So, who do you like in the college football game of the year, Johnny Manziel or Nick Saban? The buzzword is "like" and the popular answer, of course, is neither.
College football's two most polarizing people are trying to beat each other this weekend, and the country seems totally on board with that, especially if Manziel and Saban bring poison darts, a blowtorch, flesh-eating insects, Barry Manilow's "Greatest Hits" and other proven methods of lethal torture to the fight. Based on perception, there will be an eruption of satisfaction over watching one of those guys lose.Yet the sheer and anticipated joy of Texas A&M vs. Alabama and a potentially memorable afternoon could be erased by the realization that when it's over -- no matter how epic the game was -- the winner between Manziel and Saban will have earned an extra layer of hate.
It has become a sport within the sport, slicing up the most famous quarterback and coach in the country, and then gleefully picking at the scabs. Outside of College Station and Tuscaloosa, Manziel and Saban are more cussed than discussed, two figures who generate lots of emotion from the college football fan base, very little of it polite.
There's no shortage of reasons for why they are so loathed. It's because of their ego, arrogance, smugness, cockiness, immaturity (Manziel), coldness (Saban) and this bit of piling-on reasoning: well, because everyone hates them. Here in a game that will carry national championship implications, for September anyway, one of the two will be knocked (at least temporarily) from the high perch they enjoy and this brush with the hard pavement will be applauded more than the accolades bestowed upon the winner.
And so, that will be the appeal of this superb SEC smackdown, that the country will take great pleasure in seeing either Johnny Football or Coach Football on his knees and bleeding and in serious need of therapy to save his season once the final gun is fired, and if the loser never recovers, then hell, we're all better off.
Really, is this good for college football, to be blessed with only one of the above? Uh, not really.
Manziel and Saban are both imperfect people -- we're all members of that club -- but you wonder how much hate they'd generate if Manziel wasn't a wizard with the football and Saban's teams went to the Chick-fil-A Bowl every year. One is the defending Heisman Trophy winner who just might be a better quarterback this season, the other an already-legendary coach with four national championships, including three in the last four years. One thing about this country, we don't waste our time being jealous over losers and people who don't achieve. We do find passionate reasons to love and hate winners and also remain fascinated by them because they can do what most of us can't or won't.
Actually, there are Manziels and Sabans in our everyday lives and you can spot them without looking too deep. They're right in your workplace, in fact. Manziel is the aggressive young co-worker with an eye toward vice presidency who makes tons of money for the company and therefore gets a pass on his boorish behavior. He correctly believes nobody outside the boardroom is smarter than him, treats the secretaries like crap, and makes an occasional off-color joke by the water cooler, but won't be exposed because he means money to everyone's paycheck. Saban is the CEO of a thriving company with a high junior executive body count, someone whose death stare will turn you into stone, a boss who relentlessly pushes high standards and everyone's sanity in order to get maximum results.
That is why people hate to love them, or love to hate them.
Manziel is guilty of being a 20-year-old with too much money and celebrity, surrounded by swooning co-eds, and without any idea how to handle those perks without rubbing it in our faces. That last part is what makes him different than most other former Heisman winners, who are players of another time. Manziel is a child of the Internet era, where there is little to no privacy, where everyone with a laptop has an opinion, where he can say something or do something relatively harmless or just plain silly and the masses will interpret it to suit their beliefs or agendas.
But those who are unraveled by Manziel need to seriously reconsider their reasons for that. Let's see the big picture here: he threw out the first pitch at a baseball game, sat courtside at NBA games, met LeBron and other A-list stars, went to the biggest off-campus parties, enjoyed the company of the curviest women, talked about the burden of fame, and used the family fortune to drive a hot car. Why should anyone have a problem with any of that?
He also signed some items to put money in the pockets of some friends. The only problem there? That's against NCAA rules. But the rulebook is what needs to be changed, not the player. And Manziel's finger-rubbing against Rice, after he served his first-half suspension? Clever, and also cocky, but no reason to burst a blood vessel over it.
You might think Manziel has done everything possible (most of it wrong) since winning the Heisman. If anything, it would be you who would be wrong. Here's what Manziel hasn't done: punch a girlfriend, stumble out of a bar and into the driver's seat, fight his teammates, put his teammates down in public, or embarrass his school and his family by getting arrested. All of that, and more, has happened in college football since Manziel struck the trophy pose. But where has the outrage been directed at? We know who, and we know why: those others didn't win the Heisman and chop down Alabama last season.
There are two issues attached to his name that Saban would probably give one of his championships to make disappear. There's his history of grayshirting players and his angry "I'm not going to be the coach of Alabama" denial while coaching the Miami Dolphins, a promise which was obviously not kept. Well, there is one other: He didn't want Drew Brees in Miami. But if he kept Brees, he probably wouldn't be at Alabama today.
Everything else about Saban, even unsavory incidents like reportedly screaming at the mother of a former Alabama assistant coach over a fax (she didn't send it on time) and stepping over the body of an injured Dolphins player, has helped Saban be who he is: driven. And a driven Saban is why the Alabama program is the class of the country. He's probably tough to work for, but if you did, you'd push yourself to see how good you are, or push yourself off the ledge. Or both.
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Saban is giving Alabama what it's paying $5.3 million a year for: a coach who works 51 weeks and is grumpy on his only week off, who out-recruits everyone, who doesn't take the difficult SEC for granted, who treats every play like the last and who'd do anything for his players and his coaching staff. That part of Saban sounds like someone to admire.
When two nationally-ranked teams take the field Saturday in College Station, it's really about two people. You'll know them intimately because a TV camera will be trained on them constantly, to get their reaction, to read their emotions, to show us the so-called good and so-called bad, to tell us why Johnny Manziel and Nick Saban are larger than life in college football right now.
"It feels like another game, another Week 3 of the season," said Manziel through the watchful eye of the A&M publicity department, which sounds like Manziel is saying Alabama is no different than Sam Houston State if you interpret it that way.
"We have to be our team, playing our game, taking care of our business," said Saban, which sounds like Alabama should forget about Manziel beating them and try not to beat itself, if you interpret it that way.
Well, in this Manziel-Saban contest, which is only the most interesting matchup of the year, the outcome won't require any interpretation. This much is guaranteed: one man will lose, and lots of folks will feel like winners.