against generous coverage. He is the belt-and-suspenders combo of quarterbacks, a favorite of defensive coaches and cromagnon football fans. He is a locked-in interest rate of a human being, a condom for tepid football intercourse.
6:14 The conservator is every Alabama quarterback ever, and most SEC quarterbacks throughout the conference's history. The conservator will still beat you, often by wide, profitable margins. He will also get a 20 hour a week job working for some company doing nothing, and still make six figures a year. I repeat: be a quarterback.
6:02 The option quarterback is the platypus of quarterbacks. He might be a running back playing quarterback. You will know this is the case because when he throws the ball, it will look like it is coming off a hoof or out of a trebuchet. He might be a quarterback playing a part-time running back, something the flinching before a big collision on a keeper will give away.
5:57 He might be something entirely different, though.
5:52 He may be Woody Dantzler with Rich Rodriguez pulling the strings at Clemson, or he might be Vince Young at Texas running a near facsimile of that same groundbreaking, contain-shattering offense. He might be Tim Tebow, a tight end masquerading as a quarterback, faking a one-man play-action and heaving deep to a streaking Percy Harvin, or the waify Pat White, West Virginia’s slight quarterback who walked ahead of me on the stairs up the gigantic hill behind Milan Puskar Field in Morgantown, and whose average-looking frame had everyone thinking the same thing: how on the earth did football not shatter him into a thousand pieces?
5:44 He could not be Cam Newton, who after a frustrated afternoon unveiled the longest, weirdest, stupidest, and most unfair run I have ever seen against LSU in 2010. It goes sideways, attempted tackles become irrelevancies. At one point he decides to pull away starting around the ten yard line, and it resembles nothing so much as a father shedding clinging toddlers in a backyard game. He does fall in the endzone thanks to a tackle, but that was as much courtesy as "tackling."
5:38 Cam Newton is not replicable. Only Vince Young comes close to approximating his freakball diversion from the rest of humanity, and even in that case of comparable football anomalies, Newton trumps him.
5: 28 Quarterbacks hurt, sure. They take blindside hits. They have their legs rolled up by tumbling linemen, break their fingers on helmets, fall and break their arms into pottery shards. Their fate depends on so much that is beyond their control: linemen blocking, running backs picking up blitzes, receivers catching the ball, the coach not picking up an irrational hatred for him. He still gets to be the quarterback, the sainted figure on the prow in victory. Be a lineman, and your dick gets knocked in the dirt on a good play, and punched relentlessly on the bad ones. Be a quarterback, and your cock is the world’s pacifier, even if you do little to deserve it.
5:13 If you cannot be a quarterback, be a wide receiver or a defensive back, if you’re fortunate enough to be born fast, coordinated, and willing to run for days in the middle of a boxing match. A Nepali pilot once once asked why they only flew by sight, and he responded by pointing at the shrouded Himalaya and saying "Because the clouds have rocks in them." That is what receivers and DBs do, running through traffic all day playing license plate tag with pickup-truck sized men.
4:56 Don’t even worry about the impact, though. If you are fast, you will have to know what you are doing, and read patterns at a blink, and otherwise function as a moving cipher while grappling with someone just as fast, devious, and nut-rattlingly confident as yourself. This sounds hard because it is, and that is before it gets impossible.
4:42 The closest comparison is to running Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at high speed: every move opens up an opportunity to get beat, and also gives you the opportunity to beat your opponent to the goal, aka the ball. If the ball’s not in the air, you should look like it could be; if it’s a run play, it should look like the ball’s in the air, and generally everyone should be as confused as possible, and also legally punching each other and scrapping like two wu-shu fighters trying to get to opposite ends of the same narrow hallway.
4:38 The best part of watching wide receivers play: their reduction of all attempts to cover them into a painful futility. A wide receiver at their best thrives on hope, hope they siphon from your soul and into theirs. They thrive on it. Watch Randy Moss at Marshall, you can see him grow larger with every ball caught over two flailing defenders. Toward the end of games he was eleven feet tall and glowing with redirected animus, a lanky lightning rod guiding hell toward everything unwise enough to get near him.
4:34 In college football, you get to see players look legitimately godlike. In the NFL there are flashes, but ultimately every player is mortal, stoppable, fallible. Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards had 405 yards receiving in a single game against Nebraska in 1998. For all intents and purposes, he was Galactus in cleats that day. (He also lost.)
Robert Woods, a minor deity on selected Saturdays this fall.
4:31 A lot of this DB/WR warfare is done one-on-one, and rarely quietly. Perhaps the confidence required to cover/work against a defensive back/wide receiver makes people gravitate toward the position; maybe it evolves afterward as a kind of false bravado that, if believed with enough fervor, becomes real bravado. Whatever it is, most of the running slapfight has a soundtrack of ear-scorching shit talk, braggadocio, and outright threats on the opponent’s life.
4:14 They happen to be very good at it, but no one in the history of college football has ever been better at it than Mississippi State defensive back Fred Smoot.
4:05 Fred Smoot used to do research at Mississippi State on opponents. Deep research. Real, detailed inquiry. He would name mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters of childhood friends: anything to let the wide receiver opposite him that on that play he would shut him down, and then on the next, and then when the game he would find that woman, woo her, and make love to them. They would enjoy it, too, definitely more than any other sexual encounter of their lives. He would then proceed to do everything he said he was going to do on the field. There is no evidence of him following up on his other threats, and we desire none.
3:57 Fred Smoot also still drives his Bentley up to the Comfort Inn on gameday in the two-mule town of Starkville and posts up at the Comfort Inn like an emperor. Fred Smoot also had a double-headed dildo when the Vikings were caught in a scandal involving a houseboat, hookers, and Fred Smoot’s double-headed dildo. These are all details letting you know Fred Smoot not only enjoys life, but puts great effort into everything he does. You should hire him when he decides not to become a ladyslaying multimillionaire football player.
3:42 Safeties are the last thing between the endzone and an offense. We don’t want to tell you to not be, raise, or think about befriending a safety, but instead will list a series of anecdotes about safeties.
3:38 Ronnie Lott, an NFL legend at safety, once cut off part of a mangled finger to avoid missing playing time.
3:29 Reggie Nelson, Florida safety and my favorite player of all time, separated Georgia wide receiver Mohammed Massaquoi’s spirit from his body on an endzone pass play in the 2005 UGA/Florida game. In the 2006 game, Massaquoi was asked to run a slant. Nelson crept up from the defensive backfield, recognizing the play before it happened, and barreled in to hit Massaquoi.
3:24 Instead of catching the ball, the pass sailed into the sideline as Massaquoi flopped to his belly. I have not seen a wide receiver do this before or since.
3:19 The Florida Gators safety who botched coverage on a smash route against Auburn in 1994 loss was named Michael Gilmore. He was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship, and is now a successful doctor and undoubtedly a decent human being. When I meet him someday, the first thing I will think is "This is Michael Gilmore, who did not recognize one of the most basic pass patterns in football, and thus lost a game for us" This is not true or fair in many ways--I asked Terry Bowden about it, and he was the guy on the other sideline--but it will still happen.
3:17 "99 out of 100 safeties are pussies. I don’t worry about safeties." The coach who said this is real, and may be right.
3:10 The safety who is that one in a hundred is terror incarnate, and knows it.
3:05 Do not be a kicker. Be a punter. You are a necessary evil as a punter, and like all necessary evils your utility will never fade. The punter is the undertaker of football at all levels. There are dead offensive hopes on the field, and it is the punter's job to dispose of them.
3:03 You can do a lot of things as a kicker, sure. You can play forever, eschewing the hard realities of weak flesh and age for the simple trick of ploinking oblong balls through goalposts. Morten Andersen kicked until he was eighty-four years old. I know this because I went to the future, and he was there, a lantern-jawed Danish grandfather putting through 20 yarders with a stiff but efficient follow-through. They also have great snacks in the future, but no one gets fat, and everyone has great sex whenever they want with whomever they choose. No, you can’t come with us, because we got there by accident driving around Charlotte, and stand no chance of finding our way back there.
3:01 Kickers are the bankers of the world, though. They make money for a long time. They are very useful. And if everyone knows a banker's name, it is most likely for the worst reasons imaginable.
Play has been stopped for an officials' timeout. Play will resume with 3:00 on the clock in the first quarter.