Out Of The Pens Of Babes . . . .

If, like me, you tend to get a little overwrought about things like college football games or how your favorite team is faring, I’ve got a suggestion for you:  read this story and, especially, read the handwritten letter that nine-year-old Fraser Hartnell wrote to the coach, the quarterback, the team, and the fans of the Michigan State Spartans.

fraserhartnellMichigan State has had a tough season this year — the kind of season that no doubt has a lot of Spartan fans grumbling and saying unkind things about the coach and the players.  In this social media era, it’s easy for fans to post the most appallingly negative, hurtful things about young athletes playing college sports.  I’m amazed at what some people say publicly about college and professional athletes, and I’d like to think that, if those fans just thought about how deeply wounding some of their comments are, they might not make them in the first place.

Fraser Hartnell helps to put it all in perspective.  He plays quarterback on his football team, and he knows that things like interceptions happen.  The important thing is to learn from them, and keep trying.  He went to a Michigan State game this year that the Spartans lost in heartbreaking fashion, but he still had fun — and, as Fraser recognizes, sports is really supposed to be about having fun, anyway.

Here’s what he had to say to MSU fans who were upset about the loss in that game:

“We did not win but you can still have fun when you lose because you love your team no matter what.  Not everyone gets to go see a game so if you get mad I feel sad for you.  Some people get spoiled like a kid who gets all the Christmas gifts.  They are only happy with wins.  Losing gets rid of the bad fans.  That way when we win we can enjoy it.  I like wins but it is not all in life.  There are a lot of things sadder than losing a game.”

My guess is that most of the adult sports fans who read Fraser Hartnell’s heartfelt letter — myself included — will see a little of the “bad fan” in themselves, and realize that they need to take Fraser’s viewpoint to heart.  I’m going to try to adopt Fraser’s positive attitude when I watch the Buckeyes and the Browns this weekend.  As Fraser wisely says:  “Games are supposed to be FUN but they are just games.”

Big Head Syndrome

I’m worried about the Ohio State football game against Penn State on Saturday.

The Buckeyes obviously have a lot of talent this year, and they’ve played exceptionally well so far.  They’re undefeated, have won every game by huge margins, and have risen to the number 1 or number 2 spot in every football ranking service, including the rankings established by the College Football Playoff committee.

chase-young-ohio-state-wisconsin-gettyThat’s great — but it’s also the problem.  Ohio State has been so good during its first 10 games this year that people have started talking about them as if they are one of the historically great teams — not just at Ohio State, but in all of college football.  You’ll see analysis of how the Buckeyes match up with other all-time great teams in terms of statistical dominance, margin of victory, and other metrics.  And one telling measure of the praise that has been gushing around this year’s team is that Ohio State is a 19-point favorite to beat Penn State come Saturday.  That’s right:  Ohio State is expected to beat a one-loss, traditional powerhouse that has played the Buckeyes very close in recent years and that is itself ranked in the top ten — by nearly three touchdowns.  It’s an absurd example of the sky-high expectations surrounding this Buckeye squad.

I think it’s silly to talk compare a team to all-time great prior teams while there are still lots of important games to be played against excellent teams like Penn State and, next week, Michigan.  I also think it’s dangerous.  If you hear about how great and unbeatable you are long enough, you might actually start to believe it — and if you get the big head and start to believe those press clippings, you’re headed for a fall.  Ohio State fans have seen this story before, with the 1969 team, the 1973 team, the 1998 team, and the 2015 team.  Each team had lots of smoke blown up its behind about being the best ever — and then had a horrible stumble.  I’m worried we may be seeing a replay of the same disappointing story this year.

There are young Ohio State fans who have absolute confidence in this team.  Those of us in Buckeye Nation who are old enough to remember the crushing losses of the past, including in games where the Buckeyes were heavily favored, are very wary.

The hype can be a trap.  It will be up to Ryan Day and the other Ohio State coaches to make sure that the players disregard the praise, focus on their prior mistakes and getting better, and come out humble, motivated, and ready to play on Saturday.

Going Pro

Yesterday Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins announced that he will leave college to participate in the 2019 NFL draft.  Haskins is a redshirt sophomore, which means he will be giving up two years of college football eligibility in order to turn pro.

web1_Haskins_MVP-1The decision surprised exactly no one.  Haskins was the Ohio State starter for only one season, but in that season he shredded the record books, setting new single-season Ohio State marks for attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdowns and single-season Big Ten records for passing yards and touchdowns.  He’s easily the best pure passer and pro-style quarterback the Buckeyes have ever had.

He had a remarkable year, and the experts have graded him accordingly.  The NFL Draft Advisory Board, which exists to give college players who are considering leaving school early a sense of where they might go if they stand for the NFL draft, gave Haskins a first-round grade, and he is widely considered to be the best quarterback prospect in the draft and a likely top ten pick.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who follows football.  So why am I writing about Dwayne Haskins going to the NFL?  Because while his decision was predictable, what’s changed has been the reaction to it.  In the past, college football fans used to hold a grudge against players who left early, viewing them as betraying their alma maters to chase the almighty dollar.  Now, there may be some people out there who still hold to that view, but the majority have shifted to a different position.

We see how much money professional athletes can make, we know how that kind of money can be life-changing for the athletes and their families, and we also know that, in a sport as violent as football, you never know whether the next play might inflict a gruesome, career-ending injury.  As a result, for the most part, fans have come to view decisions to turn pro by high-caliber players like Haskins as a rational, reasonable judgments — even though we’d love to see them continue to perform for our favorite college teams.  We get why they don’t want to take a huge risk that they might end up regretting forever.  In short, we’ve reached the last stage of the seven stages of grief and have accepted the way the world now works.

So Godspeed, Dwayne Haskins!  It was fun watching you play football for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray . . . while it lasted.

CFP’d Off

I’m warning you in advance that this post is going to sound like sour grapes.  And, in fact, some of the motivation for writing it in the first place is sour grapes.  But I’m here to tell you that the College Football Playoff process that was rolled out to great fanfare only a few years ago is already broken.

ype12feWho made the college football playoffs last year?  Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia.  Those same four teams finished in the top five this year.  It was only because Notre Dame ran the table against a weak slate of opponents — and, because ND is nominally independent, a slate that doesn’t include a conference championship game — that college football fans everywhere avoided watching the same four teams play each other again this year.

In the five years the College Football Playoff has been in existence, Alabama has made it every year.  Clemson has made it four out of five times.  Oklahoma has made it in three of the five years.  It’s the same old, same old.

And, for Ohio State fans, what’s especially galling is that this year the playoff selection committee ranked a two-loss SEC team that didn’t win its conference — i.e., Georgia — ahead of a one-lose Big Ten team that won its conference championship.  I can understand Ohio State, which got whacked by Purdue during the regular season, being ranked behind Oklahoma, even though I think the Big 12 is a pretty weak conference.  But I don’t understand how a one-loss champion of a major football conference like the Big Ten can be ranked behind a two-loss non-conference champion.  To me, that result says that the selection committee has quaffed the SEC Kool-Aid and lost any claim to objectivity.  Every year we start with the presumption that the SEC is the best conference in college football, and every year every inference goes in the SEC’s favor.

Who did Georgia play out of conference this year?  Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee State, and the University of Massachusetts.  They aren’t exactly powerhouses, are they?  The rest of the schedule is SEC teams.  Georgia got pummeled by LSU and played Alabama close before losing.  The latter result reflects favorably on Georgia only if you conclude that Alabama is a bunch of supermen — but we don’t know that, either, because Alabama played only SEC teams, along with an out-of-conference schedule that included Louisville, which ended the season 2-10, the Citadel, Arkansas State, and University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

The system needs to be changed.  The playoff should be expanded, and every major college conference champion should be included.  I happen to think that Ohio State could give Alabama, Georgia, and any other team a good game — just as it did in 2014, when the Buckeyes somehow beat mighty Alabama and went on to win the national championship, to the surprise of every pundit and talking head on ESPN.

The champion should be crowned on the field, not in backrooms based on hype.

Kings Of The Big Ten . . . Again

Yesterday Kish and I drove over to Indianapolis to join friends and watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Northwestern Wildcats in the Big Ten Championship Game. We had a lot of fun, and I’d recommend the experience to any members of Buckeye Nation.

The only downside was that I was seated next to Mr. Negativity during the game. He was the kind of angry, muttering jerk who talked non-stop about how much he hated watching the team and voiced loud obscenities after even marginal plays, like a run for no gain. He added a decided element of danger to the game, because you never knew when a bad play might make him start swinging. Fortunately, the Powder Keg never was fully set off. I wonder if he even dimly realized that everyone sitting nearby thought he wasn’t a “fan” at all, but rather a colossal ass.

As for the Buckeyes, it’s been an interesting and successful season. The team is now 12-1, beat Michigan, and topped a gutty and game Northwestern team to win the Big Ten Championship Game. Dwayne Haskins dissected another tough defense and has rewritten the record books, too. Now we’ll just have to see whether the College Football Playoff Committee is considering this question: wouldn’t it be interesting to see what Dwayne Haskins could do against Alabama, and vice versa?

A Few Modest Observations About The Buckeyes

It hasn’t been an easy year for Buckeye Nation. I went to the game yesterday, and that wasn’t easy, either, as Ohio State eked out a win over Nebraska. The game featured the painful aspects of this year’s team that have become all too familiar — a very shaky defense that routinely gives up big plays, a running game that often misfires in the clutch, and an absence of the big plays we’ve become used to seeing.

Ohio State fans are scratching the heads and wondering what has happened? Why aren’t the highly rated recruits we’ve been reading about crushing every opponent? Sure, the team is 8-1, but it’s a very uncomfortable 8-1.

I wonder if Ohio State hasn’t been, to some extent, a victim of its own success. Every year, a bunch of Ohio State players leave college early to go to the pros — often being drafted in the first or second round. Every year, Ohio State coaches move on to better jobs. Other than Urban Meyer, the turnover has been extraordinary. How much better would Ohio State be if all of those talented underclassmen were still playing, and those coaches were still coaching their systems?

I’m not making excuses, just an observation. Ohio State has been able to overcome the constant turnover and jell as a team in prior years, but that doesn’t mean it will happen every year. A lot of being a good team is continuity, experience, knowing the scheme, and playing together as a team. When you’re shuffling the deck every year, it’s hard to achieve that. How many of Ohio State’s struggles are due primarily to a bunch of new guys trying to learn to play together?

One positive sign from yesterday: at the end of the game, when the Buckeyes really needed to run the ball and keep Nebraska off the field, they were able to do that. Maybe the offensive line, at least, is starting to learn to play together.

Laying A Pumpkin

The Ohio State Buckeyes went to West Lafayette, Indiana last night hoping to play a football game. They laid a colossal pumpkin instead. And not just any pumpkin — an evil, grinning, death’s head pumpkin that was grimly reminiscent of last year’s debacle in Iowa City.

This year’s team has had serious issues on both sides of the ball, and hats off to the Purdue Boilermakers for ruthlessly exposing all of them. Now maybe the Buckeyes will stop thinking about their recruiting ratings and start focusing on becoming a football team that plays defense, runs the ball, and actually blocks and tackles. Otherwise, we members of Buckeye Nation are going to have to deal with more muerte pumpkins in our immediate future.