College Football Season Builds to Climax
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
College football's bowl season is building towards a climax. Yesterday, there were six bowl games. Tonight is the Orange Bowl and tomorrow the national championship will be decided when Texas faces Southern California in the Rose Bowl. Commentator John Feinstein joins me now.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So let's begin with yesterday's games. I guess Ohio State vs. Notre Dame was the highlight.
FEINSTEIN: Yeah, six games yesterday and that Fiesta Bowl was certainly the one most people were looking to. Notre Dame had had this rebound season under their new coach Charlie Weis who got a 10-year contract midway through the season. But Ohio State is a team that only lost to Texas, which is in the national title game as you mentioned, and Penn State, which is 10-and-1, and they dominated them and really kind of exposed Notre Dame as a team that played great in one game, the loss to Southern California, but if you look at their nine wins, only two of them came against teams with winning records. So they're not quite ready to build that statue to Charlie Weis just yet after yesterday.
MONTAGNE: What about other teams? Any of them catch your eye?
FEINSTEIN: Yeah, the biggest surprise by far yesterday was West Virginia coming out of the depleted Big East Conference, a conference that lost Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami to the ACC. Some people have talked about whether the Big East will continue to get a BCS bowl bid with all that money because it is so weak. They've lost their other three ball games and West Virginia went into Atlanta, where they moved the Sugar Bowl there from New Orleans and beat the University of Georgia, hanging on with a fake punt, one of the gutsiest, silliest plays I've seen in college football in years in the final two minutes to give the Big East some respectability at the end of this horrible season for the league.
MONTAGNE: You know, and, John, tonight's Orange Bowl--it's not a championship but it certainly is a fascinating matchup.
FEINSTEIN: Well, no question, the two winningest coaches of all time, Bobby Bowden from Florida State, 359 wins; Joe Paterno from Penn State, 353 wins. But beyond that, Renee, everybody, almost everybody in college football was begging Paterno to retire last year, 78 years old, three losing seasons in four, the program seemed to have fallen apart. He comes back this year and not only goes 10-and-1, but they were one play against Michigan from being 11-and-0 and creating chaos in the BCS because then there would have been three undefeated teams and that would have been wonderful. But Paterno, all due respect to Southern Cal and Texas, he was the story of the year in college football.
MONTAGNE: And now to the big game. Can Texas end Southern California's winning streak?
FEINSTEIN: Yes, it can because Southern Cal has been vulnerable on defense all year long. They win games with their unbelievable offense with the two Heisman Trophy winners, Matt Leinart and the runningback Reggie Bush is going to be the number one pick in the NFL draft. But Texas will have to outscore them. This will be a 38-to-35-type of game. It'll be decided well after midnight, but it should be a great championship game.
MONTAGNE: Well, I'm sitting here in Southern California thinking let's just imagine that USC does in fact win a third straight title. So where does that put them in college football history?
FEINSTEIN: They go down--if they win, Renee, it'll be their 35th straight victory. They go down in the pantheon with the Army teams of the 1940s that won three national titles, the Bud Wilkinson Oklahoma teams that had the all-time record with 47 wins. What Pete Carroll has done rebuilding USC is a remarkable story given that he was considered such a failure in the NFL. And they'll keep being good, win or lose tomorrow night, in the future.
MONTAGNE: John, thanks.
FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: The comments of John Feinstein whose latest book is "Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL."
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Slate's Sports Nut: The Overrated USC Trojans
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Tomorrow's Rose Bowl game in Pasadena looks like a great one between two dominant college football teams, the University of Texas Longhorns and the Trojans of the University of Southern California. But is this going to feature the greatest college team ever? Are the Trojans that good? They are defending two-time national champions. In fact, the sages at the sports TV network ESPN recently imagined how USC would match up against the greatest college teams in history. The short answer: USC would beat them all. Not so fast, says Jonathan Chait, writing on the, in his view, overrated Trojans in the online magazine Slate.
Jonathan Chait, welcome to DAY TO DAY. Give us some examples of great historical match-ups that ESPN thinks USC would win.
JONATHAN CHAIT reporting:
I actually first came across this when I saw that they imagined what would happen if the Trojans played the 1997 Michigan Wolverines. I know this because Michigan's my alma mater. I'm a Michigan fan. And they decided that USC would win, 49-14. Now that was a Michigan team that had the only defensive player ever to win a Heisman trophy and gave up less than 9 points a game, 23 interceptions and five touchdowns. It was just an awesome, awesome defense. And the idea that USC would score 49 points on them made me think, `Wait. Something kind of funny is going on here.'
CHADWICK: Something's happening with these kind of expectations of USC.
CHADWICK: And there are other examples you cite.
CHAIT: Right. I thought what was the most extreme was the 1991 Washington Huskies. That was just an absolutely awesome team. They just destroyed every team they played. They didn't have any close games. They won their games by an average margin of 42-to-9.
CHADWICK: So what is it that leads sportswriters and sports analysts to, in your view, so overrate USC? There are--in fact, you identify some kind of traits of overrated teams.
CHAIT: The elements of overrated teams--I think you find this kind of year in and year out. There are a couple, and the first is that they tend to be better on offense than on defense. People tend to put more weight on offense than defense in gauging who's a good team.
CHADWICK: It's more fun to watch. It's more spectacular.
CHAIT: It's more fun to watch...
CHAIT: ...and it makes for better highlights.
CHAIT: So offensive teams tend to capture the imagination in a way that defensive teams don't. Nonetheless, there's more to a team than just offense. Defense matters as well. So I would say if you had a team that was the opposite of USC, if you'd have had a team that a pedestrian offense and a fantastic defense, they would not be regarded anywhere nearly as high as USC is.
CHADWICK: What about the Longhorns then? If USC is overrated, is Texas underrated? And are you saying here, on a national broadcast, that Texas is going to win?
CHAIT: No, of course not. I would say the teams are pretty equal. I would give USC a slightly better chance of winning. If you want to know what I think, not that I'm an oddsmaker and do not take money out of your house and put it on the game based on what I'm telling you...
CHADWICK: Hold on. That's the next interview, but go on.
CHAIT: This is a legal disclaimer. USC was not as good as Texas over the course of the year. Texas had a slightly better off--it's basically the same offense and a considerably better defense over the course of the year. Now USC had a lot of injuries on their defense over the course of the year, and that was a big reason that their defense underperformed. And a lot of those injured players should be back by tomorrow night's game, which would mean that the USC team that takes the field against Texas might be much better than the one that played over the course of the year.
CHADWICK: So what are you saying? Texas or USC?
CHAIT: I'm not going to say. It's a close match-up.
CHADWICK: Opinion--and I stress that word to all the Trojans fans here in LA--from Jonathan Chait. He's a senior editor at The New Republic. You'll find his article on the Trojans at slate.com.
Jonathan, thank you.
CHAIT: Thank you.
Making the Smart Bet on College Football
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
OK, so now you're ready to watch the big game. What about placing a friendly wager? If you happen to find yourself in Nevada or perhaps outside the US, you can legally bet on sports events like college football. But if you are like me, you've never actually bet on a game with a bookie, and you're a little intimidated, afraid of looking like an idiot because you don't know what to do. So I called our resident gambling expert--that would be NPR's Mike Pesca--and asked for advice, and he gave me some good news.
MIKE PESCA reporting:
If you're an uninformed gambler, you're not that much worse off than the informed or semi-informed gambler, and that's because it all depends on something called the point spread. The point spread is set by casinos or bookies or what's called the sports book. And what it is is it evens out the playing field. So they recognize which team is the favorite, and they give the other team a few extra points. So to take the Rose Bowl, the big game that will decide the national champion in college football, the sports book has determined that USC is better. So what they're going to do is they'll say, `You know what? At the end of the game, add 7 1/2 points to Texas' score and now decide. You, sports gambler, now decide who's going to win.'
CHADWICK: Let me back up. What is a sports book? Why do they call these things sports books?
PESCA: I was thinking about this. They call it a sports book in the same way that a newspaper calls it the city desk. I mean, there might not literally be a desk anywhere at the newspaper where the city stuff goes on, but at one time there was. And with a sports book, at one time someone was writing down everyone's bets in a book. Now it's a physical place. If you go in a casino, you'll see up on a screen or sometimes written in grease pencil the names of every team that's playing. So there'll be USC, and next to it will be Texas 'cause that's USC's opponent, and then there'll be a number. And it will say: USC -7, which tells you that USC is the favorite by 7 points. There'll be other numbers, and we'll get into that in a second. But all the information that you need will be up there. And you go to the person who's standing there at the sports book, the person there to take your bet, and you make your wager. So now it's a physical place as opposed to an actual book.
CHADWICK: OK. Now I have a question. If you have this number that one team's expected to beat the other by...
CHADWICK: ...and if all the casinos and all the sports books are publicizing this number, aren't they working against themselves because if everybody bets perfectly, then everyone will break even?
PESCA: Right. Well, OK. What you're getting at here is that the casino is setting a number, not necessarily what they think will be the actual score, though it comes pretty close to that. All they have to concern themselves with is kind of diagnosing the public mind-set. So they want to come up with a number--this is their ideal number--is the one where half the money will bet on one side and half on the other. And then--so this gets at your question. Wait. If half bets on USC and half bets at Texas, then the casino breaks even, right?
PESCA: No, not right because to win $10, you have to bet 11. It's not a straight-up bet.
CHADWICK: But you say you bet 11 in order to win 10. You get your $11 back, right, plus the 10?
PESCA: Right. Right.
PESCA: You'd win--you'd have 21 in your pocket.
CHADWICK: OK. What else do I need to know? Let's say I'm bound to lose my money because I'm in a gambling establishment, but I'd like to keep my dignity if I could.
PESCA: Well, you know, here's a piece of advice. Bet a little. I would say bet a little amount, but make it appear to the people around you that you've got a lot riding on it because they probably do. So if you lose, roll up your ticket and throw it in disgust, and high-five the guy next to you if you cover.
And the other thing I would say is this; this is a key piece of advice. So far we've been talking about the spread. There's another major type of bet which is called the over-under. This is a simple bet to understand. You're not betting on who's going to win. You're just betting on how many total points are going to be scored. So in this USC-Texas game, you might say, `I don't really know who's going to win, but I think they'll score over the 75 over-under number.' Betting the under is a good way to give yourself an ulcer 'cause all you're doing is rooting for things not to happen. So in an average casino, when half the people will be cheering for one team that scores and half the people will be cheering when another team scores, the one guy kind of going, `Argh!'--he bet the under, and I'd avoid that if you don't know what you're doing.
CHADWICK: NPR's Mike Pesca, who is, we'll note, the only NPR reporter who is delivering original content to a weekly podcast. It's called On Gambling, and it's at npr.org.
Mike, thanks again.
PESCA: You're welcome, Alex.
CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.