Friday, October 23, 2020

Big Ten Football 2020: Setting Sail

Oh hi, I’m Outstate Biff. You’ve caught me writing an escapist, self-indulgent blog post.

Big Ten football is back. And not like Texas…like, it’s literally back.

The college football season, such as it is, has been bizarre in ways not seen since the 1918-1919 seasons which is a weird coincidence I’m sure someone will look into sometime. It remains to be seen whether the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the start of the season will add stability, but it can’t be much worse than what’s happened so far. In retrospect, the decisions made by the Big Ten and PAC-12 to delay their start dates may end up looking not so bad in the long-run.

I’m in an odd place. I work in healthcare (usual disclaimers apply: I’m not a doctor, this isn’t medical advice, this should not be construed as representing the views of my employer, etc etc), and the pandemic has dominated my waking hours. Do I believe we should be playing? Um...I…don’t really know; I have my doubts. But I’m also sufficiently hypocritical to watch the hell out of it, and I could use the distraction.

It’s been a tough year of relentless long work weeks since February, always playing from behind. I’ve experienced death (my dad) and birth (my son). COVID robbed my family of much of the normal comforts that are supposed to come with those events, and free time has been rare. To cope, I’ve found other escapes, one of which will soon be Big Ten football. Another has been Yacht Rock. Building something in the garage, watching a sunset on the deck, driving to the store for a month of quarantine supplies…the soundtrack has been Yacht Rock.

Now, I don’t mean the adulterated garbage you get from the Sirius XM Yacht Rock channel or Fleetwood Mac cover bands in captain’s hats. I mean the real thing, originated in concept in a 12-episode web series that began in 2005, and further defined in a now-defunct (but soon to be reborn) podcast and website hosted by the web series creators.

The Yacht Rock Era occurred from the mid-70s to mid-80s, with a handful of more recent examples. The web series defined the genre as music with high production value thanks to improved recording techniques that became available in the mid-70s, a core group of elite studio musicians with a lot of cross-pollination between bands, influences from jazz and R&B like complex chord structures and “smooth” sound, lyrics often about heartbroken and/or foolish characters, and rhythmic characteristics similar to the gold-standard Doobie Brothers “What A Fool Believes” and Toto’s “Hold The Line”.

What is Not Yacht (Nyacht)? The Eagles. Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl) by Looking Glass. Jimmy god-damn Buffett. They’re of the era, and sometimes touch some of the characteristics but they lack enough of them to count. If your Yacht Rock playlist includes them, you might be listening to soft rock, adult-oriented rock, or the West Coast Sound, but it’s not Yacht Rock. I’m not a purist about much, but This Is It.

So with Yacht Rock on the brain, football in the future, and desperate for an escape, I’m taking a self-indulgent journey into a world where Big Ten football programs are defined by Yacht Rock songs. To give us an even 20, talk some football-adjacent topics of interest too. I define “program” however I want…an arbitrary combination of the characteristics of the school, coaches, players, history, program image, recent record, fanbases, and my own personal biases…the best KIND of biases!

Let’s set sail.

The Song: Look Who’s Lonely Now (Bill LaBounty, 1982) 
The Lyric:
Look who’s lonely now
Welcome to the other side

Falling to average or below-average from the greatest heights is hard, and a mourning period is natural. History is replete with examples: The Spanish Empire. Cadillac. Lead. The list goes on. That’s what makes it so hard being a Nebraska fan.

It’s a comforting self-justification to tell yourself that you’re actually WAY closer to getting back than everyone thinks! I can see how that creates a predilection to be angry when the unenlightened-other doesn’t see things the same way. Nonetheless for virtually a year straight the entire Nebraska fanbase, coaching staff, and athletic department has seemed to be dedicated to forcing even the most sympathetic outsiders to roll their eyes. Not long ago Scott Frost was complaining about having to play the lower-rung Big Ten football programs. After pitching a fit about the Big Ten’s season cancellation and strongly-hinting at taking their ball and going…somewhere else, Bill Moos is complaining about playing the same set of teams they would have played if COVID hadn’t happened because they have to start with Ohio State. Who now is supposedly going to be their new rival? For…reasons? Oh, and they’re TOTALLY responsible for bringing back Big Ten football.

Well, congratulations, you've whined your way to a uniquely lonely place among Big Ten teams. You've made me agree with Badger fans with uncomfortable frequency and I’m not sure how I come back from that. Enjoy the winter.

The Song: Any Major Dude Will Tell You (Steely Dan, 1974) 

The Lyric:
I’ve never seen you lookin’ so bad my funky one
You tell me that your super-fine mind has come and gone
Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again

When I think of Iowa football I think stability. The Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz eras have been remarkable for their consistency in success and styles of play. Aside from a brief period in the late 90s, Iowa has been solid fundamental football, good defense, regular mid-to-upper tier bowl games, and a threat to punt at any time. So the internal program churn that has coincided with the pandemic has made this the most challenging year for Iowa that I can recall. I have no special knowledge or really any opinions on what is and isn’t truth for the current challenges to the Ferentz Administration, but somehow I doubt it’s going to be enough to bring the train to a stop. But then, I’m no major dude.

The Song: Sweet Freedom (Michael McDonald, 1986) 

The Lyric:
Always searchin’ for the real thing
Livin’ like it’s far away
Just leave all the madness in yesterday
You’re holdin’ the key when you believe it

The 2019 season was a cleansing experience for Gopher fans and the program overall, but it was neither the top of the mountain nor a sure thing to be repeated. It did not remove doubt or prove that we’ve become Big Ten elite. What it did do is show that the things we always thought we couldn’t do were not actually impossible. We can win the big game sometimes. We can get Gameday to campus. Recruits will come here. We can have a passing game as long as it’s run by a CPA.

For Minnesota fans that means no longer having to believe that we can never achieve more and that the 8-4 so many thought was the ceiling was artificial. 2020 begins with another big game against Michigan for The Jug. Minnesota has not beaten Michigan in Minneapolis since 1977, three stadiums ago. It’s not a lock either way. But we can win, and cut one more head from the hydra.

Sweet Freedom.

The Song: What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me (Chaka Khan, 1981) 

The Lyric:
When the chips are down?
What cha’ gonna do for me?

As a Gopher fan coming of age in the late 90s and early 2000s, it seemed like Wisconsin really had it made. Going from nothing to frequent Rose Bowls in less than 10 years, never having to doubt a bowl trip (except for 2001), and a (earned) dismissive attitude towards what was supposed to be their primary rival. Yet I’ve learned Wisconsin fans aren’t satisfied. Every Big Ten Championship Game loss to Ohio State, every lost Rose Bowl, all I hear is “same old Badgers, can’t win the big one”. Maybe that’s true…it’s a situation I still wouldn’t mind being in, and maybe I’ll be lucky to feel the same way in 2-3 years. Until then, for Wisconsin fans, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever enough.

The Song: Lotta Love (Nicolette Larson, 1978) 

The Lyric:
It’s gonna take a lotta love, to change the way things are
It’s gonna take a lotta love, or we won’t get too far

Lovie Smith supposedly has his best team at Illinois this year. Reflect on that for a moment. I’ll grant you that the trend has technically been upwards, but since 2016 Lovie has won 8 Big Ten conference games (yes, I know one was against Minnesota) and 15 games total, but I won’t be too rough since another one was last year against #6 Wisconsin. A chaos season in 2020 presents Illinois a unique opportunity. However Illinois has problems that go much further and deeper into their past than the current coaching staff. From experience, that change doesn’t happen overnight; there are still rough years ahead.

The Song: Sailing (Christopher Cross, 1979) 

The Lyric: 
It’s not far to never-never land/No reason to pretend
And if the wind is right you can find the joy/Of innocence again
Oh, the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see
Believe me

It’s too easy but I’ll still take the cheap shot: Northwestern is uniquely qualified for 2020 given that a non-trivial portion of their fanbase has always been empty seats and tarps. Their nice campus on Lake Michigan gives TV commentators convenient talking points as the camera pans across the empty stadium even in good years, but I’ve found Northwestern fans to be mostly good-natured about it and realistic unless they’re trying to convince you their main rival is actually Iowa. Best to accept fate as it is; Pat Fitzgerald is doing the best he can with what he can. When it’s good it’s pretty good and when it’s bad it’s 2019. Rig up those tarps and set sail, the lake breeze will make it all right again.

The Song: You Did Cut Me (China Crisis, 1985) 

The Lyric:
Hear my silence, see my blindness
A love ascending, and never ending
You did cut me, from the same tree
A love incision, my inner vision

Jeff Brohm is the second highest paid coach in the Big Ten. He’s 17-21 in three seasons. Purdue fans and some notable commentators think this might be the year. Purdue lost the core of their defense after last season. Jeff Brohm is the second highest paid coach in the Big Ten.

The Song: One Step Closer (The Doobie Brothers, 1980) 

The Lyric:
I know it’s risky now and then, what with all the what ifs and the whens
Who is there to say we’re wrong? To tell us it can’t be?

Tom Allen is the lowest paid coach in the Big Ten, and the greatest bargain. Indiana’s 2019 season was fun and it really felt like a big step especially for that program even without the bowl win they needed to break a streak going back to 1991. Like Illinois, 2020 presents a special opportunity for Indiana in a chaos season. Who knows if there will be bowl games at all, but even if not, they can make noise in the East Division this year, and set up nicely for 2021.  

Michigan State
The Song: Show You the Way (Thundercat, 2017) 

The Lyric:
Your heart is struggling baby
Trying to believe that there might be something you just couldn’t see
But what if I told you that it’s all so easy

The departure of Mark Dantonio after the 2019 season was like the final domino falling of many that affected the entire Michigan State athletic department for the past several years. Most of their misery has been of their own making, with tragic results far beyond win and loss records. MSU is hoping that Mel Tucker can show them the way from this dark place, and I’m sure it won’t take MSU fans much to believe that positive change is coming to East Lansing and that on the edge of darkness there’s a brightest light. Just remember that change doesn’t come without effort and pain.

The Song: Je Reviens (Gilles Rivard, 1981) 

The Lyric: 
I saw boredom, my enemy (J’ai vu l’ennui, mon ennemi)
Got lost in unknown land (Me suis perdu enterre connue)
Sleep during the day (Dormir le jour)
Look for the night in avenues full of strangers (Chercher la nuit dans des evenues plein d’inconnus)

Not going to lie, I mostly was looking for a way to shoehorn this song in somewhere and Michigan, the Harvard of the West, seemed like the most appropriate place to plop some Quebecois French. It’s convenient that the lyrics, such as Google Translate interprets them, fit so well.

I feel like I’ve been hearing about Michigan being BACK longer than Texas. I was a sophomore in high school when they shared the National Championship with Nebraska, and it’s been a slow downhill since then. Michigan remains stronger than Nebraska, and 2019 was actually a pretty good year, but Jim Harbaugh still hasn’t won The Game and Ohio State’s chokehold on the East Division remains unchallenged. For Michigan it feels like it’s been 9 straight seasons of growing ennui, truly an unknown land for this program. Who are all these strangers with us in the standings? What’s a Hoosier?

Ohio State
The Song: Mornin’ (Al Jarreau, 1983)

The Lyric:
Then higher still/beyond the blue until
I know I can/like any man
Reach out my hand/and touch the face of God

How can Ohio State possibly not feel good about where things stand? The only Big Ten program that has consistently challenged the SEC for the past decade (until Auburn ran into Minnesota, anyway) continues to reload. Every season for tOSU is like a walk on a bright summer morning; even the bad parts are pretty good.

Penn State
The Song: Fragments of Time (Daft Punk feat. Todd Edwards, 2013) 

The Lyric:
Familiar faces I’ve never seen
Living the gold and the silver dream
Making me feel like I’m seventeen
And it’s crystal clear/That I don’t ever want it to end

If you’d told me 10 years ago that Penn State would be where they are as a program right now I wouldn’t have believed you. The scandal that brought down the Paterno dynasty seemed to be pretty definitive, but here we are. James Franklin has done an extremely impressive job since coming to PSU from Vanderbilt and though they remain second in line in the East Division, the PSU program remains very strong and continues to head the right direction.

For a segment of the PSU fanbase, compartmentalization remains the rule. There are two versions, of which the selective memory group picking the fragments of time they like and discarding those they don't is larger and less nasty than the “We Was Framed!” group, but it’s still a shame. It prevents me from ever fully being able to pull for PSU.

The Song: Foolish Heart (Steve Perry, 1984) 

The Lyric:
Foolish heart hear me calling
Stop before you start falling
Foolish heart heed my warning
You’ve been wrong before, don’t be wrong anymore

Maryland hired Mike Locksely. He won 2 games in 2.5 seasons at New Mexico and punched one of his coaches. Granted he’s won 4 games at Maryland but, come on, we all know how this is going to end. I don’t know any Maryland fans, so I have to assume they’re all just holding their breath. Don’t get too attached, gang.

The Song: Any World (That I’m Welcome To) (Steely Dan, 1974) 

The Lyric:
I’ll be ready when my feet touch ground, where I come down
And if the folks will have me, then they’ll have me

I’m not going to make fun of Rutgers; I’ve always had a soft spot for them. You could make an argument that Maryland wasn’t gaining much (other than that sweet, sweet cash) coming to the Big Ten but there’s not much question this was a serious upgrade for Rutgers, and they seem pretty honest about feeling lucky to have landed somewhere decent during realignment. Greg Schiano, while a predictable hire, was also a decent one and he can’t do worse than Chris Ash. If I’m a Rutgers fan I’m feeling fairly relieved right now.

Kevin Warren
The Song: Nobody’s Business (Maxus, 1981) 

The Lyric:
One way or another, I hope you discover
We’re together but always alone
It’s your attention I need, do you have trouble focusing?

My personal opinion, shared previously on #TAWpod, is that the Big Ten was entirely justified in their original decision to cancel the season, and also justified in reevaluating that decision once they had a test and trace infrastructure. I was a vocal defender of this on Twitter. I also feel that the decision belonged with the Presidents and Commissioner based on medical advice rather than well-intentioned but less-informed ADs, coaches, players, and parents.

All that said, would it have hurt at all to be more transparent? To share background, medical reports, meeting summaries or even minutes? The entire process was carried out behind a curtain and developed a decidedly smoke-filled-room feel that only fueled further speculation. Was Kevin Warren obligated to share more? No, but that was his choice and his secrecy did not help his PR; it made a bad situation more challenging. That’s ultimately on him; it didn’t have to be this way.

Clay Travis, Lou Holtz, and the Like
The Song: What A Fool Believes (The Doobie Brothers, 1979) 

The Lyric:
But what a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power/To reason away

The origin song of all of Yacht Rock deserves a special place, and these guys have earned it. Clay Travis has made a virtual second career of misinterpreting and misrepresenting science, medicine, testing, and epidemiology. The inverse relationship between knowledge and self-confidence is a hallmark of our time.

Likewise Lou Holtz, whose single talking point has been comparing the risks college athletes, coaches, and fans would face from COVID to the risks faced by American soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy. Lou was 7 in 1944 and he's 83 now with the luxury of calling into ESPN from home so it's worth noting that neither risks are ones he has to take himself. If Lou ever starts selling insurance, you should pass on it because he clearly does not comprehend the differences in risk categories. National Socialism wasn't spread by aerosols and droplets, and the men at Omaha and Utah beaches were at least paid, knew what they were up against, and had the full force of American industry behind them. Comparing the risks they took to the the risk of playing football during a pandemic is both grossly disrespectful to those soldiers and symptomatic of the borderline unhealthy emphasis American society places on our entertainment. 

I'd explore that last point further but I’m up late on a work night writing a blog post that will be read by 150 people about a college football season I’ll be watching on TV.

These guys are not serious or knowledgeable about these subjects. That they are so confident in their assertions is warning in and of itself.

Actual Sportswriters
The Song: Lowdown (Boz Scaggs, 1976) 

The Lyric:
Hey boy, you better bring the chick around
To the sad, sad truth
The dirty lowdown

Actual sportswriters took a hell of a licking this summer reporting the news as they learned it. The narrative that developed that they somehow wanted the season to be cancelled and were skewing their reporting to push it is so obviously wrong that it barely deserves mention, but I’ll bite. What possible reason would these individuals, who work in an industry that is far from financially stable to begin with, have to try and kill a season that provides their very livelihood? If they were to be laid off as a result, how likely are they to find similar work after the pandemic? Cui bono? Non ea. We might not like the news they report, but that doesn’t mean there’s always a hidden reasoning behind it.

I’m grateful for their dedication, for suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and happy that they will now have the opportunity to report on one of the craziest seasons we’ll ever experience.

The Song: Keep the Fire (Kenny Loggins, 1979) 

The Lyric:
Believe the sun will rise with the dawn
That’s all you need to go on
But for tonight
Just keep the fire burning bright

We get to have a season, no matter how weird. Maybe we won’t get a full one. Who knows? Right now, December might as well be a decade away. Let’s enjoy what we have while we have it, and hope that everything turns out well. Someday things will be back to normal and we’ll all be able to tailgate together and sit on uncomfortable benches in the blazing hot August sun and bone-chilling November rain. Until then, keep the fire.

The Song: Takin’ It To the Streets (The Doobie Brothers, 1976) 

The Lyric:
You, telling me the things you’re gunna do for me
I ain’t blind and I don’t like what I think I see

The players stood up this year as a group in ways I haven’t seen before. I respect them for recognizing that they have a unique platform to bring awareness to racial injustice and privilege to groups who are often sheltered from it. They’ve simultaneously highlighted the complex but very real issue of college sports as a business for which they put in effort but receive limited compensation, and the world going forward will be different after this. And yes, even though I didn’t feel the decision should be made at the player’s level, they advocated for their season as well. They found a voice (really, several voices) this year, and I think we’ll all be better for it.

Sir Yacht
The Song: Sunny Hills (Bobby Caldwell, 1982) 

The Lyric:
There’s nothing more to tell
We wish you a fond farewell
Maybe you’ll find someone you can talk to

I know someone who spent 14 straight years predicting Minnesota would beat Wisconsin. Every year it was exactly the same thing…Wisconsin is a paper tiger, this is the year they’re vulnerable, and if you don't believe it then you're part of the problem. Well, eventually it did, but when you’re 1 for 15 is that an accurate prediction or is it just the odds? Given an infinite amount of time, even the most low-probability event is likely to occur at least once. 

In a long summer of non-stop prognostication and "insider" information Sir Yacht managed to be right about only one thing, and even then the details were wrong.

Anyway, this is a song about putting a troublesome relative away in a retirement home and never visiting them again.

OK friends, that’s it. Minnesota 38, Michigan 27. Row The Boat, Ski U Mah, Go Gophers!


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