Don’t blame the turkey.
This time of year folks tend to experience overwhelming bouts of sleepiness after eating big meals. The effect is often attributed to ingesting large portions of turkey, supposedly laden with sleep-inducing tryptophan. Turns out the holiday season’s traditional sacrificial bird has less tryptophan than, say, chicken. Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, hasn’t even been proven to cause sleepiness. People simply overeat.
What’s more, sports fans can experience stupefaction without touching a morsel of food. The daze-inducing December doldrums are just ahead, lasting until the arrival of bowl games with multimillion-dollar payouts and the season’s first conference basketball matchups.
Right now the dull, listless feeling caused by watching largely inconsequential and undistinguished competition seems far removed. North Carolina’s major-league teams are hitting their strides, or trying to. We’re also coming off a stimulating week in which the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was followed by league football championship games and the assignment – oops – acceptance of bowl bids.
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The recent highlight on the regional sports scene was the 18th edition of the series with the Big Ten in which the ACC enjoyed its most decisive margin of victory since 2008. The difference-maker was that Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech won on the road while every ACC team held service on its home court.
Unfortunately, we now confront those annoying college exam periods when schools limit the number of games interfering with the sanctity of the student-athlete experience. Academic conflicts are apparently tangential considerations where football bowl participation is discussed, while basketball must endure a schedule stripped of predictable order because contests, but not practices, might distract from student-type activities. At least these next few weeks afford basketball teams plenty of chances to rest, practice, try new lineups and work injured or previously ineligible players into their rotations.
As for the occasional December games, ACC teams have the ability to select and attract opponents with large guarantees and TV exposure. Then they pad victory totals by feasting on the invited cupcakes and cream puffs. Strivers invited to Joel Coliseum or PNC Arena harbor dreams of being the next William & Mary, N.C. Central or Delaware State to sneak off with a highlight win. But those rare instances are usually restricted to a season’s earliest days when ACC teams are prone to sleep-walking through contests they expect to win.
Opponents from beyond the ACC are not allowed to surprise Duke anytime of year at Cameron Indoor Stadium. This may be in their contracts, although senior-laden Vermont came within an eyelash of winning anyway in November 2013. The Blue Devils have defeated 130 nonconference teams at Durham since St. John’s won there on Feb. 26, 2000. Don’t expect Tennessee State, the lone remaining December guest, to break the skein.
Upsets do occur occasionally at the Smith Center, but not since Belmont, a formidable if unsung mid-major, won in November 2013.
Breaking with convention, Roy Williams’ Tar Heels sample a buffet of meaty rivals in the next few weeks. They travel only to Las Vegas to face top-ranked Kentucky. Otherwise they stay in Chapel Hill to take on Davidson, Tennessee, Northern Iowa and Monmouth. All but the Vols appeared in the NCAA or NIT tournaments in 2016. Wake is gone half of the month, and plays low-profile but respectable opponents in Charlotte and LSU at Winston-Salem.
These schedules are in slight contrast, to put it very kindly, with the visitors invited to Raleigh by Mark Gottfried, a gantlet so tame it might make even former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg blush. The Wolfpack doesn’t leave home until New Year’s Eve, hosting those gluttons for punishment (and paydays) from Tennessee State, along with Appalachian State, Fairfield, McNeese State and Rider. Tennessee State is on tap for the annual men’s outing at refurbished Reynolds Coliseum, a jewel that amply honors N.C. State’s rich basketball tradition.
There are other redeeming factors in the remainder of the Wolfpack’s nonconference schedule. Fans can give away tickets with little danger of missing high-level action. Those who don’t care about the quality of competition, but only about seeing their darlings, should have fun. Seldom-used Pack players are apt to get more minutes over a few weeks than in the rest of the season combined.
But it’s not basketball that best induces a December viewing daze; that’s more likely to come from witnessing the parade of early bowls that start at mid-month.
The bowl glut
The explanation is all in the math. There are 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. This year there are 40 bowls. That means bowl berths are available for nearly two-thirds of the “bowl-eligible” programs playing FBS football. Six new bowls were created in the previous two seasons alone, spurring the NCAA to impose a three-year moratorium on creating new events. (Austin, Texas, and Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C., were in the queue.)
Ratherthan stop now, football might as well adopt universal postseason participation and get it over with, beating college basketball to the punch on an idea long bandied about for the NCAA tournament.
The bowl glut meant more than 17 schools, including a trio from the ACC, advanced to bowls on the strength of 6-6 seasons. That still left some spots unfilled, paving the way for at least three teams with more losses than wins. Last year the inaugural Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl got stuck with two losing teams from the same conference, the Mountain West. Talk about a game worth sleeping through.
Such a surfeit of opportunity would be called a triumph of mediocrity in most circles. In big-time college football, even losing money to appear in a bowl is considered a reward for a good season and a great marketing tool. Never mind the enduring admonition that eating sweets may be pleasurable, but indulging in too much of a good thing can make you sick.
A closer look at how the ACC’s break-even programs finagled their way to six wins won’t bolster your respect for bowl qualification. Boston College, 2-6 in the conference, got to the magic .500 mark by beating Wagner from the less-formidable and less formidably expensive Football Championship Subdivision. Wake Forest, 3-5 in the ACC, beat Delaware from the Colonial Athletic Association, an FCS league. N.C. State, also 3-5 in the ACC, fortified its resume with a win over William & Mary, another CAA club.
In contrast, North Carolina’s record looks relatively gaudy at 8-4, 5-3 in the ACC. But victories over Colonial members James Madison and The Citadel are embedded in that record. Even mighty Alabama, top-ranked and favored to repeat as national champs, paused from dominating the SEC long enough to beat Chattanooga, an FCS school.
The bounteous bowl roster builds to what’s presumably a crescendo, with the four-team Bowl Championship semifinals closing out the 2016 calendar year, followed by a traditional New Year’s Day lineup and the Jan. 9 championship game. But before we get there, fans must wade through 14 bowls from Dec. 17 through Dec. 26.
Of that early cadre, only the Las Vegas, Cure and Miami Beach bowls pay each team $1 million or more. Most offer each participant significantly less. That doesn’t mean the competitive value of the football product they field is necessarily inferior, but viewers eager to avoid taking an unexpected nap are forewarned.