I'm as fervent as the next guy about leafy-campus competition between amateur college football teams -- heady Saturday ceremonies embellished by those brassy bands with their stirring, patriotic marches. And by Week 3 I generally figure it's time to check in on that fun national poll, which, for those unfamiliar with the custom, is sort of an informal way of ranking the teams from all over the country, in the name of good-natured rivalry and sportsmanship.
And this week, I couldn't help noticing that Baylor, recent nurturing ground of one Robert Griffin III, had cracked the Top 25 after being ignored in the preseason, rocketing to No. 22 -- in part, I guess, because the Bears have scored 139 points to their opponents' 16 so far.
Week 1's victory was a 69-3 cliffhanger over the Wofford Terriers of Spartanburg, S.C, members of the powerhouse Southern Conference (including the likes of Samford, Furman, Chattanooga and Elon). Week 2? A narrow 70-13 escape against the University at Buffalo from the fearsome Eastern Division of the MAC (Akron, Bowling Green, Kent State) -- a game that looked decidedly grim for Baylor at the start, what with Buffalo breaking to a 7-0 lead before being subsequently outscored 70-6 and giving up 781 total yards. (Working in Baylor's favor, of course, was that Buffalo was probably looking ahead to its game this weekend against Long Island's grid juggernaut, the undefeated Stony Brook Seawolves.)
Of course, the Bears have a long way to go in the polls before challenging the likes of No. 2 Oregon, which broke out of the gate in impressive fashion with an unexpected 66-3 rout of the Nicholls State Colonels, out of Thibodaux, La., of the highly competitive Southland Conference (Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Lamar). Or No. 4 Ohio State, which is breathing a little easier after slipping by Buffalo and San Diego State in its first two weeks by a combined score of 82-27.
But working in Baylor's favor now is a fortuitous off week. After compiling those 139 points, the Bears are no doubt exhausted, and they're going to need the rest before taking on the University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks the following Saturday. As members of the gnarly Sun Belt Conference (South Alabama, Western Kentucky, Texas State, Troy) these 'Hawks are likely to be tough to score on, having already held the Oklahoma Sooners to an admirably scant 34 points in Norman. True, they didn't score any points themselves, but they did pound out 38 yards rushing. Baylor's running D had best be at the top of its game: After all they are the "Warhawks," although I'm a little dim on the last war that Monroe, La., fought, unless it was against, maybe, Thibodaux, La., and the northern press ignored the whole thing. (On top of which, while their mascot seems to be a very angry bird, after consulting various ornithological reference tomes, I couldn't find a "warhawk" of any bird species. Just a videogame that looks really cool.)
OK. You get the heavy-handed point. Year after year in college football, the powers feast on the poor. (In the first week last year, memorably for all sides, Oklahoma State beat Savannah State, 84-0, and Florida State beat Murray State, 69-3.) But this year Baylor is singular in scheduling three sure victories at the start. Michigan, for instance, after managing to dispose of Central Michigan, 59-9, beat Notre Dame the following week (although if the Wolverines look past the Akron Zips this Saturday, I think it'd be a huge mistake.)
Still, why pick on Baylor, where, after the basketball scandals of a decade ago, athletic director Ian McCaw has put some wind under the beleaguered school's sports wings? Because in this game of cat and mouse, they're an easy target. In 2005, McCaw launched a fund-raising program called "Victory With Integrity." That McCaw got more than the $90 million he asked for is impressive, and speaks of the fervor of the school's supporters.
That he used the word "integrity" is laughable. Because this system of the fat feasting on the lean is a travesty, on both sides.
Yes, I know: The little schools get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their services rendered. But at what real price? When Savannah State, Georgia's oldest publicly funded black university, takes on No. 15 Miami a week from Saturday -- in SunLife Stadium -- having already lost to Troy, 66-3, and trying to keep the Hurricanes from blowing them clear to Bermuda, will the bucks be worth it?
Hey, no one's suggesting that a Savannah State kid's pride in his school's sports teams is less valuable than his pride in his work in the school's oceanographic research center. But how much pride can you conjure, attending an historic university, when your administration is willing to take a half-million easy bucks for making its student-athletes play the fools? And if some of that money goes to keep the football team alive, what, in the long run, is the point of keeping the program alive, running on a hamster wheel of humiliation? That hopefully some day you'll dominate the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference? You might, if you played a legitimate schedule.
And yes, many of the weak teams willing to get stomped for the right price are state-supported, and funds in this budget-cut climate are increasingly tough to come by. But so is self-respect for the athletic department of a school that takes the easy bucks for an easy couple of hours of getting stomped on, wherein running backs who thought they were pretty good at football back in Spartanburg High School find themselves being tackled by 313-pound guys from Miami who are a few months from going in a top round of the NFL draft.
"When people think about Baylor today," Ian McCaw said this past May, "they think about a quality football program."
And my guess is that, after next Saturday, the UL-Monroe Warhawks, hopefully not having given up 1,111 yards, will be the first to agree. Quality -- and integrity.