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October 20, 2010 Sometimes an issue boils up without anyone noticing and then breaks out with one big week or month. As Rutgers defensive tackle made a head-first stop on an Army kick returner this weekend, the issue of concussions and the increasing violence of football took prominence once again. Eric LeGrand just happens to be the unlucky player who may never walk again after a spinal cord injury at the neck paralyzed him from the neck down. We can all hope for a miracle recovery like Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills and Adam Taliaferro of Penn State three years ago, who both beat the grim outlooks to walk again in a few months after neck injuries. While there are certainly risks involved in playing sports, there is no other legitimate non-fighting sport that carries the same risk as football. Five pro players ended up with concussions on head-to-head hits a day after LeGrand was paralyzed, and this growing trend is just not present in baseball or hockey where the worst thing that could happen is being hit with a rapid moving small projectile. The time is ripe to face the facts and address this issue at every level of football, before the story of Eric LeGrand is overshadowed by other poor young men just playing a game.

There's no doubt that the modern football helmet is a work of innovative genius. The padding and the elaborate design of facemasks are a far cry from the technology of 10 and 20 years ago, let alone the leather helmets of football's early days. However, the question now has to be asked...what innovations can be made to overcome the aggressiveness that continues to increase in the game of football? One school of thought says that the padding needs to be further increased or made more effective. For example, by placing one half inch of impact-absorbant foam-like material on the outer side of the current football helmet shell would provide an additional inch of important impact reduction for any helmet-on-helmet contact. However, football has become defined by the uniform design and more particularly, the helmet. Adding protective material would have to be done in such a way that "the look" that is so marketable about football helmets continues to be present. This game is driven by money, and unfortunately, it may be impossible to overcome this design requirement while adding exterior padding that somehow retains good looks over the course of a game or a season. Remember that the majority of people playing football are at colleges and especially at high schools that cannot afford to have the latest and greatest helmet technology right away without help, and certainly cannot afford to replace helmets every game.

Perhaps the opposite school of thought is the better direction then. First, the elaborate facemasks that were added to more easily protect a player's face could be cut back down to more of a simple, one-bar or two-bar design. The look would be retro, which is always in style in football. Furthermore, it would encourage behavioral changes from the players on the whole, who don't want to spend the rest of their lives looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Perhaps even reducing the state-of-the-art padding on the football helmet would encourage the same sort of more conservative play. The problem is not that a guy wants to lay out an opposing player...the problem is he wants to do it head-first. Changing the behavior of players with suspensions and fines at the pro level may work, but the more immediate solution may be to take the unobvious track of putting more at risk by reducing the head protection. There's no better deterrent to laying someone out than putting your own health in jeopardy, some would argue. However, I don't know that this would actually work. Plus, throwing away the level of protection already attained seems like a bad idea unless behavior changes immediately.

One problem with changing behaviors by changing the equipment or the consequences is that it may not treat the real source of today's growing aggressiveness in the sport. That may very well be attributable to the years of wild cheers and "oohs" that erupt from fans upon every big hit. The fans have incentivized the aggressive and shocking hits on the field. But there's no changing fan reactions to such vicious hits, as there will always be a part of the fan base that goes to football games to see the big hits just like the appeal for boxing matches or mixed martial arts fight nights. Players take a lot of inspriation to put their bodies through the brutal abuse of a football game from the reactions of the fans, and thus, without a change in fan behavior, none of these changes may actually solve the problem. And for the men who will grow old with premature memory loss and brain problems from concussions, as well as the young athletes ended up paralyzed on a hospital bed, there may be no solution to prevent the irreparable damage before it is too late.

The most interesting take on this issue that has received so much attention this week was from a morning radio host in my hometown, of all places. He asked if his co-host would be comfortable letting his son play football in this era. The obvious answer was the quick one: absolutely not. While it may not be a decision of such grave nature as joining the military (or not nearly as honorable), the decision to play football definitely puts young men at risk. The current rise of concussions and major injuries in football will not scare away so many potential players that the sport will decline anytime soon, but serious parents would likely answer that question with a resounding "no" if they are being honest. At the end of the day, if it is not something you would approve of your child doing, why would you accept it and cheer it for anyone else's kid? It can be easy to forget in the bigger than life college football and pro football worlds, but the Terrelle Pryors and Denard Robinsons of the world are the sons of some very proud and probably worried parents. Something must be done, and the time is now.

The BCS Standings are out, and the chaos of losing the top two teams all season to losses the past two weeks has left the door more wide open than expected. Oklahoma and Oregon lead the way at the beginning, but it is exceedingly rare for the teams leading the way in mid-October to stay there. The next teams in line are Boise State and TCU, followed by the SEC west triumverate of LSU, Auburn, and Alabama, all of which have yet to play one another. The one thing that stands out in the initial standings is that barring the crazy happenings of November 2007, we are almost certainly looking at the survivor of Oklahoma and Oregon facing the SEC Champion for the title, as the non-automatic qualifying teams will only continue to be hurt in the computer rankings while the Big Ten BCS leaders Michigan State and Ohio State do not play each other and that will cost them dearly in both human and computer rankings. The Big Ten and the SEC seem certain to get two teams apiece into the BCS with the multitude of both conferences in the top 12. However, that does not mean the ultimate prize will go to either conference. But BCS Standings are totally overrated at this time of year, so we'll leave them there.

The final thing that stood out to me while I purviewed the world of college football on Saturday was just how special must Tim Tebow have been. If you saw the end of the Florida-Mississippi State game, you saw a close-up shot of Urban Meyer upon the missed field goal to tie. The man looked about 20 years older than he was, running his hands through his hair with an exasperated and hopeless look on his face. Gone is the smugness of the past four years. In its place is a man lost and hoping to ride out the storm of a very bad season for the Gators and the rest of the SEC East. Urban Meyer has to be rethinking that decision to retire for his health, as going out near the top of his game would have been better than suffering through the inevitable ebbs and flows of a college football program. The loss of Tim Tebow may be such a large void that it will not be filled for multiple years in Florida, and that may shockingly turn the heat up in the SEC, where coaches do not seem to last very long. While Florida will win again this year and will go off to a bowl game somewhere, the look on Urban Meyer's face Saturday shows a lot about how long he may last after reaching the top of the college football world.

Oh and the first firing has opened season on coaches. Tim Brewster made it only seven games and Minnesota will have to move on quickly as the big boys of the Big Ten are coming up on the schedule. I am never in favor of mid-season firing absent misconduct, but Brewster was a lame duck coach coming into the season unless a miracle happened. It did not, so he's the first to go. That may open the door for other programs to start making moves toward their futures sooner rather than later, so stay tuned. Open season is on for coaches.

There are at least five games worth of discussion this weekend, but TCU-Air Force and Nebraska-Oklahoma State will get left on the sideline as the first game of the week is Wisconsin at Iowa. While the luster of this game may have been taken off by losses to Arizona and Michigan State, recent results for both teams have been very positive and both teams control their destiny for the Big Ten title despite the one loss. Wisconsin comes off their biggest win under Bret Bielema, and they passed and threw the ball with relative ease against a good Ohio State defense. After pushing around the Buckeye front four, the Iowa defensive line led by Adrian Clayborn will try to stop that trend to slow James White and John Clay. Just like the fourth quarter drive last week, the key to this game for Wisconsin will be opening up the play action passing game against an Iowa secondary that got gashed at times against Arizona. Looking at the Hawkeye defense, that is the only weakness, but it will only be exploited if Wisconsin puts up as good of an effort as a week ago. When the Hawkeyes have the ball, look for Ricky Stanzi to test the Badger cornerbacks more than Terrelle Pryor did. Expect Wisconsin to bring some rushes with a linebacker or two to force Stanzi into quick decisions, which may lead to turnovers and a fast start once again for the Badgers. Although Wisconsin has more upside, the team with the home field and the better defense generally wins these Big Ten showdowns, so I'll pick Iowa by 7.

The second game of the week is another dangerous trip for a newly minted number one team as Oklahoma heads to Columbia to face undefeated Missouri. The Tigers have not had a lot of success against the Sooners recently, but Oklahoma struggled mightily in their two games away from Norman to sneak away from Texas and Cincinnati with narrow wins. There will be less margin for error against Missouri, as long as the mental game doesn't get to the Tigers. One big difference for the Tigers will be the return of top pass rusher Aldon Smith. Smith will anchor a defensive front that has produced 20 sacks including 7 a week ago against Texas A&M. Landry Jones still has a tendency to be somewhat slow at making decisions in the pocket, and that may cost him against the Tigers defense. The Tigers will be looking to build off the momentum from the home crowd to stuff Oklahoma, who has been inconsistent on offense this season. When Missouri has the ball, Blaine Gabbert will try to exploit the Sooners defensive backfield with deep passes as well as some shorter passes over the middle. The only troubling thing for Missouri is that the only team Oklahoma defeated solidly this year was Florida State, a team that relies on a good quarterback and a solid passing game. I suspect Oklahoma has been looking for an opportunity to really flex their muscle, and this is the perfect match up for the Sooner defense. Oklahoma wins by 13.

The third game of the week is the first game that will begin to sort out the SEC West as LSU heads to Auburn. On paper this actually looks like a mismatch as LSU has escaped every single week from disaster, while Auburn has rolled easily in every game except for a comeback win against South Carolina. The LSU defense must find some way to contain dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, who stomped all over Arkansas in a 65 point performance last weekend. Cam Newton may pass 1000 yards rushing this game, and the only weakness is a 13-5 touchdown to interception ratio. Thus, the impetus will be on the LSU linebackers led by Kelvin Sheppard to keep Newton contained from the big gains that have made him a Heisman contender. LSU always seems to play just weel enough on defense to win, so Auburn will need to try and exploit the recently-discovered problems with the LSU offense. Les Miles has turned to both his quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee in an attempt to improve the awful passing game. RB stevan Ridley has kept the team afloat during the quarterback struggles, but LSU will need to be firing on all cylinders to beat a quality team like Auburn on the road. The Les Miles lucky escape streak comes to an end here, as LSU keeps it close but still falls in the fourth quarter by 10.

Other Games of the Top 25 - Week 8

(2) Oregon defeats UCLA
(5) TCU defeats Air Force
(7) Michigan State defeats Northwestern
(8) Alabama defeats Tennessee
(9) Utah defeats Colorado State
(10) Ohio State defeats Purdue
(12) Stanford defeats Washington State
(16) Nebraska defeats (14) Oklahoma State
(18) Arizona defeats Washington
(19) Texas defeats Iowa State
(20) West Virginia defeats Syracuse
(21) South Carolina defeats Vanderbilt
Baylor defeats (22) Kansas State
(23) Arkansas defeats Mississippi
(24) Mississippi State defeats UAB
(25) Virginia Tech defeats Duke

2010 GOTW Record: 15-6
Last Week: 1-2
2010 Overall Top 25 Record: 114-27
Last Week: 10-11 (brutal)

Fitz Top 10 - Week 8

1. Boise State (6-0)
2. Oregon (6-0)
3. TCU (7-0)
4. Auburn (7-0)
5. Oklahoma (6-0)
6. Michigan State (7-0)
7. Utah (6-0)
8. Missouri (6-0)
9. LSU (7-0)
10. Alabama (6-1)

Just Missed: wisconsin, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Florida State

Now that every team in college football has reached the halfway mark, only ten undefeated teams remain after Nevada, Nebraska, and Ohio State were culled from the ranks this past weekend. At least two more teams will join the discarded pile this weekend, which will perhaps allow teams like Alabama to get back in the mix. The debate is already raging about whether Alabama will deserve to return to the championship game over an undefeated Boise State or TCU, but there's a lot of things that need to go right the rest of the season for that debate to have merit. This is the first time since 2007 that a third number 1 team takes the top spot in a third consecutive week, so good luck to OU and UO as they try to hold on to the biggest bullseye in all of college football. No matter where you will be this weekend, enjoy another fine fall weekend before it gets terribly cold. If you will be around Cincinnati on Friday night for the South Florida-Cincinnati game, let me know and we can grab a pint somewhere. Have a great weekend!

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