The Sweep: Presidential Edition

Our college football analysis tours two swing states, harkens back to the 2000 Election, and, as always, argues for our poll and weekly picks, now 19-8 against the spread and counting. Plus, on a special Election Day edition of The Sweep, we get heartfelt, and try our best to describe what it is that makes sports -- and politics -- so special.

Week 10 Poll

1. Penn State (Change: 0)
2. USC (0)
3. Florida (+1)
4. Texas Tech (+3)
5. Texas (-2)
6. Oklahoma (-1)
7. Oklahoma State (+2)
8. Alabama (-2)
9. Utah (+1)
10. Ohio State (+1)
11. Boise State (+1)
12. TCU (+1)
13. Georgia (-5)
14. LSU (0)
15. Cal (+6)
16. Missouri (-1)
17. BYU (-1)
18. West Virginia (+8)
19. Ball State (0)
20. Michigan State (+3)
21. North Carolina (+3)
22. Maryland (+4)
23. Florida State (-6)
24. Georgia Tech (+2)
25. Pittsburgh (+1)

IN: West Virginia, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech
OUT:   South Florida, Tulsa, Minnesota, Oregon
ON DECK: Northwestern, Oregon, Tulsa

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Hail to the Chief

With Election Day tomorrow, time to be nice to some swing states at the last minute:

On TV, in print and online, I have been hearing the college football punditry shriek in fear of Penn State, another Big Ten team, making it to the title game, for fear of another Ohio State-esque gag of a performance. As a Big Ten slappy at heart, I can't help but feel frustration when I hear this type of "analysis." These are two very different teams and very different programs.
Now, it pains me to defend the Buckeyes, but prior to the 2007 BCS Championship woodshed experience, Ohio State was known for rising to the challenge in big games. Who can ever forget the epic 2003 Fiesta Bowl win over Miami, one the most dramatic BCS Title Games ever? In 2006, they won in Austin, albeit against a reloading Texas team that had just won its own championship. Three losses does not a choker make. In the game versus Florida, Tressel admitted bringing a fat, under-motivated team. And, last year, LSU just turned out to be a significantly superior team.  (Okay, the less said about this year's USC debacle, the better.) 
However, I would say that this Ohio State team is different now than the team that lost so badly to USC. In two of the three major losses, Todd Boeckman, a glorified caretaker until the transition to the Pyror era, was at QB. Boeckman will never win a game for the Buckeyes himself. Terrelle Pryor will. 

This Penn State program has not displayed the Buckeyes' recent propensity for high-profile flops. (Struggling to win at night in the Horseshoe does not warrant such an unfavorable comparison. Tressel had his team ready for a major conference showdown with homefield advantage, and they had Pryor at quarterback.) With only two more significant games remaining, against Iowa and the season finale at Michigan State, I look forward to a different Big Ten representative gunning to bring home a national title.  Penn State, and Joe Paterno will bring a drastically different team out of the Big Ten than Ohio State, I don't think Texas Tech or Alabama are juggernauts, and so Penn State could become the most northerly school to win an indisputed national title since Notre Dame in 1988.

2000 all over again…
Let the chaos of 2008 officially begin with the best game this season, Texas Tech's win over Texas.  We all know Tech plays Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in the next two weeks, an exceedingly difficult gauntlet.  If Tech loses to OU, who lost to Texas, who beat OU, welcome back to the musical chairs atop the polls of 2007. (Or the uncertainty well into December and January as to who's atop the polls, hence the 2000 reference.)  Or maybe all of Mike Leach's idiosyncrasies and pirate fancies will bring that school from the dry flatlands of West Texas all the way to humid coast of South Florida, who knows?
Oklahoma State also plays OU, who Kansas State bombed all over to the tune of 486 passing yards. (Graham Harrell will throw for what, 600, in two weeks?)
Florida looks to be the rage of the SEC after they pantsed preseason No. 1 Georgia, but they could still be thwarted in the SEC Championship game.  Alabama is undefeated and No. 2 in the country, but might not even be the No. 2 team in the SEC. If they can make it past LSU this weekend, Auburn and Florida still lurk. Not to repeat "Dewey defeats Truman," but I don't see them winning out by any stretch of the imagination.

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And finally, call it our 30-minute informerical. Here's our thoughts on what makes both politics and sports so special...

On November 1, 1869, Princeton and Rutgers played the first college football game, just four years after the end of the Civil War.  This past Saturday, college football began its 140th year. Along the way, the massive stadiums were built during the roaring 20's, men went off to war in the 40's, temporarily crippling the game, segregation in society and the sport came to an end in the ‘60s, and digital technology and scientific advances in equipment, nutrition and conditioning have come to play an ever-increasing role in the game today.

The parallels between politics and sports are undeniable, and that's especially true in the most quintessentially American of all sports, football. (Baseball was the game of my parents' generation, sorry.) Just look at all the football stars turned politicians, or the way elections are covered now – not substantively primarily, but as a horserace between two opposing sides.

Heck, even the problems in college football have their political equivalents. The liberals among us can point to the inequity in the game – that there are haves (BCS schools) and have-nots (the rest of the FBS), and the disparity between the two is so great it makes all those cupcake games in September unwatchable. (And if ever a school needed governmental intervention, it would be Washington State.) Conservatives can point to how the 85-scholarship cap is forcing successful teams to artificially spread the wealth, destroying the dynasties and iconic teams that have made our game great.

Conservatives can point to how excessive bureaucracy is preventing the solution the free market, the paying fans, would naturally gravitate towards: an eight-team playoff. Liberals can say we don't have a playoff because the greed of those bowl CEOs, out of touch with the concerns of Joe Six Pack sports fan, is preventing real change.

America is suffering through the painful demise of its manufacturing industry, which won wars and made this country what it is today, and the Rust Belt region. College football is seeing its identity, the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust between-the-tackles offense, increasingly stymied by spread attacks, and teams from the Midwest have suffered painful collapses too – just ask Michigan or Nebraska or Ohio State.

But, whether in sports or politics, hope springs eternal. For every Phil Fulmer, whose day has now officially come and gone, there's a Mike Leach, successful with a scheme that wouldn't have been possible a generation ago, and further changing the national landscape with his every step.

Many of our country's problems won't disappear overnight, whoever wins Tuesday, yet most of the country will believe, on some level, that things really will improve with new leadership. Similarly, no matter how many games our team lost last season, no matter how badly overmatched we were, we starts every season undefeated and most of us, on some level, truly believe that a bowl, a conference title, a Final Four berth -- this is the year.

I don't mean to equate a game with people's livelihoods and the most serious problems our society faces, and obviously some of my comparisons above were tongue-in-cheek. What I would say in complete seriousness, though, is that my love for college football stems from the seemingly irrational passion it inspires, even in the most solipsistic and sarcastic of us.

It's just a game, but that's not the way I felt after we beat USC, driving down University Avenue, holding down my horn, screaming with joy. That's not the way I felt at age 11, high-fiving random strangers in a bar as Michigan won the 1997 Rose Bowl: I truly cared. I started making weekly polls when I was 12 years old, and would print them out and faithfully file them away in my bedroom dresser. No one ever saw them, no one cared who I thought should play in the Rose Bowl, but that didn't matter to me. (To think that, half my life later, I'd still be writing those weekly polls is truly special.)

The daily grind of high school or Stanford or whatever pressing commitment was breathing down my neck has taken up most of my brainpower since the days of those childhood polls, but my formative years have also given me a grown-up passion to compliment my love for sports. I really do care about helping others, about making a real difference in this world, and to that end, I'm studying public health and want to enter politics one day.

I've lived an incredibly lucky life, but one of my biggest regrets is that as we get older, our lives get increasingly cluttered with the day-to-day minutiae and we lose perspective on what really matters to us. And, for me, whether I'm following politics or sports, I feel like I'm part of something bigger than myself. I just care, way more than I should. And while I'm still plenty young, maybe I'm old enough to realize that when you find something that makes you irrationally care, you hang onto it as hard as you possibly can.

So I'm going to vote tomorrow, and this weekend, I'm going to cheer on 13-point underdog Stanford and 2-7 Michigan. Tonight though, I'm going to reflect on how lucky I am to have both opportunities in my life.

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We close with our picks section, also known as Don't Quit Your Day Job:

Last week: Global warming may be a hot-button issue (pun intended), but the Sweep loves staying nice and crispy. 2-1 this past week, with Florida and Cal rolling along enough to overcome the Texas Tech shocker.
2-1 straight-up, 2-1 against the spread.

19-8 against the spread, 21-6 straight-up.

Cal (+17) at USC
Cal is quietly pretty good and USC isn't as dominant this year as you think when you hear "USC," but I still can't get over the home-away split in both teams' performances I described in my post-Washington State piece. USC against good teams is what, 12-1 the last five years, with an average margin of victory of 25? All those Rose Bowl routs, the annual Oregon, Cal and Arizona State beatdowns, Ohio State this year... I'm not forgetting.
USC 42, Cal 17 

Alabama (-3) at LSU
I don't think either of these teams are that good. The difference is LSU's already been exposed by Florida and Georgia. Alabama will be clocked by Florida in the SEC Title Game soon enough, but first, the clock turns midnight on them this week. Neither team can score, so I'll take the points, the team without any pressure, the team with better recruiting the last four years (save the 2008 class which has yet to see the field in any meaningful way) and the team with one of the most intimidating homefield advantages in all sport.
LSU 27, Alabama 14

Oklahoma State (+3.5) at Texas Tech
I don't understand this line at all. You figure homefield advantage is worth three points (heck, probably more considering how much these teams score), so Vegas is telling me Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are even? Okay, I know who I'm picking in that one. Yeah, Texas Tech still has Oklahoma and needed the last-second score to beat Texas, but the Red Raiders outgained Texas by 205 yards -- the fluke wasn't that Texas Tech won, it was that it was that close. Plus, Texas Tech's rush D surprised me mightily, holding Texas to 80 rush yards. If they can do that to Oklahoma State, this won't be close.
Texas Tech 45, Oklahoma State 24

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