Sunday, April 29, 2012

A look at the 2012 UH football schedule

On Friday the University of Houston athletics department officially released the 2012 football schedule. With the exception of a road game against SMU, it appears as if all games will be played on Saturdays this fall:

Sat Sept 01: Texas State, Robertson Stadium
Sat Sept 08: Louisiana Tech, Robertson Stadium
Sat Sept 15: at UCLA, Rose Bowl, Pasadena CA
Sat Sept 22: bye
Sat Sept 29: at Rice, Reliant Stadium
Sat Oct 06: North Texas, Robertson Stadium
Sat Oct 13: Alabama - Birmingham, Robertson Stadium
Thu Oct 18: at SMU, Ford Stadium, Dallas TX
Sat Oct 27: Texas - El Paso, Robertson Stadium
Sat Nov 03: at East Carolina, Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville NC
Sat Nov 10: Tulsa, Robertson Stadium
Sat Nov 17: at Marshall, Edwards Stadium, Huntington WV
Sat Nov 24: Tulane, Robertson Stadium

If it looks a lot like last year's schedule, it's because it is. Texas State (in its first year as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision) replaces Georgia State; every other opponent is the same as last year with the venue (home vs. away) reversed. All in all, it looks like a very favorable schedule for the Coogs, with eight games in the city of Houston: seven at Robertson Stadium and another at Reliant against Rice (the Coogs and Owls will also meet there in 2013). There are no back-to-back road games, and there's only one true road game against a Conference USA western division rival (SMU).

That being said, I'm not expecting another 12-0 regular season record. So many talented seniors from last year's team are gone (Case Keenum, Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier, Bryce Beall, Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw, just to name a few) and the coaching staff, from new head coach Tony Levine on down, is brand new. Although Levine won't admit as such, 2012 is going to be something of a rebuilding year for the Coogs. Then there's the schedule itself: UCLA on the road is a likely loss, SMU and ECU on the road won't be easy either, and LA Tech, Tulsa and UTEP will be particularly dangerous visiting teams

Still, I'd like to believe that there's enough talent still on the team and enough softness in the schedule that another winning record is likely and another C-USA West title is within the realm of possibility. Hopefully I'll get a better handle on the Coogs' prospects for 2012 when I write my usual season preview in August, after everyone has enrolled and I've had a chance to watch some fall practices.

Speaking of Case Keenum, congratulations to him for signing with the Houston Texas as an undrafted free agent. Several other key players from last year's squad have signed with NFL teams as well. I wish them all the best!

Goodbye BCS, hello playoff

It's finally coming: a college football playoff. Seriously.
After years of resisting calls from fans, sports pundits and even President Barack Obama, key conference commissioners announced Thursday that they'd propose some variation of a college football playoff. 

The leaders of numerous interscholastic athletic conferences -- including the Big 12, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference -- and Notre Dame released a joint statement Thursday signaling its intentions following ongoing deliberations about postseason play in college football.
In it, they stated that an eight-team and a 16-team playoff were not going to happen because doing so would "diminish the regular season and harm the bowls." That refers to the existing system, in which winning top-level teams traditionally get the chance to play in one postseason bowl game after they've finished their regular season.
 Yet the conference commissioners opened the door to a pared down playoff. "We will present to our conferences a very small number of four-team options, each of which could be carried out in a number of ways," the commissioners said. 
Anybody who has read this blog over the last few years knows how much I hated the cynical, elitist and outrageously unfair Bowl Championship Series (BCS). I will not shed a tear when it goes away after the 2013 football season. But as welcome as it might be, I'm not jumping for joy about this impending college football playoff just yet, as a lot of questions remain to be answered:
There's still plenty left to figure out, though. First of all, where and when to play the games and how the bowls fit in. After that, Slive and his cohorts have to come up with a way to select the four teams. The new postseason format would go into effect for the 2014 season.
As for the 14-year-old BCS, it's on life support. Any chance that it survives past the next two seasons? "I hope not," Slive said.
"This is a seismic change for college football," BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said after the 11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame's athletic director wrapped up three days of meetings in south Florida.
Hancock said the commissioners will present a "small number" of options for a four-team playoff to their leagues over the next month or so at conference meetings. He estimated that between two and seven configurations are being considered.
It'll be up to each conference to determine which plan it likes best. The commissioners will get back together in June and try to come up with a final version, and eventually the university presidents will have to sign off on it. Hancock has said they'd like a new format ready for presidential approval by July 4.
The biggest issue in my mind is how the four teams will be selected. Will it be based on a formula involving human polls and computer rankings, like the current BCS? Will only conference champions be eligible, or will more than one team per conference be able to participate? Is this the first step towards the dreaded 64-team superconference that many college football pundits foresee? Or will every school that is a current member of the FBS get a fair shot at a playoff berth?

The answer to that last question, of course, is "no." Teams from the "power" conferences will always have the upper hand over the underdogs from the weaker conferences on the basis of strength of schedule, just as it is under the current BCS arrangement. And teams from the power conferences will studiously avoid playing the best teams from the weaker conferences so as not to provide a boost to their strength of schedule, as it is under the current BCS arrangement. In that regard, I can't argue with anybody who thinks that a four-team playoff is worse than the current BCS for teams from "lesser" conferences.

However, I have a feeling that this is only the beginning. They'll do the four-team playoff for a few years, and there will be plenty of controversy about which four teams are the most deserving of participation. An undefeated program from lesser conference will be left out one year; a strong one-loss runner-up from a powerhouse conference will be left out in another. Eventually there will be threats of lawsuits and congressional hearings, just as there are now. Meanwhile, network execs, conference commissioners and school presidents will take note of the amount of viewership and advertising revenue the playoff is generating. Dollar signs will flash before their eyes, and, around 2020 or so, they will expand the playoffs to eight teams under the pretense of making it "more inclusive," which will give schools from the weaker conferences better access to the playoff. From there, it's all but inevitable that they'll eventually get to 12 or 16 teams, even though all the while they'll save face by continuing to pay lip service to the importance of a regular season and the "tradition" of the ever-more-irrelevant bowl system.

In other words: it might be only four teams right now, but the camel's nose is already under the tent. "Baby steps, y’all.  Baby steps," John Taylor of NBC Sports writes. "A four-team playoff may not be perfect, but it's a perfect step in the right direction," Yahoo! sportswriter and Death to the BCS! Author Dan Wetzel writes as he lays out some suggestions for the playoff's groundwork.

The Chronicle's UH beat writer, Sam Khan, discusses what this means for a UH program that is going to be one of the BCS's "haves" for only one season. Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel explains that the BCS is being replaced with a playoff because the BCS, quite literally, just got too old.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Appalachian adventure

What do you do with a Rapid Reward that is about to expire and an urge to see a part of the country that you've never really explored before? In my case, I decided to spend an extended weekend exploring the Appalachian Mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

On Friday March 23, I flew into Atlanta, rented a car, and the next morning embarked on my journey. Here are some sights I encountered along the way (click on any picture for a larger version):

Although in the 1830s the majority of the Cherokee Indians were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears, some Cherokees in North Carolina managed to stay behind and a reservation now exists just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cherokee Syllabary was developed by Sequoyah in the 1820s. He would be proud of his legacy: in addition to being used extensively within the reservation (for example, street signs are in English as well as Cherokee), I've noticed that his writing system is also widely used in Oklahoma.
Clingman's Dome straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border and, at 6,643 feet, is actually the highest point in the state of Tennessee. Normally, the observation deck atop it would offer wonderful views of the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Alas, when I was there the clouds had rolled in and a thick fog had eliminated all visibility. The thin air and the fact that I am woefully out of shape made the uphill trek from the parking area to the observation deck rather tiring, but the fog actually gave the walk a thrillingly mysterious feel to it.
The "Great Smoky Mountains" get their name from the mist and fog that rises from them, as this picture clearly illustrates. Sometime in the future, when the weather is warmer, I want to spend more time in this park. On Saturday March 24, I was only there for about three hours.

I spent the night in Waynesville, North Carolina and ate dinner at the Sweet Onion restaurant. The food was excellent and I recommend it to anyone who might be traveling in that area.
The fog persisted on Sunday March 25th as I attempted to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs along the ridges of the Appalachians and connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Below a certain altitude I was afforded wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. But above that altitude, as I was here at the parkway's highest point, I was literally driving inside of a cloud. The thick fog not only obscured the scenery but also made for treacherous driving conditions on the curvy parkway, so I eventually decided to exit the parkway outside of Boone, North Carolina (home of Appalachian State University, owners of the biggest upset in college football history) and make my way to Interstate 81 via Mountain City, Tennessee (a drive that was in and of itself very picturesque). I-81 might not have been as scenic, but it was much faster, and I spent the evening in Lexington, Virginia.

Lexington is the home of Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University, the burial place of Confederate generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and among its environs is the birthplace of my hometown's namesake. Also, the Hampton Inn there is ridiculously expensive.
Buena Vista is a town east of Lexington where I resumed my travels along the Blue Ridge Parkway on the morning of Monday March 26. It also means "good view" in Spanish, as this picture attests.
Once it reaches Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway becomes Skyline Drive. The views of Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Virginia Piedmont to the east are superlatively spectacular.
A view of Skyline Drive as it makes its way through a ridgetop forest. Most of Shenandoah National Park's other amenities - visitors' centers and trails, for example - wouldn't open for several more weeks. As I drove along, there were times when I felt like I was the only person inside the entire park. It was a very cool feeling.
A view of the Shenandoah Valley. The redbuds seen at the bottom of the picture were in bloom everywhere in Virginia, and they added a nice splash of color to the early-spring greenery.
Speaking of blooms: after I left Shenandoah National Park, I got on Interstate 66 and made my way to the nation's capital, hoping to catch at least a few cherry trees still in blossom. I was in luck: although most of them had already bloomed, there were still a handful of cherry trees around Jefferson Memorial that were in full bloom. This was my third visit to DC and my first visit to the Jefferson Memorial.
More cherry trees in bloom near the Jefferson Memorial. The mild winter had caused most of the cherry trees in and around the memorial and the Tidal Basin to bloom well before Washington's annual cherry blossom festival. I'm glad I was able to get there in time to see a few stragglers.
Close-up of a cherry blossom in Washington, DC.

I spent a couple of hours in Washington, and then made my way up to BWI, where I caught a flight back to Houston. It was a short trip, but it was one that I nevertheless enjoyed. It was a nice, if short, escape from Houston and to a part of the country I've always wanted to see. And, as I said before, I'd love to do this again when the weather is warmer and when I have more time to spend.

Next time I drive the Blue Ridge Parkway it's also going to be in a vehicle that handles better than the rental I was given at ATL. Even at the parkway's posted speed limit of 45 mph, the rental I was driving felt loose and hard to control.

Houston Cougar news: spring game, new logo, new mascot and more

Last Friday evening the UH football program held its annual Red-White Game at Robertson Stadium. The scrimmage, which marks the end of spring practice, was entertaining and well-attended.

Of course, when your school's offense is playing its own defense it's hard to get a sense of how truly good or bad the team will be when the actual season rolls around (e.g. are your receivers really that good, or is your secondary really that bad?). There are other aspects of the team, however, that can be gauged during spring games, such as the speed and size of the athletes or the pocket presence and arm strength of the quarterback. I came away from Friday night's exhibition generally feeling good about the Coogs' prospects for the fall. But I reserve the right to change my opinion following fall practices.

The end of spring practice (and the agonizing wait until the fall) aside, the big news coming out of Cougarland this past week was the unveiling of two new logos: a beveled interlocking "Block UH" as the program's primary logo, and an "Oval Cougar" as the program's secondary logo. These insignia replace the "Fat UH" and "Wet Cat" logos, respectively, that the program had been using for the past several seasons. UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades explained the reason for the update:
"People ask why now, why a refresh in terms of the logo?" Rhoades said. "We felt like as we continue to grow and we continue to move forward and to become part of a national stage - and certainly we think that will happen with the Big East and it's already begun to happen - that we need a bold and a brand new identity but without forgetting our past, because we've had such great, great tradition."
Reaction on the various UH message boards was mixed. A lot of posters liked the new logos, while others were less impressed. Some people asked why Houston had to continually change its logos every few years, while others wondered why the Cougars couldn't go back to the "Skinny UH" logo the team used on its helmets during the glory days of the Veer and Run-and-Shoot. Some posters complained that the new interlocking UH logo was difficult to see on the helmets during the Red-White Game, while others derided the "Oval Cougar" as a copy from the 80's cartoon ThunderCats. The Houston Press's John Royal, meanwhile, bemoaned that the "Oval Cougar" mark was a transparent rip-off of the venerable Penn State Nittany Lion logo.

I personally don't have a strong opinion, either way, about the new logos: I'm not jumping up and down with excitement about them, but I don't find them to be outrageous, inappropriate, or ugly, either. And although the cynic can argue that these changes are primarily being done to sell new merchandise, the fact remains that University of Houston is simply one of many athletics enterprises, college or pro, that frequently updates its "look."

The new logos aren't the only news of symbolic importance for the University of Houston: for the first time since 1989, the University of Houston has a live mascot. A few weeks ago, Shasta VI was introduced to his new habitat at the Houston Zoo. Shasta VI was orphaned after his mother was illegally killed by a hunter in Washington state last fall. He was transferred to the zoo, and per an agreement between the zoo and UH, this particular puma concolor will now become the living embodiment of all things Cougar.

Unlike previous Shastas, which lived in a small building on campus and were accompanied by their handlers to football games, this Shasta will reside permanently at the Houston Zoo. There will be cameras set up in his habitat and he will make appearances at athletics events via jumbotron. Although I have to admit that as a child I found it rather cool to see a live cougar strolling up and down the sidelines of the Astrodome during UH football games, sensitivities towards animal welfare have changed in the last couple of decades and I have no problem with the current arrangement.

Shasta VI will be the University's first male mascot. All five previous live cougar mascots were female, and the name "Shasta" itself is purportedly a contraction of the phrase "she has to," i.e. Shasta has to have a cage, Shasta be fed, Shasta have a keeper, etc.

Finally, here's a pretty good article summing up the Cougars' 2011 season. I don't agree with the writer's contention that 2011 was the "finest season in school history" - 1976 (SWC and Cotton Bowl champions, #4 in the AP poll) and 1979 (SWC and Cotton Bowl champions, #5 in the AP poll) were clearly better years for Houston football - but the 2011 season, in spite of the disappointing loss to Southern Miss in the CUSA Championship, was still a very good year. Thirteen wins, a bowl victory over a legendary, ranked Big Ten school, and a season-ending top 25 ranking for the first time in over two decades is nothing to be ashamed of. Can Tony Levine and his staff can keep the momentum going and lead the Coogs to bigger and better seasons in the future? This is what ESPN's Andrea Jackson asks in an excellent profile of Levine:
There is no doubt this is a critical juncture for Houston. The Cougars have to maintain what they have done, all while keeping an eye to their next destination -- a home in the Big East in 2013. They have turned to a man without the usual credentials on his résumé. But Levine brings continuity, consistency, energy, passion and a deep-rooted commitment to the city of Houston.

Now we will see how all those traits serve him -- and this program -- moving forward.

The season begins against Texas State at Robertson Stadium the weekend of September 1st.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Remembering Sam Kinison

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of comedian Sam Kinison.

Kinison, a former preacher who began his stand-up career here in Houston, was outrageous, tasteless, vulgar, homophobic, and misogynistic. He was also the funniest comedian I have ever seen. Here are a few of my (decidedly politically-incorrect NSFW) favorite bits of his on famine, relationships and marriage:


Rest in peace, Sam.