On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Men’s National Team had a 93 percent chance of making it to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. By Tuesday night, the USMNT had been eliminated altogether.
American soccer fans are not used to watching a World Cup without our nation participating. The last time this happened was 1986, when there was no viable domestic league and no soccer on TV other than a summer month every four years.
But even without a rooting interest, the ‘86 World Cup was wildly entertaining, whether because of the greatest goal ever scored, the wildly entertaining Danes with their own song, a 41-year-old goalkeeper, or Pique, the jalapeno mascot with a mustache and sombrero.
So the absence of the U.S. presents an opportunity. We are all liberated to pick a rooting interest.
Most of us did not choose to root for the USMNT; we do so because we live in this country, and we likely did not choose that occurrence either. So we’ll all have 32 teams from which to pick. Maybe Belgium, a talented team that has never won before. Maybe Argentina, a team that psychiatrists should adore. Maybe Egypt, whose fans take soccer somewhat seriously:
27 years!!! Since Egypt has made the World Cup!! What a time to be alive!!! Tahya Masr!!!!!! 🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬🇪🇬 pic.twitter.com/p7ae6HLSMu
— ChampagneJuJu (@JHabashy15) October 8, 2017
But why should we confine ourselves to picking a rooting interest at the World Cup?
Why not do the same in college football, which has a small Playoff, meaning most of our teams are eliminated within the first month?
Think about how most of us pick our college football rooting interests. Most likely, it’s a combination of where we grew up (not our choice) and where we went to college (a decision that was hopefully not based on football).
In other words, most college football fans did not pick our teams. Rather, we root for teams because dad got a good job in Georgia in 1984 or Michigan has a good history department and seemed like the best option after not getting into Dartmouth or Princeton.
So maybe your team lost its quarterback in the season opener and has been reduced to playing a three-star true freshman at a glacial pace. Or maybe you spent your summer getting excited for a transfer savior quarterback and it turns out that he has a proclivity for throwing pick sixes. Or maybe your team fired its coach in the offseason and the players seem to have checked out. Don’t look at these setbacks as adversity; think of them as an opportunity to engage in an act of free will.
Here are some suggestions:
Washington or Washington State
Washington has not won the national title since 1991. Thereafter, its fans suffered through decades of mediocrity, punctuated by occasional bouts of utter incompetence. Now, the Huskies are a legitimate national title contender, one whose coach is feuding with ESPN and provoking Kirk Herbstreit to say Herbstreit things.
Meanwhile, Washington State has never won a national title and has only two conference titles since 1930. The Cougars are unbeaten, play wildly entertaining games, and have an absolute delight of a coach. Mike Leach is a treasure for those of us who appreciate the differences between college football and the NFL. It’s not hard to imagine reasons to support what might be his best team ever.
And let’s face it, if we are looking for new rooting interests in early October, it’s probably because our primary rooting interest has issues at quarterback. Washington has Jake Browning, the reigning Pac-12 offensive player of the year. Wazzu has Luke Falk, who is completing almost 72 percent of his passes and has a microscopic interception rate. Browning and Falk have combined for over 20,000 yards passing in their careers, which is certainly more than the Florida Gators have amassed in the eight seasons after Tim Tebow. Treat yourself to some quality quarterback play and pick a side in the Apple Cup.
UCF or USF
The state of Florida dominated college football for two decades because of its three major programs’ innovative attacks. Miami had its conveyor belt of outstanding quarterbacks. Florida State had Bobby Bowden’s clever offense, bolstered by entertaining trick plays. Florida had the Fun ‘n’ Gun.
Lately, the tradition has shifted to Orlando and Tampa. UCF and USF are both unbeaten and averaging over 40 points and 500 yards per game. Both teams are in the top 25 of S&P+ and UCF would be No. 2 if preseason projections were dropped out (as will happen by the end of October).
Central Florida and South Florida meet on the day after Thanksgiving. If they are both unbeaten, then the winner is going to be able to make a case to be included in the Playoff, bolstered by the recency effect. Depending on whether we prefer pirate festivals or unruly soccer players fighting with cops, we should all pick a side in this fight to honor the tradition of Florida teams being good at moving the football from point A to point B.
The SEC ought to be the most interesting conference, based on the combination of crazy fan interest and proximity to talent. Add in a proclivity for pushing the boundaries in recruiting, and the league ought to produce more entertainment than any other.
Instead, the conference has been fairly drab, primarily because Alabama is too good. For a period of time, the Tide were the best program in college football, but had a hard time winning the SEC because of the level of competition. Now, Bama has won three straight league titles and is a prohibitive favorite to win a fourth. The last time the Tide lost the SEC, the circumstances were rather memorable. We need that level of entertainment again.
Enter Georgia. The Dawgs have not won the conference in over a decade. They have not played in the conference title game since 2012. In 2017, they have a defense that could give the Tide trouble. And the best part of a hypothetical Georgia win over Alabama would be that it would end Nick Saban’s long stretch of treating his former assistants like children to be humiliated.
Counter: Georgia winning the SEC would ratify the trend of hiring former Saban assistants as head coaches and/or never looking outside of the SEC for coaching talent.
Counter to the counter: if so many SEC teams are obsessed with Saban anyway, then what would be different if one such move actually worked out?
In 2009 and 2010, TCU went unbeaten in the regular season and did not get a title shot because it played in the Mountain West.
In 2014, TCU was the best team in the Big 12 and missed out on the Playoff because of the combination of a three-point loss at Baylor and an epic showing by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
In 2017, the Horned Frogs are unbeaten and have another shot at a national title.
So why should you root for TCU? Because Gary Patterson has stayed at the school for 17 years despite numerous offers to go to bigger, richer programs. Because the Horned Frogs are a Big 12 team that plays defense. Because horned frogs are awesome.